Chapter 17

Q had completely recovered, obviously, and the Enterprise crew was getting used to the spectacle of seeing Q and Picard walk down a corridor together or sit in Ten-Forward carrying on an animated conversation, without a single word being spoken.  Q could make Picard laugh more than anyone else could, but his mercilessly wicked sense of humor made Picard grateful that he was the only one who could "hear" Q's remarks.  Although Q was getting along famously with the Enterprise's crew, creating magnificent spectacles with his returned powers and generally proving himself an infinitely entertaining shipmate, it became increasingly apparent to those who knew him at all that all was not well.  Q prowled the corridors of the Enterprise like a caged tiger pacing in a zoo, provoking a similar type of cognitive dissonance in his observers.  On the one hand, it was exhilarating to contemplate all that energy and power at close range and in safety; on the other hand, it was disconcerting to realize that what one was observing was most definitely out of its element and didn't belong.  Even his increasingly frequent solo expeditions around the galaxy were not sufficient to dispel his accumulating nervous energy.  What was becoming increasingly clear to him was something he did not want to admit.

Returning to the ship after one such expedition, Q was feeling more than usually conscious of the sensation of confinement that was oppressing him.  The walls seemed to be closing in, and even the prospect of seeing Picard when he was off-duty couldn't dispel his mood.  Q popped into Ten-Forward, flinging himself onto a bar stool and causing the ship to lurch slightly in the process.  Guinan walked over to him hesitantly.  She knew what he needed to hear, but she didn't know if he was ready to hear it.  Q and Guinan never wasted time on preliminaries when they talked together; they simply got right to the point.  "I worry sometimes," she said carefully, "that you might accidentally blow us to pieces after all.  That energy needs some sort of outlet."

"Well, if I do," snapped Q irritably, "I can dispel even more energy putting you back together."

"It wouldn't be a pleasant experience for us though, believe me.  This," Guinan gestured, as if indicating the whole ship, "isn't right for you.  It's not natural."

"What are you talking about, Woman?  I don't have to be here.  I chose it.  Don't you understand how important he is to me?"

"Yes I do, but is he so important to you that you're willing to be untrue to yourself?  And him.  It's obvious that being on this ship as much as you are is making you claustrophobic, but has it occurred to you that Picard may not be ready for such continuous proximity either?  There is a bond between the two of you; you're terribly important to him.  I think you've gotten closer to him than you ever imagined you would.  But I don't think the connection between you is going to be served by your being in each other's faces all the time.  That's not who he is, and that's not what you are."

Q looked miserable.  "But Guinan, damn it, he's mortal!  The time I have with him is so limited."

"Isn't that more of a reason to make the time you have actually mean something, instead of forcing a proximity that isn't natural to either of you?  You can see him whenever you want; I just don't think your remaining here is good for you or your relationship with him."

Q slammed his hand into the bar, and the ship gave an even more decided lurch.  Guinan tried to repress a smile and walked over to the comm panel at the end of the bar.  "Ten-Forward to bridge.  No need to worry.  Q's just letting off a little excess energy."

"Acknowledged." replied Picard crisply.  "If you think he's in the mood for taking advice, would you kindly suggest to him that he blow off steam elsewhere?  Picard out."

Q glared at Guinan, and exclaimed, "Do you want to know what I really hate about you, Woman?  You know better than I do, and that's supposed to be my job."

"Well, you need someone to look after you, too," said Guinan gently.

Q spoke mentally to Picard, asking to talk to him when he was off-duty, then turned back to Guinan, shaking his head slowly.  "I thought I knew what I wanted, but it turns out I don't.  I really have been around humans too long; I'm starting to get as confused as they are."

