Disclaimer: I don't own them.

Rating: M for violence, content, general darkness of theme(s).

Notes: DARK. For Cheshire. A black thread of a "what if" partially inspired by someone else's that followed on "Center Mass". I don't name her story here because having heard the premise, she agrees it's really not her cup of tea, and the end result makes her sad, so I won't link them. I don't link any of them really to this one, necessarily, but they are the inspiration for it and do follow from those frayed little timelines and plots, so go back and find them if you feel you need them. Otherwise, this is just for dark lovers who like to stray from and back to the blurred lines of canon, and especially for Cheshire, who tirelessly waits for her dark fixes for years, sometimes, without complaint. *snuggles her* She probably betaed for this, too (we can't remember). Oh. And the Kelladians come from "Endgame"; I didn't entirely invent them.

"In Which We Burn"


Do you know why you're here, Captain?

Silence follows. The Watcher wants an answer. She's still reeling from his response to her last answer. Her breath comes in sharp pants that don't carry enough oxygen to support speech. Yet reaching equilibrium takes too long for his tastes. She knows this when fire sears into her belly, a heat that rears so intensely it could be ice for all her nerves can distinguish, and this is the part that burns the most.

She has faults aplenty. She's never been one to deny that pride is one of them, but she'd think loss of control is terrifying for anyone. That they can manipulate her own nervous system, mutilate her nerve endings into sending false signals to her own brain is untenable.

It's also quite true. There seems to be nothing she can do about it. She stopped caring three days ago; she thinks it was three days ago. It's not easy to trust the passage of time in the relative absence of sensory input she experiences when they aren't with her. That is a concept that is sinking into her with every estimated passing moment, actually: How little she can trust time.

But back to his question. Yes. She knows why she's here.

How much longer that will be true is anyone's guess.

We knew you would come. You're weak. Easily manipulated. We knew you would come when you heard him crying.

He keeps insisting this, and it hardly seems fair. What humanoid wouldn't follow the sound of a crying child around a darkened corner? Isn't that an instinct bred into all species that bear live young? Any one of them would have followed that sound instinctive–

Hell. God. Thor, Kahless, Q, anyone. A string of expletives and deities she doesn't remember calling on before wheezes out through her freezing throat. Absence of sensory input is preferable to the kind they're inputting now. If they would pick one method, and remember where they'd employed what yesterday, this probably wouldn't hurt so much. At least it didn't those first few days. She knows better than to ask whether it's deliberate or oversight, but the niggling suspicion that it's their log error remains and she finds herself asking it. Would a little communication between interrogators be too much to ask?

Damn. They don't find that as funny as she does. They don't find nearly the same dark humor in that concept as she knows at least Tom Paris would have. Of course Tom won't find much of anything funny once he's dead.

Will he?

We remember Harren. We have salvaged the recordings of his screams.Do you remember Harren, Janeway?

The two that had been based planetside in their final meeting with Xarvon swear they remember Mortimer: two that Chakotay had missed went he went determined Maquis operative on their leader almost a year ago.

She remembers that the little boy's voice was a recording too, that there was no one there when she rounded the corner. They probably killed him long ago – if he ever existed. She thinks she remembers the arm locking around her throat before she could tap her commbadge and the tingle of being dissected by a transporter beam. She remembers lights blinding her eyes, the cloth that looped over her head, blocking it out, and the blows that came immediately, dropping her to her knees while she tried to suck in air through a bruised diaphragm.

She remembers the sounds of ripping cloth, the nick of pain digging across her back from a blade otherwise slicing through sturdy Starfleet-issue cloth like it was warm, replicated butter. She doesn't have to remember the cracked hands tearing at fragile flesh or phantom fingers crawling roughly like spiders over her; that rarely stops for long. When one is bored with whatever novelty she still presents, there's always another ready to step in and replace him. One of the last things she will forget is that it took them less than three minutes to use these methods to rip the first of many recorded screams from her lips. Partly because they remind her of it so often.

But not Harren. No. She's trying not to remember how she failed him right now. Especially considering the likelihood that he'll be exposed to the same danger when Voyager comes after her. It will crush what's left of his soul when that happens and the others–

She's trying not to remember any of them.

You help strangers, Janeway. You help strangers and you damn your own crew. We will prevail because of it.

The smell of rotting voracity surrounds her, hunger of various kinds pouring over unwashed skins, suffocating the basic scent of blood, and the damnable thing is that they're right. She followed the sound of a strange crying child without a thought to the danger it could present to her own crew in the long run. For what? Why? What do compassion or humanity ever mean, in the end?

