There was someone sitting in his study.
There was someone sitting in his study, and Laris and Zhaban were nowhere to be found. Quietly Picard edged toward where one of the various hidden phasers that Laris and Zhaban insisted on hiding in his study, dining room, bedroom and pretty much everywhere was stashed.
"You're not very stealthy in your old age, mon amiral," a voice said. A voice that was familiar, but that he hadn't heard in… had it been decades? At least twelve years, to be sure.
"Q!" Picard stepped forward into the study, unable to control the joyful smile on his face. As soon as he was close, though, he took half a step back, literally taken aback by what he saw.
Q looked old.
Not as old as Picard himself, perhaps, but his face was lined and worn, his dark hair shot through with silver. He also had facial hair, a mustache and a brushing of beard on his chin and jawline.
"You look almost happy to see me," Q said. "Well, you did. Now you just look shocked."
"I never expected to see you age," Picard said. "But I suppose you can take the form of an old man as easily as you took the form of a young one."
Q smiled wryly. "I can, yes, but… there's always been an element of truth in how I appear to you. I'm not doing this to make some sort of commentary on the fact that you've aged… a terrible mortal habit, there, but I don't imagine I'll break you of it any time soon."
"No, I think not," Picard agreed, nodding. "Are you saying you feel old?" He sat down in the chair that faced Q. "I remember when you told me of your new responsibilities in the Continuum, you said they'd age you prematurely, but I took it for a joke."
"It was a joke. That's not… why." Q closed his eyes. "I know you called for me. You asked me for my help, didn't you? And I didn't come."
"I… assumed that your responsibilities had become too onerous to spend time in the company of mortals anymore," Picard said, carefully.
It had hurt. When Starfleet had refused to help the Romulans, when there were so many stranded and desperate and Picard had no resources to save them… he had called out to Q. Better to owe his omnipotent sometime-nemesis, sometime-companion something than to cling to his human pride and let billions die.
Q hadn't come. Picard hadn't seen him since… since several months before the supernova. Q had said nothing, then, to imply that he wasn't going to come back.
Picard had spent a long time convincing himself not to feel betrayed by that.
"No, no," Q said. "I'd have made time for you, if not…" He shook his head. "The one time you break down and spontaneously call for my help, and it had to be for this."
"So there was a reason for it."
"A very good reason." Q snapped his fingers, and a glass of something alcoholic appeared in his hand. Another one appeared on the end table next to Picard. "Not the house brand, but I imagine occasionally you indulge in something you didn't grow yourself?"
"Occasionally," Picard said. Q would get to the point, eventually, and he had learned patience. He picked up the glass and breathed deeply of the aroma. "This is… actually from Betazed, if I don't mistake it?"
Q nodded. "Adwana wine. Not particularly strong as alcohol goes, not to humans, but it interferes with telepathy."
"Are we worried about telepaths?"
"Not… exactly." Q took a sip. "When I'm in human form, the same brain centers that mediate telepathy in humanoids allow me to connect back to the Continuum. I'm not, currently, an extradimensional being driving a puppet around. This is me, mostly."
The wine tasted rather like sake, but with a sweet undertone that was distinctly fruity and yet wholly un-grape-like. Almost like… blackberries, he thought. But not quite. "You're shutting down your powers. Why?"
"I don't want to have them right now," Q said. "Oh, don't look at me like that, the Calamarain's not going to show up on your doorstep. I can't possibly fully shut myself down with a drink or two. I just… I don't want to be so aware of it."
"I suppose you have your reasons." Picard set the drink down. It really wasn't to his taste.
"And you're just waiting with bated breath for me to tell you what they are, aren't you?"
"That is why you're dropping hints, I think."
"You know me so well." He twirled the drink in his hand. "Tell me, Picard. You had hypotheses, I'm sure. What did you guess was the reason I didn't come when you called?"
"I've said. I thought your responsibilities—"
"There were other things you thought, though."
"So I see the adwana isn't interfering with your telepathy that much."
Q shook his head. "I'm not reading your mind, but I know you." He leaned closer to Picard. "Jean-Luc, there has never been a day in your life when you haven't been considering multiple possibilities for everything that happens."
"Well, I thought perhaps you were forbidden to interfere. Or—"
"Or that… well, why would you care about humans? You have your own life in the Continuum. You have a son. Perhaps your… interest in me was… a passing thing. Something you have no need for, anymore."
