Heat danced across her throat as she quickly swallowed a mouthful of coffee. "Come in," Kathryn said into her mug before taking another sip and placing it down amongst the scattering of PADDs on her desk. The door parted with a hiss to admit her newly appointed First Officer, who looked tense and uncomfortable. With a hesitant step, he crossed the threshold to her ready room and moved towards her. With a tug at the sleeve of his jacket, he rolled his shoulder and came to a stop in front of her desk.

"Captain," he said with a nod.

"At ease, Chakotay." She smiled, sensing his trepidation. "We aren't official yet." Fidgeting with her comm badge, she asked, "Would you like some coffee."

He glanced down at her coffee mug, which was nearly empty. "No, thank you."

Watching him from behind her desk, she was impressed by how good he looked in uniform; the black and red suited his skin tone, highlighting the lines of his tattoo and the sparse grey hairs at his temples. He was handsome. "Anything?" She pressed, "Tea, water?"

"No, thank you." He gave a hesitant smile, "I'm fine."

She gestured for him to sit as she uncrossed her legs and leaned into her desk, lacing her fingers under her chin. A thousand questions filled her mind. "How are your quarters?" She tossed out, starting safe.

"Fine," he offered again, and she wondered if vagueness was his default.

"And your crew? How are they adapting to life on Voyager?" Her gaze flickered to his tattoo; intrigued, she wondered if she would ever get the chance to learn its origins.

"They're settling in," his passive face revealed nothing.

"Planning a mutiny, already?"

The corner of his mouth turned upward. "Let's just say some are having an easier time accepting our circumstances than others."

Kathryn sat back in her chair, crossing her arms over her chest, her eyes lifted toward the ceiling with a sigh. "I can only imagine." Then, after a beat, she looked back to his face, "And what about you? Are you accepting our circumstances?"

This time, he gave her the courtesy of considering his response rather than jumping to the affirmative. "I'm coming around." The intensity in his gaze matched her own, and he continued, adding, "I'm committed to getting home, Captain, to getting everyone, both Maquis and Starfleet, home. Despite what you may think of me-"

Kathryn held up her hand, silencing his presumptions. "I can assure you, Mr. Chakotay, my thoughts on a number of things have changed quite drastically in recent days." She inhaled as she recrossed her arms, tightening her hold on herself. "How'd they take the news? You becoming my first officer."

A slow grin started to spread, revealing the dimple in his cheek. "They'll come around."

Nodding thoughtfully, a thin line formed down the centre of her forehead, a distant look in her eye. "Do you trust me, Chakotay?"

He shifted uncomfortably but once again gave time to consider his answer. "Trust is a big thing, Captain," and she watched as he leaned forward, resting his forearms onto his thighs, clasping his hands together. "I respect you." His smile was polite, kind even, "and I trust you'll do everything in your power to get this ship back to the Alpha Quadrant." She sensed a 'but' coming. "I've been reading your file-" Her brow quirked at the thought as the door chime interrupted him before he could finish.

Kathryn gave a final appraising glance at the former Maquis captain, the handsome man in a crisp new Starfleet uniform, her new, self-appointed first officer and hoped like hell that she was making the right decision. "Come in."

The door opened, and for a moment, Kathryn wondered if she saw a glimmer of mirth reflected in his eye, a laugh in his expression over the irony that Tuvok, her smokescreen cum security officer, had interrupted their conversation about trust. And in that moment, a language without dialogue, an unspoken shorthand, began between them. Their eyes connected, and with a look, she responded—touche, Commander.

"Captain," Tuvok addressed her. "Are we ready to begin?"

Moving from behind her desk, she watched Tuvok proffer a small, simple black box, opening it to reveal pips denoting Chakotay's provisional rank of Commander.

July, 2378

"I know you understand, Kathryn, but for what it's worth, I'm sorry."

Pulled from her reverie by the sound of her name, her eyes flickered. Admiral Owen Paris stood beside her, his own eyes fixed on Lt. Reginald Barkley, who was applauding along with the assemblage before them in recognition of Lt. Commander Tuvok as he joined the senior officers on stage. As Reg called out another name, she glanced to her side and responded, "Please, don't be," under her breath, as Chakotay rose from his chair. A wistful smile found its way to her lips as she watched her First Officer approach the stage. "It's better this way," she whispered discretely, "this isn't about me."

"My dear," Admiral Paris split his attention for just a moment, glancing from Barkley to Kathryn and back again. "You're far too modest," his hushed tone made his voice sound harsh. "This is very much about you. Your promotion is well deserved and not long in coming if I have anything to do with it."

Tucking her chin to hide the colour rising on her neck, Kathryn swallowed down the rest of her thoughts on the matter. After a breath, she tightened the grip on her wrist clasped behind her back and looked up in time to watch Chakotay climb up on stage and settle himself next to Tuvok.

With the only official Starfleet business of the evening underway, they had moved on to promotions and commendations for the senior officers. And now that Chakotay stood at attention with the rest of the bridge officers, they could begin. Kathryn stepped forward, nodding her thanks to Lt. Barkley as she moved.

"Good evening," Kathryn smiled at the sea of faces before her. "I'll do my best to make this brief," she promised, her eyes scanning the crowd, making a connection with as many as she could. For so long, she had lived and breathed for the people in this room, and the significance of this night, celebrating the culmination of their collective triumphs, their dominance over the often cruel, damnably punishing Delta Quadrant, washed over her. They were the victors, the survivors, this group she had shepherded through the darkest regions of space, and they were home. Slowly, her smile faded into a sigh, heavy with the weight of remorse and relief—she started. "Nearly eight years ago, caught in a no-win scenario, I made a decision that affected many, many lives. The ripple of that decision extended 70,000 light-years back to the Alpha Quadrant, to our loved ones, the family and friends we left behind. But it also saved the lives of a race called the Ocampa. And it made an adversary (our first) out of a particularly unreasonable group called the Kazon." Kathryn paused and smiled fondly, "it brought us a girl named Kes and a Telaxian called Neelix." A few cheers erupted within the audience, and her smile deepened. "And set us on a journey into the unknown where we encountered new races and civilizations; where we witnessed new phenomena and made countless discoveries... and a few more enemies. But the biggest, most profound impact was on the lives of two crews, Starfleet and Maquis; one single decision and my, your—our lives—were forever changed."