Any idea of atoning for some imaginary sin against these creatures was gone in the first five minutes of enjoying their renowned hospitality. All notion of a universe guided by reason, logic, the triumph of good over evil was murdered. Every last delusion about the control she exerts over the universe or its lesser inhabitants was vanquished.

They say she still makes sound, still fights back on occasion, but if that's true, it's all involuntary. The only presence left inside her body is a lingering thread of emotionless observation that hasn't yet been snapped in half. If she's aware of what they're doing, it's as a clinical observer. Nothing more.

Say our name. We are your death, the deaths of your crew. It will be the last word on your lips. It will be the last word on theirs. Say our name.

There had been a moment. Or maybe it had never come. Perhaps it was a dream, but she remembers the glint of sharp metal that had been left within arm's reach while they were distracted, busy with other parts of…while they were busy. She remembers the perfect, unyielding restraint holds had lagged, just for an instant, and that her foot connected with one of their distorted faces: A springboard, propellant motion, her bleeding fingers missing nails closing over the bare edge of alloy, ripping open freshly clotted lines of crimson but she hadn't felt any of it. Two words had choked out of her throat, elation suffusing her entire aching body as they stared at her in horror akin to that which they delighted in inflicting.

They expected her to be stupid, to try to go for one of them. That wouldn't have ended anything for more than one of the creatures, it never would have stopped them from success because there were too many of them. It had never occurred to her. She had known where salvation lay. She had known that even as she sunk the blade as deep as she could manage into the side of her own throat and there had almost been an end to this, she had been a tenth of a millimeter away from the end of this–

Someone grabs her matted hair and wrenches her head back, farther than it should go. It reopens the wound that has festered just below her jugular from that real or imagined failed attempt.

It will be the last word on your lips. It will be the last word on theirs. Say. Our name.

She knows their name – or at least, what they call themselves. For nearly a year she and her crew didn't know it, but they've repeated it often enough now that she doesn't fail this portion of the test. Kellidians.

They should have known that; she should have known it. She should have known that there were more, scattered like scouts, just waiting to be called together to avenge the deliberate murder of a group of their own.

Chakotay, of all people, should know about the reliability of information gleaned under torture. And so should she. One ship. One pack of wolves.

There are always more, somewhere else. There's never just one pack.

Kellidians.

This intent to endure us is meaningless. You help strangers, and your crew helps you. They will come for you. The one called Chakotay will come to you. We'll be waiting.

The grating voice of The Watcher on the intercom is maddening. He is the overseer, the director. He dictates every depraved act of "information gleaning" they inflict on her. If it had been him standing before her when she'd gotten to that blade, there may have been a moment's hesitation in her choice of targets. Only a moment. But he never sets foot in this room.

That she knows of. She knows only his voice. Not his face.

He's very insistent on her knowing that her crew is coming, that they would never leave her, and he demands that she acknowledge that this is what they're counting on. She does. In rare bouts of sane thought they've left her, she does know these things. That is the part that terrified her the most – at first. She feared the casualties of Voyager engaging these freaks of nature in any kind of firefight. And then time allowed her to see how false that fear was. Death isn't the worst that's happened to the members of her crew. Those that died early on are the lucky ones.

She remembers joy and a life before this; they haven't yet taken that. She can recall an understanding of personal dignity, a sense of physical and mental autonomy. In the interminable times her captors aren't with her, she swears over and over to herself these things existed and she once experienced them, but chronic pain is a cold, deceptive bitch. Pain croons that this is all that's ever been known, that everything before this was a dream and that it was all meaningless ether.

Through it all she can still see Chakotay, standing in front of that table in a long dark hall filled with smoke and cauterized blood and stone dust. Standing over her in Sickbay, his hand on her burning chest. She hears her own raw voice telling him that they can do this. Them. The two of them.

She was wrong. She thinks she's already said that.

Give us the specifications for defeating the Borg.

She no longer hesitates to tell them she should have used that hub. Chakotay was wrong a year ago, so very wrong, but it isn't his fault because the final say was hers. It's always been hers, and in the end, she listened to him. She let him talk her out of going back for it, once they realized what exactly it was that they had passed. It's mind-boggling to recall the way they were all breathing that sigh of relief for not having been engaged by the Queen or any of her damned cubes back when they thought that nebula was hiding nothing more than a single wormhole.

It's too late now to go back; they'd never make it a second time through the hellish territory they've traversed this past year, but if they had gone back right then…

You wouldn't be here now, with us. You would have died then instead of here, with us. You expect us to believe you would have defeated this many Borg?

