The Lowest Common Denominator
[M] For language, adult situations, sexuality, drugs and violence.
So impressed with all you do
Tried so hard to be like you
Flew too high and burnt the wing
Lost my faith in everything
Lick around divine debris
Taste the wealth of hate in me
Shedding skin succumb defeat
This machine is obsolete
Made the choice to go away
Drink the fountain of decay
Tear a hole exquisite red
Fuck the rest and stab it dead
Broken bruised forgotten sore
Too fucked up to care anymore
Poisoned to my rotten core
Too fucked up to care anymore
Nine Inch Nails (The Fragile)
The bartender had been of no help. As far as the councilor was concerned, the prospect of aiding a fellow mortal in need was a lost practice in such a place as Dessica II. The tavern was overrun with vagrants of all makes, cultures and backgrounds. Some appeared for a drink, others came merely to do business free from the prying eyes of the law.
And though there were those who clearly outranked others in social status, each being and species there shared one common trait. They spoke the same language. These people belonged here, in one way or another. This was a common ground for them. They were used to the stench, the filth, the corruption and obstruction of justice. The violence was as common as many of the people who participated in such vile and base acts. Murder, bribery, substance abuse and profit. Each ran together in a continuous circle, a cycle no one was willing or able to break upon entering it.
But the clientele of this stingy, dank bar, with its rickety chairs and watered drinks was a catalyst for a much greater scheme. And everyone there was well aware of this scheme, and knew exactly what it was and how it flourished. As for Councilor Deanna Troi, she had no idea.
She resolved to find out.
"T'sa fuckin' shame." A man sitting at the bar counter beside her was slurring to his fifth glass of Cardassian ale. His nose was nearly drowning in the colored liquid, and his eyes rolled back in his head in a senseless stupor. "A fuckin' shame..."
Troi pretended she did not notice the man's rambling, and tried to regain the bartender's attention. She was fully aware that she did not exactly fit into the disheveled crowd, despite her disguise, but was determined to fulfill what she had came here to do. The fate of Captain Picard depended on it.
Unfortunately, the Dessican bartender remained obstinately uncooperative. Through the crowded cantina, filled nearly to the brim with sweating, cursing bodies, Troi could make out a vaguely familiar figure standing ramrod straight in the doorway. She could barely make out his features, but could identify wisps of golden hair and pale skin. But before she could further scrutinize his haggard appearance, he had disappeared. The councilor agonized over it a moment, racking her brain in hopes she could remember what was so oddly familiar about the man.
She considered following him in hopes of uncovering more about Picard's disappearance. Perhaps there was a connection between the two. But, instead, she decided to remain at the counter. There was still business to be done here.
Troi shouted across the bar counter to the tender, her tone rising by degrees to outmatch the loud voices of conversation in the dimly lit lounge. He did not so much as turn around.
Frustrated beyond measure, and about ready to abandon this method of interrogation, Troi noticed the man beside her slump across the counter in a state of a drunken coma, causing his glass to spill its contents over her.
Absorbed in wringing the alcohol from her clothing, Troi was only distantly aware of a hand owned by a second man creeping up and grasping the drunk firmly by the shoulder and pulling him away from the bar counter to make room for himself. As the unconscious man fell to the floor in a crumpled, unpleasant heap, the second man made himself comfortable on the stool beside her.
"Hell, Freddie," the man drawled in a low, husky voice as he addressed their host. "Would it really defile you t' clean this mess up at least once before I get here?" He made a disgusted snort, which to Troi sounded sarcastically impudent at the same time, and swept the counter with a gloved hand, wiping off the previous patron's saliva away so he could rest his elbows on the countertop. "Uck." He sneered at his gloves. "Human body fluids. This isn't my idea of keepin' up appearances."
To Troi's surprise, the bartender turned to lean against the bar counter and address his new, ingratiating patron with a friendly glower. "I know yer a regular here, Abel, but if you call me 'Freddie' one more time, I'm gonna break yer goddamn nose."
The man, Abel, covered his nose with a hand as if to protect it, and chuckled playfully. "Lay off the nose, Freddie. You know it's my best feature." Then he leaned forward dangerously, his thick voice turning to mock-menace. "And you know better 'n anyone here that you'd be takin' an awful risk attempting it, my friend."
The tender nodded grimly in understanding, then shook his head in amazement. "What are y' doing back here, Abel?" He regarded the man closely as he dried off a clean glass with a dirty dishrag. "Last time you were here, you were boasting about new business propositions in the Gamma Quadrant."
As Abel thought up an appropriate response, Troi took this lull in conversation to inspect the man sitting beside her out the corner of her eye. As she ostensibly kept her attention focused on her drink, she averted her eyes to the side to watch his actions intently.
