If I thought my dreams were bad before, I was a deluded fool. Now, scattered somewhere between unseen attacking aliens, her brushing by me and Lessing's face, I've got real erotic images of the woman I'm supposed to be serving as an objective executive officer bleeding into the edges of my awareness. All the time.

How I thought this would solve anything remains beyond me. How she thought it might, I can't even guess. For the first time in a long time, I have a concrete reason to be angry with her – one I'm aware of and can point to as unequivocally wrong on her part. She had no right to take that discussion where she took it, no matter how defensive my approach had made her. Touching me at all in that way, was out of line. But I won't tell her that. Unless she pushes me.

We should have stopped long before we were interrupted; it should never have gone that far. But it did. And now we've made a mess of the last thing we had going for us. The friendship I was so misguidedly trying to save by walking into her quarters that night.

The warp core/distortion incident was a false alarm. Of sorts. A very long, involved process that took hours to sort out, but a false alarm it ultimately was. Discounting the near ejection of the core, that is.

The subspace distortions were, as Kathryn suspected, wreaking havoc with the internal sensors. The core pressure was rising in response to false external readings and once we figured it out, we barely managed to avoid ejecting the super-pressurized core. Several long hours served to bury our awkward emotions under a thick layer of exhaustion. By the end of the emergency that didn't happen, I'd finally drifted to my quarters and she'd left in the direction of her ready room, probably to file a report on the threat that wasn't. But mostly to avoid leaving at the same time as me. My dreams were a hellish blur of Kathryn in front of me on a table, low, primal encouragement vibrating in her throat, then of Noah's fearful eyes and Maquis battles. I caught a glimpse of my guide loping somewhere on the periphery, but what that means is more than I can fathom.

There's work to do.

The day is fairly typical. Cleaning up after near catastrophe: the Delta Quadrant usual. It's easy enough to do my job without needing to fully pay attention to it until the haze of routine is broken by almost walking right into Lessing on my way to the mess hall. Being so deep in my own head, if I didn't catch his reflection in the glossy interface panel ahead of me and beside him, I'd bowl him over, but that isn't what sticks with me; it's what I see in his warped reflection that stops me dead in motion. It's coincidence, nothing more, but my eyes show me small blocks of blue lining the outside edge of his left eye, and the blocks resemble the scaly facial markers of a Cardassian. Half a gnawing revelation claws at my awareness, trying to be recognized, but shock of imagery keeps the realization from forming.

"Commander." Noah's voice has the kind of soft tones that can both soothe or instill kernels of his own panic in his listening audience. I note it from somewhere very dim while waiting for the blood to return to my head. He's rounded the corridor and stands in front of me, concerned by the lack of color in my face, if I had to guess. "Everything all right?"

I almost laugh in his face. All right? No, Noah. Not by a long shot. "I'm fine crewman." Swallowing gives me away, and so does dipping my head, but there's a connection between us that makes me afraid, however steeped in paranoia the fear might be, to look him too deeply in the eyes until I'm recovered. Fortunately, I've had practice hiding my reactions lately, most notably at Kathryn's hands, and I look up again within a reasonable allotment of time. "How are those calibrations coming?"

Disconnecting the warp core from the main power source, as we'd had to do last night, requires a hell of a lot more reintegration to undo than it should, as B'Elanna and Kathryn are both growling under their breath this morning. They're right, but in this particular moment, I'm grateful for that lack of simplicity because it's an easy deflection.

Routine, real emergencies crop up shortly, giving us all an excuse to duck our heads and steer in the opposite direction of one another. Kathryn and I both take full advantage of that. I try gathering my thoughts for the eventual discussion, but the time to do it just isn't there. I find myself unsure of my position, and it's disconcerting. The ever-present tension straining the air between us is only getting worse, and I know I have to pull myself together and approach her soon, whether I'm fully prepared to explain my position and hear the explanation for hers or not, but she beats me to it. The week long avoidant behavior finally ends with her summoning me to the ready room at the end of our shift.

