Naomi came down the corridor, trying not to puff. It had been a tiring walk, even for her and she still wasn't sure why she hadn't just put off her evening exercise when she'd discovered the holodeck was booked by someone with a higher priority than her own. But she was stubborn, and that was the way it was.

As she came around the corner, she heard an eerie, spine-tingling sound, like a dying animal or something in pain. Instinctively, she flinched, then kept going at a slower pace, not one to back away from danger even when that might be the bright thing to do.

Huddled on the floor was a broken shape... reaching out for something? She couldn't tell for certain. Whatever it was, the person was hurt. Without even thinking about it, she knelt down.

"Hello? Are you..."

Before she could say anything else, Q broke away from her, cowering, moving as far away from her as his injured state would allow. Naomi could see how much it hurt him to move, but he was still scrabbling for purchase on the floor, trying desperately to put distance between them. His voice came out in a broken litany of terror. "Don't hurt me don't kill me please don't kill me please please don't hurt me."

Naomi backed away from him. It was Q, she knew him now, although she wouldn't have recognized him if he hadn't spoke. He was nothing like the proud peacock she remembered, and she couldn't imagine what kind of monsters would do something like this to him.

They had to get out of there. She bent down further, making herself as small as possible. "I won't hurt you."

Q focused on the tiny redheaded woman kneeling in front of him. She was much too close to him and he couldn't stand it and she was going to hurt him and nothing would stop the hurting.

He whimpered and shrank away. She got up to go to call for help, and spotted his comm badge, lying on the floor a meter or two away. She wasn't wearing one of her own, because she didn't need it for anything and rather preferred no one being able to find her. Naomi went to it, picked it up and tapped it. "Dr. Allen to Sickbay."

"This is Dr. Li."

"I've got Q here. He appears to be very badly hurt. I don't think you want to try to move him; he's terrified of someone hurting him more. Can you beam him directly there?"

"I can arrange for it. Where are you?"

Naomi told him, and within a few minutes, the shimmering descended over them and then they were in Sickbay. Naomi didn't realize how scared she'd been until the bright lights were all around her again. Having people there and noise and motion was an intense relief after the darkness of that lonely corridor. She didn't even consider that a few moments before that she'd been walking through there on her own; finding Q there, brutalized, had colored her impressions completely.

"Noooo!!" Q howled, and without even thinking about it, Naomi went to him.

"What are you doing to him?" Naomi asked fiercely, putting herself between Q and the doctor.

Li looked at her as though she were the stupidest person in the world. "I'm trying to help him."

"That's not what it sounds like."

"It's Q. He... he can be somewhat irrational."

Naomi glared at the doctor. "Well, be more careful with him. Someone just tried to kill him."

Li muttered under his breath, too low for her to hear, "So what's new?"

In the grey recesses of his mind, Q had tried to fight off the man who had tried to hurt him again, and failed, and then the red-haired woman had protected him. He didn't know how he knew that, how he knew what had happened; he wasn't listening to anything they were saying, too wrapped up in his own pains to be aware of words, but he could hear it in her tone, feel it in the way she stood between him and his attacker.

Then the pain came again as they moved him to one of the beds and started cutting his clothes off of him to get at his injuries. Q saw it all as dark shapes moving in on him, hurting him, trying to kill him, and he began pleading again, tears coming to his eyes, "Please no no please don't kill me please..."

And then she was there, and there was a soothing voice in his ear, murmuring comforting words to him, stroking his head, and he turned into her. The people who were hurting him didn't go away, and he wanted to protest, wanted to be terrified of them, but as long as the comforting presence was there, he felt safer.

Li looked up at Naomi, cradling Q's head against her, and crooning to him. "Good, keep him quiet, this will be easier."

Naomi shot a glare at the doctor, but didn't stop. She didn't even really know Q, but he was broken and he seemed to need her, and for the moment, that was enough.

Taking care of his wounds seemed to take forever. Long before it was done, Q had lapsed into unconsciousness brought on by the painkiller and sedatives they had given him.

Still, Naomi didn't leave. She didn't know why she was staying. She hardly knew Q and didn't think he remembered her at all. They'd met precisely once, during the drive to find anything to stave off the Borg threat. He'd been brilliant, egotistical and entirely unreachable. The interchange of insults at that time had been a brief moment of forgetfulness and sparring in the midst of tension and the numbness that could only come from too many hours spent going over the same failed solutions to the same impossible problems. He wouldn't remember that; it could hardly have been as significant to him as it was to her.

But she couldn't leave him. Not given the way he'd clung to her. Q had been frightened of everyone there, of even the doctors. She was the only one he seemed to trust, and it went against her grain to abandon him.

Q woke up to a world of pain and soreness, coming out of nightmares he couldn't remember but loathed himself for being weak enough to have. It wasn't enough that he was frightened of everything, that he had make up more things to be frightened of while he was asleep?

He looked around. He was in Sickbay. He knew the bland decor here better than he knew his own rooms; no wonder, since he was here more often.

Curled up on a chair next to his bed was a small, red-headed woman. Q didn't recognize her, but something in the back of his head did. Flashes of unimaginable terror went through him, distorted, mask-like faces, people hurting him, interspersed with images of a comforting presence, of someone who looked just like the woman in the chair.

Horror went through Q in a shock as all of the experiences of the night before flooded back into him. He'd been coming back from the physics lab, and then two men had stopped him. He'd known as soon as he saw them that they were going to kill him. The masks they were wearing made that blatantly obvious. Beating up on him was one thing; he had been beaten up on by any number of people, including the occupants of one of the starbase's bars for transients, and there had been no reaction at all from the people supposedly protecting him. Beating up on Q was an enjoyable hobby around here. But the masks meant something different.

He'd tried to beg, had begged, but it had been no use. With the ease of long practice they had hit him, punched him, kicked him, left him bruised and beaten on the floor.

And then she had arrived. He had only dim memories of that, of being terrified of her as well as everything else, of trying to get away from her, and then, after she had apparently had them transported to Sickbay, seeking comfort from her.

That was an even worse humiliation. He had cried on her like a helpless child, and everyone had seen it.

And now he was here in Sickbay, and Security, for Q knew that Security had been the ones to do this to him, was trying to kill him.

Hopelessness and rage went through him.

"You're awake?"

The voice penetrated his thoughts and Q looked up to see the woman who had taken care of him the night before. "What a brilliant deduction."

"Thank you," she said gravely. "Are you all right? Are you in any pain?"

"What are you, some kind of nurse? Of course I'm in pain."

"I'll go get the doctor."

When she came back, Q was sitting up. "I'm leaving."

"Really?" Li asked. "I thought you were in pain."

Q glared at him for a moment. "Does it matter? I'm sure you'd rather have me squirming in agony than give me anything which will help."

Naomi glanced at Li. "You will give him something, won't you?"

Li looked at her, annoyed. "That was the general idea, yes."

Q didn't have time to protest as Li injected him with another painkiller. "You can go back to your quarters, Q, as long as you promise not to exert yourself. You need rest more than anything else right now."

"Yes, Mommy."

Li shook his head, and turned to speak to someone outside the room. "He's ready to go back now."

Two Security guards entered the room, and Q cringed before he could stop himself. Naomi saw the movement and stepped protectively closer to him, looking between Q and the guards.

Faking a wellness he didn't feel, Q got down from the bed and strode out.

Naomi tagged along behind him, still curious as to exactly what was going on here. However, neither Q nor the guards spoke.

At the door to his quarters, Q turned on her. "What are you doing here?"

Naomi flinched slightly. "May I come in?"

"No," Q said harshly, then went inside.

Naomi shrugged, watched him go, then left, not noticing the Security guards, who followed Q inside.

Once inside, Q realized someone had followed him. He swiveled, ready to lambast the foolish woman for disobeying him. But the words died on his lips as he realized who had followed him. Security. He didn't know if these were the two who had come after him. With masks on and in the dim light of the corridor it had been impossible to tell who they were. That only made this more frightening.

"What are you doing here?"

The taller one shrugged slightly. "Orders. We're here to protect you."

His smile seemed to Q more like the smile of a predator. "I don't want you and I don't need you. Leave!"

The guard shook his head. "We'll be staying. Watching you."

That was what he was afraid of. Q fled into his room, locking the door behind him, and then realized that wasn't going to do any good. They were Security. They could override the computer lock. If they wanted to kill him and finish off the job, he was dead. A howl of fear and anger stuck in his throat. He didn't know what to do.

Q commed Anderson. She put him through a brief explanation of his attack before she would hear any complaints from him. Q fussed and fumed through that, before he was finally able to tell her why he'd called. "You have to get these goons out of my quarters."

"The Security guards are there to protect you, Q."

"Security tried to kill me!"

"Q, we've been over this. You have no way of knowing who tried to kill you. You said your attackers were wearing masks. Until we can find out who did try to kill you, having Security protection there with you makes the most sense."

She closed the connection and Q jumped up, pacing. He was going to die. He had no doubt in his mind that they were going to kill him. The only question was how much they were going to make him suffer first.

Suddenly he wished he hadn't sent that woman away. It was a foolish thought; he didn't need her and there wasn't anything she could do. Of course, they'd be less likely to want to kill him in front of witnesses...

And he didn't know her name. He had no idea who she was. She was just one more in the string of faceless people roaming around the starbase. He didn't care to learn their names. For the most part, they weren't worth getting to know. And they all hated him, even the ones who were almost worth talking to.

Before he could stop himself or think better of it, Q queried the computer. "I need the name of a woman, most likely human, about 1.5 meters in height, red hair."

"There are six persons matching that description."

"Display a picture of each of these." Dr. Naomi Allen was the third of these. Q felt a tremor of relief go through him at just seeing her face. That was as contemptible as everything else he was feeling right now. Why should he want anyone else? Why should he be so affected by the sight of this person, when he knew that nothing and no one could or would help him?

Now that he had her name, he could contact her. It would be simplicity itself. But the very thought of it frightened him. To call her would be to admit to his fears, to expose himself to the worst kind of rejection.

But the alternative was sitting outside his door. Security. Waiting to kill him.

With a strangled sob, Q placed the call. Her face appeared on the screen. "Yes?" She recognized Q, saw the strain in his expression. "Is something wrong?"

"No!" Q said automatically, then wished he hadn't. He meant yes, but he couldn't say yes, and now that she was there, right in front of him, he didn't know how he was ever going to admit that he needed her. He couldn't. It was impossible.

Naomi cocked her head. "Nothing's wrong at all? You haven't magically reconsidered my offer and decided to invite me over?"

He felt relieved. Something he could answer. "It would be an enormous concession on my part, yes."

"Of course it would. That's why I'm so grateful for it. I'll be right there."

And she'd terminated the call before he could say another word. Q felt better. But what a pushy woman! She'd decided to intrude her way into his life on a bare word. How dare she?

"He said he didn't want to see you."

"Well, I just talked to him, and he'd changed his mind. Can you go ask him?"

After a brief wrangle at the door, Security let her in.

Naomi stood in the middle of the room, waiting as Security got Q to come out of his room and confirm that he had indeed called her there.

At that point, they just stood there, Q staring awkwardly at Naomi. She knew he had to want to talk to her about something, and yet, how could they talk with the guards there? They could go into his room, but apparently, that wasn't an option.

The silence extended between them until Naomi felt it was becoming ridiculous.

She turned to the guard who had let her in. "You can go now."

He stifled a laugh. "I'm sorry, ma'am. Our orders specify that we are to remain with Q..."

"Then remain outside."

He looked significantly at her. "We can't leave a threat to Security with him alone under the circumstances."

Naomi stared at him for a moment before realizing he was classifying her as a threat. "I was next to him all night in Sickbay. I found him when he'd been attacked. If I were a threat, I had a lot of better chances to kill him than this."


Naomi stared at him. "Leave."

"Ma'am, if you can't refrain from attacking duly appointed members of Starfleet Security, I'm going to have to arrest you."

Naomi's expression was fixed and disbelievingly. "I want to talk to your commanding officer."

"With Ohmura's death," and Naomi thought she caught a glance past her at Q, who had slumped into a chair in a posture of extreme defeat. "I'm the highest ranking officer left until the commodore assigns a new Security Chief."

"Then I want to talk to the commodore. Now."

Anderson was not pleased to be hustled down to Q's quarters in the middle of what was a busy morning. She was in the middle of her investigation into the fracas surrounding the attempt on Q's life. The official version of events hadn't been taken from him yet, but given the computer records, and the accounts from Drs. Allen and Li, there wasn't much he could have told them. The little Q had added during his call earlier only made it that much more her problem than anything else, at least until a new Security Chief could be located. The current members of the Security department were competent enough, but not of the rank or quality she wanted to promote.

"What seems to be the problem?" Anderson asked in a deceptively mild tone.

"They won't leave," Naomi said.

"We need to take Q's deposition," the guard said. "Dr. Allen was interfering with our duties."

Naomi looked at him, mouth falling open. "You liar!"

Anderson held up her hands before it could turn into a free-for-all. "Let me understand this." She looked at Braun. "You're refusing to leave because you need to take Q's deposition."

"Yes," he said sulkily. There was more to it than that, but he couldn't very well admit to wanting to keep Naomi out just for the sheer pleasure of inconveniencing Q. Security had numerous reasons to want to discommode Q as much as possible, not the least of which was his culpability in Ohmura's death.

Anderson turned to Naomi. "And you'd like them to leave so that you could have privacy with Q?"

Naomi flushed. That didn't sound right at all. "Essentially, yes."

"Then take the deposition and get out," Anderson said to Braun. Her back was hurting and she didn't want to be there at all. The wisdom of her decision not to promote him to Chief was confirmed by this little incident. If Braun couldn't settle a kindergarten dispute like this, he didn't belong in charge of one of the most vital departments on the starbase.

Anderson stalked out, leaving the Security guards looking at Naomi with hatred.

Braun cleared his throat. "I'll take the deposition now. Unless of course, Q refuses."

Q sat in the chair, fright overwhelming him as the two guards approached him. One of them stood next to the chair, while the other one loomed over him, effectively blocking any possibility he had of getting away. Only Naomi's presence in the room reassured him. They wouldn't kill him while she was there. At the very least, she would call for help before they could hurt him. He was ashamed of himself for being so afraid, but he couldn't help it. He knew in his recently fractured bones what they were going to do to him, what they wanted to do to him.

The deposition went quickly, despite Q's insults and Braun's desire to stretch this out as long as possible. Q just didn't know enough to be of much use.

When the guards had departed, Q still didn't move from his chair.

Naomi looked at him, really looked at him, seeing the drawn lines of his face and his haggard expression. She'd had to restrain herself from attacking Braun when Q had revealed that Security had been the ones who had almost killed him. How could Braun be so cruel to Q when he'd undergone such an experience? How dare they?

She retreated inside Q's room, coming back out with a blanket. She tucked it around Q, who still seemed unnaturally restrained.

Naomi got a mug of cocoa from the replicator and came back with it, placing it in his hands, and sitting near his feet. He didn't drink it, but he held the cup, almost as if he was drawing warmth from it.

"I don't need your mothering," Q said finally, after a very long time.

"Of course you don't," Naomi said, leaning up against his legs. "I just like to do it."

"How typically human." He set the cup down, and then felt even emptier without something to hold, something to do with his hands. He couldn't even begin to describe how terrible, how soul-destroying it was to be torn apart by people and then be forced to describe it all back to those very same people while they pretended not to remember it. They'd taken it like he'd been praising their fine handiwork.

And, from their point of view, he probably had been.

Q shuddered again uncontrollably.

"Are you still cold?" Naomi knelt up, then moved to the edge of the chair. She didn't know whether this was a good thing to do or not, but he'd needed her last night in Sickbay and she moved ahead in the courage of that conviction, tugging his head to her and pressing herself against him so that she could hold him.

With a strangled sob, Q's arms went around her. He didn't want her, didn't need this, but he couldn't refuse it either. He was going to hate himself later, as much as he hated her now, but he had to accept. The need was too great, and at the moment, it didn't matter that she would only turn on him and hate him like everyone else he ever knew always had.

Q woke up feeling pained and uncomfortable. He could barely stand, and the only thing he wanted were painkillers. Of course, he couldn't get enough of them to do any good, he never could, but anything was better than this.

After the drug had taken effect and he had been able to complete his toilet, Q felt better. Almost dead rather than just wishing he was.

He stopped at the door to the main room as a quick thought flashed through his head. The last thing he remembered was Naomi guiding him into bed. He hadn't had any energy to resist her; he had needed her too much then, as horrifying a thought as it was. That was all in the past.

But what if she were still there?

Steeling himself, Q stepped through. Curled up on the couch, fast asleep, lay a small woman. Q walked over, studying her, relief and panic moving through him. She'd stayed here. No one had come in during the night, she had protected him. But Security knew where she was and that'd she'd been there. Everyone would think that he'd invited this person here in order to engage in the deepest, most depraved acts he could imagine.

While Q was torn between the two possibilities, Naomi opened her eyes, awakened by his presence near her. "Good morning."

"What are you doing here?" Q asked, surly.

Naomi looked slightly confused. "You asked me over. The guards. Remember?" She sat up and stretched. She was wearing a light dress, and the action caused the material to tighten across her body.

Q swallowed hard, and turned away, trying not to limp.

"Are you all right?"

"Why would I be all right?" Q snapped. "People want to kill me, every bone in my body has been broken and reset, and now I wake up to this!" Q stood there trembling, the force of his outburst shaking through him. He was far weaker than he knew, and his raw emotions lay too close to the surface.

Naomi cocked her head. He was in pain, that much she understood. And he was frightened of Sickbay and the doctor, or she'd suggest that he go there. She certainly wouldn't put up with that much pain. She'd be begging someone for a backrub...

She stood up and came over to him. Instinctively, Q backed away, then fought the urge. He couldn't show that he was scared.

"Would you like me to rub your back?" The offer wasn't entirely as selfless as it sounded. Although she'd hardly take advantage of anyone as vulnerable as he was at the moment, there was something to be said for getting to put her hands all over him.

"Do you always proposition men first thing in the morning?" Q asked, trying not to say yes or no.

"Sometimes I wait until later in the day." She reached out to him, not quite touching him. "It'd help if you'd lay down."

Q found himself being led back into his bedroom and placed face down on the bed. He didn't know how that had been accomplished, and was starting to feel uncomfortably exposed when her hands ran over his back to settle lightly on his shoulders. The feeling was exquisite and he couldn't stop himself from moaning as a bubble of pain welled up, burst, and a feeling very close to relaxation took its place.

Almost immediately, the rest of his body started to hurt more, and Q imagined what it would feel like to have her hands on the rest of him this way, remembering how Harry Roth used to do this to him and how good it had felt.

Thinking of the physicist reminded him of something very unpleasant, of what backrubs were for. This was all a part of sordid human sexuality. He'd been tricked! How could he have forgotten? The pleasure he was feeling was only a lure to get him into bed and once he had sufficiently let down his guard, she was going to seduce him, derange his mind and common sense in order to use him for her own depraved purposes. And then she'd hurt him, humiliate him, make him a laughingstock or tear his heart to shreds.

She was just like all the rest of them.

Q didn't know why that thought filled him with such grim despair. In any case, he had to get rid of her now, before her touch destroyed what was left of his good sense.

He surged up out of her hands, and turned over.

"What's wrong?" Naomi asked, concern on her face.

Q used the pause to muster his self-control and put his facade in place. "Your services will not be required after all. I find that they don't meet my needs after all."

Naomi stared at him for a long moment before accepting that as the truth. She couldn't find any other truth in his eyes. She'd moved too fast here, and that was her own fault, not his. He was being polite, and in truth, probably wanted to rest in peace and quiet after the experience he'd had.

"All right." She got up, but turned at the door. "If you need me..."

"I'll be very surprised."

It was more than an hour after he'd been supposed to be at work before Q could muster up the nerve to leave the room.

The guards fell in behind him as he did. There were two different ones this morning, a man and a woman. Not that it mattered. They were both human. Q could be reasonably sure that the woman, at least, had not been one of the ones to beat him up, but that didn't mean she hadn't been in on it. All the humans on this starbase wanted him dead.

Except for Naomi. She wanted something far more sordid.

His mind skittered away from the thought of Naomi, concentrating on a much closer topic -- getting to work alive. There were scientists waiting to talk to him. Surely Security wouldn't choose now to kill him.

After all, since the attack, they'd been assigned to his "protection." They could get at him any time they wanted. They didn't need to do it now.

Q did not find that thought even slightly reassuring.

There were several people in front of the meeting room, milling in front of the door. Blocking his route in.

"Murderer!" a woman shouted. "How many starships full of people did you murder? How many planets did you destroy?"

Q didn't understand it. Aliens had attacked him countless times before, and had often claimed some story of woe and death as justification for their actions. They'd even killed well-liked people on the starbase before. Why was this different? One alien woman -- one alien woman whose machinations had caused Ohmura's death -- had told a sob story, and now everyone on the starbase hated him.

For the first few days after Ohmura's death, Q had ignored these outbursts. Humans were stupid, irrational, primitive creatures, and he could go mad trying to understand them. Besides, he'd figured they wouldn't hurt him -- that was what he had Security for.

He wasn't quite so unconcerned after the night before last.

Trying desperately to hide his fear, Q glanced surreptitiously back at his guards, to see if perhaps there was a chance they were likely to do their jobs. Their arms were folded, and the woman was snickering. Q turned back to the protestors in front of him. Security looked more likely to sell tickets than protect him if these people attacked him.

If he didn't go in, they'd know he was afraid. Right now he could make it seem that he was just being fashionably late. He showed up to these meetings late all the time, a small exercise of the only power he had. But if he stood here, waiting, frozen, everyone would know what a coward he was.

Besides, if Q screamed loudly enough, the scientists in the room would probably come to his rescue. They couldn't let him die yet; they hadn't yet had their chance to inflict their idiotic theories on him.

He swallowed and stepped forward.

"There were kids on that starship," the woman who'd called him a murderer hissed. "You're a despicable waste of life."

She was in his way. Q gazed down at her with his best mask of disdain, trying desperately to keep from trembling with terror. "And you, madame, are an underevolved primate with virtually no understanding of the universe. You would hardly recognize truth if it bit you on the nose. Now kindly move out of my way."

"Why? So the Federation can profit from sheltering a murderer?" she snarled.

Her cohorts moved in on him menacingly. Q's knees started to go weak. Involuntarily he glanced back at Security, who showed absolutely no signs of planning to intervene.

"An eye for an eye?" he asked harshly. Through the fear, he felt a small modicum of pride that his voice hadn't shaken at all. "You don't approve of me, so you're going to attack me now. Oh, how very enlightened of you. I cannot imagine why I ever thought you a primitive, backward species, such moral sensibilities you show."

The woman backed down, stepping out of his way. "We'll get you," she snapped.

"Stand in line," Q retorted, and stepped forward into the safety of the meeting room.

He couldn't let this keep happening. Living in terror of Security was bad enough. Living in terror of everyone else on the starbase was sheer hell.

Briefly, longingly, he thought of Naomi. These people hated him, but she was their fellow human. She could make Security do what she wanted. She'd even talked Anderson into actually being helpful for a change. Would it be so dangerous to call her?

Harshly he squashed that thought. Of course it would. She wanted only one thing from him, and when she didn't get it, she'd turn vicious, like Amy Frasier had. Or if something impossible occurred and she did get it, which she never would, she would think he was terrible, and repulsive, and then she'd turn on him, like Harry had. And he would never know the point where lust turned to hate until it was too late. At least he knew where he stood with Security.

On the other hand, where he stood was with one foot in the grave. And he desperately didn't want to put the other foot in.

There had to be something. He racked his brains, barely concentrating on the idiots talking to him. Someone he could trust...

And then he had it. Remembering the incident with Amy Frasier had triggered another memory. The Security people who'd rescued him from Amy had been Ohmura, and a Vulcan female. Sekal's wife, what's-her-name, right. T'Meth. He couldn't believe he remembered that. Vulcans were among the most boring species the universe had ever seen fit to bring into existence, but they were not likely to be swayed by a mob mentality. It was Security's job to protect Q, and a Vulcan would remember that, even if everyone else forgot it.

Contacting T'Meth directly did not work.

Like all unimaginative, hidebound people around the universe, she would not leave her post without orders. Never mind that her post consisted of sitting around in the Security offices all day waiting for someone to have a problem. Or pacing up and down some useless stretch of corridor. He was clearly more in need of Security's services than anyone else on the starbase, but she had her orders. When he asked who could grant his request, he learned that her immediate superior was Braun -- the man who'd tormented him last night, the man who might very well have been one of the two that tried to kill him.

Oh joy.

From experience, he knew better than to comm Anderson. She would come when he called, if she felt like it, if no other pressing problems like a shortage of grease in the replicator hoppers or diplomats with hangnails turned up. If he tried to argue her into anything important over the commlink, she would simply disconnect rather than listen to him. Anderson seemed to be willing to do almost anything to avoid listening to him.

No, he had to go to her office. Which was halfway across the starbase from here, through territory that Q had learned was hostile, to his pain. And all the way, he would be flanked by a pair of goons who wanted him dead.

The other alternative was to hide under his bed all night , and all day the next day, until she finally showed up -- and hope that no one dragged him out from under the bed in the middle of the night and finished off what they'd started. This was even less appealing.

He was a nervous wreck by the time he reached Anderson's office, and was not in the mood to wait. He walked in on her while she was in the middle of talking to someone.

"...not very diplomatic, no, I'm afraid. But then, that isn't what he's here for -- Just a second, Professor. I have an emergency on my hands." She froze the comlink and turned to him angrily. "I thought you'd grasped the concept of 'doorbells' two years ago."

"And I thought you'd grasped the concept of 'security.' As in 'protection.' As in 'giving the people who tried to murder Q free access to his room is a bad idea.' It's too bad you don't seem to be that bright."

Anderson sighed heavily. "We've been over this, Q. We don't know who tried to kill you yet."

"I do. But of course why would you listen to me? I'm only the victim."

"Do you have names? Faces? Anything substantial to go on?"

"They were wearing masks!"

"Exactly my point. We can't leave you without protection because you have an irrational hunch that Security attacked you."

An irrational hunch? Q was outraged. He knew the way Starfleet Security moved, knew the way they talked. They might have been wearing masks, so he didn't know which ones they were, but he knew what they were beyond question. "And what if I'm right? Did it ever cross your mind that I might be right, dear Eleanor? You seem to consider it a nuisance I personally have inflicted on you that you have to explain to my visitors that I'm hurt and can't see them. Exactly how do you propose to explain it to them when your incompetence kills me?"

"And suppose you're not right. If I don't leave Security guarding you, whoever tried to kill you could ambush you again, or break into your room while you're sleeping. Do you want to run that risk, Q? I don't."

"Better that than letting the murderers in!" His voice cracked, sending a wave of humiliation through him. He couldn't break down, not now. "Besides, I'm not asking to be left without protection. I just want protection worthy of the name."

"I'm in the middle of a call, Q. I haven't got time for your games. Either spit out what you want, or leave."

"I want T'Meth."


"Surely you remember her, Eleanor. Vulcan security officer? Cold, humorless, unimaginative? I want her guarding me."

Anderson was starting to go from annoyed to genuinely angry. He dared make sweeping demands at a time like this? Who did he think he was?

"She's one of our best investigators, and I currently have her assigned to your case," Anderson snapped, Q's clarification having narrowed the context enough for her to remember the person he meant. "If I demoted her to babysitting you, we'll lose days on the investigation, and the people who attacked you will be running around free. I don't think you want that."

Q had the worst sense of timing in the universe, to be making demands now, Anderson thought. At the moment she didn't even want to see him, to be reminded he existed. It was not exactly that she blamed him for Ohmura's death. Ohmura had been a good man, a good security chief, and a friend, but he was, after all, a member of security, trained and expected to protect civilians at the cost of his own life, if necessary. And no, it wouldn't have been necessary if Q had obeyed her and ducked when she shouted, but Q was a civilian, and civilians did stupid things under pressure. She couldn't blame him for freezing.

What she blamed him for was not being worth it. Jihana Melex's story had been heartwrenching; Anderson had encountered enough deadly weirdnesses out in the universe, during her days on starships as crew and then captain, to know exactly how she'd feel if an omnipotent being showed up and forced her crewmates to undergo a test they could not possibly pass, or survive, and only she had lived to tell the tale. How many alien would-be assassins had Anderson allowed to be killed to protect Q? How many of those attempts had been justified? She'd heard about him doing things like -- well, like introducing humanity to the Borg, causing 18 deaths but helping humanity to prepare for an inevitable conflict. Some of his attackers had charged him with destroying their religious beliefs or their cultural taboos, but she'd never believed he deserved to die for that. And if he'd caused deaths that in the long run helped save far more of that species, she couldn't believe he deserved to die for that either. But he hadn't given any better reason for killing Jihana Melex's crewmates in his test than that he'd been in a bad mood at the time, and that changed everything. Now she knew that the creature she'd spent two years protecting and coddling was a cold-blooded murderer who deserved to die.

He would never be tried for his crimes. Picard had talked the Federation Council into issuing Q a blanket pardon under Federation law for crimes he committed as an omnipotent entity. The terms of the pardon -- it wasn't even a pardon, really -- recognized Q the human as a different legal being from Q the omnipotent, and therefore, not only could the Federation never try Q for his crimes, it could not allow him to be extradited by other governments for them, no matter how heinous they might be, any more than the Federation would let a child be extradited for the crimes of its father. A legalistic fiction had been created that absolved Q of all responsibility for his past life, because it was expedient. Q was useful.

And so good men and women would die to protect a monster, out of political expediency, and it was Anderson's responsibility to ensure that this was done. She was not a creature of politics, though she'd had to engage in it in her days as a starship captain and now. Justice was not being done, and her duty was to ensure that it could not be done, and the conflict between her ethics and her sense of duty was ripping her up inside.

And now the cause of the injury had brazenly turned up on her doorstep, demanding she do more to protect him from the fate he richly deserved, belittling the actions of men and women who put their lives on the line for him every day, with no reward, by claiming they were out to kill him.

She had to protect him. She had sworn an oath to Starfleet to obey; she couldn't throw that out of ethical delicacy. Moreover, she had taken on the assignment to protect Q, and would perform that to the best of her ability. Anything else would be a betrayal of her oath to Starfleet and a betrayal of her self. And she knew how valuable Q was; she had been there the day the Borg were defeated. But the Federation was obtaining that value by making her sacrifice lives to expediency, and that hurt.

"What I don't want is to be murdered by those self-same free assassins because you authorized them to come in my room anytime they like," Q retorted.

"Fine. According to your deposition, your attackers were males of medium build. I'll assign female guards and male guards with odd builds. Will that shut you up?"

Inwardly Q flinched, assaulted by a sudden flashback. The last time someone had told him to shut up, he had been on the floor, begging them to let him live. And then they'd kicked him in the head to silence him. Outwardly he maintained a pose of controlled fury, no fear in his demeanor. He hoped. "You're missing the point, dear Elly. The two people who attacked me were members of Security, yes, but they just happened to be the ones who acted. All of them want me dead. All the humans, anyway. If you assign anyone other than a Vulcan to guard me, you're signing my death warrant!" His voice sounded too loud, too shrill in his ears.

"You're being paranoid. As well as ridiculous. Even if -- and this is a big if -- some few members of Starfleet hated you enough to violate their oaths, that doesn't mean they all want to kill you."

"But you haven't seen how they look at me," Q pleaded, growing more and more desperate. "It's written all over them."

"Has anyone made any direct threats?"

"They don't need to. Their body language does it for them."

"I don't have time for this," Anderson snapped. "I'm not going to feed your paranoid fantasies, Q. Security did not and will not try to kill you. The arrangements stand."

But what he wanted was such a simple thing, so easy for her to order. Rage welled throughout him as he realized why Anderson was balking. She wanted him dead too. Her oath actually meant something to her, so she couldn't act directly to kill him, but she could refuse to believe in a clear and present danger to his life. "Then I suggest you figure out a way to explain to my guests why I'm refusing to see them," he snapped, "because I refuse to continue to run a gauntlet to get to work in the mornings, and if you refuse to give me a Vulcan bodyguard, I will have to protect myself as best I can by staying in my room. At least that way if Security kills me it'll be obvious who did it." His voice was poisonous, laden with fury and sarcasm in a desperate attempt to mask the fear.

Anderson scowled at him. "Don't push me, Q. Two can play at that game."

"Going to cut my computer access off again?" Q asked mockingly. "What do I care? I've been entirely too preoccupied with not being killed to notice my computer lately. If I'm going to die, the loss of computer access seems a rather trivial issue, don't you think? And you can't confine me to quarters if I'm refusing to leave them anyway."

"I could always confine you to the brig," Anderson suggested.

All the blood drained from Q's face. To be locked up in Security's territory, at the mercy of whatever they might choose to do to him, was the most terrifying thing he could imagine. "Do that," he said softly, with venom, "and you may as well simply shoot me, because I will never work for you again." Which was certainly true. Even if he wanted to, he would be unable to, for the simple reason that he would be dead.

Anderson studied him. It was a painfully tempting thought. Q wouldn't carry out his threat, and if he did, there would be no more obligation to protect him. On the other hand, it had been hard enough explaining to the waiting scientific dignitaries that they had to wait because Q had been injured and needed a day to recover. If Q simply refused to go to work, the vultures would descend on Anderson en masse, and she didn't relish that thought. And she was sure that Q would stop working for at least a week or two just to make her life unpleasant in revenge, if she put him in the brig now. If anything could make him put up with boredom, it was spite.

"I'll assign T'Meth to you until the perpetrators have been caught," she said finally. "I don't for a moment believe you'd quit and risk losing all protection over something like this, but I don't feel like putting up with the hassle. Once we've identified your attackers and ensured that they can't hurt you again, Security will go back to a regular guard rotation schedule. Satisfied?"

No, he wasn't, but it was better than ending up in the brig. Besides, if T'Meth guarded him until his attackers were caught, surely she'd see what the rest of Security was doing to him, and realize how he needed someone like her. "For now," he said.

He waited in the lobby in Anderson's office for T'Meth to show up. The security goons that had brought him here glared at him, but for once he didn't care. They wouldn't dare kill him in Anderson's office, and he didn't need to go back with them.

T'Meth arrived, ramrod straight and expressionless as she relieved the guards already there. Q inspected her with a vast sense of relief. "You know, whoever designed Security uniforms obviously never imagined that Vulcans would go into security. That yellow color goes beyond repulsive against your skin."

She ignored that. "Do you still have business here?"


"Your quarters are more secure."

Now that she was here, perhaps she was right. Q got up., the unbearable pressure of the last few days' terror easing ever so slightly. "This is beyond a doubt one of the most boring locales I've been forced to spend time in," he said grandly. "Shall we return to my quarters for an infusion of good taste?"

She still didn't respond. Damn. Sekal would have made a dryly sarcastic retort to that. He was a lot more fun than his wife, it would seem.

T'Meth made him wait in his bedroom while she systematically inspected every inch of the living room, carefully removing the bric-a-brac and various antiques, moving them to the other side of the room, and then pulling apart every inch, searching under the sofa pillows, under the furniture, pulling open the drawers... even to him, it seemed she was being paranoid. When she repeated the process with his bathroom, and then made him wait in the living room while she continued in his bedroom, he was almost sure of it. He stood at the door and made rude comments throughout. A large part of him resented the intrusion, the fact that everything he owned was being closely inspected, but T'Meth pointed out that if security truly wanted him dead, the smart thing to do would be to plant an explosive or something in his room while he was out. And another part of him appreciated that. She was being enormously paranoid, but that meant she was taking him seriously. And she was thinking of things that he himself would never have imagined. Whether they were things that were even remotely probable or not wasn't the point; Q felt annoyed but considerable more secure after she was done.

She set up a logging program to record all entrances and exits into Q's room, and established a lockout code such that only she, Q and the medical department could override the door if it was locked. "The arrangement is less secure than I prefer," she said. "If you and I are attacked by assassins and neither of us has a chance to release the door, Security will either need a doctor to release the lock or will need to be beamed in. Precious time will be lost. However, since it is likely that Security itself presents a threat to you, we must compromise."

Something taut in his chest loosened then, something that had been tense so long he hadn't felt it until now. "You believe me?" he asked, hardly daring to hope.

"The evidence would seem to point in that direction. Someone sabotaged the hall monitoring system. The evidence I've been gathering makes it clear that that person had access to the system. Therefore, logically, either a member of security, who would have legitimate access, or someone with programming or engineering skills, who could obtain illicit access, was involved. Obviously, most of the people with the necessary skills are concentrated in the programming and engineering departments. The programmers have little motive; you rarely interact with them. Engineers are a less likely possibility than programmers, because their specific skill set lends itself to mechanical chicanery, and there is no evidence of mechanical tampering. In addition, they have more motive than anyone else here to wish you safety, as your work has enabled their department to produce enormous breakthroughs, but they themselves deal with the science department and rarely with you directly. They derive benefit from your presence and are not often inconvenienced by you, as people who deal with you directly often are. The number of people outside those departments with the requisite skill sets are very few; and Security does, in fact, have motive to wish you harm. Also, for an engineer or programmer to sabotage the monitors would require extensive planning; a Security officer could simply shut them down on a momentary impulse. Logically, it follows that Security are the most likely culprits."

Someone believed him. He swallowed hard against an inexplicable desire to cry. "Why didn't you tell Anderson that?" he asked harshly.

"At the moment, I have no hard evidence, merely conjecture. I did not wish to make a report until I had something more."

Shortsighted stupidity, and he told her so. If she had reported her findings to Anderson the moment she had them, Q wouldn't have had to browbeat Anderson into giving him adequate protection. T'Meth ignored him.

He spent a significant portion of the evening mindlessly, rearranging the knickknacks that T'Meth had put into disarray. She claimed to have put them all back exactly as she found them, but he didn't believe her; he distinctly remembered the arrangement being completely different. He expected T'Meth to try the old chestnut about Vulcan eidetic memory, but she said nothing; she sat in the main room, impassively staring into nothing. It was unnerving.

One of the objects was broken. A small and very delicate crystal, it had been on the table next to the chair where he'd given his deposition last night. He remembered a large meaty hand on the table, forming a barricade to keep Q from escaping, and remembering thinking at the time that it was like having a bull in a china closet. But he'd been more concerned with survival than breakage, then.

Q picked up the shattered crystal, dismayed. A vicious comment rose to his lips, and died. He knew T'Meth hadn't broken it, had seen the meticulous care with which she had handled his things. It had been them, last night.

They wouldn't be happy until they broke everything he owned, would they?

Such a small thing, such an inconsequential thing... its breakage was nothing next to the wreckage of his life, and yet to his horror Q felt tears welling up. It was as if the little crystal symbolized his life right now, and the image was the final straw. An anguished sob forced its way past the tightness in his chest. He had to get to his room, had to hide himself -- he couldn't let anyone see him like this. But his legs buckled under him and refused to take him anyplace, as the sobs came harder, faster. He felt like the crystal, something so terribly fragile that the slightest carelessness had shattered him, and now there were broken shards of him all over the floor, crying hysterically for no particular reason. Why was he crying? He had T'Meth guarding him. He was safe now, or as safe as a mortal could get, anyway. Why was he crying?

Through humiliation and tears, he glanced up at his protector. She had gone to stand by the door, and was facing it, away from him, as if his emotionality disgusted her so much she couldn't bear to look. The humiliation intensified, and mingled with a totally irrational desire to beg forgiveness, to seek comfort. He wanted someone to hold him, like Naomi had held him last night.

A moment later he had dismissed the desire as the most unbelievably stupid thing that had ever crossed his mind. T'Meth was honoring his privacy to the extent that she could, since she couldn't very well stop guarding him and leave. And that was what he wanted. He didn't need someone to hold him, to entangle him further in the weak emotions he was feeling. He was Q, and he didn't need anybody.

Slowly, with hiccups, he managed to stop crying. He got to his feet and staggered to bed without looking at T'Meth or acknowledging her presence in any way. She wouldn't pry or gossip like a human, he knew; she would pretend it had never happened. And he would do his best to do the same.

The protestors were in front of the meeting room again the next day. Q hesitated instinctively. T'Meth, one pace behind and to the side of him, moved forward, stepping into his path, and strode forward. Encouraged, Q followed.

"Clear the area," she said.

The woman who had accosted Q yesterday shook her head. "We're a peaceful protest group. We have a right to be here."

T'Meth's eyes narrowed very slightly. "By order of Commodore Anderson, during periods of threat to Q's safety, Security is authorized to take whatever measures are deemed necessary to protect him. You will clear the area now."

"Or what?" someone sneered.

There was suddenly a phaser in T'Meth's hand. "Or I will stun you all and have you dragged to the brig, pending deportation off this starbase."

"You're protecting a cold-blooded murderer, did you know that? So much for Vulcan pacifism and Vulcan justice!"

"Move away from the door, ma'am, or I will be forced to stun you."

Q watched all this in uncharacteristic silence, feeling marginally safe in public for the first time since Ohmura's death. The protestors backed off slowly, milling away. If Q hadn't been in public, he would have sagged with relief. A few months ago, he'd have been disgusted if he'd heard that a member of Security threatened to stun a crowd of innocent protestors. Now that they were protesting him, however, he found himself understanding the move a lot better.

T'Meth stepped forward to the door to the conference room, so that it opened, and peered inside, phaser at the ready. Q saw scientists inside with startled expressions on their faces. Ivory tower morons probably had no idea of the threat to him, or else didn't care. "It's clear," she said. "Go in now."

In a better mood than he'd been in in days, Q made his usual dramatic entrance.

Today, T'Meth was using the console in Q's living room. Q had been trying to relax in his room, but it was impossible with a voice out there, disturbing his privacy. Why couldn't she use keyboard input? Q stalked from his room.

T'Meth looked up as he came in. "Q. I was about to request your presence. There's something I would like to discuss with you."

"Such as the fact that your chatter out here is keeping me awake?" It wasn't actually, since he hadn't been trying to sleep. But it was the principle of the thing.

"I have been investigating the whereabouts of Security officers at the time you were attacked, and I've identified three officers who I believe can be trusted to assist with the investigation." She touched a key and three images appeared on the screen -- two humans and an Andorian.

"Security officers? You can't be serious. None of them can be trusted."

"Unlikely. There are sufficient circumstances in the case of these three that I believe they can. All three have substantially different builds from what you described of your attackers, and for various reasons I doubt any of them were involved in a coverup." She touched the Andorian's picture. "Ensign Sev was on guard duty in the brig all night, as there had been a bar fight approximately two hours before your attack. Sev subscribes to a warrior ethic, and believes that committing violence against a non-combatant is the act of a cowardly, worthless being. He is highly unlikely to have willingly participated in the plan or assisted in covering for those involved in the attack."

"Yes, well, he's not human. It's the humans I'm worried about."

"Lieutenant Veloz was on the holodeck, playing poker with six other people. In addition, Veloz rarely socializes within the department, and is highly conscientious about following regulations and avoiding impropriety. It is extremely unlikely that Veloz would have been recruited to assist in a cover-up. And Ensign Koratagere was at the bedside of his wife, who was giving birth. He has been on paternal leave for the days since, and most likely had priorities above harassing you. In addition, Koratagere is an unlikely suspect in any case, as his crewmates speak of him as easy-going, friendly and slow to anger."

"They're still humans in Security."

"Q, I require backup. Today if the protestors had rushed you, my protection might not have been adequate. There were several points where you were exposed to them, for the simple reason that there is only one of me. I am not asking your permission, merely informing you that I have chosen these three to back me up, and why. Have you ever experienced unpleasant behavior at their hands?"

"No," Q said reluctantly. "I don't think so. It's so hard to tell; I can't keep all those faces straight."

"Sev is the only Andorian in Security and Veloz and Koratagere are both distinctive in appearance. I suspect you would recognize them."

"I suppose." He did recognize Koratagere from the picture, a cheerfully grinning Indian man who Q remembered as startlingly short and slight for a Security officer, and who had generally been polite to him. Perhaps T'Meth was right.

"Then they will be assisting me. I may on occasion call on them to serve as my relief, and one of them will accompany us to your duties in the daytime."

"How do I know they won't harass me?"

"If they harass you, which is unlikely, they will be relieved of duty."

That was only mildly reassuring, but still better than the assurances he'd gotten from anyone else. "Are we quite done here?"

