Chapter 12

Over the next few days, Picard and Q spent very little time together.  It was as if, after drawing closer for a time, they had an unspoken agreement to back off for a while.  Picard was occupied with the Enterprise's current mission--to transport a group of scientists to study a newly forming solar system.  The scientists were from a variety of Federation member planets, and accomodating their varying demands for equipment, special food, and other perquisites was keeping Picard and his crew busy.  Almost every night there was a gathering in Ten-Forward to go over the most recent data, and Picard felt obliged to join his guests, but after a few days, he decided they could entertain each other perfectly well without his presence, and he deputized Riker and La Forge, both convivial types, to play host.  And Data, of course, was always willing to share knowledge with colleagues.

On his first free evening, Picard was in his quarters, dressing for a date with Beverly.  He had been neglecting her somewhat of late, even before this current mission; he wasn't sure if it was that Q was monopolizing his free time or if it was that he was encouraging Q to monopolize his free time, but either way, he had not been spending enough time with Beverly, whatever their relationship was.  As he was finishing getting ready, a voice echoed inside his head, Do you have a minute, Jean-Luc?  Picard answered in the affirmative, again puzzling over the peculiar sensation he received from conversing with Q in this utterly private, almost intimate fashion.  Picard was growing more and more aware of his telepathic connection with Q.  He somehow knew instantly if Q had left or returned to the ship, and he somehow always knew where to locate Q on the ship, although he of course had no way of reading even the outermost layer of Q's mind.  He was also beginning to be aware when Q was reading his, unless Q was particularly unobtrusive about it.  In a blaze of light that seemed brighter than usual, Q appeared.  He was restless, beginning to pace the second he appeared in the room, his entire being crackling with nervous energy.

"Jean-Luc," he spoke rapidly as he paced, "I don't know if you've noticed, but . . . I don't know the best way to put it, but things are getting a little too comfortable for me here.  You know, I'm not used to staying in one place very long, or even of thinking of any particular place as 'home,' and it's starting to get to me.  It has nothing to do with you, of course; the time I spend with you is precious to me, but aside from you, I'm starting to feel a little claustrophobic."  He paused for a moment, having noticed Picard's clothes for the first time.  "Date?"

Picard nodded.  "With the lovely Dr. C?"  Picard nodded again.  "Well, this won't do at all," snapped Q impatiently, "much too formal.  Too pompous.  You look like somebody's best man."  At this, he snapped his fingers, thereby making the offending garments disappear to be replaced with a much more striking outfit with bolder colors, a wide sash, and an open collar.  Q reached out with both hands, adjusted the shoulders, then took a step back with his head slightly tilted, admiring his handiwork with pursed lips.  "Much better."

Picard turned to look in the mirror, equally pleased with the result; at the same time he was trying to cover for that inexplicable tingle of electricity that he felt whenever Q touched him.  He suspected it was a vestige of an instinctive fear of Q's overwhelming power, and he certainly did not want to let it show.  Otherwise, he was quite used to Q's autocratic ways by now, and saw no need to comment any further than to say, "Thank you.  Your fashion sense is impeccable."

"Naturally," replied the entity.  "Now, as I was saying, I think I need some time to myself to travel for a while, do a little exploring, stretch my muscles a bit."  He went back to pacing.  "Part of it is that while I've been enjoying being on good terms with the crew, and I'm learning all sorts of fascinating things about human nature, I feel like I'm starting to be taken for granted.  Deanna and Geordi actually invited me to their poker game!  Poker?  Moi?  I'm a Q, for God's sake.  I couldn't stop myself from reading all the cards and giving myself perfect hands even if I wanted to; it would be like an involuntary reflex.  If people are starting to invite me to poker games, then something's terribly, terribly wrong."

Picard laughed, shaking his head in bemusement.  He walked over to the sofa, saying, "Come here and sit down.  You're making me nervous."

Q obeyed with a heavy sigh.  "What is so amusing, Captain?"

"You are, mon ami.  You're perfectly happy to have everyone on edge just by your presence, but you just can't stand it that people have come to trust you and feel comfortable around you.  Yet before you encountered us, you were equally bored and restless and wanted to join the crew to alleviate your boredom."

"I can't win, can I?"

