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Adrenaline still flared in Honor's blood and nerves as she rode the lift back to the bridge. That had been an ugly side of her, but the petty, repulsive shallowness hiding behind Klaus Hauptman's wealthy front had waked it, and she'd meant every word. More than that, he knew she had. And they both knew that his reputation—his all-important, self-worshipping reputation—would never survive should he refuse her challenge if it came.

She drew a deep breath as the lift stopped. The door opened, and she stepped out onto the bridge. Panowski looked up quickly, his face anxious, and she realized some of the vicious confrontation must have leaked past the briefing room hatch. Or perhaps it had simply been the tension between her and Hauptman when they passed back through on their way to the boat bay. It didn't matter. The lieutenant knew. His worried face showed his reaction, and she saw matching expressions on the faces of most of her ratings.

She paused for a moment, forcing herself to smile. Panowski's concern remained, but he relaxed visibly, and she made herself move slowly and calmly as she walked to the center of the bridge and looked around for McKeon. There was no sign of him, but the briefing room door was closed.

She crossed to it, and the executive officer looked up as the hatch slid aside. She didn't like stepping into that compartment just then. Too much cold hatred had washed its bulkheads, and she could feel the prickles of McKeon's residual rage radiating out to mesh and resonate with hers, yet he managed a strained smile and started to rise.

She waved him back and crossed to her own chair. She sank into it and turned it to face him.

"You took a chance, Alistair," she said. It was the first time she'd ever used his given name, but he didn't even seem to notice.

"I—" He wiggled his shoulders. "He just made me so damned mad, Ma'am. Coming in here like God descending to smite the sinners. And that last filthy trick of his—" The exec gritted his teeth and shook his head.

"He's not going to forget the way you backed him down." McKeon nodded, and Honor felt a certain bitter irony at the way her words echoed his own warning to her after Tremaine discovered that first illegal Hauptman shipment. "You shouldn't have done it," she went on levelly. "It was my fight and my responsibility, but . . . thank you."

McKeon's head came up, and he flushed.

"It wasn't just your fight, Ma'am. It was the Navy's. Hell, it was Fearless's, and that makes it mine, too." His flush deepened, and he looked back down at the fingers suddenly interlaced in his lap.

"I . . . haven't been much of an exec to you, have I, Ma'am?" he asked quietly.

Honor started a quick reply, then paused, gazing at the crown of his lowered head. This man had just put himself far, far out on a limb for her. He'd antagonized one of the most powerful men in the Kingdom, and she shuddered to think where her confrontation with Hauptman would have ended had she responded without his intervention. The use of the collector tap to turn Hauptman's manipulations back on him had never even occurred to her. She hadn't been thinking clearly enough for that. All she'd felt was hate and disgust and the need to strike back. She knew herself—knew she'd hovered on the brink of physically attacking the man in her fury, and that would have ruined her, whatever the provocation.

McKeon had stopped her before she did that. He'd seen the opening and taken it, forced Hauptman back onto the defensive, won her time to regain at least some control of herself. She owed him for that—owed him a deep, intensely personal debt she rather doubted she could every repay. And because she did, she wanted to tell him not to worry, to brush over his shortcomings as her first officer.

But she was a warship's captain. Personal feelings and gratitude, however deep or deserved, took second place to that. They must. And so she cleared her throat and spoke in a soft, impersonal tone.

"No, Mr. McKeon," she said. "You haven't." She watched him flinch, saw his shoulders tighten, and wanted to reach out to him. But she didn't. She simply sat there, waiting.

The silence stretched out, tight and painful, and McKeon's hands washed themselves in his lap. She could hear him breathing, listened to the throb of her own pulse, and still she waited. She could feel his need to say something more and knew he needed time to say it in, and that at least she could give him, however long it took.

"I know I haven't, Ma'am," he said finally. "And . . . I'm sorry." He twitched a shrug and looked up at her face. "It's not much, but it's all I can say. I've let you down—let the ship down—and I'm sorry."

"Why, Mr. McKeon?" she asked softly. He winced at the compassion in her voice, but he understood her question. For a moment she thought he might thrust himself up out of the chair and flee, but he didn't.

"Because—" He swallowed and looked around the briefing room without really seeing it. "Because I let my personal feelings get in the way of my duty, Ma'am." He made himself face her as he admitted it, and in that moment their ages were reversed. The tall, powerful executive officer seemed suddenly young and vulnerable, for all his years of experience, while he met her eyes almost desperately, as if begging her to understand.

"You came aboard, and you looked so damned young," he went on in a voice of wretched self-loathing. "I knew you deserved the command. God, I only had to check your record to know that! But I wanted it so badly myself. I didn't have the seniority for it—" He broke off and laughed harshly.

"I'll probably never have the seniority. I'm a hack, Captain. A plodder. The kind who refuses to stick his neck out. But, God, how I wanted this ship. More than I'd ever admitted to myself. And there you were—five years younger than me with one hyper-capable command already under your belt, walking through the hatch straight from ATC and wearing the white beret I wanted."

His hands fisted in his lap, and then he did rise. He paced up and down the small briefing room like a caged animal, and Honor felt his anguish and self-condemnation. She could almost see the fog of his misery, wrapped around him like poison, but she sat on her sudden desire to break his monologue, to stop him or defend him from himself. She couldn't. He needed to say it—and she needed for him to say it, if there was any hope the barriers between them would truly come down.

