There is a story.
It’s a story Q knows first, second, third, and trillionth hand--it’s impossible not to hear nearly every permeation of ever story told in the universe if you have enough time and plenty of omniscience on your side.
Once, there were two lovers. (A lot of stories in the wide and endless universe start that way.)
Q remembers little of the details, honestly. But he remembers the penultimate scene. That’s what circles through his thoughts as he gathers all the stray, ever-expanding, ever-shifting, ever-exploding bits and pieces of himself and throws every atom of it into the starship Enterprise. He aims for the Captain’s quarters and, by some miracle the credit for which Q has no one to give, manages it. Mostly. It’s possible he’s left a faint trail behind him, little smatterings of stardust that he’ll never be able to reclaim.
Once, there were two lovers. (One was brave, and one was cursed.)
“What--?” Jean-Luc’s voice is a balm to Q’s ears--if he currently has ears; it’s hard to say--despite the confusion and irritation in his tone.
Q pulls himself inward, forcing the trembling, repelling building blocks of his body to behave. He tries to present the face he has worn most often in the Captain’s presence. He thinks he might manage it at least in some respect, for Jean-Luc steps forward instead of away from him and, after a long moment of painful silence, breathes his name.
Q chokes on his response. Vocal chords are a tricky business at the best of times, fragile and finicky little flaps in the throat, vibrating constantly in just the right way to create sound and voice and understanding. The choke becomes a cough and bits of himself--red, like blood, but as viscous as the magma in the core of a planet and glowing like a distant star--spew from his lips, splattering against the floor.
“Merde,” Jean-Luc says, hushed and stricken. Q might have expected him to take the shock of things a bit better. He’s a Starfleet officer, after all.
Q draws his spilled matter back into himself. The Human figure is hardly the most complicated in the galaxies, but his body refuses to remain stationary. He allows his more familiar features to melt away, pushing his atoms into a new alignment. Smaller, furred, spotted. He’s seen creatures like this one before. There’s even one on this very ship. He stumbles on four paws toward Jean-Luc, managing a weak and perhaps reassuring purr. Q doesn’t care for the wide-eyed, slaw-jawed look of confusion and near-panic on Jean-Luc’s face. It’s strange, to see the man so thoroughly rattled.
But then again, Humans--real ones, that is--do prefer a certain level of consistency in the physical manifestation of sentient things, don’t they?
Jean-Luc crouches down to meet Q. Q butts his head against Jean-Luc’s hand, as he’s witnessed real cats do toward those favored few they love.
“What is going on?” Jean-Luc demands, but there’s much less edge to his voice than Q is used to hearing. Q can only guess that he’s not doing entirely well in manifesting even as a simple pet. Indeed, he feels his grasp on the details slipping--whiskers and claws melt away into his cheeks and paws; he feels his ears slip back down over his skull, his legs bend unnaturally, the bones grinding briefly before becoming like liquid inside of his skin once more.
Q buries his face into Jean-Luc’s palm, smothering a sound that is equal parts rage and fear and pain--not that Q would admit to any of that, given the chance to lie.
Once there were two lovers. One was brave and one was cursed. (And the cursed of the two changed their shape, liquid as water from one to the next).
Hold me fast. Fear me not.
Q’s mind slips for a moment and he falls away into stardust and the unusual, viscid substance that makes up the baseline physical presence of any Q (assuming that the Q in question feels the need to present physically at all, that is). Jean-Luc’s fingers close carefully, gently around the majority of Q’s essence, the rest slipping away between the gaps, dripping down onto the floor. Q shudders and whines--not in pain; Jean-Luc’s touch is feather soft and could almost be a comfort in any other situation--and forces himself to focus. To remain as stardust is...unpleasant--his mind rebels against it, forcing him to change.
Hold me fast. Fear me not.
Once there were two lovers, and one was cursed to take many shapes while his lover clung to him, holding all his shattered pieces together into a whole.
Q rallies. His body goes long and sinuous, his scales delicate and deeply stained with a warning, noxious color of green. Jean-Luc, to his credit, doesn’t drop the snake on the spot. He does repeat several choice swear words in French, however. Q laughs silently, lapping his tiny forked tongue against Jean-Luc’s thumb in amusement.
Jean-Luc opens his mouth, likely to make demands or shout orders, as usual, but his recriminations find no purchase as the snake in his hands jerks sharply and writhes, all its lovely, dangerous scales going smooth and pale, his fangs falling away, dripping down to the ever-growing shimmer of flowing stardust on the floor.
Q hisses. The sound catches and twists as well as his body, transforming into a weak cry of nearly-Human quality.
Hold me fast. Fear me not.
