by Alara Rogers and Mercutio

Section 6

Anderson was not very happy.

It had taken Security fifteen minutes since the start of the attack to reach Q's room, fifteen minutes that might have cost a valuable officer her life -- T'Meth was still in critical condition, and there were no guarantees that she would make it. According to Li, her battle to stay conscious between the time she was shot and the time she killed the Beryllian assassins might well have killed her -- if she'd gone into a healing trance immediately after she'd been shot, her odds of survival would have been dramatically increased. As it was, she had lain there in agony and used the resources that should have gone to healing herself to protect Q instead for five long minutes -- minutes in which her coworkers in Security should have arrived, and didn't.

She didn't believe for a moment that it was deliberate negligence. If Q had been alone, perhaps she might have entertained that notion. But Security would never have deliberately abandoned one of their own to die. No, she believed that the reason for the delay was that Security had been engaged in fighting two dozen other Beryllians that beamed through at the same time Q's assailants did, during the moment when the shields were down. Anderson supposed she could be thankful that the Beryllians seemed to have considered it important to limit unnecessary casualties -- if they'd torpedoed the base in that moment of vulnerability instead of beaming troops in, they could have made sure of their target by destroying the entire base. Instead they'd sent a handful of soldiers to distract and slow Security from reaching Q's quarters, and if it hadn't been for the fact that Anderson had agreed to station T'Meth and her people as a rotating team on Q's quarters, the plan would have worked. As to how the Beryllians had gotten such an accurate fix on Q in particular, Anderson knew she'd never find out. Most of the alien assailants that came here after Q seemed to have a preternatural knowledge of exactly where Q was that was not hindered when Q's location was kept secret; sometimes Anderson thought some old enemy of Q's was passing out free samples of his DNA to other enemies with finely-tuned long-range DNA scanners. Or something.

She felt sure, though, that the delay would have been cut if Security had had a competent commander. If someone in the security offices had passed out handheld communicators to bypass the computer problem, as Anderson herself would have done if she'd been there, or Ohmura would have done if he had, Security could have managed a much more coordinated effort. If the Security officers had been ordered to reach Q's quarters whatever it took -- a command decision someone should have made when they realized the Beryllian soldiers were deployed to stop them from reaching Q -- someone could have gone through the Jeffries tubes, rather than slugging it out with the enemy troops. The entire incident shored up her belief that Starbase 56 needed a new security chief now.

So she'd leaned on Starfleet HQ, with this incident as evidence, and happily her favored candidate's transfer approval had come through. James Azoth had been her chief of security when she'd commanded a starship on the border patrol; when she'd gotten her injury and her promotion to desk duty, Azoth had stayed on under the new captain. He had fought in the Cardassian War, as had she, and was far more experienced than Ohmura had been with war-footing situations, which was frequently a good description of Starbase 56. Anderson had no doubt he'd be able to whip her somewhat ragged security department into shape -- and he was scheduled to arrive tomorrow.

Which made her a little happier. But not much.

It didn't take Azoth long at all to settle into his new post and start working on the top priority Anderson had presented him with, Q's current situation.

He demanded, and got, detailed reports from everyone who had been involved with the situation with Q. The security personnel wrote their reports to put themselves in as favorable a light as possible, of course, but Azoth disregarded much of that. What was clear was that Q and Security had been engaged in a cold war for weeks now, and that was totally unacceptable. Regardless of what the man did to provoke them, Q was a civilian, and his protection in particular was what this starbase existed for. Azoth made it clear to his people that the cold war was to end. He didn't care who started it, he didn't care who perpetuated it, but anyone found behaving in anything other than a fully professional manner toward Q would be summarily dismissed from the starbase. Anyone who didn't believe they could handle that was free to transfer now, without prejudice.

Half a dozen people transferred. Azoth was very surprised. Commanding officers all over Starfleet made offers like that, and usually no one took them up on it.

It seemed clear to him from the reports that Dr. Naomi Allen was at least as culpable in perpetuating the war as Q himself, or anyone in Security. There were several reported incidences of her being verbally abusive to Security -- not that Q wasn't, of course, but Q could not be removed from the situation. Dr. Allen could be. She had apparently latched onto Q in a fit of protectiveness, having been the first to find him after his assault, and had taken it on herself to guard him and "protect" him from his own security as if he were a small child, and as if Security was, in fact, entirely composed of the kind of people who had attacked him in the first place. Such behavior was perhaps understandable, but it had made matters much worse.

Evidence suggested that she was not Q's lover, despite references to her as such by many of the security officers; the officers who had worked with T'Meth had reported that Allen slept in Q's living room, and that their gut feeling was that she was more like a mother than a girlfriend to him -- that she touched him frequently and familiarly to offer comfort, but there seemed to be nothing sexual there. All that in itself mattered little to Azoth; if Q wanted to keep a mother figure around in his rooms, and Dr. Allen had volunteered for the task of babying him, that was none of Azoth's concern. What concerned him very much, however, was that Allen had consistently interfered in Security's duties. She had worsened the cold war against Q by verbally abusing Security, perhaps out of mistaken protectiveness, or perhaps because she couldn't play mother to Q if he didn't have "enemies" he needed "protection" from. She had interfered with Security taking Q's initial deposition about the attack on him, because, it was reported, she wanted privacy with Q. She might have encouraged Q to try to blackmail Anderson when the protestors had tripped him, which had gotten Q thrown in the brig, instead of the more sensible and moderate route of explaining to Anderson what had happened; it was certainly true that Q was capable of such immoderate behavior on his own, but on the other hand, it was telling that Allen had been able to charge to his rescue very shortly after the incident. Finally, and most telling, there was evidence that her presence had interfered with T'Meth's work enough to get T'Meth mortally injured.