"I have additional questions to ask you." She swiveled in the chair. "According to your deposition, your attackers were masked, and you claimed to be unable to distinguish members of Security from one another by body language or build."

He had a hard enough time distinguishing them by faces. "I remember what I said, thanks."

"Would you be able to distinguish their voices? You said they spoke to you."

"Can't you figure out whose whereabouts are unaccounted for?"

"To the extent they ever are, everyone's whereabouts are accounted for," she said dryly. "Members of Security work in pairs when we are not on alert status, and often patrol areas of the starbase where there may be no other crew at the time. As a result, few members of Security ever have an alibi stronger than their partner's word. Since most of the Security teams consisted of two male humans or near-humanoids of average height and build, and most of those have only their partner's word for an alibi, we need something more substantial to narrow the choices."

The voices echoed in his mind, hate-filled voices twisted with rage, screaming at him. "Maybe," he said.

"Good." She turned back to the computer. "Tomorrow we will go to the Security office and you'll listen to recordings of the suspects being questioned."

"Can't we do that here? Why do we have to go to the Security office?"

"Because the system that allows you to access suspect files is protected, by privacy regulations, and can only be accessed from Security consoles."

The idea of going to the Security offices, the heart of enemy territory, terrified him. But he had a trusted bodyguard with him. T'Meth wouldn't let him get hurt.

There were no visitors scheduled tomorrow. Under most circumstances, Q would have spent the day in the physics lab instead, as it was entirely too boring to stay at home and do nothing. T'Meth had a project for him, though, so the physics lab would have to do without. Which was just as well. There was a particular person there who Q would rather not see in anything resembling a vulnerable state.

He hadn't been in the Security offices since Ohmura's death. They had always seemed cold and impersonal; now they were downright terrifying. The people in them stared at him coldly, every line of their bodies eloquently expressing what they'd do to him if T'Meth weren't there. Q swallowed and forced himself forward, having to literally concentrate in order to put one foot in front of another.

They were met at the console by Lt. Veloz. "All the suspects have been questioned and recorded, sir."

T'Meth nodded in acknowledgement and gestured Q to a chair. "We will play back recordings of the suspects being questioned. The suspects include all the males in Security, Engineering, and Systems. Once you've identified your assailants' voices, we will try to obtain a confession."

The voices started to play. For the most part they were calm and controlled, maybe a little tense. Occasionally annoyance or genuine anger crept into the voices, but none of them were the shouting, twisted, rage-filled demon-voices that still haunted Q's nightmares. These were sentient beings he heard speaking, but the voices he remembered belonged to monsters.

Some people he latched onto in brief hope because of what they said -- the people who said, "I didn't do it, but I can't say I'm sorry it happened -- Q deserved it" or words to that effect. But he couldn't make their voices fit the pattern in his head. And eventually it occurred to him that the guilty parties probably wouldn't dare to say such a thing anyway. So then he concentrated on the people who expressed sympathy for him, or the people who protested with outraged innocent. But none of those fit either.

After several hours of this, Q looked up, defeated. "I can't tell," he muttered, all too conscious of his failure.

"None of these voices clearly belong to your assailants?"

How to make her understand? "The people who attacked me were complete barbaric savages. These... recordings you have are of people behaving rationally. How am I supposed to relate the two? People sound completely different when they're snarling like wild beasts."

"You cannot distinguish your assailants' voices because they spoke to you in anger?"

"They didn't speak. They shouted, or snarled, or slavered. Their voices were completely distorted by their savagery."

"Well, that doesn't sound hard to get," Veloz said.

"What do you mean?" T'Meth asked.

"Getting recordings of people snarling at Q. All we'd need to do is make a short list of likelies and have Q himself interrogate them. I'm sure he'd have no problems getting them to snarl at him."

"Very funny," Q growled. "I expect you think you're a wit."

"I'm serious. You won't recognize the voices unless they're furious. But you're probably more talented at making people that furious than anyone else on the starbase. If you question the suspects and deliberately make them angry, you'll probably recognize the ones that did it."

"What if Q cannot make them angry?"

"Then chances are they didn't attack him. People who can keep control of themselves don't go beating up civilians they're charged to protect."

T'Meth considered. "The plan has merit."

"Now wait a minute! Don't I get a say?" Terror coiled through Q's guts, tightening. To face off against the people who wanted him dead and deliberately try to enrage them against him was unbearably frightening. He couldn't do it. There was no way.

"Q, we need to narrow down the suspects. Without input from you, the task will be very nearly impossible."

"That's your problem. All of Security wants me dead anyway, so it's not like finding the perpetrators is actually going to make me any safer."

"You're being foolish and shortsighted," T'Meth said severely.

"Not to mention they'll be free. People who violated their oath to Starfleet and very nearly killed you will be free, gloating about how they escaped punishment. Everyone will start to believe that if they beat you up, too, nothing will happen to them. And sooner or later, those two will be on call when you end up in trouble. I just thought I'd point that out."

Veloz had a point, unfortunately. Maybe the fact that only two people actually had attacked him, out of all the people that wanted to, meant that they were the only two who thought they could get away with it. And if they did get away with it, it would be open season on Q. Q swallowed hard. "I want two people protecting me the whole time I'm with suspects," he announced.

"Logical," T'Meth said. "We will both be with you."

The interviews were conducted in a meeting room, far from the security offices, to minimize the chance that officers who hadn't been questioned would overhear the interrogation and figure out what was going on. All of Security would be questioned first, as T'Meth considered them more likely suspects than Engineering or Systems personnel.

In one sense the plan worked well. T'Meth and Veloz sat at either end of the room, silent and mostly unmoving, not drawing attention to themselves, while Q paced in the center, presenting an image of total control as he made vicious accusations against each suspect. He impugned their intelligence, belittled their skill and cast aspersions on their loyalty to Starfleet. The object was to get them angry enough to shout at him, and that he did. Through judicious use of body language, intrusions into personal space, and a bit of shouting on his part, he managed to make most of them defensive and angry, and could then tell from the voices whether they should be on the short short list or not. As far as doing what it was intended to do, it worked beautifully.

In other senses, it was a bad idea. Q's stomach had turned to a lump of knotted wood, more tense than animal tissue could bear, and between suspects he kept having to down anti-nausea agents. Standing up in front of people who might have tried to kill him and deliberately provoking them to anger took more courage than he'd thought he had. It was easier when he was actually doing it -- he could take the fear and the tension and focus them outward, against the suspect he was questioning. He was sick with fear but also high on adrenaline, momentum carrying him through. In between suspects, however, he came dangerously close to collapsing, closer and closer each time. He couldn't do this. It was impossible. He couldn't face one more angry Security officer. And then the next one came in, and the need to act took over, his lifelong performance skills controlling him, making his mouth and body move as if his physical form were a puppet he was manipulating, a small homunculus cowering in terror up in the top corner of his brain as he pulled the strings that made the body dance.

The fourteenth man he interrogated was a Lt. Blevins, who seemed to be on the verge of breaking, but had so far successfully repressed his rage. Repressed rage was not the goal. Q needed Blevins to express it. So after calling Blevins a monkey didn't work, and accusing him of conspiring against the interests of the Federation didn't work, and various and sundry other insults that had gotten the others to snap at him didn't work, Q felt stymied. Blevins was staring at him in silence, fists clenched and jaw clamped shut, a muscular tic twitching in his face. He just needed a little push. Something truly evil.

"I don't understand what you all were so upset for anyway," Q said with flippant coldness, watching Blevins carefully. "You must be aware that it's Security's job to be expendable. Your lives are basically debased coinage -- just warm bodies to throw into the line of fire, no minds of value to speak of. After all, there's plenty more where you came from, right? Stupidity does tend to breed in droves. No doubt somewhere there's an entire litter of people like you, the next generation of cannon fodder." That sort of comment usually got them. But Blevins was still clenched, silent. "Ohmura was only a Security officer after all -- it's not as if an important person died. Probably the most valuable contribution he made to the universe was in dying to save my li--"

Blevins snapped. He lunged at Q so quickly that even though Q had been watching, gauging his response, he hadn't seen it coming. Q screamed as Blevins knocked him to the floor, hands on Q's throat, squeezing. "You fucking bastard, we should have killed you!" Blevins snarled, slamming Q's head against the floor.

And then Veloz and T'Meth were on Blevins, dragging him off. "Let me go! He deserves to die, the fucking bastard, you heard what he said about the Commander..."

"You have the right to remain silent," T'Meth said. "You have the right to legal counsel..." It was actually taking an effort for her and Veloz to wrestle Blevins back, despite Vulcan strength.

"We should have finished it! Goddamn him, he killed Commander Ohmura and he's not even fucking sorry! He deserves to die!"

T'Meth nerve-pinched Blevins, and he fell in a heap.

"I'll get him to the brig. Veloz, stay with Q."

Q got to his knees slowly, sick and dizzy. His whole body hurt, most especially his throat and the back of his head, and he was shaking, light-headed and nauseous from terror. If the attack itself hadn't triggered flashbacks, the man's voice would have. It was unmistakably one of the two that had brutalized him. And even though Blevins had been dragged off, Q couldn't make himself believe he was safe.

"You... didn't mean any of that, did you?" Veloz asked hesitantly. "About Security, and Commander Ohmura. You were just trying to make him mad."

Q looked up at Veloz with an expression of pure contempt on his face. What an unutterably stupid question. He was going to say something cruel and witty in response, but his body betrayed him. The nausea overwhelmed him, and Q doubled over, fighting it, but it was too long denied. With a sick sense of humiliation, Q found himself vomiting, emptying his guts on the floor despite all the medication he'd taken.

"Hey! Are you all right? Do you need me to call Sickbay?"

Li would assume it was just a normal human thing that Q was whining about to get attention. "No Sickbay," Q said thickly. "I'm fine. I just need -- need to --"

He threw up again, dry retching, his body unconvinced that it had finished purging itself. Q felt the guard's hand on his shoulder, felt Veloz kneeling next to him, and stiffened in fear. But the touch was gentle, unthreatening.

"Let me help you get to the bathroom. You need help."

"No Sickbay," Q gasped through dry heaves.

"No Sickbay," Veloz promised. "We'll just get you cleaned up. Okay?"

And as if the humiliation of vomiting in front of a stranger wasn't enough, Q found the small kindness more than he could bear, and began to sob as the heaves left him, all defenses crumbling in the aftermath of such fear. He had to get up, get cleaned up, stop crying, but he couldn't, none of it.

"Oh, hey, hey, it's all right. You're safe. We got him." Awkwardly Veloz patted Q's shoulder, as if having no idea how to give any more comfort than that, though even that was too much. "I guess you didn't mean it, did you. Saying those horrible things must have made you sick."

Too far gone to hear the facetious tone, Q decided that was the stupidest thing he'd ever heard, and he wanted to point out that Veloz was totally wrong, that saying horrible things was Q's stock in trade and he was certainly not weak enough to vomit, let along cry, because he'd had to say something offensive. But he was crying too hard to speak. Too weak to move, too weak to stop, too racked with sobs to protest, Q could only kneel there in a puddle of his own vomit and sob brokenly as Veloz gave what awkward comfort it was possible for a member of Security to give.

Veloz helped him up before the sobs had abated. "Let's get you cleaned up. T'Meth doesn't need to see this."

The comment perversely reassured Q. It meant Veloz thought that his crying was disgusting and humiliating, of course, but then Q had already known that, and didn't care so much if someone else knew it too. But the statement that T'Meth didn't need to see this meant that Veloz wouldn't tell anyone, that this would be kept a secret. It was not that Q feared T'Meth seeing him like this, not much anyway; he knew from the incident with Amy Frasier that she would keep her mouth shut. She and Ohmura had both proven that, that day... At that thought an unexpected wave of grief hit him. He had never asked Ohmura to die for him. He had never wanted that.

"Do you need any help?"

Q pulled away angrily. How helpless did Veloz think he was? "Spare me your worthless pity," he snapped through the last of the sobs, and was gratified to see the shocked look on Veloz' face. Maybe now the guard would stop trying to play kindly babysitter. He stalked into the bathroom to get cleaned up.

Several glasses of water stopped the sobbing and quieted his stomach slightly, though they couldn't quite wash the awful taste out of his mouth. He couldn't get cleaned up enough to meet his own standards, was incapable of doing so with the resources he had here. His own clothes were a total loss; the vomit stains would never come out, and he was sure that the smell of fear would linger in the cloth forever. But the best clothes the replicator had to offer would still be completely unacceptable if he had a choice, inferior to anything he owned in color, style and fit. He could get his cosmetics out of the replicator without difficulty, since that was how he generally got them in the first place, but his hands trembled and kept smearing the makeup, and he couldn't seem to get rid of the red in his eyes, or the helpless, shocked look. Despite the makeover, he imagined he could still smell the sour tang of vomit about him, could still see his trembling hands, his tearstained face.

But this wouldn't do at all. He had to pretend nothing was wrong. If he focused on the legion of imperfections in his appearance, he would break down again, and that was totally unacceptable. So he took a deep breath and drank another glass of water. When he emerged, he was still weak and shaky, but in much better control of himself.

Veloz was waiting for him as he emerged from the bathroom. The guard was wearing an odd expression. There was no reason to dislike Q, indeed Veloz felt a certain amount of pity for Q, despite the evil things he'd said and the kind of person he was. Enough pity to want to help him, and enough lingering anger and doubt over the ring of truth in Q's voice when he'd condemned Security and dismissed Ohmura's death as meaningless to want to twist the knife. "Do you know why everyone hates you?"

And he had almost begun to trust this creature. Fear built up in him, fear that Veloz would turn on him too despite T'Meth's assurances and the seeming kindness displayed earlier. "As I understand it, the general consensus is that I murdered poor dear Commander Ohmura by having the temerity to have assassins come after me."

"That's not it. Everyone hated you before the Commander died, or they wouldn't be blaming you now."

This was not entirely news. "Then it's undoubtedly my charming personality and winning ways," he said bitterly.

"No, we've dealt with obnoxious people too. The problem is that you treat us like dirt. When we're risking our lives to save yours, you act like we're scum and we're wasting your time." This was said in a calm, reasonable voice, not the vicious animalistic snarling of his tormentors, but the content of the words made Q tremble inside nonetheless. "It would be different if you were some sheltered diplomat who has no idea he could get hurt. But we've saved your life over a dozen times. At least four of those times, you were in immediate danger of dying when we rescued you, and you knew it. So you know how important we are to you, you know how much you owe us, and you still treat us like dirt. Which means you're either the most ungrateful being in the universe, or you would really rather be dead."

Q swallowed, backing away from the security guard, finding a wall behind him and not feeling reassured by that. "How enlightening. I'll keep it in mind."

"I'm not going to hurt you," Veloz said disgustedly. "You can stop trying to run away."

The comment shocked Q. Had he been that transparent? He stiffened with affronted dignity. "I'm not frightened of you, I assure you. Merely bored."

"You should listen to me anyway," Veloz said. "People are just people, and if they think they're risking their lives for someone who thinks they're dirt, they won't do nearly as good a job. You should try being nice to Security for a change; if you hadn't treated us all like we were out to get you from day one, no one probably would be now."

"I'll send thank-you cards to the entire department," Q said sarcastically. "Now, I really do have some important work to do."

He turned away, trying to make a dignified exit, an expression of regal disdain on his face that collapsed as soon as his back was to the guard. Perhaps Veloz wouldn't hurt him; some few humans were capable of transcending the limitations of the species and overcoming their dislike for someone to behave professionally toward him. But Veloz had basically just admitted to hating Q, because Q had apparently not groveled sufficiently with gratitude. There would be no more moments of gentleness, of comfort, not that Q wanted that. And Veloz had a point. The rest of Security probably felt the same way, and were far less capable of being professional about it. The incident with Ohmura had merely catalyzed what they'd all been feeling anyway.

He wasn't safe. He would never be safe as long as he was on this starbase -- as long as he had to deal with humans at all. And as long as he himself was human, he would have to. Despair welled up. Could he really live this way for the rest of his life?

Stupid question. Of course he could. Because the only alternative was death, and if he took that way out, well then he still would have been putting up with this for what remained of his life, wouldn't he?

Shaking, Q led the way out of the room, followed by Veloz. For a tiny moment, he felt relief, that in leaving the room he had left its terrors behind. And then a horrible realization struck him. There was still one of them on the loose, and T'Meth was inexorable and merciless. Despite being the perfect guard, she didn't seem to particularly care about his mental health, only that he stayed alive. He could very well imagine T'Meth making him do this again.

He couldn't. He couldn't go through that interrogation process again. His mind and body rebelled at the thought, nausea rising up to choke him. And yet, he didn't have a choice, wouldn't have a choice.

Q savagely suppressed a sob. He wouldn't cry here, not now. He wasn't so weak he'd just break down in public.

Not yet.

With a feeling of suspension and terror, Q remembered Blevins' face changing as the guard attacked him. It wasn't reassuring at all to have a face to put with that twisted voice. Instead, the new stimuli only combined with the old. He could hear the voices, hear both of them screaming at him, feel himself going down, like he had only moments before, and even with T'Meth and Veloz there, Q had felt no more hope that he would be safe, that he would survive.

Even Veloz, the supposedly safe Security guard T'Meth had picked for him doubted and despised him. They all did. None of them believed him, any of them would be delighted to kill him for what had happened to Ohmura, even though it hadn't been his fault. Even Veloz.

Q shied away from his escort, dark, momentary flashbacks of another horrible night combining with the events of a few minutes past. They all wanted to kill him, and there was no safety anywhere, would never be safety.


The voice caught him by surprise, and Q nearly backed into the wall trying to get away before he realized who it belonged to and that Veloz was regarding him with suppressed disdain.

Naomi came over to him, ignoring Veloz entirely. Q's eyes were haunted, and he looked horrible, worse than she'd seen him since almost literally picking him off the floor, several days ago now. He'd needed her then, but afterwards almost thrown her out, and she didn't know how he felt about her at all. "Are you all right?"

Q wanted to run, wanted to not be there, to not be alive at all. There was only one person on the starbase he wanted to run into less than Naomi. And yet, something in him responded to her presence, felt oddly comforted that she was there. She was only a tiny slip of a woman, she couldn't protect him, and yet he felt like throwing himself on her mercy and begging her to keep him safe. A thoroughly ridiculous impulse.

And yet... "You can stop pretending you care," Q said acidly, having run through and discarded a dozen possible responses in those brief seconds. "I don't need your pity."

"Who said anything about that?" Naomi asked lightly, eyes worried. He looked very unhappy. "Mind if I walk you back to your quarters?"

He couldn't think of anything better. A wave of relief washed through him. He didn't want to be left alone with anyone from Security right now, no matter how confident with them T'Meth might be. After all, she was also from Security, and to Q's tired, terrified mind, it was all the same.

"I can't stop you," he said, striving for a grand tone.

Naomi tucked her hand under his arm, not waiting for permission. He looked like he needed all the support he could get, as if he might very well fall over without someone holding him up.

Q accepted it, a warm rush of comfort he didn't want to think about too much coming from her touch. Everything would be all right now.

Veloz escorted them back to Q's quarters, not quite sure what else to do. T'Meth hadn't left specific instructions on the subject of guests, and given that Dr. Allen wasn't a member of Security and had what amounted to a pre-existing relationship with Q, it seemed safe to say that she wasn't a suspect in the current case. Under the circumstances, it seemed that the best thing to do was to allow it, and notify T'Meth immediately.

When they reached his quarters, Naomi came inside with Q without being asked. He was too helpless for her to leave him, and although she didn't know what was going on, she couldn't abandon him like this. It just wasn't in her nature.

Veloz took a post inside the room, going immediately to comm T'Meth and inform her of their current location and Dr. Allen's presence.

Q didn't seem to notice, although he was aware of both of them. He didn't think Veloz would leave them alone; T'Meth certainly wouldn't have, and although he deplored the loss of privacy, Q couldn't say that was a bad thing. Their paranoid behavior outstripped his own, and gave him back a tiny feeling of safety, a feeling which had been entirely taken away today.

A sob escaped his throat then, and Q looked at Naomi, eyes horrified. What was he doing? Didn't he have any control at all?

Naomi pushed gently on his arm, steering him to the couch. She wasn't paying any attention to Veloz. Q didn't seem any more threatened by the guard's presence than he was by everything else, and right now all she was concerned about was Q and what was making him feel this way.

Q sat down, and she came to settle by his side, holding onto one of his hands with both of hers, expression concerned and sympathetic.

Q glanced at her, and that was all it took to set off the storm of tears again. She was entirely too caring for him to be able to deal with, and although he didn't want to cry, didn't want to show any kind of weakness, he couldn't help himself.

Naomi reached for him, drawing him close to her, and Q didn't resist, letting her hold his head against her. "It's all right," she said soothingly. "It'll be all right."

That was wrong, and Q knew it, but he couldn't form the words, couldn't speak at all. The only thing he could do was cry, cry and cling to her as if she represented the only form of security in the universe. And she did. There was safety with her, protection from all the gibbering evils that pursued him, solace for the unhappiness and discomfort he felt. The door had been unlocked, the homunculus unleashed and now he could vent all the terror and violent disturbance he felt.

Veloz let them have their privacy, keeping well away from them. There was obviously no threat from Dr. Allen to Q, much the opposite. The opinion of Q which had begun to form back in the interrogation room died in the face of that, and now Veloz was completely confused. One moment Q was being a sarcastic peacock, strutting about arrogantly as if he owned this starbase, or being brittle and touchy, rude to those who tried to help him, and it was hard not to hate him when he was like that. But just as he began to seem like a total loss, he would do something that showed his humanity, his vulnerability, like throwing up in the conference room or crying in Dr. Allen's arms, here, and it was impossible to keep hating him.

He was behaving as though Dr. Allen actually meant something to him. Veloz considered that in light of all the other facts. Dr. Allen's identity was well-known to all of Security. Even if she hadn't managed to call the commodore down on Braun -- not a bad thing in and of itself -- Allen's probable relationship to Q was somewhat of a running joke. Something to laugh about and deride. Only there was nothing to laugh about now. Veloz felt embarrassed to even be in the same room with them, to be intruding on what was obviously a very emotional moment for the both of them.

Q didn't even notice the guard. It didn't seem to matter right then. The only thing that mattered was having Naomi there, and knowing that she believed in him, that she would protect him, would keep him safe. It was a stupid thought, and in another frame of mind, Q would have never accepted it as being even remotely true. But in the depths of his pain and humiliation, it seemed like the only truth there was, and he clung to it.

Except she didn't know, couldn't know how horrible he really was. She would turn on him as they all had, if she heard about the incident with Ohmura. Q couldn't keep that thought from slipping out, and it frightened him. He needed this little island of safety, needed the haven she'd been providing him since the first moment he'd met her, bending over him in a dark hall. The wretched, eternal loneliness he had been feeling for so long had come to a head for him back in that interrogation room and, in the spasms and the sickness, all the boiling, horrible pain he felt had been exposed.

He couldn't go on being so alone, couldn't bear it if she hated him as they did, couldn't bear to be alive if this last person who believed in him turned away.

It was a pathetic thought, and Q clutched onto Naomi's tunic even tighter, unwilling to let go.

Soothingly, Naomi ran one hand through his hair, stroking it softly, her other arm around him, holding him close. She didn't know what he needed or what was wrong, but the question of not providing him with it never came to her mind. He was hurting, and that was all that mattered.

Q looked up through his tears, as if seeing her for the first time. "I didn't mean to do it."

"Of course you didn't," Naomi said, reassuring him, tone absolutely serious.

That didn't sound particularly convincing to Q's ears. He knew she'd hate him if she heard all the facts. She wouldn't believe him, no one ever had, or even cared.

But he had to tell her nonetheless. It was suddenly very important to Q that someone, anyone, that just one person believe in him. He couldn't survive without that. And if anyone would, she would.

"I wasn't frozen. I never freeze."

Veloz's ears pricked up, listening. The security guard had a very good idea of what this conversation was about; anyone in Security would. There was only one occasion of note where Q had frozen and done it in a dramatically damaging way. The issue of what had gone through his mind then had been debated repeatedly, with the conclusion coming down to the obvious: Q was too arrogant to follow the basic guidelines Security had laid down for him for his own safety. There was no question in Veloz's mind that this was the truth. Q had never even bothered to learn basic self defense; why should he care about anything else that they'd try to teach him, when, in his own words, there was so much expendable cannon fodder to stand in the way of any attack?

But it was interesting, nonetheless, that Q would bring it up at all, much less now.

"Do you want to tell me about it?" Naomi asked gently, in a very soft voice.

Q didn't pull away from her, his head still resting in the curve of her shoulder, pillowed against her chest. He held onto her tightly, and stared at nothing in particular, taking comfort from the sound of her heartbeat.

Haltingly, he began. "He said... he was going to kill me." He remembered that with painful clarity, as if it had been burnt into his brain; remembered standing there, facing the gun. But how could he explain how he'd felt, when he didn't understand it himself? "He had a primitive Terran weapon in his hand, an antique firearm, and..." Q trailed off, unable to continue. This wasn't working. She would never believe him.

"And you were frightened," Naomi prompted. "There's nothing wrong with that."

"No! You don't understand..." There was no help for it but to plunge onward, muddling through. "I wasn't frightened, I was... I don't understand why. It doesn't make any sense."

"What doesn't make any sense?" Naomi asked patiently.

"How I felt. I should have been frightened. But I wasn't. It was as if... he said it, and it was true. As if it were my... destiny." Q was aware of how melodramatic he sounded, but there was no other way to phrase it, no other way to understand it. "I didn't.. I didn't think to move, because it seemed like there was no way to avoid it, and I didn't even want to. It was... as if... I was fulfilling something by standing there. As if I were in a play, and this had been in the script from the beginning. I wasn't afraid... if I had been, I would have ducked. I'm not stupid."

"Of course you're not," Naomi said soothingly, still stroking his hair.

A wave of self-hatred washed over him, and he clung to her more tightly, hardly aware of doing so. "But I was. Why would I have stood there, like a complete fool, if I wasn't? Why wouldn't I have realized I was in danger until -- until Ohmura--" Another flashback assailed him -- lying on the floor in a pool of blood and gray matter with a broken human body on top of him, an empty shell hollowed out by a single shot from a primitive weapon, knowing that if the person who had been this empty thing hadn't interposed his body between Q and the bullet, it would be Q himself who would be gone, nothing remaining but a bleeding husk, like Ohmura was now... The horror, the guilt of that, was almost more than he could bear. He choked back a sob. "Ohmura was a fool," he strangled out.

"Why?" Naomi knew part of the story, knew that Ohmura had been killed trying to save Q. It was obvious that Q felt very guilty about it, and she couldn't bear to let him hold all this inside where it was tearing at him.

"He shouldn't have tried to save me. A phenomenal act of stupidity on his part. What sort of moron would get himself killed for my sake?"

The sympathy Veloz had begun to feel fled in a moment of rage. How dare Q? Had it never occurred to him that it was Security's job to get killed for his sake? That regardless of whether or not Q thought it was a smart idea, it had been Ohmura's duty? Ohmura had made the supreme sacrifice for Q, and all Q could say was that Ohmura was a moron.

Naomi fought a smile, Q's statement seeming inadvertently humorous to her, then lost the feeling entirely in a rush of protective anger as she realized how thoroughly Q meant it. "You don't think you deserved to live?"

"What does it matter what I think?" Q retorted hotly. "Every goon on this Starbase has already tried and convicted me. Nobody else thinks I deserved to live instead of Ohmura; why should I?"

She held him fiercely close to her, unable to think of anything to say to that, wanting only to keep him from that horrible self-loathing.

Her fervent embrace made Q feel a strange sense of security and comfort that perversely brought the worst of the despairing, roiling emotions to the surface.

"I didn't mean for him to get killed!" The words burst forth in a sudden torrent of pain. "People keep getting killed for me -- n'Vala, Ohmura -- I didn't want that! They all think I wanted him to die, I didn't care, they've all decided I'm a monster who goes about snickering and twirling my mustache as people drop like flies around me, but I didn't want it! I didn't mean for it to happen! I didn't..." He sobbed hysterically, brokenly, the pain raging through him too great to be borne. Everyone hated him and thought him a monster because people died for his sake, and maybe he was. Why did they keep throwing away their lives for him? What good was he to anyone? He was completely incapable of being a proper human, of fitting in with their pathetic little species, and that made him even more pathetic, the former god who couldn't even figure out how to act like a human, who couldn't keep himself from being hated and despised by everyone. If he hadn't been a worthless Q, the Continuum wouldn't have rejected him, and he certainly made a worthless human. Why did people die for his sake? What was wrong with them?

Veloz turned away again, trying to pretend not to hear that, not to hear any of that. It was impossible to hate Q in the face of that pain. He had been a short-sighted fool who had gotten someone Veloz respected killed, he had called Ohmura a fool for dying for him, he had never shown any gratitude whatsoever to Security for repeatedly saving his life... and yet he couldn't be entirely despicable, even with that. The pain and guilt in his voice were unmistakable, and Veloz believed him. He hadn't wanted Ohmura to die, hadn't enjoyed it, was wracked with guilt over it. It didn't change the fact that he had been stupid enough to cause it to happen, and for that Veloz could be angry at him, but couldn't hate him.

Naomi held Q tightly, stroking him, murmuring soft reassurances as he wept. He was hurting so badly over this, not the cold-blooded monster people portrayed him as at all. Not that she had ever thought such a thing of him, but now it was even harder for her to understand how anyone else could. She wanted to attack the Security guards who had tormented him, to make them hurt as badly as he was hurting, to make them see how much pain they were causing to someone who didn't deserve any of it. But she couldn't do that. All she could do was give Q comfort, interpose herself into his private nightmare and reassure him that one person, at least, thought he deserved to live.

It was a long time later before Q looked up and realized where he was and what he was doing. He was sprawled out along the couch, lying against Naomi, who was propped up against an arm of the couch, and stroking his hair. He was holding onto her fiercely, and as soon as he noticed that, Q released her, embarrassed to be found so weak.

"You all right?" Naomi asked, letting him pull away from her.

"Fine," Q said gruffly. "I'm perfectly fine."

"If you're sure," Naomi said. She followed him with her eyes as he sat up. When he made no move to leave the couch, she scooted closer to him, holding onto his hand.

Q didn't resist, couldn't resist. He knew he should get up, should throw her out and then go and restore his battered appearance, but he couldn't. There was something intensely comforting about having her here, and he was afraid if he moved, she'd be gone and then he'd be left with all the fears and terrors of the afternoon's experience. The emotional storm had left its afterimages on him like a blast wave and he'd be horribly depressed even right now if her presence wasn't holding the worst effects at bay.

He'd throw her out eventually, of course. But just for now it didn't seem so wrong to hold on to her, to try to keep what little consolation he had.

T'Meth returned, coming to Q's quarters shortly after Q had regained his composure but before he'd actually gotten up the resolve to throw Naomi out. She looked at Naomi. "If Dr. Allen would care to leave, we can resume."

Naomi looked between them. "Am I interrupting something?"

Q paid no attention to Naomi, staring instead at T'Meth. "Resume what?"

"There is still another suspect to locate," T'Meth pointed out. "Blevins confessed to the assault but refused to name his accomplice."

He couldn't do this. There was no question. Numb horror at the thought of facing one more enraged guard, of pretending to be in control while waiting for another murderous attack, froze Q where he was. He couldn't even make himself speak, to protest. He had a sudden urge to curl up against Naomi for comfort and suppressed it savagely. He couldn't do that. But oh, god, he wanted to.

"There's no way," Veloz said. "We'll have to make Blevins confess, if necessary. Or check out his alibi to see who it implicates. Q can't do any more of this."

Naomi nodded, hard-faced. She didn't know what they were talking about, but if it meant subjecting Q to more of whatever had made him like this, she was against it.

Q stared at Veloz, startled. It was true, he couldn't, but what gave Veloz the right to interfere in Q's business? He was capable of defending himself. Wasn't he? And why should the guard even care? Given what had been said earlier, Q would have expected Veloz to want to put him through more of it, to get some pleasure out of seeing him go through hell.

"Why do you say that?' T'Meth asked.

Suddenly Q knew that Veloz would describe the entire humiliating scene in the interrogation room, or worse, the way he'd broken down and cried in Naomi's arms just now. He had to speak, to head that off. "I'm fine," he said harshly, even though it wasn't true at all. "I can do it."

Naomi opened her mouth to object to that, but before she could say anything, Veloz was speaking.

"You think you can," Veloz said. "But how objective are you?" The junior officer turned to T'Meth. "When people suffer a trauma like that attack, they lose their objectivity. Q's going to think everyone's the man who did it now. Or if he tries to compensate for that, he might miss the real guy. Besides, now that we have Blevins we've got a better lead. I don't know that we should really be encouraging everyone to hate Q's guts more than they already do if there's any other way to do it."

"Perhaps we can use the knowledge of Blevins' identity to narrow down the suspect field, at least," T'Meth agreed. "And if there is only one person thus implicated, we'll have our man; if there are two or three, Q might be able to identify his attacker by normal voice from such a small pool." She nodded once. "Logical. Very well, then, Lieutenant. If you would continue at this post, I'll begin cross-checking."

T'Meth left. Q looked hard at Veloz, disturbed. He was glad he wouldn't have to go through that again, of course, but the fact that Veloz had defended him troubled him. Veloz had seen him crack completely, had seen him break down in the interrogation room and again here in Naomi's arms, and was undoubtedly thinking of Q as someone weak and pitiful, someone to be despised and treated like a child who couldn't protect himself emotionally. It was an entirely unacceptable picture.

He had to get changed, put his armor back on. He disappeared into the bathroom to reconstruct his appearance, and emerged twenty minutes later, his face transformed into a mask of control and invulnerability.

Naomi had felt somewhat uncomfortable. sitting around in the room with Q gone and the guard studiously ignoring her. She didn't want to simply leave without telling Q she was doing so, but she didn't know what he was doing or why it was taking him so long. And when he came back out immaculately groomed, no evidence of pain or fear or anything but disdainful boredom on his face, she decided she had probably overstayed her welcome. Q didn't need her anymore. She stood up.

"Thank you for having me over," Naomi said. "But I'd probably better get going, unless you'd rather I stayed?"

"That's quite all right," Q said grandly, glad that she had given him an opening to get rid of her. He had shown entirely too many vulnerabilities to her for his taste. "You can go on and scurry back to whatever tedious little things you do with your life."

Veloz shot him a look. But Naomi wasn't offended in the slightest, feeling instead reassured by his manner and the restored good humor of his words. Q really was all right. Naomi grinned. "I'll try to bear up under the boredom."

As she left, Veloz caught a momentary look of loss on Q's face, as if he were not nearly so unconcerned about Dr. Allen's departure as he pretended to be. Wasn't anything about this man's reactions straightforward?

Veloz shrugged, finally deciding that there was no point trying to figure Q out. Whether he was a total bastard, a tortured soul, or both, ought to be irrelevant to Security.

Q was still awake, in his room reading, when the shift change occurred, and Koratagere and Sev came to replace Veloz. In his room he could hear the conversation. "And what was up with those interrogations today?" Koratagere asked. "The entire department's talking about how you and T'Meth stood there and let Q shred people to pieces."

"T'Meth didn't say anything?" Veloz asked, sounding startled.

"T'Meth cannot be bothered with anything so tedious as the opinions of her co-workers," Sev said dryly.

The other two laughed. Then Veloz said, "It was part of a plan, actually. Q couldn't identify his attackers' voices when they were speaking calmly, so I figured if he got them mad, he'd recognize them."

"Well, someone should have debriefed the department," Koratagere said. "Even the people who thought Q didn't deserve to get beaten up think he's a complete jerk now. There's a lot of sympathy for Blevins."

Veloz was disbelieving. "How, exactly, can anyone sympathize with Blevins? The man's an idiot and he broke his Starfleet oath. Just because Q is a complete jerk is no excuse to beat him up."

"Hey, I didn't say I agreed with them. Just telling you what I hear. The general feeling is that Q could provoke anyone into attacking him."

Veloz sighed. "I guess I'd better try to debrief people before I go off-shift, then. I can't believe T'Meth didn't do it."

"It's not logical that people should be angry," Sev said. "Therefore they're not angry. We all know that logic is the perfect way to examine the universe, after all."

"How long has she been in Starfleet? Thirty years?"

"You know Vulcans," Koratagere said.

"I don't think your attempts to debrief people will help much," Sev added,. "People are not very fond of you or T'Meth at the moment, either."

"This just gets better. Are you two on the shit list for working with us?"

"Not yet," Koratagere said.

"Give it time," Sev said.

Veloz sighed. "There are days when I wonder why I ever went into Security."

"Everyone wonders that," Koratagere said.

"Really? It seems like most people are pretty confident that they belong--"

"No, I mean everyone wonders why you went into it, Veloz." There was a grin in the man's voice.

"Ha ha ha. I'm going to try some damage control, at least. Try not to keep Himself awake; you'll never hear the end of it."

"That would probably require that Kort keep his mouth shut," Sev said. "I doubt that's biologically possible."

Q turned on music so he wouldn't have to hear the rest of the conversation, and so that the chatting guards couldn't hear him. He didn't want to know any more. The fact that Security itself had turned on those of its own who had allied with him didn't surprise him, nor that Veloz's brilliant plan today had made matters even worse for him, but it scared him nonetheless. Humans had a distressing habit of changing alliances to win their friends' approval. T'Meth might have certified Koratagere and Sev as safe earlier, but if the rest of Security started making their lives hell, how long before they, and Veloz, switched sides again?

He thought of calling Naomi back, but dismissed the notion. It was far too humiliating that he had sobbed in her arms, that he had said stupid, idiotic things about Ohmura deserving to live more than him, as if he'd actually come to believe the morons tormenting him. He couldn't leave himself open to that kind of humiliation again. Besides, he hadn't forgotten what Naomi really wanted, the sordid motives that drove her. He remembered Harry, and Amy, and knew what would happen if he let himself be entangled with a human that way -- nothing but pain and humiliation. No, he would bear this himself.

At least until he knew for sure if they'd switched sides or not.

T'Meth came to get him the next morning, before he'd gotten fully dressed and ready to run the gauntlet yet. "We've identified three high-likelihood suspects for Blevins' accomplice."

"Wonderful. I'm happy for you." He turned back to adjusting his collar.

"You misunderstand. Your assistance is required to identify which of the three we should charge."

Q stiffened, the fear from yesterday welling up again. He could not go through that again. Not for three men, not for anyone. "Do you really need me to hold your hand every step of the way?" he drawled. "Really, T'Meth. I thought you were competent."

"None of the suspects has an alibi of his own, and all have corroborated Lt. Blevins' alibi. Ensign Michaelmas originally claimed that he was with Blevins; he has now reneged on that alibi, and confessed to lying, claiming that he was with his roommate, Ensign Guy. Guy originally stated that he encountered Blevins and Michaelmas on patrol during the time period that you were injured; he now claims that he and Michaelmas were playing poker with Guy's partner, Ensign Kimmelman. Kimmelman's story has also changed to match Guy's. All of them will be charged with lying to a superior officer, disobedience, absence from their posts, and obstructing justice. One of them, however, should also be charged with assault and battery."

"What about attempt to murder?"

"It is unclear whether they in fact intended to murder you."

He turned on T'Meth. "What, are you deaf? Did you completely miss what Blevins said yesterday while he was strangling me? Didn't you hear him ranting about how he should have finished it? What exactly do you suppose that means?"

"If they had intended your death, you would be dead," T'Meth said severely. "It has not yet been decided whether or not to charge them with attempted murder, as any serious attempt on their part would certainly have been successful."

"They wanted me to die slowly, in agony," Q snapped. "Do you honestly think I would have survived if Naomi hadn't found me?"

"Your com badge was still in the area, where you could theoretically have reached it and called for help before losing consciousness. If they had wished to ensure that you were not rescued, they'd have removed the com badge. Speculation is fruitless in any case, as it has not been decided what to charge them with."

"I want them charged with attempted murder!" The idea that Blevins might get a lesser sentence than that, that he might escape punishment, twisted Q's stomach with rage. "They tried to kill me and I will see them charged for it!"

"Then you run the risk of letting them go free," T'Meth said. "Blevins has already confessed to assaulting you. His conviction is assured. If you charge him with attempted murder, though, he can claim that he did not intend to or attempt to cause your death, and he may be found innocent of that charge."

"He's not innocent," Q said tightly. "He wanted me dead. I was there."

"I am not disputing your testimony. But if you cannot prove your allegations, Blevins might receive a comparatively light sentence. Think about it. In the meantime, we still need to identify Blevins' accomplice."

"No. I'm not doing what I did yesterday over again. It's your job to find who did it, not--"

"You would not be required to do what you did yesterday," T'Meth interrupted. "Given that our suspect pool has been narrowed to three, you might be able to identify the perpetrator's voice directly."

"Oh." Q considered. He was willing to do that. "Well, if you're planning on being reasonable about it, I suppose I could do that." A frightening thought struck him. "Do I have to go to the Security offices today?"

"Today I have received permission from Commodore Anderson to play the recordings from here." She led him out to his living room, where she had linked a tricorder into his console. "Watch and listen."

Halfway through the second suspect's interrogation, he knew it. "It's him."

"Ensign Michaelmas. Blevins' partner." T'Meth studied the readouts. "Are you entirely certain?"

"Yes." The voice was nervous, trying to remain calm, nothing like the voice that had shouted at him. But the man was lying. Q could see it all over him. He had spent far too many centuries as a god of mistruths and trickery not to know a lie when he saw one. And that itself wouldn't prove it -- the first suspect was lying, too, claiming an alibi for Michaelmas where none existed -- but it was the wrong kind of lie. The first man was covering to protect someone else, and no longer had anything to lose himself, having already been caught in one lie. The second suspect was nervous, and guilty, and terrified. And with those things as clues, Q was able to transform the man's voice in his head, to hear the connections between Michaelmas' nervous lies and the voice that had snarled at him to shut up when he'd begged for mercy. They were the same.

"Listen to the third in any case," T'Meth said. "It would be wise to be certain."

So he listened to the third, but the man's voice was all wrong, a deep bass grumbling that could never have turned into the high-pitched snarl Q remembered. "No. It's Michaelmas. The other two are all wrong."

"Michaelmas was the most likely suspect in any case," T'Meth said, nodding. She touched her com badge. "T'Meth to Lt. Braun."

"Braun here."

"Q has pointed to Michaelmas as his second assailant, sir. He is quite certain. Please coordinate with Commodore Anderson as to the charges."

"I'll do that, Lieutenant." Braun did not sound remotely interested. But then, why would he be? He would probably have been just as glad if the culprits were never found.

"He certainly seems enthusiastic," Q grumbled.

T'Meth turned back to him. "I believe you have a meeting today. Are you prepared?"

"As much so as I ever am," Q sighed. Even with T'Meth, he didn't want to face the protestors again.

Sev met them on route, to provide T'Meth with backup in case the protestors got unpleasant again. But they were relatively subdued. Perhaps T'Meth's performance two days ago had scared them into shutting up; they were there, but they made no attempt to accost Q or speak to him, and for that he was enormously relieved. Perhaps finally everything was coming back to normal and he would be safe.

The court-martial was three days later.

Q had looked forward to it greatly, expecting it to be a kind of catharsis, as well as the only revenge he'd get. The charges were, in fact, set at attempted murder; while Anderson wasn't fond of Q, the notion that Starfleet officers could betray their trust in this fashion disgusted her, and she intended to throw the book at them. And Q was vindictive enough to plan to take great glee in seeing his attackers go down.

But it wasn't what he expected, what he'd hoped for. It wasn't enough. For one thing, he himself was allowed to give testimony only briefly. The proceedings were kept cold and businesslike, and the men themselves looked detached, as if they barely cared what was happening. He had wanted to see fear, shock, pain on their faces. Instead he saw emptiness, masking them as effectively as they'd been that night.

Blevins pleaded guilty to assault and battery but not guilty to attempted murder, as T'Meth had warned. Both Li and Naomi were asked to take the stand for the prosecution, confirming that Q would have died without medical treatment, and that his injuries were such that he probably could not have reached his combadge in time. Q dreaded hearing what Naomi would say about his condition and the humiliating way he had cowered away from her, but she stuck strictly to the pertinent facts. Before and after she took the stand, she flashed him a few comforting smiles, which were a little bit of reassurance, if for no better reason than he knew that at least one person in the courtroom was rooting for him. But her seat in the courtroom was far behind his, and he would not embarrass himself by turning around to look for her.