The man was quite the imposing figure, built tall and muscular, but hardly heavy. He was sitting on his stool as if it were a horse, long legs spread as he slouched forward with his elbows on the bar counter. She was unable to identify his uniform, but the armor was most certainly alien. He wore black pants of a leather quality that clung tightly to his well-sculptured body and scuffed boots. His breastplate and armor was crisscrossed with scoring from numerous phaser blasts. He wore a phaser of his own in plain view, but somehow Troi was sure he carried more weapons than that. Whatever his line of work was, it was most certainly dangerous.
As for Abel's face, it was concealed by his helmet, which was quite offset from his gruff attire. It gave him the appearance of an ancient Spartan. But whatever his lineage, the councilor found herself oddly attracted to this masculine man who had a powerful body odor that was not the least bit offensive.
But there was something familiar about him as well, though she was positive she had never seen him before. The uniform for instance, as well as his petulant mannerisms. And the sound of his deep voice. Though he dressed and talked in the same vernacular language as everyone there, Troi was sure he did not belong among this crowd. He was intelligent, that much was discernible, and deserved a life of peace, not of lying in a gutter such as this bar.
And, according to the tender, he was a regular. Which most likely meant that he knew what had become of Captain Picard.
"Yeah, I said that, didn't I?" Abel drawled, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "Well, let's jus' say I had a change of plans."
Troi frowned, trying to read him, but found him as unreadable as a book written in a foreign language. That helmet. What was it about that helmet...?
The bartender laughed hoarsely. "Yranac got you on his payroll again?"
"Yranac is dead, Freddie, didn't ya know?"
The other was nonplussed for a good three seconds. "Dead? God, Abe, ya didn't--"
Abel laughed, slapping his knee as if he had found something blatantly humorous in the observation. "Moi? Murder Yranac?" His voice turned somber. "I admit he was scum, but," he held up his gloved hands innocently. "No blood here, these hands are clean. I s'ppose he knew too much."
Freddie smirked to the other knowingly as he began to mix his drink. "Let me guess, yer run was successful, then?"
Troi could imagine the man next to her grinning widely. He straightened again, his hands running over his chest as he visibly preened. "Fifty-eight crates, Freddie, all safe. By this time next month, you'll be drinkin' with a human more 'n worth his weight in latinum."
"And t' think, jus' three years ago you were afraid to so much as touch a disruptor." He sighed, and both men shared an awkward moment. "Shit, boy, look at how far you've come."
"No, honestly. So, how's yer ship?"
Abel shrugged. "The old bitch has some damage done to her. We got in a little scuffle when we were crossin' the Romulan-Fed boarder."
"Uh-huh. Those bastards hate my fucking guts, I tell you."
The tender smiled again, not a pleasant look, considering his face. "Everyone hates you, Abel. I thought yer ship was the fastest in the universe, all this transwarp technology you rigged up..."
Abel set his teeth in indignation. "Well, here we was, about ready to jump to warp when they attacked us." His gloved hands made gestures, cutting through the air as he simulated the confrontation. "Bam, didn't go through our shields, but shook us up pretty good, y'know? But we got them back, blew them to another dimension."
The bartender nodded appreciatively and set the finished alcoholic beverage before its owner. "Here's yer regular, Abel, congrats are in order. Hope all goes well on yer next run."
The man watched the other retreat back into the bar and absently scratched at the remains of lipstick encrusted around the glass's rim with a finger. "'Regular'." He laughed to himself flatly, shaking his head as he nursed his drink. "Can you believe that?"
He was talking to her, Troi noticed, but he was not so much as looking at her. Apparently, he did not want to talk to himself. She remained quiet.
"Well, I don't," Abel rambled on. "I was supposed t' be doing this to escape the routines, not start 'em." He snorted. "But that's humanity for you, huh? Things have a way of sneaking up on ya..."
Troi sat up, her ears pricking up at this last statement. The words themselves rang familiar, but the harsh bitterness displayed in them further piqued her interest. She twisted in her stool abruptly to stare at him in shock, suddenly realizing Abel's true identity. The Betazoid lowered her voice so it was only heard by the both of them.
It was a simple letter, but it was enough to make the man beside her stiffen and cut himself off mid-sentence.
Abel turned to her for the first time, and Troi was finally able to catch his face. His features were harder than she had remembered, three years of living life on the edge having taken its toll on him. But the impetuous set of his lips, the disobedient twinkling in his dark eyes, they were exactly as they had been before. In fact, the only change in his face Troi could see was the scar that ran down his nose, as if it had been badly broken before and unskillfully stitched together.
But his body posture was something else entirely. She had been correct to peg him as imposing. The awkwardness in his body since she had last seen him was all gone now. Here was not only a man who was skilled in the use of his limbs as appendages, but using his entire body as a missile. Three years of drug-trafficking and smuggling and fast-paced battles with the authorities had honed his abilities to the finest mark. He appeared sleek, fast, primal, and most certainly: deadly. Troi decided immediately not to treat him as the same Q she had met five years before.