"Mon amiral. Sometimes you don't know me at all." Q sounded mock-hurt. "But then, I imagine the truth would be… impossible for you to guess at." He leaned forward. "I didn't abandon you willingly, Jean-Luc. Yes, I had more going on in the Continuum than I've had in billions of years, but… in the Continuum, I'm a leader now. People look up to me. I'm not sure I have friends there even now. Allies, comrades-in-arms, but… no Q sees me as myself."
"Well, by definition I don't see you as yourself, since you have to take a different form to interact with me."
"Yes. Ironic, isn't it? I can most be me with a creature who literally can't even see me. Worthy of being included in a stand-up comedy routine." He took another deep sip, and then set the glass down with emphasis. "I was dead, Picard."
Picard raised both eyebrows, head going back. "Dead? How?"
"Did you ever wonder… how could a supernova of one star, however large, start triggering an instability in space that blows up other stars?"
"Neither Federation nor Romulan science was ever able to explain that," Picard admitted. He remembered something, then. When the Q killed each other with the weapons they'd used in the civil war… it had caused supernovas. "Good God. Did the war break out again?"
"In a sense." Q looked down at his hands, folded in his lap in uncharacteristic stillness. "There was a bomb."
"I assume you mean some sort of metaphorical something that best translates to my perceptions as a bomb?"
"Oh, no. An actual bomb. Made of Continuum-substance, of course, you wouldn't have perceived it except through analogy, but… something that explosively releases raw energy of a form that disrupts the pattern of anything made of Continuum energy and tears it to shreds? Sounds to me like a bomb."
"By any other name," Picard said quietly. "But – you were dead? What do you mean by that?"
"I mean I was dead. Someone set off a bomb in the Convocation and… a dozen Q died. Which is actually a very large number. I realize it sounds like a trivial number to you—"
"No. You've told me that the Q number in the thousands, if that, and even if there were trillions of you, a dozen deaths are never trivial."
"Thank you for that." Q took a deep breath. "I was one of the casualties. The others… didn't have a son. No Q was willing to spend the time and energy needed to put a dead Q back together, no Q had a pattern to follow they could use for reference to do so anyway… except my son. He used himself as the pattern and he spent the past… I don't actually know how many years putting me back together and I don't even know if I'm the same me anymore—"
"Stop." Picard put his hands on one of Q's. "You're alive. That's what's important."
"I don't know if I am," Q whispered. "I mean, yes, I'm alive, but am I me? I spent billions of years trying to preserve my identity, so many other Q trying to influence me, and now…"
"Listen to me, Q. Life changes us all. Being what you are, I imagine you don't have much experience with the concept of scars, but even you changed over time, just from the demands of life."
"This is a rather large change, Picard."
"Yes. It is. But what's the alternative? You can't go back to what you were before, can you?"
"I suppose not." He stood up and went to the window, looking out. "You know I would have come if I could, Jean-Luc, right?"
"And there's nothing – I can't fix it. I can't fix any of it." He looked back at Picard. "Do you know – of course you don't. I changed things. We were – having an argument. You and I. Not important what it was about. But the point is… I altered the past."
"Wait. What did you do?"
"It doesn't matter." He walked back toward Picard. "It's all gone. All the changes I made. Retroactively. Because we can't do anything in the region of space affected by the bomb."
Picard stood up. "Tell me what you did that doesn't matter anymore."
Q sighed. "We were arguing about whether I actually care about you mortals. You were very upset. You pointed out that Data died and I did nothing, and he saved my life one of the few times I was vulnerable. You said that I live on the scale of a god and I can't relate to mortals enough to be friends with one. So, I fixed it."
"You fixed what?"
"I arranged for Shinzon to be adopted by a human scientist and taken off Remus in his childhood. Never grew up with the hatred and resentment of humanity. Resented you, but he ended up going into Starfleet anyway. No attempt to destroy Earth. So Data didn't die, you didn't suffer clone angst, Charlie – that was what his name got changed to – had a happier life and didn't run around telepathically raping half-human women. Everything was wonderful." He leaned his forehead on the wall. "And then there was the bomb. And every change made by any Q, ever, in that region of space, was reverted to whatever it had been before it was changed. And I was dead." He swallowed. "And now – I'm back, but I can't bring him back. I mean, I could, he died in Earth orbit, but how am I supposed to bring him back in a world where you idiots would declare him illegal and there'd be assassins trying to kill him?"