It was only three months past that hive of Borg activity that Seven, beautiful Seven, came to her in the middle of the night, having realized what Voyager had passed. Janeway didn't sleep properly for weeks, thinking of all the repercussions of action, inaction.

Only she, Chakotay and Seven knew that hub had ever been there. And now, of course, Xarvon's followers do. She should care about the information she is giving them, about the power of sharing her knowledge of the Borg, but the human body has limits – she has limits, and they were reached and rereached days ago. The longer she talks about the Borg, the less time they have to grill her about Voyager, command codes, shield frequencies and weapons.

The longer she talks, the less time they have to apply open flame to half-closed wounds around broken, nail-less fingers.

It's time, Janeway. Time we used tactics we've been saving to get you to cooperate with us. We're sorry you've forced us into this.

Sorry, like hell. She's the one who's sorry, for so many things. She didn't think there was a way for them to inflict further indignity on her than they have already, and she was wrong. When they crowd into the foul cell they've kept her in, assembled in a loose line, it's time that strikes her most strongly. The fragile nature of it. The oneway directionality of it. The falsity of it all, the mirage of its perfection and its unpolluted stream.

It's here and now, inside of this cell and outside of other things, hard, invading things, that Kathryn Janeway's budding hatred for Time solidifies because it grinds to a screeching halt around her, abandoning her to her own pathetic and fragmented coping devices. In a half dazed, dissociated way, she remembers Braxton and his insipid insistence in worshiping the blessed sanctity of Time and inwardly, she laughs at that notion now. Really, it's nothing more than an invented concept they mistakenly fear. It's a dimension, senseless and cruel. It's as false an idol as her sense of righteousness was when she blew up that array and again when she ordered Voyager to keep going past that hub.

Time does its worst to her, the Kellidians do their worst with Time's complicity, and it's a vicious worst on both accounts. An uncaptainly thought comes to her. It's not the first, this thought, but it's striking in its jarring irreverence, and she clings to its ugly weight like a lifeline, repeating it in her head over and over again. To hell with Time. And to hell with the Kellidians, too. To hell with each and every one of them. If ever she had contemplated the righteousness of genocide it has to be right–

Give us the likely location of Voyager. Tell us how to disable the ship. Do this, and we may show them the kindness your leadership won't afford them. We may let some of them live.

That would be the cruelest thing they could do. They still think she labors under certain delusions they disavowed her of a long time ago.

Tricolored eyes flash in front of her and the weights pressed against her cease crushing broken bones for an insidious instant. Voyager. They want it. She knows where they are. They're coming. Her captors know this too. They just don't want to be surprised by exactly when and how it does.

Chakotay is coming because he won't be able to live with letting her die here, at their hands, and at their time of choosing. Before, he might have been able to live with it. But now? He'll put the whole fucking ship at risk to save something that was damned before it had ever begun. It's almost funny, and the one relevant thing she'd ever learned in the single drama class she'd suffered through in high school just to please her artsy mother and sister comes to her out of nowhere. Suddenly, it's the truest thing she's ever heard, anywhere: quantum mechanics and warp propulsion theory be damned.

"Do you know…the difference," she asks the eyes slowly, words difficult to create around swollen masses of dried blood inside of her mouth, "between…tragedy and…comedy?"

It takes a minute for the words to spit back out over the Kellidian ship's translational speakers. The heavy lidded black skin around the eyes flares, and the brutal stabbing into her from somewhere above shouldn't surprise her but it does.

One is funny and one is not.

It's more of a snarl than anything else that has come through those speakers. She's impressed with herself.

"No. Even more…fundamental." While she tries to regain the breath that has been pounded out of her, she can see the eyes don't understand. She would smile at the impotent fury if she could and settles for a muted tsk-ing sound that needs no translation. "What are they teaching…in Kellidian schools…these days?"

Tell us, Janeway. Tell us the answer to your riddle before we relieve you of the ability to speak.

A fair proposal, considering the others she's been presented with here. Especially considering what she knows firsthand of their methods for doing what they threaten, and particularly remembering the agony of being contorted and pounded while her air supply is cut off for long minutes at a…

"Timing," she enlightens them with a certain epiphanic glee that has come from nowhere sane.

