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He lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering if there was any point to getting up. 

For a long time he simply lay there, desperately bored, but unable to imagine anything that might make him less bored.  Nothing within his power, anyway.  He could go back to sleep, but he'd never been good at falling asleep without sedatives.  He could get up and drink coffee, but then he'd have to go to work, and that seemed enormously pointless.  It was easier just to lay there and do nothing at all.

His combadge chimed.  He thought about reaching over to get it, decided not to, and rolled over, putting a pillow over his head.  The combadge kept chiming and chiming, until finally he rolled over, grabbed it, and flung it into the closet.  Of course this meant that if enemies attacked and tried to kill him he wouldn't be able to call for help.  Oh, he should only be so lucky.

The pillow was comfortable.  Maybe he'd go back to sleep after all.

Some time later the door buzzed.  "Q!  Are you in there?"

If he said nothing she'd have security break down the door.  "Yeah yeah," he said tiredly.

"Why haven't you been answering your combadge?"  Commodore Anderson's harsh voice came from beyond the door.

"Combadge?  Must've lost it," he mumbled into the pillow.

"What?  I can barely hear you… never mind.  Open this door, Q."

"If you insist.  Computer, release lock."

Anderson stormed in and stared down at him.  "You're in bed?"

"A brilliant deduction.  I can see why they promoted you to commodore."

"You were supposed to be down in the science conference rooms an hour ago.  There are people waiting for you, Q!"

"Are there?"

"You knew Dr. Sevok and his grad students were going to be here at 0900 hours.  It's 1015.  Now get up, get dressed and get down there!"

"Did you want me to do a striptease for you, or are you going to leave?"

She expelled a loud breath.  "You have fifteen minutes.  Be there or I'll throw you in the brig."

He considered the possibility.  If he was in the brig, he wouldn't have to get up.  But there was even less privacy there than there was here, and there was his special item to consider.  "Fine, fine."

She left.  Q swung himself up into a sitting position and pulled something out of the nightstand drawer by the bed.  He used to keep it in the dresser, but lately he'd been feeling the need to keep it closer than that.

He rolled the innocuous brown bottle around in his hand.  Today, maybe?  Maybe right now, and then he wouldn't have to go see some tedious Vulcan, and wouldn't that be just the most magnificent joke on Anderson.  He uncorked the bottle and sniffed at it.

It still burned. Not that he'd expected differently-- etching solution was a powerful acid.  But it still seemed that living would be fractionally better than drinking the stuff.  He closed the cap and put the bottle back in the drawer.  If he'd only been able to find a way out that wouldn't hurt so damn much.  At least he had it.  He could use it any time he wanted to. Anytime things got so unbearable that he needed any escape route, and never mind the pain.  The fact that he had a way out so close by, ready for him to use any time, paradoxically had made it easier for him to put up with the last two months or so.  He knew now that it wasn't the Continuum he was holding out for, and it wasn't the nonexistent hope that his life would ever become even marginally worth living.  He was simply holding out for a less painful way to die.

He got up and shuffled to the replicator.  "Coffee.  Cream and about eighteen billion sugars."

"Unable to comply.  Eighteen billion sugars is beyond the capacity of this unit."

"Make it three, then.  And quadruple the caffeine."

With heart-attack-in-a-mug in his hand, he dragged himself over to his closet.  He couldn't think what to wear.  Lately the little decisions-- what to wear, what to eat-- had become overwhelmingly hard to make.  He had stopped wearing the padding and the makeup.  There didn't seem to be much point.  Everyone on the station knew he looked like hell, and the scientists who came to see him seemed to think of him as a disembodied brain anyway.  Eventually he'd sipped enough coffee to feel as if he could make some small decision, and grabbed the first thing he found in the closet.  Anything he owned would be adequate.  He didn't feel like being better than adequate.

Hunger gnawed at him, but he knew from experience that if he drank enough coffee the pain would go away.  He might start feeling nauseous or get a headache, but he wouldn't feel driven to figure out what he wanted to eat.  Sooner or later he'd have to eat something, or he'd pass out and then he'd end up in sickbay, a fate rather worse than death.  It didn't have to be right now, though.

Without bothering to brush hair or teeth, he trudged out the door.  He was pretty sure his fifteen minutes was already up, but he hadn't bothered to go get his combadge, so Anderson couldn't call to rant at him.  Maybe someone would attack today, and he wouldn't be able to call for help because he'd have forgotten his combadge.  And it would probably be easier, if not quicker, than drinking acid.  That was a nice fantasy.  He dwelled extensively on the thought of being instantly vaporized by a highly technologically advanced society's phaser-like weapon.  Oh yeah, that'd be good. 


Starbase 56 had changed remarkably since the first time Jean-Luc Picard had seen it.  When he'd been here the last time, it was a quiet, backwater research outpost, existing primarily for the purpose of collating and organizing Starfleet research from all over.  Now it was bustling with activity.  The transient quarters for guests on the station had literally expanded; they'd actually rebuilt that area of the station to be three times larger, with bars, shops, lounges, holosuites, public library areas for researchers who preferred to work around other people rather than in their private quarters, and dozens of conference rooms.  More Starfleet officers had been assigned to the station; he saw people in security yellow and science blue all over the place, at a much greater density than he'd seen the last time he'd been here, and they were intermingled with large numbers of civilians-- even in the Fleet areas of the starbase reserved to people who actually lived and worked on the base, there were an enormous number of civilians. 

He had actually come here to see his old mentor, Professor Galen.  Galen had some sort of research project he was being very coy about, that he'd wanted to involve Picard in.  It wasn't possible, unfortunately, a circumstance Picard truly regretted.  He was sorry he had had to turn Galen down, as he was sorry he'd had to turn Galen down at the beginning of his career when the archaeologist had tried to persuade him to leave command track and focus on archaeology.  But he'd already been away from the Enterprise for a month.  Of course Commander Riker was highly competent, but it was out of the question for Picard to request an extension of his leave so he could lead a scientific expedition for three months to a year.  A month had already been too long.

Beverly had insisted, and he'd been too weak to argue with her.  A month ago, a plasma bolt had fused his artificial heart, and he'd almost died.  If he'd been generally stronger it might not have put him so badly out of commission, but a few months previous to that he'd been a Cardassian prisoner, starved and tortured.  The shock to his system of having to have a new artificial heart installed, on top of his recent experiences with the Cardassians, had left him weak, barely able to get out of bed, let alone be a captain.  So Beverly had demanded he take a month's medical leave, and had had him sent to Earth to recuperate on his family's estate.

In some ways it had been a good thing.  Picard hadn't seen his family since taking command of the Enterprise, and was overdue for a visit.  He had dreaded spending a month with Robert, of all people, but he had wanted to see young Rene-- not so young now.  The boy was growing like a weed, and talking about joining Starfleet.  Robert was opposed to it, but coming to recognize that his son, like his brother, was too much of a dreamer to stay home in the vineyard and too stubborn to be compelled by family ties.  Apparently Robert was mellowing in his old age.  He and Jean-Luc had gotten into a wrestling match in the mud, of all things, arguing over the past battles, and after that much of the tension had been broken between them, and some of the old burned bridges mended. 

So it had been more pleasant than he'd expected, but it had still raised many of the old demons from the past.  It seemed that the past month was determined to teach him some lesson about regretting the paths not taken, or the paths actually taken.  Had he not been an idiot the night before he'd shipped out on his first assignment, and gotten into a battle with three Nausicaans, he wouldn't have an artificial heart and wouldn't have come so close to dying now.  Had he done as Galen had wanted, years ago, he wouldn't have had to disappoint the man so bitterly now, possibly even losing his friendship.  Had he and Robert had this conversation years ago, perhaps they wouldn't have wasted so much time being at odds with each other.

So many regrets.

The Enterprise was coming to pick him up tomorrow.  The meeting with Galen had been cut short; Picard had allocated much more time to seeing his old mentor, but Galen had more or less kicked him out when he'd learned Picard would refuse to lead his expedition.  There was actually nothing he needed to do, and so he decided to follow up on a whim.  This was Starbase 56, the station he'd handed Q over to three years ago, and he was curious to know how the former entity had handled adapting to his new humanity.

Q as an omnipotent being had been imperious, arrogant, unpredictable, untrustworthy, and very dangerous.  When he'd turned up on Picard's bridge naked and insisting he was now human, Picard hadn't believed him-- had, in fact, not quite come to believe him until a member of his own species had shown up and publicly humiliated him, declaring that Q hadn't done "enough" to deserve being given his powers back, but that if he learned how to be a human, the Continuum might reconsider.  After that, doubting Q seemed pointless.  He'd made arrangements to have Q transferred to Starbase 56, despite the entity's desperate desire to stay aboard the Enterprise-- there were too many people aboard Enterprise who'd know Q as the dangerous entity he'd been and not the helpless human he was now, and some of them would hold grudges.  Guinan, Picard's oldest and wisest friend, a gentle and compassionate woman Picard had never even seen get angry except for when Q was involved, had kicked him in the crotch.  What more might less compassionate, less wise people who blamed Q for the loss of crewmates or loved ones in the Borg attack do?  To say nothing of the fact that Riker, Worf and Beverly simply couldn't stand him at all. 

No, it had been obvious to Picard, if not to Q, that the Enterprise was not the best environment for him to learn to be human.  Besides, while scientific research and exploration was certainly an important part of Enterprise's mandate, it wasn't the only part of their work.  Q would be useless or worse on diplomatic missions, and the enemies that might attack him would seriously interfere with Enterprise's work.  Also, he'd simply be more effective as a science consultant in a stationary place where scientists could come to him.  And then there had been the research on stopping the Borg.  Although two of Picard's crew, Geordi LaForge and Data, had been involved in that project by remote communication, the majority of the researchers involved in the project had to be brought to the same location, and there had needed to be multiple disciplines involved.  Programmers, physicists, engineers, medical researchers, strategists, xenopsychologists… Though Enterprise had specialists of many different disciplines aboard, they simply didn't have the capacity to house as many researchers as had been involved in the Borg project.

Picard actually owed Q something of a personal debt from that time.  Although he had expected Enterprise to be assigned to the group of ships that were scouting for the Borg, once the transmissions they were pirating at Starbase 56 indicated that the Borg had entered Federation space, the order he actually got was to pull back to Earth, where the majority of the fleet were waiting, preparing to intercept the Borg.  He had asked why, and the admiral in charge had told him that Q had warned that the Borg would try to kidnap him and make him one of them, a kind of spokesman for the Collective.  Militarily this would have been catastrophic.  Due to being the captain of two people who were heavily involved in the research, Picard knew more about the Borg project than most Starfleet captains.  No explanation had ever been given for how Q knew, but Picard had assumed that it was something he'd found out when he was omnipotent.  Since it was Q's fault, more or less, that the Borg would be particularly interested in Picard specifically, he had considered it fair that Q had warned Starfleet.

He had not blamed Q for the fact that the Borg had instead taken Robert Langan, captain of the Exeter.  Q no longer had his powers; he couldn't have known what the Borg would do when their first plan was foiled.  Horribly, it had actually turned out to be for the best, tactically; their original plan had been to capture a Borg entity Q referred to as the "Queen", who was somehow a focal point for the Collective intelligence, and download the virus into her brain, but the "Queen" would not have been human.  The virus had needed to be tweaked at the last second, and without being able to compare a human who'd become Borg to baseline human readings in order to identify Borg operating system structures, apparently there would have been little hope of being able to make the modifications in time.

Langan hadn't survived.  The Borg had destroyed his personality and then the virus had destroyed his mind, and what was left had died a few days later. It was probably just as well.  Picard couldn't think of Locutus, couldn't think of the creature's cold voice and empty eyes, without feeling a sick gratitude to Q for making sure that it hadn't been him, even as he mourned the good man and officer who it had been.  How would Langan have been able to live with what Locutus had done-- three Starfleet vessels destroyed, including his own Exeter, and nearly a thousand officers and two hundred civilians killed-- if they'd been able to save and restore him?  Picard didn't think he'd have been able to live with such a thing.  If it had been him who'd been Locutus, he thought he'd have considered death a blessing.

Twice immediately after the Borg defeat he'd tried to call Q, to thank him for what he'd done for humanity, and twice had been told Q was sleeping.  Which was actually quite possible.  Picard had noticed that, although Data didn't sleep and therefore did most of his Borg research during night shift, whereas LaForge did his during the day shift when he was awake, neither of them ever reported any trouble getting hold of Q whenever they needed to ask a question. Probably Q had a lot of sleep to catch up on.  He'd finally sent a letter.  There'd never been any response.

It would be good to see how Q was adjusting, he thought, and realized he was actually looking forward to dropping in on the former entity.  At one time he had, if not hated Q, actively disliked him, badly.  After the battle with the Borg, that had changed.  Yes, Q had gotten 18 of his crew killed in the first encounter with the Borg, but who could even count how many people he'd probably saved with the assistance he'd given the Federation?  Would they have even been able to stand against the Borg without his help?  Picard could all too easily imagine a universe where the Borg had won, where Earth had been assimilated and the other Federation worlds fought a desperate futile battle to keep from following in Earth's footsteps.  And he himself would not have been alive to see it, without Q's warning-- or rather, he would have been horribly alive, trapped within the shell of the Borg spokesperson, enslaved to the Collective as poor Langan had been.  No, Picard held no more ill will toward Q at all.  If anything, he was grateful.

Q's security was such that it was impossible for even a Starfleet Captain to drop in on him unannounced, and besides, protocol suggested he visit Commodore Anderson first.  He smiled wryly, remembering Anderson's private communiqué to him two weeks after he'd handed Q over to her.  It had begun with "Picard, you bastard, you didn't warn me nearly enough!"  Poor Anderson.  He'd felt sorry for her then, but not now, not seeing the thriving, vibrant place her starbase had become since Q had arrived.  He was sure Q made her life difficult, but Eleanor Anderson was an explorer and a soldier, grounded forever from the deep space missions she should have been commanding because of a back injury.  If he had had to be shackled to a starbase, one like this would have been his choice rather than one like Starbase 56 had been before Q came.  In fact Anderson had lobbied to have her base chosen, and hadn't taken Picard's warnings terribly seriously, not that Picard had been all that eager to emphasize how difficult Q could be.  He'd wanted someone to take the former entity off his hands, after all.

It'd be good to see Anderson again, see what she was making of this opportunity.  And he'd have to clear any visits to Q through her anyway.  He left the transient portion of the base behind, entering the Fleet areas, and headed for the Commodore's office.


Commodore Anderson was extraordinarily tall for a woman, nearly two meters in height, with close-cropped graying blonde hair and Amazonian proportions, muscular and broad-shouldered.  Rumor had it that before the back injury she'd taken on a Kzin in hand-to-hand combat and won.  Picard suspected that if it were true it had involved as much psychological warfare as anything else; Kzinti had a hard time wrapping their brains around the concept of sentient females.  But then, that was the hallmark of a Starfleet captain, to use brains as much as brawn to win.  Her expression was grim, but transformed to a smile as she saw him in the doorway.  "Captain Picard!  What brings you to my base?"

"I was on personal business, actually," he said.  "I'd been finishing up my leave, and an old friend of mine, Professor Galen, asked me to come here."

