~*~New Content~*~

I took a break from editing one of my novels to write this long overdue addition. I have no idea if TNG fandom is alive or dead, but please review if you're interested in seeing this finished. If I continue to post, the chapters will come shorter than previous installments, but possibly more frequently.

I've never used a beta, and this isn't any different. However, I haven't written these characters in years, so smack me if I slip on the characterization.

Eye on what I'm after

I don't need another friend

Nod and watch your lips move

If you need me to pretend

Because clever got me this far

Then tricky got me in

I'll take just what I came for

Then I'm out the door again

--The Package, A Perfect Circle

Picard hadn't expected Q to take him up on the offer. What he'd expected was a contemptuous, possibly disdainful remark about not taking orders from lesser beings. He'd expected at least some variety of retort. Instead, the other man had pulled off his helmet, propped it underneath his armpit, and followed Picard down the path without a word.

Turning, Picard led him in the opposite direction, away from Robert's house. Q undoubtedly noticed, but Picard wasn't about to let the trickster near his family, powerless or not.

Under normal circumstances, the words "vacation" and "Q" never deserved to coincide in the same sentence, save for nightmare scenarios, but the sight of his former nemesis did not inspire an immediate inner groan, or the knee-jerk suspicion of tricks and manipulation. Picard wanted to brush off his lack of mistrust as simple fatigue. This had been a long, dreadful few weeks. He was exhausted; he couldn't muster up the energy to argue with the likes of Q. But much as he'd welcome some self-delusion right now, Picard had never been one to fool himself. He knew full well that the unexpected sight of Q hadn't brought him any preemptive irritation.

No, he'd been relieved.

And, considering that his own crew—people he regarded as his closest and most trusted friends—were unable to help him right now, he decided to seize upon that feeling and see where it took him.

Not that he would tell Q any of that, of course.

"I admit," Q said, "I expected a less welcoming response from you, Picard. What, no probing questions? No righteous indignation? I'm disappointed."

Picard forced his voice tight, aloof. "Don't misunderstand. You'll get plenty of questions. Later. For now, however, I'd rather enjoy the day."

Q nodded, and then wiped his forehead with the back of a hand. "The air. It's very . . . clean."

It seemed like a strange observation, and Picard made the note to ask about where Q had been the past few months. It didn't take Data's Sherlock Holmes to piece together the evidence, though. By the look of his armor, Picard could easily guess that Q had stayed with "ambassador" Sal Shien and his troop of mercenaries. The implications of that were endless. "How long have you been on Earth?" he asked.

"Didn't take long for you to start in on the interrogation, did it? Old habits die hard." But Q's voice was surprisingly upbeat, and he rewarded Picard with a brief smile before turning his face back to the verdant fields. "Four or five hours. I took the transport to France the instant it became available. I couldn't have been that far behind you."

"How did you know where to find me?"

Q's lips curled. "Omniscient, remember?"

Picard shot him a side glance.

"Well," Q amended quickly, kicking a rock down the path, "I forgot a great many little tidbits about you and the future, but this wasn't one of them. I knew you'd come here."

Picard almost pressed him for elaboration, but he decided to add that to the lengthening list of things he'd ask later. What kind of "tidbits"? Had Q known about the Borg invasion all this time?

"Come now, Picard. Are you really that surprised to see me?"

Picard readjusted his duffle, switching hands. He was, but he wasn't in any state to have a long, drawn out conversation about it. "Where are you staying?"

The snort he received in response told him that Q had not prepared for this. Q had always been calculating, but in the end he preferred to stand back and watch everything play out. He excelled at adapting, thinking on his feet. They both did. Picard wondered if he should be flattered that the former god had come all this way merely to visit him.

"I'm certainly not offering to let you stay with my family," Picard added.

Q turned toward him and laughed—that same patronizing, imperious laugh he hated—and Picard almost spun on his heel and left him right there. He didn't have the patience for this, not when he was doing his best to be friendly with a person who had once treated him and his crew like playthings.

His irritation must've registered on his face, because Q instantly sobered. "Really, mon capitaine. I accepted your hospitality once, and I may only be a sliver of my former self, but I'm not a moocher."

Picard raised a meaningful brow. "Indeed?"

