Well, everybody, this is a followup to The Best of All Possible Worlds. I didn't intend to write it, but I started wondering what Picard would be like after living with an omnipotent immortal lover for twenty years, and here you go. This story refers to events that occurred in BOAPW, so parts of it may not make a lot of sense if you haven't read it. There's enough purple angst in here to make even me happy, so take this as a MAJOR SCHMALTZ ALERT. There's a little sex, of course. 'Our' Jean-Luc has a wife and children, and some of them show up; Q's in here, naturally. Let's see, same naming convention as before. Our Jean-Luc is 'Jean-Luc.' A/U Jean- Luc is 'Picard,' except Beverly addresses him directly as Jean-Luc. Double slashes, like this, '//,' indicate telepathic communication. I suppose I should round up the usual disclaimers and caveats: Some of the characters belong to Paramount as does the Star Trek Universe, and I'm not making any money off them. Feel free to circulate this story, but keep headers intact. This contains a few graphic descriptions of m/m sexual activity, so mom, dad, hide the children. My sincere thanks to Ruth and Alara for their helpful comments. That said, enjoy.

It's a strange kind of love affair...
A symphony of sorts
A strange kind of love affair...
A declaration of war...
No I won't be here tomorrow night...
You won't see me smiling
Tomorrow when it's very dark... No crying...
Well I think that is the meaning of love...
And I prefer to kick it
Yes I think that is the meaning of love,
But I'd prefer to kick it.

Kick the habit...
Well I loved you more than life itself,
(Nothing like forever more)
but I'd prefer to kick it
(Something like dying)
Yes I loved you more than life itself
But I'm prepared to kick it
I think that is the meaning of love...

--Kick It, Stevie Nicks

In the Valley of the Shadow

Jeanita Danzik

The Emperor Wants... It still gratified him to hear those words, even after twenty years. His personal servants never spoke to each other except to say those words. To his ministers, those three words were decrees, and whatever statement followed them was as immutable as natural law. For every being in this arm of the galaxy, Jean-Luc Picard, former captain of the ISS Enterprise, was he-whose-word-is-obeyed, and it suited him perfectly.

'And now the emperor wants his lover,' he thought. He turned over in his ocean-sized bed, for all the world like a pea on a platter. "Q?"

Q materialized immediately and they lay face to face under the quilted silken coverlet.

"The emperor wants to be held." It was a lazy, friendly command.

"The emperor is a frightened child," his lover opined with a complete lack of malice.

"The emperor knows this. The emperor doesn't care." He waited as Q settled in and wrapped his arms around him. Picard breathed a deep sigh of contentment as he nestled comfortably against Q's side. As the years passed he cared less and less about defending his image of himself as cold and unneeding, at least with Q. To his unending surprise, he found that it made their relationship much easier to handle. The truth was, he didn't feel so very hard and tough lately, and he knew Q could sense this because the immortal had been at pains to give him everything he wanted.

Q could be surprisingly tender and compassionate when he wasn't feeling challenged, but Picard had learned the hard way that Q had no compunctions about rubbing his nose in his mortal fragility. In the early days they'd fought one another for dominance, and in fits of pique Q fomented more than one palace rebellion. That hadn't happened for a long time, but it made for an interesting history. Looking back, Picard thought it made his reign appear more natural, less an effect of a stormy, years-long affair with an omnipotent immortal and more the normal rise to power of a gifted man. Not that it mattered now. Things had been quiet for almost a decade, and between the two of them there was no pretending. It was Q's power, his abilities, which had allowed Picard to reign successfully for the past twenty years, and he made no secret of his gratitude. They'd made mistakes together and learned together and his empire was a better place for their determined efforts, both public and private. He liked where he was, and what he had become.

He had one standing demand, however, that he insisted Q obey. "When you get bored, go," he'd told Q. "Leave me alive or not, as you choose, but do not stay."

But Q evidently found the arrangement satisfactory because he was still here. It was his presence that allowed a cranky ninety- six-year-old emperor to waste the morning in bed, being caressed and coddled against his lover's skin instead of wearing himself out fighting chaos and insurrection, like the last emperor had.

"I don't want to get up today," Picard murmured. He shifted slightly and laid a kiss on Q's chest.

"Then this is where we'll stay," Q agreed. He turned Picard over onto his back and began to kiss him in return. Over the years he'd maintained Picard's health at a perfect peak. He'd destroyed the effects of Irumodic syndrome, vanquished the arthritis that had begun to encroach upon his hands and knees, kept his appetite hearty, anything he could think of to keep Picard's body at it's optimum state. The reward for this was that Picard was still incredibly responsive, one of the most ferociously passionate lovers Q had ever had. He'd taken hundreds of others, naturally, but somehow this man, moaning beneath his touch, filled Q with an excitement none of the rest had been able to match. Of course, that could have been a result of longevity. Q didn't know. He'd never been in a relationship with any mortal that had lasted this long or been this intimate. He did know, however, that Picard loved him and trusted him, and in twenty years, not even an eyeblink by Q standards, he'd become a happier being than he'd ever thought possible.

'I grew up,' Q thought wryly. Most of his attention was occupied with driving Picard into an erotic frenzy, but he easily diverted enough concentration to dwell on one of his favorite topics. He could actually perceive a difference in his behavior and outlook as a direct result of sticking out this empire business with Picard. The two of them had learned how to govern their arm of the galaxy together, incidentally acquiring all sorts of interesting qualities like patience, persistence, endurance and stamina. Eventually they'd learned to apply these qualities to their relationship and then their lives had become magical. Being Q, he naturally gave himself a great deal of credit for this, but, he told himself contentedly, it was credit he deserved. Look how happy Picard was, and look how tenderly they loved each other.

And speaking of which... Q looked up.

"You or me?" He asked. It was their shorthand for figuring out which one would be on top. Picard turned over onto his stomach, then got up on his hands and knees.

"Me it is," Q answered his own question agreeably. He'd been hoping it would be him, but he'd learned a lot about fairness and sharing, and he knew he had to at least make the offer.

"Yes," Picard whispered as Q pushed in. "Q, it's good."

"Oh, yes," Q agreed. It was the last coherent sound they made for quite some time. They mated with wild abandon, then collapsed in a sweaty heap. Q panted against Picard's back for a few moments then thought them clean and dry again. He listened to Picard's breathing become normal, and when they were both somewhat quieter, put his arm around him.

"You still want to stay in bed?" Q asked.

Picard stretched luxuriously. The driving sense of duty that had gotten him to this point was beginning to lose it's ability to prod him into action. Lately he enjoyed being held more than he liked anything else, and that was Q's job. Given a choice between the fearsome adulation of strangers and a day spent in his lover's arms, there was no contest.

"What's scheduled for today?" He asked reluctantly.

Q reached out and idly scanned the chamberlains' thoughts. "Hm. Slavers, profiteers, revolutions." The usual, he started to say, but something unique caught his attention. "Oh, my. I think you'll want to get up for this. Remember Beverly Crusher? She's trying to get in to see you."

Beverly. He hadn't thought of her in years. With the ease of old habit his mind turned to Q who supplied him with the information he wanted about her. She had five children now. She still lived on New Hebrides where she occasionally practiced medicine. She'd told the chamberlain she was an old friend and wished to pay her respects, the standard lie from someone who wanted a favor.

Picard frowned. He almost considered asking Q what she really wanted but restrained himself. Sometimes Q wouldn't bother to inquire about things he thought Picard would want to discover for himself. Well, maybe he really hadn't wanted to sleep all day after all.

"How far down is she?" Most people never got past Picard's long-suffering, second-tier chamberlains. He had 300 of them who operated as combinations of gatekeeper and social worker, handling the thousands of personal requests Picard received. They were almost always busy.

"She's at the bottom." That meant she'd been lumped in with people who wanted Picard's endorsement for some poorly-thought-out scheme. Or else they had a marvelous, perfectly valid reason why their planet, of all the thousands, should be made exempt from one of the Emperor's laws.

Picard took a leisurely swim, ate, then called for his servants and told them to bring Beverly Crusher to his receiving chamber at once. He then allowed them to dress him in his usual simple tunic and pants. It was a calculated effect, because by the time supplicants arrived in front of his throne, they'd already been dazzled by the opulence around them. They were expecting the Almighty himself when they reached his receiving chamber, and the rather ordinary looking human always surprised them.

Picard could see the amazement on their faces, and feel it in their minds, and it always made him laugh. He watched their expressions shift as it dawned on them that this was as close as they would ever come to seeing god, and god could dress however he chose. Then their posture would shift slightly and they would abase themselves just a wee bit more sincerely.

The woman standing in front of him now, however, was one of the few people who knew what to expect.


"Highest and Most Exalted One." She used the appropriate form of address, beginning the elaborate series of bows that was standard when meeting Emperor Picard.

"Oh, stop it," Picard snapped in mild annoyance. He didn't feel like being formal today. He didn't feel like being here at all, but Beverly had been willing to expend the time and energy to work her way through the bureaucratic machine that protected him from the millions of demands on his time, and he wanted her to tell him why.

She looked up and gave him a wry smile as she pulled her hood off her face. Her hair had gone white, and there were many more lines around her eyes. The changes suited her well; she was as beautiful in her maturity as she'd been in her youth.

"The years have been good to you," he smiled.

She nodded her acceptance. "And to you, Jean-Luc."

That broke their slight tension, and he beckoned her forward. Picard had to wave his guards down as she approached the dais because they'd drawn their phasers the second Beverly moved towards him.

"It's all right," he spoke to her startlement. "They're here to protect me." In fact they were utterly redundant. No one got in to see Picard unless Q had thoroughly inspected them first, but they made this concession to propriety because his ministers would have been scandalized (and tempted) to see him go unwatched.

"I've been away too long," she said by way of apology.

He waved that away too. "Tell me how you've been, Beverly."

"I've been well, Jean-Luc." She was cautious with him, he could sense that, and he looked for a way to break through her reserve.

"Beverly, I don't suppose you'd let me apologize for the way I treated you all those years ago." He could plunge right in to the heart of things because he was The Emperor and could do whatever he wanted.

Beverly was obviously surprised, and then her rage flashed over him like a small explosion. "The past is behind us, Jean-Luc."

It was a careful answer, the only appropriate response, really, and he decided to help her. "I don't blame you for being angry." He could have intuited her response even if he hadn't been able to hear her thoughts clearly; 'You kill my husband and my son and *now* you apologize,' but behind that burst of fury, a surprisingly rational voice, smaller, but there; 'He really means it--he has to. He knows it wouldn't mean anything to me so he has no reason to do it for effect.' And with that he sensed a sudden affirming of her decision to come here, and a sense of giddy relief that this course of action was the correct one.

Picard stood and took Beverly by the arm, ignoring the way his guards straightened to attention. Leading her away from the throne room, he waved his escort away and walked out onto the balcony with her. "We'll be able to talk here," he said, meaning no one would overhear their conversation.

Beverly gave him one of her knowing smiles. "I'm glad you agreed to talk to me. I would have hated to waste the story I prepared."

"And what was your story?" Picard decided that he enjoyed her company. She was such a cool-headed schemer, and she was so patient with her machinations that he'd always harbored a secret admiration for her.

"Well," she smiled at him, that same mischievous smile she always wore while plotting, "As you know, I'm governor of New Hebrides."

He nodded. He hadn't known. New Hebrides was small, out of the way and unimportant, but he could sense she was telling the truth.

"My brother, the former governor, died unexpectedly and without heirs, and the post is hereditary."

Picard smiled. One day she would tell him that story to his great amusement.

Shortly after taking office, she told him, she'd bought a mining operation. It was the excuse she needed to come see him.

Picard nodded again. One of his idiosyncratic dictates was that he didn't allow mining without his express permission. And an old acquaintance from his days as a starship captain would certainly try to prevail upon that friendship to get him to bend the rules for her.

"So when I told them I wanted to go pay my respects to you, they understood."

"Of course. Sensible, Beverly, but what is the real reason?"

She stopped walking and turned to face him. "Jean-Luc as soon as my brother died, some of his friends began to drop hints about a project he was working on. I searched his computer and found some files he kept hidden. I thought you should see them for yourself so I brought a copy with me, but the bottom line is, they detail a plan by a group of... entrepreneurs to sponsor a private expedition to cross into the alternate universe. My brother was working for the investors."

Picard wasn't expecting this at all. //Did you know about this?// he asked Q silently.

From his lover he got an impression of explosive rage. Someone was going to pay and pay for this.

//No.// Picard ordered. //Not until we discuss it.//

He focused his attention on his guest. "You have the copies here with you?" His voice was remarkably steady, and he could see and feel Beverly's admiration of his cool response.

She handed him a chip. "It's all in here."

Picard probed her carefully, and could feel Q doing the same, but although they could sense anxiety, neither one could find any evidence that her mind had been tampered with, or that she was withholding any information for her own gain. That was peculiar, but the best way to find out what she wanted was to ask.

"What do you get by telling me, Beverly?"

"My brother promised to let them use New Hebrides as the launch-point."

Of course. Wreaking havoc on her small, pretty, out-of-the-way planet. And Beverly wouldn't want that. He remembered a conversation they'd had several lifetimes ago, when he was a first lieutenant on the Stargazer. Beverly had come over to wait for Jack, and in order to keep her talking Picard had encouraged her to tell him all about her home planet. It was the first time he'd heard her speak with anything resembling honest emotion. New Hebrides meant everything to her, and he'd used that knowledge against her on more than one occasion.

He could see she remembered as well, and when she brought it up to him he gave her points for bravery.

"You know what that means to me, don't you?" She gave him a look that had daggers concealed in it. "Remember when you threatened my home? It was enough to keep me faithful until you got tired of me and sent me away."

"I remember." He also recalled the cool way she looked at him as she agreed to become his consort, and he was struck again with the thought that, knowing him as she did, this woman could be one of his worst enemies.

That long ago day she'd mocked him for the unnecessary machinations he'd gone through in order to acquire her. When the guards had delivered her to his quarters he thought she'd be too stunned by the sudden changes in her life to offer much resistance, but she surprised him. "You let Admiral Pastorelli think she was manipulating you into killing Jack for her," she analyzed as he undressed her. "Then you challenged her publicly, knowing she'd lose face if she backed down and knowing she couldn't win a duel against a man in the prime of his life. Now you have me, but the Admiral's dead and her friends all hate you and are going to try their best to ruin your career." She leaned forward, rubbing his nose in his loss. "Jack loved and trusted you. You killed the best friend you could ever hope to have because you were too stupid to plan things carefully." She shook her head in amused derision. "And the most pathetic part of all is, I would have let you have me in any event. All you needed do was tell me what you wanted. I would have done it for Jack's sake."

He was hitting her before he even realized what he was doing. If she was telling the truth, he'd murdered his best friend because he'd let emotions rule logic. He'd been jealous of a pretty red- haired doctor, and enraged with Jack because he appeared to love her more than he loved Picard. So Jack had to die because of his apparent change of allegiance. Now the woman he'd schemed for and bled for and hadn't really wanted in the first place was mocking him because of it. It terrified him that she knew what a fool he'd been, because if she could see it, maybe everyone could. He beat her out of fear, and threatened her because of that same fear. She'd collapsed into a fetal ball at his feet, protecting her head and soft spots with her arms and legs, turning her unprotected spine away from his kicking feet the way all the woman of the Empire were taught to do. Picard bent down, grabbed her by the hair with one hand and pulled her hands away from her face with the other. Her eyes were wary and calculating, not the least bit afraid. He realized at that moment that he faced danger, and he felt himself go all cold and rational the way he always did when threatened.

He pulled her to her knees, so she could better see his earnest intent. "Your planet is safe," he told her softly, "because you are now my loyal mistress. I'd advise you to remember the destructive capabilities of the average starship before you think of trying to change your status."

Her face drained of color, but she nodded. She understood. Picard had smiled then. "Now take the rest of your clothes off," he told her, "get in bed and wait for me until I come to you."

"I want my planet safe, Jean-Luc." The harshness in her voice pulled him back from memories of the past, and he focused on the woman standing in front of him now. Why had she brought this up? To remind him of what she'd been willing to endure for the safety of her home? Of what she was still willing to endure?

Picard felt a lump grow in his throat. It had nothing to do with Beverly's story and everything to do with the fact that his emotions floated very near the surface these days. It was Q's doing. When Q held Picard and crooned to him that he was safe, and that he, Q, loved him and would protect him and care for him always, Picard always felt secure and sheltered. He wanted the feel of that warmth and closeness right now, to counteract the effect of Beverly's presence.

"Come," he told her abruptly. He led her back to the throne room and told his chamberlain to provide her a place to stay and anything she wanted for her comfort.

"And cancel all my other appointments until early afternoon," he ordered. "Beverly, we'll speak again soon."

Picard hurried back to his private chambers. As he expected, Q was in bed, waiting for him. He peeled off his clothes, paying no attention to where they fell. Q thought them back to their proper places, so he'd become extraordinarily lazy about putting things away. Climbing into bed, he threw one arm and one leg across Q's body, snuggling close again.

"We'll let stuffed-dummy take the afternoon shift," he said. Stuffed-dummy was just what it sounded like--an image of Picard that looked and sounded like the original and would fool a tricorder. It sat on the throne while the real Emperor went flitting around the Sag arm with Q. It was from stuffed-dummy that Emperor Picard got his reputation for not needing to eat or go to the bathroom for hours on end. Picard had owned stuffed-dummy for years. He'd once been extremely disciplined about using him, but lately stuffed-dummy made more and more appearances. In an hour or so, it would walk out of Picard's private chambers and sit on the throne until early evening. Meanwhile the Emperor was doing what he'd wanted to do in the first place. He lay in bed, letting the slow beat of Q's heart soothe him, allowing the warm slide of skin against skin to assuage his need to be held and touched.

"So what shall we do about this?" Q finally asked. Among other things, he'd discovered that, for an immortal, he had no head for long-range planning. All Q's skill at scheming was in the setting of elaborate traps and showy pyrotechnics. Picard used to be able to awe him with subtly-laid plots. Of course, once Q learned the how and why of it, he was much better than Picard could ever hope to become, but sometimes his judgement was poor. He couldn't always tell when a situation called for a direct approach versus a subtle one.

"Obviously the first thing is to find out all we can about the players. Then we'll see what we can use to sidetrack them." Through years of governing the Empire, Picard had learned that distraction was more effective than oppression because it left intact the illusion of free will. Together, he and Q had successfully derailed dozens of pointless little rebellions before they could gain momentum and turn into real threats. "These people on New Hebrides will be much like any other."

When Q did not answer, Picard shifted so he could look into his lover's face. "This annoys you doesn't it?"

Q nodded. Spread thin, annoyance would do to describe his current emotional state. He could have happily dismembered Beverly for any of several reasons, not the least of which was that Picard had once been in love with her. True, his love had been an ugly, twisted thing, based more on his desire to prove that he could own her and not need her than on any real feelings of affection, but it had existed nonetheless, and Q didn't like the thought that he might have competition, however remote. He wanted Beverly back on New Hebrides and firmly out of Picard's mind, and he was sorely tempted to use the former emperor's methods: simply kill everyone involved with this plot and let the chips fall where they would. Beverly would leave and life would be good again, at least as far as Q was concerned.

There was another, more subtle reason for his pique, far more important than the simple reappearance of an old lover. Q had spent the last twenty years studying Picard and his universe, but had only recently allowed his feelings for the man to have any practical effect. He'd spent a long time comparing his Picard with another Jean-Luc he was close to, trying to discern why one was so self-controlled and the other so tortured. It was the difference in their upbringing, of course, but there was also quite literally something in the air that made this universe harden into lines of cruelty and pain. Vulcans, Andorians, Tellarites, most races in fact, had a mean streak that he couldn't account for, no matter how much he searched for the cause. Granted, he hadn't searched very hard, but it existed and it affected his lover, so Q tried to buffer him against it.

Picard had taken it upon himself to singlehandedly change his harsh universe, and Q had come to greatly admire his efforts. It was obvious that Picard had no idea what he was doing, yet he struggled on, step by step, teaching himself what it was like to have scruples, a conscience, ethics. To Q, it was like watching a colorblind man trying to teach himself the difference between red and green, but amazingly, he was succeeding. They never discussed it, but Q was determined to help him, and he strove to create in microcosm what Picard was doing universally. Towards that end, he tried to provide the most nurturing environment he could; a permanent nest where Picard could exist in total comfort and safety. So Q gave Picard everything he wanted, and he held Picard in his arms every chance he got, consciously radiating feelings of belonging and security. As time passed, he was rewarded by the gradual thawing of ninety-odd years of iced-over emotions. He was further rewarded--elated actually--as Picard's new-found security buttressed his search for an ethical framework. It was a slow and delicate process, and Q wasn't always sure of how to define success, but Picard was gaining a sense of contentment and serenity that had never been there before, so Q knew he was on the right track.

