Note: I know. I know. I should be working on the end of "Here I Stand." But when the VAMB Picture Prose contest popped up and there was a delicious fiddle of Tom and Chakotay in civilian garb, arguing about something, I just had to drop everything and write this. I'll get back to the long thing soon, I promise. Enjoy this in the meantime. Reviews greatly to be wished, as always.

Are You Lonesome Tonight?

"Compliments of the gent at the bar."

The waitress tosses her red hair in the general direction of the bar and plunks a bottle of very expensive Merlot in front of the Admiral, followed by six glasses. All of us – the Admiral, her date, Harry and Libby, B'Elanna and me – stare at her for a startled split second, and then turn to look past the antique jukebox and the tables to the people seated at the bar. We all see him at once, and for the first time in hours the table falls utterly silent.

"The big ride," the waitress continues. She winks at the Admiral as if her date weren't even there and then adds, unnecessarily at this point, "the lad with the tattoo."

I'm half afraid to see the Admiral's reaction to this development, so instead I just gawk at Chakotay's profile for a long moment. He's out of uniform, same as the rest of us, and hunched over an empty cocktail glass. He looks terrible. Tired and haggard. I wonder how long he's been sitting there while the rest of us talked and laughed in the dark corner of the pub.

I can't believe he's here. I wonder how he knew.

I glance at my wife, who shakes her head at me. She and Chakotay go way back, but while he's been gone she's grown very protective of the Admiral. They've been working on the Voyager refit together, which has given them plenty of time to talk, decompress, and become friends. B'Elanna has always admired the Admiral – we all have – but I think the time they've spent together without the specter of disaster looming over them anymore has allowed my wife the freedom to see the Admiral in a new way. It's been good for B'Elanna. It's been good for both of them.

B'Elanna hasn't really been in touch with Chakotay much since he left Voyager with Seven all those months ago, so the thought that my wife might have tipped him off to our location was really only a fleeting one. I know Harry wouldn't say anything, either, and I sure haven't. None of us even knew he was on Earth.

Seven could be behind this. Chakotay's not living on the planet anymore, but Seven's at HQ and we all run into her now and then. She's been different since the split. More sure of herself around people, more relaxed and…human, I guess. I'm not sure if that's due more to her relationship with Chakotay, as brief as it was, or to her growing independence since the breakup. She's more compassionate now, so much so that she's never given the exact reasons why she broke things off with Chakotay, other than that the relationship was wrong for both of them. I've heard through the Voyager grapevine, also known as Chell, that Chakotay wanted to try to work things out, but Seven was adamant that they both needed to move on.

I admire her. I really do. I would never have imagined that she'd wind up being the more levelheaded partner in that relationship, but that seems to be the way it turned out.

She could have been the one to tell Chakotay where we'd be tonight. The Admiral has said Seven turns up in her office now and then under the cover of 'Fleet business, only to encourage her to reach out to Chakotay. Just to reestablish their friendship, she says. As far as I know, the Admiral has never made that attempt – not that it would be any of my business either way.

I can't help but think Seven knows something about Chakotay now that she didn't before she took up with him in the first place, something that the rest of us knew a long time ago but maybe forgot over the years.

He loved the Admiral once. It was scrawled all over his face in those early days. I think even Harry knew. I don't know when we stopped seeing it, but it was gone by the time we got back to the Alpha Quadrant. They'd both changed so much over the years that whatever he'd felt for her – and whatever she'd felt for him, because it was pretty clear she felt something – was gone, replaced by mutual respect and admiration, but nothing more.

Seven wasn't around at the beginning, so she didn't see the way they were together then. She wasn't especially perceptive at any time during our little jaunt through the backwater of space, so maybe she never knew. I wonder how she knows now, if someone from the crew filled her in, or if she just figured it out on her own while being with Chakotay.

So she's probably the one who told Chakotay where we'd be tonight, if he was looking for information about the Admiral. Seven may be the only one who even knew he was on Earth. We invited her to come along tonight, but she politely declined.

On the other hand, it isn't a huge stretch of the imagination to think we might spend the Admiral's 45th birthday weekend in her favorite Dublin pub and inn. So maybe he just made a lucky guess.

I finally turn back to the table and glance at the Admiral, who is staring at the bottle of wine with a completely blank expression. The tension at the table is thick. Harry is fiddling with his wine glass, Libby is trying to catch his hand in hers, and B'Elanna is practically glaring a hole in the table. The Admiral's date is gaping in turn at her, Chakotay and the bottle, green eyes wide, blond hair flopping boyishly over his high, smooth forehead.

