Notes: M comes from John de Lancie's and Peter David's novel "I, Q"; all other characters created by and owned by Paramount Pictures. Written for the LGBTFest on Livejournal. Story contains same-sex sexual fantasies, masturbation and discussion of sex, but no actual sex occurs.

The Truth and Nothing But The Truth

Two weeks into being human, Q was, overall, extremely displeased with the entire concept of dreams. Most of his were unpleasant. He considered it pointless for his brain to invent new horrible things for him to be afraid of while he was asleep, as if he didn't have enough things to be afraid of while he was awake. Unfortunately, telling himself how stupid it was didn't have any effect on the dreams. Sometimes the Calamarain or other old enemies were chasing him. Sometimes he did something inexplicably stupid and everyone on the Enterprise laughed at him Often he found himself in some nightmarish time in history. Or he dreamed he had his powers back, which was delightful at the time, but left him deeply depressed when he woke up and discovered it wasn't true.

This one, however, was an entirely new form of humiliation.

In the dream, Picard had summoned him to his ready room. If there was an explanation supplied in the dream, Q couldn't remember it, just that it was a fairly generic episode of being called on the carpet. And then, for no particularly good reason, Picard was no longer reprimanding him, but had come over to him and put his hands on Q's arms. In the dream, Q's heart pounded and he felt the same sense of heightened awareness and fluttering in his stomach that he had experienced when he was afraid, but the emotions he experienced were more excitement and anticipation... sensations he'd barely experienced at all since becoming human. Somehow he was naked and so was Picard, as if he'd just snapped their clothes away with his powers, except he had no sense of having done it, or for that matter that there was anything unusual about clothes vanishing without warning. He was pressed up against Picard, skin touching skin everywhere, pulse pounding in his temples and in between his legs, and it felt better than anything he'd felt since losing his powers. "I need you," Picard said, and the thrill that went through him was like the one he'd felt when Picard had said that in real life, when he'd wanted Q to save him from the Borg... but with a much more visceral, physical component, because in this body his emotions actually produced physical sensations. The excitement overwhelmed him, and he pulled Picard close, pressing his whole body into the other man's... and then a wave of pleasure swept over him, so powerful it actually woke him up.

Blearily Q opened his eyes to the darkness of his quarters aboard the Enterprise, once again slowly adjusting to the idea that his physical brain was compelled to make things up while he was unconscious, and none of what he'd just experienced had actually happened. He felt cold and sweaty, which wasn't unusual for him when waking up from a stressful dream... and there was something sticky and wet all over his thighs and stomach, which was. His first horrified reaction was to think that he'd wet himself. When he turned on the lights and took a good look at the area, he found wet spots on the sheets, but also, some sort of viscous white goo on the bed and all over him, which both disgusted and frightened him. Substances emitting from a human body didn't usually mean anything pleasant. It looked something like nasal mucus, but he couldn't imagine that mucus coming out of his penis could possibly be normal or healthy. At least the location of the goo did seem to suggest it had come from his penis, rather than his anus; now that would have gone beyond nauseating.

Obviously he needed to find out what was going on here; if he had some sort of horrible illness, he needed medical treatment. But while he'd been getting along slightly better with Crusher this week, he still would almost rather expire of some repulsive space-borne disease that melted human flesh into white goo than voluntarily show Crusher enough weakness to admit that he was once again ignorant of some aspect of human biology. He trusted Selar somewhat more, and in fact she was usually on the late night/early morning shift, but even she tended to brush him off with manuals to read or holos to watch if the issue wasn't actually a medical crisis, but was normal human biology, and it made him feel as if she wasn't paying attention to his issues - as logical as it might be to direct him to such information regarding the normal operation of a human body, he wanted to talk to a person when he was frightened of the latest weirdness his body had committed.

Fortunately for him, he didn't need to ask Crusher or Selar. He got out of bed, showered to get rid of the sticky goo on his body, dressed, and headed out of his quarters. Data never slept, and never seemed to be bothered when Q showed up in the middle of the night with yet another question about human bodies.

"What can I do for you, Q?" Data asked politely, after inviting Q to enter his quarters.

Q flopped down on a chair. "What's that?" he asked, pointing at a canvas set on an easel.

"I am endeavoring to create a work of art, in acrylics," Data said. "Would you like to see it?"

"Probably not. Mortal attempts to replicate the experiences of their lives in a medium completely unsuited for the fine detail of it are generally either amusing or depressing, or both. I'm sure your painting's great, for something a mortal's capable of coming up with, or for that matter something that'll actually fit in two dimensions, but... no."

"Do the Q not make art?"

"Of course we do, but there's nothing artistic about trying to replicate reality. We can just do that. When we make art, we generally try to make something completely different." He sighed. "I'd offer to show you the last project I did, but it's the size of a nebula, it's inimical to carbon-based life and I don't even remember where in the galaxy I left it."

"Why did you make an art project that is inimical to carbon-based life?"

"Why do you paint with substances that could poison Andorian children if they ate your canvas? Carbon-based life isn't supposed to be roaming freely around inside giant clusters of tiny metal crystals."

"I had not considered that," Data said, cocking his head slightly to the side, eyebrows slightly raised. "Still, you know that carbon-based life does explore space, and could end up in a place you had not expected to find them."

"Anyone too stupid to figure out that my art project would rip their ships to shreds, and make even shorter work of them, and fly into it anyway, deserves to be knocked out of their species' gene pool. Or die off and make way for smarter sentients to evolve. The thing moves slowly enough that it's not going to sneak up on anyone." He looked morosely at the floor. "Besides, I used to be able to tell if anyone was going to be endangered by it, and go hassle them until they got out of the way. It's not like I expected to end up losing my powers."

"I see," Data said politely. "If you are not particularly interested in discussing mortal art, why have you come?"

"I was just asking what you were doing to be polite. I didn't really care."

"So you are simply here because you are having difficulty sleeping and are experiencing loneliness and boredom again?"

Q was taken aback slightly. Had that actually happened enough that Data could justify jumping to the conclusion that he was doing it again? He thought about it. He'd been human for sixteen nights, and he'd come to see Data for ten of those, and more than half of them had just been prompted either by his having a nightmare or just being unable to sleep, rather than having to do with a specific question. Okay, yeah, Data was justified. Well, that was depressing. "No, I actually... I, uh, wanted your help. I need you to tell me something."

"What is it that you would like me to tell you?"

"Can you come back to my quarters with me? I don't really know how to describe this, except that it's repulsive."

"Very well." Data put down his paintbrush and removed his paint-spattered smock. "I would appreciate any details you could give me."

"I had a nightmare... well, okay, maybe I can't call it a nightmare. A dream, anyway. And when I woke up I was marinating in some sort of disgusting goop, and I want to know if this is some new horror of human nature that I was blissfully unaware of, or if I need medical attention."

"That does seem to be a matter of legitimate concern. However, I am not a medical expert." He headed for the door. Q got out of the chair and followed him.

"You weren't a medical expert the last several times I needed your advice, either. I don't want to ask the medical experts for anything unless I know it's a medical issue." Aside from the attacks by the Calamarain and his chronic insomnia, none of it had been a medical issue so far.

They reached Q's quarters and went inside. "The goo, whatever it was, it was all over me and the sheets. I left it on the sheets so you could see it and tell me what's happening to me." He had once seen a nanobot infestation go haywire inside a humanoid and literally eat him from the inside out, turning him into sludge. Although it had been bright green sludge, since it was a humanoid with copper-based blood.

Data walked over and inspected it. He looked up at Q. "Did you experience any unusual sensations in the course of the dream you were having immediately prior to this incident?"

"Uh... yeah. I did."

"I believe this to be human semen," Data said. "Are you familiar with human male sexuality?"

Human sexuality. Everything clicked into place. Q hadn't been overly interested in human sexuality when he'd been a Q - he'd found humans' antics in that regard somewhat laughable but overall uninteresting, unless they produced interesting social repercussions, which, to be fair, they often did. But he knew enough about it to know that human sex usually ended, for the male at least, with the ejaculation of semen, and they seemed to experience a great deal of pleasure when it happened, which was consistent with what had happened to him. He'd even seen what semen looked like, when he'd been a Q; he'd just been uninterested enough in the mechanics of human sex at the time that he hadn't remembered it. "Are you saying... wait a minute, Data, I was alone in the room. Or I thought I was, anyway. Are you saying someone was in here having sex with me? While I was asleep?"

"No," Data said. "This is not a subject I am an expert on... it is possible you should be discussing this with someone like Counselor Troi."

"Yeah, no. I'm asking you, Data. I know you've studied humans in detail. If no one was having sex with me then how..." He trailed off. Was he some kind of defective human? Had someone invaded his mind and... done what, anyway? What caused humans to ejaculate if they weren't having sex?

"Humans often experience erotic stimulation in their dreams. These sensations may be intense enough to produce orgasm, without any external impetus. If this occurs to a human male, it will result in ejaculation, often referred to as 'nocturnal emissions' or 'wet dreams.' Would you describe your dream as erotic in nature?"

Well, it hadn't made any sense, and he hadn't had sex... but he'd been naked, and so had Picard, and it had felt great, at least until he woke up. "Um, probably. I never thought sex was interesting enough to study it as thoroughly as I did most of the rest of human behavior, but... yeah, I guess you could describe it as erotic."

"Then that is undoubtedly the explanation," Data said. "This has not occurred to you before, since becoming human?"

"Absolutely not. I'd remember waking up with gunk all over me." He looked at the bed with an expression of distaste. "There are actually reproductive cells in that mess?"

"Assuming that you have a healthy human male reproductive system, yes." Data examined the bed again. "If you intend to engage in sexual activity, you will need to request a contraceptive implant from Dr. Crusher. While ideally one person's contraceptive implant will protect both parties in sexual congress, male humans are strongly encouraged to guard their own fertility without relying on their female partners, as there are circumstances that can disrupt a woman's reproductive cycle and result in her implant becoming temporarily ineffective."

Q felt his face grow hot. "Data, I'm not planning on having sex with anyone." The only person on this ship he knew for a fact he was interested in, after that dream, was Picard, who was only starting to be willing to give Q the time of day. Thinking of the dream, or of occasions as a Q when he'd observed Picard naked and hadn't cared about it at the time, brought the same sensation of racing pulse and heaviness in his groin and excitement that he'd felt in the dream. Picturing the other members of the crew naked resulted either in nothing whatsoever or (in the case of Worf) outright revulsion. And it wasn't like he was going to get any of them to agree to have sex with him anyway. "No one on this ship even likes me."

"That is true," Data replied, with that kind of matter-of-fact, calm way he had of saying things that ripped tiny bloody holes in Q's heart, and they hurt all the worse because he knew Data didn't say them to be hurtful. When people insulted him, he could be defensive and he could respond in kind, and he could completely ignore whatever they had to say on the grounds that they were just trying to get at him... but Data meant what he said. Q swallowed, trying to keep the sudden pain off his face. "However, it would not be advisable to wait until you believe that a woman has become fond of you. Human women are unpredictable in matters of sex."

Why was it important that a woman be fond of him as a prerequisite to sex, Q wondered - he just wanted Picard to be fond of him. Or tolerate him, anyway. But fondness would be good. Great, in fact. He opened his mouth to say so, but Data was continuing. "In human beings, it is usual that as children enter puberty, they begin to experience sexual sensations and desires. They are considered inappropriate sexual partners until they have reached a certain age, which varies from planet to planet but is usually between sixteen and eighteen years of age. However, you are a full-grown adult, and while you lack experience in being human, you have considerably more life experience than any mortal being you are likely to encounter. Women are capable of finding a man desirable even if they dislike aspects of his personality, and they will not recognize that you have very little experience unless you inform them. Should a sexual situation arise, it would be best if you were prepared; I believe in your circumstances it would be problematic if you were to accidentally father a child."