Now to his great chagrin, Beverly's presence was undoing all his careful work. The hardened schemer was reemerging even as they lay there; Q could feel it. It might simply be an instinctive reaction to danger, but Q had tried to keep all such dangers at bay. He'd protected Picard against every possible physical threat, but her presence triggered memories of fear, and he didn't know how to fight it except to make her leave. And Q's secret, which he kept even from himself, was that he cared what happened to these humans. As Picard went, so went the Empire, so Q was going to see to it that his precious little primate remained undisturbed. No matter what he had to do.

Following their usual routine, they eventually got up and wandered over to New Hebrides to take a look around. Picard had learned the hard way that he was his own most reliable informant. So while stuffed-dummy held court, he and Q rendered themselves invisible and poked around Beverly's planet on an inspection tour. New Hebrides was not very impressive, but it was quiet and well- run, and Picard was pleased to see that she'd taken advantage of his colonization program. Rather than simply killing beggars and other sentient flotsam like the former emperor had permitted, Picard had instituted a program of exporting them to colony planets where they performed manual labor in tiny collectives. Working together, building houses, voting on where to put sewer lines and schools, these fledgling communities were on their way to becoming countries though they didn't know it yet. New Hebrides, of course, was far more advanced than that, but it was still fairly nondescript.

"What could she possibly see in the place?" He asked Q.

"Beats me." Q was even more unimpressed. It was a pit as far as he was concerned; underpopulated woodlands with the occasional cluster of villages, more sheep than people, no commerce except for a modest export market in wool and leather goods, flung out by itself without neighbors or traffic. "Perfect place to hide a hole between dimensions, wouldn't you say?"

"There is that," Picard agreed. Arm in arm they strolled over to Beverly's mansion and began to root through her things. "Five kids!" Q exclaimed, staring at all the pictures. "How you humans do go on."

Picard ignored him. He could have just as easily read these files in his office back home, but doing it here somehow helped give him a clearer perspective. He imagined Beverly sitting in this chair, reading these same reports; imagined her pausing as he was doing, considering her options. "Did she immediately come to me?" He interrupted Q's perusal of the family portrait gallery.

"Nope." Q focused. "She only came to you after the ringleader offered to betray the others and divorce his first wife in exchange for her hand in marriage."

That was interesting. "He would have divorced his first wife that easily?"

"In less time than it takes to say the words," Q affirmed. "He intended to keep her as a concubine, but he would have given her status and privileges to Beverly."

Picard nodded. "Tell me about him."

"Jevon Pirist. Sixty-three. Arms merchant. Rich family." Q glanced at Picard to see if he was ready, then began to pour data into his head. Pictures formed in Picard's mind of a dark, handsome man in the prime of his life, shrewd, patient, practical and ambitious. At his prompting Q showed him Pirist's wives, his mistress and his business partners, gathering their impressions of him. Picard had a hunch that there was crucial information here, and he went back and forth over the details of Pirist's life while Q waited with patient fascination to see what would come of it. Eventually, however, the entity began to fret. He liked straightforward solutions. Kill Jevon Pirist and the problem was solved. It went without saying that they would stay as long as Picard wanted to, but there were other considerations.

"Should I send stuffed-dummy to take your place at the ball tonight?" He finally asked.

Picard sighed and stood. He was making no headway with this. Perhaps a turn around the dance floor would provide a good distraction. "Ready when you are," he said.

Q took a last look around, his eyes straying back to Beverly's wall full of family pictures. His eyes lit and he snapped his fingers. "Okay, now I'm ready."

"What did you do back there?" Picard was standing in front of his mirror, wavering indecisively between four different outfits. Q was patiently changing his dancing costumes for him, occasionally improvising bizarrely with huge clown shoes, kilts, wide-brimmed, flower-covered hats, feather boas...

"I'm not going to tell you." Q gave him a look of wicked satisfaction, but when Picard did not rise to the bait he sighed and changed the subject. "Do you think you'll be able to make a decision before the night is over?"

Picard was taking his time because he did not really enjoy dancing. To his great irritation there was an ongoing fight for his hand in marriage, and he was ostensibly looking over potential marriage partners at these balls of his. Every parent with an eligible daughter tried to wangle a chance to parade their child in front of him, and the occasional small war had been waged over the invitations. He had no intention of marrying anyone but Q and said so when asked, ignoring the entity's muttered "That'll be the day."

Still, skepticism over his marriageability never stopped Q from making an appearance. Sometimes he came in his usual form, playing the role of a foppish minor escort as he watched Picard from a distance. More usually he came in his alternate form as Picard's strikingly beautiful mistress, and being Q, was scathingly vicious towards anyone who made a too-obvious play towards the man he considered his. Picard's ministers had delicately suggested that spouse-hunting was not a task best accomplished in the presence of one's concubine, but when Picard merely shrugged and asserted that he would do what he liked, no one dared object further. There had been a running plot against Q's life for almost two decades but no one could ever find the wench to kill her. It made for a pointless evening if one were truly bent on catching the Emperor's eye, but the daughter of a highborn family was assured of a good meal and a chance to show off her pulchritude and her parents' wealth. Plenty of other matches had been made in the Emperor's ballroom. In fact the daughters of the very first women he'd rejected were beginning to show up, so no one had cause to complain.

Tonight, wearing his woman's body, Q sat with one hand resting possessively against Picard's thigh. He watched the dancers and waited for Picard to stop brooding, but finally he nudged him impatiently. "What is the point of being intimidatingly beautiful if I can't get you to dance with me?" He demanded.

"Sorry, Q." Picard stood and offered Q his hand. They moved through the steps in silence until Picard sighed deeply. "The question is," he picked up the topic as if they'd been discussing it all evening, "what would turn a cautious investor like Pirist into a person willing to throw away such large sums of money on a venture like this one?"

"Oh, just let me kill him and be done with it," Q complained. He smiled sweetly at a young thing who'd overheard his comment and was staring at him in shock. Q erased her memory and the girl smiled back at him, confused, but flattered to be noticed.

"Look." Picard thought his observations at Q. Over the past three years Pirist had changed. The shift was almost unnoticeable, but it was all Picard had to go on. It was actually only visible in the responses of the people around him and consisted of a series of mild surprises, first his wife, then his business partners and friends, wondering at behavior that was atypical, though in and of itself not particularly noteworthy. Taken as a pattern, however, it was quite distinct. "They all occur about the same time. Why is that?"

"Hm." Q had long since gotten used to the fact that Picard was more intuitive than he was. He simply couldn't see any pattern he didn't know to look for. Now that Picard pointed it out, however, Q could definitely perceive the alterations in Pirist's behavior and he was able to pull everything together very quickly. This was a very subtle transformation, and it looked suspiciously like the work of an outside agent. He would have suspected a Q, but he was sure to have felt it if someone from the Continuum crossed over into this reality. But who else had the ability to do this and leave no trace?

"I'm not sure I like the feel of this, Mio."

Picard smiled. Q's nicknames for him were all variants of the word 'mine,' and whenever he used one Picard felt a concurrent surge of immortal possessiveness. It was almost enough to distract him from the seriousness in his lover's voice. "Is it really dangerous enough to bother *you*?" He asked disbelievingly.

"Of course not!" Q's female voice was almost shrill. Heads turned, but Picard glared and the rumormongers returned conspicuously to the task of dancing.

Despite Q's denial, Picard could see he was worried. After living with him for almost twenty years, he could sense Q's moods even when Q tried to hide them. He also knew, however, that pressing Q to admit his feelings would only bring more outraged denial and a spate of petty complaints and criticisms. So instead of asking Q what was bothering him, he let himself yawn. As he expected, that got an immediate response.

"You should go to sleep," Q asserted. He'd long since appointed himself Picard's caretaker-in-chief and as such had the right to order Picard around when he thought it was warranted.

"I'm hungry," Picard protested, but then he relented slightly. "But you're right. What say we let the dancers have the place to themselves?"

To his ministers' resigned frustration, Picard left the dance early with his tall, elegant mistress on his arm. As the doors shut behind them, Picard and Q exchanged a grin. The music changed to a livelier, more modern tune the moment they walked out.

Picard liked to eat on the balcony outside his private rooms, so that was where they headed. Q gave him prime rib and roast new potatoes for dinner, a century-old burgundy, chilled asparagus with red pepper dressing and a slice of bourbon-walnut pie. Picard ate and watched the sun set. Q sat next to him and tried to pretend he wasn't fretting. The sun disappeared, the stars rose and the air became chill, but still they sat and said nothing. Picard could be orders of magnitude more patient that Q was, but he'd been too long in the habit of getting whatever he wanted from Q as soon as he asked for it.

"I could catch a cold and die and you wouldn't even notice," he finally complained.

Q looked at him sharply. It was a point of pride with him that his human was always perfectly healthy. He knew Picard was simply trying to get his attention, but Q scanned him anyway, daring anything to be out of order.

"You're fine," Q answered shortly.

"I know. I want you to tell me what's wrong."

Q sighed. He slid over and kissed Picard on the corner of his mouth, by the side of his nose and above his right eyebrow.

"I think I should look into this. By myself."

Picard held Q's gaze steadily. "Take everything away," he said, though he knew that would only earn him a scowl. Over the years Q had given him various Q abilities. He could travel through time, and hop across dimensions, and make himself invisible. He could read minds much more effectively than before, and he could send thoughts as well as receive them, but as he'd told Q once, he didn't want the abilities without the immortal who'd given them to him. This was at a point where their relationship was deteriorating badly. Q, though ready to call it quits, hadn't quite been able to bring himself to leave Picard defenseless. He announced his intention to let Picard keep the gifts he'd been given, and Picard's declaration had been a bald ploy to get Q to stay. In offering them back he was as much as confessing that he was afraid for Q.

Nothing could have disheartened Q more. He didn't want Picard to be afraid of anything, but he understood why his lover might feel that way. For twenty years Picard had rested secure in the knowledge that Q could vanquish the Empire's enemies with a thought. This thing with Pirist could turn out to be nothing, but the mere fact that Q felt he needed to investigate alone had to be disconcerting to say the least. In a way it pleased him that Picard was afraid for him, but he hated to see Picard try to steel himself against the possibility that Q might be harmed.

"Nothing will happen to me, mon coeur." Q moved even closer and put his arm around Picard's shoulders. "My family will know if I need help."

That was a gross misdirection. They'd know all right, and they'd certainly come to investigate, but as to what they'd do about it, well, who could say? Q had stamped his protections all over Picard but he didn't know if they would still work once he ceased to exist. His friends in the Continuum would be able to discern his intentions and might protect Picard for his sake. Of course if his enemies got here first they might help Q survive just to be able to tell him how gruesomely his human had died. And without exception they'd laugh at him for becoming so enamored of a mortal. Q didn't want to think about it.

"I want you to make love to me," he said. He thought them into Picard's bedroom, hoping to distract himself the easiest way he knew.

Picard looked like he had more to say, but he was silent as Q pushed his evening jacket off his shoulders. Picard smiled, and Q smiled back. The fact that Q hadn't simply thought them both naked meant that this interlude would be long and slow.

Q walked around behind Picard. "What is it, My Own, that makes me want you so much?" He picked up Picard's hand and kissed his fingertips. "Why do I need to feel every part of you?"

Picard's breathing deepened, and he tilted his head so Q could more readily get at his neck. Q smiled to himself. A gentle bite right over the jugular would weaken Picard's knees, so he teasingly avoided that spot for now except to lay a kiss against his lover's clavicle. He removed Picard's jacket and shirt and kissed his shoulder, then raised his arm and bit at the tender inner flesh. Picard slipped out of his dancing shoes, and Q undid his pants and pushed them off, hands lingering over his butt and thighs.

When Picard sighed, Q turned him and lifted him easily, bringing his nipple into proximity with Q's mouth. Q could never confine himself to mere human abilities when they made love. Sharpening all his senses, he could scent the distinct aroma of asparagus oozing out of his lover's pores, and the sweet smell of the bourbon from the pie. He could hear the swish of blood pressing hard against the chambers of Picard's heart, and the increasing thunder of it's movement through his arteries and veins. He could sense the electrons dancing ever more frantically over receptor sites, and he could smell the delicate wash of pheromones in Picard's sweat as his body prepared itself for sexual release. It made him so excited that he had to fight for control lest he accidentally hurt the one he loved most. Holding Picard carefully, he carried him to the bed, gently laid him down, then prolonged their anticipation by letting Picard watch while he undressed. He saw Picard shiver as he climbed on top of him. Q loved to cover him, to hold him down from toes to forehead, and send their energy pulsing back and forth between them until they were both writhing in ecstasy.

Q drew a shuddering breath. "You don't even have to do anything and you make me want you," he complained gently. "I simply look at you and I'm lost." He paused and looked down at Picard. "How did this happen? How did *I* fall in love?"

Picard smiled up at him. "You recognized perfection when you saw it, that's how." He pressed his erection against Q's, making them both moan.

Q rolled them over and opened his legs. "Well that's certainly true. Do you want to have me, Oh Perfection?"

"Perhaps." Picard lowered his head and kissed him deeply. "Perhaps I just want to stay like this all night." But his actions gave the lie to his words. He braced himself with one arm and reached down between their legs. "Lubricant," he demanded, and suddenly his penis was coated with it. Teasing Q's erection on his way past it, he eased his hand between Q's buttocks, then guided himself into the puckered opening of Q's body. As he pushed forward, he leaned over and took Q's mouth, breaching both entrances at once.

'I'm melting,' Q thought. 'There is no more Q.' He increased the oxygen in Picard's body so they wouldn't have to break the kiss for a long time, and he let himself float away on the exquisite sensations. They rolled and tumbled on Picard's big bed. Sometimes Picard rode him, and sometimes Q lay Picard flat on his back and drove himself down onto him, moaning and crying out his pleasure. That was how he came, stroking himself, grinding down hard against his lover's pelvic bone. He'd been trying to make Picard climax, but the fury of movement caught him instead, and he screamed out and would have collapsed if not for Picard's strong hands supporting him.

"Shhhh. There's my love," Picard crooned. He pulled Q down against him and wrapped his arms around the broad shoulders. "There's my Q. Be still." He'd learned that the words as such didn't matter as long as his tone was soft and quiet. The loss of control frightened Q and he often needed comforting after sex.

"I'm fine," Q whispered back, but he buried himself more deeply in the circle of Picard's arms. After a moment he nudged Picard's erection with his thigh. "What about you?"

"Whenever you're ready for me." Picard responded. He did not loosen his grip, indeed would not let go until he knew Q felt recovered.

When Q finally nodded, Picard helped him to his hands and knees and moved around behind him.

Q trembled slightly as Picard made a place for himself inside his body. That lost feeling overcame him once more, but Picard's hands were tight on his hips, so he could stand it because he knew he wasn't alone. He reached out for Picard's thoughts, but the love and tenderness he needed were eclipsed by mindless desire. Picard was working on his own climax, heedless of anything but the driving need for completion. Bent over, ass in the air, ridden to within an inch of his existence, Q waited for his lover's passion to spend itself. It took a great deal of patience, but when they were finished and lay in each other's arms, he was rewarded by the expression in Picard's eyes; open, fearless, trusting, the way Q loved to see him, and by his words. "You are everything to me. I don't ever want this to end."

"Then it won't. I promise."

Within minutes Picard's breathing had evened out. Q listened, envying Picard the ability to fall into unconsciousness so easily. When he was sure Picard was deeply asleep, Q left their bed, shimmering into invisibility. He hovered around the room for a few moments, adoring Picard from various angles. 'I'll be back soon,' he promised his sleeping lover.

He thought himself over to the vicinity of Pirist's planet and began his investigation. All beings left traces in their wake, like vapor trails. The tracks he was looking for were three years cold, but that didn't matter. Q moved back in time and there they were, clear as day. Q felt perplexed. Each member of the Continuum had a distinct feel; Q could recognize various individuals like he could identify flavors of ice cream; some familiar, some not, but all within the realm of his experience. This wasn't anyone Q recognized, but that didn't matter. Q couldn't hide from one another very well, so Q skipped across to the universe where his people lived and began to look around.

Awake, Picard's mind probably would have been too occupied to immediately notice Q's absence. Deeply asleep however, there was nothing to distract him from the abrupt disorientation that hit him the moment Q crossed over to the other universe. Picard sat up, rubbing his eyes and wondering what was going on. Q was not sleeping next to him, which wasn't unusual, but usually he was somewhere in the local galaxy and Picard could always sense him.

Now, however, he was gone, and Picard felt a moment's frustration. In the two decades they'd been together, he'd had looked for ways to describe the thoroughness of Q's place in his life, but to no avail. The closest he'd been able to describe it was that Q was in his skin. It was not quite a physical sensation and not quite a scent and not quite a tangible telepathic impression, but something that was all three. Picard could still feel him, but it was like the memory of a presence; a distant echo of the real thing. Rolling his eyes at his lover's stupid impulsiveness, Picard sent out a mental directive: 'Come home.' When there was no answer he eased out from beneath the warm covers and padded across the room to his closet. He knew what Q was up to. He'd gone to find whoever had instigated Pirist.

Grimly amused, Picard decided to follow him and do some investigating of his own. He rarely used the abilities Q had given him--he never needed to, really, but he knew without question that they worked. Annoyed by the disruption Pirist was causing in his life, he determined to put a stop to it.

Picard thought about it. Pirist and his little gang planned to find the same universe from which he'd pulled Jean-Luc's ship lo those many years ago. Well, he would see to it that they had a surprise waiting for them, if they even got there in the first place. He dressed himself and took a deep breath. Q had taught him, step by step, how to jump universes. First decide that the stress of traveling through dimensions wasn't going to shred you into atoms, then select a location, then simply *be* there. Picard chose the same time and place on earth and found himself standing on a deserted mountain road under a starfilled sky. He'd forgotten that there was no imperial palace in this reality. This place was still a nameless patch of land in West Virginia, Earth. And the person he'd come looking for, Jean-Luc, was nowhere to be found. Picard sighed. Of course Jean-Luc wouldn't be here. He focused again, remembering at the last minute to render himself invisible in case Jean-Luc was in a circumstance that required discretion, then decided that he wanted to be where Jean-Luc was.

Picard found himself in a small, cozy study, he had no idea where, in what looked to be a private dwelling. Immediately in front of him, sitting at a desk, a familiar figure was hunched over a padd, reading.

The figure spoke. "I can tell you're behind me, Q."

The tone of voice was so casual that Picard was amazed. How could an absence of twenty years be met with so little reaction? He himself was thrilled to see Jean-Luc again. He was about to say 'Well, Jean-Luc you've certainly turned into the cool one,' but Jean-Luc spoke again.

"You might as well show yourself. Even the children know when you're here."

Picard was trying to make sense of the words when Jean-Luc rose from his chair and came towards him, smiling. Unerringly his arms went to Q's waist, or, what would have been Q's waist if it had actually been Q.

When the body he touched did not have the expected dimensions, Jean-Luc gasped and jumped backwards. He no longer looked so amused. In fact he looked downright forbidding.

Picard shimmered into visibility and the two men stared at each other. He watched as amazement, love, and delight played across Jean-Luc's features, but he was too shocked by what he'd discovered to respond.

"Picard!" Jean-Luc exclaimed. He reached out and grabbed him by the shoulders.

"Q? Q comes here?" Picard finally stammered.

Jean-Luc nodded, still too pleased to notice the horror dawning on Picard's features. "We have a relationship of sorts," he said, casually destroying Picard's world with a sentence, "painstakingly worked out over the years."

"We do too," Picard whispered. "Or at least, I thought we did."

Jean-Luc finally noticed that something was awry. He hesitated a moment then followed his instinct and put his arms around Picard. After all, they'd been lovers once. That gave him the right to hold him, even after all this time.

Picard allowed himself to be led to a chair and seated. Jean-Luc put a drink in his hand and he automatically lifted it to his mouth and took a swallow, but the taste did not register. He heard Jean-Luc speaking, asking questions, but it was impossible to make sense of the words. Eventually he was able to focus on the fact that Jean-Luc was gently patting his arm.

"Please talk to me," Jean-Luc pleaded.

"I don't suppose there's anything to say, is there? I thought I had a lover all to myself. I didn't know I was sharing him, but it doesn't really matter, does it?"