* * *

Picard walked slowly to his quarters, knowing that things couldn't continue the way they had been.  Q simply wasn't capable of staying in one place for long, even if that place was a travelling starship.  As far as Picard was concerned, he felt confident in his connection with his omnipotent companion, but right now Q was taking up too much of his attention and time.  Picard was grateful for having found a companion with whom he had so much in common, who allowed him to be himself in a way he really couldn't with his crew, but he also craved privacy.  His time alone had always been very precious to him, allowing him to pursue interests that were satisfying and soul-restoring diversions from the responsibilities of command.  When was the last time he had picked up a paintbrush?  Or his Ressikan flute?  As far as Q was concerned, he found himself already starting to take his presence for granted; before the incident with the extra-galactic entity, he had felt himself slipping into a comfortable complacency, lulled by the protection Q offered.  And at the same time, he started to find his irritation at Q's faults returning; Picard couldn't help noticing Q's petulance and self-indulgence, his expectation that Picard drop everything when he wanted attention.  Picard wanted the exhilaration and stimulation Q's presence often provided; Q's knowledge, powers, and energy made him an infinitely intriguing companion.  But Picard didn't have it in him to deal with Q on a daily basis; that would seem to require a superhuman level of patience, a level of patience even his fellow Qs were lacking.

Picard paused as the doors to his quarters slid open, then walked in to find Q, as he expected, reclining on the couch.  Q jumped up to a sitting position as soon as Picard entered.  Picard smiled, walking up to him, and remarking gently, "You might want to restrain those sudden motions a bit.  I don't know if the inertial damping system can handle the stress."

"Sorry," replied the entity, patting the couch next to him.  "Just a little nervous energy . . ."

"Which our primitive technology isn't adequate to handle," Picard finished for him, sitting down, still smiling.  He sighed, then said, "We have a problem here, don't we?"

"Quite so," replied Q, imitating Picard's accent and inflection with a smile.  "I really am fond of this primitive clunker, you know.  It feels like home, but that's part of the problem.  Having a place to drop in on is very appealing, but feeling like I'm actually expected to be somewhere doesn't suit me very well."

"I understand," noted Picard.  "It must feel very similar to being planet-bound for me.  After a while, I have to be moving again."

"I really have to get away from this ship, but don't get me wrong," said Q.  "I'm still going to be keeping an eye on you.  As far as I'm concerned, your education is far from over, my friend.  And I have plenty of vacation ideas for you.  After all, you'll need something to occupy you when you retire.  Meanwhile, I'll still be an annoyingly frequent visitor and undoubtedly outstay my welcome, and if you're in any real trouble, I'll be really pissed off if you don't call me, even though you seem quite capable, these days, of taking care of yourself."

"You just don't want to miss any action.  Understand though, that I will only call you as a last resort.  It's not that I'm ungrateful for the protection you offered, but when I had to rely on myself, it was the first time I really felt myself again in command since you came on board.  You know, you're the one who showed me I have to take risks.  I have to fly without a net, Q, but I'm not so arrogant as to say that I will never request your assistance.  Your guidance has proven invaluable to me.  Do you understand?"

"Yes, and I also understand now that my guidance is only useful to you insofar as it helps you rely on yourself.  I knew you had potential, but even so, I had no idea how much.  But that's not really why I'm leaving.  I'm leaving because I'm claustrophobic . . . in more ways than one.  If we keep seeing each other on a daily basis, we're going to start throwing furniture at each other, and eventually I'd get tired of repairing the damage to your ship.  You're very important to me Jean-Luc, but you'll be relieved to know I don't want to marry you."

"Did you?" asked Picard cautiously.

Q laughed.  "Not exactly.  I wasn't envisioning a future that consisted of the two of us puttering around the kitchen in our bathrobes and squabbling over who misplaced the pizza cutter."

Picard laughed heartily at the image.  "Now that is frightening, Q."

"See, I still can strike fear in you.  Let me ask you something, Jean-Luc.  When I took Vash away from you, you let her go graciously enough.  Let the best man win and all that.  You imagined me triumphing in rousing your jealousy of me.  But did it ever enter your straight and narrow little mind that I was trying to make you jealous of her?"

Picard sighed and put his head in his hands.  "No, Q, I can't say that had occurred to me."

"Well, are you getting it now?  Do you understand why I came here?"  In a harder tone, he added, "Hell, even Data figured it out."

