by Alara Rogers and Mercutio

Section 8

Afterward, the two of them lay together in one another's arms, not saying anything.

Sooner or later they would have to get up; Q had no work today, having been ordered to take a medical leave of two days following his release from Sickbay to expedite his recovery, and Naomi had taken the day off, but if nothing else, she thought, sooner or later they would have to eat. For the moment, however, she could put up with the rumbling of her stomach, a small price to pay for this blissful closeness and warmth.

It had been so very long since she'd had anything like this that she hadn't realized how much she missed it. There had been a few casual flings, but nothing that meant anything since Dharvi walked out on her. She had lived in the chill of isolation for so long, she'd stopped noticing how cold it was... until now, lying next to a friend's warmth. Even the short interludes of comfort she'd shared with Q in the past few weeks were less affecting than this.

She smiled, remembering. Who'd have thought things would end up like this? She had developed an enormous crush on Q the very first time she'd met him, when they'd been working to defeat the Borg and he'd fairly shone with arrogant brilliance, like a fallen angel, diminished by his banishment from Heaven but still blinding to mortal eyes. It wasn't something she'd ever thought would go anywhere... Naomi needed to feel needed, and the idea of Q needing anyone had been, back then, almost unthinkable. It wasn't something she'd dwelled on, either, since Naomi was entirely too practical to waste her life pining after might-have-beens. But she had had more than a fair share of dreams and waking fantasies about being with Q, being important to him, finding her way somehow into his life.

She did not, in any way, think it was a good thing that he'd been hurt and, when she'd saved him, she hadn't for a moment been hoping for this. But she couldn't deny that things had worked out far better than they could have. Becoming his friend had given color and savor back to a life that she hadn't realized had grown so dull. Becoming his lover, now, that added a dimension of warmth as well. Contentedly Naomi sighed, and snuggled closer to Q.

Q felt the motion, and tightened the arm he held around her ever so slightly, pulling her to him. He, too, had entirely forgotten how pleasurable it was to wake up next to a warm human body, to hold someone in his arms. It almost seemed ludicrous that this should feel so good, that he should need this so much. Sex, he understood. It felt good because it was a biological bribe to get people to do it, to perpetuate the species, and when coupled with human intellect it had gotten crosswired, so even those who had no intention of reproducing, like Harry, or no capability, like he himself, found it enjoyable. But snuggling wasn't a requirement for the survival of the human species. Why then did it feel so good? When he had been terribly alone, and everyone's hand was turned against him, and Naomi was the only protector, the only sympathetic ear he had, perhaps it made sense that he would have sought comfort and warmth from her, since it did appear to be a human instinct to seek physical comfort when in distress. But now Security had more or less stopped harassing him, and his life could go back to normal... and yet he still needed this, loved it, longed for it. The thought that Naomi was here with him, wanted to be here with him, filled him with a joy so profound it was almost painful; the thought that he might ever lose her choked him with fear.

There was no point to denying it, to pretending it wasn't true. He couldn't resist this any more than he could resist the need to eat, and like that, he would die without this, though his physical death would probably be a self-inflicted response to the death of his soul. It terrified him, this need. He'd thought he'd identified all his human needs within the first few months of becoming human, and the idea that there was one he missed, that there was something else he'd have to pay attention to and be careful with filled him with fear and resentment. Especially because this need wasn't something he could fulfill by getting something out of the replicator. He needed other people to fulfill this, and Q was so very bad at doing anything that required the cooperation of other people.

But the rewards were commensurate with the effort and risk. Q didn't much like eating, especially since his first suicide attempt, when he'd been restricted from having any bladed objects and so any food he ordered either needed to be pre-cut or be the kind that didn't need to be cut up. He hated sleeping, fearing the frequent nightmares, and when he hadn't been afraid that people would break in and kill him while he slept, he had taken sedatives every night to avoid dreaming. And relieving himself was unspeakably disgusting. None of his human needs were pleasant to fulfill, except this one -- not even the need for sex so much, though the experiences he'd just shared with Naomi had been wonderful, even better than sex with Harry had usually been. It was companionship Q needed, closeness, intimacy both physical and emotional, and fulfilling that particular human need was more rewarding than he'd ever imagined. And perhaps it was less ridiculous than he'd have thought, two years ago. The idea of needing intimacy, of wanting it, had been ludicrous to him when he was a Q, almost obscene, certainly disgusting. But then, he'd had the Continuum. He'd never truly known what it meant to be lonely. Couldn't it be that the need for intimacy existed among the Q as well, it was just that being together in the Continuum fulfilled it? Perhaps this need wasn't as alien to his true nature as he'd thought.

He was so happy it terrified him. Something would happen to destroy this. Naomi would leave him -- though he was less afraid of that than he had been earlier this morning -- or Anderson would take it on herself to be authoritarian again, or...

A sudden terror swept through him. Anderson would know how important Naomi was to him, would recognize what it meant when he had tried to kill himself after she was taken from him. And in Anderson's hands, anything Q valued was a weapon to make him dance to her tune. The moment she and Q had a disagreement on policy, she'd do what she always did -- but instead of taking away his computer access or confining him to his quarters, she had a much more effective tool at her disposal now. She could take Naomi.

Convulsively Q pulled Naomi to him, rolling sideways to bury his face in her hair. It was unbearable to think of losing her when he'd barely found her. "I can't lose you," he whispered, not realizing he was speaking aloud until the words actually left his mouth. "I mean..." he said, mortified at the sound of his words, and trying to explain, to make his admission less damning even as he clutched Naomi tightly, "I mean, I can't let them take you away again."

"I'm not going anyplace," Naomi said, holding him tightly, trying to reassure him. She meant it, too. Wild horses were not going to drag her away unless Q wanted her to go.