"Apparently not.  But don't you see what a tremendous transformation has taken place?  It's not that everyone has forgotten what you're capable of; it's that you've created that level of comfort by your behavior.  When you're not throwing your weight around, you're very good company, and with a few exceptions, the crew enjoys having you around.  That's not a bad thing, Q."

Q sighed, running his fingers through his hair.  "I know that; I know that's what I came here for.  I'm both flattered and touched by the way I've been received.  But at the same time, I'm starting to feel suffocated.  I'm not used to being the object of all this goodwill and warm feeling.  I don't even recognize myself half the time."

"Well, if you ask me, there are elements of your personality that I'm just as glad aren't manifesting themselves.  But what you're saying makes sense.  You've spent centuries getting attention and reinforcing your image of yourself through fear and intimidation; it's understandable that warming up to people and receiving their goodwill in return would be new to you and make you uncomfortable.  But you have to realize that you've risen in our esteem as you've made an effort to adapt to us.  You think you've been somehow diminished because people aren't in awe of your presence, but I've got news for you, we never were."  Q stopped fidgeting and looked directly at Picard, who continued.  "You certainly made us angry, and we certainly became aware of how powerful you are and how vulnerable we were by contrast--we felt fear on occasions, but never awe.  I'm afraid we never respected you enough to feel awe."

"You wound me, mon Capitaine."

Picard smiled gently.  "Q, Q, you're a conundrum, you know that?  If it's any consolation, I feel genuine respect for you now because I've seen you curb your natural impulses toward causing trouble in a genuine effort to be considerate to the rest of us.  And I feel genuine respect for you now because I've seen how judicious you've been in using your power.  You rescued the ship during our mission to Angria, and you've helped out in other ways.  You know, you've been doing a lot of good.  Look, you've even improved my wardrobe."

"Yeah, and let me tell you, it needs help."

"What will you do with yourself while you're gone?"

Q replied, "Oh travel, sightsee, the usual.  I'm not going to do anything you'd disapprove of, so don't worry about that.  But I do need to hit the road for a while.  I'll be back of course.  And if you need me for anything, you can just call me.  Don't try to prove how self-sufficient you are just because I'm not around; it something comes up, I want to be here."

"I understand," said Picard.

Q was beginning to get irritated at Picard's calm and soothing demeanor.  With an almost violent spasm, he mentally burst into Picard's mind, absorbing all of it instantaneously.  Then what Picard said utterly startled him.  "You don't have to do that to know I'm going to miss you," said the Captain evenly,  "I was going to tell you.  And I was going to ask if we could talk sometimes while you're gone."

"Of course we can.  I'm sorry, Jean-Luc; I can't believe I didn't realize you're starting to be able to sense my presence in your mind as well as the extent of it."  He smiled affectionately, "Well, it looks like I can no longer be a cad undetected.  I'm impressed, Jean-Luc--maybe you're not as hopeless as I thought.  And I'm going to miss you too, but there's something else I need to tell you.  Your officers normally aren't dumb enough to invite an omniscient entity to a poker game.  They're dumb, but not that dumb."

"What are you getting at?"

Q sighed.  "Let me see if I can explain this.  Have you noticed a certain laxness among the crew since I came on board?"

"Yes, for instance, the deflector failure was very uncharacteristic.  Geordi's staff doesn't usually make that kind of mistake.  They wouldn't be here if they did."

"Exactly.  Now, right before I came to offer you the powers, you had a dream about me, right?"

"Yes," murmured Picard.  "Actually it was more like a nightmare.  No offense."

"None taken," replied Q with a strained smile, as he got up and resumed pacing.  "You're not the only one who did either.  There are certain mental or emotional states among us that have effects which reverberate beyond ourselves.  We sometimes experience a kind of emotional conflict that causes so much tension that our psychic energy starts to bleed out and have an effect on others.  It's equivalent to a kind of mild telepathic influence except it's totally unintentional when it happens.  We actually project emotions that cause us discomfort onto others; it's an unfortunate defense mechanism that our telepathic abilities make possible.

