Don't hold me to this, but I think I've got it right. ('bout fuckin' time) Here tis.
Know ye that the concept for this story, as well as divers ideas herein, has been well and truly stolen from Alara and Mercutio who've both written versions of same. To wit: Q loseth all his powers, endeth up on the Enterprise, then with the holp of fair maid who rideth to the rescue, spendeth much time growing the fuck up.
It's good to be king
If just for a while.
The Q Who Fell to Earth
Three days after his precipitous arrival on the Enterprise bridge, the truth of his exile was only just beginning to sink in. Q was learning the unpleasant realities of having a human body: eating, urinating, defecating, dry heaves--a direct result of the defecation thing--sleeping, itching, hurting. To his astonished dismay, the attack by the Calamarain more than amply demonstrated the amazing vulnerability of these little mortal shells. He'd actually felt pain, a vastly unpleasant experience he had no desire to repeat, and he'd discovered that avoiding it, even the mild pain humans called discomfort, was a full-time job. He spent almost all his time attending to physical needs of one revolting sort or another and it was beginning to wear on him. And the silly things they wanted him to do... it simply didn't bear telling. A job and a place to live? That was so far removed from any reality he'd ever contemplated as to be unfathomable.
Q was offended by the notion that he was now expected to grub for a living like a mere mortal simply because he'd become one. He had no idea what to do, and the variety of possible occupations was bewildering, even daunting. Picard flatly refused to consider Q's proposal to join Starfleet. Now Q was angry and hurt, and he didn't want anything to do with slimy mortals who turned down his clever suggestions. That morning, when Counselor Troi, his sometime escort and interpreter of human custom, announced a visitor who'd just arrived by shuttle, he assumed it was another 'advisor' of some sort and summarily refused to see the person. Then he immediately changed his mind.
"Who is it?" He demanded. "I may talk to them if I feel inclined." A visitor who wasn't an Enterprise flunky might distract him from his woes.
"I don't know who she is," the counselor responded to his petulant query, "I only know she's just arrived, and she asked if she could see you." Deanna was using her professionally patient voice, a tone Q had come to know and loathe over the past few days. "She looks like she's from Orion."
"Orion? I don't know any Orionese." When he'd been immortal, Q had made it a point to avoid certain races, and Orionese, grubby, grasping and easily as mercenary as the most avaricious Ferengi, were high on his list of mortals to be eschewed. "What does she want?"
The strained patience was even more noticeable when Deanna answered him. "I don't know, Q. Why don't you ask her?"
Q glared down at her. "By all means, subject me to the gazes of shameless curiosity seekers. It was bound to happen sooner or later."
"I'll take that as a yes," Deanna answered, and disappeared.
Minutes later she was back, escorting a tall, dark-eyed woman with the jet black, curly hair and large-pupiled eyes typical of her race. Her skin was much paler than the typical Orionese, however; pea green instead of rich emerald, and she was dressed, as far as Q could tell of such things, extremely conservatively.
"Q," Deanna was polite and to the point, "Riller Harris. Riller Harris, Q."
"What's an Orion doing with a human surname," Q asked bluntly. Deanna gave him a wide-eyed, warning glance which he ignored.
"Half-Orion," the woman answered. "My father was human, actually."
Q shuddered ostentatiously. "And you're the victim of that sordid union? How utterly grotesque."
The woman shrugged, flipping her hands open in a gesture that clearly meant 'so what?'. "Lots of people think so, but here I am."
"Ahh. I'll let you two speak in private," Deanna interjected. She had no desire to be present when furniture started flying. "Call me when you need to be escorted back to the transporter," she said, and quickly took her leave.
The other two ignored her. When the door closed, Riller Harris sat down uninvited.
"What do you want?" Q demanded. Insulting their parentage usually enraged humans, no matter how they tried to hide it, but this Riller Harris person was apparently made of stronger stuff. No matter. He would have her crying before this interview was over.
She watched him steadfastly. "I'm here to offer my services as a legal representative, Mr. Q. I want to be your lawyer."
Q was intrigued despite himself, and suddenly frightened. What made her think he needed a lawyer? Was he in some sort of trouble?
"What makes you think I need that?" He desperately hoped she'd spell it out for him chapter and verse. "Or that I'd want you to do the job?"
She settled more comfortably into her chair, not quite hiding an expression of triumph, and Q knew that somehow he'd played into her hands. "Sir. You're smarter than any mortal living, but you're only three days old. Without someone to represent your interests, the Federation is going to take complete and utter advantage of you because you won't know how to stop them." She tipped her chin up, scrutinizing him carefully for several long moments. "Tell me something. How much do you think you're worth to the Federation?"
When it became obvious that he had no answer for her, she posed another question. "What have they offered you?"
Weak-kneed, Q sank into a chair. He suddenly had the feeling he'd been offered far less than he deserved. "A position as a senior scientist at Makropyrios," he answered grudgingly. It only just now occurred to him that he could have asked for a lot more, if only he'd known what was available to him. He'd been tricked, rooked, bamboozled, and he felt a surge of anger and humiliation at how easily they'd been able to take advantage of him. "Why?" He demanded. "What do you think I'm worth?" This woman obviously had answers to questions he hadn't thought to ask, and that frightened him even more. What else was he missing due to his sheer ignorance of the way the Federation worked?
Riller Harris shook her head. "The real question is 'what can we get for you?' I think we can get a good deal more than a senior scientist's salary."
"We?" He didn't know if she'd meant to use that particular pronoun, but he clung to it as if it were a lifeline. If she could help him...
She nodded. "If you agree to let me represent you."
Already beginning to think defensively, he asked her what she got out of it.
The answer came so quickly and easily that he knew she'd had her plan laid out long before she'd spoken to him. "Twenty percent of your gross earnings over the next ten years."
"Isn't that an awful lot?" He had no idea whether it was a lot or not, but it seemed an appropriate objection.
The lawyer smiled again, unperturbed. "Mr. Q, almost every culture that has lawyers has a word for them that describes some type of carrion-eater. It *is* a lot, but this is no simple thing I'm offering. Do we have a deal?"
"I need time to think about this," Q responded evasively. He had no basis on which to make a decision, and he knew it. He would have liked to ask Picard's advice, but that would be tacit admission of his loss of omniscience; a loss he was not prepared to deal with at the moment. Q thought for about three seconds. "Yes. We have a deal."
That night, lying in bed, mulling over the day's turn of events, Q became scared all over again. Everyone was trying to take advantage of him, distracting him with little things and neglecting to tell him what was really important. Starfleet, the Federation, this slimy lawyer, they were all alike and he was helpless and at their mercy; utterly cast adrift. He chastised himself for his impulsiveness in agreeing to allow this total stranger to represent him.
'I should have made her wait for an answer,' he told himself. 'I should have found out if there were other lawyers, better ones.' He groaned at the thought and turned over on his stomach. He hadn't asked her how good she was, just signed the papers and recorded his agreement that the contract had been entered into willingly. He hadn't even wanted to see what he was signing and Harris finally had to read it aloud to him. 'Riller Harris,' he thought. 'Evil beast-lawyer from Orion.' She was a larcenous, contemptible vulture and he despised her.
Still, for all her revolting avarice, the strategy she'd mapped out seemed sound.
"Invent something," she'd told him. "I don't care what, anything. Something to show them how smart you are."
Stung by the notion that anyone anywhere might not perceive him as the most intelligent mortal being in existence, and mightily offended by the idea the he should have to prove it, Q sulked and sniped at Harris all morning. He followed up on her suggestion, however, and created a warp resonance signature enhancer before the afternoon was out.
"Here." He shoved it at her rudely. "It facilitates dilithium diagnostics. Not that I expect that to be within your range of understanding."
Harris took the small device and looked at it carefully. She didn't care whether she understood it or not, as long as it worked. "How'd you know to come up with this?" She asked curiously.
Her question stung. "Do you think I've forgotten everything I knew?" Q demanded harshly. "Just because I'm not omniscient anymore doesn't mean I'm as stupid as the rest of you mortals!"
"No one thinks you're stupid, Sir. Far from it," Harris answered reassuringly. She looked mildly surprised, and Q realized he'd overreacted.
"Federation technology isn't very advanced from my point of view," he explained dismissively. He was embarrassed at how easily he'd misinterpreted her meaning, and he wanted to change the subject. "Suffice to say it's very easy for someone like me to understand and improve upon."
"Oh, of course." Harris agreed blandly.
She patented the invention before dinner-time (something else he would have never thought to do), then went with him when he showed it to Geordi. The chief engineer raved delightedly, and Q preened, smugly pointing out all the clever features of his shiny new toy.
"Can I have this?" Geordi asked. "It would really make diagnostics about ten times easier."
"Of course," Q answered charitably. The chief engineer's admiration made him inclined to be generous.
"No!" Riller interjected. "Absolutely not!" She snatched it away, and both Geordi and Q turned to her with expressions of outrage.
"Why not?" They both demanded at once.
"Because it's for sale, Sir." Harris stared up at him with wide, alarmed eyes. "Like we discussed?"
"Oh." He'd forgotten. "Okay." Q gave Geordi an innocent shrug, pleased to be able to tweak the engineer and blame it on someone else. "Sorry, Geordi. Advice of Counsel."
Now his clever little design, minus several crucial specs, was on its way to representatives from the Ferengi and Klingon alliances and the Andorian homeworld, along with an invitation to bid on the right to use it. Geordi asked that Commander Riker represent the Federation's interests, a request that worried Q not at all.
"This is the bait we're dangling," Harris told him later. "Our objective is to... allow the Federation to obtain a clearer picture of your relative worth."
"In other words you're trying to start a bidding war to rachet up my value." He nodded approvingly. "That's a Q's trick; I should have thought of that myself."
"Right. Which is why you should say 'no' if someone asks you if they can have it."
He knew that! Q gave her a hard, calculating stare. "I've been underestimating you mortals at every turn, it seems."
Whether or not she heard the accusation implicit in his comment, she did not respond. "Permit me to suggest, Sir," she answered with a touch of sympathy, "that it may take some time to adjust."
And that was the problem. He didn't want to adjust, he wanted to go home. He wanted to be omnipotent again, to instantly understand what she was feeling and thinking rather than to have to discern her motivations from her spoken word. Without his powers he felt shockingly lost and helpless. And some of that must have been apparent to Harris because she offered him sympathy. Sympathy! How dare she? This contemptible little Orionese bovine who was blithely auctioning him off to the highest bidder-he was going to get her for this. He hadn't fallen so low that he couldn't find a way.
Q jumped out of bed and sat down at his computer console. Unacknowledged, part of him mourned the inability to acquire information simply by thinking about what he wanted to know. He dismissed the water that rolled out of the corners of his eyes as some other revolting physical manifestation about which they'd forgotten to inform him. Several hours later he conceded his quest was a futile one. Riller Harris had no skeletons in her closet that he could find. She was exactly what she seemed to be: the daughter of one Eldon Harris and an unnamed mother, graduate of a law school on Andor Prime, and a practicing attorney on Rigel 4.
That wasn't nearly enough information. He had no choice but to trust Harris, and that made him frantic for a means to regain a sense of control. Harris had to have a weakness; something that would restore him the upper hand, and he was going to find it.
Q was not the only one looking for dirt on Riller Harris. Had he deigned to ask Riker or Data, he would have found they were also knee deep in a search for exploitable weaknesses. It would not have helped him, however: they came up empty-handed as well, and had to report that fact to Captain Picard who was not pleased.
Neither was Geordi. He wanted that warp resonance signature enhancer. "Captain, it would vastly decrease the time we spend on diagnostics. He's managed to create multi-resonance flow regulation sequencers that essentially 'listen' to the dilithium crystals as well as watch them. It's so simple I can't believe I didn't think of it before now. I could probably invent one myself except that lawyer of his would have my head. You know," he continued thoughtfully. "If we could pry her away from him, I bet we could get him to give it to us. Butter him up. He'd probably go for it."
"He is extremely susceptible to flattery." Deanna agreed.
Picard nodded, turning to Riker and Data. "And this Riller Harris; you found no irregularities in her records?"
"None that would apply, Sir. The only remotely irregular datum I found was that her mother's name was not mentioned in her biographical profile," Data said. "Coupled with the facts that her birthplace is listed as Orion, and, by her appearance she is at least part Orionese, we may conclude that her mother was property. I do not know if that is relevant to the business at hand, however."
"A slave?" Picard's amazement and revulsion was reflected on the other faces around the table.
"It is common knowledge that Orionese trade in sentient property, Sir. And by their tradition, slaves do not have the right to legal parenthood."
"Yes," Picard muttered, reluctant to discuss the matter at all, and especially embarrassed to have to discuss it with Data. A combination of conditioning and genetic tampering created a steady supply of self-aware sex toys; a popular trade item in that quadrant where Orionese dominated. It was disturbing to think that a Federation citizen would have availed himself of such an immoral commodity, and he couldn't help but remember that Starfleet had once tried to do the same thing to his officer. Still... "You're certain she is who she claims to be?"
Bravely or innocently, Data spoke to the question implicit in Picard's query. "The offspring of a slave would not necessarily become a slave herself, Sir. I took the precaution of verifying her records with the University on Andor Prime and the Rigellian Trade Council. She is who she claims to be, and her accomplishments are quite genuine."
"I didn't mean to suggest they weren't," Picard protested, aware that he'd implied exactly that. "I simply wished to find anything that we could use to our advantage during the upcoming negotiations. I don't suppose there's any way to tell if her presence is some elaborate trick on the part of the Q Continuum?
"Unfortunately that is impossible, Sir."
"Yes. I assumed as much." Picard stood. "Dismissed." He turned to Deanna. "Except for you, Counselor. I'd like you to accompany me on a brief visit to our guest."
Picard had, of course, heard tales of the fantastic eroticism of Orionese females, and he steeled himself to resist any overtly amorous distractions from the business at hand. As soon as he met Riller Harris, however, he gave himself a stern reminder not to yield so easily to his preconceptions. A solemn young woman with wary eyes and attire so modest it practically shouted at him not to make assumptions about her, Riller Harris seemed almost deliberately ordinary. She invited them in at once and asked them to sit down, showing no inclination to eat him.
"May I serve you something to drink?" she asked politely.
"No," Picard answered quickly, nonplussed by her use of the word 'serve'. "Thank you, I'm not thirsty." He shifted in his chair and smiled cordially. "Frankly, I came because I wanted to ask you how it is that you decided to take Q as a client, and I'm more than curious as to how you found him in the first place. Would you care to enlighten me?"
One didn't have to be an empath, nor even a particularly observant human, to see the mask drop over her face. "You know all unclassified logs are available under the Freedom of Information laws." She let a hint of skepticism show on her face. "Don't you?"
Picard refused to be put on the defensive. She was correct of course, but he knew how FOI regulations worked, and the sheer density of regulations and information she would have had to sort through to find facts about Q was nothing short of overwhelming.
"But how did you know to look for this particular piece of information," he asked. "I've seen a review of your cases. You don't make it a habit to raid Starfleet for clients, so why do so now?"
She tilted her head, smiling out of a corner of her mouth. Was he actually naive enough to expect a real answer? She took in his composed, rigid features and decided he probably was. But what did he expect her to say? 'As you know, Captain, the best data pirates in existence come from Rigel. Starfleet logs are stolen as a matter of routine.' She didn't think so. "Are you sure I can't get you something to drink, Sir?"
It took him several moments to realize that he wasn't going to get an answer. "No, thank you." He stood, and Deanna followed. His smile touched every part of his face except his eyes, which had gone hard as flint. "Please enjoy the hospitality of my ship for as long as you're on board."
Harris handled his offer with finesse, smiling as sweetly as if she hadn't just been insulted. "Thank you, Captain. I'm sure I will."
"Impressions," Picard snapped as they walked down the hall.
"She's confident in her abilities," Deanna answered promptly, "and she expects a great deal out of these negotiations. For Q, but mostly for herself. My guess would be that she sees him as something of a windfall."
"She may be right," Picard answered ruefully. "If he makes a habit of inventing things, he will earn himself a great deal of money. However she managed to find him, she may have latched onto a bit of a gold mine. Q could make her very wealthy."
Troi agreed. "And she's taken a great risk coming here. Q could have summarily dismissed her. He almost did. I don't think she'll let him give up his invention without a fight."
Picard nodded. "I find myself in the reluctant position of actually admiring her."
"Captain," Deanna looked thoughtful. "I have an idea. Will you come with me to ten-forward?"
"Why Deanna," Picard gave her an amused smile, "I think this is a fine idea." He linked arms with her. "I shall be delighted to accompany you."
"I meant so that we could talk to Guinan."
"Oh." Picard let his face fall into an exaggerated expression of disappointment and disengaged his arm.
Troi actually blushed and gave him a mock pout. "Teasing your staff is not a very captainly thing to do, Captain."
He put his hand over his heart and looked at her askance. "Me, tease? You wound me to the quick, Counselor."
"I didn't even know you had a 'quick'," Deanna rejoined, and walked ahead of him, leaving him to wonder what she meant by that.
Guinan was less helpful than they hoped she'd be; she gently but firmly refused to extend her perceptions to eavesdrop on someone who hadn't done her any harm, regardless of her antipathy towards Q. "I know Q is relieved that she's here," she said, "and my experience of Q tells me that if she's working for him she'll earn every credit."
It took no great perception to figure that out. "Well, thank you, Guinan." Picard turned to leave, obviously disappointed.
Guinan relented slightly. "I'll tell you this much," she offered. "This may be your chance to learn to lose with grace, Jean-Luc. She's very highly motivated, I'd say almost driven."
Riller watched Picard and his escort leave with a sense of relief. They had come to feel her out, obviously, but she knew she'd given nothing away. She was certain the woman had been trying to receive impressions from her, so she'd projected a sense of smug confidence in her own abilities. The truth was, she wasn't sure this would work at all, and the fact that they'd been apprehensive enough to come check her out was reassuring. It meant they weren't at all certain of their position.
Good. They would fight all the harder to achieve the outcome she wanted all along. She stood up and moved restlessly around the room, coming to a stop in front of the mirror. She stared at her reflection, talking to it as she was prone to do when unobserved.
'Well, mama,' she thought with satisfaction, 'I may help you keep your moon after all. Not so bad for a slave-woman's daughter, is it?'
Riller had never known what it meant to be the offspring of a bonds-woman and her master until her father had kicked them both out when she was nine years old. Of course, he called it granting her mother freedom, but that was no easy road when you were penniless and unskilled. They'd moved to an outpost planet where the children called her slave-girl and threw rocks at her when she tried to go to school. They moved again and again, each time to a locale that was slightly better than the previous one. As prostitutes went, her mother was a good one. By the time Riller was fifteen, they lived in relative comfort. Her mother worked in a good house on Risa, with a stable clientele. She was able to hire a tutor so that Riller could catch up on her interrupted studies, and their life took on an air of normalcy except that Riller lied whenever someone asked her what her parents did. Now she cringed when she looked back on her pathetic attempts to cover her shame. With the perspective of years she'd learned to be proud of her mother's accomplishments. Prostitution paid well enough that her mother had been able to buy a share of a moon when she retired--no small feat. Riller still didn't tell people what her mother had done for a living, but for now it was for pragmatic rather than personal reasons.
'Look,' she frowned at herself, trying to stanch the flow of memory, 'stop living in the past, or the future. You've got a client to prepare, so get going.'
A day later, when she came to collect Q for the negotiations, he wasn't ready.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"I can't decide what to wear," he answered petulantly. "I've never been to a negotiation before, and I'm not really sure what color will suit me best. Something somber," he held up a black suit for her inspection, "or something a little more vibrant, something that projects confidence." He waved another ensemble in front of her, a garish clown's suit of bright, clashing colors.
"Somber," she answered quickly. She was certain he was afraid; had she been in his position she would have been afraid also, but she didn't know what to say to reassure him, so she drilled him on how to behave once the negotiations were underway.
"Now remember," she was trying to move him along quickly because they were already late. "You are not to say a thing. *I* will do all the talking. And don't go near the Ferengi. If they try to approach you just turn and walk away. Don't even speak to them."
"I still don't see why not." Q objected. It was somewhat comforting to know what to expect, but he wasn't going to curtail his usual behavior just on her say-so, lawyer or not.
"The Ferengi use poison as a negotiating tool. I don't want you to get hurt."
"Oh, gods forbid," Q answered sarcastically. 'You money- grubbing piece of slime,' he added with silent venom. "You just don't want your meal-ticket slipping out of your grasp."
Harris didn't answer, and Q fumed all the way to the conference room. Just wait until he got his hands on whatever ungodly sum she was able to get for him. He was going to sue her for... something. He'd get back all the money that she'd weaseled out of him in his time of vulnerability. 'But wait,' he thought. 'What if she didn't ask for enough?' That notion was enough to terrify him into breathless silence for the duration of that morning's negotiations. He envisioned himself creditless on some streetcorner with a cup in his hand; an image that would have made him roar with laughter back when he had his powers, but now loomed as an all-too-possible future. He sat in his chair, seething with hatred for the universe around him in general, but specifically for his fellow Q who had done this to him. It would serve them right if he died alone and friendless in some back alley. They would feel miserable for the way they'd mistreated him. They would bring him back and beg his forgiveness, but it would be too late. He would hold it over their heads for ever and ever...
"Sir?" His evil lawyer nudged him out of his morbid reveries. "Wake up. We're breaking for lunch."
Q jumped slightly and looked around. He couldn't believe he'd dozed off. "Did we win?"
Harris smiled. "Not yet. We've only just started. Please come with me now."
She never let him out of her sight except to sleep, but at least she was polite about it. They went back to her quarters. "What would you like to eat?" she asked him.
Food again. "I don't know," he sulked. "Not pickles." He was learning the hard way that all foods didn't agree with him.
She ordered two rare roast beef sandwiches, but he turned up his nose. "Dead animals?" He asked disdainfully. Cooked flesh he especially avoided--even the smell made him nauseous. "I refuse. I want macaroni and cheese."
"Coming up," Riller answered with equanimity. She was thinking of how close she was to the biggest money of her life, and how she would dump this obnoxious little rodent the minute she got her hands on his cash. First he insulted her every chance he got, then in the middle of the opening rounds he'd fallen asleep! Old Ones but she'd wanted to kick him awake when she saw his head drooping. Kick him hard. Potentially the most brilliant scientist--the most brilliant mortal--alive, and he couldn't stay awake for three hours? Unctuous and coy, the Andorian negotiator suggested that perhaps he was nocturnal.
Everyone at the table smiled except Q, who nodded on, oblivious.
"He's been under a great deal of stress," Riller said in his defense.
Now, watching him pick at his food, she wondered why he always had to be so perversely disagreeable. Maybe it was a result of losing all of his apparently limitless former powers. Or maybe he was just a brat.
"Is there something wrong with your food?" she asked, watching him pick at it unenthusiastically.
He put his fork down. "This doesn't taste the same as when I had it in ten-forward."
"Would you like to go to ten-forward to get some?"
"No." He answered so quickly that she wondered what happened to him to give him such an aversion to the place. He was idly rubbing the back of his hand, but that wasn't much of a clue.
He put his plate back in the replicator, then hovered over it with indecision, obviously wondering what to do next.
"Try black beans and rice," she suggested.
He did. Took a taste. Put it back.
"Gnocci with Alfredo sauce?"
"Spanikopita?" She was rapidly running out of suggestions for vegetarian human food. "Nocarian sap-moss?"
Finally one he could tolerate. "This is good. It tastes like..."
"Candy," she finished for him. "It is candy, but it's also got protein and vitamins in it."
"Do I want to eat protein and vitamins?" He asked dubiously.
"Of course you do," she answered easily. "Everybody does."
"Well *I* am not part of everybody," he announced, "And I think it's about time you realized that." But he'd picked up another piece.
"It tastes even better with cottage cheese and blackberry sauce," she suggested.
He ordered some, gulped it down. "You're right. That was good." He pushed himself up from the table. "Are we ready to go back yet? Tell me what happened when I... got distracted."
"Nothing important. We're almost finished dickering over the price of your dilithium flow regulator. I suggested that you were looking for a place to settle down but that wherever you went it had to be worth your while. They'll chew on that, and when we get back I'm going to outline your terms."
"I see. What are my terms?"
"Access to all publicly funded research facilities and any private research facilities that receive public funds," she said around her sandwich, "unrestricted travel, the right to negotiate on a per case basis for any inventions, discoveries, or products requested of you or any you may create of your own volition and clear title to same, military protection on demand, transtemporal and transpatial diplomatic immunity. That sort of thing."
Q was impressed. He wouldn't have thought of any of that. "Counselor Troi told me it's impolite to talk with your mouth full."
"She's right," Riller agreed mildly. "I shouldn't do it."
"That's very rude of you," Q said.
'Eat me,' Riller answered to herself. She'd learned from her mother how to wear a pleasant face, regardless of circumstance, and Q was certainly putting that skill to the test. 'As soon as I get my money,' she thought, 'it's curtains for you, you little cockroach.' It was remarkably gratifying to use her father's rough-hewn trader's speech on occasion. Of course, the down side was that it reminded her of her father. She smiled up at Q, none of her thoughts showing on her face. "Let me finish my sandwich, then I'll answer all your questions."
That was agreeable since he didn't have any more questions.
Staying on the Enterprise, Riller was reminded once again of why she was so happy living on Rigel Four. It was a hard planet, full of cutthroat venture capitalists who didn't care what color your skin was or where you came from as long as you did what they paid you to do. Here among the staid Starfleet types, Riller sensed a type of amazed condescension which was all too familiar from her days as an inadvertent tourist attraction on Risa. 'Look, Bill, that little Orionese girl has schoolbooks. Isn't that something? Can you read, Honey? Wonderful! Marvelous!'
The Federation representative, Riker, reminded her of those long ago tourists. He was extremely polite, but she could see that he was proud of himself for remembering to treat her like a real person, and she automatically hated him for it. The Klingon and Ferengi negotiators looked at her like they wanted to throw her over the table and have at her, but she was used to that. In a way she preferred it because it was a more honest response.
When Riker made a point to seek her out during a break in the negotiations, her automatic reaction was to become stiff and defensive.
"Tell me," he smiled down at her, all bluff geniality. "What made you decide to go to law school?"
Riller knew her smile did not look genuine, considered smoothing the distrust out of her expression, then decided to let it stand. The other negotiators were watching surreptitiously, and she didn't want the negotiations to be sidetracked by accusations of favoritism. She took a step back. "Why shouldn't I go to law school?"
"Well, I've never met an Orionese lawyer before, and if they're all as good as you are, I'm going to steer clear of them from now on."
'Good save,' Riller thought sourly. "Thank you, Commander. Would you excuse us, please?" It was obvious that he wanted her to stay around so he could mine her for her background, but she turned away. Q, who'd been glaring at Riker with undisguised hostility, turned with her.
"He has a point, you know," Q said when they were out of earshot. "I've never heard of an Orionese lawyer either, especially not an Orionese woman lawyer. I thought you were all busy being omnivorous sex toys or something."
She really was going to tear this brat a new asshole. "Mr. Q," she answered tightly, "you and Commander Riker need to curtail your curiosity and stick to the business at hand."
"But... " Q thought he might have found a chink, however small, and he meant to exploit it. "it's true, isn't it? I mean, traditional Orionese custom and all that."
"I still don't see what that has to do with anything. Unless you think it would help things along if I stripped and did a table dance."
"I don't know." Q was nonplussed and showed it. "Would it?" It's not how he would have done things, but he didn't really know much about mortal customs--maybe it would be useful.
"No!" Riller released her tension in a burst of laughter at Q's genuine confusion and Q was disappointed. "But the Ferengi would probably put in an offer for me as well. We don't want that."
"Why don't we?"
"Just trust me on this one, please?"
Despite her little encounter with Commander Riker, Riller was actually beginning to relax and enjoy herself. She'd done this sort of thing often enough to know there was a point in negotiations where all the parties began to play subtle and not so subtle one-upmanship games with one another. This, Riller knew, was when they gave things away without intending to, each trying to impress the others. The Ferengi blustered and postured; the Andorians offered bribes; The Klingon negotiator offered veiled and not-so-veiled threats; the Federation rep, Riker, tried to look amused and above it all, saying little. Riller suspected he knew where her true interests lay, and was holding out for the final rounds.
That evening she played a little game of her own, approaching the Andorian to ask where on Andor his family was from. He smiled broadly when she told him where she'd gone to school, and the two of them had a few moments' animated conversation before parting for their respective quarters.
"One of his clan-group was in my class," she told Q, having made sure to time her comment so that Riker would be sure to hear it.
"Big deal," Q answered. Andorians, he knew, had large families. He was probably related to everyone on his planet. "Do you intend to take his bribe?"
Riller grinned. "Oh, you heard that, did you?"
"How could I miss it?" He mimicked the Andorian's sibilant speech patterns, "'The additional benefits for your client and yourself would be quite considerable.' Obsequious toad."
"Well, hold your horses," Riller liked that phrase though she'd never actually seen a horse. "Let's wait until he puts an actual figure on it."
"You put a figure on it--on *me*," Q responded harshly. "I heard you tell him I was worth one hundred million Federation credits."
"You're may not get that much," Riller warned, completely missing Q's anger at being appraised like a piece of furniture. "Probably not even close."
"Why, because you're going to take it?" Q glared at her suspiciously. The greedy sow was probably going to steal half of it before he even saw a single quarter credit. He really was going to sue her. Perhaps he'd even get a law degree--if she had one it couldn't be hard--then he wouldn't have to trust anyone else with his money and his legal rights. His name would strike fear into the hearts of litigators everywhere.
Staring down at her, Q could see her green skin mottle with dots of deeper color. Satisfied that he'd finally managed to get a dart under her stolid exterior, he crossed his arms and waited for the explosion.
Riller noted the smug satisfaction in his expression and forced herself to calm down. She did not want to let this slur go unchallenged, but she would not yell at him in the middle of the corridor. "If I wanted to, I could steal *everything* I get for you," she answered silkily. "There's ways to do it legally, and there'd be no one to protect you. You have no friends here, no family, no lovers; no one to care whether I rob you blind or not."
To her horror, his eyes filled with tears.
Q turned and strode down the hallway towards his quarters. That last remark had stirred up all the thoughts he'd been avoiding as he'd tried desperately to pretend that this was all some temporary game he was choosing to play. In his mind he heard her say it over and over again: 'no family, no friends... no family no friends...'
Safe in the privacy of his room, he put his hands to his ears in a futile attempt to block out the sound. "Stop it," he whispered. "Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop." His chest was heaving, and he sank into the chair by his eating table, hands clutching his hair. "I can't do this," he whimpered. "I'm afraid."
The doorchime made him jump to his feet. "Come," he said in a voice that was almost normal. He still had not made the connection between tears and emotional pain, so he didn't think to wipe his face.
Harris looked mortified. "I want to apologize for that last remark, Sir. It was cruel and uncalled for."
Q shook his head. "It doesn't matter," he answered in a monotone. "I'm going to tell Captain Picard I accept his original offer."
All sympathy left her, the room going black before her eyes as rage and fear overwhelmed her. "You will do nothing of the sort," she hissed. She advanced on him threateningly, oblivious, for the moment of his greater size and strength. He couldn't do this to her, not when she was so close! "Toy with me," she snarled, "and I'll destroy you! Don't think I can't do it!"
Q took a step back, then another, afraid of this rampaging harpy. She was between him and the door, or he would have run.
"Calm down." He said the only thing that might save him from her. "I was only joking!"
Riller stopped abruptly, breathing in great shuddering gasps. With the sudden rush of adrenaline pumping through her, she felt unkempt and out of sorts. Angry Orionese exuded a pheromone which warned others to stay away or incited them to fight; Orionese females under stress sent out an olfactory cocktail of sexual musks. A genetic adaptation designed to appease and distract, it was a physiological response to danger that she could not control, but she could smell it on herself, and it made her feel slightly revolted. She wanted to scream or cry or fight, and she could do none of these things. She and Q glared at each other in a room that was suddenly far too small for safety. His lips were twisted in a disgusted sneer, but his eyes were wide and wary.
"Congratulations." Her breathing calmed somewhat, and her tone was returning to normal, but her face was still tight and angry. She attempted a smile, but only managed a grimace. "You finally managed to make me angry." She didn't know what else to say. She wanted to ask him whether he was really giving up or if this was another variant of his spur-of-the-moment attacks, but she didn't trust herself to behave civilly if he gave her the wrong answer. Riller ran a hand through her short hair, wondering if tomorrow would find her on a shuttle back to Rigel, sick with failure after having come so near her goal.
She backed away from him, trying to pull herself together. Her shoulders slumped slightly. "You know. There's a lot of things I could say to you right now, but I'm holding them all inside because you're my client and it wouldn't be polite." She turned away, trying to combat the sudden sense of impending defeat. "I'll see you in the morning," she sighed. "Try to be ready on time, please."
Q waited until she was gone before collapsing onto the bed. Harris's reaction stunned him, and he needed a few moments to recover. In the weakness of the moment, he really *had* intended to give up and take Picard's original offer; the suspense of the negotiations was wearing on him, and he simply wanted it to be over--to have *something* settled in his life. Harris had completely misunderstood, turning on him like a mad thing when he'd simply wished to discuss the matter.
Now he knew he couldn't talk to her about it at all, and he was beginning to feel he'd lost what little bearing he thought he'd had. It horrified him that he didn't understand why this should set her off when nothing else he said managed to disturb her aplomb.
And worst of all, he had to perform that urination thing again.
At least he thought he did. As he moved towards the bathroom, unknowingly wading through Harris' dense pheromonal output, the tingling sensation in his groin increased, disturbing him in a way he couldn't quite identify. His penis was pressing against his underpants, making him walk funny, and when he removed it from the seamed opening in the front of his jumpsuit, it seemed to move in his hands, lengthening as he touched it. No stream of urine appeared. He wondered for a moment if he'd forgotten how to do it.
Finally, standing there holding himself and feeling slightly foolish, he remembered that this was a symptom of arousal. The thought confounded him. Arousal was a prelude to sex, and was caused by stimulation of the erogenous zones. 'When had that happened?' Q wondered. He quickly reviewed the last twenty-four hours and decided that it hadn't.
'Great,' he thought, 'Apparently I'm some type of pervert.' The thought made his chest feel heavy, and his throat began to ache. In the miasma of conflicting physical signals, his body felt weak and shaky. When he'd had his powers he'd paid little attention to the varieties of human sexual expression except when he could use them to torture some poor mortal who was ashamed of his desires. Now he wondered if some unknown perversity had been hardwired into the body he'd adopted. He imagined himself lurking furtively through the halls of the Enterprise, going into paroxysms of shame and heat whenever some unexpected trigger caused him to react like this. How could he live knowing he had to endure this weakness? He flopped back onto his bunk, turning over to hide his face in the pillow. The movement was slightly stimulating, and without conscious volition he rubbed himself against the bedcovers. The sense of building pleasure returned with a vengeance, and he was acutely aware of how he must look, grinding himself against the mattress. He made a small, choked sound of embarrassment and quickly flipped himself onto his back again. This was the Continuum's fault. They'd given him a perversion that made him want to rub himself against bedcovers. After all, he'd been sitting on the bed when it happened a moment ago. He jumped up so quickly it made him dizzy. Standing in the middle of his room, his body a welter of confused signals, he wondered what could possibly go wrong next.
At the morning staff meeting, Riker gave an account of the negotiations, frustration evident in his voice. "Harris just sits there watching. The rest of us fall all over each other, raising the ante higher and higher because the list of technological advances Q claims to be able to facilitate just gets longer."
Picard automatically looked at Troi for confirmation. She'd been present, though silent, at some of the sessions.
"I get no sense that this is braggadocio, Captain. He genuinely believes he can do all these things. Taken together with his claims about knowing which planets have the greatest deposits of rare minerals, I can't imagine the Federation would be willing to pass him up, no matter what he costs."
Riker nodded, remembering the barely concealed greed on the Ferengi's face when he'd asked if Q knew which unclaimed planets contained the greatest latinum and dilithium deposits. Q started to answer but Harris thrust out a hand, restraining him.
"You're talking to *me*, remember? Now, what did you want me to ask my client?"
The Ferengi, seething at being addressed so highhandedly by a female, repeated his question.
Riker could see from Q's smugly gratified expression that he enjoyed the discomfiture he caused, even by proxy. Harris leaned in towards Q, turned on their scramblers and the two engaged in a brief but animated discussion, at the end of which she gave the Ferengi a single word answer: "Yes."
Despite himself Riker felt a moment's empathy towards the Ferengi negotiator. Safely hidden behind his ferret lawyer, Q watched the wrangling with blatantly mocking amusement. Harris commandeered his every waking moment, shielding him from any interaction with the negotiators. This had the unfortunate effect of protecting him from the results of his egregious behavior, and Q was quick to take advantage. Every smirk, every veiled expression of amused disdain, was a thorn in Riker's side; every lazily expansive gesture of faux goodwill only served to underscore Q's utter contempt for the mortals' frenzied scrambling after him and the knowledge he represented. If Harris only knew the kind of being she had taken as a client...
"Deanna," Riker pulled himself back to the present. "What's your impression of Riller Harris? What kind of person is she?"
Picard turned to him with a curious expression. "Why, Number One?"
"She seems to be a person of integrity. If she knew about the things Q's done, the deaths he's caused, might that be enough to make her change her mind about representing him?"
But Deanna was shaking her head. "That would be very much the wrong approach, Will. Remember, I got the strong impression that she wasn't doing this for Q but for herself. I don't even think she likes him very much."
"So she really is just in it for the money."
"Yes, but I don't think she'll cheat Q. If I'm right about her, she'll get him the best deal possible as a matter of personal honor."
"Oh, she'll do that, all right," Riker agreed ruefully. "The Andorians offered her a hundred million credits. She said she'd think about it."
That caused a stir around the table. Riker shook his head. "Then the Ferengi said they'd match that offer plus his weight in latinum."
"See to it that our offer exceeds theirs, Will," Picard ordered. "We've been given orders to acquire Q for the Federation and we haven't been given any leeway in this. I received a communication from Admiral Shanthi in which she stated that we have a great deal of latitude at our disposal in terms of what we're able to offer for him."
"Well, that's useful," Crusher said sarcastically.
"Actually it is, Beverly. If she only wanted money she'd have taken the Ferengi's offer," Riker explained. He turned to Picard. "I think she's really been aiming for a contract with the Federation all along."
"It's the terms she's requested. Why ask for transtemporal and transpatial diplomatic immunity from the Ferengi, Andorian or Klingon governments. Q hasn't committed any prosecutable offenses against them. He's never been mentioned in any of the reports from those alliances"
"So you think by including those conditions she was offering a broad hint as to where her true interests lie."
Riker nodded. "We may be able to use that to our advantage."
"How so, Number One?"
Riker carefully hid his amusement. This was one area where the Captain's privileged background put him at a disadvantage. Picard never much thought about the cost of things; when he wanted something he bought it, usually the best there was, and that was the end of it. Regardless of what Shanthi said, however, Riker thought she'd prefer to acquire Q for the least amount possible. "She might come down on the price if we throw in some of the other things she's requested. Let me go and talk to her, Sir. I think I may be able to get us a deal."
"Very well," Picard smiled. "I'll trust your poker instincts to come through for us."
Riker knew he had not made a very good impression on Q's lawyer, but he didn't know what he'd said or done wrong. He knew she didn't like him, and he worried at the reason over a cup of coffee in ten-forward.