The holotapes were clear evidence. Allen had, apparently as another of her tactics to harass Security and make it clear to them that Q saw them as monstrous enemies, gotten Q to have all incidents with Security in Q's rooms recorded -- not that Azoth was against that on principle, but she seemed to have done it to play to Q's belief that Security was out to get him, and the result had been to drive a further wedge between Security and Q. It had backfired on her, though. The holorecording had cut out when the Beryllians had brought down all communications and audiovisual recording basewide, but just before that occurred, T'Meth and Allen were shown arguing; T'Meth was saying that Allen should leave Q's quarters, that it wasn't safe for her here, and Allen had stubbornly refused to go. Allen and Q's statements hadn't mentioned this argument at all. Nor had they mentioned the fact that T'Meth had apparently strained her back, according to the medical exam, in making sure both of them got to safety, a strain that had undoubtedly slowed her reaction time and eventually gotten her shot. Braun, who had been Ohmura's second and the acting security chief since his death, had done a reconstruction of events in the room that clearly showed how, based on the evidence from Allen and Q's statements and the physical evidence found about the room, T'Meth would have been seriously hampered from protecting Q by the need to protect Naomi as well. Fortunately, neither of the civilians had been killed or hurt; T'Meth was very good at her job. Instead, she'd taken all the extra burden on herself, according to Braun's analysis, and might now well die of it.

Azoth reviewed the evidence himself, and was forced to concur. Naomi Allen was a danger to Q. She was encouraging the antisocial behavior that had caused the war between Q and Security in the first place, she was antagonizing Security needlessly, she was an additional target for his assassins and therefore a further burden on his already precarious security arrangements, and she was quite possibly subconsciously pushing Q into dangerous situations so that she could mother him when he got hurt. Or, perhaps, Q was subconsciously pushing himself, so that she'd mother him. Either way it was dangerous. And either way, the most important factor was that her presence had caused a potentially fatal injury to a Security officer. At least until such time as Azoth had Security firmly under control, the cold war was ended completely, and much stronger arrangements had been made for Q's personal safety, she should not be permitted near Q.

Azoth explained his findings, and his conclusion, to Anderson, who felt somewhat stupid for not having realized this herself. Of course, she had a little less experience dealing with dysfunctional personalities like Allen's than Azoth did, but still, it should have jumped out at her. What kind of woman was so fiercely protective of someone as socially inadequate and incapable of returning affection as Q was, after knowing him such a short time? Anderson had assumed they were lovers, that some overwhelming chemical attraction had persuaded Allen he was worth protecting. But if they weren't... then Allen was probably a very sick woman, living out some vicarious fantasy by pushing Q into dangerous situations with Security and then "protecting" him from them. Anderson was sure that Allen had had no complicity in the original attack on Q, but she could well have fanned the flames against him by treating Security like dirt, encouraging Q to do likewise, and riding to his "rescue" when he got what obnoxious people deserved. Certainly Q would never behave any better as long as he had her around, validating the awful things he did and making him feel like he didn't need to be a civil human being in order to get protected and coddled. Q was an attention hog. If making a melodrama of his life, acting as if Security was about to kill him any minute now, and pushing them to the point where they would let protestors knock him down without interfering would keep Allen with him, Q was, from all Anderson had seen, perfectly capable of doing all those things. It was a sick little folie a deux that would just get worse and worse the longer it lasted, until finally Q, or more security guards, ended up dead.

She had no trouble at all signing the order that Dr. Allen was to be kept from Q.

"You can't do this!" Naomi all but shouted, leaning over Anderson's desk. "What right do you have to say who I can and can't see?"

The commodore took a deep breath and faced the irate programmer calmly. "Every right. I represent Starfleet in this matter. And the best thing for your welfare and the welfare of one of the Federation's most precious resources, is that you be kept away from him."

Naomi sputtered ineffectually, unable to take that all in at once. There were just too many arguments crowding her mind, too many reasons why Anderson was dead wrong and shouldn't be proceeding with this course of action.

Anderson saw her opportunity and took it. "Surely, Dr. Allen, you can see that your life is at risk by remaining with Q..."

"That's my choice."

The commodore shook her head. "No. It's not. And even if it was, your presence puts Q at risk."

"What? How can you say that?" Naomi asked, astounded by what had to be a complete untruth. Q benefitted from her presence; the fact that she'd rescued, had to rescue him more than once since she'd stumbled on him in a dark corridor of the starbase only reinforced that impression of his need for her. He would have died, or been nibbled to death by ducks, if she had just walked away.

"His security guard was assigned to him to protect him and him alone. The need to protect you is what hampered T'Meth, and caused her to be in Sickbay right now, in critical condition. Your selfishness is what is endangering Q's life more than anything else."

"That's not true!" Naomi said. "You don't understand! Q needs me..."

Anderson shook her head, a very slight motion. "What Q needs is adequate protection. And he's not going to get it as long as the need to protect emotional targets is hampering his security team." She tapped the screen in front of her. "The new security chief, Commander Azoth, has presented me with his analysis of the situation, and I agree with his conclusions. You are a risk as much as you are at risk, and I can't allow you contact with him."

Naomi's fists clenched, and she longed to do something about the commodore's smooth assurance. But Anderson held all the high cards, and Naomi knew it. If she protested, Anderson could very easily have her removed from the starbase, and that would be intolerable. As it was, she might be able to fight it. Some other day.

"You're wrong, and I'll prove it. You'll regret this decision."