But Jean-Luc was having none of it. He'd seen Picard's skin go grey and ashy, held him up when the man would have stumbled and fallen, and he'd divined the rest of the story. He and Q were good friends and casual lovers, but Picard and Q obviously had a much closer relationship. And apparently it meant a great deal more to Picard than it did to Q. Jean-Luc felt awful, and he was infuriated with Q for causing Picard this pain.

"I don't know why he would do such a thing," he said. "He must have had a reason."

"Yes." Picard's voice was dull and vacant. "Doubtless." He straightened up, painstakingly pulling himself together, forbidding any sympathy. "But tell me how you've been all these years, Jean-Luc. You say you have children now?"

Jean-Luc swallowed. "Five," he answered reluctantly. He didn't want to talk about himself when Picard was in such dire misery, but he understood the need to isolate one's pain until such time as it could be dealt with. He talked a bit about his children, their names, ages, interests, knowing Picard was dying inside but powerless to do anything about it. "Would you like to meet my wife?" He finally asked for lack of anything better to say.

"No," Picard answered bluntly. "I'd better be getting back. It's... good to see you doing so well, mon amour."

"Picard," Jean-Luc whispered. He gripped Picard's arm as if he would keep him here by main force, but Picard disappeared and Jean- Luc clutched at the empty air.

Picard lied. He didn't go home right away. He rendered himself invisible and looked around Jean-Luc's home. It was the only house on a tiny planetoid and it hummed with quiet tranquility. There were seven people in it, six of them sleeping, and one sitting in his study with his head in his hands.

'Still so soft,' Picard thought fondly. He didn't know whether he wanted to run back and comfort him or berate him for his part in Q's betrayal. It was obvious that his relationship with Q was deeply intimate. 'Like ours,' he thought, and felt something akin to nausea. And then he remembered that he had neglected to tell Jean-Luc the reason for his visit. He reappeared in Jean-Luc's study. "There's a plan afoot to cross over into this universe and begin raiding it for resources. That's what I came to tell you."

Jean-Luc looked up. "Picard," he pleaded, "please don't leave when you're this upset. Stay with me. Your universe can get along without you for a few hours, surely."

Picard shook his head. He needed to say his piece and leave as quickly as possible. "The launch point is New Hebrides, so that's probably where they'll first appear if we don't stop them in time. Q thinks..." his words caught in his throat and he had to start over. "Q thinks it may be the work of another Q."

Jean-Luc took in all this information, but it was more important that he get through to Picard. "Please forgive me. If I'd known, I would have never allowed our relationship to continue."

Picard ignored him. "This time I truly must be going," he said.

He disappeared, knowing full well that he'd left Jean-Luc in a state of mourning almost as deep as his own, but there was nothing he could do to help either of them.

Q came home happy. He was almost one hundred percent certain that no one else in the Continuum was playing in this universe. Oh, there were elders who could fool him, but he knew them well enough to know they wouldn't bother to play a guessing game with him. They certainly wouldn't waste their time fooling around with Jevon Pirist. Q had been more than a little concerned that he would have to go up against some pretty big guns. Not that he would have hesitated, but he would have had to plan more carefully in order to keep Picard safe, which, after all, was the most important thing.

He popped back into Picard's bedroom, casually scanned Picard, and immediately sensed something wrong. He hadn't known it was possible to become so frightened in so short a time, and in the milliseconds it took him to reincarnate, he racked his brain for the cause of Picard's misery. Picard was standing in front of his mirror, naked, staring at his reflection. Q simply swept him into his arms and held him tight.

"What is it?" He demanded.

Picard did not raise his arms to return Q's embrace, nor did he answer him, so Q did something he tried never to do. He raided Picard's mind, finding a lava-swell of rage and self-loathing as well as the reason for it. Betrayal, the one thing that Picard couldn't endure had been delivered to him from the being he trusted most, and Picard hated himself for being weak enough to fall for it. He had not answered because he couldn't really speak. The fact of Q's affair with Jean-Luc had shocked him so badly that he had trouble forming the right words.

Q had no idea what to say. He'd never expected this to happen; had been sure, in fact, that his existence was settled and perfect for the rest of Picard's natural life and that he would have no worries. The quick and dirty answer was to erase Picard's memory of the whole thing, and he did so instantly, watching the tension ease out of Picard's features. Picard leaned into Q and smiled at their reflection. "You were gone," he chided gently. "Where were you?"

This was even more awful, this lie between them. He returned Picard's memories, including the knowledge that his mind had been changed and changed back. Picard would be very annoyed with him, but he deserved it, and perhaps the outrage would snap Picard out of his shock.

"I was just telling myself how much I trusted you." Picard made a little face of anguish and anger, but otherwise did nothing.

Q hoped Picard would become enraged enough to fight with him. Picard had learned very early on to use his concentrated fury and hatred as a weapon against Q. It burned Q like a laser, and when the entity discovered he could be hurt this way he turned it back on Picard at once with disastrous results. The reflected power of Picard's rage had been enough to knock the human across the room. He'd nearly died.

So Q decided to fight the way Picard was used to fighting--he resorted to physical violence. After all, he reasoned, he should have no problem learning to hit with his fists, and nothing Picard could do would truly hurt him.

In fact, Q learned how to fight very easily, but there was a big drawback: he hated the way it made him feel. Fighting was a loathsome, grubby activity and in a physical body, with his emotions engaged, he was subject to human reactions. Tears, adrenaline, hysteria; Picard had a lifetime of learning to control those responses. Q could simulate such behavior, but to truly be prey to it shook his belief in himself like few things could. He was an immortal, so what was he doing rolling around on the floor, dignity failed, wild-haired and teary-eyed? But because he hated the idea that Picard should win, he stuck with it long enough to become thoroughly disgusted with himself. Now he wished Picard would strike out at him again, and ease some of his rage and sorrow in physical expressions of anger. Or at least scream at him--blast him with an explosion of hatred like the old days.

Picard did neither. "I thought you loved *me*," was all he said. He turned away and lay down on his bed.

Q followed him, wishing he could die and be reborn. It was not the sadness in Picard's mind as much as the plaintive confusion and hurt that made Q so angry with himself. Long used to offering comfort, Q manifested a blanket to cover him with, then, greatly daring, slipped beneath it. Picard did not resist when Q put his arms around him, so they lay silently through the night, one numb with grief and shock, the other desperately wishing for a way to defend the indefensible.

Their morning routine proceeded in silence. Picard bathed and swam in his warm tub then sat down to breakfast. Long used to indulging the idiosyncratic dictates of Picard's finicky appetite, Q made an array of foods available to him--rice, fish and sweet- rice vinegar; oatmeal, scones, bacon and strawberry jelly; tea and croissants; blueberries--things he liked, just the way he liked them. Q wondered what he could do or say, but Picard ate and did not speak. Finally, unable to keep quiet any longer, Q tried to bring up the business with Pirist.

"I found out that it wasn't any of the other Q," he began.

Picard held up a single finger, and Q lapsed into silence. He could feel Picard struggling with his feelings and all he could do was hope against hope that there would be something to salvage when Picard finally deigned to speak with him.

Picard knew Q was watching him, desperate for him to say something, and he could remember a time when he would have been delighted to have the upper hand in one of their altercations. Now, however, he felt nothing of that wicked, triumphant glee. He was still too busy trying to fathom the breadth of this revelation. Q had Jean-Luc. Q loved Jean-Luc. Jean-Luc loved him back. He could hear the warmth in Jean-Luc's voice when he spoke to the invisible presence in his study. There was closeness there, and tenderness, despite his obvious exasperation at Q's antics. Picard had experienced that exact combination of emotions with Q--understood intimately what it was like to put up with Q's more playful moods. He'd thought he was the only one alive who knew what it was to be teased by this particular immortal.

Oddly enough, he could understand why Q betrayed him. He, too, had loved Jean-Luc once and had occasionally given into the impulse to tease him. He remembered that Q had always wanted Jean-Luc; in fact he'd been after Jean-Luc when he'd met Picard.

'So all this time I was filler material until Jean-Luc had a spare moment to fit Q into his busy life,' Picard thought. Jean-Luc had apparently been quite active these past 20 years. Raising a family took a good deal of time and effort, and knowing Jean-Luc, he'd want to do it perfectly.

Picard thought about his pitiful efforts to follow Jean-Luc's example. He thought of his fumbling attempts to teach himself ethical behavior, fairness, compassion, justice--he'd been proud of himself but now he felt like cringing. It had all been utterly pointless because Q had a better version he could go to when he tired of Picard's vulgar amorality. 'But that's not fair,' he protested silently. 'I'm not amoral, I simply did what I had to.'

Picard thought about the thousand and one ways Q made him feel special. He'd known himself to be cherished and set apart, loved by a god who quite literally moved heaven and earth to be with him. And all of it had been a lie, and all of it was worthless. Picard felt utterly demoralized, humiliated, and deeply shamed.

But that was not so terrible, he decided. He really didn't have to feel any of this at all if he didn't want to. He'd once been good at suppressing his feelings, and he supposed he could become proficient at it again. The thought made him shudder. It wasn't until this moment that he realized how changed he was from the person he'd once been.

'And what good did those feelings do me,' he wondered, 'except set me up to be deceived?' He turned to Q who was following him silently around his suite.

For a moment Picard was tempted to hit him. Knew, in fact, that Q would allow this affront to his dignity if it made him feel better. But he did not want to feel better. He wanted the sharp edge of pain to stay pressed against his heart. 'It will remind me not to trust,' he thought. The very idea cut at him. Betrayal was such an unruly, unwieldy beast, and so clever to attack him where he was most vulnerable. He'd lost his love, he'd lost his faith; he had very little left. But that was the price of living, he supposed.

"Get out." He told Q.

Q vanished.

'That's it, then,' he thought. 'There's nothing left to do, is there?' Picard called his servant to take him outside the palace walls. An anti-royalist marksman, waiting patiently for years in a crowsnest by the plaza, shot him in the head.

Q revived him.

"Next time let me go," he told Q.

The next day he woke up in his bed, his last memory having been of climbing over the palace balcony and tumbling off as one of the servants ran away and hid for his life. The swiftness of the fall sucked the air out of his lungs, and he'd begun to black out thinking, 'at least this time it won't hurt.' It hadn't hurt, but he'd been revived again against his express wishes.

"I won't let you kill yourself." Q spoke matter-of-factly. He'd caught Picard and propped him back up, pumped air into his lungs, laid him in bed and erased his servant's memory.

"You have nothing to do with my life anymore, Q." Q was sitting very near him, and his natural impulse was to slide over and make room for him in bed, but he couldn't. It made him feel hollow when he thought about the way they'd once been. "Gods alone know why you wouldn't just erase my memory and let it stay erased," he taunted.

"Because I respect you too much," Q answered quietly, willing Picard to understand that this was true.

"Yes," Picard agreed bitterly, "whores should always be treated with respect. It makes them feel better about being whores. I do kindly thank you."

"You know that's not true." Q was being very unobtrusive; no theatrics, no indulging his usual flair for melodrama. Obviously this meant a lot to him. Picard didn't care. Q should have thought of this when he was over in the other universe fucking Jean-Luc. He turned his face away until Q finally, reluctantly, left the room again.

Q was willing to keep on reviving Picard for all eternity, but he knew there had to be a better way to handle this. He needed good advice, and he knew exactly where to get it. That evening he casually showed up for supper at Jean-Luc's house. He was part of the family, so he could come and go as he pleased. It thrilled him to have an actual human home where he was always accepted as himself, not that he ever admitted it.

The only problem with having a place to call home, however, was that your loved ones could dress you down if they felt you needed it, and you had no choice but to stand there and take it. Q wondered what Jean-Luc would say to him, but he didn't wonder long. When he opened the door to the dining room everyone looked up. Around the table faces brightened, then, as one, they grew extremely still. The entire family peeked down the table to see what Jean-Luc's reaction would be. Sitting next to her husband, Marie took note of his glacial expression and graciously stood up.

"Children, let's let papa talk to Q." From her serene countenance one would have thought it was common practice for her to abandon the supper table at a moment's notice. She picked up the soup tureen and one by one the children followed suit, taking platters and serving bowls into the kitchen with them, shooting wide-eyed, warning glances in Q's direction.

"She's very tactful, isn't she?" This was a blatant attempt to curry favor. Jean-Luc had a great deal of admiration for his wife, and flattering Marie was usually a good way to soften him.

"Well I admit, Q," Jean-Luc started softly, almost pleasantly, "you certainly had me fooled. I never imagined myself in the role of your back street inamorata, but you've managed to surprise me yet again. Of course, it was rather disconcerting to learn that I was only your occasional entertainment while your more legitimate lover claimed the bulk of your attention, but I certainly commend you on your tidy arrangements."

Uh-oh, Q thought. "It wasn't like that," he protested.

Picard was standing now, getting more stentorian by the moment. "I've welcomed you into my home, permitted you the run of my entire planet, cared about you, and in return you've treated me like the obtuse piece of flotsam you apparently always thought I was. Worst of all, you made me participate in the betrayal of someone whose welfare concerns me deeply. I don't suppose you'd mind telling me why."


"How could you hurt him like that?" Jean-Luc was yelling now. "Do you know how awful I felt trying to explain to him that I hadn't deliberately stolen what was possibly his only happiness? That I wasn't a heartless, selfish, unconscionably greedy monster who would sport with you behind his back with no concern for his feelings?"

Q was utterly lost. His one lover was suicidal because Q had broken his heart by cheating on him. His other lover was angry with him because he'd hurt the first one. Obviously he'd done something very wrong, but they were judging him by human standards from which he'd always exempted himself, and he had no defense. Both men knew he'd had dozens of lovers in the years since he'd become their paramour, but in loving two Jean-Luc Picards he'd somehow crossed a line. He'd been hoping Jean-Luc would explain it to him, but Jean-Luc was far too angry to speak rationally. Q was willing to concede that he was totally at fault, obviously, but he didn't see exactly what his crime was, at least that was what he protested to Jean-Luc.

"Then why did you fail to tell either of us for twenty years? Why did you let him find out in the first place if you intended for our relationship to be your dirty little secret?" Jean-Luc crossed his arms and stared down the table with a sour expression. "You know, Q, I blame myself. Stupid of me to ever imagine we could have anything like an equal relationship. It's not that I necessarily mind being your whore, but I would have preferred not to participate in your deception."

"Jean-Luc," Q tried to protest.

"This conversation is at an end," Jean-Luc declared. And he turned his face away, just like Picard had done.

'Boy, Jean-Luc is really angry with me,' Q thought. He hung around the asteroid until Jean-Luc's oldest daughter Leila called him.

"What did you do?" She demanded. As soon as she could get out she'd taken a flitter across the terminator and was lying on her back in a grassy meadow.

"Nothing, brat."

"Papa says the same thing, but I saw part of the tapes and I saw that man appear. That man who looks like papa. When he was telling maman how angry you made him I went upstairs and looked, but papa caught me and chased me away."

In what had to be one of the grossest breaches of privacy extant, the Federation historical society installed recorders in the public areas of Ambassador Picard's house. It was very like Jean-Luc to think his random interactions with his family would be of instructive value to others, and he chose to think of it as archival zeal rather than mere historic voyeurism. Q had argued against it, pointing out that all his children moved their lives outdoors when the cameras came in, but Jean-Luc was big on self- sacrifice, and he wouldn't change his position. Still, it allowed Q to have individual relationships with them, something he'd never thought to want, so he couldn't complain too much.

"You are entirely too resourceful for your own good." They crossed the meadow to the bungalow she'd built for herself--the one Jean-Luc and Marie were not allowed to set foot in. "I think I'll reduce your intelligence by a tenth."

She swatted at him, and he disappeared and reappeared behind her. "*He* was your lover too," she guessed. "But you never told either one about the other and now they're both mad at you."

Q stopped playing tag with her and sat down glumly. "That man is an emperor in another reality. I've lived with him for twenty years. And somehow I missed the fact that I should have told him what I was doing."

"You were stupid," Leila judged.

Q might have blasted anyone else for calling him a name, but since he'd taught Leila her blunt ways, he could hardly blame her for using them on him. "I was stupid," he sighed. "And now I keep wondering if I should have erased his memory and let it stay erased. I still could, but..."

"But you're afraid to because then you'd feel worse than ever, because you hate the very idea of lying."

"You're too much like your mother," he said, knowing that would make her bristle. Leila thought her mother had no life beyond raising children and making Jean-Luc happy. Q knew better, but from Leila's point of view, it looked like a colossal waste of talent, and she was determined to be more like her father instead. Not that she was going to waste time in Starfleet. She was going straight into the diplomatic corps. She was the least diplomatic person in her family, and he'd told her so, but she insisted.

"How am I like maman?" She demanded. Whatever it was, she would change it toute suite.

"You see too much," Q answered lazily. "And unlike her, you say too much." He liked teasing Leila, but she knew he liked it so she ignored him.

"You're immortal," she stated.

Q didn't answer. He was in the habit of simply not responding when the answer was obvious.

"You were around even before the earth was formed." The formation of the earth being one of her measures for long ago.

When Q still didn't answer she poked him. "Yes?"

"Yes," he grunted, "so what?"

"Papa made you promise to take care of us."

That was another non-answerable question since everyone knew that story though no one was supposed to know it. In a moment of extreme vulnerability, Jean-Luc had handed Q his firstborn and demanded that Q protect his line throughout eternity. Q had agreed, partially out of curiosity and partially because of the very issue Leila was leading up to.

"When we die you'll be lonely without us."

"Yes," Q finally admitted aloud. For more than twenty years he'd ignored that fact, but thanks to a pushy teenager it now stared him in the face.

But Leila wasn't finished. "Especially when papa and the Emperor die?"

Q didn't bother to answer this one either. He could hear the pride in her voice for having correctly analyzed the situation without anyone's help. Q might have cried. He'd never faced the fact of his impending aloneness. Certainly he'd never expected Leila to calmly hand him this objective appraisal of his situation. He wished he could ask her for comfort, but that was impossible. She could read emotions, but she was still too young to understand the gravity of losing someone dear to you.

On the other hand, if he could be patient he might get an answer soon, even though Jean-Luc was angry at the moment. If the Picard family followed its usual dynamic, Leila would go to Edouard with her conclusions, he would go to Marie, and Marie would go to Jean-Luc. With a pang of regret he realized that this pattern was in the process of disintegrating. For years Edouard had run interference between Leila and Marie. Now Edouard was going away to study planetary management. Leila, Q's favorite, was already fifteen. She would be the next to leave. The little family he'd hovered over was disassembling itself as part of its natural evolution. Q was half sad and half excited. On the one hand, he'd never had a line to take care of before, and although he was embarrassed to admit it, he was filled with anticipation. The more he'd thought about it, the more Jean-Luc's generosity pleased him; certainly Picard would never be the childrearing type. On the other hand, Q was part of this family because Marie and Jean-Luc casually included him in all their activities. He had his place at the table, his room, his christmas stocking... What would he do when they were gone? It made him feel hollow just to think about it. Having a line to care for was not the same as having a home where everyone knew you and welcomed your presence--well, *usually* welcomed your presence.

He took solace from Leila's company until Marie called her into the house. Q did not go in with her, unwilling to admit that even though his bed waited for him, he would have to sleep in it by himself. He and Jean-Luc were always extremely discreet, to the point where physical intimacy usually took a back seat to friendship. Q had learned not to mind. He'd consoled himself with the fact that he would always have Picard, but to go into the house now and climb the stairs to his lonely room would be admitting that he had no place else to go.

Besides, Jean-Luc did not need him like Picard did. He was necessary to Picard's wellbeing, and that was the way he wanted it. He couldn't make himself stop wondering what Picard would like for dinner. He couldn't stop asking himself what they were going to do about Jevon Pirist, even though there was no 'they' any longer. He couldn't decide what to do next. Who was supposed to feed Picard if not him? Who was supposed to hold him at night and make love to him in the mornings? Those were his jobs, and now that he'd been banished from Picard's company he felt empty and bereft of purpose.

Lost, confused and angry, he felt like breaking something, though he knew better than to try any such thing on Jean-Luc's asteroid. When he'd first met Picard he relieved tension by doing just that, destroying things and hurting people until he'd worked out his frustration. Now he no longer enjoyed indulging such randomly destructive behavior, but he still needed an outlet for his feelings, and he needed something to occupy his time. He needed a job.