"Problem?" Guinan leaned an elbow on the bar, ready to listen.
"Mm, yes." Riker admitted. I need to make someone like me, and I'm not sure how to go about it."
"Well there usually needs to be some basis for mutual understanding in order for that to happen. Do you and this person have anything in common?"
"No." Riker looked up at her with dawning amazement, wondering how he could have been so blind. "Not only that, but I haven't taken any of her feelings into account." He stood up. "I've been assuming she was like me..." He paused abruptly, frowning at himself. "No... that's not it either." He looked into Guinan's deep brown eyes, "I've been assuming she *should* be like me. I've been a pig!" he said in the horrified tones of someone who's just committed an embarrassing faux pas. He jumped up and headed towards the door. "I have to go apologize."
Guinan looked after him with mild confusion. "Glad I could help."
When he got to Harris' room, Riker was direct and to the point. "I need to apologize to you," he began without preamble. "I didn't realize how easy it was to talk down to someone until I heard myself doing it to you, and I'd like to ask your forgiveness."
Riller was actually rather impressed. "You realized it, *and* you've come to ask forgiveness for it. I would have never expected that of you, Commander." She inclined her head. "Forgiveness granted."
"Thanks," Riker smiled ruefully. "You know, when we're cadets they teach us in all but words that we represent the pinnacle of Federation achievement, and sometimes it's hard to see any other point of view."
She smiled back. "I could tell." She tilted her head towards the table. "Won't you have a seat?"
Riker sat, accepted her offer of a cup of tea, and they drank in silence until he took a deep breath and plunged in.
"You know, there was another reason I came to see you."
Harris put her cup down and looked at him, her lips curving up slightly. Riker relaxed suddenly, in control and in his element now. He'd seen that cat-in-the-henhouse grin across many a poker table, and he knew the smile on his own face was just as calculating.
"Do tell, Commander." Harris was very collected, he'd grant her that.
"The Federation has no intention of letting Q go, no matter what we have to do to keep him."
"That wouldn't be a threat, would it?"
"Never!" Riker smiled ruefully. "We're at your mercy and we know it. But you know, I've been thinking about this. Neither the Ferengi, the Klingons nor the Andorians seem to realize just how valuable Q is, and how rare. None of them even offered security arrangements, as if you'd mentioned them just to be difficult. They seem to think throwing money at him is enough." Riker shook his head in apparently sincere amazement. "They probably figure he can raise his own defense forces with all that money. Train them. Feed them. House them. I wonder what something like that would cost." He said, his voice full of innocent curiosity.
Riller loved this. She absolutely lived for it. "You know that doesn't matter. My client is potentially worth billions. He's worth billions now. All he has to do is remember where he put the unclaimed planet with all the dilithium on it."
"Then why are you asking so little? Sounds to me like you can't be too sure of him?"
This man was good. She wasn't sure of Q at all; she was playing a hunch, which was why she'd been so careful with the terms of her contract with him. Riller shrugged. "No point in being greedy. Wherever we look, there'll always be more money."
Riker nodded. If this supposed dilithium planet really existed, and Q found it, he'd have more money than god.
"Think about it," Harris seemed to follow his thoughts. "If he were forced to go to the Ferengi, for example, all they'd have to do is claim a planet, any planet, and the price of dilithium would sink like a stone. Think of how badly that could de- stabilize the Federation economy. Now imagine the Ferengi being able to yank your chain like that any time they wanted, courtesy of my poor, confused client who means well, of course, but doesn't know anything about the hard realities of the marketplace. Think of the effect that would have on the Federation. On Starfleet. On your career and reputation if you let that happen."
Riker could picture this sector of the galaxy run by Ferengi and the image wasn't pretty. The Federation's economic stability was something he'd always taken for granted, and it was only this very moment that he really thought about the long-term consequences of Q falling into Ferengi hands. 'Put yourself in their place, Will,' he thought, 'If you were a Ferengi you'd use him to de-stabilize the Federation economically, then you'd carve up the spoils.' Will realized he'd underestimated her, and worst of all, it showed. He was playing this one badly, and he was grateful Picard wasn't here to see it.
"So you see, Commander, it is to the Federation's advantage to guard Q most assiduously. You yourself pointed out that he's rare and valuable. I would think you'd be jumping over yourselves to provide him with all the security he wanted, under whatever terms he wanted it. If the Ferengi, or anyone else for that matter, were to try to steal him..." She shrugged. "Of course you may have a different point of view altogether. If you do I'd love to hear it."
Outplayed indeed. "You know, when you put it like that, it's very easy to see your point of view."
Riller stilled her excitement, thinking, 'By the Three, this is going to work.' "And when you consider how much he'll add to the body of scientific knowledge... I wouldn't want to have to explain to all those scientists that you lost him because you couldn't guarantee his safety."
Riker shook his head admiringly. Never give up the opportunity to learn from a master. "Do you play poker by any chance?"
She looked bewildered. "I am in deadly earnest, Sir. Please, save the mild flirtation for another time."
Riker cleared his throat, suddenly eager to get out of that room. "I'm authorized to tell you that the Federation will accede to your terms. Draw up your documents. We'll sign them."
Riller nodded as if she'd expected nothing less. "I assume both you and your captain have Federation signature authority?"
"In this case? Captain Picard will sign the agreement. Definitely."
"I'll need a copy of the authorization documents." Despite himself Will smiled at her, and she smiled back, understandingly. It was always prudent to let your boss commit the Federation to a hundred million dollar expenditure, a security logistics nightmare and a blanket pardon of a notorious criminal. Besides which, it *was* his job.
Q woke to the persistent queeping of his doorchime.
"Who is it?" He demanded blearily.
Oh. Riller Harris was the only person in existence who called him that. She called him again, her voice soft and urgent. "It's me. Let me in, please."
"Ummmmm." Q groaned and stretched. He liked stretching, so he did it again twice before getting up. "Wait."
He replicated a robe and fiddled with the belt, tying the knot just so before calling her in.
"I hope you've come to apologize for your barbaric display of temper last night." He drew himself up very straight, looking down at her with what he hoped was a cold, forbidding stare.
Harris pushed past him to lay three padds on his table. She held a fourth one up for his inspection.
"Guess what?" She seemed entirely too cheerful for eight thirty in the morning. "We got it. We got everything, *and* all the money. You should have seen the way he rolled over. I couldn't believe it."
Rolled over? That sounded like calisthenics. "What are you babbling about now, Harris?" He was hungry and out of sorts, and he wanted something to stop the grinding sensation in his stomach. An apple, maybe, or more Nocarian sap-moss.
She waved the padd. "We got the Federation deal!"
Thank you, Riller Harris! "Is that it? Of course we did. That's what I hired you for, isn't it?" He demanded petulantly. "You had to wake me out of a sound sleep to tell me this?"
"Sir, I got you eighty million credits. Aren't you a little bit excited?"
"Is that a lot?"
Harris snorted. "You could live comfortably on that for a year or two."
"A year's salary?" Q was outraged. "That's all you managed to get for me?"
Riller walked over to his terminal. "Computer. Display average salary, Makropyrios Institute research scientist."
A eighty-nine, a comma and three zeros appeared.
"Computer, subtract that amount from eighty million and display."
Q peered over her shoulder. "See the difference in those two numbers?" Riller asked. "Most research scientists manage to live good lives and raise families on eighty-nine a year. You've got almost a hundred times that much."
Q was impressed despite himself. He remembered that he'd been about to give himself away for that paltry scientist's wage and he had to steel himself against the swell of gratitude he felt. This woman had saved him from a life of penury. "I suppose you'll be wanting your cut now," he offered grudgingly.
"I already got mine," she said, unwittingly ridding him of his onerous burden of indebtedness.
"Greedy woman," he accused her.
"That's me," she quipped, too happy to be more than slightly irritated with him.
"Computer," Q had a wonderful idea. "Display annual salary, Jean-Luc Picard."
One hundred-twenty-nine thousand, four hundred thirty two and twenty-seven hundredths.
Q stared at that figure, feeling an unholy glee rising in him. He would buy the poor captain a gift. Nothing too fancy, just a little something to show his appreciation.
The freighter captain was respectful and polite, but insistent. His package was to be hand-delivered into the care of one Jean-Luc Picard. No it could not be beamed aboard, there was a code thirty-nine interdict against that.
"Code thirty-nine," Picard repeated. That was the code used for articles of significant historical or anthropological value to the Federation; articles that might be damaged by use of a transporter beam. He began to grow excited despite himself. Perhaps something from Professor Galen's collection... With Worf to accompany him, he hurried down to the cargo bay, thumbed his receipt of the gigantic, unwieldy box, then proceeded with exaggerated caution to open it.
Riker and Troi, too curious to wait, came down to the cargo bay to find him standing in front of a large clay statue, reverence and stupefaction plain on his face.
"What is it?" Riker asked.
Caught in that peculiar state between rage and laughter, Picard could only hold out the handwritten note in his hand. "'By way of saying thanks for everything,'" Riker read, "'one of the terra cotta warriors from the tomb of the Emperor Ying Zheng of the Qin Dynasty, 210 BCE, China. Love and kisses, Q.'"
The culprit, of course, was long gone.
The day he got his windfall, Q received a visit from Q. He didn't notice at first because the entity materialized without the customary flash of light. The second Q leaned against the wall for several moments, waiting for Q to notice him.
"How the mighty have fallen," he finally drawled.
Q looked up, startled, then he glowered. "Come to gloat?" He stood up, turning around slowly. "Well, this is all of me. Get a good look."
Q2 shook his head, shaggy blond locks falling across his eyes. "This is the thanks I get? I got rid of the Calamarain for you. The least you could do is show some gratitude."
"Hardly likely since you probably sent them in the first place."
Q2 grinned. "Guilty as charged. That's what I came to talk to you about. Now that you're essentially powerless," he barely bothered to keep from gloating, "you're way too easy to damage. So we've decided to be nice. Not that you deserve it, but since we're in a charitable mood, and since you have no choice but to take our charity," he paused, lingering over his insulting words, "we've decided not to let anyone else know where you're located."
Q2 walked around him in a slow circle, shaking his head. "Poor Q. So helpless that the rest of us have to pitch in and save him from his mistakes." He shook his head with every appearance of sincere sympathy. "You should thank us, really."
Q was almost sick with anger. To *thank* them? Unthinkable! "When I get back..."
The second Q lifted a finger. "Ah, ah, ah. *If* you get back..."
"What do you mean, 'if'? I always got back before."
"Yeah, well that's the problem. There have been too many 'befores'. Stick out this human thing to the end and we might take you back. But as your mighty lawyer would say, 'wimp it, and you're toast, buddy'." Q2 drew a finger across his throat to make his point. "You know, you should stick with her. She could teach you a thing or two."
He waved a mocking 'bye-bye', and disappeared in a flash of light.
Q was confused now, as well as angry. A thing or two about what? "Wait! Come back!" But he was yelling into an empty room. Q2 was gone.
Q would not admit to being grateful that the Continuum would prevent further attacks. He would and did, however, sulk about the unfairness of the sentence he'd been handed. He'd stewed and fretted all the way to Risa. Bearing in mind Q's cryptic suggestion, he'd asked Harris to accompany him. Now he wasn't sure it was such a good idea. Still excited about their victory, she was bringing up the topic up yet again.
"Does winning always make you this garrulous?" Q asked irritatedly. He didn't like talking about her coup because it reminded him of exactly how helpless he'd been without her. "Or are you doing this because you know I don't want to hear about it anymore?"
Q had a point, Riller had to admit, but she wasn't home on Rigel, and he was the only one to whom she could tell this story, though obviously he didn't enjoy it as much as she did.
"I'll stop, Sir."
"And stop calling me 'Sir'. It sounds stupid."
Riller shook her head. "That would be inappropriate. You can call me Riller if you want, but I can't call you by your name, it wouldn't be right."
"No? You're telling *me* no? You *work* for me, remember?"
Riller stopped herself from giving him a sullen glare. How could she forget? He reminded her every chance he got. "Sir, it's precisely because I work for you that I have to address you formally."
"Explain." Q found he could get lots of information by that one simple command, and he worked it for all it was worth.
Riller took a breath. It wasn't that simple, actually. She could call him Q if she wanted, but she preferred the distance and formality of addressing him by a title. Here on Risa, or anywhere for that matter, an Orionese woman travelling with a wealthy human male could easily be mistaken for his doxy. She wanted to avoid giving that impression as much as possible.
"If we call each other by first names," she answered, "it makes us sound like we're friends and we're not. We're employer and employee."
Q was unexpectedly hurt. He hadn't been extending friendship, had he? "Well, *employee*, did you find me a house yet?"
Riller brightened. Since arriving on Risa, Q'd indulged himself in an endless round of conspicuous consumption. He'd decided that one of her duties was to accompany him on his spending jaunts, for which he was paying her extremely well. She had to admit, it was gratifying to walk into stores she'd never dared enter before and watch the clerks fall all over themselves when they saw Q's bank balance. Q was treated like a god, which was appropriate, she supposed, and as his assistant, she received her share of obsequious fawning. Two insanely zealous security guards helped round out the impression of wealth and importance.
When he said he wanted to buy a house here, the real estate company assigned them a personal broker who dropped all her other clients to work with him. She promised to find him the perfect home and didn't mind at all that he dithered and dallied, unable to define perfection to his satisfaction. Riller, however, was getting tired of trying to accommodate his demanding standards. She had things to do, and as soon as she got him situated she wanted to be off and doing them.
"I got something I think you'll like," she offered with cautious enthusiasm. "It's secure and private, the grounds have enough room for you to have your own lab built, and they'll let us change the zoning laws in order to build that flitter pad you wanted."
Q sighed theatrically. This whole business of buying things was extremely trying. First he had to pore over swatches with the new tailor, the old one having been fired because Q didn't like his tone of voice. Then he'd had to select an array of footwear and pick through all those colors and styles and materials. Now he had to buy a house. Decisions, decisions. Well, a poor mortal could only do his best.
"Okay, let's see it." He reached for the portaholo, automatically recreating it mentally so that it looked nicer and worked more efficiently. For a moment his enthusiasm completely failed him as he shaped the improved design with his empty hands. It was a strange, sad feeling, knowing that he should be able to create something just by thinking about it, but couldn't. He noticed Riller carefully looking away and realized his eyes had filled with tears again. It happened occasionally, but by tacit agreement they ignored this revolting ocular discharge until it went away.
He blinked his eyes clear, touched the control, and the holo images materialized around him. Rooms appeared and disappeared as the real estate agent walked through the house. "This home, closed since the last century, was the Risan residence of Carter Winston, dilithium dealer and fine arts collector. Easily the most palatial residence on this planet, it was created with the highest quality materials and craftsmanship. It's even been rumored that Winston actually travelled through time to find stone-carvers who could do justice to the rare Darean marble that graces the grand foyer from floor to ceiling." The agent smiled conspiratorially. "Whether that story is true or not, these bas- relief sculptures have the rare distinction of being carved from the two largest single blocks of Darean marble ever discovered."
As the broker prattled on, Riller watched Q out of the corner of her eye. She was beginning to be able to read Q's signals, and she suspected he was very interested. Once salespeople learned that he was easily swayed by words like rarest, biggest, best, and most expensive, he was very easy to handle. He could have sent for merchants to come round to his hotel suite, but he liked audiences and would hold court for hours while managers and clerks danced attendance. Riller played along, watching the managers cringe in horror when she coughed discreetly and mentioned that they had an appointment at that merchant's competitor.
"My goodness where has the time gone," Q would exclaim. He would jump to his feet and sweep towards the door, then pause and turn around, reveling in the pained, suspenseful silence that accompanied his imminent departure. "Oh hell," he would say, gesturing dismissively, "wrap it all and send it to my hotel."
Then he would smirk, watching the manager breathe a sigh of relief before making his grand exit through doors which were always held open for him.
Riller thought he was unnecessarily cruel, but she admired the way he performed. He was good at playing the hotshot; this house should be perfect for him.
Q didn't even wait until the holo was finished. "Get it," he told Riller, and she nodded and went to the comm.
Thinking of her commission, the broker was so overcome she actually started crying.
"Tell her I'm moving in tomorrow," Q called out from his chair.
"Did you hear that?" Riller asked the tearfully grateful young woman.
"I'll beam right over and get his authorization," the woman said. A minute later, Q owned the finest home on Risa.
"Have my things moved from the hotel," he ordered the broker.
"We don't usually do that," she started to say. Q glared down his nose at her, and she capitulated immediately. "But I think we can make an exception in your case."
When she left, Q looked over at Riller. "Now that's how you get things done," he pointed out. Then he noticed she had her cloak on. "Where are you going?"
Riller turned to face him. "You plan on sleeping in a bed tomorrow night?"
For a horrible moment Q thought she was making an oblique reference to his episode with the bedcovers. What had he done to give himself away? "Why?" he asked suspiciously.
"Because if you do, I'd better go buy one."
"Oh!" Relieved, he tossed her one of the hundred thousand credit chips he left scattered around. "By all means shop away. And make sure you get something I'd like. Should I come with you?"
"Why don't you stay here and finish looking at that holo," she suggested.
As she hoped, he was immediately distracted. "Good idea." But he had to give her more orders or he just wouldn't have been Q. "Make sure you're back soon. We still have to decide what to eat for dinner."
"Okay." Riller's back was turned so he couldn't see the expression on her face. She slipped out the door and immediately felt a weight lifting from her shoulders. She threw her head back, sighing her relief. Q's guards gave her expressions of veiled sympathy and she smiled back in acknowledgement. Running her hands through her hair, she moved quickly through the hotel. This was her first moment away from him since they'd met, and she wanted to make the most of it.
Riller stopped to speak to the concierge, telling it to buy two beds, pillowcases, sheets, blankets, etcetera, and ship them to Q's new address. Their hotel was, naturally, located in the most exclusive district on Risa, but Riller wanted to find someplace where the atmosphere wasn't quite so rarified, maybe a pub where she could nurse a beer in a quiet corner.
Q wasn't very fond of Riller, but he was beginning to understand why Q2 thought she'd be good for him. She was dependable. She found things for him, did things for him, and she was a calming, reliable presence, but as she'd so acridly pointed out when he'd made his one overture of friendship, they were boss and worker. When she didn't return after half an hour he grew irritated. She was derelict in her duties, leaving him alone like this. He planned a series of scathing putdowns, in which he would point out her privileged position as his employee and call into question her fitness to serve a being of his stature.
When the half hour stretched into an hour he began to panic. There was something he could do, something about calling Risan security and reporting a missing person, but he didn't know how. His personal security guards were right outside, but he knew they would not leave his presence. He was just getting ready to put on his cloak and go out looking for her when she came breezing in, a happy smile on her face.
"You won't believe what I found," she said, then she caught the expression on his face. "What's wrong?"
"Where've you been?" He demanded.
She started to bristle, then she noticed the tears on his cheeks. "I went for a walk. It was nice out."
"You didn't ask me if you could. I thought something happened."
He'd been frightened, she realized. In that moment she got her first inkling of just how much power she could have over him. Her thoughts spun with possibilities, but she shrugged them off. His pain and vulnerability were as genuine as his arrogance, and it would be beneath her dignity to take advantage. She simply wouldn't do it.
Riller wasn't much good at soothing anxiety, her own or anyone else's, but she made an earnest attempt. "I'm sorry I frightened you, Sir, uh... Sir, but you're going to have to get used to the fact that I have to go away sometimes."
"Why? Don't I pay you enough?" He asked harshly.
"It doesn't have anything to do with how much you pay me," she said. She was trying to reassure him, but his eyes went wide and panicky, and more tears flowed. He wiped them away absently. If it wasn't the money thing, what was it? And what if she did it again?
Riller knew she was making things worse, but she didn't know what else she could tell him. "You need to blow your nose," she pointed out.
Q stared at her blankly. Blow his nose?
"Go to the bathroom and clean your nostrils," Riller elaborated. He went. She heard him puffing ineffectually and felt a moment's exasperation. Couldn't he do *anything* without her help?
"Blow harder," she called through the door. She listened briefly. "Harder!"
This time he produced a good solid honk. "Nice one!" She encouraged.
He came out of the bathroom, his expression a mixture of embarrassment and disdain. "Am I correct in thinking you are probably the crudest person in this solar system?"
She shrugged. "Probably, but you knew I was from Rigel."
"Explain," Q demanded.
"I'm trying to explain," she said, but she sat down and didn't say anything further. She mistakenly thought he still wanted to know why she had to go away, and she was unwilling to discuss the details of her personal life.
Q perched on the arm of her chair and crossed his arms, regaining his composure. "I'm listening."
He overwhelmed her, looming over her like that, and she jumped up and moved to the sofa.
His eyes were still hard. "Well?"
Where to begin? She could tell him the truth: 'I have to pay my mother's taxes because she and her friends saw fit to move back to Orionese territory when she retired, and a group of independent ex-prostitutes is too big a challenge for the status quo.' Nope. Too personal. She opted to tell the end of the story. "I have to go back to Orion and pay taxes."
"I have to go pay taxes," she repeated. Was he going deaf now?
Was she lying to him? "But you're a Federation citizen, right?"
She folded her arms and looked away from him, stubbornly not speaking.
Q scrutinized her carefully. Obviously she wasn't telling him everything, and just as obviously he was going to find out what she was holding back. Her reticence was a deliberate attempt to thwart him, and he resented it. Besides, what did any of that have to do with being from Rigel, or the fact that she disappeared without telling him?
Riller was sneaky. He was going to have to watch her. Aloud he merely asked her what was on the menu for dinner that night.
Riller smiled in spite of herself. They always had to look over the menu so she could explain the components of the food they ate. No way was Q going to embarrass himself by ordering something then finding out he couldn't eat it. Q wasn't fond of food, but liked to sound like he knew what he was talking about when they presented him the menu. In the hotel restaurant he swelled visibly when the maitre'd rushed over to give him an effusive greeting and lead him to the best table in the house. Q dressed splendidly and he tipped well, somehow managing to confer his regality on any establishment he graced with his presence. It was fascinating to watch the effect he had, and Riller wondered how he managed it and why it was necessary. She herself simply wanted a meal.
"So." They'd eaten and Q had been lionized over. Now he felt comfortably relaxed and sleepy. "What was so important that it kept you away for a whole hour?"
Riller smiled. "I found my old neighborhood. Where my mother and I used to live."
"Really." Q was disappointed. He'd thought it had something to do with him. "Did you find my bed?"
He noticed that some of the animation drained from her face. "Yes, I found you a bed." She looked at him solemnly and dared the subject that had so irritated him earlier. "Sir. I really do have to arrange for a trip to Orion soon, but don't worry. I'm not going to leave until I get everything taken care of here."
He didn't want her to leave at all, and he was also confused and distracted by the non-event that had just taken place. There had been warmth between them for a moment, and now it was gone. He had done something, or not done something, and she was back behind her formality. He was unpracticed at dealing with human feelings, but he somehow knew he couldn't say 'be like you just were' and have it happen. The more pressing issue, however, was this idea she had about going away. "You still have an awful lot to do, you know."
"I'm working on it," Riller took another sip of her mugwort soda, "but I'm going to need your input on a lot of it."
"Explain," Q commanded idly. He pretended to be staring out the window, but he was listening carefully. He would use any excuse to keep her with him as long as possible; if she was simply going to hand him ammunition to use against her... he could balk and dawdle and delay so effectively that she would never get off Risa.
"The first thing we have to do is find you an accounting firm..."
Oh, thwarting this was a non-problem. Q couldn't imagine anything he'd loathe more than dealing with a stuffy little bean counter, and he said so.
"I've located a Zakdorn firm that's supposed to be pretty good."
"Fine," Q muttered. "See to it." Then he remembered he was supposed to be delaying her. "No, wait. I want to interview the firm's president."
"It's run by partners, Sir. There is no president."
A bureaucracy. Excellent. "Send for all of them, then. If they want to count my money for me, they have to convince me that they're worth it."
"Sir, there are three thousand partners on four hundred and nineteen different worlds. I've sent for the head of the Risan branch to come for an interview."
Q scowled. How much money did he have to make before people did what he wanted? He thought of Carter Winston, the dilithium dealer who'd once owned his house. Well, he knew where there was lots of dilithium. At least, he thought he remembered where it was, and he was going to go get it all and sell it and get lots and lots of money, then everyone would have to pay attention to everything he said.
Riller had no idea why the mention of accounting should upset him, so she slogged on. "You'll also need a personal secretary. I have to find some people for you to interview, but we'll do that after we get you moved in."
Another easy one. He was good at terrifying people. He pictured one person after another running away from the interview in tears.
"Next." In the window's reflection, he noticed the waiter hovering patiently just out of earshot in case Q should want anything else. Q let him hover, pretending not to see him.
"We have to hire someone to build you a laboratory."
Excellent. This could take years and years. Q smiled. Riller was amazingly easy to manipulate.
Three weeks later, Riller was ready to leave and Q was panicking. His personal secretary was scheduling a series of interviews with Federation scientists, his chef was cooking, his gardener was gardening and his roboserver dusted and picked up his clothes wherever he dropped them. He'd adjusted so well to the constant presence of his security guards that he didn't even see them anymore.
Now he sat in his office which was bigger than the Enterprise bridge, behind his handcarved vulawood desk which was the only one of its kind in the sector, staring blindly at his computer screen. He had access to every library database to which he was legally entitled (and, courtesy of Riller, a few he wasn't). He'd read up on Orionese history and culture, confirming his low opinion of them, and he'd snooped through all the files he could find on Riller Harris with patient thoroughness. So why couldn't he figure out why she had to go to Orion and pay taxes? Why couldn't she just send the taxes? Several times he'd almost broken down and asked her, but it would sound too much like he was worried about being by himself.
Q ignored the little voice that candidly pointed out that he *was* afraid. If he started thinking about it his eyes would leak again, like the time when the gardener (best in the business) hadn't heard of any of the plants Q mentioned. When Q remembered that most of the foliage he liked came from planets humans hadn't yet discovered, his eyes made that pesky fluid. The gardener looked at him very peculiarly then stiffly looked away like Riller always did.
Deliberately turning to a wholly different train of thought, Q called up the roster of scientists who were scheduled to visit him. He skimmed their published works and reviewed their bios, dividing them into two categories: real people and chowderheads. He was very unforgiving. The list of chowderheads was very long.
When Riller came in to tell him she was leaving, she found him hunched over his desk making notes to himself.
"I'm going with you," he said without looking up.
That took her completely by surprise. "Really? You... really?"
Q hadn't known what he was going to say until he said it, and he'd spent the last three seconds in absolute terror of her refusal. Now he looked up at her, utterly amazed by her reaction.
"Is there any reason why I shouldn't?"
'No,' Riller thought, 'except I was really looking forward to being away from you for a little while.' Then she saw the fear behind his overbearing pomposity. "You might not like it," she warned.
"Well there's nothing to do here until the scientists come," he pouted, "and besides, I can't hear myself think with all that racket."
There was no racket. The builders had dropped a noise- curtain around the site and only the merest whisper of sound penetrated their living quarters. Not only that, some of the scientists were already on Risa waiting for him, but any excuse was better than admitting he was scared to be by himself.
Riller was resigning herself to being stuck with him when she realized this might be a blessing in disguise. Lone women did not have an easy time of it on Orion, and if Q were with her she would not have to bargain for an escort. She looked at him and smiled. "That would be fine. If you don't mind. I mean, it *really* is not a very nice place. Really."
Q watched in disbelief. For Riller the Stoic this was practically babbling. He wondered uneasily if Orion really was as bad as it sounded. He'd seen fit to avoid it, so he didn't exactly know what it was like. She might very well be exaggerating. "I'm sure the security guards will protect us from any untoward happenings," he murmured.
"Oh that's right, the guards!" Riller exclaimed happily. She'd forgotten they'd have security. "This will really be terrific."
'Great,' Q thought sourly. He hated this already.
The starliner Tarpian was easily the most luxurious vessel Riller had ever travelled in. Their suite was so large that she, Q, their six guards, and Q's gigantic collection of datachips all fit inside it with room to spare. Sometimes, when she was alone, she simply walked around the rooms, thinking, 'Look at me. A slavewoman's daughter actually travelling on the Tarpian. Who ever thought this could happen?'
It was a wondrous thing, and she was grateful for Q's careless generosity towards her though she knew he'd done this more for his own comfort than hers. Her original travel plans were much more modest: a berth on a cargo carrier and a five-day meal chit. Q flatly refused to set foot on it, and scolded her for booking passage on such a rancid old boat, truly incensed that she'd elected such a miserable mode of transportation. He made his secretary postpone all his appointments and find them a decent ship; the Tarpian as it so happened. Now he was off running around the hallways, playing the role of the mysterious, unapproachable stranger. Riller was content to let him. She enjoyed playing pretend, but not like this--not among so many people who truly were what they seemed to be. She was out of place here, and even though she loved watching the beautiful, wealthy people who mingled and tried to catch Q's eye, all the imagination in the world couldn't make her one of them.
Q, on the other hand, was like an adventurous little boy. Guards in tow, he roamed from deck to deck, coming back every few hours to tell her why this ship was so much better than the Enterprise, and to demand explanations for things he heard, overheard or mis-heard. When he wasn't asking questions, changing clothes, or looking things up on his computer, he was harping at her to come out with him, buy new clothes, go to the beautician and get her hair done like the other women did.
Riller liked to see him enjoy himself, and she ignored the nagging. "What you forget," she told one of the guards who derided his silly behavior, "is that he's only about a month old."
Besides, when she thought about his naivete, she felt guilty, especially in light of his generous offer to accompany her to Orion. She wanted to tell him how much it meant to her, but she was already losing her professional mien around him, and that was unpardonable. Their formal relationship would only disintegrate further if she unburdened her feelings on him. Q was a pain, but that was no excuse. 'No more sarcasm in your voice,' she told herself sternly, 'and no more losing your temper like you did on the Enterprise.' He should have fired her for such a flagrant breach of professional ethics. He probably would have if he'd known he could. 'But you're letting him come with you to Orion, something you shouldn't do at all,' she scolded herself.
But even though she couldn't have left him alone, she wondered if he would understand the nuances of what he was about to experience. She should at least tell him what to expect, but somehow she couldn't, even though her omission shamed her. Besides, what exactly could she say? 'Q, it's not fair or honorable of me to let you do this, but I'm going to do it anyway.' His commanding presence really might make all the difference between success and failure, and this was too important for Riller to risk failure.
'Getting a penis,' she thought, and smiled to herself. It was an Orionese woman's slang for acquiring the means to do something on her own; either indirectly: getting permission from the male who was responsible for her, or more straightforwardly: bribing a male to take her someplace she wasn't allowed to go alone. Riller could imagine Q's response if she told him she needed him for his arrogance and his genitalia. The thought was almost enough to make her laugh out loud.
By the time they'd gotten through customs, Q was angry with Riller and made no secret of it. First, she refused to get into the spirit of enjoyment, flatly declining to wear the pretty, shiny things he bought for her. Then she stayed alone in their suite almost the whole time, forcing him to make up for her reticence by mingling almost nonstop with the other passengers. She'd conveniently forgotten to tell him that people would smirk when he informed them he was destined for Orion, and then to add insult to injury, she'd actually brought him down here without warning him that the place was a reeking sty. Especially so when contrasted with a lovely vessel like the Tarpian, *the* starliner of choice for people in the know. Now he stared out the window of their rented all terrain shuttle, unable to fully express the depths of his revulsion.
"Why don't these people kill themselves?" He meant it.
"They don't know any better," she answered tersely. She hadn't known any better either, but she'd had a chance to escape. What misleading homesickness made her mother even think of coming back here? If she could, Riller was going to convince her to sell her place and leave.
Q was in an unforgiving mood. 'I should have wiped this planet clean and given some other species a stab at evolution,' he told himself. Then, as his eyes started leaking, he thought, 'Uh-oh, another one of *those* thoughts.' Moving quickly to another subject, he asked how long before they got to their hotel.
"We're not going to the hotel," Riller answered. "We're going straight to the tax assessor's office and we're going to pay the taxes and then we're going to get out of here."
That was fine with him. His belongings and the other two sets of guards were still waiting at the port, the better to hop on the first ship out of here, and this time he wouldn't be choosy. He was buying a ticket on the first thing that could get him away from this grimy excuse for a planet.
Conversation ceased altogether as they travelled deeper into the city. Every passing kilometer seemed to bring some new horror: a screaming child receiving a beating while onlookers watched passively; masses of beggars, each with their own creative disfigurement; decrepit, burned-out buildings; young children, some barely crawling, displayed for sale in slave markets. Every once in a while Riller would feel Q's eyes sidle over towards her. It took no great power of deduction to realize he was thinking, '*This* is where you come from?' She was embarrassed for her birth planet and wanted to explain that she hadn't lived like this, didn't like this. She knew, however, that talking about it only made it worse.
Finally they reached a large, municipal building with a pair of lethargic security guards standing in front of it. One of them approached and held his hand out.
Riller handed Q a credit chit, indicating with a gesture that he should hand it over. Q opened a side panel and dropped the money out the window. The guard caught it and motioned them through. Behind her, Q's guards made faint noises of protest and disgust.
"Welcome to Orion," Q sneered. For once he did not care about the impression he made: he simply wanted to leave. He wondered how Riller had endured this squalor, and he was supremely happy that he didn't have to live like this. He missed his house and now he wished he'd never left. 'It's better to be rich,' he figured out. He decided to get more money, buttress himself against the possibility of ever having to see a place like this again.
He stepped out of the ATS with his sneer firmly planted in place, glaring at the gatekeeper who, like everyone else on this planet, had his hand out for a bribe. Q dropped a large tip in his hand and the man exclaimed his thanks with a toothy grin. Something moved in the shadows of his gatekeeper's hut; a woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a tawdry slave-girl's costume. She tilted her head at him seductively and smiled.
Q felt his flesh crawl. "Can we please get this over with as quickly as possible?"
Riller didn't answer. She seemed to be folding in on herself, but she stumped along grimly, leading him through a rabbit's warren of hallways and cubicles until they got to the tax assessor's office. The man didn't even bother to look up.
"Wait outside," he ordered.
Never one to miss the opportunity for a grand gesture, Q reached into a pocket and dropped a scant handful of hundred- credit chits on the man's desk.
In the space of a heartbeat the assessor's attitude changed from truculent to servile. "What can I do for you, Sir?"
Q gestured to Riller, stiffening at the man's open appraisal of her.
Riller had no time to explain that by Orionese standards, the man was being cordial. "We've come to pay the assessment on Lathklaah ninety-three." She hoped Q did not mind her saying 'we' rather than 'I', but by now he surely understood she wouldn't get far if she appeared to be doing anything of her own volition.
He called the information up, his eyes widening slightly. "Oh, *that* Lathklaah!" His face took on an expression of sly amusement. "You know the taxes were raised on that moon. I doubt you'll ever have the money to pay what you owe."
"How much is it now?" Riller asked.
"Seventeen million, nine-hundred and eighty-three thousand."
Riller pulled out a data chip and silently handed it over.
Q watched in amazement. That was almost all the money she'd earned from him. It was almost as much as his house cost. Why was she doing this?
The man's smile grew uglier. "You sure about this?" He was almost openly smirking at them.
"Why?" Q and Riller asked simultaneously.
"No reason." He shuffled towards the door. "I'll get you your copy of the removal of lien."
Fifteen minutes later he was back, his attitude changed for the worse. He threw the document at them and smiled nastily, as if indulging in some secret joke.
Q snatched up the document and stalked out. Riller and the guards had to run after him.
"We *can* leave now," he said when she came abreast of him, "can't we?"
Riller shook her head apologetically. "I have to give this to my mother, then we can go."
He gave her an expression of outrage and amazement.
"Q, I have to. This was the whole reason I came. It won't take very long."
Q re-entered their vehicle with bad grace. It would serve her right if he took his guards and went home that very instant. The last thing he wanted to witness was a touching mother- daughter reunion--another thing she hadn't seen fit to tell him. Nasty, sneaky, underhanded Riller. He should really find a better lawyer. He opened a channel to the shipyard, asking for a list of all outgoing passenger ships. By the time he'd finished listening to the computerized recital of the current day's departures, Riller was pulling into parking orbit around a most unprepossessing little moonlet.
Q glanced out of the window, ready to be unimpressed, when his eyes widened and he did a double take. The large patch of burned ground was obvious to him, even from high above, and he knew at once what it meant. He turned to Riller, but her face held only happy anticipation. Q got the sudden feeling that she might be deeply and abruptly disappointed sometime in the very near future.
But that was not his problem, was it?
"You know," he began conversationally, "I accidentally lost a planet once..."
"What?" She was peering out the window now, looking for something that didn't exist. Q watched her check and recheck the coordinates, then bang her fist on the console in frustration.
"Stupid piece of machinery," she muttered.
Hating this, Q told her the coordinates were probably correct.
It took a moment before that sank in, and even then she resisted the truth. "They can't be. There's houses here. My mother lives here."
Q pointed. "Not anymore. She must have moved."
"No," Riller still disbelieved. "Not without letting me know." She brought the ATS in closer. The large burned patch was now obvious to her as well. They could make out foundation lines, and occasional patches of burnt rubble that had once been structures of some sort.
Q glanced over at Riller, fearful of some sort of outburst, but she surprised him. She brought the shuttle down at the very edge of the charred spot, then got out and walked into it, picking her way through the debris until she was out of sight.
Q and the security guards exchanged glances.
"Sir?" One of the guards asked, "You don't think she'll hurt herself in there, do you?"
"Of course not," Q answered dismissively, but he got out and followed the tracks she left. She was standing in front of what was left of a retaining wall, staring at a small break in the stonework. An entrance, Q realized.
He somehow couldn't make his voice work to call her away from there, so he walked up behind her.
She heard his footsteps. "My mother's house," she told him, not bothering to turn around.
Q knew what it was like to miss relatives. He didn't want to talk about it. "Come on," he nudged her. "There's nothing here anymore."
Q approved of her self-possession: no screaming and wailing, no wild imprecations to uncaring gods. Then she turned and he saw her face. She looked so lost, so broken, that Q had to quickly turn away, suddenly loathing the sight of her. Her expression reminded him of how he felt when he'd stood nude on the bridge of the Enterprise, making light of his reduced condition but wanting to scream with agony. The memories rushed over him, accompanied by scorching shame. He'd been like she was now--weak, without power--so unbalanced by his loss as to be almost numb with confusion and bewilderment.
'I can't feel this,' he thought desperately. He turned and strode back to the shuttle, wanting to put any distance he could between himself and her obvious grief. This did not touch him, wasn't touching him, couldn't touch him. He gazed at his reflection as he came upon the shuttle, taking reassurance from the image of the handsome, darkhaired man with the elegant bearing and beautiful clothes. That's who he was. He wasn't hurt. Didn't hurt. Past the lovely picture of himself, also reflected in the ATS' shiny exterior, he saw Riller double over under the weight of her anguish and sink slowly to the ground.
He turned and ran back to her before he had a chance to ask himself what he thought he was doing. She was going to get her clothes dirty, kneeling on the ground like that, so he leaned over, threw his arms around her shoulders and pulled her up against him. The minute he touched her he was caught in the storm of her feelings; his breath began shuddering in and out of him as he held on tightly. He was making hideous noises, but so was she, keening and snuffling against his chest and trying to pull away; a useless effort because he had her in a grip like a razorback clam.
