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Many thanks to Cesca for beta!
His left knee ached, even though of course all the damaged tissues from the joint replacement operation had been completely regenerated. Phantom pain, the doctors assured him. Leaving the flowers on the stone, he slowly got up and straightened it out. The artificial joint bore his weight easily, exactly as designed. But it still seemed to ache.
The rain finally started as he was leaving the graveyard. Through the grey, the old church looked the same as always. If there was a little more moss, a little less mortar, his eyes and his memory were no longer sharp enough to catch it.
He was staying in a small cottage on the outskirts of the village. The D'Aubreys would welcome him at the estate, they'd made that clear at the time of purchase, but to be honest, he didn't want to see it again. There would be children running through the vineyard, and they would not be his flesh and blood. The house would be standing again, but it wouldn't be the same. He preferred his memories, even blurred with time.
Heads down, hidden under umbrellas and suspensors, no one nodded to him in the street. He walked slowly, not minding the rain on his scalp, sliding down the back of his neck. After so many years in space, he found he now had a certain appreciation for being exposed to the elements. And pure, simple pleasure to come back inside dripping, shed his wet coat and turn on the fire, drink red wine and breathe woodsmoke in the deeper silence of the steady patter on the roof.
The PADD was lying on the table where he'd left it, the 'document waiting' signal light still flashing. He set his glass aside and finally picked it up. He couldn't fault Admiral Myocera for asking him to review the battle analysis, but it still rankled that this of all tasks was the one he couldn't get away from even now. He'd never thought of himself as a man of war, and yet he already knew that he'd be remembered first if not only as the architect of the piecemeal, grinding destruction of the Borg. His other achievements would slide into obscurity, noted in passing by historians of the war.
And it was understandable, of course, but he couldn't help wishing, even as he recognized the absurdity of the vanity, that he could have achieved a richer legacy. Making peace with the Borg, finding a way to open a real dialogue with them—that would have been something to be proud of. He'd never been able to find a way.
So this was what he would leave instead: an enemy overcome, the security of the Federation preserved, and a handful of essays and articles. Perhaps a book, if he ever finished his memoirs. Lately, he thought he might not. A few too many strangers had asked; it made him curiously reluctant.
The rain stopped while he worked on the analysis. He finally sent it back and turned off his comnet receiver. Any other requests could wait. He picked a book at random and went out back to watch the late afternoon sun slanting across the hills. The book stayed in his lap, unopened.
It was only now that he was realizing just how much he'd given up these last twenty years, under the implacable demands of the war. The Enterprise, after the disastrous attempt to destroy the Borg at Reginus Minor had left Admirals T'kal and Nechayev dead along with half a dozen other senior officers. Leaving his ship had been an irrationally difficult decision, but he'd very clearly been needed in the Admiralty, Will had long been ready to take command, and in the end he'd done it.
The first sacrifice, by no means the easiest, but the most obvious. The others—interests, desires, friendships—those, he'd lost piece by piece. There had been too many science papers to follow: internal research into new technology, new defenses, new armaments. So the archaeology journals had gradually piled up unread until his subscriptions lapsed without his noticing. He'd shuttled back and forth along well-traveled routes, half administrator, half ambassador, and didn't even have time to read the reports from deep space exploration missions unless they were filtered up through three aides for military significance. Gatherings canceled, calls missed, messages cut short. During the worst of it, he hadn't been able to bear even meeting a friend for dinner, because an hour of time he could instead spend in solitude had been too precious.
So now here he was at last, duty performed, his well-earned rest stretching before him, and nothing he particularly cared about to fill it with. He shook his head at the gloom of his own thoughts. Once he'd had enough of a rest to get his energy back, he'd finally have time now to go back to his old interests, discover new ones. He was eighty, he might have as much as three or four decades of life still ahead of him.
Ignoring his own lack of enthusiasm, he made himself open the book. This one had been sitting on his shelf for at least five years, and for all of them he'd have given a great deal for the time to read it. It would be stupid not to enjoy it now.
Except, of course, if it vanished out of his hands before he had the chance to read a word.
"So, Jean-Luc, enjoying the first day of the rest of your existence?" Q, stretched out in a second chair that hadn't been there a flash of light before, turned the book sideways to study the spine. "Oh my, how bleak." He dropped it on the table between them.
"Q." Picard tried to be annoyed. It was too appalling to consider that he might have gotten used to these sporadic visits. Even more appalling that he might even be a little bit pleased by this one. "What do you want now?"
"Can't I just be dropping by to say hello to an old friend who suddenly has a great deal of time on his hands?"
"Mm, perhaps not. I know... why don't we try something different this time?" Q leaned forward towards him, eyes bright. It was a sight that ought to have inspired unease, not this faint thread of anticipation. "Ask me to leave—and I will."
"That certainly would be different," Picard said ruefully, even though he knew perfectly well that the only thing out of his mouth should be that very request. Trust Q not to let him get away with anything, even inside his own head.
For once, he could see the point of Q's actions right away. They had a pattern and a well-established one at that: Q would appear, tease, turn things upside down, and eventually vanish. In turn, he would tense up, snap, struggle out of the resultant mess, and eventually realize that the experience had left him—enlarged, at least, if not necessarily better off. They had played it out on an almost regular basis since Q had first descended on him, once a year on average, he'd once calculated.