"Is that Chakotay?" he asks in his deep, resonant voice, and the rest of us just nod. "I've never met him," the man says, and starts to unfold his muscular frame from the chair. "Maybe I should-"

"Sit," the Admiral orders, and I can almost hear B'Elanna's and Harry's spines snap straight, even as I feel my own stiffen in response to the tone of voice. The Admiral's date sits back down, hard. I suspect he's heard that tone before, too, although probably in a very different context.

That line of thinking makes me want to both chuckle and cringe with embarrassment, so I slam a lid on it in a hurry.

The Admiral nods her thanks at the waitress, grabs the bottle and waves to our empty glasses. "Happy birthday to me," she mutters. "Drink up."

The five of us comply at once. I notice that Harry's hand quivers a little bit when he offers his glass for her to fill, and attempt to still the slight tremble in my own fingers. When all our glasses are full, the Admiral raises hers and we all do the same. "To good friends," she says in an imperious voice, blue-gray eyes fixed on the figure at the bar.

"To good friends," we all echo nervously. The sound of our glasses clinking together is loud and harsh in my ears.

Then before she takes a sip the Admiral adds, without so much as blinking, "The ones who are there for you when you need them the most."

I don't have to turn around to know he's watching her from across the pub. The heat of that gaze on the back of my neck is all too familiar from seven years of sitting at the helm with him directly behind me.

The wine is good, fresh and fruity. I'm wondering just how many credits it cost him when I hear the scrape of a barstool behind me, and a heavy step on the old wooden floor. Over the rim of my glass I raise my eyebrows at the Admiral. She gives her head a tiny shake. Just before she turns her gaze on her date, she looks over my shoulder. I see a flash of regret in her eyes, and profound disappointment. Then it's gone, and she's smiling at the blond man as if she doesn't have a care in the world.

I drain my glass, stand and turn around to face Chakotay.

He's lurching his way across the pub, weaving among the tables. He's not fall-down drunk yet – I don't think I've ever seen the man fall-down drunk – but close. His face is hard and dark in the pub's dim light.

"Chakotay," I say with forced cheer that sounds false even to my own ears. "Fancy meeting you here."

He takes another step toward me, although his eyes have never left the Admiral. "Paris." He nods once. "Nice to see you. Please stand aside." He may have lost a step or two to the alcohol, but his voice is as clear and commanding as ever.

I move between him and the table. "I don't think so, Chakotay."

"I just want to wish her a happy birthday," he says. "That's all."

"I'll pass along your best wishes. Now let's you and me go back to the bar."

He finally looks at me. "I need to talk to her."

"I'm sure you do," I say. "But this is not the time and place."

"Damn it, Paris," he barks, and lunges into my space. I have to place a hand on his chest to hold him off. "You have no right-"

"No, Chakotay, you have no right." I give him a gentle shove back toward the bar. "It's her birthday party, she's not in the mood to talk to you right now, and she's here with her date." He narrows his eyes at me, glances at the table, then glares at me with an expression that has occasionally preceded somebody's nose getting broken. I risk bodily harm and give him another little push. "And you've had a few too many. Do you really want to talk to her when you're not thinking straight?"

He tenses. Chakotay prides himself on his clarity and self-control, but with a few drinks in him, both are compromised and he probably knows it. He finally turns and stumbles back to the bar.

I peek over my shoulder in time to see the Admiral rise from the table, take her date's arm, and head up the stairs to their room. Libby, Harry and B'Elanna all give me questioning glances. I shake my head, and they follow the Admiral out of sight.

Chakotay slides back onto his barstool and orders another drink. The barman quirks an eyebrow at me. "Pint of Guinness," I say, and give Chakotay a pointed look. When the barman comes back with our drinks and a credit padd, Chakotay grumbles and presses his thumb to it.

We drink in silence for a minute or two. Someone fires up the jukebox with some vintage mid-20th century tunes. After a while I find myself humming along, until Chakotay glares at me and I stop. Out of the corner of my eye I take hard, clinical look at him. Haggard and tired were just the tip of the iceberg. He looks pained and haunted, too, like he's seen too much over the last few months. None of us know exactly what he's been up to. The Admiral probably does, but the rest of us only know that Starfleet whisked him away in a hurry when he decided stay in the service. The one thing I know for sure is that since Seven left him, he's been based at Deep Space 9. Given the nature of his training and experience, my guess is that whatever he's been doing involves the postwar disarmament of Cardassia, and isn't very pleasant.

After he's sipped his drink and seems more settled, I return my glass to the bar. "How long have you been here?" I ask.

"Couple hours. None of you saw me come in."

"No," I say. "I meant here on Earth. When did you get back?"