Q was not concerned with wild horses, per se. "What if they make you?" he asked in a bitter whisper. "Anderson delights in being a petty tyrant. What if she sends her security goons to drag you out of here?"

Naomi considered. "I'll bite," she offered.

The ludicrousness of the image, a tiny human woman biting Starfleet Security, almost made Q laugh despite himself... but this was no laughing matter to him. On the other hand, he wasn't sure Naomi was joking either. She might very well do something of that nature. "Like that will do you a lot of good," he scoffed. "They'd just stun you with their phasers."

"They'd have to have a real good explanation for why, then," Naomi said. "Or I'd have their heads on a platter."

"They don't need an explanation why! They're Starfleet; they can do anything they want, because they have all the power and we poor puny peons have none. Anderson loves to take away the things I value. She does things like sending me a bunch of lobotomized Pakleds, and when I tell her I can't teach them, she takes away my computer access or my freedom. She'd be more than happy to take you away."

Another woman might have latched onto the comparison of herself to computer access. All Naomi heard was that she was something Q valued, and she was warmed by it. "She can't take me away without a very good reason. I'm a Federation citizen; I have rights." A thought occurred to her suddenly, and she leaned up on her elbow, looking down at Q. "Are you a Federation citizen, Q?"

In fact he was; Picard had talked him into accepting citizenship, though he'd thought it was a ludicrous idea that he should need a piece of paper to define his rights. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Well, I don't know what rights a non-Federation citizen has. But I do know that if someone's a Federation citizen, and they're a civilian, Starfleet can't confine them without either a state of emergency pending or due process of law. Anderson can't put you under house arrest unless the base is under attack or she charges you with a crime. Has she ever charged you with a crime?"

"No, but what does that matter? It doesn't matter if she's legally allowed to do it, she still does it, and no one's stopped her yet."

"Have you ever tried protesting? Going over her head?"

"What good would it do? The few times I've had the misfortune to talk to Starfleet Command, they struck me as a set of hidebound, stuffy, militaristic fools that make Picard look positively free-wheeling. Do you know, they actually wanted to put me on trial for crimes against humanity?" He sat up with remembered outrage. "Picard had to talk them out of it. These are the people I'm supposed to submit my complaint to?"

"Well, you're a civilian. If you think Starfleet Command is discriminating against you and refusing to listen to your complaints, you can contact the... oh, I don't remember the name of it, but it's some Federation office that listens to grievances civilians have against Starfleet or Federation officials, and if they think you have a case -- which you do, if Anderson is arresting you when you haven't done anything wrong -- you can sue, or something." Naomi's eyes were bright. "I don't know why I didn't think of it before."

He could sue? The thought had never entered his mind. It was not that he was unaccustomed to protest -- the Continuum had many, many channels for protest, and Q had in his time made use of all of them, frequently -- but that he'd never known similar channels existed in the Federation, or how to reach them.

Naomi was warming to her subject, enthusiastically embroidering on a theme. "In fact, I bet you could sue for how they treated you all through this. They threw you in the brig for failing to live up to your contract, when they'd already failed their end of it; they ignored your complaints and the threat to your security; they caused you mental and emotional distress. I bet you could sue for a lot."

"A lot of what? And what would I do once I had it?" Q glared. "I don't want to sue if it just means they get told 'Don't do it ever again' and I get some kind of compensation, like a consolation prize. What I want is to see it never happens again. Can I get that if I sue?"

"I don't know." Naomi shrugged. "I'm not a lawyer. But we could ask one."

"Do you know a lawyer?"

She thought about it. "Esteban's divorced, so he must know a lawyer or two... or we could have the computer locate us a lawyer. I'll bet there's even a few here on the base."

Q threw off the covers and got out of bed, so excited by the prospect of possibly sticking it to Anderson for her mistreatment of him that he didn't realize for a moment that he was naked. When he realized it, and couldn't locate his robe in time, he dove for his wardrobe. It was one thing to be naked for sex, quite another to be parading around his room in the nude. "I'm going to get changed," he announced from within the safety of the large closet. "Put some clothes on. After we're done getting dressed, you can help me find a lawyer."

Naomi grinned at the closet. Little did he know. Breakfast was the next thing on the agenda, no matter what Q thought.

Jose Olivas had established his practice on Starbase 56 in part because of the presence of Q, who had turned the place from a quiet backwater to a thriving major starbase full of people needing his services, but he had never actually met the man responsible for this. In fact, for a moment, when Q walked into his office with a short redhead accompanying him, he didn't even recognize him. He smiled at his potential clients. "Can I help you?"

"I want to sue Starfleet," the tall man announced, at which point Olivas recognized him. The tone and the voice were unmistakable. "You supposedly do that sort of thing."

Olivas raised his eyebrows. "As a last resort, I do that sort of thing, yes," he said. "Usually, however, if a civilian's complaint is reasonable, Starfleet is willing to settle long before it gets to litigation. May I ask why you want to sue Starfleet?"

"Because Commodore Anderson has been consistently violating my civil rights. I do have civil rights, don't I?"

"All sentient beings have civil rights," Olivas said. "What sort of rights has the Commodore violated?"

"What hasn't she?"

The young woman leaned forward in the seat she'd taken. Q was still pacing around behind her, although he'd stopped to make a dramatic gesture on his last question. "Mr. Olivas, Commodore Anderson has had Q arrested and thrown in the brig or put under house arrest without him committing any sort of crime, has ignored various reasonable requests he's made for greater protection, and forbade him to see who he wants to see. We'd just like to make Starfleet give us some assurances that this won't be allowed to happen again."

"Why don't you tell me the entire story?" Olivas asked, intrigued.