Fortunately, inspiration struck. There was still the question of who had instigated Pirist. Picard hadn't told him *not* to keep up his investigation. And besides, Q wrapped himself in a cloak of self-righteousness, this was probably beyond the purview of mere mortals. He *had* to do this because no one else was capable of it.

Picard dragged himself out of bed and prepared to face his first day alone. He wondered that he didn't feel overwhelmed by the tasks confronting him, but his empire was an orderly one, and he had good reason to be proud of it. He'd used the old Roman model to give it shape and form, but over time he'd modified it quite a bit, partitioning his territories into smaller, more manageable divisions. He'd also learned to give his regional directors broad general guidelines rather than specific rules and regulations, because he'd discovered that they had a marked tendency to follow the letter of the law while ignoring it's intent. Of necessity, his government was very loosely run because that was the only way he could run it at all. He ruled his ministers who ruled their governors who ruled their worlds, and the whole thing ran very efficiently. When he'd taken over, his government had been a bloated bureaucracy, stale, sluggish and weighed down by graft. Specific reforms didn't work; they only allowed his governors to steal more and blame him. And everyone resented his highhanded orders that they should operate more efficiently. Looking at his new administration from the top down, he saw waste and excess that hadn't annoyed him as a mere starship captain but which rankled him no end now that the resources were 'his'. He responded with more laws, and he made everyone nervous and fearful. In turn they responded with treachery, undermining his efforts, then flat out revolting against him.

Well he didn't blame them. He would have done the same. Picard sighed heavily as his stomach rumbled. He wondered why he couldn't smell food, then he remembered. He called one of his servants and told them to bring his breakfast.

But when he walked out onto his balcony, nothing was as he would have wished it. He wanted tiny brook trout, fried whole and served with dalna, a corn-like vegetable from Zimbabwe, and fig preserves and fresh strawberries and mint tea. He'd forgotten that his servant couldn't take vague memories of aromas and flavors and come up with a meal he would enjoy.

Morosely he picked at what was in front of him, distracted by the servant hovering attentively behind him. For twenty years he'd awakened to Q's presence, but now that he'd kicked him out he would have to adjust to living alone. Pity, he told himself, admiring his ability to maintain his emotional distance. Things had been perfect for so long he'd thought it would last forever.

Picard smiled at the memories. Admittedly it had been horrible at first. They were two stubborn, prideful individuals, neither one used to accommodating another's needs. Q was necessarily proud of his superiority, and he was determined to teach Picard that even emperors had to bow to the might of a member of the continuum. For his part, Picard was determined to learn nothing of the sort, and their fights had been spectacular. Picard expertly played Q's pride, demanding that Q either grant him Q powers or cease to use his own.

"Are you really that frightened?" Picard had sneered. "Can't you do anything without running to hide behind your abilities? You know," he mocked, "if we were both Q I would have you in tears by now."

Much later, Q conceded that Picard was right. Q could nurse a grudge with the best of them, but Picard was capable of such breathtakingly virulent hatred that Q had very little defense against it when it was aimed his way. Picard actually succeeded in reducing Q to tears of rage and frustration, something he regretted later, though at the time he insisted it was necessary. Q had to learn to respect him, and more importantly, to respect the fact that they were equal partners in all their endeavors.

"I have an empire to run," he'd told Q. "I know you gave it to me, but it's my toy now and you have to let me play with it."

But when they'd learned to play together it had been sublime. They'd been like one being in two different bodies, and sometimes even their physical separateness proved illusory. Sometimes he and Q functioned like god making love to God; Picard had never known such a complete sense of connectedness. The experiences were so overwhelmingly powerful that they'd both backed away, unable to endure the intensity. It was still there for them, waiting like a promise, and they agreed that they would be ready for it one day, but for now they were too busy running an empire.

That was all finished now, of course, with his discovery of Q's infidelity. If only it hadn't been Jean-Luc, he sighed to himself. He and Q had often tried other sexual partners, sometimes together, more usually alone. It hadn't been a big deal. In fact, after a tryst they generally rushed right home to tell the other about their little adventure and laugh or commiserate as the occasion warranted. This time, however, there would be no laughing. Of all the people Q could have chosen to play with, there was only one dalliance that could make Picard afraid and angry. And Q had not only entered into that relationship, he'd stayed in it for the past twenty years. Now Picard doubted everything he'd ever believed. Q could stop time. What if he'd spent months, or years, with Jean-Luc while appearing to spend all his time with Picard? What if, god forbid, he loved Jean-Luc best?

'Stop thinking about it,' Picard told himself severely. He had to make plans for the rest of his life now that Q was no longer a part of it. Even if he ignored the fact that he was already lonely, there was another consideration. He'd gotten used to governing with Q at his side. He would have to find another partner (an unlikely prospect at best) or take on the burden of ruling solo. In twenty years he had developed almost no other close relationships; Q had been all he'd wanted or needed, and truth to tell, it was dangerous for an emperor to make friends. His safest option was to reign alone. The weight of that decision settled on him like a coat made of rocks. It had been a long time since he'd run anything by himself, and when he thought back to his life of constant fear and suspicion, he didn't know if he could bear it.

'You'll just have to bear it,' he scolded himself, 'you have no choice.'

Beverly Crusher was enjoying her stay at the palace compound. Apart from the receiving room, private quarters and administrative offices, there were museums, parks, shops and hotels right on the grounds. She found plenty of things with which to entertain herself while she waited for the emperor to summon her again. Picard (or someone) had given her a chit with an apparently limitless credit balance because her hotel room had been upgraded from an economy room to a luxurious suite yet her personal credit balance had lowered only fractionally. She was grateful to be able to indulge herself without worrying about credits. Her suite--in fact, the whole complex--dazzled her with it's opulence, but it also made her feel a bit conspicuous. Among such sophistication and elegance she felt woefully out of place, like a country cousin. Not that she really minded. The people around her were some of the most powerful people in the galaxy, and Beverly didn't really want to be one of them. For twenty years her life had been all about settling disputes between shepherds and farmers and she liked it that way. She did, however, make a few concessions where fashion was concerned. By the time Picard's chamberlain sent her a summons, she'd abandoned all her bright plaids in favor of the dark, wrapped silks currently in vogue. Waiting outside his throne room, she noticed that she blended in perfectly with all the other ladies. She was feeling rather pleased with herself until she walked into the room and saw Picard again.

At first Beverly wondered if she could possibly be reading him all wrong. Three days ago, seeing him for the first time in twenty years, he'd reminded her of her youngest son, Owen, truly the happiest child she'd ever met. Now he looked like the Picard she'd known years ago, and she couldn't believe she could have been so mistaken.

'But he apologized,' she told herself, 'and I could swear he meant it.'

She glanced nervously at the other people who were waiting their turn to be heard and was flabbergasted when they seemed to see nothing amiss. How could they not see that something was dreadfully awry? She herself wanted to scream in terror and run away. For a wild instant she wondered if his drastically altered demeanor had anything to do with her. But that was too farfetched. She hadn't done anything wrong. Suddenly she was fearful again. He probably dealt with people crossing into the alternate universe all the time. Her request for assistance might be the most trivial thing he'd heard all year. This might end up with her complete humiliation, which would be perfectly fine as long as he let her go home again.

Beverly watched the line grow shorter. She tried to discern from the people who left his presence what kind of mood he was in. She saw some slight frowns, but it was not the fashion at court to be obvious with one's emotional state, most people wore stoic masks regardless of circumstance. When it was her turn she was so nervous she could hardly speak.

She performed the ritual abasement, but when she rose again he was staring at her with speculation on his features. Then he beckoned.

"Come with me, Beverly. I... have something to show you."

'No,' she thought, 'no, oh no, oh gods no. Please don't make me do this.'

As if he could feel her resistance, he gave her the same hard, cold look he used to give her on the Enterprise and Beverly felt herself go all sick and frozen inside. She didn't look up at any of the faces she imagined were smirking at her predicament as she followed, obedient and silent, back to his private rooms. His guards scowled at her, just like the ones on the Enterprise used to do, and if she'd had a phaser she might have shot herself right then and there.

Back in his private apartments Picard seated himself and looked at her, and she knew with dread that before she left this place she would end up underneath him in his bed, or kneeling on the floor. With trembling fingers she started to undo the clasps of her overgown.

"Are you hot?" Picard asked. "I can have the heat turned down."

Oh gods, this was worse than she thought. He wanted to play games with her. And she was trapped. She would have preferred him to simply abuse her and have done with it, but she had no choice but to go along, playing the role of his little diversion. He was staring at her with a slightly questioning look on his face, and she wondered how she was supposed to answer.

"What do you want me to do?" She asked.

His expression became somewhat wary. "I'm having trouble sleeping," he replied. "I thought you could give me something."

The answer was so unexpected that Beverly did not actually hear it at first. Then when his words finally registered, she felt such relief that for a moment she couldn't speak. As her body's reaction caught up with her, she could feel the sweat breaking out on her forehead and under her arms. She wondered that she didn't reek. Surely the copious amounts of perspiration flowing down her torso would strain any hygienic preparation.

Picard narrowed his eyes and for a moment she could feel him bearing down on her mind. "Beverly." He finally said, "I don't want that from you. I need a doctor, and I don't want anyone to know. Fortunately I realized that you could help me."

Beverly thought, 'I don't want to become involved in your life again, Jean-Luc.' He must have heard that too because for a moment he wore an expression of absolute misery. She didn't feel much pity for him. In fact, what little compassion she could muster was laced with amused revenge, but she had enough sense to tell him some of what he obviously wanted to hear.

"Don't worry, Jean-Luc. I don't mind helping you." 'Just this once,' she appended silently. "Let me go back and find a medical tricorder."

He gave her another wounded look, but then his face shuttered.

"Bring what you need. I'll wait."

One of his guards escorted her, just like old times. She hadn't brought any medical equipment with her, and eventually the guard replicated a standard medikit for her though he wouldn't let her hold it until she was actually back with Picard.

She took out the tricorder and scanned him carefully. "You haven't been eating."

"I haven't been hungry."

That triggered uneasy memories. "Jean-Luc," she said. "Tell me what happened right before you became emperor."

"I was a starship captain, Beverly. Which you knew."

She sighed. "It's been twenty years, but if I remember correctly, these readings indicate a stress pattern similar to what you experienced back then." 'When you kept me in your rooms like a caged animal and made me clean up after your nasty little games of torture.'

"I don't do that anymore."

"You really are reading my mind," she stated wonderingly. "I didn't know if I was imagining that or going crazy, but you've been reading my mind since before I left the Enterprise, haven't you?"

"Tell a soul and I'll kill your sons."

Beverly shrugged, even as part of her marveled that she was not more frightened. She supposed it was because she'd spent such a long time as his hostage that she was used to it. "There's no need to threaten, Jean-Luc."

He smiled wryly. "I suppose there isn't."

Beverly sighed again. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," he answered shortly. Which meant something was very wrong, indeed.

"Well, you could use a muscle relaxant, and if you want, I'll come back tonight and give you a sleeping aid." Beverly knew that her ability to speak calmly came from shock and resignation. She was all too familiar with the blessed numbness that allowed her to function like a normal person instead of going out of her mind. Here she was, diagnosing the emperor--the Emperor!--who just happened to be the same tyrant who'd kept her in a state of slavery until he tired of her, and had just threatened her sons.

'If it were up to me I'd load my hypo with poison and dump the whole thing into your neck.' The thought came unbidden even as she remembered that he might be listening.

Apparently he did overhear her because he laughed. "If I thought it would work I might let you."

Beverly let that pass with another shrug. The fact of his telepathy was just another in a series of grotesqueries that would be hers to ponder at a later date. Why an emperor would want to let himself be killed was beyond her, but then, when had she ever really understood this man? She wanted to get away from him so badly that she could barely stop herself from edging towards the door.

He noticed, of course, and seemed to slump a bit in his chair. "I'll see you tonight, Beverly, around one o'clock?"

"Of course, Jean-Luc." Normally she was asleep at that time, but he was the emperor, so she would come when he told her to.

That night, and for several nights after, she came to him and doctored his sleeplessness. His few hangers-on watched her speculatively, and some of them began to go out of their way to smile and make polite conversation with her. She wanted to scream at them that they should leave her alone, that she was not going to get involved in court politics. Just like last time, she was being dragged in against her will and it frightened her. She was no match for these players, and she'd never been a match for Jean-Luc. Her revulsion for her situation grew exponentially. She said nothing but he knew anyway.

"It bothers you to come here, doesn't it?"

"Would you please stop reading my mind?" She knew she should have been more cautious with him, but unlike her days on the Enterprise, her fear did not keep her quiet.

He shut his eyes and smiled. "Very well."

"That's funny?"

"Yes. I said that to someone once. Sitting in this very chair, if I recall correctly."

"Mm." Beverly tried to bring the subject back around to the state of his health. "Jean-Luc you're still not eating. I can tell just by looking that you've gotten thinner over the past few days." She hesitated a moment before asking, "Are you having nightmares?"

"What does that have to do with eating, Beverly?"

She suppressed a surge of exasperation, towards herself as well as him. 'Stop caring what happens to him,' she scolded herself, but was easier said than done. How bizarre that she could hate him yet feel concern for him at the same time. It was another complexity she would put aside for later.

"It would help me treat you if I knew what was going on, Jean-Luc."

"I don't want to be treated."

Beverly wasn't going to play games with him. "Jean-Luc, the only reason I came here was because you were the only one I knew who could help me save my planet."

"Your planet will be saved, Beverly." His voice was beginning to slur from the sleeping aid she'd given him, but he sounded so confident that she believed him.

'Gods alone knows why,' she scolded herself glumly. She turned her back on him, walked to his door and knocked. Seconds later the guards came and escorted her back to her room.

Q had become so used to thinking like a human that it took him several moments to understand why the words he needed weren't coming to him more readily.

'Of course they aren't coming, idiot,' he lectured himself, 'there are no human words for what's happening to you.'

In fact, there were no words at all. Among themselves, Q did not think or communicate in words and it was impossible to use speech to describe a process that precluded it. The closest thing they had to verbal interaction could best be described as an intermixing of feeling and intent, shared or hidden depending on the circumstances. Eventually it occurred to him that his frustration was pointless. He was so used to sharing his thoughts with Picard that he automatically translated them into Standard. Now that Picard had banished Q from his presence, there was no need to bother.

Q could have sent the essence of his thoughts directly to Picard's mind. He'd been at pains to teach Picard to communicate telepathically, and even though Picard's human renderings of Q-speech were without nuance or subtlety--the Q equivalent of ?Ou est la toilette?'--his understanding of it was actually quite vast.

Q let his essence out in a thin string, then pulled it back to a more cohesive state, the Continuum equivalent of a sigh. If he and Picard had still been talking to each other Q would have been at pains to hide his anxiety. The tracks he found led nowhere, and that frightened him more than he cared to admit. Whatever left them was powerful enough to will itself incapable of being found. For one of the few times in his very long existence, Q did not know what to expect. He remembered Picard, sitting on his balcony and demanding that Q take his powers away.

'You may get your wish regardless of what I want,' he thought grimly.

Only another Q should have been able to hide from him so thoroughly. These tracks dropped into this space-time dimension, then pulled out again. Obviously whatever it was, was being very careful now, but unless it was always careful, there would be tracks somewhere else, and they might lead to a trail, and the trail might lead to a lair. Q braced himself for anything and decided he wanted to be where there were more tracks. He abruptly found himself at a junction between dimensions. In this interstitial plane he was partly corporeal and partly etheric, and he had to quickly pull himself into his non-corporeal state before someone took advantage of his physical vulnerabilities.

'Pathetic,' he thought to himself. 'Is this where it lives? No wonder I couldn't find it.'

He'd never spent much time in the in-between planes, but the thing he was tracking obviously did. He could feel it's pattern much more strongly here. This was where it felt comfortable because there were tracks all over. Q's confidence soared. Gratified to be able to vent his aggression Continuum-style, he looked forward to a battle with an enemy that was like himself. He launched himself towards the place where the pattern was strongest and found himself face to face with an entity he was somewhat familiar with. This being was a Douwd, or at least a proto-Douwd, no question about it.

In Q's universe, Q and Douwd were on friendly terms, but Q couldn't imagine being friends with the thing who stood before him. It was its own energy vortex. He could feel it pulling at him, but even though he did not think it could harm him, Q coalesced his energy more closely toward his core. This thing appeared to feed on energy, and Q had no intention of letting it get stronger.

In the empty dimension they took each other's measure, then the Douwd finally spoke.

"I didn't think you would recognize me." It didn't seem the least bit frightened.

"You're not like the Douwd in my universe," Q affirmed. The Douwd smiled a cheshire-cat grin and sent out an investigative tendril that bounced off Q like an echo-locator, sounding out his shape and dimension.

'Of course,' Q thought. Continuum sensors were like lasers, but in order to deal with it's own kind, an energy-absorbing creature like this one would need a radar instead of a probe in order to keep from eating its companions.

The Douwd gave him a sardonic welcome. Q felt matter rearrange itself slightly, and suddenly Picard was there in front of him; Q knew him too well to think it was merely a projection. Giant fingers came down out of nowhere, pinching Picard's head between them until it was thoroughly crushed, then a hand scooped up the bloody mess that had been his lover and carried it beyond Q's reach. The carnage was intended to knock Q off stride and it succeeded. It wasn't the idea that Picard was dead that froze him as much as the fact that the Douwd apparently had the ability to absorb his lover's existence so thoroughly that Q couldn't find a single trace of him. When he couldn't think Picard back into existence, Q panicked, and in those few nanoseconds of fright the Douwd attacked. Q tried to brace himself. Most energy creatures had martial art techniques which they practiced with varying degrees of finesse. Continuum fighting methods were fast and rapier subtle, variants of a young Q's maneuvers when it cannibalized it's weaker siblings. This Douwd, however, had no such graces. Instead of using an attack pattern Q recognized, it simply threw up on him, ejecting a big pile of its energy pattern right into Q's essence. Q was not expecting this at all and he reacted with revulsion, backing away and instinctively trying to clean himself off. The energy befouled him as if he'd been heaved upon by a drunkard, but it wasn't until he felt the ebbing of his stamina in a manner humans would translate as pain that he realized he was seriously hurt. He automatically stopped the drainage then stood back to assess the damage. The Douwd's energy had an effect like acid on flesh, corroding him at the boundaries of his being and marring him with a distinct scarring pattern. And like all burn scars, this hardened into an inflexible mass, essentially freezing that part of his energy pattern into place so that he couldn't move it without hurting himself.

Q was surprised to find that he could be hurt by someone who wasn't a member of the Continuum, but he still wasn't particularly worried. The straightforward nature of the attack told him that the creature wasn't very sophisticated. If it had other weapons in its arsenal they would likely be no more complex than the vomit. On the other hand, Q grimaced as he tried to flex himself, they might not need to be.

Well, this was simply not going to do. Q sat back and thought about his options.

The Douwd, in throwing up that energy mass, had inadvertently given him a great deal of information. He finally knew where it lived, where its whelps were hidden and what its vulnerabilities were. Q was frankly enraged enough to hunt it down and kill it, but Jean-Luc and Picard had been drilling him on patience and planning for twenty years, so he didn't act on his anger right away. He thought about his objectives, asked himself what was the minimum force necessary, then he acted. Swooping down on the Douwd lair like an avenging comet, he grabbed two adolescents and made off a safe distance with them. It was a carefully calculated move. The continuum might have dismissed the death of one or two of its infants, but the time and energy invested in adolescents made them more valuable. He didn't know whether the Douwd thought the same way, but protecting their young was a universal constant with every species he'd ever encountered, including his own. The Douwd teenagers kept still and quiet for their lives' sake as Q waited for a Douwd to come and ask him for his terms.

As expected, the negotiations didn't take long. A Douwd approached, stopping when Q menaced one of the youngsters. It sent an image of the children back among their families, and with it, a telepathic demand, //give back.//

Q sent its words back to it with an image of Picard. He waited some more, then another Douwd approached, the one who had taken his lover. Q could sense that the second Douwd was not there willingly, but he didn't care. His lover's body was unceremoniously dumped into the atmosphere of the planet where he'd arbitrarily chosen to make his stand. Q could sense the tailings of Picard's individual essence--mere echoes of the man who'd been attached to the dead flesh, but it was enough. Later he would carefully study the Douwd's ability to obliterate all traces of his lover, but first things first. He thought the children back to their families, then moved back in time and watched stoically as the giant fingers came towards his lover's head. This time, however, he snatched Picard out of the way. The dead body disappeared and Picard stood next to him blinking in confusion. Q was so happy that he didn't think twice about lifting Picard in his arms and whisking them back to the palace. Picard struggled to be set free.

