A/N: HOLY CRAP, IT'S ME AGAIN! Thanks for your patience, and I hope you don't mind the extra-long chapter - felt you kind of deserved it after my lengthy absence.
Thanks to DrZevil for his assistance with this chapter, and other general stuff!
Azhasca spent some time in her office, composing herself as she came to terms with the enormity of what she personally faced - a return to to the place she had feared, the place she had lost so much...the captain's chair. She built her personal roster of officers she wanted with her, filling every major position she could think of with someone she trusted.
Bobbi would be her First Officer, undoubtedly - she was Azhasca's rock, and also the only one capable of calling the Trill out on a bad decision. Womers, with his expertise in warp core technology, made him an ideal choice for Chief of Engineering. Aryju Pekeez, a Bajoran science officer with secondary training in command skills, was tentatively chosen as Azhasca's Second Officer - it was difficult to be certain of positions, when she didn't even know what ship she was getting, but it was better to have a rough framework to get started with.
That left the CMO, and Azhasca had chosen the assigned medic from her own dock team - the twitchy, quiet, mildly peculiar human, Katrice Ling Divis.
All of these appointments would likely involve hefty promotions for most if not all of the officers she was picking, and the paperwork alone would be a bureaucratic nightmare, but since she didn't need to deal with it she couldn't care less - Quinn was forcing her into her position, so he could damn well deal with the fallout.
With all of that arranged as best as she was able, Azhasca sighed heavily and contacted Bobbi, asking for the Hades' Chief of Operations to come to the office. If she was going to be leaving on a mission of her own, then a proper update needed to be given to Zevil's staff.
It wasn't long before the door chime sounded, and Azhasca marveled at the officer's efficiency - almost no-one was ever so swift in dealing with dock crews, and it was a pleasant surprise to be shown some respect for once.
"Come," Azhasca called, setting her PADD aside, and turning towards the door with her best official smile on.
Her expression died the minute Lieutenant-Commander Six stepped through the door.
With some liberated Borg drones, the aftermath of their assimilation was virtually invisible - some left-over scarring, perhaps, or a prosthetic limb with carefully-matched synthetic skin.
Such was not the case with Six of Nine, known to her friends and crew simply as Six. An arched implant of dark metal framed the top and side of her left eye, which itself had been replaced with a prominent scope with bright green lighting, and a remnant section of exoskeleton covered her left hand.
In short, she was quite possibly the worst possible person to visit Azhasca at that moment.
"You wished to see me, Lieutenant Pezhal? Is there an issue with the repairs?"
Azhasca stared at Six, her eyes going wide with fear. Her jaw worked soundlessly for a few seconds, before the Trill stumbled out of her chair and backed away from the liberated Borg.
She winced as fragmented memories flashed through her mind - the multi-layered, perpetual voice of the Collective, the beams of light from their augmentations, the cutting tools grafted to their arms...
The screams. So, so many screams. So many crew members that she saw killed or assimilated before her eyes.
So many screams.
"No," she breathed, sweating in terror. "No! You won't take me! You won't take me! Get away from me, you half-dead creature!"
Six was shocked, but not altogether surprised. She had half expected to be greeted like this at some point after her return to Starfleet, but as of yet she had been fortunate enough to not come across it yet. "Lieutenant," she said, trying to make her voice as soothing as possible and not move any closer, "I am not part of the Collective anymore, you have nothing to fear from me."
Azhasca tried to breathe steadily, but she couldn't fight the panic rising within. She heard the words, but still heard the voice of the Collective - flat, emotionless, infinite and terrifying. She shook her head, trying to form words, tears running down her cheeks as she backed herself against the wall.
"No," she said again, in a much smaller voice, her lips trembling with the need to cry. "No...not again, I won't...I-I can't..."
She turned around, searching the wall as if seeking to escape through it, and she continued to shake her head.
"Not again," she sobbed quietly.
This course of action is not effective, thought Six. It is time to call in reinforcements. But who?
"Lieutenant," Six tried again, with the same soothing tone, "Is there someone I can call to help you? A counselor or friend?"
When Six received no answer, she went to plan B. "Six of Nine to Admiral Zevil." Six said quickly.
"Go ahead Lieutenant Commander," Zevil said after a few seconds.
"I have a...situation in the Dock Masters office." She replied, risking a side look at the still cowering Trill.
For a while, Six heard nothing through the com, but then Zevil's voice spoke up. "I've called someone I believe can help the Lieutenant. Just wait there for her. And Six?"
"This was not your fault." He told her with compassion.
Six held back a sob of her own. How does he always know what to say to me? she thought with a watery smile, but said in a cracked voice, "I will try to remember that, sir. Six of Nine out."
A few minutes later, in which Six continued to try and get some sense out of the stricken Lieutenant, the office door slid open and someone swore quietly.
"No disrespect, ma'am," Bobbi said to Six, moving past her to approach her friend, "but someone really fucked up by sending you."
She carefully moved closer to Azhasca, reaching out towards her.
"Azh honey?" she said softly. "It's Bobbi. I'm here for you."
