Picard entered his quarters and blinked. There were balloons and party streamers all over. He half expected his senior staff to jump out at him yelling "Surprise!", but as he took a step forward into the room, there was no evidence that anyone was here at all. His dining table had been covered with a white tablecloth, and there was a bottle of champagne sitting in a bucket of ice with two empty champagne glasses next to it. However, the things on the table that truly drew his attention were the framed diploma next to the graduation cap, and the giant card decorated with balloons and sparkles, the size of his torso, standing on its end.

He looked at the diploma first, and began to have a clue what this was about. The diploma said,

"This certifies that the species, HUMANITY,
has satisfactorily completed its classification exams as of STARDATE 47988.0
and has been assessed as a LEVEL 2 SENTIENCE.

Assessment sealed and signed by Q, of the Q Continuum,
Stardate 49625.8."

It was signed with something that looked awfully like a backward letter L, or perhaps a particularly florid number 2. It took Picard a few seconds to remember that in some archaic styles of cursive, that was the way to write a capital letter Q.

The date on the certificate was yesterday; the date of the "classification exams" mentioned was the stardate for the incident he'd had with the temporal anomaly and Q. Picard picked up the card. The front of the card was covered with shining party balloons that seemed to rise off the top of the card and reappear at the bottom, and sprinkled with glitter; the only text on it was the phrase "CONGRATULATIONS HUMANITY". Inside, easily three dozen different messages, all in different handwriting, were sprinkled all over the interior. Most simply said "Congratulations!" One, signed with the same cursive letter Q as was on the diploma, said in a florid, left-canted script, "Good job, Jean-Luc, I knew you had it in you." Others said things like "Congratulations, I never thought an inferior species like humanity would get this far," or "Congratulations, enjoy your status while it lasts". All of the messages were signed with the letter Q, in different styles of cursive or printed handwriting, except for the one that said, "I'm so happy for you, Captain! This is a really big deal for humanity. Ask Q about it. - Amanda."

Picard looked up. "Well? Amanda says I should ask you about this. Since I'm sure you didn't go to this length to set all this up and then simply leave, I know you're here somewhere, Q. So why don't you show yourself and explain this?"

The flash of light appeared behind his dining table, and when it cleared, Q was there in an Academy instructor's dress uniform, the kind the instructors wore at graduation, holding one of the two glasses of champagne. Picard found that the other glass was in his hand. "First a toast, Jean-Luc."

"Very well. What are we toasting, exactly?"

"Didn't you read the card?" Q held up his champagne glass. "To humanity. Congratulations on your graduation!"

He was probably not going to get any more information out of Q until he played along, so Picard clinked his glass against Q's. "To humanity," he repeated, as he was certain he could agree with that part of the toast at least.

Picard sipped at his champagne. "So. What does this mean?"

"What does it say? You've been designated a Level 2 sentience, Picard. Enjoy it."

"Yes, I can read, Q. But I have no idea what a Level 2 sentience is, or what the implications for being one are. Is this a classification within the Continuum?"

Q made a dismissive gesture. "A very rough translation of one, yes. It's unfortunate that I had to resort to an expression as primitive as 'level 2 sentience', but if I'd tried for an accurate translation we could be here all year."

"If the translation is rough, why do you seem to think I should intuitively understand what the concept means?"

"Well, perhaps I'm overestimating you as usual." But Q grinned, taking some of the sting out of the words. "It means, mon cher capitaine, that you're free."


"Well. Sort of free. We'll still be watching you, of course. But you're protected from us now. We are no longer permitted to threaten your existence, your development or the lives of individuals of your species unless there is a clear and present danger that can only be resolved by taking such steps. We will no longer be creating tests for you; the trial never ends, but the court has been moved to a new venue, and the nature of the evidence is held to a much stricter standard." His smile was wan, almost bittersweet. "You're no longer the Exemplar of Humanity and I'm no longer your judge. There will be no more threats to your ship or your crew from me, or any other Q."

Picard's eyes went wide. "That is excellent news." He looked at the table, the card and the diploma. "So this is... merely what it appears to be? Simply congratulations? You're... genuinely pleased with this?"

"I actually talked about forty Q into signing your card. Did you notice?"

"These are actually other Q's signatures?" Picard had thought that, except for Amanda's, Q had probably made the other messages up.

"Well, honestly, did you think I was the one who wrote 'Congratulations, now maybe Q will shut the hell up about you?'"

