Jean-Luc closed his eyes in silent frustration as the quiet drawl sounded behind him. He really didn't want to deal with Q right now, not after trawling through twenty Anossian diplomatic reports, with as many left to go. Anossians and sanity did not mix well, and the omnipotent trickster was hardly likely to help matters. But there was a peculiar ... hesitancy ... to the words that stopped the instinctive snarl, and he settled instead on a heavy sigh.
"Q." He turned in his seat to look at the entity standing nonchalantly by the window, posed deliberately for maximum effect against the vast backdrop of space. But that was nothing new, and Jean-Luc rather suspected that Q did it automatically rather than out of any real desire to impress him. They had passed that point some time ago. Mostly. "What do you want?"
Q flicked him a small grin, but it lacked his usual lusture. "A moment of your time, Jean-Luc, nothing more." He unfolded one arm to wave airily at nothing. "I'm feeling in the mood to wax poetical."
Jean-Luc raised his eyebrows, already mildly exasperated not two minutes after the entity had appeared. As per usual. "Q, I'm a little busy right now ..." He trailed off and gestured pointedly at the paperwork, more for the principle of the thing than any expectation that Q would actually listen to him. Q frowned.
"Mon Capitaine, you wound me," he complained. "A moment I said, and a moment I'll be. My word that when I leave you the clock will be but a second from where it is now, and you'll be as rested as if you'd had an hour!"
Jean-Luc rubbed the bridge of his nose tiredly. Watching Q mess with time was not his favourite pasttime. Things rarely went right once that started. "Q ..."
Q held up an impatient hand, and looked ironically at him. "Come now, Jean-Luc. It's not as if I could be any worse." Said with a pointed look at the reams of nearly illegible paperwork, and Jean-Luc had to concede the point. He sighed again, for good measure, and nodded.
"What is it, Q?"
The entity frowned at him for a moment. "I had hoped to tell you a little story," he murmured, looking Picard over critically. "But I didn't intend for it to be a bedtime story. You look far too tired, Mon Capitaine. Here you are." He raised a hand to snap his fingers, and Jean-Luc braced himself for the rush of enforced awareness that should have followed, but all that appeared out of the signature white flash was a cup of tea at his elbow. Jean-Luc blinked at it, and then at Q. That was ... an uncharacteristically tactful gesture on the entity's part. He nodded at his benefactor, and Q smiled a little, an odd look in his eyes. Then the captain took a sip, pleasantly surprised by quite a tasteful blend of flavours. Not one he knew, or would have chosen, but tasteful nonetheless.
"Thank you," he murmured, warmed and perhaps a little lulled by the unusual gentility of this particular encounter. Q stared at him, his eyes shuttering for a moment as something Jean-Luc only half recognised as a mix of pleasure and sadness passed over him. Before the surprised captain could comment, however, Q adopted his more usual flamboyantly sinister expression, and leaned in as if to tell a naughty secret.
"Cosy, Mon Capitaine?" he asked, adding just a hint of leer to it, and Picard sighed, shaking his head with a slight smile. Q was still Q, after all.
"As I suspect I'm going to be, Q," he answered, reproachfully. "You had something you wanted to tell me?"
Q straightened, nodding, and then seemed to hesitate again. Jean-Luc frowned in curiosity, and Q shifted uneasily at his questioning look, shrugging artistically to cover himself.
"You've expressed an interest in learning more about the Q in the past?" the entity asked, faux-casual. Jean-Luc nodded.
"You've never seemed particularly inclined to answer," he observed wryly, and Q shrugged, this time properly. He waved a dismissive hand and sneered.
"Q politics," he said, waving the issue away. "Secrecy and preserving the sanity of lesser beings, and all that. Petty, if you ask me."
Picard's mouth curved. "Indeed," he murmured, and there was not a hint of polite mockery in it. Q looked at him sharply.
"Don't be rude, Mon Capitaine," the entity chastised, huffily. "You know I've had nothing but your best interests at heart!" And Picard nodded. He did know, for the most part, even if it had taken him over a decade to figure it out. But that was all right. He suspected it had taken Q equally as long.
"My apologies, Q," he smiled, a little playfully. "I'm tired."
Q looked at him, and grinned. "All is forgiven, Mon Capitaine!" he declared generously, executing a flourishing little bow, and Jean-Luc laughed, oddly at ease. Q's smile widened, and something that looked a little like hope slipped for a second into his dark eyes. Jean-Luc stared at it in awe.