It turned out that Q was congenitally incapable of staying on the topic, or telling a story in linear order. He kept sidetracking to make insults, to tell Olivas about something that happened years ago, or to jump ahead in the story without filling in the gaps. The woman, Naomi Allen, who apparently was Q's lover, had to keep interjecting comments to keep Q more or less on topic.

Olivas nodded as he listened, taking mental notes. He'd met Anderson a few times, and had pegged her as stern but fair. And Q's reputation, of course, preceded him. It might have been easy to assume that Q really was at fault, except that Olivas had far too much experience with these kinds of cases -- if there were a flaw that existed throughout most of Starfleet, it was a general arrogant conviction that they knew more than the civilians did, and were justified in taking measures to protect civilians that the civilians themselves objected to. Which made Starbase 56 an especially fertile ground for Olivas, given the high numbers of civilian scientists visiting here. Often Starfleet was right, of course, but occasionally they did step over the line, as it sounded that they had here. As Q and Naomi talked, Olivas checked the verifiable parts of their story, and concluded that they had the facts right, at least.

"So. As I see it, you have two recourses," Olivas said. "You can bring a formal complaint against Anderson. This would move through the courts slowly, most likely; it might be a year or two before you got satisfaction, and in the meantime, Starfleet would have you sent elsewhere to avoid the conflict of having you on a starbase under the command of the person you're making a complaint against. Since your security arrangements aren't very portable, that might be dangerous, or at best inconvenient, since if they make emergency arrangements for your security, they may not be able to make much room for your comfort. I wouldn't recommend it."

"That doesn't sound very promising, no," Q said. "What's the other choice?"

"Well, you've mentioned that you have a contract with Starfleet. Perhaps what you need to do is renegotiate that contract. Considering how valuable you are, they would be unlikely not to meet your demands, so long as your requests are reasonable. And if they don't, someone else most likely will."

"Like who?" Q demanded.

Olivas shrugged. "You would know better than I. Who are you valuable to?"

"I'll bet the Vulcans would protect you," Naomi said suddenly. "They're very big on pure science."

"But I don't want to go to Vulcan."

"Whyever not?" Naomi asked teasingly.

"Because! Vulcan is easily one of the most horrible places in the universe. It's boring, abysmally hot, stuffy, dry, boring, the gravity is absurd, the air is too thin, and it's boring."

"Oh, okay. So I guess it's not really a vacation wonderland. I keep getting these brochures and I didn't know whether to believe them or not."

Q looked at her. "I suppose you believe everything you read."

"Only when travel agents wrote it."

"Is there anyplace you'd prefer to go?" Olivas prompted.

Q considered. "Well, the Daystrom Institute offered once."

"If Starfleet refused to meet your demands, would you be willing to go there?"

Panic welled up in Q. The idea of leaving Starbase 56 at all terrified him. They were, as the Enterprise had been once, the devils he knew. He didn't want to leave, he just wanted to be treated better. "I doubt it," he said darkly. "They're probably just as hidebound and petty as this place. If not worse. And how well could a bunch of academics possibly protect me?"

"That would have to be negotiated with the bunch of academics," Olivas pointed out dryly.

"I'm sure the Daystrom Institute could afford to pay for your protection," Naomi said.

"Money isn't the issue," Q said haughtily.

Olivas wanted to laugh, but didn't. Money was frequently the issue. "In any case, you do have alternatives, don't you?"

"If you could call them that," Q said, glowering at the both of them. He knew this wasn't a good idea, and he wouldn't be here at all if Naomi hadn't pushed him into it.

Naomi glanced over at Olivas, then back at Q. She didn't like having Olivas there -- it made this far too public. But she could hardly ask Olivas to go stand outside while she talked some sense into Q. "I suppose you're right then. Vulcan is just too hot. And boring. They can't have possibly invented climate control yet for the indoors, and you do have such a varied social life here that it would be difficult to give it up for someplace as congenitally boring as Vulcan."

Q stiffened. "You couldn't possibly understand."

"And the Daystrom Institute," Naomi went on, ignoring Q's interruption. "All academics, focused on their work. Goodness knows it's so much more entertaining to be surrounded by civilians who aren't Starfleet or academics, civilians who like to exercise their rights and throw spontaneous protests. And the Daystrom Institute's security arrangements couldn't possibly be as good as Starfleet's."

Q glared at Naomi. "If this is your attempt at making a point..."

"Making a point?" Naomi asked innocently. "I wasn't trying to make a point. I love it here. Why would anyone want to leave?"

"All right." Q threw himself huffily into a chair and scowled at Olivas. "Assume I'm willing to leave. What are my options?"

"Well..." Olivas sat up a little straighter, eyes gleaming. "First I'd need to see your original contract with Starfleet to see what its terms were. And then you'd need to decide what you want above and beyond those. Obviously, fair treatment would be one of those clauses, but there's quite a bit more that you could ask for."

"Like what?" Q asked.

Olivas shrugged. "How valuable are you to the Federation? Some research needs to be done there to determine what that might be. But in the end, it'll be whatever they're willing to pay to keep you from going elsewhere. And--" he straightened up and looked at them, "you should be prepared to go elsewhere. If the situation really is as bad as you say it is, and I do believe you on that, then that may be the wisest course of action. I'll get you the best contract I can either way, but you should think about it."

Naomi nodded. "I suppose that makes sense." She looked at Q. "Is that all right?"

"If that's the best that can be done," Q said, still miffed at the way Naomi had maneuvered him into this.

Olivas looked up from the quick notes he was making to himself. "What do you do here, Miss Allen?"

"I'm a programmer. Civilian."

"Then you'd have some sort of contract as well."

Q was puzzled. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"If the both of you are going, and Miss Allen has a contract, that may need to be one of the items on the agenda. I doubt it would be a difficult item, given that she's a civilian, particularly if Miss Allen wants to go with you, but it is something that would be important to know beforehand," Olivas explained.