Q huffed. "Yes, indeed! You'll find no deadbeat Q here—I can handle myself without anyone's help, thank you very much."

Picard had heard more convincing speeches from Wesley.

"Besides, I have no interest in visiting your relatives. You're obtuse and boring enough without being a dirt farmer in some backwater countryside on an equally backwater planet."

"Then what are your plans?"

Q shrugged. "I saw a bed and breakfast around." He stopped, twisted, and waved vaguely toward the east, toward the village. "Around there."

Picard took that moment to glance over Q's appearance. The other man's dark hair was significantly longer, wavy and unruly as the breeze swept through it. It hid his receding hairline well. Q stood straighter, without the slouch that had plagued him in his early days as a human.

But that was the end of the positive improvements. In profile, Q's nose looked strangely crooked, as if it had been broken and reset by unskilled hands. He had put on muscle mass, particularly around his shoulders and arms, but his face was gaunt and unshaven, and there was a wariness in his bloodshot eyes. Despite the liveliness in Q's voice and gestures, the man looked exhausted.

Picard grudgingly sympathized. "I think I know the one." He took a long breath and savored the fresh air. "I'll meet you there later."

Q's eyes widened, almost comically. "You will?"

"Don't mistake my meaning. If Robert hasn't changed in twenty years—as I suspect the man hasn't—then I'll surely need a break come this evening."

"And what am I supposed to do in the meantime? Knit a sweater?"

Picard didn't dignify that with a response. He made his way back to his old home, fully aware of Q's eyes digging into his back. And I thought you could take care of yourself, he thought with a smile.

* * *

They were all staring at him. Q normally didn't mind the admiring gaze of a few gawkers, but this was entirely different. They frowned and whispered as he walked down the village street, and none of it was praise. It didn't take long for Q to figure out it had something to do with his getup, and he quickly ducked into the nearest clothing shop. When he ordered the shopkeeper to direct him to their finest hillbilly garb, he found himself staring at a rack of tunics and loose-fitting trousers not unlike what Picard had been wearing.

At least they weren't jumpsuits.

The selection was unimpressive, and Q settled on a violet tunic and brown trousers. When he emerged from the shop, he was partly relieved—and partly disappointed—to find the crowds ignoring him. He was one with the mob now.

Q booked a room at a quaint inn with flower boxes hanging from the windows and dumped his luggage onto the floor. Stretching out on the bed, he pulled out his bag of Yalotta spice and popped a cube into his mouth. It dissolved into a sour sludge. The cube wasn't enough to get him giddily high, but it would curb the migraines and nausea, he guessed. He didn't want Picard learning about that weakness. Of course, Picard wouldn't mock him for it—Q was sure of that—but it was humiliating enough to be out of control without him seeing just how pathetic he'd become.

Birds whistled outside his window. Earth was nothing like the skuzzy paradise of Dessica II, and although Q had visited Earth countless times throughout its history, watching and tormenting the humans, he'd never just sat still and savored the trees, the sun, and the stupid squawking animals.

On Dessica, the smog was everywhere. The dirt and grime hung in the air and clung to his body, and he never felt clean. After a half hour outside, his skin would be covered in a black film that took a good scrubbing in the shower to wash off.

Q missed it.

He waited, tapping his fingers on the comforter, but the sun was taking eons to go down and it was so boring.

Finally he couldn't lie there and wait any longer. Tucking a knife under his belt, Q headed out.

The crickets were out when he returned to the cottage. He'd scoped out the place before Picard arrived and had a sense of the layout. Q crept around the edges of the yard and, catching sight of a light in a window, crouched behind one of the many trees. He could only get a few glimpses of the dining room and the back of Robert's head. Too bad. He'd been looking forward to watching this cozy family scene turn into a soap opera.

When there were no signs of an oncoming screaming match, Q turned away. He didn't care; the older Picard with his grape vines and wine cellar didn't interest him in the least.

Well, maybe the wine cellar did.

Continuing his search for amusement, Q paused in front of a window near the back of the house. It had been left open to let in the summer breeze. Sneaking wasn't one of Q's best abilities. He could be graceful to an extent, but his human body was prone to lumbering and far from nimble. So Q took his time climbing through the window, careful to land softly.