"I'm sorry," Q wailed through his sobs. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
He wasn't talking to Riller. In fact, he had no idea who he was really talking to, but in the vague hope that apologies might remove pain, he offered them up to whoever was paying attention. Riller thought he was commiserating with her, and his apparent sympathy broke her down completely. She clung to him while they both cried and cried. The security guards looked out uneasily, searched for an identifiable threat, and when none was forthcoming, retreated to the back of the shuttle.
Q didn't see them. His face was buried against the side of Riller's head as he wept into her hair. This was frightening, this loss of control, and it was all Riller's fault. She was projecting her feelings onto him, causing an empathic reaction that made him feel her pain, forced him remember how alone he was, and how much he'd lost. She was a terrible lawyer, doing this to him, and he was going to get rid of her. He squeezed her more tightly, as if he would push the grief out of her body by main force.
Even in the throes of her sorrow, Riller couldn't help but be aware of how dangerously close Q was standing. She knew he was being subjected to her pheromonal discharge because his hands clutched at her, and even as he bawled, he was beginning to grind into her, seeking relief on several levels.
Riller finally managed to push him away. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "Q, I didn't mean to let that happen."
Let what happen? Confused and slightly nauseous, Q followed her back to their shuttle. He felt wearied by his outpouring of grief, but his body was strangely restive and jumpy. He wanted to do something physical, something hard and aggressive, and the strength of his feeling surprised him. He gave vent to it by excoriating the tax assessor.
"He took your money! He knew this had happened, had to know, and he didn't even see fit to warn you! Are you going to let him get away with that?"
Riller made a small gesture of helplessness. She had no stamina for another confrontation with the bureaucrats. "It doesn't really matter now, does it?"
"It most certainly does." With a concrete enemy, Q was galvanized into action. He took this very personally. "Take us back to the tax assessor's office."
Riller nodded and pulled the shuttle into the air. She looked broken, as if all light and life had left her body, but she was silent again, except for the occasional shuddering sob. Q on the other hand, was pacing restlessly, building up a full head of rage. When Riller put them down at the gate, Q jumped out and stormed off. His guards both let go a short oath and jumped out after him. Later he would be unable to remember how he'd navigated the twists and turns that led to the assessor's office, but he distinctly remembered bursting through the door, pinning the man to his chair with an expression of baleful outrage.
He knew he looked a sight, with his bloodshot, swollen eyes and tearstained cheeks, but he didn't care. He leaned over the desk, almost nose to nose with him. "Give her back her money or my guards will kill you."
The man gave him a contemptuous smile. "Too late. That money is already property of the government."
Q felt so angry it made him physically ill. He leaned over and grabbed the man by the collar, heedless of his lack of fighting skills, ready to pull the money out of him by main force if need be.
The assessor dropped a hand towards his knife, but he never got a chance to touch it. Q's guards shouldered past him, phasers drawn. Unlike the average Starfleet security types, these guards were more like programmed killing machines with artificially enhanced senses and reflexes. They were quick and aggressive, but they were not stupid. Their job was to protect Q from assassins and potential kidnappers, but not from interplanetary incidents, or from himself. By the time Riller came running up, one guard was trying gently but firmly to interpose herself between Q and the person he was trying to throttle. The other guard had disarmed the assessor and was holding a phaser to him while simultaneously dodging Q. The assessor was screaming and cursing.
It was an indictment of Orionese bureaucratic apathy that the tiny invasion force that was Q and his guards did not elicit a more immediate response. By the time Orionese security forces arrived, Riller and the security guard had pulled Q away from the assessor and he was actually fairly calm. Riller however, her emotions already close to the surface, was crying again, begging him to 'stop fighting, please.' The guards immediately assumed she was the cause of the trouble.
"Quiet, woman!" One of them raised a hand to her.
Q lunged. "Get away from her you piece of filth!"
Orionese custom saved him from being vaporized. The guard, assuming that as her owner, Q would naturally take offense if anyone else presumed upon his right to beat her, cringed and backed away, lowering his hand. Q took advantage of his retreat.
"Get his superior," he ordered, pointing to the assessor, "and get him now."
He planted his feet, folded his arms and stood waiting, authority incarnate. The Orionese guards stared, completely at a loss. Q raised an eyebrow, daring them to disobey.
"I'll go," one of them said. He left his fellow and disappeared down the hallway, but he came back with reinforcements. Q looked at them and shrugged. "I'm going to speak to someone in charge, and I'm not leaving until I do."
He was aware, as he stood there, that this was now a test of wills between himself and the Orionese bureaucratic machine, and he was beginning to realize that he could lose badly, but he couldn't back down in front of all these people, and he *was* extremely angry. He'd had very little experience of being thwarted, and he wasn't going to let some simple functionary get the better of him. It just wasn't going to happen.
The Orionese guard captain was more than slightly impressed with Q's intransigence. The man was either very rich, or a fool. He took in the human features and the anxious guards. He ignored the woman. "What's wrong?"
"We paid more than seventeen million credits in property taxes for property that doesn't exist. We want it back."
The captain looked at the assessor. "Give it back."
The assessor looked back. "They paid for Lathklaah ninety- three," was all he said.
The captain's demeanor changed instantly. "Ah." His expression became hard and contemptuous for a moment, and when he looked up at Q, it was obvious he was fighting his amusement. "Sir," he requested, "come with me, please."
He would have escorted Q off alone, but Q's guards would have none of it. Finally the whole lot of them crowded into a significantly larger office on a different floor where a peevish assistant administrator questioned them briefly before settling back to give Q a lecture on interfering with other cultures and customs.
"Women don't own property in Orionese territory. It simply isn't done, and they had to have known this. You, girl," He addressed Riller, "are not an Orionese citizen so you couldn't know, but you," he looked at Q with something bordering amazement. "You take a woman's word without checking and look what happens. Those women moved away of their own free will. The money is forfeit because the state is under no obligation to return monies owed on abandoned property. So you see, all is in order."
"Did they abandon it before of after you had it burned to the ground?" Riller asked.
The man didn't answer her until Q indicated with a quick jerk of his head that he should. "I'm sure that doesn't matter, does it?"
"So she's dead," Riller said woodenly.
"Of course not," the administrator answered impatiently. "We don't kill women. I'm sure she's around someplace, but it isn't my responsibility to keep track of delinquent taxpayers."
Q stared at him, trying to think of something vicious to say and coming up with nothing useful. "So," he said. "You raised their taxes to force them out, and when they didn't leave soon enough for your tastes you burned their houses down. Effective if not very subtle." He shrugged, smiling so malevolently that the administrator actually drew back. "So be it, but I hope for your sake her mother is alive and doing fine. If she's not..." He held the administrator's eye and let his threat trail off, knowing it would be much more credible if left unstated.
With that, Q gave the assembled Orionese one final contemptuous glance and stalked out, his entourage trailing behind him.
On the trip back, he and Riller tiptoed around each other, all the while pretending everything was the same as it had been previously. Embarrassed at having subjected Q to another one of her untidy pheromonal outbursts, Riller stayed away from him as much as possible. For his part, Q was humiliated at having lost control and broken into tears, and what's more, he couldn't seem to make himself stop. It was as if, having finally acknowledged his pain, he was fated to feel it forever. The memory of Riller's expression down on the Lathklaah was enough to make him his eyes start leaking again. The hopelessness in her face made him shudder--made him feel his own hopelessness, held at bay for weeks, now finally overwhelming him. Pain, tears, crying. He'd finally made the connection, and he wished with all his might that he could make them all stop.
Riller tried to be helpful--tried distracting him with things to buy, things to see and do, but it only reminded him of the time, not so long ago, when he hadn't needed to buy anything, when any experience in the wide galaxy was his by merely deciding to do it. And Riller was obviously holding on to her equanimity by sheer force of will. It hurt him, somehow, to see her limping through the days pretending she wasn't dying inside. In fact, simply looking at her sometimes was enough to make him break down all over again. It was Q's first experience of empathy, and he resented it. He would have lashed out at her, but she was so obviously wounded he couldn't bring himself to say anything.
They spent most of their time hiding in their respective cabins, but the night before they were due to disembark, Riller came to see him. She stood awkwardly just inside his door and stared down at her hands. "Q, I need to apologize to you for getting you involved with all that..." her sweeping gesture encompassed the whole of their visit to Orion.
"And well you should," he answered automatically. It never occurred to him that she should apologize since she wasn't responsible for the planet's advanced state of decay. Still, if she was going to give him any advantage he was going to take it. "And you never told me why we had to go pay your mother's taxes in the first place. I think you owe me an explanation."
"My mother earned a lot of money." Riller began in a monotone.
Q perked up. "How?"
"She was a prostitute." Riller mumbled.
"A what?" How was he supposed to understand what she said when she wouldn't speak up?
A prostitute, a whore." Riller tried to answer with equanimity, but harshness crept into her voice nevertheless. "A trull, a trollop, a hooker, a good-time-girl, a fancy-woman. You know. A prostitute."
Q cocked his head. Was Riller... ashamed? But why? Why should she think he cared about her mother's choice of occupation? Then he remembered that it wasn't considered a very exalted line of work. It might, in fact, account for Riller's obvious reticence in bringing up this topic.
"So your mother was a whore," he drawled, probing for a reaction. "What does that have to do with anything?"
Still mumbling, Riller explained that on Orion it was against law and custom for a woman to have control over her own finances. "And they knew that when they bought the moon, mamma and her friends. I guess they thought they could get away with it. Anyhow, they couldn't take her property away since she bought it outright, but they could raise the taxes so high she couldn't afford to keep it. I thought I'd be able to help her." Riller trailed off. "But I guess I was too late."
"So let me see." Q steepled his fingers, looking down at her judgementally. "Your mother--the strumpet--obviously so accustomed to using the nether end of her torso that she doesn't think this through, buys property she has no chance of keeping, on the off chance that a former god will happen by, need her daughter's help and incidentally provide her with the means to keep her property. A rather dicey proposition, don't you think?"
Riller shrugged and nodded, staring down at her shoes as if awaiting sentence. Q stared at her with mild frustration. Q liked picking on people when he thought they needed humbling--his fascination with one Jean-Luc Picard a case in point. When they folded beneath his attacks without putting up a fight, however, he was at a loss. He knew Riller to be a--what was the term he'd overheard his guards using--a feisty broad, so he didn't understand why she was knuckling under so helplessly. He did know, however, that it wasn't in him to attack where she seemed to have so few defenses. Where was the fun in that?
Q sulked. He was going to have to be nice, and he didn't like being nice. "I suppose it wasn't your fault," he offered grudgingly. "After all, you gave up almost all your money on the off chance that you could help her. What more could you have done?"
Riller looked up into his eyes with an expression of daring hope. Then she smiled so broadly that Q smiled back despite himself. "You know, Q, you're right. I *did* do everything I could." She shrugged again. "It didn't work out, and I'm *still* sorry I dragged you into this, but it wasn't my fault. Thank you for helping me see that."
She edged towards the door, nodding at him in mild perplexity. "You know, you're really okay, sometimes," she said as she stepped into the hall. "I'll see you in the morning."
Q stared after her, completely nonplussed. Pleasure at this one bit of friendly communication warred with outrage at being tagged merely 'okay'. He was not just okay, and he hated this confusing melange of emotion. He was sure she was being deliberately annoying just to make him confused and angry. He really didn't like her at all.
Once they got back home, the tension between them eased somewhat. Q caught a cold, and for the duration of his mild illness, became very dependent on Riller as she nursed him through it. With no experience of sickness, he panicked at his first symptom, rushing into Riller's office with news of his impending demise.
"I'm having a heart attack," he told her breathlessly. He was on the verge of tears, gasping and sweating so that she wondered for a moment if it really could be true. Then she realized that if he could get to her office on his own steam, he probably wasn't as sick as he thought.
"What makes you think that, Q?"
His expression was pathetically helpless. "My chest exploded. I can't explain it but I can feel it. It's going to happen again any minute now." His eyes lost focus, turning inward as he processed this horrifying new phenomenon. The scratch inside his throat began to build again, then the grinding feeling in his chest grew tighter and tighter until it burst out of him in a horrible paroxysm of noise and released pressure. It hurt. He bent over himself, clutching a hand to his heart. "This is how it ends," he gasped forlornly. "Laid low by some mortal fallibility. What a comedown!"
"Q, you sneezed." Riller fought to keep her voice even. In that moment she got a clear picture of the shape of her life if she continued her employment with him. 'You got the money out of him,' she tested the thought pragmatically. 'You could just leave.' She pitied him, and she knew he was coming to rely on her as much more than just a legal advisor, but she also knew what he would cost her in terms of sanity and peace of mind. Still, it wasn't Riller's way to simply walk out on someone who needed her. She recalled a day over thirty years ago when she stood in the hot sun and listened to her mother bargaining with a whorehouse proprietor. He'd been avid to have a real Orionese working in his pitiful establishment, but drew the line at letting Riller stay.
"Get rid of the kid," he'd told her mother. "She'll just be in the way."
In that moment, nine-year-old Riller knew with certainty that she belonged nowhere. "I'll go, mama," she'd volunteered. She'd seen plenty of other feral children around; perhaps she could join them.
"No." Her mother took her by the hand. "*We'll* go."
They'd lived on bread for over two weeks until her mother found work, but Riller, grateful not to have been abandoned a second time, did not complain of hunger. The fact that her mother valued her enough to keep her, even when the going was very rough, had gone very far towards healing the wound of her father's desertion. She would have betrayed a fundamental part of what she was if she now deserted Q just because he was hard on her nerves. Nevertheless, she couldn't help but suppress a sigh.
"Let's get you to bed." She pulled him up and put one arm around his waist, encouraging him to lean on her for support.
"Shouldn't we call a doctor first?"
"I'll take care of it. You're not dying Q, but I think I know what's wrong. You try to get some rest." She made him get in bed with all his clothes on and pulled the blankets up around him. Q watched her unhappily.
"I think I *am* dying, and you just don't want to tell me," he accused.
"Shhh." She put a hand on his forehead. "Try and get some rest, I'm going to get the doctor for you."
Riller came back less than an hour later, escorting the first doctor she found who would come to them right at that moment; a naturopath, whatever that was. She said she knew how to help, and that was what counted.
"Q, this is Doctor Condor. She's going to have a look at you."
Dr. Condor approached the bed, speaking in a soft, soothing voice. "I understand you're not feeling well, Q?"
"I had a heart attack," Q muttered.
"Well it sounds to me like you've got a cold." She frowned sympathetically. "That can be very upsetting if it's never happened before."
Riller must have told. Q glared her. Dr. Condor noticed his betrayed expression and patted his hand gently. "I made her tell me. I wanted to know everything about you so I could figure out the best way to make you feel better, okay?"
Riller caught her breath at that. Dr. Condor had taken her at her word when she said that, despite appearances, this should be treated like a pediatric case. She'd forgotten to mention that, for Q, dignity was everything. Fortunately the doctor didn't offer him the toy tricorder she'd brought along. She diagnosed a common cold with the usual recommendations of analgesics, vitamins, fluids and bed rest. And she told him how brave he was.
"Now I'm going to give you something to help you sleep. When you get up I want you to drink something hot. And Riller is going to get some vitamins and things that will help prevent this from happening again." She reached in her bag and came up with a small ball of scented cloth. "When you feel a sneeze coming on again I want you to hold this to your nose and inhale hard."
Q took it from her, clutching it close to his chest.
The doctor pressured a hypo against his arm, watched his head droop then got up to leave. Riller walked her back to the transporter pad.
"What was that thing you gave him?" Riller asked. She'd never seen one before.
"It's mostly a magic pill," the doctor answered with a grin. "It's got a little topical numbing inhalant, and it smells nice, but mostly I give it to my little patients to help them feel they have some control over their illness. And it cuts down on caregiver wear and tear," she smiled at Riller, "which seems appropriate in this instance." She changed the subject. "He's really only six weeks old? Too bad. I bet he's kind of cute when he's not sick."
Over the next few days, Riller had reason to wish Q's magic pill had real properties. The doctor's prescription list included things she'd never heard of, and she had to buy a special chip for the food replicator before it would give her things like extract of passionflower and ginseng root. Q's illness terrified him, and he was whiny and demanding, coming up with so many excuses to have her stay near that she finally gave up and simply sat by his bedside. Physically, Q recovered rapidly, but he had a very hard time adjusting to the idea that as a mortal he could now fall ill. He slept poorly, startling awake to call her name in a panicked voice.
"I'm right here, Q. If I have to go away I'll tell you first." She must have said that several dozen times a day.
"Okay." He would ask her to check his temperature, get him something to drink, bring his medicine, ask the doctor to come back (which Riller steadfastly refused to do), bring him a sandwich, get him another pillow, bring him a tissue. Then he would doze off again. During the few times he was awake he watched her with frightened, haunted eyes, saying nothing.
Riller assured him he was getting the best care money could buy. She called the doctor again, ending up with an even longer list of mysterious tinctures; schizandra, saw palmetto, astragalus, green algae, vitamins. The doctor's plan of supporting optimum health with a regime of herbs and supplements sounded very good, but what did Riller know? Q would either be the healthiest man on Risa or he would be dead.
To her surprise, Q took his vitamins with such gratitude and enthusiasm that Riller was touched. She didn't know whether it was the magic pill effect or if the supplements really worked, but he got healthier. His color got better and his appetite increased. The doctor was pleased, but Riller wished there was a way to convince him that mortality didn't have to be frightening. He never mentioned it to her, but she could see it in his occasional fits of brooding silence and the panicked expression that crossed his face whenever he coughed or sneezed.
As soon as he was better, the scientists who had been kept waiting crowded in on him the first chance they got. Their enthusiasm welcome went a long way towards pulling him out of his tendency to get morbid. It was a balm to him to be treated with such reverence, and he responded with--for Q--a great deal of magnanimity. True, their questions were mostly very stupid, but at least his supplicants knew where to come for relief from their pathetic state of confusion and ignorance. He, Q, the fount of all knowledge, at least as far as humans were concerned, felt it his duty to lift them out of the mire of misinformation. He skewered them mercilessly when he felt they deserved it; especially if they didn't grovel humbly enough or thank him abjectly enough to make him feel it was it worth his while. That was fun, but when he discovered that the memory of his pain receded as other things distracted him, that was even better. He quickly learned to put on manic displays of intellectual virtuosity that dazzled his little proteges and left them hungry for more. They loved him. They worshipped him. If he let them, they would keep at him with questions until they all fell over from exhaustion. His lab became a rowdy workshop, a free-for-all where select members of the scientific community enthusiastically played and worked in a wildly diverse, cross-discipline environment; a girls and boys club for researchers.
Pied piper, lecturer, performance artist and scout leader, Q was the club's epicenter, ruling his little world like a benevolent dictator. The work was hardly challenging, but he was praised so elaborately that he kept at it. He also experienced a surprising amount of satisfaction when one of his little students actually grasped a concept he explained. It was like watching a light turn on in a previously darkened portion of their minds, and although he couldn't share their wonder, he enjoyed being the focus of their gratitude. When one of the researchers suggested he publish a bi-monthly proceedings and offered to edit it for him, he thought it was a wonderful idea.
Riller, of course, had to find something wrong with it.
"Q," She called him by his name now, her one concession to the experience they'd shared during their trip to Rigel, "does he have any experience with this?"
"Yes, of course he does," Q answered snippily, angry at having to defend his idea. "I've seen a list of his publications."
Riller was still doubtful. "I don't know, Q. Let me find someone who's done this before."
"No," Q answered stubbornly. "I want him. Besides, what would you know about it? You couldn't tell a scientist from a Cressalian chocolate sundae."
Riller shrugged. "Yeah, Q, you're probably right."
She seemed willing to let the subject drop, but Q saw an opportunity to probe for another sore spot. "You're probably barely any good as a lawyer," he sniped, "but fortunately for you, I don't have the time or inclination to find a better one."
She looked down at the table without speaking. Q stared at her, frustration welling up. It was impossible to get a rise out of this woman. He'd done so once, but had never managed a second time. Insulting repartee was his standard mode of communicating, but if Riller wouldn't respond, Q was at a loss. Lacking an alternative, however, he persevered. "Don't you have any self- esteem at all? I just insulted your professional competence. Aren't you going to defend yourself?"
Riller shook her head, and Q pursed his lips in annoyance. He was not one to admit defeat. He remembered her one bright smile when they'd talked in his cabin on the way home, and he would have liked to make her smile again, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that he could. He fell back on tried but unsuccessful methods because he didn't know what else to think of.
"Anyway, I want you to put him on the payroll," he demanded.
Riller sighed. "Okay."
Q sighed. She was such a pushover. If he hadn't known better, he might have said he felt guilty about the way he tried to bully her, but, of course, he never felt guilty about anything. He wouldn't admit to looking for some way to assuage the gnawing unease he felt at riding her so hard. She flatly refused to accept the gifts he bought, claiming that he paid her a salary and that was enough. Her personal life, that he knew, consisted of working for him, and he didn't know what else, if anything, she liked to do. How was he supposed to do anything nice for a person like that? Not that he necessarily wanted to, but what if he did?
Eventually, however, he hit upon an idea that was so obvious he was chagrined not to have thought of it sooner. She was still much grieved about having misplaced her mother--he could see it in her subdued demeanor and the occasional fits of crying she tried to hide from him. Well, he would find her mother for her. If he had his powers back it would have been the simplest thing in the galaxy; just thinking about her would have located her. 'That was not to be,' he thought, firmly ignoring the rush of grief that inevitably accompanied thoughts of his former life. Nonetheless, mortals had organizations for just this very thing, didn't they? What were they called, detective agencies?
He locked himself in his office, not that she ever entered without asking, but he didn't want to take any chances.
"Computer, list all 'detective agencies' on Risa."
The computer obligingly spit out a list of thirty-seven companies. Q perused them and started making calls. He was very proud of himself and felt a spark of happy anticipation. He'd actually done something on his own, not waiting for Riller to think of it or take care of it for him. 'See,' he told himself, 'this business of being human isn't so hard.' And Riller had no idea he was doing this--she would be so surprised and pleased. He could hardly wait.
Three weeks later, Riller sat in her office with the door locked, weeping again. The accountant's monthly report had just been downloaded, and she'd discovered that Q had hired not one but two detective agencies. He was looking for her mother. He had to be, because, as the Zakdorn number-cruncher carefully enumerated, both agencies were charging Q for passage to Orion among their other expenses.
Riller's amazement bordered on shock. Q was doing this. For her. It was almost too much to take in. Riller had been on her own too long, had lived on Rigel too long, to expect arbitrary kindness to come without a price, yet Q appeared to be offering just that. He hadn't told her what he was doing, but the omission simply confirmed her opinion that he wasn't expecting payback of any sort. She had nothing he wanted, and he wasn't the type to find her mother then hold her whereabouts in secret. She had to believe that while Q might be a jerk, he wasn't a blackmailer.
Riller went to the fresher and washed her face, then went back to her desk to think things through. His secret kindness touched her deeply, made her feel much better about working for him, and made her determined to pay him back for his well-hidden compassion.
Her role had evolved into that of a companion more than a lawyer, but she still thought he paid her far too much for the little she did. She invented things to do in order to keep herself busy. She'd hired him a fitness trainer when he complained that his back hurt. Then, remembering the guards' story about how he'd almost taken a knife in the gut during their debacle on Orion, she hired a personal defense instructor.
Q fought her every time she introduced something new into his life. He complained that she wasted his money on nothing, but she suspected he did it by rote because she noticed that having people around him seemed to soothe him.
Now Riller had one more set of lessons for him to learn, something she'd been avoiding because she wasn't sure how delicately she needed to approach him about it. Buttressed by the evidence of his unexpected kindness, however, she decided to do it anyway and damn the consequences. She would appeal to his ego, she decided, a tactic that was almost sure to work.
"Q," she began one evening at dinner, "I have to apologize to you. I've been so busy getting you settled, and then with the trip to Orion and everything, I forgot to get you information on sexuality and reproduction." She waited, hoping she sounded sincere and contrite.
Q stared at her.
"I ordered you some holos," she rushed on, "and I've hired an instructor, a nice one, very highly qualified." She took a sip of her everpresent mugwort soda. "So I don't think there's any harm done," she forced herself to continue. "The instructor comes next week."
Q nodded. "Okay. I'll look at the holos when I go upstairs." He helped himself to more potatoes. He loved potatoes.
Riller gulped a mouthful of soda, the better to keep from gaping at his casual response. Privately she laughed at her own misconceptions around this issue. He was taking this better than she'd ever imagined he would. She'd tried so hard to take all his sensibilities into consideration that she hadn't realized her own concerns around this issue clouded her vision.
Ever since that horrible day on Orion, she'd felt guilty and ashamed about inadvertently stimulating him. Yes he was an irritating bastard sometimes, but he didn't deserve her teasing, inadvertent or not, as his introduction to mortal sexuality. Since she'd found out about the detective agencies, Riller had spent her evenings trolling the bars, looking for the ideal woman to introduce Q to the pleasures of the flesh.
Fortunately, despite the Risan's wholesome willingness in matters sexual, there were many people who preferred their liaisons in the form of a business transaction, and independent operators flourished in all Risa's major cities. She would have made a good pimp, Riller decided, because she could spot a whore from a thousand paces. She wanted someone discreet by dint of stupidity and ignorance; someone who wouldn't know Q from a hole in the wall and therefore wouldn't go blabbing that she'd had him. She wanted someone pretty, who was neither too young to teach Q what he needed to know, nor too old to be jaded.
Sauvage Genslibre fit the bill perfectly. She called herself a dancer, and Riller nodded as if she believed her. She was stupid enough to buy Riller's story of a half-brother who'd lost the memory of how to perform after suffering a blow to the head, young enough to want to believe in a good cause, and old enough to recognize a windfall when she saw one.
"I'm paying you to be patient," Riller said. "He's strange and arrogant because he's kind of embarrassed about what happened. That's why I'm giving you double the usual fee."
Sauvage nodded. For this much money she would be his angel of mercy.
"And whatever you do, don't mention the... you know." Riller thumped her fist lightly against her head.
Never, Sauvage agreed.
Satisfied, Riller pulled her chair closer, outlining Q's specific requirements.
Q listened to Riller with half an ear. He liked to hear the sound of her voice, but he wasn't paying attention to what she said. When she suddenly trailed off, he looked up, wondering why she'd stopped talking. She'd mentioned something about holos, and an instructor of some sort who was coming next week.
"Okay," he agreed without really knowing what he was talking about. Well, he'd look at the tapes, then he'd find out.
Lately Riller had taken to going out in the evenings, and Q had reluctantly learned to adjust to it. She liked meat, she explained, and she knew the smell revolted him, so she always went out to eat it. Still, the house was eerily quiet without her in it, so he usually retired to his bedroom and was often asleep by the time she got back.
Tonight when she went out, he went upstairs and took his usual long soak in the tub. He was in bed, falling asleep, when he remembered she'd asked him to look at some holos. Normally he would have postponed it until later, but he felt guilty enough about not listening to her to make this concession. Besides, at breakfast she might ask his opinion about whatever it was and he didn't want to be caught out. He hauled himself out of bed and sat down at his terminal.
The holo panned slowly across a series of nude men and women while a pleasant female voice informed him that the experience of human sexuality was as rich and varied as life itself.
'As an expression of love,' the voice continued, 'or as the fulfilling gratification of physical needs and desires, the human sexual experience is to be shared, enjoyed, and appreciated.'
The voice continued, outlining the various human couplings while the holo showed him examples of same. Q didn't want to see it, but he couldn't look away. The sight of the naked bodies made his heart pound, and his chest felt heavy and tight. The holo showed him pictures and diagrams; the clitoral hood and clitoris, outer and inner labia; testicles, scrotum, vas deferens, prostate gland, penis. The pleasant voice yarned on about Bartholin's fluid and plateau stages, erections and orgasms. Unconsciously he reached down to his own genitals, then snatched his hand away when he realized what he was doing.
Stimulation of the erogenous zones is usually a prelude to sexual intercourse, the moderator continued. At times of extreme arousal, the erogenous zones may include all and any parts of the body, and although there are sensitive areas many people share in common, it they can vary greatly from one person to another. It is important to communicate with your partners about what they prefer in order to attain a maximally gratifying experience.
By now Q was listening avidly. He hadn't known any of this. Well, technically, of course, he understood it, but it was something completely different to see it played out before him. The very prosaic calm of the voiceover was reassuring, and helped him maintain his equanimity. By her forthright, even tone, she seemed to be saying 'This happens all the time. Everyone does it. It's no big deal.'
Q watched all three tapes through, then stood and turned the machine off. He didn't know what to think, but at least now he could identify the restiveness that occasionally overtook his body. He'd been experiencing sexual arousal. How bizarre. He got in bed and pulled the covers over him. Safely beneath them, he removed his pajamas and touched himself experimentally, daring no more at first than simply rubbing one hand against the other, experiencing this sensation as an extension of who he was, what he was.
The images that played through his mind seemed to make his arousal more intense, but one in particular stood out from all the rest; the one where the man touched himself like Q was doing now. He remembered the intense look of concentration on the man's face, the furrowed brow, the slightly ragged breathing. As he experimented further, and felt those things occurring in himself, the idea that he could actually lie here and create such amazingly pleasurable physical reactions was a bright revelation. In all the time he'd been human, he hadn't touched himself except to wash himself. Every day he methodically applied a soapy scrubcloth to every part of his body, learning the hard way to keep his eyes closed, but that was the extent of it. Now, he explored further, learning how it felt to gently stroke the back of his hand, his palm, his arm, his cheek, his shoulder, his chest. His nervous system reacted so sharply when he touched his nipples that he snatched his fingers away in amazement. He could feel the blood pounding through him; hear a sudden, sharp increase in his respiration. Cautiously he moved his fingers back to where they'd been. This was really very nice, he decided. He ran his hands down his abdomen, down the outsides of his thighs, then back up the insides. He felt a thrill of anticipation as his hands moved closer to his groin, then let out a sigh of relief as his fingers closed around his penis. 'Saving the best for last,' he decided. He imitated the gestures he'd seen in the holo, pulling and stroking gently as a sense of urgency built up inside him. Even if he hadn't watched carefully, he would have known to move his fingers faster and faster, would have cried out at the overwhelming intensity of sensation, would have dropped his head back onto the pillow and stared blindly at the ceiling, gasping, overcome by astonishment.
This was sex? Why hadn't someone told him sooner? He definitely wanted to do this again. The only irritating part was that the fluid which had burst out of him made his hands and groin feel cold and clammy. When he got up, his legs felt slightly rubbery, but it was apparently a temporary weakness because he made his way to the bathroom without any problem and washed himself off. His body felt good, warm and relaxed and tingly. He felt unexpectedly cheerful. He considered finding Riller and telling her of this discovery, but he remembered distinctly that the man in the holo had gone to a room where he was all alone and carefully locked the door behind him. So this was one of those activities like elimination and nostril cleaning that was done but not generally talked about.
Q considered this. At the very least, it was a relief to know he wasn't a bed-rubbing pervert. He decided he could live with the silence.
The next morning he couldn't help but stare at Riller in bafflement. "Why did you give me those tapes?" He asked. He tried to sound like his usual demanding self, but his voice only reflected shy bewilderment.
Riller wondered if he ever listened to her. "I told you last night," she responded with irritation, "you're going to have to learn sometime. What if someone offers you jemaharon? You don't want to make a fool of yourself, do you?"
He most certainly did not. By her response he understood that without this knowledge his pride might one day be on the line. This made it imperative that he learn as much about sex as possible. "When did you say the instructor was coming?"
"Can you move it up to tomorrow?"
Sauvage spent several evenings patiently teaching the poor invalid about female sexual responses. Armed with knowledge gleaned from repeated viewings of the holos, Q made a quick study. When Riller queried Sauvage as to how her instruction was coming along, the young woman was rather complimentary except for a complaint that Q was a little too big to be entirely comfortable. Riller was surprised and worried on Q's behalf. Most oversized men were awkward and self-conscious; too afraid of hurting their partners to be able to let go and enjoy themselves. Would Sauvage still be able to teach Q how to handle himself?
Both women smirked at the inadvertent pun, but Riller quickly grew serious again. "Did he hurt you?" she asked insistently. "Does his size make you feel unwilling?"
Oh, no, Sauvage answered. She'd taught him technique of the thousand patient breaths and they'd had a grand time. Several, in fact.
Riller smiled her relief as she gave the young woman more money. Good for Q.
Sauvage returned to dancing school, and Q told Riller he needed another instructor, but this time maybe someone taller. And brunette.
Riller told him about outcall services. Q got lessons from Alison, Stephanie, Dawn, Miranda, Edward, David, Larry, Liz, and a whole host of others. When he showed no sign of slowing down, Riller grew concerned.
"You're going to spend all your money, Q."
"I am?" He grew alarmed. "How much do I have left?"
"A lot, but slow down a little on the lessons."
That reminded him. He was supposed to find the planet with all the dilithium on it. "Riller, get me a starchart."
"'Riller, *please* get me a starchart'" Riller repeated.
Q glowered at her. "Get me a starchart because if you don't I won't be able to get more dilithium and you won't be able to bleed me dry."
Riller glowered right back. "You could still say please."
When Q folded his arms, staring at her without speaking, Riller stomped off, muttering that she didn't know why she bothered.
Q smirked. He'd finally discovered a weakness: Riller could take insults, but hated being pushed around. Her facade of professionalism was never in so much danger as when he was being bossy with her. Q didn't care. When he felt bad, picking on Riller made him feel better. Imperiousness was second nature to Q, and it took very little effort on his part to make his requests sound like commandments from on high. Besides which, he really did want to find dilithium if he could remember where it was. He had no intention of ever being poor, and he really wanted to keep practicing the sex thing. Unlike sex by himself, which was all about comfort and pleasure, sex with a partner was apparently a social event, a contest of wills in which the one who maintained control the longest emerged the winner. Q was determined that should always be him. So if practicing sex required a great expenditure of capital, capital he would have.
Months after becoming human, there were still things Q didn't understand. He never mentioned it to Riller, but he often felt afraid, and he didn't know why. His guards went with him everywhere, his house and grounds were shielded, he was even taking self-defense lessons, yet he still felt... unprotected, somehow. It made no difference that his rational mind told him he was well taken care of--he was terrorized by the very idea of vulnerability. He buttressed himself against it by maintaining an image of himself as pristinely without flaw; then he pretended that image and man were one in the same. Pretending was easy, and Q got very good at it very quickly. He made a conscious decision to live on the surface of his life where everything was perfect because anything that lurked underneath might be too frightening to bear.
But the fears still haunted him. His mortality, his loss of power--he wanted to rage at something, or someone, but he didn't dare blame the ones whose judgement had caused this to happen. To his utter disgust, he now saw his fellow Q as all-powerful arbiters of his life and circumstances--as gods. He accepted no responsibility for his condition and so perceived himself as utterly powerless against their omnipotence. To have so little control! Shame burned him, but he hid it away with the fear. If he faced his own rage and railed against his reduced condition, his gods might get angry. They might take it upon themselves to meddle even further in his poor excuse for a life and he would be powerless to stop them.
So Q tried not to think about it. He focused instead on the things he could control; Riller, his work, other people. He reveled in his role as a teacher because it was the one area of his life where image and reality intersected. He was beginning to make a name for himself, not simply because he was the most brilliant human in existence, but also because he was supremely difficult to deal with, something Q cherished. In some camps, his proceedings had been received as gospel from on high; in others, they were savagely ridiculed. But, as he pointed out when Riller came to him in distress over some of the reviews, almost everyone was talking about him, which was the important thing. He was supremely confident in his knowledge--his detractors simply weren't bright enough to follow him, and to their disbelieving outrage, he told them so. The list of people waiting to see him grew so long he finally had to resort to a lottery. He also began to receive invitations to speak at conferences and symposia, all of which he turned down as a matter of pride. If they wanted to speak with him, they could come to him.
Much to his gratification, he discovered that a great confluence of information was building up in his personal files, because everyone who came to him had to share their research with him if they wanted to receive his rare crumbs of praise. In becoming the inadvertent repository of what passed for cutting- edge science he was able to see connections between wildly disparate lines of research and relate them in ways that were brilliantly insightful. At least his supplicants thought so. They loved him for it. His critics, of course, called him crazy and immediately set out to prove him wrong, but they learned so much in the process that even they began to feel gratitude towards him. Outwardly Q shrugged off their adulation as simply his due, but secretly he reveled in it. It was good to be worshipped, even a little bit.
There was only one slight flaw, but after having his nose rubbed in his inability to make appropriate citations, he quickly corrected it. Q learned the hard way that researchers were extremely territorial, and he excoriated Eric the editor for neglecting to tell him so. Eric grovelled so abjectly, however, that Q was mollified and forgave him. Fortunately, most scientists were almost as egotistical as he was, and very susceptible to the cachet of having their name mentioned in one of his articles. They forgave him his error and life proceeded apace.
In time, Q discovered that the scientific community wasn't the only one paying attention to him. Had he paid attention to such things as mortal rank and social status, he would have noticed that Risan high society was keeping an eye on him. Not that anyone really knew what to make of him--what, after all, did one say to a former god? And Q made no effort to seek out their company. He kept to himself, doing science things in that fabulous mansion on the bluffs overlooking the ocean. Occasionally someone would spot him in one of the better shops, accompanied by his drab little Orionese clerk, but his imperious mien was so forbidding, no one had yet dared approach him.
Finally one of them got tired of wondering what he was like. Selena Weaver, snack food heiress and socialite extraordinaire, decided to venture out to the mountain since the mountain steadfastly refused to come to her. Selena didn't have a livelihood and didn't need one, but her avocation was to keep herself entertained, and she practiced assiduously. If lesser mortals occasionally got trampled in her quest for amusement, well, that was their fault for getting in her way.
Q met Selena Weaver when she came to ask him to open his home for a charity ball. She sat across from him, elegant and cool, confiding in him that she was terrified of this interview he'd granted her, but she needed help on a scale only he could accommodate.
"Frankly," Q was perplexed and flattered, but he couldn't let it show. "I couldn't care less about the social obligations of the expatriate Terran community on Risa."
Selena watched him with self-contained hauteur, but when she spoke her voice was oddly gentle. "Sir, I know that when you became mortal the last thing you thought about was hosting charity balls." She glanced away with small moue of distaste, as if she understood his disappoint with the triviality of mortal concerns but was too polite to mention it. "I know how silly this must seem to you, and I wouldn't dare presume upon your kindness more than necessary. But if you let me do this, I'll take care of everything. You simply allow the Bluffs to be open for about fifteen hours and, of course, take care of any expenses incurred."
"The Bluffs?" Q asked.
"Oh." Selena smiled. "That's what we call your house. It's so lovely it deserves a name of its own, and since it sits up here high on the bluffs overlooking the ocean, we thought it was appropriate."
'We?' Q thought. People were actually discussing his home, admiring him, and he hadn't known about it? "I don't know if I like the idea of a lot of strangers disrupting my peace and quiet."
Selena raised her eyebrows. "But your home is so splendid. I'd think you'd be delighted to endure a single evening of disruption for such a worthy endeavor."
Q read her perfectly. He would get to show off and be praised for it. He sighed a long, world-weary sigh. "Well, hold your party if you must."
