There was no sign of the Doctor when the Captain left Wesley at his quarters. Jean-Luc felt as if a great weight had been lifted from him with Wesley's admission of being angry at the Captain coming home when his father did not.

Some days, like today, the memory was as sharp as a knife edge. A ball of grief weighed heavy in his stomach, tight and hard as a stone. He remembered how brave Wesley had been. A few silent tears escaping down his cheeks, but reaching for his mother's hand, to comfort her... already, at his tender age, feeling the weight of responsibility.

He had been a stoic little soldier for the next few weeks. Jean-Luc was reminded of a famous historic photo of the son of United States of America President John Fitzgerald Kennedy from three centuries ago... an old black and white shot that he had seen somewhere... the young boy wore his father's large watch on his wrist, and was saluting as his father's casket was drawn past.

Jean-Luc had been so caught up in his own guilt and grief he had simply been relieved the boy had held his resolve. He wasn't sure what he would have done if Wesley had broken down, Jean-Luc was too close to that edge himself. Jack had been not only his first officer, but his best friend. And he had died under his orders.

He vividly remembered a moment, when Wes had accidentally broken a starship model he and his father had been building when Jack was home last. The child's lip had trembled, and his dark eyes, so much like his father's, had welled with tears. Jean-Luc had the absurd notion that he might cry too, and an alien desire to pull the lanky, slim, awkward boy into his arms and hold him.

But Wesley had put the toy down, his movement deliberate, and far more controlled and concise than his gangly age warranted. He had clenched his jaw against the tears so hard that a muscle twitched in his cheek. He had looked at Jean-Luc, and solemnly proclaimed, "It was an accident. I didn't mean to break it. He would understand. He always said, 'accidents are called that because they aren't anybody's fault.'"

Jean-Luc's breath seemed to seize in his lungs. He wondered if the boy could possibly have meant to try to console him. Breaking his gaze, Wesley left the broken pieces on the floor and left the room.

That was the only time Jean-Luc had cried for Jack. For Jack, for Wesley, for Beverly... for himself. For choices he could not change, and moments he could never get back. He might have stood in that room for minutes, or hours; No sound other than the uneven gulps of his drawing breath.

And then there was Beverly. And guilt again. The longer he stayed, remaining by her side for the funeral honors, taking ten days' leave to make sure the legal and technical details were taken care of... the longer he was near her, the stronger the guilt. The guilt that Jack died and he did not; the guilt that he was in love with Jack's wife, now his widow.

So he had run. Oh, at first he had left messages, carefully avoiding communicating at times when he knew he might find Beverly at home. Gradually the time between communications grew, the space between them grew figuratively as much as literally. He tucked his desire down into a dark corner inside his heart, leaving the guilt to block it's path should it try to escape.

Until she had shown up on his ship. She had shown up with a practically grown man he could hardly reconcile with the stoic little soldier who had reached for his mother's hand to comfort her.

He admired the young man today. Wesley had been stronger, and more honest than himself. He, Jean-Luc Picard, the Captain of the Federation's Flag Ship had never been as honest with Wesley as Wesley had been with him, today. Jack would be proud.

He needed to tell Beverly. Wesley's strength and honesty had most likely saved Jeremy Aster, and quite possibly the ship and crew. He had enabled not just Jeremy to understand but the energy entity as well.

He almost turned back when he got to an empty sickbay and saw the lights at 'night' level and her office dark. But the computer reported her location as in her office. The door was open. He approached, his eyes adjusting to the dim lighting. He was reaching for his comm badge to query the computer again, when he saw the slight movement.

The tall back of her chair was facing him, turned away from the desk. He stepped into the room, and saw she was there. She had both her feet up on the chair, knees bent. Her arms were wrapped around her legs, her head bowed, forehead resting on her knees.

"Beverly?" He spoke very softly, not wanting to startle her.

He saw her deliberately take a breath in, then swipe at her eyes with one hand before lifting her head and turning her chair to face him.

In the spill of light from the exterior corridor, he saw the sheen on her cheeks, the silvery gleam in her eyes.

"I... I just wanted to tell you... " he found the words difficult now that he was here. Was grateful for the darkness. "Wesley was remarkable."

She unashamedly wiped at her tears again, one of the sad half-smiles he was all too familiar with lifting her lips. She had still been on the bridge when the Captain *ordered* her son to the Aster's cabin.

She had remained, terror muting her, hands gripping the arms of the chair, until word came that the energy entity had departed peacefully. Her thoughts had swirled in chaotic spirals... families shouldn't be on starships... what kind of threat did the entity pose? She couldn't lose Wes too, she had lost *everyone* else...

It wasn't supposed to be Wesley in harm's way, it was supposed to be her. And for that matter, what right did she have to drag him from one end of the galaxy to another, when she too, could be making him an orphan? Rational thought chased fear, like a dog chasing it's tail. Wes had chosen to stay on board when she took the year at Starfleet Medical. He had made his own choice. He was part of the crew in his own right...

When the Captain's voice had calmly announced on the comm that the entity was gone and all hands were safe, she had wordlessly fled the bridge. The relief was almost worse than the waiting had been.

She did not want to face Wes. He was too honest. More honest than she even was with herself.

