A friend of mine once asked me what I would do when Jean-Luc Picard died. "What will you play with then?" he said, shimmering and expanding his essence in an expression I knew to be a smile.
I shimmered and expanded back. I was expected to make light of it, to think light of it, to never be seriously worried at the prospect of a death, being unable to die myself. I said something clever, something to put him laughing and to forget about whatever concern had prompted him to ask. Something like, "I'm counting down the days. It's then I can start playing."
What will I do when Jean-Luc dies? Truthfully? I have no idea.
I have pondered the day when he no longer permits me to save his life. I have saved his life twice, once from a faulty heart malfunction compliments of a Nausican in a bar, once from an explosion of the Enterprise. During the latter I saved his entire crew in the process which softened the deal for him. I have pondered the day when it goes further than that, when I will save his life despite his knowledge, despite even his explicit instructions to the contrary, the day when he becomes aware of my doing that, having lived to one-hundred and fifty or so without dying, without even aging. The day when he orders me to let him age—to, essentially, watch him die. We'll argue. I have imagined that argument with amusement, yes, but usually with an aching dread.
And how quickly it will come! In thirty years he's a hundred. Fifty years, a hundred and twenty. Fifty years is nothing to me, a speck of dust floating through the glow of my life.
You can understand why I've been bothering him more than usual lately.
Nothing intrusive. Nothing dramatic. Simply this: I have taken to being in his quarters when he retires for the evening.
That first night when he came through the door, I was lying across his bed. The way he startled, you'd think I was naked instead of clothed in my usual Starfleet reds.
"You," he said.
But I explained to him, and pleasantly, that I would remain with him for one hour, only one hour, that he had no choice in the matter and no time would be lost anyway. I had slipped him out of time. He wouldn't age, nothing would change, no one would miss him and once the hour was done I would resume the clock and vanish into the stars, whereupon he could go about his business as he pleased.
"Win-win," I said with an amicable shrug, having stood from the bed.
He laughed at me, a belly laugh making his head tilt back. I stood straighter. It was as if he saw exactly what I was doing, and I didn't want to admit to anything. I didn't want to alarm him with his own mortality, I told myself, not wanting to think about my feelings more than that.
"What the hell is this about, Q?"
"Exactly what I said it was about. Shall I replay it for you?"
"You… want to speak with me… for one hour's time."
"Speak, whisper, intone, sit and stare at each other over candlelight. I don't care what. The main condition is that we are both here."
He rolled his eyes at the floor. Shuffling around me, he called Earl Gray tea out of his computer. "I see no winning here, Q."
"You have an entire hour with a Q." I held out my hands. "Exclusively. My undivided attention. You don't see how that might be good for you?"
He shot me a look to say he did not. He sat on a couch against the window, clasping his tea like it was a beggar's cup, like it was raining and he was in for a long, cold war against the elements. He turned away from me.
"Oh, I know," I groaned. "It's sheer torture being in the same room with me, but I'm flattered you're making the best of it." I paused for him to note the sarcasm. He didn't.
I tried to reason with him. "Compared to anything else we've done together, this is nothing. Usually I take you somewhere. Somewhere exciting. Do you think your pedantic starship excites me? But you're comfortable here. You see? I'm doing what I always do, except I'm meeting you halfway."
"Halfway," he said, unconvinced.
"Compromise. It's what one does when there are two incompatible wishes. I wish to speak with you. And you wish for anything but."
That last part wasn't true. I knew it wasn't true, but I was starting with the image he projected and working from there.
He glanced up at me, suspicion all over his features.
I might have told him I knew how he really felt. I might have revealed I had heard him twice confess to Riker that I was capable of kindness, which for Jean-Luc Picard to confess of me betrayed something more than mere interest. I might have argued I wasn't acting without provocation, considering.
He lowered his eyes. He was too proud to answer.
As was I, I suppose—too proud to go further than he would. I was Q. I could drain his mind in an instant and have it spread between us on the floor, the facts, there, where he would have to acknowledge them. "We could be friends," I might have said. "We are friends, aren't we?"
Instead, I lay on the bed. The bed as if to tell him he would not be sleeping during my hour. During my hour, he would talk to me or he would do nothing.
Total silence prevailed except for those few quiet slurps he made with his tea. I left him after an hour as I had promised.
The next evening, I greeted him at the door. He didn't react, going straight to the replicator.
"You remembered," I said pleasantly.
"I've alerted the staff to your presence. I can't stop you, Q, but I can ask you to stay away from my ship, my crew. You've honored that in the past."
"I have no intention of touching your crew. I'm not here for them, I'm here for you."
He nodded to himself. "Thank you." And said nothing else for the hour.
And nothing for the next two evenings either. He was sending me a message. But I knew him, and I knew that he would break eventually. I was playing the long game. A Q can afford to do that.
There was a wooden sculpture on the coffee table where he took his tea. When he came through the door, I was sitting on the table, examining it. "What's this?" I asked him. When he didn't reply, I waited until he sat. Then I slid my finger along the sculpture. He sipped his tea to show how unfazed he was. A flame burst from my thumb. I held it under, and with a little nudge from me part of the sculpture began to smoke and catch fire.
He stiffened. "Q."
"Stop that. Q, you're going to fix that."
The air smelled of burnt cedar. "I am?"
"Dammit, Q." He shoved his tea on the table, spilling it in the process. He went to the windows, adjusting his uniform, squeezing his hands into fists. Finally, there was that frustration that had been brewing underneath.
I surged with pleasure. Externally, however, I revealed nothing.
"I'll fix it if you tell me where it came from," I said over the whooshing of the flame. Half of the sculpture was engulfed.