Q himself desperately wanted to take the stand. He couldn't make himself speak of the way Blevins had slammed his fist into him as Michaelmas held him up, battering Q over and over until he was too weak even to beg anymore, could only moan with pain and terror, knowing he was dying. But he could have spoken of the way Blevins attacked him in the interrogation room, of some of the things Blevins had said that night. He could have made them see what a monster this creature was. But the prosecution had apparently decided there was enough evidence presented, and they moved on to Michaelmas without letting Q testify at all.

Michaelmas' plea was not guilty, claiming that he hadn't been involved in the attack at all. This time Q was called on to testify. But he wasn't allowed to be theatrical, he wasn't allowed to embellish; he was ordered to answer the questions and nothing but the questions and every time he tried to add in a useful piece of information, he was told to be quiet or risk being found in contempt of court. And all they asked him was how he had identified Michaelmas, what made him think this particular man had attacked him.

The court-martials were short, sharp and to the point. Within three hours, both Blevins and Michaelmas were charged with conspiracy to commit murder, attempted murder, and a host of other lesser crimes. They were drummed out of Starfleet and sentenced to twenty years in a penal colony. Q was outraged -- they had tried to kill him. They should be locked up for life! But his protest to the prosecuting attorney was futile.

He didn't feel catharsis. He didn't feel vindicated. The whole experience left him frustrated, angry and drained, as if he'd been wrestling with an insoluble problem for days and was now told it could not be solved just as he'd been on the verge of a breakthrough. And then came the final straw.

As he left the courtroom, two guards he didn't know came up to him. Q flinched. "What are you doing here? Where's T'Meth?"

"We've been assigned to guard you," the first guard said.

"No, you're not. T'Meth's supposed to guard me. Or one of her handpicked lackeys. Where is she?" He scanned the departing crowd, looking for her.

"Signing off on the papers for Blevins and Michaelmas. She's been relieved of the case."

"I want to talk to her. Now."

Down in the Security offices, T'Meth was sharp with him. "The danger to you from Security is ended. There is no need for specific people to remain assigned to you."

"What do you mean, the danger is ended?"

"The perpetrators have been caught--"

"And you seriously think they're the only ones that wanted me dead?" There was an edge of hysteria in his voice. He had just barely started feeling safe again. She couldn't take that away from him. "This entire department wants me dead, T'Meth!"

"I have seen no evidence that that is the case."

"Then you're not looking! Haven't you seen the way people stare at me?" Part of his mind remained aware that he was making a scene, in the Security offices, revealing his weaknesses and fears to the people who would most want to use them against him, and was horrified. But the rest of him didn't care, too caught up in his fear and outrage to pay attention to that tiny little voice of reason. "The way they talk about me? They want me dead!"

"They dislike you. This is true. But it is a far, far gap from disliking you to actually plotting to kill you. Blevins and Michaelmas were obviously unstable; no one else is likely to violate their Starfleet oath in such a fashion."

"How do you know? Blevins and Michaelmas were willing, why not other people?"

"Blevins and Michaelmas were an aberration. Q, you are being illogical." From a Vulcan, that was the ultimate put-down. "I will not act as your personal bodyguard without direct orders to do so from Commodore Anderson, now that the threat to you is past."

"I'm not being illogical. You're being short-sighted and stupid."

"This discussion is over. I have work to do."

"I'm going to Commodore Anderson with this."

"Do so. I would be interested to hear what she would have to say."

Anderson was even more blunt. "T'Meth is not going to feed your paranoid fantasies anymore, Q," she said sharply. "She's been on maximum rotation for several days, with very little sleep; I wouldn't have asked it of her if she weren't Vulcan, but even Vulcans need to sleep sometime. T'Meth deserves a vacation. Now, we haven't ruled out the possibility that someone might be inspired to commit a copycat crime, as unlikely as it seems. That's why the Security protection will continue. But Security itself is not going to attack you, and I can't keep treating the entire department like it might."

"And then what?" Q asked harshly, knowing he couldn't save this one, that he was doomed, but desperately trying anyway. "What happens when they show their true colors, and I end up dead?"

"You're not going to end up dead. Security is working in pairs with you. If you ended up dead, it would be a sure thing that the team working with you had killed you, and they'd be drummed out of Starfleet and sent to a penal colony like Blevins and Michaelmas were. No one wants that. And no one would be stupid enough to risk it."

"You're betting my life that Security wouldn't be stupid?" he asked her incredulously. "While you're at it, why don't you just bet my life that you can find a Ferengi who gives to charity, too?"

"Get out of my office, Q. You've had your say, and the answer is 'no.'"

Q swallowed. "And what if I stop working for you?"

"I throw you in the brig. You haven't got a leg to stand on anymore."

She might be right; Security might not be shortsighted enough to kill him when it would obviously point to them. If he ended up in the brig, though... an "accident" might happen, he thought, fear and helpless rage souring his stomach. He had to give in on this one, and desperately hope that Anderson had assessed Security's self-interest correctly.

Even though he was sure she was wrong.

In his quarters, he stripped off his fancy courtroom suit and showered, trying to get rid of the smell of fear. The guards had tailed him very closely back to his room, and he'd been half-convinced they would jump him the whole way.

He dressed in a pair of elegant pajamas, trying to console himself with the pleasure of attractive clothes. Not that it was likely to work, but he'd try anything. As he left the bathroom and entered his bedroom, exhausted and longing for sleep, he saw a slip of paper lying on his pillow.

"It should have been you."

The neat printing did nothing to conceal the venom behind the words. They were going to kill him! This was their warning to him, their opening shot. They were playing with him, like a cat with a mouse, batting him around before finally getting to the point of finishing him off.

Or maybe they were hoping he'd do it himself.

He crumpled up the paper in his hand, the only thought in his mind how to keep them from killing him right then.

But there was no way. They had access to his room. The note made that painfully clear. Q threw it away, then broke down into hysterical tears. No one believed him. No one cared. Not even T'Meth, not even Anderson, to whom he was supposedly a valuable Federation resource.

Security was going to kill him and he couldn't stop them.

Q stayed awake for a long time after the tears finally stopped, curled up in a ball in his bed, listening for the faintest of sounds, for the first sign that they were coming after him. Finally, exhaustion overwhelmed even his own hyperactive mind.

Lights came on, and Q came awake in a heart-pounding rush. Surrounding his bed were more of the faceless Security guards, and Q instinctively cowered away, convinced that they were here to kill him at last. This was it. They were going to do, in the one place he had hoped was safe, that he had foolishly believed to be his own.

"Is everything all right?" the bigger of the two security guards asked.

Q's heart slammed. Of course everything wasn't all right. "Nothing's wrong," he snapped, harshly, his voice on the edge of cracking. "Now get out!"

"Are you sure? We heard you yell."

The other one grabbed the covers and yanked them back unceremoniously, exposing Q completely. He was trembling, and wearing only a pair of light pajamas, and the humiliation of being seen this way almost overpowered the fear. "What are you doing?"

"Just checking. You might be a shapechanger, hiding the real Q."

Since this had, in fact, happened once, it was a plausible story. Q didn't believe it for a second. The big one got on his hands and knees and peered under the bed. "All clear here."

"This is absurd! I didn't call you!"

"Hey, we heard you scream. Are you calling us liars?" The other one loomed over him.

He wanted to make a retort to that one, something cutting, and cruel, and richly deserved. But he couldn't. His mouth was frozen with terror. If he said something, anything they didn't like, they might kill him. They might anyway.

The larger security guard returned from inspecting the closets. "Nothing so far." He was grinning broadly. If Q had actually needed proof that they were doing this to torment him, that would have served.

"Guess it was a false alarm, then." He looked at Q with a smarmy expression of mock-concern. "Poor baby have bad dreams?"

Q swallowed. "You've done your job. Get out."

"Not so fast," the smaller one said, leaning over the bed. Q flattened back against the bed, terrified, hands moving instinctively to protect stomach and face. "You know, you have some nerve," the man hissed. "Everyone in the galaxy wants to kill you, and here we are, standing in the line of fire, throwing our lives away for you. And you treat us like crap."

The menace in the man's voice was unmistakable. Q cowered back further, but there was nowhere he could go.

"He does. He thinks everyone's beneath him. He doesn't care how many pitiful little human lives get thrown away for him, just so long as his precious, superior skin is safe."

The big one walked around the bed, and the second one made as if to leave, and Q felt a tiny second of relief. But then the smaller one turned back, lingering by the bed for a moment.

"Don't scream unless there's really something wrong. You know what happened to the boy who cried 'Wolf'."

They snickered and left the room.

The lights were all still on, and Q was still lying there, pressed flat against the bed. He didn't realize for a long moment that he was subvocalizing, repeating over and over under his breath, "Don't kill me, please don't kill me."

With a horrible sense of falling and destruction, Q savagely tore his mind off of the litany. It didn't do him any good before and it wouldn't do him any good now.

But it didn't matter. They'd accomplished their purpose. No amount of exhaustion could force him into trusting sleep now. Not when they could come back in at any moment, and this time, not stop at a warning.

Q stalked back to his quarters. He'd torn apart everyone who'd come to see him today, reducing one woman to tears. He didn't care. He'd even taken a certain savage satisfaction in the sight. If he were suffering, then everyone else deserved to suffer as well.

The guards who'd been shadowing him stopped him as he was about to go through the door. "Aren't you going to invite us in?"

Q looked at them. "No."

The taller guard leaned over, his very posture menacing. "That's not very gracious of you. We put our lives on the line for you every day, good people have died for you, and you can't even be courteous enough to invite us in."

Q held very still. This was it then. They were going to kill him now. For a brief moment he was in that dark corridor again, lying on the floor, hearing his tormentors screaming at him, "Ohmura died for you, you worthless sack of shit!" as they punched and kicked at him over and over again. Part of him wanted to beg for mercy now, while a small voice just wanted this over with, and him dead if that was the end.

But he couldn't. With all the dignity he had left, Q said, "Do what you want. I can't stop you."

He entered his quarters, feeling them following him. Maintaining an easy stride, trying not to show how terrified he was, Q fled into his own room, hoping to put this off for as long as he could.

They didn't follow him into the bedroom, and Q almost cried with relief then. But that didn't mean he was safe. He had to do something about this. However, what were the alternatives? Neither Anderson nor T'Meth believed in him. And the guards hadn't made any direct threats. The closest thing he had to a piece of evidence was the scrap of paper he'd found on his pillow, then foolishly thrown away.

He was alone and there was no one who would believe him or try to protect him.

No one except Naomi.

He hadn't let her stay the night since she had put him to bed and slept on the couch. What she had done the morning after had frightened him. Naomi might want him sexually, but that was better than wanting to kill him. If she did molest him... rape was hardly a fate worse than death. And chances were, if he were careful, she wouldn't. Or, if she demanded that as the price for staying with him and protecting him... it would be utterly humiliating and degrading to prostitute himself to stay alive, but better than being beaten to death or living in endless fear of that. Q thought he might very well give into her depraved desires just to get a good night's sleep.

And she had been very kind to him on other occasions. Not that he enjoyed that any more than he enjoyed her sexual advances. It was almost more humiliating to have cried on her. But it was true nonetheless.

Before he could change his mind, he called her.

Naomi came through the door like an avenging angel. Spotting the guards lounging in the room, laughing like they didn't have a care in the world, she turned on them.

"Get out of here!"

"Now, now, Doctor. We were invited."

"I don't care. You've been disinvited. Get out of here."

They stared at her for a long moment. There might have been a thought in their minds of resisting, but everyone in Security had heard about Anderson coming down hard on Braun after Dr. Allen had been crossed before and none of them wanted the same thing to happen to them.

"Of course. You and Q want your privacy."

The words were insultingly insinuating. Naomi shook her head. "Better than him having you here and calling that privacy."

As retorts went, it was weak, but they left, and that was all that mattered. Naomi was trembling when they finally went out the door. She couldn't stand how they looked at her, like they could do anything they wanted, and might very well. She was glad now that she wasn't in Starfleet, that she had never joined. She didn't want to be associated with people like these.

Naomi went to Q's door, letting the computer carry her voice inside. "Q, they're gone. Can I come in?"

The door opened for her, and Naomi walked in. Q was curled up on the bed, sitting up, utterly white and colorless. He looked up at her as she entered, feeling hope and despair all at once. She'd saved him one more time, but now he'd sold himself into her hands and he didn't know if he could trust her anymore than he could trust them.

"I suppose you want your reward now," Q said flatly.

"Excuse me?" Naomi came around to him, shocked by his appearance. She wanted to approach him, wanted to hold him, to do anything to alleviate that heartbreaking pain.

His eyes flicked up to her face but he didn't move. "I can't stop you."

She didn't understand anything he was saying, and gave up on trying, coming to sit next to him on the bed and putting her arms around him.

He flinched away from her embrace, holding himself stiff.

"I'm trying to make you feel better," Naomi said with a trace of fond exasperation in her voice. "Either accept it or tell me to leave."

If those were his choices, he didn't know what he was supposed to do. He didn't want her to leave him at the mercy of Security. And he had already as much as agreed to give into her in exchange for her protection.

With a sigh, Q relaxed into her arms, letting her doing what she wanted. Naomi stroked his hair and crooned softly over the top of his head. Something in that gesture was familiar, and the tightness inside him began to loosen. He could almost imagine that she cared about him and that she wasn't just doing this out of the usual sordid human motives. He wanted to believe in that, but there was no way he could. No one could ever care about him; it was impossible, and in any case, he didn't want anyone to care about him. That she had comforted him in the past didn't matter right now. The way he felt at the moment, he couldn't trust anyone, couldn't believe in anything, not Naomi, not anything at all.

As soon as he had regained enough of his self-control to pull away, Q sat up. With quick motions, he wiped away a suspicious wetness that had begun to gather around his eyes. "All right. Go ahead and get it over with."

Naomi looked at him. He was very possibly the strangest person she'd ever dealt with. "Get what over with?"

"What you were doing before. The last time you were in here," Q pointed to the bed, unable to actually come right out and beg her to physically debase him, the way she seemed to expect him to do.

She shrugged. She'd only been in his bedroom with him once before for more than a minute or so, so she had a pretty good idea what he was asking for. "Not exactly a polite request, but I suppose it'll have to do."

"You want me to politely ask you to torment me?" His tone was disbelieving.

"Haven't you ever even had a backrub before I showed up?" Naomi pushed him gently towards the bed, and started working on his shoulders.

Q moaned, as he felt her hands digging in, his fear of her having other desires suddenly fled. He'd almost forgotten what that had felt like. Maybe what she wanted from him wouldn't be so bad if this were part of it. "Yes."

"And you're still afraid of being tormented?" She kneaded his shoulders, eliciting more whimpers of relief. He was enticingly responsive, and she gave him what he wanted, changing her pressure to reflect his tone of voice. "Obviously whoever was doing it was doing it wrong."

He could hardly explain that of the people who had done it, one had attempted to rape him, and one had piled on emotional demand after emotional demand before finally turning on him and attacking him viciously, or that backrubs were not exactly what he had meant by torment. "I've had clinical adjustments," Q said, through other noises as her hands moved up onto his neck and started to loosen the knots there. The feeling was simply incredible. "They were nothing like this. Very painful."

"Uh huh," Naomi said as she kept on going. "That it?"

Q hesitated. "I don't want to talk about it."

"That's fine," Naomi said. "You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."

Which meant he had to. He swallowed. "I've had other backrubs, but the situations were... bad." If he was going to be honest, he'd have to confess that not everything with Harry had been that bad, actually... but the ending more than made up for it. And he felt no need to be that honest anyway.

Naomi tilted her head, then decided he really didn't want to talk about it and let it pass, sliding her hands up into his hair, fingers digging deeply into the scalp to relieve the pressure there.

She continued from there, moving down his back, undoing the knots in his lower back, then up again to his shoulders. Q was torn between feeling relieved and waiting in suspenseful agony for her to actually begin seducing him. Both Amy and Harry had begun long before this. However, so far, Naomi hadn't touched him anywhere he could consider objectionable, and Q began to relax, accepting what she was offering.

And then her hands were on his shoulders, turning him over, and his fear rose again, as he began to anticipate having to keep his end of the bargain.

But her hands moved only to his forehead, soothing out tension there he didn't know he had, brushing the line of his cheekbone and stroking his jawline.

"Good night," Naomi said, brushing his lips for the briefest of seconds with her own.

She was nearly to the door before Q realized that she was actually leaving. Panic overwhelmed him. He couldn't let her go. He had to do something, anything to get her to stay. He couldn't face another night knowing that Security was waiting out there, ready to come in and terrify him and even kill him. "Are you leaving?"

She turned around, and came partway back towards him. "Well, I can't stay here." She definitely wasn't planning to stay in his room with him. While the thought was intriguing, he didn't want her like that, and she wasn't that pushy.

He looked at her, utterly helpless. If she went, he was at Security's mercy. He knew it and they knew it. But to keep her, he was going to have to beg. Could he lower himself like that? "Please. Don't go."

Naomi came back all the way to him, sitting on the edge of the bed. "I won't go if you don't want me to do," she said, trying to reassure him. She couldn't bear the broken tone in his voice. It didn't occur to her that he might want something more from her or that he might think she wanted something else from him. His attitude and positioning were all wrong for that. He didn't try to touch her now, and he hadn't returned her kiss at all, as brief as it had been. "I'll be out on the couch. All right?"

She looked at him, waiting for him to acknowledge that. If he needed her closer than that, she'd stay, even if she had to sleep in a chair, but the couch would be considerably more comfortable.

Q stared at her helplessly. He didn't understand her at all. What did she want from him?

Naomi didn't wait for an answer, but kissed him on the forehead and left him there to rest.

"Wake up, lovebird."

Something poked her in the face and Naomi came awake in a rush, sitting up, all of her nerves screaming threat.

One of the Security guards, the smaller one with the smirk, was standing over her, his posture solicitous.

Naomi read it as lecherous. She didn't want him standing that close to her, and she couldn't bear the invasion of privacy involved with having him sneak up on her while she was sleeping.

"Get out of here," Naomi said flatly.

"Now what kind of attitude is that?" the guard asked silkily. "We spend the night protecting your pretty little self so that you can have a good night's sleep, and the only thanks we get is that?"

Naomi didn't speak to him. "Computer, is this room being monitored?"


"Please monitor and record in holo all activities occurring while Security is present."

The computer hummed for a minute, then decided that wasn't good enough. "Access denied."

Naomi stared at the guard, whose smirk had dropped a fraction. "Computer, whose permission do I need to process that request?"

"Q, Acting Head of Security Lieutenant Braun, Commodore Anderson."

Naomi nodded, and looked satisfied. She could get Q's permission.

In contrast, the security guard looked pale. "You wouldn't... and it wouldn't do you any good..."

She smiled pleasantly at him. "Imagine what that earlier remark would have sounded like when replayed before a courtmartial review board, Lieutenant. I imagine your job has its tough moments, but I doubt that requesting sexual favors from the guardees is one of your perks."

He scowled at her. "You have a bad attitude. You better be careful or someone's going to change it for you."

"Yet another threat. My, aren't we awfully brave when faced with people we know we can beat up on without fear of getting hurt."

He didn't say anything else, but left, walking stiffly.

Naomi stretched and stood up. She looked like she'd spent the night at the lab, and she knew it. It was hardly a new look for her, but she felt self-conscious being like this around someone she'd like to impress. Despite his strange ways, Q intrigued her, and the trouble he was in at the moment only served to make him that much more interesting. He was being systematically harassed by Security, that much was obvious. Naomi didn't know and couldn't understand why he wasn't complaining about it to whoever was in charge of these people, but apparently, he didn't think he could.

And perhaps he was right. These people were frightening.

She went to his door. "Q? Are you up yet? Can I talk to you?"

The door opened for her, and she walked in. Q was sitting on the edge of the bed, fastening his cuffs, his back towards her.

"You won't believe what those goons just did! They're horrible!"

He didn't look around, but something in him felt much lighter, knowing that someone, anyone believed in him.

"You should... well, I got one of them to go away by threatening to have all incidents of Security presence in your rooms monitored." She came around to where she could see him. "I think that'd be a very good idea."

"Why bother?" Q said, shrugging. "No one will believe it."

His tone was almost matter-of-fact, but tinged with a bitterness he couldn't hide. "Well, you may not care, but I'd like to have a record of some of these things."

Q looked up at her, seeing a determined expression on her face. "Oh, very well. But it's all your fault if anything goes wrong."

She bounced up. "That's wonderful!" Naomi stopped bouncing to rub her hands together with evil glee. "Now I'll really have something to use against them. Assuming of course, they're stupid enough to make threats after I warned them I might record what they said." She seemed almost disappointed at that thought.

"They won't stop until I'm dead," Q said acidly. "If you order flowers for the funeral now, you'll stay ahead of the rush. I prefer lilies. White ones."

He stood up and made his way to the door. Naomi walked beside him, following him out the door.

She didn't follow him as he went to the meeting room, saying goodbye before he'd even gotten to the turbolift.

Q watched her go, feeling troubled. He didn't want her to come with him, didn't want her with him at all, but he couldn't help feeling frightened that she was going.

Was it his imagination, or did his current pair of hired thugs seem to get even smugger and more menacing as they stepped into the turbolift with him?

He didn't look. He didn't want to look. It was bad enough that he was going to have to run the gauntlet to get back into the meeting room without having to face the hostile stares of his so-called protectors.

He'd could do it. He had to do it. He didn't have a choice.

When he got back to his room, there was no one there. There were no messages waiting for him, and although he hadn't expected any, he wished that Naomi had left one so that he could properly turn her down and tell her how he didn't want to ever see her again, didn't want any part of her sordid plans for his life.

He could almost imagine the dialogue and how it would go. It would be wonderfully satisfying. She'd wilt under the withering heat of his brilliant insults and slink away, tail between her legs.

He showered and changed clothes, all the while half-expecting that his Security tag team to barge in on him with some other made-up excuse for invading his privacy. It was just plausible enough to force him to rush through it, grabbing the first halfway wearable piece of clothing he found and putting it on.

There was a chirp from the direction of the door and Q froze, hands on his collar, unable to move. Finally, they were going to do it. Another intrusion into his life, another evening of harassment and threats. It made him wonder what other people did with their free time. Undoubtedly less entertaining things, involving boring hobbies like macrame or juggling explosives.

"Come in if you must."

He buttoned up his collar with trembling fingers and walked out into the other room, head held as high as he could manage, going to face the dragon.

Naomi looked up at him as he came in. "Hello. I hope you don't mind terribly. I thought I'd stop by and see if you wanted me to spend the night." She smiled at him, trying to keep that from sounding like the blatant proposition that it did to her.

Q wasn't reassured. "Don't you have quarters of your own?"

"I like yours better."

"I'll move. You can have these."

Naomi looked at him, wondering about his melancholy tone of voice. It almost seemed like he was bantering with her. "I like you better, too. The extra people that come with my quarters aren't nearly as much fun."

"Pity." Q took a seat, arranging his long limbs artistically. He didn't think he could get rid of her without her causing a scene and involving Security, and in truth, he wasn't sure he wanted her to go. She had after all showed up here all on her own, relieving him of the need to humiliate himself by calling her.

Not that he would have. He could handle the nebulous threat from Security. Anderson had as much as said he was being ridiculous for being scared of them, that they weren't going to kill him. There wasn't anything there to be afraid of.

Not as long as Naomi was there.

Naomi came over to him, sitting crosslegged across from him on the other end of the couch. That close to him, she felt awkward again. She was forcing herself on him here, and wouldn't have done it at all if not for the way he kept reaching out to her. Moments of extreme vulnerability showed through the hostility, and that was more than enough to make her curious and feel like wanting to help all at once.

They sat there until Q felt the silence had become too uncomfortable for him. "What do you want from me? Why do you keep pursuing me like this?"

"Excuse me?" Naomi asked. "What do I want? I might admit to pursuing you, but I think it'd be obvious what I want."

Q didn't like the sound of that at all. "Then why don't you get it over with?" He tried to hold still, but he couldn't stop himself from nervously picking at a loose thread on the hem of his sleeve. He didn't want her, didn't want what she wanted. Not at all.

"Get what over with? Geez, you're acting like you expect me to throw you down on the couch right here and have my wicked way with you." Naomi grinned suddenly. "Not that it doesn't sound appealing, mind you, but I don't really think we know each other well enough."

"No, of course not," Q said hurriedly. "What a ridiculous idea. I'm shocked that it ever crossed your mind."

"Of course you are. After all, what kind of guy sleeps with someone on the third date?"

"Date? Were we having a relationship without someone telling me about it?" Q asked, almost starting to enjoy himself. He was still very nervous about what she might say or do, but anything was a pleasant change from huddling in the darkness, waiting for Security to break in again.

"Did I forget to send you the announcement?" Naomi asked, pretending to be shocked. "How inconsiderate of me."

"See that it doesn't happen again."

"Of course not. You know now, so it couldn't happen."

He looked down his nose at her. "We are not having a relationship, and you're deluded to imagine that I would ever have anything to do with you."

"Are so, and I am not."

"We are not, and you are."

"Shows what you think." Naomi stuck out her tongue at him, then sobered. "You really are still afraid of Security, aren't you?"

"Afraid? Of those undereducated, overmuscled, weapon packing goons?"

"That would be them."

He stared at her helplessly. He couldn't say no, because there was always the chance she might take him seriously and leave. But it was almost as bad to say yes, and admit that he, the formerly almighty Q, was frightened of two, limited human beings with an intelligence level he would have previously considered reserved only to amoebas.

Naomi read his silence as an assent. "I don't understand why they're persecuting you like this. I... I always thought you were a major VIP. I don't understand why they can get away with it."

"They get away with it because Eleanor lets them," Q said, his voice harsh. "And surely even you couldn't have missed the story of how Ohmura sacrificed his life for the ungrateful, murdering Q."

Naomi nodded. He'd told her about that, and although she still didn't really understand what had happened, she knew Q wasn't at fault. "You know I've heard their version; everyone has. But I don't think it's true."

"Oh, it's true," Q said, savage pain lacing his voice. "You can't even imagine how evil I am."

That didn't sound true at all, and Naomi shook her head, unable to understand why he was bringing this up again, except that it was obviously hurtful for him, that it had scarred him deeply in a very integral way. "I figured you were frightened, that was all. If someone was holding a gun on me, I doubt I'd be particularly brave. Holding you responsible for it... Q, it wasn't your fault."

Some small part of Q felt warmed by that approval. The rest of him rejected it. "I didn't freeze. I don't freeze. Ohmura was stupid to sacrifice his life for me."

Naomi set her chin. He was being stubborn about this, and he was just plain wrong. He wasn't to blame, and if he couldn't understand that, well, maybe she was going to have to put it in a way he would understand. "You mean you aren't going to say something sarcastic about your life being worth fourteen of someone like Ohmura?"

"Very clever," Q retorted, hatred slashing through him. "I'll have to make a note of it."

Q stood up abruptly, unable to take any more of the conversation. This hadn't gone at all the way he had imagined it, and it was hurting more than he could cope with. That was almost the worst blow, that he couldn't handle this. He was used to far worse; insults were the standard fare of conversation among the Q. But it had been a while since anyone had talked with him like that, and he'd almost forgotten how it was done. Certainly, Naomi's pitifully weak insults were hurting him and that was unthinkable. He didn't even consider the possibility that he was being hurt because Naomi was the one saying these things. He didn't want to think about something like that.

"I trust you can find your own way out," Q said acidly. "Feel free to call Security if you can't remember the way."

He was almost to the door before Naomi caught him. She grabbed hold of his arm, stopping him in his steps.

"I'm sorry."

"For what?" Q asked stiffly, not looking at her. "I believe I was the one who dismissed you."

"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I was trying to get you to see that you're wrong. You aren't to blame for what happened. You have to stop kicking yourself for what happened to Ohmura."

"Haven't you heard? I don't have feelings."

Naomi ignored that. "I do feel sorry for you, for what's happened to you. I really do want to help you."

"Wonderful. Bleeding heart charity. Just what I've always wanted."

Naomi glared at him. "You are absolutely the hardest person to be nice to that I've ever met."

"You were being nice? I hadn't noticed." Q was starting to enjoy this more now that he was winning.

"Fine." Naomi pulled on his arm. "C'mon."

Q followed her reluctantly into his bedroom. He didn't have much choice about it. He had as much agreed to do whatever she wanted in return for her protection, and he couldn't claim that she hadn't lived up to her part of the bargain. She certainly had. He'd slept better the previous nights than he had since this nightmare had begun. Whatever payment she wanted would be only just. And, a very small part of him insisted, perhaps even enjoyable.

Q stuffed that thought down as soon as it bubbled to the surface.

Naomi came to a halt a few feet from the bed, and turned around, looking at him, a determined expression on her face. "Well?"

"Excuse me?" Q asked in his iciest tones.

"You know what to do. Now do it." Her words were sharp, although her tone wasn't. Naomi had enough of beating around the bush with him. Teasing him had only gotten her an invitation to leave, although she was fairly certain that he didn't want her to go. The only thing that remained was a direct assault, and if she had to practically to coerce him into having his back rubbed, she would. That, at least, she knew he liked. Why she was doing this, going to this much trouble over someone who didn't even want her there, Naomi wasn't sure. Obviously, she had too much free time.

Q heard only the harsh words. With a stab of fear, he reached out towards her as though she might at any time bite him, and bent over her, pressing his lips to hers and kissing her.

Naomi reacted with a burst of startlement, first stiffening, then raising her hands to his chest to touch him, balancing herself against him as she returned the sentiment. He felt wooden at first, but he softened as she responded to him. He wasn't touching her at all, and that didn't feel right, so she reached out and tugged first one hand and then the other onto her body, until he was holding onto her and then it felt just about perfect. She didn't understand why he was doing this, but she didn't question her good fortune. He tasted sweet, and his response to her was more gratifying than any practiced seduction.

Q tried not to moan. She'd placed one of his hands on the small of her back, and he didn't want to think about where the other one was, except the feeling was so soft, so enticing... He tore his mind away from that, but then, he was drawn back into the feeling of her mouth under his and the way she was pressing herself against him, almost as if she liked this, as if she wanted to do this...

Of course she wanted to do this, Q thought savagely, even as part of him was trying desperately not to cup his hand around her and squeeze, she had to want this, she was human after all. disgustingly so, and this was her price for protecting him and she didn't want him, couldn't want him, and even if she did, it would all fail and he couldn't belong to anyone this way, couldn't do this...

Before he could think about the consequences of rejecting her, and whether he really wanted to at all, Q tore himself away from Naomi, backing up almost to the door. "How delightfully elegant of you. I've reconsidered our agreement, and I'm afraid I will have to dispense with your services."

He waited in horrible, suspenseful silence for her to repudiate him, hating himself for doing this, terribly afraid of what Security would do to him, but not able to continue.

Naomi stared at him, the word "services" hitting her like a physical blow. "Excuse me?" Naomi asked. "You think I'm here to... to..." she searched her mind for a word for it that didn't sound tawdry and vulgar and was unable to find one. "To be some sort of prostitute for you?"

"Excuse me?"

He seemed completely startled by the idea, the shocked expression on his face impossible to counterfeit and Naomi was forced to believe that this was the first time the idea had occurred to him. "What else did you mean by services?"

Q felt utterly foolish then, and covered it with a disdainful mask. He no longer had any idea what was going on here. If she didn't want him as a payment of sorts, then why had she done that? And, a small voice wanted to know, what did she think of him now?

He had to get rid of her. "It doesn't matter. In any case, I want you to leave."

"Leave? I don't think you want me to leave. I think you just want a better deal on whatever it is you think you should be getting."

"If I were getting anything from you, which I'm not, I certainly wouldn't pay you for it." Q's tone contained his total disdain for the idea. "The only thing more repulsive than finding reproduction erotic is considering it a barterable commodity."

Naomi didn't look convinced. "Then what did you mean, 'your services are no longer required'? What services were you talking about?"

Q was backed into a corner, literally and verbally. If he didn't tell her the truth, she would assume the worst. And despite certain tawdry impulses, Q had no desire to find out what happened after the clothes came off. He knew what would happen then. Humiliation, recriminations, and guilt.

"I need you to protect me from Security."

Understanding dawned across Naomi's face. She didn't quite understand why he needed her to do that, or why he would think that she could protect him, but it made more sense than the ridiculous stuff she'd come up with about him wanting to sleep with her. "They have been harassing you, haven't they? And they leave you alone when I'm here." She cocked her head at him. "So you're not scared of them anymore? Is that why you want me to go?"

"I never said I was frightened," Q snapped. "I'm not someone to cower in bed with the covers pulled over my head." So far, he'd managed to leave the blankets in place.

"Of course not." Naomi was entirely confused at this point. He'd kissed her, then he'd gotten upset and claimed he didn't need her, although that didn't have anything at all to do with the kiss, and now he was talking about fear. It looked like the only sensible thing to do was to get out of there.

Fortunately, she didn't have a gram of common sense in her body.

Naomi held out her hand to Q, beckoning him. "Well, come on, and I'll rub your back and you can keep me from being scared."

He went with her reluctantly, lying down on the bed. "You? Scared? Of what, a sudden attack by an entire fleet of Romulans?"

Naomi knelt next to him, hands going to his back. "Q, I'm frequently scared of a lot of things." Her voice was entirely honest as she worked on the knots and tightness in his muscles. "Keeping going despite being afraid is what life's all about."

He made a hoarse sound in the back of his throat. "You could call it that."

"What would you call it?"

"Cowardice," he muttered, afraid even now to tell her to go away, held paralyzed by the need for the relaxation she was imparting, and the fear of what she might do to him afterwards. Of what he might want her to do.

Although Q recognized it as a weakness, he let her stay the night. It wasn't as if he could force her out in any case. The spectacle of himself trying to physically force her out was ludicrous, and Security would only stand by and laugh if he made the mistake of demanding that they remove her. They might very well take Naomi away, but it wasn't worth the humiliation, even if he were fully clothed.

That her staying also made him feel safer was an added benefit, and probably the only part of it that made the venture worthwhile.

In the morning, by the time he'd gotten himself ready to face the day, she was gone. He would hardly have known she had even spent the night except for the haphazard way she had left the pillows on the couch. Absently, Q wandered over to the couch and straightened them. He patted out the hollow in the one pillow where her head had been, long fingered hands smoothing over the tapestried fabric. She was quite real, and not part of his imagination at all.

He set the pillow very carefully back where it belonged. It didn't really matter, and yet it did. The precise order of his quarters was very important to him. It was the only thing he could control, and somehow, having everything in its exact place gave him some small measure of comfort. Settling his sleeves about him, Q walked toward the doors, shoulders squared and head held high. It was time to go, and if he didn't go, Security might very well take it into their heads that something was wrong with him and that he needed "checking up on", a thought which appealed to Q not at all. This was fostering an unfortunate expectation of promptness, but there wasn't much Q could do about it, short of losing his dignity further.

A pair of them were waiting outside the door. Q recognized one of them immediately. Braun. The oversized mastodon who had deliberately or with accidental malice broken the crystal sculpture.

"Finally ready?" Braun asked, tone malicious. "I take it you had a long and exhausting evening?"

Q didn't like the look on Braun's face, but couldn't see anything unduly worrying about the words. From anyone else, he might have considered it an innuendo of some sort, but this particular lumbering goon wasn't that bright. "How amusing. I'd wait for you to say something witty, but I do have a meeting to attend sometime in this particular decade."

Before Braun could reply, Q swept off ahead of them, feeling a sense of lightness at having come off the better in that encounter.

The crowd outside the door to the meeting room seemed to have grown even larger. For some reason Q couldn't pin down, the situation felt more threatening than it had been in the last few days, when he had managed to make it to these meetings relatively unmolested.

Then the woman stepped forward, the one who had been orchestrating these encounters, and Q knew exactly why he felt so nervous and uneasy. She hadn't been here for a while; he would have remembered her. And now she was and he didn't like it at all.

She pushed her way to the front of the crowd and stared up at him belligerently. "You're not so brave without your pet Vulcan, are you?"

There was an obvious answer to that. Q risked a quick glance for his Security escort, who were standing a distance away, arms folded, with something suspiciously like smirks on their faces. They wouldn't do anything. He was on his own.

"I see you're quite brave with a good dozen of your friends to back you up," Q observed in the lightest tone he could currently manage. "At least I only required one hanger-on to bolster my ego."

She looked at him venomously. "You're a murderer and the only reason the Federation puts guards on you is to keep you from hurting anyone else."

Given the attitudes of his own guards, that was probably close to the truth. Q didn't move, didn't show a single sign of being upset. "I am a valuable Federation asset. Unlike you, who are most likely only remarkable for the amount of time you waste in making other people's lives miserable."

"You don't like me? Good. Get used to it. 'Cause I'm not going away, and neither are of any these people." The woman was almost pressed up against him. "We won't forget what you've done."

Involuntarily, Q glanced at the faces of the people with her. They were distended with hatred, and intensely frightening. It was clear that every one of these people who be quite happy to kill him, quite happy to put an end to his miserable existence. And all of them were blocking his way into the meeting room.

The only reason he didn't flee then was how cowardly it would make him appear, and how humiliated he would feel if he actually cut and ran like that.

In any case, he thought that Security would most likely intervene before he was actually killed in front of them. If only because of the sheer number of witnesses. But they would be happy to let him acquire a few more bruises and contusions.

Q swallowed hard, and began walking forward, not stopping until he was inside the conference room, unaware of why his path opened in front of him, of how even the bravest rioter was unwilling to stand in the way of someone with his presence and the look of utter doom in his eyes.

Anderson was unsympathetic to his plea for help. "Q, you have to attend the meetings."

"But I can't attend. Not with those, and I'm using the term loosely, people there."

Anderson shook her head. "You have a Security detachment. What can a few protestors do to you?"

"They stare at me," Q said.

She sighed. "Is that all?"

"Well, they say things too. Horrible, nasty things."

"Q, if all it amounts to are words and stares, then I have to agree with Mr. Braun. You aren't in any danger."

Q felt utterly frustrated. She didn't understand. As a matter of fact, she seemed to deliberately try to misunderstand. "Elly, do be a dear and listen to me. These people are violent. They hate me, and I can't go through this every day."

"You don't have a choice. Q..."

He cut her off. "Then I'll stay in my quarters. I'm not going to put up with this."

"Q, you can't threaten to stay in your quarters every time I won't do what you want." Anderson felt more like Q's mother than anything else, and that she didn't have any children didn't make this any easier.

"Can't I?" His controlled expression faltered for a moment, and in that instant, Anderson saw a far different man, someone who was frightened and vulnerable. The mask was up again so quickly that she dismissed, had to dismiss it as a ploy. In any case, there was nothing else it could be, that she would let it be. Q had committed horrible crimes, and that he was paying, even a little, for them now was the justest revenge she could imagine. "Q out."

It was a dream, but knowing that didn't help any.

He stood in front of the meeting room, facing a gauntlet of people with floppy styrofoam tubes in bright primary colors. The people had sickeningly cheery smiles plastered on their faces, but he could see murder in their eyes.

"I can sense your fear," Counselor Troi told him. "There's nothing to be afraid of. These people are harmless."

"It's an important human ritual," Commander Sekal, who was also Data, said brightly. "You have to do it, Q."

"I don't want to," Q protested.

"You have to," Anderson said brutally. "This is non-negotiable. What are you, some kind of wimp?"

He didn't want people to think he was a coward. And apparently humans did this all the time, and didn't get hurt. He'd be fine, he tried to tell himself, and strode forward.

The first floppy thing hit his back with the force of a kick. Q staggered forward, into the next floppy thing, which knocked the wind out of him. "You lied!" he screamed at his protectors and teachers, betrayed. "They're hurting me!"

"They don't hurt humans," Anderson said. "Stop whining, Q."

They'd closed in behind him. He had to keep going forward, struggling toward the safety of the door. But each blow was like a punch or a kick, knocking him back and forth and making him bruise and bleed. "Help me!" Q cried, in increasing agony. "Please help me!"

"You don't need help," T'Meth said. "There is no danger."

And then they knocked his legs out from under him, and began to beat him in earnest. Q looked up and saw that the floppy things were now hands and feet. But they always had been, just disguised. He didn't know whether his so-called protectors had pushed him into this out of ignorance, or had knowingly betrayed him to his death. It didn't matter. He was going to die and they wouldn't help him, wouldn't even acknowledge his pain. In despair, Q curled into himself, sobbing, trying ineffectually to protect himself from the blows. "Don't hurt me, please don't hurt me, please don't hurt me..."

Naomi was using the terminal in Q's living room to get some work done. The couch was an uncomfortable place to sleep, so she wanted to put off going to bed as long as possible. And she usually kept late hours anyway.

A noise from the other room distracted her -- a sound like a strangled cry. Naomi got up and padded to Q's bedroom door, intending to investigate. Before she could reach the door to buzz him, however, the door opened. Either Q had left it unlocked, which seemed unlikely, or someone had disabled the locking mechanism, perhaps with an override, and never reset it, so when Q thought he was locking his door nothing was happening. That seemed likely, and viciously careless or cruel of whoever had done it, denying Q even the tiny crumb of safety he had.

The room was dimly lit. Q lay curled tightly in his bed, whimpering, obviously caught in the throes of a nightmare. Naomi went to him. "Q?"

In the dream, Q saw Naomi pushing her way through the crowd, trying to reach him, to save him, and his heart leapt. But she was so small that his attackers were easily able to batter her back. She was being hurt for trying to help him, just like Ohmura.

Then there was a sense of dislocation, and she was bending over him, touching him gently, hands soft against his shoulders and forehead. "Q? Can you hear me?"

Q looked up at her, his eyes opening, brimming with tears. "Make it stop," he begged, half-sobbing. "They're hurting me. Make it stop, please."

Naomi was startled for a moment before she realized what was happening. Despite the open eyes, Q was still dreaming, apparently about the attack or something like it. Her heart was wrenched by the pitifulness of his plea, and she instinctively moved to put herself between him and anything that might threaten him, half lying next to him, free hand stroking his forehead.

"Q, you're having a nightmare," Naomi said, almost crooning. "It's all right. You're safe. I won't let anyone hurt you."

And then Q came fully awake, and realized what he'd just done, who was there now and what she was doing. Sick humiliation swamped him. He'd been crying in his sleep, hadn't he? What weaknesses had he displayed, what cowardly things had he said?

"What are you doing here?" he mumbled.

"It sounded like you might be hurt. I thought I should check."

Wonderful. She had probably heard him crying and begging. He couldn't bear to face her. "Get out."

She made no move to leave, instead continuing to stroke his hair, hand moving through it, brushing his cheek. The sensation was soothing, comforting. He couldn't bear it -- kindness right now could break him far more easily than more harshness. But he couldn't muster up the strength of will to make her stop, either.

It was just a dream. He should be able to handle that. He had nightmares all the time. But the dream had been terrifyingly realistic. He could still feel the blows against his body, a distinct tactile memory of pain, though the pain itself had vanished when the dream did, leaving behind only the usual achiness. Even that, though, was not the real horror. When one stripped away the silliness, the foam sticks and the presence of Troi and all that, the dream had precisely described his life now, and what would happen if the lynch mob did turn on him. As badly as he wanted to face death with dignity, as little as he'd want to give his tormentors the satisfaction, he would break, and beg and cry just as he'd done in the dream, as he'd done in real life. He could stomach doing that if it would save him, but he already knew it wouldn't, and he knew painfully that he'd do it anyway. He wouldn't be able to help himself.

"There's no reason to be ashamed," Naomi said gently. "People have bad dreams all the time. I don't think you'd be normal if you didn't have nightmares sometimes, especially right now."

"I have no desire to be merely normal," Q growled.

Naomi considered. "Good point. Normality is highly overrated, after all. I'd rather be thought of as eccentric, myself." She looked down at him, grinning. "How about you?"

"What about me?"

"Wouldn't you prefer to be eccentric? Or would you rather go for the wild and wacky effect?"

"Do you always spout such inane nonsense?"

"Only in the middle of the night," she assured him.

"I'm terribly sorry to have disturbed your beauty rest. You can go back to sleep any time you want."

