Chapter 5

As the senior staff filed out of the room, most of them suspicious of Q and surprised at Picard's behavior, Troi lingered a moment.  "Q, could I really learn to screen out telepathic reading?"

"Undoubtedly, Counselor.  You couldn't learn to block my reading you, I'm afraid," he smiled, "but I can teach you to be impervious to the most powerful humanoid telepath.  I could also help you enhance your own ability, but you should think about it for a while.  The temptation to read others' minds is awfully hard to resist, as I can testify, and you might find that having more advanced telepathic skills could cause some professional conflicts of interest for you."

"That's fascinating," replied Troi.  "I would definitely like to work on the first.  I'd really appreciate that."

After Troi left the observation lounge, Picard slumped back heavily against the conference table, put his head in his hand, and sighed.  "I believe you could use a change of scene, Captain," said Q.  "Would you care to accompany me to my parlor?"  Picard nodded.  In a moment they had materialized on top of the saucer section of the Enterprise.  Having experienced Q's omnipotence, Picard was not surprised that Q was able to regulate the temperature around him and provide air for him to breathe.  Picard glanced at the structure of the orbiting Starbase, then positioned himself so he could gaze at the planet below.  The view was breathtaking, and as he watched the shifting patterns caused by clouds moving over oceans and continents, he felt the knot in his chest begin to loosen.

"It's remarkable," said Picard as they sat down.  "We always see space through some kind of filter or frame--sensors, viewscreens, windows.  It's an entirely different sensation to be simply outside the ship with no protective gear.  It's very liberating."

Q didn't have the heart to tell Picard that even a view like the one he was experiencing now lost its charm after a few centuries.  He could tell that the Captain was absorbed in his own problems.  At that moment, Riker's voice burst from Picard's comm badge:  "Riker to Picard, Captain, are you all right?  What has he done with you?"

"Yes Will, I'm fine.  Q and I are sitting on top of the saucer section."

"Captain, I'm concerned for your safety.  You should return immediately to the ship."

Picard laughed.  "Really, Number One, you have nothing to be concerned about.  And the view up here is spectacular.  If you mind your manners, perhaps Q will be so good as to share it with you some time.  Picard out."

Q fell over laughing.  "Jean-Luc, you never cease to amaze me.  Do you have any idea how they're going to react to your taking my side against Riker's?  Small wonders never cease.  Would you like to know what they're saying?  Riker is consulting with Data at the moment."  At this Q did an absolutely perfect imitation of Riker's voice and inflection:  "Data, is it possible that Q has brainwashed the Captain in some way?"

"Well, Q," laughed Picard, "I've been wondering that myself."

"You wound me, Jean-Luc.  Data seems to trust me, at any rate."  At this, Q switched into Data's voice:  "With Q I believe anything is possible, Commander, but I see no evidence that the Captain has been mentally affected in any way or that Q is exerting any influence on him.  I think it is more plausible that Q meant what he said in the meeting, that he wants to get to know us better.  Perhaps he has just figured out the right way to go about it."  Q said the last few words slowly and thoughtfully.

"You know, Q," said Picard, "I believe Data understands you better than the rest of us.  At any rate, I wish you'd stop eavesdropping on them and listen to me."

"I can do both, Jean-Luc.  Give me some credit.  But if you want me to tune them out, I will; it's just so hard to resist listening in when I know I'm the topic of conversation."

It was Picard's turn to laugh, "Do you have any idea, Q, just how human you are?"

Q glared at his companion, "Be that as it may, I believe we came up here to discuss your shortcomings, not mine."

Picard sighed, "I feel awkward asking you to be my confidante like this, but . . . "

"But you're devastated by what happened yesterday, and you're too embarrassed and ashamed to tell any of your crew about it, and so I'm the only one you can talk to.  It's not exactly an overwhelming vote of confidence, but I'll take what I can get."

"Q, if you're reading my mind, you know perfectly well that I do trust you.  I understand that you've been operating on my behalf for some time.  I just don't know why, and that makes me uneasy."

"Look," said Q loftily, "I'm not trying to be condescending but I couldn't possibly explain my reasons in terms you could understand," which was true enough, he thought to himself.  Picard would have been confounded if he had any inkling of the nature of Q's interest in him.  Q continued, "Either trust me or not.  But here I am, ready and willing to lend an ear.  That's what you're looking for, isn't it?"

