There was an unearthly quality to the beach, its sands fine but slicker than expected, and the skies were a ruddy orange, instead of the pale blue so prevalent on most single sun worlds.
Jean-Luc stared up at that sky for a long time, listening to the quiet, the gentle rush of waves, and the trickle of that fine, slick sand through the fingers of his companion, somewhere behind him. Some surface, desperately rational part of his mind insisted that that last sound must surely be too quiet for him to hear, that his hyper-alertness of Q's presence was unnatural, that something here was not real, was not right. But a deeper part of him knew beyond doubt that it was his rationality that was wrong.
The sun burned overheard, white and hot and impossible, molten white-gold in the bronze sky, unutterably alien. His eyes were fixed just beneath it, just below the blinding danger of its stare. For a moment, as he watched, and listened to the flow of sand at his back, something wild and reckless unfurled up through him, something he remembered from his youth, and he thought for an instant that if he dared to look at that sun, Q would protect his vulnerable, human eyes. And though the caution learned in years kept his gaze that little bit lowered, he had to let that feeling out, a low, rough laugh of pure joy. Because he knew it was true.
He turned then, bringing his eyes back down to the beach, to the figure that couched in the sand behind him, clever fingers drawing nonsense shapes in the sand, shapes that seemed to move and flow with a purpose beyond the slippery slide of tiny particles. Q looked at him, mouth curved into that strange, knowing smirk, eyes distant and knowing, sand clinging to his hair. The entity tipped his head to the side, curiously, and Jean-Luc found himself speaking.
"Do you know what the ancient greeks called the colour of the sky?" he asked, the question random and premeditated. Q raised an expressive eyebrow, and Jean-Luc smiled. Of course he did. But still. "They called it bronze. Not blue. Because the sky was like a mirror. A huge, all-encompassing bronze mirror. Because the sky reflected us, watched us and knew us, and it reflected us back, a thousand times enlarged. The sky was where heroes went, because they were as large in life."
He paused for a second, looked away from the strange look in Q's eyes, and back at the great arc of the bronze sky. "We're all ... so much bigger out here," he whispered, quietly. "Even though we should be smaller. Why is that?"
And in the silence after, he felt more than saw Q stand, felt him come up behind him, felt the comfort of alien arms wrap around him. He sighed a little, feeling his mouth twitch into a welcoming curve, and settled back against Q in a silence that lasted such a long, gentle time. And then, Q spoke.
"Do you trust me, mon capitaine?" he murmured, mobile mouth pressed close to Jean-Luc's ear, something deep and haunting in his voice. At that, Jean-Luc did smile.
"Yes," he answered, because it was simple and solid, and Q would hear everything else he meant behind it. "I do." He felt Q's smile behind his ear, and the pressure as the entity pulled him closer in response.
"Of course you do," Q laughed. "Of course you do." He stopped, pressing his lips to Jean-Luc's ear, and moved his hands up to cover his eyes. "Hold on, mon capitaine," he whispered. "Come with me." Jean-Luc nodded, and felt Q's signature flash around him, saw it faintly through the red of his eyelids, past the shadows of Q's hands. And then it went, and for a second, nothing seemed to have happened. He opened his eyes, slowly and hesitantly as Q withdrew his hands, and saw ... the beach.
He blinked a little, turning his head slowly from side to side as Q stepped back a little, as his lover came around to stand in front of him. Nothing had changed. Nothing. The sea, the sand, the great bronze vault of the sky ... Wait. Something ... something wrong. Something, in the corner of his eyes, some flicker ...
"Look closer, Jean-Luc," Q instructed, wry and serious, smiling into Jean-Luc's confusion. "As close as you can. Look as deep as you can bear, and deeper still." Jean-Luc looked at him for a second, not understanding, wondering at the concern and determination and ... was that faith? In Q's eyes? But his lover only looked at him, all the arrogance of Q his by extension, and the young officer inside him that had always leapt at Q's call answered that challenging look with one of his own.
And then, he looked at the beach, at the patterns of fine sand where Q had traced his fingers. He let his eyes settle on them, eyes that Q's hands had touched, eyes that had stared at a hundred enemies and alien worlds, eyes that had seen all a long career as a Starship captain could offer. He looked at the sand ... and saw.
Deep, mon capitaine. As deep as you can bear, and deeper still.
The sand grew in his eyes, grain by grain, as if through a microscope, but different. Finer, more intuitive, filled with colours and lightning and movement. A single grain caught his eye, and he focused, feeling his eyes throb, feeling pain build behind them, hearing Q's silent encouragement. Deeper. He felt his eyes widen, felt his pupils dilate, but his mind saw on. Deeper. Minerals, molecules. Electricity. The building blocks of a grain of sand. Of a universe.
Deep as you can bear.
Atoms, glowing, vivid, connected in chains by ephemeral arcs of force, intrinsic, natural. Connected by their very nature.
The pain blossomed in his skull, distant and muted, and he sensed distantly that Q's hands were on his face, were caressing him, soothing and calming, touching that pain and lessening it, though not removing it. But that was right, too, he thought. Jean-Luc had always understood that everything worth learning came at a price. He trusted Q enough to believe this was worth it.
