Jean-Luc Picard was tired. He'd been back at Starfleet Headquarters for a week while Enterprise was in drydock, the damage done by the battle with Shinzon being repaired. There had been literally dozens of reports to fill out. Families to notify. He'd had to contact Juliana Soong personally and tell her of Data's death, as well as questioning her about Before, who had in two weeks shown no greater sign of remembering the engrams Data had implanted in him than he had at the wake.
He felt simultaneously hollow and reckless, as if he had very little to lose. The pressure was on him to take a promotion to admiral now, and he was resisting with everything he had, but he didn't know if it would be enough. His crew might effectively be dismantled; it wasn't standard Starfleet practice to let the same people serve together for fourteen years. Deanna was going with Will, of course, and he thought that with Data's death Geordi was seriously thinking of leaving the Enterprise. Too many painful memories.
Things would never be the same.
"Tsk, tsk. I'd have thought you'd have learned by now never to let Troi drive. What's that old saying? Lady drivers, no survivors?"
The truly astonishing thing, Picard thought, was that the voice wasn't setting his teeth on edge, and that the tension he felt was more anticipation than apprehension. He turned to face his visitor. "Hello, Q."
Q was leaning insouciantly against the back wall of the office. "What? No 'Get off my bridge?' You're slipping, Jean-Luc."
"We're not on my bridge."
"True enough. How about 'What do you want, Q?'"
"Oh, I think I may have an idea what you want," Picard said, leaning back very slightly in his chair.
Q raised his eyebrows. "Oh really. I've been here less than a minute and you're already claiming to predict what I'm here for? This is unusual. And rather arrogant, I might point out."
"Oh, I don't have any better idea than usual what excuse you've come up with to come visit me. It's more that I believe I might have a general idea as to what's been behind the visits for some time. Although I haven't seen you in quite a while, I hear that you've had quite the busy life."
"Been comparing notes with Kathy?"
"Yes, Admiral Janeway had some very interesting things to tell me about you, Q. Where is your son, by the way? I was under the impression you were supposed to be supervising him closely."
"I had better things to do. And frankly, so did he. Don't worry, Johnny, he's not out causing havoc, or more havoc than I'd approve of anyway." He walked over and perched on Picard's desk, practically hovering on top of Picard. "So, what'd dear Kathy have to say about me? Anything sordid, I hope?"
Picard considered a moment, and then nodded judiciously. "I believe I could describe it as such, yes."
Q beamed. "Really!"
"Yes. She said that you tried to seduce her, as part of some ploy to stop a civil war in the Continuum by having a child. And that you were quite thoroughly incompetent at it." The look on Q's face was priceless. "Janeway suggested to me that, most likely, you're biologically incompatible with humanity-- that you're essentially above human desire, and therefore can't actually understand it or mimic it accurately even if you believe you should, and so your attempt to seduce her turned into more of a joke than anything else." By now the look of outrage on Q's face had faded, to be replaced by a more menacing, harder look. Taunting Q was not exactly the safest of pastimes, even if what Picard suspected was true, and so he hurried on to his next point. "Of course, I knew better, which leaves me intensely curious."
"I'm pleased to see someone has faith in me," Q said coldly. "What do you mean, 'knew better?' And what, exactly, has you so curious?"
"Well, you see. I always did think you were probably above human desire-- the notion that such an advanced being as yourself could possibly have sexual feelings for a mere human would have been the sheerest of arrogance, as I'm sure you'll agree."
"So the fact that you behaved toward me in an overtly seductive fashion on so many occasions... well, I assumed that you knew what you were doing, that you were deliberately behaving that way because you knew exactly how it was affecting me and doing it for no better reason than to throw me off balance. Which, I can admit, it did, quite thoroughly. But if that were true, then you should have been capable of at least making a convincing attempt to seduce Janeway. It still might not have worked but she wouldn't have found it laughable."
"Did she say that? Laughable?"
"Oh, no, she was much more polite. I read between the lines, though. And you see, I know things Janeway doesn't know. For instance, I know you are capable of behaving in a way that seems convincingly... well, that expresses sexual interest without making a joke of it. On the other hand, with me you always maintained plausible deniability. So what I must wonder is, did you truly never understand what you were doing, from the beginning? Everything that I interpreted as an attempt to manipulate my human perceptions of sexual interest, was that accidental? Or did you know very well what you were doing but for some reason could only do it with me, not Janeway?"
Q was staring at him with a look of complete shock, the like of which he hadn't seen on Q's face since the entity lost his powers. "Now, if the latter were true, it's possible that you were able to do it with me and not her because with me you weren't concerned about having to follow through. But somehow I can't imagine you being that frightened of any aspect of human behavior, not with your powers. And, there is also the fact that you've consistently shown jealousy of my love interests-- Vash, Beverly... So I'm wondering if I should conclude that the reason you were able to behave toward me as if you genuinely wanted something from me, and not toward Janeway despite the fact that seducing Janeway was an integral part of your plans, was that you could only bring yourself to behave that way toward someone you did, in fact, for some reason, genuinely want." He smiled triumphantly up at Q. "Now which is it?"