He smiled at Troi, extending a gloved hand towards her. "Abel Keynan, madam." His larger hand clutched hers firmly at her side. "No one's called me 'Q' since..." His voice suddenly trailed off and he frowned, leaning forward. His eyes widened as he stared at her in disbelief, his hand pulling her closer. "Troi?"
They met eyes, and the councilor felt her heart catching in her throat.
Q had disappeared from the Enterprise only three years before, kidnapped by the Aldreenian ambassador. When they had gotten word that he had been sold off to the Tätarians, they had naturally assumed...but now, here he was. Alive, and, apparently, as human as ever. "Hey, Dianna. Whoo-hoo." He waved a hand over her face. "You still there?"
Troi blinked, and smiled slightly at the intended mispronunciation of her first name.
Q pulled his helmet up to get a better look at her, his lips curling at the sides. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
She noted with some suspicion that he was whispering to her as he dropped the use of his slang. And he had a hand on her shoulder. Somehow, it was comforting.
Q, comforting her?
"We thought you were dead," Troi said casually. Be careful here. She was undercover, and there was still a good chance that this was not even Q.
He pulled back, returning to his drink as he shot her a sidelong glance that was somehow both aloof and seductive. "This might sound trite, but I've heard that line before." He smiled wistfully at the ceiling. "It's usually said in dismay."
Questions filled Troi's mind, and she tried to organize them in the brief period permitted to her as she formed a response. In the meantime, she noted with some discomfort that Q was appraising her garments up and down, racking her body with appreciative eyes. Suddenly she realized another change in him. It was his sexuality. The Q Troi remembered was innocent, baring himself away from intimacy of any kind. Abel Keynan, on the other hand, had learned to use his sexuality to his advantage. A big question was raised suddenly, and it took all of the councilor's strength to repress the urge to ask it.
Q pulled something off his person and unwrapped a package about the size of a cough-drop, revealing a white cube that took the appearance of sugar. He ground this up between two palms, dusted the crumbs into his drink, stirred, and sipped from it. Noticing her questioning look, he shrugged his muscled shoulders. "Bad habit."
Troi frowned, disturbed by what she saw in him. The question of "how" was reaching her lips when he cut her off.
"You've finished your drink." Q straightened and snapped his fingers, shouting across the bar. "What the fuck kind of service is this? Someone get the woman a drink!"
Stunned, Troi clutched his arm, momentarily in awe at the feel of his strength under her fingertips. "Q, you don't have to--"
"Oh, it's no trouble, darling." Q smiled and nodded as the tender rushed up, set a beverage in front of her, and rushed off.
Troi looked from her drink and then back to the one who had ordered it. Apparently, Q had quite some pull here.
Q continued to nurse his alcohol, smirking at her naiveté at trying to slurp her drink unsuccessfully through its straw. "So," he drawled, wetting his lips. "Let me guess. Picard fired you, and you have decided to change your field of expertise from psychology to stripping."
Frowning, Troi eyed him for a moment. "Q, that's not why--"
"Abel," she corrected. "I'm here on a mission..."
"No, Commander Riker, Worf and Doctor Crusher are here with me."
Abel's eyes lit up devilishly, and all doubt that this was not the real Q was suddenly extinguished. "Riker's here? Hmm. What about Picard? How is the good captain keeping up?"
Troi stared at him. "Q--Abel--Captain Picard has been missing for two weeks."
His brows raised in surprise, then he glanced away. "And this was the last place he was seen...?"
"Yes." She came closer to him, watching his face intently. The councilor had spent over two weeks trying to read him when he had first become human, and she had thought they had made some progress. "Q, do you have any idea where he might be?"
Q shook his head. "I've been...out of town for a while." He turned back around, sipped from his drink, and eyed her blue dress again. "I think you can blame your lack of progress on that get-up of yours, though."
Troi felt herself becoming insulted, but covered it up. This was getting her no where, and not helping Captain Picard. "Possibly," she admitted. "But maybe if I knew what you were doing here undercover for, we'd be able to--"
His face blanched, and he set his teeth.
Terrific way with words, Deanna. She cursed inwardly, frustrated and angry with herself. Why didn't you just call him a lowlife and stop beating around the bush?
"I mean--" Troi started.
"I know what you mean," Q said harshly, narrowing his eyes at her.
His face spoke volumes, and Troi could read all the pain, all the suffering and stress he had endured in the past three years. She suddenly found herself feeling sympathy for him and his position in society. Q had never anticipated this happening to himself, had never wanted to be thrown into a powerless body and tossed across the universe to fend for himself. Somehow, she blamed herself. Picard had called upon her and Data to watch over him, and instead they had failed. In those three years he had been gone, Q had lost all his innocence and had replaced it with a bitter, resilient will to live no matter what.
