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Red tulips (and their correct application)

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It’s been a long day — a long week more like — and Miles is glad to see the back of it. Bloody wormholes and bloody comets and bloody Cardassians.

“I can’t believe she thought I was flirting.” He tells Keiko. “It was simple irritation!”

Laughter is his only response. They’ve got the night off, the two of them, just the two of them. Molly is round at the Fredricksons’ for a sleepover. Dinner was lavish, all their favourites, and then they’d watched a short holofilm nestled together on the sofa. There’d been wine with the food, wine with the film, and there is wine now, which is probably why Keiko is finding this story so funny.

“I can’t believe,” she says, laughter bursting out whenever it can, “that you were so flagrantly flirting with a Cardassian scientist and you didn’t realise that was what you were doing. That you forgot how their flirting worked! Oh, I wish I’d seen it.”

Too late now for that. Gilora, Ulani and their unrepentant Obsidian Order companion were leaving in the morning. Not that Gilora is likely to engage in flirting with him again even if she weren’t leaving so soon. Him being married rather put paid to that.

Keiko gets a wicked look on her face. “Do you think I should meet her at the airlock and flirt with her too?”

Now Miles is the one laughing, spluttering into his wine at the very image. “Oh god, no, love, that could only go wrong.”

“It would prove I had no hard feelings!”

“Or she might interpret it in a human manner and think you’re out for her hide.”

Keiko shrugs, unconcerned, and burrows further into his side. They’re both warm and happy and tipsy, and Miles almost feels guilty for it. Poor Gilora. Cardie or not, she hadn’t deserved that embarrassment.

He mutters to himself. “Can’t believe I forgot about flirting.”

“You were busy. It’s an easy thing to forget.”

“It’s basic diplomatic stuff! We have seminars on it.”

“Still, it’s not like you have a huge wealth of hands-on experience in Cardassian social customs.”

Horrible pun aside — Miles groans the appropriate amount — it’s true enough. The Federation-Cardassian war hadn’t left much time for niceties, and beyond that he’d pretty much never interacted with Cardassians at all. Before being assigned here at least. And even then, it’s mostly watching the senior offices deal with them — another reason he’s glad to be a non-com — not counting the occasional exception like Rugal, or, grudgingly, Garak. More or less a given that he won’t interact with Garak unless he has no other choice.

A thought strikes him. “God, I’m never telling Julian about this.”

“Why not?”

“Cause then he’ll tell Garak, and the less that man knows about me the better.”

“Miles, honestly, what do you think he’s going to do?”

What would he do? “I don’t know, laugh? I just don’t want him knowing, that’s all.”

Straightening up enough to look him in the eye, Keiko scoffs. “I laughed, Miles, and that hasn’t killed you. Garak will probably just...do nothing. Why should he do anything? He might even feel sorry for you.”

Miles really does not want the Cardassian feeling sorry for him, of all things.

“He’s a perfectly nice man.” Keiko says.

“Right.”

“Don’t take that tone, Mr O’Brien! He is.”

“He’s a spy, love.”

“Was,” Keiko says, firmly. “And now he’s a tailor. Besides, he’s kind to Molly, and you can always tell what kind of person someone is by how they treat children, isn’t that what you always say?”

He does, annoyingly. “Alright, so he’s nice to Molly, but how could he not be? She’s an angel. The devil himself would have a hard time being mean to Molly.”

“My point still stands.”

Miles searches wildly for a different tack. This one is taking him nowhere.

“Well,” he says, desperate, “I don’t see how Julian can like him so much. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them having fun.” He takes a swig of wine to regroup, thinking that he’s not really picked a line of thought any more useful than before.

Sure enough, Keiko frowns. “Of course they do. They smile at each other all the time.”

“Maybe, but that could mean anything! I mean, whenever I see the two of them, they’re arguing. Seems like they take every opportunity to get into some big angry debate. You should see them! Poking at each other, telling each other how wrong they are about something…” Keiko is staring at him, in the midst of some epiphany, and his voice seems to fail of its own accord. “What?” He says.

“They...argue?” Her voice is very quiet.

“Yes, I was just saying…” Oh. Oh no. “You don’t think?”