He picks up the coaster printed with the pub's name – Temple Bar & Inn – and turns it over in his fingers. "A week ago."

Funny. He used to at least try to contact B'Elanna when he was here. Not this time, though. "Where are you staying?"

He gives a hollow chuckle. "Starfleet Medical."

I draw back and look him over head to foot again. He doesn't seem to be in any obvious pain. His knuckles look a bit worse for wear, but he boxes to relax. His hands are often a little battered. "What's wrong? Should you be there now?"

He shakes his head. "No, I'm free to come and go as I please, as long as I make it to all my appointments."

Now I'm truly concerned. "What kind of appointments?"

He drops the coaster back onto the bar and reaches for a basket of nuts. He's not usually fidgety. I watch closely and notice that the constant movement of his hands has a nervous, furtive edge to it. "There was an incident," he finally says. "They hauled me in for counseling." He tosses back a handful of nuts.

"What happened?"

He chews and swallows hard and closes his eyes for a second. "I'm afraid I can't talk about it."

Of course not. I sip my beer. "Are you all right?" I ask.

He exhales, long and slow, but doesn't look up from the basket of nuts. "No."

Suddenly I recognize some of the symptoms – the haunted expression, the nervous gestures, the unwillingness to look me in the eye – for what they are. "Post-traumatic stress?"

He nods slowly, downs the last of his drink and orders another. I've never seen him drink so much. This is probably a symptom, too. "I need to talk to Kathryn," he says softly.

"Does she know what happened to you?"

"She probably knows the details of the incident itself. But there's no way she could know it was me."

I suppress the urge to whistle. He must have been under very deep cover indeed for her not to have been aware of what he was up to, whatever it was. "And you want to tell her it was you? That's why you want to talk to her?"

He shakes his head. "No…yes. I need to tell her…need to explain to her…" His words just trail off. I don't think I've ever heard him quite so inarticulate, and I can't tell if it's because of the alcohol or the PTSD, or something else entirely.

"Explain what to her?"

"Why I wasn't there when…" He finally looks at me with those haunted eyes. "I should have been there."

It takes me a second to realize what he's talking about. When it does, I'm caught between the anger we all felt at him then, the disappointment I saw in the Admiral's eyes just a moment ago, and the sudden understanding of why he wasn't there. "You heard about Gretchen?"

He nods miserably. "I should have been there."

"But you were on a covert assignment."

He nods again. "Was it bad?"

Honestly, I don't know how to begin to answer that question. Of course it was bad. Just a month before this birthday celebration, the Admiral lost her mother to an undiagnosed cerebral aneurysm. The death was incredibly sudden and deeply shocking, mostly because it was so preventable. The Admiral was devastated. First by the death of someone she had missed for seven long years, and second because she was so alone at the time. Phoebe and her husband were there, of course, and the rest of us, including the man who's currently sharing her room upstairs. But their relationship was still very new – it still is very new, to be honest – and it wasn't enough.

She missed him – Chakotay. Needed him, her closest friend, to be there with her. We all sensed that. He could have comforted her, maybe, in a way that the rest of us simply couldn't.

I mull his question over while I sip my drink. I want to tell him the truth of just how bad that time was for her, but knowing that he couldn't make it back complicates things. If I'm right about what his life has been like for the last few months, the Admiral probably doesn't even know that he wanted to be there. She only knows that he wasn't.

He's also…fragile. I can see that now. It's not a word I'd normally apply to him, but there it is. Whatever happened to him is already eating him alive, and adding the Admiral's grief to that isn't going to help him at all. She should be the one to share it with him, if she chooses to do so.

"Yeah, it was bad," I finally say. "But she got through it."

He searches my face for a long, uncomfortable beat. Then he nods. "I guess that's all I need to know," he says with a sigh of resignation, taking my words as a kind of dismissal of his concern, and seizes his glass. The drink disappears in one big gulp and he sets the glass back on the bar. "I shouldn't have come," he says in a low voice. "I'm sorry to have interrupted your evening. Just let me apologize, and I'll go." He slides off the stool and turns, then sees that the table we occupied all evening is empty now. His confused alcoholic gaze darts around the room. "They're gone," he breathes. "She's gone. She left because of me, didn't she?"

I don't have the heart to tell him he's right. "We were all about ready to call it a night anyway. She and Jens went up to their room."

The moment the words are out of my mouth, I realize my mistake.

The muscles at the back of his jaw work furiously for a second. His big hands clench and unclench a few times. "Jens," he says. "That was the boy?"

"The 'boy' is thirty-three years old," I say, probably more forcefully than I should. "And yes, his name is Jens."

"Jens. What the hell kind of a name is 'Jens?'"