Inside, he could hear Picard and his family prattling away on some matter—traditions and childrearing and blah blah blah. Q ignored it and shimmied along the wall and down a narrow wooden staircase, wary of the slightest creak in the floorboards. At the bottom, he tried the door handle and smiled when it clicked open.

Q took a breath of warm, musty air and glanced around. Wooden barrels were stacked neatly along the stone walls, but his quarry was in the mahogany racks. He grabbed four of the nearest bottles—Cabernet Sauvignon or something—and stuffed them in his pack. Grinning to himself, he headed back up the stairs.

He was near the top when he caught movement and ducked down. His heart pounded and adrenaline coursed through him as the little brat from the bushes hurried past, carrying a sheet of paper in his hands. Q sighed and shook his head.

Once the boy was gone, Q climbed back out the window and dropped to his feet. Too easy. He slung his pack over a shoulder and strolled around the property, wishing he could brag about his victory.

The waiting game resumed.

He was picking grapes in the field when Picard burst out the front door and stormed down the road. "Finally," Q mumbled. Bee-lining through the vines, he rushed to Picard's side. "At last! I thought you'd have me waiting forever, Jean-Luc!"

Picard glanced to him and slowed—barely.

"What's got you in such a tizzy?"


"I didn't know there was someone else besides moi who could put you in such a state. I need to meet this man."

"Be my guest. You'll likely murder each other."

"I'm not going to solve all your problems for you, Picard. What'd he say?"

"Nothing I haven't heard hundreds of times already."

Picard seemed reluctant to go into any detail, and for that Q was grateful. He hadn't cared. "So where are you taking us?"

"If I remember correctly, there used to be a spot not far from here where my friends and I used to camp as children. "

"How positively romantic."

"If you don't like it," Picard snapped, "you're welcome to go back from where you came. I can think of plenty of ways I'd rather spend my night than babysit you."

Suddenly Q really was interested in what Robert had said to him during dinner. Maybe going somewhere secluded would work to his advantage. "My, my. Relax, mon capitaine. Show me the way." He bowed and extended an arm. "Please."

Picard led him off the road and down a winding overgrown path, evidently working from a combination of memory and instinct. But they weren't alone. Q heard the voices long before they reached the clearing. Four teenagers sat around a campfire, laughing loudly.

"So much for your secret spot," Q said.

"I hardly called it a secret. Let's go. There are other—"

"No." Q stared at the brats. This was Picard's spot, his moment. And Q wouldn't let them keep it at his expense.

"Come on, Q. There's no need to make a scene."

"You forget who you're talking to." With an ostentatious twirl, he pulled out his knife.

Horrified, Picard grabbed his wrist. "Q!"

"Easy! I'm only kidding, kidding! Really, what kind of knave do you take me for?" When Picard loosened his grasp, warily, Q sheathed the blade and made his way to the campsite.

The laughter died down as Q approached. He set his arms akimbo and surveyed the dirty-faced youths. "All right, insects, scram. I'm appropriating this campsite."

One of the brats snorted. "Like hell you are, old man."

Q felt a flare of annoyance and set his teeth. But with Picard watching, he didn't dare drop-kick the boy. Instead, he advanced forward, staring straight at the leader. "Listen, you little pest." To his satisfaction, the boy drew back. "You'll take your pubescent friends and leave, now, or I'll will you into nonexistence."

The youths exchanged glances. Whether they took the idle threat seriously or were uninterested in arguing with an "old man," Q didn't know. They gathered up their belongings, mumbling under their breaths, and shot him dirty looks. Q watched them leave.

Once they were gone, Picard crouched in front of the fire and warmed his hands. "I see you've found a way to cope with your mortality," he said. "Picking on lesser beings seems to be your forte."

Q scowled. Leave it to Picard to ruin any triumphant moment. "Good, you're finally admitting what you really are to me. A lesser being of supreme magnitude."

"Was," Picard corrected. Before Q could retort, he continued. "Where were these past months, Q? Starfleet, my crew—we tried our best to find you, but we thought you'd been sold off to one of your enemies, or worse."

"I was." Q paced around the campfire. He didn't want to get into this, but he'd known the conversation was coming. Picard was expecting answers, and already Q could feel the truth eager to spill out of him. "After Shien drugged and kidnapped me, he and his friends sold me off to the Tätarians—one of the pathetic races coming out of the woodwork to torture and kill me."