"Get away from me! I never want to see you again!"

It was so like him that Q smiled, relieved beyond measure that his lover was alive and snarling again.

"Why don't you lie down? You don't know it, but you've had quite a day."

To Picard it felt like mockery. If this was Q's attempt to get back into his good graces, he wasn't having any of it. He had no idea of what he'd just been through, but he'd been around Q long enough to recognize the feel of a blank spot in his memory. "Whatever you did, undo it."

"I won't."

"Then get out!" Picard was enraged at the intrusion. The pain that he'd managed to wrestle down came roaring back, fresh and full of vigor. He threw a bolt of anger at Q who rocked with the impact but stayed standing. Picard threw several more until Q was forced to retreat. Unfortunately, Picard had been neglecting his meals of late, and in his weakened state the bolts he threw had a far worse effect on him than they ever could have had on Q. Bare seconds after Q disappeared Picard collapsed to the floor. His servants found him the next day when they showed up to dress him.

All of Picard's servants loved him very much. It was a redundancy Q had built into Picard's safeguards in case something should happen when Q wasn't there to protect him. So when they found him on the floor the following morning, they were more distressed and panic-stricken than might have normally been expected. He didn't have a regular doctor but one of the guards remembered bringing a medikit to one of the emperor's guests. They beamed into her hotel room and demanded she accompany them right away.

Beverly, sipping tea and staring out the window, suddenly found herself confronted by a hysterical guard who alternately threatened and pleaded with her to come take care of the Emperor. She accompanied him, half-dressed and face unpainted, expecting to find Picard dead or near death. What she found instead was that he'd overexerted himself with some strenuous activity without bothering to prepare for it. His blood sugar levels were ridiculously low.

She had the guards put him to bed, surprised at how reverently they handled him. 'Of course,' she reminded herself. 'I keep forgetting he's the emperor.'

She ordered a glass of juice then gave him a mild stimulant.

"Drink this," she ordered when he opened his eyes. She propped him up in bed and held the glass to his lips.

He drank it down obediently then looked around him in mild surprise. "What happened?"

"Your servants found you. They thought you were dead."

Picard looked away, glowering.

Beverly sighed in exasperation like she did when the children taxed her patience. "I rebuilt Deanna's ear once when you tore it off. She only lost two percent of her hearing. I became pretty good at cleaning up after you. So what am I cleaning up this time? Another broken love affair?"

"Yes." He finally admitted.

"God help us all."

Picard scoffed. "I was never that bad."

Instead of answering she reached out and pulled at his ear, gently at first, then with increasing strength. Right at the point where the pain was making him grunt, she stopped.

"You tore her ear off her head," Beverly reiterated. "You were worse than 'that bad,' you were insane."

"I suppose I was," Picard agreed. He remembered the incident as if someone else had done it. 'How could I have been so savage?' he asked himself. He felt ashamed, but he also gloated a bit. If he regretted his behavior, that meant he was different now, right? The Captain of the Enterprise never regretted anything. Sometimes-- rarely--he and Q discussed his feelings from that time. Q was worse than he was at sorting out emotions, and would ignore them given half a chance.

'I hate him and I won't think about him anymore,' he decided quickly, forestalling another long tour of their combined memories. He knew he was lying to himself, but if he started thinking about Q he would start to grieve again. "She turned out alright, you know. Deanna did."

Beverly shook her head. "I didn't know, but I always wondered."

Picard had checked up on Deanna several times. Her first few years on the Delta colony had been difficult for everyone involved. She spent a lot of time hiding in corners, her telepathic senses extended in a state of hyperalertness. In a short time the healers learned to stand far away and call out that they were approaching unless they wanted to be subjected to a heavy dose of fear and panic. As time passed, however, her life was restored to her in a series of small triumphs. She finally let someone she recognized approach her without fear. She smiled at a joke. She allowed a therapist to touch the surface of her mind. They gave her small animals to care for, then, when they thought she could handle it, a little telepath girl orphaned in a war. Deanna cared for the girl and began to carve out a life for herself and her taken-in daughter. She would never be what she'd been before, and she was still pathologically fearful of him, though it usually didn't bother her because he was far away. In an act of compassion, Q had told her that Picard would never be able to find her, and Deanna clung to that promise like a lifeline.

The last time he'd checked, the silent, shellshocked girl was learning to play like a normal child. Her weird mom was learning to let her out of sight without panicking. The trust and affection between them was growing. Picard realized that the best thing he could do for her was to continue to leave her alone. He told Beverly as much.

"I imagine," she said. "I used to wonder if any of us would ever truly live down those years." Then she looked at him fearfully.

"Don't worry, I'm not reading your mind."

"Thank you," she was genuinely grateful.

"I'm not the person I was." He wanted her to believe that so she wouldn't be so frightened.

She didn't answer him. He seemed different sometimes, but she frankly didn't trust him. "Tell me what happened," she suggested.

"I didn't like that person. I realized I hadn't for a very long time. So I changed. Tried to change," he amended. "I'm not always as I'd like to be."

Beverly smiled wistfully. "Me either. I realized something about myself, Jean-Luc. I kept obsessively falling in love and having babies. I would be happy with their fathers until the boys were three years old then I would suddenly become afraid. Then I'd leave and do it all over again. But my boys are very patient with me. Sully, my oldest, told me he didn't mind a new baby brother every few years if it was what I needed." She shrugged. "Eventually I had to face the fact that I was trying to recapture the time I had with Jack, the happiness I had until..."

"Until I killed him and took you for myself." He looked rueful. "I never faced the cruelty of such an act, or the fear that drove me to it."

"It wasn't until many years later that I figured out how frightened you were."

"Terrified," Picard affirmed, "of everything and everybody."

Beverly nodded. She felt close to tears. "What made you want to be different?"

"I have... I had... a lover who made me very happy."

Now the tears spilled. "Who is she?"

"*He*," Picard corrected, "*his* name is Q."

"Tell him to come back and save us," she whispered. "You know why I didn't stir from New Hebrides until I had to? I've been hiding from you."

"I loved Jack. That's why I was so jealous when you took him from me. That's why I killed him."

"That's why?" Part of her marveled that she was having this conversation with this man. It could very well be a trap to put her off her guard, though she couldn't imagine why. If he thought she was a threat he could kill her easily enough. If he simply had new games to play she was doomed in any event. And Jack, even after all this time, still roared up between them and demanded his due. On his behalf she wanted to rage at the man in front of her, strike at him, hurt him, though it wouldn't change anything. Jack would still be dead. She changed the subject. "Are you hungry?"

"They don't have what I want." He sounded sulky.

"Of course they have what you want," she soothed. She looked around the room and found the replicator. "Just name it and I'll get it for you."

Picard ran through an inventory. He wasn't hungry for apples or bacon or coffee or doughnuts or eggs... Q had always known... he could take Picard's vague cravings and turn them into appetizing choices that somehow always satisfied him. He wasn't used to having to ask for things, so he picked something arbitrary. "Peaches."

Beverly sighed. Replicators did not do fresh fruits and vegetables very well. Nothing beat the tree-ripened original for taste and texture which he knew. As she fetched it she had to tell herself that he was not testing her or looking for a way to blame her for his unhappiness. He was simply behaving like the spoiled, pampered emperor he'd become. Well, she would bring him his fruit and then she was leaving. Changed or not, different or not, she could too easily fall back into the habit of desperately needing to please him, and she didn't want that. He could get fresh fruit for himself if he really wanted it that badly.

Q was beside himself. He respected Picard far too much to disobey his order to stay away, but he was not above looking for loopholes. 'I don't want to see you anymore,' Picard said, but that didn't mean that Q couldn't see Picard. He watched stoically as Picard lay in their bed, dry-eyed, unable to stay asleep, holding vigil against emotion. He knew that Picard was punishing both of them with his grief, but Q felt he deserved to be punished so he forced himself to watch, wishing vainly that self-flagellation would ease the pain of seeing his lover's pain.

"I'm sorry I hurt you." He reappeared once, begging forgiveness.

And Picard had gently patted his cheek. "That's enough. Isn't that pathetic? And that's why I hate you, Q. Because you made that enough for me. Now get out."

Q pulled far enough away that Picard couldn't sense him and watched Picard send for Beverly and a sleeping potion. Q was beginning to wish he had killed Beverly when he had the chance. Picard was getting attached to her, and now Q didn't have the heart to take her away from him. If he'd still been in Picard's good graces, he would be lying in bed with him this very second, holding him and telling him all about how cleverly he'd outwitted the Douwd. He would be basking in admiration, listening as Picard made much of his wounds and raged at the Douwd, insisting that Q kill it and all it's progeny. Instead, he was skulking around his own home, feeling lonely and out of sorts. He wondered if Jean-Luc was still angry with him. Finally he decided to find Leila. She would tell him what her father's mood was.

But when he got to Jean-Luc's asteroid he hesitated. Leila was sitting with her mother and the two were having a rare moment of amity which he didn't want to intrude upon. Hovering invisibly in a corner, he was just deciding to go away and leave them alone when Leila called his name.

"Here," he caroled, and materialized in the kitchen with them. He reached out and put the thought into Marie's lover's mind that she had to speak to Marie that very second. Moments later the comm chimed and Marie answered it. Then she excused herself, rushed into her study and shut the door. Now Q had Leila all to himself, but she was shaking her finger at him knowingly.

Years later, Leila would tell a biographer that her parents' stormy relationships with their lovers paradoxically allowed them to have a very loving and stable relationship with one another. Nonetheless, growing up in a household where her mother and father were madly, passionately in love with other people had its weird moments. When maman came out of her study she would either be singing or crying, and the wait was nervewracking.

"You did that," she accused Q.

He was unrepentant. "I need your help."

"What?" Her tone was surly. *She* was the family expert when it came to yanking Marie's chain, and she hated for anyone to encroach on her territory.

"He still won't see me."

Leila sighed in annoyance. She had never even had a boyfriend. She was out of her league and she knew it, and Q knew it. "Bring him here. Papa will talk to him."

Q stared at her.

"Well, how am I supposed to know what to tell you?!!" she burst out irritatedly. "I don't have these types of relationships!"

"No," he sounded a bit stunned. "You solved it. That's perfect. That's exactly how it happened the first time." He beamed at her. "Clever little girl. Where do you want to go?"

Leila bounced in her chair and clapped her hands. "Let me think. Someplace good."

"Quickly. Your father's coming."

Her father had absolutely forbidden her to take gifts from Q. It would weaken her, he said, to learn to rely on him. Leila obeyed him most of the time, and Q was very careful about what he actually gave her, so they mostly managed to stay in Jean-Luc's good graces. Trips through time, however, were Leila's weakness, and Q knew it, but this suggestion deserved the most meaningful reward he could find for her.

Bring Picard here. Then Q could go back to his universe and deal with the Douwd without worrying about the emperor's safety. Meanwhile, Jean-Luc would talk Picard out of his funk, just like last time. Brilliant.

Now they heard Jean-Luc's footsteps on the stairs. Q held a finger to his lips and looked up with a bit of trepidation.

"Plotting again?" Jean-Luc greeted them. He bent over and kissed his daughter's forehead then did the same to Q.

"Am I forgiven?" Q asked.

"We need to talk," Jean-Luc cautioned, "but I'm not angry anymore."

"Well, that's something."

Jean-Luc was still shaking his head in fond exasperation when Marie came out of her study. She wore the distracted smile that said she and Edouarda were getting along today.

"Darling," she kissed Jean-Luc's cheek in passing and he smiled happily, his eyes following her around the room as she fetched two more cups.

Watching the byplay, Q almost changed his mind about what he'd just decided to do. This family had it's own intrinsic order which he understood very well, having watched it evolve. Sitting around the kitchen table, participating in the tea-drinking ritual with them, he could feel their comfort and connectedness. He valued it, and he liked being a part of it. With Leila and Marie getting along for once, the whole place felt peaceful. Disturbing this equilibrium was not something he undertook lightly. And he was about to introduce a cookoo's egg into the nest, something that would take up more than it's share of time and energy. But it was Picard, and therefore worth it. He suddenly felt nervous, and his cup banged loudly against the table when he set it down.

"Jean-Luc, we need to talk alone."

Jean-Luc and Marie exchanged glances, and Jean-Luc did not quite sigh. "Very well, Q."

Some minutes later, having poured out selective bits of the whole story, Q sat in Jean-Luc's study waiting for a decision. Jean-Luc had to say yes. That was all there was to it.

"He tried to kill himself." Jean-Luc repeated. He still could not believe what he'd heard. "And you did nothing."

"Twice. I revived him." Q answered defensively. He didn't have to explain how hard it was to watch over someone who wanted nothing to do with you. "I think he may do it again, that's why I need you to help me."

"Q, you are the stupidest, most inconsiderate excuse for an omnipotent immortal I've ever seen. You broke him, but I'm supposed to fix him, is that it?"

"Only you can. You have to. He won't let me near him."

Jean-Luc sighed, beaten. Q was right, of course. He would have to go. He wasn't going to leave Picard in pain, especially when he bore part of the blame for it, however inadvertent. "You will have to fight with him for a few more days. We're taking Edouard to college soon, and I don't want anything to interfere."

"Agreed," Q answered a bit too quickly.

Jean-Luc looked at him shrewdly but said nothing. They went to talk to Marie.

"I'm going to have to leave after we get back from taking Edouard to school." Jean-Luc told her. "I may be away for several days."

She always took everything in stride. "Where will you go?"

"I'm going into another dimension to take care of... something."

Her expression didn't change in the slightest, but her eyes flicked over to Q then back to Jean-Luc whose features softened as he looked at her. Q hated the fact that Jean-Luc and Marie had such complete understanding of one another when it came to dealing with him. Marie didn't allow her disdain to show on her face, but Q could almost hear her thinking, 'What a disruptive lout you are, Q.'

'Just you wait,' he thought grimly. He took some comfort from the fact that Jean-Luc hadn't told her what they had in mind. He would present her with a fait accompli and let her deal with it from there.

'You're a manipulative bastard,' he thought fondly. 'No wonder you're such a good negotiator. And you're coming to my rescue yet again. No wonder I love you so.'

Jean-Luc had agreed to help him on the condition that Q stay away the whole time Picard was there. 'I can't handle two of you,' he'd told Q. Q had readily acquiesced. If he thought it would help Picard, Q would have agreed to any condition Jean-Luc laid down.

Along with the threat from whoever was instigating Jevon Pirist there were many other things Picard had to deal with. One of his most disastrous laws was a decree that there was to be no more genetic manipulation of sentient subjects except to correct defects. The black market soared and the factories had gone so far underground that even with Q's help it had been very difficult to get rid of them. Now he had reason to suspect they were on the rise again. One of his spies reported that on Aries there had been a dramatic increase in the numbers of multiple births over the past few years but no corresponding increase in demand for child care goods and services. He suspected black marketeers of piggybacking embryos onto already pregnant mothers for a fee. That meant the midwives guilds were in collusion with them. Normally he would have ferreted out the collaborators and helped them find some other industry (a much better response than his former solution of simply killing them and putting lots of nice people out of work). Without Q's help, however, it was more difficult by several orders of magnitude. Picard's telepathic abilities didn't stretch over long distances. He could teleport by himself, of course, but it drained him. He struggled on gamely, but he tired quickly now and was so easily distracted by his own sadness that his work suffered. He should have been able to figure out a solution, but somehow the answers eluded him.

Picard decided that it was normal to need a period of adjustment when a relationship ended, so even though he felt like half his head had been torn from his shoulders he told himself not to worry overmuch. He forced himself out of bed in the mornings, picked at whatever was set in front of him, allowed himself to be dressed. His clothes flapped on his body, but he ignored his servants' oblique suggestion that he have them adjusted. He was hanging on to his routine by main force of will, and it was simply too much trouble to vary it. Without Q there to hold him and touch him his body went numb, but he decided not to notice it. He sat on his throne but hours would pass while he stared into space, ignoring everyone who came before him. Since he was the emperor, no one dared shout at him to pay attention.

Beverly was beginning to be more and more frightened for her sovereign. In her opinion, he'd never had a particularly firm grip on his sanity, and now it seemed his grief had completely separated him from his senses. His late-night stories, for instance, attributed all sorts of fantastical powers to his former lover. Q took Jean-Luc swimming in the rainpools on planets in far distant parts of the galaxy. He could make it snow whenever he wanted. He could kill or heal from a distance. He could hear people talking thousands of lightyears away. To Beverly he sounded like an imaginary friend, but it was no wonder the Emperor made up stories to comfort himself. He was fading, but he would not allow her to really help him. She could do nothing for him but keep vigil during his long slide into the quiet dark.

She was confused. She had feelings for him, but she no longer knew what they were. She hated him as her husband's murderer yet part of her forgave, or at least understood. She loathed him for killing her child, yet part of her grieved for the child in him who must have been so early poisoned by hatred. She feared for the empire, surprising herself with the strength of her loyalty. She hadn't realized how much he embodied the things she believed in-- power, order, stability--and she loved him with the blind faith of a subject for her lord. The emperor was dying, and she was too wearied by the complex tangle of her emotions to offer him anything other than a doctor's remote concern for a patient.

So she did what she could, sitting with him at night, listening to his odd ramblings or chatting about inconsequentials as she waited for his sedatives to take effect.

"What's behind that door?" She asked because long silences were painful for her, and they'd already discussed the weather.

Picard glanced in the direction of her pointing finger and started in surprise. He'd never seen that door before. No wait. He'd somehow known it was there but hadn't ever bothered to enter it. He'd forgotten how easy it was to get used to things appearing and disappearing at Q's whim.

"He used to keep different rooms for me," he murmured. "I had a rain-room and an azalea room and a horse trail room... open the door and there was a rainy afternoon in Le Barre, or a winding path through a park. He was the most wonderful person, Beverly. I'm glad I kicked him out, but sometimes I wish I had him back."

His words were beginning to garble, so they waited until the next day to explore the room, discovering with amazement that it was an exact reproduction of Beverly's office on New Hebrides, with one unique difference. Instead of a single wall decorated with family pictures, all four walls were covered with images of Picard. In his imperial uniform, in his coronation robes, swimming, smiling, eating, walking in the woods. Dancing. Sitting on his throne. Bundled up against the snow. Many were unabashedly erotic; seductive poses where his body was taut with unreleased tension-- eyes hooded, mouth open, obviously taken in the throes of sexual arousal. Beverly stared agog. Cold, secretive Jean-Luc had allowed someone to see him in this state of vulnerability? He'd allowed someone to photograph him having an orgasm? There was a particular one, where he was on hands and knees, his head bent down, the muscles in his arms tense and straining against some physical force. He looked for all the world like he was pushing back as he was being taken from behind. Beverly looked closer. Yes, there were tiny beads of sweat along his shoulders and down the middle of his back. He was obviously getting a strenuous workout. She felt very jealous. The sheer volume of photographs spoke of someone who was obsessed by the man. It was as if the photographer wanted a catalogue of all the ways Picard was known to him.

Picard had to laugh, even through the sudden weight on his chest. It was a typical Q-ism, imitating something but putting his own particular spin on it. "Don't be envious. He put that up after we'd been to your house. He saw all the pictures of your boys and he wanted to do something like it."

"Q was in my house?"

"We both were. We went poking around New Hebrides as soon as you told us about Pirist."

"What are you doing about that, Jean-Luc?"

"I've got imperial spies all over your planet. Have you been keeping up with the news from home? Good. That family from Ireland? The two new shopkeepers? The spies that were already in place? They're watching. We'll catch them at it."

He felt proud of himself for obeying the laws he'd set in place, but Beverly frowned. It took no great act of intuition to see that she couldn't believe he wouldn't just send someone to kill the plotters and have the whole thing over with.

"I'm trying to create laws that everyone has to obey, even the Emperor," he explained patiently. He could see that it defied comprehension.

"But *you're* the Emperor. You can do whatever you want."

"What if I want to obey all the laws I make?"

"Well that's up to you, Jean-Luc." She looked at the pictures again. "He obviously loves you very much."

'Then why did he betray me?' Picard asked himself. Now that he'd had a few weeks to distance himself he was wondering what it all meant. Beverly was right. Picard knew to his marrow that Q loved him, but then why would he spend time with Jean-Luc? When he wasn't telling himself that Q was a user and a cold, unfeeling immortal who played with humans for his own purposes, he knew there had to be a reason.