"Q?" he asked, and the entity shook himself hurriedly. When he looked back at Picard, the glimmer of emotion had gone. Jean-Luc frowned, strangely disappointed by that.
"I promised a story," Q said abruptly, and fell easily back into his dramatic persona. "Sit back and be enthralled, your Highness! Tonight I am your Scheherezade!" Though it was playfully said, a tiny frisson of shock went through Jean-Luc. Such an odd comparison to make. Scheherzade, beneath her sultan's power, spinning tales to save her life. Why that story?
Q watched him, seeing the sleepy parade of expressions that he made no effort to hide, and it seemed the lack of rejection meant something more to Q than Picard really understood. The entity tipped his head to one side, a curiously soft expression on his mercurial features.
"Shall I spin you a tale of my misbegotten youth, captain-mine?" Q smiled, and waggled his eyebrows in comic suggestiveness. Picard grinned openly.
"What tale is this, Q?" he teased. "Of conquests past? Old games? Old girls?"
Q dipped his head so he could look flirtatiously up at him. "And if it is?" he asked, oddly serious.
"If it is," Jean-Luc mused. "I would consider it turn around fair play, for the little traipse we took through my misbegotten youth. Which I trust you haven't forgotten?"
Q pressed a dramatic hand to his chest. "Forget! How could I? Young Johnnie, so brave, so bold, so dashing! Oh, be still my beating heart! Mon Capitaine, 'twas a sight I'll not forget as long as I live!"
Jean-Luc laughed at his antics. "One way to immortality, I suppose," he mused, and frowned at his teacup. "Q, is there something about this tea I should know?"
"Like what?" the entity asked, oh-so-innocently.
"Like anything in it to ... relax me?" Picard wanted to inject a little more sharpness into the question, but the sensation of ease was rare enough, and not exactly unpleasant. And Q had so much power over him anyway, this little weakness was nothing much. Although he suspected that whatever Q had slipped him might have helped him reach those conclusions.
Q shook his head slightly. "It's only a tiny, tiny thing. An anti-caffeine, I suppose, and affects you no more than the amount of caffeine in your usual Earl Grey would, if in the opposite direction. You're very tired, Mon Capitaine, and I thought this way was ... a little fairer, perhaps, than many others at my disposal. This, at least, another human could give you. Well. Provided they'd been to Bland IV, of course."
Picard shook his head. "I'll probably be angry at you when this is done," he warned, and Q nodded resignedly. Picard allowed his lips to twitch a little, then. "Bland IV?"
Q grinned. "I kid you not, Mon Capitaine. That's the direct translation. A rather ... sleepy people, you see."
"Shall I guess why?"
Q pouted. "Don't be mean. You know I wouldn't hurt you. Not unless you needed ..." He stopped, but Jean-Luc remembered anyway, and still hated that he couldn't really deny the truth of it. But in the end, he supposed it had been worth it.
"I know," he said softly, and Q slumped a fraction, as if relieved. Somewhat to his surprise, that made things easier for Jean-Luc to accept. At least what he thought of Q seemed to actually mean something to his omnipotent shadower. "Spin me a tale, Q. I'm tired."
Q smiled, and stood to sketch a courtly bow, suddenly dressed in jester's motley, a madcap grin flashing over his mobile features. "As my lord sultan commands," he leered, and Jean-Luc knew a moment of sudden horror, followed by profound relief, as he realised what other form Q could have chosen to illustrate that statement. Q as Scheherezade was most emphatically not something he wished to see.
"You remember that little incident with Vash?" Q asked, something like distaste in his voice, and Picard wondered if he was actually incapable of getting to the point without at least four random asides. He nodded briefly, and Q smiled. "May I say you looked rather good in tights, Jean-Luc? But I digress!" he added hurriedly, as Picard glared. "Do you also remember what I said about you?"
"Which part?" Picard asked gruffly. Nothing Q had said during that particular episode had been all that flattering.
"That you were impossible to buy a gift for?" Jean-Luc grunted. Oh, that. Q shrugged placatingly. "Well, I might admit -under protest, mark you!- that you may not have been entirely, solely to blame. For that, at least."
Picard raised an eyebrow, and Q pointedly looked elsewhere until he stopped. Jean-Luc laughed. "Go on, Q. I'm listening."