I could try stalling for time. If I tell her I'm not ready, she'll have to give me space until I am. But I'm not sure if time would be of any help here, and neither of us can argue that going on like this is an option.

I make sure the beady blue eyes tracking me from the helm detect no fodder for gossip when I stride into the lion's den, keeping my head at a casual angle of descent. Not that he'll need any help. Paris's imagination continues to astound everyone who's experienced it firsthand.

Once sealed in the room, with her on the other side of it and no distractions to hide behind, I'm less brave. Fleetingly, I wish she didn't look so damned good this evening. Somehow, starship lighting is as flattering on her as I'd found open daylight to be several years ago.

Eye contact is difficult, and without distraction, I'm not exactly sure it's safe. We manage it somehow, which is a good first step. Or so I tell myself. Again, we go through the motions of her asking if I'd like anything and me declining. Then, on some unspoken instinct, I change my mind and opt to replicate myself a spiced tea, just to have something to do with my hands if I need to. Out of habit, I order her a fresh coffee without asking, a preemptive peace offering of sorts, and set it down in front of her. Her small smile doesn't quite reach her eyes, but that could mean one of a hundred different things.

At her silent indication, I take the uncomfortable seat in front of her desk, trying to prepare my scattered thoughts, but she props her chin in one hand and she saves me the trouble.

"My father was a good man. I don't think I've talked much about him to you."

"No," I say slowly, "you haven't."

Why she's doing so now, of all times and places, I can't fathom, but the question makes me think. What do we really know about each other's fathers?

She knows my father was killed by Cardassians. She knows that afterward, I rejected an institution I felt had betrayed him, took a tribal mark and a whole culture's spirituality on for him. I know hers was an admiral she loved enough to be rocked to the core when aliens impersonated him, and I sometimes suspect that she holds the weight of an entire bureaucracy on her shoulders at least partly for him. But talk about our fathers, aside from one or two lines here and an anecdotal reference to childhood there?

Rarely, if ever.

"He wasn't much for lecturing, but I learned from his actions," she's explaining by the time I switch off these thoughts and catch up to her words. "Watching him taught me most of what I know about being a responsible person. In many respects, he was the best man I've ever known."

"But?" I don't have to be a telepath to sense something heavier lingering on the horizon.

The cringe is faintly visible, her eyelids closing for one more second than a blink requires before she quietly confesses, "He never once apologized over anything important."

I have an inkling now of why this was her opening gambit.

"Missed birthdays, school ceremonies, a few promotions, dinners," she ticks off a list with the soft drum of her right fingers against her polished desk. "I wouldn't even have noticed it, but it bothered the hell out of my sister, you see." Her sister, I know mostly by individual quirks and how much each of these bother Kathryn. Few others put that particular wry note in her words as she explains, "When I began to pay attention, much as it pained me, I had to admit that she was right. He never did. He gave them over the little things, inconsequential accidents, but never the bigger mistakes. It was…unsettling, but I let it slide. It wasn't my place to police his apologies. Or so I assured my sister."

She pauses to let me interrupt her if I'm so inclined, but I'm not – at least not yet – and she goes on.

"Finally, when I was twenty, he did something inexcusable. This time to my mother." I can't say why she needs the deeper breath here, but she has my full attention when she draws it. "He missed an anniversary party my mother had planned for months in favor of extending a voluntary away mission."

"I assume there was a good reason?" I say, because I can't imagine that there wouldn't be.

A sharp shake of her head and a deeper frown than I'm used to seeing from her are her response.

"No," she says softly. "That time, there was no excuse. She'd worked too hard for that party, and he'd known about it for too long to miss it like that with no communication. He left her standing there, dressed to the nines, surrounded by an entire army of friends and family, and he…" the distant shake of her head tells him she still can't quite believe what he'd done, "he never so much as called to warn her that he wouldn't be there."

"He never showed? At all?" I'm trying to imagine what would have happened if my father had ever been so callous over something important to my mother, and I find that I can't. It just wouldn't have happened in my household.