Selena lowered her eyelids, raised them again with a warm, grateful expression, as if Q had just given her the keys to the kingdom. Q found himself somewhat nonplussed for the second time in that conversation.
"I have to go back to work now." He tilted his head at her, wondering how she would take this dismissal.
She tilted her head right back, flirting mildly. "Perhaps I can return tomorrow? To go over our plans?"
The next morning Q told Riller all about his discovery. "Did you know that she actually gave my house a name?"
"I've heard of that," Riller answered. "Rich people sometimes name their houses."
"Well I wish you'd told me," Q chided her. "I'm not sure I like the Bluffs as a name. It's so... common. I think I want to rename it."
Riller snorted into her eggs. "How about Rancho Q?"
Q glared at her, quite put out. "I don't know why I put up with you, you peasant!" He stalked away from the table and went to change into his exercise costume. His fitness instructor, Rita, was more respectful. "I think that's a good idea," she chirped. She chirped a lot, Rita did. She was very perky, but it was hard for her to keep her mind on anything but exercise for very long. "Sir, did you know your overall body strength has increased another three percent." She glanced down at her padd then looked up at him admiringly. "That's an eleven percent increase since we've started. You're doing really well!"
Q smiled at her benignly. Of course he was doing well, he was Q--what did she expect?
His self-defense instructor, Ba'Sres, was happy with him also. Four-armed, and surprisingly fast for someone so big, he was finally getting Q to hit like he meant it.
"Good!" he encouraged, as Q whaled away at a holographic attacker.
Q hit harder. Violence was anathema to him, but he was beginning to get the hang of this physical aggression thing. He would never have admitted it, but he was amazed at how little he knew about self-protection. He watched with secret admiration as Ba'Sres demonstrated various moves and techniques, disarming and defeating multiple holograms with vicious precision. Q hated the idea that he had to learn actual physical defense when he should have been able to destroy enemies with a thought. Still, he applied himself with increasing dedication, torn between absolute revulsion and resentment, and a growing gratification in the mindless ferocity of physical combat.
Ba'Sres was trying to teach him to use his whole body as a defensive weapon. Q made an attempt, aiming a hard kick to the inside of his attacker's knee. The hologram cried out and collapsed, his leg jutting out at a peculiar angle.
"Freeze program," Q gasped. Sweat dripped into his eyes and he was gasping for breath.
Ba'Sres was ecstatic. "Good, Q! Wonderful!" In his excitement he grabbed Q by the arm and thumped him several times on the back with a meaty hand.
"Ow!" Q was so proud of his growing skills that he didn't skewer Ba'Sres for his undignified familiarity. Not to mention that one did not piss off one's three hundred pound self-defense instructor. He idly dreamed about the day he would be able to take Ba'Sres one on one, but he knew better than to fool himself. That day, if it ever came, was far in the future.
Q and Riller always ate lunch together, so he had an opportunity to regale her with the story of his wonderful triumphs in the gym that morning. He was retelling the story of heroic Q and the evil hologram when his secretary paged them.
Riller took the call. It was Selena.
"Where is Q?" she demanded politely.
Riller waited until Q swallowed, took a sip of water and put his fork down. When she turned the comm screen his way he was utterly composed, waiting to take his call.
Selena's tone of voice was much warmer when she spoke to him. "I want to take you to Morad's this evening. Will you come?"
Q glanced up at Riller who mouthed 'Restaurant.' He wrinkled his nose with distaste. "I don't know. Eating is so tedious."
"Who said anything about eating?" Her voice was rich with devilment. "I personally go there to make people cry."
Q had no idea what she meant. "Sounds intriguing, but where do I fit in?"
He watched her smile turn amused. "Pretty man. With you on my arm people will cry all the harder." She made a dismissive gesture. "Envy is such an ugly emotion, don't you agree?"
"I myself have no experience of envy," Q responded with bland superiority, "so I'll have to take your word for its relative unattractiveness."
"Well, you'll see plenty of it tonight. Shall I come get you at seven?"
Q hesitated. He hadn't actually said yes, but it sounded like she wanted to take him someplace nice, and he wanted to go. But what did she mean, make people envious? And how was she going to make them cry? And did she really think he was pretty? "Seven it is. Make sure you're on time this time."
Her only response was a low chuckle as she disappeared from the screen.
When he looked up, Riller was smiling at him approvingly. "You have a date, Q."
"I do?" Was this a date as in courtship? His stomach felt queasy. "I do not!"
"I just heard you make it." She nodded at him. "See, this human thing isn't so hard."
He'd just been telling himself the same thing recently, but somehow it was presumptuous coming from Riller. "Don't tell me how hard it is!" He snapped at her. "You can never imagine what this is like for me."
She drew back as if he'd struck her, looking ashamed. "I'm sorry. You're doing so well, I forget how difficult this must be."
"It's very difficult," he glowered at her then relented slightly. "I don't like to be reminded," he said, meaning it.
Q wondered if she did. Could she understand how experiences she took for granted were new and terrifying for him? He'd been full of self-congratulation less than two minutes ago, flush with success at his accomplishments. Now he was faced with a completely unexpected challenge; a human courtship ritual where none of the things he'd learned thus far would help him. Frustration washed through him, along with a surge of hopeless desperation. What was he going to do? He wished he'd never heard of Selena Weaver. He hated being human, simply hated it! Better not to go.
"Besides, I'm changing my mind. I don't feel like going out tonight," he sulked. He pressed the intercom and was in the middle of telling his secretary to call Selena and cancel his appointment with her when Riller stopped him.
"Tell him to wait, Q."
He did so reluctantly, pinning her with a doubtful expression.
"Look." Riller cut straight to the chase. "This is what you do on a date. First," she pulled him out of his chair, "You take the lady's arm like this." She demonstrated, tucking his hand into the crook of her elbow. "Now you try it."
"This is stupid," he muttered. He imagined his fellow Q, looking down and smirking, and little wisps of rage coiled up from deep inside him and curdled the food in his stomach. He ignored it, and followed her instructions.
They spent the rest of their lunchtime practicing how to hold doors and pull out chairs. Q didn't call off his afternoon lecture in order to practice some more, but he regretted it. Full of nervous anticipation, his commentaries on his students' work were so scathing that when he left a full hour earlier than expected, no one dared object.
Q spent the rest of the afternoon trying on clothes. Finally he made Riller stop what she was doing and sent her to Morad's to see what people were wearing.
She came back with a less then helpful report. "They all look like you, Q."
"Ye ghods!" Q exclaimed disgustedly. "Could you try to earn your keep for once? I need styles, lengths, colors, fabrics!" He was panicking and trying not to show it.
Riller considered. "Soft colors," she said, remembering his affinity for clothes that bordered on the gaudy.
"Soft colors," Q muttered. He stared helplessly at his closet. The drone was picking up articles of clothing almost as fast as he could strew them about the floor. Riller was watching him skeptically.
"Well, *you* pick something, then." Q stalked away, having found an easy out. If anyone criticized his clothes he would blame Riller.
Riller sighed. She went through his suits, studying them carefully. "This one."
"Too daring." Q objected summarily.
"I saw someone in this exact same outfit."
"Well that settles it, then," he answered dismissively. "I can't wear something someone else is wearing."
"He'll be gone by the time you get there." Riller kept her exasperation out of her voice. This was his first date after all. Which reminded her. "Here," she handed him the suit. "Put this on. I'll be right back."
She came back with a camera. "Smile."
"I absolutely refuse," he said, but that didn't stop him from striking a regal pose. "And what is this for, pray tell?"
She handed him the small image of himself, already a little embarrassed by the sentimentality of the gesture. "For posterity."
Q studied it before handing it back. Objectively, he had to admit he *was* pretty handsome. He began to calm down a bit. "I suppose I'll have to trust your judgement," he sighed.
The first thing Selena did was to compliment him on his attire.
"Do you think so?" Q stared out the aircar window, idly watching his guards in the car behind them. He successfully gave every indication that the topic bored him silly. "I just grabbed the first thing I found in the closet. Now," he changed the subject, "tell me about Morad's"
Morad's, Selena assured him, was *the* place to see and be seen. "And Morad always comes out to say hello to me," she told him, "such a charming man."
Q nodded, filing the information away for later evaluation. As they walked in, he surreptitiously watched the other men in the restaurant. They seemed to be doing the same things Riller had taught him to do. He began to relax.
Morad rushed out to Selena just as she'd predicted. A short, handsome Risan with a merry smile, he greeted her effusively, pretending, Q noted, that no one was looking at him as he deliberately called attention to himself. Q smiled. He knew that trick.
"You are looking absolutely precious this evening," he told her. He turned to Q. "And who is your handsome friend?"
"His name is Q," Selena said, obviously waiting for a reaction. She wasn't disappointed. Morad took his hand and actually bowed over it. "You're the one!" He exclaimed.
"I beg your pardon?" Q pulled back slightly, looking down his nose.
"The Bluffs. Selena said someone named Q bought the Bluffs. It has to be you." He smiled up at Q admiringly. "I'm so pleased to meet you."
Q looked at him slightly askance. "Why is it that everyone knew what my house is called except me?"
Morad laughed as if Q'd made an extraordinary clever witticism, but he was already turning away, scanning the room. "Now let's see... I want you to sit..." He put one finger against his mouth, pondering. "I know. We'll open the banquette." He smiled at Q coquettishly. "But only because it's you. Sheryl," he called to one of his minions. "Spot on table three. And find a place to put his guards."
Slightly elevated above the rest of the room, a single table suddenly appeared in a wash of soft pink light. As Morad led them across the room, Q looked around to see what everyone was wearing. He was at least as well dressed as most of the men present, and better dressed than some. He decided to go shopping the next time he had a free moment.
Their table was positioned with the clearly intended effect of showing them off to the rest of the room. Q glanced at Selena to see how she was reacting, but her expression was noncommittal, even a bit bored, as if she were used to special treatment. He followed suit, molding his face to blandness.
Q gallantly helped Selena out of her wrap and handed it to Morad who had his hand out, waiting. 'Thank you, Riller,' he thought, relieved. He helped her into her seat and slid in beside her. Things seemed to be working so far.
Q looked over her earrings, her body paint, what there was of her dress. "Stunning," he judged.
"Likewise." She appraised him seductively. Q's shirt and pants looked sprayed on. Every time he moved, his long overjacket, left tantalizingly unbuttoned, played peekaboo with the revealing attire underneath. Q leaned back artfully, letting the jacket fall open; letting Selena, and everyone else, get a good eyeful, all the while pretending not to notice he was being ogled. This was going to be fun. The waiter hovered, but Q let him stand there and wait, determined to stretch this moment out as long as he could.
Next morning Q couldn't wait to tell Riller all about his successful evening. "And we were the only ones Morad personally escorted to a table. I watched, you know, to see if he would do that for anyone else, but he didn't."
"And then what happened?" Riller asked on cue.
"Well, after they brought our wine--did you know wine makes your head feel light?--they brought this little tiny holo that showed where the food was harvested and how it was prepared." Q paused a moment, remembering how amazed he'd been watching the chefs work. "Then the people below us actually asked if they could see it when we were finished." He sounded extremely put out.
"Well, could they?" Riller prompted.
"Oh, no, no, no, of course not! If everyone can look at it, it isn't special. And you know what?" He smiled, reminiscing. "Selena was right; people *were* envious."
"So that's good, huh? Make people jealous of you?"
Q shrugged with contrived perplexity. "I didn't *make* them jealous, they just were. That's hardly my fault."
Riller shook her head fondly, thinking 'supercilious little rodent'. "Listen," she'd had about enough and wanted to change the subject, "you still haven't given me the specs for that matter-antimatter chamber you designed."
Q looked up in annoyance, his train of thought broken. "Yes I did. I gave it to Eric to give to you day before yesterday."
"Well, he didn't," Riller answered grimly.
"There you go again." Always attuned to nuances of mood and manner, Q invariably heard tension in her voice whenever she talked about Eric.
"I can't help it, Q. I don't trust the guy."
"You're too suspicious," he chided. "He probably forgot. He has a lot to do you know."
But that was the problem, Riller thought. Eric didn't have nearly enough to do. He spent a lot of time distracting the secretary with idle chitchat. He roamed through the files with impunity until Riller made him stop. And Riller didn't understand why he would so easily leave his field to spend his time jotting down Q's every bon mot and revelation. "And you pay him too much for what little he does," she added. They'd had this discussion before, and Riller didn't expect Q to change his mind, but Eric made her feel uneasy. "He's sleazy," she concluded.
"*You're* sleazy," Q teased. He really didn't feel like thinking about it. "When are you going to buy some new clothes?"
This was an old, friendly argument, and she responded almost by rote. "You're the resident clothes horse. I have better things to think about. Besides, my clothes are fine."
"Your clothes are drab," Q answered smugly. "Dull. Boring. I've seen rocks with more fashion sense."
"You have too much fashion sense and no common sense."
"I have common sense." Q protested. It was a bald untruth, and he knew it, but he had to defend himself with vigor or she'd win.
"Then fire Eric."
"No," Q scowled, angry with her for bringing the conversation around to serious subjects again. "I won't. And I don't want to hear about it again."
Riller shook her head at her own misstep. Now she'd never be able to talk to him sensibly about this. Worst of all, her insistence put Q in a rotten mood, hectoring her about her insensitivity and telling her how stupid she was. She let the words roll over her. No use getting upset.
Several days later a package was waiting for Q in his office. He opened it, found a horgon, and a note with a single word. Morad. Q took the horgon and sat down at his desk, bemused. In the four months since he'd been on Risa he'd learned the significance of the horgon in Risan courtship rituals. If he sent it back, neither man would, in politeness, ever mention it again. If he kept it, Morad would feel free to pursue him, and if he sent an answering horgon back to Morad, it would mean Q shared Morad's sentiments and then some.
As with his date with Selena, Q was flattered and cautious. He himself would not have taken such a risk, and now he wondered what he should do. He thought about what it might be like with Morad, thought of pulling the shorter man against his body; touching him, kissing him. Q's skin began to tingle, and his heart beat a little faster. He could do this if he could only figure out proper procedure. Should he call Morad? Send an answering horgon? Wait until Morad contacted him?
Morad took the decision out of his hands, calling him a day later. "Did you get my message?"
Q felt his face grow hot. "Oh! So *you're* the Morad who sent the horgon. You had me paralyzed with fear. I couldn't figure out which, of all the Morads I know, was sending me love gods, and I was terrified of contacting the wrong one and making a fool of myself. Why didn't you leave a comm code?" He demanded.
"I'm sorry." Morad sounded genuinely apologetic. "I thought it might be too forward of me. Too much like a demand."
Q was nonplussed. Let's have sex but I'm too shy to leave you my number? "You're not making any sense."
"I know," Morad confessed plaintively. All the archness was gone from his voice, and his evident sincerity made Q slightly uncomfortable.
"I suppose I'd better invite you over if I ever want to make heads or tails of this," Q offered. "Can you come tomorrow?"
"Actually I was hoping to make it Wednesday. The restaurant's closed midweek and I actually have time to myself," Morad explained
That gave him time to prepare. "Wednesday evening, say eight?"
"Perfect. See you then."
Wednesday afternoon Q told Riller she had to be out of the house all night. "Either that or stay in your room and don't come out until I say you can."
"What? Why?" Every once in a while he came up with some idiotic demand based on misapplication of mortal custom. She could usually talk him out of it by coming up with a better solution.
"I don't need to explain myself to you," Q answered defensively. "This is *my* house and I can tell you what to do if I want to."
"Oh. Really." Her voice was deadly calm. "If that's what you want, I'm sure it can be arranged."
Q didn't like the look in her eyes at all. That was the trouble with Riller--she took things too seriously. Still, he'd better explain or her feelings would be hurt. "I'm having someone over," he blurted. "Uh... for the night."
Well that made sense, but it was still pretty rude of him. "Q, I wish you wouldn't make it so hard for me to like you. There comes a point when a person gets tired of being treated like dirt."
"Yes, but since you haven't reached that point there's no use talking about it, is there?" Score another one for me, Q thought happily.
Riller got up and walked away, her expression tight. Q wondered if he'd really pushed too far this time, but he dismissed the thought. He had better things to do besides worry about Riller's feelings. Tonight he was going to star in a seduction, and he had to get ready.
Seven forty-five that evening, Riller was nowhere in sight, and Q was panicking. His closet floor was a mess, again, and Morad was due in fifteen minutes. He didn't know what to wear and now he wished he hadn't ejected her so summarily. If she'd been here she could have helped him.
Q flipped through more outfits. Now it was seven fifty-five and Q was still naked. It occurred to him that nudity was entirely appropriate for what they had in mind, but he thought it might be just a bit too forward. Finally, in desperation, he pulled on the same outfit he'd worn to Morad's that evening. With less than a minute to go, he was putting on his shoes when the house chimed, and he combed his fingers through his unruly hair as he ran down to open the door.
Morad handed him flowers, looked him over and smiled happily. "I was hoping you'd wear that."
Q took the flowers with a blank expression. He had plenty of flowers, a garden full, and didn't need more. "What do I do with these?"
Morad's smile became a little uncertain. "Anything you want, I suppose, although the traditional response is to say 'thank you' and put them in a vase."
Once again Q was accosted by that acute sense of being unprotected. He felt humiliated. He hadn't known about this custom of giving flowers.
Morad sensed his discomfort. He took the flowers back from Q's tense grip and stepped inside. "I'll show you." He fixed Q with an exasperated smile. "You rich guys are all alike."
Q followed him in, slightly relieved that Morad seemed to be taking command. The restauranteur seemed thoroughly at ease, wandering around Q's large, empty front room, looking for a vase. Q was feeling a bit tense.
"Okay, I give up." He put one hand on his hip and tapped his foot impatiently. "Where do you keep them?"
"The vases. Containers for fresh flowers," Morad elaborated.
Q looked at him blankly. He had no idea.
"Well you have to have an empty one somewhere." Morad gestured around him. There were stands of fresh flowers everywhere they looked. Q was vaguely surprised. He'd never really noticed them before. He was ready to be mortified again, when the absurdity of the situation hit him. He was in his own house, he didn't have to be afraid.
"I suppose we'll just have to look for one. House," he called the computer, "where are the vases kept?"
"Vases are kept in the pantry," the computer answered.
Q frowned sulkily. That was no help at all.
Morad watched him, his lips twitching as he tried to keep the smile off his face. "You don't know where your own pantry is, do you?"
Q shrugged as if it didn't mean anything to him. "Am I the cook? I never have a reason to go into the kitchen," he answered petulantly.
Morad took over again, looking around. "Well, if it's anything like the rest of this place, I'll bet you're in for a treat. We'll find it," he said reassuringly. "Just point me to the dining room."
Q pointed, then followed Morad past the dining room, past the breakfast room, past the solarium where, to his utter surprise, there was more greenery, and into the kitchen.
He and Morad looked around in mild surprise. "Huh," they said together, and exchanged expressions of cautious amusement. In the four months since he'd been human he'd never thought of kitchens except as some vague place that food smells, and eventually food, came from. Morad, on the other hand, seemed entranced, breathlessly rattling off the names of utensils and preparation areas like a child reciting his abc's. Of course, Q thought. He'd have a lot more experience of stoves and things like that.
"Well," he was beginning to get a little bit bored. "Let's find the pantry." It was, as Morad suspected, right off the kitchen. They secured the flowers, then allowed their foray to turn into a more general exploration of the house and grounds. It was gratifying to experience his home through someone else's eyes. Morad exclaimed over things Q hadn't bothered to notice, and by the time they'd reached his suite, Q was feeling relaxed, proud and totally in control of himself.
Now, as he opened the door to his bedchamber, he held very still, waiting for Morad's reaction. His gigantic bed filled the room wall to wall. Swathes of velvet curtain draped down from the ceiling; row upon row, stretching back from the door, to create an impression of depth. Drapes, pillows, sheets, and blankets were all dyed the same rich green, so that one had the impression of stepping into an overgrown forest; shadows hiding among shadows. In the diffuse lighting the effect was magical-- overwhelming yet surprisingly intimate, but Q still wasn't sure he liked it. In fits of restless frustration, he'd redone his bedroom six times since they'd moved in.
Morad, however, seemed entranced, sighing in appreciation. "I knew this room would be special," he said in a dreamy voice. He ran his fingers appreciatively down the velvet hangings, craning his neck to the ceiling. His eyes met blackness; the light faded so subtly that it gave the illusion of disappearing into an infinite dark night.
The last of Q's nervousness disappeared. He stepped closer to Morad, speaking in a low, seductive voice. "You like it?" He asked, knowing his question could be interpreted one of several different ways.
Morad lifted his face invitingly. "You know I do." He let his lips fall open and Q leaned down and pulled him close. Placing one hand on Morad's shoulder, he kissed his lips, his jaw, the side of his neck. Morad sighed, turning himself so that they fit together more closely. Q's other arm went around his back. He liked the feel of Morad's warmth pressed against him. He liked the feel of his soft lips and the way Morad yielded into his embrace. He slipped his hands under Morad's shirt, breaking off the kiss so he could watch his reaction.
Despite all his lessons, Q was still a bit uncertain about shared sexual experiences. He enjoyed pleasuring himself because he knew best what he liked and he could make himself feel good without the bother of explaining his specific wants. This business of making love to anyone besides himself was somewhat more complex, and he hadn't been sure he'd like it. As it turned out, he did enjoy it immensely. Or rather, he enjoyed how he could make people react. Hunched over a young lady, or writhing under one of the lovely young men, Q had quickly learned to look and listen for the signs of loss of control. A sudden sharp increase in respiration; sounds that elevated from soft murmurs of pleasure into frantic expressions of need; a glazed intensity in eyes that stared up at nothing; the suddenly increased pressure of hands that gripped him, saying in all but words, 'Yes, do that, and that, and that.' These responses gratified him; told him that even in this limited fashion, there were some things he could still manipulate at will.
He suspected he was not bad at this, but this interlude with Morad would be the test of his abilities. Unlike the people from the outcall services, he wasn't trained to respond on demand; would have no incentive to pretend. Q called on all the knowledge he'd gleaned from his lessons with joyhouse personnel. He didn't think of himself as particularly controlling even though he gently but firmly removed Morad's hands every time he tried to reciprocate. Finally Morad understood and left his hands at his sides, surrendering to Q's will. Q wore a ragged, triumphant smile as he removed the last of their clothes. Gently stroking and caressing, he soon had Morad writhing feverishly.
Q felt utterly victorious. This was going very well. He reached into the folds of curtain where he kept a jar of lubricant, put some on himself and Morad. When he took Morad's legs over his shoulders and pushed in, Morad gasped. Q glanced up at him, but Morad had his eyes closed. He was very tight. His sphincter spasmed around Q's penis, and Q sighed contentedly; each involuntary contraction like a hard caress. He pushed in slightly further, and Morad tensed, groaning but obviously trying to suppress the sound. Q stopped and looked down again. Was Morad in pain? His eyes were still closed, but his brow was contracted and his lips were pressed together tightly. Q pulled all the way out and Morad rolled away from him, wrapping his arms around himself protectively, and panting with relief.
Q was horrified, and fear made his voice hard. "Don't tell me this is your first time, Morad."
"No, of course not," Morad answered, stung. "I just wasn't expecting..." he gestured at Q's erection. Q understood. He pulled his legs up and wrapped his arms around his knees, hiding his genitals. Everyone, from Sauvage onward, had commented on his size. He hadn't known what to make of it then, but it shamed him now, and made him feel like a freak.
"I'm sorry I hurt you," he said harshly. He felt crushing humiliation at his deformity, and he was angry with Morad for exposing it. Now he could never face the world again. He would have to move away.
Morad was shaking his head. "Not your fault," he answered apologetically. "It's happened to me before." He looked down, shamefaced. "I tensed up when I saw you. But... it wasn't you... I mean..." he gestured towards Q's groin again. "It just took me by surprise."
Q stared. He wasn't being accused or reviled--Morad was actually apologizing to him. Relief and fear warred through him, leaving him momentarily speechless.
"We could try again," Morad offered into the strained silence.
Q shook his head, stealing a phrase from Riller. "Pigs will fly."
Morad looked mortified. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
"Let's just forget this ever happened," Q said tightly. At this point, confused and frustrated, he was ready to strangle Morad and bury him in the garden.
"Maybe I could..." Morad cut his suggestion short as Q's expression hardened. This was ruined, and it was all his fault.
"Could we just start over?" Morad pleaded. At Q's incredulous expression he elaborated. "No, I mean like this-- like you said. We could just pretend this never happened." He held out his hand in the Earthstyle greeting, forcing himself to keep it extended in the face of Q's obvious rejection. "Morad."
Q stared at him for a long moment. Morad was an utter waste of time and a sociopath to boot, but was impossible to miss the supplication in his gesture. And Morad had admitted that he was at fault for this fiasco. Obviously. He reluctantly shook Morad's hand. "Q," he offered grudgingly. Morad's relief and gratitude were so apparent that Q unbent a little more. "What are you doing on my bed, Morad?"
"You mean besides feeling stupid and embarrassed?"
Q nodded. "Besides that."
"Well," Morad considered. "I was wishing I could have another look at that terrific kitchen of yours."
Q couldn't believe it. "You live in a restaurant and you want to go look at kitchens?" His eyes narrowed. "Was that the real reason you sent me the horgon?"
Morad gave him a tremulous smile. "Kitchens are a hobby of mine." As Q watched, Morad rolled off the bed and began to dress. His movements looked tired, even defeated, and he held his head at a strange angle, moving, Q realized, so that his features remained hidden.
Q stood up, less self-conscious nude than Morad was dressed. They were on his turf after all, and *he* was the one who'd been hurt by this. He crossed to where Morad stood, turned him around and took his chin in his hands. Morad turned away quickly, but not before Q saw his eyes. They were rather unnaturally shiny.
"I think," he started slowly, "that you don't care about kitchens at all. I think you just want to get away from the locale of your... latest?... humiliation."
When Morad didn't answer, Q continued slowly, analyzing. "You were using me. Trying to get yourself over some sexual maladjustment by making me responsible for your, shall we say, inabilities in that regard."
Morad was shaking his head. "It wasn't like that. Really."
"Oh?" Q loomed over him, his features angry and tense. "Then what was it like? Really."
"Q," Morad backed away. "I said I'm sorry. What do you want from me?"
"What do I want from you?" Enraged by his obtuseness, Q wanted to grab the smaller man by the shoulders and shake him until his teeth rattled. He held on to his temper. "Do you know how frightened I was? I thought I might have really hurt you!"
"I'm sorry I frightened you. I'll be fine."
"Oh, and there's that word again," Q's voice was heavy with sarcasm. "He's *sorry*. Tell me the truth Morad. You owe me that much." He jerked his head, indicating the bed. "What was all that about?"
Morad stopped his frantic rush to finish dressing. Shoulders sagging, he sat down on the edge of the bed. Q sat next to him, then, moved by some impulse he couldn't explain, put one arm around his shoulder.
Morad leaned against him for one brief moment then straightened up again. "I really was attracted to you. *Am* attracted." He trailed off, seemed to start over. "My sikal was like you." He looked up to see if Q knew the term.
Q nodded. "Mate, partner. What do you mean, like me?"
"Tall, dark, handsome, dressed nicely." Morad elaborated with a shrug. "I always did go for that type, but he, um... On Risa it's a crime to hurt your partner. But I was so young. I didn't know. And by the time I was disillusioned enough to want to leave I was practically his prisoner."
The tale came out in fits and dribbles. Morad's husband turned out to be a sadistic sexual terrorist, but, protected by his family's wealth, he was never caught, never stopped. Finally one of his wives escaped. He'd been abusing her too...
"Wait," Q ordered. This story was getting more sordid by the moment. "*One* of his wives?"
"He had a whole harem full of wives and husbands. He didn't tell me that, either."
Q rolled his eyes and sighed. "Go on."
"Anyway, he used to pick on all of us smaller ones. I think he just liked to terrify people who couldn't fight back." Morad shrugged. He was staring down at his hands now, letting the rest of the story come out as it would. The wife told the authorities who came to investigate. The hostages were freed, Morad's marriage was voided and he could go about his business. He'd gotten a job as a cook, worked his way up to manager, then bought a place and turned it into his own. For decades he didn't think about sex.
Finally the therapy, and the eventual rebuilding of shattered esteem; then, with daring, his first few ventures into initiating relationships again. Some small successes, but also grinding failures. Like now. "So you see, I wasn't trying to hurt you at all. I was trying to push myself."
"You pushed neither wisely nor too well, Morad."
"I'm tired of being afraid." His eyes met Q's. "If I don't try, I'll never get better."
Q shook his head again. This was a horrifying story; he couldn't imagine having to endure such depredations. "Morad, fifteen minutes ago I would have said you were a stupid fool. Now I think you're a brave fool, but a fool nonetheless. Did you really think I would want to be your sexual guinea pig?"
"I can only apologize one more time, Q." Morad straightened slightly, "If there's a way to make it up to you, I'll do it."
His dignity would have been touching had Q been of a mind to notice, but he wasn't. He was far more concerned with his own dignity. He crossed his arms, staring down at the smaller man. "I'm extremely annoyed with you, Morad, but I forgive you. But," he warned, "if you have any other little psychological booby- traps that you forget to tell me about..."
Morad shook his head, smiling. "Except for that one phobia I'm mostly sane."
"Humph. We'll see about that." Q stood up, ready to put this whole debacle behind him. There was one other thing he had to get straight, however. "So when you blamed me for being too big, you were lying."
Morad opened his mouth, shut it again.
"You *were* afraid, but you didn't say anything," Q guessed. He rolled his eyes disgustedly, but inside he was relieved. It wasn't his fault if Morad had psychological problems.
"I'm going to take a long shower," he said, "and if you wait, *maybe* I'll let you show me around my kitchen when I'm done. And if you're *very* nice, you can cook me dinner. No," he wasn't very hungry. "A snack."
"Whatever you feel like eating," Morad answered earnestly, relieved beyond telling. Q could have run screaming, but he'd offered a sympathetic ear instead. After his squalid performance Morad would have been happy not to have been summarily dismissed. An offer of friendship, however tentative, was worth all the meals Q wanted. "I'll wait as long as you like."
When the house computer chimed, announcing that Selena Weaver was requesting permission to park, Riller groaned and ran her hands through her hair. If she was arriving this late in the day it had to mean Q had invited her for supper again.
"Let her in," she told the house. She didn't bother going downstairs to greet her. In the weeks since she'd started planning this party of theirs, Selena had made herself at home.
Q of course, seemed delighted. "Rills," he called from his office, "Selena's here. Time for din-din."
That was the other annoying thing about Selena. Q was his most supercilious when she was around. After Selena left, he was surly and moody for hours. Now he came down the hall and stuck his head inside her office door. "Ready?"
"Ready," she answered. He didn't notice her lack of enthusiasm.
Selena was waiting for them at the foot of the stairs. She smiled at Q, but her eyes hardened slightly as she looked at Riller. The two women smiled stiffly at each other.
"Riller," Selena greeted her with a small nod. Then she turned to Q, linking her arm through his and smiling up at him, her face pressed into his shoulder.
Q glanced down at his jacket sleeve. "Don't get makeup on my clothes."
Selena didn't move a micron. "Don't be a bitch, sweetheart, it's bad for your digestion."
Walking behind them, Riller shook her head in amazement. If Q had told her to move she would have been hurt and she would have immediately pulled away. Selena didn't seem to be bothered.
Q let himself be dragged along, turning to look back at Riller. "See how she treats me," he complained. "She's ruining a perfectly good jacket and she doesn't even care."
"Riller," Selena didn't bother to look around, assuming that Riller was behind them and paying attention. "Tell this silly man that he can buy a new jacket tonight when I take him shopping."
Riller didn't answer. Q and Selena weren't really talking to her, and her input wasn't required. It was, in fact, subtly discouraged, and she'd taken the hint.
"I hope you got me something decent to eat tonight, Q. I really hate this vegetarian kick you're on."
So did Riller, but she'd always heard it was impolite to criticize food when you were a guest in someone's house. 'Rich people are different,' she thought.
Q looked down his nose. "There will be no meat served in this house," he declared with finality. "Really, Selena," he held her chair for her, "instead of complaining you should thank me for lifting you out of the mire of barbarism."
Selena looked at him with genuine disdain. "Likewise, I'm sure. If it weren't for me you'd still be shopping at the same place as your hired help."
That was a direct slap in her direction, and Riller felt her face turn hot with anger. Fortunately, Q was not of a mind to have her insulted, and he attacked on her behalf.
"Unlike some of us," he answered silkily, "I can afford to pay my help what they're worth."
"And what's that supposed to mean?" Selena demanded.
Riller felt her skin get even hotter, thinking 'Don't Q, please!'
But if Q sensed her discomfort, he rolled right over it. "That's not what I hear." He shook his head, sighing with mock regret. "I promised I wouldn't name names, but I found out from a very trusty source that some of *your* staff have been putting out feelers to *my* staff about possible openings here. In fact, said staffmember of yours practically begged for a job."
He shook his finger at her admonishingly. "Someone's a rather stingy employer. Selena."
Riller kept her eyes on her plate. It was obvious who the 'trusty source' had to be. Earlier in the week, she and Q shared a chuckle when she called his attention to three unsolicited resumes, all from Selena's household workers. She'd never expected it to be used as ammunition.
"You're lying," Selena hissed. It took no great intuitive leap to guess that she was outraged by this flank attack.
"I have the resume to prove it," Q teased.
Q modeled for her instead. He'd taken to doing that a lot lately, Riller noticed; arranging himself in some elegantly indolent pose and letting people stare at him like he was a statue in a public park. He changed position slightly, resting his chin on his hand and staring at Selena through half-closed eyes, saying without words that her demand didn't even deserve the dignity of a response.
Selena seemed to realize she'd lost her composure. When Riller dared look up, she was gazing back at Q, and her features were still. Then she smiled. "The battle, darling, not the war."
Q seemed to stand down as well. "More wine, darling?"
Selena held out her glass. "If you would be a love, I would so appreciate it."
This was the thing Riller found most confusing. One moment the two were viciously fighting. For no reason there would be a lull, then at some prearranged signal it would start up again. There was no rhyme or rhythm to it that she could see, and the unexpected stops and starts made her stomach ache with tension.
She glanced from one to the other. As Q poured, Selena looked up and met her eyes. Riller smiled weakly, but Selena gave her look that promised there would be hell to pay.
"Q," she asked him the next day at breakfast. "Why do you and Selena like to fight so much?"
Q smiled wryly. "It reminds me of home." At her expression of surprise, he elaborated. "Q fight like that." He leaned back in his chair, a faraway smile on his face. "Actually, that's practically loveletters if you're Q."
"No kidding." Riller shuddered. "If that's the case, I wouldn't want to see your hate mail."
"No," Q agreed. "You wouldn't. I'm where I am today because of hate mail."
Riller had never seen his expression get quite so cold and hard. "Somebody tricked you," she guessed. She had always wanted to ask him what he'd done to warrant getting kicked out.
His expression became even harder, edged with bitterness. "I tricked myself," he answered with a tight smile. "I trusted the wrong people, and they'd been planning this for a long time. I played right into their hands."
Riller clumsily changed the subject. "So did you and Selena have fun shopping?"
His features shifted, came back to the present, and Riller breathed a sigh of relief. She listened quietly as he told her all about their heroic quest to find him a new jacket. Selena apparently loved to shop as much as he did which was a blessing because now Riller didn't have to go with him and sit through endless changes of clothes.
"So anyway," Q continued his story of The Big Shopping Adventure, "we finally narrowed it down to Mocha, Eldonian Rust, Burnt Umber or Ceti Sunset."
Riller sorted through the fancy names. "In other words, brown, brown, brown or brown?"
"We need to get you a little tin cup," Q suggested pleasantly, "and a placard that says 'terminally fashion impaired,' and set you in the town square and hope you don't get stoned to death. Has it ever occurred to you that colors come in different shades? And that some shades might be more attractive on a person than others?" He looked her up and down then answered his own question. "No, of course it hasn't. What was I thinking?"
'Rotten, stinking, stupid, arrogant, obnoxious, roach- infested, slime-covered bag of filth,' Riller thought reflexively but without much anger. Since she'd found out he was looking for her mother, she'd tempered her opinion of him, trusting him more, now that she understood that all of his impulses weren't needy or nasty ones. His occasional bouts of moping and truculence worried her, but right now he was just being obnoxious, and she knew how to get her own back.
"Did you ever find that dilithium? I got you the chart weeks ago."
"It was only two weeks ago," Q protested.
"More like nine."
"I've been busy."
"Q, find the damned dilithium. Ever since you've met Selena you've been spending to beat the band."
He looked up, confused. "What band?"
"It means spending *a lot*, Q."
"What about all my inventions? Aren't they worth anything?" Q was a little hurt by the notion that nobody liked the clever toys he made.
"Nobody knows about them but the patent office. I told you we have to find a marketing firm. Or weren't you listening that time either?"
"Whine, whine, whine," Q groused. He decided he'd better throw her a bone. "We'll go over marketing firms at lunch, okay?"
"Good," Riller smiled, happy to have finally gotten through to him about an important subject he cared very little about.
But by lunchtime he'd changed his mind. He'd been brooding about his fellow Q and didn't feel like talking business; he subjected her to a diatribe about their harsh criticism and unfair judgement. Riller could have howled in frustration, even though his stories amazed her. They were full of condemnation and recrimination, but they gave her some inkling of what he'd lost in becoming human.
To hear someone, in casual conversation, drop the phrase 'when I was a god,' was in itself an experience she could barely fathom. To try and put herself in that former god's place was all but impossible, but even through her exasperation she was more than grateful for the stories. They stirred her imagination, opening her mind to a universe that was more magnificent than she'd ever suspected and more familiar than she'd ever dreamed.
His family squabbles took place against the backdrop of the entire galaxy, but except for that they were touchingly mundane-- long involved stories about who liked who better, and who was unfair and biased towards him.
"It reminds me of the stories I read when I was a kid, about the gods of Mount Olympus," she offered cautiously, hoping Q wouldn't take it as an insult.
"Oh, them," Q shrugged dismissively. "I met Zeus once. What a dork. I mean, he was such a *little* god and he took himself so seriously. He reminds me of my... hm... I guess your closest analogous relationship would be cousin. Anyway, they're exactly alike. They both think every little thing they do is utterly enthralling."
He shifted in his chair, settling into another tale. "Once, my cousin got lost when he tried to leave the galaxy, and he panicked and destroyed four hundred planets trying to find his way back home. Then, after we helped him fix all the planets, he tells everyone his little story like he'd done something utterly wonderful. And he gets applauded for it," Q finished in tones of sheer outrage. His eyebrows drew together broodingly. "On the other hand, let *me* have some fun with one little measly race and it's 'bad Q. Go thou and suffer likewise.' Totally unfair."
"Tell me some more about Zeus," Riller suggested.
"No. I hate him," Q scowled. He folded his arms across his chest, staring down into his lap like a sulky child.
Riller shovelled her fork into her saffron rice, eating morosely. His inventions were piling up, and they needed to talk about how to sell them and who to sell them to, but it was obvious Q wasn't in a mood to listen. Too bad, because most of the things he invented were not exactly household products and she had no idea how they worked, what they were supposed to do, or what they were worth.
She could give him a little more time, but if Q wouldn't cooperate she had one other option she could try before forcing him to listen to her.