"I know what you're thinking," he went on. "Here's Q, a once omnipotent god who could have been anything he wanted. A physicist, an engineer, a scientist, a professor, an astrophysicist, an astronomer...anything. And instead, here I am, at the bottom of the food chain, scum even by human standards." Q turned to gaze at her sincerely, his eyes almost hypnotic in their serene determination. "But you know why I chose this life, Councilor?"
She shook her head.
"I'm an independent individual, Dianna. I believe I told your captain something along those lines on my first day as a human. The truth of the matter is that if I had the opportunity to chose between poverty under freedom and wealth under the Federation, I would chose the former. I wouldn't change one goddamn thing if it meant living my life by my own rules."
"Even if it meant living like this?" Troi asked, gesturing around the cesspool as she tried to ignore his use of the word 'goddamn'.
Q smiled, following her indication. "These are my friends, darling. I was an outcast in my own society, a renegade and fugitive from the law. It seems fashionably proper for me to be the same here, hmm?"
Troi nodded, understanding his reasoning but not agreeing with it. "I think you could have flourished on the Enterprise if only you had given it a chance, but you do seem to fit in well here. What's more, I would never have guessed you to ever grow accustomed to being human."
He warmed at that, and he leaned closer, his deep voice growing more intimate that she would have expected from someone as emotionally shallow as she had remembered him. "Practice, Deanna," he murmured, tracing her jawbone with a gloved finger. "Practice and a lot of training."
Feeling herself beginning to tingle from under his touch, Troi pulled away slightly but did not tear herself from his eyes. She forced her voice level. "What is it you exactly do for a living?"
Smirking at her alluringly, Q returned to nursing his drink. "The name Abel Keynan doesn't ring any bells in any late Starfleet reports, Councilor?"
"No, I--" Then she frowned. The name was vaguely familiar. Her eyes widened at him when it hit her full force. "Wait, wasn't he the drug smuggler who stormed Starbase 138 a few months ago for their store of medical narcotics?"
Q sat up pleasantly, tipping his helmet down in affirmation. "The one and only."
"You destroyed the base," Troi went on, narrowing her eyes. "Over five hundred people died."
He scowled. "Of all my infamous deeds, this is what you remember. I made a year's worth pay on that run, you know."
She stared at him in disgust, moving to leave. It was probably a mistake, but this man made a worse human than he did a Q. And just looking at him suddenly made her sick all over.
Q must have developed some depth of perception over the years, because he immediately saw this and grabbed her by the arm. "No, you have it wrong. I'm not proud of that, it hadn't even been part of my plan to kill those mortals, even if their lives meant nothing to me. I admit, I am as selfish as always, but I'm ashamed of that. There was a malfunction in my ship's warp core when we made our getaway. It was unavoidable. It wasn't an act of terrorism. We had to eject it."
Troi didn't buy it for an instant. "Your helmet--"
"...is blocking out your mind-raping capabilities, I know. If I took it off, will it help convince you?"
She was nonplussed upon hearing the statement, especially from Q, who in the past would never have made such a sacrifice. Troi reminded herself to just admit that he had changed. In some ways for the better, in others for the worse.
"No, that would be unnecessary." She shifted her position on the stool. "I just never expected you to be capable of such callow disregard for life, considering you've fought so hard for your own."
Q was thoughtfully silent for a moment, and if she hadn't known better, Troi would have said he was somehow commemorating the dead.
He crumbled another cube of drugs into his alcohol and sipped from it.
Troi watched him guzzle his drink of toxins as if it were water. "That's a good way to abuse your body, you know."
Turning, he shot her a knowing, sultry grin, one of his hands caressing his right thigh pointedly. "Oh? Do you really think I've been abusing my body, Dianna?"
Feeling her face redden, Troi glanced away.
A man dressed similarly to Q took this moment to grasp her by the shoulders, nearly forcing her off her stool.
"C'mon, baby," the man whispered into her ear, causing her to gag on his foul breath. "Let's go."
Troi held her ground, trying to pull away and finding herself locked under his stronger hands. "Go where?" she demanded steadily as her mind began to whirl with options of escape.
"Who cares?" the man sneered. "If you're worth your money--"
Q laughed, covering his face with a hand. When Troi glared at him from her struggles, he smiled, elaborating. "He thinks you're a prostitute."
She struggled harder against the man, who seemed content to carry her off if she remained uncooperative. The councilor stared pointedly at Q, who seemed content to just watch from his vantage point while he simpered.
Troi stared at him, her sharp eyes clearly saying something along the lines of: "Well, do something!"
Sighing as if the act pained him, Q straightened up to his full height and pulled his helmet down as he addressed the man. "Hey, back off, friend."
The man turned his sneer to Q. "Stay outta this, Abel, this is between me and the woman."
"I'm sure it is, but she's with me."
Abruptly, the man pulled the councilor to the side to get a better look at Q. She set her teeth, resenting the position of the damsel in distress role she was suddenly taking. "Is that supposed t' impress me or something?"