It wasn't quite a threat, and Anderson didn't make any special note of it for Security as she could very well have done. As she watched Dr. Allen stalk out the door, she felt very old and tired. She was doing what needed to be done, but that didn't make it any easier or make her feel any better about it.

Q hadn't fully realized before how unutterably dull his life was.

Oh, he'd known it, just as he knew his back hurt most of the time. But he'd grown so used to it that it dropped into the background. He had stopped noticing how badly he hurt until Naomi rubbed his back... and he'd stopped noticing how bored and lonely he was after she'd come to him, and now that she was gone he couldn't forget again.

The active harassment from Security had largely stopped. His guards behaved like bland automatons. Almost, Q wanted to provoke them, to see if he could force them to say or do something that didn't make them seem like robots. But he was still too frightened to do that -- if he provoked them, he might push them into beating him up again. And this time, there would be no Naomi to rescue him.

It was all his fault. He should have made her leave when T'Meth told her to, shouldn't have held her hand and clung to her. They told him that T'Meth might die because of Naomi's presence, and he knew he was the reason Naomi had stayed. If he hadn't wanted her there so badly, T'Meth wouldn't be dying.

It was better that Naomi was gone, better that he would never have to see her bloody and broken like Ohmura had been, like T'Meth had been. He tried to convince himself of that. He was a plague carrier, harbinger of death, bringing it to anyone who came too close to him, and he should live in quarantine for the safety of those around him. It was his fault he had made so many enemies, his fault he had gotten thrown out of the Continuum and needed to depend on others to protect him. All his fault.

But he was so bored. And so very very lonely.

He alternated between sleepwalking through the meetings, sunk in numb apathy, and viciously attacking the scientists so he'd have something to do. A lot of the pleasure had gone out of getting an angry reaction out of people, though. Being forced to provoke people who wanted him dead, being forced to defend himself with his usual cruel wit from people who he knew had every intention of breaking his bones and making him beg... that had taken a lot of the savor out of conflict for him. But the alternative was to roll over for Anderson and play good little Q, make nice with her scientists and walk the straight line she drew for him. And that was far more unpalatable.

He tried lying. No one caught him at it. That terrified him. He could lead these people so far astray, set back the cause of Federation science a hundred years, and it probably wouldn't catch up with him for years... at which point the Federation, disgusted by his treason, would probably dump him in a penal colony for the rest of his life, perhaps even mindwipe him, or possibly just abandon him to the cold universe where any of his enemies could get at him. The thing that terrified him was how attractive that seemed, a sort of glorious self-destruction that almost made him feel as if, if he did it, he would feel alive.

He didn't lie again. If he was going to choose self-immolation, he wanted something worth more than that to go down for.

Occasionally he thought of protesting, trying to argue with Anderson. Surely he could put some kind of pressure on her -- at the moment he wasn't particularly frightened of ending up in the brig... But then he would remember T'Meth. Regardless of how unhappy he felt, it was the right decision... wasn't it?

There was nothing he could do and no one he could see. Naomi had been closed off to him, and while it had been made perfectly clear that it was a decision of Security that was keeping her away from him, Q couldn't help but feel that if she really cared, she'd find a way around that.

But she hadn't, and the conclusion he drew from that was unarguable.

And in the end, he had nowhere to go and no one to talk to. Under ordinary circumstances, that wasn't something he minded much. People were dangerous, unpredictable creatures who at any moment could and would turn on him. And Q didn't want that, had no desire to encourage a situation where that could happen to him. Because certainly Medellin would always be happy to talk to him -- talk to him and note it all down for future reference while doing absolutely nothing about the miserable way he felt, and the guilt and pain and anguish roiling through his soul.

What he needed, who he needed was Naomi. But he couldn't have her. And, ever since the attack by the Beryllians, he'd been tailed intensively by Security. There was no chance that they would let him see her, even if he wanted such a thing, was reduced enough to seek her out, Q was quite certain that Security would take great joy and relish in refusing him access to Naomi. They'd always shown so much joy in depriving him of everything else, why not that as well?

Which put him right where he was, standing in the center of an empty holodeck, wondering if he were losing his mind.

He hated the holodeck, would never use it under any circumstances, and very certainly not for what he needed right now, and not with someone, or in this case, multiple someones standing outside the door, well aware that he was inside, able to indulge the most debauched fantasies he could dream up. The holodeck was the mortal equivalent of omnipotence, a weak shadow of the real thing, where they could create anything they wanted and do anything they wanted. For humans, it was an amusing pastime, and nothing special. For Q, it was the ultimate perversion. Here, if he wanted, he could create scenarios which allowed him to pretend that he had lost nothing, that everything was the way it had been, that he still had control and power.

Which was precisely why he didn't do things like this, why he shouldn't be here, and why he was trying desperately not to think about it too much. Not that he could help himself.

"Computer, run program."

Around him formed the scenario he'd dreamed up. It was nothing gaudy, nothing spectacular in any way. Just a little cafe, at night, dark and quiet, with only one patron, and an apparently permanently absent proprietor. And, upstairs, although he really didn't want to think about that detail, but couldn't help but remember what he'd had to spell out, and almost stopped himself from putting in, there were rooms where one might spend the night, or do... other things.

At one of the tables, near the window was the other occupant of the room, a woman. Q swallowed hard at the sight of her. He couldn't believe he was doing this, couldn't believe he'd actually gone ahead and created this. She had dark, smooth hair, nothing like Naomi's riotous mass of red, and was of medium height, and only fair attractiveness. Anything else would have sent him running away, which would have been entirely humiliating, considering that he'd created the hologram.

Settling his courage around him, what little there was of it, Q strode forward.

"Oh, there you are," the woman said, smiling. "I've been waiting for you."

He swallowed hard, and took a seat at her table. "Have you?"