"A consultant." Picard repeated. He stared at Geordi with calm disbelief. "Q wants to hire you as a consultant?"
"I'm not sure it's Q, Sir. The request came from Riller Harris. Remember her?"
Picard managed to hide a grimace. How could he forget? "The lawyer Q hired."
"Yes, according to what she's written, she needs to assess the practical applications of some of the prototypes Q's invented. She's asked for my help."
"Written?" The unusual method of communication distracted him briefly. "She didn't record a tape?"
"Well it's recorded, Sir, but words," Geordi held up a data chip, "not pictures or sounds."
"That's rather eccentric," Picard mused. "I wonder why she did that?"
Geordi shrugged. He was less interested in the means of her communication than the content. "I think this would be a great opportunity," he opined, trying to get the conversation back on track. "Q was here less than a week before he invented that warp resonance signature enhancer. Now that he's had a chance to acquaint himself with Federation technology, there's no telling what else he's come up with."
"You have a point, Geordi," Picard agreed. "So you propose to accept her invitation?"
"It would be worth it. I'd really like to be the first one to get my hands on whatever he's invented. The only thing is," he said hesitantly, "I'd need about ten days of leave to get to Risa and back."
"Absolutely not. If you're doing this for the benefit of the Federation, the Federation can certainly pay for your trip." Picard pulled at his top lip like he sometimes did when he was thinking. "In fact, if you don't mind, I shall accompany you. I'm more than curious about what he's been up to. You and I will take a shuttle to Risa." He took note of Geordi's careful non- expression and smiled. "And I promise not to get in the way, Engineer."
Riller was sitting in the garden, basking in the soft light of a perfect Risan afternoon. Q and Morad had persuaded her to take the afternoon off by dint of forcibly turning off her computer and dragging her out of her office. Now she was glad they'd done so. Q seemed to evolve a completely different personality when Morad was around. He was extremely indulgent with his new friend, even a bit protective though Riller didn't understand why that should be. He'd agreed without protest to Morad's suggestion of an al fresco lunch even though Riller had unsuccessfully proposed the same thing on more than one occasion. Now they were replete, relaxing in one another's company under a stand of dwarf redwoods. Good moods were rare for Q lately, and Riller enjoyed the absence of tension. When the house announced a call for her, she almost told it to take a message.
"They'll call back if it's important," Q said. He and Morad were leaning against one another back to back, Morad staring into the garden and Q staring out to sea.
"Listen to Q," Morad murmured. "He knows everything."
"At last, someone who understands me," Q exclaimed. "You can't imagine what it's like to try to explain perfection to the unwashed masses."
Riller smiled. Q bragging was so much nicer than Q brooding. "I'll be back, you two. No eating the rest of my cake, hear?"
There was a comm unit on the patio that led to the garden. As Riller glanced back outside, Q slowly lifted a big piece of cake to his mouth, watching her for a reaction. Riller laughed at his attempt to annoy her while Morad swatted at Q, trying to make him put it down.
She turned the comm unit on, still laughing. A hawkfaced man in a Starfleet uniform was staring at her as if she'd committed a social gaffe. "Picard!" she exclaimed.
"Ms. Harris." He nodded politely and got straight to the point. "My engineer has discussed your recent proposal and we have decided to accede to your request for assistance."
Riller was annoyed. Who did he think he was? "Of course you have," she answered dryly. "It would hardly be to your benefit not to."
His expression grew sour, but he didn't respond to her sarcasm. "I wished to know what date might be most appropriate for you."
"As soon as possible, of course. I wrote to ah... La Forge? La Forge because he's familiar with Q's work, but if your schedule won't allow a detour I can always find someone else."
"That won't be necessary," he answered stiffly. "We'll contact you when we arrive on Risa. Picard out."
The screen suddenly went dark. 'Priggish twerp,' Riller said to herself. She went back outside, stomping like she did whenever she got angry, but Q and Morad were nowhere to be seen.
She thought they might be hiding from her, and was almost willing to indulge a game of hide and seek, but then Q called to her from the cliff bottom.
Riller squinted at the two figures in the water, unable to believe her eyes. "Q! You don't know how to swim!"
"I'm teaching him," Morad called. "Come on down."
Riller stepped to the edge of the bluff. They were naked, knee-deep in the surf. It looked inviting, but only a fool wouldn't guess that they preferred to be alone.
"Next time," she called. "I have to get back to work."
Q's good mood lasted well into the evening. He even apologized to her for his grumpiness of late. Of course, Q- fashion, he tried to make it her fault.
"I suppose you're thinking of leaving." The comment came out of nowhere as they ate dinner.
"Not unless you're thinking of firing me," Riller answered. She didn't believe he was, not if he had a brain cell left.
"Most people wouldn't have the patience to put up with genius of my magnitude. They simply couldn't keep up."
Now she thought she knew where he was going with this, but she needed to be sure. "You get a little moody sometimes," she ventured. 'Moody' was actually a fairly mild way to describe the fits of silent anger she'd endured from the time he'd caught his cold. "I'm not sure why."
He shrugged dismissively. "I suppose I'm turning into a bit of a bitch. You'll just have to put up with me."
Riller was surprised. "Where'd you learn to use language like that?"
"Oh, like you never said it," Q objected. He'd actually shocked himself, using profanity, but he didn't think he could describe how he really felt. Was there a human word for feeling estranged from one's true self? for feeling increasingly without bearings? for knowing that rage and fear were always simmering just beneath the exterior of what, by rights, should have been a happy life?
Riller might know if he asked her, but somehow he couldn't. For all he knew, fears were like plants, growing when exposed to light. He didn't dare bring them to the surface because they might overwhelm him.
"Its normal for people from Rigel." Riller defended her occasional salty language. "But you never talked like that before." When he didn't respond, she took a chance, leaning towards him sympathetically. "What's wrong, Q?" she asked gently.
He dropped his mask for a moment, staring at her with forlorn bewilderment. "I can't tell you, Riller," he finally whispered. "I wish I could. Try not to be angry with me, okay?"
The following day, and for many days after, he made up for his unexpected candor by being distracted and uncommunicative. His gratuitous insults ceased altogether and instead he became coldly, icily polite, subjecting her to the same disdainful brittleness that Selena used to such good effect. It was utterly nervewracking. Riller wanted to yell 'Why the hell are you doing this?' but that wouldn't have helped. She tried to tell herself that this was just a job, and Q was just another irritating client, but that was a lie. Riller kicked herself mentally. Somewhere along the line she'd begun to care for him, and now she was being hurt because of it.
Worst of all, his temperamental behavior affected her ability to do her job. She'd weaseled around his unwillingness to discuss his inventions, but there were other things they needed to talk about, practical things. She'd never given up the practice of perusing her illegal copies of Starfleet transmissions, and lately they were full of references to something called the Borg. Q's name had been mentioned several times as being responsible for them, and currently a fearsome debate was being held as to whether he should be made to participate in their destruction. The only person to hold the opinion that he should be offered the opportunity to help was Jean-Luc Picard. Everyone else was believed firmly that Q should be kept as far away from the Borg as possible. 'God knows what else he would do to hurt us,' the general opinion went.
Riller didn't believe the Borg could be all that bad, but Q should know he was being talked about in a less than favorable light, if only she could ever get him to a point where he would listen to her.
The bad days did not get better. A few weeks after their wonderful afternoon with Morad, Selena dropped by early in the morning, uninvited, with an interior designer. Riller couldn't believe it. Selena should have known Q would be enraged at this imposition on his privacy. They fought, a blistering scorcher with insults and recriminations thrown back and forth until Riller's head was throbbing. Then, after she escaped to her office for some peace and quiet, she was interrupted by Q's self- defense trainer, Ba'Sres.
He was a surprisingly gentle man when he wasn't fighting, and he sat in her office like he was afraid of breaking something.
"I am worried for Q," he started without preamble. "He's changing lately, and I don't understand what to do about it."
'Join the club,' Riller thought. In the months since they'd met, she'd always known Q to be deliberately annoying as he teased her and tried to irritate her into reacting with anger. Now, in his current cold silence, he seemed infinitely more menacing, as if some dangerous and unpredictable part of him had risen very close to the surface. She couldn't know he was making up for his growing sense of isolation by projecting a facade of invincibility; she felt like she was waiting for a tornado to hit, and the tension was taking its toll on all of them. Even his adoring scientists had begun to tiptoe around him carefully.
"Did something happen?" she asked Ba'Sres.
"I would like to show you." He reached into his pocket and handed her a data chip.
Riller dropped it into the viewer, recognizing Q's mirrored training room. A hologram appeared, then Q entered the picture and started a round of clumsy sparring.
"I want you to watch his face," Ba'Sres told her. "This was months ago when I was finally able to get him to do more than go through the motions when he sparred."
Riller watched Q dance around the slow-moving hologram and eventually strike out with his foot. The hologram went down on one knee and Q immediately called a halt, leaning over to catch his breath. His expression held astonished disbelief and pleasure. Ba'Sres entered camera range, and he and Q shared a congratulatory smile. There was a moment's blank screen, then Q appeared again.
"This footage I took this morning," Ba'Sres explained. "Look at the difference."
Even if he hadn't been there to point it out to her, she would have easily seen Q's incredible improvement. His strikes were cleaner, faster and harder; his defensive moves were much quicker and effective. The timidity and hesitation of his earlier sparring attempt was completely eclipsed by this more aggressive demeanor. Riller was impressed with his developing skill, but she immediately understood Ba'Sres' concern. Q hammered at the hologram with a lethal combination of strikes to the groin and throat, but it was the rage and cruelty in his eyes that caught and held her attention.
"Look now," Ba'Sres said. "He knows to stop when the opponent falls, but watch what happens."
On the screen, the hologram went down--clearly disabled--but Q did not stop attacking. Arms held protectively across the front of his torso, he backed out of his opponent's line of vision. Then he rushed forward again, lifted his right leg and savagely drove it down, delivering a hard, stomping blow to the hologram's ribs.
"He's just driven three ribs into that person's liver and caused internal bleeding," Ba'Sres narrated.
Riller felt sick. On the screen, Q delicately sidled forward, his knees bent. His right leg came up again, then his heel drove down lightening fast, this time striking the hologram's throat.
"A lethal blow." As if she needed it explained to her. "He just snapped that person's neck. And look at his face."
Riller could not have looked away. She realized her mouth was hanging open, as, voyeuristically, she empathically shared the satisfaction that suffused his features. Q looked--not happy, certainly not that-sated, somehow. Heavy-lidded and panting, he reminded her of a man in the contented aftermath of orgasm. Riller drew a breath, trying to pull herself out of phase with the violence she'd just witnessed.
"He liked it," she whispered. She could feel the horrified wonder in her own voice along with the whisper of rising blood. She'd felt it too, and understood it; the lust and gratification that results from giving reign to wantonly destructive impulses. It shamed her.
Ba'Sres watched her without judgement. "I know how good it feels," he spoke with gentle sympathy. "How could I not? But Q..."
"Has no controls," she finished for him, "No empathy. No remorse. Nothing to temper his aggression."
"I'm afraid for him," Ba'Sres continued. "He's learning to enjoy hurting people, and I don't know what to do." He looked at her, clearly waiting for a solution.
Riller stared back. She didn't know what to tell him. Q was turning into a monster. She, too, was afraid for him, and gods help her, she was beginning to be afraid *of* him. She glanced away, wondering what to say, when the house chimed, announcing a request for beam-in.
"Who is it?" Riller asked, desperately hoping it wasn't Selena, back for round two. She was beginning to feel overwhelmed.
"Geordi LaForge and Jean-Luc Picard," the house answered cheerily, as if this were the best news in the world.
"LaForge *and* Picard," she whispered disbelievingly. She looked at Ba'Sres apologetically. "I'm sorry. This will have to wait until later."
Picard watched her vague disorientation with barely veiled amusement. "You *did* say as soon as possible," he reminded her. To her credit, Harris pulled herself together very quickly.
"I did say that," she agreed. "Thank you for coming. Are you ready to get to work?"
"Actually," Picard demurred, "I was hoping to speak with Q if he's available."
"He's in his lab," Riller answered noncommittally. Picard noticed that she didn't offer to take them there.
"I have the specs and the prototypes right here with me," Harris said. She led them to a small room off her office. "Here you are. If you need anything I'll be right outside."
She left them alone in the little room. When the door shut, Picard and Geordi looked at each other. "She doesn't waste any time," Geordi muttered. "I'll say that much for her." He went straight to the computer screen, calling up specs.
Picard stared towards the door. "Are we being hidden away in here?"
"Mm. Looks that way, doesn't it?" Geordi answered absently. He was already engrossed. Picard watched over his shoulder for a few moments. "Geordi," he finally said. "I want you to take your time with this. I have a feeling she's trying to put something over on us, and I need some time to try and find out what's going on."
La Forge spared him a glance. "That won't be any problem, Captain. From the looks of things we may be here a couple of days."
"Well look at all this. There are at least forty distinct modifications. I'll need at least today and tomorrow just to review them all, and that's not including trials and simulations."
Picard settled himself in for a long wait. For over two hours he watched and listened while Geordi muttered happily to himself and took notes.
Eventually the door opened and Harris stuck her head in. "Can I get you something for lunch?"
"Actually," Picard began, but got no further. Behind Riller Q walked in, glancing around. "Rills? Lunchtime. Where are you?"
"Well," Picard smiled pleasantly, "here's our host now."
Beside him, Harris caught her breath.
"Pi*card*?" Q stared at him as if he couldn't believe his eyes.
Picard stared back. It was obvious Q hadn't been expecting them. Probably hadn't even been told they were coming, from the looks of things. In the silence that ensued, the two men took each other's measure. Picard noted uneasily that in the months since he'd last seen him, Q had managed to become more imposing as a human than he'd ever been as an immortal.
Q liked to exert control over others, Picard knew. Now, watching Q's features melt from astonishment into cold equanimity, Picard realized that Q had gained some measure of control over himself, making him, Picard acknowledged belatedly, potentially more dangerous than ever. There was something more deliberate about him, something which, while not overtly hostile, was by no means inviting. It wasn't the self-possessed arrogance in his stance and his walk. It wasn't the fact of his broader shoulders and newly-muscled torso. It wasn't the clothing which clung to his body like a coat of oil, giving him an air of untempered sexual aggression.
No, the change was inward, more subtle than mere differences in demeanor. His eyes still probed for weakness, but with no hint of the glee he'd formerly evinced upon finding it. There was something about him of a Perkimian tree-viper: deadly, with neither remorse nor enmity, but simply because that was it's nature. His remote, less-than-welcoming expression rounded out the impression of lethality at rest.
Q's presence always engendered a fight-or-flight response in Picard, this time stronger than ever. He ignored the sensation of blood pulsing against his temples and forced himself to speak pleasantly. "Didn't she tell you we were expected?"
Q looked at Harris, who shrugged, appearing not the least embarrassed at having been caught out. "They're doing some work with the patents, reviewing their applicability to current Starfleet technology."
"Ah." Q's mouth formed a polite, indifferent smile. "How nice. Are they eating with us?"
"Actually, I didn't want to take any more of their time than necessary," Riller began. "I thought they might..."
She didn't get any further as Picard cut across her objection smoothly. "We would be delighted to have lunch with you, if it isn't any bother."
"No bother at all." Q glanced from one to the other, not responding to Picard's carefully pleasant expression. He turned without another word and they followed him out.
Their short trip to the dining room led them past exquisite statuary and objets d'art of from a variety of different planets. Picard was frankly gaping by the time he reached the bottom of the stairs. Q's home was not merely large, it was beautifully designed and fantastically appointed.
"Your home is quite lovely, Q," Picard said sincerely.
"Do you think so?" Q asked off-handedly. The topic didn't seem to interest him much. 'But why collect all these things if they mean so little to him?' Picard asked himself. "If it isn't any trouble, I wonder if you might take me on a tour later."
Q glanced back at him. "My docent is off line at the moment, Picard."
There were no feelings behind the words, no overtones of the malicious teasing that was Q's stock in trade. Q might have been a computer for all the emotion in his response. As with Harris earlier, he didn't exactly say 'no', but neither did he offer an alternative. Picard began to feel a bit uncomfortable in the face of Q's aloofness towards him.
"Even casual explanations would suffice," he pressed. "I should hate to miss the chance to explore such a beautiful collection."
They were in the dining room now. Q touched a button on the sideboard and spoke into the air. "Lunch for four, please." He turned back to Picard, evincing nothing more than an amused smile at his all too obvious angling. "We'll see what happens," he said noncommittally.
Geordi rescued them from an awkward silence by telling Q what genius he was. Soon Geordi and Q were deep in conversation while Picard surreptitiously watched Harris. She seemed to lose her tension as the discussion became increasingly technical.
'Odd,' Picard mused. 'If she doesn't mind our talking about these things why did she do her best to keep us away from Q?'
"So, Ms. Harris," he tried to begin a conversation with her, "I always wondered why you picked this place to settle. How have you adjusted to life on Risa?"
"I grew up here," she answered flatly. She kept her head bent over her salad.
Picard gamely persisted. "It must be pleasant for you, then, to be back in a familiar environment."
She glanced up at him briefly, shrugged, then looked down again.
The conversation aborted into silence. Picard ate his lunch.
As they were finishing, the house chimed. To Picard's intense relief, Harris excused herself, but moments later she came back smiling, in the company of a middle-aged man who carried a picnic basket.
"Goodies!" The man smiled at Q, waving the basket. He crossed to the head of the table where Q sat. "Who's hungry for dessert?"
Q's face lit. "Morad!" He exclaimed. He tilted his face up as Morad leaned down, and they gave each other a quick peck on the lips.
Q laid a hand on Morad's arm and cleared his throat. "Morad, I'd like you to meet Captain Picard and Commander La Forge."
Oh!" Morad whipped his head around, surprised. Clearly he'd only had eyes for Q. He lowered his head in polite greeting. "Nice to meet you both." He turned back to Q. "Inconvenient time?"
"Not at all. We've just finished eating. The Captain and the Commander are doing some work for me." He rose, smiling at them; an expression so devoid of pleasure that Picard was hard put to suppress a shudder. "Please excuse us."
He turned back to Morad, his features softening again, and they strolled off together.
Picard stared after them, amazed at the obvious affection between the two men. Somehow he'd never imagined Q in love; a particularly surprising phenomenon in light of the indifferent politeness Picard had received.
'And after all I've done for him,' he thought, astonishing himself by the depths of his resentment. He was *not* envious. Of course not! Just surprised. He, too, could have a home and a lover if he wanted them. He just hadn't had the time. He forced his feelings down, ignoring his reaction to the look on their faces when they smiled at one another.
Picard and Geordi worked the rest of the afternoon in oppressive silence. Clearly something had gone very wrong with Q, and just as clearly they were not going discuss it. By the time they left, after flatly declining Q's invitation to stay the night, both men were tense and jumpy.
Geordi commented first. "I don't know about you, Captain, but Q definitely gives me the creeps."
Picard let his breath out in a long, heartfelt sigh. What had happened? "I don't understand it myself, Geordi. That was definitely *not* the Q I'm familiar with." He recalled his recent arguments in Q's defense. Perhaps he'd been too idealistic after all.
"And the way he treated us. 'Doing some work for me.' Of all the nerve."
Picard wanted the conversation to end. He needed to get away by himself and think this through. "How much more time do you think you'll need?"
"Really, Captain, another day should do it."
"Very well," Picard turned and made his escape. "Then I shall see you in the morning, Commander."
Alone in his hotel room, Picard tried without success to understand what he'd just witnessed. Q had a lover. That much was fairly straightforward, and regardless of how he felt personally, the easiest to dismiss. Picard did some research on Morad, found nothing unusual. Married, divorced, lived on Risa all his life and owned a restaurant. And loved Q. Stop, he ordered himself. He turned his mind to the more elusive part of this puzzle. Q had changed, and Picard couldn't imagine quite how that had come about, or more importantly, what it meant. He didn't seem happy except for that brief moment when his... 'guest' Picard forced himself to say, had appeared. Neither had he seemed particularly sad, but it wasn't like him to be so uncaring and distant, as if he'd somehow become anesthetized to pain and pleasure both.
'But why?' Picard asked himself. 'What would cause such a drastic difference in behavior?' Now he looked at Harris' evasive behavior in a new light. Instead of taking advantage of Q as he'd begun to suspect, had she been trying to protect him? Or perhaps protect himself and Geordi? It was very puzzling. He determined to try to speak to her once again.
The next day, taking a break to stretch and walk around, he strolled out of the little cell where he and Geordi were ensconced. They'd eaten lunch alone today, preferring not to subject themselves to Q's icy hospitality a second time. Harris was in her office, and she looked up as he walked by.
"May I speak with you for a moment?" he asked.
Harris didn't seem any more receptive than the day before, but she gestured to a chair and he sat down. "I've been wondering about Q," Picard began. "I imagine he can be rather difficult sometimes."
She ran her hand through her hair with a tired smile. "Is he alive? Is he breathing? Then he's being difficult."
Before he could take advantage of her rare humor, however, she closed herself off from him again, crossing her arms and leaning back in her chair. "You met him long before I did, so I imagine you already knew that, didn't you?"
"I am somewhat familiar with him," Picard admitted. He plunged in. "That's why I'm a bit concerned. I can't say I'm particularly fond of Q," he stated with candor, but he's changed radically, and I'm at a loss to understand it. It seems that something has gone awry, and I would like to help if I can."
For a moment he was certain she was going to confide in him. She stared at him with an intent, troubled expression, but then her more usual wariness surfaced, and he sighed, knowing he'd lost the opportunity to find out what was going on.
"Q is Q," she finally said. "I can't speak to your personal impressions of him."
Picard sat still for several moments, mastering his disappointment. She was still protecting him after all these months and he had to wonder if Q deserved it. He sighed again. "I understand your loyalty to your client," he said, "but if you ever feel the need to see him from a different perspective, I may have some insights into his behavior that you'll find useful. I hope you won't hesitate to call on me."
She promised him that she would, of course, call on him if she ever felt the need, but by now he was familiar with her evasiveness. She was, in her smooth, polite way, telling him to mind his own business.
On the shuttle ride back to the _Enterprise_ Picard was rather quiet. Geordi made up for his silence by prattling almost nonstop about the boxes full of prototype machinery he was going to try out the moment he got back on board. Picard had to acknowledge that the inventions he could understand were astoundingly clever, while others were simply beyond his ability to grasp. And they weren't the only thing that was beyond him, he admitted to himself. It might be irrational, but he felt responsible to the Federation for Q's good behavior. He had hoped to assuage his doubts about Q's assimilation into humanity, and he'd toyed with the idea of bringing up the Borg threat on the off chance that Q might know their weaknesses, but this uncomfortable little jaunt only served to make him more suspicious and distrustful than ever. Q's strange behavior left him perplexed, annoyed, and inexplicably saddened.
"Ding-dong the witch is dead, the wicked witch is dead," Riller sang to herself. La Forge's report on the applications of Q's tinkertoys had been so helpful that when he'd asked her for permission to try them out under real conditions she'd agreed-- with the stipulation that they weren't to be passed to anyone else, and he had to send her the results of his trials, of course. Now they'd come and gone, and she could get on with the business of selling these things and making money. Of the marketing firms she'd been considering, two had definite promise now that she better understood the applications of some of Q's hardware. She was looking forward to a productive several weeks.
Q, coming out of his bedroom, looked at her with raised eyebrows when he heard her singing.
"I hate Starfleet types," she explained, too happy to be more than slightly apprehensive around him, "and I'm glad they're gone. They're such arrogant snobs."
His eyebrows rose even higher. "Really? I didn't know you felt that way. I thought I was the only one who found them irritating."
"Oh, no." She fell in step with him as they went down to breakfast together. "Like that Riker guy," she said, touching a sore spot. "Remember him? What an asshole!"
Her resentment was startlingly like his own, and if she hated Riker, she was a better person that he'd ever suspected.
"I need to give you a raise," he murmured. "Just on general principle."
"I mean it," Riller insisted. "The way he treated me--he could never have lived my life and survived. So what made him think he was so special? And that empath of theirs whatshername?"
"Right. Her. Well," she leaned towards Q conspiratorially, "she's not that good. You know she and Picard came to check me out?"
Q shook his head. He hadn't known.
Riller smiled tightly, remembering. "I had her completely fooled. That's how we were able to get all our conditions met so easily. I convinced her that I was unbeatable and she convinced the others. And she thinks she's so good as an empath," Riller snorted in disgust.
Q was looking at her in amazement and Riller was suddenly aware of the vehemence in her tone. She took a deep breath, suddenly sheepish. "Maybe I'm being stupid."
"No you're not. I felt the same way. I think that's why I chose to put them on trial the first time I met them. They really are a bunch of prima donnas." Q warmed up to his topic. "Jean-Luc believes he's supposed to hold himself as an example of command, and the amazing thing is, he thinks he's successful. He really believes he's reached some pinnacle of human achievement."
His round of complaints lasted all through breakfast. The things he'd tried to do to help the Federation that hadn't been appreciated. The nerve of them, complaining because 18 people died. The Borg were going to catch the entire Federation unawares and consume them, but because of Q they'd been forewarned. "You'd think they'd be grateful, but what do I get? Complaints. Jean-Luc said he couldn't trust me, can you imagine that?" He sounded extremely miffed.
Riller smiled. She liked him for moments like this, when he was himself, but she couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to be one of the 18 people killed by the Borg. Would Q have let *her* die? She put the thought away.
"The worst part about them," she opined, "is that they're so damned insular. You're either Fleet, or you don't really exist and your opinions aren't worth considering."
Q looked at her with narrowed eyes. "That's why you held out for so much money, the guards and everything. You weren't so much helping me as trying to stick it to them."
Her smile turned dark. "So? You still got a good deal, didn't you?"
"So! I love you for it, Riller, you hardbitten little lawyer person, you." He continued to gaze at her. "You know, you never tell me anything about yourself, and I would really like to know what goes on in that little green head of yours."
Riller looked away, feeling put on the spot. "Q, what do you want to know about my life for? You already know too much as it is."
Q noticed that her cheeks were becoming greener. Was she feeling abashed? Embarrassed? "Excuses, excuses. Look. I know your mother was a... demimondaine," he noticed her stiffen and charitably refrained from using a harsher term, "but that's no reason to feel embarrassed. When I was immortal I knew things about people's families they would have rather died than told. Believe me, that's nothing."
Riller shrugged, trying to keep defensiveness out of her voice. "I'm proud of my mama. She worked hard and she took good care of me." Her eyes met Q's. "But if you met her you'd probably laugh at her because she's not very educated."
She had a point, Q thought. Then something else occurred to him. His two detective services had asked for a current description of her, and now would be an opportune time to get one without giving the game away. "You could at least tell me what she's like. Does she look like you, for instance? How tall is she? What's her favorite color? That's not too much to ask."
When all he received was a skeptical glare, he added, "You *do* remember how tall she is."
"Of course I do!" It still distressed her to talk about her mother, and she didn't want to start crying in front of Q again. "It just isn't fair of me to drag you into my personal life." That was a pretty lame excuse and she knew it. She glanced up to see Q frowning at her in disapproval.
"It wasn't fair of you to drag me to Orion either, but you didn't seem to have a problem with that," he offered drily.
"You wouldn't stay behind!" She still felt guilty enough about their trip that the observation stung. "You told me quote 'I'm coming with you.' unquote. You *do* remember that, don't you?"
"Then you should have told me not to."
Outrageous. "I beg your pardon? Do you work for me or do I work for you? Besides, when I left you alone for an hour you started crying. How was I supposed to leave you alone for two weeks?"
"You weren't supposed to leave me alone at all," Q whipped back, enraged that she should bring up a personal weakness. "What was I paying you for?"
"Let's see," Riller ticked off the items on her fingers, "servant, personal shopper, step-and-fetch-it, nurse, interpreter, pimp, babysitter. You name it, I did it."
They were fighting, Q noticed. How had that happened? Mere seconds ago they'd been in complete accord. Still, he wasn't going to let her get away with gratuitous insults.
"Of course you did. Selling yourself *is* what you do, isn't it? Like mother like daughter."
"You arrogant son-of-a-bitch! At least I know what I'm worth. Your were going to sell yourself for eighty-nine thousand credits."
"Well, good thing you were greedy enough to rescue me before I could make that mistake, isn't it?" As comebacks went, it wasn't a very good one, but Riller was right. It still rankled that he hadn't known better than not to take the first thing offered.
"Oh, a very good thing, yes." Riller thrust her face towards him pugnaciously. "Without me, buddy-boy, you'd be jumping through hoops at some Federation research facility in the middle of butt-fuck nowhere."
"Well, thank you so much for throwing my weaknesses up in my face," he rejoined sarcastically. Butt-fuck nowhere? Where did she come up with these terms?
"You started it."
"You started it. You laughed at me because I used to cry before I knew what crying was." Which hurt.
"I did not!" Her outrage was so genuine that he was immediately appeased. "I took you with me to Orion because I was worried about you. And because," tell the truth, Riller, she demanded of herself, "having you along made it easier for me."
"It did?" He thought he understood, but wanted it clarified. "How?"
Riller sighed, more than willing to back down. "You've noticed that Orionese don't have a very high opinion of women."
"And with me along there was a better likelihood that you'd get what you wanted." He'd guessed something like that. He was calming down also. Unlike fighting with Selena, which was fun, fights with Riller depressed him. "Sorry it didn't work out."
Riller started to tear up despite herself. She pressed her hands against her eyelids for a moment and drew a ragged breath. "Nothing you could have done. Besides," she tried to force a smile, "watching you tear through that tax ministry as if you owned it had to be one of the greatest things I've ever seen."
Q smiled. "I *am* rather imposing aren't I?"
"'Rather'? There's an understatement for you. You terrify people."
"I do?" That made him happy.
"That's not good," Riller warned. "Frightened people are more liable to hurt you because they're unpredictable."
"I'll bear that in mind. What were we fighting about anyway?"
"You being a bully."
"Q!" Her voice was sharp, but her eyes were friendly again. "Eat your breakfast."
"Oh," Q tried to scowl but it didn't work because he didn't really mean it, "okay." But he still had to get the last word in, even if it meant muttering it under his breath. "*You're* the bully."
Q thought about their argument all day. Late that evening, he buzzed her room and asked if he could come in.
Riller was in bed reading, and she didn't want to be disturbed. "What?"
"I have to talk to you."
"What is it?"
Q came in and perched on the foot of her bed, the farthest away he could be and still sit down. "I was going to make this a surprise, but it won't be worth anything if it doesn't happen. I need to know what your mother looks like."
Riller fished underneath the collar of her nightgown and pulled out a locket.
Q approached gingerly and took it in his fingers. "She looks like you."
"Only greener," Riller smiled. "Is this because of the detective agencies."
"You know?" Q was flabbergasted.
"I see the bills. Then later on today, I figured out why you were asking."
He felt strangely embarrassed. "I didn't want you to be sad. I thought maybe I could help."
"You helped a lot." She looked away, speaking softly. "Even if we never find her, I feel better knowing you were trying to look out for me."
Was that what he'd been doing? "Well, you are my best employee after all. I suppose I owe it to you."
She wasn't a bit fooled. "You're not so bad yourself, Q."
There was warmth between them again, but Q didn't know quite what to do with it. He shifted uncomfortably and Riller took the locket back. "I could upload you a copy in the morning," she offered.
"That'd be good." There was nothing else to say. He got up, said goodnight and left, but all the way back to his room he was aware that something unnameable, but good had just happened, and a warm, secret glow momentarily pierced the melancholy that plagued him so consistently these days.
"Q, I'm taking you to the beach day after tomorrow."
"No," Q answered automatically. He and Selena were in his office, scrolling through a catalogue of antiques and collectibles, getting ready for his big charity ball. Selena had finally convinced Q that his house was too empty, and she was just the person to help him decorate it. She had a point, Q conceded. Upstairs, Q had decorated his suite and office to within an inch of his life. Downstairs, he hadn't finished anything except the dining room, and now they had to fill the various salons and sitting rooms before his big charity event took place.
"Don't contradict me," she told him. "And you've already got too many candelabra as it is--don't order any more."
"You are so unbelievably irritating," he murmured. "I can have as many as I want."
"Sure you can," she shrugged dismissively, "but they're going into a closet. I'm not going to be a laughingstock at my own party because you have no sense of restraint."
"You are pathetically misinformed, my little Junk Food Goddess. These are good ones. Do you honestly think I'd display something this nice for *your* guests?"
"Ohhh." Selena purred insinuatingly. "Then they must be for a more private party? You and Morad, perhaps?" She was fishing; she'd seen the way he looked at Morad when they were at the restaurant and she wondered whether he'd done anything besides peek at him when he thought no one was looking. Now she watched him for a reaction.
Q just smiled. Jousting with Selena got a little tiresome sometimes, but he never considered stopping. "I suppose I could spare your feelings and tell you they're for when I have you up to my bedroom for a grand seduction, but since I don't find you the least bit alluring, that would be a lie."
"So if it's not Morad who is it?" She needled.
"It could be the gardener. You know how much I love fresh flowers."
She wrinkled her nose at him. "What *is* this predilection you have for bedding the hired help? Next you'll be telling me you sleep with Riller."
"Wrong again, Angel. *You're* the one who practices droit du seigneur. Shall we call your latest houseboy and ask him how he *really* earns his pay?"
She smirked at him. "Call away."
Q looked up in disbelief. "You fired another one? How many does that make?"
"I couldn't help it. He wasn't very... talented," she pouted. She held up a pinkie finger with a dismayed expression.
"You know," Q suggested acidly. "I can give you the commcode of a wonderful outcall service where you can actually inspect the 'talent' before you make a silly mistake."
"Houseboys are cheaper." Not to mention how people would laugh if word got out that she had to actually rent her pleasures from a service.
Q looked at her in disgust. "How utterly gauche. Is that why your house is such a chaotic mess? Because you're trying to save credits?" He shook his finger at her. "We have to have a little talk about this."
"Fine." She saw a way to simultaneously annoy him and get the conversation back on track. "We'll talk at the beach."
"*We're* not going to the beach."
"What did I tell you about contradicting me?"
Q bridled. "I said I'm not going, you little tyrant. I don't want to go."
"Who cares what you want? Be ready by two or I'll be very annoyed."
Q loved and resented her bossiness. It went without saying that he and his guards were ready for her when she arrived, but he was also planning to make her as miserable as he possibly could before completely acceding to her demands.
"You have to take me shopping," he announced, climbing into her aircar.
"Well I don't know what they're wearing to the beach these days, so you have to help me pick something out."
Selena glanced over at him sidelong, amusement clearly etched on her features. She patted her little beach bag. "You won't need anything you don't already have."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
It was a very short ride. Scant minutes after leaving his house, Selena was handing the aircar to the valet as Q and the guards climbed out. A long row of cabanas occluded their view of water; apparently commoners weren't even allowed to see the place if they couldn't pay the fee. Well, this was only as it should be. Q relaxed.
Selena ambled up to them. Q noticed her dress for the first time; an airy, floaty thing with thin straps. "Beautiful as usual, darling. Is that from the new Andorian designer?"
"Mm? Oh, yes." She seemed slightly distracted, and smug, somehow, though Q couldn't have said why.
The attendants knew Selena, of course, and swept her right through. Her guest, Q swept along with her, his nose in the air. They walked through the gates, and Q and his guards stopped still, then started up again without quite so much enthusiasm in their steps. The sand was powdery fine and white; the water was clear and blue and curled against the shore enticingly; the patrons were all naked.
Q turned to Selena for confirmation, but she was picking her way past the prone sunworshippers and didn't see his expression. Something in the set of her shoulders tipped him off. He came abreast of her in one long step and grabbed her tightly by the elbow.
"I suppose you thought it was amusing not to tell me about this."
She was smiling maliciously. "Of course I did. I've been looking forward to your reaction ever since I came up with the idea."
"You want a reaction? Fine." All the more reason for him not to give her one. He'd observed Selena for months, learning from her how to underreact, a trick he'd used to great effect when Picard showed up so unexpectedly. He used it again now, taking off his shoes and shoving them at her. "That color doesn't suit you at all. Now carry these."
At her expression of outrage he explained with mock innocence, "They have sand in them, and as I recall, you refused to let me buy appropriate beachwear."
Selena dropped the shoes and stalked off.
"Now you owe me another pair." He wasn't going to pick them up, and he wasn't asking his guards to go get them. The shoes disappeared into the distance as they made their way to Selena's cabana. Q's throat was dry, and he had butterflies in his stomach, but he refused to acknowledge his fear. His guards secured it, and once inside, Selena blithely pushed at the straps of her dress and it floated to the floor. She stepped out of it as if being nude in front of him was something that happened every day, reached into her beach bag for the tanning oil and began to apply it.
Q silently followed suit. "Where's *my* tanning oil," he demanded. He was beginning to be terrified.
"You can use this." She handed him the bottle. "Here. Do my back."
Do her back? "Me first." He handed it back.
"Oh, honestly, Q, you're so spoiled," but she moved around behind him, dribbled oil on his back and began to rub it in. If his stomach hadn't been empty, Q might have thrown up. Was this somehow supposed to get sexual? He had no idea how to respond. This couldn't be a seduction, not in public. Right?
"There." She finished with him. "Now do your arms and legs and let's get going."
Q poured lotion into his hand and stroked up one arm. 'Oh, no,' he thought desperately. This was too much like the things he did at home alone in his bed. And Selena was hovering right next to him. The urge to stare at her breasts and pubic hair was almost irresistible. What if he became visibly aroused? The thought was almost too much to bear. He must have made some sound at the idea of his potential humiliation because Selena was suddenly peering worriedly into his face.
"Q, she demanded, "what is it? Your face is white!"
"Must be something I ate," he gasped. He leapt to his feet, unable to sit still with her looming so close.
"Toilet's that way." She pushed him towards a small door and Q rushed in and shut it behind him. Blessedly alone, he tried to still his panic. He was afraid, afraid, afraid, and there was no escape. He wanted to call Riller and have her come get him, but the nearest comm unit was in the main building, past Selena, past his guards, past all the naked people. He stifled another moan. What was he going to do?
"Q?" Selena called hesitantly. She didn't imagine for an instant that she'd succeeded in disconcerting him beyond her wildest dreams. "Should I call a doctor?"
"No," he pressed the button to open the door and came out, noticing distantly that his hand was shaking. "I'll be alright."
Selena looked at him aghast. "You look terrible! Are you sure you don't want to go home?"
"We just got here." He protested. No way was he going to admit to being frightened, not to her, especially since that was what she'd obviously wanted. "If I lie down for a few minutes I should be okay."
"Well if you're sure..." she trailed off hesitantly. "Let me get you a blanket."
That was better. He loved being fussed over and taken care of. There wasn't much in the way of furniture, but the couch was long enough for him to stretch out on comfortably, and Selena covered him up, tucked him in, and left him by himself.
The minute she left Q sat up and looked outside. The windows were opaqued, so he could stare out without being detected. Everyone was naked except his bodyguards, and no one seemed concerned except him. 'In front of strangers,' he thought wonderingly. 'How can it not bother them, especially the men?' Most mortals covered their genitals, so he'd seen very few, but no matter how good they felt to touch, they looked grotesque. The notion of walking around with these pendulous little bits of flesh exposed was one of the most revolting things he'd ever heard of, but if they could do it, he certainly could. He took deep breaths, trying to calm himself. Experimenting, he deliberately called erotic thoughts to mind, all the while watching his penis for signs of betrayal. Nothing. He thought about his recent nights with Morad. Still nothing. Maybe this would be safe after all.
