Picard felt something more than his usual relief after Q had left the Enterprise. His usual relief was simply that Q was gone, and he'd felt that enough times to call it familiar. But he was also relieved it hadn't been him, Picard himself, that Q had been concerned with this time. He hoped it would prove a trend.
It took a few days for him to find his routine again, as it always did, to stop seeing Q in every transporter malfunction, every computer fault, every flash of light reflecting from an LCARS interface as he walked past. This must have been what people used to feel, he thought, hundreds of years ago when faced with some force of nature they could neither predict nor control. The stress of uncertainty in the tracking of a weather pattern. Will the typhoon veer this way or that? And could one ever really prepare?
Picard had never discussed the stresses of Q with anyone like he had other matters. He had simply handled it. When Riker was harassed on a bet. When 18 members of his crew were killed in the delivery of a warning. When Vash was zapped away from the quadrant, from the galaxy perhaps, lost to anyone who might help her should she need it. And now this Amanda Rodgers, turned orphan by her own kind…
Picard found it all distasteful to say the least.
And the so-called compliment Q had given him. "Sometimes I think the only reason I come here is to listen to these wonderful speeches of yours," Q had said, when he had just finished calling Picard's speech to the Archeology Council on Tagus III dull, plodding and pedantic. It was not the contradiction that bothered Picard, it was the truth, or untruth, buried inside it.
"The only reason I come here."
The only reason Q had come here was supposed to be Amanda Rodgers. And yet out of all the planets and moons and starbases where an Earth-born human might find themselves, she had found herself on the Enterprise, ripe for Q to observe her, and ripe for Picard to observe them. The astronomical odds of this had not occurred to Picard until after Q had left. Then it began to eat at him. This helpless, fooled feeling reminded him too much of Vash. During Tagus III Vash had feigned interest in Picard when in reality she was on another of her treasure hunts—though she swore she had come for both. Picard knew better. Vash and Q were perfect for each other, neither of them very honest or forthcoming, and both of them so impressed when Picard saw through it.
"Wonderful speeches," Picard grumbled over a drink in his quarters. It was synthehol—whiskey, neat—because his mood was too melancholy to splurge on something real.
Despite any of her shortcomings, he had always felt guilty he had not inquired after Vash. That guilt had only intensified when Q had been standing in front of him. The moment had never come, yet why hadn't he forced the question? Where is Vash? Is she safe? Is she well? Pride had stopped him, certainly, and now it was too late.
But Amanda Rodgers was different. He could inquire after her. He should.
He kept drinking. He drank too much. That night, he had a dream that he was a member of the Q Continuum. He felt full of something, full of joy, full of himself, more like himself than he had ever been, and comfortable in a way that he had not felt since childhood. Upon waking, the details of the dream had faded. Only the feeling remained. Eventually, even that faded, and lying in his bed Picard thought of that moment when Vash and Q had disappeared from his ready room, off to explore the universe together. He thought how empty his ready room had felt afterwards.
He really should reach out to Amanda soon...
That morning he had a meeting with the senior staff. The Enterprise was orbiting Tyrus 7A, overseeing a new mining technology when Data had alerted Picard to a potential problem. The exocomps—mining robots—used in the facility's operations may have developed sentience. Picard called the meeting in the observation lounge to discuss the issue at length. In the end Picard concluded, "If the possibility exists, no matter how slight, that these exocomps are lifeforms, then we must examine that possibility." Geordi proposed an experiment, it was approved by all in attendance, and thus the meeting was closed.
Picard realized as he stood and straightened his jacket that he had not once thought of Q being the cause of the robots' sentience. Good. Soon he would not even think of not thinking of Q.
"Going so soon?"
Picard's eyes shot up. It was Q. Sitting at the opposite end of the table.
But the others could not hear him. They would have stopped…
"Sir?" Data paused in the doorway, frowning at Picard. His yellow eyes did not seem to note anyone else in the room.
Picard smiled reassuringly, hiding his nerves underneath. "Go on, Mr. Data. I'll be down in a moment."
Data nodded and continued on. The door swished closed. They were alone.
If Picard had felt light this morning after the dream, he felt just as heavy now. Aware of the floor beneath him, aware of the size and shape of the room and the hum of the ship in the walls, Picard rounded slowly. Q's feet were crossed on the table, always the picture of ease.
Well, Picard thought, I was going to ask about Amanda anyway.