He'd never thought of that. Q looked at Naomi, unable to outright ask her if she were planning on going with him if he left the starbase. He'd assumed she would be there as long as he wanted her; it hadn't occurred to him that she might not come with him.

Naomi didn't move. Was she willing to give up her career here and go with Q? She didn't know what the Daystrom Institute did in the way of programmers and even if they had the department, they might not want her. They were largely a research and educational facility and she didn't exactly have much in the way of current publications after all. And Vulcan, where she could at least go back to school, was a much less likely choice for Q. "Boring" was, after all, the absolute worst insult in his lexicon. Which might very well give her a lot of free time to play with if she did agree to go with him. It was a rather large step to take considering that she'd only really gotten to know Q a few months ago, and he'd only indicated that he wanted more than that a single day before. He could very well change his mind. And then where would she be?

On the other hand, the thought of not having him was even bleaker, of seeing him leave the starbase and remaining behind. She had no family here, and the few friends she had were mostly in her own department, the people she worked with. Before she'd started spending time with Q, she'd spent most of her off-hours on the holodeck, climbing rock faces, or, more likely, working. She hadn't realized it then, but she'd been lonely.

And without her, what would Q do? Naomi's heart clenched as she thought about how he needed her, how he'd looked at her when she'd found him trying to commit suicide as though she were the only one who mattered, the only one who he cared for. Maybe it wasn't a real relationship yet. Maybe it wasn't really love. But it was more than enough to take a chance on.

"Yes, I'd be accompanying Q," Naomi said.

"Good," Olivas said, making a note of that. "I think that's all the questions I have for now. I need to research some things, but I can get the process started if that's what you want."

"It is," Q said, feeling too reassured by Naomi's words to want to disagree with anything right now. How he'd felt when he'd thought she might leave him was not something he wanted to dwell on, or even let cross his mind again. He just wanted to get out of there, and stop talking about these things that threatened to wreck the fragile fabric of his universe.

Olivas stood up to usher them out. "Thank you for dropping by. I'll let you know as soon as I have anything."

"Thank you," Naomi said, as she and Q left.

What happened next was nothing like what he had anticipated.

Rather a lot like what Naomi had anticipated, but as Q told her, quite cuttingly, she had no imagination whatsoever and certainly no eye for the larger picture.

Unfortunately, for once, Naomi seemed to be right.

"What do you mean, 'they've agreed'?" Q asked, half in outrage, half in disbelief.

"Exactly what I said," Olivas replied, unflustered by his client's attitude. "Starfleet has agreed to think about it."

"And what exactly does that mean again? That their little brains will churn over this for six months or so before rejecting the request?"

"Something like that."

"Wonderful," Q said with disgust. "Not that you could expect anything better from them. It's a surprise they haven't starved to death before this out of a sudden failure to distinguish the replicator from one of their relatives."

Q's last comment was more of a mutter than anything else, and Olivas disregarded the insult. "Actually, I think this is an excellent move on their part and gives you a perfect opportunity."

"For what? Updating my collection of bruises? No, thank you, I've already had enough help with that so far this year."

"For you to actually visit the places we talked about," Olivas explained patiently. This was the first time that Q had let him get this far into the explanation. When he'd commed to give Q the news, he hadn't expected the degree of resistance he was getting from his client. "Starfleet has agreed to think about this. They didn't say no, and they didn't order Anderson removed. So they're going to negotiate. And that means you need a position of power to negotiate from."

"I thought I already had a position of power," Q said grumpily. "That's what you told me before."

"You have a good position right now through being an invaluable, irreplaceable resource, yes. But in this upcoming negotiation, if you've gone to visit the other interested parties, it would make it seem that much more likely that you want a change and would force Starfleet into a more conciliatory position."

"A tour of the Alpha Quadrant. How lovely," Q said, reluctantly letting himself be drawn into this. He had agreed to this plan before after all, although what he had mostly been agreeing to was that he might be willing to leave, not that he would pack up and go elsewhere.

But then again, the idea of leaving, at least temporarily, didn't sound half so bad. While Q didn't really want to go through the petty hassles imposed on human travel, not to mention packing and unpacking and the impossibility of finding a decent cup of espresso anywhere this side of Earth, there was something to be said for being out from under Anderson's thumb, at least for a while. At least until the contract renegotiation could convince her that he was not a person to be meddled with.

And it would postpone, perhaps indefinitely, that moment when Anderson would decide that she could control Q by taking Naomi away. If he could get a new contract from Starfleet, he could prevent that, but right now, it was an all too real possibility.

"Where do I go first?" Q asked suddenly, before Olivas could even come up with his next argument.

"The Daystrom Institute," Olivas said smoothly, without a hint of being discommoded by the sudden shift in Q's attitude. "I've contacted them, and they'd be more than willing to host you and show you around in aid to you making a final decision on the matter."

Q nodded. It occurred to him for a moment to make a fuss about when he got to go, or even Olivas' choice, but it didn't really matter, since he didn't plan to go to any of these places permanently anyway. This was all a dumb show, a thing of smoke and mirrors to trick Anderson and Starfleet into believing that he wanted to leave when all he really wanted was to be treated with the respect and courtesy he deserved.

Apparently that had been too much to ask for from Anderson.

"Fine," Q said. "I'll go. Make whatever arrangements need to be made. I can't be bothered with the details. And the sooner it is, the better."

"Will Miss Allen be accompanying you?"

"What do you think?" Q snapped, not wanting to say one way or the other. He was fairly certain that she would, but he certainly wasn't going to ask her, even if she had indicated her decision to him before this by saying she would make a permanent move with him.

"Fine. The both of you then. I'll set it up."

"Good. See that you do."

"Oh -- and Q?" Olivas said.