The drug smuggler tipped his drink to his aggressor benignly. "The rock that don't impress you can also hit ya upside th' head." He winked to Troi playfully.
"Don't you ever shut up?" the man spat, tightening his grip around Troi's shoulders and leering at him when she squirmed in pain. "What are ya gonna do?"
It had happened faster than her eyes could make out, but Troi was aware then of Q extending an arm forward, followed by a loud, definite popping noise as bone was snapped in two like a twig. Her shoulders were immediately released, and the man behind her clutched at his nose with both hands, cursing angrily as it bled furiously over the front of his shirt.
Troi heard a few enthusiastic claps resound throughout the bar, and Q mock-bowed kindly for his audience. Wiping blood off his fist, he returned his attention to his drink.
The councilor stared at her rescuer, who had shrugged the violence off. She had expected Q to verbally assault him, or somehow convince the man into letting her go, not punch him in the face. When Troi had last known Q, he had been a pacifist adamantly opposed to violence. He had considered it...
"I thought you considered violence barbarous?" she asked him carefully.
The bartender was the one to answer incredulously. "Abel? Consider violence barbarous?" He snorted, leaning against the counter as if about to tell her a dirty secret. "Maybe three years ago, yeah. I remember he insulted a pair of Klingons once and nearly became a red smear on th' floor. His first instinct was t' curl up into a ball an' hide."
Troi watched Q's face change from passive to furious instantly, and knew the tapster was telling the truth.
Freddie saw the murderous expression cross Q's features, and held up his hands in a sign of peace. "But once we taught him a thing or two, he was picking fights with everyone who so much as looked at 'im the wrong way."
Troi stared at Q in disbelief, and he only shrugged his shoulders. "When in Rome, as they say."
The councilor looked her former client up and down again. She was suddenly positive that Q was quite skilled in all types of physical combat, and slightly feared this knowledge as well. "What else did you teach him?" Troi inquired, finding herself intrigued.
"Oh, everything he knows now. He even saved my life once." The bartender went on as Q withdrew into himself and his drink. "He was a tough study, yeah, but we stuck t' it. Poor guy barely knew nothing about how t' use his body. We hadda start from the ground up, y'know? But I guess we felt sorry about his amnesia and everything..."
Q forced a weak laugh. "Freddie, why don't ya shut the hell up and go make some drinks like a good little bartender? The lady isn't interested in yer crazy stories."
"Fine, Fine." The tapster moved to retreat. "I just thought you'd like t' know that ya have competition."
Q's lips curled. "Freddie, what the fuck are ya--?" But he had already disappeared to look over another patron, leaving Q and the councilor to exchange glances.
"Nice story," a voice was saying from far away, coming closer. "I'll remember it the next time I'm in a knife fight."
Troi noticed the crowd being shoved aside, and in an instant, Riker was standing beside her.
"Any leads?" he asked her quietly, his brown eyes darting around through the crowd as he drew closer.
The councilor looked to Q, but the seat he had previously occupied was empty. Masking her confusion, she glanced back to Riker. "Not thus far, Commander..."
"I don't like this place," he said. "I don't see how anyone could possibly stand it." Then the commander straightened, feeling something blunt and hard poke him in the back.
"Oh, I don't know," Q drawled affably from behind him. "It can grow on you after a while, give or take a year or two."
Riker stiffened, noticing Troi's frown from the corner of his eye as he tried to identify the familiar voice.
"Abel--" Troi started.
"Hush, sweetheart," Q bit out, enunciating every word with a pointed stab of his disruptor against Riker's spine. "Now, hands up, Commander."
"I don't believe this is happening," Riker groaned, raising his arms into the air. What angered him most of all was that those around them who had bothered to notice he was about to be murdered were only smiling at him as if sharing some kind of private joke. Even Troi did not appear overly concerned for his well-being.
Q nodded pleasantly. "Good Federation lackey. Now hand me yer wallet. Easy, now."
Riker searched himself for a moment. Then he feigned, spun, and knocked the disruptor from Q's hand. The weapon flew across the room, spiraling as the commander swiftly moved to punch his disarmed attacker in the face. But Q, despite being slowed by drugs and alcohol, was faster, and evaded the blow by leisurely dodging his assailant's fist as he drew out a fresh phaser at the same time.
Without the flesh of Q's face to cushion the blow, Riker's hand hit the bulkhead, sending a wave of agony flowing from his knuckles to the rest of his arm. As he stifled a cry of pain, clutching his injured hand, Q towered over him, shoving his phaser in the commander's face.
"Redoubtable heroics, Commander." Q smirked. "Tell me, who taught you that impressive move? Tsk, tsk, tsk. For Picard's sake, I'm quite glad your captain is not here to witness this shameful moment in history."
Riker, seething, was in no mood for this. "Look, if you're going to kill me, just shut up and get it over with."
