Deceiving

Disclaimer: The characters are not mine.

For Cheshire, who asked for a Janeway reaction piece to Repression, and that is what this is. There are plenty of these out there already, I know…just throwing mine onto the pile.

Deceiving


He'd looked at her like she was nothing.

That was what killed her, as surely as if Tuvok had depressed that trigger. It wasn't even that he'd been capable of it. That he'd been capable of ordering Tuvok to do it – okay, so that was a large part of it – but that part was something she couldn't even begin to think about on top of the first, gut-wrenching fact. All things considered, it was the first that had slain her. It was the fact that…

He'd looked at her like she was nothing.

Six years. Six years of living with, serving beside him. Of depending on his steady guidance and unfailing support. Of trusting him to have her back. Of trusting him with her life. Six years of sharing that life with him. Of sharing her hopes, her fears and her concerns with him the way she rarely did even with her older friend, Tuvok. Six years of knowing that no matter how tough the universe wanted to play today, no matter what kind of would-be catastrophes came cascading down over head like a deluge of disaster, certain failure and death, she could face any of it standing strong with him beside her, could pull her ship through one last time. Six years. And yet he'd looked at her like–

"Captain."

Her head jerked up sharply through the haze of numbness that had descended over her since that moment. A protective haze that she was sure was keeping her from acknowledging the depth of it all in some way, but a haze that she resented nonetheless.

She was the captain. She needed to be omnipresent, omni-aware of every nuance of activity that occurred on and around her ship. Failing that, she at least needed to be sharp, to have her wits about her. She needed to know who and what was where on her ship at all times, now more than ever, and she didn't need to be so out of synch with her surroundings that she was startled by the random appearance of a member of her crew.

Least of all a member of her crew that her traitorous mind had just allowed her to forget, however briefly, that she was supposed to be meeting at this late hour.

She caught herself with a sharp internal rebuke, settled herself with superhuman speed before speaking.

"Tuvok," she acknowledged cordially as the tall, strong presence of her chief security officer fell into stride beside her.

She was strongly tempted to scrutinize him, to determine whether he was completely recovered or just pretending at it. She was strongly tempted to look into his familiar dark eyes just so that she could read the remorse he would deny but the remorse she so desperately needed to see at this moment.

She kept her eyes forward, intent upon her destination. She was the captain. She needed nothing.

"Status," she clipped out automatically. That was, first and foremost, their immediate concern.

He understood this, had expected and prepared his response with precision.

She listened to his succinct report. The ship was fine. Repair crews had seen to that all afternoon, repairing phaser damage to bulkheads and equipment until not a single hyperspanner was out of place. The odd modifications and the stripping of computer terminals from the crew quarters on Deck Nine, section 17 alpha had been reversed, the panels reinstalled. Her usurped command codes were restored, as was every other change Chakotay had made to the computer while in control of the ship. The doctor had seen to repairing all neurological damage of those afflicted with Teero's mind control, and further, had repaired all physical damage to the rest of the crew – phaser or otherwise. Everyone was in his or her right mind and perfectly healthy. The ship had reverted back to its original course away from the planet Chakotay had been intending to drop her on, and all was well in that regard. In essence, Voyager was precisely as it had been before "the incident".

"Good." It was. Slowly, her ship could begin returning to normal again. "And remind me later to ask Commander Chakotay what in hell he was trying to do on Deck Nine." She'd been meaning to all day, since she'd seen the reports. But that would have required seeking him out. Something she hadn't been inclined to do if she didn't have to.

Tuvok said nothing. Merely nodded, lapsing into silence as they entered the 'lift and she voiced their destination. She forced her lips into an easy smile, well aware that her old and steady friend had not felt the need to restrain his impulse to study his companion the way that she had. Well aware of his piercing scrutiny.

"Ready for a thrilling evening?" she quipped. As much to break the silence as to effectively distract him from that intensive study.

It worked. At least a little. He shifted slightly. "Indeed," was all he allowed.

She could hear his mental grimace, even if she couldn't see it on his stoic face. If she enjoyed it perhaps a fraction more than she should have, she could hardly be faulted for it, given recent events. She hadn't caused this. No matter that they had been under intensive mind control, it was the actions of he and Chakotay that had made attending Tom's twentieth century viewing – of some movie she could neither remember the title to nor wanted to – a necessity.

Nonetheless, it wasn't Tuvok's fault, either, she reminded herself sharply. He'd pulled through in the end.

Eventually.

She tempered her verbal response with gentle teasing accordingly. "I'm sure it won't be so bad. Given that the event is open to all crewmembers, I ordered Tom to exercise extreme discretion in his viewing selection. I'm sure those of us who don't share his obsession with the era will be bored to tears, but there shouldn't be anything too shocking to your Vulcan sensibilities, at least."

He turned to throw her a look of pointed significance at that, his Vulcan brow rising. "I believe you underestimate Lieutenant Paris's abilities to ensure maximum discomfort to those less enthusiastic about participating in purely social events."

"Maybe." Probably. Another wry smile was wrung from her lips at his droll aura of pained endurance. It almost felt natural.

He was right. If anything, Paris usually went out of his way to make sure his Vulcan superior officer felt uncomfortable. His heart was arguably in the right place in his perpetual efforts to get Tuvok to "loosen up" for the sake of the rest of the crew. Frankly, she agreed with the sentiment to some extent. Generally, she was a poor ally to his affronted Vulcan dignity. And she had no intention of being a better one this evening, either.

Tonight wasn't about Tuvok's comfort. It wasn't about hers, either. And it was going to take nothing less than everything she had to put on the show for her crew that she about to. This was nothing less than duty, for both of them.

The ship and its crew were physically restored, yes. Now it was the emotional fallout, the confidence that had been shaken in just about everyone, that became their primary focus.

Hence their destination.

For the sake of the crew as a whole, restoring at least the appearance of an unbroken chain of command and camaraderie among their leadership was essential. And although it perhaps didn't sound important, this phase of their responsibility was of no less importance than the first had been.

In a military-style hierarchy like the one Starfleet employed, it wasn't until one became a commanding officer that one truly noticed, or realized, the importance of appearance. Appearance was reality. It had power almost absolute.

Voyager was no exception, was, if anything, a stronger example of that rule. Particularly in this uncharted part of space, where they were cut off from support and had only their leaders to rely on for security and to fuel their own confidence in Voyager's ability to make it home.

To an extent, appearance was what sustained her crew. The lower decks, who had limited daily access to the senior staff, only knew what they saw, and so what they saw needed to be exactly what the senior staff wanted them to see. Confidence. Seamless leadership. Capability and superhuman strength. Endurance and especially resilience. Nothing less than this would enable the crew to endure this harsh quadrant. That infallible image of their superiors was what had kept them going through insurmountable odds, through crises unending.

Voyager's senior staff was aware of it, too. They knew they needed to appear united, to work as an unbroken, impenetrable unit, and so they did. Those few elite knew it was imperative that the crew see a seamless synergy between them. So, even at times when there was discord between them, they suppressed it for the sake of the general crew…at least in public. Realizing the importance of doing so alone often helped to mitigate some of the worst blow-outs, to cut them off at the head before they grew unmanageable. To keep them together, through thick and thin.

Even she was not immune to the ever-powerful influence of appearance on Voyager. It was a pain in the ass to maintain, but she made sure it worked for her, rather than against her. It helped her, served to strengthen her. Playing the part enabled her to become the part. She appeared strong, infallible, so she was. And when she wasn't, she more often than not became so by virtue of having to appear that way.

She knew that playing the part of having moved on tonight, of having dealt with and brushed off the events of today as inconsequential, would no doubt help her to actually get there behind closed doors. Tonight, she would at least appear to have completely forgiven and forgotten the betrayal...the mutiny that had been orchestrated by her two right-hand men. And later, she would be able to convince herself that it was true. Soon enough, it would become true.

But it was a double-edged sword, sometimes, appearance, and it ate at her now. Appearance was reality. Chakotay had looked at her like she was nothing.

Therefore, she was nothing. Not to him, anyway.

They'd reached the holodeck, and people were already arriving. Showtime. She turned to Tuvok for the first time since he'd joined her, to fully look at him, ready with her "everything's just peachy" smile. The smile almost caught in her throat as she locked eyes with him directly. As his familiar face came into clear and present focus.

Tuvok raised the phaser. Pointed it at her. At her. He locked eyes with her.

You're in control of your actions. Not Chakotay, and not Teero. Don't do this.

His finger depressed on the trigger, firing the shot that would end her life…

She forced the smile wider. Forced her eyes to brighten. Act as if. She acted as if she'd seen nothing, acted like she could breathe. Like the wound that single action had caused to her aching soul had been less than lethal. She smiled and placed her hand on his arm, warmly, and ushered him forward.

The picture of reconciliation. She saw the relief in the eyes of the two crewmen they encountered on the way through the door, and she knew that what she was doing was necessary. This was right.

"Captain." Tuvok hesitated, surprising her. "If you'll excuse me a few moments. I believe Lieutenant Parsons has a security report I have been waiting for. I will return when we have finished discussing his findings."

They'd both been waiting for that report. The report that proposed how to put safeguards in place against this sort of thing happening in the future. She glanced over her shoulder to find the crewman in question standing meters away in the hall, conspicuously trying not to look like he was staring, and she offered the tow-headed man a smile as he failed miserably in that effort. Inclined her head in his direction. "Of course." Another wry smile as she patted Tuvok's retreating arm. "And don't worry…I'll get us good seats. Because you are returning when you're finished."

He paused. Turned back to her with raised brow and stoic air. "I will endeavor to return promptly. In order not to miss a moment of the…'entertainment'."

Through the ever-present smile, she narrowed her eyes in consideration. "That was sarcasm, wasn't it?"

"Indeed," he agreed.

"Ten minutes," she cautioned sweetly. "Fifteen at the most."

He looked less than appreciative of her generosity as she left him to enter the holodeck. Only a few people had stopped by, surprisingly. She had hoped to see more people, but the feature wasn't scheduled to start for several minutes yet. More would undoubtedly trickle in soon.

Taking a quick survey of the room, she chose a spot in the middle, more towards the front. Chakotay wasn't here yet. She was actually relieved, as she spent a full moment peering at the seat cushion, which was folded up against the backrest. Frowning slightly, she pushed lightly down on the seat. It moved with her hand, but the second she let go, snapped up again. What the hell? She glanced up, but no one had noticed her confusion. It must need her weight to keep it compliant. Shrugging off her annoyance at Paris's utterly irritating love of authenticity, she settled herself into the odd, extremely uncomfortable chair. It did lock into place as she sat, as the click told her. She should have pushed harder, apparently.

She spent a crucial PR minute talking to B'Elanna when she was approached, as previously orchestrated, and by the time B'Elanna had migrated away to look for Tom, their master of ceremonies so to speak, Tuvok had found her again, was making his way down the aisle she'd selected. She waved him over.

"I saved you a seat."

He merely grunted in reply. Resigned to enduring his fate as he pushed down on the chair, settling in beside her. "How long is this…entertainment?"

"I'm not sure." And why resist the impulse? "Tom said something about a double feature."

If Vulcans groaned, he would've at that. Not that this was her idea of a relaxing evening, either, but it was necessary. She glanced around, but her gaze fell on her own hands. Upon entering, someone had handed her a pair of flimsy white glasses. She had no idea what they were for, but she'd taken them anyway. She would get into the spirit of things. Staring at them in bemusement, she set them back down in her lap.

No one sat directly beside them. With the noise of the theater, she judged that their conversation was in no danger of being overheard. She leaned into the man who had looked her in the eye and pointed a phaser at her not seven hours ago and fired the shot he'd apparently known would not end her life – even if she hadn't. He'd been in control of himself when he'd fired that weapon, she'd deduced, or else he wouldn't have mind-melded with Chakotay only moments afterward. Which begged the question…

"I've been meaning to ask you." Every time she'd seen him since it happened. Every moment that had passed since. "How did you know that phaser wasn't charged?"