"Q. It's all right." Picard walked around a chair, and reached up to his shoulder. "No one expects it of you. Data wouldn't have expected it of you."
"You did, once."
"Apparently that was in an alternate universe. I don't think you can hold that against me."
"But you were right." Q closed his eyes. "I wanted him to live."
"So did I."
Q sat down on a sofa that hadn't been there a moment ago. Picard sat next to him. "Listen," he said. "I've… wanted to tell you, for some time. I never realized, back in the days when you came to visit me frequently… that I'd miss you, as much as I did, if you didn't come back." He held Q's hand clasped in both of his. "I… did consider the possibility that the Romulan supernova represented your civil war resuming, and that I hadn't seen you because… you'd become a casualty. To be honest, when there were no further supernovae, of course I was relieved because unexpected supernovae are horrible, but it also occurred to me that, if there'd been a conflict among your people, you'd resolved it. And if it was resolved so quickly…" He swallowed. "I thought that meant you were alive."
Q raised an eyebrow. "What part of me suggests to you that I'm good at resolving conflicts quickly, Picard?"
"The fact that you did. The first time."
"Obviously not well enough, or no one would have planted a bomb." He took a deep breath. "So. You missed me?"
"I did. Although I wasn't going to tell you, if you came back and it turned out your reasons for not coming to see me in so long were trivial." Picard smiled.
Q laughed. "I suppose you don't consider death all that trivial?"
"Not at all." He let go of Q's hand. "I'm glad you're alive now."
"I… suppose I am as well."
"So many died, Jean-Luc. So many. And I'm alive."
"That's survivor's guilt. It's normal." He smiled wryly. "There are times when I'm still miserable with guilt that I'm alive and Data isn't. Or Jack Crusher."
"Was he as boring as his wife?"
Picard raised a finger and shook his head. "None of that. We're past the stage where you insult my friends, now. I expect you to keep a somewhat civil tongue in your head."
Q rolled his eyes. "Oh, how will I ever live up to this overbearing expectations?" He looked at Picard. "It's like you think I'm a good person."
"Now that I know something of the culture of the Q Continuum? I do think you're a good person. About half your flaws are species-or-culture specific, and the other half don't outweigh the ways in which you try to do what you see as the right thing even when you have to fight your culture to do so."
Q smiled slightly. "I think you've finally gone senile, Picard." Picard stiffened slightly. "Wait. Did… you get a diagnosis?"
"Assuming that the thing you showed me was a real possible future at the time… I've managed to put it off for some years, based on the warning you gave me, but it's not curable. Yes. I have Irumodic Syndrome. Thank you for the extra years, by the way. I wouldn't have known to take the treatments that can slow it down or put it off, if not for you."
"And you're just going to let this happen?" Q stood up and started to pace, angrily gesticulating with his hands. "You're all right with just losing your mind? Your intellect, your memories? You're going to let all that disappear in a haze of confusion and end up in a nursing home drooling applesauce onto your bib?"
Picard turned his hands out and up in his lap, a shrug without shoulders. "I don't see where I have an alternative. I suppose I could die in the course of this quest, and then I'd avoid it…"
"No." Q spun on his heel and faced Picard. "There's another way. Come with me."
"Come… with you?"
"To the Continuum," Q clarified.
Picard stood. "Q. You know I have no desire to become something other than human."
"It isn't about what you desire." Q started pacing again. "I know what you want, Picard. If I was making this offer because I care about you and I don't want to see everything that made you you slowly evaporate before you finally shuffle off this mortal coil and I never see you again, I know you'd say no. 'I have no desire to be anything other than human, Q', like being human is the ultimate achievement."
"It may not be the ultimate achievement, but it is what I am. And if you're not making this offer because you don't want me to die—"
"I don't want any more Q to die," Q said, walking toward Picard, his eyes completely focused on Picard's. "You're a diplomat. You've stopped countless wars, talked species who were torn apart by civil war into negotiating with each other. And my war isn't over, not if someone is planting bombs. And the next one could be my son. Or Amanda. Or my ex. Irritating as she is, I don't want her to die. I don't want any of them to die, even my enemies." He knelt in front of Picard, looking up at him. "Please, Jean-Luc. I'm not asking because I want to make you a god and gloat about how you misuse power – in the Continuum we're not omnipotent, anyway. I'm not asking because I don't want you to die – I don't, but I know you won't accept a reason like that, and I accepted your eventual death as the consequence of caring about a mortal back when I first figured out that you were more to me than a project. I'm asking because the Q don't have anyone like you, someone who can compromise but who has the kind of iron will and courage of convictions needed to demand that everyone around you compromise too."