"What is it now?" Q asked, feeling irritable. He'd thought the call was over and he could go wreck his wardrobe to vent some of his feelings over how out-of-control this pathetic pretense he called his life was and how helpless he was to truly do anything about it, but now the lawyer was annoying him again. No doubt to ask some truly obvious question like how soon was soon.

"I've sent copies of the paperwork to Anderson. She has to be notified before you leave the base to visit the Daystrom Institute -- your security requirements demand it, if nothing else -- and this will constitute the notification. She may try to threaten you into staying. Whatever you do -- don't give in. Do you understand? You've got all the cards here, and you can't afford to back down now."

"I understand," Q said icily. "Don't worry, the sniveling coward will manage to pull some semblance of resolution together."

Q terminated the comm then. He didn't want to talk to Olivas anymore. No matter what the lawyer had to say.

When Anderson received the notification that Q was leaving the starbase, her first reaction was to forbid Q to do any such thing. While she didn't intend to take it seriously, didn't believe that Starfleet would take it seriously, it was a tightly written legal document, and one with implications she couldn't ignore. Anderson believed firmly that Starfleet had not invalidated Q's contract, as this document claimed. Q should consider himself lucky that Starfleet would take a security burden such as himself at any price at all.

Q's request to leave -- which was worded more as an announcement than a request -- was something she couldn't understand, even though she had no intention of giving in to it. Why was he deciding to go haring off right now, when he was at the time making demands of Starfleet? What was going on in his head?

She had to find out. And if she could, prevent him from leaving. While she had no orders to that effect, she did have almost forty scientists here, and more on their way, just to see Q. He couldn't just disrupt the schedule like this, even if he had suddenly discovered the legal profession. And, more importantly, she had to stop Q from leaving, had to stop him from challenging Starfleet. While she understood Q's value to the Federation, she also understood something Q did not -- Starfleet could and would readily decide that he was too much trouble, and abandon him or reduce his protection levels to something which would guarantee his death at the hands of the various species who were out to get him. She couldn't let that happen. As little as she liked Q personally, she had no intention of letting him die, and especially no intention of letting him shoot himself in the foot like this.

There really was nothing else she could do. She had to go down and talk to Q in person. She hated going to him -- Q was such a showman, that he would seize every bit of advantage from that which he could, but in this case, she didn't feel she had any alternative.

When Anderson got to Q's quarters, she found him sitting down on the couch, a padd in front of him, and his quarters obviously being prepared for packing.

"Ah, dear Eleanor," Q said. "To what do I owe the honor of your aging presence?"

Anderson ignored his attitude and his insults. "I've come to see what you had in mind with this request of yours to leave the starbase."

"Oh, nothing much," Q said airily, even though he was worried that Anderson would find a way to stop him. She had always blocked what he wanted in the past, and despite Naomi's and Olivas' assurances to the contrary, he knew the commodore better than they did.

"Nothing much?" Anderson asked dangerously, her blood pressure rising. "So this is just some whim of yours?"

"You could call it that if you like," Q said off-handedly, trying to hide his growing irritation with her manner.

That was too much for the commodore. "Is this some kind of threat? Some sort of misguided retaliation..."

Q stood up, raising himself to his full height, radiating strength and fury. "A threat? I don't believe I understood you correctly, Eleanor. Are you accusing me of making a threat of some kind?"

"You know perfectly damn well what I mean," Anderson snapped back, imitating his manner. You never showed weakness to Q. Not that Anderson was in the habit of showing weakness to anyone. "This... this thing I received from someone representing himself as your attorney. If this is a joke, I warn you that I don't find it in the least bit funny."

"I'm hardly responsible for your lack of a sense of humor, Eleanor. However," he inclined his head a fraction, even while his eyes held steady and cold, "even though you deserve no sort of explanation, I'll give you one."

Anderson wanted to react to that, but forced herself not to. Whatever Q said next could be very important indeed.

"I came to this starbase and this Federation for the purpose of aiding your pathetic people in improving their decidedly laughable notions of physics, and to help out in whatever little ways I could by using my knowledge and intelligence. Instead however, I've found myself prostituted out to the highest bidders, being forced to see the scientists with the most political clout, rather than those with the experience and inclination to understand what I have to say. I'm actually expected to try to understand their limited points of view, rather than being surrounded by people who would make the effort to understand me."

"That's entirely untrue," Anderson said, angry with Q. How many people had he caught up in his schemes with this tale? It wasn't the first time that Q, puffed up on his own arrogant self- importance, had demanded the "respect" he felt was his due, although it was certainly the most grandiose of this attempts. There was the lawyer, Dr. Allen almost certainly -- and what a mistake allowing her to see Q again was turning out to be -- and higher-ups in Starfleet as well. This was a nightmare and it would waste months of Anderson's time trying to untangle what Q was getting himself into.

She took a deep breath, getting into stride. "You accepted the Federation's offer because you had no choice. You needed -- and still need -- protection from the many races you've alienated. You need us, not the other way around and it would do you well to remember that Starfleet can remove its protection." There. Hopefully that would shock him into sense. The main part of her job was to protect Q, and she couldn't do that if he insisted on causing Starfleet to throw him to the wolves.

"I don't think so, Eleanor," Q said coldly. "You can't do that to me anymore, anymore than you can continue calling this pretense of protection a security force or restrict who I may or may not see. I will be leaving Starbase 56, and I will be going to the Daystrom Institute, where I plan to listen very carefully to what they can offer me in terms of protection, respect, and remuneration which could compare to what Starfleet has done for me. Frankly, in the respect department, I don't think there'll be any competition at all."

"Offer you? What are you talking about?" Anderson asked, confused. She'd gotten the notification from Olivas that Q was planning to leave the starbase, and that hard on the heels of news from another source that Q, with lawyer, had apparently decided to complain to Starfleet about perceived injustices and slights. Anderson considered the complete silence from Starfleet on the issue to be a vindication of her own handling of the situation.