"Quite so."  Picard sighed again and shook his head.  He still felt uneasy, but Q really was the only one he felt he could talk to about this.  "I'm still flabbergasted, both by the reasons I insisted on accepting the Continuum's offer and by what my intentions were.  They were originally good, I believe.  I really wanted to use my power to promote some kind of peace, to find some way to get both sides to withdraw, maybe even talk.  And I was frustrated because all of a sudden I had all this power, but I really didn't have the mental capacity to understand what to do with it.  There were too many choices, too many possibilities.  I had no way of sorting them out.  It must have been similar to the overload of information Data experienced when he first became sentient, and just the opposite of how you must have felt with your intelligence intact but your powers removed a few years ago."

"Don't remind me, " shuddered Q.

Picard continued, "The anger I felt when I saw the Cardassian prison camps first hand was unlike anything I've ever experienced.  The memory of having been tortured myself absolutely flooded back--Q, you can have no idea of the helplessness and humiliation."  Picard paused, clearly shaken, and tried to collect himself.  He was soon steadied by the firm hand of Q on his shoulder, took a deep breath, and explained,  "Instead of the helpless anger I felt then, I was actually in a position to do something about it.  And, confused as I was by all the choices and possibilities, I went for the simplest solution I could think of, the most fundamental and childish way of defining the problem.  The Cardassians were evil and needed to be punished.  When you disarmed all the ships, I was even more furious that I hadn't thought of that, and my anger got transferred to you."

I'll say, thought Q, so Picard "heard" him.

"Well, Q, I saw you as an obstacle to my own solution, and I felt you were mocking me.  With all the choices I had, I was so barraged, the only clear sensation I could register was anger.  It almost felt as though if I could just dissipate some of the sensations that were overwhelming me with a burst of absolute destruction, I could channel my powers into something more positive.  I guess I thought I could, in godlike fashion, force a transformation on the Cardassian culture.  It's just so unimaginable that I could have acted in a way that violates all my moral beliefs.  Q, I really was trying to kill you!  I don't understand why you've apparently forgiven me."

"You weren't trying to kill me, Jean-Luc--you weren't yourself.  It's not unimaginable at all, that you would act in that way.  I think you need to make a distinction here.  Once you got the powers what you did with them was wrong, of course, but I think it was inevitable.  Nobody could be handed absolute power all of a sudden and have the capacity to handle it, especially you.  You've always had a sense of yourself as fated to do great things.  You've accomplished a tremendous amount for a human--you've solved problems most humans would not be able to, you've thought creatively in a way most humans aren't capable of, and you've endured what most humans would have been destroyed by.  But you will never be satisfied; you will always be reaching for more.  That's a good quality for a human, because given your very limited capacities, you wouldn't be able to improve yourselves unless you had this insatiable drive.  But you need to channel that drive with wisdom gained from experience.

"You wouldn't give an ambitious young ensign fresh out the academy a Starship command.  Just as you described, the possibilities and choices would be too overwhelming.  He or she would need to gain knowledge and experience over a period of years before being able to make responsible decisions as a captain.  Otherwise the ensign, now captain, would be faced with such a contrast between his or her earlier powerlessness and his or or her current position, that the temptation to show off that power would be irresistable.  In your case, you felt powerless to do anything really effective about the Cardassians, and you felt particularly put out by your powerlessness in relation to me--it's perfectly understandable that you would misuse your sudden acquisition of omnipotence.  I don't think any human, given complete invulnerability and absolute power, could have resisted the impulse to cause major damage to one's enemies.  And I think you were, quite literally, out of your mind.  I would accept a plea of temporary insanity on your part.  Where you screwed up in a big way, Jean-Luc, and where you really need to do some soul-searching, was in your decision to accept the offer in the first place."

"I think you're right, Q.  I knew you were right, of course, I knew intellectually that I would be tempted to misuse the power.  But I had this irresistable compulsion to prove my independence from you, to get back at you for all the times you patronized and insulted us.  I wanted retribution but in the most childish fashion.  And I feel absolutely terrible in a way I've never experienced before.  My experience with the Borg was devastating, but in a different way.  I had to learn that some things were simply out of my control and I couldn't do anything about them.  In this case, I could have done things entirely differently; it was my choice entirely, and I chose wrong from start to finish."