“I have you,” Jean-Luc says, and for the first time Q wonders if, perhaps, he has unconsciously been communicating his scattered thoughts aloud.
Q’s snake eyes melt into his skull and reform after a moment, dividing into a multitude. His thin, rope-like form splits similarly, breaking away into eight furry legs. The world goes strange in his sight, fragments of a poorly repaired window of old-fashined glass. He nearly falls from Jean-Luc’s hand, then, too discombobulated to stand, but the Captain is quick and adjusts his grip, pulling his open palms in closely to his own red-uniformed chest.
“I am not a fan of spiders,” Jean-Luc remarks, dryly. At least the thin, high panic in his voice has fallen away.
Q scuttles acros Jean-Luc’s hand and wraps four of his eight legs tightly around his fingers in defiance.
Jean-Luc’s responding smile--controlled, tight, hiding true amusement under a stuffy exterior--is enormous and fragmented from Q’s current vantage point.
Q feels the form start to liquify. He goes back to stardust in Picard’s cupped hands. He is so tired.
Jean-Luc lowers his hands nearer the ground, where so much of Q’s excess has puddled. The glittering light spreads thinly over the tiles. Q makes a soft, bell-like sound of appreciation. It is easier to gather the lost matter to him, now. He tugs every scrap of it he can reach into his core.
There’s no name in Standard for the creature Q becomes next. It is significantly bigger than a spider, but not as large as a humanoid. It has soft, thick white fur and tentacle-like appendages and two massive, doe-brown eyes. Q wraps his arms and legs around Jean-Luc and buries his head--rabbit-like ears and all--against the Human’s neck. It is dark and pleasant smelling there. Q remains as long as he is able, until his body trembles with the effort of tangibility and his concentration slips.
Jean-Luc has settled from a temporary crouch to a cross-legged position on the floor. Q remains in his hold, nestled in the crook of his knees, held close in the grip of his hands. He becomes a series of creatures, big and small, soft and sharp, safe and dangerous. A badger, a toad, a gel worm, a tribble, an ordover calf.
Through it all, Jean-Luc remains, and his hold doesn’t falter.
After nearly an hour, Q’s resolve weakens. He does not return to his stardust state, but he can’t focus long enough or hard enough to form a consistent body. Instead, his features melt and blend without warning, borrowed details from a thousand thousand different forms. He holds the body of a cat and the wings of a bat and the long, hungry teeth of a predator even he cannot name in that moment. He grips Jean-Luc’s shoulders with humanoid hands and pants heavily through the long face of an equine, his back feet three-toed and scaled like an ostrich--and perhaps that latter embellishment ties into his desperate desire to bury his head in the sand, away from all of this.
Once there were two lovers, and had the one who was brave not held tight to the one who was cursed….
Pain sparks through Q’s being, his physicality well past its limitations--though certainly he had never expected they had limitations before! He gasps and chokes on lungs that suddenly shift too small for the present size of his chest. He seizes hard and Jean-Luc’s arms slide around him accordingly, bracing and warm.
The blood-like substance spills out of the stardust as Q’s limbs tear away and his bones go brittle and splintered and his body scrambles to find some sense of stability, some momentary configuration that may defy the laws of nature but do not, at least, cause Q as much pain.
It takes Q a long moment to notice that Jean-Luc is speaking. The words are unclear, fading in and out, but they are measured and soothing and reliable in their cadence. Q huffs out a soft breath and allows his tense, shaking limbs (four, six, none?) to relax. For a moment, he manifests a series of fingers (ten? twenty?) and curls the digits into the fabric of Jean-Luc’s uniform sleeves. “Please,” he manages, through vocal chords more suited to a three-throated Hadacian Psalm Singer than a Human being. “Please.” Even Q is, by that time, unclear what it is he pleads for.
Perhaps the brave one should have stabbed the cursed one in the brain and put him out of his misery.
“Tam Lin was a knight, you know,” Jean-Luc says, and that--for some reason--filters through the haze of Q’s scattered thoughts.
“I know,” Q croaks. He heaves a great deal of red, glittery stardust matter down his own front and Jean-Luc’s, too. At least the Captain’s uniform hides the stain, more or less.
“Don’t speak,” Jean-Luc advises. “Just listen to me.”
Q snorts. Not my forte, he broadcasts. Or, at least, he thinks he might. It’s hard to know what he is and isn’t capable of, anymore.
“I’m aware,” Jean-Luc says, but the dryness in his tone is lighter, now, almost friendly. “Once, years ago, an Andorian of my acquaintance told me a bedtime story much like the one you seem to be thinking of now--much like Tam Lin. Excepting, you know, that successful Andorians require marriages between four people.”