Businesslike, he covered himself with oil, then walked outside on weak legs. Selena had erected a sunshield and was lying beneath it on a towel. There was a second towel laid out beside her, and she patted it invitingly.
"Feel better? You had me worried for a moment."
"You certainly didn't act worried. You didn't even get me a cold compress. And you didn't see if I had a fever or even take my temperature. I think I don't want to talk to you." Q stalked off into the surf, then made an immediate U-turn.
"Earplugs," he demanded, knowing full well she didn't have any with her.
"In my bag in the cabana," she murmured.
Now he had a reason go to back inside. Q sank down onto the couch. He'd done it! He'd gone outside, and no one pointed or stared at his over-large genitals. Emboldened, he retrieved the earplugs and went outside again. Now that he was adjusting to the idea that his naked body would be on display, he remembered that being nude outdoors was actually rather pleasant. The sun caressed him, the breeze tickled him, and more than one person watched appreciatively as he walked past. Q held himself a little taller.
"I need eyeshields," he came back and demanded of Selena. Once he got them on, he could watch people ogling him. They stared at him with unabashed pleasure when they thought he didn't notice them, and Q began to preen. 'Of course,' he thought. 'I *am* the closest thing to godhood they'll ever see.' He made a mental note to give his personal trainer a raise. He'd simply done the exercises, not thinking about the results, but now, mingling with other wealthy, beautiful people, he realized his body corresponded almost exactly to human ideals of male beauty. He flaunted himself for all he was worth.
"That's six iced teas in two hours, Q, and four trips to the relief station." Laying next to him under their sunshield, Selena had barely stirred except to make one decorous trip into the surf.
"The sun makes me thirsty," Q explained, not bothering to mention that it also gave him an opportunity to show off as he ambled slowly through the crowds in search of the automated snack cart.
"Oh, let the man drink, Selena. Since you have him all to yourself, you could at least grant us the pleasure of watching him walk to and fro."
Q and Selena turned in the direction of the voice. An Andorian woman, decorated all over with tiny platinum bodybeads, stood just outside their sunshield.
"Ised!" Selena cried. "Come here, you angel, touch me!" The two women laid their palms together and pressed cheeks. "Q, this is Ised. Ised is coming to our galactic, aren't you?"
"Oh!" Ised held her right palm out across her body and Q imitated the gesture. Instead of merely touching palms, however, when their hands came in contact, Ised grasped his fingers and lowered her head, touching her lips to them.
Q and Selena exchanged amazed glances. Ised looked up and winked at Q mischievously. "We can't let Selena have all the fun, can we?"
Q pulled his hand away, but slowly. He used a line he'd heard Selena use once. It seemed to fit. "You're very wicked to tease me like that, Ised. We've only just met."
"Well here's to future meetings." She dipped her antenna flirtatiously. "Now," she turned to Selena, "tell me all about your galactic."
"It's Q's galactic, actually. I mean, we're having it at his place." Her expression turned smug. "The Bluffs."
Ised turned to stare at Q with wide, startled eyes. "You? *You're* the one who bought the Bluffs? Chimes!" Then she tapped her fingers against her lips. "Oops. I told myself no more profanity." She turned to Q, gazing at him admiringly. "You're having a galactic, at the Bluffs. Can I tell everybody?"
"No!" Selena leaned forward and took Ised's arm. "Don't tell anyone because we haven't decided who to invite yet. Besides, it's not for months and months."
Ised nodded. She touched a finger to one corner of her mouth, drew it across her lips to the other corner. Q smiled at her. Her gestures were delicate and graceful, like Selena's. He decided that he liked her. "So far, you're first," he said, trailing a finger across the back of her hand, "but you have to promise not to tell a single soul."
She leaned forward, managing to look both innocent and dangerously seductive at once. "Count on me," she said. She stood, leaned over Selena and they pressed cheeks again. "Lovely to meet you, Q."
"Likewise," he called to her retreating back. He turned to Selena. "How long before the whole world knows?"
She looked back, smiling. "Half hour, tops."
These people were fun, Q decided. He couldn't believe he'd once wanted to waste time serving on board a starship.
"I hope you appreciate me, Selena. You know, life has no meaning unless I'm around to throw charity balls."
"Come with me to Morad's tonight." She plainly did not feel like being silly.
"Talk me into it."
"Morad will be there," She rolled her eyes coquettishly. "What else do I need to say? I've seen the way you look at him, Q; when are you going to ask him out?"
Actually, Morad was going to be at Q's house that night, but obviously Selena didn't know, and he saw no need to apprise her of this fact. With Morad, he was particularly protective of their times alone, and Selena's prying got on his nerves. Suddenly he had a evil idea. "I have to go home and finish a research project." That would turn her off, he knew. She hated anything that smacked of work. "Let me meet you there, say eight?"
She squinted at him suspiciously. He never went anywhere by himself. "*Don't* bring Riller," she warned.
"Okay." Since he had no intention of showing up at all, it was easy to make that promise.
Nine o'clock that evening, Selena called. She had, she wanted him to know, taken great offense at being stood up. He'd better be ready to do some serious groveling next he saw her.
"I'm actually ready to grovel now," he purred. "Would you like to see me on my knees?" He glanced off-screen and smiled, knowing she'd see his eyes wander and assume he was making a double-entendre.
She rose to the bait as easily as if she'd been programmed to do so. "Who's there with you? Is that Morad? Morad, if that's you, I'm going to kill you."
Q's smile grew wider. "Why must we be so paranoid?" Morad was, in fact, standing just out of range, frantically waving his hands that he didn't want to answer. "I told you I had business to take care of, and sometimes even I have to put business before pleasure. Now quit whining and go away."
He closed the connection, and turned to Morad, smirking. "I owed her that," he said into Morad's troubled gaze. "This afternoon she took me to the beach but didn't tell me I'd have to take all my clothes off."
At Morad's complete incomprehension he reluctantly elaborated. "It made me nervous."
Q could see him thinking up an excuse for her, looking for something nice to say. That was Morad for you. "Don't tell me she didn't mean to do it. I could tell by her expression that she was laughing at me."
Morad nodded. "She can be vindictive sometimes."
Q nodded back, all wounded dignity.
"On the other hand," Morad continued, "you were pretty rude just now."
"Oh, everyone's a critic," Q complained mildly. He frowned, ready to complain about how maligned and misunderstood he was, but Morad forestalled him by mounting Q's thigh, canting his hips forward and grinding himself against Q's muscular leg.
Q leaned back in his chair, letting desire completely eclipse his running feud with Selena. Sometimes he couldn't believe he'd almost let wounded pride keep him away from this man. When Morad contritely apologized for the fiasco in his bedroom and begged for another chance, Q granted it grudgingly. They'd had a second date, then a third and fourth one. By then, Q had forgiven him his vulnerability. He told himself he felt sorry for Morad, but the truth was, he was attracted to Morad's kind nature, and a temperament that was as gentle as Q's was abrasive. He was also becoming unabashedly jealous of Morad's company. Q knew better than to say so out loud, but he could understand why Morad's former husband kept him hidden away. Partly an urge to protect him, the sheer possessiveness of his feelings for Morad was nearly overwhelming. Morad would have scoffed at this, but Q, who confused kindness with vulnerability, perceived him as unutterably fragile.
It was this perceived fragility that made him adamantly refuse any more attempts at physical intimacy at first. Morad pursued him with gentle persistence, but weeks and weeks passed before Q was willing to try again. Their courtship turned into a painfully extended tease, and when they finally did make love, it was as much relief as pleasure.
Now Q watched Morad through hooded eyes. He had to force himself not to simply pull the smaller man into his arms and engulf him, but by now he knew Morad was most responsive when he felt a measure of control, so he waited his turn.
"Of course, if you don't hurry you're going to drive me crazy," he murmured.
"I like to see you crazy," Morad whispered huskily. He leaned forward, nibbled on Q's bottom lip for a moment then let go. "I love your mouth."
"Show me again." He closed his eyes, waiting for whatever Morad would do next. It amazed him sometimes, that he allowed this, but it was absolutely worth it to see Morad relaxed and happy.
Morad kissed him, long lazy kisses that were utterly tantalizing. When he reached down to gently cup Q's genitals, Q dropped his head back and moaned, opening his legs wide.
"Careful," Morad laughed shakily. "Don't knock me over."
"Let's go upstairs," Q urged. They were on the patio overlooking the garden. Riller had tactfully gone out for the evening and the house was still and silent around them.
Morad shook his head. "Outside."
"Not again," Q complained. Morad's predilection for exotic locales was something Q tried to discourage. The shower, the beach, the aircar, a booth in his restaurant--Q thought it was barbaric, but he'd never managed to persuade Morad that beds were the only appropriate place for trysting.
"In the garden," Morad insisted. He stood up and took his shirt off by way of encouragement. Shoes and pants quickly followed while Q hissed at him to get dressed.
"Why are you whispering," Morad asked in a normal tone of voice. "There's no one here." He held out his arms and backed towards the door.
"Humans! Why I decided to become one of you is one of the great mysteries of the age. Why this obsession with outdoors nudity?"
"It feels good," Morad answered simply. He stepped off the porch into the garden proper. "Come give me a kiss."
"No." But Q stood and took a step towards him. "I'm not chasing you this time. Come back here!"
Morad widened the distance between them and Q increased the length of his stride. He wasn't going to do anything so undignified as to run after him, but he tracked him steadily while Morad laughed and dashed away. After a few minutes of this, Q began to stalk him in earnest. There was no point, he decided, in knowing the layout of your garden if you couldn't occasionally take advantage of it. He ducked behind a row of giant hybrid calanchoe and waited. Sure enough, when Morad realized he wasn't being followed anymore he began to cautiously pick his way back up the path. He walked right past Q who turned and lunged, grabbing him from behind.
It was a measure of the trust between them that he could now lift Morad without panicking the smaller man. Morad wriggled, but he was laughing too hard to get purchase. Q carried him back towards the house like a trophy and set him triumphantly on the porch.
"Inside with you," he commanded.
"Uhuh." Morad lifted his face, pulled Q's head down to meet him. Their kiss grew steadily more passionate, and Morad pulled at Q's shirt until skin met bare skin.
"So good," Q murmured as Morad unzipped his pants and reached inside. His hands were all over Morad's body, every place except his groin. Finally he knelt, rubbing his face against Morad's erection.
"Don't," Morad whispered, meaning don't tease. He moaned, cried out 'yes, YES!' as Q took him in his mouth. Q stayed down on him until he felt Morad's legs start to quiver--a sure sign that he was close-then he pulled away. He looked around him, realizing they were still downstairs. "Damn," he muttered.
"What?" Morad gasped.
"No lubricant," Q complained. "I told you we should do this in the bedroom."
"Pants pocket," Morad said. He could barely think straight, much less speak. He shivered with the need to touch himself, to complete what Q had almost finished, but Q saw where his hands were going and shook his head. "Wait for me," he said. "You know you want to."
"Hurry," Morad whispered, though Q hardly needed the encouragement. Kicking his pants off as he fumbled through Morad's clothes, he found the small tube and sped back to Morad's side.
"Lie down," he whispered hoarsely. He coated himself liberally, rubbed the rest on Morad's sweet opening, then pulled his legs apart. "Minx," he said, tossing the tube aside and leaning over him, "you planned this all along."
His only answer was a lopsided grin as Morad pulled Q into position.
"Are you ready?" Q asked. "Is this okay for you?"
"Ready," Morad whispered. "Please, Q."
Watching Morad's reaction carefully, Q pushed in, bare millimeters at a time, savoring the restraint. He concentrated on his breathing, in and out, patiently, like Sauvage had taught him so long ago.
Morad sighed, "Yes, Q. It feels so good." He canted his hips up, taking more.
Q slowly pushed in further, felt Morad shudder as his penis stroked the back of his prostate gland and moaned in sympathetic reaction. He knew what that felt like; back and forth, each stroke pushing him closer by tiny increments until he was taut with urgency, wondering if he'd ever get all the way there. He pulled out, turned Morad over and had at him again, masturbating him in time to his driving thrusts. Morad groaned steadily, low, guttural sounds that pulled from deep inside him.
"Harder, Q." Morad was thrusting back against him now. "Gods, fuck me!"
'Roast beef,' Q thought desperately, conjuring up the revolting scent of seared flesh. Anything to stave off his rush to completion. 'Nasty, bloody, rare...'. Morad's cries grew louder. Q leaned away. Morad reared back when he came, had almost broken Q's nose once, so Q had learned to be careful. Still, his face was scant inches away when Morad cried out, convulsed, and threw himself backwards into Q's arms. Q caught him and held him close for a moment, chest to back, while Morad caught his breath.
Morad pulled out of his grasp, steadied himself on his hands and knees then turned and looked at Q as if to say, 'well, what are you waiting for?' Q smiled. He could have bothered to hold out a little longer, but saw no reason to. He drove himself towards the finish with gusto, pulling Morad's hips hard against him as he came.
Morad immediately turned and took Q in his arms. Q, for some reason, always got very sad right after. Morad would have prevented it if he could have, but he didn't know how. Q clutched him tightly, and they clung together until the air began to chill their cooling bodies.
Finally Morad took a deep breath. "We should put a shower down here," he murmured.
Q held him tighter. "Spend the night with me."
Morad stroked Q's back, gentling him. "I promise I'll come back tomorrow afternoon, but you know I have to get up early tomorrow and get to..."
"The restaurant," Q finished for him. He'd known, though it hadn't prevented him from asking. Morad's restaurant was his pride and joy, but to the extent it was possible to hate an inanimate object, Q despised it. As far as Q was concerned, Morad belonged to him, and he didn't like having to compete for his attention, ever. Once, casually, Q had asked him if he'd ever consider selling it. The answer was immediate and unequivocal. Morad had worked too hard to make the place what it was. He would rather die than give it up.
Q pretended not to mind, but that didn't stop him from looking for ways to weasel more of Morad's time. "You know, if you spent the night more often you could take self-defense lessons with me in the morning."
"Not doing it." This was a meandering argument of theirs that had no end, and Morad, though not stubborn, was very firm when pushed. "Risa is one of the safest places in the galaxy."
Morad rose to his feet, tugging at Q's arm. "Come on. You're too big for me to carry."
Q got to his feet. "You promise tomorrow night?"
Morad picked up his clothes. "I promise." He slipped an arm around Q's waist, leaning against him comfortingly as they took the stairs together.
True to her word, Selena was transforming Q's house from an ordinary mansion into a showpiece. She followed up on Q's antiquities theme, as she called it, combing the known planets for more rare and costly pieces of statuary. Q balked at first, and tried to micromanage every selection, but eventually he gave up and let her have her way. She had exquisite taste, and in truth, he was happy to have someone else take care of the neglected portions of his house. He watched with covert approval as his home filled up with beautiful pieces from around the galaxy.
Riller was horrified by how much money Selena was spending, but when she mentioned it to him, Q brushed her off.
"What about all those things we sold to Starfleet?"
"Well, true, you got thirty million dollars, but she's spent almost a third of that already."
Q shrugged. He really didn't care. Truth to tell, he was finding it harder to care about little things like money. He'd slowed down his search for the dilithium planet though he hadn't exactly told this to Riller. He was even beginning to lose interest in this party, the ostensible reason for all his mad spending.
Selena, on the other hand, was getting more excited by the day. "Q," she informed him exultantly, "by the time these invitations go out, you and I are going to be *the* power couple on Risa."
Q watched with bemusement as she began a campaign to position them at the absolute zenith of Risan high society. She took him to the season opening of the Selis Black Cycle and introduced him to her friends at intermission. At the cast party afterwards, he got more attention that the actors, and his emotions soared.
Several days later, he began to receive the first of what would eventually become dozens of invitations. He would have accepted them all, but Selena wouldn't hear of it.
"Ignore them," she ordered dismissively. "Third tier hacks trying to claw their way up the social ladder. If you accept their invitations you'll embarrass yourself and worst of all, you'll embarrass me."
She rifled through them contemptuously then pushed them towards the disposal. "You don't see any of *my* friends in there, do you?"
Q smirked at her with cool amusement. "You seem to know all about clawing your way up the social ladder, don't you, Snack Food Heiress?"
Selena gave him a wry smile and for once did not rise to his baiting. "Q," she shifted position on his desk and a rush of perfume wafted over him as she leaned forward with an attitude of imparting the secrets of the universe. "Let me tell you something very important. These people don't know you. They don't like you, and they will use you and drain you dry if you let them." She tapped an elegant finger against the pile of discarded invitations. "Tell me how you think I know this."
He stared up at her, watching as her thoughts turned inward and her eyes grew cold. "This happened to you, I take it?"
She smiled, a bit bitterly, Q thought, and did not directly answer his question. "I'll put it this way. It's been tried."
"Hm." Riller had given him a very similar warning when he'd first met her. His knowledge made him a rare find among the scientists. It stood to reason he was a hot commodity in this circle as well. He pushed the pile of invitations at her. "Well, you decide."
She tossed the whole pile into the disposal and dusted her hands. "Done."
In the middle of the season, they attended went to the Sculpture Gardens invitation-only black tie dinner in support of the arts.
"What exactly is a tie?" Q asked as they circled the room pretending to appreciate the jarringly eclectic collection.
"It used to be the sine qua non of formal male attire," Selena answered. She was affecting an elegant pose just inside an archway while Q pretended to study a painting. "No one wears them anymore but the name stuck."
"Ah." Q's head felt light and he was getting more annoyed by the minute. He could have spent the night with Morad but instead he was looking at ugly art and staving off the advances of pushy social gadabouts.
"I'm going to get a glass of water," he announced and pushed his way through the crowd. People noticed him, of course, but he ignored them. His head was beginning to pound and by the time he got to the buffet table he felt positively ghastly.
"Make that Simillian brandy," a voice behind him ordered.
Q turned a cold stare on the interloper. "I prefer a glass of water, if you don't mind."
"Not at all, but at least let me apologize to you. Your head hurts, doesn't it?"
"Horribly," Q admitted, then squinted suspiciously. "How do you know?"
"I caused it. I didn't mean to," he said quickly, trying to stave off Q's anger. "I thought you were a telepath and I was sending to you."
"What made you think that?" Q took the water and drank down half a glass. His telepathy was gone along with the rest of his powers. This thought, which would have once created a melange of grief and regret, now only caused a distant, smoking anger. Whatever effect this stranger had intended with his probing, the result was that Q suddenly felt enervated and not at all amenable to a round of verbal jousting. He heard the clunk of heavy boots and knew his guards had come up behind him. That made him feel a little better.
"I just somehow got that impression. I don't really know why," the man explained. "I'm usually never mistaken about that."
Q knew why. He still had a telepath's brain-wave patterns even though the ability had been taken away from him. It was not something he felt like explaining. "Well this time you were mistaken, so if you're through torturing me you can leave now."
"Listen, my office is just through that door." The man touched Q's arm and moved a step closer. "I have a couch where you can lie down for a few minutes."
'Oh, not again,' Q thought, irritatedly. He hated being flirted with when he didn't feel like flirting back, and he blithely assumed that strangers should be able to intuit his disinterest. He really did want to lie down but... "What's your name?"
"Taisant. I'm the curator."
"Well Taisant, as long as you understand that the words 'lie down' and 'bend over' are not synonymous, I'll take you up on that."
"I wouldn't dream of imposing," Taisant spoke with every evidence of sincerity. "When my mind hit your barriers and I knew what I had done, I wanted to apologize. Then you turned around and your face was so pale. I felt really rotten."
"And well you should have," Q inhaled deeply. He was actually beginning to feel better. The water helped some, as did the fresh air wafting through the open windows. Perhaps he didn't need to lie down after all. "Hideous collection by the way."
Taisant looked stricken. "Do you really think so?"
Actually, he didn't. Q didn't know anything about art. He didn't even know what he liked unless it cost a lot, but he couldn't resist the impulse to say something ugly. "You're the mindreader. You tell me."
Spots of color appeared on Taisant's cheeks. "I don't have to beg you to let me be nice to you."
"In fact you do." Q answered with a sneer. "What will the boardmembers think when they find out that their curator goes around inadvertently mindraping guests?"
Now it was Taisant's turn to pale.
"In fact," said a voice from his shoulderblade, "you have to be very nice to this gentleman, for no other reason than because I say so."
Q and Taisant turned at once. A petite Andorian woman, antenna arcing back in indignation, stood behind them. Ised.
"Lady Tagni," Taisant gasped. Had Q not been so put out, he would have been highly amused to watch the beads of sweat popping out on Taisant's forehead.
Ised smiled sweetly, but her eyes bored into him. "That's Boardmember Tagni to you."
"Ised," Q murmured. He glanced at Taisant, making sure he saw that Q had the use of her first name. "I hope you've come to rescue me from this heathen."
Ised put her hand on his, leading him away. "Don't worry Q. I'll take care of Taisant."
Q walked with her. "I'm sure you will, my dear. I have utter faith in you." They strolled through the crowd, leaving behind the deeply embarrassed and soon to be jobless Taisant. "Now tell me." He changed the subject. "Have you kept your promise to me? No one else knows about my galactic." He fixed her with a stern gaze when she did not at once answer. "Do they?"
"Oh, Q, I've been terrible." She looked at him with wide, remorseful eyes. "I told everyone, but it was an accident. We were talking about how lovely you looked in that green thing you wore to the Selis Black Cycle and I said I just couldn't wait to see what you were going to make us wear to your galactic." She shook her head sadly. "Now everybody knows."
Q gave her a theatrically exasperated sigh. "You told." He looked down his nose at her. "Then you have to make amends."
Her eyes glowed. "What do I have to do?"
"It's a terrible punishment. And you can start with those two vultures bearing down on me from our left."
"What, them?" Ised glanced out of the corner of her eye. "They're nobody."
"Right. And they want me. And your job is to keep them away."
Q stroked the back of her hand with his fingers, like he'd done at the beach. His expression was indolently seductive, and Ised took a sudden breath as if her gown were too tight. "I know it is, but you want to make me happy, don't you?"
Ised closed her mouth where it had fallen open slightly. "How can I possibly resist you?" She asked. "What do you want me to say to them?"
"Tell them to go away." They exchanged glances. This would be fun.
Ised and Q pretended not to see the approaching women as they too obviously tried to make eye contact.
"Aren't you Q?" One of them asked, nearly plowing into him in her urgency.
"What he is, is busy," Ised drawled. She looked at them serenely. "So you have to go away now."
Unwisely, they ignored her. "My brother was at your lab a few months ago," the other one said, straining to make any type of connection.
Q and Ised exchanged glances, then strolled past the two women as if they hadn't spoken at all. In a crowded room, where Q commanded a great deal of covert attention, it was a vicious snub. The one with the brother, realizing she'd just lost a great deal of face, made a desperate bid to salvage a bad situation.
"My brother says all your knowledge about physics is just smoke and mirrors. He says you don't know anything."
The insult, called to Q's retreating back, made him stop in his tracks. He turned around slowly, his smile fixed and lethal. "What's your brother's name, Dear Heart?"
She lifted her head defiantly. "Kozinski. Durgos Kozinski."
"Ah." Q leaned in towards Ised but let his voice carry. "The thing to remember about the Kozinski siblings is that it's not their fault. Start out with bad genes, throw in a mother who took drugs the whole time she was pregnant with them, and this is the result." He raked her up and down with an expression of barely-veiled distaste, then shuddered ostentatiously. "Rather pathetic, actually, but," he added sanctimoniously, "we have to try to be nice to them so they won't feel quite so freakish."
Ised stared at the woman blankly then started to giggle. She cut herself off abruptly, apologized insincerely, then started to laugh again.
Q joined her. He had a terrific, booming laugh which rolled out over the room and drew attention. Kozinski sib and friend found themselves being stared at, the fact, if not the details, of their humiliation obvious to all and sundry.
"Come, Sweetheart," Q took Ised's hand. "Let's find someone interesting to talk to." They turned away.
"Asshole." It was the worst of bad moves, but Kozinski had already thrown away her dignity and any chance at weaseling into a better social standing, so it didn't matter.
Q turned around slowly, amusement plain on his face. "Are you still at it?" His voice carried. "Do you *want* my guards to chase you away?"
His guards were not people to tangle with. Self- preservation replaced hostility and the two women backed away, trying not to look as frightened as they felt.
Q and Ised sauntered off. "Is this what you put up with all the time?" Q asked. He shook his head wonderingly. "How do you stand it?"
Ised shrugged forlornly. "Now you see how difficult and complex my life is." Her features turned down into a scowling pout. "I try so very hard to be nice but no one appreciates me."
"Oh, but Angel, I appreciate you." Q let his expression soften, gave her an understanding smile. "I see how hard you work."
"Oh, Q," Ised squeezed his arm affectionately. "You are the sweetest, kindest man on this planet."
"Well," he looked down modestly, "one can only do his best."
"Guess what?" It was several days after the Sculpture Gardens affair, and Selena had come over with a news chip. "Kozinski's application to join the beach club was turned down." She smiled up at him admiringly. "Q, you are so bad. You've practically chased her off the planet."
"Well good," Q answered sulkily. "She was mean to me and Ised."
"Oh, and speaking of which, we got rid of that curator person. And on behalf of the Arts Council Board, I'm apologizing for his behavior. No one knew he was... like that."
"You know." Selena looked uncomfortable. "A rapist."
Q was somewhat taken aback. He knew what mindrape was, and that had been nothing of the sort. Q had simply exaggerated his discomfort, as usual. Taisant made a pass at him telepathically, had failed, had apologized, had tried to make amends. Now he'd not only been fired, his reputation was ruined as well. 'Fascinating,' he thought, 'and I caused that to happen to him because he wouldn't grovel.' He smiled. "Tell your friends on the Board that I'm still very distressed about the whole thing, but I know it wasn't their fault, so I forgive them."
Selena actually looked relieved. She waggled her fingers as if she were dismissing the whole train of thought. "Now for the good news," she said. She dropped the chip into the viewer, found what she was looking for, then sat back with a flourish and waited for his reaction.
Q immediately recognized the picture of himself, strolling down the beach, bareass naked for everyone in the galaxy to see. His face was partially hidden by sunshades, but it couldn't have been anyone else. An equally naked Selena strolled beside him, and his two guards, trying not to look uncomfortable, walked behind.
"You're being followed, Q." Her voice was triumphant. If she understood his amazed horror she gave no sign. "When the paparazzi chase you, you know you've arrived."
Q would have preferred very much to have died. He had no idea how to react to this, so he popped the chip out of the viewer, walked down the hall to Riller's office and handed it to her.
"What is this?" She dropped it into her own viewer, stared at it blankly for a second, then her eyes widened. "Father, Son and Jesus Christ!" She exclaimed. "That's you!"
"Father, Son and Holy Ghost," he corrected. He knew these things.
"I can't go anywhere without those awful camera jocks following me," he complained. His secret mortification was fading somewhat at Riller's lack of outrage or anger on his behalf. After all, he did look extremely attractive.
Riller started to giggle. "Nice box, Q." She handed him back the chip. "I guess we don't have to wonder anymore."
"How typically lowbrow," he derided her, but he was relieved. If she didn't think it was bad, it probably wasn't. Still, he was glad his friends on the Enterprise weren't around to see it.
Lightyears away, before their morning staff meeting, a disbelieving senior staff passed around a magazine chip Deanna's mother had sent her. One by one, they looked, gaped in amazement, then roared with laughter.
"Please, share the joke," Picard requested when he joined them. He was trying to hide his annoyance at the utterly inappropriate jocularity. Beverly, Deanna and Will looked like a trio of naughty children who'd just been caught playing doctor. Worf was growling and muttering to himself, his arms folded in disapproval. Geordi had his visor off, wiping tears and trying to control himself, and Data looked confused.
"If you're sure you want to see it, Captain," Deanna's eyes were alight with mischievous glee as she pushed the padd towards him. "Consider yourself warned."
Picard generally didn't waste his time reading magazines with titles like 'Beautiful People', and he knew his staff didn't either, so he was a bit mystified by the picture of the well- built, nude male which commanded their attention. Then he recognized something about the set of the shoulders; the way the mouth was held; the hairline. "My god," he exploded in disbelief. "It can't be! Is that Q?"
The other humans in the room burst into laughter again. "That's exactly what we said, Captain," Deanna answered. "He seems rather pleased with himself, doesn't he?"
"And such a nice... tan," Beverly added.
Jean-Luc shot her a chiding look, then he shrugged, his sense of proportion taking over. "Do you know, I was actually worried about him. He didn't seem to be faring very well as a human, but apparently things have changed somewhat." He read the caption. "'Risa's most eligible bachelor...' Ugh. That poor man."
Had he known Picard's assessment of him, Q might have agreed. His mortal life was perfect, but now that he'd settled into it, he was increasingly disturbed by how meaningless it was. Now he perceived the true fiendishness of his banishment from the continuum. Without his powers he was only a physical shell within which nothing more existed than a little personality and some bits of leftover knowledge. No matter how much he achieved, acquired or accomplished, he would never possess the least fraction of his former omnipotence, and sometimes he felt the loss so keenly it made him fear for his sanity. He developed the irrational notion that he might not really exist if he couldn't see himself, so he installed mirrors everywhere. It was stupid; he knew that, but he spent more and more time staring at himself, as if he couldn't quite figure out what had happened to him. Riller and Morad worried about him, he knew, but his fears were too inchoate to put into words, and he deflected their concern with meaningless reassurances.
'I used to be a god,' he told his reflection, and waited for a response. The lovely face stared back at him blandly. From Selena, he'd learned to keep his features shuttered, and now his expression naturally fell into lines of non-emotion. It reflected his inner emptiness, he thought, but perhaps that was best.
And the strangest thing was, life went on around him as if no one knew he'd become a hollow man except himself. Selena brought a holoprogram over and told him to learn how to dance. He was good at it, and that saddened him. Had it cost him anything in terms of time or effort he might have been proud of his accomplishment, but somehow, gliding easily through the complicated steps, in the arms of a fake partner, he felt fraudulent and invisible.
'I'm dying,' he told his reflection, and was vaguely surprised that it didn't seem to matter much.
"Q?" Riller stood just outside the door to his office. "Could we talk for a moment?"
Q looked up, a mask-like smile slipping over his features. "Of course, Riller, what is it?"
"It's been a while since you asked me for another starchart. Aren't you looking for the dilithium anymore?"
The smile shifted, became more carefully deliberate. "Of course I am, Rills, but I haven't been having much luck, unfortunately."
Riller nodded. Q's insincere, regretful smile told her he was lying, but she didn't know what to do about it. If he'd snarled at her and told her to go away and leave him alone, she could have snarled right back, but the untruth was a wall between them she couldn't breach. It was dangerous to push him too far these days, because the cold, disingenuous facade easily gave way to barely-controlled rage. Sometimes when she looked at him all she saw was the hard-eyed methodical killer in Ba'Sres's holo. The old Q, the sulky, whining, complaining, petty, self-indulgent former godling, had been much easier to live with, but she did not know how to find him. This Q, cruelly brittle and distant, was utterly unapproachable.
"Well," she hedged, "whenever you want another starchart, I'll have it waiting."
She hid in her office the rest of the morning. It was Wednesday, so Morad would come by to spend the night and Q would be easier to live with for a few days.
That was the peculiar thing about all this, Riller mused; Q really did have his good side. Most of his students ran cowering with their tails between their legs, but many others held him in near-idolatrous esteem for the things he'd taught them. He'd refused her offer to take over the cost of looking for her mother, even though the fees were outrageous. And with Morad he was damned near unrecognizable. Their relationship was like something out of legend--Tristan meets Romeo. She would have never imagined him so gentle with anyone if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes. How could she reconcile his double-sided personality if she couldn't even get a handle on it?
When they'd first met, his neediness and ineptitude made it impossible for her to simply abandon him. Now, it was the fact of his kinder side that still kept her loyal to him despite his moodiness and thinly-veiled hostility. She made excuses, telling herself he needed her to run his affairs, but in her heart she knew she'd given up all pretense of objectivity. She spent her time devising traps to keep Eric out of the computer, grimly endured his neurotic changes of mood, and patiently kept track of his legal affairs for one reason: she cared what happened to him.
Not that she wanted to admit it to herself.
She simply did what she knew best, buried herself in work and tried to keep herself too busy to think. She was bent over her desk taking notes on the exclusivity clause in Q's contract with Starfleet when Q stuck his head into her office to fetch her for lunch.
"Rills, if I didn't know you better I'd say you weren't feeling well," he observed. The sympathetic words were belied by his cold expression. He seemed almost amused by her evident distress.
"I feel fine, Q," she protested. In fact, she'd lost weight and circles were beginning to form under her eyes. She looked worse than she did when she was studying for finals.
"Well, fix yourself up or something. Selena and Ised are coming over and I don't want you to make a bad impression."
"Thank you for your kind concern, Q" she murmured, thinking sourly that this was yet another lunch she wouldn't be able to eat.
Selena and Ised were waiting for them when they got to the dining room. Ised, who apparently couldn't get enough of Q, ran her hands familiarly down his torso before leaning in to kiss him. "Doesn't Alpha look terrific?" She gushed to no one in particular.
"Alpha?" Riller asked.
"Short for alpha male," Ised explained with a laugh. "You must admit the description fits him perfectly."
Riller thought it was pathetic, but Q was eating it up, one arm familiarly around Ised's waist. "Ised you simply have to stop fondling me like I'm some sort of stuffed toy," he protested fatuously. "It's indecent."
Privately Riller agreed, and if Selena's tight expression was any indication, she did too. Selena wore a narrow smile but Riller could see she was annoyed. The smile grew even more forced when Ised sat in the chair Selena usually took for herself.
"Would you like to have my chair, Selena?" Riller stood up, prepared to move, but Q stopped her.
"*I* want you sitting where you always sit, Rills." Q glowered at Selena. "The diva surely doesn't mind if I talk to Ised today? Do you, Diva?"
"Mind?" Selena gave Ised a warm smile. "You go right ahead and talk to him, Precious. It'll be a welcome change actually."
Above Ised's fluffy white hair, Q and Selena exchanged poisonous glances. Riller's stomach began to ache. As usual, when there was anyone at the table besides Q, herself, and Morad, she kept her head bent over her food, trying as hard as possible to pretend she was invisible. Today the trick didn't work. With nothing better to do since Q was deep in conversation with Ised, Selena apparently decided it was a good day to torment lawyers.
"Riller, lift your head up." Selena's voice was rich with malicious amusement. "You're eating as if you expected someone to steal your plate from you."
Had Q tried to tweak her about the way she ate, Riller would have teased back or simply ignored him, but Selena's dainty manners made her self-conscious. Nonetheless, lifting her head would be tacit agreement with Selena's assessment of her manners, so Riller kept her head bent over her food and didn't say anything.
"Did you hear me?" When there was no answer Selena continued, "I *know* you're not ignoring me, so I assume you see nothing wrong in fressing like a pig. That means no party for you, young lady."
That got Q's attention. "Are you giving orders to *my* employee? Rills is coming to the party because I say she is."
Glancing up, Riller noticed Selena and Ised exchanging glances. Then Ised turned to Q and smiled indulgently. "Of course she is. You're going to walk around all night with a little tri-colored harem trailing your every step."
Q and Selena burst out laughing and despite her tension, Riller found herself smiling along. The image was funny; blue Ised, green Riller and brown Selena. A few more judiciously eclectic choices and he would have a rainbow of adoring followers. Not that Riller expected to be among them: Q might not have known the unwritten rule that one did not party with one's servants, but Riller knew, and so did Selena and Ised. Riller bent over her food again, but Selena was not quite ready to leave well enough alone. During a lull in conversation she posed Riller another question.
"So tell me," her voice was innocent of all malice, "exactly what kind of name *is* Riller? It doesn't sound Orionese, and it certainly isn't human."
Q and Ised looked at Riller with mild curiously, and Riller felt entrapped. She didn't like talking about herself, and Q knew it. She shot him a look she hoped he'd understand--if ever there was an appropriate time for him to step in and change the subject, this was it.
Q smiled coldly and raised an eyebrow as if to say, 'well?'
"Well," Riller finally said, "I think my mama was trying to name me Aurelia, after my father's mother. Riller was the best she could make it out."
Selena's eyes widened. "Isn't that touching? Your mother was..." she paused delicately, "Orionese?"
That much was obvious, but they both knew that wasn't what Selena meant. She might as well have said it out loud. Slave woman's daughter.
'Fuck yourself,' Riller thought. She knew her expression was angry as she looked up to face Selena. "What about it?"
"Oh nothing. Just asking." Having finally managed to get a reaction out of her, Selena was almost ready to subside, but not without one final jab. "It's just surprising in this day and age to find someone who can't read enough to make out a simple four syllable name."
Well, of course her mother couldn't read at all, but Riller was not about to admit that. "Is there a point to this, Selena?"
Selena bridled. She hated it when Riller called her by name.
Q turned to Ised and asked fatuously, "Are those two fighting?"
Ever the peacemaker, Ised turned to Selena. "Don't fight. Riller was just leaving. Weren't you Riller?"
"Yes, weren't you, Riller?" Q smiled his hard, mocking smile.
"In fact I was." Riller rose from the table. "Enjoy your lunch, ladies. Alphy." She barely kept the scorn off her face as she bade him goodbye.
"Alpha," Ised corrected. As she went upstairs, Riller could hear her murmuring to Q. "Don't let her eat with us anymore, it sets a bad precedent."
'Okay, so Q is a pig,' Riller told herself. 'What are you going to do about it?'
She was in her office with the door locked, pacing. Q, Selena and Ised were still at the table, chattering excitedly about Q's party. Bad enough that he hadn't stood up for her against Selena's sniping, but to say nothing when Ised dismissed her so cavalierly was the last straw. Riller was trying not to feel hurt, but she was failing, and she was tired of making excuses for him.
She stopped pacing. 'Excuses for who?' she demanded of herself. 'You've gotten pretty comfortable here, haven't you? Go back to Rigel,' she told herself. 'Where you can be with real people again.'
It took her about a minute to decide, then she sat down at her desk and started making calls.
About a month before his party Selena declared herself satisfied with the state of Q's home.
"Now a galactic," she explained to him, "is a really, really, really big party." But it wasn't just big. It had to have a theme, and it...
"Morad caters." Q interrupted.
"I asked him months ago." Selena was exasperated. "Do you think I'd ask anyone else besides him?" She waited to see how he would react. "Have you slept with him yet?"
This was getting tedious. "Did anyone tell you how pathetic you sound when you try to weasel information out of me?"
Selena shrugged. "Just curious. *Somebody* has to find out how good you are in bed. If it isn't Morad then I have to do it."
Blatant as it was, Q couldn't just ignore this proposition. "Why Selena, are you in love with me?"
"No, but everyone's asking what you're like and I want to be able to tell them something."
"I'm fantastic." Q answered archly. "Just ask my gardener."
Q did not want to sleep with Selena. She was entertaining enough that he might have at one point, but now he had Morad and really didn't want anyone else. He did occasionally wonder what she'd be like, but he had a suspicion that sleeping with her would ensnare him, somehow, and he didn't want to risk it. He would, however, take the risk of telling her how he felt. "I don't want to sleep with you, Selena."
She just laughed. "Like you have a choice."