The entity huffed a bit, then perched himself on the corner of the desk and folded his arms. "If you insist," he muttered, warning in his tone. "But you could at least be more appreciative!"
"Q." He shouldn't have been enjoying this little game quite as much as he was. Q huffed a bit more, then acceded.
"I'm not good at giving gifts," he said, very quickly, as if the words were ugly things he wanted to be rid of as fast as possible. Jean-Luc blinked. Q, admitting a fault? Maybe there'd been more in the tea than he'd thought. But no. No hallucinogen he'd ever come across could have manufactured the image of Q's chagrined face. And strangely, the thought made him gentle.
"I had noticed that," he said quietly, and not without humour. "I simply assumed the Q don't like giving gifts. And to even the score, I will admit to not be the most gracious of recievers." He rather liked the smile Q gave him for that. Worth the price of admission.
"You're all but impossible, Jean-Luc," Q rejoindered, with a certain humour of his own. "But the Q are not prone to giving gifts, as you guessed. But I did try, once, if you want to hear the story?" Picard couldn't shake the impression that Q was almost hoping he would refuse, but his curiosity was piqued. He waved Q on. Q sighed. "You would take me at my word, wouldn't you?"
"It's usually been good," Picard commented lightly, and Q nodded.
"You have to understand, this was back in the early days, eons and eons before humanity came on the scene. The Q weren't quite ... fulfilled ... yet, and we were still learning about things. About the universe. About powers. About who and what we were. The universe was a lot more ... interesting, then. Newer. Still riddled with unknowns, even for us." There was a wistfulness to his tone, then, and Picard allowed himself a moment to wonder if there were any greater defeat in the search for knowledge than ... finding it. "Most of us picked specific things to study. Fields of expertise, as it were. Except me, but that's beside the point, really."
"No, it isn't," Jean-Luc cut in, curious and unwilling to allow him the evasion. "What did you want study?"
Q frowned. "It doesn't matter."
"It does to me," Picard stated firmly. "Indulge me. I'm curious."
Q blinked at him. "You know what they say about curiosity, don't you, Mon Capitaine?" he muttered, then shrugged irriatably. "I wanted to study everything. Anything. Whatever I came across. There was so much, back then, and they wanted me to pick only part of it? Ridiculous. I took a look at whatever I came across, and picked up bits and pieces of everything along the way. And then, of course, life started really blooming, and things got ... interesting. But that really is beside the point, Jean-Luc!" Picard didn't think so, but he nodded anyway.
Q went on. "One of my ... well, I suppose she'd probably be a female human, if she had a preference, so we'll go with 'sister' ... had a fascination with the mechanics of the universe, as it were. She liked figuring out what exactly made it physically tick. Not exactly the most riveting of topics, in my opinion, but I'm not one to begrudge anyone their hobbies." Jean-Luc blinked at that, but let it go. "Thing was, the mechanics of the universe are not all that difficult to figure out, after the first couple of millennia, and quite frankly, she was getting rather bored. And a bored Q is a dangerous thing."
"Tell me about it," Picard murmured softly, and Q shot him an affectionate glare.
"Mon Capitaine, allow me to assure you that you have been positively blessed by my attentions! Believe me, it could have been a lot worse." Which was undoubtedly true, but not something Picard wanted to think about. "So ... I decided to give her something. Something that might challenge her for a while, if I was lucky. And stop her moping around the Continuum in an endless funk, making it difficult to concentrate."
Picard snorted at that. "An altruistic reason if I ever heard one," he pointed out, and Q huffed.
"It was! I wasn't the only one trying to work, you know. And I didn't snap at her, so there!"
Jean-Luc deliberately straightened his face, and motioned for Q to continue. The entity glared at him.
"Anyway," Q drawled, pointedly, and then paused. When he spoke up again, there was almost a dreamy air about him. "It was fun, you know? It was a challenge, to make something perfect, to outwit another Q. I was very careful with it. It was one of the most delicate pieces of work I've ever done, and in my time I've made some very intricate pieces. One of my first real works of art, if I don't say so myself."
"And you do say so yourself," Jean-Luc murmured, but there was no malice in it. This was a different side of Q, one he hadn't considered. Oh, he knew Q took pride in his genius, he trumpetted that for all to hear, but this ... This was the pride of a craftsman, an artist, someone who genuinely enjoyed making things. He wondered why he hadn't seen it before. Because Q had enjoyed the worlds he made in their past encounters. The details he put into it. Will had even commented on their second encounter that the scenery was a bit below par, for Q. All that effort, for ... well, for them. "What was it, Q?" he asked softly, curious as to what a Q would make for another Q.