"Of course I have. What did you think, that I wouldn't wait?"

"The thought never crossed my mind," Q said with perfect honesty. She was after all a hologram; what else better did she have to do?

She leaned forward, elbows on the table, looking at him intently with her dark eyes. "So? What did you want to talk to me about that was so important?"

He couldn't help but feel a tremor of something go through him at her nearness, even though he knew she wasn't real, that he was actually sitting here talking to the thin air. "Nothing. It was nothing."

"It can't have been nothing," she said, her expression remaining sympathetic and open. "You would never have been so urgent about it if it were nothing."

He was about to tell her, about to start detailing the petty weaknesses and the overwhelming guilt that had led him to this point, to the brink of his own sanity where talking to himself suddenly seemed like a good idea, when she covered his hand with hers. "You can tell me anything," she said in her soft, velvety voice. "It's all right."

But he couldn't think of telling her anything, couldn't think at all. Her touch was holding him there, had forced something up to the surface that he didn't want to look at, had thought he was, if not completely ready to handle, at least desperately in need of. He wanted her, wanted this ridiculous unreal holodeck creation, who didn't even care about him, who was programmed to be what he needed her to be.

His hand closed around hers, holding on tightly despite himself, despite his knowledge that this wasn't really happening. "You don't want to know. It's too paltry and squalid."

Her hand was very warm in his, and he found himself focussing on that, trying to keep the unreality of it at bay, to believe in the scenario. "I... a woman was killed, almost killed, and it's my fault. They're blaming me for it. And," a sob welled up in his throat, "they might be right. If I knew how to protect myself, if I hadn't let Naomi be there, then it wouldn't have happened again. People wouldn't always be getting killed for me. It's funny, you know," he said, still staring at her hand, "I could have sworn I'm not worth the trouble."

"Of course you are," she said emphatically. "You're more than worth it."

He looked up at her, at her face, wanting to know if she really meant that, and then realized what he was doing.

She was a hologram. She didn't mean anything at all. She could no more believe in him than a grain of sand could.

Sick horror washed through him. He was so pitiful that he was seeking comfort from shadows.

With a strangled sob, Q tore his hand out of her grasp, pushed himself away from the table. He didn't look at her, didn't want to see her. She didn't even exist. "Computer, end program!"

And then he was back in the empty holodeck, nothing there but the yellow lines on the black walls.

Q tried to compose himself, but it was no use. He was breathing as hard as if he'd just escaped from a large, hungry lion, and tears stung his eyes. Trying not to look too obviously upset, he strode out of the holodeck, and past the startled Security guards.

"Well, that was quick," one of them said.

"How long do you really need?" the other one answered in an off-hand way, pushing himself away from the wall and following Q.

They weren't even talking to him, but Q felt his face flush, and he held his head higher, trying not to think about anything at all.

"Come in," Counsellor Nian Medellin said, looking up from the brief profile she was reading. Her next visitor wasn't a patient, which was something different. She might not even have done any preparation for this, except that the person who had entered the room was a rarity, someone Medellin would have said didn't exist -- a friend of Q's. Which made all the background research she could do not enough. The chance to obtain some insight into Q was too compelling to refuse. She was continually frustrated by him, the worst of possible patients, and found herself at a loss to know what to do with him. He needed her help; she knew that, however much he might deny it -- but she couldn't do anything for him, could hardly even talk to him at times, given the way he attacked her. It was very frustrating, and she welcomed this opportunity to get a different perspective on him, a different line of attack.

"Hello," Naomi said, stepping in cautiously.

"I'm Nian Medellin, and you must be Dr. Allen. It's nice to meet you."

Naomi nodded. "Thank you for seeing me on such short notice. I know it must have been difficult to reshuffle your schedule for me." In truth, she had spent two days, two eternally long days waiting for Medellin to find the time to speak with her, during which Naomi would happily have sent herself to Q via the mail system if it weren't that she'd been barred from electronically communicating with him as well. She couldn't understand that prohibition at all -- as a security provision, there was no reason for it unless they were paranoid enough to think that any emotional connection, however tenuous, was a link that a potential assassin could exploit -- and interpreted it instead as yet another attempt by Security to make Q's life miserable whenever and however they could.

"It was no trouble at all. Won't you have a seat?"

Naomi looked around the room, which had a long low couch with a table in front of it and an arm chair across from it, and Medellin's desk, which the counsellor was currently sitting at, and took a seat at one end of the couch, curling up against the arm of it.

Medellin came around the desk and sat in the armchair. "Now, what did you want to talk to me about? I assume you're having some sort of problem."

Naomi grimaced. "You could say that."

"And you need insight on how to handle Q? Although I've talked with him extensively, I can really only speak as a counsellor regarding him. Even if my ethical standards didn't prohibit..."

"That's not it," Naomi said, impatience shading her voice. "Haven't you heard anything about T'Meth and the change in Q's security restrictions?"

Medellin's brows furrowed. "I'm not sure what you mean. I've heard of T'Meth, but..."

"The attack on Q by the Beryllians. T'Meth was injured. You've heard about that, right?"

The counsellor nodded, relieved to finally be able to place the reference. "Of course. I'm terribly sorry that the lieutenant was wounded..."

"Yes, yes, it was quite the tragedy," Naomi said. "But that's not what I came here to talk to you about."

"Then what is?" Medellin said, feeling frustrated in her inability to converse with this woman. Her entire life was predicated on her people skills, and she couldn't talk to Dr. Allen at all, couldn't even find out what was bothering her without resorting to the simplest of questions.

"Commodore Anderson, in her infinite wisdom, has decided that, to protect Q and make the job of protecting him easier, to ban me from seeing him."