Picard hadn't noticed that one. He looked back at the card. There the note was, in the top left corner. "I missed that." He looked back up at Q. "So am I to assume, then, that I won't see you again? Since you're no longer humanity's judge?"

"I never said that," Q said with a sardonic smile. "But if you see me after this, I'll be on personal business, not as an emissary of the Continuum."

"I'm not sure whether that's an improvement or not."

"Oh, come now, Jean-Luc. The Continuum recognizes you as people, now. If I came for a visit I'd be a harmless puppy dog."

Picard sipped at his champagne to hide his smile. "Somehow I'm having great difficulty imagining you as a harmless anything, much less a puppy."

"Well. Mostly harmless. I'm not a tame lion, after all."

That did draw a chuckle from Picard, as he recognized the Narnia reference. "No, I suppose you're not. Though you're no Aslan, either."

"True. I never told anyone they couldn't come with me to Paradise because they liked boys and makeup." Q finished his champagne in a single draught. "Admit it, Jean-Luc. If you never saw me again, wouldn't you miss me just the eensiest teeniest bit?"

It was characteristic of their usual banter, but there was something plaintive in Q's tone, something about his face that suggested he was taking the question just a little bit more seriously than he'd phrased it. Picard considered. "Is there a realistic possibility of that happening, Q? There's hardly a point to missing you if you don't in fact go away."

He wasn't imagining it. There was something almost sad about Q's smile, even if his tone was amused. "You never know. It's a dangerous universe."

"But not for you."

"Oh, you'd be surprised." Q poured himself another glass of champagne, oddly using his hands to do it instead of snapping his glass full. "A Q is dead, Picard."

Picard set his glass down on the table. "Executed? Like Amanda's parents? Or is there some sort of natural disaster that can harm you?"

"Worse. Suicide." Q sipped his champagne, not looking at Picard. "And I gave him the means to do it."

The last time Picard had heard this tone from Q, Q had been talking about his own impending suicide, although Picard hadn't recognized that at the time. "Why?" he asked quietly.

"He wanted to be free." Q looked at nothing. "He wanted all of us to be free, but for him, freedom was death. I... have to try to convince the Continuum that freedom isn't death. I don't know..." Finally he looked at Picard. "I don't know what's going to happen. There's a lot going on at home. I might... not come back."

"Will they exile you to mortality again? Or execute you?"

"I certainly hope not, but... the thought has crossed my mind that those possibilities could be on the table, yes." He looked away again. "So. If I never came back, would you miss me? Even slightly?"

The funny thing was that he would. Especially if things had just changed so that Q would no longer be a danger to his ship or to humanity. Q was incredibly irritating, yes, but he was fascinating at the same time, and if there was an opportunity to spend time with him, to learn about him, without risk - or where the only risk was to himself, not his crew or his species - well, it would indeed sadden him if that opportunity never materialized because Q had been killed or imprisoned somehow. He didn't wish Q any harm, and given what he knew about Amanda's parents' fate, perhaps Q's cause was one worth fighting for, but it was more than that. And more than simple fascination with what was alien. But before Picard was willing to tell Q any of this, even the very little he was willing to tell Q at all, he needed to confirm something.

Picard took a deep breath. "May I ask you something, Q? Truthfully?"

Q looked interested, pushing aside the melancholy expression he'd started to wear. "You have a question for me, mon capitaine? I can't promise you I can or will choose to answer you, but go ahead and ask. I can at least agree that I'll answer seriously if I choose to answer at all."

"You don't read my mind, do you?"

"An interesting question." Q raised his eyebrows. "Don't or can't?"

"Don't. I'm well aware that you can. You told Commander Riker that you got the Napoleonic marshal costume you wore when you tried to offer him your powers from my mind."

"So why do you think I don't?"

Picard picked up the diploma and looked at it, trying to project a casual air. "I have my reasons."

"Oh, now I'm extraordinarily curious." Q walked around behind him, leaning over his shoulder. With a great effort, Picard controlled the shiver that wanted to go through him at the entity's closeness. "What could possibly make you think I don't read your mind?"

"If you were reading my mind, you'd know, wouldn't you?"

Q grinned. "Touche, mon capitaine." He almost danced away, one of those sudden but strangely graceful motions Q was always making, as if there was so much energy pent in his form that he couldn't simply do anything - he always had to make his movements somehow more than normal, larger than life. From the side of the table, Q leaned forward toward him, both hands on the table supporting him. "No, I haven't read your mind since... well, since the encounter you mentioned. It didn't give me any advantage - you beat me twice while I was reading your mind. Frankly, I've done better in our little contests since I stopped." He straightened up and shrugged. "Besides, it makes things more exciting."