"The Daystrom Institute, and a number of other people, will be bidding from my services. Starfleet, of course, has been invited to join in, but really," Q said, his eyes beginning to flash with suppressed amusement, "I don't think that's anything more than a formality in this case. After all, with recent events, I hardly think it's worth my while to stay someplace where it's very obvious that I'm not welcome."

"Q, you need to understand the realities of your situation," Anderson said, changing her tactics as she realized how serious a predicament Q had gotten himself into. She did care about Q to some extent, too much to let him throw everything away on a stunt like this. "The Federation are the only ones who can possibly protect you. It would be suicidal for you to walk away like this. Even a small trip, especially an unplanned, impromptu one like you seem to be proposing is an unwarranted danger. You can't do this."

Any humor Q might have been feeling faded in a rush of anger. She was doing it again. Dictating the terms of his life. Only now he knew that he didn't have to put up with that, that there were alternatives.

And he was going to use them.

"I'm afraid that's not your decision to make," Q said coldly.

"Oh, yes, it is," Anderson said, prepared to go to any length to keep Q safe.

Q held up his hand, stopping her. "Talk to my lawyer. I'm visiting the Daystrom Institute and that's all you need to know. If there's anything else, I'm sure Jose Olivas will be happy to help you."

He smiled at her. It was not a nice smile.

Anderson looked levelly at him. The business with the lawyer was a pointless charade. If Q wanted to believe that that would do him any good, he could, but he was wrong. Having a lawyer to transmit Q's whining and outrageous demands only added an extra layer of complexity, someone else to insulate Q from the effects of his behavior.

Someone like Naomi Allen.

She gritted her teeth. "Fine," and stalked out. Her back hurt, and she had no idea why she was even trying to protect someone as impossible and ungrateful as Q.

Q heard nothing further from Anderson and assumed that she had given up. Certainly she was rarely indirect about what she wanted. If she wanted to forbid him from going to the Daystrom Institute, he was sure she would. Barring of course, successful intervention on his behalf from Olivas.

"What do you think?" Naomi asked Q, holding up a piece of Estrucan pottery. "Should we give this to someone as an ashtray?"

Q looked over, saw what she was holding up, and glowered at her. "Is there a reason, other than abominable taste, for why you seem to want to give away an archaeological treasure?"

Naomi grinned at him. Q seemed unduly depressed regarding their packing. Her own packing was relatively simple -- goodbyes would take a little longer, but she tended to accumulate few mementoes. And all of her other belongings could be easily replicated at the Institute, and were not worth the time and trouble which Q was bestowing on each and every one of his possessions, of which there were a very large number. He'd starting planning his packing days ago, and only now was approaching anything like being done with it.

"It is ugly," Naomi said. "How was I supposed to know it was an archaeological treasures?"

"Because I have it," Q informed her loftily, enjoying the distraction from the task. "I would never keep something around that wasn't precious and significant."

Naomi set the piece of pottery down and then, without warning, put her arms around Q, holding him close.

He responded with a burst of startlement, then just as suddenly as she had nestled herself against him, drew her closer. She felt warm against him, and very right, and not for the first or even the fifteenth time, he wondered why it should make him feel so good to have a tiny redheaded woman clinging to him.

"Thank you," she said, rubbing her head against his chest. Relishing the feel under her cheek, the warmth and solidity of his body.

"For what?" Q asked, having no idea what she was talking about.

"For saying I was precious and significant to you."

Q looked down at her, more than a little amazed at her leap of logic. That wasn't what he'd said at all. She had misunderstood him. On the other hand, she was here, and he didn't want to imagine what it would be like for her to be gone again.

He shuddered at the thought, and the door chimed.

"Terrific timing," Naomi muttered. "All day long, no one shows up, even though arrangements were supposed to be made to get rid of all of this." She waved her hand at the things Q had decided to take with him, the furniture which had been specially tagged to go, and the clothing and some of the smaller items which had been packed away. "Not to mention the interview you need to have with the security chief to discuss what they're going to do about protecting you on the way to the Daystrom Institute."

She had pulled away from Q during this diatribe, far enough for him to consider it a dignified distance, and not as far as to seem like he'd been making kissy faces at her, which he hadn't been. Although, did it really even matter what anyone here thought of him anymore?

Before he could ponder that, the door chimed again, more insistently this time, and Q said, "Come in if you must."

Anderson entered, lips tightening as she looked around at the debris left in the path of the storm of packing. "I see you still haven't given up on this idea of yours."

"Given up? What are you talking about?" Naomi asked.

Anderson ignored her, looking at Q. "I've been informed by Commander Azoth that you're demanded a security escort to the Daystrom Institute."

"What? You prefer I go on my own and get myself killed?" Q asked sarcastically. "It wasn't my idea to have them around, you know. But even I admit, despite the complete ineffectiveness of any of them but T'Meth, that Security has its place."

"T'Meth is lying in Sickbay because of you."

"She's lying there because she did her job," Naomi said unexpectedly, despite the way Anderson was persistently refusing to acknowledge her presence. "If anyone else in Security had done theirs as well as she did, she might not be there now. If there had been any reinforcement, any acknowledgement by Security that Q was worth protecting, maybe T'Meth wouldn't have had to sacrifice her life like that."

"Be that as it may, Q," Anderson said, looking at him, even though Naomi had spoken, "You're not going anywhere."

"Excuse me?" Naomi asked. "What right do you have to tell us where we go or don't go?"

"The right as the commanding officer of this starbase," Anderson said, finally acknowledging Naomi.

Naomi shook her head. "No. You don't have the right to imprison Federation citizens against their will. Not without a trial anyway. We want to leave, and we're leaving."