The entity smiled at him absently, still considering his past triumph nostalgically. "It was a universe in miniature, Mon Capitaine," he murmured. "Created from a minute amount of every single thing that makes up this universe, except life. A tiny, tiny model of what the universe might be. And flawed. I was very careful about that. It was a puzzle, you see. Everything in it was just that little bit off perfect, just enough so that you knew it would work, if only you could figure out the key flaw. Just find that one kink in the rules to tweak, and it would start moving. Living. A puzzle-box of stars."
Jean-Luc stared at him in awe. He wondered exactly how much this other Q had meant to his companion, to have created a gift like that simply to allieviate her boredom. Of course, Q was given to extravagance, in everything he did, but still ...
"I was careful about giving it to her, too," Q went on. "You've got to be careful, giving things to a Q. Nobody does it, you see. We can call up anything we can imagine. Why would we need gifts? It might even be an insult, a criticism of our imaginative capabilities. So I had to go about it the right way, so as not to offend her pride. I presented it as a cry for help, pretended I'd made it for myself and just couldn't get it to work. I can be very good at pretending to be stupid, Mon Capitaine. Do you believe that?" Q smiled at him, bitterly, and Picard frowned. He hadn't noticed anything, but something had soured Q's wistful mood.
"Of you, my friend? I'd believe almost anything. But you're not a fool." He offered the assurance as best he could. Q's mouth twisted.
"Oh, but I am, Mon Capitaine. The prince of fools. Eternity's jester."
Jean-Luc shook his head. "I don't understand, Q. What happened?"
The entity looked away, out over the stars. "She accepted it. Anything to help her silly little brother, of course. And she went away with it, and for a couple of hundred years or so, we said nothing more about it. She'd tinker with it in her spare time, and go black-hole diving with the rest of us again. It was fine."
Picard sighed. "But?" he asked, and Q turned back to smile wryly at him.
"That obvious?" he asked. "But you're right of course. It didn't end well, or there'd be no point to this story, would there?" Jean-Luc frowned, and Q looked away again. "She came back with it one day. Tossed it at me, and said she couldn't be bothered with it anymore. It was a useless project, flawed beyond repair. I'd do better to turn my interests to something I was better suited for, because astromechanics obviously weren't where my talents lay."
Jean-Luc stared at him. "What?" he asked, appalled. Q shrugged.
"That's what she said. I checked it, of course. It was perfect, exactly as I'd left it, the flaw and the key still in place. She hadn't been able to do anything with it. I'd made my challenge too well, Mon Capitaine. I'd made my puzzle so intricate, she couldn't solve it. So she threw it away." He turned back to the captain, his mouth twisted in a bitter challenge. "And then, Mon Capitaine? Can you guess what I did then?"
Jean-Luc swallowed. He could, of course. He could just see what young Q would have done, angry and hurt and betrayed, and malicious in his vengence. "You solved it, didn't you?" he said softly. Q sneered.
"Right in front of her. Easy as that. I took particular care to reveal that I'd known all along, that for me it was ridiculously simple. I made it clear that she was an absolute fool who could never hope to match my genius." He smiled bitterly. "We haven't spoken since. I don't think she's ever really forgiven me. Not that I would blame her."
Picard shook his head, an oddly pervasive sadness sitting in his chest. How easily we wound those we care for. "Why ...?" he started to ask, and stopped. Q looked at him steadily, unaffected by his own story except for the faint aura of bitterness. "Why are you telling me this, Q?" Jean-Luc finished softly.
Q was silent for a moment, just watching him. Then he hopped off the desk, and came slowly around it until he was standing over Jean-Luc's chair, staring down at him with a kind of intense consideration that worried the captain a little. He craned his head to look questioningly up at the entity.
"Do you know," Q said softly, "that you were the first person, Mon Capitaine, to ever thank me, and mean it?" Picard started, and blinked up at him in confusion. Q went on, a strange intensity to his voice, but no threat. "The very first person to ever say those words in genuine gratitude, however reluctantly. Do you have any idea what that meant, Jean-Luc?"
Picard shook his head. "Q ...?"
