Exhaustion hung on her like full kevlar armor.

She walked down the corridor, feeling every step jolt her knees, hips, lower back and shoulders.

She was tired. And that was as much an understatement as saying the Enterprise was a spaceship. She had started her first surgery sometime before 0500, and it was now well past 2100. Yesterday had been longer, the day before longer still. By the last surgery of the evening, she felt as if she was pushing through fog, she had to concentrate fiercely to get her hands to follow her brain's instructions.

The minutiae of the surgeries was part of it. The tiny filaments required her to wear a microscope lens to locate and remove them. But the emotional impact had started to drag her into a familiar abyss...

Every one of them, every piece of metal, every biogenic filament, reminded her of when it had been *him*; the days of worry, the months of nightmares, the seemingly endless torture of his soul.

She closed her eyes against the press of tears.

She entered her quarters without looking up. She passed right by the table without noticing it was set for dinner. She peeled off her scrub top enroute to the bedroom. It was not until she had stepped out of her scrub bottoms that she noticed the smell... She approached the lit bathroom cautiously... the tub was full of bubbles and smelled of jasmine, lavender and mint. There were candles.

Gravity and exhaustion pulled at her too deviously for her to contemplate this miracle. Without questioning, she pulled off her underwear, and stepped into the tub. The water was perfect, she sank down... Her mind and muscles began to drift...

She must have fallen asleep. The next thing she knew, gentle fingers were working her hair and scalp. She should have been frightened, but she smelled her shampoo, and just a hint of the familiar, soothing scent that let her drift again... not sleeping, not quite awake.

The fingers worked rhythmically; firm, soothing motions. A tingle descended her spine. She was asleep. This was definitely one of the better dreams...

Soap barely running into her eyes jolted her awareness. This was NOT a dream. He was rinsing her hair.




*Jean-Luc* was rinsing her hair. While her instincts told her to lay back and enjoy it, her brain argued. She sunk a few centimetres deeper beneath the scented bubbles.

"Relax." His voice soothed. "I won't look."

That made her smile. He *would* look, and the fact that she knew it sent a stab of something warm and trembling inside.. Something clenched, then fluttered like a butterfly testing new wings.

If this was a dream, she did not want to wake up. If it was real, she did not want the rest of reality to intrude.

He finished rinsing her hair. With a pang, she felt his hands leave her. The water was still warm, but hinting at chill.

"Towels and robe right here. Supper is waiting." He read her thoughts, she was too tired to eat, "You need nutrition, Doctor." She heard the grin in his voice, using her own words as weapon.

Eyes opened to flickering candlelight. A lightness filled her, enabled her to pull against the buoyancy of the water and consign herself to Newton's law to raise herself up. Fluffy towels awaited her, with her emerald robe.

Hair in a towel, robe tied, disregarding any further propriety, she padded to the living area. The table was set simply, just a glass of wine and a bowl of something that smelled like... tears pressed again... her Nana's vegetable soup.

She slumped into her chair as he came to the table with hot muffins. The pressure of tears pushed against willpower.

"How... ?" She was, for a rare moment, at a complete loss for words.

"Eat. I know you are probably not hungry, but you need to." His eyes met hers, concern and caring and... something she was not quite ready to identify glowing in the hazel depths.

She closed her eyes, pretending to smell the soup.

So many nights she came home to an empty cabin, facing the darkness alone. It was her own fault, she had walked away from him, hurt him deeply... she did not mean it the way he understood it, but then the deed was done, and the chasm between them too wide to cross...

But this time, now, she saw *him* in every patient. Saw him when they left him behind... saw him when they finally got him back... Saw what she had come so close to losing...

She opened her eyes; looked at the man across the table, the man she had memorized in her heart, her soul, because she *knew* he would not leave Data behind. He was looking at her, and spooning soup up, shaming her into eating.

She managed half a bowl, and a muffin, drenched with butter. The wine was real, a mellow, soothing merlot. It pushed at the cold and dread from the inside, dissipating it with tart-sweet-dry warmth. Her muscles relaxed...

"I'm sorry... I'm not much company..." She realized no words had passed between them.

"You are *perfect* company." He answered. She still hadn't sussed out what brought him, other than her own overwrought imagination. But her satisfied stomach, her lethargic limbs, the lovely slight tingle from the wine, told her this was real, he *was* here.

"Come on, now to bed." He stood, offering her a hand.

As she slid beneath the covers, she recognized fresh sheets. He had not missed a detail. He lifted the comforter, she captured his hand. Sleep pulled, her limbs leaden, her mind ponderous. She could barely form words.

"Don't... go." She whispered, a plea... a prayer.

"I'll be right here." He pulled the covers up, settled next to her. She turned to him, nestling into the crook of his shoulder. Inhaling his presence. Finally at rest.