His answer was nothing short of appalling. "Chakotay doubted my loyalty. He wouldn't have given me an active weapon."

"Not exactly iron-clad logic," she pointed out, not bothering to hide her disbelief.

The lights went out, throwing her old, steady companion into deep shadows.

"Call it 'a hunch'."

She called it terrorism, privately. Aloud, she joked, "Remind me to pay more attention to your hunches."

B'Elanna, already wearing the ridiculous white glasses, shushed them. Taking the cue and putting on her own pair, Janeway realized their conversation must've been carrying through more than she'd thought or she doubted B'Elanna would've had the nerve. Especially in light of earlier events.

But she had to admit the horror flic…and she and Tom would have words about that extremely discretionary selection…was more real with the glasses. The ugly, fictional monsters seemed to be projected closer to the audience, and it almost seemed as if she could reach out and touch the outstretched claws if she tried.

She resisted the fleeting impulse.

The violence of the feature, though way overboard for the nice little distraction she'd hoped for, didn't affect her. To her, the true horror had already been played out. In her ready room. Throughout the decks of Voyager.

What the hell are you doing?

I think it's obvious. I'm taking control of your ship.

Someone screamed, drawing her focus back to the screen. Ah. The incredibly stupid, beautiful blonde with the horribly unflattering undergarments. She'd just opened the door that had been thumping and vibrating madly from the other side. The blonde screamed again as the creature sprang forth to claim her, jaws and talons snapping. Janeway stared, eyes glassy behind the flimsy, protective glasses, as the monster all but ripped the woman apart. It was obviously fake, the blood. The blonde's gory demise inspired no actual sympathy on Janeway's part.

For Kathryn, the monsters had been her best friends, her two most reliable officers. Try that one out, sister, she thought caustically at the screen, watching the monster already stalking his next victim. Then you can scream to me.

She was being unkind. She didn't much care. The glasses kept her glazed eyes from being detected, and she was able to relax her guard a bit while wearing them.

They stayed through the entire feature. Gaily…in her case, anyway…eating artificially flavored, holographic popcorn to bloody images until the hero finally took out the last of the mutated monsters from outer space – for the second time. But he managed it only after being almost mortally wounded and half dead himself – for the second time. When it finally ended, she rose, stretching the kinks in over-exhausted, sore muscles. She'd been up for almost three days by now. Even before the events of this morning, all of her focus had been on the crew that had been attacked and had fallen into comas. Then to reaching Tuvok, helping drag him through the mental trauma he'd been enduring – and making her oblivious to the seizure of her vessel that had been happening around her. The end result was that she desperately needed rest and hoped to hell she'd be able to wake up to the alarm tomorrow. Because she couldn't retire just yet. The worst of the evening was still ahead of her.

It was time to implement the next phase of Operation Appearance Repair.

Tuvok promptly excused himself to resume his security rounds. She let him go with little remorse. The theater was packed with crewmembers. More and more had filed in as the feature continued and gamma shift came on duty, relieving beta. Surrounded by familiar faces, faces she loved and lived to safeguard, to bring home, she felt completely and utterly alone. But that was neither here nor there.

Her eyes finally rested on the person she'd been seeking. Chakotay was with Ensigns Baytart and Hudson, several rows back. He'd been that close to her, and she hadn't even felt his presence.

In truth, she felt nothing but cold.

She waved to him, catching his eye as he removed his flimsy prop, and only then realized she was still wearing the ridiculous glasses herself. She took them off, and everything came into clearer focus. The theater was a dingy mess. It hadn't been so untidy when they'd entered, but now the floors were littered with bits of popcorn and other, sweeter confections from the authentic "concession stand" at the entrance. She frowned at the notion that her crew was that generally untidy. It was rather unseemly…but then again, everyone realized how easy it was to clean a holographic mess.

Holographic ushers actually began to file in, sweeping the discarded bits of waste into primitive, portable bins, and she shook her head. The floors…the whole grid…would be squeaky clean the moment the program was ended. It was unnecessary.

Tom's attention to detail again. If the man put even half the effort wasted on the holodecks into something more worthwhile…she almost shuddered to think what kind of brilliance he'd be capable of. She was glad he'd been on her side during the mutiny.

Not that it had helped much. But that wasn't the point, was it?

No.

Chakotay had nodded acknowledgement of her wave, had turned to bid his movie companions good night and was just parting company with them.

He would wait for her. This had already been discussed, hours earlier in sickbay. She'd taken a break from tirelessly helping set her ship back to rights and done a quick walkthrough specifically to check up on him and Tuvok, who were among the last to be thoroughly inspected by the doctor. Having received the EMH's assurances that the two men were rightfully themselves again, she'd nodded, steeled herself, and looked them both right in the eyes. Read the remorse there, remorse she'd needed to see if she was honest, and warmly promised them that she didn't hold them responsible for what Teero had done through them. Because she didn't. How could she? They'd been under mind control.

She'd hurriedly turned the brief, hushed conversation to crew morale. Outlined the need for the crew to be reassured as quickly as possible. They needed to be seen together, whole, and restored to their normal closeness. She'd already asked Lieutenant Paris to orchestrate a quiet social gathering. She would attend the upcoming gathering with Tuvok. B'Elanna and Tom would sit together. Chakotay would sit conspicuously with Starfleet crewmembers, and she with Tuvok. Then she would leave with Chakotay, making sure as many people as possible got a good view of them leaving together.

The first time in six years that that had been their main concern. Usually, it had been the other way around. She'd only known that she wasn't yet prepared to sit through an entire viewing with him beside her, trying to tell her all about how sorry he was for what he'd done. It would happen, yes, but she'd needed the brief respite before facing that conversation.

But now the God-awful feature had finally ended. It was Chakotay's turn to step up to the plate. And hers. This was crucial to repairing appearances, she had to remind herself.

"Captain." Someone tapped her shoulder unexpectedly. Smile in place, she whirled in surprise to face…Michael Ayala…and bit back on swearing as a portion of her blood supply drained from her face.

He was the last person she'd expected. And the look of sheer, pent-up remorse in his beseeching brown eyes was all she needed to see to know what this unexpected – entirely uncharacteristic – approach was about.

He'd been in the ready room during "the incident". And as she vividly recalled, he had looked at her just as coldly as Tuvok and Chakotay had the entire time he stood there, watching. Watching.

"Captain." He stepped in closer, angling his head down in an attempt to mask his words from others shuffling past them in the tight aisle. "I was hoping I could…talk to you for a minute."

She glanced at him and then automatically looked behind her without meaning to, but in the instant that she did, her eyes locked to Chakotay's. He stood waiting for her by the doors, and at the grim tint in his obsidian orbs, she knew he knew exactly what was happening down here. He started towards them, but she shook her head, stopping him. This would be better over sooner than later, and with the least amount of attention called to it.

"Captain." She turned back to Ayala, easy smile in place in spite of the angry butterflies in her stomach and caught the tail end of him exchanging just as brief and as pointed a look with Chakotay over her shoulder.

Exactly as he had in the ready room earlier, in fact, and suddenly, she wanted nothing more than to get the hell away from him as fast as she could – from both of them.

But that would pass, she reminded herself furiously, gritting her teeth behind the closed-lipped smile. It had been a shock to her system, nothing more. It would pass…

"I just wanted you to know how sorry I am about…" he swallowed distastefully, rallied his courage to continue, "about this morning. You know…" He glanced around again to make sure no one was within ear shot. "I mean…in the ready room."

She'd known what he'd meant, yes. Of course she'd known what he meant. She curled her hand solicitously on his upper arm, ostensibly maneuvering him towards the exit, every ounce of good will that was normally on her face lighting in her eyes now. "Lieutenant. You have absolutely nothing to apologize for," she dismissed his deep concern. Absolving him of all guilt he carried. "You didn't do anything."

No, he hadn't. He'd only watched.

"Exactly." He broke almost violently back and out of her grasp, showing far more vehemence than he'd ever expressed before to her way of thinking, and she could only stare at him in surprise. And a little wariness, truth be told. "That's just it, Captain. That's what I mean," he urged. "I didn't do anything. They…" he paused as B'Elanna conspicuously passed by them, a look of warning on her face at the intensity she could clearly see between the two of them, but Janeway merely nodded her onward, indicating that she was to keep out of this, as well.

As soon as B'Elanna…grudgingly…passed by them, Ayala continued, his voice a more aware hush, "They brought you into that room and pointed a phaser at you. One you at least thought was set to kill, even if I knew better." She fought the "aha" that wanted to form on her lips. She had wondered whether or not he'd known. "And I let him do it, without a concern in the galaxy about what that had to be like for you."

Yes. He had. He, like her two most trusted companions in this galaxy had been entirely, utterly unreachable to her in that moment. She'd done her damnedest to get through to all of them, especially Chakotay – and had barely managed to even remotely reach Tuvok, apparently.

Nonetheless this was pointless. Her response would only, could only be of one kind. She squared her shoulders, looked him directly in the eye and repeated, firmly, "Mike, I hold you responsible for none of your actions today, and neither should you. You were brainwashed by a very talented, unbalanced man, and then further tampered with by a Vulcan mind-meld. No human being alive could have withstood that."

"You would've," he countered quietly. Surprising her.

"Maybe not," she argued. Whether because she believed it to be true or because it was what needed to be said was anyone's guess.

"There's absolutely no excuse for what the three of us did today," was his tight-lipped response to that.

No. There wasn't.

But of course there was.

Once again, she put a soothing hand on his arm. "You said yourself you knew the phaser was uncharged – and so I was never in any danger."

"That's not the point, Captain."

No. It certainly wasn't. He looked at her dubiously, and she laughed lightly, for his benefit. "Isn't it? As far as I'm concerned, even though you were under intensive mind control, you didn't irreparably harm me or anyone else. Nor did you attempt to do so. All things considered, that speaks to your true character more than anything else – don't you think?"

He shrugged. Unconvinced. If anything, looking more tormented. He shifted his feet, his gaze rooted firmly downward as he mumbled, "Honestly, Captain. I think that I…" she had to crane her neck in to hear his last words, "I might have. If I'd felt it was necessary."

Her gut clenched. "I don't believe that for a second," she declared. And damn it, but she was far too exhausted for this. Taking him by both upper arms, she forced him to meet her gaze. Hardened her voice further, making herself perfectly clear. "You are not to blame yourself for any of it. Put it out of your mind – because I already have. Is that understood?"

If nothing else, that tone had reached him. He did take a deep breath, and she softened her affect immediately. Nice and lightThat's the theme for this evening. "Good." Her arm migrated to his elbow as she once more ushered him toward the exit. "Now that that's settled...what you can do for me is to go back to your quarters and get a good night's sleep. So that you can come to the bridge tomorrow well rested."

He smiled wanly but gamely. A little more of the spark back in his eyes already. At the very least, there was relief that she genuinely wasn't holding a grudge over his despicable actions. He nodded. "Aye, Captain. And…thank you."

He hurried away before she could reply. She didn't miss the fleeting, almost guilty glance he exchanged with Chakotay on his way out, however.

That would have to stop immediately.

And now it was really time. A lot of people were already gone, but they only needed a few good witnesses to have this spread throughout the ship by morning.

"Commander." She brightened her eyes even more. Nearly killing herself with the effort but damned well managing perfectly light normalcy. "Shall we?"

If his eyes didn't quite meet hers, focusing more on some other point of her face than making direct eye contact, he smiled back at her just as warmly. Indicated the door, allowing her to move past him. "After you."

Step back in the brig, Kathryn.

She almost missed the first step before regaining control. Keep walking, she furiously ordered her suddenly leaden feet. Just concentrate on moving forward. Yet all the while, she could feel his presence behind her. Could sense his gaze. He'd just better be tempering it better than the piercing feeling of his eyes drilling into her back was telling her he was.

They reached the corridor outside. Several crewmembers engaged them in conversation, which they politely hung around to indulge for upwards of twenty minutes until, finally, the crowd cleared and they could move along.