She can't tell if they're impressed or not. It does seem like a few moments before they start in on her again. Oh but when they do…

Tell us

Whether the crackle and fade of the interrupted question is mechanical, intentional or what she dares not hope it is takes several moments to be revealed. There's movement around her, unusual movement, but all she can do is to lie on the freezing floor and try to breathe in broken breaths during the moments they seem to have lost interest – and her investment in the answer to the question seems to be nowhere she can conveniently locate it anyway.

She's barely conscious for the extraction, but she knows what her dreams tell her as she recovers in sickbay, staring at a ceiling full of kaleidoscoping colors someone thought would stimulate her recovery. She sees the fuzzy trail of dead aliens on the grated floors, the narrow, knowing rage in the eyes of the mute security team that infiltrated the ship where she was held. Tuvok's unhinged muttering in Vulcan when they called him to her cell, afraid to move her sticks in her ears, ringing there. She remembers his eyes burning sunfire rage above her and thinking they had to be icy to the touch. She has a physical memory of reaching up to check and realizing that the bloody mess in front of his face was her own hand before nausea flooded her and she had to turn her head. Pink saliva pooled on the filth-smeared crisscrossing of dirty metal below her swollen cheekbone. There was a single broken breath wheezed in the foul air before a pinching pressure to her neck made blackness fall around them.

It was the first time in what she now knows was twenty days that she was allowed to sleep, uninterrupted, for more than an hour or two.

The scent of Voyager helps, but it hasn't been the same smell since…

She shouldn't be conscious. She doesn't think they know that she is conscious. She's never seen Seven quite like this. The doctor should never have let her in here. It's too soon.

Seven. Beautiful Seven. Janeway hears the Watcher's voice sounding all around them. She remembers them asking about Seven. She doesn't remember what she told them about her. Why can't she remember what she told them about Seven?

Is her skin as soft as yours was, when we first met you?

They never asked that. She's imagining things. There should not be this drowning panic filling her lungs, making it impossible for her to get recycled air.

Are they hunting Seven right now, as she lays helpless to stop them on this god-forsakenly hard biobed? Is Seven of Nine next on their list of targets? The captain can't rationalize away the heavy terror that chokes her at this thought, and maybe it's the drugs that keep her from actively feeling the pain in her ravaged body, but a moment of complete clarity is so rare in this universe that she knows she can't let it pass.

There are always more. There's never just one pack.

Her still-cracked lips must move, her raw throat has to work. Seven has to understand the rasping words she forms, and her protégé must follow this order even if she follows nothing else she is directed to do ever again.

"Seven. Go to Chakotay. He needs you. Be there for him now. Do you…understand?"

Seven looks afraid, probably at the intensity of the order. But she nods, assuring her captain that she does understand.

Kathryn knows the former drone doesn't, not really, even as the stricken blonde nods and the doctor's fluttering presence imposes itself over their hushed conversation. Her vital signs are screaming out alarms to the cosmos as the EMH chides Seven for upsetting "the patient". The hypospray reminds her of a mouth with flat, tearing teeth sinking into her neck, even absent of the bite of imagined needles at its head, but she goes willingly into darkness now only because she knows Seven heard her.

She knows he will at least keep her safe. Chakotay has proven that he will kill for the woman he loves. Or thinks he loves. He's never been entirely good at making that distinction, and that's what she's counting on in these moments of weakness ahead of him while she recovers.

Days are lost to fits of sleep and drugs while the ship flees ahead, banking on speed to let them escape from any lingering hornets nests of roaming aliens that killing this last group may have stirred out from under the cosmic rocks surrounding them. Being weaned off the drugs is less fuzzy, but no less painful.

The doctor tells her that her body will reject the perfect-looking prosthetic fingers he's fitted her with if she drinks even a modicum of precious coffee. Decaffeinated tea for three months. Water, milk or juice. Nothing else. It may as well be a damned lifetime. She prowls the corridors at night, the damned cane propping her up, an albatross signaling personal defeat.

The ship is half destroyed but only half. Fortunately Tom had the presence of mind to think to block her command codes. She doesn't remember them ripping those codes from her parched lips but the evidence is here, all around her that even the most determined soul can break. It's nothing she didn't already know. It's nothing she hadn't realized. She wishes she had done a better job of ensuring that her crew didn't have to realize this.

They tell her it was Tuvok who changed the codes when they picked up the Kellidian's warp trail, and she tells herself they're right, that he's still fit for duty, but none of that is true. Even as far gone as she was, she saw the unhinged gleam in Tuvok's eyes. She passes him on her way to the broken command chair. He appears to have recovered sufficiently but she knows, deep inside, that it was the precursor of more episodes to come, and the guilt in Tom's blue eyes betray him. He knows, knew it too. He is the ship's medic, after all.

