From the shuttle he called to explain to Laris and Zhaban that his return home would be delayed again. He thanked them for managing—and repairing—the household, for overseeing the harvest, and, of course, for looking after Number One. Laris was displeased with him. "Well, you didn't die, I'll give you that," she allowed, arching one upswept eyebrow at him. "Had to take down the entire bloody Zhat Vash while you were out there, though, didn't you?"

"He did have the sense to get help, Laris." Zhaban exchanged a patiently amused look with Picard as he bent down to rub the dog's head. "Don't worry about us. We'll be here when you get back, Admiral."

"No, no, he's gone off and made himself Ambassador now," she corrected him, throwing her hands up. "Right. Off with you then."

"I'll be back soon, Laris," Picard promised her. "Take care of yourselves." It was an unnecessary entreaty; the caretakers, former Tal Shiar, were more than capable of handling any situation, as they'd proven again so recently. Laris harrumphed at him as she signed off—but he was sure that he caught a smile from her before she did.

He saw Beverly glancing over with a thoughtful look as he sat back and swiveled away from the comm panel. "What?"

She looked about to say one thing, then reconsidered and went in a different direction. "The Gregor Mendel doesn't usually get assigned to diplomatic shuttle duty. But we used to ferry ambassadors around all the time on the Enterprise. I was just remembering some of those missions."

"Ah. And our roles are rather different now." He nodded, thinking back himself. "If it helps, I can assure you that I will not turn out to be a Romulan spy at the end of this."

Her lips turned up. "Well, that's a relief. Especially under the circumstances." She hesitated, then checked the autopilot settings and stood. "You didn't have a chance to eat earlier, right? I thought I'd have something now."

She made her way down to the aft crew compartment, currently configured for daytime use with a table set in the middle, and he followed. Ordering her meal from the replicator, she tried to force herself to relax, but she was still tense, she knew; she couldn't quite pretend things were normal, not after all this time, and especially not this. The informal custom they'd kept for so many years, unlike any other she knew, of simple breakfasts together—it was something she'd missed desperately in the early days, before the new normal took hold. And then, once she'd assumed her command, she'd understood all the more how the life of a captain was solitary in many ways. Even as she did make a point to socialize with her crew when she could, she'd never found another breakfast companion. Well, of course she hadn't. There was an intimacy assumed along with it that had always been unique to Jean-Luc.

Staring at her usual plate of scrambled eggs and fruit, she was struck by more old memories. When had she stopped eating the croissants that used to be their daily staple? Had it even been a conscious decision? It had been so long she must have forgotten entirely.

No, you haven't.

Feeling her cheeks flush, Beverly picked up the plate and her coffee and stepped away from the replicator. "Help yourself," she offered.

"Thank you."

She eyed him curiously as he ordered his tea and pain à la tomate and joined her at the table. It appeared she wasn't the only one who'd changed her habits. "Decaf?"

A wry smile. "Laris has chided me enough to make the change."

"Well done Laris," she said in approval.

"One must make some concessions to age, I suppose."

"If not to one's doctor?"

"I never was particularly good at following medical advice," Picard conceded, taking a careful sip from the steaming mug. He raised his eyebrows at her. "On account of general stubbornness, mind. It wasn't personal."

"Good to know," she said dryly. "I'm sure I couldn't match the Tal Shiar for persuasiveness, in any case."

"Hmm. Are you sure? That isn't my recollection."

Beverly shook her head at his amused look. "Right." She took a swallow of coffee, relaxing as the warmth spread throughout her, and asked the question that had been on her mind earlier. "Why didn't they come with you?"

"Laris—?"

She nodded. "You found Raffi; you found Elnor. Why didn't Laris and Zhaban come with you?"

His smile faded. "I didn't want them to. I didn't want to put them at greater risk."

"But they could have been helpful."

"They were helpful, very much so, after Dahj found me and the Zhat Vash attacked us at my home. But there was very little chance I would succeed. I couldn't ask them to do more for me, given the odds."

"Did they want to?"