I raise an eyebrow at him. "I don't know, Chakotay. You tell me."

Startled, he draws away from me. Then he shakes his head. "Good point," he grumbles. He turns, falls back onto the barstool, overbalances and nearly slides off the other side. I guess he's decided not to leave after all.

He tries to order yet another drink, but I wave it off. "Let's make it a coffee. My treat this time."

He snorts and starts to protest but thinks better of it. The barman pours two coffees and sets them in front of us. I press my thumb to the barman's credit padd while Chakotay slowly adds cream and sugar to his coffee, but his hands are shaking so badly that he sloshes coffee on the bar when he lifts the cup to his lips. I pretend not to notice. The barman mops up the spill and leaves a clean rag behind.

"Jens," Chakotay says again. "How did she meet him?"

I grin. "He's a friend of Harry's."

The words land exactly the way I thought they would. "Of course," he growls. "A friend of Harry's."

It's hard not to laugh at his irritation. "They played in the Julliard Youth Symphony together. He's now the first chair cellist with the London Symphony Orchestra. He's got quite a nice solo career, too. Travels a lot. She travels with him sometimes."

"Thirty-three," he muses. "How long have they known each other?"

I squint at nothing in particular. The cocktails I drank at dinner, the Merlot and the Guinness are all starting to hit home in spite of the coffee. It's entirely possible that I have overindulged. "Harry introduced them on New Year's Eve. This is May, so…five months."

"Almost the whole time we've been back."

I nod. "Although I guess they didn't really start dating until the beginning of March. So it hasn't been that long."

We're both silent for a beat. "Is he a good man, Tom?"

I hesitate. I've never really considered it. I guess I didn't think it was my place to do so. I don't know Jens all that well, but he's professionally very successful. He seems to care for the Admiral, and in my presence he's treated her with nothing but kindness, respect and affection. I suppose I kind of like having him around, and seeing the Admiral's smile whenever he walks into a room. "Yeah," I finally say. "He is a good man."

Chakotay cradles the coffee cup in his hands and inhales deeply, eyes closed. When the next question comes, I'm surprised by how plaintive it is, how…wistful. "Is she happy?"

Looking back, I think that maybe something has been missing between Jens and the Admiral since the funeral, some gap in experience that they can't quite bridge. But that's the only thing that would give me pause about their relationship, as new as it is. "The last month has been hard, but overall? Yes, I think she is."

He nods, sips his coffee and winces. "I'm an ass," he says. Since he's made it clear he wanted to get to the funeral but couldn't, I have to assume he's referring to his sudden and uninvited presence here, and his attempt to push past me to get to the Admiral just a few minutes ago. When I say nothing, he gives me a wary glance. "No disagreement?"

I shrug. "I don't like to lie."

There was a time when the remark would have earned me the look that precedes the nose breaking. Instead, he just shakes his head and turns away.

The silence stretches between us. The barman refills our coffees. I watch my old friend's face become more disheartened with every passing second. His restless hands move from the coffee to the coaster and back, and I notice that they're shaking again. PTSD isn't usually treated with pharmaceuticals these days, but his twitchiness makes me wonder. "Are you sure you don't need to get back to Starfleet Medical?"

He catches me looking at his hands and stills them, but the effort costs him. "I'm not on anything, if that's what you're asking." Now his voice is shaking, too.

The alcoholic fog I'm in lifts just long enough for me to put the words "Cardassia," "medical" and "PTSD" together in my head. I can't ask him; he wouldn't tell me. But I think I might know what's going on with him, at least in part. "You don't want to go back, do you? To the hospital?"

The word hits him like a bucket of ice water. He sucks in a sharp breath, his lips drawn against his teeth, his eyelids squeezed together so tight I wonder if they hurt. "No," he whispers. "I can't go back there. Not to sleep. The offices are okay, but the room they put me in…" He gulps his coffee. "It's too empty and sterile. It's too much like…" He swallows hard. "I can't sleep there."

"Are you sleeping at all?"

"Not much."

He's so stubborn he's probably refused sedatives, too, no matter how mild. Except… I nudge the empty cocktail glass. "Even with this?"

"No." He raises his coffee cup again and drains it. I think about stopping him; the caffeine won't help him any more than the cocktails have. But I let it go. My berating him for self-medicating with booze and coffee will probably only make him angry on top of everything else he's feeling right now.

"Have you asked for officer housing while you're here?"

"I tried." His lips twist into a grimace and he twitches one shoulder in a half shrug. "The counselors want me at Starfleet Medical."

This doesn't make any sense to me. He must be under observation, then. "But you said you could come and go as you please."