"I suspect," murmured Picard, "that I was trying very hard to avoid figuring it out, Q. That is not something I'm ready for."

"I know," said Q with a slight smile.  "But I'll tell you what.  I don't think I am either.  Seriously, Jean-Luc, I'm not exactly sure what I wanted.  I still feel the impulse to assert some kind of dominion over you . . . "

"As I will continue to resist," interjected Picard with a smile.

"And well you should.  I can't help trying to compel you to capitulate to me, but I'd be terribly disappointed if you actually did.  But beyond trying to exercise power over you, and even beyond seeing myself in you and forcing you to see yourself in me, I think what I really wanted was simply to forge a genuine connection with you."

"And that you have, Q.  Just because I can't . . . or I'm not ready for . . . well, you know what I'm getting at . . . that doesn't mean I don't want you in my life.  There's a bond between us that is terribly important to me.  In my own very particular way--and you forced me to say this once before, but now I say it willingly--I need you.  You've forced me to acknowledge parts of myself I thought I had long buried, parts of myself that I'm very grateful to have rediscovered.  But it's not only that.  Even though you are the most maddening individual I've ever encountered, I really do enjoy your company."

"As I do yours," noted Q, "and you may be a pompous ass on occasion, Jean-Luc, but if I had lungs, you would take my breath away.  For me to feel that way about anyone or anything is a miracle.  And I want to keep it that way. . . .  My existence has been pretty short of miracles for some time now.  The last thing I want is to start taking you for granted or vice versa."  Picard nodded, one of those trademark Picard nods which conveyed complete understanding and agreement.  "By the way," continued Q, "has anyone ever told you that you're unutterably beautiful?"

"I've heard rumors to that effect," replied Picard uncomfortably, "but they were unsubstantiated."

"No.  They weren't.  You know," remarked Q, "I've finally discovered something you're modest about.  And entirely without cause.  I can tell you things about yourself you should be modest about, but your looks are not among them."

Anxious to change the subject, Picard queried, "When I was in your mind, when you started recovering, you said something about joining minds.  What did you mean by that?  How is that different from communicating telepathically or mind-reading?"

"Oh nothing, I was just babbling."

"No you weren't.  What did you mean?"

Q made a dismissive gesture with his hand, "Oh, Picard, you have far too much curiosity about things beyond your ken.  I shouldn't have mentioned it."

Picard's hand lashed out and grasped Q's wrist in an iron grasp.  In a steely voice, he enuniciated slowly, "Don't patronize me.  I've earned that much."

"You're right, OK?" snapped Q, rubbing his wrist.  "I'll try to explain it to you, but if you don't get it, don't blame me.  You may be a particularly advanced specimen of your species, but you're still limited, and you have to acknowledge that, on the whole, my powers and knowledge exceed yours.  There are aspects of Q existence that are very difficult to convey  verbally."

"Then you'll just have to show me," said Picard.

Q raised his eyebrows.  "My, aren't we overconfident?  Well, I'll explain it to you, and then you can decide if you think you can handle it.  Or want to.  First of all, let me tell you what it's not.  Joining minds is not like the equivalent of sex for us."

"Do you have sex?" asked Picard, his curiosity now thoroughly piqued.

"Now you're patronizing me!" snapped Q.  "What do you think we are?  Stiffs?  Of course we have sex, but it's not like how you have sex."

"What is it like?" asked Picard, with strained patience.

"Wouldn't you like to know, Johnny?  OK, the best description I can give you that you'll understand is that we mingle if you will, and, umm, exchange and release a lot of energy.  But the real difference is that we view sex quite differently from you.  It's not the intimate act it is with humans, and it doesn't entail the same vulnerability.  It's more playful.  Where the real intimacy and vulnerability comes in is joining minds."