"I hated you." His voice was muffled, bouncing back from the bulkhead as he looked away from her. "I told myself I didn't, but I did. And it didn't get better. It got worse every day. It got worse every time I saw you do something right and realized I'd wanted you to do it wrong so I could justify the way I felt.

"And then there were the maneuvers." He wheeled to face her once more, his expression twisted. "Damn it, I knew they'd handed you an impossible job after the way they gutted our armament! I knew it was impossible—and instead of digging in and helping you do it anyway, I let you carry the whole load because deep down inside I wanted you to fail. Captain, I'm a tac officer by training. Every single time something went wrong, every time another one of those goddamned Aggressor crews 'destroyed' us, something inside me kept saying I could have done better. I knew I couldn't have, but that didn't matter. It was what I felt. I tried to do my duty anyway, but I couldn't. Not the way I should have."

He came closer to the table, leaning forward to brace himself on its top and bend towards her across it.

"And then this." He raised one hand to gesture at the bulkheads. "Basilisk Station." He returned his hand to the table beside its companion and stared down at them both. "I told myself it was your fault, that you were the one who'd gotten us sent here, and that was another lie. But every time I told myself one lie, I had to tell another to justify the ones that came before it. So it was your fault, not mine, and all that nonsense about doing our duty, about meeting our responsibilities whether anyone else had ever bothered to meet theirs or not—that was crap, Captain. That was bright-eyed, runny-nosed, idealistic, Academy crap, not the real world."

He looked up at her again.

"But it wasn't, was it, Ma'am?" he said softly. "Not to you. I don't know why Young dumped this on you. It doesn't matter why he did. What matters is that you didn't cry and moan. You didn't slack off. You just dug in and—" He shook his head and straightened.

"You kicked us in the ass, Captain. You kicked us over and over again, until we got up off our self-pitying backsides and started acting like Queen's officers again. And I knew what you were doing, and why you were doing it, the whole time, and I hated it. Hated it. Because every time you did something right, it was one more proof that you deserved the job I wanted."

He dropped into a chair, facing her across the table, and raised one hand almost pleadingly.

"Captain, you were right, and I was wrong. What's happening in this system right now proves you were, and if you want me off your ship, I wouldn't blame you at all."

He fell silent at last, hunched in despair, and Honor leaned forward in her chair.

"I don't want you off my ship, Commander," she said softly. His head jerked back up, and she waved a hand in the air between them.

"You're right. You did drop it all on me. I wanted you to meet me halfway—needed you to—and you wouldn't. Everything in the galaxy was coming together and falling on me at the same time, and you just sat there, refusing to open up, and left everything up to me. Oh, yes, Commander. There were days when I would gladly have sent you packing, with an efficiency report that would've put you ground-side forever, if I hadn't been so shorthanded, if I'd had enough experienced officers aboard to replace you with someone I could rely on. But—"

She paused, letting silence linger behind the word, then gave a tiny nod.

"But, Mr. McKeon, I would have been wrong to do that." He blinked in astonishment, and she smiled faintly. "Oh, there were times I wanted to kick you, or strangle you, or bite your head off in front of the entire wardroom, but then I realized you were trying. I didn't know what the problem was, and you weren't doing things my way, but you were trying. I watched you work with Rafe on that probe reprogramming, and you handled him perfectly. I saw you taking time with Panowski, the way you were never too busy to handle anything that came up—as long as I wasn't involved. And I realized something, Mr. McKeon. Whatever else you may be, you're no hack. And you're not a plodder, either."

She leaned back, her eyes level.

"You screwed up. You did let me down, and the ship, and it could have been a disaster for all of us. But everyone screws up sometimes, Mr. McKeon. It's not the end of the world."

McKeon stared at her for a long, still moment, then exhaled a wracking breath and shook his head.

"I can't—" He paused and cleared his throat. "One of the things I was always afraid of was that if I told you, if you knew how I felt, you'd react exactly like this," he said huskily. "You wouldn't chew my ass out, wouldn't spit in my face. And that . . . Well, it scared me. It would have been the final proof that you really did deserve the job—and that I didn't. Do you understand what I mean, Ma'am?"

Honor nodded, and he nodded back.

"Stupid, wasn't it? I don't think a kid like Cardones or Tremaine is a worthless fuck-up just because he makes a mistake, admits a problem. But I couldn't admit that I had one. Not to you."

"Not stupid, Mr. McKeon. Just very, very human."

"Maybe," McKeon whispered, and stared down at his hands again. Honor let the silence linger for a few heartbeats, then cleared her own throat.

"But whatever the past was like, it's past," she said more briskly. "Isn't it, Mr. McKeon?"

"Yes, Ma'am." The executive officer straightened in his chair and nodded with matching briskness. "Yes, Ma'am, it is."

"Good." Honor stood and smiled at him across the table. "Because since it is, Mr. Exec, be warned! The next time I think you're slacking off, I'm going to kick your ass so hard you'll make it all the way to Basilisk Control on pure momentum! Is that clear, Mr. McKeon?"

"Yes, Ma'am." He rose from his own chair with a grin. It looked unnatural and out of place on the face which had been a mask for so long, but it also looked completely right, somehow.

"Good," Honor repeated more softly. She hesitated for just a moment, and then extended her hand across the table. "In that case, Commander McKeon, welcome aboard. It's good to see you back."

"Thank you." He took her hand and clasped it firmly. "It's good to be back . . . Skipper."


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