He gives me a wicked smile, and just for an instant I can see the old Chakotay in his eyes. "During the day," he says.

The forced humor doesn't fool me. He must be having nightmares, maybe flashbacks to whatever happened. That's why they want him there at night. "It's the middle of the afternoon in San Francisco, isn't it? So no one knows you're here."

"No."

"What time are you supposed to be back?"

"Soon," he says vaguely, and the spark of life I saw just a second ago is gone. "They'll come looking for me, won't they?"

"Probably."

His shoulders slump. He looks absolutely defeated. "I just wanted to see Kathryn," he murmurs. With his finger, he twirls the now-empty coffee cup around and around on the bar. There's the fidgeting again. The man is barely holding himself together. "I wanted to explain things to her," he continues. "Then I saw her with...Thor."

I can't stop a chuckle. "B'Elanna calls him 'The Blond Adonis.'"

His expression is completely morose now. "That's why I sat down at the bar instead of coming over to your table. I started drinking. I didn't know what to think."

More accurately, he probably didn't know what to feel. I'm no clinician, but long years of knowing him lead me to believe he was surprised, angry, disappointed and jealous all at once, and didn't know what to do with any of those emotions. "The PTSD is making it hard for you to sort things out in your head," I offer.

He nods. "I get confused," he says softly, and I can feel deep in my bones how difficult that confession was for him. He watches the coffee cup spin and spin. "I hoped talking to Kathryn would help. It always helped before when…" His hands still. Whatever he was about to say trails off, but in my head I can hear so many different endings to that sentence, all left unspoken.

...when we were on Voyager.

…when I didn't know what to do next.

…when I was lonely and needed someone to talk to.

...when I was hurt or frightened or confused.

They're all the ways I might end that sentence if I were talking about my wife, and how she can soothe me when things are going wrong. But in my head I hear one more ending, one that doesn't apply to my marriage, and my heart breaks for him.

…when she still loved me.

He needs her, every bit as much as she needed him at the funeral. And he thinks he shouldn't go to her now, or can't, because of Jens.

But their friendship is stronger than this. She's the most compassionate person I've ever met, and if she knew everything he'd been through she'd help him in whatever way she could. No questions, no strings, Jens or no Jens. He should know that.

He does know that. Somewhere beyond the PTSD, he knows. I'm sure of it.

"I think talking to her will help you, Chakotay. And I think you should go to her."

The sudden leap of hope in his eyes leaves me speechless for a second. "You do?"

I gather myself and nod. "But now is not the best time. Not while you're…not quite yourself."

His face hardens. "I don't want to go back to Starfleet Medical."

"I know you don't. But if I can get the Doc to come here, our Doc, he can put you in his care for observation until you sober up. Then maybe you can see her in a day or two, after you've talked to the Doc and gotten some sleep. Would that be all right?"

He hesitates, then nods. "I guess it's the best I can hope for right now, isn't it?" His words are sad and resigned, but I can see that some of the weight has lifted from him. "All right," he says. "Let's do it."

The words, or maybe the memory of them in another's voice, make us both smile, even though it's fleeting.

I leave Chakotay at the bar while I summon the Doc, who arrives in less than five minutes. I quickly fill him in on the situation. After his self-righteous rant over not being informed of Chakotay's condition finally winds down, he makes a couple of calls, then sits down on the barstool next to the Commander for a quiet talk.

I take the barman aside and ask about a room. Turns out that our little party of six got the last three rooms in the place, which is probably just as well. I'm not sure that in his current state Chakotay would be comfortable next door to the Admiral and Thor – Jens, I correct myself – all night. Hell, I'm not comfortable with it, and I've never been in love with her.

Fortunately, the barman knows a hotel up the street that fits the bill perfectly. Quiet, cozy rooms, a good restaurant with plenty of healthy vegetarian fare on the menu, a pool and workout facility, and even a transporter so the Commander can beam in and out for his counseling sessions. He'll be fine there for a few days, and much better off with our Doc than with the night staff at Starfleet Medical. They're top-notch, of course, but they don't know him like we do. We're all pretty protective of each other, and even though we've spent the last few months wondering about Chakotay's long absence, he's hurting now and needs our help.

I return to the bar to let him know it's all settled for him. He's pleased, and very relieved to not being going back to the hospital. "Thank you, Tom," he says, and shakes my hand. "This is more than I deserve, given my behavior earlier."

I shrug. "We've been friends for a long time, Chakotay. It didn't take me long to see something was wrong. Friends help each other out." I wink at him. "Besides, I think B'Elanna would kick my ass if I'd left you there in the state you were in. The Admiral would have helped."