"Well, I'm sure if the commodore ordered that, that she must have good reasons..."

"I don't agree." Naomi's chin was set stubbornly, and she met Medellin's eyes squarely. "It may be easier to protect Q without me around, but it doesn't make him any safer. If anything, it makes him less safe. He's been beaten up by Security, threatened by them, and they've consistently failed to protect him. While T'Meth has done an exemplary job of protecting him, she's only one, and she's not there anymore. And the same people who allowed a mob of protestors to swarm Q, attack him, and then hauled him off to the brig for daring to complain about it are currently in charge of taking care of him. He's not even allowed to see me, the one person he knows he can trust. How do you think he feels right now? How could this possibly be good for him?" Naomi had leaned forward during her speech, and sat back now, waiting for Medellin's response.

"You believe then that Q is at risk now?" Medellin asked, cautiously testing the waters.

Naomi nodded emphatically, hair falling into her face. With an impatient gesture, she tucked it back behind her ear. "He needs people around him who support him. And I'm the only one I know he trusts." And the only one I trust to watch over Q's best interests, she added silently. "It can't be good for him to be isolated indefinitely from people, to be told he can't have any friends because it's just too dangerous. He needs contact as much as the next person, probably more. If it's too dangerous, then increase his security, or something, because it just isn't right. Do you understand?"

Medellin nodded, heart in her throat. This was the opportunity she'd been waiting for all along, and while she barely knew Dr. Allen, she did know that Q having a friend and even better, a lover, was the best thing that could happen to him. While she couldn't quite believe that Eleanor would place a blanket restriction on such a thing, Medellin could definitely see Allen's point.

"How long have you been involved with Q?"

Naomi waved her hand irritably. "What does it matter? Since he was attacked by Security, about, how long, two or three months ago?"

"And how well do you know him?"

Naomi shrugged her shoulders. "Not very. We've never really sat down and had one of those heart-to-heart talks about our family lives, if that's what you mean. But I know him, and I'm not going to stand uselessly by and let him get hurt again."

Medellin heard Allen's emphasis on the word "know" and took it to mean that she and Q were indeed sleeping together. That made things easier to understand. Allen's protectiveness was quite explainable coming from a lover, and that fact was not something explicitly stated in what information Medellin could get about her. "I take it this is not a short term relationship for you."

Naomi shook her head without even thinking about it. She and Q didn't really have a relationship, but she wasn't going to abandon him under any circumstances. Not when he needed her so much. Not when she felt the pull of attraction from him so strongly that she was tempted to crawl into his bed without any sort of invitation. "I plan to stick around for as long as he wants me."

Medellin's brows raised. "As long as he wants you? Don't you think that puts you in a very dependent position?"

"Dependent? Me?" Naomi said disbelievingly. "I don't think you understand Q very well at all."

"Why don't you explain him to me then."

Naomi looked distrustfully at Medellin. "I don't see what this has to do with what I came here about. Q is the least likely person for me to ever be dependent on. If anything, he's dependent on me, or would be if he weren't so independent of everyone. He just doesn't know enough about people or anything to be anything else." Naomi's cheeks reddened slightly as she remembered how badly Q had misinterpreted their relationship early on. He'd thought she was trading her protection for her sexual services, and had ended up kissing her because he thought he was obligated to do so. It had been a very pleasurable experience -- up until she realized he felt coerced into it.

"That's an interesting way to look at it," Medellin said, intrigued by Allen.

"So?" Naomi asked. "Are you going to help me?"

"I'll see what I can do."

Around the sixth or seventh day -- he wasn't keeping careful track -- since he'd been forbidden to see Naomi, he went to see T'Meth in Sickbay.

"What is it this time?" Li asked as Q walked in, trailed by his security entourage.

"Don't trouble yourself," Q said coldly. "I'm just here to visit T'Meth."

Li gave him a disbelieving look. "You, come to pay a social call?"

"Believe what you like. How is she?"

"She's still comatose, so if you came to harass her you're out of luck," Li shot back.

Was that all anyone thought of him? Q felt a surge of outrage. As if he would come and harass someone who had saved his life. "What a pity," he said with flippant coldness. "I suppose I'll have to bear up under the disappointment. Where are you keeping her?"

"Sekal's with her. I don't want you going in there and disturbing them."

Q stared at Li. "You know, the woman did save my life. I don't think it's entirely unreasonable that I should want to pay my respects. Is there some obscure human protocol to this that I overlooked? Was I supposed to arrive wearing sackcloth and ashes, for instance?"

Li narrowed his eyes. "You can go in, but only for a few minutes, and only if Sekal doesn't mind."

He went to get Sekal's permission, leaving Q standing in the middle of Sickbay. Q was quite sure that other people did not need to go through this rigmarole to visit someone in the hospital. He felt a sudden wave of bitterness. Security claimed that he cared nothing for them, that he didn't appreciate the sacrifices they made for him. But when he tried to show his appreciation, he got treated like a criminal. What was the point?

Li returned. "She's in a private room, over there. Only a few minutes."

Q glared at him. "How disappointing. I had planned to move in," he said sarcastically, and swept off.

T'Meth looked much smaller in a sickbay bed, with tiny neurostimulators attached to her temples and half of her body concealed under a diagnostic hutch. Sekal sat by her side, in a chair, holding one limp hand.

Q stared. This is what you've done, he thought in a sudden paroxysm of furious guilt, and wanted to run away. Instead he forced himself forward. "How is she?"

"She is insensate to the outside world," Sekal said quietly. He looked up at Q. "It is not necessary to come and offer condoloences. T'Meth will not know that you are present."

