Disclaimer: I don't own them.

Notes: For Libby Kim in the VAMB Secret Summer exchange, who requested: "Hot, steamy J/C story based on the end of Equinox and KJ's lack of apology to Chak and Noah." So here's that, stretched across the beginning half of season six through the episode "One Small Step", in which Chakotay's behavior has always faintly bothered me. It always seemed like there was deep rooted resentment that I never found an explanation for.

Thanks a million to Cheshire for the thousand times reading/editing the many different versions of this. The best, she still is.

The Road Ahead

"I'll bring the croutons," she said.

With the tension pulling everyone's insides apart, it had taken me a second. Frankly, I had no idea where we stood. It wasn't inexcusable that I wasn't immediately sure there'd be a deeper meaning. I searched her guarded expression, saw the depths only I would ever see across the rippling surface, and then I understood. Croutons. For my salad. She was going to bring the complementing ingredient to my dish. Symbol. I'd gotten it. I even smiled again, because I don't think it's a stretch to say I'm a half decent man, and my father taught me never to rub things in. It's pointless and cruel. He was never a fan of coping mechanisms employed at the expense of another person, and neither am I.

Even if I was, that was neither the time nor the place for it. The cold look in her eyes that had been haunting me since the moment I'd pulled Noah Lessing out of that cargo bay was nowhere in sight, and I didn't want to do anything that would inspire it to come back again.

There was a color in her face when she told me, more or less, that I'd been right to challenge her.

"The thought had occurred to me." I hadn't realized how heavy the weight of that guilt was until I admitted it. And maybe I missed something key in her reaction because I was so focused on the relief of confession as I told her, "But that would have been crossing the line."

As far as I was concerned, the whole thing was done with those admissions.

She saw it first, hidden in a pile of debris. It was a full second before I had an idea what had caught her eye so sharply, but that she was disturbed by her find registered almost instantly. The pallor of her face suddenly reminded me of weak milk, and I didn't like it. I didn't like seeing her that shaken, and I certainly didn't want the crew seeing it.

I took the plaque in my larger hands, and we put it back up together. Technically, I put it up, but even in the heels, she's a head shorter, and who physically placed it wasn't the point. It was all symbol; the bridge was crawling with it. On symbolic gestures, we would begin rebuilding from the wreckage; so together, we put the plaque back up where it belonged. It was resolved. Over.

We moved on.

She came to the potluck empty-handed. No croutons. The gaping space on the table I'd made sure Neelix left for her bowl went glaringly unfilled, and my stomach dropped for no real good reason. When I finally questioned her on the conspicuous lack of texture in the salad I'd kept simple, expecting her enhancing ingredient, she flushed a pale shade of the roses I sometimes bring her, admitting she'd forgotten all about it. She looked sorry enough, which should have warded off the prickle of...something unpleasant…needling me in my stomach. But we were sandwiched inside a thick crowd of already-tipsy crew members. There was no room for my reaction. Around us, laughter broke out, making any response from me inaudible unless I wanted to yell it over their too-exuberant-to-be-entirely-believable teasing. I couldn't ignore that, forced or not, some of that suffocating tension still hanging over the ship was noticeably thinned. Which immediately put things into perspective.

The croutons weren't the important thing. It was the meaning behind them. She forgot to physically replicate and bring them. So what? It didn't mean she wasn't sorry or wasn't interested in fixing things between us. She just forgot. It happened. People far less busy than she is got wrapped up in other things all the time. And it was funny to see her backpedaling, trying to come up with an excuse for forgetting. Of course the more she tried to explain herself, the more interest it drew, and knowing her, she realized that and used it to lighten the mood even further. It was hard to hold it against her when the crew needed the outlet so desperately. Paris even got in a few old age jokes and lived to repeat them for others' benefit – less accurately with each telling – until B'Elanna slipped the ale out of his hand and I signed to Ashmore behind the oddly-present tiki bar in the corner of Sandrine's that it was about time for the party to transition into synthehol.

I didn't know if I should have been surprised that the Equinox crewmembers were nowhere in sight. I did know that Tuvok knew exactly where they were, wherever that was. I also knew that Noah Lessing's absence was a marked relief to me, and I didn't much like knowing it. It would be a long time before I could unsee the look of fear in his eyes, and I wasn't near ready to chance seeing it again.