"I wasn't asleep, actually. I was up fixing a program. More engrossing than sleep, but not nearly as fun as talking to you." Her bright expression invited him to reciprocate. What an annoying woman.

He buried his face in the pillow, wondering why she didn't go away. If she didn't want him for sex, what was she putting herself to trouble for his sake for? Or did she want him, and she simply expected him to make the first moves, like that unutterably horrible attempt he made to kiss her last night? She was doomed to disappointment if that was true; he simply didn't know what to do. He had a little bit of experience, but he knew how much that was worth; he remembered what Harry had said about his skill in bed or lack thereof. Even if Naomi did make the first move, the way Harry always had, she was probably doomed to disappointment.

"Why are you doing this?" he mumbled.

Since his face was buried in the pillow, Naomi couldn't hear him. "Pardon?"

Somewhat annoyed at having to repeat himself, Q raised his head. "Why are you doing this?" he asked again. "What's in it for you? You can't possibly be feeling sympathy for me."

"Why not?"

"Because you're human, and humans utterly despise me. No normal human could feel sympathy for me."

"I told you I think normality is highly overrated."

"And is that why you're helping me? Because you're dangerously abnormal?"

"I'm dangerous now? Hmm, I think I like the sound of that. Maybe." She grinned at him again. "Although I hope you think I'm dangerous to security goons, not to you. I'd rather not have you think I'm dangerous."

"So you can lull me into a false sense of security?"

"Exactly. How can I pounce on you and devour you if you think I'm dangerous?"

Her tone was light and joking, but he still wasn't sure he liked that notion. "How did I get to be the recipient of your charity?"

She turned a bit more serious. "I saw what they did to you, Q. And I saw them harassing you. And I'm ashamed to be a member of the same species as those utter wastes of space. Part of the reason I wanted to help you is that it looks like I'm the only one that will, and I couldn't live with myself if I just stood by and let them torment you like that."

"Wonderful. Another paragon of morality."

"Paragon of morality? You must have me confused with someone else."

"You more or less just said you'd put yourself to vast inconvenience for any stranger you found bleeding on the floor."

Naomi thought about that. "If I found a total stranger bleeding on the floor, I'd probably take him to sickbay, and I might even hang around to see that he got properly cared for. But I wouldn't be coming over and hanging out at his quarters every night, no."

"So why are you?"

"Because you're witty, and intelligent, and fun to talk to. You haven't bored me yet, and there aren't many people who I can say that about. And I respect intelligence, and you've got more of it than anyone I've met. I enjoy spending time with you, and if it's helping you as well, so much the better."

Her reasons were understandable, almost believable. But he couldn't, quite. He remembered the backrubs, and the kiss. "No more sordid animal motives?"

"Why, did you want me to have some?" Naomi asked, her eyes dancing.

"No," Q said emphatically, then qualified it before she could accuse him of actually thinking about it. "But it seems inevitable with you humans. You spend every waking minute thinking about reproducing yourselves. Disgusting, but it's a fact I've had to learn to live with to deal with you people."

"But you, of course, don't have any such sordid feelings yourself."

He stiffened. "I'm above that."

Uh-huh. Naomi didn't understand him, but she was beginning to get glimmerings of a picture here. In her experience, people who were genuinely asexual were not disgusted by sex, only people who were repressing their desires. But she hardly dared think that, because it might backfire badly. If she allowed herself to imagine for a moment that he might ever want her, she might do or say something that would scare him off. And over the past several days she'd come to the conclusion that she didn't want that. She wasn't sure Q wanted her, or would need her after this crisis was over, but she'd already determined that if there was a way, she would stay in his life for as long as she possibly could. It had been years since she'd looked forward to seeing someone this way, anticipated with a tingle of excitement and nervousness the next time she could be with him and talk to him.

"Of course you are," she agreed. "So you're afraid I'm going to try to throw you down and ravish your helpless body, or something?"

"Or something equally nauseating," Q agreed.

Her hand was still on his hair, absently stroking him. She thought perhaps he was genuinely afraid of her, in which case, probably honesty was the best policy. "Q, it's no fun if your partner doesn't want it."

"My partner?" he said, shocked.

"I was using 'you' in the general sense. Don't get me wrong -- I think you're very attractive, and if you wanted to, I'd make love with you without thinking twice. But if you don't want it, I would never try to force you, or make you do anything you didn't want. Not only would it be horribly wrong, but it wouldn't be any fun either." She smiled, trying to lighten the mood.

He swallowed. Being told she wouldn't assault him unless he wanted her to was less reassuring than it should have been. "And how do I know that you know that I don't want to?"

"Well, I'd think you saying 'no' would be my first clue."

"And you'd take that for an answer?"

"Of course. Only a horrible person wouldn't."

Q thought of Amy Frasier, then. "There's no shortage of horrible people on this starbase."

"I've noticed. Think it's something in the water?"

Naomi redirected the conversation onto safer topics from there, like what disgusting pigs Security were. Not that she didn't enjoy talking about sex, but it seemed to make Q uncomfortable, and she was trying to get him to relax enough to go to sleep.

After half an hour more of light banter, Naomi noticed Q's sentences coming more slowly and quietly, with a bit of sleep slur in them, and decided that he was probably ready to fall back asleep. She excused herself and headed back out to the couch. It was oddly lonely out there without Q's warmth next to her, against her seated leg, without his voice making intriguing comments. Odd how being with a person could make you feel even more lonely afterward.

An hour before he actually needed to get up, Q decided to give up on trying to sleep. Despite Naomi's efforts to soothe him late last night, his sleep had been fitful all night, and finally it was no longer worth it to try to eke out more sleep.

It was early enough that Naomi was probably still out on the couch. Briefly, he considered waking her. But she couldn't help him. It wasn't Security he feared at the moment... well, not much, anyway; he mostly feared them at night. Right now he was going to have to face the protestors in front of the conference room. And after the dream last night, the thought filled him with terror.

Having decided to get up, there was no point to not getting ready. He stalked into the bathroom, and stared at himself. It wasn't a pretty picture. Dark circles under his eyes, a haggard expression, and he had lost weight again. Q had been chronically underweight for close to a year and a half now. Most of the time it wasn't a problem; being a little thin actually appealed to him, giving him the ascetic, sardonic look he favored. And he still looked good in his clothes, most of the time. But when he was under stress, he lost his appetite, never great to begin with, and then he lost too much weight and started to look positively gaunt. Q wasn't sure why he hadn't noticed that he was too thin before -- surely he hadn't weighed significantly more than this yesterday. But certainly he couldn't go to work looking like this.

It was time to get out the padding. Q wore padding under his clothing only when he felt he had to; it was uncomfortable and restricted his movement, but at times like this it was vitally necessary. They would know they were getting to him if he looked too thin. There were other things he'd have to do, as well; for instance, he'd need makeup to get rid of the dark circles. It was a good thing he'd gotten up early, as it was going to take him quite a while to get into costume.

Security barged in on him while he was putting the finishing touches on his makeup, about forty-five minutes later. Q jumped, smearing the makeup he was applying, and tried to make it look as if it had been intentional.

"You ready?" one of them asked belligerently.

"In good time," Q said coolly. He would not allow himself to be rushed by these goons.

"Hiding the bite marks?" the guard asked nastily.

Q turned, surprised. What was that supposed to mean? "If someone had gotten past your inept attempts at guarding me and successfully managed to bite me, I assure you you'd have heard about it long before this."

"Not if you let her in the door yourself," the man said. He was definitely insinuating something; Q could tell it from the tone of voice, but had no clue what. What did biting have to do with anything?

"I might spend time trying to figure out what sort of inane stupidity you're spouting, but frankly I think fixing my hair is vastly more important."

"You missed a bald spot," the other guard said, sniggering.

Q glanced over at the man, whose hair was blond, thin and cut in a very bland, cookie-cutter style. "Going bald would improve your looks considerably. Have you contemplated shaving your head?" The comment actually disturbed him -- he'd been seeing more and more hair on the bottom of the shower lately. Another side effect of stress. And while Q had never met another human as distinguished-looking as Picard, he didn't think the look would suit him at all. But it was definitely a minor concern at the moment.

He stood up, having completed his toilette to his satisfaction. The careful armoring wouldn't save him, but it would help.

As usual, he walked toward the meeting room with his head held high, desperately trying not to show his fear, looking straight ahead so he wouldn't have to realize how many of them there were.

Then something caught his leg in mid-step, destroying his balance. Q tried desperately to bring his hands forward, to break his fall, but the stiffness of his padded clothing wouldn't let him move fast enough. He hit the floor face first, a solid, jarring blow that sent a wave of nausea and shock through him.

Someone had tripped him. Terrified, Q struggled to his feet as soon as he could, though his head was ringing and he felt dizzy, lightheaded and sick. In the past, people had knocked him down before they started beating him up, to negate the small advantages his height gave him. Humiliation and rage burned in him, but couldn't push out the fear. If he stayed on the floor, they'd start kicking him. He knew it. So he stood up long before he was actually able to keep his balance, and staggered forward. There was no support, nothing for him to lean on -- protestors blocked his access to the walls, and once he reached the doors they'd open.

Security did nothing. Not even a reprimand. Desperately Q stumbled forward into the conference room, and leaned on the wall inside, letting the waves of dizziness wash through him. The scientists inside came forward, oblivious to his pain, jabbering at him.

As soon as he felt he could stand up straight, Q did so, holding up a hand. "If you'd all cease your inane chatter, I have an important announcement to make."

Now that the fear was gone, and the pain had retreated to a dull ache, his primary emotion was rage. They had attacked him, and Security had done nothing, just as he'd thought. He would be damned if he'd go through that again. As a hush fell over the group, he spoke, his voice taut with controlled fury. "As many of you know, and the rest are undoubtedly too stupid to figure out for yourselves, I have a contract with Starfleet which stipulates that I conduct these little soirees in exchange for protection. Over the past several days, I have been attacked, nearly murdered, harassed and have received numerous threats from Starfleet personnel and civilians stationed on this starbase, and Starfleet has done nothing whatsoever to protect me. Since they have failed abysmally to hold up the most elementary terms of their contract, I do not consider myself bound to deliver my services any longer."

One man had a puzzled expression. "Look, I'm sorry for you, but what do your personal problems have to do with us?"

Q's smile was pure cold malice. "Oh, you stupid, stupid little cretin. I hope the rest of you disown this man; idiocy like that should not be permitted to breed, let alone be granted honors as an intellectual. Putting up with you and your inane questions about aspects of the universe your limited brains cannot possibly comprehend is what I'm exchanging to Starfleet for the protection they're not giving me. And that is what ceases, as of this moment. Play with Ouija boards or examine tea leaves for the wisdom of the universe if you must have answers, for you're more likely to get an answer from them than me any longer."

"You can't do that!" a woman shouted. "I waited six months to get in to see you!"

"Not my problem," Q caroled. His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "I suggest you take it up with Starfleet." He turned around and walked back out of the conference room.

The protestors made no move to harass him as he left; they looked more puzzled than anything else. One of his guards glared at him. "Where do you think you're going?"

"Your services are no longer required," Q said calmly. "I quit."

He pushed past them, heading for his room. They would follow him, of course. He knew that. But without authorization from Anderson, they couldn't force him to stay at the conference.

The ball was now in Anderson's court. Either she would behave like a rational being, realize how badly he was being treated and take steps to correct the situation -- or, unfortunately more likely, she'd inflict some sort of punishment on him. He didn't care. He was fighting for his life, and he no longer had anything at all to lose.

"He did what?" Anderson asked, as the senior security guard reported in. "Yes, I heard you the first time. No, don't do anything. Just stay there for now. I'll take care of this."

She terminated the call and sat back in her chair, frowning. Q had called her bluff. She'd known it was a mistake to threaten to throw him in the brig and then back down before. Now he thought he could do whatever he liked and get away with it, that he could hold his noncompliance over her head.

Tight-lipped, Anderson considered her options. She couldn't let Q get away with this kind of blackmail. He was already insufferable and uncooperative; for him to behave like this was the final insult. She had to graphically demonstrate to him the advantages of behaving. Q's worth to the Federation was all based on what he could give them in the way of knowledge. If he quit his job, then there was no reason for the Federation to protect him, which would be disastrous for him, although Q evidently couldn't see it. That was unsurprising to Anderson; Q was too focused on short-term objectives to ever see the long range like she could. She needed to graphically demonstrate to him the advantages of playing along, to show him what he could also be held to when he violated his contract like this.

She contacted the Security team again, and outlined for them what she wanted them to do.

When Naomi arrived at Q's quarters that evening, she found them unguarded, which was odd. The guards hadn't made the mistake of being inside since the first time she'd found them like that. Q simply wasn't there. But where else could he be? It was rather too late for him to be out and about, and definitely too late for him to have legitimate business.

"Computer, location of Q."

"That information is restricted."

Naomi bit her lip. Well, that hadn't worked very well, had it? She needed to try some other method of locating him. But what?

An idea occurred to her that would probably work. There was, however, one glaring problem with it. While Security was almost certainly aware of Q's location, and might even tell her, it would probably embarrass Q to be found by that method. On the other hand, he might very well be hurt and in Sickbay, in which case she definitely wanted to know about it.

Rather than make a call, Naomi went to find Security in person.

Lieutenant Braun was on duty. He looked up as she came in, and smiled. It was not a nice smile. "I should have expected you'd come. Can't keep away from loverboy, can you?"

"Excuse me?"

Braun's expression was something very close to a gloat. "He's in the brig."

"What?" Naomi stared at Braun, the beginnings of a stormcloud crossing her face. "What's he supposed to have done?"

Braun shrugged slightly. "That's for the commodore to say."

Naomi glared at him. "How thoughtful." She stalked out, heading for the brig. The guard on duty there looked up as she entered, then smirked as he recognized her. Naomi would have dearly liked to do something about that, but she only had eyes for Q.

He was half-collapsed in on himself, face not visible to her, clutching onto one knee, separated from her by a force field.

"Q," Naomi said softly, coming as close to him as she could. "It's me, Naomi."

He looked up, caught by the sound of her voice, and what she saw in his eyes chilled her. The gravest devastation and pain were written there, and she was glad she was in between him and the guard, because she couldn't bear to think of him being exposed like this before anyone else.

"What's wrong?" she asked, wishing she could touch him, wishing she could do something about what was afflicting him. "Are you all right?"

She was there. Somehow, that was comforting to him, and frightening all at once. The long hours of torment, of waiting for Security to make good their threats and hurt him until he begged to die had taken their toll on him. He had pleaded for mercy, but they hadn't listened, had known that they were only leaving him here so they could torture him further with the anticipation of pain before finally killing him. He was certain of that.

But all of his begging and pleading had gone for naught, and all that Q had left was a small grim clutching onto what remained of his pride, holding it tight against the terror that surrounded him. He'd known they all hated him, but he hadn't realized how far it had gone, how extensive the hatred was, until Eleanor had put him here. She hated him too. They all did.

Except Naomi. She might be deluded by whatever insane forces of sexuality were forcing her to seek him out as a partner, but at least she appeared to care for him. And right now, that was enough.

"Don't leave me alone," Q said, his voice broken and hoarse. "Please, don't leave me here."

"I won't leave you," Naomi said, instinctively wanting to console that pain. It hurt to hear him begging, to see him like this. "What did they do to you? Why are you here?"

He came closer to her, ostensibly to make it harder for the guard to overhear them, but really because he wanted to be, had to be as close to her as he could. Drawing some strength from her presence, he said, "It was dear Eleanor's idea. Her most honorable commodore-ness, in her infinite wisdom decided that the best way to stop me from whining about little things like getting beat up on my way to work, was to put me in here where Security can beat me up at their leisure."

He sank down on the floor, too bedraggled to care about what kind of impression he was making. Naomi followed him, kneeling a few inches from him, as close as they could be with the force field in between them. Slumped like that, Q's face, and the bruise just below his cheekbone, was readily apparent for the first time.

"Oh, god, you weren't joking," Naomi said, utterly shocked. Her eyes flicked up to his eyes. "They really did let you get beaten up and then put you in here."

"You didn't believe me?" Outrage pushed a little of the despair away, at least for a moment.

Naomi shook her head. "I just can't believe anyone could be so evil."

"Believe it," Q said, tone flat, not wanting to think about his attackers.

She nodded, looking at him, eyes full of sympathy. Her hand went up to the force field, staying just on her side of it, covering the place where his face would be. "I'm so sorry. How much... how bad was it?"

Q gestured limply with one hand. "Bad enough." He'd barely caught himself when he'd fallen; his reflexes were very poor. His hands were scraped and his wrists and knees hurt where they'd taken the impact. He was only surprised he hadn't knocked himself unconscious.

"God," Naomi muttered, unable to take it in. She remembered how he'd looked after she'd found him in that dark, deserted corridor, and she couldn't bear to think of him being hurt. "Who did it?"

"They call themselves peaceful protestors," Q said, tone sardonic. "I believe it's part of my penance for some past unremembered sin that I have to get through them every day to do my little performing tricks."

Naomi shook her head. "You have to put up with that every day?"

"Weren't you listening?" Q snapped peevishly. "The chief joy of my existence is being herded through their violent little love-fests each morning and night. It's almost, but not quite, entirely as disagreeable as having to spend the rest of the day explaining the inner workings of the universe to imbeciles who haven't stopped playing in sandboxes."

"That would be irritating," Naomi agreed.

He didn't look at her, just stared straight ahead at his hands where they were looped over his knee. "I'm not sure whether I'm glad you're here so they can't perpetrate their evil deeds, or disappointed that I'm just going to have to go through all of this again, on another day, at another time." He glanced at her. "You really won't leave?"

The plea was especially pathetic now that his tone was closer to normal, and she hastened to reassure him. "I won't leave you alone with these goons. Don't worry."

"They'll make you leave," Q said dolefully. "But it doesn't matter. If I live through this, I'm never going to work for them again." His eyes were vicious. "Dear Elly thought she could get me to play nice with her bullying ways, but it's not going to happen. She can't break me." She couldn't, because he had already broken, cowering to the guards who'd put him in here like they held the power of life and death over him. Which they did.

Naomi made soothing noises, but her mind was working furiously. She couldn't let him stay here like this, couldn't believe anyone could be so callous as Q had just outlined. Oh, she could understand how Security might be following orders without understanding them, or even deliberately misunderstanding them to make Q's life more difficult, since she'd seen them do that before, but surely no one with a full knowledge of the situation would genuinely lock Q up for getting hurt. Right?

"I've got to go," Naomi said, thought translating immediately to action.

Q looked up, panicked. "You can't go! Don't go, please." She was just like all the rest of them, spouting off words and not meaning them. She thought he was pretending, just like they all did. She despised him and didn't really care about him anyway.

Naomi realized she had a problem. She couldn't stay, had to find the commodore, had to do something, or Q could very well end up being stuck in the brig until Security felt like letting him out, which could be a long time. On the other hand, she couldn't desert Q either, didn't have it in her power to leave him when he was this in need of her. It would have been like walking away when she found him on the floor in that deserted corridor. She couldn't do it, wouldn't have done that.

"Wait a minute, all right?"

Q looked up at her, eyes dull. What a stupid question. There wasn't anything else he could do. "I'll try not to wander off."

The sarcastic tone of the statement was lost on Naomi, who had an idea in her head and was therefore in a different world entirely.

She called Jinn, keeping the conversation low enough not to be accidentally overhead. "Jinn, I need a favor."

"Again? But I just did a favor for you."

"Well, this is important. I'll owe you." When he didn't respond to that, she threw in a lagniappe. "I'll finish off your work on the Autin project for you."



Jinn was more cooperative then. "Well, how can I help you? Friends, enemies needing to be taught a lesson? Weapons of total destruction needing to be manufactured? Passwords sold cheap."

She laughed. "No, nothing easy like that. I need you to come down to the brig and keep Q company for about an hour."

"Keep who company? Where? Naomi, has something come loose in that bargain basement brain of yours?"

Naomi shook her head experimentally. "Seems fine to me." Then, more seriously. "Jinn, I need you to do this for me. I wouldn't be asking if it weren't important. Please?"

He stared at her for a long moment, then sighed. "I really hate it when you do this to me. I always get suckered into these impossible errands of yours."

"Better than getting blamed for your pranks, like people do to me."

"That's a matter of opinion," Jinn said loftily. "I happen to think it's a high compliment to you that people would think you have anything to do with my works of art."

Naomi tried not to laugh. Jinn really did take his practical jokes seriously, more seriously than his work, in fact. If it hadn't been a useful trait, he probably would have been reprimanded a long time ago. As it was, his expertise had been extremely helpful when it had come down to their programming versus the Borg. "Thank you, Jinn. I'll see you in a bit."

She closed the connection and went to sit back next to Q, who was still slumped on the floor, staring at nothing at all.

"Hi, I'm back," Naomi said softly. "I'm going to leave for a while, but I've gotten a friend of mine to come down and stay with you until I get back. Okay?"

He looked up at her, and his eyes were full of venom. "Oh, how generous of you. I'd kiss your feet, but as you can see, I'm rather restricted at the moment."

Naomi was puzzled and a little hurt. She'd gone through some trouble to secure Jinn's cooperation, and the work she'd promised to do on the Autin project was going to cost her at least an extra ten hours this week alone, if not more. "There's nothing else I could do. I don't know anyone else I'd trust."

The only other people Q trusted would never come. T'Meth had made her feelings perfectly clear about what she apparently thought of as his paranoid delusions, and Q couldn't even bear to think about Harry, much less beg him to keep him company here. He didn't want Harry to see him like this in any case, would have preferred that no one see him like this, or better yet, to not have to be like this. But that was impossible.

His throat closed over a sob. It was all impossible. He had no options, no way out. He was stuck in this trap. Security had finally gotten what they'd always wanted -- him at their mercy. Under the circumstances, what Naomi was offering should have seemed like a viable option, like the only option he had, but it didn't. It was a betrayal. She was leaving him too, abandoning him here, deserting him like everyone he dared to depend on in the slightest always deserted him. There was no hope, and nothing to do but wait for whatever pain and torment they chose to inflict on him before they killed him.

Naomi watched him, concerned, but unable to do anything. She didn't know what he was thinking, didn't know what to do but be there.

Jinn came in almost a half hour later, wearing a cocky grin. Naomi looked up at him. "You're late."

"Me? Late? Never. I'm always on time. It's everyone else who's late." He came over to them.

The guard on duty glanced nervously at them. There was no rule against prisoners having visitors per se. After all, Q was in the cell; there wasn't anything he could do besides talk. Not that Q talking wasn't a weapon all by itself. Andreas had been more than glad when he'd finally shut up. The insults, the pleading, all of it had been entirely too much for him. He just wanted to do his job, not have to feel guilty about it. Despite a general feeling on the part of everyone in Security that Q being in the brig was just desserts, Andreas couldn't help but feel uncomfortable with the begging. He wasn't used to that kind of thing, and having it come from someone he was supposed to despise made it only that much the worse.

Q glanced up at the motion. He didn't recognize Jinn, and felt resentful to be included in his sunny smile. He was having a bad day, and everyone should be just as miserable as he was.

Jinn looked at Naomi. "Do I have to sit on the floor?"

"Of course you do," Naomi said solemnly. "It's a regulation."

"Then I'll get a chair. I don't want to start following regulations now; it'd be bad for my reputation."

"We can't have that, can we?" Naomi asked, a twinkle in her eye. She turned to Q. "Q, this is Jinn, a friend of mine. He's also a programmer, and he's going to stay here while I go off and run an errand." She looked at Jinn. "Play nice."

"Don't I always?" Jinn asked innocently.

"That's what I'm afraid of."

Naomi left Q and Jinn alone, not speaking to each other. She'd hoped they'd get along, but as long as Jinn was there to keep Q from being harassed by Security, she was happy. Security seemed to take every opportunity they could to make Q's life miserable, and while she didn't understand why they were allowed to do that, she knew Jinn would keep it from happening. Jinn was the single most obnoxious and insulting person she knew; he wouldn't let anyone annoy Q.

She might be worried about Jinn harassing Q, but Jinn knew what she'd do to him if he did, and so she didn't think it very likely.

Meanwhile, she had more important matters to deal with.

Without one thought for the consequences, or her probable reception, Naomi stalked through the base, and down to see the person who was most responsible for this mess, sailing into the commodore's office with an air of someone who would not be denied.

"I need to talk to you."

Anderson looked up, and mentally sighed. Of all the things she didn't need, this was one of them. A confrontation with one of the base's many prickly scientists, and worse, one who'd decided that Q was her project of the month. How much fun.

"What can I do for you, Dr. Allen?"

"Why are you holding Q in the brig? What has he done?"

Anderson held herself very still. "I don't believe that's any of your business..."

"What's that got to do with it?" Naomi asked, standing right in front of the commodore's desk, not budging an inch, posture as belligerent as someone of her height and relative slimness could manage.

Anderson didn't consider calling Security to deal with Dr. Allen, but then, she'd had to calm down everyone from the Klingons to an insulted anthropologist who had threatened to have her head shrunken and made into a bad luck charm. "The matter doesn't concern you, Dr. Allen. It would be best if you kept out of it."

"So you can keep Q locked up in your little dungeon for the rest of his natural life for no reason at all? I'm sure you'd like me to do that. It'd be very convenient for you to be able to hold him hostage without anyone to object, wouldn't it?"

"You don't understand the situation..."

"I don't?" Naomi asked dangerously, her temper rising. "All I understand is that Q is in the brig, and there seems to be absolutely no reason for it."

"He refused to fulfill his contractual obligations," Anderson said weakly. The reason sounded inadequate even in her ears, and she suddenly wished Dr. Allen were far away from here. "Q has a responsibility to the Federation. When he refused to continue attending the conferences set up expressly for this purpose, I was forced to..."

Naomi wasn't listening. Face gone pale with rage, she spoke, spacing her words out precisely so there could be no possibility of misunderstanding. "Q was attacked at one of these meetings. I saw the bruises on his face. Are you telling me that you're forcing him to attend these meetings, deliberately neglecting to protect him, forcing him to be beaten and abused, and you don't even care enough about him to get him medical attention before jailing him for the crime of wanting to protect his own safety?"

The commodore hadn't heard anything about an attack on Q. She knew that there was a loosely organized group of protestors who gathered outside the meeting area, but the security report on them had classed them as being peaceful, and not a threat to Q. Anderson wanted to deny what Allen had just said, but as overprotective as the woman had proven herself to be, the lie would be too easy to disprove if it were indeed a lie. Which meant that Q had been attacked, and that she had somehow managed to do exactly what Allen had accused her of -- torture a helpless man into doing her will.

Anderson felt a headache coming on. "Q was injured? I wasn't informed of that."

Naomi stared at her for a long moment, before backing down. "Yes, he was. His face is bruised, and it could be worse than that. All I saw was his face."

The commodore stared at Allen for a long moment, not really seeing her. Anderson didn't want to give into Q so easily; there had been a point to this, and Q had a bad habit of taking advantage of any weakness he saw in her. But it looked very much like she had been in the wrong, and Anderson wasn't someone who tried to cover up her mistakes. "I'll have him transferred to Sickbay."

Naomi nodded tightly. "And?"

"And?" Anderson repeated. "What else is there?"

"And what are you going to do to make sure this doesn't happen again? Q's getting beaten up on the way to work. Don't you even care? I know Security obviously doesn't, but surely he's worth something to the Federation, even if you could care less about him as a person."

Dr. Allen's accusation touched Anderson on the raw. She should care about her charge, but knew she didn't. It would be easier if Q would just shut up, stop causing trouble, and do as he was told. Unfortunately, that seemed to be impossible. "I can't stop a peaceful protest."

"Peaceful?" Naomi said disbelievingly. "They attack someone and you call them peaceful?" She glared at Anderson for a long moment. "I'll go with Q every day if I have to. At least then maybe someone will report these things, since obviously no one in Security even cares enough about protecting people to report it when someone they're supposed to be watching gets beaten up in front of them."

Anderson felt a surge of helpless anger for Allen, her own guilt mixing in to make it worse. She didn't know if what Dr. Allen was accusing Security of were true; she hadn't seen a report of any kind on the incident yet. If Q had been attacked and there really were no report, she was going to have someone's head. "Fine. Do whatever you want."

"I will," Naomi said, then turned and stalked out, too angry to think.

Jinn looked up as Naomi came in. "Go away."

"Excuse me?" Naomi said, sailing over to him. Jinn was sitting on the floor next to Q, with a look of intense concentration on his face. She didn't see anything wrong, and didn't have a clue what he was talking about.

"I'm winning. Go away."

"He's cheating," Q said mournfully, looking up at Naomi, a sulky expression on his face that cheered her heart. His mind had obviously been taken off of his situation, at least for the moment. "And what's worse, he's not very good at it."

Naomi came over to them, not sitting down. Jinn appeared to be playing cards with Q, managing both sides of it, manipulating Q's cards as well as his own since Q of course couldn't actually touch anything on the other side of the force field. "Well, of course you're winning, Jinn. You can see everything he's holding."

Jinn put a finger across his lips. "Sssh, don't tell him that. He was beating me earlier, and I don't want him to figure out my secret."

Naomi giggled. "He'd have to be deaf to miss it."

"Eh? What's that, missy?" Q said, mugging outrageously.

She laughed again. "I hope you bet something of value, Jinn, because you're off the hook. We're leaving now."

Q's expression went blank. "You're leaving?"

She nodded. "I talked to the commodore. As soon as Jinn finishes cheating you out of everything you own, you and I are going down to Sickbay."

Q felt relieved, and then ashamed of himself for how much better he felt that she would be staying with him. It was horrible, but he needed her, and there was some reassurance in just having the auburn-haired sprite in the room. "You'll never be able to convince the Security goons of that."

"Hah!" Naomi turned on her heel and went over to the Security guard on duty. After a brief wrangle and a call to higher authority, he agreed to let Q out.

Jinn intercepted Naomi on her way back to Q's side, pulling her off and whispering to her. "This wasn't as bad as I thought it would be."

"Oh, good," Naomi said, smiling at him.

"Yeah... Q really isn't that bad. Even if he can't play cards."

"Does this mean I'm off the Autin project?"

"Oh, no," Jinn said grinning, "you still owe me."

Naomi grinned back. "Somehow, I figured as much."

She watched the cocky figure leave, then went over to Q, who stalked out of his erstwhile cell with all the natural dignity he possessed. He seemed a bit wobbly, and she put her hand under his arm.

Q didn't object to the contact, leaning into her. He didn't really need her support; he could walk on his own without any problem. But he had this ridiculous feeling that as long as he was touching her, she wouldn't simply vanish away. And he couldn't bear it if that happened.

"What is it now?" Li asked as they came into Sickbay together.

"Q had an accident. I think he may have hurt his head."

Li looked them over. Q was standing, apparently walking under his own power, and apart from the most minor of bruises at his cheekline, looked perfectly put together. He sighed deeply. Yet another of Q's "emergencies". "I don't have time for this kind of nonsense."

"You don't?" Naomi asked dangerously.

"No," Li said flatly. "I don't."

"Well, find me someone who does then, because I'm not leaving until Q's been properly taken care of."

Li glowered at her and stalked out, and Naomi stood there, face flaming, planted at Q's side. She didn't look up at Q. If she did, she might very well break down. She hated the way everyone treated him, couldn't stand how patronizingly everyone behaved, and if she looked at Q, she might very well feel so sorry for him that she started crying right here. And that wouldn't do at all.

An ensign came in and approached them. "Hello, I'm Jim Lovallo. I understand you need something."

Q was deeply offended. Li had sent an ensign to take care of him? "I'd rather talk to a real doctor. Or are you out of them?"

Lovallo recoiled. He hadn't been warned to expect Q, but now that he saw him, he had a good idea why he'd been sent out here. Q was known far and wide as a complete bastard, as well as a hypochondriac, and this was apparently yet another of the shit jobs frequently foisted off on unsuspecting interns who couldn't protest.

Naomi stepped between them. This looked like the best they were going to be able to get, and it wouldn't do to send him away. She smiled at the intern. "Q had an accident this morning. I'm not sure how badly he's hurt, and I wanted to make sure he was all right. Doctor Li thought I was being alarmist, but I really would like to make sure he doesn't have a concussion or something else like that."

The intern focussed on Naomi. He hadn't quite noticed her, standing in Q's shadow like that, and now he found he couldn't notice anything else. She had to be Dr. Naomi Allen. He'd heard about her through the grapevine. But he hadn't heard how attractive she was, or how appealing her open manner was.

He glanced up at Q. "Why don't you sit down, and I'll have a look see."

Q reluctantly took a seat, still feeling rather put out by all of this. He wanted to complain further, but couldn't really say anything without appearing to be ungracious. And while that would normally not bother him, it would contrast unpleasantly with Naomi's more polished behavior.

Lovallo ran a scanner over Q, and frowned. "How long ago was this?"

Naomi looked at Q who supplied the answer. "Eleven hundred hours."

"You let this go for six hours?" Lovallo's tone was outraged, which went a good deal towards mollifying Q's wounded feelings.

"I didn't exactly have a choice in the matter," Q said dryly.

Naomi felt relieved, and gave a grateful smile to the intern. Obviously Q was in good hands here. Lovallo was demonstrating what she considered to be the proper attitude, and that was all for the good. She wanted Q to be well-taken care of.

The smile did far more than simply encourage him. Lovallo was trying to be ultra-professional, because Naomi was making his heart pound to an alarming degree. Under ordinary circumstances he would be annoyed at Q, but right now, he couldn't care less. He knew that Naomi and Q were no more than friends from other sources, who held that Q was gay and that he'd had some sort of abortive affair with a member of one of the science departments. And that left him in a state of suspended excitement over the warmth in Naomi's smile and what that might mean. If he was very professional and treated Q with respect, he might impress Naomi, and that would be very good indeed.

Q noticed the man's preoccupation, but wrote it off to Naomi's cleverness in manipulating a member of the medical department into actually treating him with respect, which delighted him, and was additional incentive to want Naomi around, not that he needed any more. Naomi was entirely oblivious to the byplay. She didn't notice Lovallo as anything other than a body in a Starfleet medical uniform, and would have been intensely surprised to find out anything else was the case.

"I can take care of this here, but you should have come in earlier," Lovallo said. "The bruising is minor, but a concussion can be a very dangerous thing, and shouldn't be treated lightly."

Q arched his eyebrows at Naomi, as if to say, "I told you so," but didn't comment. There really wasn't anything to say, although he'd greatly delight in holding this over dear Eleanor's head later. Her goons hadn't taken proper care of him, and while he never really expected them to, this was the final straw. He didn't know what he could do about it, didn't know that there was anything he could do about it, given that they were indeed getting away with letting him be pounded on, but he was in the right, and that salved some wounded part of him.

Naomi walked Q back to his quarters. Security was nowhere in evidence, which surprised her. Perhaps they were confused by the afternoon's events. Or, less likely, perhaps the commodore was straightening things up in that department. Naomi would have liked to believe that, but she didn't. It made a lot more sense to think that Security had screwed up yet again.

"Can I come in?"

Q nodded, not wanting to say yes, but not able to say no. He didn't want to be separated from her, wanted actually to throw himself in her arms and cry. But he couldn't do that.

Naomi came inside, looking up at him. "What are you going to do about tomorrow? You still have to go to those meetings, right?"

Q swallowed hard. He hadn't thought about that. "I could refuse again..."

"Refusing is what got you thrown in the brig, right?" Naomi asked, having already discarded the possibility which Q had first given her, which was that he'd been thrown in the brig for daring to complain about being injured. That was still actually more or less the real reason to Naomi's mind, but from what she gathered from bits and pieces of what Q and the commodore had said, it wasn't the only one.

He nodded again, and felt bleak. He didn't want to go through that again. It had seemed brave and bold on his part to refuse to go to work, to make the martyr's gesture of allowing himself to be jailed rather than compromise his principles, but he couldn't do it again. He couldn't face the thought of it.

Naomi sighed deeply. "They've got you coming and going, haven't they? You can't not go, and if you go, they let you get beaten up on and probably laugh about it afterwards."

That sounded about right. Q felt like crying again, clenching his hands into fists to keep from acting on the urge to reach out for Naomi.

"I suppose I'll just have to go with you then."

"What?" Q asked, startled out of his self-pity.

"I'll just have to walk with you to work and protect you from these people," Naomi said, looking up at him, a determined set to her chin. "I may not be much use, but I promise I can raise a huge fuss if anything does happen."

He wanted to dissuade her, but he couldn't. He needed her too much. She wouldn't be any use, but he couldn't stop her. His dream of her moving through the protestors, coming to protect him, and getting piled under them came back to him. She wouldn't be able to do anything, and she'd only get hurt trying.

So why did he feel so much better knowing that she'd be there?

The medical report was somewhat reassuring to Anderson -- Q had not been beaten brutally in public, as Dr. Allen had implied. He had some minor bruising from being tripped, and hitting the floor hard, and the medical officer on duty had been very adamant about stressing the need to check on any head injury immediately, rather than allowing it to go untreated. All in all, it wasn't as bad as she'd feared.

But it was bad enough. The protestors had tripped Q and knocked him to the floor, and Security had done nothing at all. Anderson's head pounded. How could this be happening? She could understand Security disliking Q -- she rather despised him herself. But that was no excuse for his bodyguards to ignore him being physically assaulted. She was utterly enraged at Security -- how dare they shirk their duty in this fashion? How dare they put personal feelings ahead of their orders from Starfleet?

In a meeting in front of the entire department, Anderson read them the riot act. She felt like a professor lecturing a class of surly teenagers; there were 2,000 security personnel on the starbase, and Anderson felt dwarfed by the size of the room large enough to house all these people. She knew she wasn't getting through, but short of promising harsh punishments for anyone who allowed Q to be abused in the future, there was nothing she could do.

Security needed a new head. Ohmura had been a wonderful man, far gentler and friendlier than your typical security agent -- which, Anderson was beginning to realize, might not have been such a good thing. What she had thought was a disciplined cohort had merely looked disciplined, out of loyalty to Ohmura. In some ways he had been too soft, had let behavior slide that he never should have, and counted on his own force of personality and charisma to keep his people in line. And it had worked, until he died. That had shattered discipline, left Ohmura's loyal men and women -- people who seemed to have looked up to him as a loving father figure -- with no one to keep them from running wild. And now they lashed out with orphan's pain at the person they blamed for that loss... who happened to be a charge under their protection.

The next time she would not make that mistake. Anderson had chosen Ohmura because of his extensive experience as a security chief for a scientific installation, dealing with touchy civilians. That had made sense, when she'd first assembled the personnel of Starbase 56. She hadn't realized then the extent to which the base could become a war zone, how tensions would run high and the reason for the base's existence would exasperate people to the point of wanting him dead. Now Anderson thought that her next choice should be someone all business and discipline, someone with primarily military experience. And she needed that person soon.

In the meantime, she felt she should take action against the protestors. Though she sympathized with them to some degree -- it made her a little sick herself, that the Federation was protecting Q from justice because he was useful -- the fact was that Q had been promised protection, and that included protection from fellow Federation civilians. Besides, they were disrupting the conferences. Today she had gotten ten complaints, and while eight of them had been about Q and his outrageous behavior, two had been about the hostile atmosphere caused by the protest group outside the conference chamber. Q's work with outside scientists was the lifeblood of Starbase 56; nothing could be allowed to interfere with that. So with a clear conscience she signed an order stating that the protestors were not permitted near the conference chambers, and forwarded a copy of it to Dr. Allen. Maybe that would shut her up.

Wonder of wonders, it seemed to Q that Anderson might actually have kept her promise. For three whole days, days in which he took Naomi with him as he walked to the conferences as if she were some sort of magic talisman against evil, there was no sign of any protestors near the conference rooms. Anderson had promised that they'd be kept away from there, and so far it looked as if it were true.

So far, anyway.

But he didn't suggest that Naomi stop coming with him. For one thing, the protestors were hardly the only people he feared. So far, no one in Security had physically assaulted him since the court-martial, but that didn't mean they weren't going to, merely that they were biding their time. He felt far more secure having Naomi with him anytime that he wasn't actually working -- he did know that Security wouldn't dare kill him in front of a bunch of visiting scientists, any more than they'd kill him in front of Naomi, so he didn't drag her into the conferences with him. That would have looked ridiculous, like she was a teddy bear he was clinging to, or his mommy, or something. Q had no desire to appear that helpless, that needy, in front of the scientists who came to see him. He didn't really want to look that needy in front of anyone, of course, but he didn't really have a choice.

For another thing, Q had very little faith in Anderson. Sure, she might be keeping her promise now, but perhaps she'd forget in a week. And besides, Naomi's company was enjoyable. Not since the disastrous relationship with Harry had collapsed, destroying their friendship. had Q had anyone to talk to on a regular basis. Naomi didn't know physics, but then, Q spent his workdays talking about that -- it was a relief not to have to talk shop, to be able to just banter freely, playing with words.

And the people in the corridors were still giving him dark, nasty looks. Naomi's presence was a bulwark against that, as she was against the spectre of Security's violence. Her being there reassured him to the point where he could almost pretend he didn't care that everyone else hated him.

And then Q had a day with no conferences, and he found out where the protestors had gone.

Harry Roth stepped out the door to the physics area with an expression of puzzlement that quickly hardened into anger. There was a small crowd of people, bearing placards, and more or less blocking the door.

"Ex-cuse me," he said in his best voice of cold contempt, "but what exactly is going on here?"

A hard-faced blonde woman spoke. "Lieutenant, do you think it's right that the Federation should build its advances in physics on the bodies of murdered sentients?"

"Why? Do you think we're using sentient experimental subjects in there? Sorry, we haven't much use for them; try the psych department."

"I'm talking about Q," the woman said, exasperated. Harry had, of course, known exactly what she was talking about, based on the placards her fellows carried, and it filled him with a rage he couldn't quite understand. Surely, after all this time and what had gone between them, he wasn't feeling protective toward Q. It couldn't be. It had to be simply anger at stupidity.

"Q's not an experimental subject," Harry said in his best confused voice. "And we haven't murdered him... yet." His voice hardened slightly, involuntarily on the last word, though he'd meant it to be flippant. Give it time, he thought bitterly, staring at the women. First Security had beaten Q senseless, and now this bozo and her cohorts would probably be delighted to finish the job. It was an effort to rein in his anger, to keep a facetious tone.

"He's a killer! He murdered 300 men, women and children because they got in his way! We should lock him up for life, not protect him!"

When Harry had first heard the story, Q had killed 45 people. Since then the number had been steadily growing. It would have amused him if it didn't make him so angry. "And where, might I ask, did you hear this?"

"One of his victims told Security," one of the protestors said. "Everybody knows it."

"The same victim who sent an assassin that killed Commander Ohmura? That victim? Oh, sure, I can see why you'd believe everything she said. I'm positive she was completely objective and truthful, and I'm sure the fact that she was trying to get out of being shipped off to a penal colony for the rest of her life probably had nothing to do her story."

"What are you defending Q for?" one of the protestors, a former boyfriend of Harry's, asked. How hae Harry ever thought he was intelligent? "I thought you hated him."

"And hating someone gives you every right to beat them up, demand they be thrown in prison on exceedingly scanty evidence and make it generally impossible for them to do their jobs? What century are we living in, Jack? The 24th or the 16th? I thought witchhunts went out of style 800 years ago."

Across the corridor, Q and Naomi could hear the sounds of an argument as they approached the physics lab. Q froze, seeing the protestors up ahead. "So much for dear Eleanor's assurances," he said. Of course, Anderson had only promised to keep them away from the conference rooms, not the physics labs. Q had some appreciation for the technique of doing only exactly what you said; he didn't have to like it, though.

Naomi's hand tightened around Q's, squeezing him reassuringly. "I guess she's off our Christmas lists this year."

Q was about to make a comment on Naomi's ridiculousness in implying that he would have a Christmas list at all when he heard Harry's voice. He stiffened further. What did Harry make of all this? Would he be sympathetic to the protestors? Q knew Harry didn't like him; would Harry choose to join in with his tormentors?

"I don't believe you people," Harry was saying. "Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the fact that the man has come from a radically different culture and completely alien species means nothing. Where exactly are you getting this notion that you can believe what the person who had Ohmura murdered says about him? Let me tell you something. I know Q pretty well, probably better than any of you, and I don't like him. He's obnoxious, selfish, thoughtless, a total asshole. But he's not a killer. He considers any kind of physical violence abhorrent. And while he might casually antagonize people for fun, he has a much stronger sense of moral responsibility than you think. If he really did kill Jihana Melex's crew, and didn't actually do something like, I don't know, try to warn them about something else bad and nasty, and they ended up disregarding his warning and then blaming him when they all got killed -- if, for the sake of argument, he did do it, then he had a good reason."