"Me? Kill you? Why would I do such a thing? I just wanted to see your facial expression." He holstered his phaser, and nodded kindly to a woman who had retrieved his disruptor for him. "Thank you, my dear."
Straightening up as he tried to regain his lost composure, Riker glared into the other's face. Q blinked down at him innocently.
It took Riker five full seconds to realize who he was looking at. "You!" he thundered. "You're supposed to be dead!"
Q smiled thinly to Troi and pointed to Riker with his disruptor. "This is the dismay I was talking to you about."
"I should have known," Riker went on, closing in on the smuggler. "You were behind this all along, just stringing us for the past three years, leading us to just another one of your twisted Q-tests."
"Another one of my twisted Q-tests?"
"What have you done with Captain Picard?"
Q stroked his chin, regarding the commander in bemusement. "What have I done with Captain Picard?"
"I have no time for your riddles, Q. We won't cooperate. The game is over. Bring him back."
The other straightened to his full height, and Troi was impressed to see that Q's height and frame clearly overshadowed the commander's. As the smuggler circled Riker as if he were fresh prey, the councilor tensed, envisioning having to beam the commander onboard the Enterprise piece by piece.
"Hmm," Q drawled as he circled Riker for the last time before settling himself back on a bar stool with his back facing the counter as he reclined back luxuriously in a lazy aplomb, posing with his legs spread apart alluringly. He seemed to ponder the other for a moment. "Same old Riker," he said at last, his disruptor disappearing into his armor. "Yes, you're a little more impassioned and single-minded than I last recall, but same old Riker nonetheless."
The commander stared at Q, scrutinizing him closely for the first time. Troi was sure she could see the lights of comprehension going off in his head as he realized this was not the same Q he had known before.
"What happened to you?" Riker blurted out, indicating his get-up with some disdain.
Q's eyes widened.
Troi cleared her throat. "Commander Riker, meet Abel Keynan."
Riker made a choking noise. "Abel Keynan?"
Q crossed his arms over his chest. "In the flesh."
Scratching at his beard, the commander tentatively approached Q, bending over him so he could look the other in the eye. Q did not move, and allowed the other to scan him from helmet to boots.
"Abel Keynan the fugitive?"
Q made an expansive gesture cheerfully.
Riker sighed, the ridiculousness of this situation giving him a headache. "Q..."
"Abel. Any help you can offer on what is going on here would be greatly appreciated."
"Your situation appears to be quite bleak, Commander."
Riker was not about to let himself be set up. "Are you still human?"
"I don't seem to have a fork on me at the moment. If I did, I would be able to prove it..."
"How did you get here? And don't give me the philosophical answer. Just tell me what happened to bring you from being a physicist aboard the Enterprise to a...drug trafficker."
Q pouted sulkily. "You're rather demanding, considering I'm the one with the gun." Then he stood, lifting his nose into the air. "In fact, I don't know what I'm wasting my time for, talking to you when I could be spending my weekend getting drunk before I have to get back to work tomorrow."
Riker grasped him by the arm before he could leave. Then, frowning, he felt Q's biceps more closely in amazement.
"Are you enjoying that, Riker?"
Controlling himself, Riker forced his hand to his side. "Q," he said cautiously. "You're a criminal."
"Fine, I'm always the bad guy, no matter what form I'm in. If it wasn't for me, your lovely councilor here would be getting fucked by that distasteful man with the bloody nose."
Riker swallowed past the words, trying to put from his mind how wrong this all was. "Listen to me, Q--Abel. There are people out there who would shoot you first before they'd even consider asking any questions. In all fairness, I should hand you over to the Federation right now and be done with it."
Q offered him his wrists calmly.
The commander batted them away. "But I'm not going to, as long as you help us find Captain Picard."
"Ah, the blackmail stunt again." Q set his arms akimbo on his hips. "Sometimes I think you Starfleet prigs are good for nothing else. Here," he pulled out his disruptor again. "How about I kill both of you right now, then we can forget this all happened?" He shrugged. "It isn't as if I could possibly lighten my sentence anyway."
This was said in a half-joking manner, but Q was twirling the weapon around as if trying to decide what to do with it.
Riker set his teeth and glanced to Troi, who appeared equally as concerned. "Have you, ah, used that before?" he asked.
"Oh, hell yeah," he said conversationally as he practiced numerous fighting poses and stances to demonstrate. When he was confident they were rightfully impressed, he pocketed the disruptor again. "I've done shoot-outs, armed combat and such, but never murder."
Riker found himself slightly relieved to hear this. He was sure he did not want to see how handy Q was with a disruptor. Somehow, Q with a phaser was more frightening than Q with omnipotent powers.
"So," Troi broke in. "Does this mean you'll assist us?"
Q glanced up, giving Riker a sharp look. "Lets get one thing straight. I only smuggle drugs." He made an extraneous gesture. "And sometimes contraband. I do not kidnap aged captains. I assure you, I have a reliable alibi for the day your captain disappeared."
