by Alara Rogers and Mercutio

Section 4

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?

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