He drifted to his seat, sunk into it. He folded his hands on the table. "I don't recall us scheduling a meeting. Do you have something to tell me?"
"If you mean this, I don't know anything about it. When will you understand how boring I find your day job? No. I bring a message."
"Very well. Deliver your message then."
Q flicked at something on the table. A PADD slid across it, gliding to a halt exactly in front of Picard. It reminded him of a perfect shuffleboard play.
"The update you wanted," Q said. "From Amanda?"
Picard felt his forehead turn cold. "I didn't ask for an update."
"You don't remember, do you? How much of that disgusting synthehol did you ingest? Pity you didn't say anything embarrassing. You did ask for an update. Check your records if you don't believe me."
Picard clicked on the PADD and looked. There it was. A letter to Amanda Rodgers, transcribed by the computer, sent last night during the time he would have been drinking. "She was a member of my crew briefly," he rationalized aloud.
"Yes, and now she's a member of mine."
Picard acknowledged the turn of phrase with a pointed glance. Then he clicked back to Amanda's message, skimming it. It was long...
"It's long," Q said. "And you won't understand half of it. I don't think she edited it. Just willed it into language, sent it off with me. Or did I forbid her from coming and bring it to you instead? Ah, I don't remember."
Picard knew better than to take that bait. The Continuum's rules were their own. "Thank you," he said, putting it down. "It's likely the less I understand it, the more relieved I will feel."
Q's eyebrows crimped. "And what is that supposed to mean?"
"It means I will know she's adapted. I don't claim to understand your existence." But it was only half true. There was another reason he would be relieved, and it had something to do with Vash, with Q's interest in Vash, with Q's self-professed study of humanity. But the last thing he would do now was to have some realization. Q's eyes were intent on him. It was as if he saw exactly what Picard was thinking.
"I do see what you're thinking. But only when you think so loudly. Don't worry, Picard, your mind is your own. Most of the time."
Picard bristled, suspecting he'd just heard a threat. "I think you'd better leave. I don't understand your existence, and this is a perfect example. You never seem to quit while you're ahead, Q."
"I've never had quit to stay ahead." Q slipped his legs off the table, one by one, and leaned forward. He expression was changed, more serious now. "You're angry. Why? You've been angry for some time."
Picard suppressed an eye roll. "My temperament is no business of yours. You have delivered your message. Her message. Thank you." He stood, straightening his jacket.
"No, I don't think so. I end this meeting. I know it's habit for you, so I'll forgive you just this once."
It was not worth attempting to leave. But Picard did not sit, did not move from where he stood, did not even look at Q as Q leaned back and continued with his questioning.
"Now tell the horrible, awful Q why you're angry at him."
"I'm not angry. This is childish."
"Picard, I want to discuss your psyche as much as you do. But it's so excessively obvious, and your denial is testing. I thought we had made some progress, you and I. I was above board. Not antagonistic or imperious. Working with you for a common goal. Even now, I'm keeping you informed much more than need demands. As though I ever needed to win the heart of Amanda by cooperating with you or Starfleet. Power has done that. Power would have always done it eventually, and I've all the time in the cosmos. But I was civil, wasn't I?"
Picard wasn't sure where to start. He still wasn't sure he should.
"Amanda is different now." Q eased to his feet, sliding his hand over the chair backs as he approached. "I don't think you would recognize her. You remember how quickly it changed Riker? Humanity is the last thing on her mind, although to any of us she still reeks of it. I wouldn't pine for her soul if I were you."
"I'm not worried about Amanda."
"You were reading her messages?"
"So you admit it was you who decided to bring this to me?"
"I believe I already have."
"Yes. How transparent you are."
"Why should I be otherwise?"
"You seem to think deception beneath you."
"Come to the point, Jean-Luc."
Q was nearly beside him, but Picard would not be intimidated. If Q wanted to hear it, why should Picard protect him? A part of him was fascinated to see how Q would react. So with a level gaze he said, "Q, why the pretense of Amanda happening to be on the Enterprise when her powers emerged?"
Q stopped his approach. His eyebrows lifted. "My, my, we've made some assumptions."
"Are they wrong?"
Q smiled to himself. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
"Hamlet. Contextually, that's a celebration of inquiry, not mystery. If you refuse to answer..."