We never spoke later. I hung around, waiting, thinking enough time had passed that she might want to, but she only slipped by me with a half-swallowed "good night" before slinking out the doors to retire, unnoticed by the rest of the crew. I watched her go, downing the rest of the real ale I'd been cradling as her outline disappeared into a joining of grey slabs. Setting my glass behind me on the table, I guessed we didn't need to hash anything out that night, anyway – as long as she was okay. She seemed to be. More or less.

It was done. There'd be time to tie up the loose ends later. Maybe tomorrow, I thought.

The next days turned over with no regard to any misgivings lingering under the surface in any of us, and I had to put my focus into making sure ship's repairs were progressing according to schedule. I also had to begin assessing our newest crewmembers, ready to face them or not. Marla Gilmore, I felt I had a handle on, but the others I knew little about. Carefully, I began engaging them in conversation whenever I happened by them, making sure they knew what was expected of them and that they would be treated fairly by the rest of the crew, whether they found it easy to make new friends here or not. That would take time, I counseled the two who gave any indication of caring how they were perceived by the Voyager crew. The other two, I only watched, giving them their space and time to reflect. For now, I told myself.

They featured in my dreams. All five of them made appearances, but Lessing was the worst. Noah's huge, dark eyes, limpid with paralyzing terror. Always looming over me. Sometimes I was running alongside him from the unseen, snarling beast chasing behind us, and sometimes, I was the one hunting him. I liked those dreams least of all. Waking from them guaranteed a morning without breakfast, until the vivid imagery faded, the shaking subsided, and I could chance eating. But I kept at it. I didn't let the nightmares or my insane insecurities keep me from my duties.

I never saw her there, down on the lower decks where she'd shut the fallen five away. She never asked about them, never acknowledged reference to them in my many daily reports. Not once since the Equinox Five had joined Voyager did I hear mention of her going near that section of the ship. At first, I assumed she'd handled it early on, and that I'd missed it. But something in her affect, something avoidant she was giving off settled into me, and I started to wonder. Had she? How could she not have? The Kathryn I knew wouldn't be able to live with that kind of unresolved tension. Could she?

It didn't take long for the questions to multiply. Had she ever really moved on? Or was she still stuck in that moment we were doing our best to run away from and sweep under the carpets I spent weeks cleaning after the incident that started this?

Before I realized it, I found myself avoiding looking into her eyes, and I couldn't acknowledge that it was because I was afraid I'd see that look in it again: the one that showed nothing but contempt for what she saw when she looked at me. Contempt, and a twinge of hatred. But I was being irrational. Lack of sleep, overwork. The usual. My growing fears were groundless paranoia for all I knew, but that didn't mean I could shake them off so easily.

And then one day, I worked up the courage to ask Lessing in passing if he'd seen the captain lately. The man has expressive eyes, I'd noted only in that moment; the look on Noah's face was answer enough.

No, I realized slowly, a sinking sensation deep in my gut with that certain suspicion confirmed. Of course not. Why would she condescend to speak to him again? She'd only almost killed him.

Maybe she needs more time. Probably, that's all it is, I told myself uneasily.

She just needed time.

We didn't end up with overlapping bridge shifts for a while. Tuvok requesting a few weeks of lighter bridge duty to implement security training with his teams left fewer command members available to cover a twenty-four hour shift. But in the gaps in my duties, between the changing shifts I eventually puzzled together, I watched her closely as she sailed across the bridge to her chair, or back to her ready room, searching for the signs that there were heavier things on her mind. I found none. Her expressions were smooth as finely-blown glass. Nothing in her words or demeanor hinted at any internal conflict. She made direct eye contact with anyone who spoke to her, whenever she had to, absolute confidence in her dealings with all of us.

The deckplates under my boots stopped feeling so solid without my noticing it. I still couldn't unsee the look in Noah Lessing's eyes, no matter how many times I forced myself to look at them. I avoided looking in Kathryn's.

I wished I could avoid the morphing nightmares. That proved more difficult. A few days would pass without an episode, until I thought I was past it, and then one would hit and I woke shaking in cold sweats.