He mumbled something, something any normal human ear wouldn't have picked up. Mine did.
"You and your false compromises," he said.
I couldn't resist a response. "It isn't fair. I admit that. But nothing with me ever is. That's the difference between you and between me." I didn't mean it spitefully, and I hoped he heard it in my voice. It was the difference between us, between having power and having none.
I blew the flame out and restored the sculpture to what it had been. I even cleaned up the mess he'd made with his tea.
He looked at me, hard and long. Half of his face glowed white with starlight, half in shade.
"From my father," he said. "One of the few gifts he gave me."
"You didn't have to answer, you know. You called my bluff, you won that round. What was the occasion?"
He paused to remember. "For working my first year in the winery. I was twelve. Maybe thirteen. He wanted to encourage me on in the family business, if I remember correctly."
I nodded and cupped my hands around my knee.
"He never wanted me to join Starfleet," Picard said. "We argued about that often…"
It was more than he'd wanted to say. His stopping point, that night.
The next night, he continued to behave as if I wasn't there—even after I took a book out of his hands and put it back on the shelf, then five minutes later began to read it myself. He preferred staring at the floor to speaking with me. It must have been difficult for him, walking through a door and transforming from a captain of a thousand into… this. But I couldn't help that.
The seventh night I was in my usual spot on the bed. He asked me from the doorway after he was sure it had closed, the weariness in his voice palpable, "Q, how long will this continue?"
"Does it matter? You lose nothing by my presence here. Not time, not reputation, not rest."
I smiled at the ceiling. "After a ten hour shift with your bumbling crew, if you're not already foaming at the mouth nothing I say will harm you. Mon capitaine, you are iron." I laughed a puff through my nose. "Sanity."
Fifteen minutes later, I rolled to my side and asked him, "Why didn't your father want you in Starfleet? Not that I don't wholeheartedly agree with him."
I heard the slow exhale of him realizing something. "If my past is what you want, help yourself. I can't stop you from looking. You would see anything you wanted better than I could relay it."
"Maybe I want to hear you tell me."
"Ah," he said. "You could probably arrange that too."
"True, I could force you to tell me..."
"You could also conjure up some other version of myself. Some alternate reality. Can't you do that, Q? Don't you skip through the multiverses as deftly as we do the stars? Can't you manipulate them as this one?"
"It's cute how you remind me of my power."
"It was a question."
"Yes to all the above. This is fun. Ask me something else about me."
He slurped his tea. His silence amused and sobered me all at once. I strolled towards him.
"Memories are different from facts," I said. "Facts die with the past. It's only the memories that live on, that mean anything to anyone. I want to know what you think of your father, Jean-Luc, not how your father actually was. Your memory is all that matters as far as that is concerned. And yes, I could pester some other version of you, but I'd probably run into some over version of me. I don't love doing that."
He glared at me. "Is that really how it works?"
I smiled. "Would you like to see?"
"No. No, I would not like to see. Q, I'm trying to get rid of you." He laughed. "You're the scorned lover who won't take a hint."
"That's an interesting simile."
"You're Titiana, deeply confused."
"Which makes you the fool with the ass's head?"
"You keep telling me how insignificant I am—"
"When have I ever called you that?" I interjected.
"—how flattered I should be that you lock me up like this."
"When I say flattered I don't mean flattered." I sat across from him. "Jean-Luc, why is it every time I see you it ends in an argument?"
"You. You create chaos wherever you go. You force your will on others."
"What am I forcing? I am yours, Jean-Luc, yours for this hour, to talk to, to ignore. Ask me anything, I'll give it to you. I want to give it to you. You must know it's always been this way."
"Very well. I ask you to leave the Enterprise."
"Unfair. You're only ever on the Enterprise."
"Yes. I ask for you to leave me alone."
I wasn't going to play that game again. "You pretend to despise me, but I know it isn't true."
His jaw was tense as he stared me down. His eyes were narrowed, bead-like. He wanted me to believe him. All of his posture screamed it: I am telling you the truth dammit. I went deeper than that.
I've never made a habit of invading human minds. I like to gloat that I can, but in practice I'm far more conservative. Most humans are boring anyway, and with Jean-Luc I suppose I had never felt comfortable taking the liberty. It was the first time I had touched his mind since Farpoint, the first time I had wanted to, and so I was there, instantly, feeling his thoughts like so many fibers of a cloth. I found the area I wanted—the threads that spoke of me in muted colors and flimsier strands—and I pushed in, past the thoughts he was having now to the thoughts he'd had two or three years ago, after I had spared his life and the lives of his race. The thoughts nine years ago, when we had first met. Everything in between. I saw all of it at once.
It was as I expected. He didn't hate me. Some of the time he thought well of me. I found amusement at my quips. I found disappointment at my apathy for the mortals he held so dear. There, I thought, he wants me to improve. That means something.
And then I saw what I was looking for, the reason for his distance. Fear. It lurked in his subconscious—Jean-Luc could never consciously be afraid—but it was there, fueling him now. I was too powerful. Too risky to keep around for long. What would I meddle in next? What would be the cost?
But more importantly than seeing his mind, I let him feel that I was seeing it. It felt less like I was violating him if he knew.
His head twitched to the side. His eyes fell. "Stop," he said darkly.
So I did.
In the silence that followed, I leaned toward him. I spoke very quietly, although no one but he was listening. "You don't have to fear me, Jean-Luc. I would never harm you."
His voice was venom. "Get out. Get out of my quarters, now. I never want to see you again. Get out, Q. You look again, you see how I serious I am about that."
Finally. I had shaken him at last.
I stood, feeling as though I had won a great victory. I plopped into his bed. My fingers slipped over my mouth, hiding my smile.