His smile is shy but genuine. He hides it from me, but it's good to see just the same. "Maybe," he says. "When you see her, tell her I'm sorry for tonight."

"I will, but you can tell her yourself in a day or two."

He nods, then, to my everlasting surprise, he pulls me into a rough hug. "Thanks," he says again. "I felt like I was falling apart when I got here. Now maybe I can put myself back together. I owe you."

I swallow around the lump in my throat and let him go. The Doc puts a gentle hand on Chakotay's shoulder and they leave together.

I ought to go up to our room and fill B'Elanna in on things, but instead I sit down at the bar again and order a shot of good Irish whiskey. I look up for the credit padd, but the barman waves me off. "On the house," he says, and leans against the bar across from me. "Your friend there," he says, nodding at the doorway where the Doc and Chakotay have just left the bar. "The tattooed buck."

"What about him?"

"He'll be all right now?"

"Eventually," I say. "The Doc will take care of him."

"I've never seen such a big man get roaring pissed so fast."

I chuckle. "He usually doesn't drink so much," I say. "But he's got some other problems, too."

"Aye," the barman nods. "I thought as much. 'Tis a fair luck that you were here to look after him, then." He pours himself a cup of coffee and raises it in a toast. "To good friends," he says.

I pause. It's the same toast the Admiral offered a while ago. I'm not sure she meant it then, though I hope she and Chakotay are able to patch things up soon. He's going to need her support to get through the next few weeks. He's going to need all of us.

I raise my glass of whiskey and touch it to the barman's coffee cup. "To good friends," I say, and the next words mean much more now than they did before, "the kind who are there for you when you need them the most."

I'm enjoying the slow burn of the whiskey in my belly and the Patti Page tunes from the jukebox when I look up to find the Admiral making her way down the stairs. She glances around the bar, probably looking for Chakotay, and finally sees me – and the empty barstool next to me.

I order two more shots, and pay for them myself this time.

She hovers just behind me for a moment, uncharacteristically indecisive, then pulls herself up onto the barstool. She toys with her glass but doesn't drink, and I do the same. "What happened?" she finally asks. "Where is he?"

I'm not sure how much to tell her, how much Chakotay would be comfortable with her knowing. But she needs to know something. "I called the Doc and found him a place to sleep it off."

She raises an eyebrow. I can feel the depth of her disapproval, and it isn't even directed at me. "He was that drunk?"

"Not exactly," I say carefully. "But he needs to get some rest, so I got him a room."

She frowns at me. Then she reaches over and places her hand on my forearm. "Tom, there's something more, isn't there?" Her eyes bore into me. "What's going on?"

I run my fingers through some condensation on the bar, dragging wet patterns over the smooth, wooden surface so I don't have to look at her. "Did something happen at Cardassia recently? Maybe a month or so ago?"

I glance up to see her brows knit together in confusion. Then she gasps. "Oh my god," she whispers. The horror in her eyes sends shivers up and down my spine. It's enough to make me hurt for the man all over again, and I don't even know what happened. "That was him?"

I nod. "He says there was…an 'incident.' But he can't talk about it."

"No, he can't." She knocks back the whiskey in one gulp and swipes the back of her hand over her lips. "I didn't know," she says softly. "I never knew the names of the operatives. They were under deep cover. I knew there would be a Starfleet representative on the team, but his identity was strictly need-to-know. I should have realized…" She gives her head a little shake. "We lost contact with the Bajoran informant on the same day my mother-" Her eyes widen and I can almost see her thoughts reordering themselves and slipping into new positions. "That's why he wasn't there for the funeral."

It isn't a question, but I nod confirmation. "He says he wanted to be there, but he couldn't."

"No," she says vaguely. "No, I'm sure he couldn't." She places her elbows on the bar and cradles her head in her hands. "When my bereavement leave was up, it was all over. I only found out later that the 'Fleet representative had been in Cardassian custody for almost a week before the operatives were able to go back and get him out. "

I shudder. "Custody" is probably a very polite euphemism for what Chakotay went through. "He's here for PTSD counseling," I say softly, watching her face. "He apparently gave his handlers the slip this afternoon to come looking for you."

She finally turns to me again. "Did he say what he wanted?"

Just for an instant, I think maybe she's afraid he blames her for whatever happened to him. "He just wanted to talk to you. He thought…" I meet her gaze and hold it. "He thought maybe it would help him. I think maybe he's in pretty bad shape, Admiral."

Stricken, she turns away from me. "And when he turned up tonight, I…" She rubs her forehead with her fingertips. "Damn. I need another drink."