He often caught himself talking obsessively about Q when Beverly came to doctor him. He liked to describe the way Q turned himself into a protective bubble and held Picard safe inside while they travelled through space together. With Q invisible, it was like Picard was flying through the cosmos on his own, except he could feel Q enveloping him. Picard hated the fact that he couldn't seem to talk about anything else. He tried to force himself to stop, but almost as if by magic he would find himself talking about Q again.

Beverly listened patiently. She understood the need to talk and talk and talk about an absent lover, though it did get a bit tiresome after a while. How many times, after all, could she listen to him recount all of the times and places they'd made love without getting bored. Under water, in a nebula, noncorporeally, in each other's bodies... she wanted to scream 'Shut up! Shut up! How dare you, of all people, have a lover who treated you so well!'

Q rushed back to watch over Picard. 'Hang on,' he silently urged. 'Jean-Luc is coming and he's going to fix everything.'

Q hoped. He couldn't help but wish that Jean-Luc's influence would get Picard out of Beverly's clutches. The truth was, Beverly didn't even want to be there, but Q still wanted her gone. He nosed around the palace, watching the things they'd worked so hard for begin to fall apart. Picard's ministers were at a loss. They'd been indifferent to Picard's personal life because for years his joy and strength were obvious to anyone who saw him. Now they looked at this shuffling scarecrow in his flapping clothes and grew concerned for their own security. If the emperor was sick, the whole stability of the Empire was thrown out of joint.

When Picard ascended the throne he hadn't named a successor. Flush with newfound passion, he genuinely expected to live forever, and as he triumphed over each new enemy, he built a reputation for invincibility. Everyone, even these shrewd old companions of his, felt safe in the knowledge that he had the reigns of government firmly in hand. The old man who leaned on his servant's arm instead of striding into the council chambers like he used to inspired no such confidence. And it was the inconsistency of his appearance that was beginning to make them feel so skittish. Q knew that on the days when Picard was too weak to get out of bed, stuffed-dummy took his place, but no one else knew, and rumors began to fly about a double who was fighting for control of the emperor's faculties, of poison, of evil.

Another time Q might have laughed at these powerful men and their superstitions, but now he was inclined to help them figure it out. He put the thought into their heads that Picard's mistress had not been seen in days, and neither had the man who, as near as they could tell, was her twin brother.

The emperor had always been very protective of his privacy. Years had passed before they'd known that his brother was the governor of New Paris, one of the most influential colonies in the sector. Now, desperate, they called him to ask what could possibly be the matter, but Robert was of no help whatsoever. They called his other two brothers and his one living sister but they were unable to shed any light on it. By sheer chance someone thought to ask Governor Crusher.

"This happened to him once before," she whispered to a minister. "I think he lost a lover and it affected him very badly, but less than a month later he'd taken over the Empire. It may pass."

Everyone hoped so. What, after all, did one do with the king of the galaxy when he lost all his will to rule? Outside the council chambers rumors were spreading of a lonely old man going crazy by himself in the imperial palace.

'How can you say that about him?' Q thought, wondering at the gleefulness with which some people received this news. 'Don't you know he works hard every day to make your miserable lives better?' He wanted to hurt the rumormongers but restrained himself. The irony struck him full that he was the reason Picard was lonely and crazy.

Every day it grew harder for Q to watch Picard try to live without him. He couldn't anticipate his wants and give them to him before he could ask. He couldn't be there to greet Picard in the mornings or lay with him at night until he fell asleep. He couldn't take away Picard's slight aches and pains. When Picard got indigestion Q was almost beside himself. The emperor cried, not because it bothered him, which it did, but because it reminded him of how much he missed Q.

'Take me back!" Q wanted to scream. He still had to decide what to do about the Douwd, and he had to repair his energy patterns and he didn't want to waste time brooding over a stubborn emperor, but he couldn't help himself. He watched, seething, as the struggle to maintain control became too much for Picard and he broke into tears at a council meeting. He simply started crying, reducing his ministers and counselors to exquisitely painful embarrassment. They sat around the table and stared at one another helplessly, but then one of them unbent enough to try and comfort him a little, actually going so far as to lay a gentle hand on his shoulder. Q was grateful for this. The minister was risking his life to show how much he cared because it usually meant death to touch the emperor's person. The allotted time for the meeting ran out, and still they sat, listening to him weep and wondering what to do. He was the emperor. Everything he did was on a scale so vast as to be incomprehensible. It stood to reason that the expression of his pain would be grander than an ordinary mortal's.

Eventually his grief broke down their inhibitions. One by one, they dared tell him their simple stories, commiserating as best they could. "When my daughter died I wept like this."

"Two hundred years ago I had to put my brother to death. I still grieve when I look at his picture."

"When my consort left me..."

"When plague destroyed my homeworld..."

It was a strange, awkward little miracle that Q witnessed. These hardened creatures would never have unburdened themselves in each other's company, but here they were, empathizing with each other, understanding each other's pain. There was a quality of daring about it, so that the last few told their stories because all the others had and they didn't want to be left out. It created a singular bond among them, though they didn't know what it meant or what to do with it.

Q knew what it meant, and even through his frustration and impatience he found it in himself to admire Picard's amazing influence on people. This spontaneous sharing would either strengthen their sense of cohesion or it would make them embarrassed and edgy around one another. Perceiving this, Picard, of course, would choose to take advantage of this moment of vulnerability and use it to make these men over into his image. If he bothered to stop crying and take notice. Q wished Jean-Luc would hurry up and get that boy of his off to college.

Jean-Luc sat in his study feeling slightly foolish. He had talked his way through dozens of negotiations, parleys, truces, arbitrations, mediations, reconciliations and settlements, and he'd never been as jittery as he felt now. It was late evening, he'd told his wife he'd be away, and everyone knew he might be bringing someone home with him--all was prepared. So why hadn't he left yet? It was only Picard for heaven's sake. He could do this. He should do this, but something kept him from leaving. Edouard had only been gone a day, but Jean-Luc already missed him. The house somehow felt more silent, and everyone had been subdued and quiet at dinner. Leila had come to the table with suspiciously reddened eyes, and she'd been her most formal, a sure sign that something bothered her. He knew without asking that she missed her brother. Everyone missed Edouard.

'And what am I bringing in to replace him?' Jean-Luc asked himself. '"An old man as full of grief as age, wretched in both."'

How could he do this to his family? On the other hand, how could he not? Q had been desperate, and Picard's face kept swimming in front of him: the stunned expression, the lost look in his eyes. The sadness. Jean-Luc owed him this and he wanted to put things to rights, yet still he hesitated. Something just didn't feel right, but no matter how long he sat there, he couldn't put his finger on the problem. Finally he got angry with himself for wasting time. He stood, snapped his fingers and was suddenly in a strange new place. The emperor was lying in bed, talking to a woman who looked slightly familiar. He must have detected Jean-Luc's presence right away because he abruptly told the woman to leave.

As she passed him, Jean-Luc observed with shock that it was this universe's Beverly Crusher. 'My god,' he thought, 'he kept her all these years. That poor woman.'

When the door closed Picard turned his face in Jean-Luc's direction.

"I told you to go away and never come back."

"And I'm not Q." Jean-Luc flashed into visibility.

"You. Come to gloat?"

"Stop it," Jean-Luc snapped, his voice unexpectedly rancorous. "You know me better than that and I won't stand here and be insulted."

His pique took Picard by surprise. "Have a seat." He motioned to the chair Beverly had just vacated. "Why have you come?"

Jean-Luc remained standing. "Q is worried about you. He thinks you're going to try to kill yourself again."

"And I suppose you've come to talk me out of it."

"No, but if you do kill yourself I'll think you're a fool." A little voice inside his head was demanding to know where Jean-Luc's negotiating skills were, and Jean-Luc was actually more than a bit dismayed at his tactlessness, but he couldn't seem to help himself.

Picard eyed him askance. "You've changed. The old Jean-Luc would have never resorted to namecalling."

Jean-Luc sighed heavily. "I felt nervous coming here. I shouldn't take it out on you. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. Sit." Picard repeated. He slid over on the bed. "Tell me why you've come."

"I'd rather show you." Jean-Luc answered. "Q thinks a change of scenery would be good for you, and I've come to invite you to spend some time with me, Marie and the children."

"Q thinks." Picard's voice was thick with scorn. "After what he's done do you think I'm even vaguely interested in following his advice?"

"He's very sorry for what he's done, and he seemed dreadfully frightened for you."

"Good," Picard smiled grimly. "He deserves to be frightened."

Jean-Luc shifted from the chair to the side of the bed. Illness and grief had left their marks on Picard. His eyes were too big and bright for the wasted face, and he was past thin and well on his way to bony. The nervousness flared again as he took in the emperor's poor physical condition, but he tried to suppress it. Nonetheless, Picard should have been taking better care of himself. Jean-Luc eyed him with disapproval. "At your age you should know better than to skip meals," he pointed out.

Picard fixed him with an expression of absolute disbelief. "You have a solution for everything, don't you, Jean-Luc?"

"In fact *you* have the solution, your highness," Jean-Luc let the words curl out of his mouth sardonically. "It's called eating."

"I can't. Ever since Q's been gone I haven't been able to eat. He always knew what I wanted and got it for me, but now..." He trailed off, obviously implying that there was nothing to be done about this dilemma.

"So you have no choice but to suffer?"

Picard did not hear the sarcasm. His whole existence consisted of suffering, and it was all Q's fault. He took the opportunity to catalogue the list of miseries that was now his life. There was no one here to talk to. He was drowning in work. His new lover was boring, a vapid little geneticist who mistook querulousness for passion. She thought she entertained him, but he didn't like her.

"Then send her away. You're doing her no favors by allowing her to think she's pleasing you."

"You don't know what it's like to be alone."

"You've been spoiled," Jean-Luc observed softly.

Picard looked at him blankly. He was absolutely spoiled, and he knew it. Q did anything he wanted, and even though Picard had learned the hard way to be very careful about what he asked for, he nonetheless reserved for himself the right to ask for anything that struck his fancy. And Q was more than happy to oblige him. In fact, the immortal spent much of his time racking his brain for things to give Picard, things to show him, new experiences... That had been Picard's job for twenty years, to be cosseted and overindulged. This too, was another blemish of Q's. Why promise to take care of him and then abandon him?

Jean-Luc had had enough. "Forgive me, your highness, I've apparently made a mistake. I was under the impression that you made him leave."

"How could I allow him to stay after he led me on like that? He humiliated me and made me feel like a fool."

The nervousness flared again, bringing with it a great many physical symptoms. In fact, it felt a lot like anger. Jean-Luc stared at his feelings in surprise, then looked over at Picard. That was it! He hadn't been nervous at all. He was angry. Now that he'd identified the feeling, he could feel it roiling in his chest like thunderclouds rumbling in.

And while he was wondering what to do, Picard made it easy for him. "And if you were really so concerned," the emperor complained, "you would have been here long before now."

"You will please forgive me for preferring my life to yours, your highness. In fact, you will please forgive me for having the temerity to lead an independent existence at all. I should have so preferred to spend my days as another satellite orbiting your great and mighty person that I can't but for the life of me wonder why I've spent the past twenty years doing anything else."

Picard narrowed his eyes and drew his lips together in a thin line. He looked for all the world like Jean-Luc's youngest when she pouted.

Jean-Luc told him so, adding that if Picard stuck his lower lip out the image would almost be a perfect replica of a sulky five-year-old. "Of course, being five, it looks a little less ridiculous on her."

"You dare."

"Oh, it took no daring to say that," Jean-Luc scoffed. "All I had to do was think of your revolting selfishness and the words said themselves." He thought of Beverly Crusher, obviously still in his thrall after all these years and his outrage deepened. "After all, if I were so emotionally frail, and so utterly inept at dealing with my feelings that I needed to maintain a twenty year relationship with a whipping boy, I too would expect people to say such things to me, emperor or not. N'est ce pas?"

He waited for a response, and when none was forthcoming, Jean- Luc spoke again. He could hear his voice getting silkier and more urbane by the second, the tone he used when he wanted to drive an opponent into a foolish mistake, "It is, of course, regrettable when a man with such potential fails to live up to it, but even if my opinion of you is somewhat... diminished, that should in no way be inferred to mean that I don't wish you to be a guest at my house. In fact I look forward to a visit at your earliest convenience."

And he bowed, insultingly low, snapped his fingers, and went back home.

Marie, waiting up for him, took one look at his expression and turned her back. Jean-Luc was grateful to her for letting him save face. He hated to bring problems home, hated to be seen as anything but calm and in control. She knew him well enough to recognize when he needed time to wind down, so she was giving him the opportunity to return to a more balanced state of mind.

'My darling wife,' he thought at her, and he could swear he felt her smile. To his great relief, however, she continued down the hall.

Jean-Luc was still in sarcastic mode, his words bitter and biting. 'You were rather good,' he told his reflection in the hallway mirror. 'Q will be so pleased. I can't wait to tell him how much I've helped.'

He climbed the stairs to his study and fell into a chair. He regretted everything that had transpired this evening. Q had been close to desperation when he'd asked Jean-Luc to intervene, but what he'd he done instead? Selfishly lost his temper and made a mess of things. When he thought about how Q would react, he felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Q was just as capable as he was of throwing a temper tantrum, but he would not restrict himself to words.

Jean-Luc let his head fall into his hands. He was debating how best to fix this mess when Picard flashed into his study. He was stunned, but he immediately tried to set things to rights.

"Forgive me for what I said to you."

He watched a smile dawn on Picard's features. "I finally made you angry after all this time, and I wasn't even trying. It was rather worth it."

Jean-Luc looked away, but Picard reached out and pulled Jean- Luc's chin so they were facing each other again. "What made you say those things?"

When Picard wouldn't let him hide, Jean-Luc stood up and walked a few paces away. With his back turned, he was finally able to speak. "I'm not really sure," he began. "I think I'm angry because you raped me, even though it was years ago. And I'm angry because you've been Q's lover all this time and I'm expected to be reasonable about it but I feel very... very jealous." Jean-Luc heard his voice start to tremble, but just like his venomous sarcasm of a few moments earlier, he couldn't seem to stop it. "I'm angry because the very last thing Q said before he left was that I was to go and get you and bring you here, and I know he meant bring you here for safekeeping. And I'm angry because Q's girded his loins and gone off to do god knows what *for you*. And he's *my* lover too, and no one seems to notice or care." Jean-Luc could hear the trembling become more pronounced. He fought to maintain a level speaking tone, and when he knew he was going to lose, stopped speaking altogether. For long moments he stared at a bookshelf.

Picard came up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. "I have the best of everything," he said softly. "I run my arm of the galaxy. Until recently I had an omnipotent immortal in my bed. I'm not used to thinking about other people's feelings. You'll have to forgive me."

Jean-Luc sighed and his shoulders slumped. "Of course I forgive you," he said in a subdued tone. "When have I done anything else but forgive you?"

He might have said more, but it was difficult to concentrate on speech with Picard's thigh rubbing between the crack of his buttocks.

"What are you doing?" Jean-Luc demanded.

"Indulging myself," Picard answered. He took Jean-Luc by the shoulders. "I *am* the emperor, you know. I can do what I like."

"C'est incroyable," Jean-Luc murmured. "With no consideration of what I want."

"None whatsoever," Picard murmured unrepentantly. "Turn around. I want to kiss you. It's been twenty years."

"This is not a good idea." Jean-Luc tried to step away, but Picard slid one hand around Jean-Luc's hip and held him in place.

"It was good then, remember?"

"Two decades have passed."

"Far too long," Picard murmured. He ducked around so that he was facing Jean-Luc, then he kissed him. When Jean-Luc tried to pull away, Picard held on tight.

Jean-Luc came up for air. "Are you doing this to be avenged on Q? Because if you are..."

Picard kissed him again, and Jean-Luc started to think that maybe Q deserved a little vengefulness. It was perfect all over again, which was what he was afraid of. Picard was so thin that his small frame shook with every beat of his pounding heart. Holding him, Jean-Luc could feel all those emotions welling up from two decades ago, the love and empathy, and the almost instinctive need to protect. Still, he was not sure he wanted this.

"I will not be used," he declared.

"No," Picard agreed. "You will not be." He knelt and started working at the clasps of Jean-Luc's trousers.

"Mon dieu," Jean-Luc whispered hoarsely. "You win. You always did have to have your own way."

Jean-Luc had long since trained himself to be silent during sex because he didn't think it was appropriate for children to hear the vocalizations their parents made while in the throes of coital union. Picard had no such compunctions, and his cries would have brought the family running if Jean-Luc hadn't stuffed his face into a cushion. With Marie, or Q for that matter, Jean-Luc waited for the rare moment when all the children were away or asleep before locking themselves into their bedroom or travelling to a pocket dimension where they would remain undisturbed. Tonight, however, he didn't intend to move from his study even though the room stayed unlocked to everyone at all times. Anyone who walked in would have had a clear view of his narrow butt pumping vigorously, his pants unceremoniously bunched around his ankles. Jean-Luc told the tape to erase itself starting with the previous hour and cease recording until further notice, then he struck a small blow for self- indulgence by lifting the emperor off his knees, propping him over the window seat and taking him rather thoroughly.

'I needed that,' Jean-Luc thought when they were done. It had been a long time since he'd done anything even remotely naughty, and he was feeling rather pleased with himself.

'Picard was right,' he thought, helping the emperor to his feet. 'I was not used by this. In fact, I think it may have actually helped a bit.'

"Come," he said when they were both dressed again. "I'll show you to one of the guest bedrooms."

Picard looked surprised. "You're going to make me sleep alone?"

Jean-Luc knew he looked entirely too jaunty and smug. "I've been trying to tell you," his smile took on a wicked edge. "Things are different now. I'm going to go sleep with my wife."

Q felt Picard disappear from the universe and silently thanked Jean-Luc for getting him out of harm's way. He would have to do something very nice for Jean-Luc one day. After all, Q couldn't foist Picard off on just anybody, and he couldn't chance leaving him here for the Douwd to find again.

Now that Picard was gone, Q could admit to himself that he was hurt much more badly than he'd first thought. He hadn't told Picard or Jean-Luc because there was nothing they could do but worry about him. It was nice to know they cared what happened to him even when he made them angry, but he didn't need their concern at the moment. He flared tight and red, the Q equivalent of a cry of pain. It hurt to stay in his human form, but he was so used to holding that shape that it also hurt to let go of it, almost like breathing in and out against a broken rib. He could have healed himself instantly by shrinking down to his essence, but that would mean exposing himself to the Continuum's scrutiny and he didn't want that. The twenty years he'd been away from them felt more like two thousand, and he liked it that way. Like a child with a scar on his chest who is suddenly shy about taking off his shirt at the pool, Q didn't want anyone to know he'd found happiness among mortals. It was so... gauche. People would laugh.

'So now what?' He wondered. He was going to kill the Douwd, that much was a given. He just had to figure out how. Now that they knew he was out here, they would be prepared for him. They might even be hunting him, though he doubted it. Q judged them cunning but lazy; unwilling to stir themselves unnecessarily. He could use that to his advantage.

Their semi-corporeality on the other hand, presented him with a bit of a problem. He could convert matter into energy only half paying attention. Creatures that were already partly energy could hide or disguise themselves from him, and if he didn't kill them completely, they would grow back again. So he had to do it right the first time because there would be no second chance. Well, he wasn't a Q for nothing. He was confident that he could find a way to take them out completely.

He followed their line back in time, not surprised to find that it was very short. Obviously they were too unevolved to be particularly ancient. Their history did not predate the dinosaurs of earth. He was abruptly annoyed at himself at using Leila's measure of time to judge their evolutionary worthiness, but he shrugged it off. By any measure these people were a group of disgusting, cavedwelling troglodytes; it didn't matter that their species hadn't had as much time to advance as the Q had. They had obviously wandered down into some developmental backwoods, and if they hadn't found their way out by now, they were probably going to go extinct in any event.

The Douwd weakness was evident. They had to consume energy, and they had to collect it. Q found nodes, a network of them, clustered in a crisscrossing hodgepodge, then, as they moved forward in time, more symmetrically placed in time and space. And wherever the nodes existed, misery existed right along beside them. They lived on pain, these revolting creatures, sponging up emotional detritus, feeding on the coarser emotions of fear and bloodlust. No wonder they were so sluggish.

"Bottom-feeders," Q sniffed. He was really pleased at the thought of getting rid of this infestation. Think of how much more easily Picard's work would become when he was done.