"You had already learned that lesson before the Borg, Jean-Luc.  One of the things that makes you a great captain is that you are willing to admit when you're outmatched.  In our first encounter, you surrendered rather than risk the lives of your crew, and you asked for my help when I put you in the way of the Borg.  When facing external threats, you're willing to accept your limitations, but the problem is you don't want to admit your own fallibility, the possibility that you would do the wrong thing and for completely selfish reasons.  You've always been convinced that you are morally superior to me; that conviction allowed you to fool yourself that your decision to accept the powers was based on something other than a childish desire to say, 'I'll show you!'"

"You're absolutely right, Q, and I'm not happy about it.  I feel utterly ashamed of myself, and it's not a feeling I'm used to.  And I have to confess it's particularly galling to have to admit that you were right all along.  I so much wanted to defeat you, to prove you were completely mistaken about us; I wanted to humiliate you as you had done to me.  I feel ashamed because I don't normally give in to such impulses."

"Jean-Luc, you don't normally admit to even having such impulses.  That's where your problem lies.  But if it's any consolation, I don't think less of you.  Since I didn't have to kill you, and you didn't succeed in killing me, it's kind of satisfying to me to see the paragon of ethical perfection brought down a few pegs.  I'm egotistical and selfish, but at least I admit it.  You're just as egotistical, and it's time you started to realize that."

Picard sighed.  "Q, I'm sure you have some virtues somewhere, and I know you have a lot of abilities, but just don't ever expect me to recommend you for a position as a ship's counselor."

"I'm sorry, Jean-Luc.  You asked me for help, and I haven't been able to provide it."

"No, that's not true.  Your analysis of why I did what I did made a lot of sense.  You effectively pinpointed exactly where I went wrong.  Everything you've said is absolutely true; it just doesn't particularly make me feel any better.  I think what I wanted was a little sympathy.  I'm feeling sorry for myself.  I know it's self-indulgent, but it's not every day that one violates every one of one's most cherished beliefs and principles on such a massive scale."

Q's voice dropped, and he spoke slowly, as if considering every word, "Well, when it comes to things like sympathy, I'm afraid you're going to have to spell out what you want.  Empathy is not a highly developed trait among us; we don't have to put ourselves in each others' places, since we can communicate everything telepathically.  And those parts of ourselves we choose not to share we shield completely.  Either way, empathy would seem to require a kind of imaginative identification a Q has very little need for or experience of.  When I'm just listening to you speak, not reading your mind, I don't entirely have the ability to understand all the different layers of emotions you're experiencing.  I can't read between the lines without invading your privacy entirely.  So if you want sympathy from me, you're going to have to ask for it directly, but even so, I'm not exactly sure how to provide it.  I can't even say I know exactly how you feel; I've never been remotely that driven or that motivated about anything.  As I've said, all my myriad transgressions were the result of boredom, not a burning desire to rearrange the political structure and balance of power of the galaxy.  There are other things I can do.  I can make you forget most of the experience or simply block your negative emotions, but I don't think that's what you're looking for.  Otherwise I'm out of my league.  When one is supposed to be providing sympathy, what does one do?"

Picard couldn't help smiling.  Q, who was so powerful in certain respects, had very little in the way of social skills.  It would have been impossible for him to utter platitudes like "I know just how you feel," or "Everything's going to be OK."  Picard realized that was one reason he was beginning to find Q's company so stimulating; whether he was feeling anger or affection, Q said what he meant without bothering with social niceties and conventions.  He was making a genuine effort to help, even if he didn't quite know how to go about it.  Q was still regarding the Captain with a slightly worried frown on his face.

"Well, Q, it's not so much that I want you to say you know how I feel when it isn't the case or to reassure me with false platitudes.  I'll be honest with you, since I really appreciate how honest you've been being with me.  I'm really devastated by what happened, by what I did, by my own perversity in accepting the Continuum's offer in the first place, and I feel very alone and . . . ashamed."