We dealt with Seven's miniature collective showing up. Partly because it's my job, and partly because I know Seven is important to Kathryn, I devoted time counseling her through the jarring revelation that she was the one who'd caused the abnormal link between the three former drones. And I found myself surprised as I sat with her, at just how much she was growing. There are times when individual crewmembers get lost in the sea of the whole, swept away in a never-ending torrent of duty rosters, replicator rations and petty gripes. It struck me only in that moment how Seven might have been one of those individuals on my end. I couldn't find more than a twinge of fault in myself for that. Usually, Kathryn and the doctor handled her.

I had to admit she seemed to be grateful for our talk, although I couldn't help wondering where exactly Kathryn was during all of this. Checking into her schedule showed her tied up in one trade proposal after another while we hosted dozens of alien species aboard ship, but she could just as easily have delegated some of that responsibility to me. I dropped by the ready room after my talk with Seven, filling Kathryn in on the situation while she only twice glanced up from the stack of reports she was perusing. When I offered a downplayed version about my role as advisor in passing, she did stop, confirming she'd actually heard at least every fifth word out of my mouth. My reward was a slow, soft smile, and it was suddenly all I needed. I work for peanuts, but then, I always have.

But that's not exactly fair. We all did, including her. And there was nothing wrong between us, that smile showed. Nothing worth mentioning.

We were slapped up against B'Elanna's journey to the Barge of the Dead. That one had more than one member of the crew worried. Kathryn stepped in and took charge once it had gotten serious –and with good reason. Emotionally, B'Elanna has been through hell in the past year, and seeing the circles under her eyes again had been… It was bad for all of us. She's okay, though. That's what matters.

It was inconsequential that I was the one to push for letting B'Elanna follow her newfound spirituality, hoping it would lead her to some semblance of inner peace. Kathryn didn't see it that way at first. Not by a long shot. When push came to shove, it suddenly hadn't seemed important that Kathryn herself had been dead set against it; she was the one standing there when B'Elanna woke up, after all. I think it was a bonding moment for them, and that was a long time in coming. Considering the ends, it was okay that Kathryn was the benevolent leader who'd finally relented and "allowed" her chief engineer to undergo the dangerous experience. It didn't matter how I felt, deep down, about how far the captain's authority in the matter had extended to begin with.

I never did get to continue that discussion with Kathryn. Before we had time to take much more than a breath, the doctor's malfunctioning daydreams threw us into a hierarchical mess with a threat we hadn't even detected stalking us on the periphery. Fortunately, the doctor's quick wit saved us in the end. I have to smile and duck my head, remembering Tuvok's disbelief when I nodded ascent for the "activation sequence". I have a feeling a certain photonic canon made a starring role in more than one log that night. She mentioned something in passing about wanting to make a point of looking into his ECH prototype and I made a note to put someone on it eventually.

Between the two of us, things were cordial but just…off. Not quite right. Before that stretch, I couldn't remember the last time that hearing her walk onto the bridge behind me hadn't lightened any mood I was in. By then, it was doing the opposite. I could feel my shoulders tightening at the scent of her herbal shampoo coming into range, even before she'd stride so deliberately into the center of the room, her hand caressing the railing with absolute ownership of the command center and everything and anyone in it.

By then I couldn't deny that I was harboring a few misgivings about recent history, and I wondered if we should talk about it, just to smooth over any rough edges that might be gathering dust in the jagged threads. I'd almost worked up the courage to pull her aside and suggest a long overdue, quiet working dinner and then…

Who else but Tom Paris? The ship from hell had taken over his brain: what little of it I was convinced existed sometimes.

The galling part of the entire experience was how much Tom's odd behavior had rankled me. There's no denying there are parts of me that have warmed to the man he's become, or that those parts are buried less deep than I'd like. But there are moments, despite how far we've come, that I wonder if Paris would have anything left in him if you took away his drive to pilot and to chase women. That ship had had his number, all right. Tom is Kathryn's personal reclamation project, even if she'd been studiously ignoring that fact lately, and so his odd behavior had to be tracked and dealt with, taken seriously. Not seriously enough to reprimand him for his inappropriate behavior of course – that only happens when he stands up for something he believes in. Just seriously enough to warrant a few brain scans if he kept it up. I remember thinking I may never understand Kathryn's criteria for meting out consequences for inappropriate actions, but I saw something was off with Tom before she did. Not quite soon enough, because we almost lost him to that sentient ship. I don't want to imagine what Kathryn's reaction would have been if that had happened and if any oversight on my part had let Tom Paris slip through the cracks. We saved him, barely, only to lose…