"This isn't some sort of joke!" Anderson said, exasperated beyond all measure by her failure to get through to Q the danger he was putting himself in by playing games with the Federation. "I'm trying to keep you from destroying your life, Q," she said, turning to him. "Starfleet has the power to decide that you're too much trouble to protect, and if you go through with this little stunt of yours, they very likely will."

"It's you who don't understand," Naomi said firmly, and Q felt a surge of pride that she was protecting him yet again. He didn't need it, not against Anderson, who was hardly likely to try to beat him up, but he liked it nonetheless, liked Naomi being on his side.

He stepped over to her so that Anderson couldn't possibly mistake his meaning, that he and Naomi were of one mind on this issue. "It matters not a whit what Starfleet does or doesn't do," Q said from that position of strength. "If they can't be bothered to treat me as well as a human being -- a lowly enough state already -- then I see no reason to stay with them."

"But you have to," Anderson said, frustrated. "It's for your own good."

"For his own good?" Naomi asked, clearly astounded by such a notion and unable to make an effective reply.

Q suffered no such loss of words. "How could it possibly be for my own good to be beaten, intimidated, imprisoned, and subjected to all the other indignities that you have inflicted on me either deliberately or through your own incompetence?"

Anderson stared at him. Naomi was leaning against Q now, and he had an arm half around her, as though he was protecting her against attack. "I don't know what you believe, Q, but I have always tried to do my best for you."

"Yes, yes, I'm sure you were a very good Girl Scout," Q said, "but we no longer need cookies and I have no desire to earn any more merit badges in the art of pain and suffering."

"Is it so much to ask that Q be allowed to live the way he wants?" Naomi said quietly.

"That's not the question at all," Anderson retorted angrily. "It's Q's safety that's important, not anything else."

"You're wrong," Naomi said. "No life at all is better than the kind of 'safe' life you want to give him." She looked apologetically at Q for what she was about to say. It meant revealing some private things about him that she didn't really feel she had the right to talk about. But then, if she kept silent, Anderson might very well run right over the both of them. "After you rather cavalierly decided that I was not to be allowed to see Q, he tried to kill himself. And do you know why? Because no one would want to live the kind of life you want him to live. No one would want to be thrown in a jail cell, even if it's an ornately decorated one, and be told that this is where they'll spend the rest of their lives, that they're never allowed to leave, and that the only people they can see are strangers who want to pick their brain because having any friends at all is dangerous. No one would live a life like that. But you want Q to do it anyway, because all he is to you is an object, and not a feeling creature at all."

"That's not true," Anderson said. If she didn't care, she wouldn't have bothered to go through all of this for someone as determined on self-destruction as Q.

"Really?" Q asked coolly. "Pray tell, dear commodore, which part isn't true? The part about you keeping me here against my will? The part about strangers picking my brain?"

"It is not true that I view you as an object, Q. Everything I've done has been for your benefit, whether or not you were too short- sighted to see it--"

"So it was to my benefit to lock me away from the only person I have the slightest desire to spend any time with. I see. I suppose it's common practice to separate scientific consultants from their only friends?"

Anderson looked at Naomi levelly, then turned back to Q. "In a situation where we thought the 'friends' were a danger, yes."

"What, you think that Naomi is a Romulan spy or something? I'm sure they have tests for that."

"I can bite my finger and prove I bleed red," Naomi volunteered.

"That isn't the sort of danger Dr. Allen represents," Anderson snapped. "We -- I had reasons to believe that she was feeding a paranoid belief on your part that Starfleet Security was out to get you--"

"I don't know what would ever have given Q that idea," Naomi said, interrupting. "After all, people who beat you up and harass you and let protestors knock you to floor are clearly not out to get you."

"That situation has been repaired," Anderson said defensively.

"Perhaps it has," Q said quietly. "But that still doesn't give you the right to dictate who I do and do not see in my private life. If Naomi were a Romulan spy, fine. But if you simply don't like the way she influences my opinions... exactly where do you get the right to have any control over my opinions? If I want to behave as if Starfleet Security is out to get me, regardless of whether or not it is true, do I or do I not have the right to believe as I wish? To ask for better working conditions if I find mine intolerable, to go on strike if my requests are not met without being jailed like a common criminal, to choose my own friends and my own activities in my off-duty life?"

"I don't care what you do in your off-duty life, as long as it doesn't interfere with your work."

"Oh, but you do care. You chose to order me not to see Naomi, out of some misguided notion she would interfere with my work. I have news for you, commodore. That is unacceptable interference in my private life. Freedom of association is one of the rights guaranteed to Federation citizens -- you would have had to have some reason to believe Naomi was dangerous to me, in a fashion that was illegal, to do what you did."

"If you really did that because you thought I was bad for Q and not out of some power play to control his life, you must think you're his mother or something, and you're not. Q is a grown man," Naomi added. "He has the right to see people, even people who are bad for him, if he wants. And who are you anyway to decide what's bad for Q?"

"I apologize for that," Anderson said stonily. "It was misguided of me."

"It's a little late to apologize, commodore," Q said coldly. "She's quite right, you know. You've consistently treated me like some sort of rebellious teenager. By your laws and your standards, I am an adult, with adult rights -- and if I'm not, then I'm sure I'm not allowed to work at a full-time profession. And as an adult, I have the right to change jobs if I want, and to investigate alternative professions. You are not running Eleanor Anderson's Reform School For Delinquent Q."

"You don't understand! You're throwing away your future because you don't like me." Anderson stepped close to him, almost without apparent volition, causing Naomi to move further into Q's arms protectively. "Q, you are a child. You don't understand what limits to push. How am I supposed to treat you like a responsible adult when you refuse to act like one?"

"How am I supposed to act like a responsible adult when you refuse to treat me like one?" Q retorted.