Again, her head shakes in the negative. "He came home late that night, long after she'd sent everyone home. I never told anyone, but I'd heard her crying in bed, when she thought no one could hear her. My mother rarely cries, but he had the power to do that to her, and he didn't even seem to care. He saw the party decorations everywhere; he even tripped on one of the low streamers if I heard correctly down the hall. He knew the moment he came home what he'd forgotten. I listened at my bedroom door as he went straight up to bed, sure he was going to apologize, and all I heard in there was silence. She didn't even confront him, Chakotay. She was that used to it."

Even now, I can see how much that pained her, and I can't say I blame her. It also tells me exactly how she responded: it would have been the way she has always responded when someone can't or won't defend themselves. I shift in the less-than-comfortable chair, leaning forward, predicting: "You confronted him."

I get a half smile for accuracy. "You have to understand how rarely I've ever done that. Usually, I sided with him in any argument between the two of them because, for some reason, it was easier for me to see his side."

Spirits of my ancestors, how easy that is to imagine, knowing her and knowing what little of her father that I do. "But not that time."

"I cornered him over breakfast the next morning, spitting mad, and demanded to know why the words 'I'm sorry' were so rarely in his vocabulary. His answer surprised me."

Her eye contact is steady, her pause heavy but brief.

"He said it was because, when you're truly sorry for something you've done, words aren't enough to convey that. 'The way you show remorse is by action', he said," and I can hear what must have been her father's low inflections by the way hers change as she quotes him. "'By never doing it again, among other things'. I've never forgotten that, Chakotay, and I still believe it's true."

Intensity shines in her familiar eyes that look grey this morning behind her metal desk as understanding dawns. It's perspective, at least, for some of her inexplicable behavior.

"I can appreciate the sentiment," I allow. "And I'm glad you shared the story with me." I am, and that's something, I guess. "But there's something to be said for the value of going through the motions. You can't have gotten where you are today and not understand that. Sometimes, words have value only because they've been spoken."

Words like "I'm sorry", for instance. Words like "I need you and value your judgment".

She looks directly into my face, still making solid eye contact, which is surprising, considering her next words. "I can admit it was wrong to take the chance on Noah Lessing. But I can't apologize for relieving you of duty."

Accepting her opening position, I blow on the steaming tea in my mug, taking a moment to center myself before responding. I look up at her. "You took it too far," I say quietly. "My job is to safeguard this crew, and you. That includes your emotional health. I was doing my job that day."

"And I was doing mine," she levelly insists. "I confined you to quarters for outright stating you intended to disobey the next order I gave that you disagreed with."

"That's not what I said," I interject, and she shrugs tightly.

"I assure you, it's what I heard."

Because it's what she wanted to hear, most likely. I'll wait to argue that point, mostly because it's clear she has a point to make first as she continues.

"I'm sure you can understand that I can't have insubordination among my senior staff in the middle of a conflict, let alone from my executive officer – if anyone on this ship understands that, it should be you. And you can't be afraid to stand up to me, respectfully, when you think I'm crossing that line. If there's anyone on this ship who understands that about your position, it should be me."

"Those are a lot of shoulds," I muse warily. "All good ones."

"Well, here's a must. Our communication has to be better than it's been in our few disagreements. There's no room for it in our positions."

"Agreed." On the last point, anyway. I wait a few beats before feeling we're in a place where we can broach the next topic. "Can we talk about Ransom now?"

Her grin is wry and unflinching. "You mean is it safe to have a conversation without tearing each other's heads – or clothes – off?"

With steady bravado I have to work to achieve, I nod gamely. "Yes."

When her eyes drop to the monitor beside her, I know she's gearing up for brutal honesty. I'm almost ready when her candid gaze lifts to mine. "You were right," she opens, and I resist the urge to ask her to repeat that phrase so I can record it for posterity in favor of tentative peace and allowing her to go on. "In large part, it was the fact that he was human that galled me. I never denied that. What I didn't have the chance to explain–"

"What you were too pissed off at me to condescend to explain," I correct, unable to restrain myself a second time.