"And have you ever altered my mind or emotions in any way?"

Q's eyes narrowed. "Do you have reason to think I did?"

"I'm simply asking."

Q picked up his glass of champagne and finished it in a single gulp, setting it down hard on the table. "Once." He looked angry, although whether at Picard for asking the question or himself - for answering? For having done it in the first place? - it was impossible to say.

Picard's heart sank. He had been very much hoping that that the answer was "no". "When you kidnapped me and asked to join the crew, before you threw us to the Borg?" he asked, his voice hard.

Q actually looked embarrassed. "I couldn't get around 'don't cross the path of humanity ever again' with a legalistic fiction."

Picard blinked. "What?"

"I take it you rewatched the recording? I was going to get you to change the parameters of the bet, once it was obvious Riker wasn't going to take the offer, but the Continuum grabbed me, and... sorry. You were the most interesting thing around at the time... especially after the Continuum told me to take a walk. I wasn't going to not interact with you just because of a stupid bet that I'd have gotten you to go back on if the Continuum had given me five measly more minutes. So I made you think the bet was that I shouldn't go near your ship or your crew."

"That's... all you did? Nothing else?"

"Why? Were you thinking I did something else?"

Picard took a deep breath. He hadn't been expecting that. Ironic that Q had actually altered his mind during the incident he had thought Q might have, but not in the way he had thought Q might have done. "If you didn't do it, then it's not important what I thought you did."

"Oh, you can't leave me hanging like this, Jean-Luc. Come on. Tell me."

Picard shook his head. "It really isn't important, Q. What matters is that you didn't do it. I can't say I'm happy that you did alter my mind, but what you really did do is trivial in comparison to what I feared, and I'm relieved that it turns out that was all."

"So you thought I did something particularly heinous." Q sat down on the table and leaned forward ostentatiously. "I'm positively dying of curiosity now. What did you think I did to your mind?"

"It really isn't important, Q-"

"You do realize that just because I've chosen not to read your mind doesn't mean I can't? I won't be put off with repeated declarations of the unimportance of the atrocity that I didn't commit. Either you tell me what you thought I might have done to you, or I'll read your mind and find out."

Picard's eyes narrowed, and he glared at Q. Maybe he should have expected that. Q was highly intelligent, curious about anything that interested him, and massively interested in himself; of course he wouldn't be deterred by Picard's demurrals. But Picard was angry at being put in a position where he couldn't keep this secret from Q, though - it wasn't something he'd ever wanted to admit - and he took refuge in that anger. "So it's quite all right to violate my mental privacy if I have information you want badly enough?"

Q shrugged. "I didn't refrain from reading your mind out of a moral objection, mon capitaine. It simply made things more interesting. Right now, though, what I'm most interested in is finding out what you thought I did to you." His voice grew hard at the end, and Picard knew he was serious. He really would read Picard's mind to find out, and as humiliating as it would be to tell him, it would be far, far worse to let him just roam around in Picard's head, with no control over which parts of it he learned.

"Oh, well, then, since plainly everything in the universe must exist to interest you. If you absolutely insist on knowing, I wondered if you might have influenced my mind to make me attracted to you. Is that what you wanted to know?" he snapped.

Q was obviously taken aback. "Attracted... to me?"

"I wasn't aware that part of the definition of omnipotence included deafness."

"Why would you... but I researched your entire life. You've only ever been interested in women, Picard."

"Yes, and so when you kidnapped me, and I found that, despite my best efforts to ignore you I was actually finding your presence... rather more stimulating than I wished... you can see why I might have drawn the conclusion that you were affecting my mind somehow."

Even now the thought made him both angry and inappropriately excited, remembering. Q had spent the few hours on the shuttlecraft hovering behind him, giving him hugs while telling Picard he was so happy Picard had decided to spend so very much time with him and he hoped Picard wouldn't relent because Q was enjoying his company, whispering in his ear, invading his personal space, and generally behaving like some sort of brooding Byronic villain in a Victorian gothic, with Picard cast as the noble, reluctant heroine. Picard had been enraged at the whole thing, and utterly determined to hold out for as long as it took... until he had realized, to his horror, that Q's warm breath on his ear and Q's voice taunting him and the fluid motion of Q's body as he practically danced around the shuttlecraft, playing handball, leaping into Picard's territory, sitting on the dashboard and then springing off it to pace the shuttlecraft like a predator stalking... it had actually been getting him hard.