Conversation was light and easy...for the benefit of ever-present prying ears and eyes. Still, she couldn't seem to help noting that the last time they'd walked side by side like this through the corridor, they'd been headed to let her take back her bridge. But the time before that…

They stepped into the lift when it arrived.

Consider this a test of your loyalty. It's set to kill.

You said you wouldn't hurt anyone.

His only reply had been to glance in her direction, almost as an afterthought. He'd looked at her like she was nothing, had stared through her, as if she wasn't even there.

Still, the pretense of normalcy wasn't dropped. Side by side, neither of them really looking at each other, neither of them quite ready to handle that just yet if they didn't have to, they groaned about Tom's taste in entertainment. They amused themselves by coming up with all sorts of devious ways to "repay" him for the three and a half hours of their lives that had just been wasted and that they wouldn't ever get back.

Joking aside, it went unsaid that they were both grateful he'd stepped up and come up with this diversion. It was exactly what the ship had needed to take everyone's mind off of recent events, and they would more likely find a way to commend him than they would torture him for his horrible selection. But if they wanted to, Tom simply had no idea how easily the two of them brainstorming together could bring about truly inventive, thoroughly entertaining ways of making his life a living hell, and that was where the attraction to the topic rested.

They spent a little too much time exhausting the topic, but it filled the turbolift ride.

Which was the real point.

Deck Three wasn't exactly deserted, which they'd more or less expected it to be. It wasn't packed with activity, but every so often, someone passed them in the corridor. They both smiled warmly and asked after everyone's well-being, working as a team to make each man or woman feel singularly appreciated. Individually, they were each good at that. Together, they were absurdly good at it.

To Janeway, it felt like Deck Three had lengthened exponentially since the last time she'd walked it. As they stopped running into people, they stopped bothering to come up with ways to fill the silence. The awful, heavy, filled-with-growing-expectation silence.

They came to his door first. And it was time to face this. Really face it.

Only she couldn't. Not now. Not tonight. She was too physically exhausted – too worked up. Her body was failing on her already. Hell. Her god-damn hands were shaking. Her legs, too. Her whole body was trembling with pent-up, ready to burst emotion. If they stepped through those doors together, alone…

She wouldn't be able to hold back. She knew it. Not now.

"Aren't you coming in?" he'd turned to look at her…but not at her, she noticed. Good.

"Not tonight," she replied. Trying to calm the storm that was ready to burst out of her. Having this conversation was going to be the equivalent of opening a Pandora's box of subjects. Taboo and otherwise. She wasn't ready. And despite what he thought, neither was he. He had no idea. And until she had time to collect herself, to act as if long enough to make it true, this was not an option.

She had to leave.

"Kathryn."

She did not just flinch, damn it. It had been a nervous twitch or something. Testament to her exhaustion and yet another reason she needed to defer this conversation for as long as possible.

"We have to talk about this."

"Not now," she replied tightly. With finality.

He was looking at her by this time – at her – but she was not returning the favor. Her gaze was locked on the keypad next to his hand as he argued, "Yes, now. Because if we don't talk now, you'll find a way to avoid it indefinitely. We have to address this."

"No, we don't, actually," she clipped flatly, taking a symbolic step back. "Get some rest, Chakotay. I'll see you in the–"

"Ensign." Chakotay's voice raised considerably, and as her eyes darted up to him in surprise, he nodded to someone well behind her down the corridor.

She assumed the person in question simply nodded back as there was no verbal response. She didn't trust herself enough to turn and acknowledge her unnamed crewman just yet. And then Chakotay fixed her with another one of those looks, which she fully intended to ignore without the slightest twinge of conscience, and it was just the push she needed. She wasn't coming in tonight, and there was nothing he could do about it. She starting spinning on her heel, ready to use her crewmember to ensure that she didn't have to give in when Chakotay again raised his voice noticeably, pulling her back to him.

"We should get working on those reports, Captain," he announced – much louder than he ever should have needed to for the distance between them. "It's late, but you did say you wanted to get as much done as possible. And I know you haven't eaten yet. Neither have I." He tilted his head inward, to the open expanse of his quarters. And smiled. "So you set the table, and I'll replicate dinner. We can work on it while we eat."

Her eyes flashed up at him then. She locked gazes with him furiously, actual sparks erupting as she felt the ensign beginning to near her position. As she felt the ensign's pace beginning to slow a bit as he or she approached, as if indeed hanging on her answer. It wasn't enough that he or she could be accused of eavesdropping, but it didn't matter. Either way, she had no choice now. Even hesitation would give the absolute wrong impression. If she refused him now, every bit of work they'd already done tonight would be for nothing.

Chakotay had just trapped her, as neatly as he had when he keyed that forcefield up after throwing her into the brig.

"Sounds like a plan," she grated out as cheerfully as she could.

But oh, was she meeting his eyes right now, yes. They were burning into him, almost through him, and he at least had to keep smiling until the doors shut or the ensign passed. She stepped inside, past the space he'd created for her to do so, pushing past him and deliberately knocking into his shoulder on her way inside.

Step back in the brig Kathryn.

He was a dead man. As she stepped well into his still-darkened quarters, she paused in the middle of his living room, waited with her back to him for the doors to close.

"Lights, one quarter," he called softly as they did.

She could see her surroundings now. But she didn't turn around. Everything on her was shaking, and this time, it was more with rage than anything else. "That was a dirty trick, Commander – and you know it," she hissed.

He didn't approach her; he had at least that much awareness of how precarious his continued existence was after what he'd just done. But he didn't apologize for it, either. His voice was quiet as he simply returned, "You didn't leave me any choice."

"I didn't leave you a choice? Did I hear that correctly?"

Damn him. Her palms already hurt from digging her nails into them as her fingers curled reflexively into tight fists meant to keep her stationary. To keep her from turning around and outright letting him have it – all of it.

"We have to talk about this," he repeated stubbornly.

Did they? She bristled at his gall. "There's nothing to talk about," she all but snapped. Holding herself as absolutely still as her trembling limbs would allow her to. "You were under mind control. It wasn't you."

"Then you don't blame me for taking your ship from you?" he asked – too calmly. Too damned calmly for where she was with this emotionally. "You don't blame me for what happened in the ready room this morning?"

Consider this a test of your loyalty. It's set to kill.

"Of course not," she hissed.

You said you wouldn't hurt anyone.

Chakotay was quiet enough, still for long enough that her nerves were about to snap on the constant replay of that moment before he finally ventured, "So you're not angry with me. Not even the slightest bit."

"No," she growled. "How could I be?"

"Then turn around and look at me, Kathryn," he challenged – again, too damned evenly to compete with what she was feeling right now.

She didn't move. She couldn't move. If she did…

"Do it, then," he called her on it. "Turn around. Look me in the eyes, and tell me you aren't angry at me."

She couldn't do it. He knew she couldn't. The words "go to hell" were on her tongue, but she physically bit them back. Taking a deep, shaking-with-rage breath and then trying to exhale without choking on it.

"Kathryn?" he pressed, stepping firmly on that last thread of her single remaining nerve. She could hear him taking a few steps closer, could feel him daring to approach now on the movement of air his steady motion created. He paused after bringing himself to within less than two meters of her. "Turn around," he repeated staunchly. "Prove that you're not angry with me.

What the hell are you doing?

It's set to kill.

And damn him, he still kept pushing her!

"Why won't you turn around?" he demanded.

"You know why I won't!" she snarled the admission, snapping and whirling on him in an instant. "This was as devastating to you as it was to me!" she forced herself to remember even as she said it. Her hand came up to the bridge of her nose, pinching at the screaming headache she felt forming around her. She prayed he didn't notice the way it shook. "Chakotay, I'm too damned tired to get into it right now. If you keep pushing this, I'm only going to make it worse for you."

"Worse for me?" He sounded incredulous.

She dropped her hand. Furious with his persistence. Furious with his existence, right now. "This isn't the right way to do this," she clipped out bitingly. "I know you're angrier with yourself than I could ever be with you."

He scoffed at that. "Well that's where you're wrong."

Coming from him, it was such a non sequitor of a statement, of a reaction, that it jolted her out of her abhorrence for this conversation, if just for an instant. She stared at him, and he shook his head curtly. "Anger doesn't even begin to touch it," he explained dourly. "More like self-loathing. Contempt." It was evident in his dark eyes as she looked into them, really looked, and it was exactly why they couldn't do this right now.

But he wasn't finished. "Rage is probably closer. And if I didn't have a duty to this ship and crew – to you – I'd probably have spaced myself this morning. But this isn't about me right now. It was about me, and Tuvok, and the rest of the crew all day."

"Chakotay–"

"I'm not the one who had my ship taken from me by my best friend today," he insisted, taking another step. Refusing to let her shy away from this. "I'm not the one who was thrown into my own brig by a man I trusted with my life."

"Chakotay, stop it," she snapped. "I'm warning you–"

"And I'm ignoring you. Just like I did in the ready room, when you asked me not to do what I let you think I was doing," he declared grimly. Pressing onward. Stirring it all up again and throwing it back into her face without hesitation even as he came closer to invading her personal space on top of it all.

It's set to kill.

"I'm not the one who was pulled into his own office this morning and used in the cruelest, most callous display of disregard by that friend. I'm not the one whose so-called best friend ordered my oldest friend to put a phaser to my head and kill me just to prove that he was loyal to some long-dead cause."

Consider this a test of your loyalty.

Take her back to the brig.

"And I lived through it all!" she all but shouted back at him over the din of her own clamoring memories. "I'm alive, Chakotay. I'll get over it. But we won't if you keep pushing this right now!"

"I have to push, Kathryn!" he insisted, raising his voice for the first time to her. "Try to understand that I'm doing this for you. You can't walk away from this right now!"

"Why not? Why do you have to do this right now, Chakotay?" she demanded scathingly. "If you're so concerned about me all of the sudden, why are you pushing this on me after I've repeatedly told you I'm not ready for it?"

He took her anger as his due, pressing through it, "Because whether or not you want to admit or face it, I scared the hell out of you today!"

"Don't flatter yourself!" she snarled, tilting her head up to glare daggers at him as he continued to advance on her. And how the hell he still dared to approach her was beyond her now, but he took another step even as she spoke so harshly to him, every bit as worked up as she.

"It's nothing to do with flattery, Kathryn, it's the truth," he argued vehemently. His face was twisted in desperation. In horrified self-loathing, but in determination as well as he took the step that brought him right up against her. So that they were standing nearly toe to toe. "You looked at me like you were afraid of me this morning–"

"I most certainly did not," she bristled up at him, resenting the accusation.

"And if you looked afraid," he continued forcefully, cutting over her and standing his ground so that there was no way out, no way to hide from this unless she retreated, "that means you were really terrified."