Data kept talking about women. Q didn't know any women he could imagine wanting to have sex with, or even be naked and touching like in his dream. Human males couldn't get pregnant (well, not from sex with other humans, anyway), so this business with the contraceptive implant didn't apply to Q, and wouldn't unless he met a woman who made him feel the way Picard did, and he strongly doubted that. He'd been obsessed with Picard before becoming human; it just hadn't had this element of... physical pleasure and excitement to it. Or this element of wanting to be naked with him. Not that that was likely to happen.

"I thought humans had to at least be fond of each other before they'd want to have sex."

"I had believed so as well, but I have been informed by Counselor Troi and Commander Riker that human desires are more complex than that. Often, a human man might find himself becoming fond of a woman simply because he desires her sexually. Or, he might come to find her sexually attractive because he is fond of her as a person. It is even possible for people to desire sex with individuals they dislike, as I observed earlier. Or for people to feel such shame after sex with a partner they consider inappropriate that they ask their partner to pretend it never happened."

Q recognized where that comment was coming from. "Yar did that to you, didn't she?"

Data blinked. "How do you know what Tasha said to me?"

"Oh, come on, that was a week after Farpoint. I was watching you people pretty intently then. I thought all of your antics when you were exposed to that virus were hilarious." He remembered Crusher throwing herself at Picard, then, and lost his grin.

"I would advise you not to inform other people of that fact. I have no emotions and cannot be offended or embarrassed, but I believe that most of the crew would find it... disturbing, that you observed us in such detail, while you had your powers."

"They don't already know? I mean, I said I was studying you all. What did they think that meant?"

"I doubt they considered the meaning of it in any way."

"That doesn't surprise me," Q muttered. "So, sometimes humans have sex with people they don't like?"

"Yes, although that is less common than infatuation."

Infatuation: being made fatuous. Acting like an idiot. Well, he'd seen plenty of humans act like idiots over sex. Was that going to happen to him? "What exactly is infatuation?"

"I have never experienced the sensation myself."

"Yeah, I know that, Data. Come on."

"Infatuation is usually described as a sensation akin to obsession. The human who is infatuated desires the good opinion of his or her object of infatuation, and wishes to spend as much time as possible in that person's company. It is typically, but not invariably, accompanied by sexual desire."

Q thought back to his own studies of human history. Humans seemed to be very concerned with who was having, or wanting, sexual relations with who, and had often been known to go so far as to kill each other over it... and yet they claimed that 'love', which seemed to be used as if it were identical to this infatuation thing, was the noblest thing they could feel. Horse puckey. If love was so great, why had they spent so much time killing people who loved the wrong person? "What's the difference between that and love?"

"Love is a broader term, which can encompass the emotions of a parent and child, a sibling bond, a deep friendship, feelings for one's own culture or species... however, if you are asking what the difference is between romantic love and infatuation, I confess I do not know. The research I have performed seems to indicate that infatuation is less deep than love, but infatuated people often declare themselves to be in love, which implies that they are synonyms." Data cocked his head. "Is there a woman you now recognize yourself to be infatuated with, Q?"

He was about to say, "A man, actually," before his brain caught up with his mouth and silenced him, as he drew a connection between the human history of sex and love that he'd been just considering, and Data's repeated assumption that Q would want sex with women.

Millions of humans had been killed, millions more ostracized, stigmatized, denigrated... because they had declared, or demonstrated, themselves to be in love with persons of the same sex. The last time Q remembered the issue coming up in human history to any great degree, it had been during the Eugenics Wars and the unrest that had followed, and Colonel Green's attempt to purge the human gene pool of "undesirables" had included slaughtering several million homosexuals and their families, because it had been discovered that there were genes which promoted the likelihood of same-sex attraction, and so Green had decided to wipe out homosexuality in the human population by killing everyone with the gene, whether they were actually homosexual or not. And after that, nothing. Q couldn't remember it even coming up again after that. But he hadn't studied recent history in the same level of detail he had the past; he knew about humanity's adventures in space, but hadn't really given enough of a damn about their taboos to pay a lot of attention to who they wanted to kill for trivial reasons now.

Sick fear washed over him. He didn't know what they thought of homosexuality now, but human societies that simply ignored the possibility that humans could have same-sex attractions were the ones that were most likely to stigmatize or even kill people with such attractions. And Data had been programmed by someone who'd instilled in him this human culture's morals and ethical system, and most of the societies that had stigmatized homosexuals had used the excuse that the behavior was "immoral" to justify their behavior. The odds were good, given how often this kind of stigma had been imposed by human cultures in the past, that Data wasn't mentioning homosexuality because it was taboo in this culture. Q tried to remember what he'd observed of human sexuality while studying this ship, and couldn't come up with a single instance of a same-sex pairing that he'd seen out of the members of the crew he'd been really looking at.

It was very possible that, in addition to all the enemies he'd made among various races for his acts as a Q, and all the enemies he was making among humans for having an abrasive personality, he might turn every human in this crew against him if they knew he had sexual desires for another man. Maybe they wouldn't kill him... they didn't usually kill people who ran afoul of their taboos. But they might ostracize him, throw him off this ship, abandon him to a terrifying universe where everyone who knew him wanted him dead... and then he remembered that Riker had killed a number of clones of himself and other members of the crew because of human revulsion toward cloning and genetic engineering. Q couldn't even be certain that they wouldn't kill him. If they found out.

"Don't be ridiculous, Data," he said. "The majority of human beings are completely unworthy of my attention, and this whole sex thing seems disgusting and unsanitary. I can't imagine wanting to engage in it with anyone."

When Data had left again, Q didn't go back to sleep.

His first plan was to look up what he needed to know, directly. And then he realized he couldn't do that either.

Troi had been pressuring him to eat in public instead of hiding in his quarters, and he'd been so lonely and bored when he was in his quarters that he'd gone along with her, and the only place on the ship where he had had any hope of seeing Picard while he was eating was Ten-Forward, and he didn't trust Guinan. Probably Guinan wouldn't poison him, he'd thought, but paranoia was a survival trait in mortals. It wasn't like she'd threatened him, or done anything worse to him than stabbing him in the hand with a fork, but he remembered how upset she'd been at the end of their last serious interaction, right after the Borg had destroyed her homeworld, and he found it hard to believe she wouldn't be gunning for revenge.

So he'd been researching poisons, what they'd taste like and what symptoms they'd cause. And then Troi had shown up and asked him all kind of intrusive questions, and eventually he'd figured out that she had thought he might be intending to kill himself, that he was researching poisons so he could end his life rather than preserve it.

At the time he hadn't thought anything of the fact that clearly Troi could find out what queries he was making to the computer, because there wasn't any greater privacy than that in the Q Continuum anyway... any Q could find out anything any other Q was researching. But in the Continuum, Q had known where the taboos were, and had known how to obfuscate what he was doing if he really needed to. He had no such knowledge here. And if he specifically asked the computer about human attitudes toward homosexuality, Troi would know, and with her empathy she'd be able to put two and two together and guess that he was in love with a man. And he knew even less about Betazoid attitudes toward such things than human, given that he'd done exactly no research on the Betazoids. And besides, Troi was so thoroughly human despite her Betazoid blood and upbringing that he'd taken her for the trial at Farpoint anyway.

No, he couldn't take the risk.

He tried to make an end run around the problem by researching human sexuality with an information packet specifically designed for non-humans who wanted to romance humans. His biology was human, but he figured that mentally he was alien enough that this would be the best resource for him. It didn't mention same-sex attractions at all.

So. He would just have to keep it to himself. It wasn't like Picard was likely to ever want him back, anyway. It wasn't exactly as if he had anything to gain by confessing his feelings to Picard. And the information about human sexuality did offer him a way to keep his frustrations contained enough that Troi would hopefully not pick up on them.

It talked about the things humans could do to experience sexual sensations. First and most important was masturbation, which the manual actually suggested humans could use to practice for partnered sex and relieve the discomfort of wanting sex. It even mentioned that humans could fantasize about situations or individuals that they couldn't actually have at that moment to increase their pleasure in masturbation. And then it talked about the various sexual things humans could do with other humanoids, many of which were useless to Q because they presumed the presence of a vagina somewhere in the equation, and some of which were utterly disgusting despite being workable between two men. Such as anal sex. Q had problems enough with the idea that his body made something as disgusting as fecal matter, let alone that he might voluntarily come in contact with the part of the body that emitted it. But mutual masturbation and frottage seemed like they would work just as well for two men as they did for a man and a woman, and the clinical diagrams that reduced human beings to a collection of disembodied parts demonstrated fellatio with a sketch of a penis and a disembodied mouth, jaw and nose, nothing there to specifically suggest a woman's mouth rather than a man's.

Over the next several days, he followed the manual's suggestions and experimented with masturbation, and with sexual fantasies. The end product of human male orgasm was still fairly disgusting, but he could keep it from getting all over everything with the use of a towel or washcloth easily enough, and besides, he'd probably have gotten over some of his disgust with other bodily functions like urination a lot faster if urinating had felt anywhere near this good.

His imagination worked as well as it ever had, even if he could no longer snap his fingers and make what he envisioned into reality. When he tried imagining that he was with Picard, it was very, very easy to imagine that it was Picard's hand on his penis instead of his own, or that if he rubbed his groin against a firm pillow that it was Jean-Luc's leg between his thighs instead. Oral was a little harder to envision because he couldn't find something that would mimic the sensation of a mouth and he had no idea what it would feel like, but he pretended anyway. Because he hadn't really been interested in human sexuality and Picard had stopped having nearly so much of it after becoming captain of the Stargazer, he couldn't remember any incidents of Picard having sex to flesh out the fantasy - and he'd probably want to turn any women in those incidents into toads anyway, and he couldn't do that anymore, so maybe it was just as well that he couldn't remember - but he'd seen Picard naked many times, when he'd been a Q observing the whole ship at once and focusing his attention on his favorites. Whether Picard wore clothes or not had made no difference to him then. It made a lot of difference now. He tried to imagine what it would be like to touch Picard's penis, whether it would feel just like his did or if there would be differences. It was hard for him to picture Picard lost in sexual pleasure, all that reserve and control broken down, moaning with pleasure at Q's touch the way Q moaned when he touched himself. But when he could construct the image successfully and keep it in his mental focus, the fantasy of Picard abandoned to pleasure, needing him, brought him to orgasm faster and more powerfully than anything else he could imagine.

Damn, but he was glad Troi wasn't a full telepath.

He knew, of course, that none of this was ever going to happen. He knew that Picard didn't even like him, that he wasn't female and so Picard wouldn't find him attractive, and that he didn't even dare to admit how he felt in case the humans still had their homosexuality taboos. When he was awake, alert and going through the business of the day, he found his own interest in such an impossible fantasy rather pathetic, and didn't even want to think about it - not only was he afraid of Troi figuring it out, but he was ashamed of himself for being so ridiculously dependent on a fantasy. He'd always made fun of mortals for wanting what they couldn't possibly have instead of learning to live with what they had. At night, though, alone in his darkened quarters, it didn't matter how stupid and implausible his fantasies were. If he had the choice of staring at the ceiling, suffering from loneliness and the still-appalling scope of his loss, unable to sleep and tormented by nightmares when he finally did... or stroking his penis and pretending that he was stroking Jean-Luc's instead, and that the captain was begging him for more, until he had an orgasm, after which he could relax and fall asleep quickly... well, it was pretty obvious that he had only one reasonable choice.