He'd tried desperately to wish it away, and then to ignore it, and he'd decided that Q had done this to him as a ploy to get what he wanted and it made him even more resolute about ignoring Q... except he couldn't ignore Q. The desire had compelled him to keep turning and watching the entity, and then he'd started to have truly inappropriate thoughts about those full lips and that tall body and putting his hands on Q's ass and right around that time he'd decided that he had to relent and let Q take them back to the ship, because if he didn't have his crew around him to center him and remind him of how deadly dangerous and untrustworthy Q was, he had been very much afraid he'd do something he would regret.

His face flushed with embarrassment, and a different sort of heat that even now he did not welcome, remembering it, and he would have given anything not to have had to say anything about it to Q... anything except the privacy of his own mind and the fine details of his inappropriate fantasies about Q, so with Q threatening to read his mind if he didn't speak voluntarily, he didn't have much of a choice.

Q stared at him, and then laughed. "Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no, mon petit pomme de terre, that was all you. I had absolutely nothing to do with it."

Picard glared at Q. "I am not your little potato, Q. Where do you even get these expressions? I don't think pomme de terre has been used as an endearment in centuries."

"So have you been nursing this secret grudge against me for ... for mind-controlling you into having the hots for me despite your general preference for women... ever since then?"

"No, I came to the conclusion that you probably hadn't done any such thing, and possibly didn't even know about it, later. But I've never known for certain."

"When did you decide I hadn't done it? That day? Later?"

"I never ruled it out that entire day. You were there to try to convince me to let you join the crew. Given that you were willing to throw us to the Borg to make me admit that we needed you, I wouldn't have put mind control past you. Then when you lost your powers, you showed up on my bridge naked and demanded that we give you sanctuary on the ship."

"I didn't demand, Picard. The way I remember it, I practically got on my knees and begged."

"Well, if you had actually done that instead of doing it metaphorically, I might have believed that that was what you were doing more quickly, but since what you were asking was so similar to what you'd been trying to do the time you threw us to the Borg, I thought this was simply more of the same."

Q smiled wryly. "You know, honestly, that didn't even occur to me? To me, the difference between myself without my powers and my actual self was so self-evident, I never even imagined you wouldn't be able to tell the difference."

"The major difference from our perspective was that you complained a great deal more."

Q laughed, snapping himself up a third glass. "All right. So if you thought I showed up naked to give you a free show, rather than that the Continuum couldn't be bothered to give me clothes, and you thought I was making the whole thing up to get close to you... when did you change your mind?"

Picard picked up his own glass again and sipped at it. He really didn't want to be talking about this, and any minute now he expected Q to openly laugh at him, mock him for the interest he'd never wanted to have in the first place. But on the other hand, it seemed that Q was fascinated enough by the glimpse into how he was seen by Picard that he hadn't started the mockery yet. In fact it looked as if he were hanging on Picard's words. Perhaps Picard could be Scheherezade, and keep Q from openly tormenting him or doing something even more obnoxious by telling Q the stories he wanted to hear. And since it was pointless to try to lie to someone who could check up on it by reading his mind and who was probably intelligent enough to see through any fiction Picard might try to tell, he made the decision to answer Q's questions as truthfully and as fully as he could bear to, as long as it kept Q interested enough not to be a complete ass about it.

"It became obvious at the very end that you'd been telling the truth the whole time," he said. "That didn't mean you hadn't affected my mind - there was no reason to believe that something you'd done would wear off simply because you no longer had your powers - and while you didn't do anything, aside from the showing up naked, to try to play on it, I thought it was quite possible that you didn't want to try when you weren't in control. Human sexuality might be threatening to you if you felt yourself to be vulnerable."

Q practically choked on his champagne. "What, are you saying you thought I was afraid... of what, you raping me? How little do you think I think of you?"

"You did freeze a man solid for pointing a phaser, set on stun, at you, when we all know a phaser set on kill couldn't have harmed you."

"Yes, and I said that with what I knew of humanity, I wouldn't want to be taken captive, helpless, by humans. But then I turned around and handed myself over, helpless, to you. Don't be absurd, Jean-Luc. If I thought for a moment you were the kind of person who could take any sort of advantage of a helpless person in your power, would I have done that?"