The cracking of her hand exploding across his cheek startled, stilled, both of them.

~~~

As Janeway slowly pulled her hand back, watched him angle his face back to her and clearly saw the angry red outline of her own hand forming on that face…she was horrified. Still furious beyond belief…but undeniably horrified. She hadn't even noted the impulse. Hadn't caught her own arm pulling back and certainly hadn't felt the swing. She'd only felt the impact. The sting that reverberated throughout her palm as it came into contact with his face. His face. She'd just slapped him…slapped Chakotay…in the face.

What in hell was happening to her? To both of them?

As his dark eyes burned into hers through the extending silence, her mouth dropped open. She likewise dropped her guiltily stinging hand, taking a full step back. Drew in a shaking breath. "I'm…" her voice broke, and she hated it. Gathered herself and continued, "I'm sorry. I don't even know why I just did that…"

"I've a general idea," he returned quietly. Holding her gaze with burning ebony.

"I've never…" She was still unable to believe what she'd just done. "I've never slapped anyone before – and certainly not in the face," she qualified. Like it mattered, somehow.

He only nodded slightly at the admission. "If it makes you feel any better, I think some part of me wanted you to do it."

"What?" She stared at him. Had they both lost their minds?

He shrugged tightly. "I backed you into a corner, and I called you out on something you weren't willing to face." He was still holding her gaze. And, she couldn't help noticing, never had brought so much as a hand up in reaction to her attack. "I, of all people, know better than to do that to you – and not expect you to push back."

"Pushing is one thing," she retorted incredulously. "That was outright violence." She shook her head at him. Still in utter disbelief. "That wasn't…there's no excuse for that."

He nodded again. Apparently in complete agreement. Nonetheless, he didn't seem too fazed over it as he asked her calmly, "Do you feel better?"

An interesting question, actually. She dropped her gaze to some point beyond him while she considered. Did she? Some of the anger was gone. Yes, most of it. But in its place, there was still fear. Doubt. Uncertainty and remorse. Resentment. A gambit of emotions were all roiling inside of her that the anger had only been masking, and without the anger there wasn't much left in the way of substantial support. It was hard to keep from sinking to the floor under the weight of it all.

Solemnly, she lifted her face up to him. Shook her head. "No," she whispered the admission. "Not really." A flicker caught her eye. Some twitch of facial expression he'd been careful to mask, but not quick enough. She spent a few seconds studying him. Truly studying him. Almost hopefully, she returned, "Do you?"

He didn't even blink. But the sadness that was gripping her reflected back to her in his eyes all the while as he silently shook his head.

The last of the fight went out of her then. When she was able to detect real, tangible proof in his eyes that this was indeed as torturous and nightmarish for him as it had been for her. She visibly sagged, suddenly inexplicably tired.

Okay. Extremely explicably tired. But it was a kind of tired she hadn't felt in a long time and her legs just didn't want to hold her up anymore. They were simply shaking too badly to keep her upright anymore. "Chakotay," she managed, not having time to think about it, "I think I need to–"

"Sit down?" He was there already. Had been watching her the entire time and had seen her sway slightly. His hands closed warmly, firmly over her arms. He used his own legs to help bolster hers as he guided her over to the couch. "About time. You've been on your damned feet for the better part of three days."

Her mouth turned up at the side in spite of herself. "Oh, I don't know. I did quite a lot of sitting in the brig."

"Pacing, more like," he snorted. She still noticed the tension in his body, in his face as he held onto her arms long enough for her to ease herself onto the sofa.

"Not after the second time," she managed hoarsely. "Thank you," she was able to say sincerely before he had to respond to the first. "I just need a minute, and I should be fine."

He shook his head, more in beaten resignation than anything. "Stay put. I'm at least bringing you something to drink."

She wanted to argue – just for the hell of it and for the "stay put" comment especially – but she was too tired to argue. At least over the little things. She just needed this night over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. Arguing would only prolong it. And he was giving her a minute, as he disappeared on the other side of the room and began tinkering with things, to gather her thoughts. Her racing-in-spite-of-exhaustion thoughts. It was only now that she realized her neck and shoulders were so cramped. Worse even than they'd been all day. Tension. Exhaustion. Stress. Her muscles were screaming for rest, to the point where she almost couldn't take it anymore. It couldn't be helping the headache, either. Without realizing, she let her head drop back on the top of his low couch. Closed her eyes for just a moment…damn, that felt too good for words…

This phaser is defective.

Upon realizing what had happened, she'd turned furious eyes to Chakotay. He'd barely afforded her a single, bone-chillingly unaffected glance before his eyes landed on the armed guard who'd escorted her in. The contempt in his voice thick and smothering as poisoned honey.

Take her back to the brig.

She sat up sharply, almost knocking into his outstretched arm and causing him to lose his grip on the precariously arranged glasses that had been dangling from his typically sturdy, capable fingers. He only managed to juggle his tumbling cargo and save the glasses at the last second.

"Sorry," she mumbled automatically. Resenting that it had happened at all. She had no business still being so shaken, damn it.

He shrugged it off as nothing. "No harm done," he assured her softly.

Well. Not recently, anyway.

Another time, and another place, she would have applauded his success; that had been a considerable save. Now, she only frowned at his choice of drink as it became clear to her what he'd retrieved. And why she hadn't heard him order anything from the replicator.

He'd returned without her sensing his approach. That bothered her as much as anything. When had the awareness of him as a presence she could never not notice left her? Used to be that she was so in tune to him, she sensed his proximity in the next room over when he was in it. When had that left her? Left both of them?

Uncorking the stoppered bottle in silence, he expertly poured three fingers of dark brown liquid into each upturned glass. She watched dubiously as he replaced the stopper and then handed her one of the glasses. Taking it, she frowned into it, inhaling the fumes. The smell was far more potent than it should be. This wasn't Earth liquor. This was stronger. She raised an eyebrow, lifting her gaze. "Trying to get me drunk?" she quipped – half jokingly.

He paused in straightening, surprised at the question. And undeniably looking somewhat guilty. "Maybe a little numb," he admitted with less than a full smile for her effort. His eyes flicked up to meet hers again as he took the single chair across from her, settling himself even while lifting his own glass and draining it in a single swallow. He lightly licked the remaining drops of moisture from his lips and shrugged before elaborating, "Mostly, I was hoping it would help you sleep tonight."

She cocked her head at that – and regretted it immediately with the sharp protest of her cramping muscles. Still she asked, "Do you have any idea how exhausted I am? I almost dozed off sitting up just now."

"And what stopped you?" he asked. Mildly on the surface. Mildly if she didn't know how much of a poster child he was for that old "still waters" saying.

Mildly if she didn't know how well he knew her. Or had known her.

Her brow rose again. How he knew wasn't worth arguing. He knew some way – and she knew him well enough to know he wouldn't have made such an assumption without evidence to back it up. "I must have sensed your presence somehow when you approached," she evaded skillfully.

"Right," he nodded his own concession. Just as easily. Holding her gaze. "And what you saw when you closed your eyes had nothing to do with the way you almost bowled me over sitting up so suddenly."

There was the anger again...just about on cue. She glared at him. He had no right to call her on things so – accurately, damn him. Nonetheless, she tossed back the liquor without further protest. Wincing as the almost acrid taste of it overwhelmed her taste buds, burning her tongue and melting the glare she'd been leveling at him. Exhaling on a hiss, she made a face and wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve. "What the hell is that?" she croaked, her throat burning, too. Suspiciously, she alternated between eyeing the glass and the ornate bottle. Even her stomach burned as she could feel the liquor make its way down into her belly and settle there.

"Vulcan brandy," he supplied quietly, leaning forward to refill both their glasses…although not quite as full as he had the first time. Once more replacing the stopper on the bottle, he watched as she took the second without hesitation, knew he'd judged accurately. Sat back to cradle his own glass in his hand before he was able to venture, "I opened it this morning."

Cold chills ran through her even as her burning stomach dropped. Her fingers tightened compulsively around the glass. Vulcan brandy. He'd opened Vulcan brandy. Something Tuvok appreciated – and Chakotay did not.

"What were the two of you celebrating?" she inquired warily.

The bad taste in her mouth now had nothing to do with the bite of the liquor.

The bad taste in his didn't either. "I opened it to lull him into a false sense of security." He waited a beat, his fingers drumming the side of his glass. "Then I had you brought in."

Nothing substantial had changed from their initial confrontation. They could look at each other now, but discussing this – rehashing it – was no less gut-wrenching than it had been at the outset. The devastating, all-encompassing sense of betrayal at what he'd done…the guilt he felt over doing it…none of it had been washed away by the purity or the acridity of the brandy. This was not going to be an easy conversation.

But it did need to happen. There was no way to recover from this unless they talked about it. Minus the razor-sharp edge of the anger that had been fueling her all day long, she was able to see that. And she had so many unanswered questions, she could write a book of them.

"After he demonstrated his willingness to throw off even his allegiance to you," Chakotay continued slowly, forcing himself to keep looking at her, "I intended to finish my mine. But he melded with me before I could get back to my glass."

She had to know. Had to.

"If he hadn't…if Tuvok hadn't melded with you when he did…" She trailed off. Debating whether or not it was even wise to continue despite the gnawing curiosity she felt. There was every chance she wouldn't like the answer, after all…

"Would I have been able to snap out of it on my own?" He didn't make her complete the question. He did sip heavily at his second glass of brandy before swallowing and admitting, "I don't know. But I doubt it."

"Were you even trying?" she couldn't catch before it slipped out on a harsh note.

He didn't answer that verbally. His eyes rose back to her from his glass. Eyes that were burning with evident self-loathing. And that was her answer.

"I see," she clipped out. Harsher than she'd meant to, maybe. She didn't amend it though.

This was still killing him. She saw it in his face. Heard it in his voice when he started, "If I could tell you how sorry I am–"

She sighed deeply. "Sorry is neither here nor there. I know you're sorry, Chakotay." She did know. She drained the rest of her glass. Not to gather courage so much as to not waste the rare commodity. "But if you want to know what scared me…" She was admitting it now, yes. It wasn't easy, but nothing would be served here without full disclosure between them. "If you want to know what scared me about today…it was the fact that I couldn't reach you. You looked at me like I was…" She swallowed. Lifted her chin. "I was trying my hardest to reach both of you. To pull you through whatever the hell Teero had done to you. At least Tuvok showed some internal struggle. It was written on his face whenever he looked at me. But you? You looked at me like I was nothing. Never even hesitated no matter what I said to you. Do you realize that?"

"I'm sorry," was all he seemed able to repeat.

"And I know that." She resignedly waved a hand, brushing the sentiment off. "I also can't help but believe that if it had been two years ago…this couldn't have happened. I don't believe that you could have looked at me the way you did today if this had all happened…before."

"I've been wondering that, too," he returned. So softly that the pain was almost masked.

But there it was. His admission. They both recognized the deeper meaning here – the harsher, more devastating revelation that they had come to today.

"That's what frightened me," she continued. "It wasn't so much what was happening as it was who was doing it. And how far away from each other we must have gotten to reach that point. Never noticing."

"I know," he allowed, his throat sounding as raw as hers felt.

She accepted that he did know. Keeping her gaze level, she didn't bother hiding the fact that her eyes shone with as much regret as his. "That's probably more my fault than yours," she confessed warily. "I can't put the blame for that on you."

He was already shaking his head, vehemently. Refusing to let her take responsibility for all of it. "It takes two to make a friendship, Kathryn."

Or to break it, went unspoken. They both recognized it, and it was something they would have to deal with, now that it had been brought to light.

"But I still consider us to be friends, Chakotay," she noted pointedly. "If not as…close…as we used to be."

He nodded agreement with the sentiment. Confirming her assessment of the part of their unique friendship which had endured. No small kinship in and of itself, if not what they'd been accustomed to in the past.

And yet she still hadn't been able to reach him. It apparently hadn't been enough to make him hesitate for one second. That was what burned her, tormented her. She set her empty glass on the table, sitting up straighter as she looked directly into his eyes.

She had to hear it from him before there could be any chance of moving on. "Nothing I said to you made any difference, did it? Nothing in the way I looked at you so much as touched you, did it?"

He looked away. Down, at his hands, which were resting on his knees. Back up to her. Again, the look in his eyes said it all.

She exhaled slowly. Taking the blow head on. Until this moment, she'd been trying to tell herself that some part of him had been reachable to her. That if she'd only had more of a direct shot at it, more time with him, she'd be able to reach him. That had been the frustrating part of most of her stay in the brig…the certain knowledge that she could reach him if he'd only allow her access to him. Even after the incident with Tuvok and the phaser…some crucial, inner part of her soul had been unwilling to believe that he could ever be entirely unreachable to her. That part of her took the brunt of his honesty now. It knocked the wind out of her.

"You were that far gone?" she whispered, horrified.

He saw what the admission had done to her. Heard the tenor of horror in her voice and hated himself even more for it. "No," he corrected sourly. Even if it killed him to do it. "It…wasn't like that. I don't think I went anywhere. And that's what scares me. There was no one who took over in my head, controlling all of my actions. I was there, and aware of everything that was happening. It wasn't like there was someone else that had taken over my consciousness."

She frowned deeply, concentrating. Focusing on what he was saying and trying to understand this part of what had happened today. Compelled to hear about it, whether she liked the answers to her questions or not. "Then what was it like? What the hell was going through your mind while you were doing it all? I need to understand."

He could see that she did. And it didn't surprise him, coming from her. She would need to uncover every tiny detail about this experience in order to satisfy her enough to be able to move on.

He just would have given anything to not feel so compelled by honor to answer her truthfully. In spite of every fiber in his being screaming protest against it, he thought back to her question. Tried to bring up his thoughts at the time of the occurrence. Trying, for her, to recall an experience he would so much rather forget and yet knew he never would. Slowly, he explained, "I could hear Teero's voice clearly. Telling me what I needed to do. But nothing was fuzzy or foggy. I had no doubts or sense of struggle that I was aware of. I just…" he looked up at her, profoundly disgusted, "set about following his instructions. In my gut I never questioned those instructions. But I never left," he maintained. "I can remember every word I spoke, every action that I took. It was still me."

She rejected the idea as foreign, untrue. "I can't believe that, Chakotay." She refused to.

"I'm not sure it matters what you can believe, Kathryn," he told her sadly. The agony in his voice at the admission tugged at her heart for him, which was encouraging, really, that it could, but it didn't lessen the pain of hearing his confession one iota as he furthered, "I'm telling you what happened today was almost entirely me. And what happened was only a part of what could have. It scares the hell out of me just to think about, much less to admit out loud. But before I can even think about letting you try and forgive me for it, I need to be sure you understand what it is that you're forgiving."

"I still don't believe it," she declared, staunchly, resolutely denying his sickening claims. "You can't tell me that what you did today came from you and you alone. You aren't capable of dropping half the crew on some backwards planet and stranding them there. You alone aren't capable of playing with someone's emotions the way you did mine earlier."

"But it was me, Kathryn," he insisted fervidly. Profound, pained guilt echoing in every visible cell of his body as he leaned forward in his seat, closer to her. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. Teero's instructions were specific in intent but vague on execution. He told me to eliminate the Starfleet crew on Voyager. The choice on how to do that was entirely mine."