I wave the barman over and order a cup of coffee for her. She glares at me, but wraps her hands around the cup, closes her eyes and breathes in the scent – the same thing Chakotay did less than an hour ago. I can't help but smile at the similarity.

After a few sips of the black coffee, she seems calmer and more collected. "So you got him a room here?" she asks.

"No, the inn is full. I found him a hotel a couple blocks away. The Doc got clearance to let him stay there instead of at Starfleet Medical."

She purses her lips. "No, I suppose he didn't care much for those accommodations."

I start to make a quip about the new accommodations having one hundred percent more HoloDoc, but as soon as I open my mouth a yawn overtakes me and I can't get the words out. The Admiral pats me on the back. "Go get some sleep, Tom," she says, and then winks at me. "Some baby-free sleep."

I laugh. We've left Miral with my parents for the weekend. No late-night or early-morning feedings await me for the next two days. "I love my daughter with everything that I am," I say, "but I can't even tell you how good that sounds right now." I stand up and offer her my arm. "Shall we?"

She declines with a sad little shake of her head and stays seated on her barstool. "I want to finish my coffee. And I have some thinking to do."

"Are you sure?"

She nods. When she reaches up, wraps her hand around my neck and pulls me down for a kiss on the cheek, I feel myself blush. "Thank you for taking care of him, Tom. Good-night."

"Good-night," I say. "See you in the morning. You and Jens."

She blinks at that, but recovers quickly. It probably means something, but I'm way too tired to think very hard about it. "See you in the morning," she says, and lets me go.

At the top of the stairs, I turn around to make sure she's really okay. At first I don't see her, but then I find her standing at the vintage jukebox in the corner of the bar. She scrolls through the listings, settles on something, and presses her thumb to the screen. The song that starts up makes me smile. I thought I knew her pretty well after all these years, but I never would have pegged her as a fellow Elvis fan.

I'm so exhausted, the trip down the hall and to the room I share with my wife seems almost as long as the trip through the Delta Quadrant. I'd like to tell B'Elanna about Chakotay, but she's already asleep and I'm practically comatose on my feet myself. So I shuck my clothes, crawl into the big, soft bed beside her, and fall asleep in an instant.

=/\=

The six of us had planned to meet for breakfast the next morning, then maybe do a little sightseeing in and around Dublin. It's the first time Harry and Libby and B'Elanna and I have been to the city, and I think the Admiral is anxious to show it off. She says it's one of her favorite places on the planet. So B'Elanna and I rise early. Between showering and shaving and dressing, I fill her in on what I know of Chakotay and what must have happened to him on Cardassia. She's as worried about him as the Admiral and I are, but she knows he's in good hands with the Doc and the Starfleet counselors.

Harry and Libby knock on our door just before nine o'clock, as planned, and I quickly tell the story a second time. The four of us troop down to the Admiral's room, but no one answers our knock. The Admiral was probably desperate for coffee and went to breakfast without us. We head down to the dining room just off the lobby in search of the Admiral and Jens.

We run into the Doc first, though.

He's in the hotel lobby, playing a tinny old piano and crooning a vintage waltz. The four of us exchange a startled look. "I thought he was with Chakotay," B'Elanna says.

I shrug. "He was."

We all gather around the piano until he finishes his song. "What are you doing here, Doc?" I ask.

He smiles, inclines his head toward the dining room, and starts in on another tune. Puzzled, we all peer through the arched doorway.

There at a table for two, the Admiral and the Commander are sharing a quiet breakfast. She's sipping coffee and watching him dig in to a huge bowl of Irish oatmeal. When he dumps about half a cup of brown sugar on it, she gives him a disapproving little frown. He shrugs and tucks into his bowl again, but only after he points his spoon at her untouched plate of ham and eggs.

We all just stare at them.

But for the bright sunlight streaming in through the window behind them, it could be any morning on Voyager. I can almost hear her objection to his sweet tooth, and his complaint about her lack of appetite.

When the Doc finishes the second song, Libby turns back to him. "What happened to Jens?"

"He apparently beamed back to London late last night," the Doc says.

Harry frowns. "They haven't split up, have they?"

"No, I don't believe so. But the Admiral did turn up at our hotel very early this morning. She and I spoke about the Commander's condition while he continued to sleep." The doc plays a little flourish on the piano and smirks at us. "Chakotay was very surprised and pleased to find her there when he woke up."

I'm sure he was. There's a story behind that smirk, one that I'll never get out of any of them. It's too bad. I bet it was quite the touching scene.

"She offered Chakotay as much time and help as he needs from her," the Doc continues. "They went for a long walk by the river and told me to meet them here at 0845."

"So I guess he'll be spending the rest of the weekend with us," I say.