Tom holds Miral against his hip in the mess hall, offering her that once-boyish smile now lined with fatherhood and maturity, and she realizes with a start that little Miral is the only one in this room quite looking her in the eye.

Chakotay can't look at her. He tries. He tries like hell but all he can manage is to look at her still-scarred chin, her hair, or the wall just over her shoulder. The best he can muster is a shaking hand brushing her shoulder on his way to the door leading out of her entombed ready room, and the best she can do is to restrain the flinch of revulsion until the tip of his last finger slides past the cloth on her skin and the whispers of alien rasps against her neck fade into ghostly echoes.

He can't look at her and see his failure, and she can't stand to be touched, and reminded of hers. This is a friendship built to last.

It's wrong.

She once thought that they could make it through anything – even finding out that they wouldn't work while she captained this ship and he served as her executive officer. The latter, they've found out painfully to be true in recent weeks. The former, not so much.

Again, she tries to tell herself that what she did eight years ago was right. It couldn't have happened any other way. It was one hundred and fifty lives in exchange for several thousand.

Several thousand is a smaller and smaller number every day – so much smaller, and one hundred and thirty-nine grew larger by the moment, with every damning number Xarvon's followers tore out of her bleeding mouth. She'll be damned if she didn't spend the first week it took Voyager to find her in that hellhole trying to pinpoint where and when it all went wrong, but it started somewhere after that first day, and then again with Seven. It started with Chakotay, and with her.

"We should have used that hub," he says. He's a ghost of the man who's been standing by her side for nearly a decade, and from his paling lips, it's both a prayer and a curse. "That's where we went wrong."

There's only one place he could've gotten that thought. Only one way he could have…

Slowly, she turns and looks at him. His eyes are rooted to the floor, but not to this one. He's staring into a floor in the past that was clean, with carpets that weren't ripped and burnt, supporting a woman who was whole on an intact ship that was manned by a crew that wasn't going hungry from lack of resources. It's times like these that Ransom's words echo in her head and Noah Lessings' eyes burn into her through the many bulkheads that she has ensured will separate them until they get home.

"We should have used that hub," the shell of Chakotay repeats, convincing himself of the truth of that statement as he says it.

Bold words from the man who'd backed her up against her own desk nine months ago, promising they'd all die if she tried it, the way she wanted to: the way she'd known that they could do, if he would only believe in her one more time. She was out of her mind with pain when that thought had left her own throat, and hearing it repeated to her now, after all of it, is infuriating. That he should know secret resentments and misgivings that she wasn't ready to share is nothing less than a crucial violation of her privacy. On top of those she's endured at the hands of strangers already, it's twice as discordant. She wants to open her dry mouth and snap at him that he's right, that they damn well should have, but her chin lifts at the last instant, and her eyes glint hard sapphire resistance.

Xarvon's followers weren't right. They will never be right. Chakotay was right back then, and he's dead wrong now, in so many ways.

He's wrong. He should never have listened to whatever he'd found and that it haunts him now is his own damned fault. It never would have worked. It would have endangered too many other civilizations, too many lives. Strangers, maybe, but this crew knows the equation well enough without her having to say it. The many, the few.

The One.

She gave the order to keep going, and that was the right thing to do. For the universe, but for them, too. Especially for them.

They were too fragile to withstand another blowup over approaching the Borg. She knew it then, and she knows it now. Oh the many things she knows now that she wishes she had known a long time ago. Time again. It's been anything but her friend these past eight years. She's starting to hate it, truth be told. Clear-headed, that burn that had begun on the Kelladian deckplates is no less intense.

Chakotay's waiting. Waiting to be told he's wrong. Waiting to be agreed with. Waiting for ablution, salvation, to be made whole again, waiting for a lot of things. None of those things can he find here, in this room. She isn't ready to absolve him for putting her ship at risk to come for her. She can't free either one of them of the burden of seven lives that have been the cost of their collective decisions.

She can do only one thing for him. One hard, horrid, selfless thing. Because she loves him, loves both of them, she will.

"Check on Seven, and then get some rest, Chakotay," she says. "We'll talk in the morning."

They won't, but he already knows that. If he's honest with himself, and she knows he won't be, it's a relief to know they won't.

The next morning's eulogy is tough, rougher still than any that's come before. She gives a cracking speech with dry burning eyes and seven is a larger number than any that's come before because these seven didn't die for strangers. They died for her, specifically for her. They died because Chakotay couldn't make the tough decision one last time. He'd been almost broken by making it the first time, and crumpled beyond repair by facing it the second. There can't be another time. He doesn't have that left in him. Whether or not he knows it is entirely irrelevant – but she suspects that he does.