As he spent more time with humans, Q was becoming more convinced of the virtues of physical contact.  His initial impulse was to put his arms around Picard and press his lips to his forehead, but he knew now was not the time.  He wasn't ready to leave himself that open, and he knew Picard wouldn't be able to handle it anyway.  Instead, he made his voice into a caress, soothing the object of his affections without touching him.  "Jean-Luc," said Q gently, "you're not alone.  This kind of thing is very difficult for me to say, but I care about you a great deal.  And I find you intriguing . . . in your own limited way," he added teasingly, and Picard accepted it as such.  "I took a real risk in taking your side against the Continuum," Q explained.  "If they were so inclined, they could have exiled me again, or stripped me of my powers again, or executed any number of disagreeable punishments for my continuing defiance of their authority.  But I did it because I realized I wouldn't stand for them putting you at risk any more.  I wasn't going to be a party to experiments that could destroy you.  Furthermore, I realized that I would like to have you around for at least your natural lifespan, and that's why I insisted that they," at this Q glanced skyward, "not interfere at my extending my protection to you and this ship.  Fortunately," he smiled, "I was convincing enough.  I don't believe they've ever seen me so sincere in my life; I think it was that that won them over.  So, Jean-Luc, I don't know if that constitutes sympathy, but it's the best I can do.  I'm not very experienced at what humans regard as friendship."

"Thank you," said Picard quietly, "That does help.  But, Q?  I know I've already brought this up, but is there any way you can give me any idea why I, a mere human, a member of the race you hold in such contempt, have inspired this concern in you?"

'Concern,' now there's a nice neutral word, thought Q to himself, I don't think I'd better confess undying passion just yet.  But an irresistable perversity compelled Q to say slyly, "Oh, I've developed kind of a thing for bald starship captains over the past few years."  Picard raised his eyebrows slightly and sighed in exasperation.  Q grinned.  "Sorry, Jean-Luc.  I can't answer your question yet.  Give it time.  I'm not going anywhere.  Anyway, I need to keep a few secrets to myself for the time being."  Q paused, then continued:  "I sincerely want to help you in any way I can.  I hope you'll find me a valuable friend, but I have to warn you.  I won't be an easy one."

"I never for one moment imagined that you would," returned Picard.

Both smiled with shared understanding, but there was a hard edge in Q's voice as he said, "Precisely, mon Capitaine.  Just don't forget it."  Q blew Picard a kiss just as he returned him to the bridge, but in the flash of light, the kiss was only registered by Picard's subsconcious.  He could remember the entire conversation, but that final gesture was like something in a dream he had forgotten just as he woke up.  He knew he felt suddenly troubled about his parting from Q, but he didn't know why.

* * *

As soon as Picard reappeared on the bridge, Riker and Worf began barraging him with a tirade against Q's presence.  Worf insisted that Q was a threat to the ship's security, and Riker, barely containing his impatience, asked, "Permission to speak freely, sir?"  Picard nodded, but not at all encouragingly.  His lips were pressed together in a thin line, and his eyes narrowed.  Ignoring these non-verbal cues, Riker unwisely pressed on, "Captain, it is my responsibility to ensure your personal safety.  I cannot fulfill that responsibility if Q is going to be spiriting you off the ship at any moment.  I think he's going to be disruptive and a distraction at best, and I still believe that the threat he poses far outweighs any potential 'benefits.'"

Picard had had enough and exploded, "Number One, for God's sake, I am neither a child nor a fool!  I believe I am still the Captain of this ship.  I have made up my mind, and you're just going to have to accept it.  As to my personal safety, if Q's transportation methods alarm you, then don't ever avail yourself of them.  But if Q asks me if I want to go with him, using his powers, I believe you should give me credit for having the capacity to make up my own mind whether to accept or not.  Have you ever known me to defer to Q except when lives were at stake?  I haven't exactly been his most ardent admirer on this ship.  But he has changed, and I'll tell you something, Will, I trust him.  It's not that I expect him to be a model of selfless and virtuous behavior--I imagine he'll be pretty damned irritating at times--but I absolutely believe that he will not harm anyone on this ship, and furthermore, we ought to be grateful for the protection he's offering us.  You don't have to like him, and you don't have spend time with him, but you're going to damnned well treat him as my guest.  Frankly, if I were you, knowing how volatile Q can be, I'd watch what I say.  His telepathic abilities are far beyond anything you can imagine, and he's probably listening to us right now.  I know he won't do anything to harm you or disrupt your ability to perform your duties, but even with those restrictions, I'm sure he has any number of creative ways of expressing his displeasure."

Q, of course, was listening in and could barely contain his glee.  As the bridge officers watched, a message began spooling out across the viewscreen:  "AS A MATTER OF FACT, JEAN-LUC, I AM LISTENING.  AS TO YOU, COMMANDER RIKER, IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE TO ME WHETHER  YOU APPROVE OF MY PRESENCE OR NOT.  BUT YOU REALLY OUGHT TO TREAT YOUR CAPTAIN WITH A LITTLE MORE RESPECT, N'EST CE PAS?"