Q rubbed the bridge of his nose as the unpleasant memory surfaced. The starvation had been unbearable, but at least he could escape in sleep. If his captors had deprived him of that, he would've begged for death. He remembered the pressure of large, rough paws on his hips, forcing him down. He'd tried to fight back, had thrashed and flailed despite his weakness. It hadn't worked. He'd been grabbed by the back of the skull and shoved forward. His nose cracked against stone, snapping the bone and sending a gush of hot blood streaming across his face. "They almost got what they wanted. Shien, he—" Rescued? Saved? Annoyingly intervened? "Brought me back. I spent some time training on Dessica II, and now it seems I'm traveling with them. Unlike someone I know, they actually want me to be part of their crew."

Well, that was only half the truth, but Picard didn't need to know the details.

"And this man," Picard said, "this Sal Shien who kidnapped you, sold you to your enemies, what does he do?"

"There you go again, always looking on the negative side! What gives you the right to judge him?"

"Q, it's hardly my place to interfere as long as you're safe and happy. Are you happy?"

Q was taken aback. How the hell was he supposed to answer that? "What?"

"It's a simple question, Q. We tracked down the signature of Shien's ship, and we were able to piece together what might've happened after your kidnapping. The authorities on Aldreen were none too cooperative, but we tried to find you. I was never even sure if you were alive or dead."

Q lowered himself to a log and rifled through his pack. He drew out a wine bottle and set to work prying off the cork with his knife. Picard was merely trying to lay down facts, explain what he'd done, but his voice carried a deeper current of worry. "Are you trying to say you missed me, Jean-Luc?"

"Is that from Robert's cellar?"

"Stealing is fun. Don't change the subject."

"You were under my command," Picard said. "It was my duty as captain to protect you."

"Oh, I don't believe that for a second."

"My point, Q, is that we tried to find you. But did you want to be found? Did you try to contact the Enterprise, Starfleet, anyone?"

"I—a few times. I wanted to be rescued, at first."

"Then I take it you have no intention of returning to my ship?"

The thought had crossed Q's mind, but whenever he thought about those eighteen days aboard the Enterprise, he cringed. His situation might've improved if he had given it a chance, but he didn't care to bother finding out. "I like it out here. I don't have to take orders, I'm not consumed with menial tasks. Yes, I'd rather put my skills to better use, but I don't care about Starfleet or honor or advancing the human agenda. I'm not the Federation's pet god. The less I help humans defile the universe, the better. And, best of all, I don't have to deal with Troi nagging me. Out here, I'm—" He cut himself off.

Picard nodded, silently prodding.

"Accepted," Q finished.

To his surprise, Picard smiled. "I'd like to think that, with time, my crew would've treated you as one of them, but perhaps that was naïve of me."

"Glad to give you another kick in your complacency." Q popped off the cork and took a long, lingering swig from the bottle before handing it over. "As far as happiness . . . I can't be happy. Not as a human. There is no planet or ship where I'd be content without my powers. If staying on the Enterprise ranks as a negative twenty on the misery scale, Sal's a negative ten."

Picard propped the bottle on a knee and made no move to drink. "It's impossible to take you seriously when you're so damned melodramatic."

"You don't understand, Jean-Luc. I'm serious. I'm constantly terrified, since the moment I wake up, sometimes while I'm dreaming. It's terror I've never experienced before. No melodrama, no exaggeration—I'm not trying for your sympathy, I don't need it. I'm terrified, helpless, but . . ." Q took a long breath and frowned. "On the other hand, while I no longer have complete freedom to do what I want, go where I want—"

"Toy with who you want."

"—I'm free of the Continuum. And there's some pathetic freedom in my own mortality and limitations. It's simpler." Q groaned, unable to believe he'd even said that. But he continued on, fully aware that he was rambling. "I'm paralyzed now. Essentially crippled. You could've pointed to any spot in that sky, Jean-Luc, and I could've—would've—taken you there. Time wouldn't matter. The difference is so vast, I can't even fathom it anymore."