"Oh, yes, Galen.  I remember him.  We don't get too many archaeologists here, not in comparison to the physicists at least.  Well, now at least I don't need to question your sanity."

"Question my sanity?"

"When I saw you on the manifest I wondered if you were here to see Q, and I've got to wonder about anyone who'd successfully get rid of Q and then come back for more."  She grinned.

Picard smiled.  "Well, I do believe my sanity is intact, but actually yes, that's why I've come to see you.  Since I was in the area anyway, I thought I would indeed drop in on Q and see how he's doing.  How is he doing?  Has he adjusted well?"

Anderson simply looked at him.  For a moment he saw an expression of extreme weariness cross her face.  Then she stood up.  "Have a seat, Captain.  Can I get you anything?"

"Tea, please.  Earl Grey, hot."

"Anything in it?"

"No, that'll be fine."

She turned to the replicator behind her.  "One hot Earl Grey, one hot black coffee."  The replicator chimed, and she removed the mugs, setting one down on her desk and then walking around to give the other to him.  Belatedly Picard realized she couldn't simply bend over her desk to hand it to him, not with her back, so he walked over to meet her, took the cup from her and sat down in front of her desk.

"If there is an opposite of adjusting well, I want you to square it, and then cube it, and that's how Q's doing," she said tiredly.  "He makes everyone's life here a living hell, especially mine.  He's obnoxious, insubordinate-- I've had to put him under house arrest to get him to do his job on occasion-- deliberately insulting, takes delight in causing diplomatic incidents, and those are his good days."

"What are his bad days like?"

"Then he tries to kill himself."  She sipped at her coffee.

"Kill himself?"  Picard hadn't expected anything like this.  Q had seemed to be doing so well, during the war with the Borg...

"Yes.  He's tried it twice so far.  I've had to keep him on suicide restrictions for a year-- my chief counselor's never been willing to certify him mentally well enough that I could take him off them.  And he's talking about doing it again.  Neither my counselor nor my chief medical officer have been able to make any headway-- he's miserable, and he's making everyone else miserable in exchange."

"I thought-- My officers spoke to him, during the preparation for the battle with the Borg.  They reported that he seemed much improved from his brief time aboard the Enterprise."

"They were right.  He was."  She shook her head.  "He proved, then, that he could match the best Starfleet had to offer.  I mean, it wasn't as if he stopped insulting people, but he'd actually answer a question he considered stupid instead of going off on a rant about how stupid people shouldn't breed.  He worked horrendously long hours, he made himself available to specialists from half a dozen disciplines and juggled them without slipping up... He even offered, when the Borg came for Starbase 56 and our programmers hadn't managed to hack into Locutus yet, he offered to hand himself over to the Borg with a suicide capsule so he couldn't be assimilated, as a delaying tactic to give the programmers more time.  He believed the Borg knew about his role in events from Langan and would be satisfied to see him dead.  Obviously it was a ridiculously melodramatic plan and I didn't entertain it for a minute, but it impressed the hell out of me.  He was offering to die for us.  I don't expect that of civilians who've been mortals all their lives, let alone Q."

"He has done such things before."

"I know, it's in the file you sent over back when, but he hadn't done it with me before that.  And... he actually had some concern that the Q Continuum would be angry with him for giving us all the information he was, and he was doing it anyway.  Offering to sacrifice his life to buy the rest of us time, when the other alternative was we all die, including him?  I can see that that may not be quite as self-sacrificial as it sounds.  But he risked pissing off the Continuum to help us.  He told me there was a definite possibility they'd kill him or at least decide never to give him back his powers as a result, and he did it anyway."

"That is, indeed, more than I would have expected from Q.  Perhaps he felt guilty over exposing us to the Borg in the first place."

"No, he didn't; he was very clear on that.  Every time anyone brought the subject up he said that he exposed Starfleet to the Borg, and vice versa, because the Borg would otherwise have shown up in about ten years and we'd have had no warning at all.  He's never admitted it, but I think he just likes humanity better than he likes the Borg."

"Likes humanity enough to risk his life, or his powers, for us?"

"Yeah, that does sound like a stretch.  But that's why I say he rose to match the best of any of us.  We were fighting for our homes and our lives; he was committing an act that could've gotten him killed, but he put as much into it as we did, despite having no training and no vocation for it.  And then... he backslid.  Or worse.  He turned back into a complete asshole within a few weeks, then tried to kill himself the first time, and things have generally been getting worse from then on."

"I'm very sorry to hear that.  I had thought..."

"...That he'd adjust, eventually?  I did, too, but he's not interested in adjusting.  He doesn't want to compromise, to meet humanity halfway.  He won't take self-defense classes because if he can't wink attackers out of existence he doesn't want to get dirty brawling with them, never mind that they're trying to kill him.  He won't learn to be polite or even barely civil to people.  He doesn't even try to make friends.  And he won't take any suggestions from Counselor Medellin as to how he could improve his life or be happier.  It's like he doesn't want to be happy, or even better than miserable."  She shook her head.  "In some ways I can even understand why he's depressed.  The life he lives would stress anyone."

"Because he has no friends or social outlets?  Or are you referring to the loss of his powers?"

"Well, both are true, but actually I was talking about all the people who are trying to kill him.  We live in a war zone here, Captain, and Q is ground zero.  His depression probably has a lot to do with post-traumatic stress."

Picard frowned.  "How many assassination attempts have there been?  One would think even Q couldn't possibly have angered so many beings into wanting him dead, at least not within the lifespan of individuals of their species."

"Forty.  No, forty-one, if I count my own security officers trying to kill him."

Picard's eyes widened.  Forty-one?  But that wasn't even the most shocking thing Anderson had said.  "Starfleet Security tried to kill Q?"

"A little over a year ago.  Believe me, I cleaned house after that one.  But it's incredible how good he is at provoking people into wanting him dead.  Of course, not all forty-one were actually assassination plots.  We've had kidnapping plots as well.  A respected Andorian researcher once drugged him and tried to walk out the door with him because he thought Q wasn't being exploited to his maximum value to science.  Just two weeks ago we kicked a pair of supposedly Bajoran scientists off the starbase because it turned out they were actually Cardassians, and we think that one was probably a kidnapping plot.  Then there's the people who want him dead because of things he's done as a human.  The Zivor have sworn holy war against him because he claimed to be their god, and they want to execute him for blasphemy."

"Why did he do that?"

"According to him, because he is their god, which, if it's true, would make their desire to kill him for blasphemy rather ironic.  We've also had species who have held a grudge against him for five hundred years turn up-- none of them know him or were around for it, but they want him dead anyway."

"How do they all know who he is?"

"That's a very good question.  If you ever find out, I hope you tell me.  The only assassin we were able to capture to question said she 'just knew' who Q was.  Q says her species have psionic perceptions but are also, in his words, 'cosmic airheads.'  If he hadn't admitted that he was the guy she was looking for we'd never even have confirmation that he was the person she wanted to kill.  Most of the assassins end up dead before we can question them, or they get away, so we don't know how they know who Q is."

"And Q has had to endure... forty-one of these attempts?  In three years?"

"To be fair, most of them don't reach him.  We stopped all but eighteen before Q ever even found out about them.  For instance, he doesn't know about the disguised Cardassians.  Only six of them ended up with him suffering any injury.  But, you know, six times in three years?  When you're a civilian, and have no ability to defend yourself?  And one of the six times involves a shapeshifter ripping out your throat from the inside after murdering the only person who can put up with you, and one of them involves the people who're supposed to protect you beating you nearly to death?  No, I know why Q's depressed.  His health is crap, he looks like hell, if my CMO hadn't had them program dietary supplements into his meals he'd probably be dead of starvation or vitamin deficiency by now... I understand why he's so unhappy.  I can sympathize.  But we're doing the best job we can to protect him, and he sabotages us at every turn."

"I hadn't heard any of this."

"No.  It's not classified beyond your level, but we do keep it out of the newsbriefs-- we really don't need to encourage copycat crimes of all things.  So you'd only have known if you'd known to look for it."

Picard's tea had gone cold.  He sipped at it once, then set it down.  "I can't say how distressing it is to hear this.  I'd rather thought-- well, not that he'd make friends, exactly, but with his scientific acumen I would have imagined him surrounded by worshipful acolytes by now.  I've met scientists far less intelligent and even equally as obnoxious who have coteries of admirers."

Anderson had laughed sharply at his mention of worshipful acolytes.  "There are people who respect him for his mind, but he shreds most of the people who come to see him to bits.  Of course they don't like him.  Like I said, he was a lot more tolerant of what he considers stupidity during the war with the Borg... and unfortunately Q considers most mortals hopelessly stupid."

"I'd still like to see him.  Perhaps I can give him some advice.  He once asked me for guidance; I don't know if he'd still accept it, but since I was his first choice, perhaps he'd trust my suggestions more."

"Well, I can't order him to see you unless I put you on the list, and there's a long, long wait.  But if you want to see him socially, I just need to have Security confirm that you're the real Picard, and then ask him if he wants to see you after he gets off work."

"Oh no, please don't order him to see me.  I think that would be absolutely counterproductive."

"You're right, it probably would be."  She toggled her communicator.  "Anderson to Azoth."

"Azoth here."

"I need a team to verify the identity of Captain Picard.  He's in my office."

"On our way."

"You have a lot of trouble with impostors?" Picard asked.

"We've had two shapeshifters and half a dozen members of the wrong species, most of whom were Romulans impersonating Vulcans.  The first shapeshifter got past us and almost killed Q; we caught the second one before he got anywhere near Q.  We also caught a guy with whatever that strange parasite was you found infecting Starfleet Command four years ago; we presume he was here to infect Q, but he never got that far."

The security team, led by a Commander, presumably the security chief, arrived.  "We'll need a small blood sample, sir," the Commander said to Picard.

"Certainly." Picard held out his arm.

"Captain Picard, this is my chief of security, Commander James Azoth," Anderson said.

Another one of the security officers was running a tricorder over Picard, very closely, while the third had his phaser drawn and in hand but not pointed at anyone-- a reasonable compromise between the need not to offend the innocent and the need to be able to quickly stop the guilty before they could kill the examining officers, Picard thought.  Azoth held up the vial of blood.  "He's clean here."

"What does that test for?" Picard asked.

"According to Q, there are no shapeshifting species-- or none of any level we can deal with-- who can maintain such close control of parts of their body that have been separated that those body parts can continue to mimic human blood," Anderson said.  "If you were a shapechanger the tissue would revert to your natural form, whatever that is.  He claims any shapeshifter powerful enough to get around that is powerful enough that the Q Continuum would step in to protect him, as they agreed."

"He tests as fully human, with no parasitic infestation," the officer with the tricorder said.  "And the readings are coming back as identical to his last medical scan on file."

The third officer holstered his phaser as Azoth nodded to Anderson.  "If you'd like I could get Lt. Elbroi to come scan him."

"No, I'm sure that won't be necessary," Anderson said.

"What sort of scan would Lt. Elbroi perform?"  Picard asked.

"He's a Betazoid.  We use him to check to see if people are under mind control or if they intend to hurt Q, but we only do it when we've got reason to be suspicious.  People get very offended if you have them telepathically scanned without good reason, and unfortunately, this is still the Federation and people still have the right to telepathic privacy unless there are grounds for suspicion."

"Perhaps you should employ an empath, such as a half-Betazoid.  My counselor is legally permitted to perform scans on anyone, since she's not a full telepath and can only detect emotional state."

"That's a good idea," Azoth said.  "I'll see if I can find one in Security and get them transferred here."

He and his team left.  Anderson used the visual comm on her desk this time.  "I want to speak to Q.  Put me through."

The comm was facing her, so Picard couldn't see the image, but he recognized that voice.  It was slightly more hoarse than he remembered, slightly slower and more tired-sounding, but it was definitely Q's voice.  A small spike of adrenaline shot through him, long-ingrained conditioning to the danger Q used to represent.  "You know, it was so, sooo important that I be at this conference that you had to drag me out of bed," Q's voice said, "and now here you are dragging me away any time you feel like it.  Make up your mind."

"Captain Picard is here to see you, Q.  I thought you'd like to know."

A pause, then, "Make him get in line with everyone else.  We can't very well be playing favorites, you know."

Picard cleared his throat.  "Actually," he said loudly, so the pickup would catch his voice, "I'm not here in any kind of official capacity.  I was hoping I might be able to see you after your work is done.  Perhaps we could go to dinner."

"What do you want this time, Jean-Luc?  Or is Starfleet sending you because they think you'll be better at worming something like transwarp or transilience out of me?"

"I was in the area, and I thought I'd drop by to see how you were doing, that's all.  Believe me, I am not here to 'worm' anything out of you." 

"Elly?  Didja do that alien shapeshifter check?"

"Yes, Q," Anderson said, exasperated.  "It's really Picard, and he really wants to see you.  Yes or no?"

"Let me see if I can fit him into my exciting social calendar," Q said dryly.  "Yes, I think I could squeeze him in between 'staring at the ceiling' and 'staring at the wall while listening to Beethoven.'"

It was a funny comment, but the view of Q's life it revealed, the sheer emptiness and boredom it implied, made Picard wince with sympathy.  He hadn't had much sympathy when Q whined about wearing an ugly outfit or being bored in the brig, but neither of those had been chronic conditions and Q hadn't saved humanity from the Borg, then. 

"When would you like to meet, then?" Picard asked.

"I'm done here 1800 hours.  Come down to the conference rooms on the Fleet side near the science labs.  I'll meet you there."

Anderson flicked her comm unit off.  "I have no idea how he's going to react to you," she warned him.  "He's changed in three years.  He might be thrilled to see you or he might take everything he's feeling out on you on the grounds that you sent him here or something."

"I've guessed as much," Picard said.  "But I dealt with him when he was obnoxious and omnipotent.  I don't think there's anything he can do as a mere mortal that I can't handle."

"You might be surprised.  But then, I never knew him before, so maybe you're right."


He assumed that the tall, dark-haired civilian in the purple tunic and black pants with two security officers flanking him was Q, until the man turned around.  Picard turned away, looking for Q, and then did a doubletake, looking back at the painfully thin civilian.

Good God.  That was Q.

Anderson had not been exaggerating when she said Q looked like hell.  The man Picard had dropped off at this base had been in generally good health.  Stressed, and showing it-- he'd lost just enough weight in his first week of being human for it to be visible, and his eyes had been bloodshot and set in sleepless darkened hollows.  Beverly had mentioned frequent muscle spasms locking up his back and neck, obviously caused by tension.  But aside from that he'd been in perfect health.

This new Q looked like a dead man walking.  He was horribly gaunt, sticklike, as if a strong gust of wind could blow him over or an accidental collision with another person could break him in half.  His hairline had receded, and what was left was as much gray as dark.  His face looked puffy, eyes sunken, cheeks visibly sagging as if he'd aged far, far more than three years.  In fact Picard was still wondering if in fact this really was Q, or some much older man who bore a strong coincidental resemblance, when he spoke and removed all doubt.  "Mon capitaine! Have you come to visit me in my exile?  How gracious of you."

Picard smiled slightly, keeping his reaction to Q's appearance off his face.  What the hell had happened?  What was wrong with Starbase 56's CMO that he'd let Q end up in such obviously poor health?  "Well, I was in the neighborhood, and I thought it'd be ungracious of me to refuse to at least say hello."