Her stomach dropped as she lifted her chin in recognition. "'Eliminate' sounds like he meant 'kill'," she pointed out warily.

Chakotay nodded unfiltered agreement. "Probably it is what he meant." He swallowed. "I chose to take it to mean get you off the ship as quickly as possible."

To her, this was only confirmation of her position, and not his. She latched onto it with whatever hope she had left over within her. "Then some part of you was still there," she determined triumphantly, relieved. "Don't you see that? You at least fought Teero's mind control to that extent."

"But that's what I'm telling you," he argued. "It was me all along, Kathryn. Just…some earlier, harder version of me." His look was almost pleading as she kept trying to attribute more character to his actions than he'd actually possessed against his words. Absolute misery reflecting in his agitated gaze while he tried to make her see how bad off they'd really been. "I can only compare it to the doctor having his ethical subroutines removed. I experienced absolutely no guilt about anything I did today." He watched her eyes flicker, observed the effect of his damning words as he spoke them, and still, forced himself to continue. "Worse, I was a hard, unethical version of me that had been programmed to listen to that voice. To listen to Teero's manipulation of the events of the past six years and not to question his interpretation of them."

She took a shallow breath masquerading as a deeper one, trying to follow him. "I'm not sure what all that means," she returned cagily, "but you didn't have to listen to him. You could have tried to tune him out, couldn't you? Didn't you?"

He shook his head in the negative. "It was impossible to ignore. The message was so insistent – and I believed his words so strongly that I didn't even really try."

She swallowed thickly, moistening her brandy-burned throat as he continued.

"I've never been one for killing when it isn't necessary. That was why I avoided interpreting his words that way. In my mind, the detour was a pain in the ass to have to make, but it was the most efficient way of not killing you all that would get you off the ship. If there hadn't been a place so close by to put you…" He broke off, looking away. Reaching his limit. "There's no telling what I would have decided it was necessary to do," he finished in what was barely above a hoarse whisper.

"I can't believe you would have killed us, Chakotay," she declared with finality. "I won't believe that, because I can't." And she absolutely refused to give him any more time to try to tell her differently. "What I'm having trouble reconciling is what you were capable of doing."

No small matter. The guilt was clearly eating him alive as he acknowledged it, "I know. And I can understand you hating me for it–"

"I could never hate you, Chakotay," she sighed, shifting on the couch to cross her legs under her. Absently running a weary hand through her mussed hair. "This is nothing to do with hate, or even anger at this point. I just have to know. I need to know what was going through your mind today. I don't think I can move past it until I do. Can you understand that, at least?"

"Yes. I can. But I'm telling you…you still don't know the half of what I was capable of today, Kathryn. I'm afraid that if you keep prying into this…you're not going to like what you hear," he cautioned guardedly. Begging her to heed his warning.

But she barely heard him this time. Maybe because she didn't want to hear him. Either way, his last words washed over like nothing more than a light breeze; she was still focused on what she'd started to say beforehand, her eyes glassy as the memories kept overtaking her. As it kept coming back to her so clearly she may as well have been experiencing it all over again for the first time.

"I didn't believe it," she began, her voice sounding small and far away. "Not really. It was hard to imagine you dropping half the crew on some planet and never looking back at them," she conceded. She waited for him to look at her again before admitting, "But it was inconceivable, as close as we have supposedly been all these years…that you would do that to me. Then later, after you had me dragged into the ready room. Letting me think you were going to have Tuvok…"

She shuddered as she saw his face again in that enlightening moment afterward. At the burned-into-her-memory-picture of how his familiar eyes looked right at her, almost through her.

Take her back to the brig, he'd spit with what would have been contempt...if hadn't been for the coldness, and the absolute disregard for her existence.

She closed her eyes in an effort to steady herself. "It was in that moment I realized you were fully capable of doing it. That you felt absolutely nothing when you looked at me, and that you were really doing this. That was when the reality truly sunk in for me, I think."

Unbeknownst to her, he struggled with himself the entire time she spoke. Outright warring with various parts of himself while she had been telling him this. This morning, he'd decided not to tell her certain things. Had firmly decided that there were things she didn't need to know, were things for his own weighted conscience to bear – and bear alone. What he struggled with now was one of those things. Yet each and every time she brought up another mention of it, each time she referred to how disturbing it was for her, and he didn't correct her, the guilt ate at him all the more. And there was already too much of it for him to fight it off for long.

She opened her eyes again. Letting him see the depth of the torment she was experiencing in trying to reconcile what had happened today. And softly pleaded, "Please understand that I know you weren't responsible. In my mind, I understand it. It's just going to take me a little time to get there emotionally." He let her continue speaking, let her have her say while she'd gathered the courage, and she was grateful he didn't try to interrupt her – yet. "You took my ship from me, Chakotay."

"I know," he admitted hoarsely. And he knew what that meant to her. To her, especially.

"You imprisoned half the crew, not least of all me." He sadly, resolutely nodded her on. "You used me in your little 'loyalty test', and you let me think that the two of you were going to kill me in that room."

To that, he said nothing. There was nothing to say. It had happened. And he had done it. He simply sat, and endured, her list of grievances. Hoping like hell he managed to keep his mouth shut about some things and didn't end up adding to her already overwhelming burdens.

"And you did it all without so much as a hint of regard for what that was like for me to experience," she finished, what she couldn't help from being accusingly.

Yes. In fact he had. If she'd been waiting for him to correct her on that point – she was sorely disappointed now. He simply stared back at her, trying to meet her hurt gaze, hold his tongue, and especially trying not to drown in his own self-loathing. He was praying like hell she didn't keep bringing up his "willingness" to drop her on that planet. That was one thing he didn't know if she'd be able to handle. One horrifying, chilling fact he didn't think she needed to face out of all of this. Yet the more she referred to it, the more he realized that it might be the lesser of two evils to just tell her the truth. Especially if it was affecting her this strongly.

She shook her head in disbelief, still trying to come to terms with it all. Still trying to process it. "And after all of that, the fact that you were perfectly willing to just leave us all on some planet and never so much as look back–"

Damn it. He broke.

"You were never going down to that planet, Kathryn," he blurted out grimly. Unable to contain himself any longer while watching what it was doing to her. What it had been doing to her since the moment it had happened, most likely.

Despite the intensity of the claim, the words were softly spoken. So softly, she almost missed them, but they did make her pause. Her consciousness processed them well before her ears seemed to, but a part of her did catch it. She sat completely upright, staring at him in confusion as the words took their time in sinking in. "What did you say?"

She'd heard him; he knew she had. It was already out. Too late to back out now. "You weren't going down to that planet," he forced out one more time.

Consternation knitted her brows together as she stared at him, openmouthed, and trying to decipher what he was saying. Then, as she worked it over in her mind a few more times…once more for the evening – morning – her stomach clenched painfully. "You were never going to beam us down? But you said–"

"I said the Starfleet crew was beaming down. I never said that the crew included you."

"I don't understand, Chakotay."

"Don't you?" he returned bitterly.

She raised an eyebrow. "No. I really don't."

Damn. Of course not. This would be so much easier if she did understand. If he didn't have to explain this to her step by step, break it down into one smaller, agonizing blow after another. He took a deep breath that was no more bracing than it was suffocating. And confessed, "I let you think you were beaming down. And I did that on purpose. Because I knew what kind of hell you'd have raised if you knew the truth from the beginning. I didn't want to give you time to set that persistent mind of yours to finding a way to stop me."

"Stop you from what? If you didn't intend to beam us down, then why detour all the way to the planet? You're not making sense."

"No," he forced out as patiently as he could. "You're not listening. But I can't say I blame you. I wouldn't want to hear it either in your place." Gods, he wasn't sure he could do this. He scrubbed his hands over his face, conflicted to the core. "I wasn't even going to tell you this…"

"Tell me what?" she demanded. At full and heightened alert now. "What is it you didn't want to tell me?"

He still hesitated. Lifted his head from his hands to peer at her through his desolation. "I only spoke up at all because of how much pain the fact that I could leave you seems to be causing you. I'm still not sure you're going to feel a damn bit better after I explain to you what I was really doing…"

She couldn't take much more of this. Not tonight, and not on top of everything they were already dealing with. Whatever it was that he was so reluctant to say…he needed to spit it out. "Chakotay. Whatever it is…say it. If you didn't intend to leave the crew on that planet–"

"Not the crew, Kathryn," he stressed with profoundly growing agitation. Having to explain this to her was like being disemboweled, slowly, while being forced to watch it happen. He had to make himself keep speaking, gritting his teeth and reminding himself all the while that he'd decided she might feel better in some way if he made it through this confession. "I told you. They were being put off the ship, yes. It's you who wasn't going."

She felt all of the blood drain out of her face. Every last ounce. On top of that, her already-clenched stomach suddenly felt like he'd kicked her in it. "You…" She could barely even say it. "You did plan to kill me? After everything you did with Tuvok…that whole damned show you put on…you still intended to…?"

If she hadn't been sitting down, she'd have fallen. There was no way her legs would have held her up under that admission.

"No!" he corrected swiftly, as he realized she still wasn't following him. "No, I wasn't going to…kill you. At least…not in the immediate future." He looked away from her. Frankly unable to bear the weight of both his guilt and of her pain over this confession simultaneously. "I can't speak to what I would have done…eventually."

None of this was making sense.

She shouldn't have had that second drink. Even as she thought it, she was seriously contemplating having a third.

"I don't understand this, Chakotay. I don't understand any of it. If you weren't going to beam me down there…and you weren't going to kill me…immediately…" Her head shook back and forth as she tried to process it. The lack of oxygen from not being able to breathe, and probably the alcohol, not helping.

He was forced to shift his eyes back to her. "I told you, Kathryn…I didn't go anywhere," he repeated painstakingly. "I was still me, and I still knew you, inside and out. My memory of the past six years hadn't gone, it was only…skewed emotionally. I still knew what you were capable of. I respected that capability. And I told myself I couldn't have you down there with the general crew, because you'd have been able to rally them to somehow get off the planet much faster than they ever could have without you. You'd never have stopped until you found a way to come back for the ship. I told myself putting you down there with them was far too risky to chance."

"I would have been just as dangerous on the ship, though," she pointed out sharply. "You had to have realized that…?"

Slowly, he nodded his miserable head. Still horrified over the "compromise" he'd come to with himself, and wanting like hell to keep the rest of it from her. But he'd started down this road all on his own steam. He ought to have known she wouldn't let him not finish it. "Not if you were confined to a room without any access to the computer and didn't have the ability to leave that room," he explained wretchedly. "And not if there was nothing in that room to help you escape from it. If all you had was a room with a bed and a bathroom, but no amenities and no conduits leading in or out of that room…no access to anyone you could persuade to be an ally to you in any way…you could have been contained."

Well that was…better, actually. A little of the constriction across her lungs eased at this new information. As she turned it slowly over in her agitated mind. "All right." She swallowed again. Then drew in a deeper breath upon realizing, "That's what you were doing to those crew quarters on Deck Nine." He nodded again, again miserably, but she continued, excited to have had one mystery about today solved that wasn't some devastatingly sinister twist. "I was wondering what in hell you were trying to accomplish…ripping the computer access panels out. Taking everything else out, too. Sealing the conduits and removing the replicator…installing forcefields…"

"Those rooms were meant for you," he confirmed grimly.

She had to shake her head in a little bit of disbelief again upon pondering that. "Not that I don't appreciate that you weren't going to," she offered wryly, "but you realize it would have been much easier…and a lot less work…to just kill me? Better yet, to sedate me? Or even put me in stasis?"

"It would have been, yes," he grudgingly admitted. She wasn't making this easy. But then again…he didn't deserve easy, did he?

No. He didn't.

"It would have been easier to put you in stasis," he had to agree. "I probably would have if I'd wanted you unconscious." He didn't look at her now. Couldn't look at her as he admitted, almost inaudibly, "I didn't."

Her heart was doing that beat skipping thing again. "And…why didn't you?" she ventured. His manner was finally registering through her consternation. A fair amount of trepidation had once more begun creeping over her the longer she studied him. He wouldn't look at her. Was looking anywhere but at her. Which meant there was more going on here than she was realizing or had guessed. "Chakotay." She wasn't sure she dared pose this question. Had no idea how much more of this twisting and turning tale she could take.

But she was who she was. And as usual, her curiosity won out in the end. "Why didn't you want me unconscious?" she pushed.

He scrubbed a hand over his face, sitting further forward in his seat and staring into his lap. "I don't really know," he muttered – clearly evasively. "I hadn't entirely thought it through. By the time Tuvok melded with me, I'd only gotten as far as knowing that you were staying on board, where I could keep an eye on you and keep you contained."

There was something else, though. Something…more. She knew it. He was hiding it. But from her, or from himself, too?

"But you had to go to a lot of trouble in order to keep me contained," she pointed out carefully. "Trouble you could have bypassed entirely had you simply had me sedated."

"I know," he mumbled, resting his head in his hands. Still not looking at her.

She felt like a dog with a bone at this point, yet she couldn't let it go. "Then that can't be it," she insisted. "That isn't all there is to this, is there?"

He lifted his head a fraction. "Why do you say that?"

"Because you're not looking at me."

Damn. Well no he wasn't. He still couldn't. He only knew that he wasn't at all interested in getting to the root of his own motives. That exploring those motives now wasn't going to unearth anything good. His intentions towards her, in the few thoughts he'd given her future aboard Voyager, had been anything but benevolent. They'd been devoid of any concern for her wellbeing, he knew that much.

"Was it my access codes?" she was already working through the puzzle. Running down the list of possibilities on her own. She shook her head. "I can't imagine that was it. I don't have access to any information you couldn't have hacked yourself if you'd really wanted to. Especially with B'Elanna's help. You had the command codes all along, and you had full control of the ship. What did I have that you could possibly have needed…?"

"That's what Ayala and B'Elanna wanted to know," he admitted softly, still speaking into his lap.

"What?"

"When I told them what I was intending…they wanted to know everything you're asking me right now. And I finally told them…" He stopped. Because he could barely form the words in his mind, let alone on his tongue.

"You told them what?" she pushed forcefully, her throat dry in spite of the brandy. Getting this out of him was truly like pulling teeth…with an old fashioned pair of pliers, at that and her patience was nonexistent anymore. "What did you tell them, Chakotay? Answer me! What was it?"

He finally looked up at her. His eyes were wild with desperate self-loathing, with rage at himself as the ugly, unpalatable truth came flooding out of him like a bursting dam, "It was because I wanted you to suffer, Kathryn! All right? That's why I used you to test Tuvok's loyalty. That's why I was going to separate you from the rest of the crew, why I was going to lock you up in solitary confinement with no amenities, nothing but stark bulkheads and silence and possibly watch you go slowly insane. It was because I wanted you to suffer!"

