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Chakotay inhaled deeply yet again, in another vain attempt at calming himself. He loved Kathryn, he truly did, and very deeply at that, but there were times when he found himself totally, maddeningly, completely infuriated by her.

This was one of those times.

Another deep breath. Another roll of his neck, in a slow, calming motion.

Another deep breath. He would calm himself, come hell or high water.

Another deep breath. There. Just a little. Maybe.

All in all, Chakotay considered himself to be a pretty easy-going and laid back person. Like the destruction of his home world, something would have to be so all-encompassing and integral to his very existence for him to become unsettled or angry. He was known for being a stubborn man, but could count on one hand the number of times he'd lost his temper, acted rashly, or was otherwise emotionally compromised. He hated when it happened.

His comm. badge chirped, and the object of his ire returned his greeting.

"Chakotay, where are you?"

He could hear the exasperation in her voice, and felt his tension level increase again. Damn, the woman.

"You know perfectly well where I am," he sighed. "And if not, ask the damn computer." He paused briefly, annoyed that he'd allowed himself to react. After another deep breath, he continued, "I believe what you're really asking is why I'm not there yet?"


Her clipped, "Yes," confirmed her equally tenuous hold on civility.

Chakotay knew she was frustrated with him this evening. Again. It seemed to be a common theme lately, and he wasn't sure how to rework this particular story. He was frustrated too.

Closing his eyes, and tilting his head up, Chakotay took in another deep breath through his nose, and slowly exhaled. He would man up and get through the next twenty-four hours, and then they would talk. It had been a long, lonely, frightening two weeks, and he would be glad to be back on Earth.

"I'm almost finished here, and will come out shortly," he replied, in what he hoped was a conciliatory tone. Realistically, however, he knew she was much too smart to fall for the less-than-subtle change.

And he was correct.

When Kathryn next spoke, Chakotay could almost see her pinching the bridge of her nose and rubbing her forehead, in an attempt to forestall the onset of a nasty headache.

"Take your time. I'm... I'm not very good at this. I'm sorry."

He knew her so well, and knew that she was now likely shaking her head at herself and walking slowly around the room. After a short pause, she continued, "I just want to make a difference here. I know I'm being... can we talk later - after we get through this?"

Chakotay slowly nodded his acquiescence, then realized she couldn't see him and replied, "Of course, Kathryn. I'm sorry too. After the dinner?"

He was sure he could feel her sigh through the comm., her tension lifting slightly. Chakotay took some perverse pleasure in the knowledge that she was as conflicted as he was, if only because it likely meant she would be willing to speak with him about what the hell had been going on. He signed off, and went about preparing himself for dinner.

//

The celebratory end of mission dinner was lovely, and Janeway was pleased, knowing the rustic fare suited Chakotay's taste. The accompanying dinner music/cacophony precluded deep, meaningful conversations, for which she was grateful. It meant there was no opportunity to say or do something that would turn out badly. She hoped his mood would be improved by the respite, even if her burgeoning headache wasn't.

The official review of the fragile treaty between the neighbouring planets had confirmed that the skirmishes were mostly minor, their intentions sincere, and that progress on the political front was slowly moving forward. Surprisingly, for those back home, the mission was proving to be a diplomatic success.

Despite the initial rough beginning, of course.

That, among other things, was what she was there to discuss.

Kathryn stood outside Chakotay's door, with her back straight, and her chin up. This wasn't going to be easy, but it was necessary and would all work out fine, she was sure. The door opened before she'd finished her conversation with herself, and she was met with a cool, controlled gaze.

"I'm sorry," she said, before she lost her nerve.

"So you said before. For what, exactly?" Chakotay cocked his head to the side, and pursed his lips, eyebrows raised.

Damn, he wasn't going to make it easy, was he?

Before she had time to formulate a reply, Chakotay spoke again. "Sorry for hiding our relationship? For bringing me along on this mission and then totally undermining my role? For putting yourself in harm's way unnecessarily?" His voice rose as he went along, making Kathryn glad she'd taken a determined stride forward and let the doors close behind her.

"Which would you like to discuss first?" he threw over his shoulder, as he stalked over to the window and stared morosely at the passing stars. She could tell he was trying to settle his breathing, and her heart ached at his distress.