"And you think I'm trying to win brownie points, is that it?" Q asked harshly, suddenly hating Sekal. Even this man, Starbase 56's chief science officer and coordinator of the meetings, someone Q worked with every day, assumed Q could not possibly have a single positive motive. "Thank you for the vote of confidence."

"I didn't mean to offend you. It's simply that many humans have felt the need to come and offer their sympathy, and I don't quite see the logic. T'Meth is unaware of their presence and I do not require emotional support."

"Well, I'm hardly like many humans. You should know better, Sekal." Q stepped forward, looking down at T'Meth. "I - - you have some kind of mental link with her, don't you? Can you sense her at all?"

Sekal stiffened. "That... is not something we usually discuss with non-Vulcans."

Q sighed. "I am hardly a stranger to the concept of mental links, you know. I'm not asking out of some prurient curiosity about your telepathy; I just want to know how badly T'Meth is hurt."

Sekal raised an eyebrow at him. "Why?"

"Because!" Was it so hard for everyone to believe something positive of him? "It's my fault! Is it so unrealistic that I should want to know the extent of what I've done?"

Now Sekal looked even more confused. "Q... why is it your fault? T'Meth's duty was to protect you. It's no more your fault that she was hurt than it would be a starship's fault for causing a warp core breach."

"Great. So I'm a warp core breach." It had been a mistake to come here. Sekal was right. What had he hoped to accomplish?

"I think you misunderstand," Sekal said. "I am not trying to imply that you are dangerous -- or that you are an inanimate object... Q. I'm not accustomed to dealing with humans in highly emotional states, so it's entirely possible that I am phrasing this badly. What I mean is that you hold no culpability for what happened to T'Meth. She only did her duty, the work she trained for. It is hardly as if she never expected that this might happen. You must not blame yourself."

"Why not? Everyone else does." Q paced around the bed until he was standing next to Sekal.

"I would think that you of all people would consider the opinions of others to be irrelevant."

That was before they tried to kill me for them, Q thought bitterly. "Just tell me, Sekal. Is she in there at all? Can you sense her mind on any level?"

Sekal hesitated. Finally, slowly, he said, "I am not a very powerful telepath... T'Meth herself was much more skilled..."

If the hedging around the question hadn't told Q what he needed to know, the tense Sekal spoke of T'Meth in would have. Q's heart lurched. "She's brain-dead, isn't she?"

"Scans show that there is neural activity. However... I have been unable to detect her mind. It is possible... that the higher mental functions... may be gone."

Q swallowed hard. "That's all I wanted to know."

"Q, do not blame yourself. Given your situation, it is inevitable that Security officers will be killed in your defense. There is no logic in torturing yourself over the inevitable."

Sekal probably meant the words as comfort, but they hit Q like a blow. Yes, it was inevitable, wasn't it? Anyone who stayed near him was likely to get hurt or killed. Only a matter of time.

Q was not good at dealing with death. He had seen millions of mortals die, of course, but that that level it had been meaningless. Even now, the notion of an entire species being wiped out filled him with nothing stronger than a feeling that that was really too bad, unless it was a species he'd personally liked. And he'd always avoided getting attached to particular mortals, or if he did, he kept them from getting killed until such time as he grew bored with them and moved on. He had never had to see people he cared for die.

There had been Q who had died, and that had hurt profoundly. Two friends of his had died twenty years ago for committing an unauthorized act of reproduction and then failing to meet the Continuum's conditions for their parole. But that had been entirely their fault. He had tried his best to talk them out of it, and he'd failed, but he'd never truly expected to succeed -- few Q had any kind of consistent track record at influencing other Q. He had done all he could, and he'd known it. His conscience had been clear.

But from the moment that he'd realized that Data could have been killed protecting him, Q had realized that he really, truly did not want anyone to die for him. The idea that his actions could cause a mortal to die without any such intent on his part had always bothered him immensely. From his very first act of attempted self-destruction, from his offer to save Starbase 56 by giving himself to the Borg as a stopgap measure, he had hated the notion of others dying for him so much he'd been willing to die himself to prevent it.

And now Sekal had just confirmed his worst fear. It would keep happening. Anyone who got close to him would die. Anyone who tried to protect him would die.

A sound that was almost a sob, would have been if he hadn't clamped down on it in time, choked Q's throat. Sekal looked up at him. "Q, are you well? Do you need the doctor?"

"Fine," Q said dully. "I'm fine. Just... thinking about something."

Sekal took that answer at face value and nodded, looking back down at T'Meth. "It is the Vulcan way to focus on the achievements one made in life, rather than the nature of the death," he said quietly. "T'Meth protected you and Dr. Allen from harm. She succeeded in her mission."

"To what point?" Q asked harshly and spun away, tears blurring his eyes. He couldn't handle this anymore. T'Meth had died to preserve him so that his presence could kill more people? What was the point to that?

Alternately, what was the point to him living when he could not have anyone close to him at all?

He walked back to his room, pretending to a composure he did not feel as he walked through the halls, hiding his turmoil from his guards and the rest of the world. Three years ago, he would have laughed hysterically at the notion that his life would be empty without people who cared about him. His biggest problem, he would have claimed, were people that cared about him -- intruding in his life, giving unwanted advice, ordering him around... tears blurred his vision. He had raged against that for millenia, and he would give anything now to have it back, to have a fellow Q trying to tell him what to do and interfering... at least that would mean they cared. But they didn't care, and neither did anyone else.

In his room, safe from prying eyes, he cried. Naomi didn't care either. She'd been forbidden to see him, true, but she hadn't even tried to send him a message, hadn't fought the prohibition. Because if she had, she would be here. Naomi tore through barriers like they didn't exist when she wanted to. She hadn't torn though this one, so obviously she didn't want to.