~~~

Once more, silence, absolute stillness, descended over the room. Neither moved. Neither dared. Neither looked away from the other as the gauntlet was thrown down by his last, desperate confession.

He watched the color, the life drain from her face, leaving her white as snow. Watched her try and fail to drag a breath through the shocking paralysis that had slammed into her chest, and she watched him struggle to regain control and stop breathing so raggedly. Watched the anger beaten back by regret at her stunned reaction, horror at the truth of what he'd said. Watched the bitter, self-castigating remorse start to flood through him even as his face crumpled into crestfallen agony, but she could barely process his response through the magnitude of her own.

After several tried and failed breaths, she'd recovered enough to be able to breathe. Once able, she offered a watery, wan excuse for a smile and shakily managed, "Well now who's been slapped in the face?"

Just to break the God-awful tension in the room somewhat.

It didn't work. He didn't so much as acknowledge her effort. What he did was to push himself up from the edge his chair, walk away from her. Clearly too agitated to sit one second longer. She watched warily as he paced a few steps. Then he seemed to think the better of it and – she tensed when he let out a growl of such obvious frustration, clear self-loathing that it reverberated through her own body when his fist struck the wall next to his viewport. Once. Twice. She could hear the crunch of his bones against the solid bulkhead, the force behind his blows that powerful, and she winced. Shifted forward in her seat, opened her mouth to snap at him, to tell him to stop it…but it wasn't necessary.

He pulled himself abruptly away from the wall and stalked over to stand at the viewport. Drawing in ragged, audible breaths, he finally fell to resting his elbows on the ledge. Clutched his head in his hands and stood there in silence. Shaking with barely repressed anger.

At himself, she presumed.

Damn it. As kicked in the gut as she felt, she couldn't ignore how much agony he was in, too. In fact, she'd never seen him lose control like he just had in front of her. It was disturbing to witness, to say the least. And it was her fault, she had to admit. She'd been the one pushing him for more than he'd wanted to give. She'd known she wasn't going to like the answer, had known that whatever it was, it was causing him intense pain to confess to it. She'd just wanted him to feel something for her...anything. Apparently, he had. Not what she had wanted, though.

She should have been more specific with her wants.

She remained glad she was still sitting. Her first instinct had been to go to him. To put her hand on his shoulder and speak soothing words the way she always did when he was troubled – always used to – yet she knew he'd gotten up because he needed the space. The physical separation. If she was honest, so did she. She was almost glad that they had some distance between them and that they didn't have to look at each other just yet.

She did let him have a minute to get himself under control, but not too much of one.

"So..." she finally ventured, knowing he could still hear her. Dreading the silence and not wanting either one of them to wallow in it. "You hated me." The words were as acrid as the brandy had been on her tongue. They weren't words she'd ever thought she'd hear herself say. Not to the man standing across from her. Not ever. She let out a huff of mirthless sarcasm. "Well, I guess that's something," she tried.

He stiffened as she spoke, lifted his head a fraction, but he made no move to turn to her, made no attempt to reply. He couldn't. Not when he couldn't deny her words and not when he could do nothing to lessen the pain of those words for either one of them.

"Why…" She trailed off, trying to calm her racing thoughts and heartbeat. Trying to calm the unsteady tenor of her voice.

She'd been asking questions she wasn't prepared to hear the answers to all night. It hadn't gotten them anywhere good. He was past his limits, and she was pretty damn close to hers. Maybe she should let well enough alone…

If only it was in her to let this go.

The bottle of brandy caught her eye, and she instinctively leaned forward to reach for it but stopped herself.

She shouldn't. She was feeling the effects of the first two, at least a little. Empty stomach and whatnot. She really shouldn't… She swallowed and returned her gaze to him. He still wasn't looking at her, still had his head in his hands. That was when she noted that his hands were shaking like hers…and thought she saw blood on the knuckles of the hand she could see. Damn him. She winced again. Between the two of them, he'd taken a beating tonight, hadn't he?

The most considerate thing to do was probably to lay off this for tonight. To give them both a little time with the whole sordid thing. Time to come to terms with the hideous truths they'd unearthed thus far. Yet as she watched him…she reconsidered.

Maybe he needed this out. Even if she didn't need to hear it, didn't know if she wanted, could handle hearing it...maybe if she gave him a chance to explain himself, she'd discover that it wasn't as bad as it sounded. He was harder on himself than she or anyone else would ever be, wasn't the kind to give excuses for his actions. If there were any excuses for his actions, she slowly realized, she would have to be the one to draw them out. God, but she hoped there were mitigating excuses for what he'd just confessed to so bitterly.

She took another deep breath, willing away the constriction of her lungs and throat tightening at the mere idea of asking this question and only having her final hopes crushed for the effort. Determined, she started again, "Why did you want me to…"

Her voice cracked, breaking her resolve to continue…and infuriating her in the process.

Hell with it. Brandy first. The doctor could give her a detox hypo in the morning if she needed one, ensuring she was fit for duty, but if she had to ask it, this question was better posed after pouring than not. Risking a swift glance in his direction, she amended that to include both of them. He looked like he needed it as badly as she felt she did, that was for certain. Resolved, she planted a furiously shaking palm on the edge of the table, leaning her weight over the furniture to retrieve his discarded glass from the other side before falling back onto the edge of his couch. Steadied, at least physically, she slid her own glass over towards the bottle and next to his. Frowned, deeply, as she detachedly watched her own hands shakily attempting to uncork the stubbornly uncooperative bottle. It actually took a full minute to get her fingers to manage the simple task – during which her resolve to pouring it only increased exponentially. The lip of the bottle clinked nervously against the top of her glass, conspicuously piercing the heavy silence around them and making them both start a little at the sound. Still, she didn't stop until she'd poured small amounts of liquor into both glasses.

She was stalling, she knew it, and she didn't like it. She would not be beaten by this, damn it. Couldn't afford to let either one of them be.

Gathering her strength, she rose, sipping at her glass, and approached him. Placing the drink she'd poured him on the ledge beside him. He stiffened at her approach but said nothing. Just kept radiating tormented misery.

Blinking, she backed off a bit to let him breathe but remained standing on shaking legs. Clutching the glass in her hand like a lifeline, which were all too rare these days. "Why did you want me to suffer?" she asked calmly, the few minutes of silence having restored at least some semblance of her composure. "Why were you so angry with me?"

He shook his head, furiously agitated. "I don't know."

"Bull," she declared, just as calmly on the surface. Sipping at her drink. "You do know. And I need to know. You owe me that much, Chakotay," she pointed out. "Whether it hurts to say or to hear, I deserve to know."

Watching as he lifted his head fully, she actually thought he was going to refuse to tell her.

But then he nodded acknowledgment. "You're right," he croaked softly. Apparently defeated. "You do. I'll try to explain it to you as best I can." He took the drink from the ledge of the viewport, swallowed a bracing sip before managing, "Most of what was going through my mind this morning…was just completing the mission. That was where every thought I had centered. Teero had instilled an urgency about the obedience to his directives…whenever it is that he did what he did to our brains. But…" he trailed off, as if unsure of what he was saying.