Riker and Troi started. "Captain Picard was kidnapped?"
"I never said that."
"That's exactly what you said!" Riker burst out.
Q waved it off, returning to his stool. There, he propped an arm around the councilor's back as he outstretched a gloved hand and clutched the beverage the bartender had handed him. "And when did you start listening to what I have say?" he retorted smoothly, sipping from the glass.
Riker was about to fabricate a response when a man slid up beside Q and wrapped his arms around him. The commander was then nonplussed to see the smuggler disengage his arm from the councilor and set his drink down to hold the man closer as if they were old lovers.
The man embraced Q with all his strength and buried his face in his chest. "Q," he whispered, kissing the leather over Q's chest. "I was looking all over for you."
Troi and Riker exchanged glances, surprised by the man's use of Q's real name. He was dressed similarly to their smuggling comrade, though not as elaborately, and the councilor realized that this was the blonde-haired man she had barely recognized from before.
"I'm guessing you missed me then?" Q teased his companion, feeling the man's hands tenderly stroke the crotch of his pants in plain view of the dumbfounded Starfleet officers.
"Mmhm," the man kissed Q on the lips lightly, causing their helmets to clank together.
Troi frowned. Why was this exchange so familiar?
Q raised a brow, his lips smirking playfully. His entire body began to shiver when the man caressed his sides in soft, circular motions. Slowly, he drew another kiss from his lover. "Then what's the problem?"
The man kissed his way down Q's throat. "Your contact is here, and he's waiting for you behind the bar."
Q cursed--a rather impressive curse, in Riker's opinion. "Tell him to jump into a black hole. I didn't come here to talk--" he gasped in sharply. "And Sal, get off me, you know I can't breathe when you do that."
The man reluctantly climbed off Q's chest. "I think you'd like to talk to him. He's getting ansy. I think we can twist triple out of him, but you have to come now."
The other grinned. "I knew you'd see it my way." He massaged one of his lover's thighs.
Closing his eyes, Q only nodded. "And the others?"
"They're ready and waiting for you." His hands lingered lower over the thin fabric. "We still have those fifty crates we need to deliver first, don't you forget."
"I don't forget."
Riker cleared his throat noisily.
Both men turned around, and Q's face lit up, having forgotten all about the other two bystanders. "Ah, Commander Riker and Councilor Troi!" He gestured to his companion pleasantly with a gloved hand. "You remember Ambassador Shien of Aldreen, do you not?"
All three locked eyes in shock. Troi frowned while Riker worked his jaw. This was most definitely Sal Shien, the Aldreenian and mercenary who had kidnapped Q from the Enterprise only three years before.
Apparently, Shien recognized them as well, because he clutched Q by the arms as if trying to protect him. "Abel! These people are from the Enterprise." When his lover only sipped from his drink, unaffected, he whirled to the officers frantically. "Look, don't hurt him! If you have to arrest him, take me too! I'm the one who got him into this..."
Riker waved it away. "No one's getting arrested. We're all in the same boat. Do you remember a man by the name of Captain Picard, Mister Shien?"
"He has been missing for the past two weeks," Troi added.
Shien turned to Q. "Do they mean the dark-skinned creature who did not seem to like you very much?"
"No, no." Q made a grand gesture. "That was Worf. Captain Picard was the balding gentleman who did not like me very much."
"So you know what became of him?" Troi asked, watching Shien's face closely. Damn those helmets, she could not sense anything from either one of them.
Shien shook his head. "I only come here because of Abel. He'd know more about it than me. But there's one thing I can tell you."
Riker prodded, "Go on."
"If he was dressed anything like you two, he was either mugged, kidnapped, or..."
"Vaporized," Q finished, making an explosion gesture with his hands. "Kapow."
The officers blanched. "Are you serious?" Riker exclaimed, staring at Q incredulously.
He shrugged. "It's a possibility, one you have to face when dealing with a place like this, Commander."
"I could always find out..." Q drawled.
"That would be helpful."
"Watch the lip, buddy, I'm still the one with the weaponry." Q twisted in his seat to yell across the bar. "Hey! Freddie! Get yer ass over here!"
"I'm busy!" the tender shouted back.
"Fuck that!" Q slammed his fists against the counter threateningly, causing the drinks to jump from the small quake. "Yer not if I say so!"
Riker looked askance at Shien. "Who taught him to talk that way?"
Shien glanced from Q to the commander, then beamed appreciatively at his lover. "He taught himself. He really learns quickly, you know. He's highly impressionable and clever too." The Aldreenian shot Riker a side look. "I think he's come far, considering he's only been human for three years."
Q smiled at them, oblivious to their conversation. "He'll be over in a moment."
Riker watched Q turn back around and sip from his alcoholic beverage calmly. He noted the weapons, the armor, the scars, the gruff mannerisms, the danger. The commander whispered to the councilor. "What do you think?"