Picard shifted around, and Q knew he was treading on uncomfortable, possibly even dangerous territory. At least now, maybe the bastard would finally understand what it was like to be brought down and humiliated and devalued for something he didn't deserve. This was what he'd been trying to tell Picard all those months ago.

"You must've been well-hidden," Picard said. "There was a sizable reward for your rescue. No doubt someone would've recognized you."

Not so fast, Captain. You're not changing the subject again. "Oh, yes. I took a new name. Abel Keynan. It was all Sal's idea, and I admit it was very clever, the notion of reinventing myself. I became a totally different person."

Picard bristled. Slowly, he narrowed his eyes. "I know what you're trying to do, Q," he said tightly. "For a self-proclaimed trickster, you're as subtle as a gorilla."

"Did you just liken me to an ape?" Q said, eyes wide. "Me?"

"My experience as Locutus was nothing like the Continuum taking your powers. The fact that you're even comparing the two is laughable. The terror and loss of control and outright humiliation—I never would've suffered through that ordeal if it weren't for you and your bloody tantrum. And now you're mocking me with your feigned sympathy. This is a low, Q, even for you."

For a long moment, Q was speechless. His mind flashed with expletives he'd heard in the bars of Dessica II, but he bit down the overwhelming urge to shout them out. Q gritted his teeth and smoldered his temper. "For the last time," he said, "I didn't have a tantrum, and I was doing you a favor."

"All I recall is a petulant entity trying to force a mortal into admitting that he needed help."

"So what?" Q slid beside Picard and leaned forward until he was invading his personal space. "So what, Picard? Since when has both helping and humiliating you been mutually exclusive? If I hadn't exposed your crew to the Borg, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. There'd be nothing left of your worthless grapes and your piddling family but a giant crater. The Borg would've assimilated all of you."

"Even if that's true, eleven thousand innocent people still lost their lives. And if you hadn't introduced us to the Borg, they would've never come for me personally. And you knew all of that, and you didn't breathe a word of warning."

Q let out a frustrated pfft and jumped to his feet. Picard continued to stare at him like he'd been the one blowing up those thirty-nine ships at Wolf 359, and that angered him more than anything. While it was true that he'd known the Borg would return and remembered, dimly, that Picard would be abducted, he wouldn't intervene even if he had his powers. It would change nothing. He'd worried and agonized about it as the time grew nearer, but the fool was so set on painting him as the bad guy that he would never believe him. Snatching the wine bottle from Picard's hands, Q stalked off into the woods. This was a waste of time.

"Oh, brilliant," Picard called out. "You've said your piece and now you're running away. You're a coward, Q."

* * *

Picard could've sworn he heard Q mumble a "fuck off" as he stomped off into the underbrush. If Q still possessed his powers, he would've simply snapped his fingers and vanished, but being human had made his getaways less than elegant.

This time, he wouldn't be fleeing a conversation. Picard stood and followed him into the trees. "Why did you even come here, Q? If your goal wasn't to reunite with the Enterprise, then what was it? Could you just not pass up another opportunity to gloat? To mock me?"

Leaves crunched as Q stamped around up ahead. "I've got better things to do with my finite existence than ridicule an open target."

Despite himself, Picard felt himself smile at that. It was difficult keeping up with Q's long strides, but he was closing the distance between them. "Then what's the real reason?"

Q stopped and turned toward him. He opened his mouth, looking almost worried, then hesitated. This should be good, Picard thought wryly.

Setting the wine bottle and his pack on the ground, Q favored Picard with a sneer. "I wanted to see you. That's right. I missed all the fun onboard the illustrious Enterprise, so I had to see for myself how the smug human who treated a Q with disdain had been brought down by a race as unimaginative and unambitious as the Borg."

Picard felt like he'd just been sucker-punched. The pain radiated across his chest, seemed to burn and gnaw at him and sting his eyes.

"Your crew got lucky and saved the day, as usual," Q continued, voice derisive. "But that's not after you caved into the Borg and surrendered all your precious secrets. Did you even put up a fight, Picard, or did you just let them assimilate you like some—"

Picard swung out and decked Q, hard. His body trembled with rage, moving on simple impulse. Q stumbled back. His second punch brought the smug former god to his hands and knees.

He could've avoided that last one, Picard thought, though he couldn't pinpoint why. Q didn't know the first thing about fighting, much less defending himself. Q would just curl himself into a ball and beg for mercy.