"But?" she prompted. Unwilling to let him off the hook. Unable to.

"But…you kept cropping up in my thoughts, to the point where I noticed it through my focus on the mission. And I didn't like it," he added

She did like it, though. Again, as much as it hurt, it was something. "Why not?" she prodded. "Was it because a part of you was afraid that I could reach you, if you gave me the chance? Was that it?"

"I don't know," he had to demure. Staring straight ahead of him, as if searching the stars streaking by them for answers. "I can't say I was aware of being afraid that would happen." He frowned. "Indirectly…maybe."

"Meaning?"

He shrugged. "I told Tuvok I couldn't ignore what happened these past few years. Maybe that applied to me, too," he tried. He'd try anything to be able to justify what he'd done to her this morning. And he had to admit…despite his gut instinct being to reject the idea, at least this explanation for his inexplicable behavior even made the tiniest bit of sense. He clung to it, even as he clung to the glass in his hand. "It's possible that the reason I kept you in the brig, separated from me and never visited you…might have been due to that suspicion I had of myself."

"Are you saying that you did feel something when you looked at me? Is that a part of what really compelled you to keep me here?" She forced the eagerness back within her upon hearing it in her own voice.

He could see her reflection when he dared to glance at it. And he could see the idea alone gave her yet another morsel of hope. It ripped out an even bigger part of him to have to taint that hope. But she wasn't letting it go, and wouldn't, he knew, if he stood here for days trying to stonewall her.

He almost flinched to have to have to admit, "When I looked at you, I wasn't aware of feeling anything but anger. In my mind, you'd manipulated me and the rest of the Maquis into abandoning our true loyalties. In my mind…you and the rest of the Starfleet crew were the enemy. You especially."

That hurt like hell to hear, all right. She took it head on, kept her chin raised and her eyes on his reflection as he did hers. "So you felt nothing but hatred," she restated flatly. "That's what you're saying."

"I wasn't aware of feeling anything for you except resentment," he admitted. "No. But I still remembered feeling something for you, if that makes sense."

She thought about it. Nodded slowly. "I suppose it does." To her, it meant that whatever feelings they had had for each other…had vanished. Finally been extinguished under the weight of appearances.

It had been inevitable. She had no right to be so shocked, so crushed by it. She took another bracing sip of liquor. Then another. Never noticing that the burn of the liquor had long since faded into numbness.

"I still remembered everything we've been through together," his voice pulled her back from the hard edge of her consciousness – whether she wanted it to or not. "I knew how I'd felt until the morning Tuvok 'awakened me'. I kept being forced to acknowledge it, even if only in the back of my mind. When I felt only anger towards you now, I had to reconcile it with the past, and the way I'd felt about you then. And I thought…" Here he paused, the very notion of what he remembered feeling towards her…what he remembered so easily convincing himself of…unpalatable. Toxically so.

"What?" she demanded calmly. "You thought what?"

He gritted his teeth, forcing out, "I think the only way I could reconcile the conflict was by deciding that you'd manipulated me all those years and I hadn't seen it." He blanched, admitting, "In my mind…you had been no better than Seska. Worming your way into my affections. Toying with me. Making a fool out of me. In my mind…you became her. At least emotionally, and on some distant level," he confessed.

And that was the final slap in the face, really. The last she could handle. She actually staggered back a step before she could catch herself. Being compared, in any way, to that woman…

God. She was going to be sick.

He saw it, saw her hand come up to her mouth and her stagger back. Spun around and reached for her, trying to steady her. To explain, and to take back what he'd just unthinkingly said. "Kathryn," he started desperately, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't even have thought that, let alone–"

"Don't," she barked hoarsely. She shot out her free left arm, holding him at bay with her palm raised between them like a shield, even as she shifted so swiftly away from him he was surprised she didn't get tangled in her own legs retreating. "Just…don't," she repeated harshly.

She might as well have slapped him again, and he too took her vehement rejection head on, in the face.

It was his only option.

He stopped cold as she all but dared him to keep trying to approach her. After a few seconds' processing, he slowly raised his hands in surrender, fighting off his powerful instincts to keep moving forward. Carefully, he took a symbolic step back from her. "All right," he conceded softly. "I won't. I'm sorry," he whispered desolately. "I'm just…I'm sorry."

"So am I," she retorted bitterly, cautiously dropping her shaking hand to her side upon seeing that he wasn't going to press towards her anymore.

"What should I do, Kathryn?" he asked, riddled with guilt on so many levels he was surprised he was still upright, had enough of himself left to be able to stand. "What do you need from me?"

She could finally breathe again. Not easily…sure as hell not easily with the constriction around her chest. With the way her heart was beating and her hands and legs were once again shaking. Her head was swimming, and she set the drink down on the ledge beside his. Forced herself to make one last bid for something, anything she could possibly salvage here. "I just need to know what you feel for me now," she managed to whisper.

She swallowed. Feeling like her throat was made of sandpaper. Entirely unable to look at him. "Do you still feel that way? Angry at me? Do you still feel…manipulated into abandoning your loyalties?"

He didn't waste any time making her wait for his response. "No. No, Kathryn," he promised her fervently. "I don't feel any of that. None of it. Not since the minute Tuvok melded with me again and I was able to fight back Teero's influence."

She nodded, acknowledging that. So. While he no longer looked at her on the same level as Seska, apparently, that left…what, exactly?

It left nothing. Which was to be expected, had she had enough of a care to foresee this end for them in the beginning. In essence, they'd been acting as if they didn't care for each other as deeply as they did – had – so long, that without either of them consciously realizing it, it had become so. At least for him, it had.

And she had to swallow that whole, too.

Appearance was a bitch, she acknowledged bitterly.

And her limits had been well past reached. She needed to get back to her quarters, now, and curl up into a miserable, lifeless ball and try to sleep if she was to have any hope of being presentable tomorrow on the bridge.

They were done here. She was done. It was all she could take.

She framed her next statements with painstaking, painful care, "Clearly, we have a lot of work to do if we have even a chance of fixing this." She paused. Corrected softly, "If we have a chance of fixing us." Her hand was furiously kneading at the joint of her neck and shoulder. Probably as much to have something to focus on, to keep her upright as to ease the sharp pains there. And she was plain worn out. Had been before she'd walked through his door, had been forced into this soul-shredding conversation in the first place. "Tomorrow we can sort through the ashes of what's left of our friendship," she declared flatly. "See if there's anything salvageable of not. If not…we're still going to have to find a way to live with whatever we have left."

"Kathryn…" he started tentatively, taking a step to close the gap between them on instinct. "I don't think you quite got my meaning…"

"No. I do, Chakotay," she assured him curtly, all but cutting him off. "Believe me, I do. And I don't think there's anything more to say here tonight. I'm too damned tired to do anything more with it. What's done is done, and if there's no feeling between us anymore, we're both to blame." She shook her head. "But it can't be fixed in a single night. And you can't invent feelings that don't exist."

"Kathryn," he started again, a note of urgency in his voice as he continued to approach her. Trying to make her let him catch her eye.

She didn't look at him directly. This was over, had gone as far as it could. "Good night, Chakotay. And…get that hand looked at, will you?"

He glanced down, surprised at the condition of swollen and bloodied knuckles he hadn't even felt, and it was the excuse she'd needed to start moving by him. He lifted his head back up to find her a full step past him, heading for the door.

"Kathryn, wait a minute, would you?"

She kept walking. Two steps past him and closer to her goal, the only thing she could see, could focus on right now – and that was making it to the door before she collapsed under the weight of exhaustion, brandy, and pure grief –

"Damn it, Kathryn!"

She had no idea what happened. She only knew that in one moment she'd been on her way to the door, and the next, a frustrated growl had rung in her ears and she'd been grabbed, hauled around and pressed into the wall. That his mouth was descending on, crushing down against hers, silencing whatever angry, scathing protest she'd have made if she'd caught up yet with what was happening.

Frankly, she was so shocked that she stood there for a full, stiff minute even as he kissed her like his life depended on it.

Slowly, murkily, as if in a dream, it sunk in what was happening, what he'd just done. What he was doing. And her mind hazily began running through her list of options to stop this insanity.

She could knee him. That would stop this in a hurry if she could get the leverage, all right. Better yet…if ever he'd deserved a slap in the face, it was now…

Yet even by the time her conscious mind had realized it, processed it fully and began working through ways to stop it, it seemed far, far too late. His mouth was too insistent, melding with hers. His body flush against hers was too firm, too solid and warm. His too-hungrily seeking lips were too ardent, too right against hers, and they were unmistakably demanding some sort of a response from her. Any response.

She had no idea when she'd started returning the kiss, but before she knew it, all thought, rational or otherwise, had fled her. The rest of her responded instinctively, without permission, her lips and mouth seeming to have minds, souls of their own and acted of their own accord. She felt him press more firmly into her, felt his hands come up to frame her face, and in return, she only leaned up, into him. Losing herself in him and letting herself be consumed even as she tried to consume. Still he never let up.

Under such adamant persuasion, such ardent attention, eventually her lips naturally parted, inviting him in, and he wasted precious little time in taking advantage of it. At the first tentative touch of silken tongues, the flicker of desire his lips had been sparking erupted into full flames until an inferno of hunger, need, conflagrated inside of her. She wasn't aware of pressing herself into him, had no concept of the way her hands had come up to clutch compulsively at his powerful biceps, drawing him further into her. She didn't realize she was the one to deepen the kiss, to increase the level of contact. She didn't hear the low murmurs of wanton approval being pulled right out of her throat. All she knew was that the insistence of his response to hers was no act. The undeniable desire each of their bodies was recognizing in the other's. All she felt was desire, hot, raging and unleashed from its stolid constraints after so, so long. It was as if her body had been waiting for this all her life, even if it was only now sharing that revelation with her, and she was powerless to, unwilling to stop it.

Chests and hips brushed, strained against their counterparts. Aching to be touched. Hands slid slowly, inexorably toward more satisfying targets. Thighs tangled, intertwining with each other as lips melded and need built until it exploded into uncontrollable territory.

She only knew her soul was being stripped as bare as he'd laid his under the weight of their meshing bodies. Under the fervent, skilled dueling of his tongue teasing, seeking more contact with hers. Under the erotic mixing of air and warm, brandy-spiced breath. As his thumbs stroked her cheeks, his lips slanting over hers, his scent invading her senses, his body pressing more and more firmly into hers, against hers, she had the fleeting thought that if he tried to take her to bed right now, or hell, right here against the viewport, there was going to be no stuttering protest, no refusal on her part. No hesitation. She would break her own sacred rule and damn the morning after consequences just for the sake of not having to stop what they were–

His lips broke away from hers, his warm breath still mingling with hers as they both tried to catch their own, and her whole body ached with the simple loss of oral contact. She started to open her eyes, to see what had made him stop – and then she felt his breath washing over her cheeks, felt the gentle press of his lips to her forehead. The tip of her nose. Again to her mouth, but gently this time. To her chin and along her jawbone between the fingers holding her head in his hands. With each fluttering touch of his warm lips to her heated skin, her flesh came alive with sensation, with tingling exquisite pleasure that almost tickled with the lightness of the contact. Contact that radiated deliciously throughout her whole body, setting her nerve endings alive.

That was when she consciously realized the obvious passion he'd been kissing her with was tinged with something else. Something reverent and adoring. Something unmistakably primal and even more arousing, more dangerous than pure lust. Something infinitely more powerful. His lips were conveying not only desire, but unmistakably professing his lo– that word that she dared not apply to the two of them – and then she stilled completely. Her soul awakened from some deep slumber as she was reminded what it felt like to be cherished. To be wanted body and soul, wanted as much as she wanted. A great sigh of relief overtook her then, one that made her sag half against the wall, half against him, a sound too like a repressed sob echoing in her ears, though whether from her or from him, she didn't know.