She emits what he can only describe as a squeal, high and delighted, and utterly at odds with his own low, stuttering groan. Heaving himself up to get them both a refill only saves him from her joy for a moment. She follows him over to the table and plasters herself to his side, laughing at him and at Julian and Garak and at the entire bloody situation, no doubt. From a certain point of view, he can see why it’s funny. And why she might be...happy about it. But at the root of it a very suspicious Cardassian ex-spy several years his senior is flirting with his best friend. It leads a man to be sceptical about things.

“Julian’s always found him fascinating,” Keiko says, “and I assumed it was true the other way around.”

“Not just fascinated,” Miles admits, unwillingly. “Julian has a fixation, you know how he gets with crushes.”

“So he has a crush?” Keiko says, and god, the wine must have gotten to him more than he thought if he’s disclosing things like that.

“Yeah, I know the signs by now, much as I wish I didn’t. Damn man goes through an entire bloody melodrama every time he gets sweet on someone. You should hear him whinging when Garak snips at him.”

“Snips?”

“Well, you know, he’s got that whole mystery thing going on. Likes to push Julian back a few steps every once in a while I think.”

“But he’s flirting, we know he’s flirting. Why bother pushing back?”

“Who knows, a man with a history like that —”

“Spy, exile, I know. God he must be so lonely.” Keiko takes a swig from her wine, sees the bottle is empty — that's the second they've finished — and sloppily puts it into the replicator before getting another. It might not be the most high quality stuff, being replicated, but it does the job. As this conversation proves.

Miles sighs, accepts a top-up, and steers them both back to the sofa. “I always thought he was used to it by now, you know. The isolation. He doesn’t make much of an effort beyond Julian, and Dax every once in a while.”

“So Julian is smitten, Garak is flirting with him, but then...snipping. Do you think he doesn’t know? He seems too clever to have missed it.”

“Too clever by half. No way he’s missed it.”

They share a look. What’s his game then, if he knows but won’t do anything beyond flirting?

Keiko evidently reaches a decision. “We can’t let him string Julian along like this,” she declares, swinging her glass around, “we should do something!”

“Do what?” He says. Which, really, is only inviting trouble.

His wife, he will never hesitate to admit, is a force of nature – a spring rain, a flash flood, a tsunami — and even in moments when his head tells him something was a terrible idea, his heart usually persuades him to go along with whatever she wants when she gets like this. Given that this time it involves his very best friend? There wasn’t really much of a chance of any other outcome.

Which means he now finds himself plotting with Keiko the best way to go about determining the intentions towards said best friend of one of the most opaque, cunning, downright untrustworthy beings Miles has ever known. God help him.

He’s able to predict and then promptly shut down Keiko’s idea to call Gilora (‘Or the other scientist, it doesn’t really matter’) and ask her what a Cardassian in love looks like; 21.30 is too late to call someone who has to be up at 05.00 in the morning. The station database doesn’t have much in the way of helpful material either, with the exception of one Cardassian romance novel that Keiko suspects is probably kept on the higher shelves, so to speak. They get halfway through before they have to stop; Keiko can’t keep from cackling long enough to read even a sentence, and Miles begs off with a headache. There are some things he doesn’t need to know.

Persuading her that an elaborate blind date is also a bad idea is harder, given that he’s almost convinced himself. A private dinner, a show (in a holosuite), candlelight and some atmospheric music? An image of it grows in his mind’s eye, and he’s always been a bit of a romantic. But the thought of what might happen if Garak isn’t interested shatters it, so they both reluctantly put it aside. Another time, perhaps. If things work out as they want.

If things work out as Keiko wants. Miles doesn’t want the damn Cardie to have any interest in his friend. Obviously.

Three bottles in, and that thought won’t stop circling round Miles’ mind.

“What happens if, like, he doesn’t like him?”

Keiko pats his hand, her face dour, knowing his pain. “Then we’ll be there for Julian, won’t we. And we’ll kick Garak’s arse…”

“For stringing poor Julian along. Right.” That settles him a bit, but not, truthfully, enough. “But what if?”

“Damn it Miles, I don’t know! Why don’t we just go and ask him?”

Her eyes hold his for a few seconds, and then he finds himself bent over giggling. “Of course! We should just go and ask the bugger. You genius.” He plants a kiss on her cheek, messy with wine and laughter. “We’ll just ask him.”

“But it’s...computer, time.”