Her brow arches imperiously. It's not my fault that I remember how, half naked, that same subtle movement is an entirely different kind of impressive, but I shove that thought out of mind because it's thoughts like those that we've got to avoid in this mess we've created as she furthers, "What I decided there wasn't time to explain to you in your closed state of mind was that, his humanity aside, Rudy Ransom was a member of Starfleet, and he was gallivanting around this quadrant torturing and killing innocent life forms all in the name of getting back home to Earth. Did you stop to think what that meant for us, traveling behind him?"

It's not what I expected to hear, and it gives me physical pause. Had I? The answer is uneasily surprising and I rub at my chin trying to digest it. "I hadn't gotten that far, no. I was focused on your focus on stopping him at any cost."

"So I noticed." I let her have the caustic lilt of the observation. "All we have is our name and the principles of the organization we represent. We've made enough enemies out here just trying to hold to them. It's already a struggle to form alliances when aliens like the Hirogen get somewhere ahead of us. Letting the Equinox continue to hunt those creatures all the way back to the Alpha Quadrant, all in the name of Starfleet and the Federation, would only have made it that much harder on us. No one was going to stop to make the distinction between us and them, and I couldn't afford to have Voyager paying for his inhumanity for one more light year. It was imperative that we rejected their actions, publically and immediately. Do you understand?"

I think so, yes. It doesn't stop her from elaborating to be sure.

"What if those aliens he'd been abusing for so many light years had allies ahead? Someone even more powerful than they were, who wasn't in the frame of mind to stop and distinguish between us and the Equinox? In the state we were in, we wouldn't have survived another major confrontation."

I'm not so sure if she means the state of the ship or the state of our communication, but either could have been deadly. Hypothetical or not, I'm forced to agree with this logic. "It's a better justification than the one you used when we were discussing it." Which had been, namely, not much of one. I eye her closely. "Was that really a factor in your insistence that we catch him right away?"

"Not as big of one as it should have been, but it was a factor." Her eyes catch on the mug at her right hand but she makes no move to reach for it as she admits low, "Somewhere in there, it was."

Somewhere very deep, maybe. I'll let her decide how deep that was.

And now the hard part. Of this part of the conversation, anyway. "And confining me to quarters? Relieving me of duty? Is there an explanation for that I haven't considered?"

Is it possible she has an excuse for disregarding me that isn't going to ring as bitter as those I've conjured on my own?

"If you'll recall, I'd already stood down. That in itself was difficult, but I did it."

"It didn't exactly seem that way from where I was standing. You brushed past me," it's all I've seen for months, and the coldness in her eyes is something that will live with me for the rest of my days, "and I could feel your anger like it was a real, living thing. It scared me."

There's more in that wording than I'd ever intended to come out. Slowly it washes over me.

"But I left," she insists. "I could have ordered you to stand aside. I could have drawn my weapon on you to stop you from going in after him, but I didn't. I took your point. Once I had a few minutes to cool down, I even decided to try things your way because I saw that you had a point about my methods and Voyager's immediate survival. No matter how much I hated hearing it, I could see the possibility that I was erring on the side of reckless."

If she had admitted even one ounce of this to me at the time. If she'd been able to shove her damned pride aside for the three seconds it would have taken… I can't help that retroactive frustration rules my response. "You have a hell of a way of showing it, Kathryn. All I got from you was cold silence when I told you what I planned to tell the crew about our next move."

"That's just it, Chakotay." She leans forward, driving her point home. "You told me."

"I didn't…" A hitch of hollowness rings in my heart at the words my lips want to form, and I stop, considering what I remember of that short conversation. And I have to regroup, to my chagrin. "I guess I did. It wasn't meant that way," it was probably almost half meant that way, "but I can see how that's what came out."

"And I still let you do it. I kept my mouth shut while you proposed your plan instead of ordering an immediate search for Ransom, as you knew I'd intended. Even at that point, I understood your position. Obviously, I respected it – and you – enough to back down."