They had no distance telepaths aboard this ship. He wasn't fool enough to try to program his fantasies into the holodeck like some idiots in engineering were doing. His quarters, like everyone else's, were soundproof, and the computer wouldn't give anyone access to the images of his sleeping quarters unless he screamed for help or his life signs dropped dangerously. He was perfectly safe as long as he never publicly admitted to his desires or his nocturnal fantasies in any way.

Of course, in order to make absolutely sure no one caught on, he had to do things he might not have otherwise done. He gave in and let Crusher give him a contraceptive implant, because she argued that no matter how much he said right now that he had no interest in sex, the fact that he was a human male with erotic dreams and a working reproductive system meant that sooner or later he might be swept away by passion, and he couldn't very well point out to her that if he was, it still wouldn't involve a risk of getting anyone pregnant. He expressed extreme disdain, bordering on utter disgust, for any display of human or even humanoid sexuality that he was exposed to. (This wasn't hard to fake. He felt nothing when he thought of most humanoids, including all the women he knew, but he was disgusted by the fact that humans were so underevolved that they actually cared about their partners' gender, and it wasn't hard to turn his bitterness and his lack of positive sexual feelings toward the people he saw kissing or holding hands into active revulsion.) And he insulted Picard. A lot. He'd always insulted Picard, of course, but he'd also said things when he was impressed with how Picard had handled something or with Picard's intellect. He stopped saying those things. He couldn't take the risk that he would give Picard too effusive a compliment or reveal too much about how amazing he thought the human was, and someone (like Troi) would guess that he was in love. Or infatuation, since he couldn't tell the difference himself.

And for a few weeks, things went on like that, and they might have gone on like that for a long time if no one had intervened.

They were on their way to drop Data off at a cybernetics conference when the ship abruptly came to a halt. Q had been in engineering at the time, where rather to his dismay he generally spent his days, when it happened, so he was there to observe LaForge's frustration and disbelief. There was nothing wrong with the warp engines; they were operating at full capacity, and yet there was no subspace bubble being generated and the ship wasn't going anywhere.

Picard had Q come up to the bridge, on the grounds that the laws of physics had just been thrown out the window, and therefore they were in Q's area of expertise. Q was in the middle of explaining to Picard all the various ways he knew of to generate this effect. "We could be in a local pocket of a different dimensional space, which supports light and most of the rest of the laws of matter-universe physics but can't support subspace. So we can see the rest of the universe in visual light, but we can't get there. Or, someone could be actively moving us backward at exactly the speed we're moving forward, although I would have suspected we'd have a subspace bubble then. Or someone's negated the universal constants in the local area that allow subspace to be generated."

"None of this sounds like it could occur naturally."

"That's because it couldn't. Really, Picard, try to act like you have a brain and stop stating the obvious."

Picard took a deep, careful breath, plainly trying to restrain his frustration. "Who is capable of doing something like this?"

"Well, the Q obviously, but we - they wouldn't. They aren't allowed to mess with me now that they've thrown me out. But really, there's any number of entities who could pull something like this off. Just in terms of entities humans have met, there's the Douwd, the Organians, the Metrons, various wannabes who played god with you people when you were even more primitive than you are now..."

"Don't forget to mention all the beings you hurt or betrayed," a female voice said.

Q looked around. No one had materialized. Picard said, "If you have an issue with Q, or this ship, show yourself! It's hardly brave for a powerful entity to torment a ship full of mortals without so much as showing your face."

Q felt, simultaneously, fierce pride in Picard and sick terror. He had always enjoyed it when mortals had stood up to him, and the fact that Picard did it unhesitatingly, feeling fear but refusing to be ruled by it, was one of the reasons Q found him such a fascinating and worthy object of his attention. But he didn't know who or what this being was, and his opinion as to the value of mortals defying godlike entities was not shared by most such entities. He wanted to scream at Picard to keep his mouth shut, don't defy her, don't draw her attention or who knows what she'll do to you... but that would show fear, and weakness, and he couldn't do that, not in front of one of his enemies. Letting them see that the thought of harm to Picard terrified him might as well sign the man's death warrant. So he tried to draw the entity's attention onto himself, despite the likelihood that doing so would sign his own death warrant. Better him than Picard. "Oh, let me guess. You're one of the myriad beings who claim their poor little feelings got hurt by something I did. Poor baby, of course you have to come create problems for me now that I'm a powerless mortal! That will certainly make you look like a big bad entity. I'm sure everyone will be impressed."

"Q..." Picard said warningly, as if Q didn't know how dangerous what he was doing was.

There was a brilliant flash of blue light. With his powers, Q would have been able to see the full spectrum of E/M and other radiation given off by the manifestation, and known from that exactly what species this entity belonged to... but then, with his powers he'd just know, anyway. The entity who appeared was in the form of a human woman, smaller than average for human women, with pale skin and short red hair. She was dressed as a modern civilian judge, the sort that presided over criminal courts on Earth, wearing a black tunic-robe that went to just above her knees over black professional-grade pants and black boots, with the edges of a blue shirt of some kind peeking through at her cuffs and under the V of her robe's neck.

"Charming as usual, Q," she said. "But after what you did to me, did you really think I would pass up the opportunity for some poetic justice just because you're pathetically weak now?"

In fact, Q wasn't even sure who she was. If he'd ever seen an entity wearing this particular human form, he didn't remember it. Most likely he'd only ever seen her in her true form, which his inferior excuse for optic preceptors now probably wouldn't even be able to perceive. "I can hardly read your mind, now," he pointed out.

She circled him, making him have to turn to follow her. "You don't even know who I am, do you?"

That was deeply humiliating. "Frankly, you weren't that memorable," Q said flippantly.

Her eyes narrowed. Power slammed him backward, throwing him into the bulkhead, flattening and strangling him. The pressure was so intense he couldn't get a breath. He tried to gasp, but his lungs wouldn't expand. Gray dots started to dance over his vision.

"This is barbaric!" Picard shouted. "You are vastly more powerful than he is. Regardless of what he's done to you, using your powers to kill him after he has been punished already is beneath you!"

The pressure released him. Q gasped. The entity glared at Picard. "I have no intention of killing him," she said. "Unlike him, I don't use my powers capriciously. I simply wanted to remind him that his lies and insults can have consequences."

"Captain, she feels exactly like Q did, at Farpoint," Troi murmured, and that told Q everything he needed to know. The entity couldn't be a Q, but Troi could tell the difference between the Q and the Douwds, for instance... which meant she was of a species almost exactly like the Q, and that meant he knew who she was.

"You're M, aren't you?" Q asked, feeling somewhat sick. The M were among the very few Powers who could match the Q. Not that the power differential between a Q and, say, a Metron was at all meaningful in terms of the harm they could do him and how helpless he'd be to do anything about it, now, but he could have at least expected that the Q might run interference for him if something so very much more powerful than a human came after him. It was why the Continuum had forbidden the Q to come torment him themselves, although there were quite a few who probably wanted to. But an M could giv run for their money, and he doubted that anyone in the Continuum would take the risk just to protect him. He was almost certainly completely on his own. And this particular M had been accusing Q of being a liar and a force for chaos, and agitating for the Q Continuum to punish him for it, for millennia. "Fancy meeting you here."

She smiled thinly. "Not quite so arrogant now, are you?"

"I'm sure you'll make up any deficit in arrogance I might be leaving," Q retorted. "Did you come to gloat? Yes, the Q Continuum threw me out and stripped me of my powers. Yes, I'm mortal now. Happy? Got your licks in? Why don't you go do something more amusing? I'm sure that watching my new existence has to be about as interesting as watching lava cool."

"Don't worry, I'm sufficiently amused," M said. "Haven't I been saying all along that someone needs to punish you for what you've done?"

"And someone did. Great, you got your wish. You can go home happy."

"You know, I certainly do appreciate why practically anyone would want to clean Q's clock if they had the opportunity," Riker said. "But it's true, he really isn't in your weight class anymore. Don't you think the fact that he has no powers any more is sufficient punishment?"

"Don't forget the 'mortal' part," Q said sourly. "You're going to go on for eternity and I'll expire in maybe 80 years, 90 tops with clean living. Killing me now might be doing me a favor, if you think about it."

"Reverse psychology?" M sneered. "Trying to persuade me that I shouldn't kill you because you'd rather be dead than alive? You had that opportunity with the Calamarain. That was hilarious to watch, by the way. I especially enjoyed the part where you were begging the human doctor not to let you die."

"Glad I could entertain you. But then, you always were easily amused."

"It might be amusing to watch you begging me for your life," M said. "I've waited millennia to see you brought low. I think it would be great fun to see you on your knees."

"I thought it was Q you had such sordid interests in, not me."

"She really wouldn't be very happy to hear you died in agony, would she?"

"Given that I'm fairly sure she voted with the rest of them, I'm certain she doesn't care." If the Q who had been for aeons his companion, his closest friend, had actually cared what happened to him now that he was mortal, she might have bothered to come to visit. And if she did care, it was still important to keep M from knowing that she would. M had never forgiven his companion for breaking up with her to return to Q, any more than she'd forgiven Q himself for what he'd done to precipitate that breakup. Funny, now that he was thinking of it. Mortal sexuality was completely unlike what the Q did to share pleasure and intimacy with one another, to the point where he hadn't even recognized a connection, but emotions like jealousy and hurt seemed to go along with Q intimate companionship as much as they did human sex.

"Oh, but it would be extremely entertaining for its own sake. If you plead with me to spare your life because you're afraid of dying, I could at least be assured that for the first time in your existence you're telling the truth."

"Dream on, M. This mortal existence is pathetic. I'm not so enamored of it as to degrade my dignity any more than simply existing as a mortal forces me to. If you want to kill me then do it; just stop torturing me with your incessant blather."

She looked furious for a moment, and despite himself, Q swallowed. Then she smiled again. "Oh, I think I could make you beg. What would you do if I threatened him?" She vanished and materialized directly behind Picard.

Worf snarled, "Our captain is not involved in your vendetta against Q!"

"Commander Worf, stand down!" Picard shouted. "You can't threaten this being. We can only appeal to her rational nature."

A sarcastic comment about needing good luck to find a rational nature in M came to mind, but Q tossed it aside. He had to be very careful what he said now. His heart was pounding and his blood had run cold; a threat to himself was frightening enough, but he'd come to terms with the concept of his own death when he'd faced the Calamarain. A threat to Picard, however, was unbearable. But he couldn't do what she said, and beg, or she'd know Picard's life was a lever she could move him with, and then Picard would never be safe. "I'd rather you didn't," he said casually. "Aside from my having to go get a new place to live, these people, and I use that term loosely, would probably turn into a lynch mob and toss me out the airlock if they thought I was responsible for their captain's death." He gestured at Riker and Worf. "But I don't think you will, because you've never been a big fan of interfering with the course of mortal lives in general, and this human's existence affects hundreds of others... billions of others, if you count all of his diplomatic projects, and in multiple species. If you killed him, you'd be generating massive chaos, and I seem to recall someone arguing that I should be stripped of power or confined because I spread chaos? Please try to avoid being a total hypocrite, M."

M laughed. "Oh. Yes, I see. Anything but openly admit to your real reasons."

Q swallowed. Was she going to reveal in front of everyone in this room that he was in love with Picard, and very likely cause him to be ostracized, treated like something disgusting, or even killed by the people he'd begged for sanctuary? He'd really rather she just get it over with and kill him herself. "Tell you what. If you want to see me beg so badly, how about I beg you to go away and stop bugging me." He dropped to his knees. "Please, o glorious M, your chatter is pain to my ears and your ideas are tiresome beyond belief. I beg of you, go from this place and be annoying somewhere else."