Q kicked Picard's legs out from under him, sending him crashing onto his back and knocking the wind out of his lungs. Picard gasped for breath. With a snap, the overwhelming anger shifted to resounding shame. What was wrong with him? Q had always deserved a good throttling, but the thought of actually lashing out violently against him had never crossed his mind. As his breathing settled, Picard groaned in disgust.

Q rolled onto his side, and out of the corner of his eye Picard saw him spit blood. He felt another pang of guilt. Grunting, Q sat up, took a swig of wine, and collapsed onto his back.

They were silent for a long time. Eventually, Picard stood and crouched at Q's side and briefly met Q's eyes. Q watched him without malice or offence, without any indication that a snide remark was coming. Picard averted his gaze. He berated himself silently as he caught sight of the bruise blossoming around his left eye and the split lower lip. "I'm sorry, Q, there's no excuse for—"

Q burst out laughing. It wasn't mocking as he'd expected, but it had a hysterical edge that froze Picard. My God, he's lost his mind.

Q settled down and made a show of wiping a tear from an eye. "Of all the times to apologize . . . do you feel better?"

Picard finally realized what Q had been doing. Q had always taken apparent pleasure in provoking him, but this time he'd done it, for what? As some kind of bizarre release? "Why on Earth would hurting you make me feel better? Indeed, if anything I feel significantly worse."

"You're so damn enlightened, Jean-Luc." The mocking tone was back, full force. But this time Picard was sure he'd just received a genuine compliment. "Plenty of beings would jump at the opportunity to thrash me as you just did."

"That, I don't doubt."

"Don't I get a thank-you?"

Picard was trying to not think too much about what he was seeing. Q was on his back, lying in a heap of leaves and dirt with a bloody lip and black eye dealt to him by a plodding mortal, and he didn't appear in the least bit shaken. There was no outrage or even anger. If anything, he looked at home. What the hell happened to him on Dessica II?

Q was eyeing him with a raised brow, and he fumbled for a response. "You were right, Q. You're not to blame for the Borg. Not directly. What happened to me—Locutus—that was my own damned fault. If I'd only been stronger, if I hadn't—" He swallowed, finding himself suddenly on the verge of tears.

No, I can't—I won't—cry. Not in front of him, of all people.

Somehow, that thought helped him choke down the tears. The ache in his chest remained, but he could deal with that. He'd have to live with it. For a very long time. Picard hazarded a glance at his companion. Q was chewing on his wounded lip, frowning up at the tree line.

"Well," Q drawled, "I see Councilor Troi really dropped the ball this time." Picard was about to erupt again when Q grasped his arm and pulled him forward. "You didn't deserve this. Understand? You didn't. If it hadn't been you, it would've been some other Starfleet captain, some other clueless twit, and I assure you, Picard, that person wouldn't have handled the situation any better."

Picard shivered under Q's stare.

"You still have your ship, don't you?" Q continued. "Your ship, your crew, your fish—it's all there. You've lost nothing, except maybe some your precious dignity. Everything's back to normal for you. So shut up and count yourself lucky."

Of course, Picard knew that. He knew he should be grateful that he'd been able to separate himself from the Borg collective. He knew it was fortunate he'd even survived. But coming from Q, who was just as hard on him as he was on himself, gave the statement more significance.

"Q, I find it hard to believe that you've come all this way just to offer me friendly advice."

"Well, duh." Q sat up and knocked lightly on Picard's forehead. "Anyone home?" When Picard slapped away his hand, his face broke out into that infuriating smirk. "Come on, Johnny, I believe in you. You can do this."

Picard ignored the nickname. Naturally, Q couldn't be arsed to explicitly state what he wanted. He had to drag this out and force Picard to guess. Oh, Q was adept at asking for things and demanding his attention, but he fell into hints when he wanted to make a game out of it. Or when he wasn't comfortable with speaking the words. Q's current reticence spoke volumes about what he really wanted.

"Do you need help, Q?" he said. "Are you—is someone else in danger?"

Q jerked back, and Picard didn't know what to make of the confusion he saw there. Slowly, Q said, "Figures you'd be eager to put your hero hat back on. No, I don't need any help."