"In order to survive, we were forced to unite, to live and work together as one crew. Shaped by our circumstances, crewmen became more than just comrades; we became friends and, in some ways, family. And Voyager became more than a ship; it was our home. It was a beacon of hope and survival and resiliency, a symbol of our tenacity that often preceded us. We were proof of life for the Alpha Quadrant. And throughout it all, these extraordinary men and women standing up here with me thrived, rising to meet not only my expectations as their Captain but also the challenges imposed on us by the Delta Quadrant." Kathryn continued speaking as she turned, her gaze drifting over her senior staff. "I am eternally grateful to each and every one of you," and then fluttered hesitantly, no longer seeking and unable to avoid Chakotay's waiting eyes, "and I would be lost without you."

A flash of unshielded vulnerability ricocheted between them, but their connection was over in a blink as Kathryn turned back to an already cheering crowd. "They are true leaders; their bravery and determination are unparalleled; their commitment to the ship and her crew should be celebrated; their promotions are very much deserving." Raising her hands, she began clapping, igniting a thunderous applause.

"Now, if you'll allow me," Kathryn smiled, lifting a finger to touch the corner of her eye, discretely stubbing out a bit of rogue emotion. "There is someone here tonight who, by virtue of her age, does not qualify for a promotion, but I think it is important that she is recognized for her very important contributions. Not only was Naomi Wildman the first child born on board Voyager, but she has faithfully served as the Captain's assistant for the last 18 months of our journey." There was a slight commotion in the middle of the audience as the young girl squeaked with excitement. "Naomi is a bright young lady; she is kind and incredibly loyal to her crewmates, and I'd like to ask her up here to assist me with one final task." Kathryn paused, scanning the crowd. "Naomi, where are you?"

"Here!" A small hand shot up quickly. "I'm here, Captain!" Naomi's excited voice floated up to the stage as she wove her way through the crowd.

"I need you to deliver this PADD to Commander Chakotay, ask him to review these sensor readings, and then meet me in Astrometrics in one hour. Understood?"

"Aye, Captain."

Kathryn watched Chakotay's eyes dance with affection as the young girl bounced up on stage, smiling brightly.

"Commander Chakotay asked me to bring you these reports so you can review them. And he also asked me to tell you," she paused to recall the message and then continued with a satisfied nod. "He checked the inventory in Cargo Bay 5. He said that he found something you might be interested in, and he wondered if oh-1900 is a good time?"

Kathryn grinned.

"I think he wants to show you what he found. Maybe it's classified because he wouldn't tell me what it is."

Slowly, they worked together, Naomi holding the small, black, ornamental boxes that contained promotional pips while Kathryn and Admiral Paris officiated the changes in rank. Moving down the line, she greeted each person, the sentiment of the night filling her with equal measures of pride and emotion. Harry Kim, Tom Paris, B'Elanna Torres, Tuvok. And finally, him. The anticipation of this moment hung in the air, and when their eyes met again, a placid, irenic look passed between them. Naomi shifted at Kathryn's side, "Hi, Commander!" she whispered, breaking the spell, forcing him to look down and bestow a dimpled grin upon her.

Admiral Paris began to speak, regaling the room with the Starfleet-approved details from Chakotay's past, his acts of valour, the depth of his commitment to his crew, and most importantly, the Prime Directive. And she thought, for a moment, there was a hint of a laugh in his expression.

Not a day had gone by since they last saw each other, that she didn't miss him. Her soul had been suffering in the most brutal way possible, but perhaps it was necessary. To feel completely unhinged, to sort out her misplaced guilt and grief and to understand that his place in her life held more meaning and was more important than she ever realized, and now, she needed to reclaim some semblance of that connection, on whatever level they could manage. With a breath, she stepped toward him, slipping her cold fingers beneath the collar of his shirt, the skin above his pulse blazing beneath her touch.

There was so much she wanted to say—forgive me, stay with me, I love you—but vulnerability was forever a losing battle. She felt his eyes burning into her as she accepted one pip at a time from Naomi. And like last time, Kathryn felt his skin ripple with goosebumps beneath her fingers, the sensation strangely familiar. Her eyes flickered, and she met his gaze and wondered if he was still as adept at reading her thoughts.

And the deed was done.

With his Captain's pips secured to the collar of his dress uniform, Kathryn slowly pulled her hand free, sliding it from his shoulder to cover his heart. "Congratulations, Chakotay," she whispered to him sincerely.

Chakotay leaned forward, and her eyes snapped to his shoulder; instinctively, she bowed her head, bringing her ear closer, the fluidity of this motion well practiced and accentuated by his hand, coming up to rest on her elbow, holding her still and pulling her in. "I'll find you later," he spoke gently over the applause that erupted behind her in a tone low enough that only she would hear. "I'd like to talk."

Nodding, she patted his chest—an old habit that had survived their return to Earth. Whatever he had to say, she wanted to hear it. Whatever came next was a chance to make amends and free herself from protocol and parameters. Pulling away from one another, she could still feel his hand on her arm, their connection as tangible as ever. Anticipation raced up her spine as she began clapping along with the crowd.