Picard shrugged. "Still. There are many different kinds of threat. If you didn't have any sort of interest in me, you might not have wanted to risk trying to influence me that way out of fear that if you didn't follow through I would be angry at you. Or you simply didn't know how to do it subtly enough that you thought it would work. Or you didn't think it would work at all."

"Or I didn't know anything about it because this whole 'you're attracted to me' thing is not only not my doing but actually one of the most surprising things I've heard out of your mouth, ever."

"Well, yes, that was also a possibility. I didn't really feel confident that that was the reason, though, until you showed up in my room and said that Vash had found a weakness in me you'd been looking for for years, and you'd have been a woman if you'd known about it sooner."

Q grinned. "You know, I'd almost forgotten I said that."

"You do realize it was completely absurd?" Picard said sharply. "I was vulnerable to Vash because I liked her, personally, not because I was attracted to her. Admittedly I might not have liked her nearly so well if I hadn't been attracted to her, but a beautiful woman who turned up on my bridge and threatened to judge all humanity or destroy us wouldn't have gotten anything more out of me than you did."

"Mmm... that's debatable. You humans do react differently to people of different genders." Q circled the table over to him, standing next to him, hovering almost behind. "Which is why I find this whole thing so surprising. I'd have known if you had a past record of finding men attractive; I might then have suspected something of this." He shook his head. "Of all the times to decide not to read a mortal's mind. How is it that you can find me desirable when you aren't attracted to men? I thought those things were set in stone with you humans."

"I was surprised myself; that's why I thought you'd done it somehow. Normally, a man my age has a fairly good idea what he will find attractive in another person. But..." Picard took another sip of his drink. "Humans are more flexible than perhaps even I credited... certainly more than you seemed to believe. I've loved a wide variety of women in my life, but some of the ones I... react to most strongly, I suppose... are the ones who violate the rules of propriety and good taste, the ones with energy and power... tricksters, or boundary violators, or otherwise people who push the limits of polite society. Vash among them. Perhaps... perhaps I have a preference for women, but an even stronger preference for a type of personality, and I can find a being who exemplifies that personality sexually attractive regardless of what their body is actually shaped like. Though I find it hard to believe I'd respond... this way... if you were, say, a Horta. Or if you'd stayed an Aldebaran serpent."

"Does this bother you?" Q almost sounded solicitious.

"Oh, what do you think? Yes, I'm in lust with an all-powerful, probably asexual entity who wears this body just to have conversations with me but otherwise isn't remotely anything I could possibly understand, who thinks of me as a pet animal, and who causes massive interference with my life every time he shows up. Of course this bothers me, Q!"

"I meant that I'm a man."

"No! If you took female form I wouldn't be less bothered by this. Possibly moreso. Given my known proclivities, if you took a female form now Will and Beverly would probably jump to the conclusion you did it to seduce me, and I really don't need to deal with them trying to protect me from you."

"As if they could."

"Which is my point. I feel much better when our interactions stay between us, Q. I can deal with whatever you've come to do much more easily when I'm the only one affected. I don't like you threatening my crew, and I don't like fearing that you're going to decide to threaten my crew because of something they said or did in an attempt to protect me."

"Hmm." Q leaned over, propping himself on the table with one hand so he could get his head eye level with Picard's, facing him sideways with Picard intently staring down at the table as if doing so could keep Q from noticing that his face was burning. Picard was well aware that now that he'd opened the door and started admitting to how he felt about Q, it was probably completely improbable that the entity would not read his mind, or at least would not notice his body language, but he could at least try to pretend he could keep some secrets. "So you find me attractive. This bothers you because I'm dangerous and because you think I'm too unlike humans to possibly reciprocate your interest, but the fact that I'm in a male form doesn't bother you, even though you don't normally find men attractive. In fact you prefer that I stay in this form because you don't want your Number One and your red-haired would-be girlfriend to figure out that you want me. And you don't mind my showing up and tormenting you nearly as much when I don't involve your crew in it. That about sum it up?"

"I thought you might have figured it out, about the crew," Picard said softly. "It didn't escape my attention that you didn't actually involve them, the last two times. I... should probably thank you for that."

"Well, you're welcome, Picard, but it was no trouble at all. I like you better than I like your crew, as well." Q was grinning broadly. He straightened up. "So, if you thought I hadn't, after all, interfered with your mind... why did you ask me if I had?"