Deeper. Wrapped inside a grain of sand. Wrapped in void and electrons, deeper to protons and neutrons, the essence, the simplicity, polar and essential. And deeper. To the very surface of the nuclear core, to the vivid, pulsing force, his eyes percieving as light the raw, elemental substance. And deeper, and then ...
His heart stuttered in his chest, and Q's hands tugged his head to rest against a warm chest, not disturbing his line of sight, not impeding his vision of what lay at the heart of that grain of sand, what lay at the heart of all matter, what lay at the heart of the universe.
Names. Millions, billions ... too many to count, too many to know. Name after name after name, in languages too many to comprehend. An infinity of identity, spiralling out from the heart of all that was. Names. And there. A flash of brighter light, a sense of some force directing his gaze, as Q showed him what he had to see.
"The Q are omniscient, Jean-Luc," a voice whispered, distantly. "The Continuum is not of this universe. At our whim, we can create reality. Because we are not of it. The Q are not real, mon capitaine. We are what reality is written with. And this ... this is what that means."
He could feel his head shaking, his eyes blurring, but his sight was not his own anymore, deeper than any physical function. His eyes were Q's eyes, and in them his name burned brightly, fiercely, at the heart of all that was. And more beside it. His crew. His friends. His family. Everyone he had ever known. And more, on and out, infinite, unending.
"I have written you into the heart of stars, Jean-Luc," Q went on. "Before time ever began. With everything I am, I have written your names, since the beginning. And beyond. Everything I have learned of you, everything you have shown me, every lesson you taught me, every gift you have ever given me ... all of it is written here. Everywhere. Time does flow for me as it does for you. I exist as in a single moment, and equally as in all of them. Everything you are, you have been since the beginning, and everything you will become, you already are."
He turned Jean-Luc to face him, breaking that perilous, infinite vision, more searing than the gaze of any sun. He blinked, his eyes his own once more, and felt at last the tears that were flowing steadily and without cease down his cheeks, threading around Q's hands where they held him.
"Q ..." he whispered, brokenly, struggling to meet those mercurial, vibrant eyes through the blur of tears.
"Oh, mon capitaine," his lover whispered, wrapping him close. "Jean-Luc. You are large. Larger than stars. Every one of you. Out here, you are the greatest of great. I told you, didn't I? You do not explore stars, nebulae, worlds. You explore yourself, the depths of the human mind. Out here, you find yourself. Every world you visit, every star you see, every person you touch, you find inside them something more of yourself, some piece written into their being of who you are. All of you. Everytime you touch each other, the universe, creation. All of it. The more you touch, the more you see, the greater you become."
He pulled back, ignoring the faint whimper as Jean-Luc felt the loss, and took the captain's face once more between his hands. Jean-Luc blinked at him, stunned to see tears falling as freely down that expressive, trickster's face. Q looked at him, and every emotion ever named was in his eyes, and more besides, but chief among them, ever first, was love.
"I have written you into the heart of stars, mon capitaine," Q repeated, a laugh breaking somewhere inside his voice. "That is what I was made to do. I was made to choose to love you, as naturally as laughing. I was made to learn your name, and write it among the stars, like the greek heroes you admire so much. Take heart, mon capitaine. Jean-Luc. Everywhere you go, everyone you meet, you are already there. There is nowhere too far, nothing too strange. As far as you go, as deep as you see, you will find yourself, written in my essence. You are eternal, Jean-Luc, as are all you choose to love, all you care for. I promise you this."
Jean-Luc looked at him, at the eyes deeper than time, at the laughter written as deep on his lover's face as pain, at the loneliness and the love, and the pride of a being who had written the universe in his blood. And beyond all that, to the person beyond. To the man who had chosen, of all creation, to love him, and him alone. To the lonely creature, rebellious and proud, who had eschewed the distance of his people, and touched the name he had written with something deeper than duty, more profound than need.
He looked at Q, who had touched him with love. And smiled.
"Good," he murmured, deep and proud, as Q tilted his head quizzically at him. "That's good." And something twisted a little in Q's expression, wry and amused, the rueful trickster, the bemused lover.
"I didn't show you this for the express purpose of increasing your ego, you know," his lover muttered gently. "You're hard enough to live with as it is." And Jean-Luc laughed, rich and long and loud. Because Q was, after all, still Q. Still annoying and arrogant and at times such a mindboggling pain in the neck it defied belief. He was glad, glad that the universe was written with the likes of his lover, his love. The universe needed a little bit of humour, a little bit of rebellion written in. Life would be rather dull without it, after all.
He paused, drew a little breath, drew Q back in to where he could embrace him, where he could wrap himself around him and hold him close into eternity, and sighed happily when he felt Q hesitantly wrap himself around Jean-Luc in return, near as breathing.
"I'm glad," he repeated, softly, so softly, "because that means that however far you go, Q, however long you exist after I am gone ..." He paused, voice breaking, and went on. "However long you live, my love, I will always be there to love you. I will always be a part of you." He stopped, hearing something like a sob escape his lover, feeling the shuddering breath that escaped, and wrapped his arms tighter, smiling through silent tears against the ache of joy and love in his heart.
"I'm glad," he finished, his face pressed to Q's shoulder. "Because it means you will never be alone again. Q. Love. I will always be with you. Always."
And around them, sand ebbed and flowed in unearthly patterns, connected and alive with the names of every life that could ever live, and above them the bronze mirror of the sky reflected them out into infinity, joined and together and in love.