And why would she want to? He had almost gotten her killed. If she'd stayed, she would have gotten killed. Whatever sexual delusions had made her offer to be his friend in the first place, surely they weren't worth her life. Nothing he could offer would be worth someone risking their life for. If it hadn't been for Naomi, he wouldn't have thought anything he could offer would be worth someone even taking on minor inconvenience for. Certainly no one else would ever go out of their way for him.

He thought of Harry, who didn't care either, had made it abundantly clear that he hated Q and never wanted to have anything to do with him except in a professional capacity. His sobs grew louder then. He had never known what he'd done wrong, had never seen the danger signs. Sure, they were always arguing, but he'd enjoyed that; that was like what he remembered of the Continuum. He'd thought that surely Harry would know what he really meant.

But Harry hadn't. Humans were very one-dimensional creatures. They didn't understand the different levels of speech, didn't understand the subtle nuances of an argument that conveyed caring and a desire to be with another person, as opposed to an argument that conveyed a true belittling of the other. Harry had said Q was enormously selfish, never gave anything of himself, was uncaring and thoughtless and acted like he was still God. And totally inept in bed. Except for the inept in bed part, other humans had confirmed the truth of what Harry had told him, time and time again. After a while, Q had successfully buried the pain, managing to convince himself that he didn't care, that he was socially a disaster and that was just the way it was and it was entirely humans' faults for having such an arcane and incomprehensible social system and he didn't really want anyone to care about him anyway.

Naomi had exploded all his lies. He did want someone to care. Maybe the Q of three years ago would have laughed hysterically, but then, that Q had never had to deal with anything worse than a tonguelashing from his elders. He had always had a ready closeness with his fellow Q, so intimately bound into the fabric of his being that he hadn't even known it existed until it was gone -- it had been a self-evident property of the universe, not worth thinking about or defining, until he didn't have it any more.

And he wanted it. He wanted it desperately, he needed it, he was dying inside without it. He had been dying inside for two years now, and it wasn't all the loss of his powers, wasn't all the fear of the horrible things that could and did happen to him now. No one cared if he lived or died, and that was killing him. He had tried desperately to cultivate attention, any attention at all -- and Security had beaten him near death and harassed him for a month for it, because the only kind of attention he could get was hatred. Hatred was better than indifference, he'd always thought. Now they both made him sick, and the only thing he could think about was Naomi, and how she'd been his friend and cared for him, and how much he'd needed that. And how it could never happen again.

Eighty years of bleak emptiness stretched out in front of Q suddenly, giving him vertigo. If he cultivated attention, he would be beaten to death, or abandoned to die the next time aliens attacked, the way all of Security but T'Meth seemed to have abandoned him this time. And he would hurt, and scream, and die begging, all dignity gone. And if he didn't cultivate attention, he would have what he had now: six to eight hours of talking to scientists who cared only for his insights every day, and long lonely nights with no one to talk to and nothing to do. And nothing could ever get better, because what he needed was a friend, and even if Anderson let him make any, which was doubtful in the light of her decision about Naomi, anyone who came near him would die.

Q sat on the couch, curled up around himself, the tears finally gone. He stared into empty space as the implications of his logic sank in. Horrible, agonizing death at the whim of an enemy... or eighty years of emptiness, watching innocent bystanders get killed for his sake, and finally expiring when his body decayed too far to be useful. The choices were unbearable. There had to be a third alternative...

There was.

Medellin took a seat in Anderson's office, settling herself there heavily. She disliked confrontation, and even more than that, she disliked having to tell someone she was close to that they were wrong. And yet, Eleanor was wrong, and Q's mental health was at stake. Which was Medellin's responsibility, even if she frequently could do nothing about it.

"I had an interesting visitor earlier today," Medellin began. "A Dr. Naomi Allen."

Anderson resisted the urge to groan. "Yes, I know Dr. Allen."

"She wanted to talk to me about Q. She believes you've ordered her not to see him."

"That's correct," Anderson said, sitting up more straight in her chair. When she spoke, her voice was harsh. "Has she been hitting you up now? Trying to get you to take her side against me?"

"And why would she want to do that?" Medellin asked, her face and voice carefully neutral. "Is there some reason she shouldn't be allowed to see Q?"

Anderson nodded crisply. "Dr. Allen is a threat to Q's security. I've ordered that she be kept separated from him in order to better protect him."

"How is she a threat?"

"During the Beryllian attack, the security officer in charge of ensuring Q's personal safety requested that Dr. Allen leave so that she would have only one target to protect. Allen refused. If she had done as ordered, then I wouldn't have a fine officer lying in Sickbay right now, in critical condition. The only reason Q survived at all is because of T'Meth, and the only reason she may very well die is because she failed to invoke the Vulcan healing ritual so that she could kill his attackers."

"I see." Medellin nodded, and steepled her hands together. "So, if Dr. Allen had not been there, then T'Meth could easily have overcome the Beryllians on her own."

Anderson inhaled sharply as she began to realize that Medellin was not playing a sympathetic ear at all. "There are no guarantees. But if Dr. Allen had done as ordered..."

"There would still have been the same number of attackers, and Q would have reacted the same way."

"Not at all!" Anderson said, beginning to get angry with Medellin. "Dr. Allen is encouraging Q to take unnecessary risks and defy Security. Without her there, he would have obeyed T'Meth's orders."

Medellin laughed.

Anderson stared at her for a moment, caught off guard. "What?"

"You don't really believe that, do you, Eleanor? Q obeying anyone?" Medellin shook her head. "I've spoken with both Q and Dr. Allen, and I am certain that Q is not the obedient type. You can't say that he's a trusting lamb who's been led astray. You know better than that."