Troi followed Riker's gaze, which was now resting on Shien. "If he's right," she murmured, "and Q was impressionable, there's no telling how far he could have come if he had stayed aboard the Enterprise. There's a great likelihood that he could have gotten his powers back by now."
Riker glanced to Shien, whose face was a mask. He continued to address the councilor. "And now?"
"Now?" Troi shook her head, looking at Q's back. "Now, I think he's gone backwards. The Continuum did not make him human for this reason. Q was a clean slate when this began. Now, there is a whole lot of erasing to do before we can build upon it."
Riker nodded, satisfied.
Shien held up his hands, as if to fend off invisible blows. "You have it all wrong--!"
"What is it this time, Abel?" the bartender was saying. "Yer not done with yer drink y--"
"I need ya t' do a favor for me, Freddie," Q interrupted. "Do y' have a list of all the people who died here in th' past two weeks?"
The tender laughed at him. "Yer kidding, right?"
Q's eyes narrowed. "Does it look like I'm kidding?"
Freddie shook his head. "Sorry, Abe, we don't keep lists, maybe if I had more information..."
Q sighed, but when he turned to Riker, he was not beaten yet. "Do ya have a holo of him, a milk carton picture, anything?"
The commander pulled out a miniature cube and dropped it into Q's outstretched hand.
Q examined it a moment, then slid off his stool, pushing a few patrons rudely. "Out of the way, move, watch it there..." Then, in one fluid motion, he stood on top of the bar counter.
The officers and the Aldreenian tilted their heads up at him in confusion. "What are you going to do?" the latter asked.
"Just watch and learn." Q smirked, then cupped his hands over his mouth, calling over the crowd to get their attention. "Hey! Over here!" He waved his arms around, making pantomimes. "Look at me!"
Few patrons glanced in his direction, but they turned away, instantly supposing he was drunk.
"Abel, get off my counter," the tender grumbled.
"Hey!" Q continued to yell. "Listen, you buncha filthy little--!"
A small knife flew across the room and embedded itself in the wall, less than two centimeters away from Q's helmet.
Q blinked at the knife, then sneered at who had thrown it. "Oh, very funny, Asangi."
On the opposite side of the bar, an attractive Bajoran woman in a tight-fitting dress waved.
Riker tore his eyes away from her legs and glanced at Q with a touch more respect. But he did not make it apparent. "Well?" he demanded. "This isn't helping Captain Picard."
"He's right, Abel," Shien added, beckoning his lover to come down. "We'll come up with something else."
Q placed his hands firmly on his hips, shaking his head at them. "Oh, ye of little faith." He held out a hand to the bartender. "A bottle of yer cheapest alcohol, my good man."
Riker frowned as the exchange was made and Q handed the tender his payment. "You're going to offer them free drinks?"
Q chuckled to himself, as if finding the commander's ignorance humorous. He held the bottle in one hand and withdrew a phaser with the other, altering the setting thoughtfully.
Shien groaned, and he and the tapster ducked under the bar counter.
Riker and Troi exchanged glances, and the commander noted that the woman across the bar had hidden herself under her table as well. They both pondered following their examples.
Q shook the contents of the bottle violently, examined it a moment, then hefted it into the air. Both officers watched warily as the bottle spun, flying through the air. Waiting for the right moment patiently, Q aimed his phaser, and when the bottle reached the spot he wanted, fired.
The beam hit the bottle expertly, and there was a loud shattering noise. The impact of the blast caused its glass exterior to glow bright orange and explode out of existence in a nanosecond. With now nothing to enclose its contents, the alcohol inside expanded and rained down on the patrons of the tavern, each of whom got in some way drenched depending on location.
The only beings unmarred by the alcohol were those who had hidden, and Q, who had stood in the 'eye' of the explosion.
The bar fell silent instantly, and the eyes of its occupants focused on Q, who was leisurely holstering his weapon. Riker and Troi, damp and sticky, stared at their smuggler comrade in shock. As towels were passed out and hair was wrung out, Q straightened up to address his audience, holding out the activated holocube.
"So," Q drawled affably over the silence, indicating the hologram. "How many of you scummy lowlifes have seen this man here two weeks ago? Hmm? Lemme see yer hands!"
Eyes narrowed, focusing in on the miniature picture of Captain Picard, dressed in his civilian clothes. There was a slight pause, then a sea of hands and appendages were raised into the air in reply.
Riker and Troi gaped at the faces and mob of hands, then locked eyes with Q.
Q raised a brow triumphantly, dusting his hands off expressively before tossing Riker the deactivated cube. "There's your answer, Billy Boy." He grinned widely, displaying his teeth as he climbed down from the counter to slap the commander on the back, causing Riker to stagger forward from the force. As he helped pull Shien to his feet, Q winked to the both of them, moving into the crowd. "You can thank me later."