"How do you know?" one of the protestors shot back. "Did he tell you why he did it?"

"Frankly, I don't believe he did it at all. Q has a way of warning you about things that you end up feeling like it wouldn't have happened if he hadn't warned you. I said he's an asshole. But he has a conscience. And I know he does, because I worked with him on the Borg project, in which he saved humanity's collective derriere. Or have you all forgotten about that?"

"Yeah, you just want to fuck him," Harry's former lover said, not having the brain to keep quiet when he'd already lost the argument. But then, there was a reason why Jack was one of Harry's former lovers.

"Jaack. Do I look like the sort of masochist who'd get into a relationship with a selfish bastard like Q? Admittedly you don't speak all that well for my taste, but then you're just an intellectual poseur, not completely oblivious to the needs of others." Harry considered. "I don't doubt, though, that he'd be better than you in bed. If only because he could hardly be worse."

Q felt an immense sense of relief. Harry was actually defending him. He had never expected that. Better still, Harry was still keeping their abortive relationship a secret. Q had been sure he wouldn't, sure Harry would tell the entire starbase what an inept and selfish lover Q was, and the fact that Harry hadn't, and it seemed still wasn't, gratified him deeply. "He does that so well," he murmured to Naomi.

"Shredding morons to pieces? He isn't bad, no. I'd give it an 8.5."

"Now listen here--" one of the protestors said.

"No, you listen," Harry said, all trace of flippancy gone from his voice. "I don't care whether you think Q is innocent or guilty. But you have no right to block a member of the physics department from the lab, no matter what your opinion of him is--"

"Q's not part of the physics department!"

"A technicality. He might as well be. You're disrupting his work and you're disrupting ours. Now either you clear out of here, now, or I'm going to have Security here. And since I'm aware that lately Security won't give Q the time of day, I will make it quite clear that this complaint comes from the entire physics department. Am I making myself quite understood?"

Sullenly the protestors started to move off. They saw Q, waiting in the corridor behind them, and Naomi with them, and glared at them both, but did nothing. Harry stood there, arms folded, watching the protestors' every move.

As they finished dispersing, Q began to clap slowly and sarcastically. "Oh, well done," he said in the sort of half-mocking tone he used when he was complimenting somebody and wanted them to be uncertain if he was or not.

"What, tearing people to shreds? It comes naturally to me these days. After all, I had such an expert teacher."

Naomi listened, fascinated. It sounded like banter, and yet it didn't. There was a hard edge to it absent in her own banter with Q or Jinn, a sense of old hurts below the surface. She remembered Roth's declaration that Q was far too selfish to have a relationship with, and wondered if he knew that from experience.

"I see you're still winning friends and influencing people," Harry continued. He turned to Naomi. "Madame, I'm afraid I haven't had the pleasure. I'm Harry Roth." His Starfleet uniform clearly indicated he was a lieutenant, but Naomi found it interesting that he didn't say it. Most Starfleet types were all too happy to tell you their rank.

"I'm Naomi Allen, from the programming department," she replied, leaving off her title since he'd left the rank off his.

"Your graciousness knows no bounds, Harry," Q said. "I must thank you for dispersing those goons for me. It's so tedious, having to deal with them."

"I didn't do it for you," Harry retorted. He turned back to Naomi. "A pleasure, Naomi. I'm sure we'll run into each other again." And he walked back into the lab.

Naomi knew better than to ask Q any questions about the exact nature of his relationship with Harry. "I'll see you after work, then?" she asked him.

"If you insist," Q said, lightly, pretending this was all her idea, pretending that her presence wouldn't be vitally necessary to get him to venture into the halls at all.

Lt. Roth's complaint wearied Anderson beyond all measure. At the moment she hated her job, hated humanity and hated everyone on the starbase, herself included for not being able to stop this properly. She felt as if the reins of control were slipping from her hands, and couldn't understand why she couldn't seem to hold on. She always had before...

The protestors had found a loophole in her orders. They'd shown up to harass Q when he went to the physics lab, which he generally did on any day that he didn't have conferences scheduled. She'd only ordered them to stay away from the conference room, as the head of the protestors, a woman named Fannah Jackson, pointed out with barely restrained glee. Anderson, herself barely restraining a desire to punch Jackson through the bulkhead, ordered Jackson and her cohort to stay away from Q completely, and told her that any of the protestors found within a 100-meter radius of Q would be thrown in the brig. When Jackson began ranting about the protected right to free speech and peaceful protests and the like, Anderson exploded.

"Since when is tripping a man and knocking him to the floor a peaceful protest? You have the right to your opinions, you have the right to state your opinions, you even have the right to mail them to Q for all I care, but you do not have the right to harass a man, whatever you think of him, and you do not have the right to disrupt the business of this station! Give me an excuse, Ms. Jackson, any excuse. I would love to have you deported off my starbase."

She regretted her outburst later. A commanding officer should never lose control. But it had felt good at the time.

Solving the problem of the protestors didn't solve her other enormous problem, that of Security. This time, Q's guards hadn't been called on to do anything -- Roth had dispersed the protestors before any of them had interfered with Q. But it wasn't Roth's job. Security had stood there behind Q, listening to the entire exchange, doing nothing to keep the peace, to assist Roth in clearing the nuisance away from the physics lab. At best, it showed an abysmal lack of initiative. At worst, it indicated that Security was, despite her harangue a few days ago, doing nothing to keep Q's harassers away from him. Dr. Allen had practically moved in with him -- Anderson had reports that Allen was walking Q to and from work every day -- but it wasn't Allen's job any more than it was Roth's, and it disgusted Anderson's orderly soul that Starfleet could come to this, a tiny civilian woman protecting Q because his trained Security bodyguard was doing nothing.

Reluctantly she reassigned T'Meth's team to round-the-clock guarding Q. It would be just until the new Security chief arrived, she told them -- if it had fit her management style, she would have apologized. Not that T'Meth needed an apology, or would have admitted to needing one anyway, but Sev, Koratagere and Veloz deserved an explanation of why she was saddling them with Q on a regular basis.

The days settled into a routine. T'Meth was able to handpick one other trusted security officer to partner with Sev, Koratagere and Veloz, so that none of them ever had to take a shift alone; they would walk with Q to work, or stay outside his room, guarding him morning and late at night. T'Meth herself spent her shift in the late afternoon and evening, when Q and Naomi had returned from work, and took her shift alone, in the room with them. Since she was the only one Q thoroughly trusted and the only one who would be silent and unobtrusive, it was an arrangement Q himself was reasonably happy with. Especially because Naomi was still there. Even with the round-the-clock Security watch, he never suggested that she leave.

There was nothing in Naomi's own quarters to be worth leaving Q for, in her opinion. They were fairly spartan, barely even personalized, despite the fact that she'd been on the base longer than Q -- she'd never been a materialistic person, and didn't need to put a personal stamp on her territory. Q's couch was far less comfortable than her bed, of course, but Q had decided on his own that it was inappropriate for her to be sleeping on his couch (he claimed that she was wrecking his pillows, but Naomi had a sneaking suspicion there was a little more consideration than that in it), and had rearranged his furniture to make room for an ornate divan, backless and armless and piled with pillows that were considerably softer, fluffier and harder to wreck than his tapestried couch pillows. Lying on the divan, piled in among them, Naomi felt like an Eastern potentate from the Arabian Nights or something. The first time she'd woken up there, to see Q standing by the side of the divan, looking down at her, she'd had to restrain a fit of hysterical giggles. It wouldn't at all do to tell Q she was imagining him dressed in harem pants and feeding her grapes.

Normally, she worked ridiculous hours, staying at the lab until late at night and then working at home until she fell asleep at the keyboard or morning came, whichever came later. Walking Q home meant she couldn't stay late at the lab, but there was no reason she couldn't simply work from his room -- the advantage to being a programmer was that you could take your work anywhere. She cleared her plans with her supervisor, T'Vai, simply because it was polite to do so, not because she expected T'Vai to have objections. In fact, though, she probably was working a lot less, she thought wryly. When you had someone to talk to, someone to spend time with, the notion of spending every waking minute programming or exercising seemed less attractive.

On one such night, in the early evening, all of them were in the living room. T'Meth had a chair next to the door, and was perusing her datapadd, something she did for great lengths of time each day; Q had made Naomi giggle uncontrollably by suggesting sotto voce that she was reading romance novels on it. Q himself was on the couch with a padd, composing long and scathing letters to people who annoyed him, and occasionally reading choice bits to Naomi, who was seated next to him on the couch, trying to work on the terminal on the coffee table. T'Vai had suggested that if she was going to be spending her off hours at Q's quarters anyway, she should take a crack at figuring out why Q kept losing files. The answer to that had proven to be exceedingly simple -- Q had, under minimal pressure, confessed to Naomi that he generally deleted them and then changed his mind and wanted them back -- but in the process Naomi had discovered that Q's files were in the sort of mess only a person who had begun to dabble in programming could produce. She had volunteered to clean up the mess for him, and would be making a lot more progress on it if Q didn't keep making her crack up with particularly amusing lines from his letters.

Suddenly, an alarm whooped. T'Meth was on her feet in nanoseconds; both Q and Naomi startled at the sound, but neither tried to get up from the couch. Naomi reached out, seeking for Q's hand, and once she found it she squeezed it tightly, needing to give and receive comfort. The sound was a Red Alert signal, and there was only ever one reason for a Red Alert on Starbase 56.

Someone had come to kill Q.

Anderson's voice came over the room speakers. "Q, we've just been hailed by representatives of the Beryllian Empire. Do you know anything useful about them?"

By "hailed", she undoubtedly meant "they've called up and demanded that we hand you over to them to be tortured and killed." Q swallowed hard. Under normal circumstances the frequent alien attacks frightened him somewhat, yes, but since all of them so far had ended with the aliens in question being defeated and he himself surviving, he normally had a good deal of confidence in the starbase's ability to protect him. After all that had happened, though, he was no longer nearly as confident. Or rather, he had utmost confidence in Starfleet's ability to protect him... it was their motivation to actually do so that he questioned.

He didn't remember the Beryllians. He had lost so much, and so many of the aliens that attacked him had been insignificant little creatures, a month or a day of effort on his part in an endless lifetime, unmemorable and therefore unremembered. And the name the Federation called them was unlikely to be the name he knew them by, if he remembered them at all. "What do they look like?" Q asked, knowing better than to try to hide his ignorance, knowing every moment counted.

The terminal lit up with an image, Naomi's work vanishing behind it. The captain who had hailed Anderson appeared there, a humanoid female with true white skin, colorless and cold, and blue iridescent scales instead of hair. The image jogged Q's memory, but only slightly. He couldn't quite remember who these people were or what he had done to them or even when it was exactly that he'd last encountered them, but he remembered eggshell cities of force shields, and felt a sinking sensation in his stomach. "I dimly recall them. Highly advanced technology, very experienced with force shields."

"Any ideas how to defeat them?" Anderson asked tightly.

Q shrugged, though Anderson couldn't see it. "As the last time I encountered them, I was omnipotent, I really couldn't say. I leave matters in your capable hands, Commodore." The comment was sarcastic, but not entirely -- he would be awfully happy to be able to mean it.

The entire station rocked under some sort of weapons fire. "Capable hands," Q muttered. "She couldn't fight her way out of a wet paper bag."

Naomi held his hand more tightly. "There've been attacks like this before, haven't there?" she asked, trying very hard to be brave. It hadn't quite occurred to her that protecting Q from internal attacks would leave her at ground zero when there were external ones. Not that she had any intention of leaving him here to face it alone. Q's face was pale and drawn, and the answering pressure from his hand in hers told her quite how frightened he was. "And we've always come through them okay."

He turned toward the sound of her voice, as if some part of him had forgotten she was here and was just registering her presence now. It sank in on him then, what it meant that she was here. He didn't want her to leave, didn't want to face the inevitable terror of the long hours waiting to die without her support; he had done it for two years before he'd met her, but he felt far more fragile than he'd been then, and now he knew what he'd been missing, knew an alternative to facing the fear alone. But having her here entailed a responsibility as well. Naomi couldn't be allowed to see how frightened he was, how sure that Starfleet would fail him, that this particular set of aliens was too advanced for Anderson and her cohorts to deal with. She wasn't used to this, was dependent on him to know how much danger they were in. "Due to the rampant stupidity inherent in any species who would rather solve their problems by killing the messenger, this is true," he said in a tone far lighter than what he felt. "Dear Eleanor is hardly the universe's greatest strategist, but then I expect the Beryllians can't find their socks in the morning without computer assistance, so I'm sure she'll acquit herself credibly."

T'Meth had been talking into her combadge in a low voice. She turned toward Q and Naomi. "A Security contingent is on its way here. It will be a few minutes; apparently the Beryllians are interfering somehow with our ability to beam intra-ship."

"Delightful. Just what I've always wanted, a Security contingent of my very own."

T'Meth ignored that. "Dr. Allen, you should leave now."

"Leave? What for?"

"If the Beryllians successfully bring down our shields and board us, it will be Q they will be targeting. By staying with him, you risk being taken hostage or killed."

"And if I go anyplace else, I risk the Beryllians bringing down our shields and blowing the entire base up, just like everyone else does. The risk isn't much greater here."

"The fact that the risk is not 'much' greater does not change the fact that it is greater. You should not be here."

Naomi shook her head. "I'm not leaving Q."

Q stared at Naomi, an entirely unwelcome fear creeping in. He didn't want her to go. But he remembered n'Vala, skull shattered from a shapechanger's blow, staggering out into the corridor to die; remembered Ohmura lying on top of him, bloody and dead. An image of Naomi in the same state rose in front of him, and he would do anything to keep that from happening. "You should," he said harshly. "You don't need to be in danger."

He hadn't released her hand. Naomi felt sure that if he really wanted her to go, he would have. "I'm staying." She squeezed his hand again, to reassure him that she was here, she wasn't going to leave him.

There was another tremor, the base shaking wildly at the force of some blow... and two golden pillars of light began to materialize in the middle of the room.

T'Meth spun around, grabbed the bottom of the couch, and upended it, dumping both Q and Naomi onto the floor behind it as well as putting its bulk between the two figures and them. "Get in the bedroom!" she shouted, vaulting over the couch and kneeling on their side, training her phaser on the two.

Q had been in situations like this before, and as he'd once said, his natural reaction was not to freeze. He obeyed without hesitation, pulling himself to his feet and running for the bedroom door. As he cleared the door, Naomi nearly barreled into him, managing to dodge around him and into the bedroom just in time.

"Computer, lock door!" Q shouted, as the whine of a phaser beam sizzled through the closing doors, just over Naomi's head.

There was no answering beep, no click of the locking mechanism. Q backed away from the door in terror. If it wouldn't lock, there was nothing to prevent the aliens out there from simply walking in here and mowing him down except for T'Meth, and she, unlike the Beryllians, wasn't wearing body armor.

Naomi ran for the computer terminal -- Q had keyboards by all his terminals, because he didn't want his guards to overhear everything he was writing -- and flopped down at it, typing rapidly. After Security had overridden Q's door lock and forgotten or deliberately failed to reset it, Naomi had written a program that bypassed all the usual command codes, the ones that Security would have access to, to lock the door on Q's or her own voice commands or terminal input only. Q, meanwhile, attempted to raise Security, and then Anderson, to no avail.

"How ironic," he said, an edge of terror in his voice. "I might have expected they'd throw me to the wolves, but I really didn't expect them to sacrifice one of their own and an innocent civilian into the bargain. I suppose you and T'Meth sealed your fates by defending me."

"I hate to be defending them, but this time it's actually not Security's fault," Naomi said. She got out of the chair and went to him. "It looks like the Beryllians, or someone, has knocked out the computer's ability to process vocal commands. Since the communications system on-base runs through the computer, communications are out, and we can't tell the computer to do things like lock the door... not verbally, anyway." She put her arms around him. "It's a good thing you have a keyboard."

"Yet another example of how so-called 'superior' technology isn't," Q muttered. He let Naomi hold him, lightly resting his own hands on her shoulders because he was trying to resist the temptation to pull her close to him. Outside he could hear the whine of phaser fire, repeatedly. "You do realize that we've just locked ourselves in. If the Berylnazis out there have friends, they might just decide to beam in here."

"Can they do that?" Naomi asked worriedly. "I thought we had shields."

"The Beryllians are fairly experienced with shielding technology... can you get that thing to show us the status of our shields?" If the base shields were down, Q thought, he and Naomi were both dead. Nothing would stop the Beryllians from beaming away from T'Meth, resetting their coordinates, and coming down right in here.

Naomi released him reluctantly and went back to the keyboard, typing in a series of arcane commands. Q looked over her shoulder, trying to follow what she was doing; he had tried to train himself on computer technology, knowing that his superior intellect would give him no practical power whatsoever and that he had to learn something he could use to protect or help himself, and that theoretical physics wasn't it. He wasn't yet advanced enough to follow more than every third word or so of Naomi's typed commands, though.

The screen lit up with a display of Starbase 56's shields, and several figures displayed on the side. "Can you read that?" Naomi said, in a tone that indicated she would consider it a miracle if anyone could.

"Yes." He felt a rush of relief, and placed his hands on her shoulder, squeezing. "They managed to punch a hole in our shields briefly, but apparently we compensated. Even if they manage to bring down our shields, we're running a diffusion matrix now -- basically, if they try to beam through that their atoms will be scrambled into several trillion infinitesimal pieces of dust. They'll have to knock out our shields and the diffusion matrix to be able to beam in and get at us."

Naomi turned her head to look up at him, putting her hand on his. "So we're pretty much safe, then."

"As safe as one gets with--"

A female voice outside let loose a truly bloodcurdling scream.

For seconds, neither Q nor Naomi spoke. Finally Naomi said, trying to keep a brave face, "That had to be one of the Beryllians. Vulcans don't scream like that... do they?"

The look on Q's face chilled her to the bone. "They do if they're hurt badly enough," he said distantly. "And Beryllians never, ever send women into close combat situations like this. Women are the leaders and the strategists -- they stay on the ships. Always."

"Oh." Naomi swallowed. It had been T'Meth then. Probably dead. Naomi almost hoped she was dead -- she couldn't imagine the level of pain it would take to wrench a cry like that out of the impassive security guard. Either way, she probably wasn't doing much to hold off the Beryllians anymore.

Rescue could be right outside the doors of the suite. Or it could be twenty minutes away. There was no way to know.

There was a whine of phaser fire against the door.

Completely without conscious volition, Q pulled Naomi to him, terrified. He knew how long it took to cut through a door with phasers, and while it had seemed forever when it was Security cutting through the door to rescue him, the fact that the rescue had worked indicated that it hadn't been long at all. He probably had less than five minutes to live.

Naomi clung to him, equally frightened, needing his nearness and the warmth of his body to reassure her that she wasn't dead yet. Where there was life, there was hope. She had to believe that. She hadn't nursed Q through so much agony at the hands of people here on the base to see some aliens waltz in and take him from her. Or kill her too, for that matter. She would be very annoyed if that happened.

The whining hadn't stopped, and they could see a spot on the door beginning to glow slightly. Q looked down at Naomi. This was his fault. He should have made her leave when they had the chance; it wouldn't have saved T'Meth (why did people keep dying for him?), but it would have saved Naomi. He couldn't bear the thought that she, too, would die here. Convulsively he swallowed. There was only one way to save her.

Q released her, hating himself for doing so, wanting that comfort more than anything, anything except for Naomi's safety and continued life. "Get in the closet."

"What?" Naomi looked at him as if he'd grown an extra head. "Why would I want to do that?"

"You'll be safe there."

"Q, if you hide in the closet they'll tear the room apart looking for us--"

"No one said 'us'. You hide in the closet, and when they come in, they -- If they find me, they won't keep looking. They have no quarrel with you. You'll be safe."

"You're going to hand themselves over to them to keep me safe?" Naomi demanded.

"That was the general idea, yes."

"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard. I'm not going to let you die for my sake."

"You have a better plan?" Q snapped. Every nerve was screaming with fear, that any minute now the growing glowing spot would melt into a hole and the Beryllians would step through, and both he and Naomi would be gunned down without a second thought... he had to get her out of the open, get her to safety, he couldn't bear it if she died for him...

"Yup." Naomi looked around the room quickly, then made a beeline for a table of antique candlesticks. She picked up a large and fairly heavy one with some effort, and swung it. "We can defend ourselves. C'mere, take the other one."

"Defend ourselves with candlesticks? Are you out of what passes for your mind?"

"They're heavy. The Beryllians have got to come through the door to get us; we can stand on either side of the door and swing the candlesticks down on their heads." At Q's expression, she grabbed the other candlestick, wrapping both in her arms so she could carry the heavy items, and walked over to him, pushing one at him. "It's better than hiding in a closet waiting to die," she said challengingly. "Or standing here waiting for them, for that matter."

Bemused, Q followed her to the door, candlestick in hand, and took up position on the other side from her. This was ridiculous. Two untrained civilians were not going to defeat a pair of trained soldiers with candlesticks, however heavy. They should have enacted his plan -- then at least Naomi would be safe.

But as embarrassed as he was, as sure as he was that this wouldn't work, that he'd miss the head entirely or something equally stupid and then be phasered out of existence, part of him responded to this, to the notion of defending himself. He knew nothing of physical violence, despised the merest hint of it... and as a result, it had been used against him, time and time again, leaving him trembling with terror and long sleepless nights, because he couldn't defend himself from it. There was a part of his mind that hated that, the fierce rebel he had once been who would cheerfully have reduced someone to their component atoms for daring to threaten him or what he cared for, who despised the cringing, fearful creature he had become. If he had to die, it was perhaps just as well that he would go out this way, striking a blow against his murderers. Perhaps he could even manage to give one of them a concussion before he died.

They weren't simply phasering a hole in the door; they were cutting through the locking mechanism that held the two halves of the door apart. As they finished, the door sprang free, returning to its natural open state. Q flattened back against the wall, readying his candlestick. He glanced over at Naomi, hopelessly, and felt wholly inadequate next to the fierce courage he saw in her face. In a fair universe, she would survive this -- she was far too brave and noble to die this way. Of course, he himself would be the first to point out that the universe wasn't fair.

The Beryllians stepped forward. Q pivoted and swung down with all his strength onto one of the helmeted heads. He heard phaser fire, and closed his eyes convulsively, expecting to feel agonizing death any second now.

Death didn't come.

Terrified, Q opened his eyes, looking for Naomi. She was dead, she was dead and they would kill him next... No, there she was, quite alive, with a dead Beryllian slumped at her feet. There was another one at his, and a considerable dent in that one's helmet. But what had killed them appeared to be phaser burns under the jaw, fired from an angle below their helmets.

Q stepped out of the room, automatically tracking where the phaser fire had to have come from. T'Meth lay on the floor in a pool of bright green liquid -- no, blood, Vulcan blood was green, he'd forgotten in the centuries since he'd seen it -- on her stomach, with a phaser in her hand. His stomach turned over at the sight and the rich coppery smell -- he was experienced with death, had seen plenty of mortals die before, but when he saw T'Meth now, he remembered Ohmura bleeding to death on him, and suddenly none of his experience meant anything. He was going to throw up.

"I'll try to send a message to Sickbay," Naomi said, a tremor in her voice. Q turned for a second, and looked at her as she ran to the terminal. She had probably never seen anyone die, almost certainly not by violence, a sheltered child of Earth. And yet she wasn't throwing up. She was doing something useful. Certainly, someone who had watched entire species die could at least rise to her example. Q knelt by T'Meth, paying little attention to the green stains he was getting on his boots and pants.

Impossibly, she raised her head. "Q... well?"

"Naomi and I are both fine," he said. "You got them both before they touched us."

She nodded slightly, and lowered her head again.

"No, no. Not like that. You can't just give up on me. I won't have you die on me, T'Meth, not you too, do you hear me? Naomi is getting Dr. Li, and I'm sure he'll be here very soon, so you have to hang on. Do you understand me?" He grabbed her hand and clenched it. "You have to hang on!"

"Sekal..." she whispered, her voice muffled against the carpet. Then she didn't say anything else.

Q had no idea how one went about finding a pulse -- it would be someplace in your wrist, but where exactly was beyond him. And he wouldn't know how to interpret it if he found one. He took off his combadge and held its mirrored, shiny surface to T'Meth's mouth, and was rewarded by seeing it fog very, very slightly. She was still breathing, then.

In the bedroom, Naomi had tapped into the communications system. She located a text-to-speech translation algorithm and piped the results through the speakers in Sickbay, to send her message, "Medical emergency, Q's quarters, dying Vulcan." You were always supposed to say, when you called Sickbay, what the species of an injured party was if they weren't human, given that the base was predominantly human. And besides, she didn't quite trust Li to rush to the rescue if he thought it was Q that was injured. He should, given that Q's presence here paid his salary, but Naomi had figured out some time ago that Q's importance was a matter of lip service only to most of the people here, and that in fact many considered him the least important person on the base.

She then sent a similar message to Security -- maybe they would move their butts if they realized it was one of their own in danger -- and came back out to meet Q. "Is she going to live, do you think?"

"How would I know? Do I look like a doctor?" Q was standing in front of the door to the suite, which was not opening. "You didn't lock this one too, did you?"

"No... maybe when the Beryllians cut through the other one, they disabled it or something. You think we should try to get it open?"

"No, I love the notion of standing here helplessly while someone bleeds to death on my carpet."

Naomi took that as a "yes". "Well, I'll go see if I can send a manual override, but if they damaged the mechanism I won't be able to affect it with the computer. You should try to open it manually."

"Do I look like a circus strongman?"

"You don't need to be that strong to get the doors open," Naomi said helpfully. "It's a question of leverage. I'll help." She quickly verified that the door would not respond to an override sent from the computer, and went to help Q with the door.

Q, for his part, was trying to apply his superior intellect and vast knowledge of physics to the question of leverage, or how to get a human body that was designed for pushing outward to push laterally in two directions at once. The way Naomi had phrased the problem, he had to solve it, because she was right, it was a question of leverage rather than brute force and if he couldn't solve it, he would prove himself to be too stupid to. As soon as Naomi came and joined him, he realized what he should have figured from the beginning -- the human body was designed for pulling, not pushing at all. If the two of them both pulled on the halves of the door separately, perhaps they could get them apart.

Then they both heard a voice from outside. "Stand back. We're going to open the door."

Both Q and Naomi moved back with alacrity, as their rescuers put something in the door that forced it open with a loud bang. Li was out there, looking disheveled, and three Security guards had guns at the ready. There was a grav-float behind them. Li ran to T'Meth's side and ran the scanner over her. "She's alive but critical. Bring me the floater and help me get her on it."

Two of the guards assisted Li as another confirmed that the Beryllians were in fact dead. That one turned to Q and Naomi. "Who took them out?"

"T'Meth, after they'd shot her," Q said. "Apparently they thought she was dead."

The guard nodded once, curtly, and joined his comrades. "One of you needs to help me carry her to Sickbay," Li said. "We've got to get her on life support as soon as possible."

"Evans, you go with the doctor. Ngowe, you're here with me in case more of Q's friends show up," one of the guards said.

Evans and Ngowe -- the latter was the one who'd checked that the Beryllians were dead -- nodded. He and Ngowe gently lifted T'Meth onto the grav-float, and then Evans and Li left, pushing their precious cargo. Q felt particularly bleak. He sat down heavily in one of his chairs, noting a phaser burn across the armrest. Naomi and he were both alive, and that was something, but the one security guard he had trusted implicitly was critically injured and would probably die. It seemed a very poor reward for all T'Meth had done for him. But then, that was the way life worked. The people who hated him got slaps on the wrist, and the people who fought to defend him died for it.

Naomi went over to him, perching on the burned armrest and running her hand over the back of his neck, trying to loosen him up and comfort him at the same time. Q leaned into her touch, needing her, needing the reassurance that he was alive and safe and so was she.

A repair crew showed up a minute later to work on the door. They would have concentrated on the front door, but Q directed them otherwise -- it at least was serviceable, jammed partway open but capable of being pushed closed if necessary. The bedroom door was entirely broken, the mechanism that would have allowed it to shut sliced open by a phaser, and so it was useless to Q -- he wanted to go to his room, wanted to bury himself in his privacy, away from these cold-eyed guards, and he couldn't do it, not with a bedroom door that wouldn't shut. For a moment he thought of hiding in the bathroom, but Naomi could hardly come with him there, and right now he needed her, couldn't bear the thought of her leaving him.

"Shit," the guard in charge -- a junior grade lieutenant from his pips, the same as his apparent subordinate -- said with feeling. "I never liked T'Meth a whole lot -- she was too cold to really like -- but she deserved a hell of a lot better than this."

"She was a damn good detective," Ngowe said. "And a good officer. Dependable, someone you could always trust if she was commanding you. I mean, she was a hardass, but she could get you out of hell alive, you know what I mean?"

Q stared ahead, trying not to listen to the conversation, to the discussion of T'Meth in the past tense. Those men had seen the extent of her injuries more clearly than he had. Probably they knew she would die beyond a doubt.

"A damn fine officer," the other man agreed. "And it killed her. She wasted her life protecting scum like him because she followed her orders straight down the line."

Q stiffened. He didn't need to be told who "him" referred to.

Naomi didn't stiffen. She stood up and stalked over to the security guards. "Excuse me," she said poisonously, "but I couldn't help overhearing. Were you actually advocating that T'Meth should have disobeyed her orders and let Q die because you don't like him?"

The guard sighed. "Dr. Allen, you don't know Q. He's probably being all sweet and nice with you -- a little sugar will do that to a man. But those of us that he's not sleeping with know what he's really like. He thinks he's better than everyone else, that we deserve to die for him because we're not as smart as he is and we were born human, he doesn't feel any gratitude at all and he just doesn't care about the people dying for him. You know, three people were killed in this attack? Not counting T'Meth, who's probably going to be dead before the day's out. And I don't care how many scientific advances he's responsible for, he is not worth it."

Naomi took a deep breath. "I see. So you'd rather have been assimilated by the Borg, is that what you're saying? Because we could never have defeated them without Q's help. I was on the project, and I know. But I guess a smooth social manner and people saying 'please' and 'thank you' are more important than the freedom of the human race."

"That's not what I said--"

"That is what you said. You said Q isn't worth keeping alive, despite the fact that he helped save us all from the Borg and has improved Starfleet's defensive technology in general by, oh, maybe a ten years' jump, saving I-don't-know how many hundreds of lives when badnasties out in space attack our starships. So you'd rather all those people died, and that the rest of us were assimilated by the Borg, because Q didn't fall to his knees and beg forgiveness for living after Commander Ohmura did his job, a job he signed up for voluntarily, and died for it. I see. I'm so glad you've got your priorities straight, Lieutenant."

"She isn't going to understand," Ngowe told his comrade. "You heard what they said. She's got a hole in her head when it comes to Q."

"I think I understand perfectly well," Naomi said. "You feel perfectly free to harass Q, beat him almost to death, make up imaginary stories about his sex life to compensate for the dullness of your own lives, and even advocate disobeying your sworn oath to protect whoever it is Starfleet tells you to protect, because you don't like the fact that Q isn't polite. You also automatically assume that a woman who's friends with a man has to be sleeping with him, which leads me to believe you don't get a lot of female company, not without paying for it anyway. But then, I probably could have figured that, as I find it hard to imagine a woman who would be attracted to such disgusting, amoral, brutish so-called men like you, who think it's perfectly acceptable to break your oath and hurt an unarmed, helpless civilian. If there is such a woman, I hope they sterilized her at birth, because the idea that your genes might propagate in the human race make me want to seriously consider becoming a dolphin."

One of the guards started toward her. "You--"

"Oh, are you going to beat me up now, too? Not enough to get an unarmed, helpless civilian, now you're going to top that with an unarmed, helpless civilian woman half your size. Come on, then, show everyone how much of a pig you really are." Naomi was shaking with fury.

Q had come up behind her during her tirade. She hadn't noticed him until she felt his arms go around her, supporting her. "Ignore them, Naomi," Q said coolly, glaring at the security guards. It was entirely possible that they'd beat him up now, or Naomi, or both, and there really was no way he could stop them. But he wasn't going to show them he was afraid, and he wasn't going to let Naomi stand out there by herself, defending him and getting hurt while he stood on the sidelines and watched. If they wanted to hurt her for defending him, they would have to attack him first. Not that he could really defend Naomi, or anything like that -- though the thought of going back into the room for the candlesticks was mildly tempting, it would be entirely too useless and he'd look like a fool -- but she had done her best to protect him, even though she wasn't remotely physically capable of defending him. The least he could do was return the favor. "Their tiny brains probably can't process the polysyllabic words you were using. And they really aren't worth it anyway."

He led the shaking Naomi away from the two guards and into the bedroom, where they would be safe and away from the two brutes. The door crew had by now fixed the door and moved on to the front door, showing an admirable lack of interest in the proceedings around them, so he was able to shut the door behind him and lock it, giving them what little privacy they could have. It didn't occur to him until after he'd already done it what the guards out there would think. But then, since when did he care what Security goons thought? They already thought he was engaging in those sordid acts with Naomi, and he damn well wasn't going to leave her exposed to them and their entirely too cavalier notions about the appropriateness of physical violence just to keep them from thinking something they'd think no matter what he did.

Naomi barely noticed being led away. She was too furious. She knew what Q was doing, could hear his words, but everything was drowned in a red tide of rage. She wanted to take someone apart, more specifically those goons in the hall who'd dared blame Q for what had happened to T'Meth when he was probably more upset than they were over her injury. Briefly Naomi spared a thought for the wounded security guard, sending a prayer to her mother's god that everything would be all right and that T'Meth would not lose her life for her bravery and selfless actions.

But she couldn't help but feel like killing someone. "Did you see that? Did you hear those guys?"

"I could hardly avoid hearing them," Q said drily. "Their sort of high-pitched whining tends to carry."

Naomi wasn't listening to him. "How dare they act like that? How dare they say those kinds of things? None of it was true at all and even if it had been, it was horribly cruel and just as cruel if not more cruel than what they accused you of doing. I have half a mind..."


" go right back out there and show them what for."

"Oh, no you don't," Q said, looking alarmed for the first time since getting away from the callous guards. "You're not going anywhere near them. That larger one was about to hit you."

"Hit me?" Naomi asked scoffingly. "He wouldn't even try it."

Q raised an eyebrow. "And you've suddenly become some kind of kung fu master? If you were as good as all of that, why were we hiding from the Beryllinuns with candlesticks?"

Unfortunately his show of reason didn't seem to have any effect on Naomi, whose eyes were gleaming. "They could hit me, but the moment they'd hit me, they would have lost everything. No one in their position gets away with hitting an unarmed, defenseless female civilian." And then she was looking up at him, a scowl on her face. "You shouldn't have interrupted."

Q was not pleased by the way this was going. "You have no idea what you're talking about. You don't know what kind of brutes those men are."

"They're not gods."

"Tell me about it." For a moment his guard slipped, and Naomi could see something more vulnerable underneath, something she did her best to ignore because it didn't fit into the way she wanted to feel at the moment. "You... they're vicious, Naomi. They hate me, and they'd do anything to hurt me. Or you. If they thought that I cared about you..." his voice faltered momentarily, "...they wouldn't even think twice about hitting you."

"All the more reason to teach them a lesson then about why they shouldn't do things like that," Naomi said stubbornly, trying to hold onto her anger.

"Fine, be completely ungrateful. Go get yourself killed. See if it matters to me." Q stalked away from the door and over to the bed, turning his back on her. His back was taut, and he was waiting for the sound of the door opening. He didn't know what, if anything, he would do then. He couldn't abandon her, but he couldn't endorse the stupid ideas she was currently espousing. Torn, he waited in suspenseful agony for her to make her decision.

Then he felt hands tentatively touching his back, one pressed flat against him, the other on his arm. "I'm sorry, Q."

"Sorry? For what?" The words came out harshly, but he turned anyway, looking at her standing there.

"I lost my temper. I..." Naomi couldn't take it anymore. She'd given up her anger to make Q feel better, but without it, all the frustrated emotion was piling up inside her with no place to go. She felt tears stinging her eyes, and tried to choke back a sob, but it didn't help. "I'm sor-ry."

And then Q was holding a crying Naomi, wondering what was going on and wishing he could appropriately punish the people responsible for doing this to her. She had moved into his arms all on her own, and he was loathe to let her go, holding her tightly as if he was the one who needed comfort and not she.

Anderson was not very happy.

It had taken Security fifteen minutes since the start of the attack to reach Q's room, fifteen minutes that might have cost a valuable officer her life -- T'Meth was still in critical condition, and there were no guarantees that she would make it. According to Li, her battle to stay conscious between the time she was shot and the time she killed the Beryllian assassins might well have killed her -- if she'd gone into a healing trance immediately after she'd been shot, her odds of survival would have been dramatically increased. As it was, she had lain there in agony and used the resources that should have gone to healing herself to protect Q instead for five long minutes -- minutes in which her coworkers in Security should have arrived, and didn't.

She didn't believe for a moment that it was deliberate negligence. If Q had been alone, perhaps she might have entertained that notion. But Security would never have deliberately abandoned one of their own to die. No, she believed that the reason for the delay was that Security had been engaged in fighting two dozen other Beryllians that beamed through at the same time Q's assailants did, during the moment when the shields were down. Anderson supposed she could be thankful that the Beryllians seemed to have considered it important to limit unnecessary casualties -- if they'd torpedoed the base in that moment of vulnerability instead of beaming troops in, they could have made sure of their target by destroying the entire base. Instead they'd sent a handful of soldiers to distract and slow Security from reaching Q's quarters, and if it hadn't been for the fact that Anderson had agreed to station T'Meth and her people as a rotating team on Q's quarters, the plan would have worked. As to how the Beryllians had gotten such an accurate fix on Q in particular, Anderson knew she'd never find out. Most of the alien assailants that came here after Q seemed to have a preternatural knowledge of exactly where Q was that was not hindered when Q's location was kept secret; sometimes Anderson thought some old enemy of Q's was passing out free samples of his DNA to other enemies with finely-tuned long-range DNA scanners. Or something.

She felt sure, though, that the delay would have been cut if Security had had a competent commander. If someone in the security offices had passed out handheld communicators to bypass the computer problem, as Anderson herself would have done if she'd been there, or Ohmura would have done if he had, Security could have managed a much more coordinated effort. If the Security officers had been ordered to reach Q's quarters whatever it took -- a command decision someone should have made when they realized the Beryllian soldiers were deployed to stop them from reaching Q -- someone could have gone through the Jeffries tubes, rather than slugging it out with the enemy troops. The entire incident shored up her belief that Starbase 56 needed a new security chief now.

So she'd leaned on Starfleet HQ, with this incident as evidence, and happily her favored candidate's transfer approval had come through. James Azoth had been her chief of security when she'd commanded a starship on the border patrol; when she'd gotten her injury and her promotion to desk duty, Azoth had stayed on under the new captain. He had fought in the Cardassian War, as had she, and was far more experienced than Ohmura had been with war-footing situations, which was frequently a good description of Starbase 56. Anderson had no doubt he'd be able to whip her somewhat ragged security department into shape -- and he was scheduled to arrive tomorrow.

Which made her a little happier. But not much.

It didn't take Azoth long at all to settle into his new post and start working on the top priority Anderson had presented him with, Q's current situation.

He demanded, and got, detailed reports from everyone who had been involved with the situation with Q. The security personnel wrote their reports to put themselves in as favorable a light as possible, of course, but Azoth disregarded much of that. What was clear was that Q and Security had been engaged in a cold war for weeks now, and that was totally unacceptable. Regardless of what the man did to provoke them, Q was a civilian, and his protection in particular was what this starbase existed for. Azoth made it clear to his people that the cold war was to end. He didn't care who started it, he didn't care who perpetuated it, but anyone found behaving in anything other than a fully professional manner toward Q would be summarily dismissed from the starbase. Anyone who didn't believe they could handle that was free to transfer now, without prejudice.

Half a dozen people transferred. Azoth was very surprised. Commanding officers all over Starfleet made offers like that, and usually no one took them up on it.

It seemed clear to him from the reports that Dr. Naomi Allen was at least as culpable in perpetuating the war as Q himself, or anyone in Security. There were several reported incidences of her being verbally abusive to Security -- not that Q wasn't, of course, but Q could not be removed from the situation. Dr. Allen could be. She had apparently latched onto Q in a fit of protectiveness, having been the first to find him after his assault, and had taken it on herself to guard him and "protect" him from his own security as if he were a small child, and as if Security was, in fact, entirely composed of the kind of people who had attacked him in the first place. Such behavior was perhaps understandable, but it had made matters much worse.

Evidence suggested that she was not Q's lover, despite references to her as such by many of the security officers; the officers who had worked with T'Meth had reported that Allen slept in Q's living room, and that their gut feeling was that she was more like a mother than a girlfriend to him -- that she touched him frequently and familiarly to offer comfort, but there seemed to be nothing sexual there. All that in itself mattered little to Azoth; if Q wanted to keep a mother figure around in his rooms, and Dr. Allen had volunteered for the task of babying him, that was none of Azoth's concern. What concerned him very much, however, was that Allen had consistently interfered in Security's duties. She had worsened the cold war against Q by verbally abusing Security, perhaps out of mistaken protectiveness, or perhaps because she couldn't play mother to Q if he didn't have "enemies" he needed "protection" from. She had interfered with Security taking Q's initial deposition about the attack on him, because, it was reported, she wanted privacy with Q. She might have encouraged Q to try to blackmail Anderson when the protestors had tripped him, which had gotten Q thrown in the brig, instead of the more sensible and moderate route of explaining to Anderson what had happened; it was certainly true that Q was capable of such immoderate behavior on his own, but on the other hand, it was telling that Allen had been able to charge to his rescue very shortly after the incident. Finally, and most telling, there was evidence that her presence had interfered with T'Meth's work enough to get T'Meth mortally injured.

The holotapes were clear evidence. Allen had, apparently as another of her tactics to harass Security and make it clear to them that Q saw them as monstrous enemies, gotten Q to have all incidents with Security in Q's rooms recorded -- not that Azoth was against that on principle, but she seemed to have done it to play to Q's belief that Security was out to get him, and the result had been to drive a further wedge between Security and Q. It had backfired on her, though. The holorecording had cut out when the Beryllians had brought down all communications and audiovisual recording basewide, but just before that occurred, T'Meth and Allen were shown arguing; T'Meth was saying that Allen should leave Q's quarters, that it wasn't safe for her here, and Allen had stubbornly refused to go. Allen and Q's statements hadn't mentioned this argument at all. Nor had they mentioned the fact that T'Meth had apparently strained her back, according to the medical exam, in making sure both of them got to safety, a strain that had undoubtedly slowed her reaction time and eventually gotten her shot. Braun, who had been Ohmura's second and the acting security chief since his death, had done a reconstruction of events in the room that clearly showed how, based on the evidence from Allen and Q's statements and the physical evidence found about the room, T'Meth would have been seriously hampered from protecting Q by the need to protect Naomi as well. Fortunately, neither of the civilians had been killed or hurt; T'Meth was very good at her job. Instead, she'd taken all the extra burden on herself, according to Braun's analysis, and might now well die of it.

Azoth reviewed the evidence himself, and was forced to concur. Naomi Allen was a danger to Q. She was encouraging the antisocial behavior that had caused the war between Q and Security in the first place, she was antagonizing Security needlessly, she was an additional target for his assassins and therefore a further burden on his already precarious security arrangements, and she was quite possibly subconsciously pushing Q into dangerous situations so that she could mother him when he got hurt. Or, perhaps, Q was subconsciously pushing himself, so that she'd mother him. Either way it was dangerous. And either way, the most important factor was that her presence had caused a potentially fatal injury to a Security officer. At least until such time as Azoth had Security firmly under control, the cold war was ended completely, and much stronger arrangements had been made for Q's personal safety, she should not be permitted near Q.