When the Continuum was insisting that I make you the offer, I was so torn between my fear of the possible consequences and . . . well . . . my fear of the Continuum, it was as if I couldn't contain all the psychic energy this conflict was provoking.  Hence your nightmares.  I was unintentionally telepathically influencing you as a way to release what you would call stress.  And I think I'm having the opposite effect now."  Q's pacing grew more frenetic; he started chewing on his thumbnail in a display of uncharacteristic nervousness.  He continued, hesitantly, his eyes firmly fixed on the ground as he paced, "Although my self-sufficiency is one of the qualities I value most, I apparently seem . . . well . . . ah . . . to have a . . . this isn't easy for me, Picard . . . a powerful desire to be accepted by you and your crew.  I suspect I've been inadvertently influencing some of your crew," he sighed, "in my favor.  Mind you, I'm not going so far as to brainwash them," he added, a little too quickly.  Nervously twisting his hands together, he explained, "I can't force people to feel something opposite to their real feelings when I'm not making a conscious effort to, but I can subconsciously enhance a tendency already in a person's mind, however buried or latent.  And this way I've been able to convince myself that I'm really here because you all can't do without me.  I'm sorry, Jean-Luc, I honestly didn't realize this was going on until now, and it won't happen any more now that I'm aware of it.  Don't take this personally, but your species seems particularly susceptible to our psychic influence," Q concluded somewhat defensively.

Picard was actually smiling at this recital.  "You're really embarrassed about this, aren't you?"

"About what?"

"About craving the companionship of us puny humans so much that you've been subconsciously projecting that need onto us.  Ironic isn't it, my misanthropic and superior friend?"

"Why don't you stick the knife in a little deeper and twist it a few times, Picard?" snapped Q, but at the same time he was capricious enough to respect the fact that Picard was taking advantage of his vulnerability, moving in for the kill when the opportunity presented itself.  Q himself, of course, would have done the same thing and much more cruelly at that.  He added, "You're really enjoying this, aren't you?"

"As a matter of fact, I am," said Picard bluntly.  "You seem to have revealed your Achilles' heel."

"Soft underbelly is more like it," said Q bitterly.  He had stopped pacing and was standing slumped, his arms folded.

Picard got up and walked up to Q.  "Well, I won't tell anybody your little secret, but is that such a crime in the Continuum, to desire friendship?  Is that why you're so embarrassed?"

"Picard, you couldn't possibly understand my relationship with the rest of the Q.  It has a history that goes back long before your earth's prehistory.  Let's drop it, OK?  And regardless of what I may or may not, in weak moments, want, I am not going to start joining the gang for a few hands of poker!"

"No, no, of course not.  That would be beneath you.  You know, I haven't seen you like this since you were without your powers," said Picard, amused.  "What do you want with us, Q?  Do you have any idea?"

"Maybe, maybe not.  What the hell do you want, Picard?  Do you know?  Do you want me to tell you how your date is going to go tonight?  You'll have a romantic dinner, wine, candlelight--very civilized.  You'll exchange a few chaste kisses, perhaps, but Dr. C will go back to her own quarters, and you'll each sleep alone, all the while wondering what it would be like to be together.  You're a fine one to needle me about being embarrassed about emotions, ice-man!  But don't let  me keep you from your date."

Picard's face turned white.  He was speechless with rage, a rage that was exacerbated by the knowledge that Q was absolutely right.  Q laughed derisively.  "Gotcha, didn't I?  You may be able to win the occasional battle, Picard.  I'll admit I have my soft spots.  But you're just asking for trouble.  I can get under your skin so fast it'll make your head spin.  Not only do I know you inside out, but I can turn you inside out, my repressed friend.  Push me as far as you dare, Picard, but be prepared to face the music."

"You're right, Q," admitted Picard with a sigh, who knew better than to pursue a losing battle, particularly with Q, whose utter ruthlessness combined with his telepathic powers gave him an unbeatable advantage.  "Truce?"  He offered his hand to Q who shook it with a satisfied smile.

"Cease-fire, anyway," replied the entity.  "Until I return.  I can't resist a parting shot, however."  He placed his hands lightly on his victim's shoulders, noting with satisfaction Picard's inevitable slight tremor at his touch, and said, "You have no idea how much satisfaction it gives me to hear you say 'You're right, Q.'  You're so beautiful when you surrender."  Q then kissed Picard on the forehead.  "Au revoir, mon Capitaine."

"Au revoir, Q," murmured Picard as Q disappeared in a more than usually blinding flash.  Picard actually felt the ship lurch slightly, testimony to just how much nervous energy Q needed to dissipate.  As he lit candles and set the table for his date, trying to ignore his embarrassment at Q's parting gesture, he was more than a little surprised to find himself feeling a little wistful and saddened at Q's departure.  I really am going to miss the bastard, he thought to himself.