"My ability to compromise didn't help the people of the Cardassian Demilitarized Zone, in the end," Picard said softly. "It didn't save the Romulans."
"Yes, yes, are you sure you don't already think you're a god? You certainly take the blame like you think you're omnipotent." Q stood up. "I know you've failed at things. But you're better at this than me. You're better at this than any Q in the Continuum. And they won't listen to you if you're a mere mortal."
"But they'll listen to me if I'm a brand new Q?"
"Yes. Because you'll make them listen. And because my faction will support you." He paced again. "You're worried about misusing your power? We can keep you from coming back to this plane of existence until everyone you cared about is dead, so you're not tempted to intervene. You're worried about not being human? Well, when you're dead you're not a human being because you're not being anything at all. If you can contemplate ceasing to exist, how can you refuse to contemplate ceasing to exist as you are, transforming rather than dying?"
Picard took a deep breath. "If you'd come to me a few weeks ago, I might have said yes, but… I have obligations, now. I have to find Data's other daughter, and protect her."
Q took a deep breath. "I know where she is, but she's beyond my reach."
"So she's in the Beta Quadrant, somewhere near the area of space affected by the Romulan supernova."
"And you can't save her or help her because she's in a place where Q power doesn't work."
"I already know where she is, Q. She's on the Artifact. Bruce Maddox told me, a short while ago."
Q nodded. "Of course you do. But are you aware that when you came in and found me, you thought you were actually back home with your Romulan bodyguards?"
Cold washed over Picard. Q was right. When he'd sensed that someone was in his holographic study, the one that had been programmed to look exactly like home… he'd thought he was home. He'd thought that Laris and Zhaban were around somewhere and that the phasers they'd hidden about the room were also here. "I… yes. You're right. I can't deny it." Picard took a deep breath. "But it doesn't change anything. As long as I have enough of my mind here in the present that I can keep fighting, I need to find Soji and protect her. She's all I have left of Data, and… I couldn't save her sister. I owe it to Data, I owe it to Dahj to find Soji before the Zhat Vash do."
"And that's more important than preventing a war. A war that will cause supernovae and kill trillions of mortals as collateral damage, if it breaks out again."
"I don't have long to live, Q. Do I? By Q standards?"
"You could live another sixty years and it would be an eyeblink by Q standards, but… no. No, I think you have less time than that, and you know why."
Picard nodded. "And you told me that you could, in theory, still resurrect Data, but you don't want to bring him into a world that has banned his species. Which implies that if I died, you could, in theory, resurrect me."
"Not if you're in the dead zone when you die."
"Yes, true. But if a transporter can create copies of people or hold a pattern in a buffer for 80 years, I'm fairly sure you can copy a pattern and hold it in a buffer as insurance against my death in a place you cannot reach."
"Are you giving me permission to do that?"
"I'm saying yes. To your request. But not now. I'm still alive now, and I have obligations here. I'm not ready to give up my human existence and leave behind everyone I've ever known or cared for… yet. But you're quite right. The nature of mortality says that sooner or later… I will, whether I want to or not."
"You're saying yes?" Q looked stunned.
Picard smiled. "I realize that my saying yes to you is an unusual occurrence, but it's hardly unheard of."
"I just…" Q shook his head. "I should have known. I picked you for the ability to think outside the constraints of the human condition. I've known all along that I could take you at the moment of your death, assuming you're not inside the dead zone, but I didn't realize you knew, and I didn't think you'd give me permission."
"There's nothing about death, per se, that's particularly marvelous," Picard said dryly. "As a species, mortality gives us a reason to strive, while we live. As an individual… I can't live forever as a human, and I shouldn't, and I don't want to. But from the perspective of everyone I care for, there's no difference whether I die and cease to exist, or whether I become a new form of life but break my ties with my former existence. And…" He swallowed. "If there is any chance, any chance at all, that I can prevent what happened to Romulus from happening to other worlds… yes. Yes, very few sacrifices are too great for that. I'm willing to give up my death, and my humanity upon my death, to try to prevent war in the Q Continuum."