Anderson's face flushed. "You don't understand."

"Then explain it to me," Medellin suggested gently, sitting back in her chair.

"Dr. Allen is a dysfunctional personality. She has chosen to live with Q, and not for the obvious reasons. At first, I assumed it was that kind of relationship, but I don't believe it is anymore. She's feeding off of him, Nian, encouraging him to get into confrontations with Security and other people, encouraging him to get hurt, so that she can comfort and mother him. She's validating his beliefs that Security is all out to get him, and that makes her a risk."

"Didn't two members of Security recently attempt to kill Q?"

"That was an isolated incident!" Anderson said in a very tight voice, wishing that this were someone other than Medellin, someone who wasn't a friend, who she could just throw out of here, instead of having to muster up increasingly weak- sounding justifications for her actions.

"And didn't Security later allow Q to be attacked by a mob of people without protecting him or reporting the incident?"

"Yes, but..."

"But?" Medellin asked quietly. "Perhaps it's time to give credence to Q's beliefs that Security doesn't like him, rather than dismissing his complaints."

Anderson looked down at her desk for a long moment, trying to control herself. "I realize that there have been problems, which is why I expedited the arrival of a new security chief for the department. I don't expect that there will be any more problems with Security."

"But there were."

It was a question, rather than a statement, and Anderson answered it as such. "Yes, there were." She took a breath, then admitted, "Six officers transferred when Commander Azoth informed them that anyone who did not behave in a professional manner toward Q would be dismissed."

"Six? That many?"

Anderson nodded. "I trust that the commander will be able to handle the group that's remaining."

Medellin shook her head slightly. "Six officers who left their posts rather than deal professionally toward Q, and you still believe that Dr. Allen was wrong in thinking that Security didn't like Q? Eleanor."

"It's not just that," Anderson said defensively. "The incident with the Beryllians proves that there's a problem."

"The only thing that it proves is that Dr. Allen is suspicious of a group of people with a known history of harming Q. Given that they're lovers, I find that perfectly normal."

Anderson looked at her sharply. The fact that Allen and Q were not lovers was one of the keystones behind her belief that the woman was using Q. "You believe that they're emotionally involved?"

Medellin nodded. "Q has been refusing my comms, and in any case, I doubt he'd tell me anything, but Dr. Allen was very forthcoming on the subject of their relationship. I have no doubt at all that they're emotionally involved. And -- more importantly, that Q needs her."

"I don't question that he needs her, but..."

"But, don't you see, Eleanor? He's never needed anyone. Q pushes everyone away from him. He has no relationships, no friends, hardly any acquaintances. The only people he sees on a regular basis are Security and myself, and you've told me that up until recently, Security disliked him and felt free to behave in any way they chose toward him. That isn't healthy."

"And what do you want me to do about it?" Anderson asked, already knowing the answer to her question.

"I believe that Dr. Allen should be allowed to resume seeing Q. Despite appearances, he is human, and he needs contact with people who care about him. And you can't deny that she cares about him, can you?"

Anderson shook her head. "I don't believe that the relationship is good for him."

"Let me worry about Q's mental health, Eleanor. I am the counselor here, you know."

The commodore sighed deeply. "All right, Nian. You've won this one. But if I end up being right and Dr. Allen continues to encourage Q to place himself into dangerous situations so that she can mother him after he's been hurt, I'm going to have to remove her for his own protection."

Medellin leaned forward, expression intent. "I don't agree with that at all."

Of course you don't, Anderson thought, closing her eyes for a moment. She suddenly wished, with great intensity, that she could just throw Dr. Allen out the nearest airlock. The woman had the greatest capacity for stirring up trouble of anyone she'd ever known. Including Q, who had at least never turned Nian against her. "And why not?"

"Think about it, Eleanor. How often was Q involved in dangerous situations before he met Dr. Allen? Fairly often, right?"

"Yes, but..."

Medellin ignored the interruption. "And it's reasonable to say that this is going to continue, isn't it?"

"Well, that wasn't my point."

The counselor held up her hands. "Either way. What I'm trying to say is that you can't hold Dr. Allen responsible for things happening to Q. She hardly encouraged him to have Security attack him and leave him for dead. These kind of things are going to continue to happen. You can't expect anything else." In fact, Medellin did hope for something else to happen. It was her opinion that part of the reason Q was so disagreeable with everyone, and so unlikeable, was that he had no one to turn to as a friend or a lover. Of course, since he was so unlikeable, it was hardly likely that someone would step up and volunteer for the position, but now that someone had, Medellin didn't see the point in chasing her away. Medellin hoped that Q would be happier and make a better adjustment to living as a human with someone who cared about him. But that was a hope rather than a prediction, since it was nearly impossible to say what Q might or might not do.

Anderson stared at Medellin, balked. The counselor was quite right. Q had always gotten into trouble. And while the commodore believed that he was getting himself into more trouble as a result of having Dr. Allen there, it was impossible to prove that. Certainly, Q had frozen before and caused a Security officer to die without any help at all from Allen. This time, at least, he had gotten to his room, instead of just sitting there and allowing the Beryllians to pick him off easily. And Anderson couldn't say but that the difference wasn't due to Allen, that her presence hadn't encouraged him to move rather than what his natural reaction would have been. Perhaps a concern for Dr. Allen's welfare had prompted Q to take shelter. In which case...

"I'll allow it," Anderson said. "But I expect you to keep a close eye on the situation, Nian. I can't have Dr. Allen turning into a protector for Q and encouraging him to reckless acts."

Medellin nodded. "You have my word on it."

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