Q makes a low sound of acknowledgement. Somewhat unconsciously, his skull (that of a bear, at the moment) shifts into something smaller and broader with two tell-tale, blue Andorian antennae poking out.
“So, in the Andorian tale, there are three knights in the forest whom the Janet-figure--the, ah ‘brave one’--seduces. Andorian foursomes are delicate and unlikely to produce offspring, but because of the nature of the fae-like influence on the three knights, the Janet-figure became pregnant, just as Janet does in Tam Lin.”
Q shudders. Feathers sprout along his neck. His fingers go to claws and dig in well past the fabric of Jean-Luc’s uniform, digging into his skin, but Jean-Luc doesn’t so much as flinch.
“But it’s three lovers that Janet must save, in the Andorian story. Three people she must hold to while they change and shift and snap and bite at her as wild, terrible beasts. Have you ever seen an Andorian redbat? I suppose you have. Well, they’re deceptive creatures--small and edible, more like a winged rabbit than the sort of bat a Human might picture. But they’re a terror in a flock. And three of them at once, squirming in the Janet-figures arms, clawing her skin to ribbons, digging their fangs into her flesh--. Well. It’s a gruesome story.”
Q swallows thickly, twisting his body in Jean-Luc’s arms as his legs fuse into a scaled fin and his arms twist backward and neck lengths out and his eyes disappear. Jean-Luc curls over and around him, holding him safe if not entirely still.
“In the end of the Andorian story, the Janet-figure is similarly victorious. She takes her spouses and her baby away from the aggressor’s clutches and they live in relative peace from that point on. But the trial of clinging to three monstrous, mindless beasts leaves a mark on her. She is disfigured and disabled by the effort. She bears the marks of her battle until the end of her days, and her lovers never quite stop feeling guilty for the part they played.”
Q roars abruptly, his body jerking in Jean-Luc’s arms, porcupine-like spines erupting from his back, his jaw falling away to nothingness, leaving a long, flat tongue momentarily hanging free in the air. He is losing what little remains of his composure. His form goes abstract and horrific, unable to come together in any way that is entirely coherent, anymore.
Jean-Luc makes a soft, troubled sound in his throat. It takes Q far too long to realize that the wet, sticky substance dripping against his crackling, shifting shoulder blades is not his own escaping essence but is, instead, Jean-Luc’s blood. The spines have skewered his arms. His neck bleeds where, at some point, Q’s fangs had bit in. A dark blossoming of bruises spreads around his swollen eye, over the thickened bridge of his nose. There are wounds on the man that Q can’t even hope to place, made as they were in a mindless flailing of teeth and claws and other dangerous features.
Q shivers violently. More than a few of his unconscious, unintentional shiftings have included features taken from venomous and poisonous species.
Let me go.
Jean-Luc laughs. He digs his blunt fingertips of one hand into the curve of one of the wings sprouting haphazardly from Q’s body. The other grasps firmly to what may be a tail or another arm or something else entirely--whatever it is, it feels as leathery as the hide of a rhino. “No.”
Q blinks a hundred stinging, damp eyes and braces a hand with something like a hoof on the end of it against Jean-Luc’s chest. His two mouths open and close, revealing teeth that grow out into fangs and then fall right out of gums that go lax around them, receding back and reappearing as the foundation for a large, wicked-looking beak. I can’t kill you. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I--
Q’s insides become his outsides and more of the blood-red substance appears, soaking himself and Jean-Luc, bleeding away what reserves Q has at hand. His shapes become smaller, thinner, more worn as a result.
Jean-Luc gathers the pieces of Q--some attached, some hanging by threads of sinew and vein--to him, keeps the two of them near the ground where so much of Q has spilt against Jean-Luc’s knees and the floor.
“Get ahold of yourself,” Jean-Luc snaps, using his most impressive Captain voice.
Q groans--or, at least, he tries--and he falls limply into stardust and formless matter in Jean-Luc’s hands. Jean-Luc flails for a moment, struggling to contain the sudden highly-liquid mass in his palms.
Slowly, Q pulls himself towards himself. It is a slow, arduous task. All the while, his consciousness presses at him relentlessly, demanding that he never stay static, demanding that he change and change and change.
Q hisses a breath out through his omnivore's teeth, clutches his ten fingers into Jean-Luc’s shoulders, presses the sweat-damp, curly-haired head against Jean-Luc’s chest, his tall, slender body bowed in a painful-looking clutch of lanky legs (two of them) and arms (also two). “I can’t--hold on,” Q grounds out, his throat aching with the effort of speech.
