by Alara Rogers and Mercutio

Section 3

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.

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