Azoth explained his findings, and his conclusion, to Anderson, who felt somewhat stupid for not having realized this herself. Of course, she had a little less experience dealing with dysfunctional personalities like Allen's than Azoth did, but still, it should have jumped out at her. What kind of woman was so fiercely protective of someone as socially inadequate and incapable of returning affection as Q was, after knowing him such a short time? Anderson had assumed they were lovers, that some overwhelming chemical attraction had persuaded Allen he was worth protecting. But if they weren't... then Allen was probably a very sick woman, living out some vicarious fantasy by pushing Q into dangerous situations with Security and then "protecting" him from them. Anderson was sure that Allen had had no complicity in the original attack on Q, but she could well have fanned the flames against him by treating Security like dirt, encouraging Q to do likewise, and riding to his "rescue" when he got what obnoxious people deserved. Certainly Q would never behave any better as long as he had her around, validating the awful things he did and making him feel like he didn't need to be a civil human being in order to get protected and coddled. Q was an attention hog. If making a melodrama of his life, acting as if Security was about to kill him any minute now, and pushing them to the point where they would let protestors knock him down without interfering would keep Allen with him, Q was, from all Anderson had seen, perfectly capable of doing all those things. It was a sick little folie a deux that would just get worse and worse the longer it lasted, until finally Q, or more security guards, ended up dead.

She had no trouble at all signing the order that Dr. Allen was to be kept from Q.

"You can't do this!" Naomi all but shouted, leaning over Anderson's desk. "What right do you have to say who I can and can't see?"

The commodore took a deep breath and faced the irate programmer calmly. "Every right. I represent Starfleet in this matter. And the best thing for your welfare and the welfare of one of the Federation's most precious resources, is that you be kept away from him."

Naomi sputtered ineffectually, unable to take that all in at once. There were just too many arguments crowding her mind, too many reasons why Anderson was dead wrong and shouldn't be proceeding with this course of action.

Anderson saw her opportunity and took it. "Surely, Dr. Allen, you can see that your life is at risk by remaining with Q..."

"That's my choice."

The commodore shook her head. "No. It's not. And even if it was, your presence puts Q at risk."

"What? How can you say that?" Naomi asked, astounded by what had to be a complete untruth. Q benefitted from her presence; the fact that she'd rescued, had to rescue him more than once since she'd stumbled on him in a dark corridor of the starbase only reinforced that impression of his need for her. He would have died, or been nibbled to death by ducks, if she had just walked away.

"His security guard was assigned to him to protect him and him alone. The need to protect you is what hampered T'Meth, and caused her to be in Sickbay right now, in critical condition. Your selfishness is what is endangering Q's life more than anything else."

"That's not true!" Naomi said. "You don't understand! Q needs me..."

Anderson shook her head, a very slight motion. "What Q needs is adequate protection. And he's not going to get it as long as the need to protect emotional targets is hampering his security team." She tapped the screen in front of her. "The new security chief, Commander Azoth, has presented me with his analysis of the situation, and I agree with his conclusions. You are a risk as much as you are at risk, and I can't allow you contact with him."

Naomi's fists clenched, and she longed to do something about the commodore's smooth assurance. But Anderson held all the high cards, and Naomi knew it. If she protested, Anderson could very easily have her removed from the starbase, and that would be intolerable. As it was, she might be able to fight it. Some other day.

"You're wrong, and I'll prove it. You'll regret this decision."

It wasn't quite a threat, and Anderson didn't make any special note of it for Security as she could very well have done. As she watched Dr. Allen stalk out the door, she felt very old and tired. She was doing what needed to be done, but that didn't make it any easier or make her feel any better about it.

Q hadn't fully realized before how unutterably dull his life was.

Oh, he'd known it, just as he knew his back hurt most of the time. But he'd grown so used to it that it dropped into the background. He had stopped noticing how badly he hurt until Naomi rubbed his back... and he'd stopped noticing how bored and lonely he was after she'd come to him, and now that she was gone he couldn't forget again.

The active harassment from Security had largely stopped. His guards behaved like bland automatons. Almost, Q wanted to provoke them, to see if he could force them to say or do something that didn't make them seem like robots. But he was still too frightened to do that -- if he provoked them, he might push them into beating him up again. And this time, there would be no Naomi to rescue him.

It was all his fault. He should have made her leave when T'Meth told her to, shouldn't have held her hand and clung to her. They told him that T'Meth might die because of Naomi's presence, and he knew he was the reason Naomi had stayed. If he hadn't wanted her there so badly, T'Meth wouldn't be dying.

It was better that Naomi was gone, better that he would never have to see her bloody and broken like Ohmura had been, like T'Meth had been. He tried to convince himself of that. He was a plague carrier, harbinger of death, bringing it to anyone who came too close to him, and he should live in quarantine for the safety of those around him. It was his fault he had made so many enemies, his fault he had gotten thrown out of the Continuum and needed to depend on others to protect him. All his fault.

But he was so bored. And so very very lonely.

He alternated between sleepwalking through the meetings, sunk in numb apathy, and viciously attacking the scientists so he'd have something to do. A lot of the pleasure had gone out of getting an angry reaction out of people, though. Being forced to provoke people who wanted him dead, being forced to defend himself with his usual cruel wit from people who he knew had every intention of breaking his bones and making him beg... that had taken a lot of the savor out of conflict for him. But the alternative was to roll over for Anderson and play good little Q, make nice with her scientists and walk the straight line she drew for him. And that was far more unpalatable.

He tried lying. No one caught him at it. That terrified him. He could lead these people so far astray, set back the cause of Federation science a hundred years, and it probably wouldn't catch up with him for years... at which point the Federation, disgusted by his treason, would probably dump him in a penal colony for the rest of his life, perhaps even mindwipe him, or possibly just abandon him to the cold universe where any of his enemies could get at him. The thing that terrified him was how attractive that seemed, a sort of glorious self-destruction that almost made him feel as if, if he did it, he would feel alive.

He didn't lie again. If he was going to choose self-immolation, he wanted something worth more than that to go down for.

Occasionally he thought of protesting, trying to argue with Anderson. Surely he could put some kind of pressure on her -- at the moment he wasn't particularly frightened of ending up in the brig... But then he would remember T'Meth. Regardless of how unhappy he felt, it was the right decision... wasn't it?

There was nothing he could do and no one he could see. Naomi had been closed off to him, and while it had been made perfectly clear that it was a decision of Security that was keeping her away from him, Q couldn't help but feel that if she really cared, she'd find a way around that.

But she hadn't, and the conclusion he drew from that was unarguable.

And in the end, he had nowhere to go and no one to talk to. Under ordinary circumstances, that wasn't something he minded much. People were dangerous, unpredictable creatures who at any moment could and would turn on him. And Q didn't want that, had no desire to encourage a situation where that could happen to him. Because certainly Medellin would always be happy to talk to him -- talk to him and note it all down for future reference while doing absolutely nothing about the miserable way he felt, and the guilt and pain and anguish roiling through his soul.

What he needed, who he needed was Naomi. But he couldn't have her. And, ever since the attack by the Beryllians, he'd been tailed intensively by Security. There was no chance that they would let him see her, even if he wanted such a thing, was reduced enough to seek her out, Q was quite certain that Security would take great joy and relish in refusing him access to Naomi. They'd always shown so much joy in depriving him of everything else, why not that as well?

Which put him right where he was, standing in the center of an empty holodeck, wondering if he were losing his mind.

He hated the holodeck, would never use it under any circumstances, and very certainly not for what he needed right now, and not with someone, or in this case, multiple someones standing outside the door, well aware that he was inside, able to indulge the most debauched fantasies he could dream up. The holodeck was the mortal equivalent of omnipotence, a weak shadow of the real thing, where they could create anything they wanted and do anything they wanted. For humans, it was an amusing pastime, and nothing special. For Q, it was the ultimate perversion. Here, if he wanted, he could create scenarios which allowed him to pretend that he had lost nothing, that everything was the way it had been, that he still had control and power.

Which was precisely why he didn't do things like this, why he shouldn't be here, and why he was trying desperately not to think about it too much. Not that he could help himself.

"Computer, run program."

Around him formed the scenario he'd dreamed up. It was nothing gaudy, nothing spectacular in any way. Just a little cafe, at night, dark and quiet, with only one patron, and an apparently permanently absent proprietor. And, upstairs, although he really didn't want to think about that detail, but couldn't help but remember what he'd had to spell out, and almost stopped himself from putting in, there were rooms where one might spend the night, or do... other things.

At one of the tables, near the window was the other occupant of the room, a woman. Q swallowed hard at the sight of her. He couldn't believe he was doing this, couldn't believe he'd actually gone ahead and created this. She had dark, smooth hair, nothing like Naomi's riotous mass of red, and was of medium height, and only fair attractiveness. Anything else would have sent him running away, which would have been entirely humiliating, considering that he'd created the hologram.

Settling his courage around him, what little there was of it, Q strode forward.

"Oh, there you are," the woman said, smiling. "I've been waiting for you."

He swallowed hard, and took a seat at her table. "Have you?"

"Of course I have. What did you think, that I wouldn't wait?"

"The thought never crossed my mind," Q said with perfect honesty. She was after all a hologram; what else better did she have to do?

She leaned forward, elbows on the table, looking at him intently with her dark eyes. "So? What did you want to talk to me about that was so important?"

He couldn't help but feel a tremor of something go through him at her nearness, even though he knew she wasn't real, that he was actually sitting here talking to the thin air. "Nothing. It was nothing."

"It can't have been nothing," she said, her expression remaining sympathetic and open. "You would never have been so urgent about it if it were nothing."

He was about to tell her, about to start detailing the petty weaknesses and the overwhelming guilt that had led him to this point, to the brink of his own sanity where talking to himself suddenly seemed like a good idea, when she covered his hand with hers. "You can tell me anything," she said in her soft, velvety voice. "It's all right."

But he couldn't think of telling her anything, couldn't think at all. Her touch was holding him there, had forced something up to the surface that he didn't want to look at, had thought he was, if not completely ready to handle, at least desperately in need of. He wanted her, wanted this ridiculous unreal holodeck creation, who didn't even care about him, who was programmed to be what he needed her to be.

His hand closed around hers, holding on tightly despite himself, despite his knowledge that this wasn't really happening. "You don't want to know. It's too paltry and squalid."

Her hand was very warm in his, and he found himself focussing on that, trying to keep the unreality of it at bay, to believe in the scenario. "I... a woman was killed, almost killed, and it's my fault. They're blaming me for it. And," a sob welled up in his throat, "they might be right. If I knew how to protect myself, if I hadn't let Naomi be there, then it wouldn't have happened again. People wouldn't always be getting killed for me. It's funny, you know," he said, still staring at her hand, "I could have sworn I'm not worth the trouble."

"Of course you are," she said emphatically. "You're more than worth it."

He looked up at her, at her face, wanting to know if she really meant that, and then realized what he was doing.

She was a hologram. She didn't mean anything at all. She could no more believe in him than a grain of sand could.

Sick horror washed through him. He was so pitiful that he was seeking comfort from shadows.

With a strangled sob, Q tore his hand out of her grasp, pushed himself away from the table. He didn't look at her, didn't want to see her. She didn't even exist. "Computer, end program!"

And then he was back in the empty holodeck, nothing there but the yellow lines on the black walls.

Q tried to compose himself, but it was no use. He was breathing as hard as if he'd just escaped from a large, hungry lion, and tears stung his eyes. Trying not to look too obviously upset, he strode out of the holodeck, and past the startled Security guards.

"Well, that was quick," one of them said.

"How long do you really need?" the other one answered in an off-hand way, pushing himself away from the wall and following Q.

They weren't even talking to him, but Q felt his face flush, and he held his head higher, trying not to think about anything at all.

"Come in," Counsellor Nian Medellin said, looking up from the brief profile she was reading. Her next visitor wasn't a patient, which was something different. She might not even have done any preparation for this, except that the person who had entered the room was a rarity, someone Medellin would have said didn't exist -- a friend of Q's. Which made all the background research she could do not enough. The chance to obtain some insight into Q was too compelling to refuse. She was continually frustrated by him, the worst of possible patients, and found herself at a loss to know what to do with him. He needed her help; she knew that, however much he might deny it -- but she couldn't do anything for him, could hardly even talk to him at times, given the way he attacked her. It was very frustrating, and she welcomed this opportunity to get a different perspective on him, a different line of attack.

"Hello," Naomi said, stepping in cautiously.

"I'm Nian Medellin, and you must be Dr. Allen. It's nice to meet you."

Naomi nodded. "Thank you for seeing me on such short notice. I know it must have been difficult to reshuffle your schedule for me." In truth, she had spent two days, two eternally long days waiting for Medellin to find the time to speak with her, during which Naomi would happily have sent herself to Q via the mail system if it weren't that she'd been barred from electronically communicating with him as well. She couldn't understand that prohibition at all -- as a security provision, there was no reason for it unless they were paranoid enough to think that any emotional connection, however tenuous, was a link that a potential assassin could exploit -- and interpreted it instead as yet another attempt by Security to make Q's life miserable whenever and however they could.

"It was no trouble at all. Won't you have a seat?"

Naomi looked around the room, which had a long low couch with a table in front of it and an arm chair across from it, and Medellin's desk, which the counsellor was currently sitting at, and took a seat at one end of the couch, curling up against the arm of it.

Medellin came around the desk and sat in the armchair. "Now, what did you want to talk to me about? I assume you're having some sort of problem."

Naomi grimaced. "You could say that."

"And you need insight on how to handle Q? Although I've talked with him extensively, I can really only speak as a counsellor regarding him. Even if my ethical standards didn't prohibit..."

"That's not it," Naomi said, impatience shading her voice. "Haven't you heard anything about T'Meth and the change in Q's security restrictions?"

Medellin's brows furrowed. "I'm not sure what you mean. I've heard of T'Meth, but..."

"The attack on Q by the Beryllians. T'Meth was injured. You've heard about that, right?"

The counsellor nodded, relieved to finally be able to place the reference. "Of course. I'm terribly sorry that the lieutenant was wounded..."

"Yes, yes, it was quite the tragedy," Naomi said. "But that's not what I came here to talk to you about."

"Then what is?" Medellin said, feeling frustrated in her inability to converse with this woman. Her entire life was predicated on her people skills, and she couldn't talk to Dr. Allen at all, couldn't even find out what was bothering her without resorting to the simplest of questions.

"Commodore Anderson, in her infinite wisdom, has decided that, to protect Q and make the job of protecting him easier, to ban me from seeing him."

"Well, I'm sure if the commodore ordered that, that she must have good reasons..."

"I don't agree." Naomi's chin was set stubbornly, and she met Medellin's eyes squarely. "It may be easier to protect Q without me around, but it doesn't make him any safer. If anything, it makes him less safe. He's been beaten up by Security, threatened by them, and they've consistently failed to protect him. While T'Meth has done an exemplary job of protecting him, she's only one, and she's not there anymore. And the same people who allowed a mob of protestors to swarm Q, attack him, and then hauled him off to the brig for daring to complain about it are currently in charge of taking care of him. He's not even allowed to see me, the one person he knows he can trust. How do you think he feels right now? How could this possibly be good for him?" Naomi had leaned forward during her speech, and sat back now, waiting for Medellin's response.

"You believe then that Q is at risk now?" Medellin asked, cautiously testing the waters.

Naomi nodded emphatically, hair falling into her face. With an impatient gesture, she tucked it back behind her ear. "He needs people around him who support him. And I'm the only one I know he trusts." And the only one I trust to watch over Q's best interests, she added silently. "It can't be good for him to be isolated indefinitely from people, to be told he can't have any friends because it's just too dangerous. He needs contact as much as the next person, probably more. If it's too dangerous, then increase his security, or something, because it just isn't right. Do you understand?"

Medellin nodded, heart in her throat. This was the opportunity she'd been waiting for all along, and while she barely knew Dr. Allen, she did know that Q having a friend and even better, a lover, was the best thing that could happen to him. While she couldn't quite believe that Eleanor would place a blanket restriction on such a thing, Medellin could definitely see Allen's point.

"How long have you been involved with Q?"

Naomi waved her hand irritably. "What does it matter? Since he was attacked by Security, about, how long, two or three months ago?"

"And how well do you know him?"

Naomi shrugged her shoulders. "Not very. We've never really sat down and had one of those heart-to-heart talks about our family lives, if that's what you mean. But I know him, and I'm not going to stand uselessly by and let him get hurt again."

Medellin heard Allen's emphasis on the word "know" and took it to mean that she and Q were indeed sleeping together. That made things easier to understand. Allen's protectiveness was quite explainable coming from a lover, and that fact was not something explicitly stated in what information Medellin could get about her. "I take it this is not a short term relationship for you."

Naomi shook her head without even thinking about it. She and Q didn't really have a relationship, but she wasn't going to abandon him under any circumstances. Not when he needed her so much. Not when she felt the pull of attraction from him so strongly that she was tempted to crawl into his bed without any sort of invitation. "I plan to stick around for as long as he wants me."

Medellin's brows raised. "As long as he wants you? Don't you think that puts you in a very dependent position?"

"Dependent? Me?" Naomi said disbelievingly. "I don't think you understand Q very well at all."

"Why don't you explain him to me then."

Naomi looked distrustfully at Medellin. "I don't see what this has to do with what I came here about. Q is the least likely person for me to ever be dependent on. If anything, he's dependent on me, or would be if he weren't so independent of everyone. He just doesn't know enough about people or anything to be anything else." Naomi's cheeks reddened slightly as she remembered how badly Q had misinterpreted their relationship early on. He'd thought she was trading her protection for her sexual services, and had ended up kissing her because he thought he was obligated to do so. It had been a very pleasurable experience -- up until she realized he felt coerced into it.

"That's an interesting way to look at it," Medellin said, intrigued by Allen.

"So?" Naomi asked. "Are you going to help me?"

"I'll see what I can do."

Around the sixth or seventh day -- he wasn't keeping careful track -- since he'd been forbidden to see Naomi, he went to see T'Meth in Sickbay.

"What is it this time?" Li asked as Q walked in, trailed by his security entourage.

"Don't trouble yourself," Q said coldly. "I'm just here to visit T'Meth."

Li gave him a disbelieving look. "You, come to pay a social call?"

"Believe what you like. How is she?"

"She's still comatose, so if you came to harass her you're out of luck," Li shot back.

Was that all anyone thought of him? Q felt a surge of outrage. As if he would come and harass someone who had saved his life. "What a pity," he said with flippant coldness. "I suppose I'll have to bear up under the disappointment. Where are you keeping her?"

"Sekal's with her. I don't want you going in there and disturbing them."

Q stared at Li. "You know, the woman did save my life. I don't think it's entirely unreasonable that I should want to pay my respects. Is there some obscure human protocol to this that I overlooked? Was I supposed to arrive wearing sackcloth and ashes, for instance?"

Li narrowed his eyes. "You can go in, but only for a few minutes, and only if Sekal doesn't mind."

He went to get Sekal's permission, leaving Q standing in the middle of Sickbay. Q was quite sure that other people did not need to go through this rigmarole to visit someone in the hospital. He felt a sudden wave of bitterness. Security claimed that he cared nothing for them, that he didn't appreciate the sacrifices they made for him. But when he tried to show his appreciation, he got treated like a criminal. What was the point?

Li returned. "She's in a private room, over there. Only a few minutes."

Q glared at him. "How disappointing. I had planned to move in," he said sarcastically, and swept off.

T'Meth looked much smaller in a sickbay bed, with tiny neurostimulators attached to her temples and half of her body concealed under a diagnostic hutch. Sekal sat by her side, in a chair, holding one limp hand.

Q stared. This is what you've done, he thought in a sudden paroxysm of furious guilt, and wanted to run away. Instead he forced himself forward. "How is she?"

"She is insensate to the outside world," Sekal said quietly. He looked up at Q. "It is not necessary to come and offer condoloences. T'Meth will not know that you are present."

"And you think I'm trying to win brownie points, is that it?" Q asked harshly, suddenly hating Sekal. Even this man, Starbase 56's chief science officer and coordinator of the meetings, someone Q worked with every day, assumed Q could not possibly have a single positive motive. "Thank you for the vote of confidence."

"I didn't mean to offend you. It's simply that many humans have felt the need to come and offer their sympathy, and I don't quite see the logic. T'Meth is unaware of their presence and I do not require emotional support."

"Well, I'm hardly like many humans. You should know better, Sekal." Q stepped forward, looking down at T'Meth. "I -- you have some kind of mental link with her, don't you? Can you sense her at all?"

Sekal stiffened. "That... is not something we usually discuss with non-Vulcans."

Q sighed. "I am hardly a stranger to the concept of mental links, you know. I'm not asking out of some prurient curiosity about your telepathy; I just want to know how badly T'Meth is hurt."

Sekal raised an eyebrow at him. "Why?"

"Because!" Was it so hard for everyone to believe something positive of him? "It's my fault! Is it so unrealistic that I should want to know the extent of what I've done?"

Now Sekal looked even more confused. "Q... why is it your fault? T'Meth's duty was to protect you. It's no more your fault that she was hurt than it would be a starship's fault for causing a warp core breach."

"Great. So I'm a warp core breach." It had been a mistake to come here. Sekal was right. What had he hoped to accomplish?

"I think you misunderstand," Sekal said. "I am not trying to imply that you are dangerous -- or that you are an inanimate object... Q. I'm not accustomed to dealing with humans in highly emotional states, so it's entirely possible that I am phrasing this badly. What I mean is that you hold no culpability for what happened to T'Meth. She only did her duty, the work she trained for. It is hardly as if she never expected that this might happen. You must not blame yourself."

"Why not? Everyone else does." Q paced around the bed until he was standing next to Sekal.

"I would think that you of all people would consider the opinions of others to be irrelevant."

That was before they tried to kill me for them, Q thought bitterly. "Just tell me, Sekal. Is she in there at all? Can you sense her mind on any level?"

Sekal hesitated. Finally, slowly, he said, "I am not a very powerful telepath... T'Meth herself was much more skilled..."

If the hedging around the question hadn't told Q what he needed to know, the tense Sekal spoke of T'Meth in would have. Q's heart lurched. "She's brain-dead, isn't she?"

"Scans show that there is neural activity. However... I have been unable to detect her mind. It is possible... that the higher mental functions... may be gone."

Q swallowed hard. "That's all I wanted to know."

"Q, do not blame yourself. Given your situation, it is inevitable that Security officers will be killed in your defense. There is no logic in torturing yourself over the inevitable."

Sekal probably meant the words as comfort, but they hit Q like a blow. Yes, it was inevitable, wasn't it? Anyone who stayed near him was likely to get hurt or killed. Only a matter of time.

Q was not good at dealing with death. He had seen millions of mortals die, of course, but that that level it had been meaningless. Even now, the notion of an entire species being wiped out filled him with nothing stronger than a feeling that that was really too bad, unless it was a species he'd personally liked. And he'd always avoided getting attached to particular mortals, or if he did, he kept them from getting killed until such time as he grew bored with them and moved on. He had never had to see people he cared for die.

There had been Q who had died, and that had hurt profoundly. Two friends of his had died twenty years ago for committing an unauthorized act of reproduction and then failing to meet the Continuum's conditions for their parole. But that had been entirely their fault. He had tried his best to talk them out of it, and he'd failed, but he'd never truly expected to succeed -- few Q had any kind of consistent track record at influencing other Q. He had done all he could, and he'd known it. His conscience had been clear.

But from the moment that he'd realized that Data could have been killed protecting him, Q had realized that he really, truly did not want anyone to die for him. The idea that his actions could cause a mortal to die without any such intent on his part had always bothered him immensely. From his very first act of attempted self-destruction, from his offer to save Starbase 56 by giving himself to the Borg as a stopgap measure, he had hated the notion of others dying for him so much he'd been willing to die himself to prevent it.

And now Sekal had just confirmed his worst fear. It would keep happening. Anyone who got close to him would die. Anyone who tried to protect him would die.

A sound that was almost a sob, would have been if he hadn't clamped down on it in time, choked Q's throat. Sekal looked up at him. "Q, are you well? Do you need the doctor?"

"Fine," Q said dully. "I'm fine. Just... thinking about something."

Sekal took that answer at face value and nodded, looking back down at T'Meth. "It is the Vulcan way to focus on the achievements one made in life, rather than the nature of the death," he said quietly. "T'Meth protected you and Dr. Allen from harm. She succeeded in her mission."

"To what point?" Q asked harshly and spun away, tears blurring his eyes. He couldn't handle this anymore. T'Meth had died to preserve him so that his presence could kill more people? What was the point to that?

Alternately, what was the point to him living when he could not have anyone close to him at all?

He walked back to his room, pretending to a composure he did not feel as he walked through the halls, hiding his turmoil from his guards and the rest of the world. Three years ago, he would have laughed hysterically at the notion that his life would be empty without people who cared about him. His biggest problem, he would have claimed, were people that cared about him -- intruding in his life, giving unwanted advice, ordering him around... tears blurred his vision. He had raged against that for millenia, and he would give anything now to have it back, to have a fellow Q trying to tell him what to do and interfering... at least that would mean they cared. But they didn't care, and neither did anyone else.

In his room, safe from prying eyes, he cried. Naomi didn't care either. She'd been forbidden to see him, true, but she hadn't even tried to send him a message, hadn't fought the prohibition. Because if she had, she would be here. Naomi tore through barriers like they didn't exist when she wanted to. She hadn't torn though this one, so obviously she didn't want to.

And why would she want to? He had almost gotten her killed. If she'd stayed, she would have gotten killed. Whatever sexual delusions had made her offer to be his friend in the first place, surely they weren't worth her life. Nothing he could offer would be worth someone risking their life for. If it hadn't been for Naomi, he wouldn't have thought anything he could offer would be worth someone even taking on minor inconvenience for. Certainly no one else would ever go out of their way for him.

He thought of Harry, who didn't care either, had made it abundantly clear that he hated Q and never wanted to have anything to do with him except in a professional capacity. His sobs grew louder then. He had never known what he'd done wrong, had never seen the danger signs. Sure, they were always arguing, but he'd enjoyed that; that was like what he remembered of the Continuum. He'd thought that surely Harry would know what he really meant.

But Harry hadn't. Humans were very one-dimensional creatures. They didn't understand the different levels of speech, didn't understand the subtle nuances of an argument that conveyed caring and a desire to be with another person, as opposed to an argument that conveyed a true belittling of the other. Harry had said Q was enormously selfish, never gave anything of himself, was uncaring and thoughtless and acted like he was still God. And totally inept in bed. Except for the inept in bed part, other humans had confirmed the truth of what Harry had told him, time and time again. After a while, Q had successfully buried the pain, managing to convince himself that he didn't care, that he was socially a disaster and that was just the way it was and it was entirely humans' faults for having such an arcane and incomprehensible social system and he didn't really want anyone to care about him anyway.

Naomi had exploded all his lies. He did want someone to care. Maybe the Q of three years ago would have laughed hysterically, but then, that Q had never had to deal with anything worse than a tonguelashing from his elders. He had always had a ready closeness with his fellow Q, so intimately bound into the fabric of his being that he hadn't even known it existed until it was gone -- it had been a self-evident property of the universe, not worth thinking about or defining, until he didn't have it any more.

And he wanted it. He wanted it desperately, he needed it, he was dying inside without it. He had been dying inside for two years now, and it wasn't all the loss of his powers, wasn't all the fear of the horrible things that could and did happen to him now. No one cared if he lived or died, and that was killing him. He had tried desperately to cultivate attention, any attention at all -- and Security had beaten him near death and harassed him for a month for it, because the only kind of attention he could get was hatred. Hatred was better than indifference, he'd always thought. Now they both made him sick, and the only thing he could think about was Naomi, and how she'd been his friend and cared for him, and how much he'd needed that. And how it could never happen again.

Eighty years of bleak emptiness stretched out in front of Q suddenly, giving him vertigo. If he cultivated attention, he would be beaten to death, or abandoned to die the next time aliens attacked, the way all of Security but T'Meth seemed to have abandoned him this time. And he would hurt, and scream, and die begging, all dignity gone. And if he didn't cultivate attention, he would have what he had now: six to eight hours of talking to scientists who cared only for his insights every day, and long lonely nights with no one to talk to and nothing to do. And nothing could ever get better, because what he needed was a friend, and even if Anderson let him make any, which was doubtful in the light of her decision about Naomi, anyone who came near him would die.

Q sat on the couch, curled up around himself, the tears finally gone. He stared into empty space as the implications of his logic sank in. Horrible, agonizing death at the whim of an enemy... or eighty years of emptiness, watching innocent bystanders get killed for his sake, and finally expiring when his body decayed too far to be useful. The choices were unbearable. There had to be a third alternative...

There was.

Medellin took a seat in Anderson's office, settling herself there heavily. She disliked confrontation, and even more than that, she disliked having to tell someone she was close to that they were wrong. And yet, Eleanor was wrong, and Q's mental health was at stake. Which was Medellin's responsibility, even if she frequently could do nothing about it.

"I had an interesting visitor earlier today," Medellin began. "A Dr. Naomi Allen."

Anderson resisted the urge to groan. "Yes, I know Dr. Allen."

"She wanted to talk to me about Q. She believes you've ordered her not to see him."

"That's correct," Anderson said, sitting up more straight in her chair. When she spoke, her voice was harsh. "Has she been hitting you up now? Trying to get you to take her side against me?"

"And why would she want to do that?" Medellin asked, her face and voice carefully neutral. "Is there some reason she shouldn't be allowed to see Q?"

Anderson nodded crisply. "Dr. Allen is a threat to Q's security. I've ordered that she be kept separated from him in order to better protect him."

"How is she a threat?"

"During the Beryllian attack, the security officer in charge of ensuring Q's personal safety requested that Dr. Allen leave so that she would have only one target to protect. Allen refused. If she had done as ordered, then I wouldn't have a fine officer lying in Sickbay right now, in critical condition. The only reason Q survived at all is because of T'Meth, and the only reason she may very well die is because she failed to invoke the Vulcan healing ritual so that she could kill his attackers."

"I see." Medellin nodded, and steepled her hands together. "So, if Dr. Allen had not been there, then T'Meth could easily have overcome the Beryllians on her own."

Anderson inhaled sharply as she began to realize that Medellin was not playing a sympathetic ear at all. "There are no guarantees. But if Dr. Allen had done as ordered..."

"There would still have been the same number of attackers, and Q would have reacted the same way."

"Not at all!" Anderson said, beginning to get angry with Medellin. "Dr. Allen is encouraging Q to take unnecessary risks and defy Security. Without her there, he would have obeyed T'Meth's orders."

Medellin laughed.

Anderson stared at her for a moment, caught off guard. "What?"

"You don't really believe that, do you, Eleanor? Q obeying anyone?" Medellin shook her head. "I've spoken with both Q and Dr. Allen, and I am certain that Q is not the obedient type. You can't say that he's a trusting lamb who's been led astray. You know better than that."

Anderson's face flushed. "You don't understand."

"Then explain it to me," Medellin suggested gently, sitting back in her chair.

"Dr. Allen is a dysfunctional personality. She has chosen to live with Q, and not for the obvious reasons. At first, I assumed it was that kind of relationship, but I don't believe it is anymore. She's feeding off of him, Nian, encouraging him to get into confrontations with Security and other people, encouraging him to get hurt, so that she can comfort and mother him. She's validating his beliefs that Security is all out to get him, and that makes her a risk."

"Didn't two members of Security recently attempt to kill Q?"

"That was an isolated incident!" Anderson said in a very tight voice, wishing that this were someone other than Medellin, someone who wasn't a friend, who she could just throw out of here, instead of having to muster up increasingly weak-sounding justifications for her actions.

"And didn't Security later allow Q to be attacked by a mob of people without protecting him or reporting the incident?"

"Yes, but..."

"But?" Medellin asked quietly. "Perhaps it's time to give credence to Q's beliefs that Security doesn't like him, rather than dismissing his complaints."

Anderson looked down at her desk for a long moment, trying to control herself. "I realize that there have been problems, which is why I expedited the arrival of a new security chief for the department. I don't expect that there will be any more problems with Security."

"But there were."

It was a question, rather than a statement, and Anderson answered it as such. "Yes, there were." She took a breath, then admitted, "Six officers transferred when Commander Azoth informed them that anyone who did not behave in a professional manner toward Q would be dismissed."

"Six? That many?"

Anderson nodded. "I trust that the commander will be able to handle the group that's remaining."

Medellin shook her head slightly. "Six officers who left their posts rather than deal professionally toward Q, and you still believe that Dr. Allen was wrong in thinking that Security didn't like Q? Eleanor."

"It's not just that," Anderson said defensively. "The incident with the Beryllians proves that there's a problem."

"The only thing that it proves is that Dr. Allen is suspicious of a group of people with a known history of harming Q. Given that they're lovers, I find that perfectly normal."

Anderson looked at her sharply. The fact that Allen and Q were not lovers was one of the keystones behind her belief that the woman was using Q. "You believe that they're emotionally involved?"

Medellin nodded. "Q has been refusing my comms, and in any case, I doubt he'd tell me anything, but Dr. Allen was very forthcoming on the subject of their relationship. I have no doubt at all that they're emotionally involved. And -- more importantly, that Q needs her."

"I don't question that he needs her, but..."

"But, don't you see, Eleanor? He's never needed anyone. Q pushes everyone away from him. He has no relationships, no friends, hardly any acquaintances. The only people he sees on a regular basis are Security and myself, and you've told me that up until recently, Security disliked him and felt free to behave in any way they chose toward him. That isn't healthy."

"And what do you want me to do about it?" Anderson asked, already knowing the answer to her question.

"I believe that Dr. Allen should be allowed to resume seeing Q. Despite appearances, he is human, and he needs contact with people who care about him. And you can't deny that she cares about him, can you?"

Anderson shook her head. "I don't believe that the relationship is good for him."

"Let me worry about Q's mental health, Eleanor. I am the counselor here, you know."

The commodore sighed deeply. "All right, Nian. You've won this one. But if I end up being right and Dr. Allen continues to encourage Q to place himself into dangerous situations so that she can mother him after he's been hurt, I'm going to have to remove her for his own protection."

Medellin leaned forward, expression intent. "I don't agree with that at all."

Of course you don't, Anderson thought, closing her eyes for a moment. She suddenly wished, with great intensity, that she could just throw Dr. Allen out the nearest airlock. The woman had the greatest capacity for stirring up trouble of anyone she'd ever known. Including Q, who had at least never turned Nian against her. "And why not?"

"Think about it, Eleanor. How often was Q involved in dangerous situations before he met Dr. Allen? Fairly often, right?"

"Yes, but..."

Medellin ignored the interruption. "And it's reasonable to say that this is going to continue, isn't it?"

"Well, that wasn't my point."

The counselor held up her hands. "Either way. What I'm trying to say is that you can't hold Dr. Allen responsible for things happening to Q. She hardly encouraged him to have Security attack him and leave him for dead. These kind of things are going to continue to happen. You can't expect anything else." In fact, Medellin did hope for something else to happen. It was her opinion that part of the reason Q was so disagreeable with everyone, and so unlikeable, was that he had no one to turn to as a friend or a lover. Of course, since he was so unlikeable, it was hardly likely that someone would step up and volunteer for the position, but now that someone had, Medellin didn't see the point in chasing her away. Medellin hoped that Q would be happier and make a better adjustment to living as a human with someone who cared about him. But that was a hope rather than a prediction, since it was nearly impossible to say what Q might or might not do.

Anderson stared at Medellin, balked. The counselor was quite right. Q had always gotten into trouble. And while the commodore believed that he was getting himself into more trouble as a result of having Dr. Allen there, it was impossible to prove that. Certainly, Q had frozen before and caused a Security officer to die without any help at all from Allen. This time, at least, he had gotten to his room, instead of just sitting there and allowing the Beryllians to pick him off easily. And Anderson couldn't say but that the difference wasn't due to Allen, that her presence hadn't encouraged him to move rather than what his natural reaction would have been. Perhaps a concern for Dr. Allen's welfare had prompted Q to take shelter. In which case...

"I'll allow it," Anderson said. "But I expect you to keep a close eye on the situation, Nian. I can't have Dr. Allen turning into a protector for Q and encouraging him to reckless acts."

Medellin nodded. "You have my word on it."

He stretched out in the tub, trying to relax. The water was warm, and soothing, and it would be the last pleasure he would ever have. He wanted to enjoy it, but he couldn't; he felt entirely too empty, entirely too numb to enjoy anything at all.

Q couldn't feel his wrists; the numbing solution he'd put on them had combined with the hot water to make them disappear, as if his arm stopped at a certain point and some distance later his hands began, floating in midair and disconnected from his body. It was what he wanted, what he needed to do what he had come here to do, but it was disconcerting.

There was no time like the present. He had wanted to relax, to have this last enjoyment, but the gray clouds around his mind had leached all color, all pleasure out of everything, and he only wanted to end it.

He had placed the mug on the side of the tub, where he would have easy access to it. Now he picked it up and hit it against the side of the tub. It wouldn't smash the first time he did it, or the second, as if he were being too timid about hitting it hard enough. The third time he slammed it down, and it shattered.

One of the shards was sharp enough for what he needed. He lifted his hands, studying his wrists, seeing the faint blue lines underneath the skin. With one hand, he dug the sharp shard into the wrist of the other, dragging and pushing until blood welled up. It was only mildly uncomfortable, the numbness in the wrists preventing any serious pain. He dragged it back and forth across the wrist until a sharp pain stabbed through his arm-- he'd gotten below the level of the numbness. But it didn't matter. Blood was welling in pulses, small spurts in time with his heartbeat.

The injured hand was too weak to cut the other one. He simply used the cut hand to brace the shard as he rubbed his other wrist over it, again and again until blood welled out of that one too. Then he put both wrists into the water, and watched as the red plumes floated up, feathery tendrils reaching out through the water. His life was a spiderweb of red cobwebby lines, escaping the bounds of his skin, the prison of his body, to float away into the clear hot water.

Q leaned back and closed his eyes, suddenly dizzy. This wasn't exactly a quick method. But Security was hardly likely to batter down his bathroom door, and the more important considerations had been that it be dignified, possible-- given the restrictions on him, since his overdose on pills last year-- and as painless as could be. He had used drugs to make sure his body was purged, that death would not cause his sphincter muscles to betray him-- that had happened with the pills, and it had been unutterably humiliating to wake up in Sickbay and be told that had happened. It would have been too utterly silly to go fully clothed into the bathtub, and would have defeated the purpose of the relaxing water, but he was wearing a pair of swimming trunks so he would not be naked when they found him. Originally he had thought of making out a will and leaving some painfully symbolic objects to some of the people who had abandoned him-- some archaeological knickknack for Picard, some item with shared memories for Harry, the little crystal wren that Security had broken to Naomi... but then he'd realized how pathetic that would look after he was dead, as if he were saying, "I died because you didn't love me, because you left me, because you sent me away!" and how they would all laugh at his pitiful melodramatic gesture. So in the end, he'd decided not to leave any will at all.

Nothing else needed to be done but wait.

Medellin had talked with Commodore Anderson, and while Naomi would have dearly loved to be privy to that conversation, all she knew of it were its results. Namely that she got to see Q again.

She had won.

Naomi smiled sunnily at the guards, who glared back at her as she entered Q's room. They couldn't stop her, and they knew it, and she was just vindictive enough to take a not-so-secret delight in that fact.

"Q?" she called, peering around the room. He wasn't in the common room, and his bedroom door was open; she looked inside, but he didn't appear to be there.

Then she saw that the bathroom door was closed. Well, that explained it. He was undoubtedly busy with more of the interminable grooming sessions that Naomi was familiar with from her overnight stays with him. She wouldn't bother him then.

Naomi settled herself on the couch to wait. Her eye fell on a rack of antique books, and she plucked them out, examining them interestedly. Most of the books were Great Literature, but some was stuff she had never heard of before. Of course, Great Literature was not exactly one of Naomi's hobbies -- she read a good deal, but eclectically -- so the fact that she hadn't heard of them proved little.

She flipped through the books until with a start she realized that she'd been here waiting for something like twenty minutes. Most likely Q had to be in the bath, for him to be in the bathroom that long. In which case, since he didn't know she was here, he might walk out without clothes on -- she did that sometimes, in the privacy of her own room. She should warn him so he wouldn't embarrass himself.

Naomi walked over and pressed the comm for the bathroom. "Q? It's me, Naomi. I just wanted to let you know I'm here."

There was no response. There was no reason she should have expected one, as her statement didn't require a response, and yet she felt obscurely saddened. And a bit fearful. What if Q had actually believed Security's nonsense about him being a threat to her, and wanted her to go away? Or what if he blamed her somehow for what had happened? She didn't believe that to be true, and yet the possibility nagged at her. Or maybe he was just sulking and needed to be cajoled out of it.

Or, maybe, he just didn't feel like answering.

She decided to ask a question that called for an answer. If he didn't say anything then, she'd know something was wrong. "I could leave and come back, if you'd prefer; when do you think you'll be out?"

No answer. Had he fallen asleep in there? Or worse, what if he was hurt? Naomi had seen Q's bathroom, the archaic tiles, the huge ceramic bathtub... you could slip and break your head open in there. She buzzed again. "Q? Are you okay?"

Q had been fading in and out of consciousness for quite some time. He was cold, and dizzy, and weak, barely able to feel the warmth of the water anymore. The cold was nothing new, though; his life had turned cold and gray some time ago, and he was used to it. Or should be, anyway. Occasionally a moment of lucidity would strike, and he would remember why he was here, and that he was dying, and why. He felt impatience then, and an awful devastating sense of grief that his life had been so wasted, that there was nothing left for him but this. Most of the time, though, he was not lucid, floating in deeply unpleasant dreams. They were not horrifying or frightening; that would almost have been preferable. They were instead deadly dull. He was cataloguing files of some sort, and he had to do it, he couldn't stop, despite the fact that in real life he had never put up with such a menial task for more than five minutes, tops. He was in hell, endlessly cataloguing files. Terran mythology claimed that hell was someplace you went after you died, but Q knew better. Hell was where you lived when you were alive, if you were human. He wondered if the concept of a hell, of an afterlife filled with pain, had been invented to keep humans from killing themselves at the horrible dullness of their lives. Why wasn't he dead yet?

And then the dream changed as he heard Naomi's voice. She was holding him, stroking his hair, murmuring that everything would be all right, and the bit about the files was forgotten immediately, dismissed in the face of the more compelling image. Tears welled in Q's eyes, a mixture of gratitude and grief. It was only a dream, and he knew it; she would never really be there again, never comfort him as she had before. No one ever would. He knew that. But it was a beautiful dream, and part of him felt an overwhelming gratitude to Fate or the vagaries of his own mind, that he was being allowed such a wonderful vision before he died. For this illusion, he would almost be happy to die...

"It's all right," the dream Naomi murmured. "It's all right... Q, are you all right? Can you hear me? Q?"

That was a strange thing for her to be saying. Q wondered why he would dream that Naomi was asking if he could hear her. Of course he could hear her, inasmuch as she existed at all, which she didn't. No doubt the real Naomi had already forgotten about him. And even if she hadn't, what could she do? Anderson would never let her come to him. Yet he heard her pleading with him, "Q, answer me, please, are you all right? Can you hear me?" and there was something entirely too odd about that to accept.

Q opened his eyes, fully awake again. Of course Naomi wasn't there. He felt crushing disappointment, and anger that his mind would not let him stay with the beautiful dream, that it had to present him with too many anomalies to sleep through. Why couldn't he sleep what was left of his life away and dream that Naomi loved him and would protect him? Was it such a terrible thing he was asking, a small illusion to die with?

And then he heard her again. "Q, please! Say something, please, let me know if you're all right, if you are, if you're not I'm going to have to call Security to open the door and I don't want to do that if you're all right, can you hear me? You're not asleep, are you?"

His heart leapt. Naomi was really there! Right on the other side of that door, just barely out of his reach. If only the door was open, he could see her, could touch her, before he died... but the door was locked. He himself had locked it.

He tried to speak, to tell the computer to unlock the door... but only the barest, weakest croak came out. He was too weak to speak.

Outside, Naomi thought she heard something, a tiny small sound from the bathroom, and she could have wept with relief. "Is that you, Q? Are you all right?" Maybe he had just fallen asleep in the tub, she tried to tell herself. Maybe her persistence had woken him, and he would be annoyed but fine. Oh, god, she hoped so.

Because the alternative was that he was in there, attacked by aliens or suffering from some sort of stupid accident, maybe bleeding, maybe dying, and she couldn't bear that.