"Terribly ungracious.  If I'd found out you'd have been off my Christmas card list for life."  He turned to the two security officers.  "Unless you think the good captain is going to drag me off and beat me senseless, you can go on and do whatever tedious little thing you do when you're not protecting me from idiots."

"We're supposed to stay with you in public," one of the two, an ensign, objected.

"I'm fairly sure the redoubtable Jean-Luc Picard would be able to help me keep my hordes of adoring fans at bay long enough for security to show up."

"We have our orders," the other one, a lieutenant, said.

Q sighed.  "Typical.  Security guards have no imagination whatsoever."  He turned to Picard.  "Very well then, I suppose we'll have an escort."

"I imagine you must know which restaurants on the base are best," Picard said.

Q had already started to walk forward.  He stopped dead and turned back to Picard. "Oh no no no.  Not hardly, mon capitaine.  I don't eat in public.  You can come to my quarters and enjoy the delightful fruits of Starfleet standard replicators, or you can accept that dinner will not be eaten."

He wasn't under any circumstances going to let Q get away without eating, not when Q was so horribly thin.  "I suppose your quarters it is, then," he said.  "Since I would rather not go without dinner."

As they walked back to Q's quarters, trailed by the security escort, he wondered if he was making a mistake.  Q had had a bad habit of invading Picard's personal space-- even after losing his powers, he'd done things like sit on Picard's desk.  Plus, in a private location, Q might feel freer to unleash all the viciousness he was capable of.  On the other hand, if Q was really suffering from post-traumatic stress, he might not feel safe in a public location like a restaurant, and Picard did feel he could probably handle anything Q could dish out.

At the door to Q's suite, Q dismissed the security guards.  "I'll call you if the boogeyman shows up. Ta ta."  The words weren't as insulting as Q was capable of, but his tone and body language expressed nothing but contempt for the guards.  Why was he deliberately antagonizing the people who were here to protect him?  Did it have anything to do with the incident a year ago with Starfleet Security?  He still found it hard to believe that such a thing could have happened.

Q's room was more tastefully decorated than Picard had actually expected, given some of the garish outfits Q had worn.  There were a few small knickknacks on a coffee table, and not much else in the way of clutter.  The walls were covered with artwork, eclectic and chosen from a number of species and time periods.  Picard knew just enough about art to know that he couldn't classify half of what Q had on his walls, but nothing that he did recognize was less than 300 years old. 

Q walked over to the couch, but didn't sit down.  He was rigidly tense, his back to Picard.  "So.  If you really are an alien assassin who managed to get past Anderson, you should know there's lifesign monitors in these quarters.  You kill me quickly, you should have plenty of time to get away.  If you waste your time indulging in some lengthy torture, you'll be caught and I'll probably survive it.  So if you're here to kill me you really do need to get it over with as soon as you can."

Picard stared.  Was this some sort of ridiculous joke?  And yet the way Q was holding himself, so stiffly… "Q, what is this about?  I'm not here to kill you!"

"Oh, you can admit it," Q said.  "I'm not stupid.  Given the choice between the notion that the real Jean-Luc Picard has come to visit me, or the notion that someone thought his appearance would be a weakness in me they could exploit, obviously the second is far more likely.  If you're here to kidnap me, it won't work.  You can't beam out and you can't smuggle me out of here.  So you may as well just get it over with and kill me."

"I am the real Jean-Luc Picard. Q, stop this!"

"Prove it.  Tell me something only Picard would know."

"When you woke me to ask how you could get to sleep, I told you to count sheep."

Q turned around.  "Well.  I'd almost forgotten about that incident."  He smiled sardonically.  "It has a certain amusing quality now, with so many years' distance."  He looked directly at Picard.  "I suppose that means you really are Jean-Luc.  As difficult as I'm finding this to believe."

"Yes. I'm really Jean-Luc.  If it helps you to believe me, I came to the starbase to see Professor Galen; dropping in on you was a whim, since I was here anyway."

"Oh.  I suppose I can believe that."  He sat down heavily on the couch.  

Picard took a chair sitting at an angle to the couch.  "Q?  If you truly believed I might be an assassin, why did you invite me into your quarters?"

Q shrugged.  "See, either you really were Jean-Luc Picard, in which case I should certainly try to be hospitable, or you were an assassin who'd kill me reasonably quickly once you got me in a private spot with no security.  And there's no downside to either of those options."

"No downside… Are you planning to try to kill yourself again?"

"No."  Q leaned his head back against the couch.  "I'm planning on actually doing it.  No 'try' this time.  Just… haven't gotten around to it.  Alien assassins would probably do it faster and more thoroughly than I've been able to manage thus far.  Unfortunately none of them have turned up this month.  Pity, that.  I'd actually call up some of my old enemies and invite them to the party, but I'm pretty sure dear Eleanor would frown on that."

Picard got up and went over to the couch, standing by its side.  He couldn't sit halfway across the room from a man who'd just declared his intent to kill himself, and yet, what could he do?  Sit next to Q?  Try to offer comfort?  They'd never had any such aspect to their relationship.  "Get help, Q.  Please.  You don't have to endure this."

"Oh, yes, I obviously do.  Since no one who's supposed to be helping me is in the slightest able to do so.  I have to endure this until I end the game.  And I've grown entirely too tired of playing."

"If the counselors you've seen haven't been able to help you, get a second opinion.  You may need a specialist.  Q, for all I know you need a stay in a sanatorium.  You're obviously both physically ill and emotionally at the end of your rope.  You need help.  Now."

"And how'm I supposed to get that?  Medellin's incompetent, Li hates me.  I'd have to go through one of them to get another counselor, and it's not as if this is Earth, you know.  Counselors don't grow on trees around here."

"No, but it's not a starship, either.  A specialist can be brought in to treat you if that's what you need, and there are non-Starfleet therapists working here, I'm sure.  You don't have to rely on the base's chief counselor, or even any of her support staff."

"It would be useless.  What can a counselor, or a therapist, or anyone except a member of the Q Continuum do for me?  I'm dying of mortality.  This hollow shell of an existence I've been condemned to is simply not worth living.  It never has been and it never will be, and I've given up hope that that could change."  He lay down on his back on the couch, looking up at Picard.  "Besides, what does it really matter?"

"What do you mean, what does it matter?  It's your life."

"What does my life matter, really?  No one cares if I'm alive.  Not even me, anymore.  And since I was the only one who ever wanted me to exist, now that I've given up on it myself, who would suffer for my death?  Oh, I'm sure dear Elly would be thoroughly torqued off, since she'd have to go explain to all the morons Starfleet sees fit to inflict on me that I'm permanently indisposed.  But I'm sure that deep down inside she'd be relieved.  Everyone would be."

"That's nonsense!  People will not be relieved to see you die, Q--"

"Oh yes, they will.  I mean they'll have to do that whole 'well, we're Starfleet officers, we have to regret the loss of life blah blah blah' thing that led you to save my life way back when.  But secretly?  They'll be happy they won't have to deal with me anymore.  Absolutely no one will miss me, Picard.  Absolutely no one will grieve for me.  All my death would be is a small inconvenience to a number of people, and frankly, I live for inconveniencing people, why shouldn't I die for it?"

"That's not true.  There are people who will care--"

"Name one."

"I will care, Q."  Picard walked around the couch and knelt down by the side of the couch.

"Yeah, because you're so full of ethics and all that.  You'll mourn any death at all.  It's nothing personal."

"Yes.  It would be."

Q sat up, facing Picard.  "You are completely full of it.  I told you three years ago I was miserable and I was going to kill myself and you basically said, I'm not your father confessor, Q, get out of my face.  Yes, you did save my life after that, but I'm sure you felt like you had to.  The ethical thing to do and all.  Jean-Luc Picard would never fail to do the noble, ethical thing."

"Yes.  When you tried to kill yourself then, that was what I felt.  Among other things I still wasn't sure you had really lost your powers, and you'd done nothing to make me feel anything for you personally.  I didn't want you to die because I don't, in general, wish for anyone to die.  But things have changed.  You hadn't worked to save humanity from the Borg then."

"So I'm too valuable to let die.  Just in case the Borg come back.  That's not a reason that compels me, Picard."

"That's not what I'm saying!"  In some ways Q was even more exasperating than he had been when he first became human, Picard thought.  "I'm not talking about your 'value' to the Federation.  I'm talking about your value as a human being.  As a person."  He stood up.  "Commodore Anderson told me that you dedicated yourself to the defeat of the Borg, despite the possibility that doing so might anger the Continuum.  That you pushed yourself as hard as any Starfleet officer, despite never having received any of our training.  That you offered to die to buy time for the plan to work.  I'm well aware that you can be incredibly irritating, Q, and from what I've heard you have if anything become worse in that regard.  But irritating people is a surface aspect of your character, something you could choose to change if you wished, and something that, apparently, you did change while working to protect humanity from the Borg.  Whereas the kind of nobility of spirit you demonstrated in risking your life and everything that's important to you in order to save a species you have chosen to belong to... that says something about who you truly are, and what potential lies within you."

"Spare me," Q said bitterly.  "The Borg would have assimilated me as well if they'd taken the Federation.  I had perfectly good and selfish reasons for doing what I did.  Admittedly, yes, there was a chance the Continuum would be angry with me, but I thought the odds that they would respect my judgment call were better than the odds that they'd rescue me from being assimilated, and I was following a higher ethical obligation in preventing my knowledge from falling into the hands of the Borg."

"And yet you offered to sacrifice yourself to the Borg to save humanity."

"I was going to go with a suicide capsule, Picard.  A bomb or poison or somesuch.  I wasn't going to risk being assimilated."

"If killing yourself to avoid assimilation was a valid option then, it was a valid option earlier.  You didn't save humanity to keep your knowledge from the Borg, as you could have killed yourself to do that.  You didn't save humanity to preserve your own life, or you wouldn't have offered it up.  You saved humanity because you wanted to.  Because, apparently, you are the sort of person who, when placed in circumstances that force you to show it, is capable of tremendous selflessness and nobility.  It doesn't change the fact that you are irritating, thoughtless on a personal level and don't put much emphasis on other people's feelings.  But some of that is behavior you have, apparently, demonstrated that you can control when you want to, and none of it changes the fact that, at the core of what you are, you are a person of worth.  Not a mind of worth, not a resource of worth, a person.  You do not deserve to die.  And you don't deserve to be this miserable either."

"Tell it to the Continuum," Q said dully.  "They're the only ones with any power to help me."

"No, I disagree.  If you wanted to have friends, to have people who care if you live or die, I think you could achieve that.  Though it would help if you didn't immediately declare, anytime someone attributes an unselfish motive to you, that no, actually you are completely selfish.  I realize that selfishness is one of your larger character flaws, but pretending it's even larger than it is doesn't help you any."

"Why do you think it even matters if I have friends?  I told you when I tried to kill myself the first time, Picard.  Being human is killing me.  I'm dying of boredom, just as I knew I would.  I can't see or feel or do more than the tiniest fraction of the things I used to be able to do.  I'm in constant pain.  And there's nothing I can accomplish with this meager little lifespan that would be worth doing.  The only reason I've held on so long is the belief that maybe someday the Continuum would take me back... but it's become fairly obvious they never will.  So what's the point?  I'm going to die anyway, why not now?"

Q was much more still than he had been even as a human three years ago, Picard noticed.  He used to pace, tap his fingers on tables, sit on furniture, shift around, look all over the place, play with his hands... Now, aside from a few changes in position, he simply didn't move very much.  His voice and facial expressions were as expressive as ever, but the infrequency of his movements made his depression even more obvious than his words did.  It was like a frog in a pot of boiling water, Picard thought.  Anderson obviously knew Q was in trouble, but his condition had probably crept up on her bit by bit; if he were in command here he'd have had Q sent to a specialized institution for severe mental illness or have a counselor trained in potentially fatal levels of mood disorder brought in to treat him.  Q obviously didn't have any rapport with the counselor here, which wasn't too surprising; he hadn't had much of any rapport with Troi, either.  But it was quite possible that nobody aboard Starbase 56 had any idea exactly how bad Q's condition was, since it had very likely developed slowly over time.  And because Picard suspected Q was simply more likely to be honest with him than with anyone else.  This whole conversation had started because Q had some sort of raw emotion toward him-- he couldn't tell exactly what, but the bitterness in Q's voice when he'd declared it more likely that Picard was an alien assassin than that the real Picard would come to visit him indicated that for some reason Q was more emotionally vulnerable to him than he was to other people.  In fact Q had outright admitted it, saying that using Picard's image as a strategy to get close enough to Q to kill was a tactic he'd expected because Picard was a weakness in him someone could exploit. 

What did he mean by that, anyway?

"I think it does matter to you, very much.  When you told me you intended to kill yourself, the first reason you gave was simply that your life wasn't worth living, yes.  But then the very next thing you pointed out was that you think no one cares if you live or die.  I'm no counselor, but I can't help but think that wouldn't have been the first reason you'd talk about if it weren't one of the most important ones."

"You're right.  You're no counselor.  Don't give up the day job."

"Oh, no, Q.  I think I see through you somewhat better than that."  It was becoming increasingly uncomfortable to stand by the sofa, looking down.  For a conversation like this one he thought physical proximity was needed, but sitting next to Q on the couch would be taking that much too far.  Q would have resolved the dilemma by sitting on the coffee table, he was sure, but he wasn't going to do that.  Picard compromised by taking the chair he'd been in before and dragging it closer to the couch before sitting down in it.  "You see, I knew you when you were omnipotent.  And I knew you when you hadn't had time to translate all your Q emotional defenses into human terms.  And, too, I suspect you haven't confided the full depths of your despair to anyone aboard this base."

"I talk about it sometimes," Q said, shrugging.  "Not like it matters.  They can't help me."

"Have you actually told anyone else you intend to kill yourself?  Soon?"

"They'd try to stop me."

"And I wouldn't?"

"You don't live here.  You're going to run off to your happy little ship and your happy little life and you won't be around to try to stop me.  I'm sure you'll tell Anderson, and Anderson will tell Medellin, and Medellin will whine at me that I really ought to take that vacation she wants me to take, and I'll be under extra security surveillance for a while... and then it'll pass.  They won't be able to do anything constructive with the information."

Unfortunately Q had a point.  Picard latched onto something different.  "A vacation?"

"Yeah, dear Nian thinks that all my silly problems would have been solved if I'd just gone to Earth like she scheduled for me.  Like Earth isn't the second most boring planet in the Federation next to Vulcan.  I didn't go.  Anderson was just as happy, she could keep me around to dole out to the hordes of stupidity that come visit every day."

"Actually, a vacation sounds like it would be an excellent idea for you.  Have you considered going somewhere that isn't Earth?  Somewhere you might find more entertaining?"

"Like where?"

"There's an entire galactic quadrant to choose from.  Surely you'd have a better idea than I would what places might catch your interest."

"They bored me when I was omnipotent.  Why would I enjoy them now?"

"Nostalgia?  Or because you don't remember all the details from when you were omnipotent, and you might enjoy having the opportunity to explore for yourself?  Or because some activities are simply more enjoyable for humans than for omnipotent entities?  Or because it would give you a chance to meet new people?  Or because it would give you a chance to get away from the people you feel despise you here?"