Ship's night had since arrived, and she sought the quiet and isolation of her office, where no one would expect her to be. She deliberately left the lights off and the door open as they would be at this time of the shift. Only the bridge crew had the authority to request her location in the ship.

Of course, he would have found her, anyway.

He always did.

Suddenly she was back on Earth, the night before Jean-Luc was to leave. She was curled in the wingback chair, in the dark. He had found her then too. The blessed numbness that had muted the edges of everything was cracking. He was leaving. Jack's best friend. He had always been just a little bit more than a friend, there was an electricity between them which made flirting banter a rush, a thrill.

Until he showed up at her door without Jack. That was not entirely true, he had brought Jack home to her.

And he had been there, his stoic strength literally holding her up when her knees would have let her crumble to the ground. His quiet dignity enveloping her with his protective arm shielding her at the formal arrangements.

He was leaving. And she was not blessedly numb any more. The pain was a sharp ache, piercing her ribs, digging into her chest. Somehow she knew she would not see him again. She knew that 'little bit more' would now keep them apart just as surely as Jack had.

She couldn't remember now, the words he had spoken that night. She could only remember his erect posture, his shoulders braced, as if for battle. The light spilling in the doorway, just as it was now, leaving his features shrouded. She could not remember the words... only the sound of his voice. The voice that had grown so dear to her, so vital to her sanity.

And now, she could not remember Jack's voice, but she remembered how Jean-Luc sounded that night so very long ago.

She had never been angry at Jean-Luc. Never had blamed him-he had enough blame and anger at himself to go around. But she had, through the stages of grief been angry at Jack. For leaving her behind, for dying. For even in death, leaving her alone, by coming between her and his best friend.

"You should be very proud." Jean-Luc's soft words brought her back to the present.

"He takes after you, you know." Her words were so quiet, he wasn't sure he heard her correctly.

"He takes after his father..." he denied.

"No, Jean-Luc. He didn't know his father." Her voice was still rough with tears. "His memories are that of a very little boy. Jack was larger than life, and... perfect in his eyes. But you could count the time they actually spent together in months, rather than years."

She was resting her chin on her raised knees now. Tears slid, one at a time, a glittering, silent path down her face. "You've formed his character more in the last two and a half years than anyone before." She smiled, a wistful, small smile.

He shook his head, a curt, negative jut of his chin. "Beverly, you raised him. Alone" The last word seemed pulled from him, unwillingly.

"Yes, I raised him, but he has only begun to truly grow up since being here, on the Enterprise." Her voice softened, breaking with tears again, "I will always be grateful for that."

Silence stretched between them. It was not uncomfortable. Each drifted in the direction which inevitably united them when a crew member was lost. He spoke first.

"I'm sorry. This one... it is hard for you."

"It's just her son... all alone... I remember how that felt... " And suddenly it was too much, and she went from silent tears to great, gulping sobs.

And in the cover of darkness, he stepped to her and pulled her up out of the chair and into his arms. She let her forehead fall, resting on his shoulder. When she could breathe, in between sobs, his warm, clean, comforting scent filled her. Her hands came up to grip at his uniform. His arms were strong, holding her against him, holding her up, holding her together.

When the storm passed somewhat, he surprised her by sitting in her chair and pulling her down into his lap. Too emotionally drained to protest, she let him guide her head to his shoulder. Her breath hitched occasionally. His hand soothed through her hair, then down her back.

"I'm sorry..." she began, brokenly.

"No apologies." He admonished. "How could I have forgotten, you know exactly what Jeremy is going through..."

She made an ineffectual gesture of denial. "No, I had family still... I had Nana after my parents died..."

"And Jeremy has an Aunt and Uncle. But its not the same. It is something I wish no child had to endure."

"But it makes us who we are." Her voice was small, but sure.

"Yes." He conceded. "I suppose it does."

He thought she had fallen asleep when she spoke again. "Wesley said today that sometimes he can't remember Jack. I can go for days and not... remember." He waited for her, a sense of dread rearing it's head. "And then, on days like today," she placed her hand deliberately on his chest, palm over his heart, feeling it's strong, steady beat. "On days like today, I wish I could forget him."

The rush of tenderness Jean-Luc felt threatened to overwhelm him. He allowed himself the brush of his lips against her temple, then the luxury of laying his cheek against the top of her head. Her familiar scent teased at his soul. He treasured the precious weight of her against him.

Gradually he felt the tension drain out of her. Her breathing evened, and sleep claimed her. When he shifted her weight, to stand, she murmured something and pulled at him. If anyone had been there to see through the darkness, they would have been astonished at the unguarded sentiment so clear on his features. "Transporter, two to beam directly to Dr. Crusher's cabin."

With a shimmer of blue, they were in her quarters. Debating propriety against chivalry, he laid her on her couch, gently tucking her patchwork quilt around her. He sat for a moment, taking in the telltale streaks the tears had left, the bleached eyelashes. The emotion had bloomed roses on her cheeks, in contrast to her porcelain pale skin.

He risked a last, lingering touch, pushing her hair off her face. She turned slightly in her sleep, pushing into his hand.

With a wistful smile, he whispered, "Peaceful sleep, ma belle," and left.