Q had no idea what she meant by that. "So tell me some more about this party of ours."
"Seriously, Q." Selena was not ready to let the subject drop. "You're going to have to sleep with me or Ised."
Q was revolted. "Do you give me money first? Or do you just beg me until I feel sorry enough to give you a tumble."
"However you want it," Selena shrugged, not the least bit discomfited.
"What happens if I don't want it?"
"People spread rumors about you. And I'll be in no position to stop them." She rested her chin in her hands, letting him see the triumph in her eyes.
"O heaven forbid," Q scoffed, but secretly he began to worry. He knew Ised was a rumor-monger, and he had first-hand experience of how vicious she could be. Selena was as much as saying she wouldn't stop Ised. "I suppose it'll have to be you since you asked first," he tried not to capitulate too completely, "but not until after the party."
Selena sighed as if it didn't matter to her one way of another. "Whatever, Q. Just give the word."
"Selena wants me to sleep with her," Q announced. He and Morad were in bed, sated, but not quite ready for sleep. The party was only three weeks away and Morad was excited. He was telling Q all about the wonderful menu he'd planned while Q drowsed beside him, not really listening. His comment about Selena came out of the blue.
His train of thought broken, Morad lifted his head and looked into Q's eyes for a long moment. "Do you want to?"
"No," Q scowled. "Of course not." A thought occurred to him. "Does she ever ask you about us?"
"All the time. I laugh it off, but I never tell her yes or no."
"She threatened to start rumors about me if I don't."
"She'll do it," Morad warned. "I've known her a long time. Better give her what she wants."
"I don't like the idea of playing the whore for her."
Morad shrugged. "If you hold off until after the party you can dump her."
Now it was Q's turn to look up. "Am I hearing this advice from Morad?"
"Q, its either that or wait for her to dump you. She will eventually, you know." Q bristled, but Morad laid a restraining hand on his chest. "Remember that curator who got fired?"
It had been several months, but Q had not forgotten. "Taisant. What about him?"
"Five years ago *he* was her rising star. Then she abandoned him. He cried on my shoulder for weeks. I think at one point he really was in love with her."
Q didn't like the sound of that. "I didn't know you knew Taisant."
"Oh yes. We met when I opened my new place."
Q was immediately jealous. He remembered Morad liked tall, dark, well-dressed men, and Taisant certainly fit that description. "Do you still see him?"
"Never. I lent him some money to go off-planet a few months ago, but that was the first time I'd seen him for years." Morad shrugged.
"You didn't tell me that." Tension knotted his stomach.
Morad seemed genuinely confused. "Why would I have told you?"
There was no good reason. Q rolled over on his back, his face closed and tight. Any remaining guilt over getting Taisant fired had completely dissipated in the face of this revelation.
Morad noticed his anger. "You are being silly," he declared. He pushed Q's arm above his head and nosed in Q's armpit. Q was very ticklish. He yelped and pulled away, but Morad followed him, climbing onto his chest and holding both arms above his head. "Don't tell me you're jealous of Taisant."
"I'm jealous of everyone," Q admitted candidly. "And get off my chest. You're suffocating me."
He rolled over, trapping Morad beneath him.
"Now you're suffocating *me*," Morad gasped as Q's weight drove the breath from his lungs. When Q showed no sign of wanting to move, Morad laughed. "So, now that you've got me where you want me," he asked, "what are you going to do with me?"
Q stared down at him and did not answer. There was nothing more beautiful than the sight of Morad smiling up at him. Emotion overwhelmed him so suddenly that his face twisted in pain. "I love you, Morad." 'I love you Morad,' his inner voice ruthlessly mocked his weakness, 'how pitiful you are.'
"Oh, Q, don't cry. I love you too." Morad pulled Q down against him and stroked the back of his head, trying to bring comfort. "You frighten me when you do that."
"I can't help it." Q's voice was muffled against Morad's chest, the words spilling out even through his shame at having mouthed them. "Sometimes I'm so afraid."
"That you'll leave." For someone else. And I'll be all alone. Q imagined Taisant lying in Morad's embrace like he now did. The thought made him tighten his hands around Morad possessively.
"Sorry." He let go with an effort of will, chiding himself for his momentary weakness. Morad wasn't leaving, of course he wasn't leaving, and he, Q, was being silly because Morad wouldn't leave. Couldn't leave. Right?
"I love you," he whispered again, fully aware that this was more demand than declaration, for wasn't Morad now required to reassure in kind, that he also loved Q?
"Show me," Morad whispered back. He pulled Q's face down to his and kissed him tenderly.
The kiss grew more intense. They rolled on Q's bed, letting urgency build slowly. Q was fumbling around for more lubricant, thinking how wonderful it was to do this twice in one night, when a horrible ululating shriek interrupted him, so raw and unexpected that for a moment all he and Morad could do was cling to one another in sheer terror.
"Riller's hurt," Morad whispered. He jumped up and ran, grabbing Q's bathrobe as his only covering. Q was a moment behind, pausing to fumble at his briefs before abandoning them for an arbitrary piece of clothing which he clutched to his groin. The shrieking got louder as they sprinted down the hall. By the time they'd bounced off her door, then tumbled through it to land in a heap on her rug, she was positively raucous.
Q was stunned by what he saw. Riller was actually leaping into the air, shrieking and turning in circles like some demented ballet dancer.
"Have you lost your mind?" Q demanded as soon as he saw she wasn't hurt. He got to his feet. "Stop this! Stop this or I swear I'll have you sedated!"
Riller looked at him as if she hadn't understood a word he'd said. "It's mama!" She cried. She grabbed him by the hand, dragged him over to her console and pointed. "It's my mother! Mama look. This is Q. I live in his house. Q, this is my mother, Vayzashenar."
She was too excited and happy to pay attention to the fact that he was naked, but Q was horribly aware that his complete attire consisted of a strategically placed undershirt. "How do you do?" He covered his genitals with his hands and quickly sank into a chair. This was not the way he'd envisioned their first meeting.
Vayzashenar looked to Riller for an explanation, but Riller was off, looking for tissue and muttering to herself.
"And I'm Morad," Morad said, angling his position so that he stood behind Q's chair.
Morad had placed his hand on Q's shoulder and Q reached up to take it, making it obvious who was the couple here. 'As if the two of us nude didn't give it away,' he thought wryly. For a long moment he simply stared at Vayzashenar. She was more than an older, greener version of Riller, and he could see in her everything Riller had abandoned to become who she was. Contrast her languid gestures with Riller's rigid posture; her easy smile with Riller's poker face; the rich cut and fabric of her clothes with Riller's dark, conservative suits, and in the juxtaposition he could read the secret history of Riller's life. Here was the missing clue he'd searched for; that her inner conflict centered around a fight against becoming what her mother had been. Was that why she never liked to talk about herself? Because she was afraid the facade would crumble under closer inspection? Q put these questions aside. There was a more pressing issue at hand.
"Not to put too fine a point on it," he finally said, "but where the hell have you been the past five months?"
Vayzashenar simply looked at him. "Did one of the agencies find you?" Q elaborated.
Vayzashenar turned to Riller. She'd come back and was stroking the screen as if the touch would communicate itself through lightyears. Ridiculous, Q thought, but at least she was quiet.
"We hired detective services to try to look for you." Riller explained. "We couldn't find you anywhere."
Riller's mother shook her head. "You wasted a lot of money."
"You could have left a note or something," Q complained. "'Riller, house burned down, leaving for Rigel, call you soon. Love, Mom.' Your daughter's been worried sick for months." As I have been, he thought but did not say.
"Ah-Ri-La, they left us to live or die as we could. It so happened that a freighter was making a routine stop and we begged on board as crew. His next stop was the Por'sev system and we were travelling at sublight."
Oh. Well, no wonder. "So you spent all this time working on a freighter?"
Vzyzashenar ignored him. She and Riller were staring at each other, their faces practically touching the screen.
"I worried that you would call and not know what happened, Ah-Ri-La."
Q nudged her. "Ahreela?" he queried.
"That's how she says Riller," Riller answered absently. She turned back to her mother. "I thought you were dead, Mama."
Vayzashenar shook her head. "I'm sorry you were frightened. I called you from Por'sev but you never answered. So I came here to find you. That's when I got the forwarding number from your friends." She stared hard at her daughter. "You were here all this time?"
"I work here, Mama." Tears had risen in Riller's eyes again.
"Now you stop crying, girl. You see I'm safe." Vayzashenar smiled through her own tears, taking the sting out of her words. "I'm here with Mizham Weara. Remember her?"
Riller was still sniffling. "Where are you?"
"In a hotel."
"Stay at my place."
"Oh, this is very touching," Q interrupted. He slid sideways out of his chair, trying to maintain a bit of decency. "It's obvious your mom's perfectly okay. I'm going to my office and fire those detective services."
Vayzashenar nodded at him briefly. "That's a sensible thing to do, child." She turned back to Riller, and her tone was suspicious. "You work in his house? Did I send you to law school so you could work in a house?"
As he and Morad left the room Q heard Riller was explaining that she was his lawyer, nothing else. Apparently Vayzashenar was a tough old bird. Riller needn't have worried.
Later, dressed in pajamas and bathrobes, he and Morad waited for her to join them downstairs. Morad was practically bouncing in his chair with excitement. He knew, of course, that Riller's mother had been missing, and the happy reunion touched him deeply. He'd made a light meal because an event of this magnitude had to be observed with food.
"So what did she say?" He demanded when Riller finally came downstairs. He plied her with tea and pastries. "How's she doing? Does she plan on staying on Rigel?"
"She's fine." Riller took a few sips of tea. She was settling down a bit, but she still seemed more emotionally fragile than Q had ever seen her. 'Odd,' Q mused. 'She'd been so stoic the whole time we were searching and now that we've found the elusive mama she goes off the deep end.' He was mildly peeved that he wouldn't come out the hero in this little episode, but not enough that it really mattered. He was truly relieved and happy for them both.
"Mama says I shouldn't have spent the money trying to get her property back." She seemed perplexed by that.
"Humph. If you'd asked me, I'd have told you the same thing," Q groused. "In fact, I don't see why you didn't realize it yourself. *You're* the lawyer."
"It's hard to think straight when your family's involved," Morad sympathized. At Riller's nod, he continued. "Do you think you'll go back to Rigel now?"
She looked up at Q, her eyes full of fear and hope. "I... No. I don't think so."
"Of course you are," Q answered harshly. Until Morad posed the question it had never occurred to him that she would want to go back home; that, despite the fact that he'd come to rely on her as a substitute for the family he no longer had, she might have loyalties that superseded her feelings for him.
"In fact," he continued, trying to hide his misery and building fear. "I'm buying you a one way ticket first thing tomorrow. We'll have you on the first ship out of here."
"Q..." Morad and Riller murmured together. Their voices were full of sympathy. Q knew he must look absolutely woebegone, and he was infuriated that his hurt feelings showed so clearly. He couldn't stand to show weakness.
"Actually, Riller," his voice was acid, "I'm going to make sure you're out of here." His gaze bore down on her as he smiled tightly and said, "You're fired."
"But..." she began to protest.
"Fired," Q repeated. "Now pack your things, because you're leaving." Anger began to storm through him, barely controlled. She'd been using him all this time, like Selena, but at least Selena was honest about it. His sense of betrayal and loss threatened to overwhelm him.
"Q, don't," Morad protested.
But Q nodded in satisfaction. "Actually, it's a good thing, because Morad's going to move in with me, aren't you Morad?" He shot a hard smile in Morad's direction, daring him to object.
Morad shook his head, his eyes wide and wary. "No, Q. We never talked about that."
The rage that had built for months suddenly tilted and spilled. Blackness rose before his vision and Q suddenly could not breathe. He hated them both, the lying, deceiving, backstabbing... after all he'd done for them, they betrayed him as easily as turning out a light. Both of them underhanded, treacherous, traitorous, liars... He turned away, stumbled over his heavy chair, then in his sudden overwhelming fury, grabbed it, raised it high over his head and slammed it down against the floor with all his might. He was vaguely aware of Riller and Morad scrambling away with expressions of horror, but he was too far gone in fury for it to make a difference. He wielded the chair like a cudgel, against the table, against the sideboard, against other chairs, until his fury wore him out and he stood clutching a splintered piece of wood, staring stupidly at the destruction he'd wrought.
Riller and Morad were nowhere in sight. He vaguely remembered the sound of scattering footsteps, and realized that they'd probably fled in fear. He'd chased away the two people he most cared about, but even through his heartsickness, he could feel the blessed numbness stealing over him, and he welcomed it. He was all alone again, and he did not want to feel it. He did not even want to be. Some impulse he couldn't explain made him drop to his knees and crawl under the table where he sat, rocking himself until he eventually curled into a ball and fell into an exhausted asleep.
Hours later he woke to silence, stiff and disoriented. He moaned when he remembered his behavior, but quickly forced himself quiet. He had no right to cry after what he'd done. Q climbed the stairs and looked in his suite; it was empty. Silently apologizing for not knocking first, he let himself into Riller's suite and stuck his head into her bedroom. She and Morad lay together on top of the blankets, fully clothed. He fancied he could still see terror in their expressions, and it almost broke his determination not to weep.
He cleared his throat. "Riller?" His voice was hoarse. "Morad? Wake up."
Riller stirred and her movement woke Morad. They turned to face him wearing twin expressions of dread.
"I suppose neither of you intends to forgive me for what happened last night," he began. He took a step towards them, meaning to join them on the bed, but stopped abruptly when they both stiffened. Q had a very limited repertoire of appeasement gestures because frankly he'd never expected to need them. Now, he could only think to stay as far from them as possible while still remaining in the room. He stepped back, noticing with a sinking heart that their tension lessened as he moved away from them. 'How,' he wondered bleakly, 'could I have ever been pleased with the prospect of frightening someone?' He pushed the thought aside and concentrated on the moment.
"If I promise never to do that again will you..." He stopped abruptly. Of course they would still be his friends, right? He didn't need to ask.
They stared at him, their wide-eyed, fixed expressions telling him they were still afraid. Exasperation flared briefly. How was he supposed to be any good at this contrition thing if they wouldn't respond? He forced this feeling back, knowing that any further show of ire on his part would push them even farther away.
Q backed away another step. "I'm tired," he said, "And I'm going to stay in my room today." He might have said more, but he heard his voice start to crack and abruptly walked out. Alone in his room, he wept for hours with bitter remorse because they'd had something, the three of them together, and now he'd ruined it.
Q walked through the next several weeks in a daze. Selena, discovering the battered furniture, had been amazed, had demanded to know what happened.
"Just. Fucking. Fix it," Q ordered, and refused to say another word.
Selena chose the better part of valor. Besides, she was far too enmeshed in the details of her upcoming charity event. She set up a command post of sorts in Q's office, effectively usurping his authority, at least momentarily. Q didn't much care. He was content to drift through the days from moment to moment, unable to focus on anything in particular. When he wasn't teaching he slept a lot.
Selena and Ised were quick to take advantage of his new malleability, but Q observed their behavior without responding. They fought over him, mock fights, disguising real competition between them, and when Selena wasn't around, Ised took outrageous liberties with his body. Q merely removed her hands and said nothing. He was past responding to her, or anyone. To his intense relief, Morad was still there when he came out of his day of mourning, but though they slept in the same bed sometimes, Q simply could not muster the energy to respond sexually. Riller had decided to leave, and for the life of him, Q couldn't blame her. He asked her to stay until after the party was over, and she agreed, but now Q knew that had been a mistake. There was too much that remained unresolved between them, but every time they ran into each other, the silence roared up between them so that the best they could do was mumble dishonestly about computer security and tying up loose ends, leaving all the important things unsaid.
Q bought Riller a party dress, and when Selena and Ised had gone for the evening, he came out of his suite and brought it to her. When he entered her room he was stunned to see how bare it was. Somehow it seemed a violation of natural order that her possessions should not be in their accustomed places. Q spoke past a sudden lump in his throat.
"I got you this for the party."
Riller took it awkwardly. "Thanks." She saw his gesture for the apology it was and didn't bring up the fact that she wasn't going to actually attend.
"Well, go try it on," he said, attempting to bring back some of his usual overbearing demeanor.
Riller disappeared into her bedroom. When she came out again, blushing, and looking anywhere but into his eyes, Q had cause for true self-congratulation. Her sheer loveliness pierced through his torpor and he smiled in genuine appreciation.
"You are absolutely beautiful," he said sincerely.
Riller blushed even deeper and turned her face away from him. The dress was everything she tried to avoid in the clothing she wore: soft, sensual fabric; revealing cut; tight fit. Her arms and shoulders were bare, adhesive molded the bodice around her breasts, and long thin strips of the dress were strategically missing, so that her bare skin formed a pattern with the brown and orange fabric, causing her to resemble nothing so much as an exotically patterned tigress.
"I don't generally wear clothes like this, Q." Her voice was shy as a girl's.
"Just the one time," he coaxed. "For me." He couldn't help but add bitterly, "Make it my going-away present."
Riller nodded. The room was thick with tension, the unspoken words crowding in on them like a tangible force. She was afraid to speak, but she had to do something to try to answer his gesture.
"Here." She rooted in one of her packed bags and came up with a holocube. "I want you to have this."
Q took the holo and turned it on. A tiny replica of himself stared back at him.
"It's from when you went on your first date." She looked away again. "It might be kind of corny, but it reminds me..." she stopped abruptly, but he knew what she was going to say. It reminded her of happier times.
"Yeah." He stared down at the imperious figure in the outfit Morad had so admired. "Me too."
"Q?" Riller wore a very uncertain expression. "I'd better do this before I lose my nerve." She moved closer to him. "Before, when you felt bad, I always wanted to hug you and make you feel better, so this is to make up for all those times." She threw her arms around him and held him tight.
Q pulled away from her with an expression of horror and ran from the room.
When she'd hugged him he thought his mind had played a trick on him. The sudden rush of passion caught him completely by surprise and he had to leave before giving in to the urge to tilt her chin up, ravage her mouth, then take her to the bed and lose himself in her body. There was a logical reason for this, he told himself. He didn't want her to leave, so he subconsciously manifested an urge to possess her in any way possible. It didn't mean he was attracted to her; his raging erection was a result of missing Morad. Had to be. Besides, she was his lawyer, for gods' sake. His ex-lawyer.
He draped himself across his big green bed and addressed the ceiling. "Are you finished yet, Q?" He brought his state of rank confusion to the front of his mind, knowing they'd sense it if they were paying attention to him at all. "Because if you're not, throwing this at me on top of everything else was definitely overkill."
Riller stared after Q in dull surprise. She was not oozing, as she ungraciously called her pheromonal discharges, so it couldn't be that. Perhaps he really was going crazy. Or she was. For a terrifying moment she wondered if he had some telepathic sense she wasn't aware of, and had picked up on her guilt about having sex with Morad. Neither of them had meant to, but when they'd fled from Q that night he tore apart the dining room, they'd held on to each other out of instinct and a need for mutual comfort. Her volatile pheromones had done the rest. When they came together, all tears and urgency, Q was still downstairs breaking things apart. The next morning, when he found them, she'd been sure he would kill her. They hadn't even gotten fully undressed, she and Morad, so he would have seen nothing that would clue him as to what they'd done, but even so, she couldn't believe he couldn't sense what had transpired by her guilty expression. When he'd apologized, she wanted to kneel in turn and ask his forgiveness as well, but fear kept her in her place.
Now she was fiercely angry with herself. She'd betrayed Q and taken advantage of Morad for a few moments' comfort and reassurance. Shameful behavior, and she felt absolutely disgusted.
Morad had been very philosophical about the whole thing when they'd discussed it later. No, there was no need to tell Q, who was paranoid enough already. No, not only should Riller not apologize, but he, Morad, was somewhat offended that she didn't give him credit for being able to make his own choices. He'd stroked her cheek affectionately, laughing at her when she tried to take the blame. "Poor Riller. You're so used to Q blaming you for his misery that you automatically accept responsibility for everything that happens. Tell me," he looked at her with knowing eyes, "has he ever once thanked you for the things you do for him?"
"Well," she was slightly defensive, "he pays me, which is what he's supposed to do."
Morad shook his head. "Not enough. I love Q, but I don't know if I could ever live with him. He wants too much, and he would take too much out of me if I let him. You've lived with him for almost a year, giving and giving, and for what?"
Riller shook her head in amazement. She hadn't credited Morad with such uncanny insight. On the other hand, her mother said much the same thing and she and Riller hadn't seen each other for over two years. After that first night, they'd talked to each other every day, ignoring the exorbitant cost.
"Why do you look so unhappy?" her mother had demanded, and to her great chagrin, Riller began to cry.
Vayzashenar shook her head. "Come home, girl. That man is no good for you." Riller tried to explain but her mother refused to let her apologize for Q. Vayzashenar knew a great deal about the way relationships turned awry. She bluntly told Riller it was her fault for letting Q take advantage of her, but she also empathized with her daughter's pain. "Worse than if he hits you," she'd said. "He leaves a bruise, it's violence. He doesn't leave a bruise, it's still violence. Come home."
Now Riller was looking forward to putting this strange year behind her and getting on with the rest of her life. She had to admit, even though she'd long since found a law firm good enough to handle Q's affairs, she probably wouldn't have left without a firm nudge. Looking at her situation from Vayzashenar and Morads' perspectives, there was no reason for her to stay, but when she thought of Q's sad eyes, she had the uneasy sense that she was abandoning him.
'Nonsense,' she chided herself. She'd done everything she could for him, hadn't she? She'd fussed over the details of his financial affairs, hired an expert in computers to set elaborate traps in case Eric should start snooping after she'd gone, and there was nothing more she could do. Q would manage.
Selena was overjoyed to hear that Riller was leaving, it was the perfect feather in the cap of a nearly perfect season. Q was fun. He looked good on her arm, he was witty and could be entertainingly cruel, and he was entirely too good to be wasted on that dull little functionary. She wanted to get him before Ised did, but that was another story. Meanwhile, the party was less than a week away and as usual before a big event of this nature, she was up to her neck in chaos. Q was hiding in his bedroom, Riller was packing, Morad was driving himself into a frenzy trying to set up his equipment for the party and simultaneously run his restaurant, and Ised, a frail reed at the best of times, was still dithering over her costume and getting in everyone's way. That left the whole thing up to Selena, which was the way she wanted it, actually, but she would have liked for someone to notice all her hard work.
The party planners she'd hired were building the props, turning Q's ballroom into a series of small rotating rooms, all of which emptied, by turns, onto a dance floor where an elaborate minuet would go on for hours and hours--a dance within a dance. Nobody staged galactics anymore because they were too expensive, but everyone wanted to attend. The guests were all A list-- people whose invitations Q had bothered to respond to and who wanted to see the Bluffs from the inside out, just to say they'd been there. Everyone who wasn't bedridden had indicated their willingness to attend by donating large amounts of money to her designated charity. Selena felt a fine sense of accomplishment. All over Risa, hairdressers were overbooking, and all her A-list friends were frantically brushing up on their dance steps. It was gratifying to sit in the midst of all that frantic activity and know you were the cause of it--you and your catch of the season. Speaking of which...
"Q?" She called his room.
"What?" He answered after a long beat, his voice bleary. Obviously he'd been sleeping again.
"Come out here," she ordered. "Your new suits have arrived. We need to pick one."
"You do it. And stop bothering me."
He was such a brat. If she didn't know better she'd have thought something was wrong with him. Well, that didn't matter. He really didn't even have to attend. In fact, it might add to his air of mystery if he didn't show. Selena nibbled on the end of a perfectly manicured nail, considering. She could spirit him away, even send him off planet if she wanted. If nothing else, it would keep him out of Ised's clutches, but it would mean setting up a temporary household for him, and putting up with his demands. Too much bother. Besides, she was about to make a few demands of her own. Admittedly, she didn't want Q so much as she wanted to be the first of her crowd to bed him, but she didn't think Q would mind. He was an alien for gods' sake, what did he know?
The night of his party Q had to be coaxed out of his room. Selena quickly lost patience and called on Riller to make him behave.
"He's only doing this to irritate me, and I'm not having it," she declared. "Now get in there, get him dressed and get him downstairs." She stalked off to have her hair gilded, her gown swishing grandly behind her.
Riller stared after her in bemusement. Morad was the best one for coaxing Q out of a bad mood, but he and his staff were busy, busy, busy, preparing to feed nearly five hundred people and she didn't want to burden him.
"Q?" Riller peeked inside his bedroom. "Don't you want to go downstairs?"
"No." The room was dark, but she could make out the long, lean lump under the covers.
"Everyone wants to see you in your new clothes," she coaxed, knowing how much he loved to show off.
"I don't care." He rolled over on his side. "I'm tired."
He sounded like it. His voice was so weak that if she hadn't known better she would have thought he was ill.
"I'm going to come in," Riller warned. She was a little embarrassed about going into his bedroom since it meant getting into bed with him, nevertheless, she crawled around behind him and propped herself up on a pillow.
He didn't acknowledge her, simply remained on his side with the blankets pulled securely around him.
"Why don't you want to go to your party?"
"I don't know."
Riller sighed. She had no idea how to move him out of the depths of his apathy, and in fact she didn't even know if she should try. She was a lawyer, not a shrink. "Well, at least get dressed. Then you can decide whether you really want to go or not."
"Why should I? You're not dressed either." He rolled over, stretched, and proposed a bargain to her. "You get dressed and we'll go downstairs together."
"Uh." She'd been trying to avoid saying this, but she didn't see as she really had a choice now. "I'm not really invited, Q."
That perked him up. "Nonsense. It's my party. *I* say who gets to come and who doesn't."
"Q, those are all rich people. Those dances you've been practicing--I don't even know how to do it."
Q rolled onto his back, sighing in exasperation. "Didn't we discuss this once? When are you going to stop acting like a scullery maid."
She wanted to point out that he could stop treating her like one. She could have also mentioned that it didn't matter because she was leaving in a matter of hours, but she didn't. "These people don't party with their hired help, Q. You know that."
"Then I'm boycotting."
That sounded more like the Q she could handle. "How will anyone know you're boycotting the dance if you don't show up."
"Yeah, I guess you're right." He heaved another sigh. "Will you go get my suit?"
Riller did her best not to let her mouth hang open. A request rather than an order. He must not feel well at all.
"Sure Q. Go take your bath. I'll get your suit, your shoes, everything."
While Q dressed, Riller went to her suite and changed into her party dress. It was the only thing left hanging in her closet now, and she took comfort in the notion that she was all packed and ready to go. As her last duty to him she would shepherd him down to his grand affair, then she could sit back and relax and wait for the shuttle to come take her away.
'Q, I'm sorry,' she thought. If he'd asked her to stay she would have been hard put to say no, even though these past few months had been miserable. 'Right,' she told herself, 'so you can put up with more insults.' She frowned at herself in the mirror. 'You really have a martyr complex, don't you?'
Steeling herself against sympathy, she went to get him. He was all dressed, slumped over in his chair, picking unenthusiastically at a muffin.
"Ready?" she asked.
When his eyes narrowed appreciatively, Riller was slightly annoyed. He'd seen her in this dress before.
"I have exquisite taste." His gaze burned into hers.
Riller looked down and blushed. "Come on, Q, let's go."
Q took her arm as they walked down the stairs. Selena stood waiting for him, and Riller handed him off to her, ignoring Selena's rigid glare. She backed away as Selena pulled Q over to stand by the Darean marble columns, but not before patting his arm and leaning in to whisper 'good luck' in his ear.
Q felt lightheaded and hollow, almost feverish. He hadn't eaten all day except for a few bites of muffin, but that didn't account for how insubstantial he felt. He wasn't invisible, because people smiled at him, complimented his clothes and pressed his hand, Risan-style, in greeting. Nevertheless, he felt as if the real Q were a great distance away, manipulating the motions of a straw man who happened to look like him.
'No one sees me,' he thought, and was overcome by nausea. Had any food been on his stomach he might have vomited, but he focused on his breathing, and was able to keep himself calm enough to prevent himself from gagging.
Lights and scaffolding magically transformed his home into a beautiful but incomprehensible illusion. The pervading sense of unreality followed him into the ballroom where he led Selena through the steps of the Andorian minuet that would signal the official beginning of the galactic. Andorians, with their rigid social hierarchy, limited certain forms of entertainment to the elite, and that custom travelled into space with them. It was an irony that humans had taken over the galactic and adapted it to suit their purposes. Now, one didn't have to come from an old family in order to partake of this ritual; one simply had to be rich enough to afford the dance lessons, the gifts to charity, the wastefully expensive clothes. Q, always quick to sense the subtleties of mood and meaning, understood that this was a celebration of their elevated status. Every guest at Q's party was wealthy, and their presence in his house reinforced their identity in an orgy of self-commemoration.
It entertained him to think that he'd been able to make them come to him so easily, but his amusement was edged with bitterness, and his sense of tedium grew exponentially as the evening wore on. So he'd been able to make everyone quite literally dance to his tune? So what? He left the party early and hid in his lab for a while, then took the back way up to his suite. Everyone would look for him, but he wouldn't really be missed. The camera crews had come and gone, and his guests were busy entertaining themselves. Selena, queen for the night, was the real engine that drove this event.
Hours later, Morad found Q in his room, alone, spinning through the steps of one of the dances.
"I thought I'd find you in here," he smiled. He was coming down off the rush of excitement that sustained him through big catering projects like this one, and he was very tired. He'd been busy all day, supervising and directing his staff, and before that, there'd been days and days of preparation and planning which had taken their toll. He wanted to collapse as soon as his body let him wind down enough to do so.
Q's feet continued to perform the steps he'd learned. "I hate those people, Morad. I never want to see any of them again."
'You hate yourself,' Morad thought, but did not say. "Let me kiss you, Q."
Q spun past him. "Dance with me." He tried unsuccessfully to sweep Morad into his arms, but Morad resisted.
"I'm the hired help, remember?" His mouth twisted in a wry smile. "I don't know how to do that dance."
"What is it with you and Riller both?" Q demanded querulously. "You have some kind of inferiority complex that won't allow you to have fun?"
"Riller's gone, you know. I saw her off about an hour ago."
"Ah." Q stopped dancing, suddenly enervated. He would miss her. "Let's go to bed," he suggested.
"All I can do is sleep tonight," Morad warned. "I'm too tired for anything else."
"Bath first." Q was just as tired as Morad was, but he'd gotten in the habit of taking a nice relaxing soak before sleeping, and he knew he would toss and turn without it.
"Did you ever think about dying, Morad?" They were sitting up to their necks in soapy water.
"You're sad because of Riller," Morad guessed.
"I'm sad because of everything," Q answered. He didn't know quite how to put this feeling, this emptiness that crushed in on him, recreating him in it's image. He was afraid he would never sufficiently define it, and so would become lost in it, drifting forever out of reach of himself. "I want my powers back, Morad. I want to be myself again." He gestured around him. "This is living death for me."
Morad nodded and said nothing. Q talked like this more and more often lately. He'd snarled at Morad's suggestion that he 'talk to someone,' which was the only useful suggestion Morad had. Now he could only distract. He rose from the water and stood dripping. "Dry me off," he demanded.
Q smiled in spite of himself. He would take any excuse to touch Morad, and they both knew it. His smile grew wider as Morad lay back on a towel on the wide shelf at the side of the tub. It often happened that Q's ministrations took a decidedly erotic turn. Sometimes they never even made it to the bed.
"I thought you said you were tired."
"Maybe I'm not as tired as I thought."
The party had been a great success, and now Selena was ready for the final triumph of her evening. She entered Q's suite uninvited and opened his bedroom door, intending to surprise him whenever he arrived. She kicked her shoes off and was about to strip off her clothes when the light through the opened doorway revealed to her that Q's bed was already occupied. In fact, doubly occupied. The soft illumination was enough to let her identify Morad, nude, laying on his side, and an equally nude Q curled around him protectively, one arm holding him close.
She stared in shock, then rage shuddered through her, so powerful that the warm air of Q's bedroom actually felt cool against her skin. She watched for a long time, memorizing the sight of the two men sleeping so peacefully together, then she picked up her shoes, turned, and walked out.
Q was actually glad Riller was gone because she would have yelled at him to get out of bed, and he simply couldn't bring himself to get up. He didn't even bother to get dressed these days, spending his time wandering around the house in his pajamas or curled up in bed under blankets. He told his secretary to postpone his appointments indefinitely, and now had nothing to look forward to but Morad's Wednesday visits. For these, Q would dress and come downstairs to pick at whatever delicacy Morad brought with him. They did not talk much, anymore. In bed, they did not make love.
"I know you don't want to hear this, Q," Morad had crawled into bed with him and had his arms around Q's broad shoulders, "but I really think you should go get help."
"I know that's what you think." Q didn't want to talk about it. He wanted simply to lie there and be held until Morad had to go away.
"But you're not going to do it."
Q didn't answer, and Morad was silent for a long time. He finally began to talk again, a dreamy monologue that seemed to pick up from a conversation he'd had with someone else. "We used to have to sit around and wait, you know. While he decided which one of us was going to be gang-raped by all the others while he watched. I'll never forget what that was like. It was such a sick feeling; trying to steel yourself against the possibility that you might be next; the way you felt so relieved when it was someone else." He tightened his arms around Q, shuddering. "And whenever it was my turn, I never cried. I wanted to, but I never did." By now Q was looking up at him in horror, but Morad was staring into the past and did not see. "It was stupid of me," he said in that same faraway voice, "because he wanted us crying, cringing, afraid of him. And everything inside me froze, Q." He finally looked Q in the eyes again, "and I honestly believed I was dead. Breathing, but dead." His mouth twisted in a sad smile. "Sometimes I would steal knives and make little cuts in my face and on my arms because the only time I knew I was alive was when I felt pain."
Something inside Q resonated to Morad's words. He had not lived through the depredations Morad had survived, but was he not among the living dead, with pain the only proof against nonexistence? He was listening with every fiber of his being now, waiting to hear the answer, to find out what Morad had done to thaw the frozen part of himself. But Morad did not tell him. Instead, he spoke of being frightened for himself, for his sanity, yet again. "Every time I see you now, Q, I feel myself shutting down. Getting lost. And I can't do that to myself again. And that means I can't come back and see you anymore." He caressed Q's cheek gently. "I'm sorry, but I worked too hard to get back to a place where I liked myself. And I can't lose that equilibrium. Even for you."
Q sighed. Some deep part of him felt a type of perverted glee that his misery was now complete. Morad made perfect sense. No one in his right mind would want to share this.
"I understand." A vengeful inner voice smirked that abandonment was only what he deserved, and it felt strangely good to say it. Morad's knives, cutting at him. "I really think you should go right now," he said, wallowing in masochistic self- sacrifice. "There's nothing we can do for each other."
"Q," Morad pled with him. "I don't *want* to leave you, but I can't take this. I simply can't."
"Then go," Q said. He was thinking of Morad's smile, and how good it felt to hold him and caress him, but he couldn't bring those feelings into the present. Even here in Morad's arms, Q was lightyears away, unhappy, but unable to come back to what had once been. "I mean it Morad. Leave now."
Morad jumped. Q felt sick. He was no better than Morad's abusive ex-husband, and it would be better for Morad to have Q out of his life. Besides, it didn't matter anyway, did it?
Morad stood, his features tight and angry though tears pooled in the corners of his eyes. "Whatever's wrong with you, fix it Q. Because I won't wait forever."
Q would have yelled after him not to wait at all, but Morad was already on his way out.
Selena was tired of making excuses for Q. It had been weeks since his party, and his secretary swore he gave Q every message she left, but she hadn't heard a word from him.
Finally she simply drove over and demanded to be let in. His secretary was nervous. Riller was the one who had managed Q's guest list, and with her gone, the task fell on his inexperienced shoulders.
"I'll get the guards to drop the curtain," he offered. He was flustered, and the more she glared at him the more nervous he got. Finally the guards dropped the security screen and she parked and stamped over to their little tower. "Has Q been out of the house at all since his party?"
Like she suspected, the answer was no. She breezed through the upstairs as if she owned it. Q's secretary greeted her nervously.
"When was the last time Q was in his office?" She demanded.
The secretary shrugged. It had been a very long time. "Maybe he's been in his lab," he suggested. "Eric's taken over Riller's office so maybe he knows something."
Eric seemed surprised to see her, but no, he didn't know where Q had been. He, Eric, tried to get his mind back on his work, but Q did what he wanted.
Selena smiled warmly at Eric. Anyone who usurped Riller's place automatically got her approval. "Don't worry," she said, "I'll take care of this." She could do what Eric and the secretary didn't dare try: she could walk into Q's room and demand that he get up, and she did so.
"Q," she said in her most comforting bedside manner, "I'm tired of this shit, now get up."
"Get up?" His voice was muffled by the blankets around his head. "I thought you wanted to have sex with me. We can't do that if I get up."
She didn't want that anymore. Morad had pre-empted her, and she wasn't going to take second place. Let Ised have it. "Q," she had absolutely no sympathy. "I'm going to your office, and I'm going to make some calls, and when I get back, I want you ready to go."
"Where are we going?"
"Risan Performing Arts Society dinner. So wear something formal."
While in his office, his secretary asked her if she knew whether Q wanted Riller's mail forwarded. Selena smiled at the power she was being given. It would be fun, running Q's life for him, at least until she got tired of it. One of these days she might even forgive him for sleeping with Morad.
"Let me see it first. I'll decide what goes and what stays."
After that, Selena dropped in every few days to keep things going. She enjoyed herself, sitting behind Q's big desk, and going through his papers. Eric was doing gods knew what in Riller's office, but he seemed to be working diligently. Q's secretary brought her lunch and ran errands for her. Q was lethargic an uncommunicative, but he willingly escorted her to the occasional function, after which he went right home to bed. Selena couldn't believe how unfair he was being towards her. It figured he would start to get boring just as his popularity soared. Since their party, they never got invited anywhere except as a couple, and dragging him out of bed was such a chore. She was beginning to be impatient for the season to be over.
It was all Q could do to keep from screaming. This was the third party this week, and he'd stayed as long as he could, but finally the noise and the crowds became too much for him. The long days he'd spent in bed left him unprepared for the jostle and crush of a room full of people, and every face that loomed into his space to congratulate him on his perfect galactic hit him like a blow. The scent of their perfume, their colorful clothes, their bright eyes that pinned him like a moth on a tray, wore at him so that by the end of the evening he felt as if he was being tortured. He needed to be alone again in the worst way, and he finally prevailed upon Selena's newest houseboy to take him home. To his surprise, the forcefield was already lowered when he arrived. An aircar he didn't recognize was parked in his landing pad, and his alpha and beta shift guards were milling around it uneasily.
"Sir." One of them approached him apologetically as he disembarked. "These people are here to take you into custody."
Q was too nonplussed to do anything but stare as the three strange women solemnly presented badges for his inspection. "Federation security agent Miles," the oldest one said. "Sir, I am here to formally charge you with fraud, espionage and unlawful sale of federation military technology."
Q shrugged. "Okay." He started to go towards the door, but the youngest of the three agents quickly stepped forward, blocking his path. "I'm afraid we have to take you into custody, Sir. Please come with us now."
Q looked to his guards for confirmation. "Are they serious?"
His tallest guard nodded. "I'm afraid so, Sir. We will be accompanying you, at least to the detention center." He and the three agents exchanged glares. Obviously there'd been some disagreement over this. "We've checked their detainment order and you have no choice but to go with them. If you'd like," he glared at the agents again, "we'll accompany you inside so you can get some personal effects to bring with you."