It filters through my disjointed memories, events and motivations falling into place. She hadn't interfered with the meeting. That much is true and I have to admit it. "And then?" I ask. "What happened to your resolve to listen to reason?" For the life of me, I can't figure it out. "One minute we were standing there, discussing my plan, and the next…"

"And the next you were standing there, centimeters from my face, telling me that you had every intention of openly opposing me again whenever you felt I'd crossed that line – which I took to mean whenever you didn't agree with what I was going to do next. Coming on the heels of a huge concession on my part, it was difficult to swallow."

Frowning is instinctual more than conscious. "I really don't think I said anything out of line in there."

"'I'm warning you'?" she drawls. "'I won't let you cross that line again'? Sound familiar?"

Hearing them with that inflection, which isn't the one I'd heard myself use but one I can imagine her having heard, I guess I can understand that. "All right. There were better ways to phrase it. I can admit that much. I just…"

"Couldn't stand seeing that side of me. Didn't want to believe it existed at all. I understand. If I had been in a better place, I probably would have turned the other cheek and ignored you."

"But you weren't in that place."

It's so much easier to see it now with some distance between us and the events that had swirled out of control so quickly. A changed word here, a kinder inflection there from either one of us, and things might not have gone so far. She might not have gone so far.

"No," she frankly admits, "I wasn't. Instead, I let your sanctimonious, holier-than-thou speech," she ignores the tilt of my head, "goad me into relieving you of duty instead of standing there and continuing to converse with you like two civilized commanding officers of a starship."

And that is what this boils down to, in the end. Our failure to do that. Our failure to maintain an open, objective line of communication between each other.

"We were both at fault in that room," I can finally admit. "In that situation, I could have taken more care with my words."

"I interpreted your warning as a threat of imminent insubordination." She doesn't back down from her position, and I can't say that I expect her to.

"I was trying to get through to you. If you'd seen the look on your face, you'd have understood why I was so adamant that you heard my point."

"You'd already gotten through to me. Less than an hour before, when you disobeyed a direct order to stand down."

"I did what I felt I had to do. I'm not sure how else I can say it."

This is a point that's not so easy to give on, because that is the truth. I can't say that I believe I did anything wrong by opposing her, considering the reception I was getting in that awful moment.

"Maybe." Her nod is slow and considering. "At the time, you and I and Lessing were the only ones who knew you'd disobeyed me once by going back for him. I couldn't take the chance of a repeat performance in front of other members of the crew, and I used that as justification to isolate you from them – and me – until I felt like dealing with you."

"You used it as carte blanche to continue hunting Ransom," I accuse. From my perspective, that's the long and short of what happened. I'm surprised to see her index finger tick slowly back and forth at me.

"Not exactly," she argues. "I still carried out your idea to meet with the Ankari. Maybe I didn't do it the way you would have done it, but in my own way, I followed your suggestion. I still listened and heard your point."

"It sure as hell didn't seem that way from my perspective, locked in my quarters."

Like my statement, her heavy sigh has the weight of more than one bitter argument behind it. "Just because I don't always agree with your delivery doesn't mean I'm not hearing your message, Chakotay. I fail to recall a time when I've ever ignored you completely when you felt strongly about something."

I have to sit with the last for a long time. My fingers toying with the side of my cooling mug as I look at her. So she isn't as oblivious as she seems much of the time. She knows exactly where the root of this frustration lies, deep within me. In some ways, it's an immense relief to hear her vocalize what I haven't been able to, and in other ways… In others it's almost worse. I don't know how I feel about her having known how I felt and failing to address it. But then, that's not exactly her job, to bring up concerns I myself haven't voiced.

There's one thing I can say about it, until I have longer to process it, at least. "I'm glad I know you're aware of the way I perceive your responses sometimes." She waits, giving me time with it. After a moment, I'm ready to admit, "You're right about why I was so bothered by this. At least in part. It scared the hell out of me that you were capable of murder – even under those circumstances. I'm sorry to say it, but, deep down, it made me afraid that you could turn into something like Ransom one day."