"Oh, you make it almost sound bearable, Picard."  He shook his head.  "Do you want to know why it won't work?"

"Yes.  Tell me why it won't work."

"Because I know what I want.  And that's not it."  He stood up and went over to the viewport, staring out of it, face turned away from Picard.

"What do you want, then, Q?"

"I am millions of years old, Picard.  I have done everything I could ever want to do, seen everything I could want to see.  I once knew, instantly, anything I ever wanted to know.  There is nothing I could possibly do, or see, or learn as a human that would be new to me, and if it interested me in the first place I would have remembered it, and if it didn't interest me then it won't interest me now."  His hands pressed against the transparasteel of the viewport, arms extended, head lowered.  "The only time any of those things have ever become meaningful is when I can see them through someone else's eyes.  When I have someone-- someone of reasonable intelligence and promise, mind you-- to show these things to, to teach them about."  He turned around.  "This job you got me?  If it weren't for the fact that 99% of all mortal sentient creatures are stupid, boring or both, it'd have been perfect.  I think there's maybe been nine or ten times in three years that I've met someone I'd have happily spent the rest of my mortal life teaching, because they'd get it.  Because I could show them the wonders of the universe, even if only the mathematical equations that describe them, and their eyes would come alive and they would understand.  But those people don't stay any longer than any of the others.  And it's like rape.  Or prostitution, at least.  Something I love, the only thing left to me I can imagine enjoying, twisted into something I have to offer anyone, no matter how unworthy.  See, it doesn't matter if some of my tricks actually turn me on; they're still all tricks, in the end.  All just as meaningless."  He went back to the couch and flopped down on it.

"I'm sorry," Picard said, not knowing what else he could say to that. 

"You're sorry.  Well, I'm glad you're sorry, Picard.  Because you're the whole reason I'm in this situation."

"I had you transferred to Starbase 56 because I thought it would be the best possible place for you, and your specific talents.  Do you truly think you'd have done better aboard Enterprise?"  He knew Q's pain would lead him to lash out, had expected it.  It didn't stop the feeling of angry defensiveness, but he tried to keep most of that out of his voice.  "Very few people could actually tolerate you, and it's not as if you would have met the numbers of top-level scientists you've met here.  If only nine or ten of the people you have met aboard Starbase 56 have been intelligent enough for you, what makes you think you'd have met anyone aboard the Enterprise?"

Q stared at him for several seconds, and then began to laugh.  "You don't get it.  Oh, you still don't get it.  This is hysterical.  Or it would be if it hadn't destroyed my life.  Oh, Jean-Luc, you can sometimes be so very, very dense."

"What do you mean?"  Now the anger couldn't be quite kept out of his voice.

"What do you think I mean?"  Q got the bitter hysteria under control and looked straight at him.  "Why do you think I chose the Enterprise for my exile?"

"For protection.  You thought we would offer you compassion and forgiveness.  You as much as said so."

"Oh, well, certainly that was part of it.  But that really doesn't explain why I tried to join your crew the first time, now does it?"

Picard's eyes narrowed.  "That was a test."

"It was so not a test.  If it had been a test, I wouldn't have sent you up against the Borg.  If it had been a test, like Farpoint was a test and Riker was a test, I would have been delighted to lose."

"You were not delighted to lose over Commander Riker."

"I didn't think I was done.  You did beat me, fair and square, but I thought it was check, not checkmate.  There were still moves I could have made, if the Continuum hadn't decided to intervene.  Which, to be honest, I should have expected long before that, as the idea that they wouldn't notice a new Q drawing off the Continuum was pretty ridiculous, but, well.  Old news.  I wasn't angry that you beat me, I was angry that I wasn't allowed to finish out the game.  Which is why I cheated for the first and only time, with you."

"Cheated?"

"What'd we make our bet about?  What were the stakes?"

"If you lost you were to stay away from my ship."

"No.  If I lost I was supposed to stay out of the path of humanity, forever.  I was going to get you to agree to rescind that-- that was the part the Continuum interrupted.  Because you people fascinated me.  I wasn't going to give up the most entertaining thing in my life for the past hundred years or so."

"So you changed my memories?  Made it so the stakes of our bet would be something you could work around?"  Now Picard was genuinely angry.

"Yeah."  Q leaned forward, clasped hands between spread knees.  "I'm not proud of that.  Actually I'm very ashamed of that.  I don't do that kind of thing.  Mess with people's minds, I mean.  It's so... beneath me.  Unethical, by even my own standards.  But... I was so bored.  You can't imagine how bored and lonely I was.  And you'd actually defeated me.  Twice.  Some other people have done that but they're all dead by now.  Do you know what that makes you?"  He looked up.  "I was fascinated with you.  You were unpredictable, you were, for a being at your level, remarkably intelligent, you were the most interesting thing in my life right then.  And I'd been kicked out of the Continuum-- not like now, not for real, but they'd told me don't come home until we say you can, and none of them wanted to spend any time with me.  So, I thought..."

"You... really did want to be a member of the crew?  I'm finding that very difficult to believe."

"Oh, it was poorly phrased.  I've had more time to think about what it was I was really after.  I wanted to be your guide.  I wanted to see the universe through your eyes.  I was gonna tell you about the Borg, but not in a way that would have gotten your crew killed or put you higher on the Borg priority list.  I would have shown you... so many things.  But you turned me down."  He laughed bitterly.  "I should really have guessed you would.  You made Riker turn down my powers, why would you have accepted the service of those powers?  Of course you thought it was a test.  But it wasn't.  That time, I was sincere.  I actually lowered myself to offering my assistance, my... well, my friendship, though I can see why you wouldn't have seen that from the way I acted.  And you said no."

Picard had never really thought about that incident from Q's perspective before.  From his own perspective it had seemed completely malicious; Q had seemed to be trying to win the same contest he'd lost over Riker, to corrupt humanity by offering them the power he obviously wasn't too good at morally restraining himself, and when he'd lost, again, he'd had a petulant fit and thrown Enterprise to the Borg in order to make Picard grovel so he'd feel better about having lost to a human, again.  The fact that at the end he'd actually had a good point hadn't changed the fact that he'd done it entirely out of immature pique, like a little boy who would break his friends' toys because the friends could beat him at a game.

It hadn't been that at all.  At least, assuming Q was both telling the truth and remembering correctly now, it hadn't been pique at losing.  It had been rage at emotional rejection.  Which didn't make it any more acceptable, but retroactively changed his view of Q.  Q had to have been capable of at least some degree of genuine emotion before losing his powers, for him to actually be hurt, to feel rejected...

...of course he'd been capable of genuine emotion.  How could one mere day as a human have taught Q self-sacrifice if the raw ingredients hadn't been there in the first place? 

"I didn't realize... if I'd have had any way to know you were serious, I'd probably have tried to let you down more gently.  But it wouldn't have been healthy for us or for you, Q.  We must be explorers in our own right, not through the power of a godlike being.  If we had accepted you, either we would have been your toys, thrown willy-nilly across the galaxy any time there was something you wanted to 'show' us, or you'd have been our pet genie, your power harnessed to our needs and desires rather than your own.  There's no other way it could have worked."

"More unhealthy for me than you, I bet," Q mumbled.

"Why do you say that?"

"Oh, because it probably would have gotten me killed."  He looked at his boots.  "We had two Q who did this whole 'we wanna hang out with humans' thing.  And they had a kid.  Wonder how she's doing, their kid?  She's probably coming into her power and getting tested right around now... Anyway, they were hanging out with mortals and using their powers when they felt like it.  So we said 'come home, you can't do that.  Mortals get messed up if they live with people who're omnipotent.' And they said, 'can't come home, here's a baby, see?  She can't survive the Continuum yet.'  And we said, 'okay, you want her, you wanna stay human, do without your powers.' And they kept using their powers.  So we cut them off and then we killed them."

Picard's eyes widened.  "That's... rather ruthless."  And worth exploring, at some point, but he didn't want to sidetrack.  "Why did you come to us, then, if you knew the Continuum might execute you for it?"

"Oh, I didn't think they would.  See, I didn't know this was being planned behind the scenes.  I figured I'd go misbehave and entertain myself being your tour guide to the universe, and then they'd order me to come home, and I would, cheerfully.  Since they'd have to end my exile if they were going to order me home, now wouldn't they."

"I see.  You were breaking your laws deliberately, as a ploy to force them to end your exile?"

"Yeah, except I didn't know about this.  If you'd let me do it, my enemies in the Continuum would probably have used it as an excuse to have me simply executed.  Mortality's a death sentence too, but at least there's some hope it might be commuted. So… it's just as well."  He looked up.  "But then I came to you without my powers, and you did it again.  Because this would be better for me.  Because I can't take orders from Wesley Crusher-- like that was ever really going to happen.  Because I didn't have the skills to win your trust.  So you sent me here, and do you know what?  I still don't have those skills.  Because no one ever bothered to teach me, and contrary to what you humans obviously believe, it is not at all easy to figure out how to play along with your stupid social rules while not losing all dignity and pride completely."  He stood up and began to pace, seemingly energized by his anger.  "What good did it do, Picard?  I'm pretty sure that on your ship, at least security wouldn't have tried to beat me to death.  If for no reason than Microbrain would think it was dishonorable to attack such a wuss as I am.  I might be dead by now but there's some possibility I'd have had a chance to live before I died, instead of this, this zombie existence I've been suffering through."

"I never claimed omniscience, Q.  I'm sorry that things didn't work out well for you, but I couldn't see the future.  And it's not exactly as if you explained any of this to me at the time."

"It's not exactly as if you would have believed me," Q retorted.  "I told you I was there for compassion, guidance and sanctuary.  You didn't believe the first two and you put as unpleasant a spin as you could on the third, and you acted as if I had been keeping that motive secret from you for some reason.  Would you have believed me if I'd told you any of this?  I'm finding it hard to believe you believe me now."

"I'm finding it hard to believe you're telling me.  These are not exactly things you would have confided in me at the time even if you had thought I'd believe you."

"Yes, true enough.  I'd hardly be telling you these things now if I thought I'd have to live with the memory of making such a pathetic fool of myself for very long."

"You're not making a pathetic fool of yourself.  And the things you've said you want are actually achievable, if you're willing to work for them instead of giving up.  You want to learn how humans interact with each other, how to behave socially in ways that won't lead people to hate you?  I agree, no one will try to teach you in day to day life as they might a more obvious alien.  You don't seem alien, you simply seem obnoxious, and no one knows enough about your culture to know what parts are you and what parts are your society.  But there are professional teachers whose job it is to train non-humans in getting along socially with humans-- the prevalence of humans in the Federation makes getting along with humans a skill virtually any diplomat, politician or trader in the Federation has to have, and I am quite sure that if you requested such a teacher Anderson would arrange to have one come here for you."

"It wouldn't do any good now," Q muttered.  "It's too late."

"It is never too late.  If you showed an interest in changing your behavior, I think it would change the way the people around you respond to you, quite rapidly in fact.  Simply taking such a step would help to convince people you want to change.  And I'm quite serious that you need to get help.  You're so enmired in your misery you can't seem to imagine anything ever improving, and if you can't imagine it it's going to be very difficult to accomplish it.  But you can have some of the things you want, if you work toward them.  There's no reason why you shouldn't be able to attend scientific conferences if someone you actually want to speak to is going to be there, or invite students of your own choosing to work with you.  I doubt you can get out of having to advise large numbers of idiots, or people you think are idiots, but if your mood improved I think you'd find even that more tolerable."

"I doubt it," Q mumbled.

"I don't. You apparently survived the idiots quite well when you were advising them on how to defeat the Borg.  I suspect the major difference between then and now is that then, you felt that your existence had a purpose.  If you can restore meaning to your life, I think you would not be nearly so miserable.  You might even learn to be happy, as impossible as that seems right now.  But you must get help.  You won't be able to achieve any of this if you don't believe you can, and your mind has been so poisoned by your depression that I don't think you're capable of believing in any positive future."

"You're right.  I'm not."  Q sprawled back on the couch, looking at the ceiling.  "Why is my belief less valid than yours, Picard?  I don't believe there's anything worth having in my future because I've lived through this hell you call mortality for three years and seen that nothing good ever comes to me.  Things just get steadily worse.  You don't know what it's like to live my life.  How could you possibly have any better understanding of what I could achieve, or what I could have in my future, than I do?"

"I'm more objective, I'm not depressed, and I have been mortal for fifty-five years, Q, which gives me much more perspective on the problems of mortality than you have." Picard leaned forward.  "Three years?  There is nothing you can say about a lifespan of potentially eighty years based on a sample size of three consecutive ones.  I can't say I have ever suffered as badly as you're suffering now, but I went through a period of six years in which the future seemed a looming black beast, the goals I had chosen for my life unattainable, and the people who surrounded me largely unsympathetic, even cruel.  Those happened to be the years of my adolescence, and looking back, many of my fears seem nonsensical now, my worries trivial.  The same thing may happen to you, if you can get out of this period of darkness you're going through now.  And I am telling you, there are specialists whose job it is to help people through these things, and one of them will be able to help you.  If it would help you, I can talk to Commodore Anderson and recommend that she have a specialist in serious depression brought in for you."

"I doubt it would do any good."

"Of course you doubt it.  The nature of your illness is doubt.  Your judgment is impaired, Q; you cannot envision a positive future for yourself right now." Picard stood up and walked behind the couch, standing behind it and looking down at Q.  "You asked me once for guidance.  You trusted me then.  Do you have reason not to trust me now?"

"Aside from the fact that you kicked me off your ship and condemned me to this hellish existence?  Why would that lead me to mistrust you?"

Picard shook his head impatiently.  "You know as well as I do that I had the interests of everyone aboard my ship in mind, as well as yours. And that I had considerably less personal reason to care."  He circled around and finally sat down on the arm of the sofa, which wasn't very comfortable, but he felt that he had to get closer to Q and yet actually sitting on the sofa, where Q's head would be practically in his lap, seemed much too close.  "I owe you a debt, Q.  If it hadn't been for the warning you gave Starfleet, I would have been assimilated by the Borg.  And even if that were not true-- after all I have only your word for it that the Borg would have chosen me if I'd been available-- you did go to great lengths to save my people and the institutions I've sworn to uphold and preserve.  I do want to help you, to the extent that I can.  If you think so highly of me that you genuinely wanted to join my crew, twice, if you came to me for guidance when you knew nothing about being human, why can't you trust me now?"

"I… suppose," Q said dully.

That was probably the best Picard was going to get out of Q.  He stood up.  "Please think about it.  In the meantime, I seem to recall that you promised me dinner."

"Oh.  Yeah."  Q sat up.  "Just order whatever out of the replicator."

"Shall I order for you as well?"

"No, you can't do that, Picard.  What if I asked you to order me a steak dinner?  The replicator would actually give you a knife for me, and we obviously can't have that."

"Do you mean the replicator won't give you a dinner knife?"

"Of course not.  Or anything ropelike-- it's a good thing we don't live in a century where ties and belts are required or I'd be doomed to permanent fashion faux pas. Or anything with a sharp edge.  Or anything made of glass, since I could break it to get a sharp edge.  Or a very large bucket I could fit my head into.  Or any medication whatsoever, including the ones ordinary people can get without a prescription."