He didn't hate her. Not now. And he felt a hell of a lot more than nothing for her, apparently. She knew in her heart that they were going to be all right, really knew it for the first time since this hellish morning, and that lifted half the leaden burden from around her shoulders immediately. She felt lighter, freer than she had in so long, and it was an agonizingly exquisite feeling. Almost as exquisite as the feel of his powerful, familiar body leaning into hers, keeping her from slumping to the floor.

She didn't realize that she was crying until she felt his lips pressing to each of her cheekbones, kissing at the salty moisture there. The gesture, the pressure of contact alone was transparent testimony. She suddenly, fleetingly felt abysmally stupid for ever having doubted him. Doubted them. And when she finally, slowly opened her eyes, languidly regarding him for the first time since their lips had touched, she was surprised to find his eyes already open. Watching her. Tears stained just under his eyelids, too. Without thinking, her hands came up to cup his face the way he was still holding hers. She let her thumbs slide over his cheeks, smoothing aside the evidence of his pain as he had kissed away hers.

He had felt what she had. Had shared her feelings throughout. And most important was the way that, looking deep into his eyes, still glazed with desire like hers were, she saw what she hadn't dared to hope she might see again. Ever. But it was there, right now. Through the pain and regret, behind the lingering self-loathing and misery…there was absolutely no mistaking the emotion that was shining through all of it. It was written in his deep, dark eyes, plain as a block of black text against stark white background.

And, opened, in a way that she hadn't been in six years now, she let herself show him what she felt, too. If only for one stolen, honest moment. It was worth the risk of what was left of her strength, her resolve that it ended here, to be able to observe in real time the weight that was lifted from his shoulders at her candid honesty. Not all of it – not by a long shot – but some of it.

Through everything. Through circumstance, through neglect and criminal negligence…what they felt for each other had endured.

"I'm sorry," he finally broke the silence between them after a time of drinking in the truth of her feelings for him. His hands fell from her face to her arms, still holding her close but not quite as close as initially. His forehead angled down to rest against hers as reality began to slowly trickle into the little bubbled world they'd created around the two of them. "I know I had no right to do that just now."

Unarguable.

"You should have slapped me again," he declared.

"The thought did cross my mind," she drawled.

He missed the decided sparkle in her eye as she said it. "You'd have been justified that time. But I just…couldn't let you leave thinking I don't…" He swallowed back the rest of the intended statement. Didn't say the word, didn't dare apply it to the two of them, either. Knew better. "I just needed you to know, Kathryn," he explained, begging her to understand his rash, unthinkable actions. He shrugged, at a loss for any further explanation other than, "And we didn't seem to be getting anywhere with words."

She chuckled at that, surprising herself as she felt him relax under her light response. "No," she wryly admitted up at him. Allowing, enjoying the lingering affection of having his forehead against hers. "We really weren't, were we?"

His answering, relieved chuckle reverberated against her mouth until he slid his head down to rest his face on her shoulder. "At least we know how we feel now," he dared mumble. "Unless I've been in a completely different room for the past five minutes without knowing it…there's no confusion about that."

She grinned. Nodded thoughtfully, even as she felt him force himself to let her go. As he stepped back from her and her body screamed for him across the increasing distance.

She took a shallow breath and stepped away from the wall. Looking at him seriously now. Sadly. "We still can't do anything about it. Certainly not any time soon. Not until we sort through…everything. And maybe not even then. You know my position of this, and I can't say it's changed. Even knowing for sure…" She gestured vaguely between them.

He didn't hesitate, if his eyes did flicker with disappointment and hers with answering regret. "And I respect that," he assured her calmly. "Even if you know I don't fully agree with it. I'm not going to use what just happened…to argue you into changing your mind. Certainly not any time soon. You don't have to worry about that."

The relief was a little too potent.

In that moment, she hated herself for what she wasn't able to do and sacrifice. Not at the potential risk of her commitment to and focus on the ship and crew. She regretted it, deeply. But it didn't change the circumstances. It didn't change her obligations. None of it changed her primary responsibility – or his.

"Thank you," she whispered genuinely through a throat raw with humbling levels of gratitude.

"I'm not sorry that you know how I feel about you…or that what just happened…" he cleared his throat, tugging at his ear and for lack of better phrasing settling on, "happened."

"Neither am I," she admitted softly. She wasn't sorry. Regretful, maybe, because she wasn't at liberty to act on those feelings beyond what had just happened in this room. At least not anytime soon. But sorry…no. She couldn't say that she was that.

"Good."

She was still shaking, she realized. But this time, at least, it was in a good way. This was going to be okay, she let herself accept, looking into his familiar eyes. And this time, she saw everything she should see. She let herself see. That was the first step toward repairing this, she decided. Not to repress things for the sake of appearances. Not to repress, or to deny what they felt. They might not be able to act on it…but acknowledging it…was something else entirely.

They'd just learned that the hard way, hadn't they?

"We still have a lot of work to do on us," she cautioned them both with the quiet statement. "Your friendship means more to me than I can express to you."

"And yours does to me," he returned earnestly.

"Good," she echoed with a faint smile. "Because I don't particularly like the person I seem to become when we neglect our friendship."

"Neither do I," he reflected bitterly. A reflection weighted with kilotons of bitter experience – as was hers.

She put her hand on his chest. Daring, with the emotion still coursing through their bodies from moments earlier, but natural, just the same. "It's going to take time to recover. We can't just bounce back from it overnight. But I think if we learned nothing else today…that was what we needed to take away from all this. That we can't neglect our friendship the way we have been and expect it to survive forever. It needs work. We can't take it for granted or we'll lose it."

"You're right." He nodded, speaking as softly and as seriously as she. "And I don't know about you…but I don't want us to lose what little we can have out here. I don't want us to let ourselves drift that far apart ever again."

"No. No more taking each other for granted, Chakotay. I can promise you that." Her eyes couldn't help but be drawn to his reflexively tightening right fist as she'd been speaking, and she offered a wry smile. Taking the distraction they needed to extricate themselves from this emotional undercurrent saturating the air between them, she tilted her head downward in indication. "Finally feeling that, are you?"

A shadow flickered across his expression. A deep one. "I'll live with it," he dismissed, conspicuously stilling his initially unconscious movements to ease the pain.

"No, you won't," she corrected imperiously. Locking eyes with him and amazing him with how swiftly the captain had slammed down her iron mask. "You're going to Sickbay. Now."

He intended to refuse anyway, she saw it before he so much as opened his mouth.

"Kathryn," he began.

"Did you not just hear me?" she cut him off deceptively mildly. Daring him to keep arguing.

She certainly couldn't believe it when he did.

"You really think that's a good message to be sending throughout the ship right now?" he had to press, darkly amused in spite of himself at the thought. "You leaving my quarters in the middle of the night…and three minutes later, me showing up in Sickbay with a broken hand? A hand I obviously broke striking…something?"

Oh. She blinked. Now that he mentioned it…

"Tuvok would take that well," Chakotay deadpanned.

"He'd probably come barging into my quarters to make sure I was all right, wouldn't he?" she groaned.

He snorted. "He'd probably have the doors beamed off just to avoid wasting time entering a security override."

Now that was going a little far…

"There's blood on your face," he explained, indicating her cheek when she raised a curious eyebrow. "I'm sorry." He glanced down at his hand again and grimaced. "Must have been when–"

"I know when," she assured him dryly, bringing a hand up to wipe away the smudge. She scrubbed with the back of her sleeve for a moment before tilting her face up to the dim light. "Did I get it?"

He nodded.

"Good." She dropped her hand to her side, thinking. "Well…Tuvok aside, I don't suppose that's the right message to send to the rest of the crew right now, either, is it? I can only imagine what they'd take from it," she grimaced.

"They have wilder imaginations than most children," he had to agree.

"And decidedly more prurient minds." She sighed, looking at him, then back down to his hand. Frowned. "This is a problem," she stated – unnecessarily, she was aware.

He shrugged. "Not really. I'll wait a while and then head for the holodeck. One of them should be unoccupied this time of night. I'll pull up the boxing simulation and tell the doctor I got injured blowing off some stea–" he broke off as her expression warned him a split second before his brain caught up with the implications of what he'd been about to say. "Oh. Right." He tugged his ear again, looking at his feet. "Bad idea," he muttered.

"At least we're ruling them out early," she quipped dryly.

He took a breath. Regrouped. "I'll tell him…the coma left me too well-rested to fall asleep, and I was hoping to tire myself out?" he formulated slowly. Looking to her for a second opinion of how believable that version of events would be.

"Better," she approved. "Not exactly Shakespeare, but it'll work." She paused as it occurred to her, "Someone's bound to see you on the way to the holodeck. They'll notice your hand is already injured…"

"I'll wear my boxing gloves."

She hummed approval, pointing appreciatively in his direction. "You're good, Commander. I'll give you that."

"I've been hiding things for a very long time, Kathryn," he reminded her gently.

Well, yes. He had a hell of a point there, didn't he?

She sighed again, her eyes softening noticeably along with her voice. "Make sure you get something to help you sleep if you don't think you'll be able? I don't particularly like the idea of you stewing all night over what happened. And I know you will."

"I'll be fine," he dismissed. She frowned but didn't press him. They both still had a lot to think about, and as reassuring as five minutes ago had been, not even that could erase all that had happened. The scare both had received.

"Will you?" he asked quietly, pulling her from her sobering thoughts. "Be able to sleep, I mean?"

"What? Oh…God, yes," she returned without hesitation, stifling a yawn at the same moment. "But you might have to comm. me at 0730 if I don't show up for breakfast. It'll be a good bet that I've slept through the alarm."

"Take the day off tomorrow," he tried. Concerned, because she did look utterly exhausted, and he knew that she was. "Tuvok and I can handle–"

"Not tomorrow," she shut him down, a half smile for his effort softening the steel of the reply. "Definitely not tomorrow, Chakotay. But thank you for the offer."

The silence that fell over them stretched on indefinitely. Neither one of them really knew how to end this, it seemed.

"Then…we know where we stand?" she ventured awkwardly. Taking a step in the direction of the door.

"For now," he conditioned, his eyes burning into her. "But I reserve the right to untable the discussion at some point in the future."

She paused. Half-grinned at him. "'Untable'? Is that even a word?"

"Yes," he replied, nodding emphasis without missing a beat. "Because I just invented it."

And he looked too proud of himself to take it away from him, she decided. It was rather endearing, too. "Well." She took another step back, clearing her throat. "Untable it is – good night, Commander."

"Good night, Captain."

She inclined her head at him before moving towards the doors. She'd almost reached the point of triggering them to open...

"Captain. One last thing."

She halted. Was he never going to let her leave? She got the distinct impression he was doing it on purpose, but she waited nonetheless, curious.

He could see the way she held her breath and waited for him to speak as he requested, "Do me one favor from now on."

"Yes?" She still didn't turn.

"The next time you're unsure of how I feel about you…don't rely on appearances again. You know what they say about them."

"Appearances?" she ventured, a frown forming on her face as she was forced to turn to him at risk of making the moment even more awkward. She searched his expression, trying to find whatever saying he could be referring to. Lit on it, at last. "Oh." Appearances. Looks. She had to smile. "Well, it's true. They can be, can't they?" she admitted ruefully.

"Yes," he nodded emphatically. "So don't rely on them. I don't care how you think I'm looking at you – or not looking at you. Come to me and ask." His gaze slid pointedly over to the wall beside the viewport as he promised, "Because I'll be more than happy to show you again…if you really need me to. Deal?"

He could see her redden. He could also see her annoyance at the fact that she had. But she nodded. Releasing the breath she'd been holding and offering him that lop-sided grin he loved. "Deal, Commander," she confirmed as she moved to leave, then softly repeated over her shoulder, "Goodnight, Chakotay."

The doors slid to a close behind her, and he was alone.

But he could still feel her presence. Saturating the room. Saturating him. He moved to the doors, but not directly in front of them enough to trigger the door-opening mechanism. Absently, he placed his hand against the cool door. Imagined he could feel the warmth of her through it, somehow. As if she was still standing there on the other side of it.

"Sleep well, Kathryn," he whispered into the darkness.