Picard was half-expecting Q to transform Riker temporarily into some annoying animal or otherwise wreak some signal revenge on him, but much to his surprise, Q exercised unexpected self-restraint and left his message to Riker to speak for itself.  It had the intended effect.  Riker was thoroughly embarrassed.  "I'm sorry, Sir," he apologized, "I was completely out of line in questioning your judgment and authority."  Riker then glanced up, "I don't like to admit it, Q, but you're right this time.  Just don't expect me to be your best friend."

"HEAVEN PROTECT ME FROM SUCH A FATE," replied the viewscreen.

"Now," said Picard, "do you think we could get back to work?"

* * *

Picard remained troubled, however.  When he went off-duty, he headed to Ten-Forward.  He knew Guinan would be apprised of what had been said in conference about Q remaining on board, but he didn't realize that Guinan actually knew the entire story.  "Guinan," he asked, as they sat down at a corner table, "can you tell me anything about your previous dealings with Q?"

"I would prefer not to, Captain.  And that was a long time ago.  It has nothing to do with you."

"You're right," sighed Picard.  "I just don't know what to make of him.  He has promised not to harm anyone here, and he has professed friendship to me, but what can that mean for him?  How can a friendship exist with such an utter disparity between two individuals?"

"You're friends with some your officers," smiled Guinan.  "Yet there's a large disparity in power and responsibility."

"I know," said Picard almost irritably, "but with Q that's multiplied a thousandfold.  Friendship implies a degree of reciprocity, and that's possible with my officers, but what the devil do I have to offer Q?"

"Captain, how would you describe Q's relationship with the other Q?"  It was like Guinan to answer a question with another question, and Picard was used to it.

Picard thought back to the times he knew of that the Continuum had imposed authority on Q, and he also recalled Q's confrontation with his blond colleague after Q's speech.  "He doesn't seem particularly popular there," he answered.

"That would be an accurate, if understated, way of putting it," noted Guinan with an enigmatic smile.  "Q is a nonconformist and a rebel.  This does not go over well with his fellow Q.  He also doesn't have a lot in the way of interpersonal skills."

"I've noticed," laughed Picard, who then frowned and said musingly, "So you're suggesting he's lonely?"

"Those who affirm their self-sufficiency the most are often those most in need of connection with others," said Guinan pointedly, and Picard wasn't sure if she was describing Q or himself . . . or both.

"I can't offer him the kind of benefits he can offer me, obviously," said Picard,  "but you think he just wants company?"

"Well, Captain, you've showed a lot more tolerance for him than most of the other individuals he's tormented.  He's probably overwhelmed with gratitude, although he'd never admit it."

"You've never seemed particularly fond of him," said Picard.  "Are you telling me I should trust him?"

"He seems to have adopted you as a kind of protegé," responded Guinan slowly.  "And lying outright isn't his style.  If he promised not to harm you, he won't.  I don't see that you have any choice but to trust him, Picard.  So you might as well make the most of it."

Picard looked sharply at Guinan.  "That's almost exactly what he said."

* * *

Having put Riker in his place, Q decided it was time to move on to the next challenge--Guinan.  He knew that Picard was right and that having Guinan as an enemy would certainly not enhance his comfort.  Once the coast was clear, and he knew Picard had gone to his quarters, he resolved to get it over with.  At the same time, he wasn't in any hurry to get to Ten-Forward, despite his resolve.  He materialized several decks away and actually walked and used the turbolift, hesitating in front of the entrance to Ten-Forward before he finally steeled himself to go in.  Even with his powers intact, Q approached Guinan with wariness.  He sat down at the bar, and remarked, "I hope you're not going to stab me with a fork this time.  It can't do wonders for repeat business to assault your customers," and Guinan whirled around, furious.

She seethed, in a low voice, so as not to be overheard,  "It may not be a sound business practice, but you bring out the worst in people.  Why can't you just leave us alone?  Why did you let him do it?  He could have been killed, and there's no telling how much damage he could have done.  Don't you have any sense of responsibility?"

"Moi?" replied Q.  "You shouldn't jump to conclusions when you don't have all the facts, dear; it makes you seem considerably less intelligent than you are.  I had to make him the offer; I didn't have any choice.  It was his decision to accept.  If you want to know the truth, I tried my hardest to talk him out of it, but you know how obstinate he is.  He insisted."