"Commodore Anderson is taking your suicide threats very seriously, it would seem."

"Or she's out to punish me for not being perfectly happy and cheerful with my lot in life like a good Federation citizen.  You take your pick, but you might wanna consider that after my last attempt didn't work, I jumped back on the life bandwagon for the next several months.  I haven't been actively suicidal the whole time since the last time I tried it, let alone since the first time.  I have, however, been under restrictions so draconian the replicators have to make my meat pre-cut because they can't give me a dinner knife, since the first time I tried to kill myself."

"I can understand why you might find that upsetting, but can you truly blame them?  Apparently you don't get along very well with the base counselor, and certainly I doubt that you're as open with her as you've been with me.  She probably has to infer a great deal, and so it's quite possible that she might guess wrongly."

"Well, that'd hardly shock me.  Medellin is an idiot."

Picard turned back to the replicator.  "Roast chicken with root vegetables in mustard sauce, single serving, white meat only.  Tea, Earl Grey, hot."  He turned back to Q.  "You'd best come order, then, if you need to order for yourself."

"I'm not hungry."

"Somehow I thought you might say that.  Humor me, Q.  Eat something."

Q shrugged.  "I can't think of anything to eat."

"Then I'll order for you."

"Then I probably won't eat it.  There's really little more disgusting than the whole concept of ingesting dead organic matter for energy in the first place."

"And yet, as you're not dead, I have to assume you've been successfully doing so for three years now.  So come order yourself something to eat, and eat it.  Or I will order for you, and you will eat it.  Those are your choices."

"I'm not under your command, Picard.  If you wanted to be able to order me to eat my vegetables, you missed your chance when you kicked me off your ship."

"Please."

Q blinked.  "That's novel.  Anderson's never tried that tactic." He got up.  "Since you asked so nicely."

Picard took his meal and tea to a table at the back of Q's room and set it down.  Q didn't seem to do much entertaining; there was only one chair for the table, so he had to pull over the chair he'd been sitting in earlier.  The table was a curious choice for a possession on a starbase; it showed every sign of being real Terran wood, which would make it an antique.  Furniture had been made of replicated wood for the past hundred years, of course, and before that wood veneer and wood from colony worlds or alien planets had been popular, but Earth trees hadn't been cut down to make furniture since the early 21st century.  The table was ornate and intricately decorated.

"Would you believe, when I got that thing, someone had painted it?"  Q shuddered dramatically, setting a plate of egg noodles in butter and a glass of root beer down on the table.  "It was the most dreadful shade of off-white, too.  I think it had probably been residing in some moldering storage shed since 1960, after some awful American philistine circa 1950 or so took this lovely wood and painted it, probably in the misguided belief that humanity could improve upon the beauties of several million years' worth of evolution, or perhaps that everything should look like linoleum."

Picard laughed.  He wasn't exactly sure what linoleum was-- it didn't come up in his Dixon Hill mysteries-- but from the context he was sure it was one of the awful artificial substances Americans used to decorate their homes with in the later part of the 20th century, fortunately some time after the period of his noir mystery holoprograms.  "You seem to have a taste for Earth antiques."

"Not just Earth, but I must confess there's a certain logic.  I am an antique, and now, human.  Besides, you people haven't come up with anything attractive or artistic that isn't a spaceship in 300 years.  I'm forced to resort to antiques if I want anything from Earth that has the slightest aesthetic value."  He sat down.  "You should have seen what I had before Anderson confiscated most of it."

"Confiscated it?  Why?"

"Why do you think?"  Q smiled sardonically.  "I tried to kill myself with a ceramic mug, since I couldn't get a dinner knife, and so anything Commander Azoth decided I could possibly kill myself with was taken away, which included almost all of it.  I don't know whether to be furious with the indignity or flattered at his opinion of my creativity; half those things, I actually had no idea how I would go about using to do myself in."

"A ceramic mug?"

"Breakable.  I wanted a sharp edge."

The fact that Q could speak so calmly, so matter-of-factly, about attempting to end his own life bothered Picard immensely.  Suicide was a sign of deadly illness, a marker that one needed drastic help.  He couldn't actually imagine wanting to kill himself at all, but if he ever had, he especially couldn't imagine talking about it so casually.  It'd be as if he could casually speak of his time with the Cardassians, and how very close he came to rewriting his own perceptions to escape the terrible pain.  "Well, the table certainly looks quite nice now.  I wasn't entirely sure it was safe to eat on."

Q shrugged.  "It's already 400 years old. I strongly doubt a few meals are going to do it significant damage if four centuries haven't."  He pushed noodles around on his plate, but didn't actually eat any of them.  "So!  Enough about me.  How're the folks back on Enterprise?  Billy still hanging around waiting for a command, or did he finally shave that beard and grow a spine?"

Well, Picard should have expected this.  Sooner or later Q would have to be obnoxious.  It was actually impressive how long it had taken.  "Commander Riker is still my first officer, and no, he still has his beard."

"Typical.  He still sleeping with every alien female he can find?"

"I don't see how that's any of your business.  Or mine, for that matter. Although, if you're so interested in Commander Riker, you might be interested to know he now has an identical twin brother."

"A clone?  Or did you people finally find that transporter double?"

Picard blinked.  "Wait.  You knew about Thomas Riker already?"

"What, he changed his name?  He was Will Riker when I checked up on him."

"When did you find out about his existence?"

Q rolled his eyes.  "Why do you think I wanted Riker of all people to join the Q Continuum?  If I had succeeded in my objective, I'd have rescued the other Riker and dropped him off with you-- or had Riker himself do it-- so I'd have an identical human to compare a human-become-Q to as a control.  I picked him because he had such a control already; I could have created one, but you'd always have been suspicious that such a person was somehow not quite real, and that would have skewed my results."

"Why didn't you tell us?"

"Oh, yes, I owe such a great debt to Bearded Billy that I needed to go out of my way to help his twin out.  Besides, I forgot all about it until you just brought it up.  After I became human everything I knew about Riker more or less slipped my mind."

"I would think something as important as a transporter duplicate would be difficult to forget."

"That's because you never tried to cram several million years' worth of memories into a tiny human cranium.  Although, while I'm thinking of it, the Romulans have a clone of you."

"The Romulans have a what?"

"Clone.  They knew you'd be important someday.  Don't ask me why, it had something to do with Yar and time travel but I forget."

Picard suspected he knew more about that particular issue than Q did, as it came from an incident that had happened after Q had lost his powers.  "Sela," he said softly.  "They must have interrogated the Tasha from the other timeline."

"Another timeline?  Have you been spelunking through alternate timelines, mon capitaine?" Q smiled brilliantly, the first genuine smile Picard had seen from him.  "I always thought you had potential."

"Apparently there was an alternate timeline caused by the Enterprise-C traveling through a rift in time.  In the alternate timeline, Tasha Yar was alive, but she apparently made the decision to help the C crew fight their doomed battle to hold off the Romulans at Narendra III.  We've met her daughter; the alternate Tasha seems to have been taken captive by the Romulans and was made into some sort of concubine.  Her daughter is not only fully loyal to the Romulans, but actually seems to bear a serious grudge against me personally, I'm not quite sure why."

"Ah, so that would explain it.  If Yar told them who her commanding officer had been-- well, assuming you were her commanding officer in the other timeline, but I'm guessing it was something like that-- they'd have known of your future position.  Since I couldn't quite figure out why they thought the captain of a second-rate exploratory vessel was worth cloning, even if you were, technically, the youngest human to ever make starship captain."

"Where is this clone?"

Q shrugged.  "Three years ago he was a slave in the mines on Remus.  I haven't a clue where he is now, or if he's even alive, but since you seem so put out that I never told you about Riker's duplicate, I figured I'd tell you."

A clone of his, as a slave in the mines of Remus.  Picard felt incredibly frustrated.  He was sure Q was telling the truth, and he couldn't even be angry at the former entity for telling him, not after he'd just scolded him for not telling them about Thomas Riker-- and yet, the information did him no good whatsoever.  The Federation didn't even have any intelligence assets on Remus, so far as Picard knew.  If he had a… a clone?  It was really a disgusting thought, the notion of being genetically duplicated like that, and yet at the same time he would have wanted to find the clone and bring him back to the Picard estate if he could.  It galled that he couldn't, that his own flesh and blood was enslaved somewhere and there was essentially no hope of rescuing the man.  "How old is he?"

"Oh, don't ask me, I can never keep you humans' ages straight.  He's an adult, but not by much.  I don't know, maybe 20 or something?"

Which fit with Sela's age as well; the C had been lost over 20 years ago.  "Does he have any of my memories?"

Q rolled his eyes.  "He's a clone, not a transporter duplicate.  No, he doesn't have any of your memories.  You humans don't have genetic memory.  He's also lost his hair already; I suppose it was the stress of being enslaved, or perhaps malnutrition.  He knows who he is and who you are, though."

"I don't suppose there's any way you know of that I could rescue him."

"Derring-do is your territory.  I'm just the guy who makes the gadgets, Picard.  Or supplies the scientific know-how to let your engineers do it, but it was funnier the other way."

"I'm not sure why."

"That's because you're woefully ignorant of any 20th century literature that isn't a noir mystery."

"I'll confess that it's not my area of expertise, no."  He sighed.  "I almost wish you hadn't told me.  I have no idea how I would go about getting him repatriated back here, and yet, I have no desire to have another Sela on my hands, this time of my blood."

"You wanted to know about things like transporter duplicates.  I'd say a clone qualifies."

"Yes, I suppose he does.  What's his name, and how did he come to be a slave?"

"Shinzon.  And I suppose you must mean 'slave on Remus', since I think a clone would always have been legally property in the Romulan Empire.  I honestly have no idea, but knowing the Romulans I suspect there was a coup of some sort and whoever was in charge of creating him got shafted.  Either that or he mouthed off to the wrong people."

"I suppose either is plausible."  Uncomfortable, Picard attacked his dinner for a minute or two, too troubled by Q's news to want to continue the conversation on this vein.  Another regret in the making?  He had no way of rescuing this Shinzon, just as he'd had no way of fulfilling his obligations to Starfleet and also supporting his old mentor Galen, but he doubted either failure would stop haunting him. 

"So what about you and Crusher?  Still trying to decide whether or not to have sex, or have you made a decision one way or another?"

Picard nearly choked on his potato.  He looked up.  Q was smirking.  "Q, Beverly and I are just friends, and that is what it has always been.  Not that it would be any of your business if it were otherwise."

"In other words, no, you haven't made a decision."  Q leaned forward.  Picard noticed that in fact Q had eaten none of his noodles thus far.  "Let me give you some friendly advice, then.  Make up your mind to 'no, not ever, get over it', or this friendship you so treasure will be doomed."

"What could you possibly know about it?"  Picard's eyes narrowed.  "Q, in your three years of being human, have you had even one romantic relationship?"

"I don't actually have to fall off a cliff to know it would be a bad idea."

Picard dismissed that with a gesture.  "You know nothing about human relationships.  You don't even have any friends.  What makes you qualified to give me advice about my love life?"

"Let's see.  Millions of years old, check.  Have been observing mortals in their tedious little mating rituals for most of that time, check. Formerly nigh-omniscient, check.  Actually had the motivation and power, at one point, to look into your possible futures.  Check."  Q leaned back.  "Need more?  I could probably come up with a few more qualifications."

To look into his possible futures?  Picard didn't like the sound of that.  "Yes, perhaps you might have once been qualified to advise me, despite your obvious lack of knowledge as to how to put what you knew to practical use.  But now?  Three years as a human has certainly taught you many things, but it doesn't seem to have taught you anything about friendship, love, or any of the ways humans can form connections with one another.  In fact you more or less admitted that you don't know anything about that and you feel no one is willing to teach you."

"True, but irrelevant.  I can't manage my own life because I didn't see this coming.  Obviously I didn't do any work mapping out my own future, or I wouldn't be in this position.  I know what I know about you because I researched your life quite thoroughly-- your past, and many of the futures you might have. And I am telling you, based on what I learned then, that if you enter into a romantic relationship with Beverly Crusher, you will regret it."

How much did Q actually know about him?  It was bad enough that as an omnipotent being, Q could have found out anything he wanted to, but it disturbed Picard immensely that it seemed Q had actually remembered whatever he'd learned about Picard in that time.  Especially because, from his obvious ignorance of how to function as a human, it was plain that Q would be prone to misinterpreting what he'd learned, or applying his personal biases.  "Simply because you dislike Dr. Crusher doesn't strike me as a good reason to avoid pursuing a relationship with her, if she and I should decide to take things in that direction.  Beverly is a wonderful person, and I find it hard to imagine regretting our relationship developing to become closer."

"If you can't imagine regretting it, why haven't you done it yet?"

"The time wouldn't be right.  She is an officer under my command, and if I were to enter into a romantic relationship with her there would be complications--"

"Yah yah yah.  You humans get around complications like that all the time.  I can't tell you how many Starfleet captains are out there sleeping with their first officers or their CMOs or civilians on their ships, and you know it as well as I do.  No, Picard, you're afraid, and for good reason.  You know, deep down inside, that it wouldn't work."

"I know no such thing."

"Because you're awfully good at denial, yes, I know."

"Q, are you ever going to eat any of your food?"

"Let's not sidetrack here.  I'm telling you, Jean-Luc, I have seen several of your possible futures, and I haven't seen one where you got things to work between you and Crusher.  In the most common scenario, the two of you get married, then you drive each other insane, then you divorce, acrimoniously, and you never become friends again.  In the second most common scenario, one or the other of you finds someone else, or the two of you make up your minds not to go there, and you stay friends.  The only ones where a romantic relationship between the two of you doesn't end in a nasty breakup are the ones where one or the both of you are killed before it goes sour."

"Beverly and I get along very well.  Why would we drive each other insane?  I don't believe any of what you've said."

"I've only ever lied to you once, and I already told you about that.  Well, okay, I've said some things that weren't exactly true, but mostly on the order of half-truths, exaggeration or hyperbole.  I've never sat down in front of you and told you your future, and lied to you about it."

"You've never sat down in front of me and told me my future, at all."

"Well, I'm doing it now, and you'd be wise to take my advice.  Stay 'just friends' with Crusher."

"You didn't answer me.  Why would we drive each other insane?"

"I'm just telling you what I've seen happen, Picard, not the deep-rooted psychology behind it.  As you've pointed out, I'm hardly an expert on human psychology.  But I can make a few informed guesses."

"Really."

"What it looked like to me is that you're both too damn traditionalist for your own good, which would be fine if Crusher were a doormat, except that you wouldn't be attracted to her if she were.  You're attracted to women you see as equals, or potentially so, but deep deep down you've got that traditional Picard upbringing that expects your wife to be your helpmeet, to bring you your slippers--"

"I do not expect anyone to bring me slippers, Q!"