The barest wave of some emotion I can't identify rolls through her expression before it clears, but there's a raspy remnant of that feeling in her voice when she says, "I'd be lying if I said I didn't scare the hell out of myself for the same reason, looking back on it."

Good. At least she's thinking about how close to that line she came.

"But it was more than that, Kathryn," I find myself urging, unsure of where the words are coming from. "It's not just that I didn't want to believe you were capable of it, because of how I felt…feel," I don't know which word applies to this particular revelation right now, "about you. It's more, but it does date back to the beginning years of our journey."

"Go on," she encourages, and I needed that encouragement I find once I have it.

"I think the reason I was able to follow you early on is because, subconsciously, you showed me what Starfleet is supposed to be. In you, I saw what I could have been, if I'd made different choices. I'll never regret joining the Maquis, but when I did, my life took a different path from yours. In some ways – a lot of ways – not for the better." She's listening intently to me, but I find myself as focused on my own words as she is. Because it's only now, formulating them aloud, that so many things in my dreams and actions make any kind of sense to me. "I was determined when I joined you, that I was going to make sure you never deviated from your path and strayed into mine. You were showing me the way back to peace, Kathryn. Part of why I fell in love with you had to do with that, and I swore to myself those first few weeks that I was never going to let you stray away from that path. We both failed in that five months ago."

The moisture in her eyes is reflecting the truest blue I've ever seen. "You didn't–"

"Part of why I haven't been able to let it go, despite how hard I've tried, is that I've seen the look you gave me outside the cargo bay before," I continue over her, because I have to get this out of me. She has to hear me say this if I'm going to be sure she understands.

"Where?" she asks, her voice half a rasp of trepidation.

"In the mirror." So many times. I just never saw it for what it was all those years ago. It's now, saying it aloud, that I understand the connection myself.

I realize only now while I'm looking at her that, in so many ways, she's a mirror of paths my life has taken. And she may have taken some sideways aggression lately because of it. Not without reason, though. I'm determined to make her understand why.

"I'm glad you didn't see Lessing's eyes when I went back in there for him," I tell her. "Because I've also seen the look of fear in his eyes before – in the faces of countless Cardassians I've murdered with my bare hands. Believe me, Kathryn," I'm begging of her now, "those aren't burdens you want to carry around on your shoulders. Added to the ones you're already carrying out here, it will crush you."

And us along with it.

"I've seen the look before," she says softly, by all appearances stricken by the admission, and my insides are seething icy snakes at this notion. "In Tuvix. When I…" She chokes on the words, her throat closing on them in a desperate attempt to keep them inside of her.

And those are the burdens I'm talking about. "No," I promise intently, leaning forward to drive it home to her, "that wasn't the same. I'm not making light of what you had to do that day, because it's a choice no one should ever have to make, but it wasn't made in anger. You did that because no one else could and because there were two other lives hanging in the balance. Carry whatever guilt you have to about it, because that's what makes you human and I'd never try to take that away from you. But there's a difference there, Kathryn. Never tell yourself that there isn't."

"I…think I understand," she's barely able to say. She's referring to all of it, I guess. But the burdens from the past have carried over in her, more than I'd even suspected. It's clear as natural daylight now that I'm looking at her. It's not just me that's been running from a past that can't be outrun anymore.

Her, we can work on. There's more to do with all of it. But not today.

Some admissions are too heavy to sit under for long. The psychological need to clear the room is strong and I give in to it.

"You're right about Lessing," I blurt out, our mutual awareness giving me both renewed courage and reason to forge onward.

That stirs her interest. She shifts in her chair, regaining the slightest bit of posture she'd conceded under heavier topics. "Oh?"

I almost smile at how responsive she is to being told she's right. "Going back to your point earlier about first impressions and trust. All he really knows about you is what happened between the three of us in the cargo bay. There's nothing you can say to him that he's going to trust for a long time. It's better to let him settle in and see what kind of leader you are with his own eyes. For now, all we know about them is that once you gain their loyalty, they'll follow even the most flawed leaders into death."