She picked him up with her power. He had time to think, This is really going to hurt, and then she had flung him, with great force, back down onto the deck. His head hit the railing on the way down. Pain burst through him, blotting out his perceptions of anything else, and when the pain subsided enough that he could be aware of other sensations, the world was dim and spinning wildly and he heard voices from very far away.

"Stop it!" Troi shouted. "M, Q is insulting you because he's trying to keep you from harming us!"

Oh, no. You idiot, Troi, what have you done? And then Picard was running with it. "It's true. We are innocent mortals, powerless before you. Q is sacrificing himself so you will focus on him, and spare us," Picard was saying, and Q despaired. It was absolutely true, which was why Picard shouldn't be saying it. He didn't know M! He thought she was reasonable! He tried to say something, to stop Picard from digging his own grave, but his mouth wouldn't work. "You call him a liar. A force for chaos. Amoral. And he has been all of those things. But if you truly are superior to him, if you truly have a moral ground from which to mete out justice and not simply the idea that might makes right, you cannot be those things as well! If Q is enduring pain and risking his life at your hands to draw your attack onto himself, and save us, then he is being the moral one. And if you kill him for that, or if you harm innocents to hurt him, you are as bad as, or worse than, he ever was."

"You have no idea what he did to me, Picard," M snapped.

"Of course not. I may not even be capable of comprehending it. But I do know that you are a highly advanced being, and that you claim your purpose in coming here is justice. There is no justice in torturing a man who has already been punished by exile, the deprivation of his abilities, and being condemned to eventual death, while you remain immortal and powerful. Q has already been brought low! You don't need to make him beg; you know what he's lost, probably better than I do. You don't need to threaten him or the people around him. Simply being what you are, while he is no longer what he was, is all the justice you should need, and the best revenge you could possibly get. If you are a superior being, if your moral sense and your understanding of justice are as advanced as your powers, then you don't need to hurt him or kill him. And if you do those things, then Q wins. Because he'll have proven that he can degrade you and force you to drop to his level, or lower... when he has no power and you do."

Q wanted to cry. Which probably meant he had a concussion. He forced himself to sit up, dizzy and sick from the blow to his head. He'd always loved Picard's speeches, and to hear Picard defending him, using all of his rhetorical tricks to try to persuade M to spare Q's life... he'd do it for anyone, Q reminded himself. It doesn't make you special. It doesn't mean he cares about you personally.

"I don't think I want to talk to you," M said. She strode over to Q, looking down at him. He wanted to get up, to face her down, but it really didn't honestly matter if he was on the floor looking up at her or standing up looking down; in a metaphysical sense she was entirely above him now. "Your good friend the captain thinks I shouldn't kill you because it will make me as chaotic and disruptive an influence on the universe as you are, and to be frank, I agree. I don't want to descend to your level. I would much rather force you to improve... now that I have the power to enforce it."

Q forced words out of his dry mouth. "If you're planning to improve me by splattering my brains against the deck, I have to point out that's rarely an improvement."

She laughed. "No, I have a much better idea. Let's try this." He felt... something. He didn't know what it was or what she had done, but he felt the touch of power brushing against his mind, and shuddered despite himself. M crouched in front of him. "Tell me, Q, are you frightened of me?"

He opened his mouth to say something sarcastic and misleading. What actually came out was, "Yes."

She had done something to his mind. What he had been planning to say was not what his speech centers had actually formed, not what they'd directed his mouth to say. "What have you done to me?" he asked in sudden horror. "You - you've, you've done something to my mind!" He was beyond horrified. His mind was all he had left of himself. If she changed it into something else, his identity was gone. It was more of a violation than it would have been if she'd ripped him limb from limb. "What did you do?"

M stood up and smirked at him. "Welcome to the world of the honest, Q," she said. "You're so used to lying. You lie all the time. What will you do when you can't lie at all?"

"I don't lie all the time," Q protested. "Just when I think there's something for me to gain, or if it keeps me from looking bad, or if it would be funnier that way." And he stopped in shock again, because that second sentence hadn't been what he'd meant to say at all.

"You've prevented him from lying?" Picard asked. "Isn't that a violation of the integrity of his mind?"

"Of course not. It's a violation of the integrity of his speech control centers in his brain. His mind can still think of lies, he just can't spout them anymore. Now tell them all what you did to me, Q."

Q held his tongue. Could he keep himself from answering a question? It seemed that he could. He didn't have to blurt out everything he thought.

"Oh, you admit it was so awful you don't even want to confess to it?" M asked sweetly.

Q jumped to his feet. "It was not that awful, and if I hadn't done it, Q might have run off to the M Continuum and left all of us! And especially me," Q said.

"And that would have been a tragedy for you."

"She was only ever joining with you because she wanted to make me jealous, because she didn't like the fact that she wasn't the only Q I was in love with, and it worked! I had to tell your Continuum that you were planning to defect to us because if I'd told the truth, that we were afraid a Q was trying to leave us and not the other way around, the M wouldn't have done anything about it! And they told you to stop seeing her and I got her back, so it worked perfectly from my perspective."

"And you're not even sorry you did it, are you?"

"No! Why would I be sorry? You're a sanctimonious, supercilious, pompous excuse for an omnipotent being and I couldn't stand you even before Q took up with you. And besides, she said you were better in joining than I was, and I don't really think she meant it, but I had to break you up after she said that because it made me so angry I attacked her and I couldn't stand being the kind of Q who would do such a thing, so I had to stop you from influencing her."

His headache was gone. Somewhere along the way M had healed the injuries she'd inflicted on him... in favor of leaving this gaping hole in his defenses. Q shut himself up, appalled at what he'd just admitted to. M's smirk had broadened. "Oh, this has to be one of my best ideas in centuries. I've known all those things to be true, of course, but actually hearing you admit to them is a greater delight than hearing you beg could ever be."

"Well, I don't care how entertained you are! I don't want to be blurting out every mildly socially irresponsible thought I've ever had in my life! Everyone will hate me even more than they do now, and when I'm stuck down at their level, that actually hurts." And once again he stopped in horror at what he'd just admitted to. Shut up, shut up, don't take her bait, don't respond to her!

"Then learn to be silent," M said. "Haven't you ever heard 'if you can't say something nice, don't say anything'?"

"The version I like better is, 'if you can't say anything nice, come sit next to me.'"

"I know," M said. "But now you're stuck with the other version."

He heard Riker muttering to Picard and the others, "Well, I gotta say, it kind of is poetic justice." Fury and humiliation swept over him.

"Oh, laugh it up, hairball, I'm sure you think my humiliation is the most entertaining thing ever," he snapped at Riker. "I suppose you thought it was hilarious when I was getting smashed into bulkheads trying to keep M from blowing up your precious ship, too." He was surprised for a moment that he'd managed the sarcasm, until he realized that he really did think Riker had probably been privately entertained by watching M beat him up. Oh, Riker would never admit it, and had even stepped forward to try to defend him... but Q was pretty certain that deep inside, Riker had thought his pain and humiliation was funny.

"And why were you trying to do that again, Q?" M asked. "With honesty, this time?"

Q clamped his own mouth shut. He knew what was going to come out of it if he tried to answer that question, and it would likely ruin his life here.

"No clever remarks? Nothing but silence? I'm amazed," M said. "You're willing to admit to such terrible things, and yet when you can't lie about why you want to save this ship, you force yourself to be silent! What could be so terrible that you'd be so afraid of admitting to it?"

He was going to have to say something, or M would taunt him until he made a misstep... or else reveal his secret herself. "If you must know... there's an android aboard this ship, down in engineering, who saved my life," Q said. "And he has been consistently kind to me, and given me the information I need to survive here without judging me, or humiliating me, the way the rest of these pathetic mortals probably would. I care about him, and to the extent that he can feel happiness, I want him to be happy. If the ship was destroyed, he would be as well, and if you killed one of these mortals, Data would grieve for them, and I don't want to see him hurt. He's my only friend here, and I owe him my life, and I'd do anything it was in my power to do for him." There. All of that was absolutely true, and he would never have admitted to something as raw as his feelings about Data if he wasn't forced to, but he'd only suffer the humiliation of being forced to say something sappy and ruin his reputation as a cold-hearted bastard from admitting to any of this. Humans wouldn't think badly of him for confessing that Data was his friend the way he feared they would if he confessed that he loved Picard. It gave M no ammunition... and it proved that while he had to tell the truth, he didn't have to tell the whole truth. As long as he thought out what he was going to say so there were no lies in it, M's curse wouldn't make him blurt out things he had never meant to say.

M frowned at him. That obviously wasn't what she'd intended to make him admit. Then she shrugged slightly. "Well, then I'll do you a favor. You like your android friend so much? I'll spare him some grief," she said with a sneer, and vanished.

Picard touched his combadge. "Data, please report. Are you all right?"

Data's voice responded from engineering. "I am functioning within normal parameters, Captain. Why?"

"We just had a visit from an old... friend... of Q's. The last thing she said implied that she might do something to harm you."

"I am unharmed. In fact I was wholly unaware that anything had transpired. Commander LaForge and I have been trying to get the warp engines operational again."

LaForge's voice came then. "Actually, we just came back online just now. Can I assume that Q's, uh, friend had something to do with that?"

"She's not my friend," Q said. "She hates me, and the feeling's more than a little mutual."

"Yes, I do believe so," Picard said.

"Captain!" Worf sounded slightly alarmed.

"What is it, Mr. Worf?"

"Now that subspace is operating normally, we are receiving our normal flow of subspace radio traffic. The timestamp... indicates that we have just lost a week," Worf said.

"Mr. Data, can you confirm?"

"Yes, Captain. I am confirming," Data's voice said over the combadge. "It is now Stardate 43648.78... We have lost seven days. My cybernetics conference ended yesterday."

Q rolled his eyes. "Oh, that has to be the most immature thing I've ever seen an M do, although I admit I've seen some Q do" He shut himself up again. When he thought he had control over what he was going to say, he said, "Seriously? I admit that Data is my friend, so M makes him miss his conference? That is... ridiculous."

"Well, it certainly is irritating, but it could have been far worse," Picard said, sounding relieved. "Do you believe she's gone, Q? Or that she's done? While I'm sure she finds it amusing that you're unable to lie anymore, it seems considerably better than it could have been, given the apocalyptic threats she was making."

"Oh, I don't know, but I think she's probably done," Q said. "M loves to think of herself as fairness and justice incarnate. Kind of like the Calamarain, to be honest, but she's a far more advanced being than the Calamarain so she isn't as ridiculously off the mark as they are. Now that she's gotten her licks in and terrorized me for a while, she'll probably be content to just embarrass me to death with this obnoxious curse of hers." He had no way of telling Picard how much danger M's honesty curse actually put him in. Given that it had on multiple occasions already made him blurt out his true feelings about something when he'd intended to say something completely different - in fact, including just this very moment when he'd used the word "terrorized" instead of milder and less accurate terminology like "harassed" because he had been frightened half to death by M's threats - it put him at grave risk for admitting his feelings about Picard, or that the only human sexual feelings he'd experienced so far had been same-sex desires. In retrospect, maybe it hadn't done him as much damage as it could have to blurt out what he'd really done to M, because his Q companion - genderless in essence, like all Q were - tended to prefer female humanoid forms, so he'd automatically described her as female. If they thought that his Q companion had been like a human lover, and had been female, that would help him hide his true feelings better. What had they called it, in the 20th century when it had looked like humans might have been finally getting over such a stupid prejudice, before the backlash came and Colonel Green had murdered so many? "Staying in the closet?" Right.