"Joining minds is something we do with an individual we feel particularly close to.  It's altogether on a different level than our everyday telepathic communication.  I'll describe it as best I can.  When we communicate telepathically, even though we may be able to read every layer of each other's minds, we're still essentially on the outside, looking in.  We retain our separate identities.  Joining minds involves a temporary merging of two individuals into one.  It's a kind of intimacy and vulnerability a human can't begin to imagine.  We surrender ourselves completely to each other.  We literally cease to exist as separate individuals, and our minds . . . well . . . fuse, merge, blend, coalesce, intermingle, however you'd like to imagine it.  We become one being and share . . . everything.  We see as if with one pair of eyes."  Q's voice was dreamy and abstracted, as he tried to evoke the experience.  Then his tone of voice shifted.  "And it's scary as hell, Picard.  But  it's . . . well, it's indescribable.  It's like being reborn.  It doesn't mean that you're committed to that individual forever or anything, but it's a way that we express a very, very, very profound level of trust and communion that we're feeling at that particular time.  We're pretty mercurial, and our feelings often change, but there are times when two individuals are so--how would you say it?--in tune that they're willing to risk that level of intimacy.  It's actually a fairly rare event for us; sex is much less threatening if nowhere near as satisfying."

"Yet, you proposed this to me, I remember." said Picard slowly and thoughtfully.

"Well, I meant it, I think.  I don't know if you can handle it, but I can always put you back together if you're overwhelmed.  There is not another being in the universe that I have ever felt more desire to join minds with than you.  You're so much a part of me that our separateness frustrates the hell out of me.  But I thought it was perhaps too much to ask of you, so I kept my desires to myself."

"I'm intrigued, Q," said Picard, his brow furrowed in thought.  "In fact, I'm very intrigued.  The idea of it is very intimidating, but it's overwhelmingly enticing at the same time--to merge with your mind, to know you on that level.  On the one hand, I feel that there is so much that binds us, that we have in common, that we share; on the other hand you seem so overwhelmingly alien to me that I can't begin to understand you.  We've been through so much that I find the barriers that separate us frustrating as well.  This is something I feel ready for.  Q, I want to try this."

Q was both moved and surprised, but he said cautiously.  "I've never done this with a mortal before . . ."

"Don't you mean a mere mortal?" interrupted Picard.

"That's right.  He can learn!  For all I know you might be so absorbed that you forget to keep breathing or keep your heart beating."

"You can revive me, remember?"

"Good point.  A question, Jean-Luc--are you scared?"

"Yes," replied Picard softly.

"Good.  You should be.  If you'd said you weren't, then I would have known you didn't have the faintest idea what you were getting into.  Now I know you have an inkling at least.  I have to warn you--it can be overwhelming.  In fact it's supposed to be.  If you can, just go with it.  If you can't take it though, you can always, if you'll excuse the metaphor, pull out."

"You have a way with words, Q," remarked Picard.

"This isn't going to be like anything you've every experienced, Jean-Luc.  It's so far beyond any human interpersonal connection that you can't possibly have any context to imagine it.  And it's entirely different from any experiences you may have had with telepathy or even having your mind taken over.  When that happened, you were still in there struggling to get out.  What I'm talking about is losing your self, your identity entirely.  You cease to be yourself, and you merge with the other person.  The closest thing you've experienced to it is a Vulcan mind-meld; it's similar, but it's not really like that either.  There you have two individuals joined but retaining separate identities, exchanging thoughts and emotions.  You think and feel what the other thinks and feels, but you're still yourself.  When we join minds, there's no transfer going on; you simply are one being."

"I understand.  No, I don't understand.  But I want to."

Q smiled, lifted Picard's hand to his lips, and said softly, "You are truly the most remarkable individual I have ever met throughout all the eons of my existence.  Je t'aime."

"Je t'aime aussi," said Picard, pressing Q's hand.

"OK," said Q.  "Lie down.  You're going to be much too engrossed to have any control over your body."  Picard complied, and Q disengaged his hand from Picard's, slid off the couch and sat down on the floor, his back against the couch, explaining, "This is an entirely mental experience.  Physical contact would only interfere."

"What do I do?" asked Picard.

"Well, first you relax and do whatever you need to do to block out everything else and concentrate.  I'll know when you're ready.  Then we, and it sounds tricky, but it really isn't, simultaneously open our minds as much as possible to each other and reach as deeply as we can into each other's minds.  Somewhere along the way, we actually begin to merge.  It doesn't happen instantaneously."