"I can believe that," sighed Guinan.  "But you had to know he would accept.  You should have done everything in your power to stop the experiment in the first place."

"Excuse me, but I don't have a whole lot of clout in the Continuum these days.  I just work there.  No matter what I told them, they insisted that if I didn't convey their offer, they would have sent someone else.  And don't you dare accuse me of irresponsibility, Woman.  Not only did I stop him, without killing him, mind you, but I got the Continuum to promise not to interfere with him or any other humans any more.  Doesn't that count for anything?"

"Yes, of course it does.  You were lucky things didn't get more out of hand though.  Did it ever occur to you, with your IQ of 2005, that if another member of the Continuum had conveyed the offer to Picard, he would probably have never accepted it?  Picard couldn't care less about satisfying the Continuum; he would have simply turned them down.  But when it came as a challenge from you, how could he do anything but take you up on it?  You've proved to him over and over again how helpless he is, that you can do anything you want to him.  He's human, and humans don't like being humiliated even if it's in their own best interest.  Don't you know him well enough by now to have figured out how he would react?"

Q's eyes widened, then he lowered his forehead into his hand with a heavy sigh.  Shaking his head, he conceded, "You're right, Guinan.  That didn't occur to me at all.  I just figured it was between him and me.  I guess I've always thought of Picard as my personal property; I didn't want to let any of my colleagues in on my territory.  I'm sorry--I screwed up."

Guinan wasn't through with Q yet.  "Well, next time, don't screw up.  Look, I have to admit it took a lot of courage for you to stand up to the Continuum on Picard's behalf.  I understand that you voluntarily put yourself through a major humiliation for his sake. . . ."

"You're telling me," muttered Q.

Guinan continued, "But when you should have stood up to them was when they got this little dumb idea in the first place.  I know you tried to talk them out of it, but that's not enough.  You knew what they were proposing was both dangerous and unethical.  You should have refused to participate and risked the consequences beforehand, not after the fact."

At this point, a young officer approached the bar.  Q impatiently waved his hand and the drinks the officer was intending to order simply materialized in his hands.  "How'd you do that?" he gasped.

"I learned it in bartending school.  Highly advanced class," snapped Q.

"I'd appreciate if you could try to be polite to my customers," remarked Guinan.  "Play all the tricks you want, but try to be civil."

"I'll try, but it won't be easy."  Q leaned his head in his hand.  "Well, you certainly know how to give a guy a good time, Woman.  Any more horrendous mistakes and ethical shortcomings of mine you'd like to point out?  You're right, of course.  I should have refused from the start.  Damn!  I suppose this whole thing was my fault.  I feel terrible; you have no idea how furious I was with him."

"Oh, he deserved it, too," admitted Guinan.  "He should have anticipated the results, but he did it just to spite you.  You're both at fault.  You are a bit older than he is, though, and you should have known better."

"Yes, Mom.  You know, neither you nor Picard are my parents, but you're both acting like it, and it's getting old fast."

Guinan smiled, but not in a particularly friendly fashion, "Maybe it's because Picard and I know you have a history of childish behavior.  You're not so wise for all your knowledge, but I've told you that before."

"Haven't you though?"

"Listen, Q," said Guinan.  "I'm going to be keeping an eye on you.  I have some power over you, if you recall."

"And if you recall, if I made up my mind to eliminate you, I could do so without too much trouble.  The only reason you have any power over me at all is that I have considered your life worth preserving so far.  But don't push your luck."

"Q," said Guinan quietly, "I know you've promised to behave yourself, but I've also seen you lose control in ways I still shudder to remember.  If you threaten this ship or its crew in any way, I'm going to do my best to stop you, regardless of the consequences."

"Yes, of course," retorted Q sarcastically, "everyone loves a martyr."  Then he added seriously, "But can't you admit the possibility that I've changed?  Picard has; he actually trusts me.  Ask him--he's genuinely glad I'm here.  I don't need to review my many and varied transgressions with you; you know them as well as I.  But give a guy a little credit for being able to modify his behavior, OK?  I'm a new Q."

"Why?" asked Guinan.  "You've always prided yourself on your selfishness and your independence.  Why all of a sudden have you decided to start behaving yourself?"

"I have a compelling motivation, and it has nothing to do with a newly acquired overwhelming sense of virtue, I'm afraid.  I'm simply trying to make a good impression."

