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.