Actually, he wondered if he would be attracted to Q's preferred humanoid form if she were here right now. Dr. Selar looked a lot like her and did absolutely nothing for him sexually, so probably not, he thought.

Over the next few weeks, Q adapted to his newfound disability.

He discovered that if he spoke without thinking, or when he was overemotional, he would often end up saying things he would rather not have revealed. So he had to learn to be quiet when he desperately wanted to speak up. On the other hand, it gave him a perfect excuse to say what he really thought about mortal stupidity. Troi had been after him to be more polite in his disagreements with others. Now, he could with perfect sincerity explain that he couldn't be more polite, because he was compelled to tell the truth.

To be honest, he'd never seen a particularly strong need to be tactful before (a fact he accidentally told Data, but at least he managed not to say it to LaForge), but at least he'd been expected to make the attempt. Now he had an excuse why he couldn't, and that allowed him to take his frustrations out on everyone else with impunity. And his frustrations were legion.

Quite aside from all the problems he had adjusting to being human and dealing with the loss of his powers and immortality, Q had serious problems with the work he'd been assigned to do. Most of the work he did on the Enterprise involved consulting with the engineers. Q had the most advanced knowledge of theoretical physics of anyone aboard the Enterprise, for obvious reasons. But as a Q, physics hadn't been an area of any real interest to him. He felt like a scientific expert might feel if dumped on an alien world without a universal translator and forced to get work teaching his native tongue to children. As a Q, his specialty had been the study of sentient beings, and math and science were just his native language, knowledge he took for granted but not a special interest he had. These people, however, were so primitive that any Q was vastly more advanced than they were. And they didn't want to let him anywhere near the departments that did the kind of work that was even vaguely like what he'd done as a Q, because his methods of getting information were either impossible with his current limitations, or violated Starfleet's overly restrictive ethics standards. So he was assigned to engineering, to observe what they did, and any time he saw a situation where his knowledge could solve or assist them to solve a problem, he was supposed to offer his help.

The problem was that the engineers were all idiots. Well, LaForge could sometimes grasp an advanced concept or two, and Data of course was brilliant and easy to teach, and Wesley Crusher was surprisingly good at getting his head around the really advanced concepts, given his age and species. The others were impossible. Barclay was so bad, even Crusher made fun of him. Gomez was a butterfingered klutz who stammered, dropped things, hit the wrong button and generally turned into a trembling, jittery mess every time he tried to offer her some constructive criticism. Sherman was impassively calm, but just plain ignored him much of the time. Thorne was so green, he barely seemed to grasp the concept that there was a world outside his textbooks. Bartel was supposed to be good, or at least LaForge claimed she was, but she argued with him about things that were self-evident to him. And all of them were morons.

It wasn't as if Q even wanted to be teaching them anything he had never been one to want to share his knowledge with the undeserving, and it wasn't even slightly entertaining to try to explain what they didn't know, especially given all the work he had to do to figure out where their level even was so he could begin to teach them anything. And despite the fact that plainly he was smarter than all of them put together (if you left out Data and Crusher, anyway), they all looked down on him for his failure to understand every tiny detail of their mind-bogglingly intricate social rituals. Before M's curse, Q had swallowed about half the insulting things he wanted to say, because LaForge would kick him out of engineering if he got too emotional or abusive, and while he didn't want to be in engineering, he wanted to be useful. He wanted Picard to find him useful, and getting thrown out by LaForge too often would paint him as an incompetent in Picard's eyes, and he couldn't bear that. So he'd tried his best, and suffered for it, choking on the words he was forced to swallow.

But now, he could say anything he wanted to, and since it was all true, all he had to do was say it in a reasonably calm voice, and then he'd be able to argue that he hadn't said it out of malice or anger, but because he was compelled to tell the truth. Given how stupid these people were and how frustrating it was to teach them anything and how low their opinion was of him... and the stress of hiding how he felt about Picard and his certainty that they would vilify them if they knew... given all that, he really enjoyed watching them flinch when he calmly pointed out how enormously stupid they were. It didn't entirely make up for the embarrassment of accidentally informing everyone that he wanted to finish this meeting quickly because he had horrible stomach cramps and needed to defecate, or confessing that he was deliberately being an ass and pretending not to understand some human social necessity because it was more entertaining than complying, or admitting that he was too afraid of Guinan to go eat in Ten-Forward without a member of the crew he actually liked to go with him... but it helped.

He much preferred to be called up to the bridge to advise Picard on unusual phenomena, like spatial anomalies, or the first contact species du jour. Picard was one of the few people who easily grasped what Q had to say - maybe not in the realm of esoteric science, but Picard had a gift for knowing exactly how much detail he needed to know and how much he was capable of understanding, and generally phrased his questions in that light. And many of the things he wanted Q's advice on were areas that Q genuinely had some interest in, not stuff he just happened to be an expert on by human standards because he'd been a Q. Besides, Q could sit enraptured and listen to Picard reciting a particularly dry and boring report to Starfleet, or captain's logs for star mapping expeditions where literally nothing of interest happened. Of course, that meant that going up to the bridge was dangerous. He wanted to spend any time that Picard wasn't actively talking to him staring at the man, drinking in that elegant profile, basking in the sound of Picard's voice... but if he did any of those things, well, even Riker wasn't completely stupid, and Troi was dangerous. She'd actually made comments to him that suggested that she knew he was infatuated with someone, just not who. Nothing as intrusive as her comments had been his first few days here when she'd done things like announce to the entire bridge crew that he was terrified; just suggestions that if he was interested in learning what he'd need to know to pursue a romantic interest in a mortal, he could come by her office and talk to her any time. Right. As if that was going to happen. He'd told her that he wanted to say it was the stupidest suggestion he'd ever heard, but M's curse and his many eternities spent studying mortal stupidity meant that he had to say it was just the stupidest suggestion he'd heard this week.

So he made himself not look at Picard, when he was on the bridge... not much, anyway, only when he was being talked to. It was painful, because usually the only other thing to look at was the stars, and it hurt to look at the stars, to remember how limited his perception of them would be for the rest of his life. So he looked at everyone on the bridge, even though he really didn't give a damn about them unless Data was there, and his anger and frustration led him to blurt out every insulting thing he thought about any of them, which was quite a large number of insulting things. When Data was there, he spent all his time talking to Data and looking at Data if he could, because everyone already knew he considered the android a friend and it was better than looking at the people he really couldn't stand, like Worf. When Data wasn't there, the whole experience of being on the bridge was like a refined torture, for the size of the gap between what he longed to do and what he felt safe doing... and yet, it was time spent in Picard's presence, time spent making himself useful to Picard and maybe even on rare occasions winning a small compliment from the captain, and he had so few pleasures in his life, he couldn't make himself reject this one.

He took it out on Picard, of course. He felt safe doing so, because Picard already didn't much like him and had accepted him on the crew anyway, and because Picard was too ethical to take out his own frustrations at being insulted on Q. Most of the time. Picard was known to retort with some very sharp-tongued commentary sometimes (when Q was insulting humanity's need to run about rescuing ungrateful life forms for no benefit whatsoever, Picard had replied, "Yes, plainly that's a terrible weakness of ours, Q; I can clearly see we should have tossed you off the ship when you were the one needing to be rescued." Q had said that he wasn't ungrateful, Riker said that Q could have fooled him, and Q had snapped that it wasn't Riker he was grateful to... which was dangerously close to the area he couldn't go near, because if he continued on that line M's curse might compel him to admit how overwhelmingly grateful to Picard he felt and how much he loved Picard for having worked to save him despite his personal dislike of Q, and that would have been completely unacceptable. So he'd redirected the discussion by insulting Riker's taste in women, which had outraged Troi enough that Picard had ended up shutting down the entire conversation.)

It wasn't hard to find things about Picard that he could truthfully insult, despite his feelings. Sometimes he actually hated Picard for being so goddamn perfect and wonderful and such an incredible specimen of a fascinating if flawed species that Q had fallen in love with him and put himself in danger from that flawed species. Why couldn't Picard do something selfish or venal or embarrassingly stupid on occasion so Q could stop wanting him so much? If he could just lose his respect for Picard, he'd be safe. But Picard continued to be as close to perfect as a mere human could get... so Q insulted him for things that the humans perceived as positive traits, such as his compassion, his ethics, his softness, or for his few weaknesses, his dignity and standoffish cool and his repression and the tight control he held himself in. Or he found things that he loved and insulted them anyway, like Picard's precise diction, because he didn't have to say what his opinion of something was to use misleading language and an insulting tone to describe it in, and no one ever called him on it - which was good, because Q had no idea what he would do if he insulted the way Picard talked and someone like Troi flat out asked him, "But what do you really think of the Captain's accent?" and M's curse would have forced him to admit that it was the most gorgeous sound he had heard as a human.

But he knew himself to be useful. So when he was called to a meeting in the conference room, almost twelve weeks after becoming human, it never entered his mind that he might be walking into a firing squad.

"I don't normally approve of this sort of meeting," Picard said. "Under normal circumstances, if a crew member is causing problems for other members of the crew, I expect department heads to manage the problem. And if the crew member is involved in more than one department, the department heads might meet ahead of time to discuss the crewperson's performance before discussing it with that person. But under normal circumstances, if a crew member is causing disruption in multiple departments, transfer is a reasonable option. In this case... and in the light of a lack of clarity about the chain of command as it pertains to civilians employed by Starfleet... I have called this meeting to allow the department heads to explain their difficulties with Q in a forum where he will have opportunity to defend himself, given the nature of his situation."

Q had at first thought Picard had been talking about some other crew person that all the department heads were being invited to dish on, and had smirked with the anticipation of some sweet schadenfreude. When Picard mentioned "civilians", however, his blood went cold... there were no other civilians who worked in multiple departments. There were scientists who reported to Data, therapists who reported to Troi, and people like schoolteachers and bartenders and barbers, and Q had no idea who they reported to. He was the only civilian he knew of - besides Wesley Crusher, who had an acting commission - who worked in engineering, sciences and on the bridge. By the time Picard got to the phrase "difficulties with Q", he was outraged... and terrified. Picard's euphemism "the nature of his situation" might be referring to M's curse... but it also might be a reference to the fact that Q was depending on the Enterprise for protection. Thus far he'd only had to deal with the Calamarain and M, and M had been entirely out of the Enterprise's league, but he had too many enemies to think he'd be lucky enough that those would be the only ones. "Are you talking about throwing me off the ship again, just because I'm not very polite?" Q asked indignantly. "I really thought better of you, Jean-Luc. I'm deeply disappointed." And scared. But so far he was managing not to mention that.

"That is not the only option on the table," Picard said.

"But it shouldn't be on the table at all! I've been useful! I helped with the Bre'el satellite thing and that temporal rift we identified and closed before it created any problems and those people that were lying to you and tried to impersonate you and you'd never have known it if I hadn't been able to identify their species! Plus the information I gave you about the living starship!" Which had been terribly harrowing, given that an incredibly powerful Betazoid telepath had been involved in that incident, but Q had managed to keep him out of his head by focusing on all the really horrible things he remembered observing mortals do to one another, which had kept the telepath distracted enough that he couldn't go probing any deeper into Q's mind. "You can't throw me out now! Don't you realize that someone might kill me?"

"That may be the greatest attraction of the plan," Worf said.

"Klingons don't even belong on a starship full of civilized sentients!"