When Beverly arrived, she complimented him profusely on his new clothes.  "Well, Jean-Luc, you look absolutely stunning.  Who's your tailor?"

"Q, actually.  I have to admit, he's got excellent taste.  Have you ever been inside his quarters?"

Picard's casual mention of Q made Beverly feel a brief clutch of fear in her heart.  She quickly changed the subject.  They conversed casually over dinner, with Picard entertaining his companion by doing mercilessly accurate imitations of some of the visiting scientists with their interminable demands.  He was uncharacteristically irreverent, trying to break through the reserve he and Beverly were both feeling.  She laughed heartily, and after a few glasses of wine, they both began to feel more at ease.

Picard couldn't help thinking about their marriage and divorce in the projected future Q had taken him to when he had been travelling in time to solve the puzzle the Continuum had set up.  He had actually surprised himself by telling his officers about the future he had seen, but his concerns about them drifting apart seemed more significant than the problem of altering a future that was probably not predetermined anyway.  But telling Beverly they had been married and divorced was the hardest; neither part of that projected future sounded very appealing to him.  It just seemed to confirm to him that he wasn't cut out for that type of commitment; he would undoubtedly drive any spouse to distraction.  He glanced at Beverly as he sipped his wine; she seemed to be thinking about the same thing.  Although he didn't regret telling her about it, it had put a barrier between them.  And from Beverly's perspective, there was the additional complication of Q's obvious romantic interest in Picard (obvious to everyone but its object).  She could tell that Q was wooing Picard in his own fashion, but the Captain remained blissfully oblivious to Q's ulterior motives.  The question was, how would he react when it finally sunk in?  Q was extremely annoying, but Beverly could imagine that it would be flattering to be pursued by such a powerful being, regardless of gender or other concerns.

Picard got up suddenly, uncomfortable with the silence that had fallen over both of them.  "I have a treat for you.  Dr. Cameron brought them from Earth; he's from Seattle, and he likes to show off the specialties of that region.  Did you like the wine?  It was from that area as well."

"It was very good.  What's your treat?"

Picard brought out a box, but kept his hand over the lid.  "Close your eyes.  Trust me."  Beverly closed her eyes and opened her mouth, and Picard deposited a chocolate covered blueberry on her tongue.

"Oh, that's good," she moaned, "another."  Picard complied, smiling, then bent down to kiss her lightly while the taste of chocolate remained on her lips.  "Umm," said Beverly, "I'm going to become as much of a chocoholic as Deanna if you keep that up."

Picard was refilling the wine glasses, then beckoned to the couch, "Sit with me, please.  I promise I'll only misbehave a little."

"Why only a little?" asked Beverly, sitting next to him and taking her wine glass.

"Because neither of us is ready for more than that; don't you agree?"  Beverly nodded, and Picard continued,  "But I have been thinking about kissing you all day."

"That sounds like rather a dereliction of duty, Captain.  You have an important scientific mission you're responsible for."

"Quite so," responded Picard, twirling his wine glass, "but even I can't be responsible every second of every day, now can I?  Some things just take precedence over my responsibilities."  Beverly was too entranced to notice what a Q-like statement that was; if she had she would have been concerned about the extent of the entity's influence on Picard, but she had other things on her mind.  Picard lightly touched his wine glass to hers, then, with his free hand, he combed her hair back from her forehead, stroked her cheek, then leaned in for a long kiss.  Beverly put her hand on the back of Jean-Luc's neck to pull him closer, and in the process, they forgot their wine glasses, managing to spill a considerable amount over both of them.  Both dissolved into laughter, and Picard remarked, "Well, it's a good thing it was white wine."  He put the glasses safely out of range then returned to the sofa.  Noticing a drop of wine that was slowly trickling down his companion's neck, he leaned forward to catch it with his lips, then remarked, "I am a Frenchman after all.  Never waste good wine."

"Words to live by," laughed Beverly.  Despite the intimacy between them, they still sat slightly apart, leaning together to kiss, then drawing slightly apart again.

Picard took Beverly's hand in his, sighed slightly, then said softly, "I'm afraid I must be very difficult for you to put up with these days."

"So what's new?  When were you ever easy?"