After the ceremony, he tries to stop her from leaving with a hand on her elbow, and she openly flinches. Her eyes land heavy on thick fingers curled around her brittle thin bone, and she makes no effort whatsoever to mask the nauseating revulsion coursing through her when she raises her eyes to his. She absorbs the hurt and the shock on his stricken face as he releases her like she's burned him instead of the other way around, and she expresses only open relief at the severed contact.

Without a word, she moves to the doors, leaving him standing there, looking struck across the face.

From the corner of her eye, she sees Seven migrate uncertainly to his side and she suppresses a second flinch entirely.

As she makes her stunted way through the doors looming large ahead, the crowd of people parting to make way for her are a blurred, indistinguishable mass and that's so much easier. Because if she had to see them, note their individual expressions, count them right now, she wouldn't be able to deny the seed of quiet obsession that has formed in her mind despite her vehement rejection of the poisonous premise. She would have to admit that her math is no longer adding up, that there are mistakes that can't be undone, crossroads they have passed where they have made the absolute wrong turn under her direction.

It's only later, in the silence of her bedroom, as she sets aside the cane and collapses heavily onto her stiff and empty bed that she can't deny it anymore. The ugly truth is that she no longer has a plan for mastering this mess she's plunged them into. She no longer believes she is going to get them home in one piece.

Anger is a funny thing, especially anger at one's self. It allows her mind to wander, to cross certain boundaries that are not meant to be crossed. Exhaustion unbinds her thoughts, like a thread of yarn being pulled apart string by tiny string, and one of them catches at another thread, joining two ideas that were never meant to touch in her newly-healing mind. Her thoughts. Winding together, unwinding like the threads of Time.

If only she had a way of mastering Time, of twisting and mutilating it the way she has been twisted and mutilated. She would give her life, what's left of it, to be able to do what no human is allowed to, to go back and undo certain decisions. No person is allowed to do that. There are laws, principles that cannot be violated, with good reason, of course. Or so she's told herself since she first heard the words "Temporal Prime Directive". It's a lie. All of it. She has known it to be true for decades and it is false. What else has she "known" to be true?

If she could undo any of those actions that prick and stab at her in the dark of night and go back, for only a few precious moments, she probably would have used that hub. Perhaps she would do more, if she had the ability.

It should be more jarring to realize that she would do it and yet it isn't. All she feels is righteous anger. Certainty. To bring back those she has lost, must accept that she will lose out here, she would tear apart the threads of all eternity, pulling them out one by one, and she would do it without any hesitation. For why, exactly, should she fear or continue to respect something as vicious and fickle as Time? She can envision herself gathering its subjective threads in her tight prosthetic fist and ripping them out of their perfect framework just to return the lives she has stolen from a group of good people who have so blindly and mistakenly followed her. It would be the least that she could do for them. Here, in the space between a wrong reality and the dreams that will haunt her when she falls into them, it doesn't seem like such an abhorrent thing. Why is Time the only thing that isn't allowed to be touched? Oh, she knows the erudite reasons they drilled into her back at the academy, can faintly hear herself repeating the same drivel back to Tom years ago when they were different people, when it was other lives at stake, but somehow, the logic just isn't as weighty as it had always seemed before.

Time be damned, she decides with a certain delicious and freeing finality. Let it be as damned as she is, as damned as she's made her crew. Bared of ceremonial and blind dogmatic dressing, it's no stronger than any foe she's defeated to date; it's no different than any other enemy she's faced. And like those that have come before it, if it isn't going to play nicely with others, she'll have to show it the error of its ways. Just as she has the Borg, the Hirogen, species 8472 and now, the Kellidians.

Not that she's jumping to conclusions or making decisions without all the facts. No good scientist ever does that, and it would be premature. They'll see what the future holds, of course. Maybe this was the worst of it, and they'll make it home without further trauma and senseless loss. But if not…if not, she need not be boxed into a reality where she doesn't have the final say on the outcome of this journey. It doesn't all have to be senseless, irreversible loss. She only has to be determined enough, smart enough to outthink the temporal nature of the universe. That's all.

A small smile forms on her lips, the first with any trace of genuineness for a while as the newfound freedom from conventional restraint carries her off into a rare, dreamless sleep.

They'll see what steps she is forced to take to undo what has already been done. In the end, Time will tell.

It always does.


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