"On whom?"

"Can't you figure it out, all-knowing one?" demanded Q.  "I can't believe that has escaped your powers of observation.  You know, it's not easy for me to admit, least of all to you, but I'm trying really hard to get on your good side:  Q the omnipotent, Q the self-sufficient, is smitten, infatuated, lovestruck, enraptured, enthralled, transfixed, you name it."  At this juncture, he paused to create more drinks for an approaching patron, not wishing to be interrupted.

It was Guinan's turn to turn wide-eyed with a sudden shock of recognition.  Q was actually quite self-satisfied to see her discomfiture.  "Oh . . . my . . . God," she exclaimed with emphasis, "it's Picard!"

"Bingo.  Yes, she did it, ladies and gentlemen!  She wins a new car and a vacation of her choice to any part of the galaxy!"  He continued, imitating Guinan's voice, "Well, Captain, you've showed a lot more tolerance for him than most of the other individuals he's tormented.  He's probably overwhelmed with gratitude, although he'd never admit it."  In his own voice, he added, "I find it hard to believe that you could be so naive."

"You were listening?"

"Of course I was listening.  Would you honestly have expected me not to?"

"You've got a point there," replied Guinan drily, but she was trying to repress a smile.  There was something endearingly irresistable about Q in his childishness when he wasn't actually doing harm.  Guinan knew better than almost anyone of the wistful loneliness that underlay Q's bluster.  It didn't excuse his sadistic and vindictive behavior, but it went a long way toward explaining it.

"Well,"  she sighed.  "I have to compliment you on your good taste.  Does he know?"

"No, no, no.  He knows he's important to me, and he knows I take an interest in him, but he doesn't have the faintest idea what that interest consists of.  And I intend to keep it that way for a while.  He has enough problems for the moment."

"Are you going to tell him?"

"When it seems like the right time, if it ever seems like the right time."  Q paused, took a deep breath, and said quietly, "Guinan, he's the only thing in my entire miserable, wasted existence that really means anything to me.  I don't want to screw this up."

Guinan placed her hand on top of Q's, and they clasped hands briefly as she said, "Well, Q, I don't know what to tell you.  He may surprise you, and you may surprise yourself.  I just don't know.  But I can offer you a drink."

"Sure, why not?" replied the entity.  "I'm certainly living a cliché, aren't I?  Here I am, leaning my head on a bar and pouring out my woes to the bartender."

Guinan smiled, "Well, I'm a very good bartender.  You know, Q, when you're like this you're almost likable."

"See what love has brought me to?  Even you like me now!"

"I said almost," said Guinan with a grin.

"That's good.  I wouldn't want to be perceived as going completely soft."  Q swallowed his drink in one gulp, remarking, "Not bad," waved his hand to suspend time in order not to be observed, then leaned across the bar, kissed Guinan on the cheek, and said, "Thanks for listening.   You're a pal."

"I've tried to be for centuries."

"I know; I just wasn't ready to listen to you." Q smiled and winked, then disappeared, allowing the flow of time to resume as he did so.  Guinan remained behind the bar shaking her head and chuckling until Q's absence forced her to return to the business of making drinks.

* * *

Picard lay awake on his bed, in the dark, hands folded behind his head, eyes wide open.  Sleep was impossible.  His mind was churning, trying to make sense of something too incomprehensible for him to make sense of.  How am I ever going to live with this?  I've made mistakes, errors in judgment, I've let my arrogance cloud my reasoning, but I never imagined that I could intentionally commit a wholly evil act.  To even conceive of exterminating all those lives!  I hope Q was right, that I was temporarily insane.  But how could I have accepted the offer?  I knew humans don't have the capacity to handle unlimited power.  How could I have allowed myself such a complete lapse in judgment?  It seems as if every time I encounter Q, he gives me a choice or a decision to make, and I inevitably make the wrong one.  When he offered to join the crew, it was my arrogance and cockiness that made me turn him down.  'Your help is not required'--what idiocy!  How do I know that there weren't things even in this part of the galaxy that could outmatch our capabilities?  What would we have done when the Borg did arrive eventually?  'Your help is not required'--how utterly foolish!  Think of all the lives that could have been saved if I'd had the sense to strike up an alliance with Q when he first offered it.  And think of the exploration we might have been able to do, almost risk-free.  But no, I had to say 'Your help is not required.'  Well, I certainly made a fool of myself and lost 18 crew members in the process.  I could have asked for his help sooner than I did.  He may have lost his temper, but he was right.  How do I know there isn't a force out there even greater than the Borg?

