"Interesting," Q said, raising his chin, blinking in that falsely studious way of his, as if the conversation had taken a turn he would have never expected.

As if.

Indeed, it was an exaggeration to even call their exchange a conversation. Picard knew when he was being baited, and he knew even better than to grapple with Q. He went to leave his ready room but the door did not open. He'd been prepared for that possibility, and so he did not slam into it like a fool—he retained his decorum. Straightening his jacket, he turned.

"'When you're here, Q,'" Q repeated the words slowly, contemplatively, "'sometimes I wish I weren't captain.' Jean-Luc. Are you really suggesting my interest in you is as the captain of a starship? That those peons of the lower decks would never hold my attention as you do, the great jewel of Starfleet? Do you truly believe your so-called importance is of any import to me?"

"You're here. Aren't you?"

"Yes, but captain or not, I would still engage you."

"This has been quite the engagement."

"Well it was your choice to say nothing to me."

"I was waiting for your point."

"You always presume I have one."

"You always do have one."

Q was silent. Because it was true, Picard decided.

The door still remained shut. In an act of defiance, Picard leaned against it. Something more, Q? he might have said.But he knew the answer.

Of course there was something more. When Q had appeared to Picard's usual protest, when Q had protested in turn that the captain of the Enterprise should be flattered by such a visit, Picard should have kept silent. Where one could not agree, silence was the wisest alternative. He most certainly should not have said, Sometimes you make me wish I weren't captain, Q, because if anyone should know by now it was Picard that throwing psychological nuance at Q was throwing oil on the flame. Sometimes…

Sometimes Q could be so childish. Sometimes one might be lulled into forgetting his complexity. He had spent the last few minutes sampling various teas from the replicator, then eyeing the lionfish in the tank, whispering inaudibly to it so that it swam upside down or made wild circles around the plants, and then lying on the couch, his hands folded over his stomach, staring at the ceiling as though his mind was lightyears away.

Q was still on the couch, still in that same position.

"It's an interesting concept, Picard, you must see it. All the questions it provokes? Why are you humans so closed off to what might have happened? It's clumsy even saying it. What might have happened. Less frightened species have words for it. If you had not been captain. Think about it. If Riker had been captain and not you, would it be him standing there? Would that be his collection of Shakespeare, his pet fish? Would it be he insisting that I always come to a point? Would I even speak to him? Would I visit this dreary starship at all?"

"I don't know, Q," Picard said.

"Sit down, Jean-Luc. It isn't going to open. Humor me, and then you may return to your work."

Punishment. That's what this was. Picard supposed he had earned it, spewing if-thens and could-have-beens like a dying probability equation. It was true: they didn't have a word for it. And now they were to going have a meeting about it, this wordless monstrosity. A dressing down. Picard was on the wrong side of the desk for that—usually the orders went the other direction; usually Picard was the one telling someone when they may or may not return to their work.

Q was neither annoyed nor amused by Picard's darkening mood. Blinking again in his falsely studious way, he clasped his hands in front of his knee.

"I'd like to think we're friends," he began.

"You may think whatever you like. It's of no concern to me."

"You don't think of us as friends?"

Picard rolled his eyes. "Are we really discussing this? Now?"

Q readjusted himself in the chair. "If my interest was in captains, there are thousands of captains far more accommodating than you. There are admirals. There's even a president, if we're talking humans."

Q was deliberately misinterpreting Picard's meaning, counting on Picard's pride—on Picard's need to be right—to draw the true meaning out. In the past Picard might have balked further, deliberately misunderstanding in turn. Now either his pride had shrunk or he didn't have time to care. He replied:

"I don't deny our… our level of interaction may have developed since our first meeting, but if not for our first meeting, if not for my status, the interaction would have never begun at all. That was my meaning."

"I categorically disagree."

"That it was my meaning?"

"No, with the meaning itself. I'll remind you I'm more qualified to analyze the past, and the present, and anything really."

Picard could not let that one go. "If I recall, you first contacted me for the purpose of putting humanity on trial. We were exploring beyond our borders, and you took issue with that. And so I was challenged, the captain of the Enterprise, the ship that happened to provoke you."