After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, Kathryn came over and stood just behind him, close enough that she could feel his warmth. When she spoke, her voice was gentle and controlled.

"I'm sorry I hurt you. That was not my intention, but I did and I'm so sorry."

Chakotay carefully considered his words. "We've been home for months and months, Kathryn. We waited so long to be together, and honestly, I don't know what you want from me or what this mission has been about. What's really happened here ...?"

Kathryn grimaced and closed her eyes, angry at herself for letting the situation deteriorate between them. "Come sit with me," she said, leading him towards the couch behind them.

She desperately wanted to lean against his shoulder, but felt this conversation needed eye contact, no matter how difficult. After organizing her thoughts as best she could, she turned to him and began to speak.

"I know we've been over some of this, but I hope you'll hear me out fully?"

His lack of response wasn't a 'no' so Kathryn took that as a positive sign and kept talking.

"When we first got back to Earth - you remember the chaos? Seven years' worth of backlog, decommissioning, and tribunals about the Maquis and crew reviews, celebrating the lives of those we lost, new assignments... I barely had a second to myself to even think of me or my plans, or to think of the friends I'd lost in the Dominion War - I barely saw my family... It was the same for all of us, I know, and it took time for things to settle.

It was a huge change and I wanted - I needed - to be sure that you and I wanted each other, loved each other, for the right reasons. I wanted our relationship to work so badly that I wasn't willing to just jump in before we were ready. We needed to get to know each other and love each other back on Earth, in that new environment, not just stranded and barely surviving thousands of light years from home. Do we agree up to this point?"

Chakotay nodded, his eyes never leaving her face, which brightened with a small smile for him.

"So," she continued, "I needed to wait until I was sure the timing was right. When we finally started seeing each other -"

"Sleeping together."

"SEEING each other," she smirked, "I knew that our actions on board Voyager spoke for themselves, and that you didn't need my impartial support for whatever harm might have come your way, in spite of those intensive reviews. We talked about this."

"We did."

Kathryn inhaled deeply. "What I didn't say, at the time, was that there were several on the review panels who were sure we were already involved, and were questioning and scrutinizing our personal logs for any dirt they could find. I didn't tell you at the time -"

Her hand held Chakotay in place, as he started sputtering and made to rise.

"I didn't tell you at the time because I also had some pretty strong allies on those same panels, all of whom believed in our good character, in our version of events. Did you know we were being investigated?"

Huffing out a breath, he shifted closer to her on the couch, taking both of her hands in his. "Not directly, no. I must say you hid it well. I honestly expected more... what, fallout? More insinuations, more quiet threats. How could I have missed this? Why?"

Kathryn nodded. "I kept it from you and was able to keep it contained. Maybe I shouldn't have, but I made a reasonable request to keep the hearings confidential, until such time as anything needed to go public, and as we are both painfully aware, there was no relationship for them to exploit, so nothing leaked out." She quirked an eyebrow at him, half-smiling.

"Once cleared, I was so very happy, for both our sakes. I understood their concerns, and how it would be perceived if we had had a relationship and there were no repercussions. Once exonerated, I will admit I was a bit of a brat..." Both eyebrows rose, along with an odd grimacing grin.

Chakotay was engaged in her story, and had honestly forgotten he'd been so angry a few minutes before. "What on Earth did you do?" he asked with an equally incredulous look on his face.

"Well, after the outcome was read, that no formal charges would be filed, and that we both had been given a stellar report..."

"Nice pun."

"Thank you. After I was told that our records would show that we had 'behaved appropriately', I asked how long we needed to wait before we dated so as to not change anyone's mind."

Chakotay laughed. "You didn't?!"

"Yes, I did, and our supportive reviewers laughed too. Not everyone did, though, and I was warned that we needed to be discreet." She grimaced. "I had visions of them thinking we'd frolic naked in Boothby's roses on the Academy grounds, corrupting young minds..." She heard Chakotay laugh again, and then continued, "I did get the message, though. And I also wanted to be absolutely sure we both still wanted each other, even with several systems of potential mates readily accessible."

"Mates, you say..."