Q liked all the different flavors of emotion. He didn't need to consume energy or anything else, but just like the dinners he sometimes shared with Picard, he could when he wanted to. Love smelled good and tasted wonderful, but it was slightly more subtle than all the permutations of fear and pain. He absorbed it when he lay with the emperor, and when he talked with Leila and when he watched the Picard family going about its daily business. Granted, he also enjoyed the taste of fear and frustration, but unlike the indiscriminate Douwd, he had very particular tastes. Certainly he would never go about collecting masses of dark emotion to make a meal out of them. As Q inspected them more closely, he discovered that each collector had a tiny feedback loop. Bits of the ugly feelings they gathered spread back through the galaxy like bacteria that poisons an entire ecosystem, allowing them to create a constant supply from which they fed. It left him with a feeling of disgust, but as he watched, he discovered an answer. Like all simple creatures, they had fairly uncomplicated habits. They all fed together, with a fair degree of regularity. In fact it was ridiculously easy to track them. When they got hungry a war broke out.

And for that alone they deserved to die. Q intended to leave their domain a smoking ruin, and he was more certain than ever of the rightness of his cause. These beings were ultimate users. They had to use mortals to build their transdimensional hardware because they couldn't stay corporeal long enough to build it for themselves. And how did they reward them? By fomenting misery. "Charming," he scowled. The rest of the story told itself--they'd had to find Pirist or someone like him (and who better than an arms merchant, Q conceded) to do their dirty work for them. Then they'd simply taken on a physical form long enough to offer him a great deal of money. But even then they were too stupid to get it right. Q still couldn't believe that they'd happened to land on the one planet where the governor would object to the presence of a huge municipal project. There was no such thing as serendipity as far as he was concerned, but how could Picard really be that lucky? If indeed, anything having to do with these Douwd could be said to be a result of good fortune.

'I'll attack where they least expect it,' he decided. Jean-Luc had taught him that, and he was a veritable master at misdirection. So funny that for all his rigid morality Jean-Luc was more devious than either he or Picard. Of course he used his abilities in the cause of peace, but Q knew he secretly enjoyed manipulating people.

'Stick to the topic at hand,' he scolded himself. 'Ask yourself why they're jumping dimensions.'

But the moment he asked the answer appeared. It was Jean-Luc's fault. He'd influenced Picard to become a force against the chaos and conflict that characterized his universe. Picard had done so well that in twenty years he'd essentially limited the Douwd's feeding ground, forcing them to look elsewhere. They'd gone to Jean-Luc's universe to look for easier pickings. So Jean-Luc's meddling had endangered his own universe. 'Oh, Johnny,' he smirked. 'I'm going to rub your nose in this one.'

With that happy thought in mind he went cheerfully about the business of mining all the Douwd energy collectors. Because the Douwd were partially corporeal, Q had to work within time--another grudge he chalked against them. He spent days salting the Douwd feeding centers with landmines. Hurt as he was, the effort exhausted him. He was in pain constantly, but he ignored it, focusing on the end result which was that the Douwd would soon be dead.

When he was finally finished he sat back in a pocket dimension, resting and waiting, and when they all gathered to feed, he blew them up. Very little happened on a physical level, but in dimensions where humans couldn't see, there was absolute carnage. Q was almost too tired to care. He wished someone from home would sense that he was in trouble and come get him, but he'd built his safeguards too well, and the scars had frozen them in place, limiting his mobility. Well, he would worry about that later. Meanwhile he would take satisfaction in knowing that he'd rid the universe of a pack of useless vermin.

Picard woke up early, disoriented by sunlight which hit his face from the wrong direction. Somewhere nearby a woman whose voice he didn't recognize was talking softly. It wasn't until he heard Jean-Luc answer that he remembered where he was.

He stretched and looked around. Much as he hated to admit it, coming here had been a good idea. This house had an aura of severe calm and orderliness, and it soothed his spirit which had been too chaotic of late. He wrapped himself in Jean-Luc's borrowed dressing gown and wandered downstairs. The front room was opulently furnished, but cheerful and inviting nonetheless. His eye was drawn to the picture over the mantel, and he stood beneath it and gaped. It was a group portrait of Jean-Luc, his wife, his children, and Q. Q had his hand on Jean-Luc's shoulder, and he posed with the same quiet dignity that the rest of the family displayed. Picard wondered why he didn't feel jealous and angry, but to his surprise, gratitude welled up in him, along with a sense of poignancy. This was Q's mortal family. Despite himself he decided that he liked them for being part of Q's life.

Picard stared for a long time before retracing his steps. He would have gone back to the guest room, but Jean-Luc called to him from the kitchen. Following his voice, Picard crossed beneath the stairs to the other side of the house and found Jean-Luc sitting at the table with the woman in the photograph. His wife, of course, which was how Jean-Luc introduced her. They, too, were in their bathrobes.

"My dear," Jean-Luc still wore traces of the smug expression Picard had seen the night before, "I've brought a guest home to stay for a few days." He turned to Picard. "This is my double, his highness, Jean-Luc Picard, emperor in a parallel universe. Your highness; my wife, Marie Picard."

Marie bowed her head, held it for a moment, then looked up again. "Welcome to our home, your highness. What brings you to this universe?"

Any wife of Jean-Luc's would be perfect, but even so he was surprised at her aplomb. He bowed over her hand, but his eyes flickered amusement at Jean-Luc and his obvious pride. 'Look what I've got,' Jean-Luc's expression said.

Picard thanked her for having him in her home, but please, he asked her, while I'm here let me simply be Vicomte.

Jean-Luc managed not to choke on his tea. Marie graciously insisted that if he was vicomte then she was 'Marie.' She fetched him a cup and poured for him, telling him that she and Jean-Luc liked the morning quiet before the children came down. Picard worried that he was interrupting, but they seemed to simply be sitting in each other's company. When no one spoke for a long time, he relaxed, sipped his tea and stared out at the vanishing morning mist.

At the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs Marie and Jean-Luc stirred. A barefoot adolescent girl clattered into the kitchen, bent down and kissed him on the cheek then squawked and flinched backwards.

"Leila, please say hello to Vicomte Picard." Marie ignored the girl's unceremonious entry. "He's from a parallel universe, which is why he looks exactly like your father. He is our guest."

She repeated the speech three more times. As soon as they heard the word 'guest,' each child became formally polite. Picard watched in amusement as the children looked to their parents for cues. Jean-Luc would move his head down fractionally and each child bowed, much as their mother had done.

Picard also observed that as his children appeared, Jean-Luc's expression became increasingly self-satisfied. Not that Picard could blame him. Each child kissed maman and papa good morning and took their places at the table without squabbling. No one threatened them with punishment for misbehavior because they didn't misbehave. The girls were pretty and the boy was handsome, and they chatted quietly among themselves as they ate, presenting a picture of idealized family life. 'Naturally,' Picard thought disgustedly. There was such a thing as being too perfect.

Jean-Luc and Marie supervised and instructed, they fed Picard and fed themselves, and they did it so smoothly that Picard couldn't help but comment on the efficiency of their operation.

"If you think this is something, you should have seen the seven of us jammed into one hotel room," Marie answered. "That took some work, I can tell you."

Picard was surprised. "You take your family on missions with you?"

"Finish up, Yvette," Jean-Luc answered.

The little girl started to whine and Picard realized that Jean-Luc had not intended that as an answer to his question. Jean-Luc moved around the table, took Yvette onto his lap, and began to spoon her porridge into her mouth.

"It was either that or spend long periods of time apart." He looked up, his eyes met Marie's and they smiled at each other. "We decided we didn't want to do that."

"That wasn't dangerous?"

Jean-Luc's smile cooled somewhat. "We preferred the risk."

'What risk?' Picard thought sulkily. 'You had Q all along to protect you.' He remembered how Q always left him to sleep by himself. He'd assumed it was because of some immortal restlessness, but he was probably over here, guarding Jean-Luc's family. 'Oh, so what?' he suddenly scowled to himself. He was abruptly tired of picking at this particular scab. As if she'd sensed his sudden pique, small Yvette started to whine again, turning her face away from her spoon.

"Try something else, Jean." Marie said. "See if she'll eat boleti."

Picard tried not to stare. At her age he'd been expected to finish what was put in front of him. In fact, he would have never dared whine like that, certainly not within reach of his father's striking hand. Jean-Luc and Marie were apparently very indulgent. They patiently tried two different cereals before giving up. Marie took the girl upstairs to help her dress.

"She'll be spoiled." Picard judged.

Jean-Luc looked at him without expression and Picard felt himself begin to blush. As soon as he said it he realized that Jean-Luc's parenting methods compared rather favorably to the ones used on him. Jean-Luc had chosen not to engage a battle of wills over breakfast. The child was not so frightened of her father that she didn't dare express an opinion. Later she would get hungry. She would ask for more food and they were sure to give it to her. Truly no harm had been done, yet here he was telling another man how to raise his child.

"Sorry," he muttered.

Jean-Luc chose not to notice his faux pas. "Come upstairs with me and we'll get you some clothes."

Standing in front of the pattern buffer, Jean-Luc held a shirt up against Picard's chest. "This was always a little tight on me, so I imagine it should fit you perfectly."

Picard caught Jean-Luc's hand and held it. He knew his expression said that said he didn't care about clothes. They stared at each other. The bedroom door was open; in the next room they could hear Marie supervising Yvette.

"In the study," Jean-Luc murmured, "now the bedroom. You won't be satisfied until we've baptized every room in the house."

"Tell me you really don't want to," Picard smiled, feeling sure of himself.

"Here? Now? I really don't want to." He held Picard's eye, making sure he was understood.

Picard felt a bit deflated by the mild rebuff. He really hated it when things didn't go his way, but obviously Jean-Luc was not going to play 'yes, your highness' with him. In fact, Jean-Luc continued as smoothly as if he hadn't just been propositioned, handing Picard socks, shorts, shoes, pants. He obviously intended that Picard should put his own clothes on. Well, this would be an adventure. He wasn't sure he liked this concept of roughing it.

A few days later he knew without a doubt that he didn't like it at all. When there were no children around, Picard was the center of Jean-Luc's regard. Unfortunately, the children were always running in and out and they riveted Jean-Luc's attention. Picard decided that he didn't like these brats, and with good reason. They comported themselves like little philistines, and he couldn't understand why Jean-Luc didn't put his foot down and insist they behave.

'They're weird,' he thought to himself, annoyed to be subjected to their idiosyncracies. The three youngest, for example, refused to stay dressed. They ran wild all over their little asteroid and only came home to eat or study, trailing mud and the scent of child-sweat through their parents' stately home. Out of doors, Picard followed Jean-Luc's example and simply turned his head when a naked child came running by. When they were inside Jean-Luc insisted they wear clothing, but they made a game of ignoring him, streaking in, grabbing food or a book and streaking out again before he could catch them.

"But *why* don't they wear their clothing?" Picard asked, scandalized.

"We asked them, and they say they don't want to."

"Well, that's an excellent reason," Picard answered derisively.

"Your upbringing was different." Jean-Luc answered calmly and let it go at that.

Then too, there was their habit of building cairns and barrows and strange, altar-shaped sculptures at odd spots around the asteroid. They adamantly insisted that their parents should not touch them for any reason or even approach them without permission. His second day there, Marie had to intercede for him with a woebegone Albert who demanded to know *why* Picard had knocked down the structure he'd painstakingly created. They explained to him that it had been an accident. Exploring, Picard set the flitter down in a clearing, inadvertently landing right on top of one of Albert's special spots. Picard promised to try never to do it again, and even though it galled him to have to get permission from children, he quickly learned to ask which places on the asteroid were safe for him to visit. Still, when Albert had taken him up on his offer to help fix it, they'd had a nice afternoon together.

Furthermore, Jean-Luc's children all had a kind of rudimentary telepathy, Picard was sure of it. They had an intuitive ability to understand each other's thoughts, and to his discomfort, they had no compunction about using their abilities to figure him out.

"That picture makes you sad, but papa likes it." Ishtar announced with perfect confidence when she discovered him gazing at the portrait above the mantel. She waited for a response, but when none came she shrugged and backed away.

Shaken, he asked Jean-Luc how they knew the difference between the two of them so easily.

"I smile more," Jean-Luc answered. He might have discussed it further but he and Albert were on their way to a medical center on the planet they orbited. Albert had managed to cut his arm rather badly and they had to go get it fixed.

That was the other reprehensible thing about Jean-Luc's hooligans, Picard thought as he stared in horror at the huge bloodstain on the kitchen floor. These children had absolutely no sense of fear. Albert had come leaking into the house and showed his parents a newly-created orifice just above his left elbow.

And what did Jean-Luc do? Nothing, except to apply a tourniquet and suggest that Albert should make sure there were no sharp rocks in the lake next time he jumped out of a tree.

The real problem, of course, was not that Jean-Luc's children were weird, brilliant, fearless, pagan telepaths. The real problem was that they took Jean-Luc's time and attention away from Picard who wanted them all to himself. Oddly enough, he felt no animosity towards Marie though it was obvious that Jean-Luc adored her. She'd borne him five beautiful caramel-colored children and she could do no wrong. It was the same with Jean-Luc's oldest son, Edouard. He'd called one day while they were all sitting at supper, and bare seconds after hearing his voice Jean-Luc was up out of his chair. Everyone followed him into the living room, to find him sitting, rapt, in front of the comm console. The other children cheered and crowded around the screen, demanding to know how Edouard was doing and did he miss them, and did he like it at school, and when was he coming home? Edouard spoke to each of them, but when he finally put his fingers against the screen in farewell, it was Jean-Luc who reached out to match the gesture.

Leila must have sensed his surprise. "Daddy has a crush on Edouard," she offered with fake innocence in her voice.

The younger children picked up her teasing tone. "Yeah, papa loves Edouard best," Albert offered, and Ishtar did an uncanny imitation of Jean-Luc. "'Edouard,'" she made her voice low and a bit fawning. "'Whatever you need, call me. I will see that you get it.'"

"Go and finish eating," Jean-Luc ordered, and they ran, giggling, out of the room.

Picard was amazed. If his father had loved him so helplessly he would have taken immediate advantage by demanding cash and favors. Edouard had done no such thing even though Jean-Luc had asked him several times if there was anything he wanted.

"He was my first," Jean-Luc offered sheepishly. He tried to explain how blessed a lonely seventy-six year old former bachelor feels when he holds his first child in his arms; tried to convey that sense of amazed good fortune that hadn't ever dissipated. The other arrivals were like piling happiness on top of joy, but his reaction to the birth of his son was one of such humble gratitude and appreciation that even now he had no words to express the depths of his emotions.

It amused Picard that cautious, impartial Jean-Luc unabashedly loved this child best. None of the others seemed to seriously begrudge him his little bias, and in truth, Picard envied Jean-Luc his son and said so. He would have liked to have a boy with calm, dark eyes and a smile like a gift, but he knew intuitively that any child he raised would not turn out to be like Edouard. He went back to his dinner, but after that evening he watched Jean-Luc and Marie more carefully, paying attention to their interactions with their children. He was amazed to discover all the ways they were strict and demanding. Even their very patience was a goad. Like talc under granite, the children were relentlessly worn into the shape their parents wanted them to be. They would push themselves to exhaustion in their studies or suffer their parents' disapproval. They would hold themselves to the highest moral and ethical standards at all times. They would be civil and polite at all times. They would resolve their differences amicably, endeavoring to see the other person's point of view and accommodate it as thoroughly as possible without compromising their own integrity.

"My god,' Picard thought, 'Jean-Luc isn't raising children, he's training tiny professional diplomats.' Now he understood how they could be so impeccably polite yet so brazenly undomesticated all at once. Jean-Luc and Marie indulged little faults like nudity and finicky appetites because in other areas they held their children to extremely high standards. No wonder those poor rascals hurtled out of doors the minute they were set free. They needed an outlet after their parents spent all morning supplanting their natural instincts.

In the space of a day his attitude towards them changed completely. Whereas he'd once been critical and harshly judgmental, he was now a secret sympathizer. He still wished he had all Jean- Luc's attention, but he would not have wanted to be the focus of such intense concentration, especially when they did something wrong which, being children, they did on occasion. Jean-Luc's disapproval was an awful thing to endure, which Picard could attest to. It had driven him to show up in Jean-Luc's study a week ago despite his intention not to, and he did not want to find out what else it could make him do.

Besides, it tantalized him to have to wait for what he wanted, especially after twenty years of having every whim immediately indulged. Jean-Luc smiled at him with his eyes full of secrets, and it took several days before Picard realized that he was being subtly flirted with. It took several more days before he figured out how to flirt back with equal subtlety. Jean-Luc courted him with quiet deliberation, and Picard, unused to such an indirect approach was becoming breathless with anticipation. This time Jean-Luc was in control, and Picard thought he recognized the simple dynamic; his house, his rules, his seduction. It amused him to see Jean-Luc assert himself in such an understated fashion, and despite his determination to be as minimally disruptive as possible, Picard couldn't help but turn the wait into a competition. So Jean-Luc would have him wait, eh? Well, Picard would see about that. He set about making himself irresistible, posing and posturing but pretending not to, showing himself off for Jean-Luc. He was not so thin that he was completely unattractive.

When Jean-Luc finally suggested that the next day he take Picard for a tour around the asteroid, just the two of them, Picard was beside himself with self-congratulation. Marie gave them food, kissed Jean-Luc, patted Picard's arm and sent them on their way.

"Does she know what we have in mind?" They were on their way to the outbuilding that housed the vehicles, and Picard wondered at how casually Marie sent them off for a tryst. He decided that if he ever found a woman like that he would marry her.

"She probably suspects." Jean-Luc climbed in and held a hand out to Picard, which was ignored. "Just the other day she commented that indolence became an emperor."

"Did she now?" Picard was amused. "So she thinks me indolent?"

"She was referring to the way you walk and stand," Jean-Luc looked sidewise at Picard and smiled, very carefully not saying that Marie had also pointedly mentioned that even Yvette knew not to throw her clothes on the floor. "She said, 'In his own way the Vicompte is quite attractive.'"

"And she doesn't mind that we're going off like this?" Picard almost took a passenger seat, but changed his mind and sat down next to Jean-Luc.

"Our marriage has been open from the start." Jean-Luc started up the shuttle and they took off.

Picard looked at him shrewdly. Jean-Luc's voice had been a little too carefully casual. "That wasn't your idea, was it?"

"What makes you say that?"

"You haven't changed, Jean-Luc." Picard abandoned the controls to Jean-Luc's keeping and wandered over to the flitter's open door, "You'd walk all over any woman who married you unless she kept you at a distance."

"So you've turned into a psychotherapist in your spare time, is that it?" Jean-Luc carefully did not concede that Picard was probably right. Instead he spoke in the voice of a tourguide about the asteroid belt and how some enterprising Ferengi had terraformed it and turned it into choice real estate.

"Don't talk to me about real estate." Picard turned to look at him. "Put this thing down, take me in your arms, and make love to me."

"Were you always this pushy?"

"Actually I've mellowed. Can you imagine *anyone* describing me as indolent when you knew me before?"

"Point to you, Picard, but you still have to wait."

"But I've been waiting, Jean-Luc. I've waited through temper tantrums and cut arms and history lessons and comm calls from school. All I've done is wait."

"And it's done you good. A week ago you weren't even able to get dressed alone."

"Point to *you*, Jean-Luc."

But after Jean-Luc had taken the flitter down and arranged a blanket and brought out the food and taken his shoes off, they were a little hesitant. After all, it had been twenty years and a week since the last time they'd done this. Picard astounded himself with the discovery that he really wanted to lie together like they'd done so many years ago, seeking comfort rather than gratifying lust. They didn't even take their clothes off but simply lay close to one another, talking idly when they had something to say, but for the most part simply feeling the other next to them.

At one point, when he got the nerve, Jean-Luc confessed to being very angry with Q.

"I couldn't believe he hadn't told you after all those years."

"I don't want to talk about it," Picard said.

"You have to talk about it sooner or later. You have to say something to him, and you can't stay angry forever."

Picard sighed and rolled onto his back. "I never asked him, you know. About his home, about his family. He was my own personal genie, and that was enough. I suppose I shouldn't have been too surprised that he had a whole other life that I knew nothing about."

"I don't know about that, but I do know he was frightened for your safety. Frightened enough to risk making me angry for your sake."

"Oh, but you're the perfect one." Picard heard the resentment in his own voice. "You can forgive and forget. I can't. I won't. He doesn't deserve it." Picard crossed his arms and stared resolutely into the branches of the tree that canopied them.

Jean-Luc leaned over him. "Do you really believe that? Do you think I believe for a minute that you don't want him back? If for no other reason than because you can't run your empire without him?"