"A good quality to have, if it's channeled properly." I've only ever seen her hand smooth across the green metal edge of her desk that way when she's deep in thought. "Sometimes I wonder if you know how much I value what merging our two crews has taught me. If the Maquis taught me anything, it's that loyalty doesn't come automatically with rank. It comes with time and experience. They have to gain our trust, and we have to gain their loyalty."

We. She means her.

"I'll still need your help with them. Until I have time to separate my anger with what they've done, it's probably best that I don't interact with them. I've been leaving it to you to get to know them and assess their integration."

Information that would have been far more useful to me months ago. Not that I'd needed to be told to do it, but that she'd even cared to acknowledge their presence on her ship long enough to decide to let me handle it might have made a difference in my assessment of her motives. It might have made a difference in how I'd approached her one week ago.

Just possibly, it might have saved me months of torture I can't even broach to her until we're in a much better place.

"Learn them for me," she formally asks for the first time, redrawing my fractured attention. "Get to know their strengths and weaknesses. Form an opinion on whether or not they can be fully integrated or if we'll have to watch them every moment that they're aboard this ship."

That I can do. What it means to hear her say the words is something I won't dismiss easily, and it will make the task one I resent far less. "I won't let you down," I promise her. And I mean in regard to far more than the Equinox Five.

"I know." Her fingers trace a pattern that doesn't exist anywhere but in her mind on the smooth, uniformed finish of her desk. "I shouldn't have kissed you."

Here we go. Nothing like having warning before being tossed into the middle of a dark, seething ocean. I swallow, bracing myself for the waves of awkward dancing that are going to ensure. "I'm glad you did."

"If it comes to that, so am I. But I had no right to do that just to prove a point. I was angry with you. So angry, Chakotay."

"You didn't want to hear what I had to say."

"That's putting it mildly."

Why that damned half smile of hers, when rueful, disarms me of any weapons I'm ever carrying I may never know, but it does. Every time.

"And what happened afterward…the awkwardness of this past week…that was entirely my fault."

I'm going to let her have that one without argument. "I think that's the closest you've come to an apology all week," I note, to which I receive only a level stare and silence.

All right, too soon. Fine. I can respect that.

I take a breath, exhaling slowly and gathering the courage to stab deeper into the core of that which we've been avoiding. "This won't work, Kathryn." It's the first time I've admitted it fully to myself, and after the exhausting revelations of earlier, it comes as an unpleasant jolt of realism I could have done without hearing.

By the flicker of her eyes, she knows which "this" I mean. What shocks me is the lack of open relief I'd unconsciously expected to see. Then again, I only have history to base my expectations on, after all.

"Maybe it could." She shifts in her chair to sit up more fully, surveying me intently, thoughtfully as she considers us. "Maybe it would. At least…I think that it could, if we were determined enough to make it work." I'm not ready for the panic her unexpected candor inspires as she continues, "But in my estimation of how we're going so far, can we take the chance that it won't? Could we live with ourselves if something between us caused me or you to make a bad decision in a crucial moment?"

She's actually asking me. It's a real, valid question, and she wants to know my thoughts on the subject. Which means that she may be leaning to one side of the balance, but, atypically, she hasn't already made the decision. I'm not sure why it throws me so damned much, aside from the fact that it's the last thing I expected to face when we finally had this conversation.

I wasn't expecting my opinion to matter, or even to have to voice it at all. Where to place the blame for my low expectations of my input in her decisions, even when I'm involved in the question, is something to examine more fully some other time.

I smooth hair back from the edge of my forehead with a heavy sigh. "I can't, no." I don't believe that she can live with it, either. "Before I knew what she was, I broke things off with Seska when we came to Voyager because I know myself. I know what I can handle separating emotionally, and I didn't believe that kind of tension belongs in a command structure." Watching her blink suggests my answer is other than she expected, but that she is hearing and absorbing it, at least. "If I didn't think I could handle a full-blown relationship with her and keep it professional, I'm not sure that I can make it work with you. Right now, I'm finding it harder to ignore that than I have in the past."