"You really think you know everything, Picard. It's very annoying to those of us who actually do."
"Oh, no, I don't know anything. I'm merely speculating. But I'm speculating with some better knowledge of you and your behavior than Janeway has. I've never put into any of my reports incidents like your turning up in my bed pretending to be the friend I'd slept with."
"So you've decided that really happened, then? Not going to take the 'it was all a dream' clause?"
"No, I've thought it really happened for some time. My heart really did stop on the operating table, and the incident was too detailed to be a dream. Besides, my subconscious mind was never in the habit of casting you in a benevolent light."
"Yes, I know. You weren't much better about it consciously."
"You're evading the question."
"Do you really think the only possibilities are that I wanted you or that I'm incompetent? Are you that small and unimaginative?"
"Oh, I'm sure there are other possibilities, and if any of them are true I'd be delighted to hear you enlighten me. I simply think those are the most likely. And of the two of them, as little as I want to sound egotistical it really does seem as if the more likely possibility is that you actually somehow desired me."
Q hopped off his perch on the desk and paced. "I'm thrilled to hear how delighted you are, because believe me, I'm really looking forward to pointing out your stupidity in excruciating detail. But let's just pretend for the moment that this ridiculous possibility you've hypothesized were actually true. Exactly what use to me would it be?" He spun and glared at Picard. "Given you humans' primitive dependence on gender as an organizing principle, even if-- and I really have to laugh at your sheer gall, Picard-- if I felt something for a human that would be analogous to human desire, I'd be out of luck, wouldn't I? Since the form I've picked isn't very compatible with that, with a human male, now is it."
"You did once say you could have chosen to be female."
"Yes, I could have. But if I did it now it'd hardly be honest."
"I'll try to refrain from amazement at the notion that you would care about being honest."
"Do try, yes. I realize you can't see me as I truly am, and after five billion years you lose interest in complaining about lesser beings' limitations, but I would prefer you see me as what I chose for you to see me as."
"Why? Does gender actually have some significance to you after all? You did seem to imply to Janeway that you prefer a male form."
"Well, women like their men manly. I didn't think bringing up my lack of inherent gender was going to help me get lucky, if you know what I mean." Q said the last in an overly jocular, locker-room manner. Picard was surprised he didn't wink.
"Then why would you think it's dishonest to change your form?" he asked, ignoring Q's sudden dip into crudity.
"Because it would change how humans see me."
Picard frowned. Now Q seemed quite serious. "Do you truly think we would think less of you for being in a female form than a male? Humanity overcame such prejudices centuries ago."
"Oh, believe me, I tested Kathy quite thoroughly on that subject. I know you don't think less of women. But you think of them differently." He began to pace again. "It's wired into the fundamental nature of your brain, the deepest biological distinction you can make. You apply it to nonhumanoids, you apply it to inanimate objects, it colors every perception you have. If I changed sex you couldn't help but look at me differently. And since gender is irrelevant to me, it'd be a difference that wasn't real, wasn't based on something I chose. If you look at me differently because I'm behaving differently, that's one thing. Even if I didn't deliberately choose that, it's still the result of a change in me. But if I change sex, that's not a change in me-- it matters to me not at all. But it matters to you, to all humans, profoundly. So to you there would be a drastic change and to me I would not have changed at all. And I don't think that's honest. I do try to be consistent, at least."
"I see. That does make a certain degree of sense."
"Of course it does. The surprising thing is that your limited brain realizes that it makes sense."
"So you think that because you chose to be male, you couldn't pursue an... interest in a male human?"
"This is all absolutely hypothetical, Picard. I haven't admitted to any such interest."
"Of course not."
"But yes. You humans may have progressed in some ways, but in the matter of your reproduction you're based around the same organizing principles you used when you were lizards. Gender permeates every part of your perceptions of others, and most especially it affects your ability to feel desire. And we Q do not pine for what we cannot have. On the rare occasions where we see no clear path to getting something we want because anything we could do to obtain it seems like something we'd rather not do, we don't waste our time moping around for it. There's a very large universe out there and we can go anywhere, see anyone." His voice had turned hard.
"And is that why I haven't seen you in five years?" Picard asked lightly. "Were you out there not wasting your time?"
"Actually I was fighting a war. And raising a child. And it's been a lot longer for me than it's been for you, Picard. In my timeline ten thousand years have gone by. You're lucky I remember you."
"I suppose I am."
Q looked at him hard. "If that was sarcasm, your tone was all wrong. I might almost think you meant that sincerely."
"I did, actually. I am, in fact, glad that you eventually remembered me. Since I wouldn't have missed this opportunity for the world."
"The opportunity to tell you you're an idiot, of course, Q." He stood up, smiling, eyes never leaving Q's. "All your intelligence, all your power, all your research into humanity, and you still miss such very basic things about us. Did you really think that human sexuality is about nothing but reproduction? That it only ever applies between males and females? Have you never heard of homosexuality in all your study of our species?"