"Look, I don't want to see Q killed or something," LaForge said. "But my engineers deserve some consideration too. In the two months since Q's begun working with us, it's true that he's given us a lot of important insights. But he's also driven half of engineering to a nervous breakdown. Ensign Gomez was one of my most promising new engineers - still would be, if Q would just never interact with her at all, but when he gives her 'advice' she ends up so shaken her competence rating drops from 93% to 74%. Ensign Bartel, another one of my top people, spends all her time fighting with Q instead of getting anything done. Lieutenant Barclay, who was having some problems before Q got into the mix, has close to 25% absenteeism at this point, claiming constant headaches and stomachaches... and the hell of it is, according to Dr. Crusher he's not malingering."

"It's true," Crusher said. "Barclay's stress cortisol levels are through the roof, and they're the direct cause of his head and stomach problems. He used to enjoy relaxing in the holodeck, but he won't even go in back there now."

"Which, from what I hear, is because Q hacked one of his programs to terrorize him," LaForge said sharply.

"He was using my image in one of his holo programs. If he wants so badly to mock me, he can do it to my face," Q said angrily. "I haven't got any powers or any experience with physical violence; if he's too intimidated by me to express an opinion to me personally, that's his problem."

"So you reprogrammed the image of yourself to behave like you did when you had your powers, had it claim that your powers had returned, and rewrote the holodeck OS so 'arch' and 'end program' commands could only be invoked by saying 'Barclay is a moron?'" LaForge snapped. "Barclay was stuck in there for two hours being tormented by your fantasy of yourself, and the whole time he thought he was actually up against an offended omnipotent being, not a mortal man with no sense of appropriate behavior."

"That's horrible!" Troi cried.

Q sneered at her. "Oh, believe me, Counselor, if you'd seen what he programmed your image to do, you'd be applauding me. He wants a fantasy where he's a big hero? Fine, but he needs to keep the real people out of it."

"Did it ever occur to you that some things are meant to be private, Q?" Riker said. "Or is that beyond your superior brain's grasp?"

"Private? You mean like the records of my computer searches that Troi was spying on?"

"I thought you might be planning to kill yourself!"

"That's Counselor Troi's job," Riker snapped. "I don't see how it was part of your job description to check over Barclay's programs to find out if he was misusing your image!"

"I didn't need to check Barclay's programs specifically. I have my image flagged in the holodeck computer so I'd be notified of any misuse. I don't know why you don't all do that. Riker, you're so deeply offended at my violation of poor Barclay's privacy, but he had you as less than 150 centimeters tall and had you frequently begging him to rescue you, after he'd beaten you in some feat of martial derring-do. You would have been as offended at his program as I was, but you'd have probably thrown the poor bastard off the ship, because apparently that's what you do to anyone who does something you don't like! Or do you make an exception for the real humans, and only go after the fakes, like me?"

"Two wrongs don't make a right, Q," Troi said. "If you were offended by Barclay's use of your image, it was your responsibility to report it to someone else, like Commander LaForge, or myself... not to take matters into your own hands by reprogramming the holodeck to terrorize him."

"I didn't hurt him," Q grumbled. "The safeties were on the whole time." Q could "lie" all he wanted in the course of creating a work of fiction, he'd found, which was of absolutely no use to him most of the time, but had permitted him to make a very convincing holodeck representation of his omnipotent self. He knew why Barclay had been terrified; he'd been just as terrified of M. But seriously, had it never occurred to the idiot that he was on the holodeck and that anyone could make a hologram disappear and reappear in a flash of light, or materialize objects out of nowhere, or modify a holoprogam to turn a green meadow into a maze-like dungeon without notice? If he'd been on the holodeck when he'd encountered M, he would have at least come up with a way to test the safeties to see if M had been real (or really dangerous, at least), or a safety-controlled holoprogram.

"That's not the point!"

"None of this is really the point anyway," LaForge said. "It's not about your reprogramming Barclay's holoprogram, Q, it's the fact that you're literally making him sick. The efficiency of my engineering department is plummeting because of you. Any help you've given us along the way just isn't worth it."

"It's not my fault you mortals are too stupid to comprehend what I'm trying to show you!"

"If no one comprehends it, then yes, it is your fault!"

Q shook his head violently, getting to his feet, shoving his chair backward. "Except you're wrong. Aside from Data, who's superior to the rest of you anyway, Wesley Crusher understands what I have to teach him, and he was a perfectly normal human teenager the last I checked. If one of your juveniles can understand me, and doesn't take my constructive criticism personally, then how do you justify the claims you're making of the terrible harm I'm doing?"

"Oh, I'm so glad you brought that up," Beverly Crusher said. "Because for the past few months, my son has been losing weight, and every other week I've needed to give him an immune booster so he wouldn't come down with something viral, because his immune system is just that stressed. I was coming to the point where I was going to ask Captain Picard to cut Wesley's hours, for his health's sake, but he begged me not to do that, and he insisted that the stress problems he's been having are not Commander LaForge's fault. And now I know he was telling the truth. They were your fault."

"That's ridiculous! If I'm somehow causing him so much stress that it's making him sick, why would he keep agreeing to work with me?"

"Because Wesley's a child, Q, and children don't always know what's best for him. He wants to learn what you can teach him, I'm sure, so he's willing to put up with the hell you're putting him through. But he's sleeping poorly, and his appetite is off, and in the long run he could become extremely sick. If he's your success story, then you're definitely doing more harm than good."

"Fine! If none of the engineers have the stomach to actually hear an honest opinion about their competence, or the lack thereof, I can spend my time in some other department. I don't exactly enjoy walking into the engineering room every morning to beat my head against the bulkhead for most of a day!"

"You're not better when you're working in other departments," Troi said. "You humiliated Worf by forcing him to defend you against his own brother"

"Do not bring me into this," Worf growled. "Q's insults are the whining of a small insect. It gave Kurn no honor to threaten such a weak and insignificant creature, not when he was sworn to obey Captain Picard for the duration of the officer exchange. Q is under Captain Picard's protection, and as much as one would like to slap an annoying insect and crush the life out of him to end the irritation he causes... it should have been enough for Kurn to know that the Captain has offered him sanctuary. It does not humiliate me to defend Captain Picard's honor against anyone, including my own brother."

Q rolled his eyes. "Oh, yes, it's always about honor with you, Worf. Don't you even know any other words?"

"I don't need other words in this case. It is not my problem that you are incapable of understanding the concept of honor."

"Let's leave Worf out of it, then," Troi said, before Q could protest that a Klingon claiming Q couldn't understand something was like a human claiming a Nausicaan couldn't lift weights. "The way you acted around Kurn was hardly the worst you did to one of our guests. You mentioned earlier the help you gave us in understanding Gomtuu's true nature. And it's true, Tam found your insights helpful. But you nearly drove him to a nervous breakdown by broadcasting images of violence and genocide at him!"

Q leaned forward on the table, hands down on the surface to support his weight as he glared at Troi. "I didn't broadcast anything, Troi, I'm not a telepath anymore. And if he was bothered by my memories of billions of years watching the violence mortals do each other, maybe he should have stayed out of my head!"

"Tam couldn't control it, Q, and we've been over this - your mind is extremely powerful, you know how to compose telepathic communication, and when you assemble your thoughts as if you were preparing a telepathic broadcast, and direct them at a telepath, it doesn't really matter that you can't broadcast any better than any other human can. You're still attracting the telepath's attention and sending them a message, regardless of the fact that you can't actually broadcast on your own. And if the message you've composed is a litany of horrifying events, and you're sending it to a man who's already emotionally fragile because he can't control his telepathy... do you know Tam nearly killed himself? If he hadn't been so certain that the contact with Gomtuu was what he'd been longing to achieve with his life for decades, he might have ended up dead. And you did it on purpose!"

"I wasn't trying to hurt him, I just wanted him to stay out of my head!" Q stood up. "You people appall me! Just because someone's a telepath, it's supposed to be okay that he can run around reading everyone's mind and no one cares? I'm just supposed to smile and nod and let him rape me without doing anything to defend myself?"

"That's an incredibly offensive analogy and I've explained to you why I would rather you stopped using it," Troi said.

"I don't care why you would rather I stopped using it! Of course the analogy offends you; you want the freedom to keep mentally raping people without admitting to yourself what a horrible excuse for a sentient being it makes you!"

"Stop, Q," Picard said. He didn't shout, but his voice held all the absolute authority of a whipcrack. Q shut up.

"I would like you to tell me something," Picard continued, still with his voice at a normal volume, but clipped and stern and commanding. "If you think mortals are entirely stupid, hate the work you've been doing for us, and believe that Counselor Troi uses her abilities to mentally violate you... why do you even want to remain aboard this ship?"

"Where else am I supposed to go?" Q asked, breathing hard. "The rest of the universe wants me dead. Or would, if they could see through this human guise to figure out who I really am, like the Calamarain did."

"Starfleet is quite capable of protecting you somewhere else. You don't have to be aboard this ship."

"Yes, I do!" Q looked at Picard, simultaneously angry and pleading. "Starfleet is populated by humans - you're the dominant race in the Fleet, so there's absolutely nowhere I could go where humans wouldn't be ultimately in charge of me. And I think this entire meeting proves that humans hate me. And humans are a venal, small-minded, bigoted little species, ethnocentric, selfish and power-hungry, and no one in their right mind would want to be helpless in humanity's control unless they understood how to schmooze with humans and pander to them to win their affection, which obviously I can't do. I'd end up abused, or exploited, or just thrown out an airlock, anywhere but here."

"Wait a minute," Riker said. "If humans are so damn untrustworthy, why do you think you're safe here?"

"I wouldn't be safe here," Q said, "if you had your way, Riker. You were talking about handing me over to the Calamarain my first day here, and you haven't changed. The only reason I'm safe here is that Picard is one of the most ethical humans I've ever encountered... and that's faint praise, so let me add that he's actually one of the most consistently ethical mortals I've ever met. I can survive on the Enterprise only because Picard is far too good a person to let the rest of you kill me or exploit me just because you can't stand me."

"Oh, bullshit," Riker said.

Q blinked. "Your pardon, Riker? 'Bullshit' generally implies that someone's lying, and you know I can't do that."

"I'm starting to think that's bullshit, too," Riker said. "Maybe you've had the ability to lie all along, or at least for several weeks, and you've just found it to be too much fun to shoot off your mouth, spout every insulting comment you can think of, and then hide behind the fact that you supposedly can't help yourself. Because it sounds to me like you're lying right now. You've never done anything but insult the Captain, and now that you're afraid of getting kicked off this ship, all of a sudden you have the highest praise for him? We've got a word for that, Q, and it's 'toadying'. You're a sycophant!"

"I have never been a sycophant in my life!" Q said, outraged. "Well, okay, for about two minutes the first day I was human when I tried sucking up to Worf, but I was really bad at it."

"That much is true," Worf rumbled.

"Oh, yeah? So where does this 'Captain Picard is ethical and perfect' rhetoric of yours come from, then? Not that I disagree with you, but I know damn well it's not what you believe!"

"I never said Picard was perfect. He's a holier-than-thou, ethnocentric stuffed shirt who thinks humanity's the best thing since sliced bread and that the moral beliefs he holds should be universal constants. He's stiff, repressed, has barely any social life, and hardly any sense of humor." Q sighed. "But he's also one of the most ethical, compassionate, honest, and consistent beings I've met in my life, and I've met billions. It's impossible to imagine Jean-Luc doing something he knows is wrong for personal gain. He's utterly loyal to his people and to his ideals; he's ambitious but as close to selfless in his ambition as mortals get, because he wants the power he's got so he can do good for the entire universe with it. I've never met a perfect mortal being; for that matter I've never met a perfect sentient being, mortal or immortal. Picard is a better person, in the light of his own beliefs and capabilities, than any Q I know."