Jean-Luc uncrossed Picard's arms and leaned down to kiss him. "I know you want to let him come home."

"I do not!" But Picard knew he sounded too petulant to be believed, and despite himself he started to smile. "Besides, what about you?"

Jean-Luc kissed him again. "I never kicked him out of my house in the first place."

That was true, Picard reflected. He thought of the picture in the living room. Q could and would come here if he had no place else to go. Picard couldn't help himself, he didn't want Jean-Luc to have something he didn't. And Jean-Luc knew it and was playing Picard like a fish on a line.

"You're a world-class manipulator, you know that?" But he let himself be kissed some more, enjoying the feel of Jean-Luc's lips on his.

"I know what's best for you," Jean-Luc spoke with perfect confidence, "and I don't want you to be unhappy. Let him back in," Jean-Luc urged. "For your sake. I'll give him up completely if you want. I know he won't stray again. He really does love you."

Picard levered himself up onto his elbows. "Stop. No one as arrogant as you are gets to make love to me." He meant it. 'I know what's best for you...' Of all the nerve...

Jean-Luc looked at him uncomprehendingly, then shrugged. "Just as well. I didn't really want to in any regard."

He made as if to pull away, but Picard stopped him. "I didn't say you couldn't hold me."

"You just miss Q," Jean-Luc accused. But he settled down beside him willingly enough.

"True, but you don't mind doing this for me now that he's not here," Picard asserted, trying to get the last word in.

"And you call *me* arrogant," Jean-Luc muttered. He kissed Picard once more, a chaste peck on the cheek, friends rather than lovers, then shut his eyes. They rested beneath the tree.

"Look,' Q thought delightedly when the smoke cleared. 'They're all dead. This is really marvelous.' He extended his perceptions to inspect his handiwork, frowning a little as he observed that many of the dead Douwd seemed to be quite young. This pleased him. They would have grown up and further tainted Picard's universe. Q let himself out of his bubble and looked around. That was when he noticed the presence of very alive, very infuriated adult Douwd. They surrounded him in all directions, reaching out for him with tentacle-like fingers, pulling his essence into themselves. He couldn't understand how he could have missed them when he'd planned so carefully, but he wearily acknowledged that his mistake was a fatal one. He was going to be consumed in short order and he was too weak to fight. The only thing he could think to do was to run home to his universe for safety.

He completely understood their rage. Now that they were almost all dead he was depressed by what he'd done. He'd done it for his lover who wouldn't speak to him anymore. He'd killed countless others, but never so many at one time. It made him feel tainted, as if he'd killed a member of the continuum itself.

'This is foul business,' he muttered to himself. For a wild moment he wanted to present himself to Picard in a human representation of his current state; scarred, bruised, muddied, weary, his hands and clothes stained with another's life-blood. It had not been a genteel victory; he'd had to trick them, and even then, his conquest was incomplete. He hadn't expected the Douwd to be so resilient, and in a way he was glad a few of them had survived. Even by Q standards he'd been fairly brutal.

"Tant pis," he said aloud. The Douwd should have known he was coming after he'd kidnapped their children. It wasn't his fault if they couldn't plan any better than that, and besides, he was tired of thinking about it.

The few Douwd remaining alive were pulling at him, sucking in his essence like an anemone eats a fish. He could feel their glee as they sensed that he was too hurt and tired to fight them, and he wearily conceded the battle.

'I want to go home!' He thought suddenly, and even to himself he sounded petulant, like a fretful little boy who's stayed too long at a party. He had enough presence of mind to remember that it wasn't a good idea to lead the Douwd straight to his family, but his longing overcame his sense. If he was going to die, the last thing he would see was Picard's face and damn that stupid Emperor to hell if he didn't like it.

He thought himself to where Picard was, the Douwd hard on his heels. They disrupted a perfectly pleasant al fresco breakfast, but Q was past thinking about social niceties. "Te morituri salutemos," he gasped.

Picard stared. "What is this?" It was on his lips to banish Q, but he realized just in time that this was Jean-Luc's house and he had no right to send Q away.

"I have about two minutes left to live," Q announced, "and I choose to live them in your arms. That's all there is to it and I'm not taking no for an answer, you stubborn old man." And with that he settled himself on Picard's lap and pulled Picard's arms around his shoulders.

Picard could feel the Douwd, having crossed over the barrier, bearing down on Q with deadly intent. He could also feel that Q was frenzied with worry for him but pretending not to be. The barriers he kept around himself were tattered to bits, so his feelings were obvious to everyone: regret, sadness, yearning--he would miss them all. Picard tightened his arms around Q's shoulders. He could feel Q disintegrating and he could feel his conviction that this was the end. There were lots of things he would have liked to say, but he forestalled them all except for the most important one.

"Thank you for everything."

Q was staring greedily into Picard's face. "My pleasure. I would do it all over again."

Picard's eyebrow rose dangerously. "All of it?"

This was not the time for dishonesty. "All of it," Q confirmed with a shrug.

"Well, since you're dying I suppose I have no choice but to forgive you."

Q smiled. "Thanks." It was the last thing he expected to say. The Douwd were in the process of dismantling the consciousness that had been his, and he felt himself fading out of existence. He could feel his human family's dawning horror. They were frozen by fear and shock, and by the time they were able to react he would be dead, but he didn't mind. With them around him he didn't feel frightened. 'I don't like this death thing, but it doesn't hurt so much,' was his last mildly surprised thought, then he was gone.

Why would I
Be a fool and say goodbye
When all the dreams that I believe
Are in your eyes.
Can't you see at last
You don't even have to ask
I'll give you so much more than just a second chance.

-- Unconditional Love, Stevie Nicks

Picard, Jean-Luc, Marie, and the four children watched Q fade from view. They could feel his presence dissipate as he turned from solid to mist, then even the mist was gone. Picard sat with his arms gently curved around an empty space, as if he could still feel the shape and pressure of his lover's body.

Small Yvette, who rather liked the man who looked like papa, was the first to recover. She nudged him, handed him his plate, then picked up her food and started eating again. She was still hungry, and despite all the high drama it *was* breakfast time. The others followed suit, unsure of what else to do. The festive summer repast was suddenly turned into a wake as they ate in memoriam, all except Leila.

She turned to her father. "Do you really think he's dead? He doesn't feel dead."

Jean-Luc sighed. "Think Leila. If you had just seen a loved one die in your arms would you appreciate a discussion of how it feels to be without him?"

"Let the girl speak," Picard muttered. Despite what he'd seen and felt Q didn't feel dead to him either. He just didn't.

"That's because I'm not, mes amis." The voice was so familiar that none of them even thought to be surprised. "I was almost dead, but my family came to my rescue. As soon as I crossed into this dimension they saw what was happening and sent people to help. There was a huge fight but the Continuum won, naturally." He sounded insufferably smug. "Fortunately for me," he continued, "it was a continuum-against-the-bad-guys fight this time."

Q's voice came from the middle of the room. He had everyone's attention, which he loved, and he materialized ostentatiously, as he'd disappeared; first as a mist, then slowly solidifying. "You should see us now, all woozy and self-congratulatory. It was just what we needed to bring us all together again after our last fight, which was actually more of a civil war. And *I* of all people am now a hometown hero. Again." He tipped an imaginary hat and bowed low.

"What are you talking about, Q?" Jean-Luc and Picard spoke simultaneously.

Q sat down next to Picard and took his hand. To his surprise Picard actually blushed at the deliberate singling out, but he held on tight. Everyone gathered around as he spoke. "I'm so sorry, Mio, I led them right to you."

"So that was why you insisted on Picard coming here." Jean-Luc was stunned. He'd felt those revolting things surrounding Q before they'd abruptly been whisked away, and he was retroactively horrified that Q had gone to face them alone.

"I knew he would be a target," Q explained, "and they'd already killed him once."

"What!" It came from everyone's mouth simultaneously.

Q ignored their shock, still holding Picard's hand, talking only to him. "When I crossed universes I was still partially corporeal, so they got through also because in their natural state they exist between dimensions."

His hand tightened around Picard's as he leaned forward. "All the time I was fighting them I was glad I couldn't feel you close to me. I knew you were with Johnny, and I kept thinking that at least they wouldn't be able to get to you. Then when they were right behind me I was frightened, but there was nothing I could do because I knew I was going to..." He stopped suddenly. He couldn't get the word 'die' out of his mouth, not when it applied to him.

"It's alright, Q. I'm fine," Picard soothed him. "They're dead. They can't get to me anymore."

Q suddenly realized that he was on bended knee in front of Picard and that he was babbling.

"Well," he straightened up. "Now that the Douwd are all gone it's safe for you to go back."

"No." Picard smiled at Q. "*We're* going back."

Q just stared at him. Picard wouldn't take him back without a reason. Picard answered the question 'What changed your mind?' as if Q thought it or spoke it.

"Watching you fade from sight. Seeing that you wouldn't lie, not even to spare my feelings. I knew there had to be something driving you that I didn't understand. And we'll work through it. We've worked through everything else."

Jean-Luc shot a meaningful look at his wife and tried to graciously withdraw. "My dear, shall we go eat in the dining room?"

"Not quite." Q asserted. "My Dear and the children can leave, but you, Mr. Ambassador, are staying."

"I don't see how I can contribute anything useful..." Jean-Luc started to say. Q shushed him.

"I have something to say to both of you. Would you like me to say it here? Now? Or would you like to go someplace private?"

"My study," Jean-Luc answered promptly.

Watching Q play Jean-Luc's pride, Picard suppressed a smirk. Q had obviously been taking Jean-Luc lessons all these years. He made a mental note to tweak his lover about that at some point.

Now, however, he listened in stunned silence as Q poured a narrative into their heads, baring himself with a fearless honesty that was, for him, unprecedented.

He'd lived with two completely different mindsets for two decades, telling himself there was no need to make a decision. Part of him made light of his current obsession. It was nothing to make Picard happy. What did it take? Making love, traveling around, feeding him, keeping him healthy? It was trivial, and could be dismissed more easily than the effort it took to make Picard one of his beloved roast garlic sandwiches.

And then there was his family. His mind turned to Jean-Luc, and his unwavering love and acceptance. Q had never imagined that anything could make him behave, but he'd willingly traded his image of himself as a bad boy god for his place in Jean-Luc's life. They loved him here, and they couldn't hurt him. Not in any of the ways his continuum family could. And what was better, none of them ever wanted to hurt him. He could be completely naked and defenseless here, and he valued that--valued his place in this family--more than he cared for anything else. Except Picard.

And now he showed them his despair. He hated every passing moment because it was a step towards the inevitable death of his two lovers and the end of all joy and light. This one time he dared confess that he loved taking care of his little humans, that in fact he worshipped and adored them and learned from them. He stored up every memory of every moment of every day against the loneliness that was approaching at the speed of light. Even their betrayed, disbelieving rage wasn't enough to turn him away.

The naked truth was that Q thought Picard was perfect the way he was; Jean-Luc was even more perfect if such a thing could be. Jean-Luc was smart and clever and loving and wise. Picard was utterly spoiled and selfish, self-centered and needy, and he struggled against his basest instincts because he could only be satisfied when challenged by impossible, overwhelming goals. His contradictions would be eternal, and Q revered him for continuing to struggle long after he himself would have given up.

And Jean-Luc. Rigid, pompous, and bound by codes of behavior that cut into the free expression of his emotions and constrained him in ways that most people would not have been able to endure. He sacrificed great chunks of his happiness for his principles, and counted himself lucky to be able to do so because the principles were his self-definition--his god--and no offering in their name was too great. He knew he was an example of dreary perfectionism, and he knew how completely Q had been exasperated by his strict adherence to the highest ethical standards, but he also knew how much Q had learned from him, and he was willing to sacrifice much for Q's benefit--it was how he showed his love.

Q needed him because he wanted to have the same certainty in himself that Jean-Luc took for granted. Q dearly loved him, looked up to him, and wanted to be like him, and as he confessed this, all three of them experienced his shame at admitting that he found a mere human worthy of emulation.

Next, he showed them something Jean-Luc had long suspected, which was the pointlessness of his long existence, the transforming joy of having something to live for, side by side with his utter embarrassment. By his people's standards he was a man fawning over his pet rats, loneliness and desperation having forced him to take beings of a lower order for lover and teacher. It was freakish, shameful behavior, and there was no use pointing out that by their own standards Jean-Luc and Picard were whole unto themselves. Q already knew that, but couldn't challenge millennia of conditioning that said otherwise.

//You would have to challenge the Continuum itself,// Picard observed.

Ever the diplomat, Jean-Luc pointed out that Q's actions were an improvement over usual Continuum behavior.

//You're just trying to make me feel better,// Q muttered.

//Yes, but I also happen to be right.//

//Why are you saying all this now?// Picard demanded, his curiosity getting the better of him.

//Because the Continuum already knows,// Jean-Luc guessed. //He doesn't have anyone else to keep secrets from, and he trusts us not to laugh at him.//

//Very perceptive, Ambassador.//

Picard focused on Q. //You broke my heart when you lied to me.//

Within the ring of their thoughts, Q nodded. He knew. He regretted it. He wanted forgiveness.

//I'm going to make your life miserable for a long time to come.//

Q could have jumped for joy. Picard was going to make him miserable. That meant Picard would keep him around to torture. Q didn't care. He could come back. He was so grateful he wanted to jump up and run home that very instant, suddenly eager for everything to be back the way it was. //Thank you,// he let them feel his abject sincerity.

//You're welcome,// Picard answered seriously. //I didn't understand before.// In the circle of their thoughts, he showed Q that he now saw how painfully frightening all Q's decisions were. The immortal could choose to will himself out of existence when they died, but he was more afraid of oblivion than either Picard or Jean-Luc were. After his unimaginably long existence, how could he simply stop being? But how could he live knowing he'd once had the loves of a lifetime and now had the rest of eternity to live without them. So he stored up memories and experiences like an immortal Midas, afraid that he would never have enough to stanch the loneliness that would be his portion once his two lovers were gone.

//I was selfish,// Picard apologized.

//I want you to be selfish.// Q protested. //I've helped you become selfish. I'd do anything for you.//

//And speaking of selfish,// Jean-Luc's thoughts rushed out at them, embarrassed but determined, //I've waited twenty years for this. You haven't yet told me you love me, Picard.//

//I love you, Jean-Luc.// It was a heartfelt declaration of truth, and suddenly more important than the respect and esteem with which he regarded his double. //I love you, and I will never stop.//

Picard let his guard down a bit more. He'd been so busy thinking of himself that he hadn't thought of all the different ways Q would be lonely once he was gone. Looked at from that perspective, it was a wonder Q hadn't taken all the Jean-Lucs that had ever been.

//How do you know I haven't?// Q demanded smugly. The emotions were getting very dense, and he was beginning to squirm a bit at the thought of how much of his true self was exposed.

//Incorrigible,// Jean-Luc chided, but Picard said nothing. He knew the sound of his lover's vulnerability.

//I know because you don't need to.// At the others' confusion he elaborated. //It was one of the first things you ever said to me, remember?// And in his memory, echoing in all of their minds, these words: //"I know all the Picards there ever were, and if you think I'm going to let the one I like best hurt the one I like least, you're sadly mistaken."//

//You've got the two extremes, sinner and saint, hero and miscreant, Christ and Antichrist.// Picard could feel the last of his fear and resentment fading. //Why would you need anyone else?//

Within the ring of their linked minds Q and Picard stared at one another and Jean-Luc observed them sadly. //I have to let you go now.//

//No!// From both others the response was immediate and visceral. //Stay!//

//Please don't pull away!// They bombarded him with their need for his continued affection, and finally it was Jean-Luc's turn to let down his guard and show them his fears. He didn't want to be a third wheel, and he didn't want to spend the rest of his life wondering what Q and Picard were doing when Q wasn't with him. To his shock and chagrin, the emotion that blazed through most clearly was a petulant complaint. //I saw him first!//

He was so embarrassed by his outburst of childishness that it took him several moments to realize that the emotions from the other two weren't censure, but relief. Curious, he queried them as to this amazing reaction.

//Jean-Luc,// Picard showed him the years of looking up to him, and measuring himself against him and wishing he could be like him, //do you know how good it is to see you do something that *isn't* perfect?//

//Oh.// Jean-Luc felt a good deal better. He still didn't know what to do about his envy, but somehow Picard and Q's response put it in perspective for him.

//So promise you'll stay,// Picard demanded insistently.

//I never could deny you anything.// Jean-Luc was very pleased to know how much he was needed. It wasn't easy being a paragon.

The three of them stood in the ring of minds for a moment longer, then Q allowed it to dissolve. Picard, things settled to his satisfaction, was restless to get going, and since he was the emperor and always got his way, he and Q kissed Jean-Luc goodbye amid invitations to visit and promises to return, then they disappeared from view.

Jean-Luc bade them goodbye and stood by himself in his study for a few moments feeling very self-satisfied. Then he turned and went downstairs, eager to tell Marie about everything that had happened.

Picard was happy to be back home. Holding Q around the waist, he walked into his new study and stared at the walls.

"I finally understand," he said.


"All these pictures. How much you'll miss me." He looked up at Q. "Promise me you won't feel bad when you find somebody new."

Q wrapped an arm around his shoulder happily. "I always pick the best lovers."

His government had not collapsed as a result of his sudden disappearance. His terrified ministers had kept the whole thing together, working cooperatively because they were strangely unwilling to fight each other for his throne. Reading their minds from his private quarters, Picard could feel something new in their motivations. This might simply be a test Picard had designed to root out traitors, so it was worth their while to be cautious, but this was also an opportunity to show their loyalty. They wanted him to trust them, and they were reigning in their natural instincts, at least for a while, in the hope that he would come back from wherever he'd disappeared to and reward their trust with reciprocal faith of his own. Picard knew he should go reassure them, but there was something he had to do first. He sent for Beverly and introduced her to Q.

"This is the god who saved my life," he said. Then he sat her down and told her the whole story.

"I was thinking that you deserve something for your patience, Beverly, but I don't know what you'd like. I could give you one of my ministries."

Beverly certainly didn't want that. She loved and trusted her Emperor, but he reminded her too much of Picard whom part of her still loathed. Nevertheless, one didn't waste the opportunity when an Emperor owed you a favor.

"Put one of my sons on the throne after you're gone," she said, reaching high.

Picard amazed her by not batting an eye. "Which one?" He asked her.

"Sully. Sullivan."

"Fine." That's the one he would have picked. He called his chamberlain. "Next council meeting Sullivan Crusher is to be installed as my heir. Make the necessary arrangements."

He took a moment to feel sorry for poor Sullivan's confusion when agents of the emperor swooped down on him, wrapped him in cotton and carried him away. Of course that did provide him with a tidy solution to his council's nagging him for a successor. He would begin teaching him at once. "Q, will you eventually give him some bits of ability that will make his life easier?"

Q agreed readily. This universe's Beverly Crusher loved him for the things he'd done to Picard. Rather than feeling threatened by his omnipotence, she was thrilled. Q was actually rather proud to be instantly liked instead of loathed for his abilities, and now that he knew she was leaving he was inclined to be magnanimous.

That settled, it was time for Picard to deal with his council. He asked Q to change into a woman, and then he walked into his council chambers with Q on his arm and Beverly behind him, still gaping in amazement. Stunned silence greeted him as he ascended his throne with Q at his side.

He made eye contact with each one of them, and when he was sure he had all their attention, he turned to look at Q.

"She came back," was all he said.

No one knew what to say. One minister started clapping, then they all clapped, then they cheered.

Picard held up his hand for silence. "She will rule beside me because I want her to."

Fine. Whatever. His ministers unanimously agreed. Anything was better than to see the emperor suffer like he had been. They would gang up on her later, but that was only to be expected. Meanwhile, Picard threw them another bone.

"I've chosen an heir. My friend Beverly Crusher has graciously agreed that her son, Sullivan O'Herlihy Crusher, can ascend the throne after I'm gone."

There was more wild cheering, and again that strange, new sense of unity overcame them. They were happy for him, and showing it, and it felt... right, somehow.

"Your grace will marry the Lady Q?" It was his oldest minister, the one who dared show compassion by touching him that one time.

Picard looked at Q who wasn't saying anything. "I might," he said. He smirked, knowing what Q had to be feeling. "If I can have a really big wedding."

Q looked at him, trying to look exasperated, but obviously loving every minute of it. "If you want," he conceded.

Picard smiled. 'I'm so spoiled,' he thought happily. He settled more deeply into his chair and got on with the business of running his galaxy.