Inside, the realization that Naomi was out there and he couldn't speak to let her in had driven Q into a terrified panic. The pounding of his heart was agonizingly painful, given the loss of blood he had suffered, and spots and redness danced before his eyes. There was a roaring in his ears from terror. If Naomi were there, then he didn't need to die, he didn't want to die, but he was too far gone and it was too late. He couldn't save himself, and Naomi couldn't override the door lock. He was going to bleed to death without even seeing her again, and he could have borne that, was willing to bear that when he believed he would never see her again anyway, but now that she was so close, he couldn't bear the thought of dying without so much as seeing her.

Desperately Q mustered up what little remained of his strength. "Nao...mi....?"

Outside, Naomi heard him, and went into panic mode again at the sound of his voice. It was weak, as weak as it had been when he'd pleaded with her not to kill him after he'd been beaten and left to die. Could Security have attacked him? Given the extent of T'Meth's injuries and the fact that Security would undoubtedly blame Q for them, maybe it was possible. Maybe history was repeating itself all over again, and he was dying in there. There was a plea in his weak cry, begging for reassurance, begging for her to rescue him, and here she was still trapped behind a door. "Q, the door's locked. Please, can you tell the computer to unlock the door for me, so I can help you? Please, let me help you?"

Silly Naomi. Did she think he didn't know that? But she was there, she would help him, if only he could get the door open. "Com...pu'er...?"

He couldn't manage more than that at once, he hadn't the breath for it. Dying had not been physically unpleasant when he'd been resigned to it; the water had still been warmer than he was, and the dizziness and loss of blood had hardly troubled him when he hadn't exerted himself at all. Now, though, he was struggling against it, and death, as if sensing he was trying to escape its grasp, clutched onto him tightly enough to cause him pain.

"Awaiting instructions," the computer said.

Naomi fretted desperately. If Security had done this, she couldn't call them to override the lock. She could call Sickbay, but she didn't know the extent of Q's injuries, didn't know if this would be one of those things that Li would be cruel and dismissive about, and she didn't want that to happen to Q if he wasn't actually hurt that badly. If he had slipped and hit his head, he would need medical care, but having a doctor beam here wouldn't necessarily be warranted. On the other hand, if he'd been beaten up... It was with enormous relief that she heard his fragile voice manage the word, "Unlock..." and the door whoosh open at her proximity.

She ran to him, taking in the bathtub, his drained, white complexion... the redness of the water in the tub. "Oh, Q..." she murmured, heartbroken, as she realized what he'd done, what he'd been trying to do. It was all at once what she'd been trying to make Medellin understand, and yet far worse than she could ever have imagined, would ever have wanted to imagine. How could he have done this? How could anyone have hurt him badly enough to make him do this? What kind of horrible pain had he been suffering, that suicide had seemed the only answer?

Q let himself slump back against the tub, no longer struggling quite as hard. She was here. If his own actions must kill him, at least now he would not be alone when he died. "Did... something... rather," he whispered, trying for a self-mocking smile. Naomi looked so unhappy, so crushed at the sight of him. While part of him selfishly was glad of that, glad that someone would be unhappy if he died, the rest of him wanted, oddly, to comfort her, to repay her for coming here to comfort him.

"This isn't the brightest idea you ever had, no," Naomi replied, with the wavering, shaky smile of a person trying to fight off tears. She couldn't even put her arm around him effectively; the tub was too big -- it was against the wall, so she couldn't get behind its head, and if she tried to reach across to him, either the tub would get in the way or she would put a strain on his neck by pulling him to her. She wanted to nestle his head against her chest, to stroke him and comfort him in the face of such destroying pain, but had to settle for perching on the edge of the tub and putting her hand on his collarbone, on the far side of his neck. "Computer, open comlink: Dr. Allen to Sickbay."

"Sickbay here."

"I'm in Q's quarters. He's badly hurt; he needs a medical team right away."

Li's voice was professional, but with just a touch of "here-we-go-again" sharpness that made Naomi bristle. "What's the nature of the injury?"

She was not going to announce that Q had tried to kill himself over the comlink. "He's been cut, basically, and he's lost a lot of blood. He's conscious now, but very weak."

"Neither of you are wearing combadges, are you?"

"No." What did that have to do with anything?

"Then it'll be faster if a medical team beams to you. Stand by; I'll be there in two minutes. Li out."

Q raised his head, suddenly concerned. "Bathrobe...?"

Naomi looked down at him, and realized for the first time that under the reddened water he was wearing boxer trunks. There was something unbearably pathetic about that, how Q struggled to armor himself and maintain his image even in the face of such despair that it had driven him to self-destruction. "I can't put a bathrobe on you while you're in the tub. You'd look really silly in a dripping wet bathrobe. You look fine, Q."

"Out... tub..."

"Can't," Naomi said seriously. "I'm not big enough to support you in your condition; I don't have the leverage. And it won't help you any to slip and hit your head. Don't worry about it, Q; you look perfectly fine." She swallowed against a sudden lump in her throat.

Q subsided, accepting Naomi's word as true because he was just too weak to worry about it. He was going to be all right. She would take care of him and make sure that everything was fine. Q closed his eyes and relaxed, accepting the semiconsciousness that his blood-starved body needed to keep functioning at all. Naomi was there; he didn't need to worry about anything at all.

The medical team arrived almost immediately, Li taking in the situation with a glance. He glared at Naomi for one brief instant, but didn't say anything to her, barking orders instead to the two people with him, who moved without pause to get the bleeding stopped and to start replacing what Q had lost.

They ignored Naomi, who stayed as close to Q as she could without getting in the way. He was only semiconscious, but she still couldn't leave him alone with the medical personnel, even as alone as three feet away would make her. The memory of the last time she'd been with him when he was half-dead came back to her, and she didn't want him waking up and feeling as frightened as he had then.

Li spoke a few curt words with his people and then turned on Naomi. "We've got to get him to Sickbay. He's lost a lot of blood, and although the warm water's cushioned the shock to his body, he's still in danger."

Naomi nodded tensely. "Will he be all right?"

"Of course he will," Li said irritably. "It was a stupid stunt to pull."

"Stunt?" Naomi said, bristling.

Li nodded. "If he'd really wanted to kill himself, he would have slashed down his arms, not across his wrists. It would have taken him hours to die from blood loss this way. It was all just another one of Q's attention-getting ploys."

Naomi had to restrain herself from jumping on Li right there. Only the need to stay in physical contact with Q kept her from doing so, and only his presence kept her voice to a low hiss instead of a shout.

"You call suicide an attention getting ploy?" Naomi asked, her voice rising despite herself. "I hardly think Q has been reading manuals on the proper way to commit suicide."

Li nodded firmly, not one to back down from his opinions. "I've seen this from Q before..."

Naomi cut him off. "Doctor, if I may be so bold as to call you that, when it doesn't seem like you care about healing the sick in any way, shape or form, Q would have died if I hadn't happened to come in right then."

Li sniffed, a little offended by the insult to his professional competence. "An overstatement."

"Really?" Naomi asked, her tone dangerous. "And who would have come in? Or would you prefer to go away and I'll call you when he's really in danger?"

The doctor gave her a long-suffering look. "Sarcasm doesn't befit you."

"I'm so sorry to inconvenience you by finding him too early to make it worth the exertion of your phenomenal talents," Naomi said, voice dripping with what he just told her she was very bad at.

Li threw up his hands. "You're reading too much into this. Q does this sort of thing all the time. This is nothing to get so upset about."

Naomi stood up, leaving Q's side and stalking over to the doctor, facing him down. "You have made abundantly clear to me that you don't care about Q's welfare, and would rather he were dead. That you can't even find the smallest amount of pity for someone who is so miserable and so unhappy with his life that he would take any method available to leave it only convinces me that you are incapable of giving him anything resembling adequate medical care."

She was virtually trembling with suppressed rage, and the other medical personnel, a man and a woman, neither of whom Naomi knew by name, were making themselves very small and quiet, attending to their duties and nothing else.

Li stared at her for a long moment, then looked away. "Let's get him to Sickbay."

The first thought Q had upon regaining consciousness in Sickbay was that he was a failure. Not only was he a horrible Q, a horrible human and incapable of sustaining any kind of relationship whatsoever, he also couldn't manage the supposedly simple task of ending his own life.

Q didn't open his eyes. He was too unhappy for that. Hearing the bustle and noise of the medical personnel around him, the slight humming of the computers, all of it was too much for him, too much input, too much hard reality. He wanted to pull a blanket over his head and cry, to try to pretend this wasn't happening. He was so pitiful, and he didn't know why he even bothered pretending to get along.

A low moan escaped from his throat. He couldn't stand it, didn't want to face the moment when he had to open his eyes and deal with everyone who knew of his ineptitude, his lack of ability to handle what to them were absurdedly simple problems, unable to face them knowing that they'd once again seen him naked and humiliated, knowing that he was incapable even of managing his own death properly.

He felt a gentle hand brush his cheek, rose scented air going with it, and looked up, startled.

Naomi hovered over him, a relieved look in her eyes. "You're awake," she said very quietly. "I'm so glad to see you're all right."

She didn't stop touching him, and for a brief instant Q gave into his intense inner desire for oblivion, closing his eyes and resting his face against her hand, drawing what small, guilty pleasure he could from her touch. There was something immensely reassuring about having her there, something in her eyes, her presence that he needed.

Naomi leaned down over him, her face almost touching his, lips brushing his forehead. "It's all right. It'll be all right."

That soft reassurance broke any plans Q might have had of pushing her away. He couldn't stand it anymore. Curling into her, hiding his face against her chest, he broke down into quiet, heartwrenching sobs. She was all the comfort and safety in the world, and even though he knew it was nothing more than an illusion, he felt better with her there.

Naomi put an arm around him, holding him as best she could in her awkward position, unconscious of the few interested observers, wanting to give Q whatever solace she could. That he could be so unhappy as to want to kill himself hurt her, made her feel like sobbing and tearing people up into little bits, and she would have eviscerated anyone who made the mistake of interrupting them at that moment.

She stroked his back until his tears wound down, not offering to leave him.

Finally, Q looked up at her, his face tearstreaked and reddened. "Go away."

"Okay," Naomi said, not moving. He was still clinging to her, and she wouldn't have left him like that no matter what he had said. She reached up to him, brushing his hair back from his forehead. "How do you feel?"

"How do you think I feel?" Q retorted acidly. "I just tried to kill myself and then I wake up here. How would you feel if you were trapped into something you never wanted and don't want, tortured and crippled, and you can't even escape by killing yourself?" He wanted it to come out as a cleverly sarcastic question, but he still wasn't in control of himself, was still weak, and he broke down into a sob, his voice tortured and carrying all the self-hatred and pain he felt.

Naomi bent over him, holding him very close and shielding him from anyone who might see his outburst. She felt protective of him, and hated Anderson, Security, Li and everyone else with a sudden passion for putting Q into a position like this.

"It's all right," Naomi said in a low murmur. "It'll get better. I promise."

"You promise?" Q asked querulously through his tears. "How can you promise anything?"

His voice was so broken, and all she could think about was how he had sounded the night before, when she'd found him in the bathtub, dying and still valiantly trying to maintain his image, struggling even to the last, when another person would have given up.

"I can promise because I can," Naomi said, meaning it. She would do anything in her power to keep this situation from reoccurring, anything it took.

"Oh, that makes a lot of sense," Q said weakly, face still hidden against her. He couldn't move, didn't want to move, just wanted to stay here where he felt, for whatever irrational reasons, safe and warm, and for the moment, sheltered.

Naomi sat there for a long while like that, holding him, not moving. She could tell from his breathing and the way he was sagging against her that he was asleep again, but she didn't want to leave him. Q needed her, and she was going to stay here.

Li came over to her. "I take it he woke up?"

Naomi nodded. "Yes."

"Good. He should be ready to leave Sickbay shortly." Li looked at Naomi and didn't make the remark he was thinking about how a more serious wound would have caused a longer stay. Although he couldn't fathom why, it was evident that she cared about Q. "His condition has been steadily improving. Once he's able to walk on his own, I'll discharge him."

"Thank you," Naomi said, still holding Q against her. She didn't like the doctor, but then, that was hardly unusual. There were a lot of people she didn't like. As long as Q would be all right, she didn't have a problem with him.

He was weakened when they finally did release him from Sickbay, weak in more than body. Li was a halfway competent doctor, despite his prejudices, and had healed Q up tolerably well, but it was the emotional wounds that went deeper.

As much as Q knew he should be pushing Naomi away, should be re-establishing his independence from her, from everyone, he couldn't, couldn't bear to let her go.

"You won't leave, will you?" Q asked, as Naomi walked with him back to his room.

She looked up at him, trying to keep her feelings of how unhappy she was with his haggard appearance, how sad looking at him made her feel, how protective, at bay. The uncharacteristic openness of his question which made it almost a plea only made her feel more that way. "Of course I won't."

"They'll make you," Q said with a sense of hopeless fatalism. It was true. They would force her to leave. He couldn't keep her, had been a fool to ever think otherwise, to ever want anything else.

Naomi shook her head fiercely. "Anderson wouldn't dare. Not after this. I talked to the counsellor and got her on my side. And she convinced Anderson. But it doesn't matter. After this, there's no way the commodore can get rid of me or pull me away from you." She had a sudden thought, and glanced up at him. "Unless you want me to go, of course. I'm not going to force myself on you."

His hand reached down for hers, clasping it tightly. He didn't want to break down into tears right here, but if he had to think about her leaving, he would.

They got to his door and went inside, their security escort remaining outside.

"Would you like to lie down?" Naomi asked him. "On the couch or in bed? I can get you something to drink, or whatever."

That actually sounded good. The walk from Sickbay had taken more out of him than he would have thought. For a brief moment, Q considered resisting, thought that being in his bed with her there would be a compromising position, but he had no more barriers against her, nothing more to hide from her. She'd seen it all, and if she'd wanted to kill him right then, he would have willingly acquiesced.

"Bed," Q said, anything more being impossible to get out. His habitual pushing her away wouldn't serve now, and he didn't know what else to say.

Thankfully, Naomi didn't seem to need anything else, holding onto his hand and escorting him to his bed, pulling back his covers for him, then watching as he sat down. She helped him pull his boots off, then dragged the blanket over him. He didn't really need it; it was warm in the room, but he seemed to appreciate it.

More than appreciated it as a matter of fact. Q sat there, watching as she put another pillow behind his back, propping him up, then went out, and came back with a steaming mug of something from the replicator. He felt coddled and taken care of, a completely foreign feeling to him. Not only would he have never allowed something like this under other circumstances, it could never have happened. No one cared about him, would ever care about him enough to do this.

Except Naomi. And he didn't understand that at all, and didn't want to question his luck too fully lest it vanish away like a dream.

"I brought some hot cider. Would you like some?"

Q looked dubiously at her, but was in no position to refuse. She gave him the mug, and he took a sip. He was sitting up enough that he was in no danger of spilling it on himself, and it wasn't hot enough to do any real damage if he did. And -- to his surprise -- it actually tasted good.

He swallowed hard on something other than the taste of apples then, something very like tears. He couldn't bear this, couldn't bear the comfort she was offering. It was all too much. After having nothing, after thinking of his rooms as a trap from which he could never escape, a trap which he had tried to get out of by slitting his wrists, it was too much to be given this kind of comfort and attention.

Q handed her back the mug, and Naomi took it. He had only had a few sips, but she supposed he was too weak to actually drink much, or just not in the mood for anything resembling nourishment.

She was sitting on the bed next to him, facing him, one leg off the side, her positioning as neutral as possible. He'd misread her intentions before, and while she wouldn't mind deepening their relationship to include sex, she certainly wasn't going to pressure him about it. Not now, and maybe not ever. For the moment, all she wanted to do was to help ease the dark shadow under his eyes, and whatever immense loneliness and unhappiness had drove him to where she had found him two nights before, in the bathtub, half dead.

He reached out for her hand, and she gave it to him. That was much better. Q closed his eyes. He was quite tired, but he couldn't rest. There were too many nightmares there behind his eyelids waiting for him, too many things waiting to assault him, to remind him that he wasn't safe, wouldn't ever be safe. He felt physically better, felt better just being here rather than in Sickbay. His bed was comfortable, and he felt a warm sense of relaxation stealing through his body little by little. But it wasn't enough to drive out the shadows, the things that haunted him, even here, even now.

Q opened his eyes again and looked at Naomi, really looked at the slim little redhead sitting on the side of his bed. He needed her, and moreover, knew what he needed. His interlude with Harry had taught him that much, even as it had taught him that actually getting what he wanted physically would only sour the other person on him. But Naomi was different than Harry, and while he didn't know how different, it was enough to know that Harry had never really known Q before inviting himself into Q's bed. Naomi had seen the worst Q had to offer, had fought for him, comforted him, taken care of him.

If there were anyone, anywhere, he could trust, it was her.

Of course, the key part of that was "if". But right now, Q was too beaten down, too low to feel like he had anything to lose. And he needed so much.

Tentatively, he tugged on her hand. He couldn't put what he wanted into words. It would be too embarrassing; he would never be able to get the words out at all, and even if he did, there was just too much possibility that she didn't want him, despite all the innuendo that had gone before and how over-sexed all humans seemed to him, didn't consider him anything more than a crippled victim in need of pity and consolation.

Naomi came a little closer to him, and he felt encouraged by that, even as he was terrified of what might happen next, of making the next move. Because she wasn't close to him, wasn't taking charge of this, propositioning him as Harry had, and he didn't know what to do. His indecision was choking him.

With the air of someone who knew he was going to die from it, Q freed his hand from hers and laid it on her thigh, her leg now close enough for him to touch.

Naomi drew in a deep breath and looked at him. He couldn't mean what she thought he meant. Could he? She didn't know, and as much as she wanted to lie down next to him, to take him up on what seemed a reasonably obvious invitation, she couldn't. After the time when he had kissed her, and not wanted her at all, she couldn't intrude on him, couldn't force herself on him like that. She cared about him too much to take advantage of him, especially when he had revealed that he was at least somewhat frightened of it, frightened of someone not taking "No" for an answer.

Of course, for him to say no, first the question had to be asked.

"Q?" Naomi asked in a low voice.

He flinched, drawing his hand away, but it was too late. "What?" he asked harshly, waiting now for her to make a fool out of him.

"Not that I object or anything," she said, as lightly as she could possibly manage, "but do you actually want what I think you want?"

"Since I don't know what that is, I couldn't say," Q said, intending to make that into a sarcastic put-down, but having it come out all twisted, like a request for information.

His eyes were needy and fixed on her. Naomi didn't move. "This is your chance to say 'No' and get me to shut up and let you sleep." She swallowed hard. She wanted to make this as non-threatening as possible for him, make the choices clear and with no hint of coercion. "If you say no, I won't leave you. I'll still be your friend, and we can pretend that I never made a pass at you. Everything will be fine and nothing will have happened that either of us have to be ashamed of."

Put that way, it took the burden off of him, made it seem like she had made the advance on him. Q knew that wasn't true, but it eased some of the tightness in his chest, made it possible to breathe again.

"Or you can say yes, and I'll try to make you happy that you did."

That by itself was almost too hard for him. Q wanted so much not to be there, not to have to take any responsibility for this decision at all. It would be so much easier if she would just get it over with, and then he would bear no responsibility for any of this, wouldn't feel so torn apart.

But there was really nothing he could do. "Yes."

The word came out very softly, as part of a breath, and if she hadn't been listening for it, hoping for it, Naomi would never have heard him say it.

She smiled at him, a real smile, then leaned over him and kissed him very gently on the lips. He tasted like apples, like the cider he'd been drinking, and she resisted the urge to lick his lips.

Q returned the kiss clumsily, her positioning making it awkward for him to do anything at all, and the beginnings of desire stirring in him, melding in along with his fears, forcing him to be tense, far too tense.

She kicked her shoes off, then put her feet up on the bed, curling up alongside him, her body stretched out along his, her hip in the curve of his side. He didn't respond to her, didn't put an arm around her or try to kiss her again or anything at all. Naomi didn't know what to make of that.

However, he had said "Yes". He couldn't be too resistant if he had done that. With an inward shiver at finally getting to touch him, finally being allowed the freedom of his body, she pushed the blanket down and stroked a hand over his clothed chest, half-rubbing, half-caressing him.

Q didn't know what to think or how to respond. It was all happening so much slower than it had been with Harry, and he almost wished that she would do that, would just start in with the blatant sexuality, so that he wouldn't have to think. But it did feel good, and the prospect of feeling even better sent shivers through him. There was something very perverted about human responses, that it took sex in order to feel good, but he knew it would do that to him, and he couldn't help but remember what it felt like, what it would feel like, that overwhelming rush of release, the loss of himself in that greater pleasure.

The shivering was the first real clue Naomi had that Q liked this at all. She wasn't quite sure what to do herself. It wasn't every day she got a chance to seduce an apparently helpless, willing victim.

Her hand went under his shirt, brushing lightly over his skin, and Q shuddered deeply this time. It had been so long since he had really been touched, Naomi's infrequent backrubs hardly counting, and even those in the past, too far in the past. And he needed that.

He shifted to give her better access, hardly aware of doing so, of the way his body was silently begging for her touch.

And she obliged, pushing the shirt up and running her hands over more of his skin, leaning down to kiss and lick at his nipple.

He reacted as though he'd been struck, stiffening completely, and moaning.

Naomi wasn't sure at first if she'd done something wrong. She'd never encountered anyone that sensitive, and while she knew she'd done nothing that should hurt him, she still didn't quite know what to make of him. "Are you all right?"

What a silly question. Naomi was always asking the silliest questions. He reached up a hand to her, touching her shoulder, and she immediately came down fully against him, leaning against his chest, her warmth on his bare skin. The weight, slight as it was, felt good to him, a reminder of how this was supposed to go, of how it felt to be pinned down and held like this, like Harry had. He shuddered at the memory, his heart pounding.

She was closer now, and he ran his hand over her hair, feeling the silkiness of it on his skin. He couldn't bear to go back to his aloneness, the kind of aloneness that had driven him into the bathtub, and he knew that Naomi would fix that, would take care of it if only he let her. And he had, and now she was.

Q wanted to cry. The anticipation of it was too much, and having her here and knowing that she cared about him, wanted him, was all overwhelming.

Then she leaned forward and kissed him again, and this time he responded more fully, holding her lightly, as though she were fragile and might break, or worse, pop under too much pressure and burst like a soap bubble, like the kind of dream she was.

Naomi broke the kiss off and looked down at him. Sitting up a little, she took his hand and slid it under her blouse, placing it flat against her side, his fingertips just brushing her breast.

Q sucked in a deep breath, surprised beyond all measure. Harry had wanted Q to touch him, and Q had rarely if ever done so. For one, Harry would invariably harangue him on the subject, which would start a fight rather than getting them into bed, and for another, Q felt too stupid to really consider reaching out. He knew how good it made him feel to have Harry touch him, and now Naomi, but Q knew that he could never cause the same feelings in anyone else, was too clumsy and maladroit to provide a good experience, and couldn't stand the shame of trying and failing.

But he was touching her now, and it felt good. Her bare skin was even warmer than her body, and she didn't seem to mind at all that he was hopeless at this.

And then she leaned down again, and his hand slipped up and over her breast, and he felt that softness in his palm, her nipple hardening against his hand.

He yanked his hand away as if it had been burned, and to his horror, heard cloth tearing as he pulled too hard and in the wrong direction. Nothing came apart, but it could have, and the implication that he wanted it to was deeply embarrassing.

Naomi looked down at him, amused. "I could just take the blouse off, you know."

"Go away," Q said, his eyes screwed tightly shut, utterly mortified.

There was a rustle of cloth, and then she was draped over him again, but this time what was lying over his chest was bare skin. She hadn't left. He opened his eyes. He could clearly see what he had just touched, and more besides, and if he weren't so embarrassed, he might have actually enjoyed the view. He did find people attractive, couldn't avoid it, due to his human hormones, and while there was something frightening about it and something a little repulsive as well, he was very attracted to Naomi.

"I thought I told you to go away," Q said hoarsely, not moving.

"Oh," Naomi said, playing innocent. "Then you didn't mean that you just wanted my clothes to go away?"

"Why would I want that?" Q asked, wishing he'd never said yes, wishing he could just put everything back the way it had been. He needed comfort, needed her, and if it wasn't that the only way he could have that was through sex, he would have never agreed at all.

Naomi cocked her head, not leaving him. "Because it's helpful to be naked for this part of things." She didn't think he was quite that naive; no one could possibly be that naive.

"Oh," Q said, unable to think of anything more coherent under the circumstances. He should push her away, should stop this before it got anymore humiliating, should...

And then she was taking his shirt off, and he was helping her, batting away her hands and unfastening it as she helped him get it over his head.

With it gone, the multitude of scars on his body were clearly visible, including the two new, very faint lines on his wrists. She'd seen it before when she'd found him in boxer shorts in the bathtub, but Q still felt nervous about his reception.

Naomi didn't say anything at all, just looked at him with lambent eyes. Then she was lying against him, stroking him, and Q sighed deeply. He needed this, couldn't have refused it under any circumstances. He needed this part of it almost more than he needed to actually have intercourse with her, how she made him feel coddled and cared for, and even safe.

He put his arms around her impulsively, holding her close. Naomi burrowed against him, not resisting in the slightest, letting him hold her, letting him rest his head against her hair.

After a long moment, Naomi asked in a very quiet voice, "You don't even really want the sex, do you?"

Q tensed, suddenly afraid she was going to reject him. "Why would anyone want sex?"

Naomi didn't know whether to take that as a no or as a yes. It could have been either one. She chose to call it a no. "You don't have to. I'll stay here with you and hold you without you having to have sex with me, if that's what you want. You don't need to feel obliged to me or anything like that." After a brief moment, she added, "I do care about you. And it has nothing to do with being attracted to you, although I admit that I am."

Then he really did cry. He couldn't stand being cared about, couldn't handle all her warmth against him and how good she was being to him, he who didn't deserve anyone ever being good to him at all.

Naomi held onto him while he sobbed against her, his tears falling into her hair.

He didn't pull away after his tears had subsided, but Naomi straightened up nonetheless.

"Don't go," Q said, utterly frightened then that she might leave, despite everything she had said.

"I won't," she said, placing a reassuring hand on his stomach. "But I thought I'd get dressed. I'm afraid that I just can't lie around in the nude and be all friendly-like. It doesn't work for me."

"Oh." He couldn't stand that either. He knew without knowing how he knew that what he really needed was the hot closeness of their bodies, the full sexual experience. He had to touch someone, had to touch her. It wasn't enough to receive the small fragile comfort she could give him by sitting next to him and stroking his hair, although at one time that would have been an enormous amount to him. "Please..."

"What?" Naomi asked, holding her blouse in her hand.

It was harder to do this than he could imagine possible, and finally he was able to draw on the stored irritation and anger that had gotten him through so many other embarrassing situations. "Did I say you should do that? Didn't I say yes? What do I have to do, beg?"

That hadn't come out right either, and he felt his face growing flushed. Nothing he said tonight came out right.

But Naomi didn't keep getting dressed, turning instead to him, smiling. "Only if it turns you on."

"Why would begging do that? I can't imagine anything less sexual."

"Obviously you need to broaden your education."

"I don't have an education. Everything I need to know, I learned in the Continuum."

"I doubt you learned about sex in the Continuum."

"Exactly!" Q said triumphantly.

"Well I suppose then that you wouldn't be interested in this." Naomi matched actions to words, tracing a line down his body from his chest to his hips, letting her hand fall ever so casually across his groin.

Q's groan gave the lie to his words. "Not even a little bit."

"No, of course not," Naomi agreed, continuing to stroke him, caressing his clothed hip, then his leg, and over his penis, the sensations intense enough even with his trousers still on to cause his hips to rock upwards and elicit another groan from Q.

He knew that this was just teasing him, and it wasn't enough at all, but he didn't know what to do next. Things had always gone a certain way with Harry, and while that was the only pattern Q knew, he couldn't expect Naomi to want it that way. In fact, it wasn't biologically possible for Naomi to really take the role Harry always had, Q was sure. And he had no idea how to do it any other way. He wanted more of this, more than just teasing, and if he'd known how to get it, he would have done whatever he had to do. With Harry, he could have taken off the rest of his clothes and Harry would have known what to do, would have taken care of the rest of it for him.

On the other hand, as ideas went, it wasn't that bad of a thought that he should get naked, and perhaps then Naomi would let him know what to do.

Q brushed her hands aside, fumbling with the fastening of his trousers. When he had it open, Naomi helped him take them off, and then he was naked.

Naomi felt a little sad when she looked at Q. It was a deep shame what had happened to him, all the things that had happened to him. But he was attractive nonetheless, and visibly aroused. He wanted her as much as she wanted him, perhaps more, and that made her feel better about this. There was something about this happening now, the same day he'd been let out of Sickbay, that made her feel like she was taking advantage of him, getting him when he was weak and unable to resist her.

But he wanted her; that was undeniable.

She laid down next to him, twining her legs with his, and reached for him.

Q found it completely awkward to kiss her in that position, and was frustrated with Naomi for not doing something. He didn't know what it was that she was supposed to be doing, but he knew that more of this kissing business wasn't it. Were all women this indirect?

He leaned up on one elbow to better kiss her, and felt her leg brushing against his groin. For a moment, that made him tense, remembering Guinan and what she'd done to him, but Naomi wasn't moving, wasn't trying to hurt him, and after a moment, Q relaxed. He kissed her, and as she pushed closer to him, apparently trying to wear him as some sort of coat, her leg was being pushed even more against him, and then he realized how good that felt, that the friction there was almost, but not quite, as good as being touched.

Q kissed her again, and this time, she opened her mouth. He didn't mind at all. The rhythmic movement of her body against his was what he needed, and although it wasn't nearly enough, it was enough that it didn't matter that she was exploring his mouth with her tongue, or that one of her hands was playing with his extremely sensitive nipple.

Naomi didn't realize for a while that anything was wrong. Q was very enthusiastic about kissing her; she would never have guessed that he had been crying only a little while before. But after several minutes had passed, and he still made no move to go farther, or to stop, she knew something was wrong.

"Don't you want to... you know?" Naomi asked.

"To what?" Q asked, a little dazed.

"To actually have sex?"

And then he was embarrassed again. "Of course. I just... I..."

Naomi didn't wait for the explanation, tugging him more over her. He came reluctantly, and without displaying any understanding of how to lie on someone without crushing them.

She didn't complain though. That would have taken air, and she didn't have enough to spare from breathing at the moment to actually speak.

Q felt very close to panicking. This wasn't something he had any experience with, not like this, and what little he did know told him that he wasn't going to be allowed to take the passive role. Harry had always let him get away with that, had never forced him into doing anything, had allowed Q to just react to what was done to him. But he couldn't do that now, and while he was terrified, he knew that this was what he needed and that there was no other way.

Naomi repositioned him by dint of tugging on him until he was in a slightly better arrangement. It was rapidly occurring to her that she probably should not have done things this way, but it was a little too late to change her mind now.

Q couldn't concentrate at all. He was lying on her, and she kept squirming in ways that made him want this even more, kept him moving his hips searchingly. But it wasn't enough, and as tense as he was, frightened of doing things wrong, he couldn't think clearly enough to decide what he was supposed to do next, or what he was supposed to do at all.

And then she spread her legs wider, and he was half-lying, half-kneeling between them. She reached down between their bodies, and he let her. Her hand went around his penis, and he thrust into it, needing that desperately, that sort of contact being familiar to him from his previous experience and very welcome.

She let him for a moment, and then guided him inside. Q stiffened with surprise. He'd never felt anything like that, so hot and so good. Was that what Harry had felt? It was like having a mouth on him, only much better, and combining that with all the necessary warmth and skin contact that was essential to him.

Then his instincts took over, and he was pushing into her, wanting more of that feeling, yearning for it.

Naomi held onto him tightly. If she breathed in when he breathed out, and out when he breathed in, she was all right. On the other hand, if this ever should, by some fortunate chance, occur again, she was really going to have to discuss the idea of not actually lying on the person you were with, particularly when that person happened to be her.

He was tense, should have been too tense for this to work properly. The events of the last week or so had done nothing for his mental state. Everything that had led up to him being in the bathtub with the bright idea of cutting his wrists had not exactly been a picnic. And he was never happy in Sickbay, no matter what the circumstances. But from the moment he had heard Naomi's voice calling him out of his interminably boring dreams before dying, color and warmth had returned to his life, and it was that warmth he clung to now, was trying to bury himself in, to be completely covered by.

Naomi had her arms wrapped around him, holding onto him, moving with Q as he groaned and shuddered his way through what he apparently needed greatly. She would have said it was burning him, hurting him to do this, but he didn't stop.

He shuddered again, more violently, freezing in place as he felt the shock of his release rush over his body in a thousand prickling shivers. That was so good, not as overwhelming as the first time he had done this with Harry, but deeply gratifying, better than anything he normally felt, better than anything else he got to feel as a human.

Naomi held him close as he collapsed, limp and heavy on her. He clung to her as she shifted him to one side, and she pulled the blanket back up over them as quickly as she could so as not to disturb him.

"Don't go," Q said in a voice slurred by pleasure and exhaustion. He couldn't think of anything worse than her leaving him.

She nestled back down beside him, feeling happy as his arm came around her and he held her close as though to protect himself from losing her. "I'm not going anywhere."

He closed his eyes. Everything was all right now. And nothing terrible had happened to him during sex, which both surprised and gratified him. He had been expecting a higher degree of humiliation and feeling stupid, and this end result was more than he had dared hope for, although precisely what he wanted and needed.

Naomi didn't say a word, but held him as he fell asleep.

Q woke to a feeling of something being very right and very wrong all at once.

What was right was immediately apparent. There was a warm body snuggled up against his, and he had been sleeping curled around her, his arm over her waist, and his face pressed into her hair.

Q closed his eyes, allowing himself to savor the feeling for a moment, a brief stolen interlude of guilty pleasure. He couldn't keep her, knew there was nothing about him to entice anyone to stay, but it felt so good to be warm and cared for, and Q couldn't help but want that, even though he knew it was illusionary.

What was wrong struck him immediately thereafter. He'd been ignoring it rather than anything else. He knew perfectly well what was wrong and what would always be wrong with him. Naomi would leave him. This temporary comfort would vanish, would make him even more unhappy when she did go. Like Harry. Their liaison had been satisfying enough while it lasted, but Harry had left, too, and had wounded Q enormously upon his exit, telling Q exactly what he already knew about himself, that he was a selfish, unlovable person and a bad lover to boot.

As Naomi would no doubt discover, had already discovered last night.

He hadn't been paying attention to it in the middle of things the night before, had in fact, never had to worry about remembering to see to someone else's pleasure since Harry had always been quite loud about not having gotten anything out of an encounter.

But Naomi was different, and Q knew with a sudden, sick rush that he had really screwed up. She hadn't had an orgasm.

From his experience with Harry, Q knew exactly what that meant, what Naomi would think of that. It was inexcusable for him to have an orgasm and not his partner.

He was every bad name Harry had ever called him. Selfish. Inconsiderate. Worthless. And now Naomi would wake up and would leave him just as Harry had left, before Q had even really had time to get used to the idea of having her.

Unconsciously, Q clutched Naomi closer, as if holding her tighter could ensure that she wouldn't leave him, wouldn't abandon him to that frightening void that he knew existed out there, waiting to snatch at him. He inhaled the fragrance of her silky hair, even as he struggled with the despair that threatened to overwhelm him. He had already lost her, had proven to be a failure at yet another endeavor, yet another activity which he had once derided as being so childish and beneath him that he couldn't bother wasting his time thinking about it. Before he had even had time to get used to having her, he had lost her.

But what if it weren't too late?

The idea struck Q with sudden force. Naomi hadn't woken up yet. She hadn't yet left him. He still had time. If he cared at all, if he wanted to go to the trouble of demeaning himself in order to keep her around.

There really wasn't even any question of what he was going to do. Extricating himself quietly from Naomi, Q escaped into the bathroom.

When Naomi woke up, she didn't know where she was at first. This wasn't terribly unusual, since she'd gotten used to sleeping on Q's couch in addition to in her own bed, not to mention the occasional chair in Sickbay, but this particular location was strange even for that.

Then she remembered, and smiled happily. After Q had been released from Sickbay, they had returned to his quarters. And he had touched her, and after that... She stretched lazily. It was a good day.

Her hand encountered something solid, harder than anything she would normally find in bed, more like a cabinet or a...

"Excuse me," an irritated voice said. "I was reading that."

Naomi rolled over. Q was seated on the bed, wearing a heavy red robe. His bare feet were crossed at the ankle, and she could see a bit of his calves as well. A book was lying at his side; she must have knocked it out of his hands. "I'm sorry."

"You should be," Q said, but didn't move to pick up the book.

She reached out her hand to him, placing it over his. He immediately took hold of it, squeezing her fingers tightly. She tugged his hand closer to her, until she could kiss it. "How are you this fine morning?"

Terrified. He was absolutely terrified. And a trifle resentful as well. He didn't want to do this, didn't want to humiliate himself by initiating something which he had no idea how to do, but he didn't seem to have a choice. He had performed a similar service for Harry on the infrequent occasions during their brief relationship when Harry had made the mistake of continuing with sex when Q had already been satisfied, and no longer wanted it. That particular service had disgusted Q and reminded him entirely of masturbating himself, something Q found shameful. That he had usually already had his own orgasm first only made it worse, made it that much more embarrassing. As this was embarrassing.

"Fine," Q said.

"That's nice." She cocked her head at him. "Is there something wrong?"

"Wrong?" Q asked, hating himself for having to do this, for wanting her so much that he was put in this position. "Of course there's something wrong. You didn't... didn't..." he felt himself turning red, "enjoy yourself last night."

"I thought last night was very enjoyable. For the both of us," Naomi said, kissing his hand again.

That was a trick. She couldn't possibly mean that, was just setting him up for a bigger disappointment. "But you didn't..."

"Didn't want?" Naomi asked, puzzled. As far as she could remember, she most certainly had.

Why was she making this so difficult for him? "You didn't have an orgasm," Q blurted, hideously embarrassed.

"Oh, that."

"Yes, that," Q snapped, suddenly furious that she was making such light of something that was so difficult for him to say, something he didn't want to be dealing with at all.

"No, I didn't, but I didn't think it was very important," Naomi said, a little confused that he was bringing this up, and more than a little charmed that he would. His manner was less than endearing, but for him to be concerned about what she felt and what she got out of their relationship was extremely considerate of him.

That had to be a lie. Harry would never have let him get away with being that selfish. "Excuse me. I'm trying to do you a favor here!"

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Q was absolutely mortified. He'd said them because he was too frustrated by her attitude to maintain any sort of calm, but he still couldn't believe he'd said that.

He froze, waiting for her to skewer him with some choice comment, as he would surely have done if their positions had been reversed.

Naomi bit her lip, struggling not to laugh. It was obviously not funny to Q, and she couldn't hurt him by laughing. And his offer was perfectly serious.

"In that case, I accept," Naomi said.

Q didn't know whether to be elated that she'd accepted or even more frightened. Tentatively, he reached out for her, hand skimming over her side to rest on her hip. He had a vague idea of what to do. What little practical knowledge he had wasn't applicable to women, but it was enough that he wasn't completely lost. There were two ways to do this that he knew of, and he certainly wasn't going to do anything as disgusting as putting his mouth there. That was completely out of the question.

As his hand drifted down over her hips to her thighs, Naomi lay back, her head pillowed against his shoulder and spread her legs a little wider for him. His touch was almost tauntingly light, and her hips pushed against him, trying to encourage him to do more.

More by accident than by design, his long fingers slipped inside her, and Q did his best not to flinch at what he was feeling, the hotness and wetness of it not especially helping to keep him from being nauseous.

But Naomi seemed to like it. She turned her head until her lips were brushing his chest, and kissed him. "Just like that. Please."

"Please?" Q asked, the novelty of that word striking him as slightly odd.

"Please," Naomi repeated, her hips following the slow movements of his hand, and kissing him again. Her voice came out in a pant. "More."

Q felt a gratified flush stealing over him. He was doing it right. He wasn't completely inept.

His touch got a little more certain, and Naomi shuddered. Having him touching her at all was new enough and her last sexual experience before this long enough ago, that the feeling of his hands on her body alone could turn her on. Her free hand, the one not pinned against his side, clenched into the bed, spasmodically pulling at the sheet under her.

Despite himself, Q felt his body reacting to this, to the sight of her sprawled out on the bed, still naked after last night, her eyes closed, obviously enjoying what he was doing. It felt good to know he was giving someone else pleasure, and it felt even better to hear the little mewling sounds she was making, to feeling her hips pressing herself closer to his hand. He didn't know if he wanted to enjoy this, but it was harder and harder to distinguish what his body was feeling from what he was feeling. And he didn't know that he even wanted to make that distinction.

He wasn't moving fast enough or hard enough, and Naomi felt frustrated and teased. It was enough to cause her to moan, to bring her to a point where she wanted to bite him and hold very tightly to him, but not enough to actually give her an orgasm. Strange to think of Q being overly gentle, but that was what he was doing and she needed more.

"More," she said, her breath coming out in little puffs against his skin, where his robe had slipped open. "More."

"Demanding, aren't you?" Q asked, not in the least bit amused by this, instead completely enthralled by her response to him. If Harry had reacted even a little like this, Q would have been a lot less reluctant to touch him. That Harry's responses might have had a lot to do with Q's attitude towards masturbating him never entered Q's mind.

Naomi opened her eyes and looked up at him, her lip catching under her teeth. "Don't... stop. Please."

Q found he rather liked this begging thing when it was directed at him. He felt himself getting even harder, and was suddenly impatient that this finish, that he be able to do something about his own needs. It was so flattering to be wanted, to be doing things right, and he wouldn't have refused her anything right then, even if it did happen to be disgusting to think about.

The pressure of his hand increased, and Naomi's whole body tightened as the urges she was feeling increased also. It was a sharp, sweet pain, and her head fell back against the pillow as she lost any ability to care where she was or to focus on anything other than the feeling of his hand between her legs.

Q watched her with fascinated eyes as she thrashed her way through an orgasm, his face flushed with his own need and what watching her was doing to him. The sounds she was making, the way she was pressing up against him, all of it was appealingly sensuous.

She convulsed around his hand, then moaned a final long time and placed her hand over his. "That's enough," Naomi said haltingly, her voice coming out broken and hoarse. "I don't think I could take any more."

His hand slid to her hip, and over it, unconsciously caressing the softness there.

She looked up at him, a small, satisfied smile playing on her mouth. "I liked that. Thank you."

"You're welcome," Q found himself saying, and wondered why he was being so polite, so desperate that she like him, approve of him.

Naomi rolled to her side, and lifted a heavy, lax arm to run her hand down his body. "And you?"

"Me?" Q asked, suddenly shy. He wanted her, he knew that he did, but it was still very foreign to him to take the lead, and even worse to have to talk about it, as she seemed to do for no apparent reason.

"Uh huh." She fumbled with the loose tie of the robe until she got it undone, and then her hand was inside, moving unerringly to rest on his hard penis. "You next."

He had to stop himself from thrusting against her hand, from coming right there. His body was trained to respond to that kind of stimulus and he wanted it badly. But he wanted even more what he'd had last night.

And he could have it. She was satisfied, he'd done it right and she wasn't going to leave him. He had something he'd wanted for a long time, and had been even more cruelly denied when Harry had turned on him -- a friend and a lover.

Q closed his arms around her and buried his face in her hair, ignoring his need for a moment. After a startled instant, Naomi responded, tucking herself against him and hugging him back.

This was what he wanted, and now that he had it, he would do anything in his power to keep it. Not that that meant anything, not that he would be allowed to hold onto Naomi for more than the briefest of times before fate intervened to make him miserable again. But as long as he could, he would. And maybe, if he were lucky, it would last long enough to make some sort of difference in the gloom and despair that had clouded his life as a human. Maybe.

Afterward, the two of them lay together in one another's arms, not saying anything.

Sooner or later they would have to get up; Q had no work today, having been ordered to take a medical leave of two days following his release from Sickbay to expedite his recovery, and Naomi had taken the day off, but if nothing else, she thought, sooner or later they would have to eat. For the moment, however, she could put up with the rumbling of her stomach, a small price to pay for this blissful closeness and warmth.