"That doesn't sound like what you've been saying ever since you became human, let alone what you said when you had your powers," Riker said. "Now, why is it that the things you've been saying publicly up until now are consistent with what you said when you had godlike powers, or at least the ability to lie, and yet you expect us to believe that what you're saying now is the truth?"

"Because I only said all those things so you wouldn't figure out how much I love him!" Q shouted. "I found reasons to be insulting even though I was so desperately in love I could barely bring myself not to spend my entire day just staring at Jean-Luc's face, because you humans are pathetic little primitives and I didn't want to be subjected to your nonsensical bigotry! You think I wanted to spend so much time trying to think of things I could truthfully say that would make you think I think Picard's as bad as the rest of you losers, when all I really wanted to do was tell him how wonderful he is and how I would do anything for him and how..."

His brain caught up with his mouth. Q snapped his jaw shut, in shock at what he realized he'd just said. There was dead silence. Everyone was staring at him.

"M set me up," he whispered. "She knew that sooner or later, I'd end up... she knew..."

And then he turned and ran. Out of the conference room, off the bridge deck, through the hallways and away from the disbelieving stares, away from the looks of disgust and horror he was sure he'd seen on their faces, back to his quarters. Stupid, stupid. He should have known he was doomed. M had set him up. It must have been inevitable that sooner or later, her curse would compel him to tell how he felt about Picard, but he'd thought he had it under control. His chest was tight and his eyes burned as he ran, and he knew enough about his human body by now to know that that meant he wanted to cry, but after a few months of being human he'd also learned how to keep himself from succumbing to that level of degradation. He would not cry. Not even with his life crashing down around him in broken bits, and M's sneering laughter ringing in his imagination. He wouldn't give her, or any of them, the satisfaction.

In his quarters, he looked around wildly before realizing that he was looking for a way to escape, which was ridiculous. Where was he going to go? He was on a starship. He had nothing to pack, nowhere to flee to, and if he stole another shuttlecraft and tried to run for it, they could easily transport him back just as they'd done the first time, when he'd taken one to sacrifice himself to the Calamarain. Whatever they were going to do to him, he was trapped, helpless to escape it.

He should have just let them throw him off the ship. If he'd been away from Picard, he could have kept it hidden. But he'd been too desperately obsessed with Picard to be able to bear leaving this ship, to say nothing of the fact that everything he'd told Riker was absolutely true - he didn't trust humanity, the species, but he trusted Picard absolutely to do what his morality told him to do. Unfortunately, every human society that had condemned homosexuality had done it by declaring same-sex attraction immoral. If Picard's morality told him that Q was a disgusting pervert... well, Picard wouldn't kill him. He didn't think, anyway. Riker might have killed his own developing clone because he had considered a copy of himself to be a disgusting, immoral entity that wasn't sentient, or a person, or deserving of human rights, but Picard had never done anything like that. Of course, if Picard threw him off the ship it was only a matter of time before someone else killed him.

The door chimed. Q whipped around, staring at it like a cornered animal. When it chimed again, he realized that he couldn't, in the end, keep them out of here; he couldn't very well barricade himself in his quarters when they could cut off his life support or just override the door lock. Better to try to pretend he wasn't a coward, at least. He swallowed, squared his shoulders, and said, "Come in."

It was Picard at the door. As Picard stepped into the room, a look Q couldn't decipher on his face, Q spoke before Picard could say anything. "I - I'll go. I'll just... leave the ship. Anywhere you want to send me. I'll just... you can get rid of me and we don't have to ever..." His voice cracked. "Please," he whispered, unsure what he was even pleading for. Forgiveness? Understanding? Just for Picard not to hate him?

Picard took a deep breath and straightened his jacket. "Well, I was going to ask if any of that was sincere, but from your reaction, I think it's clear that it was," he said, his voice gentle. "Q... I understand how embarrassing it was for you, to blurt something like that out to an entire room full of people... but really, you don't have to leave. No one is going to force you to depart the Enterprise. I called that meeting because I wanted you to understand how serious the problem was becoming, so you would change your behavior, not because I had intended to make you leave."

Q's breathing was slightly ragged. "But... what I said... you don't... you're not going to throw me out for that?"

Picard looked genuinely puzzled. "Why would I do something like that? I admit, it's... awkward, to say the least, to have a person under your command blurt out that they love you in the middle of what was supposed to be a disciplinary meeting, but... it's honestly rather flattering. I suppose it would be different if you'd been stalking me or attempting to sexually harass me, and there's always some discomfort involved when someone is attracted to you and you don't return their feelings, but it's hardly something so unpleasant that you should feel the need to flee the ship."

Everything Q had been believing for the past few months was turning upside down. "You're... not offended?"

"As I said, I'd have been offended if you'd behaved unprofessionally about it... and I suppose I'm a little offended that you felt the most appropriate way to deal with your feelings was to insult me, as if you were a teenager, rather than being mature about it. But it would hardly be the first time you've acted like an adolescent." Picard smiled slightly. The smile made Q's heart flip over in his chest, but he still couldn't believe that Picard wasn't horrified.

"I meant that I'm male. And you are."

Picard looked bewildered. "Why would I be offended by the fact that you're male? Or that I am?"

"Oh, you're not this dense, Picard," Q snarled. "Are you going to try to tell me that your species doesn't have a history of persecuting men who fall in love with other men?"

"Is that what's upsetting you, Q?" Now Picard was slightly angry. "You know perfectly well we've evolved past such attitudes from our history. Didn't you put us through a trial to prove that?"

"It didn't prove a damn thing about what prejudices you may or may not have carried over from your 'less evolved' days... which, let me remind you, were a mere two or three centuries ago," Q snapped. "No, I don't know that you've evolved past such attitudes to male same-sex attraction, because when I talked to Data about human sexuality, all he'd talk about were women! Men loving women, men wanting women, men having sex with women, men having to go get birth control implants so they wouldn't knock women up. He never said anything about men with men." Q paced, working up to an indignant rant, his voice rising. "And Data was programmed by a human man who wanted him to reflect human ideals and mores, from your time period, not three hundred years ago. So I read a book for nonhumans who wanted romantic relationships with humans, and it didn't mention homosexuality anywhere, either! And then I remembered that a mere three hundred years ago, your Colonel Green murdered millions of human beings in an attempt to purge your species of the trait of homosexuality, and since then, I can't remember anything your society has said about it one way or another. It's as if, after you killed millions of your own kind over it, you disappeared them, made them vanish from your collective consciousness, because in my studies of humanity the past two hundred years or so have been practically devoid of any sort of discussion of human homosexuality. And when you do that, it usually means that you would persecute anyone who destroys your pretty illusion that same-sex attractions don't exist by being inconveniently homosexual. So what was I supposed to think?"

"Q, you could have asked the computer at any time. I understand why a generic work on romantic relations with humans wouldn't include homosexuality, but you could have asked about our attitudes to it."

"No, I couldn't have. Troi was spying on my computer queries. If I'd asked about homosexuality, she'd have wanted to know why I wanted to know, and even before M made it so I can't lie to anyone, I couldn't lie to Troi's face without her knowing it, not if she asked me a direct question. And if you humans did think that homosexuals are disgusting perverts who should be killed, I'd have just admitted it to someone who has absolutely no compunction against announcing my emotional state to an entire group of people, in public."

"Well, then, why couldn't you ask Data to clarify? Surely you wouldn't have thought he would have some sort of emotional prejudice against you!"

Q shook his head. "Emotions have nothing to do with it. When humans considered homosexuals to be subhumans who didn't deserve human rights, their justification was typically morality. And Data was programmed with human morality. If he thought that the fact that I... If he thought that my being in love with you meant that I was completely immoral and a bad, awful person, he wouldn't hate me for it... he hasn't got enough emotions to be able to hate... but he probably wouldn't protect me or support me or help me, either. I wasn't going to lose the only friend I have on this ship by admitting something like that."

Picard sighed. "So for the entire time you've been aboard the ship, you've been trying to hide that you are... attracted to me... because you were afraid we would persecute you for it? I can't believe you didn't know better. We don't persecute people unjustly for any trait they have, nowadays."

"As your Commander Riker so eloquently put it, bullshit, mon capitaine."

Picard frowned. "What do you mean by that?"

"Got any members of your crew who are genetically enhanced?"

"I... that's a ridiculous comparison, Q. Genetically enhanced individuals are extremely likely to be mentally unbalanced; that's why they're forbidden to work for Starfleet."

"But mentally unbalanced people who aren't genetically engineered would be fine?"

"Of course not!"

"Well, how could you ever find them, then? If you go by the genetic enhancement markers to find the mentally unstable..."

"No, we find them with psychological tests."

"So what would be the problem with using psychological tests on enhanced humans to determine if they're unstable before rejecting them for service, instead of just blanketly assuming that any enhanced human must be a megalomaniac killer?"

"I... but that's not the same thing at all, Q. Enhancement causes serious damage to children's minds and well-being. We can't be encouraging families to enhance their children to increase their chances of getting into Starfleet."

"So you punish the children in order to send a lesson to the parents. Good to know."

"I didn't create the policy," Picard snapped.

"Never said you did. You know what else you didn't do? Murder a developing clone of yourself on the grounds that you just couldn't stand the thought of another you running around without your permission. But Riker did that, because he didn't like that clones of him and that doctor you replaced Crusher with had been made without his permission. The idea that maybe clones could possibly be people who deserve to live on their own merit... he'd never have done such a thing to his son if someone stole his DNA and was growing a baby in an artificial womb that was half his, but because it was a clone, it was okay to kill it."

Picard sat down on Q's couch, heavily. "I suppose... when you consider it in that light... perhaps there are still prejudices that human beings hold that are mainly irrational," he said. "But really, Q. You caused the death of 18 members of the crew." As Q opened his mouth to speak, Picard held up a hand. "Yes, we've been through all that. I know why you did it, and I know that in the long run, perhaps the loss of those lives will help save others, and I know that you thought neither we nor Starfleet would take the threat seriously if you simply undid all the terrible things the Borg did. But the fact remains, 18 people died because you put them in danger and would not save them, although you had the power to do so. And yet, we took you in. You engineered a fatal injury for a child, a teenage boy - and yes, again, I know, you say that you were certain Riker would save him, but the point remains you put a child through terrible pain and fear, and yet, we took you in. Even if we were inclined to persecute you for your sexual orientation, how could that possibly compare to the things you've done that you know we disapprove of, and yet we've accepted you anyway?"

Q shook his head. "I don't think you really comprehend how vicious you humans can get over utterly trivial things. Even as late as the early 21st century, in a society that was moving toward fully accepting people with same-sex desires in most areas of life, the biggest military on your planet was ignoring the rape of female soldiers by male ones, but was conducting witch hunts against homosexual soldiers who had only ever had consensual relations with other people, because apparently homosexuality was more threatening to unit cohesion and morale than sexually assaulting your fellow soldiers. There were societies that treated murder more lightly than homosexuality. For that matter, Colonel Green didn't round up and kill murderers."

"I see," Picard said. "If so... I suppose perhaps you had reason to try to hide, given what you knew. But... if that's true... then there's something I don't understand."

There was nothing more gratifying in Q's existence nowadays than when Picard acknowledged that he had a point. "What's that, Jean-Luc?"

"You said you'd fallen in love with me. How..." Picard shook his head, as if bewildered, and then looked back up at Q, hands steepled in his lap. "How could you love someone you feared might kill you or ostracize you for loving them? How could you possibly... I understand sexual attraction, but do you understand that it goes deeper than that? Simply wanting a person isn't love. Did you misunderstand what the word means? And if you're sincere... if you truly do feel love... how? How can you love someone you believe could possibly be that hateful?"