"Maybe not, but you'd expect her to subsume her career for yours."  Q leaned forward again, expression quite serious.  "You want a wife to do for you what Riker is currently doing-- be your backup, your second, your support, without overly worrying about her own ambitions.  Of course you're not sleeping with Riker-- at least I sincerely hope you're not or I'd have to reconsider everything I've thought about your taste-- and I imagine that sooner or later he will move on, if he doesn't get such cold feet at leaving Daddy Jean-Luc that Starfleet gives up on him in disgust.  And that won't bother you, much, and if it does you'll hide it from yourself.  But if your wife had a career that was incompatible with yours, you'd quite honestly expect her to give it up.  You'd never be the one to compromise."

"Well… I consider my career very important to me, rather more important than romance, so I suppose you have a point there.  But Beverly's career isn't incompatible with mine.  She's a doctor, I'm a captain.  We can serve on the same ship without interfering with one another, and have, quite successfully."

"And what was that you said about not being able to be involved with an officer under your command?"

"I…"

"Looking for a long-distance relationship, Picard?  You gallivant around the stars, she stays on a nice safe planet where you never have to worry about sending her to her death?  That's what her last husband did, and you know as well as I do she'll never go for that.  But if she's under your command, then you have to command her.  You're both in Starfleet.  You've just set things up so that your wife has to be a civilian, so she can accompany you and you don't have to send her off into danger.  Think Crusher will quit the Fleet for you?"

Picard thought of his abortive relationship with Nella Darren, and went cold.  Q did have a point.  "I would never ask that of Beverly."

"Oh, but it gets worse.  Because, you see, in her little heart of hearts Crusher's just as traditionalist as you are.  Deep down she thinks her career should be secondary to her husband's.  Which was all right, I suppose, when she was a mom with a practice on Earth, and her husband was running around the galaxy with you.  It won't work again.  She's been independent too long.  It'd make her utterly miserable to give up her career for her husband-- and it'd make her utterly miserable not to, because she thinks she should, and you wouldn't help any there since deep down you think that's what your wife should do.  Whatever she does, she rips herself apart, and of course she'll take it out on you, and of course you'll blame yourself for her misery, and since we all know how well you handle self-recrimination you'll retreat into yourself, and she'll think you're rejecting her, and blah blah blah."

"It would solve the problem if I simply resolved to accept that she might die under my command, and kept her as an officer."

"Yeah, it would, if she had no ambitions other than to go gallivanting around on your starship, but you know perfectly well she has other ambitions.  Or you should, if the fact that she took her dream posting at a major medical center and then came back to be with her son and you wasn't a clue.  Sooner or later Crusher wants to be in command.  Not of a starship, but of doctors.  A medical ship, a hospital director, head of a medical research center… sure, she's getting plenty of experience with the weird alien disease of the week out with you, but she wants more.  At least, I assume she does, judging from the fact that in virtually every future I've seen she eventually quits being your CMO and goes on to be some sort of uber-doctor.  I can't pretend I was nearly as interested in Crusher's motives as I was in yours, to tell the truth."  Q shook his head.  "It won't work.  It can't work.  If you were different people, maybe, or if you weren't the kind of romantics who'd think, as soon as you got together, it needed to be for life.  You'll destroy each other.  You'll either hold her back from her ambitions, and make her hate you and herself for letting you do it, or she'll go do what she wants and you'll feel betrayed and she'll hate you for being angry at you about it.  Or, you could stay friends, and when you're retired and ancient she'll come by and have morning tea with you at your estate.  And by the way, now that I'm remembering, get your brain thoroughly checked out.  You're at risk for some kind of degenerative disease."

"Why are you telling me these things?"

"First you ask why I didn't tell you about Riker's twin, then you ask why I am telling you about some brain disorder you're going to get if you live long enough.  Make up your mind, Picard."

"No-- I appreciate the warning about the brain disorder.  But why do you have an interest in my romantic life? Yes, I understand, you say you've seen multiple possible futures for me, but why does it matter to you whether I am friends with Dr. Crusher or end up, as you say, ruining my relationship with her by trying to move to a romantic footing?  You never struck me as overly concerned with human relationships before, and you've outright admitted you have little interest in them now."

Q shrugged.  "I'm a bitter old curmudgeon who hates romance?"

"Then you would be eager for me to learn my 'lesson', I'd think."

"Well, if I were alive to see it, I confess I'd find it greatly amusing to watch you and Crusher tear each other apart.  But I don't expect to be alive to see it, and if I am alive, I don't expect to be in a position to see it."

"That doesn't seem sufficient motivation for warning me."

"All right then, I'm telling you because I feel like it."

"Now that I believe… but I already knew it.  I'm trying to figure out why you suddenly 'feel like it'.  The only other warning you've ever given me pertaining to my future was related to my being assimilated by the Borg.  I can imagine you feeling enough gratitude toward me, perhaps, that you wouldn't want me assimilated, or to die of a brain disease… but why would you care about my romantic happiness or lack thereof?"

Q looked down at his food.  "Maybe I don't.  Maybe it was just a whim.  I do tend to act on them, you know."

"That may have been so once.  I think you've lost a great deal of your former spontaneity-- even what you had as a human."

"I suppose you're right."  He twirled his fork absently in his noodles but still made no attempt to eat them, although he studied them intently.

"You're not going to tell me, are you?"

"You know, you're still the closest thing I have to a friend in the entire universe, Jean-Luc."

That struck Picard as downright tragic, given how little attention he'd paid to Q in the past three years.  "Is there no one else?  I thought, during the war with the Borg…"

"Yeah yeah yeah.  There were a few people then.  There was this completely obnoxious, loud-mouthed, pushy, overly friendly guy who was supposed to teach me exactly how ignorant Federation science really is so I could actually get somewhere teaching you people something.  And a crippled genius it was fun to trade insults with.  And a guy who wanted to get into my pants. Well, one of them was brutally murdered by yet another assassin trying to get to me, one of them is off teaching his own classes or doing whatever he does and probably paying me no mind at all, and the last one apparently gave up on me when it was clear the pants were not coming off. Or when I turned skeletal and hideous, it's hard to say exactly.  So no, I don't really have a large and varied social circle."

"I must confess I haven't paid you much mind for the past three years, either.  Perhaps you should try to make contact with your surviving friend.  I'm assuming, of course, that the 'fun in trading insults' was mutual and friendly, which might be too large of an assumption."

"I thought it was.  But then, I've been wrong before.  Like I said, I really have never managed to quite grasp how this human interaction thing works.  For all I know he dislikes me as much as you do."

"I don't dislike you, Q.  Not any more.  I certainly did not like you when you had your powers, and used them to torment my crew and me, but as I've observed already, you've changed."

"Okay, you don't dislike me and you voluntarily showed up to talk to me.  As an afterthought, admittedly, but that's better than I've gotten from anyone else in a year.  So… I'd rather not see you fall into any preventable pitfalls.  Like having sex with Crusher.  I've seen too many mortals diminished or destroyed by this 'love' thing.  You're drawn to it like moths to a flame, and it burns you about as often, so I have no hope of convincing you or any human to swear off it entirely, though I did observe while I was omnipotent that you're a little better about it than most of your pathetic species.  But I can at least try to convince you not to engage in particularly self-destructive iterations of it."

"Love can be a remarkable thing, Q.  And it can be as constructive as destructive.  I realize you haven't been in much of a position to find out for yourself, but don't write it off so easily if the opportunity should come up."

Q rolled his eyes.  "Right.  People despised me before I was ugly, but I'm sure they're lining up around the block to throw themselves at me now."

"I said 'if the opportunity should come up.'  I think you need to address your health, both mental and physical, before any such opportunities are likely to arise."

"I was perfectly healthy when I first came here."

"And perhaps take those classes on how to interact with humans."

"Oh. Yeah.  Well, don't imagine for a minute I would ever let myself be vulnerable enough to fall into such a soppy, ridiculous emotion as love, even if a miracle were to occur and anyone were to be interested in me. I doubt that would ever change, no matter how much I learn about humanity."

"Don't write it off.  That's my only advice.  You can certainly have a happy and fulfilling life if you have a variety of friendships and work you enjoy; having a lover is hardly necessary.  But you shouldn't exclude the possibility entirely, either."

"Honestly I think I'm very comfortable excluding the possibility."

"You may be setting yourself up for regrets, then."

"Why would I regret not doing something?"

"Regrets come in both kinds, Q.  One can regret the path not taken just as easily as one can regret taking the wrong action.  I have, myself, experienced that sort of regret all too often."

This seemed to catch Q's attention.  He leaned back in the chair, looking straight at Picard again, something he hadn't done throughout the whole part of the conversation dealing with love and friendship.  "Really?  The great Jean-Luc Picard has actually done things he regrets?  I am amazed."

"Oh, there are many things I regret," Picard said wistfully.  "And I've been rather dramatically reminded of several of them recently."

"Such as?"

Picard considered.  Ordinarily Q was the last person he would want to confide anything in.  On the other hand, he appeared genuinely interested in Picard's story, and anything that got him out of his self-centered, self-destructive depressive focus on his own problems was probably a good thing.  Besides, Picard actually was somewhat grateful for the unsolicited advice about his possible brain disease, if less so for the news about his clone and not at all for the advice about Beverly.  At least Q was trying to be helpful.  "I feel very uncomfortable sitting here, eating my dinner in your quarters, while you do nothing with your own food but push it around on your plate.  I do understand you probably have little appetite in your mental state, but I can't in all conscience stand by while you starve yourself.  I'll tell you about my regrets if you'll eat your food."

"What, are you my mommy now?"

"You once did try to cast me as your father-confessor."

"And you said you weren't."

"And so I'm not.  But you also said I am the closest you have to a friend, and friends do not let friends starve themselves to death."

"So we're friends now?  Is that what you're saying?"

"Isn't that what you said?"

"I never implied it was mutual.  You just did."

"I… think I would be willing to consider the possibility.  I am concerned for you, Q.  And I do think that in many respects you've changed for the better-- which is all the more impressive considering how your mental state must be handicapping you from improving yourself.  I'm not entirely sure I would go so far as to call you a friend now, but then, I'm not sure I know you well enough yet, not as you are now."

"Fair enough.  I do have a certain advantage in that regard."  Q smirked. 

"Well, obviously you don't know everything, or you'd already know what I regret."

"I'm not a mindreader anymore."

"Eat your dinner, Q."

Dispiritedly Q nibbled at a forkful of noodles.  "It's cold."

"So get another one out of the replicator."

"Yeah, I guess."  He carried his plate over to the disposal, dumped it in, and went over to the replicator.  "Um.  I can't think of anything to eat."

"Order what you just had."

"It's boring.  I don't want it."

"Well, what do you like?"

"I don't like anything.  Food repulses me."

Picard resisted the impulse to sigh.  He'd say that Q sounded like a child, but the only actual children he'd ever had any serious contact with-- Meribor and Batai in his life as Kamin, Rene, and Wesley-- had all been more mature about their food than Q was.  "Well, I can't very well order for you, Q.  Choose something you find palatable."

"I can't think of anything, Picard.  What part of 'food repulses me' did you not understand?  I used to be able to come up with something, but for the past few months I have never been able to think of anything I might want to eat.  Well, except for chocolate ice cream occasionally, but it doesn't make much of a dinner.  I eat to keep from passing out from starvation, not because food has any appeal whatsoever."

"Don't you feel hunger, then?"

Q shrugged.  "Not if I drink enough coffee."

"I haven't seen you drinking coffee."

"I've already had about six cups today.  If I have any more I won't be able to sleep tonight even with sedatives.  I'll probably start to feel hungry enough to figure out what I want to eat just before I go to bed."

"Does that mean you're only eating a single meal a day?"

"Sometimes I have a snack too."

Picard did sigh then.  "Does your doctor know about this?"

"Of course he knows.  Not like he cares.  If I died he'd mostly be upset that his record as a miracle worker was broken; on a personal level he'd be relieved.  He thinks I'm a hypochondriac and that everything that's wrong with me is some normal human thing I just refuse to adjust to."

To his mental to-do list, Picard added "talk to Commodore Anderson about having a different doctor assigned to Q."  While Q might not have much rapport with the starbase counselor, it sounded as if his relationship with the CMO was actively poisonous.  Of course, it wasn't hard to imagine how things had gotten that way.  Picard imagined Beverly wouldn't have been getting along any better with Q at this point, had he stayed.

"I may have an idea."  Picard walked over to the replicator.  "Birana casserole with cheddar and taraku sauce and ground lepto."

"What?"

"It's a Betazoid dish."

"With cheddar?"

"Deanna introduced me.  I'm sure it doesn't usually have cheddar, but I find it very tasty that way."  He took the dish out and handed it to Q.  It was a noodle casserole with two kinds of cheese and a meat similar to beef.  It also had another interesting property.  "Birana noodles actually are made from a grain that contains appetite-enhancing properties.  It's a traditional sickbed meal made for people suffering from nausea or diminished appetite, though, as you can imagine, healthy Betazoids usually try to avoid it when they're trying to maintain their weight."

"It's food that makes you hungry."  Q looked at the dish skeptically.

"In essence, yes.  I think if you force yourself to take a few bites of it, the appetite enhancing effects will enable you either to finish it or to think of something you'd prefer, but either way, you should be able to eat a decent meal."

"Why'd Troi think you needed fattening up?"

Picard laughed.  "I have a terrible habit of forgetting to eat.  Ten cups of tea has much the same effect that six cups of coffee would, as far as suppressing the appetite, and I'm often too busy to remember my meals."

They went back to the table.  Q actually took a bite of the casserole, which was rather farther than he'd gotten with his noodles.  "It's not disgusting.  I suppose I might manage to choke enough down that I can drug myself into wanting to finish it."

"Yes, why don't you try that."

Q took another bite.  "You were going to tell me about things you regret."

Picard smiled wistfully.  "So I was."  He took a sip of his tea.  "You've done such intensive research on my life, I suppose you know all about how I ended up with my artificial heart."

"Pretend I don't," Q suggested. 

"Why?"

"Because what I know comes from objective observation.  I saw what happened, but I don't necessarily know what that means to you."

"You didn't read my mind?"

"Isn't it obvious, Picard?  None of my ability to read mortal minds actually ensured that I'd understand you people.  I'd rather hear this story as if you're telling it to someone who doesn't already know it."

"Well."  He took another sip of tea.  "My friends Cory, Marta and I were waiting to be shipped out on our first mission, and we were challenged to a game of dom-jot by a rather aggressive Nausicäan.  We lost, rather spectacularly.  Later that night, Cory discovered that the Nausicäan had rigged the tables.  He and I rigged them back to ensure a fair game, and we challenged the Nausicäan to a rematch the next day.  He… didn't take to losing very well.  Nor did his friends.  A fight broke out.  We acquitted ourselves rather well… up until the point where one of the Nausicäans stabbed me in the heart."

"Ouch."

"Ouch, indeed.  I think, in retrospect, I'd be much happier with my artificial heart if I'd earned it on some mission, if I'd been defending something more important than my honor at a game.  We were reckless, young and stupid, taking wild risks for all the wrong reasons, and I could have died for it."  He studied the tea in the cup.  "A month ago, I was attacked on a mission.  A plasma burst fused the artificial heart.  I very nearly died on the operating table, and I've been forced to take leave for an entire month to recuperate.  I could have died, I could have suffered irreparable damage and be forced to retire or take a desk job, I could even have suffered brain damage from oxygen loss.  All because of a juvenile mistake made nearly forty years ago."