It had been so very long since she'd had anything like this that she hadn't realized how much she missed it. There had been a few casual flings, but nothing that meant anything since Dharvi walked out on her. She had lived in the chill of isolation for so long, she'd stopped noticing how cold it was... until now, lying next to a friend's warmth. Even the short interludes of comfort she'd shared with Q in the past few weeks were less affecting than this.

She smiled, remembering. Who'd have thought things would end up like this? She had developed an enormous crush on Q the very first time she'd met him, when they'd been working to defeat the Borg and he'd fairly shone with arrogant brilliance, like a fallen angel, diminished by his banishment from Heaven but still blinding to mortal eyes. It wasn't something she'd ever thought would go anywhere... Naomi needed to feel needed, and the idea of Q needing anyone had been, back then, almost unthinkable. It wasn't something she'd dwelled on, either, since Naomi was entirely too practical to waste her life pining after might-have-beens. But she had had more than a fair share of dreams and waking fantasies about being with Q, being important to him, finding her way somehow into his life.

She did not, in any way, think it was a good thing that he'd been hurt and, when she'd saved him, she hadn't for a moment been hoping for this. But she couldn't deny that things had worked out far better than they could have. Becoming his friend had given color and savor back to a life that she hadn't realized had grown so dull. Becoming his lover, now, that added a dimension of warmth as well. Contentedly Naomi sighed, and snuggled closer to Q.

Q felt the motion, and tightened the arm he held around her ever so slightly, pulling her to him. He, too, had entirely forgotten how pleasurable it was to wake up next to a warm human body, to hold someone in his arms. It almost seemed ludicrous that this should feel so good, that he should need this so much. Sex, he understood. It felt good because it was a biological bribe to get people to do it, to perpetuate the species, and when coupled with human intellect it had gotten crosswired, so even those who had no intention of reproducing, like Harry, or no capability, like he himself, found it enjoyable. But snuggling wasn't a requirement for the survival of the human species. Why then did it feel so good? When he had been terribly alone, and everyone's hand was turned against him, and Naomi was the only protector, the only sympathetic ear he had, perhaps it made sense that he would have sought comfort and warmth from her, since it did appear to be a human instinct to seek physical comfort when in distress. But now Security had more or less stopped harassing him, and his life could go back to normal... and yet he still needed this, loved it, longed for it. The thought that Naomi was here with him, wanted to be here with him, filled him with a joy so profound it was almost painful; the thought that he might ever lose her choked him with fear.

There was no point to denying it, to pretending it wasn't true. He couldn't resist this any more than he could resist the need to eat, and like that, he would die without this, though his physical death would probably be a self-inflicted response to the death of his soul. It terrified him, this need. He'd thought he'd identified all his human needs within the first few months of becoming human, and the idea that there was one he missed, that there was something else he'd have to pay attention to and be careful with filled him with fear and resentment. Especially because this need wasn't something he could fulfill by getting something out of the replicator. He needed other people to fulfill this, and Q was so very bad at doing anything that required the cooperation of other people.

But the rewards were commensurate with the effort and risk. Q didn't much like eating, especially since his first suicide attempt, when he'd been restricted from having any bladed objects and so any food he ordered either needed to be pre-cut or be the kind that didn't need to be cut up. He hated sleeping, fearing the frequent nightmares, and when he hadn't been afraid that people would break in and kill him while he slept, he had taken sedatives every night to avoid dreaming. And relieving himself was unspeakably disgusting. None of his human needs were pleasant to fulfill, except this one -- not even the need for sex so much, though the experiences he'd just shared with Naomi had been wonderful, even better than sex with Harry had usually been. It was companionship Q needed, closeness, intimacy both physical and emotional, and fulfilling that particular human need was more rewarding than he'd ever imagined. And perhaps it was less ridiculous than he'd have thought, two years ago. The idea of needing intimacy, of wanting it, had been ludicrous to him when he was a Q, almost obscene, certainly disgusting. But then, he'd had the Continuum. He'd never truly known what it meant to be lonely. Couldn't it be that the need for intimacy existed among the Q as well, it was just that being together in the Continuum fulfilled it? Perhaps this need wasn't as alien to his true nature as he'd thought.

He was so happy it terrified him. Something would happen to destroy this. Naomi would leave him -- though he was less afraid of that than he had been earlier this morning -- or Anderson would take it on herself to be authoritarian again, or...

A sudden terror swept through him. Anderson would know how important Naomi was to him, would recognize what it meant when he had tried to kill himself after she was taken from him. And in Anderson's hands, anything Q valued was a weapon to make him dance to her tune. The moment she and Q had a disagreement on policy, she'd do what she always did -- but instead of taking away his computer access or confining him to his quarters, she had a much more effective tool at her disposal now. She could take Naomi.

Convulsively Q pulled Naomi to him, rolling sideways to bury his face in her hair. It was unbearable to think of losing her when he'd barely found her. "I can't lose you," he whispered, not realizing he was speaking aloud until the words actually left his mouth. "I mean..." he said, mortified at the sound of his words, and trying to explain, to make his admission less damning even as he clutched Naomi tightly, "I mean, I can't let them take you away again."

"I'm not going anyplace," Naomi said, holding him tightly, trying to reassure him. She meant it, too. Wild horses were not going to drag her away unless Q wanted her to go.

Q was not concerned with wild horses, per se. "What if they make you?" he asked in a bitter whisper. "Anderson delights in being a petty tyrant. What if she sends her security goons to drag you out of here?"

Naomi considered. "I'll bite," she offered.

The ludicrousness of the image, a tiny human woman biting Starfleet Security, almost made Q laugh despite himself... but this was no laughing matter to him. On the other hand, he wasn't sure Naomi was joking either. She might very well do something of that nature. "Like that will do you a lot of good," he scoffed. "They'd just stun you with their phasers."

"They'd have to have a real good explanation for why, then," Naomi said. "Or I'd have their heads on a platter."

"They don't need an explanation why! They're Starfleet; they can do anything they want, because they have all the power and we poor puny peons have none. Anderson loves to take away the things I value. She does things like sending me a bunch of lobotomized Pakleds, and when I tell her I can't teach them, she takes away my computer access or my freedom. She'd be more than happy to take you away."

Another woman might have latched onto the comparison of herself to computer access. All Naomi heard was that she was something Q valued, and she was warmed by it. "She can't take me away without a very good reason. I'm a Federation citizen; I have rights." A thought occurred to her suddenly, and she leaned up on her elbow, looking down at Q. "Are you a Federation citizen, Q?"

In fact he was; Picard had talked him into accepting citizenship, though he'd thought it was a ludicrous idea that he should need a piece of paper to define his rights. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Well, I don't know what rights a non-Federation citizen has. But I do know that if someone's a Federation citizen, and they're a civilian, Starfleet can't confine them without either a state of emergency pending or due process of law. Anderson can't put you under house arrest unless the base is under attack or she charges you with a crime. Has she ever charged you with a crime?"

"No, but what does that matter? It doesn't matter if she's legally allowed to do it, she still does it, and no one's stopped her yet."

"Have you ever tried protesting? Going over her head?"

"What good would it do? The few times I've had the misfortune to talk to Starfleet Command, they struck me as a set of hidebound, stuffy, militaristic fools that make Picard look positively free-wheeling. Do you know, they actually wanted to put me on trial for crimes against humanity?" He sat up with remembered outrage. "Picard had to talk them out of it. These are the people I'm supposed to submit my complaint to?"

"Well, you're a civilian. If you think Starfleet Command is discriminating against you and refusing to listen to your complaints, you can contact the... oh, I don't remember the name of it, but it's some Federation office that listens to grievances civilians have against Starfleet or Federation officials, and if they think you have a case -- which you do, if Anderson is arresting you when you haven't done anything wrong -- you can sue, or something." Naomi's eyes were bright. "I don't know why I didn't think of it before."

He could sue? The thought had never entered his mind. It was not that he was unaccustomed to protest -- the Continuum had many, many channels for protest, and Q had in his time made use of all of them, frequently -- but that he'd never known similar channels existed in the Federation, or how to reach them.

Naomi was warming to her subject, enthusiastically embroidering on a theme. "In fact, I bet you could sue for how they treated you all through this. They threw you in the brig for failing to live up to your contract, when they'd already failed their end of it; they ignored your complaints and the threat to your security; they caused you mental and emotional distress. I bet you could sue for a lot."

"A lot of what? And what would I do once I had it?" Q glared. "I don't want to sue if it just means they get told 'Don't do it ever again' and I get some kind of compensation, like a consolation prize. What I want is to see it never happens again. Can I get that if I sue?"

"I don't know." Naomi shrugged. "I'm not a lawyer. But we could ask one."

"Do you know a lawyer?"

She thought about it. "Esteban's divorced, so he must know a lawyer or two... or we could have the computer locate us a lawyer. I'll bet there's even a few here on the base."

Q threw off the covers and got out of bed, so excited by the prospect of possibly sticking it to Anderson for her mistreatment of him that he didn't realize for a moment that he was naked. When he realized it, and couldn't locate his robe in time, he dove for his wardrobe. It was one thing to be naked for sex, quite another to be parading around his room in the nude. "I'm going to get changed," he announced from within the safety of the large closet. "Put some clothes on. After we're done getting dressed, you can help me find a lawyer."

Naomi grinned at the closet. Little did he know. Breakfast was the next thing on the agenda, no matter what Q thought.

Jose Olivas had established his practice on Starbase 56 in part because of the presence of Q, who had turned the place from a quiet backwater to a thriving major starbase full of people needing his services, but he had never actually met the man responsible for this. In fact, for a moment, when Q walked into his office with a short redhead accompanying him, he didn't even recognize him. He smiled at his potential clients. "Can I help you?"

"I want to sue Starfleet," the tall man announced, at which point Olivas recognized him. The tone and the voice were unmistakable. "You supposedly do that sort of thing."

Olivas raised his eyebrows. "As a last resort, I do that sort of thing, yes," he said. "Usually, however, if a civilian's complaint is reasonable, Starfleet is willing to settle long before it gets to litigation. May I ask why you want to sue Starfleet?"

"Because Commodore Anderson has been consistently violating my civil rights. I do have civil rights, don't I?"

"All sentient beings have civil rights," Olivas said. "What sort of rights has the Commodore violated?"

"What hasn't she?"

The young woman leaned forward in the seat she'd taken. Q was still pacing around behind her, although he'd stopped to make a dramatic gesture on his last question. "Mr. Olivas, Commodore Anderson has had Q arrested and thrown in the brig or put under house arrest without him committing any sort of crime, has ignored various reasonable requests he's made for greater protection, and forbade him to see who he wants to see. We'd just like to make Starfleet give us some assurances that this won't be allowed to happen again."

"Why don't you tell me the entire story?" Olivas asked, intrigued.

It turned out that Q was congenitally incapable of staying on the topic, or telling a story in linear order. He kept sidetracking to make insults, to tell Olivas about something that happened years ago, or to jump ahead in the story without filling in the gaps. The woman, Naomi Allen, who apparently was Q's lover, had to keep interjecting comments to keep Q more or less on topic.

Olivas nodded as he listened, taking mental notes. He'd met Anderson a few times, and had pegged her as stern but fair. And Q's reputation, of course, preceded him. It might have been easy to assume that Q really was at fault, except that Olivas had far too much experience with these kinds of cases -- if there were a flaw that existed throughout most of Starfleet, it was a general arrogant conviction that they knew more than the civilians did, and were justified in taking measures to protect civilians that the civilians themselves objected to. Which made Starbase 56 an especially fertile ground for Olivas, given the high numbers of civilian scientists visiting here. Often Starfleet was right, of course, but occasionally they did step over the line, as it sounded that they had here. As Q and Naomi talked, Olivas checked the verifiable parts of their story, and concluded that they had the facts right, at least.

"So. As I see it, you have two recourses," Olivas said. "You can bring a formal complaint against Anderson. This would move through the courts slowly, most likely; it might be a year or two before you got satisfaction, and in the meantime, Starfleet would have you sent elsewhere to avoid the conflict of having you on a starbase under the command of the person you're making a complaint against. Since your security arrangements aren't very portable, that might be dangerous, or at best inconvenient, since if they make emergency arrangements for your security, they may not be able to make much room for your comfort. I wouldn't recommend it."

"That doesn't sound very promising, no," Q said. "What's the other choice?"

"Well, you've mentioned that you have a contract with Starfleet. Perhaps what you need to do is renegotiate that contract. Considering how valuable you are, they would be unlikely not to meet your demands, so long as your requests are reasonable. And if they don't, someone else most likely will."

"Like who?" Q demanded.

Olivas shrugged. "You would know better than I. Who are you valuable to?"

"I'll bet the Vulcans would protect you," Naomi said suddenly. "They're very big on pure science."

"But I don't want to go to Vulcan."

"Whyever not?" Naomi asked teasingly.

"Because! Vulcan is easily one of the most horrible places in the universe. It's boring, abysmally hot, stuffy, dry, boring, the gravity is absurd, the air is too thin, and it's boring."

"Oh, okay. So I guess it's not really a vacation wonderland. I keep getting these brochures and I didn't know whether to believe them or not."

Q looked at her. "I suppose you believe everything you read."

"Only when travel agents wrote it."

"Is there anyplace you'd prefer to go?" Olivas prompted.

Q considered. "Well, the Daystrom Institute offered once."

"If Starfleet refused to meet your demands, would you be willing to go there?"

Panic welled up in Q. The idea of leaving Starbase 56 at all terrified him. They were, as the Enterprise had been once, the devils he knew. He didn't want to leave, he just wanted to be treated better. "I doubt it," he said darkly. "They're probably just as hidebound and petty as this place. If not worse. And how well could a bunch of academics possibly protect me?"

"That would have to be negotiated with the bunch of academics," Olivas pointed out dryly.

"I'm sure the Daystrom Institute could afford to pay for your protection," Naomi said.

"Money isn't the issue," Q said haughtily.

Olivas wanted to laugh, but didn't. Money was frequently the issue. "In any case, you do have alternatives, don't you?"

"If you could call them that," Q said, glowering at the both of them. He knew this wasn't a good idea, and he wouldn't be here at all if Naomi hadn't pushed him into it.

Naomi glanced over at Olivas, then back at Q. She didn't like having Olivas there -- it made this far too public. But she could hardly ask Olivas to go stand outside while she talked some sense into Q. "I suppose you're right then. Vulcan is just too hot. And boring. They can't have possibly invented climate control yet for the indoors, and you do have such a varied social life here that it would be difficult to give it up for someplace as congenitally boring as Vulcan."

Q stiffened. "You couldn't possibly understand."

"And the Daystrom Institute," Naomi went on, ignoring Q's interruption. "All academics, focused on their work. Goodness knows it's so much more entertaining to be surrounded by civilians who aren't Starfleet or academics, civilians who like to exercise their rights and throw spontaneous protests. And the Daystrom Institute's security arrangements couldn't possibly be as good as Starfleet's."

Q glared at Naomi. "If this is your attempt at making a point..."

"Making a point?" Naomi asked innocently. "I wasn't trying to make a point. I love it here. Why would anyone want to leave?"

"All right." Q threw himself huffily into a chair and scowled at Olivas. "Assume I'm willing to leave. What are my options?"

"Well..." Olivas sat up a little straighter, eyes gleaming. "First I'd need to see your original contract with Starfleet to see what its terms were. And then you'd need to decide what you want above and beyond those. Obviously, fair treatment would be one of those clauses, but there's quite a bit more that you could ask for."

"Like what?" Q asked.

Olivas shrugged. "How valuable are you to the Federation? Some research needs to be done there to determine what that might be. But in the end, it'll be whatever they're willing to pay to keep you from going elsewhere. And--" he straightened up and looked at them, "you should be prepared to go elsewhere. If the situation really is as bad as you say it is, and I do believe you on that, then that may be the wisest course of action. I'll get you the best contract I can either way, but you should think about it."

Naomi nodded. "I suppose that makes sense." She looked at Q. "Is that all right?"

"If that's the best that can be done," Q said, still miffed at the way Naomi had maneuvered him into this.

Olivas looked up from the quick notes he was making to himself. "What do you do here, Miss Allen?"

"I'm a programmer. Civilian."

"Then you'd have some sort of contract as well."

Q was puzzled. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"If the both of you are going, and Miss Allen has a contract, that may need to be one of the items on the agenda. I doubt it would be a difficult item, given that she's a civilian, particularly if Miss Allen wants to go with you, but it is something that would be important to know beforehand," Olivas explained.

He'd never thought of that. Q looked at Naomi, unable to outright ask her if she were planning on going with him if he left the starbase. He'd assumed she would be there as long as he wanted her; it hadn't occurred to him that she might not come with him.

Naomi didn't move. Was she willing to give up her career here and go with Q? She didn't know what the Daystrom Institute did in the way of programmers and even if they had the department, they might not want her. They were largely a research and educational facility and she didn't exactly have much in the way of current publications after all. And Vulcan, where she could at least go back to school, was a much less likely choice for Q. "Boring" was, after all, the absolute worst insult in his lexicon. Which might very well give her a lot of free time to play with if she did agree to go with him. It was a rather large step to take considering that she'd only really gotten to know Q a few months ago, and he'd only indicated that he wanted more than that a single day before. He could very well change his mind. And then where would she be?

On the other hand, the thought of not having him was even bleaker, of seeing him leave the starbase and remaining behind. She had no family here, and the few friends she had were mostly in her own department, the people she worked with. Before she'd started spending time with Q, she'd spent most of her off-hours on the holodeck, climbing rock faces, or, more likely, working. She hadn't realized it then, but she'd been lonely.

And without her, what would Q do? Naomi's heart clenched as she thought about how he needed her, how he'd looked at her when she'd found him trying to commit suicide as though she were the only one who mattered, the only one who he cared for. Maybe it wasn't a real relationship yet. Maybe it wasn't really love. But it was more than enough to take a chance on.

"Yes, I'd be accompanying Q," Naomi said.

"Good," Olivas said, making a note of that. "I think that's all the questions I have for now. I need to research some things, but I can get the process started if that's what you want."

"It is," Q said, feeling too reassured by Naomi's words to want to disagree with anything right now. How he'd felt when he'd thought she might leave him was not something he wanted to dwell on, or even let cross his mind again. He just wanted to get out of there, and stop talking about these things that threatened to wreck the fragile fabric of his universe.

Olivas stood up to usher them out. "Thank you for dropping by. I'll let you know as soon as I have anything."

"Thank you," Naomi said, as she and Q left.

What happened next was nothing like what he had anticipated.

Rather a lot like what Naomi had anticipated, but as Q told her, quite cuttingly, she had no imagination whatsoever and certainly no eye for the larger picture.

Unfortunately, for once, Naomi seemed to be right.

"What do you mean, 'they've agreed'?" Q asked, half in outrage, half in disbelief.

"Exactly what I said," Olivas replied, unflustered by his client's attitude. "Starfleet has agreed to think about it."

"And what exactly does that mean again? That their little brains will churn over this for six months or so before rejecting the request?"

"Something like that."

"Wonderful," Q said with disgust. "Not that you could expect anything better from them. It's a surprise they haven't starved to death before this out of a sudden failure to distinguish the replicator from one of their relatives."

Q's last comment was more of a mutter than anything else, and Olivas disregarded the insult. "Actually, I think this is an excellent move on their part and gives you a perfect opportunity."

"For what? Updating my collection of bruises? No, thank you, I've already had enough help with that so far this year."

"For you to actually visit the places we talked about," Olivas explained patiently. This was the first time that Q had let him get this far into the explanation. When he'd commed to give Q the news, he hadn't expected the degree of resistance he was getting from his client. "Starfleet has agreed to think about this. They didn't say no, and they didn't order Anderson removed. So they're going to negotiate. And that means you need a position of power to negotiate from."

"I thought I already had a position of power," Q said grumpily. "That's what you told me before."

"You have a good position right now through being an invaluable, irreplaceable resource, yes. But in this upcoming negotiation, if you've gone to visit the other interested parties, it would make it seem that much more likely that you want a change and would force Starfleet into a more conciliatory position."

"A tour of the Alpha Quadrant. How lovely," Q said, reluctantly letting himself be drawn into this. He had agreed to this plan before after all, although what he had mostly been agreeing to was that he might be willing to leave, not that he would pack up and go elsewhere.

But then again, the idea of leaving, at least temporarily, didn't sound half so bad. While Q didn't really want to go through the petty hassles imposed on human travel, not to mention packing and unpacking and the impossibility of finding a decent cup of espresso anywhere this side of Earth, there was something to be said for being out from under Anderson's thumb, at least for a while. At least until the contract renegotiation could convince her that he was not a person to be meddled with.

And it would postpone, perhaps indefinitely, that moment when Anderson would decide that she could control Q by taking Naomi away. If he could get a new contract from Starfleet, he could prevent that, but right now, it was an all too real possibility.

"Where do I go first?" Q asked suddenly, before Olivas could even come up with his next argument.

"The Daystrom Institute," Olivas said smoothly, without a hint of being discommoded by the sudden shift in Q's attitude. "I've contacted them, and they'd be more than willing to host you and show you around in aid to you making a final decision on the matter."

Q nodded. It occurred to him for a moment to make a fuss about when he got to go, or even Olivas' choice, but it didn't really matter, since he didn't plan to go to any of these places permanently anyway. This was all a dumb show, a thing of smoke and mirrors to trick Anderson and Starfleet into believing that he wanted to leave when all he really wanted was to be treated with the respect and courtesy he deserved.

Apparently that had been too much to ask for from Anderson.

"Fine," Q said. "I'll go. Make whatever arrangements need to be made. I can't be bothered with the details. And the sooner it is, the better."

"Will Miss Allen be accompanying you?"

"What do you think?" Q snapped, not wanting to say one way or the other. He was fairly certain that she would, but he certainly wasn't going to ask her, even if she had indicated her decision to him before this by saying she would make a permanent move with him.

"Fine. The both of you then. I'll set it up."

"Good. See that you do."

"Oh -- and Q?" Olivas said.

"What is it now?" Q asked, feeling irritable. He'd thought the call was over and he could go wreck his wardrobe to vent some of his feelings over how out-of-control this pathetic pretense he called his life was and how helpless he was to truly do anything about it, but now the lawyer was annoying him again. No doubt to ask some truly obvious question like how soon was soon.

"I've sent copies of the paperwork to Anderson. She has to be notified before you leave the base to visit the Daystrom Institute -- your security requirements demand it, if nothing else -- and this will constitute the notification. She may try to threaten you into staying. Whatever you do -- don't give in. Do you understand? You've got all the cards here, and you can't afford to back down now."

"I understand," Q said icily. "Don't worry, the sniveling coward will manage to pull some semblance of resolution together."

Q terminated the comm then. He didn't want to talk to Olivas anymore. No matter what the lawyer had to say.

When Anderson received the notification that Q was leaving the starbase, her first reaction was to forbid Q to do any such thing. While she didn't intend to take it seriously, didn't believe that Starfleet would take it seriously, it was a tightly written legal document, and one with implications she couldn't ignore. Anderson believed firmly that Starfleet had not invalidated Q's contract, as this document claimed. Q should consider himself lucky that Starfleet would take a security burden such as himself at any price at all.

Q's request to leave -- which was worded more as an announcement than a request -- was something she couldn't understand, even though she had no intention of giving in to it. Why was he deciding to go haring off right now, when he was at the time making demands of Starfleet? What was going on in his head?

She had to find out. And if she could, prevent him from leaving. While she had no orders to that effect, she did have almost forty scientists here, and more on their way, just to see Q. He couldn't just disrupt the schedule like this, even if he had suddenly discovered the legal profession. And, more importantly, she had to stop Q from leaving, had to stop him from challenging Starfleet. While she understood Q's value to the Federation, she also understood something Q did not -- Starfleet could and would readily decide that he was too much trouble, and abandon him or reduce his protection levels to something which would guarantee his death at the hands of the various species who were out to get him. She couldn't let that happen. As little as she liked Q personally, she had no intention of letting him die, and especially no intention of letting him shoot himself in the foot like this.

There really was nothing else she could do. She had to go down and talk to Q in person. She hated going to him -- Q was such a showman, that he would seize every bit of advantage from that which he could, but in this case, she didn't feel she had any alternative.

When Anderson got to Q's quarters, she found him sitting down on the couch, a padd in front of him, and his quarters obviously being prepared for packing.

"Ah, dear Eleanor," Q said. "To what do I owe the honor of your aging presence?"

Anderson ignored his attitude and his insults. "I've come to see what you had in mind with this request of yours to leave the starbase."

"Oh, nothing much," Q said airily, even though he was worried that Anderson would find a way to stop him. She had always blocked what he wanted in the past, and despite Naomi's and Olivas' assurances to the contrary, he knew the commodore better than they did.

"Nothing much?" Anderson asked dangerously, her blood pressure rising. "So this is just some whim of yours?"

"You could call it that if you like," Q said off-handedly, trying to hide his growing irritation with her manner.

That was too much for the commodore. "Is this some kind of threat? Some sort of misguided retaliation..."

Q stood up, raising himself to his full height, radiating strength and fury. "A threat? I don't believe I understood you correctly, Eleanor. Are you accusing me of making a threat of some kind?"

"You know perfectly damn well what I mean," Anderson snapped back, imitating his manner. You never showed weakness to Q. Not that Anderson was in the habit of showing weakness to anyone. "This... this thing I received from someone representing himself as your attorney. If this is a joke, I warn you that I don't find it in the least bit funny."

"I'm hardly responsible for your lack of a sense of humor, Eleanor. However," he inclined his head a fraction, even while his eyes held steady and cold, "even though you deserve no sort of explanation, I'll give you one."

Anderson wanted to react to that, but forced herself not to. Whatever Q said next could be very important indeed.

"I came to this starbase and this Federation for the purpose of aiding your pathetic people in improving their decidedly laughable notions of physics, and to help out in whatever little ways I could by using my knowledge and intelligence. Instead however, I've found myself prostituted out to the highest bidders, being forced to see the scientists with the most political clout, rather than those with the experience and inclination to understand what I have to say. I'm actually expected to try to understand their limited points of view, rather than being surrounded by people who would make the effort to understand me."

"That's entirely untrue," Anderson said, angry with Q. How many people had he caught up in his schemes with this tale? It wasn't the first time that Q, puffed up on his own arrogant self- importance, had demanded the "respect" he felt was his due, although it was certainly the most grandiose of this attempts. There was the lawyer, Dr. Allen almost certainly -- and what a mistake allowing her to see Q again was turning out to be -- and higher-ups in Starfleet as well. This was a nightmare and it would waste months of Anderson's time trying to untangle what Q was getting himself into.

She took a deep breath, getting into stride. "You accepted the Federation's offer because you had no choice. You needed -- and still need -- protection from the many races you've alienated. You need us, not the other way around and it would do you well to remember that Starfleet can remove its protection." There. Hopefully that would shock him into sense. The main part of her job was to protect Q, and she couldn't do that if he insisted on causing Starfleet to throw him to the wolves.

"I don't think so, Eleanor," Q said coldly. "You can't do that to me anymore, anymore than you can continue calling this pretense of protection a security force or restrict who I may or may not see. I will be leaving Starbase 56, and I will be going to the Daystrom Institute, where I plan to listen very carefully to what they can offer me in terms of protection, respect, and remuneration which could compare to what Starfleet has done for me. Frankly, in the respect department, I don't think there'll be any competition at all."

"Offer you? What are you talking about?" Anderson asked, confused. She'd gotten the notification from Olivas that Q was planning to leave the starbase, and that hard on the heels of news from another source that Q, with lawyer, had apparently decided to complain to Starfleet about perceived injustices and slights. Anderson considered the complete silence from Starfleet on the issue to be a vindication of her own handling of the situation.

"The Daystrom Institute, and a number of other people, will be bidding from my services. Starfleet, of course, has been invited to join in, but really," Q said, his eyes beginning to flash with suppressed amusement, "I don't think that's anything more than a formality in this case. After all, with recent events, I hardly think it's worth my while to stay someplace where it's very obvious that I'm not welcome."

"Q, you need to understand the realities of your situation," Anderson said, changing her tactics as she realized how serious a predicament Q had gotten himself into. She did care about Q to some extent, too much to let him throw everything away on a stunt like this. "The Federation are the only ones who can possibly protect you. It would be suicidal for you to walk away like this. Even a small trip, especially an unplanned, impromptu one like you seem to be proposing is an unwarranted danger. You can't do this."

Any humor Q might have been feeling faded in a rush of anger. She was doing it again. Dictating the terms of his life. Only now he knew that he didn't have to put up with that, that there were alternatives.

And he was going to use them.

"I'm afraid that's not your decision to make," Q said coldly.

"Oh, yes, it is," Anderson said, prepared to go to any length to keep Q safe.

Q held up his hand, stopping her. "Talk to my lawyer. I'm visiting the Daystrom Institute and that's all you need to know. If there's anything else, I'm sure Jose Olivas will be happy to help you."

He smiled at her. It was not a nice smile.

Anderson looked levelly at him. The business with the lawyer was a pointless charade. If Q wanted to believe that that would do him any good, he could, but he was wrong. Having a lawyer to transmit Q's whining and outrageous demands only added an extra layer of complexity, someone else to insulate Q from the effects of his behavior.

Someone like Naomi Allen.

She gritted her teeth. "Fine," and stalked out. Her back hurt, and she had no idea why she was even trying to protect someone as impossible and ungrateful as Q.

Q heard nothing further from Anderson and assumed that she had given up. Certainly she was rarely indirect about what she wanted. If she wanted to forbid him from going to the Daystrom Institute, he was sure she would. Barring of course, successful intervention on his behalf from Olivas.

"What do you think?" Naomi asked Q, holding up a piece of Estrucan pottery. "Should we give this to someone as an ashtray?"

Q looked over, saw what she was holding up, and glowered at her. "Is there a reason, other than abominable taste, for why you seem to want to give away an archaeological treasure?"

Naomi grinned at him. Q seemed unduly depressed regarding their packing. Her own packing was relatively simple -- goodbyes would take a little longer, but she tended to accumulate few mementoes. And all of her other belongings could be easily replicated at the Institute, and were not worth the time and trouble which Q was bestowing on each and every one of his possessions, of which there were a very large number. He'd starting planning his packing days ago, and only now was approaching anything like being done with it.

"It is ugly," Naomi said. "How was I supposed to know it was an archaeological treasures?"

"Because I have it," Q informed her loftily, enjoying the distraction from the task. "I would never keep something around that wasn't precious and significant."

Naomi set the piece of pottery down and then, without warning, put her arms around Q, holding him close.

He responded with a burst of startlement, then just as suddenly as she had nestled herself against him, drew her closer. She felt warm against him, and very right, and not for the first or even the fifteenth time, he wondered why it should make him feel so good to have a tiny redheaded woman clinging to him.

"Thank you," she said, rubbing her head against his chest. Relishing the feel under her cheek, the warmth and solidity of his body.

"For what?" Q asked, having no idea what she was talking about.

"For saying I was precious and significant to you."

Q looked down at her, more than a little amazed at her leap of logic. That wasn't what he'd said at all. She had misunderstood him. On the other hand, she was here, and he didn't want to imagine what it would be like for her to be gone again.

He shuddered at the thought, and the door chimed.

"Terrific timing," Naomi muttered. "All day long, no one shows up, even though arrangements were supposed to be made to get rid of all of this." She waved her hand at the things Q had decided to take with him, the furniture which had been specially tagged to go, and the clothing and some of the smaller items which had been packed away. "Not to mention the interview you need to have with the security chief to discuss what they're going to do about protecting you on the way to the Daystrom Institute."

She had pulled away from Q during this diatribe, far enough for him to consider it a dignified distance, and not as far as to seem like he'd been making kissy faces at her, which he hadn't been. Although, did it really even matter what anyone here thought of him anymore?

Before he could ponder that, the door chimed again, more insistently this time, and Q said, "Come in if you must."

Anderson entered, lips tightening as she looked around at the debris left in the path of the storm of packing. "I see you still haven't given up on this idea of yours."

"Given up? What are you talking about?" Naomi asked.

Anderson ignored her, looking at Q. "I've been informed by Commander Azoth that you're demanded a security escort to the Daystrom Institute."

"What? You prefer I go on my own and get myself killed?" Q asked sarcastically. "It wasn't my idea to have them around, you know. But even I admit, despite the complete ineffectiveness of any of them but T'Meth, that Security has its place."

"T'Meth is lying in Sickbay because of you."

"She's lying there because she did her job," Naomi said unexpectedly, despite the way Anderson was persistently refusing to acknowledge her presence. "If anyone else in Security had done theirs as well as she did, she might not be there now. If there had been any reinforcement, any acknowledgement by Security that Q was worth protecting, maybe T'Meth wouldn't have had to sacrifice her life like that."

"Be that as it may, Q," Anderson said, looking at him, even though Naomi had spoken, "You're not going anywhere."

"Excuse me?" Naomi asked. "What right do you have to tell us where we go or don't go?"

"The right as the commanding officer of this starbase," Anderson said, finally acknowledging Naomi.

Naomi shook her head. "No. You don't have the right to imprison Federation citizens against their will. Not without a trial anyway. We want to leave, and we're leaving."

"This isn't some sort of joke!" Anderson said, exasperated beyond all measure by her failure to get through to Q the danger he was putting himself in by playing games with the Federation. "I'm trying to keep you from destroying your life, Q," she said, turning to him. "Starfleet has the power to decide that you're too much trouble to protect, and if you go through with this little stunt of yours, they very likely will."

"It's you who don't understand," Naomi said firmly, and Q felt a surge of pride that she was protecting him yet again. He didn't need it, not against Anderson, who was hardly likely to try to beat him up, but he liked it nonetheless, liked Naomi being on his side.

He stepped over to her so that Anderson couldn't possibly mistake his meaning, that he and Naomi were of one mind on this issue. "It matters not a whit what Starfleet does or doesn't do," Q said from that position of strength. "If they can't be bothered to treat me as well as a human being -- a lowly enough state already -- then I see no reason to stay with them."

"But you have to," Anderson said, frustrated. "It's for your own good."

"For his own good?" Naomi asked, clearly astounded by such a notion and unable to make an effective reply.

Q suffered no such loss of words. "How could it possibly be for my own good to be beaten, intimidated, imprisoned, and subjected to all the other indignities that you have inflicted on me either deliberately or through your own incompetence?"

Anderson stared at him. Naomi was leaning against Q now, and he had an arm half around her, as though he was protecting her against attack. "I don't know what you believe, Q, but I have always tried to do my best for you."

"Yes, yes, I'm sure you were a very good Girl Scout," Q said, "but we no longer need cookies and I have no desire to earn any more merit badges in the art of pain and suffering."

"Is it so much to ask that Q be allowed to live the way he wants?" Naomi said quietly.

"That's not the question at all," Anderson retorted angrily. "It's Q's safety that's important, not anything else."

"You're wrong," Naomi said. "No life at all is better than the kind of 'safe' life you want to give him." She looked apologetically at Q for what she was about to say. It meant revealing some private things about him that she didn't really feel she had the right to talk about. But then, if she kept silent, Anderson might very well run right over the both of them. "After you rather cavalierly decided that I was not to be allowed to see Q, he tried to kill himself. And do you know why? Because no one would want to live the kind of life you want him to live. No one would want to be thrown in a jail cell, even if it's an ornately decorated one, and be told that this is where they'll spend the rest of their lives, that they're never allowed to leave, and that the only people they can see are strangers who want to pick their brain because having any friends at all is dangerous. No one would live a life like that. But you want Q to do it anyway, because all he is to you is an object, and not a feeling creature at all."

"That's not true," Anderson said. If she didn't care, she wouldn't have bothered to go through all of this for someone as determined on self-destruction as Q.

"Really?" Q asked coolly. "Pray tell, dear commodore, which part isn't true? The part about you keeping me here against my will? The part about strangers picking my brain?"

"It is not true that I view you as an object, Q. Everything I've done has been for your benefit, whether or not you were too short- sighted to see it--"

"So it was to my benefit to lock me away from the only person I have the slightest desire to spend any time with. I see. I suppose it's common practice to separate scientific consultants from their only friends?"

Anderson looked at Naomi levelly, then turned back to Q. "In a situation where we thought the 'friends' were a danger, yes."

"What, you think that Naomi is a Romulan spy or something? I'm sure they have tests for that."

"I can bite my finger and prove I bleed red," Naomi volunteered.

"That isn't the sort of danger Dr. Allen represents," Anderson snapped. "We -- I had reasons to believe that she was feeding a paranoid belief on your part that Starfleet Security was out to get you--"

"I don't know what would ever have given Q that idea," Naomi said, interrupting. "After all, people who beat you up and harass you and let protestors knock you to floor are clearly not out to get you."

"That situation has been repaired," Anderson said defensively.

"Perhaps it has," Q said quietly. "But that still doesn't give you the right to dictate who I do and do not see in my private life. If Naomi were a Romulan spy, fine. But if you simply don't like the way she influences my opinions... exactly where do you get the right to have any control over my opinions? If I want to behave as if Starfleet Security is out to get me, regardless of whether or not it is true, do I or do I not have the right to believe as I wish? To ask for better working conditions if I find mine intolerable, to go on strike if my requests are not met without being jailed like a common criminal, to choose my own friends and my own activities in my off-duty life?"

"I don't care what you do in your off-duty life, as long as it doesn't interfere with your work."

"Oh, but you do care. You chose to order me not to see Naomi, out of some misguided notion she would interfere with my work. I have news for you, commodore. That is unacceptable interference in my private life. Freedom of association is one of the rights guaranteed to Federation citizens -- you would have had to have some reason to believe Naomi was dangerous to me, in a fashion that was illegal, to do what you did."

"If you really did that because you thought I was bad for Q and not out of some power play to control his life, you must think you're his mother or something, and you're not. Q is a grown man," Naomi added. "He has the right to see people, even people who are bad for him, if he wants. And who are you anyway to decide what's bad for Q?"

"I apologize for that," Anderson said stonily. "It was misguided of me."

"It's a little late to apologize, commodore," Q said coldly. "She's quite right, you know. You've consistently treated me like some sort of rebellious teenager. By your laws and your standards, I am an adult, with adult rights -- and if I'm not, then I'm sure I'm not allowed to work at a full-time profession. And as an adult, I have the right to change jobs if I want, and to investigate alternative professions. You are not running Eleanor Anderson's Reform School For Delinquent Q."

"You don't understand! You're throwing away your future because you don't like me." Anderson stepped close to him, almost without apparent volition, causing Naomi to move further into Q's arms protectively. "Q, you are a child. You don't understand what limits to push. How am I supposed to treat you like a responsible adult when you refuse to act like one?"

"How am I supposed to act like a responsible adult when you refuse to treat me like one?" Q retorted.

"You began the cycle. You behaved outrageously when you came here."

"Yes, I know. And you've made me pay for it for two years. Even if I had learned not to behave outrageously, as you put it, how would I ever have had the opportunity to demonstrate that?" He looked at her hard. "Perhaps the best thing for me to do is to wipe the slate clean and start somewhere anew, since you can't seem to see me without your accumulated preconceptions."

"If you leave Starfleet, you'll die," Anderson said grimly. "Q, I am trying to protect you here."

"How very kind of you, Mommy Eleanor, but I'm a big boy now. If I choose to go without your protection, you simply don't have the right to force it on me. Besides," and his voice lost of some of the hard antagonistic tone, "I have researched this, you know. The Daystrom Institute and the other places on my short list all have outlined the resources they'd devote to my protection, and while none offer the sheer overkill of an entire starbase, we both know all I need is a secure location, and a small group of loyal, dependable bodyguards. I'm satisfied that all of them can keep me reasonably secure; if I find when touring that they misled me about that, well then I suppose it will make Starfleet's bid look more attractive. But to be quite honest with you, Eleanor, I'll put up with a good bit less 'protection' if it's protection that I can trust, that treats me like a respected adult and not a child or an inanimate resource."

"You're really serious about this," Anderson said slowly.

"More than you can probably imagine."

She took a step back then, her shoulders sagging slightly. "I... I 'd like to review the security arrangements they're offering you. There might be holes in it that you'd miss, since that isn't your expertise."

"So you can claim that their security is inadequate and force Q to stay here? I don't think so," Naomi said.

Q held up his hand. "No, no, let's be generous, Naomi. I think the commodore is well aware that if she tries to force me to stay, she hasn't got a legal leg to stand on." He glanced at Anderson hard. "If she wants to review the other offers, I'd be delighted to let her. Perhaps it will help her in putting together an appealing bid for my services."

"If you are serious about this, and all this isn't a ploy for more attention," Anderson said quietly, "then maybe you're right. Maybe you have matured enough to be trusted with these kinds of decisions." She sighed. "All I wanted was to keep you from making a self-destructive mistake."

"Don't I have the right to make my own mistakes?"

"Perhaps you do."

Anderson walked towards the door. "I'll authorize Azoth to make security arrangements for your trip," she said, and left.

Naomi stared after her. "Hello? Has she been taken over by alien parasites?"

Q smiled. "Oh, no. I believe the good commodore is finally beginning to come to her senses."

"Right," Naomi said, nodding firmly. "Alien parasites."

Q and Naomi were standing in the transporter room, waiting to be transported to the shuttle which would take them to the Daystrom Institute when they heard the voice.

Anderson had capitulated on what she was now calling a request for a short term vacation for Q, although she had by no means conceded the war of whether he would be remaining permanently with Starfleet. She had deemed all preliminary proposals sent over, even the ones by the Vulcans, to be hopelessly inadequate for Q's protection -- which was pleasing Olivas no end, since it meant that he now had good, specific grounds to demand even more for his client.

Leavetakings themselves had been brief. Almost all of Naomi's friends were colleagues of hers or career Starfleet themselves, and they understood the idea of being transferred, although the idea of her being involved with Q had caused some small amount of jealousy -- after all, it wasn't every day you got to sleep your way to Daystrom Institute, as D'oritt had pointed out.

To which Naomi had calmly replied that yes, it wasn't every day you got to do that, and she supposed that having a fabulous, intelligent, handsome lover like Q was some small compensation for her having to go there and pass up a more lucrative offer from a holovid company who badly needed an experienced programmer to debug their programs for them.

Q's leavetakings had been even briefer. There was no one he wanted to say goodbye to -- Harry was altogether out of the question; Q couldn't bear it if Harry rejected him and it would be even worse if Harry didn't and then Naomi rejected him.

All in all, it was best that they were leaving quietly.

And it was only for a short while anyway. This was all just playacting to force Starfleet to be more reasonable. There couldn't be a better living situation elsewhere -- could there?

The shrillness of the voice broke Q's reverie, and he looked up to see who was causing the commotion. "I will not go in there. It is most illogical and against medical advice."

The phrasing was most definitely Vulcan, and the voice familiar, although its owner was someone Q had presumed to be brain dead.

He turned. Sekal was supporting -- no, half-dragging and half- carrying an unwilling T'Meth into the transporter room with him.

"There is no reason to do this," T'Meth said, continuing to protest. "It serves no purpose for me to see Q again. I have no obligation to him, as I am currently on sick leave, and he has no obligation to me for my injuries."

"Nevertheless, my wife, I believe it will be worthwhile," Sekal said, utterly unruffled. He stopped, still holding onto T'Meth, and looked at Q. "As you appeared to be leaving the starbase, I thought it appropriate as your superior to pay my respects to you before you left. And, as you can see, my wife has graciously accompanied me."

"Of course," Q said, highly amused by Sekal's antics. "Utterly and completely normal. Nothing out of the ordinary at all."

"Exactly," Sekal said nodding.

Q studied T'Meth carefully. She still didn't look all right to his eye. She was leaning heavily on Sekal for support, not being prevented from running away, and Li was probably having all manner of fits at her presence here. But she was alive, and obviously mentally well, and Q felt a sudden outpouring of good will for Sekal who had apparently realized how much it would mean to Q to know that T'Meth was all right. It was very un-Vulcan of Sekal, and Q intended to remind Sekal of that -- some other time.

"Thank you for coming," Q said to them both. "But I really don't need any tacky plastic IDIC symbols, no matter what Eleanor might have told you."

He stepped up onto the transporter pad and held out his hand to Naomi, feeling a rush of reassurance when she took it and stepped up beside him. "Ta ta for now. Don't forget to write!"