The entity backed away suddenly, retreating to the window, still watching him. "You have no idea, do you?" he asked. "How much those two words made me happy. How much they made me want to give you more things, any things, if you'd say them again. It's frightening, Jean-Luc, how much they make me want to give you something. But ... I'm afraid I don't know quite how."
Jean-Luc tried to interupt, to stop him, but Q held up a hand to forestall him.
"I'm not good at giving gifts, Jean-Luc. You know that. And everything I've ever done for you has been a test, or a challenge, and even my attempt at a gift went wrong. And I know!" he held out a hand quickly. "I know that was my fault! That's the problem, Jean-Luc. I've no idea what you want, or how to go about giving it to you without ... without driving you further away. I've tried asking, I've tried just giving, I've tried challenging ... I don't know what to do, and I thought ... Well, I hadn't tried explaining yet, and it couldn't hurt ... But it can. Oh, Mon Capitaine, it very much can."
"Q ..." he said, more than a little desperately, but stopped before the look in the entity's eyes.
"She has never spoken to me since, Mon Capitaine. Billions of years, for one mistake, and she has never come near me. I do not have that kind of time with you. I don't have anything close. And I can't, I cannot, make that mistake with you. Tell me, Jean-Luc. Please, tell me what you want. Anything at all. A cup of tea, a good night's sleep, an empire, your very own star ... anything you can imagine. Anything you want. Tell me, and it's yours. Tell me!"
Jean-Luc stopped. He just looked at Q, at the quiet, forceful desperation of him, and suddenly all he could feel was awe. This was what he meant to Q? All these years, he'd thought he was an amusement, a pet, maybe, at the last, something like a friend. But here, this, it was so much more. It looked almost like ...
"Never look at me like that again," he said softly, and Q flinched outright. Jean-Luc stood up, feeling a faint buzz of lassitude through his restful body, and shrugged it off. He walked up to Q, reached out to rest a hand on the arms the entity had folded before him like a shield. "That's what I want. Never to see you ..." Q closed his eyes. "... look this hopeless ever again. You're not meant to be that way, Q."
The entity ... No. Q. His friend. Q opened his eyes to look at him, and that wavering hope was back in his wary features, and the sight of it clenched like a fist around Jean-Luc's heart. He squeezed Q's arm gently.
"Jean-Luc?" Q asked softly, and Picard leaned forward slowly, resting his forehead against Q's as the entity froze.
"I'm sorry, Q. I didn't know ... I'm bad at telling when people are hurting. As bad at it as you are with gifts, at least. I meant that. I don't want ... You're Q. You're not supposed to flinch when I talk to you. I don't want you to ever do that again."
Q's eyes peered up at him from centimeters away, confused and wondering. "As you wish, Mon Capitaine," he murmured. Picard smiled.
"Thank you," he whispered, and as the shock of joy moved across that mobile face, he leaned all the way in, and kissed Q.
And the universe exploded.
He was never afterwards quite sure exactly what had happened at that instant. He was sure that he hadn't been conscious for it. It was entirely possible that he hadn't been alive for it, as he wouldn't put it past Q to have literally exploded, and taken Jean-Luc, the Enterprise, and quite possibly the entire neighbouring bit of universe with him. But he didn't mind. Whatever Q had done, he'd fixed it, and Jean-Luc had to allow that he'd given the poor entity quite a shock.
Q agreed with that assessment. Emphatically.
"So," he murmured, resting easily in the crook of the still-stunned entity's arm. "Now that that's been sorted out ..." Q snorted quietly. "What do we do now?"
Q turned his head to look at him, something of his old, challenging self in his smile. "Why are you asking me, Mon Capitaine? As I said, you have only to ask. Anything you can imagine."
Jean-Luc grinned. "I thought you were Scheherezade, not the genie of the lamp." Q shrugged fluidly.
"No," Picard stated, firmly. "You're anything but. But ... you might just be worth it, despite it all." Q smiled deeply at him. "Alright then. Anything I want?"
"You have but to name it, Jean-Luc."
He looked up at Q for a long minute, just seeing him, what he was, what he offered, and why. And then he smiled. "The sultan had 1001 nights with Scheherezade," he murmured. "How about that? For starters? I think I deserve at least that much."
Q's face lit up. "Anytime, my lord sultan!" he declared grandly, hugging Jean-Luc close to him. "You have but to call."
Jean-Luc sighed, and nestled closer into him. "Thank you, Q." I love you, Q. That's what the words meant, after all.
"You're welcome, Jean-Luc. Always."
I love you too.