"But you're not willing to give up what remains of your life."
"No. Soji is beyond your reach, you've said so. I presume the Zhat Vash are mostly beyond your reach as well. And I don't want you stepping in to solve my problems, anyway."
"Don't friends help each other?"
"Yes. But friends also don't demand godlike exercises of power from friends. You thought I'd be upset with you because you tried to save Data, and you failed, because of the bomb. Data wouldn't have expected that of you and neither would I… alternate timelines regardless. Perhaps my grief was more raw when I said what I said in that other timeline, or perhaps you made me so angry I lashed out. Here and now, though… I want you to understand. You are not my friend because of what you can do for me, with your powers. I've never wanted you to do anything for me with your powers; the only time I ever called on you it was because billions of lives were at stake, and that was worth more than my pride as a human."
"But Soji isn't?"
Picard closed his eyes. "If you had the power to snap your fingers and ensure her safety, I might say yes, but you've told me you don't. And I don't want the Zhat Vash deciding to target the Q, not in your people's weakened state… yes, I know, I know, you're still omnipotent, we mere mortals can't possibly hope to harm you, et cetera… but I know the Borg were attempting to work on a means of capturing and assimilating one of you, and that was before you had a war and invented weapons that work on your kind. I can't rule out that the Zhat Vash could find a way to harm you if you turned your power on them as a blunt force instrument but didn't have the power to find and stop them all."
"I think that's a silly thing to be afraid of, but I'm touched by your concern." He said it as if it was sarcastic, but the expression on his face was tender. "But very well. I'll stay out of your quest. I'll let you live out however long you have, in your human life. I won't do anything either to hasten or to prevent your death. And when you die, I'll repair your mind if I have to, if Irumodic Syndrome has taken too much of it away, and I'll make you a Q, and you'll come to the Continuum with me to save my people, and your galaxy."
"To try my best, at the very least," Picard said.
Q smiled like a man who didn't want to smile but couldn't help himself. "You have no idea how delighted I am to hear that." He spread his arms. "Hug?"
Picard chuckled. "I don't do hugs, Q, I'm far too emotionally repressed for that. You know better."
"I do, yes." Q laughed… and then leaned in and kissed Picard on the cheek before Picard could stop him or back away. "Is that better? I understand you Frenchmen kiss each other like that all the time."
"Two hundred years ago. Cultures change. We also don't use expressions like 'mon petit chou' anymore."
"I can't call you my little cabbage?"
"Not without sounding hopelessly out of date and archaic."
"You didn't seem to mind the kiss, though."
"I'm too old to let myself get riled up by your pranks," Picard said, smiling broadly.
"What if it wasn't a prank?"
"Then I'm too old to let myself get riled up by that, either." He gripped Q's arms by the elbows. "But don't wait to come visit until I'm dead and it's time for our bargain to come due. I'm going to worry about you if I don't see you."
Q shook his head. "I never thought I'd see the day."
Picard released him. "And if you want to propose to me, you have to wait until we're on the same form of existence. The stress of trying to arrange a wedding at my age really could kill me."
Q choked on laughter for a moment. "Well, in English, 'commitment' is another term for being locked up in the funny farm, and that about sums up how I feel about marriage. But I'll be absolutely sure to take you out on a few dates while you're still human. Wine and dine you while it matters."
"I look forward to it." Picard glanced at the holographic replica of a clock. It wasn't moving. Of course not. "Well, whether you have stopped time or not, apparently I am still growing tired, and the hour was late when you came to visit. I need to return to bed."
"Of course. I wouldn't want to deprive you of your beauty sleep, mon amiral."
"I think I liked 'mon capitaine' better."
"I did too. You never should have let them promote you."
Picard shrugged. "Time moves forward. We can't desperately cling to the past, even if it made us happier. Life gives us no choice but to keep growing and changing. Even you, I think."
"Yes." Q nodded in agreement. "Even me."
"Take care of yourself, Q."
"I'd tell you to do the same, Jean-Luc, but I know you won't. Not while there are still swashes to buckle and fair maidens to save."
"Well. I'll charge into danger without much regard for the odds against me, but I promise to take care of my health, at least."
"That's the best I'll get out of you, I suppose." Q grinned, and manufactured a hat, obviously so he could tip it. "Until next time, then."