Jean-Luc holds Q’s naked Human body close. “Tell me what to do. How do I fix this? Obviously Janet’s way won’t work for me.”
Q’s laugh is thready and as thin as his resolve. “Continuum. But they won’t...listen.”
“Why? What did you do this time?” Jean-Luc sounds more resigned than accusatory, but Q still stiffens in his arms, affronted.
“I--.” Q cuts off. His skull starts to cave in, his bones crack as his limbs bend backward at the joints. His curls give way to long, coarser hair, and his lips split neatly down the middle before taking the shape of crooked, ill-set teeth. Shapeshifted. Not myself.
Q’s feet go to knife-like claws. One set stabs into Jean-Luc’s thigh. He jerks in pain but doesn’t loosen his hold. Animals. Farm animals. Made them people.
Jean-Luc’s eyebrows rise. “Why?”
Q shakes his head in negation, screaming sharply as his spine twists into a high arch and his ribs pull free of his body, bowing out backward the other way and fusing together into one thick shell, like a turtle’s. For a second his lungs lie open and unprotected before a new barrier of bone grows over them. The skin that closes over those bone plates erupts immediately into an odd mish-mash of fur and scales. It was funny, Q manages, though his ‘duh’ tone gets lost in the donkey-like bray that rises out of his mangled throat.
Jean-Luc ends up splayed on his back as the majority of Q’s form triples in size. Jean-Luc growls in irritation and promptly clambors on top of the huge shape, holding it from above instead of in a careful cradle. “Call them, Q.”
What? No! Be reasonable, mon cap--.
Q’s broadcasted voice cuts off as his massive paws shoot out with cat-like retractable claws, all of which stab into Jean-Luc’s body like hot knives in butter. No! Q shouts, in an altogether different tone.
For the first time in several hours, Jean-Luc’s embrace weakens. His eyes go distant, glassy with pain and confusion. His blood stains through his already ruined uniform. He doesn’t let go entirely, though. His hands fist in Q’s fur, and he leans forward, crooking his chin over the shape’s wide shoulders, allowing gravity to do most of the work in holding on. “Call them,” he manages, voice tight with pain and breathless, barely a whisper.
Q wraps his arms (two? Six? more?) around the Human man in turn. Help! Help, help! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Please! I take it back! I’ll never do it again! Please!
Two Q appear in the room in a flash of light. Q doesn’t know them very well--as well as any individual member of a pseudo-hivemind knows another without actually ever, you know, hanging out might--but that might be more in his favor than not.
I’m killing him. Please, please. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Please, fix it! Please!
Jean-Luc goes slowly lax in Q’s arms. Q tightens his hold. His body goes soft and pliant, pulling Jean-Luc so close as to be nearly inside of him. Q’s bones and flesh all but cage the Captain inside, as secure as Q’s own hypothetical heart.
The two unfamiliar-ish Q glance at each other. They have chosen Human figures for this visit, a detail that is not lost on Q. “You were very naughty,” one says, doubtfully.
“Very,” their companion agrees, arching a brow.
It’s unjust to punish this Human for what I did, though, isn’t it? Fix it.
“Do we care about justice?” the first Q asks, seemingly quite shocked by the suggestion.
The other Q shrugs. “Sometimes,” they admit. “When it pleases us.”
“Would it please us this time?”
The Q shrugs again. “Perhaps.” A pause. “Would it make it worth our while, Q?”
Q hates that. Dreads it. He has no idea what such a vague question can possibly indicate, but he doesn’t like any of the hundred potential implications one bit. Yes. YES. Whatever you want. Please, just--.
The Q do not snap their fingers. They aren’t schooled enough in mortal gestures to find that necessary in the least. They simply blink and, from one instant to another, Q feels his control returned to him and his body stabilizes to the Human form he tends to prefer.
“We’ll see you around, Q” the two Q say in unison (creepy!) and disappear.
Q breathes out a shaky, warm breath of total relief in the second it takes for his massive, stupid brain to catch up.
Jean-Luc! Q cries, then remembers that his voice works just fine, now. “Jean-Luc!”
The Captain lies sprawled on a damp and damaged floor, blood pouring from his wounds, his eyes closed, his skin alarmingly pale. Q can’t help but notice--as he lunges forward and slams his hand probably too roughly against Jean-Luc’s comm badge and screams for medical--that the man still has one lone fist tangled firmly in the now-restored fabric of Q’s own blood-red uniform.
Hold me fast. Fear me not.
Once there were two lovers (or maybe four? But not in this one). One was brave and one was cursed. The brave one held the pieces of the cursed one together until the cursed one was whole and cursed no more. And then the brave one, struck down by grave injuries--.
Jean-Luc bats Q’s hand away. “Stop that.”