He shook his head. "I didn't want anyone to help me simply out of personal loyalty. If something had happened to either of them—"

"And Will, and Deanna?"

Picard sighed. "I didn't intend to involve them either."

Beverly tilted her head. If she didn't know him she might have been confounded by his penchant for refusing to ask for help, assuming it was due to ego or a misguided, paternalistic attempt to protect others from their own choices. But she understood that there was something deeper going on. "So you made the decision for them," she said. "Why?"

Her voice was gentle rather than accusing, and Picard found himself glad for the real invitation to speak, when so often in recent weeks he'd been put on the defensive instead. "Data's daughter came to me for help. I failed to save her. There was little hope of saving her sister, but I had to try. I had to. Can you understand? Data sacrificed himself for me. For me. I have felt that loss so deeply. I never even had the chance to make a decision, it all happened so quickly. But it should never have been him."

All too clearly she remembered that day: the chaos in sickbay as casualties poured in from the battle, the stunned voice of Will Riker coming over her combadge as he said, It's Data. Her breath had stopped in her chest from grief and from fear and then he said, Beverly, the captain…. And she had raced to the bridge and found Jean-Luc amidst the scattered debris of his half-destroyed ready room, numb and almost unresponsive, and the haunted look in his eyes as he'd seen her was mirrored by the shadow in them now. She swallowed. "You were trying to stop Shinzon. The thalaron weapon..."

"But I wasn't able to. Data came after me and succeeded...and he died."

"Yes."

Picard gripped the tea mug. "Sometimes I still feel furious that he sacrificed himself for me. It wasn't right—he should have outlived all of us. When Dahj came to me, I thought that I could finally make it right. But if the cause was so hopeless, how could I allow anyone else to risk themselves for me in the attempt?"

Beverly studied him for a moment and then said quietly, "You tried to sacrifice yourself for Soji. Do you regret doing that?"

He lifted his gaze to meet hers. Yes, he was glad, beyond measure, that she had been there to save him, but before that— "Not for an instant."

"Of course you don't. It's who you are, Jean-Luc. And it's who Data was, too." Her gaze was steady and sympathetic all at once. "Didn't you ever think that Data made his own choice? That it was the most human thing he could have done."

He looked away again, pondering her words, but still struggling with the memory of that day. "Soji...said that he loved me."

"I believe that." Her throat tightened. How dark a place had he gone to, she wondered, to even question that, to believe himself so unworthy? "Data knew exactly what he was doing. Just like you did. And it was his choice to make. Loyalty—love—it isn't something to fear or lament."

He grimaced. "Rationally, I do know that, of course. It just has proven...difficult to accept."

"Is that still true?"

He regarded her keenly. If not for so much time spent in self-indulgent brooding over mortality, he thought, he might have been able to truly see it before now. But the exercise in humility that had been this past month, and the clarity that her patient words brought him, allowed him to understand that the only proper response to the loyalty—and yes, love—that he somehow had managed to merit from some of those closest to him, was gratitude. "No. No, I don't believe it is any longer." He paused. "Though part of me wishes I could say that to Data himself."

"I think you're probably doing the next best thing, Ambassador," she said, and he smiled back at her in appreciation. A thought striking her, Beverly took a sip of coffee, then pushed back from the table and moved to her sleeping alcove. "That reminds me."

"Oh?"

Opening her travel bag, she pulled out a few colored pencil sketches of Soji Asha—because maybe she can keep them on her homeworld now, a handwritten note on top explained. Beverly smiled as she studied the drawings, and turned to hand them to Jean-Luc, who had come up behind her.

"Kestra asked if you could give these to Soji."

"Yes, of course. How thoughtful of her."

"There might be one more—" Another folded sheet had fallen to one side, but as she opened it and saw the photograph tucked inside, she stopped abruptly. From Deanna and Will's wedding reception, the picture was of the two of them with her and Jean-Luc, with an evident joy visible in all of them that it was a mild shock to remember. The note to her read: Aunt Beverly, Mom and Dad have this in their room, and I guess you wouldn't have wanted a copy before, but I thought you might now. A few words in one of the girl's invented languages followed, along with her distinctive flourish of a signature.