Q sighed. "Comes with the territory, doesn't it? You're mortal, you have stupid ideas. I said you were as close to perfect as humans get, not that you were perfect by Q standards. For that matter I don't even think the Q are perfect. My supposed love in the Q Continuum voted with the rest of them to strip me of my powers and let me die."

"Still, an idea this distasteful-"

"But it's not. The only reason I find humanity's historical attitudes about homosexuality more repulsive than your current attitudes toward the genetically engineered is that I'm not genetically engineered. It all boils down to the same thing, Jean-Luc. You belong to a species that's mortal, and inferior, and practices petty bigotry against what you don't understand or identify with. And you all do it. Vulcans preach IDIC and secretly recoil in the horror they won't admit they even feel that emotional humans are running the show. And didn't Starfleet actually put Data on trial to prove that he deserves the rights of a sentient being - after giving him a Starfleet commission? You're so prejudiced against machine life forms, you make a guy go through proving he shouldn't be dissected for the greater good twice? Being disgusted that a human man's in love with another human man isn't worse than thinking it's okay to dissect a person just because he's an android and a human built him. Or it's okay to kill your clone just for being a genetic copy of you. It's all the same damn thing, except one of them affects me personally and the rest don't. I'd be a staggering hypocrite if I were willing to love someone because they were only prejudiced against people who aren't me, and I'd be even more alone than I am if I couldn't feel anything for anyone unless they were completely free of idiotic, unreasoning prejudices, given that that describes exactly nobody in the universe, from the godlike entities down to your level."

Picard nodded slowly. "I... can see why you would view it that way. Though I am a bit surprised, still. I've never imagined you as the sort of person to overlook a slight to yourself, personally, because you feel it would be hypocritical to do otherwise."

Q shrugged. "If I could have convinced myself that your irrational prejudices outweighed your positive qualities and that therefore I didn't have to love you, I would have put myself through a lot less hell the past few months. It's not like I didn't try. I can't help it. I was fascinated with you when I was a Q and this stupid body decided to up the ante on my feelings when I became human."

"You were attracted to me when you had your powers?" Picard asked, sounding uneasy.

Q snorted. "Are you attracted to your fish, Picard? Human sexuality had nothing to do with it. No, I had no prurient interest in your body when I had my powers. If I'd realized this was going to happen, I would have taken a female form." A thought occurred to him. "You do know, my gender's completely arbitrary. I mean, I chose a male form, but I could just as easily have chosen to be female."

"It's easy enough to be surgically reassigned to a different sex," Picard said, "but... it wouldn't change anything, Q. If you'd rather be female, I certainly wouldn't have an issue with it, but... don't do it because you think it might help you win me over, romantically."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive. I don't want to be hurtful, but... you're abrasive, obnoxious, and know very little about maintaining a friendship, let alone a romantic relationship. None of that would change if I found you physically attractive."

Q sighed. "For someone who doesn't want to be hurtful, you're doing a great job at it, Picard."

"It's very difficult to be tactful with you; you make so little place for tact in your own conversation, it seems out of place in any discussion with you."

"Point taken." He sat down on the couch, next to Picard. "So. If you're so super-tolerant and humans have absolutely no problem with homosexuality, how come neither Data nor the materials I read mentioned it?"

Picard looked away. "I think you can already guess the answer to that, Q."

"I'm not in the mood for being on the wrong side of Twenty Questions. How about you just tell me?"

"You mentioned it yourself. Colonel Green." Picard turned back to Q. "Our barbarism and savagery, as you'd put it, has consequences. In the 20th century, when they began studying matters such as sexual orientation, they estimated that between 5 and 10% of the human population might be homosexual or bisexual with a same-sex preference. Nowadays it's less than 1%, and perhaps 5% are bisexual with no preference or an opposite-sex preference. They had discovered the genes that contribute to the expression of a homosexual or bisexual orientation, you see, and when Green set about attempting to purge humanity of those genes... he almost succeeded."

Q stared. "Less than 1%?"

"Yes. The numbers are rising, slowly; new technologies make it possible for same-sex couples to have children with both their DNA, and for men to carry pregnancies if they choose. My understanding is that most gay couples do try to have children, for the same reason the Jewish people put a great deal of emphasis on having children after the Holocaust in the 20th century... they're trying to rebuild their presence in the tapestry of humanity's collective genome. Also, of course, few non-humans went through a similar genocide, so hybrid part-humans are much more likely to evidence same-sex attractions than full humans. But..." Picard sighed, very slightly. "Data never meant to frighten you as he did, Q. Our culture has a blind spot. Because homosexuality has become so rare, we often behave as if it doesn't exist... not because we despise it, as you feared, but we simply forget it's an option, in humans. When we deal with non-humans we're better at remembering that homosexuals and bisexuals exist, but for humans... it's just become so rare, no one brings it up. I've met exactly one gay male human in Starfleet in my entire career." He looked at Q with compassion and sadness in his eyes. "I'm sorry, Q. If you're only attracted to men, your chances of ever having a satisfying romantic relationship with a human are very low. Unless you find that you're bisexual, you may well have to turn to non-humans for love. Although you're not, really, human yourself, so I suppose it would all be the same to you."

Q hadn't thought that far ahead. He'd been more concerned with the fear of dying or being persecuted than difficulty finding someone to love. He laughed at Picard, mockingly, with just a touch of bitterness. "Oh, don't be ridiculous, Picard. You just pointed out how unlovable I am. Do you think that if I preferred women I'd have any better luck?" Q looked away, up at the ceiling. "Anyway, I only want you, and since apparently I can't have you, I've expected from the beginning that I'd spend my human life in celibacy and die alone and unloved."

"Most human adolescents feel the same way, in the flush of their first love. It doesn't last. You'll get over me someday, Q. And you could probably do something about learning not to be quite so obnoxious, so if you do ever meet anyone else and he is capable of sharing your feelings, you don't drive him away by being an ass."

"And I'm sure that will be incredibly easy to do, when I'm condemned to speak the truth. Which is sarcasm, by the way." He felt like slapping his forehead after he said that. Really, he was compelled to point out when he was being sarcastic, as if Picard couldn't tell from his tone?

"But you're not condemned to tell the whole truth. You managed to find things to say that expressed a small part of the truth you felt, so you could hide a much larger truth. Turn that in the opposite direction. Work to find the positive things to say about the people you dislike, instead of the negative things to say about the people you supposedly love, and learn to suppress the negative comments rather than the positive ones. Everyone holds many things to be true at once, and some are things we should try never to share with others, and others are things we should share at every opportunity. It isn't being unable to lie that's crippling you; you were perfectly capable of telling insulting lies, before. It's that you prefer insulting people, because it makes you feel better, at least in the short run. But you've admitted that you don't like being hated. It's in your power to change that, if you choose, and you don't need to be able to tell lies to do it."

"It's too hard," Q sighed. "Sometimes I think I was right the first time and there's no way I'll ever adjust to being human."

"That's defeatist. You can't possibly accomplish anything if you assume you can't do it and so you never try." Picard stood up. "I'll let the others know I talked to you, and I'm going to put you on probation. The issue we were meeting to discuss doesn't magically go away because you've admitted to how you feel about me. But I'm hopeful that if you're under less stress yourself, trying to hide something as important as your sexual orientation, you may feel less of a need to torment others while you're supposed to be teaching or advising them. So I'm going to give you another chance to prove yourself and improve your behavior. Do you think you can manage that?" The last was said very dryly.

"I'm only human, now, Picard. I can't promise miracles."

"I'll settle for less absenteeism and stress-related inefficiency in the engineering department. And don't torture any more telepaths to keep them from reading your mind. Not only is it cruel, but sooner or later you might meet one who fights back."

That was a good point. "I'll do what I can."

"That's all I can ask." He left.

Q stared at the door for several minutes after he was gone. The elation of realizing Picard didn't hate him for his revelation, or that the rest of the crew wouldn't despise him over who he loved, was wearing off. Earlier today all he could have imagined wanting was to be able to tell Picard how he felt without fear that Picard would hate him for it. And now that Picard knew and didn't hate him for it, it wasn't enough, because what he truly wanted was for Picard to love him back. And that was never going to happen.

But then, Q had known that from the beginning. And the only thing he could never, for certain, get from Picard was sexual love. It was what he wanted, what he'd rather have, but since he couldn't get it... he'd settle for Picard caring about him, not just as a person under his protection or a sentient being or a member of his crew, but for himself. If he could get Picard to care about him the way he cared about Data... Q had no sexual interest in his android friend, but he'd been telling the truth when he'd told M that he would do anything for Data's sake if he could. If Picard could come to feel that way about him, if Picard could care about him as a friend... that would be enough. It would have to be enough, considering that he couldn't hope for anything else. And if he did what Picard had told him to do, and went as far out of his way as he could to avoid offending people, and tried to make nice with them... well, the whole idea seemed ridiculous and he wished he didn't have to deal with anyone on this ship except Picard and Data, ever, but he wasn't so fortunate. He had to get along with Picard's crew, not because he gave a damn about Picard's crew, but because Picard wanted him to do it.

And if he succeeded... maybe, if he succeeded, maybe Picard would be his friend. Data had described a "deep friendship" as a kind of love, after all. It wasn't everything he wanted, but it was more than he had now, anyway.

Notes: Some might wonder if this story is supposed to be a sequel to "Working In Groups." The short answer is no. The longer answer is that I'm using what I've written so far on Working In Groups as a backstory to avoid having to re-invent the wheel, again, but this story is not the "canonical" sequel to Working In Groups and doesn't actually say anything whatsoever about what's going to happen in that story past the point I've written and posted.

Others may note that M, while an asshole, is considerably less of an asshole in this story than she is in "The Descent of the War Goddess", or for that matter "I, Q". I tend to assume that the imminent destruction of the universe was really, really bad for the psychological health of all of the omnipotent beings that lived through it.

Normally I write Q as bisexual. I'm not really clear as to whether he's bi or gay in this story, because he's not really clear on it either... on the Enterprise, the only person he's met that he wants is Picard. I wouldn't rule out him being bi, but it's not important for this story one way or another.

Finally, I'm not the first person to come up with the idea that the absence of gays in the Star Trek universe is only consistent with the egalitarian ideals of Star Trek if in fact the population of gays and lesbians is significantly reduced from in real life. I prefer to write Trek in general as if the heterocentrism imposed on the universe by Rick Berman's homophobia isn't there, the way I prefer to write TOS as if the sexism imposed by it being created in the 60's isn't there, but every so often I have to try to deal with the universe that's actually on the screen, not the version of it in my head. My intention in speculating that the horrors Earth went through in Star Trek's 21st century included the genocide of gay people and their families does not in *any* way reflect any sort of desire to minimize the existence of gay people or "remove" them from the Star Trek universe, and in fact that's kind of the point of the story. I wanted to explain the heterocentrism we see in Trek without having to suggest that the quasi-utopian 24th century is actively doing anything to suppress, persecute or prevent the existence of gays and lesbians.

And one last thing. There will not be a sequel in which Picard and Q get together. No, seriously, it's not going to happen. In this universe, anyway. I've written plenty of P/Q fics where Picard isn't exclusively straight, but I'm pretty sure that if a fifty-something man in a universe without homophobia says in the story that men don't turn him on, and he has no reason to lie... he knows what he's talking about. I realize this may well depress the hell out of some readers, but just because you love someone doesn't always mean they will ever love you back, and I sometimes like to see a story recognize this fact.

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