"You asked me if I'd miss you if you didn't come back." Picard breathed deeply. "I... would, actually. I don't know whether I have any good reasons for that. Most likely I shouldn't, but if you're no longer a threat to the crew and you won't be testing humanity any more... I did once say that you were fascinating."

"What you actually said was that to learn about me would be... what's that phrase you used? 'Frankly provocative.'"

"Well... yes. I think you know now why I might have used that particular word, though I assure you it was the more general sense of the term 'provocative' that I intended." He sipped at his champagne to give him a moment to muster his thoughts. "I don't think I'm shallow enough to want to risk danger just because I find you attractive. I think it's the other way around; I think that I find you attractive because I find you interesting, as unbelievably irritating as you also are most of the time. If you're not going to endanger my species or my crew... yes. I'll miss you if I don't see you again. Which is not to say that I'll be in the slightest pleased if you show up while I'm in the middle of a mission and make trouble or interfere, mind."

"Oh, of course not." Q put down his glass and stood entirely too close to Picard. "There's something you don't know here, though."

Warily Picard took a half step back. "What would that be?"

Q looked down at him intently. "For millennia, the Continuum has forbidden any... emotional involvement outside itself. We're not allowed to... well, to love, befriend, or otherwise have strong emotional attachments to any being of lesser nature than ours if they know what we are. Either we must lie, and pretend to be mortal, or we aren't supposed to be anything other than god and man, immortal and mortal, keep ourselves on a pedestal and never, ever reach down to touch... metaphorically speaking, anyway. But... I'm not asexual. And you're not my pet. Not by the standards you hold your pets under, anyway."

He paused for a moment, as if to let that sink in. Then Q took a deep breath too, and continued. "The conflict in the Continuum right now is between those who fear any change, who want things to continue as they are until the end of time and want those of us who are dying of boredom to just shut up and learn to like it, and between those of us who want freedom. I've had the freedom to raise hell with mortals, to put you on trial, test you, play with you... maybe not to go overboard with it, but that was never what I actually wanted. I spread chaos throughout the universe because I wasn't allowed to go after what I really wanted."

"And what was it that you really wanted?"

This time it was Q who looked away, perching on the side of the table and gazing out into nothing. "There's a reason I said you were the closest thing I had to a friend, Jean-Luc. I wanted... that. Or more. From some mortal of interest... but after the incident with Riker, the mortal I actually wanted was you." He glanced back at Picard. "And I expected that you would die long before I got the Continuum to change its attitudes and let me pursue anything more than being your tester. But things... I might possibly have the opportunity to make things change." He slid off the table again, facing Picard. "I have supporters, now. There's other Q willing to stick their necks out and admit that they want freedom, too. We might all end up dead or thrown out of the Continuum... or we might, just, successfully change our world, and win."

"So if you do succeed..."

"If we succeed... things will be different. And I'd be allowed to..." Q made a face, looking away for a moment. "Ugh, I hate this word, your language makes it sound so sappy and weak. But I suppose I have to work with what I've got... I'd be allowed to pursue close friendships with mortals." His voice was much more hesitant than Picard had ever heard Q's voice to be, and while he was facing Picard he wasn't quite looking at him, his eyes pointed rather more floorward as if Picard's shoes were of great interest to him. "To, uh... to love them. Maybe. I mean, I'd be allowed to try. Right now, even admitting to a mortal that I'm in love with them but can't do anything about it or I could be stripped of my powers again is against the rules." For a moment he met Picard's eyes again. "Do you understand, Jean-Luc?"

Of course he understood. The admission Q was very carefully not actually making but plainly wanted to make was more than Picard had ever imagined. He'd thought it was perhaps possible that Q could have an interest in human sexuality, perhaps as an experiment, but the idea that Q could have feelings involved was stunning, and the depth of his own reaction to that not-quite-admission made Picard wonder if his own feelings might in fact be far more than fascination and lust. His heart was whirring, the sensation he'd learned to associate with the feelings that would have made it pound if it had still been his original heart. "Are you supposed to use your powers to protect yourself?" he asked, lightly.

"From what?"

He pulled Q's head down and kissed him. Q responded as if he were desperate, as if he were drowning and the kiss had tossed him a lifeline. His arms went around Picard, pulling him close, and Picard wrapped his own arms around Q's lower back, resisting the powerful temptation to slide his hands lower and see exactly how human Q's responses were. Q was certainly behaving the way a human might during a kiss. Picard's mind involuntarily went to images, fantasies of Q undressed and on his bed or down on the floor right here, writhing, face lost in pleasure as Picard's hands roamed over him.