He smiled, "Indeed.  I just worry that I've been more difficult than usual since the time the Continuum put me on trial again.  I think it was important to share what I learned, but it has confused things between us."

"They were confused before, too, Jean-Luc.  I . . . I don't think I know what I want any more than you do.  I love these evenings and our breakfasts together, but beyond that, I just don't know.  I care about you so deeply, but I don't know if I can ever marry again.  That may seem foolish after all these years, but I think I've done pretty well for myself.  You're not the only one who needs a certain amount of breathing space to thrive."

Jean-Luc lifted Beverly's hand to his lips and remarked, "I don't know if I've ever put it quite this way before, but do you understand how much you impress me?  You tend to keep that determined will of yours under wraps, but I'm always aware of it.  It wouldn't surprise me at all to see you become Captain of your own ship some day."

"Mmm," mused Beverly.  "I've been thinking about that ever since you told me.  Not that it hadn't occurred to me before.  CMO of the Enterprise is a wonderful position; one couldn't ask for more in a career, but I do sometimes consider the possibility of trying something new one of these years."

"Well, I'd hate to lose you, Doctor, for professional and personal reasons.  I hope you're not contemplating any immediate career changes."

"No not immediate.  I'm very happy here.  There is one thing, Jean-Luc.  You don't owe me any explanations, of course, but I just have to say how much it disturbs me that I have no idea what happened to you right before Q came on board.  I'm used to this barrier between us," she gestured at the space between them, "because neither of us is ready to take this further, but do you remember when we were telepathically linked?"

"How could I forget?"

"It hurts me that you won't confide in me . . . and it frightens me a little too."

"You're right, of course.  I should have told you, but I think I was worried you would think so much less of me.  I've never done anything quite so foolish . . . and utterly dangerous.  I'll tell you now, but I want to invoke doctor-patient confidentiality here.  I suspect if you'd known before you would have relieved me of command; I certainly wasn't myself when I first returned to the ship, but it was important that I recover at least an illusion of normalcy as quickly as possible.  And Q really was, and continues to be, a tremendous help.  He's read my mind so thoroughly that I'm sure he knows me better than I know myself.  It makes me uncomfortable, actually, knowing that I'll never have even a fraction of that much insight into him, but I couldn't have gotten through this without him."

"What happened?"

Picard put his head in his hand, slowly rubbing his hand over his face and forehead.  Then he looked up, almost whispering, "I hope you'll be able to forgive my folly when you hear of it.  I know I haven't been able to."  Beverly took his hands in hers, and he continued, "Q recently remarked that he is, in some ways, my darker side.  He somehow gets me to act on impulses that I would normally never act on, such as when he took me back in time, and I relived the fight with those Nausicaans.  I don't like to admit it, but it really was . . . well  . . . fun.  In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  And I think he's actually good for me that way.  On this occasion, he was actually trying to stop me from acting on my worst impulses, and I mean my worst, but my arrogance, my pride got the better of me.  Q has proved me wrong on so many occasions, that I had this irresistable compulsion to take the bait he was being forced to offer me--I wanted to triumph over him, to force him to acknowledge . . . I don't know . . . my ability, my intelligence, my competence."  Picard hesitated, and Beverly was alarmed to see his eyes begin to glisten as he told her the whole story, from Q's initial reluctant kidnapping of him to Q's self-invitation on board the Enterprise.  He related all the events in a dull, weary, numb tone, his only emotion being betrayed by his occasional blinking away tears.  "I became a monster, Beverly," he concluded.  "Q's powers were far too much for me to handle, but I'm so horrified that I accepted them in the first place.  That was utterly unpardonable."

She put her arms around him and pulled his head onto her shoulder.  "Foolish and reckless, yes; unpardonable, no."

He burrowed his his head further into her neck.  "It's actually a great relief telling you.  Verbalizing it and knowing I did no permanent harm makes it seem a little less devastating."

"Knowing how hard you are on yourself, how have you dealt with it as well as you have?"

"Q actually has some wisdom and insight, despite his capriciousness and self-indulgence," replied Picard.  "He gave me a well-deserved and severe tongue lashing immediately afterward."  He smiled, "It was actually an impressive performance.  But from that point on, his position was that I shouldn't waste my time and energy regretting what was past, when I had more pressing business to attend to.  He managed to convince me that he was right.  Not that the incident hasn't been haunting me, because it has, but Q made certain it didn't impair my ability to do my duties."