Tuvok. The one she hadn't confined to quarters. If I had been meaning to find some way to broach Equinox to her, or more recent issues, that sure as hell wasn't the time. The only moments I saw her fully focused on anything while Tuvok's brain was half-scrambled was in the heat of a crisis on the bridge. That's how much the Vulcan means to her. Still, we were fine. Nothing was interfering with our working relationship. It was weeks before we had a way to restore Tuvok. I went personally to the conference room to inform her when the procedure was over.

She stepped outside, wearing the lack of quality sleep in her tightened shoulders and under her eyes. When she locked her searching blue eyes on my face, she spoke one terse word:


I wasn't jealous of the emotion in her voice, or of the fact that her entire focus was in that one name. Even if I had been, the underlying tremor in the question betrayed a vulnerability that made me stop and really look at her. It was Kathryn. The one I'd known for five plus years. It was her and she was afraid for someone she cared about.

In that still-shot moment, I would have had to have been a much worse man than my father raised me to be not to quickly assure her, "Back to his old self. Perfectly logical and 'unable to understand' why half the ship is trying to get in to see him."

I do an awful Tuvok impression, but it usually at least warrants a smile. The one I got was shallow, too full of relief to lift the corners of her mouth by much. I saw the hesitation, the dart of her eyes back to the closed conference room door, and I knew what she wanted to say – what she wouldn't ask. All of which could only mean that we were going to be fine if I could still read her that well, I decided. The smallest of smiles came easily, for me.

"I'll stall the Kesat delegates," I said, so she didn't have to ask.

The Kesat were less than thrilled that we'd purged the ability to detect the elusive Ba'Neth from our computers. Offering to step in for her and absorb the heated clamoring of the visiting Kesat officials was no small favor, but it was the least I would do for her.

Her brows knitting almost together in the middle of her forehead, she turned damned near pleading eyes to me. "I only need ten minutes."

"An engineering issue requires your attention. You'll be back shortly." If it wasn't the most natural enthusiasm I'd ever mustered, I assumed I could be forgiven for that.

The grin that lights an entire starship relieved an unspoken burden from my shoulders. Warmth spread from her skin into the cloth over my arm as she squeezed my bicep and murmured a sincere, "Thank you. I'll be right back."

Peanuts. I do work for them. But there was new heat spreading through every cell in my body at her expressive gratitude, and it was a relieving sensation.

She brushed by me in the corridor, her shoulder skimming my chest, and I froze stiff, that budding warmth squeezed out of my body in one hideous instant. Because I was thrown back outside that cargo bay, my heart pounding, trying to claw its way out of my chest.

She didn't notice.

I swallowed hard, watching her go. Having no idea why it was so grating, this many weeks later, I shook it off and pulled myself forcefully back into the present. With a throat so dry it hurt, I stepped into the conference room with a hollow diplomatic smile, putting it out of my mind. Because we were all right. We were always all right, no matter what one of us ever did to the other. We were both good people, Starfleet officers – I didn't still flinch to think of myself that way – and at the end of the day, we were dedicated to the same cause. If the road ahead of us looked foggier than it ever had before, that was only because no man could know the future. It was hard to hold up in perfect hope when we almost lost people to the harshness of this alien quadrant on a semi-daily basis.

Any rift between us was temporary, no one was holding any childish grudges, and we were fine. We truly were. We would have been.

Until I dreamed that she came to me and apologized. The only real problem with that, I'm convinced looking back on it, was that it felt. So. Real.

She appeared in my bedroom – which should have been the first hint, come to think of it – draped in satiny blue. Hair soft and waving and long, she desperately apologized for discarding me like used reclamator waste. Her hands washing over my bare chest like silk, she thanked me profusely for standing behind her all these years that we've weathered the threat of death and destruction at every turn together, promising that she would never scare me so badly by crossing that line again, and I believed her. She openly confessed how much she really did need me, want me by her side, and I believed that too, even if it was so entirely out of character for her that it would have been laughable in waking moments.