He let go a moment before Q did, and backed away. "From that," he said hoarsely.

Q was breathing hard, his face flushed. Evidently his emulation of a human body was very thorough. That realization didn't really help Picard in pushing the fantasies away.

"I'm not going to get thrown out of the Continuum for a kiss, no," he said, his own voice hoarse. "I could even have sex with you if that was all it was, but I've made it too obvious that I'm not objective about humans anymore, or you, and they'd all know... they'd all know that that wasn't all it was." Q took a deep breath. "I want you to know... I'm not likely to survive this if I fail. So either I'll win the right to have a mortal lover, and... if that's what you want, we could..." He trailed off, uncharacteristically indirect, again not meeting Picard's eyes... and then he looked up again, his voice back to normal. "Or you'll never see me again. Either way things will change, but they would have anyway since I'm not testing you anymore."

"If there's anything I can do to help you..."

Q actually looked as if he was thinking about it, then shook his head. "No, probably not. You're personally involved and they'd know it." He smiled again, wistfully, the expression managing to combine melancholy and self-mockery at the same time. "So, given the reasonable possibility that I might die, I'd kind of like to know if I have a chance. If I live through this, if I come back... would you really want me? I mean, quite aside from this physical thing you seem to have successfully been hiding from me for years?"

"I find that hard to believe, honestly. Why did you climb into my bed and pet me when I thought you were Marta if you didn't know?"

Q shrugged. "It made you jump. It was funny. Most human men will react to being fondled by a man they don't like whether they're secretly attracted to him or not. And you're dodging my question."

Picard looked at him evenly. "I rather thought I answered the question when I kissed you. But if the nigh-omniscient entity actually needs things spelled out for him..."

Q laughed. "But see, without reading your mind I don't know whether that's a 'goodbye because you might die' gesture or an indication that you'd rip off all my clothes and ravish me right now if you didn't know the Continuum won't permit me to let you."

The idea of ripping off all of Q's clothes and ravishing him right now was, in fact, the much more appealing option, but Picard understood prioritizing duty over desire. What rather amazed him was that Q apparently understood it too. Which made the possibility of a relationship with him, if he succeeded, almost plausible - neither Q the tester of humanity nor Q the immature selfish brat could be trusted in sex, let alone with any deeper emotion than that, but if the tests were done and Q had the maturity to understand doing what must be done rather than what he wanted to do...

"If you come back... I'm hardly ready to promise you eternal love and devotion, Q, but I am... definitely interested in seeing where this could take us, so long as I know my crew won't be affected any way." He smiled sardonically. "That last option you mention sounds rather attractive, to be honest."

"Oh, well then I'll definitely have to make sure I survive this," Q said with a laugh. He took a step backward, hand raised as if to snap. Picard reached out and caught his hand.

"Q." He looked intently into the entity's eyes. "I mean it. One way or another... come back if you can. Please."

"Oh, believe me, if there's any way possible I will." Q grinned. "I knew I was fighting for the right to try to win you over, Jean-Luc, but I thought I'd have to take a female form and perform some sort of Herculean, or maybe Sisyphean, tasks to get you to accept me. I had no idea you were more or less already won, and all I had to do was tell you I wasn't testing your species anymore and I won't bug your crew."

"Well, I'm gratified that I could surprise you." He let go of Q's hand, stepped forward, and kissed Q again, a short caress of lips this time. "Good luck."

"Thanks. I think I'll need it."

And then he snapped his fingers and was gone, along with all the party supplies except for the card and the diploma.

Picard picked them up. He needed to let the staff, and Starfleet, know about humanity being safe from the Q's tests. He didn't need to tell them the rest of it, though. And since if he called a staff meeting right now, it would be impossible to hide his roiling emotions from Counselor Troi, and it was late anyway... best to do it in the morning.

He went to bed, but for hours could not sleep, the taste of Q on his lips and the memory of Q's body against his keeping him awake.

For updates and notes about my work, visit my Livejournal at alara-r dot livejournal dot com. (Fanfiction dot net strips links, so I have to write it out like that.)

Support my writing and see sneak previews, incompletes, outlines and working notes! Maybe even vote on what I write next, or get me to write you a fic. See my account at www dot dot com slash alarajrogers.