"You began the cycle. You behaved outrageously when you came here."

"Yes, I know. And you've made me pay for it for two years. Even if I had learned not to behave outrageously, as you put it, how would I ever have had the opportunity to demonstrate that?" He looked at her hard. "Perhaps the best thing for me to do is to wipe the slate clean and start somewhere anew, since you can't seem to see me without your accumulated preconceptions."

"If you leave Starfleet, you'll die," Anderson said grimly. "Q, I am trying to protect you here."

"How very kind of you, Mommy Eleanor, but I'm a big boy now. If I choose to go without your protection, you simply don't have the right to force it on me. Besides," and his voice lost of some of the hard antagonistic tone, "I have researched this, you know. The Daystrom Institute and the other places on my short list all have outlined the resources they'd devote to my protection, and while none offer the sheer overkill of an entire starbase, we both know all I need is a secure location, and a small group of loyal, dependable bodyguards. I'm satisfied that all of them can keep me reasonably secure; if I find when touring that they misled me about that, well then I suppose it will make Starfleet's bid look more attractive. But to be quite honest with you, Eleanor, I'll put up with a good bit less 'protection' if it's protection that I can trust, that treats me like a respected adult and not a child or an inanimate resource."

"You're really serious about this," Anderson said slowly.

"More than you can probably imagine."

She took a step back then, her shoulders sagging slightly. "I... I 'd like to review the security arrangements they're offering you. There might be holes in it that you'd miss, since that isn't your expertise."

"So you can claim that their security is inadequate and force Q to stay here? I don't think so," Naomi said.

Q held up his hand. "No, no, let's be generous, Naomi. I think the commodore is well aware that if she tries to force me to stay, she hasn't got a legal leg to stand on." He glanced at Anderson hard. "If she wants to review the other offers, I'd be delighted to let her. Perhaps it will help her in putting together an appealing bid for my services."

"If you are serious about this, and all this isn't a ploy for more attention," Anderson said quietly, "then maybe you're right. Maybe you have matured enough to be trusted with these kinds of decisions." She sighed. "All I wanted was to keep you from making a self-destructive mistake."

"Don't I have the right to make my own mistakes?"

"Perhaps you do."

Anderson walked towards the door. "I'll authorize Azoth to make security arrangements for your trip," she said, and left.

Naomi stared after her. "Hello? Has she been taken over by alien parasites?"

Q smiled. "Oh, no. I believe the good commodore is finally beginning to come to her senses."

"Right," Naomi said, nodding firmly. "Alien parasites."

Q and Naomi were standing in the transporter room, waiting to be transported to the shuttle which would take them to the Daystrom Institute when they heard the voice.

Anderson had capitulated on what she was now calling a request for a short term vacation for Q, although she had by no means conceded the war of whether he would be remaining permanently with Starfleet. She had deemed all preliminary proposals sent over, even the ones by the Vulcans, to be hopelessly inadequate for Q's protection -- which was pleasing Olivas no end, since it meant that he now had good, specific grounds to demand even more for his client.

Leavetakings themselves had been brief. Almost all of Naomi's friends were colleagues of hers or career Starfleet themselves, and they understood the idea of being transferred, although the idea of her being involved with Q had caused some small amount of jealousy -- after all, it wasn't every day you got to sleep your way to Daystrom Institute, as D'oritt had pointed out.

To which Naomi had calmly replied that yes, it wasn't every day you got to do that, and she supposed that having a fabulous, intelligent, handsome lover like Q was some small compensation for her having to go there and pass up a more lucrative offer from a holovid company who badly needed an experienced programmer to debug their programs for them.

Q's leavetakings had been even briefer. There was no one he wanted to say goodbye to -- Harry was altogether out of the question; Q couldn't bear it if Harry rejected him and it would be even worse if Harry didn't and then Naomi rejected him.

All in all, it was best that they were leaving quietly.

And it was only for a short while anyway. This was all just playacting to force Starfleet to be more reasonable. There couldn't be a better living situation elsewhere -- could there?

The shrillness of the voice broke Q's reverie, and he looked up to see who was causing the commotion. "I will not go in there. It is most illogical and against medical advice."

The phrasing was most definitely Vulcan, and the voice familiar, although its owner was someone Q had presumed to be brain dead.

He turned. Sekal was supporting -- no, half-dragging and half- carrying an unwilling T'Meth into the transporter room with him.

"There is no reason to do this," T'Meth said, continuing to protest. "It serves no purpose for me to see Q again. I have no obligation to him, as I am currently on sick leave, and he has no obligation to me for my injuries."

"Nevertheless, my wife, I believe it will be worthwhile," Sekal said, utterly unruffled. He stopped, still holding onto T'Meth, and looked at Q. "As you appeared to be leaving the starbase, I thought it appropriate as your superior to pay my respects to you before you left. And, as you can see, my wife has graciously accompanied me."

"Of course," Q said, highly amused by Sekal's antics. "Utterly and completely normal. Nothing out of the ordinary at all."

"Exactly," Sekal said nodding.

Q studied T'Meth carefully. She still didn't look all right to his eye. She was leaning heavily on Sekal for support, not being prevented from running away, and Li was probably having all manner of fits at her presence here. But she was alive, and obviously mentally well, and Q felt a sudden outpouring of good will for Sekal who had apparently realized how much it would mean to Q to know that T'Meth was all right. It was very un-Vulcan of Sekal, and Q intended to remind Sekal of that -- some other time.

"Thank you for coming," Q said to them both. "But I really don't need any tacky plastic IDIC symbols, no matter what Eleanor might have told you."

He stepped up onto the transporter pad and held out his hand to Naomi, feeling a rush of reassurance when she took it and stepped up beside him. "Ta ta for now. Don't forget to write!"

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