And when he came back to us, stripped of his powers, I refused to believe him.  And the next time he returned, he was right as well.  He saw through Vash in an instant.  Ah yes, 'the great Jean-Luc Picard brought down by a woman.'  Indeed.  I suppose it's understandable I didn't listen to him then.  No one listens to advice, however well-intentioned, when they're in love.  But when Q gave me the opportunity to change my past, why didn't I see what he was doing?  I knew the extent of Q's powers--if he wanted to revive me, he would have revived me, no matter what I did.  He knew so much better than I did that the person I was then is inextricable from the person I am now.  Usually I'm a competent person.  I have the respect of my crew, I've gotten us out of almost impossible situations; together we've solved almost insurmountable problems.  I don't understand why every time Q comes around and puts me in the position of making a choice and sets a trap that I ought to see my way around, I walk right in and slam the door shut behind me.  Why is that?

And this last time, he wasn't trying to trick me or teach me anything at all.  He was trying to intercede, to prevent me from making the most foolish decision of my life, but I refused to accept that he could be right.  He changed somehow after his effort to tempt Riker failed.  He's been trying to help me all along, granted in pretty brutal and tactless ways, but why can't I separate his manner from his intentions?  I'm supposed to have some understanding of diplomacy and experience in dealing with representatives of any number of cultures.  I'm supposed to have some grasp of human nature, and in the ways he responds to us, Q is as human as we mortals are.  So why couldn't I see through his bluster and his imperiousness to the intentions underneath?  Yes, he has a sadistic streak, yes he enjoys lording it over us and professing his superiority.  So what?  Why couldn't I see beyond that to the knowledge and experience he has to offer?  Why couldn't I have listened to him, this time, when I knew he had previously proven his interest in my welfare?  Why couldn't I have listened to him just this once?

Picard felt as though every muscle in his body was knotted up.  His eyes seemed frozen open, his brain in a turmoil of activity.  Then, suddenly, inexplicably, he began to relax.  His mind seemed instantly empty.  He felt what seemed like invisible, insubstantial fingers smoothing the lines of his forehead, stroking his eyes closed, releasing the tension in his clenched jaw.  Picard's head sank like a lead weight into his pillow, as a wave of warmth and relaxation slowly progressed down his body.  He felt the taut muscles in his neck and shoulders begin to relax and became aware that his breathing and heartbeat grew slower and more regular.  The aching knots in his chest and stomach began to unravel as his back muscles also loosened.  As the sensation of relaxation moved down his body toward his feet, he felt heavier, sinking more and more into his mattress.  With a sigh, he fell asleep, not registering the sensation of lips briefly touching his forehead.

As soon as Picard fell asleep, Q resumed his corporeal form.  He had not merely been invisible, but intangible as well.  He had been hovering, cloud-like, in a corner of the room, projecting the sensations Picard had felt.  Now he paced quietly.  It was obvious that Picard was not going to get over this incident very soon, but Q wanted urgently to help him do so.  He was troubled.  It seemed clear that Picard would be questioning and second-guessing himself for some time.  Q hadn't realized just how deeply shaken Picard was.  As far as Q was concerned, once an incident was past and once the consequences had been dealt with, there was no point in dwelling on it.  Of course as a Q, one could go back in time and change what had already occurred, but the consequences of meddling with time were often more catastrophic than the original incident itself.  So Q had learned early on in his checkered career that dwelling on his past behavior didn't benefit anyone.

Stupid mistakes deserved swift retaliation; Q had dealt with Picard in the same manner that his superiors had dealt with him.  But once the punishment had been exacted and once one had suffered the deserved scorn and derision of one's colleagues, it was time to move on.  The emotion of regret was not unknown to Q, but he was very selective as to which of his transgressions he did regret, and his energy was channeled more toward rectifying the harm he had caused or finding some way to make up for it rather than berating himself.  He didn't see the point of Picard's beating himself up, but he also was not yet aware of how far Picard's guilty conscience would drive him.  He was soon to find out, but in the meanwhile, he was half-satisfied that he had provided the object of his affections with a night's sleep.  Not a permanent solution, but a necessary one for the time being.  Q knew Picard had his work cut out for him.

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