And while Picard believed that, he knew that wasn't the whole truth. Instead of pressing it, he stood and offered Q a hand. Hesitantly, Q accepted it and got to his feet. "It's getting cold," Picard said, walking back to the fire.

They gathered firewood in armfuls and settled in front of the fire in an almost companionable silence, with Picard occasionally poking at the embers. During those eighteen days Q had been onboard the Enterprise, the both of them had several conversations, but for the most part they'd avoided each other. It wasn't because Picard was uninterested in what Q had to say, but because it was impossible to stay civil. Their discussions usually devolved into arguments, with Q trying to reassert himself as the omnipotent immortal dominating Picard and his crew, and he wasn't about to play into that fantasy. Things had changed, and Q had been unable to cope with that.

Picard could see Q slipping back into that familiar script now, invading his personal space and goading him into anger. Q needed guidance in how to properly associate with humans, and that had been the duty of Data and Councilor Troi. Now, without them, he'd been taking his cues from mercenaries and common thugs.

"You're the closest thing I have to a friend," Q had said his first day as a human. Picard knew now that he'd been absolutely serious, and that was possibly the reason he was here now. Like it or not, there was a familiarity between them. And although he'd felt a momentary relief at having a person more difficult than Lwaxana Troi off his ship, he'd instantly regretted it.

Here I'm so concerned about his motives, he thought, I never considered why I agreed to talk to him in the first place. That's the real question.

Picard rubbed his forehead. Sometimes he envied Robert for his traditions and ability to play it safe. Robert didn't have to deal with anything like this.

When he looked up, Q was smiling at him. "You're getting closer."

And for all his many social inadequacies, Q still managed to read him with the ease of a telepath. "I can't keep up with this guessing game, Q. Just tell me."

Q shook his wine bottle alluringly and held it out. "Then you'll need a lot more of this."

Picard grabbed it reflexively and realized that Q had just given him a hint. Wishing he'd brought glasses, he took a tentative gulp.

The wine was tart and smoky, warming his throat and chest, and he wasn't surprised that Q had already downed most of it. The human Q he'd known had been terrified of his new body and desperate to keep it under control. Alcohol was a paltry mortal thing that would leave him ravaged of all sense, and he'd avoided it. As someone who prided himself on his restraint, Picard understood.

Apparently, Q had gotten over all that.

He remembered Q in Ten-Forward, high off his mind and blissfully indifferent to Shien's arm slinking around his waist. Q complimenting his dress uniform, winking at him. Strangely, the drugging had left Q more like his old self.

Picard took another pull off the wine and shivered as the cold breeze brushed his nape. Is that what he's driving at? During those six long, agonizing, bizarre hours aboard the shuttlecraft, Q had tossed out an impressive amount of innuendo—enough that Picard had wondered what was holding Q back from acting upon it, and what would happen if he opted to set himself loose. At first he'd tried to ignore Q's leers, but the innuendo had its desired effect, and Picard had to dig his nails into his palms and focus on his burning frustration at being held captive so as not to let his conflicting emotions show.

He was sure Q had noticed. It had been clear Q's boldness every time he leaned into him.

But back on the Enterprise, it was much as it had been before. And with the loss of Q's powers, they seemed to come to a tacit agreement never to speak of it. It didn't help that Q had to strut around and claim he was above every mortal delusion. It made being in the same room with him a nightmare, and they snapped at each other like it was second nature. Occasionally Q would make a crack about first dates and romance, but it had a flippant edge now. Picard wondered if it had been a joke all along.

He jumped as Q plopped down beside him, close enough that their thighs brushed, and he fought off the urge to scoot away. "So," Q said, running his fingers through his hair, "have you figured it out yet? Or do I need to draw some diagrams?"

Childish stick figures in sexual positions appeared in Picard's mind. He favored Q with a dry smile. "As subtle as a gorilla."

Before he could fight him off, Q was nuzzling his neck and sucking along his collarbone. Teeth grazed the sensitive skin and Picard tensed. "Call me a gorilla one more time," Q hissed, moving up to lick one of his earlobes, "or any other variety of primate, for that matter—and I swear I'll suck so hard your dear brother will think you visited a prostitute in town."

Picard grasped Q's shoulders. Perhaps I deserved that.