I believed it, damn it. I believed it, I believed her, and I woke up sweaty and disturbed in ways she hadn't been able to do to me in a damned long time. I'm still disgusted about being unable to get back to sleep without finishing off what a cold shower had barely lessened by half. I have no idea what to do with the fact that the image of her on her knees in front of me, my fist tangled in her long, waving hair is what…

Spirits of my ancestors, it was ridiculous, the sideshow that dream would have been if it had actually happened. If there was even a kernel of the Kathryn I've been living with all these years in the fabricated dream version that had draped herself all over me like a needy blanket, it was buried so deep that my fantasy hadn't bothered to include it.

Rationally, I understand the difference between what my subconscious creation felt I was owed and what I really am owed. At first it's not difficult to hold those things separate. I spend no time wondering why just looking at her on the bridge and thinking of this dream woman shoots laser anger through my insides; it's enough to know that it's an entirely irrational reaction to be able to dismiss it. Kathryn's no telepath. She can't beam images or thoughts into my mind. I'm sure the doctor would've mentioned that little anomaly at some point over the past few years if she could. Mostly sure. Fairly sure.

Reasonably certain.

The dream was not her fault, and I know that in my waking moments.

The images won't fade, and neither does the dream. I have it the next night. It skips a night, and then it's back the next. And the next. Over and over again, she comes to my bed, waking me from a dream within a dream, apologizing, touching, stroking, doing more, until it bleeds into bleary-eyed waking moments, until I grow just a hair less secure about what's real between us and what's not. Her, brushing past my chest, midnight eyes burning contempt for some imaginary weakness of humanity in me, and her, sorry for straying so far out of character and sinking into the opposite extreme, stroking my chest, sliding to her knees beside my bed, hair tousled and tangling in my curling fingers …

My first instincts are to try and purge the fantasy from my obviously overactive libido. It's possible that's a fundamental mistake I didn't foresee. Because unlike most sexual fantasies, the more I give into it, the worse it gets. The more I release the need while locked in the holodeck, pretending to box, or shut in the shower with a hand that's getting as much practice as it had when I was a gangly, horny teenager, the more pervasive it becomes. Before I have time to see it, the inane fantasy takes root in my reality. I never fully realize it's choking out an external world growing smaller with every passing day.

A man can only take so much persistent torture when it bleeds over into his disjointed dreams. It's as if I blinked for some sticking instant in time, and now alien thoughts are haunting me, hunting me at every turn around every half-empty corridor she's walking down. It's not right, these dreams tell me. Not just the version of her in my dreams, but her, in the waking world. She's not right. She's changed. She crossed a line that can't be uncrossed, and if she can't see it, and try to undo it, she might do it again at any time. She might keep doing it. I may never get her back.

It's nothing less than absurd that months later, I still feel her, brushing by me in that corridor outside the cargo bay. I can't exactly blame her for this. But I shouldn't still be seeing her blue eyes burning midnight with disgust. It's at odds with the competing fantasy: her, inside my quarters, trailing her hands down my chest as she slides so slowly down my body.

It is her fault that I still have to work to look Noah Lessing in the eye, that his eyes haunt me whenever hers aren't.

I realize it might be easier to shake all of this if I could talk to someone about my concerns, maybe especially the dreams that are unearthing them, but who am I supposed to go to about this? B'Elanna? The doctor? I'd lose something breakable or end up as one of the doctor's test subjects. Better yet, Tuvok? Alone in my office, I laugh tersely, imagining the look on the Vulcan's normally expressionless face. Any veiled story I told to conceal the object of my distress would be seen through in a warp core pulse. It's not an option.

My spirit guide is absolutely silent. She seems to think this is something I need to work through on my own, and I resent that, too.

If I had the benefit of a talkative guide, it wouldn't be so bad. To be honest, I never had much luck with her until I came to Voyager. In trying to introduce B'Elanna to her guide, I'd been hoping to jump start my weak connection with mine. At that point, all I knew of my guide was that she existed, and I knew what form she preferred from seeing her loping around in the distance in my dreams. Yet I had no relationship with the wandering spirit I wanted to learn to rely on, as my father had relied on his. All I'd netted from that B'Elanna experience was an angry outburst from B'Elanna (is there any other kind?) and a sputter of connection with my guide that fizzled to the frustration of silence.