The pause I insert is difficult, but I want her to have a chance to respond if she disagrees. She waits, uninclined to comment, so I keep talking.

"Right now, we can hardly seem to balance a friendship and command of this crew. If the Equinox showed anything, it's that. If we start trying to bring this," I gesture vaguely along the space between them, "into the equation with even our friendship in this level of disrepair…" I have to shake my head at the Pandora's box we may well have opened for ourselves, and I can't resist adding ruefully, "We'd probably have been better off trying to work this out in a boxing ring than in the bedroom."

Not that we'd made it anywhere close to the bedroom.

"Well." Her half grin betrays how closely aligned her thoughts are with mine as she smirks, "I don't know about that. Let's just say we both woke up a better kind of sore the next morning than we would have if we'd tried that route."

I clears my throat. Smile thinly. "I would have taken it easy on you."

"That would have been foolish, Commander. I always play to win."

That she does. That, unequivocally, she does. And if she can't, more often than not, she doesn't play.

"Friends?"

Whatever else I've thought or not thought about her this past week, I'm not going to let her wonder about my commitment to that much. "It has to start there," I agree.

There it is. Something I haven't seen in far too many months now. A real, genuine smile from her that's directed only at me. One that lights all the way to her eyes. For an instant, it slows the gritty details of my day to a grinding halt, and I absorb the entire moment with an inexplicable sense of relief washing over my soul.

"Then, as a friend, can I invite you to dinner in my quarters tomorrow? Say, 2100?"

I hesitate, playing with my earlobe for grounding as reality reasserts itself.

Her eyes narrow, catching it. "What?" she demands, and a delicate cough escapes me.

"I think the mess hall would be better," I choke out. "At least for the next few weeks."

"You're thinking the crew should see us rebuilding our friendship." She nods approvingly. "Excellent point."

"That," I agree but don't agree, "and I'm not sure how trustworthy I find myself with you in a closed space off-duty for a little while."

Trying to deny how delighted I am by the full grin that tells me how much that particular prospect delights her, I almost miss her teasing, "Afraid I'll attack you again?"

"Afraid one of us will." You have no idea what I see in my dreams, Kathryn, I want to say but can't. I do know it's not some willow-thin woman with long hair trailing all the way down her back and that somehow makes everything harder that it had been before. Swallowing hardly lubricates my throat while waiting for her response, which is nonverbal. I watch her shoulders rise and fall with the force of a deep breath, noting the finality settling over her posture and expression.

She stands, and so do I. I watch her circle the desk they way I've seen her do a thousand times as she moves to exit the ready room via the bridge doors. Something internal flutters in my gut. Then it has control of my muscles and it spurs me into spontaneous motion.

"Hey." I block her path with my body, standing still until I'm sure I've got her attention. Later, I'll examine the thrill I get out of the hint of uncertainty in her gaze. For now, I'd only wanted her to know, "Don't mistake my feeling that we have to repair what we had before trying something more for apathy. I'm not giving up on this. Not completely. We're just…putting it in stasis for a while. Seeing what develops."

The return of her slow, easy grin is as bracing as it is promising. "As I recall, stasis is where all of this started, Commander."

It takes a moment for the reference to place. By the time it does, she's moving past me, her shoulder brushing against my chest so very softly. For the first time in a while, it doesn't shock me stiff, either.

I smile at her back, stepping aside and letting the statement stand as she precedes me out onto the bridge, but she's wrong, actually. "All this" started well before that. This is a journey we've been walking from the moment we first locked eyes as leaders on opposite sides of a bloody moral line. And unless I'm mistaken, the end of this winding path we're on isn't yet anywhere in sight.

I meet Tom Paris's furtive glance with a level stare, and the helmsman swivels back to face the viewscreen, unable to read me. It lends an added sense of satisfaction while Kathryn gives the order to continue heading into an unfamiliar part of space we haven't yet mapped out. And as I take my seat on Kathryn's left side, for the first time in a long while, I don't mind that I can't see the road ahead of us.

I'm content with knowing, deep down, where it ultimately leads.