"I don't refuse. You are the captain of the flagship of Starfleet. Starfleet, where children across the quadrant dream of enlisting—I don't know why. Do you think I made her parents play human? And when she was made, is it so incredible an ambitious yet unwitting Q would want to come here? It was where I came."
"You did nothing to make it happen?"
"What a paranoid old man you've become. Well, you've caught me. I cut across your lawn because I knew it would annoy you."
"You admit you manipulated her course."
Q's eyes were cold and unyielding. Picard could tell he was being assessed, but it only served to challenge him. He pointed a finger against the glossy tabletop. "These deflections will only make it harder to answer. Simply yes or no."
Q seemed to consider this, though nothing in his countenance softened. "They wouldn't make it harder to answer no."
Picard straightened. In Q's refusal, he had his answer. It wouldn't stand before a jury, but it was good enough for him.
As though seeing his satisfaction, Q crossed behind him with all the energy of a lash. He stared out the observation windows before leaning backwards against them, folding his arms. "Fine. Yes. A small tweak in her records. But yes, I wasn't uninvolved." With Q's silence he seemed to say, Your turn, Picard.
"That is my business. Does it anger you that I have my own business?"
"No, it does not. Only the pretense angered me."
"Then I'm glad to have settled the question of your anger."
Picard remembered Q's deflection with a wry sense of pride. "Whenever you quote Hamlet, I have you."
He couldn't remember a time he had ever made Q laugh. He doubted he ever had, but now he watched something close to it. Q's jaw twitched. His chin fell no further than an inch and there was the smallest, farthest twinkle in his eyes, though he continued to stare defiantly.
"May I ask another question?" Picard said.
"How is Vash?"
Q let the question linger as though he might not answer. He straightened from the wall. "Are you worried for her?"
"Yes," Picard said, weary of the games.
"Funny, you asked about a near-stranger before her."
"Yes," Picard said, "it is funny."
"She's well. She's safe. She's mesmerized daily. And I'm afraid I've been sworn from telling you anything else."
Picard had thought that would be the case. Probably she was saving the stories to tell him herself. She would gloat about them for days, string them out for months or even years, and he would let her. At least he no longer had the guilt. That had been lifted from him.
"You know you're always welcome. All your messy objections, I can wave them away. You can have both this life and that one. It would be nothing for me."
"Yes," Picard said softly. "I know."
Q smiled. "How lucky you are. How little you realize it. An irresistible irony."
Certainly, Picard thought. An irresistible irony which hinged on Q's so-called magnanimity and his so-called omnipotence. "Going forward I would ask whatever dealings you have with humanity—Vash, Amanda, anyone else—are dealt with when and where they arise."
"Jean-Luc, are you saying I can't bring every problem to the Enterprise?"
"You have it."
"Is that really what you think I've done?"
"I've been left to guess."
"So next time the Continuum sends me on a stray errand, I must torture some other captain? I weep."
"Not torture. If it comes to torture—"
Q held up his hand. "A figure of speech, Mon Capitaine. I don't plan on crossing paths with any of them. But you may be glad one day that I bother crossing my path with yours. One day you might even thank me for paying attention. I know, how ridiculous."
"If my life bores you, I don't know why you pay attention at all."
Q seemed to think about it. "A lot of things bore me." He stepped forward, plucked up the PADD and handed it to Picard. Then he stepped away to the windows.
"Meeting adjourned," he said over his shoulder.
Picard lingered a moment until he was satisfied that he had nothing else to say. He lingered again in the doorway, listening for a parting shot from Q. It never came.
As Picard settled into the turbolift, he realized how strange it was, having left Q that way. Usually every conversation with Q ended with a vibrant flash. A reminder. This time, the door swishing shut between them… it was as though Q was almost human.
He couldn't help but feel that he was being played somehow. That the being who claimed such honesty was being far less than honest with him. He couldn't help but brace himself for more questions to pester him in the coming days.
The questions had so much power. Yet did he even want answers? He had wanted to join Starfleet for the sake of inquiry. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." But the mission had never been Q. In fact the mission waited for him right now, in a meeting with Geordi and Data, to find a place for a new species, perhaps, or to leave this mining facility free from the stains of an injustice.
With Q, his curiosity had been sated. An answer about Vash. An answer about Amanda, in his hand. The other answer, the answer of Jean-Luc Picard, he would not let trouble him. Time would answer that, or he would grow old with the mystery.