Voyager, for some reason, was different. After trying again with Kathryn, my relationship with my spirit guide blossomed, and that connection has sustained me for five years now – only to fall short again in recent months. I miss the benefit of her calming lupine influence, but the hazy connection between my spirituality and my relationship with Kathryn doesn't help me sort out anything in this mess, and I don't really want to think about it. Instead, it becomes one more thing to brood about.

I try to distract myself by watching B'Elanna, Tuvok, the doctor and Seven. Making sure they're all right, and keeping tabs on the integrating Equinox crew becomes my priority. It works, to an extent. I think it works. It's just the damned dreams that are driving me crazy – as crazy, I'm starting to fear, as my grandfather was. Working side by side with Kathryn when I can barely look at her without remembering her dream double is hard. And fighting the irrational anger at her for a dream I make damned sure she doesn't even suspect I'm having about her is hard. It doesn't help that the simple olive branch she's owed Lessing for months now seems to be nowhere in her list of priorities to extend. I watch him roaming the decks with those expressive dark eyes of his, only connected to the people he has to work with by the block of blue color on his uniform. The Five sit alone or together in the messhall, with only the likes of Tom Paris or Meghan Delaney, who has a good heart, trying to engage them in conversation. Even they can't work miracles, and the Five know exactly where they stand. The fact that their past actions arguably makes their isolation earned and that they seem to accept that – somehow, that only makes it worse.

She could do more to help them integrate. It wouldn't kill her to stop by and show she knows they're there, at the very least. No one has to sing their praises or invite them to any private holodeck romps in Tahoe just yet. No one's asking the captain to invite them to dinner or to select them as officer of the month. But maybe the apology Lessing is owed would start the healing within himself and let him start building connections to the Voyager crew. Because if they can't integrate eventually, it's going to undermine everything Kathryn and I have worked to build together on this ship. And yet, to look at her, she's oblivious to all of it. I'm not even sure I can say she cares anymore.

The days tick by with agonizing speed and incredible slowness. Kathryn never approaches the lower decks, and she comes nowhere near my quarters. And when I realize I'm spending my evenings half waiting to see if she'll condescend to visit the bowels of her own ship or waiting for her chime at my door, that I can't sleep right because I'm expecting some fantasy image of her that's never coming, I've had just about enough of this. All of it.

I head to her quarters to confront her about things she needs to be confronted on – namely Noah Lessing – and the ship jolts and bucks like a prized stallion beneath me. The deck decides it wants to be at my knees instead of at my feet, I'm launched into the nearby bulkhead, nearly miss breaking my left arm, and we're both called to the bridge because, apparently, we've been sucked into a strange corridor of subspace.

The Vaaduar. I spend the next weeks dealing with them as we're all almost killed for the thousandth time in this spirit-forsaken quadrant. When it's over, we've lost the ability to use the corridors that could have brought us so much closer to home so quickly. While I watch on screen, a fleet of Vaaduar ships escape into the inky blankness of space, and the unsettled coil of my intestines gains another permanent kink.

Noah Lessing's expressive eyes haunt me. At times, I can almost see the fear in them, the way I could when I went back for him that day. Where else I've seen that look, I can't quite pinpoint, but dark things stir in me when I think about it – even darker than those that are growing in my dreams, and I avoid thinking about it wherever possible. And I've lost the will to approach Kathryn. She seems too wrapped up in ship's business lately, taken with some project she and B'Elanna are working on in their spare time. From glances at the calculations on her screen as she passes me on the bridge with various PADDs in hand, it's some radical way to boost our engine efficiency, but neither woman is giving out any details before they have an idea that they can make it work. It eats up every spare second of their time, leaving even Tom out in the cold until they either make a breakthrough or set the idea aside. Speaking of Tom lately, I spy him in the halls late at night, roaming around in search of Harry or someone else to shoot a game of pool or play savior of the universe, and he looks okay, considering. That at least is a faint relief.

I rarely spot Kathryn. She never comes to my quarters for dinner, or anything else. Except at night, when I let myself get exhausted enough to fall into REM sleep. Then she clings to me, I wake sweaty and shaking and the anger has settled into me a long time ago.