"Bobbi?" Azh asked in a panicked voice, whipping around to see what fresh horror awaited her.
Instead she was greeted by the warm, smiling, human features of her friend and former lover, and she cried brokenly as she collapsed into Bobbi's arms.
"You should go for now, Commander," she told Six, stroking Azhasca's back. "I'll meet you shortly to discuss the repairs."
She turned back to Azh, stroking her hair and whispering soothing words in an attempt to calm her down.
"Of-of Course Lieutenant." Six said as she backed away, but as she was turning away from the two women, Bobbi could have sworn that she heard the former Drone whisper "I'm sorry." before she quickly left the office.
Some time later, Azhasca was stood in the dock's observation deck, looking out at the passing ships without really seeing them. She had spent the previous hour crying brokenly into Bobbi's shoulder, then crying into her own hands, and then finally pulling herself together enough to pretend she was stable enough to command again.
For the third time in twenty minutes, she ran her fingers across the four circular pips at her collar, marking her as an official Captain in Starfleet. She took a deep, shuddering breath as her heart began to race again, but she fought it back into some semblance of control before she had yet another panic attack.
Azhasca tried to remember that everyone kept saying how she was ready for this, how well-deserved it was, and that Starfleet needed her skills back on the front lines. They told her she was tough, that she would do well, that her experience mattered.
And yet, every time she closed her eyes, she still saw-
-sickly green light, pulsing down the corridor already modified to suit the Borg, assimilated crewmen hunting her as she ran-
-echoes of the past that still haunted her. How was she supposed to do this, she wondered? How was she supposed to command a ship again, when she could barely function without drinking through the day?
A warm, lightly-spiced scent intruded on her thoughts, and she was aware of another figure stepping up beside her. A mug of hot chocolate was placed in front of her, and Azhasca gave a sideways glare to Admiral Kassai.
"Isik for your thoughts?" she asked, but Azhasca didn't turn.
"I could tell you if I knew what one was."
"No idea," Lydana answered, "but then neither does anyone else in Starfleet, so I don't think it matters."
Azhasca ignored the diminutive admiral, sampling her beverage instead.
"How did you know what drink I liked?"
"Intelligence hobby," she said, without further explanation.
"You...look into other officers' drinking preferences?"
"Among other things.
The petite admiral's cheeky grin implied Azhasca did not want to enquire any further about that, and she went back to glaring into her drink.
"You're making the right choice," Lydana told her. "We-"
"Cut the bullshit, Admiral," Azhasca snapped, turning to face Lydana at last. "I'm not stupid. For two years Quinn's been telling me I've made such a difference to the dock teams, that repair times are the best they've ever been, and now all of a sudden he wants me back in the chair?" She snorted derisively. "Don't make me laugh. Especially since you and Admiral Zevil are well-known for plotting together, and you both tried to get me back in the chair yourself."
Lydana stared at her in tense silence for a moment, sipping her spiced tea, then gave a slow nod.
"Okay, you're right," she said softly. "And I'm not sorry about it. When we tell you that you're need out there, we aren't lying - the threats we face are only growing, and we need every available captain we can get our hands on. You have more than enough experience, but above that you can be more than you are-"
"I think I'm plenty, thank you," Azhasca cut in. "I've done a damn good job here, and I was going to continue that until you and Zevil interfered."
"Better this than wallowing in your own misery," Lydana argued, then raised a hand to stop any further comment from Azhasca. "And you are, before you try arguing with me. And while this discourse is immensely fascinating, I have your first mission."
Azhasca bit back a curse, clenching her jaw tight. If she'd been assigned a mission, there was no backing down now.
"Fine. What is it?"
Lydana began walking, beckoning for Azhasca to follow.
"Tell me Captain, what do you know of the Europa-class ships?"
Azhasca frowned, mildly confused.
"They're...a new class of heavy battlecruiser, designed to function as a fleet flagship. Named after the USS Europa, captained by Admiral Anderson, lost at the Battle of the Binary Stars. Why are you asking me about a-"
Azhasca stopped in her tracks, mouth wide open as she saw the vast ship pulling into dock. Comprising a large saucer section with four huge warp nacelles, mounted in a traditional two-up-two-down configuration, the Europa-class was even more massive than she had heard. It was a cleaner design than its namesake, being made with 25th century materials and streamlined to reflect the modern design aesthetic, but no less imposing.
"The USS Phoenix," Lydana announced. "I thought the name rather fitting, given her new captain."
Azhasca looked at her, dumbfounded.
"Me?! You're giving that to me?!"
"You have the experience to handle it. Plus, we needed to give you something that can handle itself in a fight."
"We've lost contact with Starbase 82. We want you to head over there and find out what's happened, and if there's a chance it was enemy action...there are more than two hundred people on that station. We need to know."
"And exact revenge if they've been killed?"
"I prefer the term 'retribution', has a really nice ring to it, but yes."
Azhasca stared at the giant vessel - her vessel, now - and nodded slowly.
"Fine. I'll see what's going on. But don't expect me to come back sane."
With that, she marched away from Lydana, heading down the corridor to the boarding tube for her new command.