"Well, he was right," acknowledged Beverly, somewhat surprised.

"Do you know?" asked Picard, raising his head and sitting up straight again, "he actually apologized for losing his temper with me?  Guinan put it into his head that he was also to blame, for I wouldn't have accepted the offer from another member of the Continuum."

"That makes sense.  Q can push your buttons like nobody else can."

"Yes," sighed Picard, "and what I can't get over is what an easy target I seem to make myself for him.  He probably took off to look for some greater challenges."

Picard was smiling, but Beverly, sounding almost like Deanna, said softly, "You miss him."

Picard nodded, then said, "But what I'm interested in right now is what you think.  At least you haven't fled from me in horror."

"Of course not, Jean-Luc."  She leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead.  "You're human; you made a human mistake in wanting to get back at Q in that fashion.  It's just that between Q and the Continuum, they give you opportunities to make mistakes on a much larger scale than you normally would."

"Isn't that the truth?"  Having already bared his soul to Beverly, he allowed himself the indulgence of curling up against her, head on her shoulder, and they remained that way for some time, both feeling far more at ease than they had at the beginning of the evening.

"It's late," Beverly eventually murmured.  "I should go."  Picard nodded, stood up, extended a hand to Beverly to help her up, then wrapped her in a tight embrace.  She remained for a moment with her head pressed against his chest, then looked up.  "Do I get a good-night kiss?"

"Mmm," replied Picard, "I should think so."

* * *

Over the next couple of weeks, Picard and Beverly drew closer together, having regular breakfast and dinner dates.  Picard found himself musing frequently over the fact that while he missed Q, quite a bit in fact, he also felt more relaxed not having him around.  Q's presence generated an inevitable level of tension, but what Picard couldn't figure out was whether he preferred to be with or without it.  Q checked in mentally every few days, but he was also keeping tabs on Picard's relationship with Beverly from afar, and he thought it best to keep out of the way.  In addition, Q didn't find the Enterprise's current mission terribly exciting.  He had seen plenty of solar systems form over the course of his lifetime, and the fact that so many scientists were converging on such a non-event further confirmed his conviction of the paltriness of human scientific pursuits.  Didn't they have anything better to occupy themselves with?  Q's frustration with the state of his courtship and his natural restlessness were impelling him to do some exploring, but something held him back.  Had he gone exploring, however, he might have encountered something that would freeze even his soul, something that was making leisurely but determined progress further into the galaxy.  Fortunately for himself, Q remained in familiar territory, but jealous of Picard's attachment to Beverly Crusher and humiliated at the thought of competing with her, Q didn't see any reason to return to the Enterprise in the near future.   He finally betook himself to his mountaintop refuge, figuring what he couldn't have in actuality he could have in his imagination.  It would be real to him, and Picard would never be the wiser.

* * *

No sooner had the visiting scientists on board the Enterprise concluded their investigations and experiments and been deposited at Starbase 143 to hold a conference on the results, when the Enterprise received a distress call from the terraforming colony on Ulro III.  The terraformers had  accidentally triggered a massive quake that had overwhelmed their equipment and facilities.  As the Enterprise leapt into warp, Crusher and her staff were making rapid preparations.

As soon as the ship entered orbit, Crusher and her team beamed down to behold utter devastation.  Except for a central structure housing computers and equipment, the rest of the buildings had been thrown up rather hastily.  Terraformers tended to be a hardy lot, and they took pride in their spartan and utilitarian living conditions.  There was not much left to take pride in.  But the ones who were not severely injured were already digging out survivors from under crushed buildings and fallen rocks.  Data immediately sprung into action, his superior strength greatly facilitating the process.  As the away team spread out, looking for survivors, Beverly was following some life sign readings on her tricorder and found herself quite a distance from the rest of the away team.  The readings grew stronger as she approached the base of a rocky ledge.  They seemed to be emanating from a small cave considerably above.  The way looked precarious, and she wasn't happy; she never liked heights, and this wasn't the holodeck.  Still, climb she must, and she did.  Of course the medical kit slung over her shoulder didn't help.  Carefully testing each handhold and foothold, she slowly ascended, reminding herself not to look down.  She was suddenly startled when her communicator beeped.  "Riker to Crusher.  Report."