Now Q was demanding a break to the pattern. Not sending him away would require Picard to acknowledge that there was something about the visits that he appreciated. And that meant Q would be admitting that these visits weren't simply about tormenting him for amusement. An offer of something beyond what they had now, something perhaps more real, and both tempting and terrifying—even without considering the very real possibility that Q would just mock him for the acknowledgement and teach him a nasty lesson about trusting omnipotent beings.
Every report he'd ever written for Starfleet files about these visits carefully emphasized Q's amorality, his capricious nature, and how very dangerous he was. He'd deliberately avoided adding his long-held suspicions about Q's motives. He didn't want anyone else encountering Q or any others of his race to be even slightly tempted to go in with the assumption of an underlying benevolence. He knew better himself.
"I'm waiting, Jean-Luc. Say the word, and I'll be on my way."
Practicality could win him another moment to think. "If whatever you're planning—"
Q waved an airy hand. "Yes, yes, I'll spare you the easy excuses as usual. No effects on anyone but you, blah, blah, blah. It's just you and me."
It was extraordinary how Q could make the simple act of speaking feel a great deal like taking a leap off a cliff with an uncertain parachute. "In that case—you're welcome to stay." A touch of whimsy struck him. "May I offer you some wine?"
"Why, Jean-Luc, how hospitable of you." Q picked up Picard's glass and tasted. "Ugh. Or possibly not. You do realize, this stuff is actually toxic. Isn't that decaying body fragile enough without making your kidneys jump through hoops?"
He ignored that. "What does bring you here, aside from what must be the very minor pleasure of having me not send you away?"
"Don't undervalue yourself, Jean-Luc. It's not so minor as all that. After all, you've been sending me away for forty years now."
"Without notable success," Picard said dryly. "Perhaps I've just given it up as a lost cause."
Q smirked at him. "And perhaps I just thought I'd stop by and see how you're enjoying your retirement. So, how about it, Jean-Luc?"
If anyone else had asked, he would have said the right, meaningless words. He was enjoying it greatly. The rest was pleasant. It was a change, of course, but he was glad to have the free time. There were so many things he wanted to do. It would take some time, but he would adjust.
"I'm bored past the point of tears," he said candidly. "Happy?"
"Well, there's a certain satisfaction in being able to say I told you so," Q said. "I can't imagine what you were thinking."
"And as I told you," Picard said. "I wasn't needed anymore, and the work I was doing wasn't anything I truly loved."
"So you've traded one form of boredom for another? Look at you, the great explorer, the gallant captain, the loyal defender of the Federation, come back home to—" Q leaned over, eyes narrowing. "—die?"
It had the uncomfortable ring of prophecy. Picard pushed aside that morbid thought. "To rest," he said firmly. "I have every intention—"
"Of course you do, loads of them, I'm sure," Q interrupted. "And that's exactly what they're going to stay. Intentions. Do try to be honest, Jean-Luc." Q smiled thinly. "Not that I blame you, really. The truth is hard to face, isn't it?"
"And what truth would that be? By all means, give me the benefit of your insight." He tried to keep it sarcastic and mean it, but he could tell this was the crux of it, now, what Q had come to say.
"The truth," Q said slowly, stretching it out. "The truth is, your life is over. The best years are spent, the triumphs are past." He made the merciless words sound almost gentle. "That's the nature of your species, of all mortals. The old must fade away for the new to take their place. And by all means, do your best to fade gracefully if you must, but don't lie to yourself and pretend you're happy about it. Because frankly, I think you're terrified."
It was like a blow to the gut, thrusting the air out of his lungs. Declining years, a slow wasting away, a series of unchanging days stretched out by medical technology, punctuated by small trivialities, mind and body gradually decaying around him. He'd never been half so afraid of dying as he was of this, losing himself one piece at a time. And yes, he was pretending, yes, he was ignoring the truth, but—
"What would you have me say?" he said, unable to make it more than a whisper. "What would you have me do? Rage against something I cannot change?"
"Sometimes you're impossibly dense. Do you really think I've been bothering all these years because I had nothing better to do?" And Q stood up over him and held out both hands.
He stared at Q's hands, then up at his face. "I don't—"
"The chores are done, Jean-Luc," Q said. "The work is finished. Come outside and play."
There were a thousand reasons to say no, and he couldn't think of any of them. He didn't even know exactly what Q was offering, but that didn't really matter. It would hurt, it would terrify, it would enthrall, it would challenge, and even if it killed him, it would leave him more and not less than he was.
He let Q pull him up from the chair. "Oh, how distressingly typical," Q said, surveying him. "Most people would have gone for their twenties, the prime of life, the energy of youth. Instead you pick boring, middle-aged you."
The liver spots were gone from his hands, his knee wasn't hurting anymore. He blinked and the world was in crisp focus. "I
picked?" he said, looking down at himself. "Didn't you do this?"
"Oh no, Jean-Luc, this is you, as you think of yourself. I just let you out. And apparently even in your head, you don't have hair."
On a sudden suspicion, Picard turned around, and backed up an involuntary step from the body still lying in the chair, mouth slack, hands limp. Q put a hand on his shoulder. "Now, now, don't get panicky on me, Jean-Luc."
"Q, am I—ow!"
Q had poked him in the side, hard. "Feel dead?"
He rubbed his side and glared. "No. But then—"
"Fixing that bag of flesh up isn't worth the effort. You don't need it where we're going." Q smiled, for real, not his usual mocking smirk but the slight warm curving that somehow changed his whole face, illuminated him. "Ready?"
Jean-Luc found he could smile back. He didn't ask where they were going. "Yes."
= End =