"True, as their leader, I addressed you. But not because I had to, not out of respect for your piddling hierarchy. I might have addressed one of your waiters in Ten Forward if it weren't confusing for all of you. It was the same as my decision to appear human. To speak your language instead of beaming everything into your head at once." Q made a popping gesture with his hand. "To you, the you which is Captain, I showed no favoritism at all; indeed, you were one of the many disgusting, insignificant humans I was going to whisk away into oblivion at the order of the Continuum, until you collectively proved yourselves otherwise. Yes, that moment, that ship, that captain was a matter of chance. But." Here, Q quirked his lips mischievously. "It was my choice to come back."

"When the Continuum wanted a human specimen."

Q winced at the word. "And were I obsessed with the captain of the Enterprise I would have chosen its captain as the specimen. But I didn't."

"You chose Riker, the second-in-command, as a playing piece in a game with his captain."

"I believe you instigated that bet. In fact, you've weakened your argument; it was because of that bet I really noticed you. That delightfully infuriating lecture you gave me on Hamlet. Hamlet, of all things. No, no, Jean-Luc, pish posh on your captain of the Enterprise. Anyone challenging me, anyone astonishing me with such eloquence, such unthinking obstinacy, would have caught my eye. Worf. You'll notice I even have a small fondness for Worf. Were he not lacking a brain, perhaps I could say more."

"I'm sure you would find many Starfleet captains who would challenge you, Q, when their crew's lives are at stake."

"That isn't true. They're terrified of me. They're relieved I picked you."

"Picked me. Exactly. A matter of whim."

"A figure of speech, Picard. I do pick when and where and with what to annoy you."

Exactly true. It only irked worse that he admitted it. "Well. Well, if that is where it stands, Q, then I shall amend my statement. Sometimes, I wish I had never stood up to you. No, I wish my standing up to you had not been an unequivocal moral imperative. I wish that morality was not so foreign to you that you find it so fascinating in me."

Q let go of his knee. He looked away. He went to the window and stood there so long Picard wondered if he might try leaving again. He started to sit up…

"There is one way to settle this," Q said.

… and fell back again.

"And what way is that?"

"Doing it over."

It turned in him slowly, the words. A friend might say this to another, joking, perhaps adding something about hindsight being 20/20, for neither had the power to make the thing happen. Q had that power. "No. No, absolutely not. And I'm afraid I must end our conversation here and return to my work." Picard went to the door. It still refused to yield. He felt like slamming his fists into it.

"You don't even know what I'm proposing," Q said.

"I know exactly what you're proposing. If I'm correct you've done this to me once before, haven't you?"

"Something like it."

"Well, I've played this game already. And God knows I've played enough of your games..."

"For one lifetime? How about the second lifetime I gave you? Oh, Jean-Luc, I don't mean it like that. That was a gift. You'll notice I haven't held it over you. I promise I'm not doing that now. I don't have to coerce you. Fortunately."

They stared at each other. Q, the picture of amusement.

It was getting so old. Picard was growing so tired. How could anyone find this interesting, still, least of all a being who could do anything, everything else?

"You asked for a moment of my time," Picard said. It might work. There was the tiniest chance it might work.

"I changed my mind."

Picard closed his eyes.

"Don't look so annoyed. You think of it as a game, you're working yourself up. Think of it as an opportunity in self-discovery. You'll enjoy this one. You'll enjoy it more than I will."

Picard did not reply. He would not give Q the satisfaction of pleading any further. He would not give Q the satisfaction of playing this game either, but Q would learn that in due time.

"So." Q clapped. "We do it again, we do it cleanly. No Enterprise—we must remove any aspect of rank. And if I don't find you every bit as affable and eager and trusting as I do now—if I don't notice you—you'll win. Something. We'll decide afterwards."

A prize. As if a prize would lessen how disgusting this was.

"See, that's the sort of expression you'll want to avoid. Because I will notice that."

"Don't do this. You think of me as a friend? Is this really how a friend would treat another?"

Q looked at the ceiling. He sighed, a vocalization, a rasping, and—he did not know it—an uncanny approximation of Picard's own feelings on the matter. "As if he's going to the guillotine. Have some fun, won't you? It was your idea."