With a sharp intake of breath, she paused in her ascent, and responded, "Crusher here.  I'm reading life signs in a cave on top of a ledge, and I'm on my way up."

"You shouldn't be alone.  I'll send Data to assist."

"Acknowledged.  Crusher out."

She continued her ascent, gasping as a small rock went skittering away from under her foot and plunged downward.  "I knew there was a reason I didn't like heights," she muttered to herself.  As she approached the top, she could hear a voice calling faintly for help.  Spurred on by the knowledge she had work to do, she climbed more purposefully.  Fortunately there was a solid rock jutting out from the ledge that gave her an easy handhold to pull herself up.  The ledge was narrow, and the mouth of the cave was partially blocked by boulders, but there was an entrance narrow enough for her to squeeze in.

A young woman lay partially pinned under a fallen boulder; her body was partially twisted, and she was lying face down.  "My leg," she whispered, as Crusher scanned her with a medical tricorder.

"You're going to be all right," said Crusher with a reassuring smile.  "I'm a doctor.  I'm going to give you something for the pain, then we'll take a look at that leg."  As she administered the hypospray, she thought, Where the hell is Data?  "Your leg's going to be fine; we just have to get you up to the ship.  You should be walking on it again in a couple of days."  The young woman nodded and tried to muster a smile.  "Was there anyone else with you?" asked the doctor.

"Yes, two" whispered the young woman.  "They were doing geological studies further up."

"We'll look for them as soon as we get you stabilized."  Moments later, Data squeezed into the cave.  "Can you get that boulder off of her?  I need to get her up to the ship."

"Yes, Doctor."  Data lifted off the heavy boulder with ease, and Crusher signaled the Enterprise, "one to beam up, directly to sick bay."

"Come on, Doctor.  This cave is not safe."

"She said there were two others farther up."

Data nodded.  "There is a kind of path leading up four meters along the ledge."

"Let's go," said Beverly.  Data helped her out of the narrow cave opening, then began to move along the ledge a few steps ahead of the doctor.  Suddenly there was a tremendous jolt.  Another quake rocked the planet's surface.  As Data whirled around toward Beverly, he saw a falling boulder strike her in the head as she was knocked off-balance and plunged off the ledge.  Even for Data, who registered the passing of time completely objectively, the shaking seemed to go on for minutes.  As soon as it stopped, he scrambled hastily down the decline to look for the doctor.

* * *

Q, invisible, reclined on the lounge chair in Picard's quarters, waiting for the Captain to be off-duty.  When Picard entered, Q remained invisible, shamelessly watching as Picard removed his uniform and stretched, bending his waist with his arms over his head, while Q happily admired the play of his muscles, then headed for the shower.  After having changed into pajamas, he stood in his bedroom, rotating his head to release the tension in his neck and shoulders.  He was not surprised when he felt a pair of invisible thumbs begin to rub his neck.  "I knew you were here," said Picard quietly.  "I could tell as soon as I walked in the room."

A voice replied right next to his ear, "Did you now?  So that stretching exhibition was for my benefit?"

Picard felt a pair of invisible arms circle his waist from behind, and he closed his eyes, wrapped his own arms around those that were encircling him, and leaned back into the invisible form behind him, as an invisible hand slipped inside the V-shaped opening of his shirt and a set of fingertips ran up and down his side from waist to chest.  Feeling a pair of lips on his neck, he drew in his breath sharply, then murmured, "Why don't you show yourself?"

"All in good time, mon Capitaine, all in good time."

"You have me at rather a disadvantage," noted Picard, as the lips traveled to his shoulder.

"Precisely.  My powers have to be good for something, don't they?"

"Mmm," replied Picard slowly, "but they're no match for my reflexes."  He spun around suddenly, releasing himself from Q's grasp, and grabbing the invisible entity before he had time to react.  Q found himself being pushed onto the bed, and he was so startled that he lost his concentration, and became visible again.

Damn! thought Q to himself.

Picard stepped back, adjusting his pajama shirt with a satisfied tug.  Smiling a devastating smile, he remarked calmly, "Haven't you learned by now never to underestimate me?"

Q leaned back on the bed, gazed at Picard through half-closed eyes, and replied, "Apparently not.  You'll just have to show me what you're capable of, human."

"My pleasure."

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