At the sudden silence, Picard looked up from the drawings he held. "Is there—?" His eyes were drawn to the photo before she could tuck it back into the bag, and they each paused.

"Not a drawing," she offered finally, with a wan smile.

He shook his head. "That was a wonderful day," he murmured.

The sting that would have accompanied the memory even one week ago, she realized, had faded. "It was, wasn't it?" she said softly.

A beep from the wall panel drew her attention, and she straightened up as she noted the transmission origin. "I'll go take this up front. Make yourself at home? I'll come back down afterwards."

Picard cleared his throat. "Of course." On impulse he reached out, found her hand. "Thank you for breakfast," he said, as her eyes met his, and he felt her fingers curl around his in reply.

#-#-#-#

There was music: classical jazz.

It's old American, I believe. Will is always sending me different recordings he thinks I would like, and it's nice for the evenings, especially if I'm just reading and need to relax.

There was wine: vintage 2391.

Do you like it? It's a very good year. Perhaps it's strange that I packed it at all, but I hadn't traveled in so many years, and I didn't know when I would make it back. If I would at all. For all that I haven't truly felt at home there, this does represent a comfort to me.

She hadn't planned on being here, she thought, with the music and the wine, and still deep in conversation late into the evening. But while it continued to surprise her that their old rapport could be so quickly found again, it was undeniably true. He was, as he'd told her, keen to know all that he'd missed knowing about her, and his rapt attention made it easy to share. And as the stories and observations and questions and insights traded readily back and forth over the many hours, the space between them on the small couch they shared had steadily diminished.

Her glass empty now, she idly rolled the stem between her fingers. "It's such a challenge to lose them every time they've just settled into their roles," she said, continuing with her latest train of thought. "Unlike the Enterprise, where you had much less difficulty keeping the best officers indefinitely. I always end up fighting with Clancy over the assignments. Among other things, as you've gathered," she conceded ruefully.

"It's a testament to how you run the ship that Command wants your officers assigned throughout the medical fleet particularly," Picard countered warmly, having grasped the predicament as soon as she'd explained it. "They consider your methods to be excellent so they're using the Gregor Mendel for field training." He smiled. "Beverly, it's a compliment."

She snorted softly. "I suppose that's the most positive way to look at it. But they can't have Preda or Kolbe. Or Vu—I've made that perfectly clear. A good command staff is not interchangeable, not with the kinds of missions we get."

"On that we are in perfect agreement."

She glanced at him with a smile, then stretched over to set her glass down on the small table nearby. With a yawn she settled comfortably back next to him. "It's getting late, Jean-Luc. Still have another day ahead." She made no indication of moving.

"Right." After a moment he stood and extended one hand, but more in invitation than assistance. The minor puzzlement on her face as she accepted it softened to understanding when his hand tightened on hers and his arm slid carefully around her waist.

A deep sigh escaped her as she closed her eyes, arm around his shoulders, swaying gently with him to the music. With the careful lines they'd always drawn there were vanishingly few moments like this they had ever shared, but it had never been for lack of desire, had it? So often their mutual restraint had been tinged with a wistfulness, as they both knew how strong this attraction was, how effortless.

This time, she realized, she didn't have to pull away. They would have to say goodbye again soon, but it wouldn't be forever this time. It might not even be for long.

The music played, and they moved in languid time to the soulful trumpet and whispering bass, and she felt like she was floating. His breath was quiet beside her ear, his cheek warm against hers. As the song ended she drew back slowly and met his gaze.

Picard held his breath, feeling the longed-for possibilities of a quarter-century past and the rekindled hopes of the future coalescing in a single timeless moment of potential. "Beverly," he said in a low voice, lifting his hands ever so slightly from her back, but she leaned forward instead and kissed him.

When it was over he searched her face: the flush of her cheeks, the darkened blue of her eyes, the knowing smile touching her lips; and he smiled back at her.

I loved you, she thought, and she believed that it might be true again after all. Maybe. In a little while...