“No! Q. Please. It would set a terrible precedent.”
Q glowers darkly down at the man. All tucked up on the medical bed, his body bandaged and attached to all sorts of suspicious machines, Jean-Luc looks thin and small and still too pale. He also looks annoyed.
“That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever said,” Q accuses. “You act like I’ve never saved your life or healed your injuries before!”
“You have?” Jean-Luc asks, startled.
Q waves a hand. “Probably! You’re always getting broken. I’m sure it’s happened before. And even if it hasn’t, let me help!”
Jean-Luc snorts softly and casts a long-suffering look to the side where Dr. Beverly Crusher stands, studiously staring at her PADD and trying to pretend she’s not eavesdropping on the two of them. “Doctor, will you please tell this man--.”
“--not a man,” Q singsongs at him, not for the first time.
“Will you please tell this sentient thorn in my side that I am healing just fine on my own and do not, in fact, require any meddling from any all-powerful entities?”
Beverly just raises her brows at him.
Jean-Luc stares at her in amazement. “Dr. Crusher, certainly you don’t suggest--.”
“--There are many wonders in the universe, Jean-Luc. Some are terrible. Some are beneficial. As far as I’m concerned, you should accept the beneficial ones when they’re offered to you.”
Jean-Luc gapes at her, astonished.
“Then again, this really isn’t any of my business,” Beverly adds firmly before adjusting some dial or other and walking briskly away toward another patient’s bed.
Q smirks at him.
“Oh, for--fine! Fine! Heal me of all my ills. Why not? Hell, why not just make me immortal while you’re at it!”
Q wiggles his fingers at Jean-Luc. “I mean. I could.”
Jean-Luc goes to slap at the entity’s fingers and ends up curled over himself, instead, gasping in pain.
Q tsks softly and places his hand over the top of Jean-Luc’s head. From one instant to the next, Jean-Luc’s pain recedes. His wounds, though, remain. Q removes his hand and stares at the man expectantly.
“It’s an unfair advantage,” Jean-Luc grumbles. “What about all the others on this ship, those who are--or have been or will be--hurt, what about those who have died? Do I have any right to--?”
Q rests his hip against the edge of Jean-Luc’s bed. “Apomi. That’s the name of the Andorian who acts as the Janet-figure in the story that you said was like Tam Lin. It means--oh, it’s hard to translate into Standard. Something like “sacrificial.” But not as a tool or a, a martyr or something. Sacrifice as an act of love. Of bravery. Of power. What Apomi gave, she gave out of respect and adoration of her spouses.”
Jean-Luc frowns at him, puzzled by this segway.
“I want to help you like you helped me,” Q says, reasonably.
Jean-Luc opens his mouth to argue.
“And if you want me to extend the same offer to every body aboard this ship, I will. I’ll heal every damn person in this medbay. I’ll make you and all of them live forever, if you want.”
“That sounds exactly like the kind of foolishness that gets you in trouble with the Continuum,” Jean-Luc points out. He speaks stiffly, slipping more into Captain mode than he has in all the days in which Q has stood vigil by his bedside combined.
Q shivers slightly at the mention of his brethren. He still owes them a debt. He’s not keen to deliver.
“I don’t care,” Q says, shrugging. “They can punish me again if they like. It’d be worth it. Jean-Luc, please. You really must let me help you. You’re no fun at all when you’re like,” Q waves his hands in Jean-Luc’s general direction, apparently at a loss to describe him.
“--Dr. Crusher can make sure you’re in shape to continue your duties,” Q interrupts. “But you’ll still be in pain. Maybe for the rest of your life. And the scars--.”
“I’m not bothered by a few scars, Q. Nor am I afraid of pain.”
Q pulls a face. He can’t begin to empathize with that sentiment. He’s terrified of pain. Mortal bodies are a minefield of discomforts and agonies, and he hates to even think of it.
Jean-Luc surprises Q by sliding his fingers toward where Q’s rest on the edge of the bed. He curves his pinky through Q’s own. “Hold me fast,” he says, softly. “Fear me not. Q. Just let me be, all right? Promise me.”
Q stares at where their hands are joined. “Just...don’t make me go away,” he begs, voice barely a whisper.
Jean-Luc squeezes his pinky. “No. I won’t. I promise.”
Q sighs. His whole tall, lean body relaxes with the motion. With his free hand, he snaps a comfortable looking chair into existence and sits down in it. “You’re stuck with me now,” Q warns him, offering one final, grudging out.
Jean-Luc snorts. “As I have been since the moment we met.”
Q grins and does not refute the statement.
Once there were two lovers. And they were, more or less, at peace.