It's been a long time since I've known an anger this deep. Not knowing why it's there only leads me to deny it.

It only seems to get worse when I do catch a fleeting glimpse of her. She smiles placidly at me on the bridge, entirely ignorant of the separate life of resentment her image has been seeding. Seemingly ignorant of how much she's changed, and how those changes aren't for the better.

Lately when I look at her, trying to see past the jumble of images writhing together in my mind, I begin to wonder if I'm so sure of where Voyager is heading after all. I can't say with any conviction whether any of this is worth it, or if we're all deluding ourselves out here, thinking we'll make it back home and not have to pay a price that is too horrific to bear. The dreams, thank the sky spirits, start to fade out for a few days. With them goes something else I can't quite pinpoint, some will to fight against apathy until–

We discover the graviton ellipse. Somehow in hell, we've discovered that the Ares Four is in that thing. For the first time in a long time, I'm passionate about something going on around me. But while I'm pontificating to Seven in the shuttle, I'm paying far less attention to my words than I should be. It's possible I'm not really hearing myself while talking so casually about how much I've sacrificed out here to assume the role of first officer – and I have, whether I walk around complaining about it or not. I probably miss the raised ocular implant shooting sidelong glances at me, and I can't say I'd care if I caught them.

This. This is what I want to be doing. Making a difference. Making history. Or at the very least, spending quality time studying a rare piece of it.

I go through the motions of protocol, engrossed in this unprecedented opportunity to connect with a link from our human past. Reveling isn't too strong a word to apply to exploring artifacts no living being has seen in centuries. It's refreshing that my mind isn't on her for once. Hell, it's liberating. Out here in this eerily glowing expanse that is the inside of the ellipse, I'm my own commander and she's not filling space in my head. I answer to myself; my will is the only one that matters. I'm free to do and say and believe whatever the hell I want. I'll even admit to some level of glee when I realize bringing this module back to Voyager will give me something to focus on, something besides her, for months to come.

I see an end to this. This module could be my salvation, in more ways than one.

And then she orders me to leave the module behind. Kathryn orders me to drop the Ares Four and to clear the ellipse's pull before the dark matter asteroid hits and, inside my strained bones and tissues, something intangible gives. The blackest cloud of determination settles over me, sucking the last obedient molecules of out of my body in a upswept wind funnel of fury.

No. She's not taking this away from me, from all of us. I won't let her. Paris's sidelong glances of reproach don't come close to stopping me from repeating the order to hold on to that module. It won't stop me believing I can pull this off despite their pessimism. Deep within, I know that I can do this, and after years of devoting myself to Voyager and its crew, frankly, I think I'm owed nothing less than the opportunity to try.

It blows up in my face – and the damnable part of it all is that I wake up feeling guilty to a petulant former drone I hadn't wanted on board to begin with but one I'm starting to like in spite of myself. And I'm wrong, as Seven tells me, bluntly and repeatedly. She's been hanging out with Kathryn, all right. Somehow, I'm the one who's wrong. Always. It's like one of those absurd mono-chromatic comedies Tom's always watching on that stupid television of his.

We make it back in one piece. I miss the funeral service, but Seven says a few touching words and her experience is enough to distract Kathryn, I guess, because despite the smooth patch of space we've hit, she still doesn't find the time to check in on the Equinox crew or to speak with Noah Lessing. While I recover from my injuries in Sickbay with limited computer access, this is what sticks with me.

Is it so out of the realm of reality for her to just say she's sorry? I'm past expecting an apology for myself, especially after what I just did back in the ellipse. She'll hold that over my head for months. But Noah Lessing? Doesn't she owe him at least that much, considering she'd tried to kill the man? How does she expect him to move on or try and blend himself into her crew until she shows him that her behavior was an aberration of character and not the norm?

I feel twisted and pulled in so many directions. Watching the quiet Equinox Five struggle to find a place among a crew that still resents them, myself included, though it's part of my job not to show it. Hearing Seven, seeing Kathryn. Dreaming that she's apologizing and watching her walk around, perfectly entitled to do the opposite and continue to act like nothing ever happened. Seeing her eyes boring into me as if I'm the one who's wrong as she brushes against my chest, sliding past me, walking away from me outside of Sickbay, and I.