"OK," said Picard, "I'm ready."

He closed his eyes and breathed slowly, clearing his mind and relaxing as much as he could into a state of receptivity, opening his mind to allow his companion the fullest possible access.  Then he began probing deeply into Q's mind as he had done before but without blocking anything out.  As if his mind was a container being slowly filled up, he felt Q's knowledge, memories, experiences, feelings and thoughts pouring steadily into him.  At the same time he felt completely exposed; he could feel Q's powerful presence exploring every layer of his consciousness, absorbing secrets and desires he had never confessed to anyone, viewing childhood experiences, reliving crises he had faced in command, and fully apprehending all the conflicting feelings that made him who he was--the fears and self-doubt as well as the arrogance and confidence, the deep-rooted desire to do right and the anguished frustration at his failures.  Picard had been unconscious when Q had reconstructed his mind and identity after he surrendered the powers back; this was the first time he had felt himself so totally exposed.

For a while Picard felt as if he were viewing two parallel tracks, his own mind filling with the content of Q's and Q absorbing his consciousness in its entirety.  Gradually, the two sensations began to merge; he was beginning to be unable to distinguish between his own thoughts and Q's, his own feelings and memories and experiences and those of his companion's.  A wave of panic washed through him as he felt his identity slipping, being swallowed by a much more powerful consciousness.  He was beginning to forget who he was.  He was lost, assaulted by an overwhelming barrage of hundreds and hundreds of years' worth of memories and devastatingly intense emotions--a pervasive ennui combined with restlessness and a cynical despair, an acute and irresistable desire for attention, a childishly sadistic satisfaction in the sufferings of others, a defiant rebelliousness, and a profound, crushing loneliness, an utter conviction of never being able to belong.  At he same time, he sensed a conjunction of newer, rawer feelings about someone--himself? (whoever he was, he couldn't remember)--an intense and surprising interest in something outside the self, a yearning for approval mixed with a sadistic desire to conquer, a growing affection mixed with exasperation, a compulsive urge to dominate mixed with a wistful impulse to surrender, a triumphant exultation over the other's errors mixed with a genuine wish to educate and guide, the proprietary pride of a parent toward a child, of a teacher toward a beloved pupil, of a mentor toward a successful protegé mixed with irritation, frustration, and impatience, attraction, resentment, embarrassment, fascination, amusement, anger, desire, a delighted recognition of a soulmate, longing and more longing, and a growing, deepening love.  He saw himself but it was not like looking in a mirror; he saw himself entirely through Q's eyes, actually felt the impact his looks, his voice, his personality, his presence, his aura of controlled passion and contained energy had on another.  He would have been utterly embarrassed at the unabashed admiration he sensed toward himself except that he didn't retain enough of himself to be embarrassed.

It was growing harder to distinguish who was feeling what.  Converging on his apprehension of Q's feelings about him were all of the feelings Q provoked in him:  fury, fear, hostility, contempt, irritation, impatience, perplexity, self-doubt, curiosity, wonder, gratitude, competitiveness, friendship, intimidation, fascination, recognition, kinship, and love as well.  His own memories and those of his companion were becoming indistinguishable.  He had been born in France in the year 2305, he had lived centuries, he had commanded starships, he had seen every wonder the galaxy had to offer, he had caused suffering and had done good, he had saved lives and been responsible for the loss of others, he had helped ensure the survival of an entire species, he had been put on trial by a godlike being, and he had prevented a man from committing a crime that would have shattered his soul.  His own identity was utterly absorbed in Q's.  The feelings, experiences, ideas, and knowledge sweeping through him had become a torrent, and he had lost himself, he didn't know who he was, and he was drowning . . . overwhelmed . . . engulfed . . . annihilated . . . spiralling away into . . .