Q blinked. Then scowled. "Of course I have. But it's not particularly relevant, since you are obviously not homosexual."
"But I have, in fact, slept with men."
"Yes, yes, when you were a young man at the Academy and going out of your mind with hormones. Apparently most of you experiment that way when you're young. You haven't done it since." He paced over to the window and looked out it.
Picard noticed that Q was no longer maintaining even the faintest pretense that they were speaking hypothetically. "Yes. Because I find few men attractive, and because when my family was alive I preferred to avoid liaisons with men. I was willing to enter into a pitched battle with them as to my choice of life career, but I simply didn't care enough about the issue of sleeping with men to fight their traditionalist attitudes. But I'm the last Picard, now." He thought of Shinzon. Even his poor twisted clone was dead, now. "I need have no concerns at all for poor Robert's sensibilities." He came up behind Q, standing close to him, looking out the window himself. San Francisco sprawled beneath them, 30 stories below.
Q didn't turn around. "I last visited you a year and a half after your family died."
"But then, I hadn't had a chance to talk to Admiral Janeway. I had no way of knowing that you were capable of genuinely desiring humans. It was obvious that you had an interest in me, but Data--" He hesitated only a moment, the pain welling back up. "Data suggested you viewed me as a pet, in that last encounter on the D, and at that time I had no reason to think otherwise. I didn't know that in a few short years you'd turn to a human to judge a conflict within the Continuum, or that you'd ask a human to mate with you, or that you'd rely on human assistance in fighting a civil war. I didn't know that you could be clumsy and out of your depth while trying to seduce a human for duty's sake alone... which, as I said, would imply that things you did that weren't for duty's sake might have been done because you truly felt them."
"You're enjoying this." Q's voice was toneless.
"Well, it's not often I have you at a disadvantage."
Q turned around and in a single fluid motion pulled Picard close and kissed him, hard, passionately. From the near-fury in his eyes Picard thought he was expecting this to surprise or shock or upset Picard. Instead Picard responded, pulling Q closer, running his hands through the entity's hair, nipping gently at his lips.
Q let go of him and stepped back, an expression of utter shock and bewilderment on his face, as well as some anger. "You'd go awfully far just to prove me wrong about humanity's evolution, Picard."
"Oh, when have you ever known me to lie to you to make humanity look better, Q?" Picard snapped. "I'm not doing this to prove you wrong. I'm doing this because you are wrong, and so was I, and the two of us have spent fourteen of my years and ten thousand of yours without any real understanding of who the other is or what his capabilities are." He stepped in closer to Q, almost as close as they'd been during the kiss. "Which, by the way, I blame you for. I can hardly have been expected to understand an omnipotent being who chose to keep parts of his nature secret, but you should have known me better than that."
"Where did this come from, then? You can't tell me you've secretly been nursing lust for me for fourteen years. I won't believe that."
"Not all fourteen, certainly not. I started to realize a certain... fascination... with you when you kidnapped me and demanded to join my crew, but you were entirely too dangerous for me to even consider exploring such a thing. I stopped actively disliking you when I saw how you behaved with Amanda-- despite the fact that you claimed you'd kill her if she wouldn't join the Continuum--"
"Well, I would have."
"And I realized then that you didn't want to. That you were going to try to find a way to subvert your orders if you had to, because you genuinely came to care for the girl. But I had no idea... well, my conversation with Janeway was very enlightening."
"Because of how amusing it was to imagine me being incompetent at seducing her, no doubt."
"Well, that too, but really the part that fascinated me was that you were apparently a committed political activist among your own people, not just a bored and jaded rebel without a cause. And that you were capable of risking your life for what you believed in. I knew you had been willing to kill yourself to save us all when you lost your powers, but as you yourself pointed out, you weren't losing much in comparison to what you'd already lost. The idea that you'd willingly face death as a Q for a cause you believed in is not one that ever occurred to me." And Q wasn't his dark shadow anymore. He'd thought so once, that Q represented everything that was the opposite of what he stood for. Q had pointed out that they were much more similar than Picard gave them credit for in the incident where Picard had nearly died. But now Picard knew both that Q was capable of heroism in the right circumstances, and that he himself, under the wrong circumstances, would have been a genocidal rapist, utterly ruthless and hard. He was not the bright and shining person he had hoped he was, and Q was not, truly, next of kin to chaos.
Q paused. "That... impressed you, did it?"
"And that you had the courage to take on trying to change your entire society by doing something that your people had never done before. I wouldn't have expected that of you, before. Now... well, I've honestly been hoping for you to show up since I talked to Janeway about you."
"So. If that matter we'd been discussing before wasn't hypothetical. You're saying-- it would matter? It would be something-- possible, without either of us changing who we are?"
"We've both changed a great deal. That's part of the reason why I think this could work. But yes, without either of us trying to change who we appear to be."
Q smiled, and put his arm around Picard. "Well, then. If I admit that yes, I am capable of feeling desire for a particular human's body, would you hold it against me?"
It took Picard a full second to get the joke, and then only because of the way Q was smirking. He laughed aloud. "I just might."