"That's your great lifelong regret?"

"Oh, there are others."  He shook his head.  "I told you I had come here to see Professor Galen?"

"Yes, I've met him.  Slightly less of a potato head than most of the people who come to see me."

Picard blinked.  Of course.  He hadn't made the connection, but of course Galen had happened to be here, on the same starbase as Q, because he'd come to see Q.  This wasn't Galen's usual haunt, after all.  "Did he come to talk to you about his research?"

Q smiled unpleasantly.  "No one ever comes to see me for any other reason, Picard."

"What is he working on?"

"He didn't tell you?"

"He said that it was of such utmost importance and need for secrecy that he could only tell me if I'd agree to take leave from Starfleet and lead his expedition for the next three months to a year."

"Which you didn't want to do."

"No, I'm afraid not.  There have been times when I'd have dreamed of such an expedition-- particularly if the discovery he's pursuing is as universe-shaking as he says.  But I have responsibilities now.  A month for medical leave is already too long; I can't leave my ship for a year, or even three months."

"Sure.  By the time you got back, Billy boy'd have your command."

"Well, I'm not actually concerned about that.  Commander Riker wouldn't take my command from me.  But Starfleet might, after such a lengthy hiatus.  And that saddens me."

"Because you wanted to find out what Galen was up to?"

"Because I hated to have to disappoint him, again.  When I was in the Academy, Professor Galen tried to persuade me either to quit and become an archaeologist full-time, or to pursue a science career within Starfleet with a primary focus on archaeology." 

Q burst out laughing.  Picard's eyes narrowed.  "It's not that funny."

"Oh, yes, it is," Q said, getting himself under control with difficulty.  "Blue is so not your color, mon capitaine."

"You object to my being a scientist on the grounds of my uniform color?"

"Well, that and it would have been a colossal waste."

"I am not exactly stupid, Q," Picard said sharply.  "I do realize that I am little more than a gifted amateur in my archaeological research, but I could have been a respectable scientist if it had been what I'd trained for."

"Sure, but it would have been a waste of your talents.  Although I do know of one fellow who went from being a science officer in Starfleet to being a well-respected diplomat, it's not a career change most people make.  He probably wouldn't have done it if he hadn't been following in Daddy's footsteps and had double a human lifespan to work with."

"You're speaking of Ambassador Spock?"

Q blinked.  "Very astute, Jean-Luc.  Yes, I was.  You, being handicapped with a short human lifetime, would probably not have had nearly the opportunities to exercise all your abilities if you'd ended up on some dreary science track.  Especially in archaeology.  The physicists all get to be chief science officers and the archaeologists all wear red undershirts beneath their blue uniforms."

"You know, that old expression about 'red shirts' hasn't been accurate for close to a hundred years.  Command track wears red now."

"Yes, and you look positively fetching in it.  I shudder to think what would have happened if I'd tried to impersonate a Starfleet captain circa the 23rd century; yellow is not a good color for me."

"I didn't know you knew of Ambassador Spock."

"Oh, one of my annoying younger siblings had a run-in with him and his captain a hundred years ago or so.  I confess I'd probably be more interested in him today now that I understand exactly how boring Vulcans are in comparison to humans-- why anyone would choose to be Vulcan when human was an option must be worth some investigation-- but at the time I had an equally low opinion of both races, so I never followed it up."  He took a bite of his dinner.  "Anyway.  So this Professor Galen wanted you to toil away in the halls of academe, and you said no, I'm gonna go command a starship. So what then?"

"Well, that is what.  I'm afraid I disappointed him terribly.  And then for him to reach out to me again, and me to rebuff him once more… I'm deeply sorry for having had to do that, and I wish things could be otherwise."

Q looked straight at him.  "Let me see if I understand you, Picard.  Galen wanted you as his protégé, way back when.  You turned him down because a full-time career in archaeology wasn't as attractive to you as command track in Starfleet.  Now he's back, when you're a starship captain, heavily invested in your career, well-respected and well-known in your field, and he makes the same offer, and you make the same answer.  And you regret disappointing him?  Hasn't it occurred to you to be just a tiny bit irritated that he's putting you in the same position as before, only now with a lifelong career at stake and not just a nebulous future?"

"Professor Galen wouldn't have asked for me if he didn't feel he needed me.  He didn't do this to make me uncomfortable, Q.  He asked me because for some reason he thinks his mission will fail without me."

"Well, it might.  But that's just not your problem.  Are you supposed to drop your entire career, or let Starfleet shuffle you off to a desk, because one guy needs you?  I don't care how influential he was or how good a mentor, he's asking too much."

"You think his mission might fail without me as well?  What is his mission?"

"If he wanted you to know, he'd have told you.  People won't let me in on the confidential details of their harebrained scientific enterprises if I kiss and tell."  Q stood up and started to pace.  "That's not the point anyway.  Tell me, Jean-Luc, do you like who you are?"

By now Picard had learned to simply roll with Q's apparent non sequiturs.  "I… suppose I do."

"You suppose?  Either you do or you don't.  Do you like being Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise, flagship of Starfleet, representative of the Federation?"

"Yes.  I do, actually.  There are choices I've made to get here that I regret, but overall, I think I am in the place where I can do the most good, for humanity, the Federation and the galaxy as a whole."  He pushed his plate away, looking up at Q.  "And I suppose I must admit to finding my work challenging, interesting and gratifying.  Whether or not I am the right man for this job-- and I do think I am-- it is obviously the right job for me.  So… yes.  I think I do like who I am.  Certainly for the most part I approve of the decisions I've made in my life."

"Then stop wasting your time with regrets."

"It's human nature, Q.  Our lives aren't long enough to take every pathway available to us, so of course we occasionally regret the path not taken.  And sometimes, we look back on a specific decision that was so downright idiotic we cannot help but regret making it."

"Your little incident with the Nausicäans, you mean."

"Yes.  I nearly died for that youthful stupidity-- not just then, but barely a month ago.  How could I not regret it?"

"Do you like who you are?"

"You're repeating yourself, Q."

"And you're being obtuse."  Q circled behind Picard's chair.  "Are you saying that if you had the ability, you'd go back in time and change that decision?  Prevent yourself from being stabbed in the heart?"

"I wouldn't want to interfere with the timeline."

"Oh, pish-posh."  Q leaned down on the table, elbow supporting his head, looking straight at Picard.  "You've been listening to that witch Guinan.  There's nothing sacred about any one given timeline.  But let's just say, this being a thought experiment and all, that  you know for certain that your actions won't affect anyone but you.  All those great command decisions you would have made will be made by someone else if you're not there. Everything that would have happened, will happen, except where your personal life is concerned.  Take that as a given.  Would you change it?"

"I…" Picard considered.  If Q still had his powers, he'd have to shut down this line of speculation immediately, as Q would have had the power to enact whatever Picard said… but Q was human, and Picard saw no reason not to play along with his thought experiment.  "Yes, I think I would.  If it wouldn't affect any life other than my own, yes, I would prevent myself from being stabbed through the heart for such a stupid reason."

"BZZZT!"  Q stood up, slamming his hand down on the table.  "Wrong answer, Picard.  You lose."

Picard pushed his chair back and stood up, turning to face Q.  "What do you mean?"

Q was uncomfortably close, staring down at him like a professor chastising a student.  "Every decision you've made-- every decision, including the stupid ones, including the ones you don't like-- goes into making you who you are.  Change even one of them, and you're not the same man anymore.  Maybe you'd be a better person.  Maybe you'd be worse.  You don't know, and you have no way of knowing, and so making a change like that would be playing with fire."

"Oh, come now, Q.  How could not being stabbed in the heart possibly fail to benefit me?"

"Oh, let me count the ways."  Q spun on his heel and began to pace again.  "Firstly, you did what you did because you were young, reckless and thought yourself immortal-- just like most of the young of your species.  You were utterly convinced that your great plans wouldn't fail, that your selfish desires could and should dictate the future.  Now, let's imagine that you were a more cautious man, a man who carefully considered the risks before jumping into things.  A man more like you are today."  He turned to face Picard again.  "You are that way today because of extensive life experience.  How could you have been that way without the life experience?  Well, you'd have to have had a more careful, less reckless personality.  You'd have to be less sure that what you knew in your heart to be right was, in fact, absolutely true.  Could you have overcome the pressure from your father and brother not to enter Starfleet in the first place if you were so much more careful, so much more uncertain about your destiny?"

"I… I don't think I needed to be as reckless as I was that day to have enough certainty to stand up to Father.  Not about Starfleet.  I was absolutely sure I belonged out here."

Q made a waving gesture.  "All right, maybe.  Maybe you'd have succeeded in getting into Starfleet.  Maybe what you'd have had is the same absolute certainty you are right, and less loyalty to your friends-- less willingness to stand by them when they were stupid.  Would you have had as many friends in Starfleet if you were less loyal to them?"

"I tell my friends when they're being stupid, now.  I don't let them blindly go to their doom."

"Ah yes, but your friends are all as old and wise as you are, or else they look up to you as a mentor.  You know what they call a guy who acts like he's 50 when he's only 20?"  Q got in Picard's face again.  "Stuffy.  No fun.  Stick in the mud.  Party pooper."

"Well…"  It began to occur to Picard that in fact he wouldn't have gotten along nearly as well with Cory if he hadn't been eager and willing to not only participate in his friend's harebrained plans but come up with more than a few harebrained plans of his own.  "I didn't have to be quite so…"

"Young?"  Q smirked.  "As it happens, Picard, you were young.  Asking why you couldn't have been more mature is like me asking you why you people can't act more like the Q."

"Given what the Q did to you, I'd wonder why you'd want us to."

"Hardy hardy har.  Is any of what I'm saying sinking into that primate brain of yours?"

"Yes, but I'm still not sure I accept it.  Why was it necessary for me to nearly die to become the man I am today?"

"Well, because the man you are today nearly died.  Duh."  Q shook his head.  "No sentient being encompasses infinite possibilities, Picard.  Every time we open a door, others close all around us.  It's true as much for the Q as it is for you, although, being more complex, longer-lived and less bound to time, we have rather more flexibility in that regard than you do.  But the truth is, while there are many, many choices you may make, there are only a few that you could.  Your past, and your inner nature, dictate what sort of choices you will make."

"But there is such a thing as alternate timelines, where different choices are made.  You said so, earlier."

"All over the place.  Yes.  But there is no timeline where Jean-Luc Picard, coming from the same background, the same history of the universe, the same personal history as you, avoided being stabbed in the heart and went on to be captain of the Enterprise.  Or the Stargazer, for that matter.  You were who you were at that time, and there's no road that leads backward from who you are now to someone you never were.  There can't be."

"Would I truly have to have had such a drastic personality change not to be stabbed like that?  Part of it was simply dumb luck.  I could have been in that fight and still not be stabbed."

"Yes, you could have.  Or you could have chickened out at the last minute.  Or you could have met a hot chick and spent the evening in sordid, animalistic reproductive activities rather than hanging around your friend Cory.  But in all those scenarios, your lack of a near-death experience means something.  That incident shaped who you are, dramatically.  How do you think you could be who you are now without it?"

"Who do you think I would have been, then?"

Q shrugged.  "Cannon fodder?  That sort of recklessness could have gotten you killed if you'd displayed it on a mission.  Or, you might never have fully developed the drive you have today.  You weren't nearly as obsessed with command as you were with going into Starfleet at all.  Maybe you'd have belatedly taken Galen up on his offer and gone into the sciences.  Maybe you'd actually have been more cautious, more frightened, without the experience of having actually faced death-- believe me, actually facing death does wonders for your ability to fake not being terrified the next time around.  Maybe you'd never have stepped up to the plate when your superiors all died on Stargazer, or maybe you would have but then would have handed command back off to a real captain the absolute first moment you could.  There are many possibilities, and most of them don't end up producing the man you are now."

"Let me guess.  This is another of those things you know because you've observed it."

"You have so little faith in me!  Couldn't I know this because I'm several million years old and have been observing mortals for millennia?"

"No."

Q pouted.  "Aww."  He then grinned and flopped down on the couch.  "Well, the truth is it's both.  I have observed this kind of thing for a very long time.  And I have-- well, had-- the ability to visit alternate timelines and come home again whenever I felt like it, so I've seen for myself.  And yes, I did investigate your possible pasts, as well as your possible futures.  There are all kinds of worlds where you're radically different, Picard, but in most of them it's the universe that's different, not any choices you made.  The interesting ones are the ones where the universe is the same as this one, the choices you were offered were the same… and you made different ones."  He shook his head.  "Believe me, regret is pointless.  You are what you are today because of the choices you made.  Any choice you might have made differently in the past would simply be an opportunity to screw up being who you are now."

"It seems odd that you, of all people, would lecture me on the uselessness of regret. Are you trying to tell me you regret nothing in your own existence?"

Q rolled his eyes.  "Do I look like someone who's happy with who he is right now?"  He pulled his legs up onto the couch, folding himself into a near-fetal upright position with his arms wrapped around his legs.  "Of course I regret.  The choices I made created the person I am today… and in case you hadn't noticed, I would rather be dead than be this.  Of course I'd want to change my past, if I had the power to do it… which, ironically, I've never had; the Q aren't permitted to influence their own pasts.  The difference between me and you is that you like who you are.  There's no point regretting the path that took you to somewhere you want to be; on the other hand, if you end up lost in Podunk with no fuel, no map and nowhere to spend the night, then you'd be a fool not to regret the wrong turns you made."

Picard had to admit that Q had a good point.  It did make sense that, if one's life choices dictated who one became, and he'd understood in principle that they did before Q's lecture on the subject, that regret would only be worth feeling if one had ended up in what seemed entirely the wrong place in one's life.  "You may be right.  Perhaps if I hadn't been the sort of reckless idiot who'd get himself nearly killed for honor, over a game, I wouldn't be the man I am today.  And I certainly do understand that if I had taken Professor Galen's offer the first time, I wouldn't be where I am today.  But that doesn't mean I like disappointing someone who is important to me."

"Whether or not you disappoint him isn't under your control.  You made the best choice for yourself, the first time, and if he thought you were going to change it now, he's a moron.  Other people's stupidity is not your responsibility, Picard."

He uncurled himself from the couch then.  "You know, your Betazoid witch doctor might be onto something.  I think I actually know what I want to eat."

"I'm glad to hear it."  In fact Picard had noticed that as soon as the topic had changed from Q talking about his problems and Picard giving advice to the other way around, Q had become immensely more animated.  Part of it might be a side effect of the birana noodles, but he rather thought it was more than that.  Q had, in fact, more or less admitted that his sole reason for existence was to serve as a mentor and teacher to the tiny number of mortals he seemed to consider worthy of his attention, and he'd all but come out and said that Picard was one of those people.  Picard still wasn't sure why.  Q had the finest minds in the Federation parading through here and apparently considered most of them hopelessly stupid; Picard was far from modest about his own abilities, but still he couldn't imagine what it was Q was seeing in him that made him a match for the greatest scientists of the Alpha Quadrant. 