The federation agents shifted uncomfortably. Q's guards fidgeted right back, edgy and protective. Q watched the byplay and shook his head. Another time he would have been tickled to watch a turf war start over his person, but all he wanted now was to be alone.
During the long trip to the detention center, Q's guards were consistently deferential and polite to him. Much to the irritation of the federation agents, they insisted on his privacy, offered him refreshment, even computer access. Once they arrived, however, his guards turned into automatons again, going cold and formal, as if they'd swallowed a federation rulebook on how to treat prisoners.
Q was turned over to another set of guards, his retina was scanned and he was escorted to a holding cell. He turned around once, to see his security team staring after him with something like regret.
"Wait." he ordered. He beckoned to his former security contingent and one of them left the bunch and came towards him cautiously. Q leaned in towards her. "Call Riller," he said. Then, because he recognized that she owed him no favors, added, "please."
Her expression didn't waver in the slightest as she turned on her heel and walked away. Q began to realize this might actually be something of a crisis.
"You know, I haven't actually done anything wrong," he began to protest.
This new guard didn't care. He gave Q a noncommittal "Yes, Sir," and helped him into his cell.
Q had been in a cell once before. This one was a good deal nicer than the digs on Picard's ship. He had a chair and a computer screen, a private sanitary facility, and a replicator. He wondered idly when he would be rescued. Meanwhile, this was a great deal of excitement after his long hibernation and he was weary. He ordered four blankets and two extra pillows out of the replicator, arranged them to his satisfaction on the narrow bunk, then immediately fell asleep.
Q expected his sojourn to be temporary and quiet, but it was neither. The very next morning he received a visit from Jean-Luc Picard. The Captain stared at him with the same neutral countenance his guards had adopted when they delivered him into the penal system. 'It must be a standard issue expression,' Q thought. He'd been awakened out of a sound sleep, and he stared back fuzzily, running his fingers through his hair.
"I suppose you had something to do with this, Picard."
"Actually Q, I didn't." Picard entered his cell and stood stiffly, almost awkwardly, at attention. "In fact, I objected most strenuously to a formal hearing." He paused for a moment then continued. "I have made it known that I believe you are being scapegoated for the many losses incurred during our battle with the Borg. The Borg frightened people, you know, and now there is a move afoot to shift blame from Starfleet to you personally. I..." he paused again, than plunged on, his lips tight and thin, as if they wanted to keep the words from coming forth. "I came to tell you I have been ordered to testify against you, and as an officer, it is my duty to do so. I thought it only fair, however, that I should look you in the eye and tell you so."
Q didn't know how to respond. He hadn't heard of any Borg battle, though granted, he never paid much attention to current events. Picard's solemnity made him feel uneasy, somehow. "Don't you ever get tired of being so noble?"
"No." The question was posed with such weariness that Picard didn't take it as an insult. "I don't."
"Well, I suppose you're fortunate." Q would have liked to think up a more pithy response than 'Thank you for telling me,' but that was the only thing that came to mind.
Picard lowered his head in acknowledgment and took a step towards the forcefield. There wasn't much else to talk about. "I don't suppose there's anything you need..." he offered tentatively.
Q was mildly amused. In depriving him of his home and his freedom, Starfleet had inadvertently pared his life down to it's bare essentials. He had food, clothing, shelter. He had himself, without distractions, for the first time since becoming human, and to his surprise, here in his jail cell, he was beginning to feel unexpectedly free. He didn't *want* anything else.
"I am fine, thank you, Jean-Luc. Really," he said into Picard's skepticism. He stood, and after a moment's hesitation, offered his hand. Picard looked down at the hand, then up at Q, an unfathomable expression on his face. For the first time since they'd met each other, the two men shook hands.
When Picard left, Q almost went back to bed, but this business about a battle with the Borg piqued his curiosity. He sat down in front of his terminal and found the information about the showdown at Wolf 386. He read about the great cost to the Federation in terms of ships destroyed and lives lost. Now he understood why they wanted to blame him, though he certainly didn't agree. The picture of Locutus stunned him, and he returned to it several times, staring at it for long moments. 'Jean-Luc never told me,' he mused. 'But why not? Surely he knew it was my fault.' There was only one explanation for such behavior though Q hesitated to give it credence. Surely Jean-Luc would not have *forgiven* him. Not after being subjected to such obscenity. Thinking about it, Q grew irritated. It was just like Jean-Luc to be so pulingly, virtuously, magnanimous. The self-righteous little toad. He hadn't even gloated when he told Q he would testify against him. Nursing his good deed in prideful secrecy, he intended to deny Q any chance to pay him back, and Q would owe him a debt throughout eternity.
Q paced his cell angrily. In absolving him, Jean-Luc was as much as saying he'd never taken Q seriously. That thought was enough to make him seethe. "Just you wait, Jean-Luc," he muttered to himself. He remembered how touched he'd been when Jean-Luc asked if there was anything he needed. Now he saw that offer in a completely different light. That stuffed Starfleet scion had been treating him like a child! When he thought about how he'd shaken Jean-Luc's hand in a fit of misplaced sentimentality, it was enough to make his blood boil. "Oh, I will get you for this," he vowed, "if it's the last thing I do."
By the time his next visitor arrived, he'd washed, eaten, and had resumed his pacing. He had no idea who the man was, and when he introduced himself as a partner in Mepp, T'Screl and Bacon, Q wasn't any more enlightened.
"I hired you?"
"Well, actually, we've never met. Your former agent, a Riller Harris, hired us on your behalf."
"Where is she?" Q demanded, all set to complain that this whole thing was her fault.
"Actually, we were hoping you could tell us. We have her address on Rigel Four, but when tried to contact her, her mother said Ms. Harris had gone on a trip. Do you have any idea where she might be?"
Q shook his head. He was still peeved at Jean-Luc's deception, and not of a mind to be cooperative. "She could be anywhere."
The lawyer shrugged. "I'm not sure we actually need her to win this case though her input would be helpful. I do have to ask you, though, Sir, *did* you sell any technology to the Ferengi?"
"Of course not," Q scowled. "Why would I do something stupid like that? Don't you think I know which side my bread is buttered?
The lawyer ignored Q's irritation. "Do you have any idea who might have done so? Files in your own computer indicate several transactions between you and known Ferengi arms merchants."
"But that's impossible." Q was genuinely bewildered. "I've never done any such thing."
"Who might have access to your files?"
"Selena Weaver," Q answered promptly. He didn't believe for a minute that she cared about selling technology to anyone, but she might do something demented like this just to sit back and laugh at the trouble she'd caused.
The lawyer was making notes on his padd. "Who else?"
"Riller Harris, my secretary, Eric, even the guards if they wanted to badly enough." Q pondered a moment longer. "Someone could have broken in from the outside. There's a researcher named Kozinski who hates me." Or the continuum, he thought but did not say. It would be child's play for any of them to arrange this turn of events. 'But to what end?' he wondered. He hadn't heard a peep from them since Q appeared in his quarters on the Enterprise.
His lawyer tucked the padd away in his carry-case. "We'll have a private investigator look into this. Meanwhile, I'm going to make a motion for bail." The lawyer looked around the cell with an expression of distaste. "There's no reason you should have to stay in here."
After the lawyer had gone, Q finally admitted to himself that it could only be Eric. Riller had warned him and warned him, and he hadn't listened. He'd even scoffed when she set traps in order to catch the little rodent, and now Q was too angry and embarrassed to admit he was wrong. He hated it when Riller was right about things like that.
'Well, it doesn't really matter,' he said to himself. 'What could they possibly do to me?'
The following morning his lawyer showed up at his cell to escort him to his bail hearing. Q didn't want to go because he had nothing to wear. The best that could be said of the clothing the replicator provided was that it was clean.
"I can't believe I have to go out in public looking like a charity case," he muttered.
"Actually, Sir, the more modest your clothing, the less it appears that you've gained anything from the sale of Starfleet technology."
Q wasn't convinced. Surely the judge would be more impressed if he looked his best. He began to wish he'd brought some clothing chips to interface into the replicator menu selections. If they even *had* an interface slot.
Except for the fact that he felt appallingly underdressed, Q was mildly entertained by his first visit to court, at least at the beginning. It looked familiarly like the courtroom he'd conjured up for Picard, but the judge's platform was stationary and the spectators were a lot cleaner and quieter. Of course, he'd designed that scenario to be maximally disturbing to Picard and company, and it had been. He distracted himself for a moment remembering how amused he'd been at the contrast between Picard's external show of courage and his inner fear that he would be responsible for his ship's destruction before he even got one mission under his belt. Q had been impressed with Picard's stalwart bravery, and had almost been ready to start unabashedly liking him when he'd overheard Picard's demurral to Riker that the rest of their missions would probably be much more interesting.
'More interesting than me?' Q had wondered, outraged at this mortal's temerity. 'What could he possibly find that's more interesting than I am?' That one casual comment had sealed his determination to return and keep returning until he found a guaranteed means of getting under Picard's skin. 'And look where it got me,' he thought wryly. He turned to look at the rapidly filling courtroom and had to smile at the notion that his fascination with Picard had brought him to this pass. "Touche, mon Capitaine," he murmured under his breath.
The judge was a dour Mizarian, newly appointed and obviously self-impressed. Even without telepathy, Q could read her personality: careful, cautious, conservative; a by the book player who wouldn't bring originality or creativity to her court because she couldn't give what she didn't have.
"Well *she's* going to set the cause of justice back a thousand years," he muttered. His lawyer nudged him and shook his head, but Q was unapologetic.
In fact, he soon had reason to congratulate himself on his prescience. His lawyer presented a dry, factual argument that Q was a respected member of the Risan community and not likely to flee if released. The lawyer for the prosecution countered that, given the gravity of the penalty, the accused--who wasn't a federation citizen and whose only family connections were to a race of superbeings who considered themselves so superior to mortals that they had no qualms about exposing them to the Borg then running off to live a jetsetter lifestyle--would have no reason to stay of he were given a chance to leave.
Q turned on his scrambler, more aggrieved by the speciousness of the argument than the thought that he might have to stay locked up. "He knows I'm a *former* immortal. And he surely understands that if I had any pull with my family I would have been out of here long time ago."
"He's grandstanding," Q's lawyer answered dismissively, "trying to make you appear threatening. I wouldn't worry. Every judge knows that trick."
This one, it turned out, had apparently never heard of it. To their surprise, she turned down his request for bail.
She's just trying to make a good impression," his lawyer reassured him. "It's all political."
Q didn't care whether it was political or not, but he didn't like the idea of losing. "Are you any good at this?" He asked.
The lawyer, a sharp-faced young man with an attitude like a leashed panther, recoiled a bit angrily. "You are free to find anyone else you'd prefer to represent you."
"Touchy, touchy," Q snapped. He wanted to be back in his nice, quiet cell.
The judge called a recess and disappeared back into her chambers. The moment she left, the courtroom broke out into a babble of voices, all calling his name. Q looked up, surprised, and was immediately blinded by the glare of holocameras. Someone called "Did you do it?" and Q realized that the people he'd mistaken as spectators were mostly media hounds, attracted by the scent of blood.
"My client is not answering questions," his lawyer snapped. He grabbed Q by the arm and hustled him out the way they'd come, a small door opposite the one that led to the judges chambers. Blinking away the spots in front of his eyes, Q began to feel slightly nauseous. He loved attention, but only when it was under his control. This mob baying at him was just as wildly unruly as the one he'd conjured for Picard. Not that it frightened him, or anything, but he wasn't used to it. He automatically looked around for his security guards, but then remembered he didn't have them anymore. Sweat began to prickle under his arms and across his top lip. This was worse than Selena's parties.
"What a bunch of animals," he murmured.
His lawyer shrugged. "Cost of doing business." He escorted Q back to the jail custodian who walked him the rest of the way to his cell.
Two days later, his lawyer returned, looking solemn. He sat primly in Q's chair, legal padd in hand. "There are some things we need to discuss." He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "We still haven't been able to locate Riller Harris. He glanced down at his padd. "Selena Weaver, who I'm hoping to use as a character witness, refuses to return any more of our calls. I've got her comm code with me because I'm hoping she'll talk to you. And Eric Mason is listed as move with no forwarding address."
The lawyer paused and looked up at Q. "Sir, in this day and age, it's almost impossible for anyone to hide and stay hidden, so I find his disappearance to be very suspicious. Is it possible that he might fear a reprisal of some sort?"
Q considered. For days that he'd lain here, idly working out the scenario in his mind. Despite his general disinclination to pay attention, he clearly remembered Riller telling about the traps she'd set for Eric. All he had to do was mention this to his lawyer and he could be free. Assuming that he wanted to be free, of course. He could go back to Risa, resume teaching, but why bother? He'd chased away his friend, his lover was gone, and frankly, Risan high society looked much better from the outside. He'd had about all he could stand of it.
Then there was the question of the debt he owed Picard. It galled him to acknowledge that he felt competitive towards a mere mortal, but he did. And as he candidly pointed out to himself, he himself was also a mere mortal, now, and he only had a mortal's resources with which to wipe the slate clean. He'd show that damned arrogant Picard that he was just as brave, just as honorable, just as capable of sacrifice. And he would do it by offering up the only thing he had that he could put no price to: himself.
"What's the penalty for fraud, espionage and unlawful sale of military technology?" He asked.
"I really don't believe we have to think in terms of penalties right at the moment, Sir," his lawyer hedged.
Q merely stared at him, waiting.
"For defrauding the federation, mindwipe," the lawyer answered hesitantly. "For espionage, deportation; and for sale of technology, mindwipe and/or sentencing to a penal colony."
Q sighed. Excellent.
"Sir," the lawyer hurriedly changed the subject, "I was hoping you'd try calling Ms. Weaver now. I think she'd make a good character witness if we can convince her to testify."
Q smirked to himself, thinking 'good luck'. Still, for the sake of his lawyer's peace of mind, he put the call through.
Her houseboy answered. Q was vaguely surprised that he recognized this one's face. Selena tore through houseboys the way a hungry dog attacked a steak. Then he remembered it had only been about a week. It felt like years had passed, and he was finally coming awake after a walking coma. There was a vague dissonance to the idea that anything might still be the same as it had always been.
Selena was not pleased to see him. "I suppose you think it was funny to leave me without an escort for the Slade Foundation dinner. She tapped a finger impatiently against her desk. "I've put up with a lot from you Q, but going to jail was the absolute last straw." She watched him with an expression of cold disdain. "Next I suppose you'll tell me you want me to bail you out."
Q smiled. He would miss her. "Actually, you have to come testify as a character witness."
She stared at him blankly. "When?"
He knew that game; he'd learned it from her. No matter what time or date he mentioned, she'd have a prior engagement.
"Forget it," he told her. "Do you know they want to mind- wipe me? If I die it'll be your fault."
He watched her face go tense with anger. "I'll think about it, Q."
"You are," he drew the words out with slow relish, "without doubt, the stupidest woman on all the known planets. Did you hear what I said? Mindwipe. As in *mindwipe*. Hello! You'd better be here, or I'll tell them it was all your fault and they'll take away all your money and you'll have to get a job. Selling iced tea at the beach club," he added cruelly.
Selena's frown turned into a nasty, self-satisfied smile. "Get Morad to do it. I'm sure he'd be more than happy to help you, loverboy."
She reached out, touched a button, and the screen was suddenly blank.
"Selena's not a very happy person," Q murmured. "Her dog exploded when she was a child and she hasn't been the same since."
"Who's Morad?" His lawyer asked.
"A mutual friend," Q snapped. "And no one you need to concern yourself with," he added, as the lawyer pulled out his padd.
Unlike Selena, Morad came as soon as he heard Q was in trouble. When the guards announced a visitor Q assumed it was his lawyer and didn't bother to look up until a familiar voice said shyly, "I brought you something good to eat. I know the food must be terrible in there."
Morad. Q stared at him, aware that his naked yearning was plain on his face and not caring a whit. As soon as the forcefield went down they were in each others' arms, holding on for dear life.
"I miss you," Morad said.
"I miss you, too," Q answered. With the guard in the room, they didn't kiss, but they both knew they were making up for the unhappy scene in Q's bedroom. They did not speak of the turbulent emotions roiling beneath the surface of their simple greeting, but it took a long time before they finally let go of one another to sit, side by side on Q's bed. They pretended to be interested in the business of the trial. Morad told Q he'd offered to testify. Had insisted on it, in fact, and would do so as soon as he could. Q thanked him, not telling him that if things went the way he planned he was as good as guilty, no matter what was said. He was again struck by how fortunate he'd been to have Morad in his life. 'I've been a such a fool,' he thought. He wished it were not too late for them. Eventually, their halting conversation died away and neither spoke for a very long time.
Finally Morad said, "Remember how we used to lie in bed and talk?"
Q recalled that Morad had done the talking while he'd let his mind drift, but, yes, he remembered.
"I wish we could do that here," Morad said wistfully.
Q put his arm around Morad's shoulder and kissed his forehead. "I know. I wish we could, too."
"What will happen if you don't win?" Morad finally got the nerve to ask.
There was no gentle way to say it. "I'll be mindwiped and deported," Q answered with as much equanimity as he could muster.
"Oh, Q!" The enormity of the sentence left him struggling for an appropriate response. "I hope that doesn't happen."
"I think we should face the fact that it probably will."
"Wherever they send you," Morad offered loyally, "I'll come visit."
Q had to smile. "I won't remember who you are."
"Yes you will," Morad insisted. "I'll hold my hand out like this." He shifted his weight and stuck his hand out, earth- style, for Q to shake. "I'll say 'Morad'."
Q's smile broadened. He knew what Morad was referring to-- they'd only shaken hands the one time. He took Morad's hand in his. "And I'll say 'Q'." His voice was barely above a whisper, the better to keep from breaking. "And then I'll say, 'What are you doing on my bed, Morad?'"
"See?" Morad was whispering too. He leaned his head towards Q's until their foreheads touched. "You'll remember."
Q doubted it, but it was okay to let Morad pretend.
Finally the guards made Morad leave. Q watched him walk out, waved bye-bye as if this were just a regular day when he was going to his lab and Morad was going back to the restaurant. Q thought about how he would never see him again, him or Riller. He got into bed, pulled the blanket over his head and cried.
Without the evidence of Eric's tampering, the trial started off badly. Q, more than half in love with the idea of his incipient martyrdom, felt a grim satisfaction as he watched his lawyer struggle. He almost felt sorry for him, especially the day before the trial, when he came to Q's cell to coach him. When the session was finished, the lawyer pressed him for any information Q could think of that would help their case along.
"We've got computer experts dismantling every machine in your house, but it's going to be at least a few days before they come up with anything solid."
"I see." Q was not pleased with this development. His honor as a Q was in jeopardy if he did not somehow manage to one- up Picard, and this was the only way he could think to accomplish it. This lawyer, too clever by half, was about to make a discovery that could save his life, something his pride would not allow. Q had to throw him off the scent. "Focus on the computer in my lab," he suggested.
The lawyer made a note of that. "There's something else." He shuffled uncomfortably. "I had a little off the record chat with some people I know, and there seems to be a problem with how you've been perceived."
"How I'm perceived?" Q was vaguely surprised. "I'm a scientist and inventor. That can't be too hard to interpret."
The lawyer cleared his throat. "Some people--people who are expected to have a strong influence on the outcome of this case-- are saying that based on your past history, even as a mortal, your power is too dangerous for the Federation to risk keeping you."
'Well surprise, surprise,' Q thought to himself. Picard had said as much. He wondered that his lawyer was just discovering this. "I think I'm hearing you say that the outcome of this trial has been decided in advance."
"From what I've been able to glean, Sir, I'm beginning to suspect that may be the case. That's why it's imperative that we find anyone who can support your claim of innocence. If you come up with any more ideas that might be helpful, I'd like you to get in touch with me at once."
Firmly convinced of the rightness of his cause, Q was able to watch the proceedings with a fair degree of detachment. The jury selection bored him, and there was an almost carnival-like atmosphere in the spectator's arena which bothered him. He felt he deserved a good deal more dignity. The day the trial actually began, he noted Picard, Data and Crusher sitting in the row behind the prosecutor. Selena was nowhere to be seen, but he spotted Morad, grim and somber, close to the front of the room. Q had barely dared smile at him as he entered the courtroom and took his place. He leaned over and reminded his lawyer to get Morad out of there the second he'd finished testifying. He didn't want to see Morad assailed by busybodies like he'd been.
The two lawyers made brief opening statements then his lawyer asked if he could approach the bench.
"Your honor," Q heard him say. "I would like to request a postponement of this hearing because prima facie evidence suggests that my client may actually been a victim of fraud rather than a perpetrator. I believe the added time will allow us to actually identify the actual person or persons who committed these crimes."
The prosecuting attorney objected almost before the words were out of his mouth. "Your honor, defense has had more than adequate time to prepare his case."
"I'm inclined to agree." The judge frowned. "Request denied."
Q took the stand in his own defense. He answered his lawyer's simple questions--no he hadn't been contacted by any non-Federation representatives about selling technology. No he hadn't sold, given away, or imparted to anyone else, the technology he'd sold to Starfleet. Yes, many people had access to his files, and they all knew the value of the technology. Yes it was possible that anyone besides himself could have done it.
During cross-examination, the Federation's lawyer asked him how smart he was.
"Well," Q knew instantly where he was going with this, but he answered with a trace of pride nonetheless. "In terms of actual IQ, no device exists that can provide an accurate measure of my intelligence, but in terms of knowledge, I'd have to say I'm pretty smart."
"In fact, according to tests run by Dr. Beverly Crusher of Starfleet medical, our primitive devices" he lingered over the word 'primitive', "discerned your IQ to be over a thousand, isn't that right?"
"Yes," Q answered with a show of reluctance. He remembered Crusher's incredulity when she'd read him the results of the silly test he'd taken. Q himself had been unimpressed. When were these people going to realize that intelligence was too vast and subtle to be accurately measured by any tests they'd managed to devise? He could have made a powerful argument against the relevance of any such tests but since it did not suit his purposes, he chose not to.
"Smart enough to cover your tracks if you were ever inclined to sell technology to someone who wasn't entitled to it?"
"Objection," Q's lawyer jumped to his feet. "Leading the witness."
The judge upheld it and the prosecution backed off the question, but the damage had already been done. Q's intelligence had been painted as potentially dangerous.
According to Mizarian custom, Q had the right to speak first since he was the defendant. Now the prosecution got to choose the next witness. Like a tennis match, Q analogized when his lawyer explained how the justice system worked. His lawyer had not been amused, but the comparison stood: each side would bandy the truth back and forth until the jury tallied all the shots and declared a winner.
The prosecution called Jean-Luc Picard to the stand. Q glowered as he watched Jean-Luc walk to the witness box. He was stiff, self-righteous and stilted, yet Q could not help but admire the way this relatively unimaginative little man had trapped him so cleverly. 'Perhaps there's something to be said for a strict moral code,' he admitted grudgingly. He settled back, enjoying Jean-Luc's testimony as if he were listening to a favorite tale. Q the malicious. Q the invincible. Q the all- powerful. Q the terrorizer of household pets and small children. Ah, but those had been the days.
Q sat up straight and wiped the smirk off his face as he'd been instructed. He noticed the prosecution's lawyer glancing over at his lawyer, wondering, no doubt how far the defense would let him go in excoriating Q's character.
The Starfleet attorney finally got an objection when he brought up the battle at Wolf 386. "Irrelevant," his lawyer called.
"I'll let that stand," the judge said.
"No further questions, your honor." The attorney sat down.
Now it was Q's lawyer's turn. As he ambled up to Picard he posed a casual question. "Q ever lie to you, Captain?"
"Not to my knowledge, no," Picard answered.
Now the lawyer's approach altered somewhat. He stood in front of Picard and addressed him respectfully, almost deferentially. "Sir. I respect the fact that you had to do your duty as an officer in testifying against my client. In fact, I know you came here because you were ordered to testify, and you carried out your orders to the best of your ability, isn't that right?"
Picard sat perfectly still. Only his lips moved. "That is correct, yes."
"Tell me, Sir. Of all the humans here who've had contact with Q, you've known him the longest, isn't that right?"
At Picard's nod, he continued. "And you know why he's on trial?"
"And you know the sentence he'll receive if he's found guilty?"
"Mindwipe and deportation," Picard answered.
"What do you think about that?"
"On the contrary, your Honor. This man's testimony is given great weight. He's the closest thing we have to an expert witness on Q, and as such his opinions are extremely important."
The judge considered. "I'll allow it. But make your question specific, Counselor."
He turned to Picard again. "Do you think the sentence is just?"
Picard took a deep breath and looked over at Crusher almost apologetically. "No." He answered softly. "I don't."
"Why not?" Q's lawyer sounded only mildly surprised.
"I don't agree with the sentence because in this case death is too easy. Q is a genius, and he owes humanity a debt. He owes the families of the crew I lost, and the families of the 11,000 who were killed fighting a mortal enemy he brought upon the Federation. His duty... his redemption if you will, turns on his ability to use his thousand-plus IQ to make up for what he's done. If you take away that opportunity, you rob us and you rob him."
Picard looked directly at the jury. "I *was* Locutus of Borg. I fought the transformation from human to machine, and when I could fight no more, I begged them to let me die. They couldn't, because they couldn't see the value of a mere human, and they didn't understand the magnitude of what they were taking from me. If the ordeal taught me anything it was that I must steadfastly cherish my humanity." Now he looked directly at Q. "I say give Q the opportunity to learn the same thing--to learn the value of a human existence."
Picard had them spellbound, and Q was livid with anger. That speechifying little twit! How dare he speak up for Q so eloquently! Now Q might never get a chance to pay him back. As Jean-Luc left the witness box, Q imagined his grim expression hid an inner smugness at the idea that Q would owe him for ever and ever.
Q's lawyer called a recess after that. The better to let Picard's ringing speech settle in, Q realized with a sinking heart. "You didn't tell me you were going to ask him questions," Q criticized his lawyer when they were back in the defense witness room.
"Of course I'm going to ask him questions," the man answered with a trace of exasperation. "That's what I do."
"But why him," Q demanded. "He's so..."
"He's a pompous twit," the lawyer finished for him, "but he gives great testimony."
Which was another thing Q hated about Picard: the ability to effortlessly foist onto others that dangerous, pollyanna-ish faith that all beings rise to their highest good when given the opportunity. His determined optimism was like a secure little tower from which he ventured out, forced his beliefs on people, and then returned to, all superiority and self-righteousness; totally oblivious to the havoc he caused. Q himself was a perfect example of this, compelled to give up a life that might eventually become bearable for all he knew, because Jean-Luc had gone into full seek-out-new-life-and-new-civilizations mode. Suddenly he resented the idea of self-sacrifice, and in that moment, if he could have seen another way out given the circumstances, he would have taken it.
He yearned for things to be as they once were, his mind drifting nostalgically to the afternoons he, Morad and Riller spent together; peaceful, easy times, when he'd felt happy. The thought was a revelation to him. He'd only ever seen himself as a victim, maligned and put upon. Now that he truly was being victimized by Jean-Luc's silly insistence that he be given a chance at redemption, he could only wonder at his own obtuseness and ingratitude. Q was getting impatient for this whole thing to be over.
After the break, it was Morad's turn to testify. Watching him in the witness box, Q was overcome, again, by the impression of Morad's fragility. He could have wept for the tenderness he felt, but didn't want to dishonor Morad by giving vent to his emotions in public.
Morad testified to Q's honest, trustworthy nature--he'd had more than one opportunity to divulge some of Morad's more painful secrets but hadn't done so. He was elaborating on Q's inherently credible character when he stopped mid-sentence. His eyes widened as he stared towards the back of the room, then a happy smile broke over his face.
As one, the entire company turned towards the door where a solemnly dressed, green-skinned, dark-haired woman looked down at her boots, uncomfortable with the attention.
Q could have jumped up and screamed with the force of emotion exploding inside him. Damnit but this was the wrong time for her to pull a rabbit out of a hat! He knew she would see through his charade at once, and he only had one opportunity to salvage this rapidly disintegrating mess. He stood and faced the judge. "Your honor," he spoke loudly and clearly, then waited a beat, until he knew all eyes had turned his way. Q stretched the moment as long as he could. Despite his tacky jumpsuit, he knew his was a naturally commanding presence, and he couldn't resist the urge to--what was that old saying--work the crowd. Reveling in the theatricality of the moment, he faced the judge solemnly. "I understand the charges against me, and I plead guilty, your honor."
The room exploded into pandemonium. Q sat back down, thoroughly pleased with himself.
His lawyer shot him an expression of absolute rage and disbelief. "Your honor!" He almost had to shout over the background noise. "May I request a recess, please."
The judge banged her gavel. "If I do not have immediate order, I will clear this court," she thundered. The effect was instantaneous. Everyone got quiet.
The judge beckoned Q towards her. He stood and approached the bench, his lawyer glued to his side.
Q thought he could read annoyance and curiosity in her features, but he noticed that when she addressed him she spoke slowly and clearly, as if she were talking to an idiot or a small child. "Why do you want to plead guilty?"
Q held himself very erect, thinking furiously. If he told the truth, that he was doing this because he refused to concede any moral high ground to snotty old Jean-Luc, he would sound silly and petty. He didn't mind *being* silly or petty, but he had an image to maintain. On the other hand, he'd just been described as a truthful man, and he found himself surprisingly unwilling to compromise that image of himself. He looked the judge in the eye, and even though it just about killed him not to do it, he resisted the urge to enunciate slowly back to her. "Suffice it to say, your honor, I have my reasons."
The judge looked at his lawyer, and for a scant second her facade cracked and they shared a moment's commiseration. "You and your client have fifteen minutes," she told him. "This court stands in recess."
Q's lawyer hustled him back into the witness room where they glowered at one another until Morad buzzed and entered, quickly followed by Jean-Luc Picard.
Q felt himself stiffen. He folded his arms across his chest ostentatiously refusing to look at any of them.
"Q," Morad sounded like he was close to despair. "Why are you doing this?"
"Yes," Picard echoed demandingly. "What is this all about?"
Q glared at him without speaking. Like Jean-Luc didn't know!
Morad pulled up a chair and sat very close to him, patting his hand. "Q, what's wrong?" He asked sympathetically.
Q let Morad take his hand, but still refused to say anything.
When the door buzzed, Q looked up despairingly, knowing who it had to be. Riller walked in, and Q felt his stomach knot. She looked like she wanted to kill him. Q stood up. "She has to leave." He turned on his lawyer. "Get her out of here. *I* say who gets to come in, and I don't want her."
The lawyer stared, transfixed.
Riller advanced on him, her face mottled with the force of her emotion. "What in the name of the Three is wrong with you?" She demanded.
"I said get her out of here." he repeated menacingly. Every person in the room except for the lawyer was supremely important to him, but of all of them, Riller knew him best; his public persona, his private fears... in trying to save his life she might expose his secrets to the others, and that thought was almost too great to bear. "Call the guard and have her removed."
Beside him, Morad made a small sound of agitation. Diverted, Q calmed down slightly but his stance remained confrontational.
Picard glanced at the lawyer, collected Riller with his eyes and jerked his head towards the door. The lawyer nodded.
Q saw the byplay, but since he was getting what he said he wanted, declined to comment. Riller and the lawyer left the room, and Q sat down again. He was very uncomfortable--he knew he'd lost because Riller would tell his lawyer about the traps in the computer, but there was nothing he could do about it now. The only thing that saved him from being overwhelmed by frustrated melancholy was watching Picard's surreptitious fidgeting. Q had long since figured out the more interesting side effects Riller's anger had on him. Fortunately, with proximity, the effects diminished over time, so he was relatively immune by now. He wondered if he should tell Picard, but decided it was more fun to watch the captain squirm.
After a few minutes Picard excused himself and left the room. Q smirked but sobered quickly. He turned to Morad. "I didn't mean to frighten you just now."
Morad wore his forgiveness plain on his face. "One day I'm going to stop putting up with you," he said fondly.
"You already did, remember?"
"Oh. Right." He gazed at Q intently. "So did you get better?"
"Oh, yes," Q answered flippantly. "A week in jail does wonders for one's perspective."
Morad wasn't fooled. "That's good. Keep working at it. And then I'll come back to you."
"I thought you *were* back."
Morad leaned towards Q, resting his chin in his hand. His face was resolute but peaceful. "Keep getting better and I'll keep coming back."
Q nodded. That wasn't what he wanted, but it was fair; a deal definitely worth living for.
When Picard returned to the witness room, Q and Morad were still sitting together quietly. For a moment he regretted interrupting their privacy, and he thought about excusing himself again. There was nothing remotely indecorous about their demeanor, but the emotional intimacy was palpable. Picard fought to master his yearning envy. Sometimes he wished he didn't have such a strong instinct towards caution, but he forced the thought aside. He still wanted to know why Q had made such a reckless gesture back in the courtroom though he suspected from the sullen looks Q was darting his direction that Q might not be of a mind to tell him. Perhaps there was another way to get the information.
"So," he offered genially, not directing his comment to anyone in particular. "I suspect we'll be able to work this out, don't you?"
Q didn't answer, but Morad responded with a small smile, glancing involuntarily at Q. "Yes, I think we will," he answered.
Picard nodded. "It will be a relief to get back to normal. You own a restaurant, do you not?"
"For about five years now," Morad answered. "It's doing pretty well."
"I should like to visit it sometime." It was the right thing to say. Some of Morad's stiffness fell away and soon he was chatting easily about 'the business' as he called it. For Picard, the topic was mildly diverting. What stunned him was Q's poorly disguised jealousy. They were only talking, for heaven's sake, but Q's entire body stiffened, his face set and wary as his eyes shifted back and forth between them.
Picard was dumbfound by this display of rank insecurity. Was Q so loathe to give up center stage that even this idle conversation bothered him? Or did he, god forbid, think Picard had designs on his lover? Picard was indignant at the very notion: he would never trespass on a relationship. Q was behaving immaturely. He paused mid-sentence, frowning. No, Q wasn't being immature, he was being himself. Something clicked for him, and he knew an understanding of Q's behavior hovered just out of reach of his conscious mind. He wished he had time to think this through more carefully.
"Captain? Is something wrong?" Morad asked. Several seconds had gone by while Picard sat there with a surprised look on his face.
He apologized and continued his story about his great uncle the wine steward, aware that he sounded distracted but unable to help himself.
Fortunately Riller and the lawyer came to his rescue. As they walked back into the room, Picard felt a moment's sincere sympathy for them both. The lawyer had a rather stunned expression, like he'd just had the rug pulled out from under him. He was beginning to look rather worn about the edges. Of course. Dealing with Q could do that to a person. Riller was much calmer than she'd been a few minutes ago, but she still seemed a bit out of sorts, and her expression was grim as she pulled up a chair and sat down across from Q.
"You're going to go back in there and offer a recision," she told him without preamble.
Q glowered. "I won't."
Riller was not in a mood to be trifled with. "Q, the judge is a Mizarian. She'll take you at your word, no matter what evidence we present. Now go out there and offer a recision or I'll do my best to have you declared incompetent to stand trial." She leaned towards him menacingly. "I swear it, I'll go out there and make you look like a fool." They locked gazes angrily, and the tension level spiraled. It was obvious that neither was going to back down.
"Ah, why don't we see if we can work this out," Picard interjected. "I'm sure Ms. Harris only has your best intentions in mind." He turned to Riller. "Isn't that right?"
Riller slumped back in her chair. "I certainly try."
"And Q," Picard turned to see him slouched down in his seat, radiating stubbornness, but he tried anyway. "Think of the benefits to be retained from offering a recision." He did not quite let his eyes stray over to Morad, but he knew Q would take his meaning.
Q glanced up at him with something like desperation on his face and quickly glanced away again. He did not speak.
Picard tried again. "Can you tell us," he asked gently, "why you pled guilty? Did you think you had to for some reason?" Picard was stabbing into the air, trying to guess at the best argument that would convince Q to change his mind. He really meant it when he said Q's knowledge and experiences were too valuable to be thrown away on a misunderstanding, but if Q wouldn't even talk to him...
"You've got two very good lawyers working for you." 'And my testimony,' he thought but did not say--Q wasn't the only one who knew how to work a crowd. "It's very likely that you'll be able to beat this case."
Q glared at him in a sudden flash of rage. His chest began to heave just slightly.
'So that means something to him,' Picard thought, 'but what?' He wished he could send for Counselor Troi, but there simply wasn't time. He glanced at the chronometer on the wall. He had less than six minutes to convince Q to change his mind.
"Q," Picard persisted doggedly. "You are surrounded by people who care about you." He looked around the room and Q followed his eyes reluctantly. Riller and Morad were nodding. "None of us wants you to throw your life away," he continued. "Will you at least consider changing your mind?"
Q stared down at the table for long moments. Everyone in the room, including Picard, held their breath. Would he fight them all?
"Okay," Q finally answered. His voice was husky with the tears he held back by main force, but he still managed to sound petulant and imposed upon. "I'll do it on one condition."
"What is that?" Relief poured through Picard at the thought that he'd finally gotten Q to start talking, but Q's next words filled him with a choked sense of frustration.
"Riller has to come back home with me."
Picard glanced at Riller's closed expression and his heart sank. He felt beads of sweat forming under his collar.
Riller was shaking her head. "Q, I left for very good reasons, and I'm not going to be blackmailed into coming back."
"I don't care. Those are my terms, take it or leave it," Q did not look up at her.
And all at once another piece of the puzzle fell into place. Picard understood that Q wanted his life back the way it had been. His confession of guilt must have been predicated on hopelessness, on the notion that without his friends, his existence was without meaning.
Picard remembered Q's display of jealousy. He didn't like to manipulate Q's emotions, but he didn't see where he had much choice. "Q, that is not entirely fair. Is it so difficult to think that people might care for you without your having to possess them or control them? Ms. Harris came to help you. She isn't likely to abandon you once the trial is over. And I'm sure she would consider coming back home with you if you gave her some incentive."
"Like what?" Q snapped. He was learning more than he ever wanted to know about losing gracefully.
Picard looked at Harris who was gazing at Q with a troubled expression.
"No more calling names," she finally said softly.
Picard was sure there had to be more. "And," he prompted.
"No more losing your temper."
Q shot a glance at Morad who was nodding his head. 'He must be extremely difficult to live with,' Picard thought. His envy of Q and Morad's relationship took a sudden turn south.
"I promise," Q answered. Picard didn't believe him, but that was a discussion for another time. "What else?" He asked.
She glanced at Picard and he nodded encouragingly. Riller looked at Q and took a deep breath. "And my mother has to come live with us."
Q's eyes widened with dismay. Picard hid his urge to guffaw deep inside his mind. 'How the mighty have fallen,' he thought, as Q nodded reluctantly.
A bi-toned chime sounded. They had two minutes to get back to the courtroom. Picard sighed. he wanted to talk to Riller, to tell her that he understood how much she was taking on, but it would have to wait. He walked to the door, opened it, and stood waiting. The lawyer took the hint, then Riller, then Morad. Q was the last one out.
He paused, glaring down, and Picard saw a strange mix of longing, resentment and real gratitude in his eyes, but only for a brief second. Faced with the prospect of another audience, Q was rapidly regaining his composure. "You know," Q said conversationally, "I think I really hate you, Jean-Luc."
Jean-Luc merely smiled and followed him out, shutting the door behind him.