The Doc nods. "It certainly appears that way. I'll have to stay with him at night, of course, but I was able to move his next appointment to Tuesday morning." The Doc peeks into the open dining room. "Spending time with the Admiral may do him as much good as the counseling would have anyway," he says softly. "You'll all keep an eye on him in my absence?"

All four of us nod. "Of course we will, Doc," Harry reassures him.

The Doc looks at each of us in turn. "Don't ask him about what happened, but let him talk if he wants to." We all nod again, wide-eyed. "No sudden movements, no loud noises, no confined spaces."

The Doc hesitates. "This probably isn't an issue, given that it's Saturday and school isn't in session, but…" He glances up at me, and I realize he's unable to say the words.

So am I. I managed to stay off the surface of Cardassia and out of real conflict when I was briefly in the Maquis, but I know of their practice of using living shields to secure the safety of their installations. I turn to Harry, who has gone pale. B'Elanna's teeth are clenched so hard we may need to see a dentist later. Libby, poor Libby, has no idea what the Doc is talking about. To spare her I just swallow and nod. No children.

Harry, B'Elanna and I all stand still and silent for a moment, processing this new information. Chakotay loves children. A child coming to harm – or worse – because of his actions would be more than enough to lay him low. If he was in Cardassian "custody" for a week on top of that…

I shudder and try to set the thought aside. "We'll be careful," I say. "We'll call you if we need you."

"Very well." He rises from the piano. "Please tell the Commander I'll be here at 2200 hours to walk him back to our hotel, unless I hear from him or any of you first."

"We will, Doc," B'Elanna says, "and thank you."

He nods once and leaves through the lobby door.

Harry and Libby and B'Elanna and I linger there for a little longer. By some unspoken agreement, we let the Admiral and the Commander have these first few moments of the morning to themselves. But then Harry's stomach growls, so we all enter the dining room and sit down at a bigger table beside them. When the Admiral sees us, she protests and orders us to pull our table right up next to theirs. After some shuffling and shifting, we all sit back down.

The waitress – the same one who brought the bottle to our table last night and referred to Chakotay as "the big ride" – brings coffee and tea and toast. While she's got Chakotay distracted with her flirting, I lean close to the Admiral.

"Are you okay with this?" I ask. "This was supposed to be your big weekend with Jens."

She turns a wide, brilliant smile on me. Last night, I was pleased for the way Jens sometimes makes her whole face light up with delight, but it's nothing compared with the gladness that shines from her eyes now. "I am. Very much so."

"Was Jens okay with this?" I ask.

She smiles fondly. "He was. He actually offered to go, once I explained the situation to him. He understands how close we all became out there, and how we'll always have a place in each other's lives." She sighs. "He's a good man. Even though we've only known each other for a few short months, I care for Jens very much. I think we could be happy together, and I'm going to need to address it with him soon. But Chakotay…" She glances over at the Commander for an instant, then turns that crooked, self-deprecating smile on me, the one I remember from Voyager, and it's graced with such profound affection and tenderness I have to catch my breath. "Sometimes I feel like I've known him forever," she says softly.

I nod. "I feel the same way about B'Elanna. I think back on my life before Voyager, and I can't believe that she wasn't there. It seems like she's always been there. She's a part of me. Even in hard times, even when we disagree, she's still a part of me."

"That's it," she agrees. "That's it exactly. And that's why I have to do this for him now. I don't know what the future holds beyond this, but I know he needs me. Helping him feels right. It's what I have to do."

"He's going to need stability to get through this," I warn her. "Are you willing to provide it?"

She nods. "Seven years in the Delta Quadrant, Tom," she reminds me. "And a lifetime of memories. I may be the only real stability he's ever known."

"He's lucky to have you in his life, Admiral."

Her eyes suddenly fill with tears. "And we're lucky to have you in ours," she says. "You and B'Elanna and Harry and the Doc. All of you. We couldn't have gotten as far as we have without you."

The waitress finally stops flirting with Chakotay and goes to fetch our breakfast then, maybe because during our whispered conversation, the Admiral has reached across the table to clasp his hand. I'm not even sure she realizes she's done it.

The rest of us do. B'Elanna kicks me under the table, Harry blushes and Libby grins. I suspect she suddenly understands every story she's heard about them for the last six months.

Chakotay grips the Admiral's hand like a lifeline. He turns his own hand over and wraps it around her wrist. After a moment she does the same. They sit that way all through breakfast, holding on to each other as if they had never let go.

-END-

Note: I've listed this as complete...for now. As always, one thought sparks a thousand others in my head, and before I know it there's more than I can deal with properly. So there may be another part to this someday. We shall see. Thanks for reading.