"Yes," she smiled, her eyes alight. "So, I was never, ever embarrassed about our relationship. We had talked about keeping it quiet, and just to ourselves for a bit, and I thought you understood why. I really didn't want to drag you into the imbroglio of Starfleet bureaucratic red tape, especially after the 'accolades' they bestowed upon you."

Chakotay laughed again. "Honourable discharge is hardly an accolade, but it wasn't prison, so I'll take it."

"Exactly."

He raised an eyebrow, and gave a slight nod. "OK. Fine. I still wish you'd have told me."

Kathryn stood, and took a few steps away. She turned and looked at him intently. "When I accepted this mission, I knew that there was some risk involved, that the treaty might not be as peaceful as we'd been told. Honestly, I'm surprised it's held together. I couldn't be sure what kind of test this was of me, for me, or which Admiral volunteered me."

Nodding, Chakotay agreed. "I remember. We talked about this."

"We did, yes. But I didn't tell you everything about the planning stages. I made it a condition of my acceptance that a civilian expert be included - you. A consultant would have been part of the team as a matter of course, but I wanted it to be you. Frankly, I was surprised - and suspicious - when you were invited to come. I wondered what exactly we were walking in to. And that's why - "

"That's why you kept downplaying my knowledge, my influence. You kept my involvement to a minimum to protect me, and not to make me look like the befuddled Talaxian that I felt like." Chakotay nodded and looked at her appraisingly. "You are more than capable of handling everything I was here to help you with. I felt like I was merely administrative support, and it made me angry. I thought you were questioning my capacity in this role."

"And it likely saved your life. That 'minor skirmish' was thwarted before it blew up in our faces, but they were out to make a statement, and -"

"And I don't want you to ever step in front of a phaser aimed at me again. Spirits, Kathryn, that took 20 years off my life!"

"I'm sorry, but it all worked out, didn't it? All the background information about the strong matriarchal leanings made me the back-up plan."

Chakotay glared at her. "I also memorized the details of the two worlds; I'm sure together, we could have come up with a better plan."
Kathryn shook her head. "I don't think so. Once the weapons came out, my first instinct was to minimize the damage. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt. I wouldn't want to do it again anytime soon, though."

She stood and approached the replicator, and asked for a coffee and an herbal tea. She turned and smiled at Chakotay, saying, "Isn't it great being able to indulge without worrying about rations?"

Rising to take the tea from her, he nodded in agreement, but kept silent as he sat back down.

Kathryn joined him, and took a sip of her black coffee. After setting it down on the table, she turned back to Chakotay and again held his hands in hers.

"I am sorry, Chakotay, for all of these misunderstandings. Entirely my fault, no question. And even though it was done with good intentions, you were hurt, and questioned my motives and my feelings. I know you tried to talk about this several times over the past two weeks, but I just needed to do it this way and get to the other side. I may be stubborn but I don't want you to ever doubt how much you mean to me, or how important you are. I do love you. So very much."

Chakotay smiled. "I love you too," he replied. "And you are right. Very stubborn. Good intentions notwithstanding, I do hate it when you keep things from me."

Kathryn looked chagrined at his words, but was determined to make him understand the outcome. "Now that this mission is over, I don't see any need for us to hold back any more. Starfleet is happy with our report, and I'm now confident enough to start living my life how I see fit, and I want everyone to know it!"

A brief pause was his only warning. Chakotay caught her as she leaned in to kiss him, and wrapped his arms tightly around her. His feelings had truly been hurt, and he still had questions, but they could be answered later. Even though many things made more sense to him now, he still wanted more information about who supported their relationship and who didn't, and what the real impact of this mission might be for his civilian career.

For now, though, he was relieved and happy that Kathryn still seemed fully invested in their relationship.

Mate!

The real question he wanted answered now, however, was "Does this mean we can finally spend a night together here? Maybe walk around the ship, holding hands? Flaunt it a little bit in front of the crew?" he smirked.

Kathryn smiled back, relieved and happy. "I missed being with you. It was necessary, but not anymore. Let's take that midnight stroll to my quarters," she winked.

"My bed's bigger."

Chapter End Notes:
Thank you to Elem for the wonderful beta!


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