"Parmesan crab melt on rye toast, extra crunchy, four pieces.  And a glass of Tipharean bubble juice."  The replicator produced a plate with four slices of quartered toast covered with cheese and what was apparently crab meat, and a glass of something faintly lavender and bubbly.  Picard wondered why the toast came out pre-quartered, and then remembered that Q wasn't allowed to replicate knives.  There must be food programs specifically keyed to his voiceprint, since Picard had gotten a dinner knife, that would pre-cut his food for him.  Somehow that struck Picard as very sad.  Effectively Q was being treated like a child.  And yet, he was quite vocal about his suicidal tendencies.  What could Anderson, or anyone, have done differently?

Picard dropped his own dish in the disposal and then came back to the table to sit across from Q.  "Thank you."

"For what?"  Q asked with his mouth full.

"I don't think anyone has ever accused you of being the most empathic of beings, even in the usual human sense of the word.  And yet you've gone out of your way to reassure me that I should not regret the decisions of my youth-- if in a somewhat abrasive fashion."

"I don't think anyone's going to be giving me a job as a counselor anytime soon, no," Q admitted, smiling.

"No, generally counselors avoid calling their clients 'obtuse', among other things.  But nonetheless, you've helped me.  I hadn't considered it before, but you're right.  We have a saying-- 'the child is father to the man'-- but I had forgotten its implications.  I am my past, and the choices I have made, after all."

"That's a first."

"What?"

"You admitting that I can actually help you."

"Well, I did say I appreciated the warning about my brain disorder.  And I believe I actually sent you a letter thanking you for your work on the Borg."

"Okay, it's a third, then.  Do you want one of these?"  He offered Picard one of the quarter pieces of toast.  "They're actually quite tasty."

"No, thank you.  I'm quite full."

"I've had an idea."  Q took a rather large slug of his bubbly drink.  "I can't promise anything, mind you.  But after the Borg, I think Starfleet's Science Directorate is rather inclined to take me seriously when I tell them something.  I know that Galen wasn't willing to tell anyone but the people who've actually signed on to his project, plus me, about it; partly for good reasons and partly for the usual petty human academic fears that someone else would steal the idea and get the credit.  So he can't very well persuade the Science Directorate that his project needs protection.  I, however, probably have more clout with them than he does.  If I tell them that Galen's work is important and that he'll probably get himself killed pursuing it unless they assign him a starship, and by the way, his old buddy Jean-Luc Picard's right here in town with his nifty powerful ship that you weren't doing anything important with anyway… I don't know if it'll work, but I might be able to arrange for you to have your cake and eat it too."

"I certainly don't want you to lie to Starfleet for my sake."

"Who's lying?  Galen is most likely going to get himself killed if he pursues this without a really big starship backing him up.  There's a number of folks out there who, if they suspect what he's up to, will assassinate him for ideological reasons, so he doesn't get a chance to upset their petty little worldviews.  Others might have the warped idea that he's after a weapon, or that what he's trying to find out is going to be of great strategic advantage.  In fact it's only of scientific value, and at that really shouldn't be all that worldshaking, but, well, mortals are stupid."

"I see."  He'd thought Galen was being overly paranoid.  Having Q confirm that yes, there really were people who would kill to stop Galen's research, gave him cold shivers.  He couldn't quit his position as the Enterprise's captain, no.  But he couldn't stand by and let his old mentor risk death, either.  "I could request permission to escort him, if his mission is truly that dangerous."

"Yeah, you go ahead and do that, but they're going to want to know why it's that dangerous and how do you know, and of course Galen hasn't told you, and if he did, it still wouldn't be a bright idea to go blabbing to Starfleet.  I, however, can pull my 'I am a mysterious alien superbeing full of knowledge mere mortals were never meant to have' routine, and I'll bet you they'll go for it."

"You'll tell them what Professor Galen is working on?"

"What'd I say about kissing and telling?  No, I'll just tell them that in my opinion it's information that shouldn't be transmitted all over the galaxy until he's got his data in place, because it could endanger him and his mission.  I'll be very mysterious.  I'm good at that, Picard, you ought to see me."

"I think I have seen you be mysterious."

"I was omnipotent then.  It's much easier when you're omnipotent.  But talking over a comlink is almost as good; shutting down your com when you're done and refusing to take another call isn't quite vanishing in a flash of light, but it gets the job done."

If Q really did have the pull to have the Enterprise assigned to escorting Galen's expedition, it would be the perfect solution.  Picard could be involved in Galen's project, protect him, avoid disappointing him so bitterly again, and avoid endangering his command. "I would be very grateful if you tried," he said.

"Oh, well, I live for that."

The tone was Q's usual sarcasm, and yet there was an uncomfortable ring of truth to the statement, in the light of everything Q'd revealed tonight.  Picard was suddenly possessed of an amazingly stupid idea, one that rather horrified him even as he found himself seriously considering it. The starbase counselor had apparently thought the best possible thing for Q would be a vacation... and there was no question but that Q would be an asset on a specifically scientific expedition...

No.  He thought of Will and Beverly.  It would be completely unfair to extend the invitation without discussing it with them first, not after he'd been away from the Enterprise for a month.  And it probably wouldn't be fair to Professor Galen, either.  Q did have a way of stealing people's thunder.

And then he thought about the fact that Q had more or less started this conversation by declaring his intent to kill himself.

He took a deep breath.  "The thought occurs to me that, while I doubt Starfleet would approve of it for this particular expedition given the issues you've raised with potential alien powers seeking to stop the research, the Enterprise is frequently involved in pure science missions that are, usually, less dangerous than you've implied this one will be.  Considering that Commodore Anderson approved your vacation, I doubt she'd object if we requested your assistance at some point in the near future."

Q looked as if he'd been poleaxed.  He stared at Picard, mouth slightly open, clearly dumbfounded.  "Did I just hear you correctly?  Are you actually saying you might willingly let me aboard your ship?"

"I was actually thinking about it in terms of this expedition, but I doubt Starfleet would approve of my taking you into a situation we know is likely to draw attention from hostile powers.  And there are probably scientific missions you'd be better suited for in any regard; pure physics, or at least investigations that don't involve one particular scientist's reputation.  I imagine you have a tendency to overshadow any other researchers involved in a project."

"Aside from the work on the Borg I've never done research at all, Picard.  I'm a glorified schoolmarm.  Or tutor.  I help other people with their research."

"That would be somewhat different if you were involved in primary information collection and interpretation, wouldn't it?"

"Probably.  Assuming I couldn't take one look at it and go, 'Oh, yeah, one of them.'  Which has been known to happen."  He finished off the last piece of his toast.  "You said you thought I'd never have the skills to win your crew's trust.  Did you change your mind or something?"

"There's a fairly sizable difference between working with a crew on a daily basis, and being a guest researcher along for a specific mission.  You do have a point, though."  Q had inadvertently given him an idea.  "It probably would be best if you made some progress toward solving your emotional and social problems before I attempted to... convince my crew to accept your coming aboard, even for a specific mission.  For instance, as I suggested earlier, if you sought out training in how to deal with humans socially.  Getting some help for your depression would help as well."

Q stared at him, his expression unreadable.  Finally he said, "You know this is blackmail, Picard."

Picard snorted.  "Hardly.  Consider it an incentive.  You would actually be a very valuable asset for some of the missions we're assigned, but not if you're going to spend the whole time wallowing in self-pity or antagonizing my crew.  I'd need some assurances that you're at least working on resolving those problems."

"I hope you don't expect that anyone is going to be able to magically fix me, Picard.  In case you didn't notice, I'm crippled by my own standards, sentenced to a lingering death, and constantly being attacked by people who want me dead.  I'm not 'wallowing in self-pity'. ...And if I am I don't see how anyone could blame me. Do most cripples with a terminal illness, who also happen to have been abandoned by their family, who also have half the universe out to get them, run around with a song in their hearts?"

"No, and I'm not disputing that you have legitimate reasons to be unhappy with your life.  But you need to fix what you can fix.  If there's anything, anything in the universe, you can imagine making you feel better, you should pursue it by whatever means you can.  Well, unless it involves gratuitously antagonizing people.  In the long run that hardly helps you."

"No.  It's often good for momentary amusement, mind you, but believe it or not I do know it doesn't do me much good in the long term... I just stopped believing in a long term long ago."

"I can certainly understand that, but there's the long term and then there's next week.  Or the next hour.  It might be advisable for you to think a little bit ahead."

"Maybe just a little," Q acknowledged.  "So, is this a promise, Jean-Luc?  I go tell Counselor Medellin that due to her being an incompetent moron I want a specialist in depression brought in to help me, and by the way, also one of those people that teaches aliens how to get along with humans, and you make arrangements for me to visit during some particularly interesting scientific mission?  Do I get a say in which one?  I'm far more likely to have some concept of where you might need me than you are."

"Some limited say in which one.  You're right that you'd know your own expertise better than we would-- and, quite possibly, what's likely to be beyond our capabilities to figure out without your assistance.  And yes, you may consider this a promise.  As long as you cooperate with any therapist or tutor you have brought in to work with you.  It's not enough to ask for help; you must take the help once it arrives."

"And what if it doesn't work?  What if I ask for help, and I do whatever silly things they tell me to do, and I'm still miserable and I still want to die?  What then?"

Picard shook his head.  "Don't cross that bridge until you come to it, Q.  I think it's very unlikely that you wouldn't get any benefit from a specialist's help."

"But I might not."

"Then tell me.  You have access to the mail system; you can send me a letter any time you wish.  Or contact me directly, if I'm at a place and time where I can take a direct call.  There may be something I can do to help."

Q looked down at his now-empty plate.  "Why?" he asked, almost whispering.  "I mean, you didn't... you didn't care, last time.  Is this all just about the Borg thing?"

Picard sighed.  "I... have a certain responsibility to you.  When you first became human, I was really too generally annoyed with you to acknowledge that.  But you wouldn't be human if I hadn't convinced you that humans were at least somewhat worthwhile.  You asked me for sanctuary because I had somehow convinced you to trust me, while I was working to pass your ridiculous tests.  I don't like the notion of betraying a trust, even one I didn't ask for or, frankly, want.  And I've seen that there is a person of some value hiding behind that misanthropic façade of yours.  If I can help you, I will.  Regardless of what you've done in your existence, I don't believe you deserve to suffer as badly as you've been."

"Well.  I suppose that's typical of you, Picard.  You're just overflowing with the milk of human kindness and all that."

Picard stood up.  "The Enterprise is arriving to pick me up early tomorrow morning.  I should probably go turn in for the night."

Q's eyes widened.  "What? No dessert?" he asked, his flippant tone belied by the expression of sudden panic on his face. 

"No, I'm afraid not."  Picard smiled gently, feeling deeply sorry for Q.  He couldn't stay here all night, but he could understand why Q would be upset to see him leave; it didn't seem as if Q had had many other social outlets at all for years now.  "I'll mention to Commodore Anderson what we've talked about.  I'm sure she'd be more than willing to do anything at this point to help improve your mood."

"Yes, I suppose my killing myself would be a terrible inconvenience for her," Q said bitterly.

"I'm sure it would. That's why I'll suggest that she help you find a new therapist, and perhaps give you the opportunity to do more traveling.  You mentioned that there are a small number of scientists you've appreciated talking with.  Perhaps you might want to see if any of them are attending conferences or symposia, and go if they are.  And I'll talk to Worf about coordinating with Starbase 56's security chief to make sure we can replicate whatever arrangements they have here for your safety, when you do come aboard."

"I'm sure Microbrain will love that."

"I'm sure that if you want to come aboard my ship you'll have to learn to stop calling my crew things like Microbrain."  Picard started for the door.

"Now that's the Picard I remember.  You're so stodgy, mon capitaine.  No sense of fun at all."

"I don't consider name-calling to be particularly 'fun', no."

"You wouldn't."

"If you hate who you've become so much, Q, you should look into changing the aspects of yourself that get you into the most trouble.  The name-calling would be a good place to start."

Q shrugged.  "I've been what I am for millions of years.  That's not going to change overnight.  If at all."

"Work on it."

"Yes, sir, captain, sir."  Q saluted, smirking.

Picard shook his head.  "Take care of yourself, Q."

"Is that an order, Captain?"

"It's something I hope for.  I doubt you'd have ever taken my orders even if you had stayed aboard my ship."

Q looked straight at him.  "If I do end up getting to go aboard your ship, I'll try to be a little better about that."

"Now that, I look forward to seeing."  Picard smiled, and left the room.


For a long time Q sat at the table, staring at the door where Picard had left.

Picard wanted to help him.  Had invited him to write, or call.  Had actually agreed to let him aboard his ship.  Admittedly, at some vague point in the future after Q pulled off six impossible things, such as not wanting to kill himself anymore and learning to get along remotely well with human beings.  But he'd even said he'd talk to Worf about making arrangements.  If he was willing to admit to Worf that he had invited Q to come aboard, then it had to be real.

Q took a deep breath. He walked over to the drawer where he kept the bottle of acid, and pulled it out, studying it intently for a few minutes.  His emergency exit, his security blanket.  Reassurance that if things got bad enough, if he really couldn't take it anymore, he could always escape.

He took another deep breath, and then dropped the bottle in the disposal before he could change his mind.

If he needed it he could always get another one-- the computer system hadn't figured out that etching solution was a dangerous substance he should be restricted from having.  This was really only a gesture.  But he felt a sense of overwhelming panic as the bottle dropped down the chute, nonetheless.  No safety.  No way out.  What if Picard was lying?  Or wrong?  What if he just couldn't do it?  What if it didn't help? 

He leaned on the wall, trying to get control of his ragged breathing, to push down the panic.  Maybe Picard was wrong.  And lying.  And maybe he couldn't do it, and maybe it wouldn't help.  But there was something to hope for again, some reason why he shouldn't kill himself just yet.  Not until he knew, anyway.  Not until he'd tried it Picard's way.  And if it failed miserably, as he was quite sure it would, well, he could kill himself then.  But he'd try.  If Picard really would let him aboard his ship-- even for one small mission-- then there was actually a reason living might be worth doing, and actually something worth fighting to achieve.

He couldn't understand why his chest was so tight, why his vision was beginning to blur.  He knew the symptoms, of course; he'd suffered them far too many times as a human.  He was starting to cry.  But why?  Nothing bad had happened to him, quite the opposite in fact.  And he was lonely again, now that Picard had reminded him of what it was like to have a stimulating conversation with another sentient being and then left him alone to this empty box once more.  But he was used to the loneliness, and Picard had given him a reason to hope.  Why should he be crying?

Q ordered a glass of water from the replicator, since bubble juice couldn't be drunk quickly enough to stave off tears, and a chocolate sundae.  The trick with the food had worked.  He was actually hungry enough to want to eat a dessert, and it would help him get himself under control.

Plans had to be made.  Things had to be done.  If there really were people who specialized in teaching non-humans how to function in human society, he needed to research that, and find a decent one.  He'd make Medellin get him a specialist; that was what she'd deserve for being as incompetent as she was.  The thought occurred to him that maybe he could even ask for another doctor.  Maybe not.  But if there was even a possibility he could get free of Li's condescending care, perhaps he should pursue it.

He grabbed a PADD, brought it and his ice cream over to the couch, and began the search for a teacher.  If that was a condition Picard demanded for letting him aboard his ship, he'd fulfill it.  At this point he'd jump through whatever stupid hoops Picard put in front of him.  It might be degrading... but it was the only hope he could imagine.