a new birth.  He? they? it?  Out of the annihilation of two identities a new one emerged.  This identity had both Q's impulsiveness and Picard's discipline, Q's restlessness and Picard's ambition, Q's flamboyance and Picard's reserve, Q's vast knowledge and Picard's accumulated wisdom, Q's mocking sarcasm and Picard's dry wit; it had an incisive intelligence, a wide-ranging imagination, an arrogant self-confidence, vulnerabilities, doubts, needs, and desires.  The two original identities comprising this new one no longer complemented and mirrored each other; they were one.  This new identity had compiled hundreds of years worth of sights and experiences, scientific knowledge and metaphysical understanding, but its perspective on all of that accumulated information was one of exaltation and wonder.  He? they? mentally explored the spatial and temporal fabric of the universe, feeling neither jaded nor cynical but utterly struck with awe.

When he later tried to find words to describe the experience, trying to make a personal log, Picard was frustrated.  His usual verbal facility failed him.  How to describe the conviction that he was no longer himself but one with Q, a new being comprised of the two of them?  How to describe the influx of all of Q's knowledge and experiences, which as part of this combined being he actually understood?  How to describe the terrifying but ultimately delicious surrender of self in order to merge absolutely with another?  How to describe the intimacy (such a feeble word) of mutually sharing every iota of one's being with another, the exhilaration of unconditional vulnerability and mutual exposure?  How to describe the awe and joy of truly joining with another, dissolving all the barriers of separation?  And how to describe the realization of the depths of Q's feelings for him and his own growing reciprocation of them?  And finally how to describe the heartbreak of withdrawal, the resumption of two separate identities?

After what seemed like days, weeks of exploring the universe as well as the memories and emotions of their coalesced mind (although it was only an hour), developing an understanding of each other that was unparalleled in any human interactions, it was necessary to draw apart.  This was somewhat trickier than joining was; as the fused mind began to separate into two, a wave of unutterable sadness washed through both of them.  Individually each of them began to feel that same sickening, spiralling loss of self they had experienced before, but the self they were losing was the joined self, and in time they each emerged from the dizzying, overwhelming process their separate selves again.  When Picard first emerged from the trance he had been in and remembered who he was, the first sensation he registered was tears trickling down his face.  He opened his eyes to see Q looking at him, his eyes wide and glistening as well.

Picard couldn't speak, but Q murmured softly in a choked voice, "You really haven't lost me, Jean-Luc; it just feels like it right now.  This will pass, but the exhilaration of what we've shared will always be part of both of us."

Picard nodded, still too filled with emotion to trust himself to speak.  He extended his hands slightly toward Q, whispering only "Please," and Q instantly joined him on the couch.  He bent over, joining Picard in an embrace, and they remained in that pose for quite some time.

When he was able to talk, Picard whispered, "What I . . . we . . . saw and felt, it was so miraculous, so wondrous, but it's slipping away, I'm losing it all, I'm already forgetting it."

"I know," murmured Q gently, lightly tracing his companion's cheekbone and jawline with one finger.  "It's just too much for you to retain.  Your mind wasn't designed to hold so much.  But you will remember what you need to remember.  A lot of the knowledge and memories are buried deep within your mind, but when you need them to guide you or sustain you, they will emerge.  Trust me."

"I do.  Unreservedly."

* * *

The next morning Picard awoke in bed, smiling.  He stretched luxuriously, feeling far more relaxed and elated than he usually allowed himself to feel, then noticed Q perched on the edge of his bed, arms folded and grinning.  "Good morning, love of my life."

"Good morning, Q.  What are you grinning about?"

"You, of course.  I like watching you stretch like that.  It definitely shows you off to advantage."

Picard laughed.  "If I didn't know you as well as I do now, I would accuse you of objectifying me."

"Well, I am, just as all the women and several of the men on this ship do.  But that's only a small component of my feelings for you.  How much do you remember?"

"Quite a bit, actually.  Not a lot of details; I don't understand the workings of the universe nearly so well as I did when we were joined, but I remember a lot.  I couldn't begin to describe the sensation, but you know what I was feeling as well as I do.  Thank you, mon ami."

"It was my pleasure, mon Capitaine."

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