The computers normally neutral voice sounds oddly judgemental. “The time is 22.13.”

“That’s not too late,” Miles hurries to say.

“Right,” says Keiko, the both of them keen to convince themselves so that they could do something, anything. “He won’t be in bed yet, right?”

“No, course not.”

“No, no, so we should go!”

“Right now?”

“Right now, c’mon Miles, put down your glass and let’s hop to it.”

Miles doesn’t need to be told twice. This is probably, in all likelihood, most definitely a bad idea. But damn if they aren’t going to go through with it. It’s what Julian deserves. They’re out the door before they change their minds.

“Where are his quarters?” Keiko asks, looking to him as if he’ll know. Which, in fairness, he does, because he’s a paranoid bastard.

So, the pair of them two sheets to the wind, drunk as a skunk, arse over teakettle and all the rest of it, tumble their way around the habitat ring. Each of them has to hold the other up and drag the other along, to the point that Miles is sure the fact that they’re still upright is some sort of paradoxical impossibility. Both are also oscillating between giggly and grumpy, so that they’re not sure which one Garak will be greeted with when he opens his door. Presuming he opens his door. Of course, if he doesn’t, Miles is planning to override the controls anyway. As Keiko keeps loudly pointing out, this is important. The few people whom she addresses this to as they pass by seem compelled to nod.

The corridor containing Garak’s quarters are mercifully empty, at least for the time being, and Keiko wastes no time in ringing the bell. She is enjoying herself an awful lot at the moment, listing ways they can seek revenge on Garak if he hurts ‘their dear Julian’, ranging from mundane, to amusing, to downright terrifying. If nothing else if gained tonight, at least he'll have the memory of his wife's loyal and vindictive planning.

So when Garak opens his door, it is to find Miles quietly laughing into Keiko’s shoulder as she outlines her latest idea.

“—and I know he’s probably immune to most poisons, but I’m a botanist, dammit! I’m sure I can make up something that — oh! Garak!”

Garak looks between the two of them as if someone has just deposited a friendly targ outside his door — confused, concerned, and wondering when it’s mood is going to turn. He’s in something that is probably the Cardassian equivalent of pyjamas, his eyes squinting in a way that speaks of interrupted sleep. Miles feels a small bit of glee.

“Professor O’Brien,” Garak says slowly, “Chief. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Yes!” Keiko wags a finger under his nose, and Miles is begrudgingly impressed when Garak doesn’t flinch. “We need to talk to you, Mr Garak.”

“What in the world could you need to talk to me about at such an hour? It must be a wardrobe calamity of some proportion.”

“It’s about a, er, mutual friend,” Miles says, hoping he’ll get the picture. Miles really doesn’t want to have it out in the corridor.

Keiko must be thinking the same thing, because she turns her wagging finger into a hand on Garak’s chest, and begins to push him back through the door. Just leans her whole body into it, pulling Miles with her, until Garak has to either go with it or cause some sort of scene. Typically, the man chooses to move. Like water, that one; as adaptable and tepid as a stream. Until it suits him to be otherwise.

Once they’re in they get right to it. Both of them are too far gone for subtlety, and the roughshod plan they had managed to make for this on their way over is limited to ‘get in, make him see sense, job done’, which even Miles will admit doesn’t have much finesse.

He clears his throat. “Now listen, I don’t like you —”

“I like you,” Keiko says.

“We’re divided on that point.” Miles says. “But what we’re not divided on is that you’ve got to throw Julian a damn bone. He’s getting annoying.”

Keiko taps her hand against his arm, a reprove. “He’s not.”

More annoying than usual, even,” Miles adds, unwilling to let it go.

“He’s morose. Downhearted.” Keiko says.

“Moping. Whinging.”

“Miles.”

“What, he is!”

Garak is trying to control his expression, but the abrupt awakening and strange circumstances are working against him enough that Miles can read him a bit, even drunk as he is. The look of ‘I’d rather be anywhere other than here’ isn’t hard to recognise, anyway.

“Have you come here, in the middle of the night, just to tell me to — to throw bones at the good Doctor? Because he’s annoying?”

Keiko nods. “Yes!”

“Well, really. If your friendship with him is under such strain, you can throw the bones yourself. I’m not sure I want any part in this frankly peculiar piece of human interaction.”

“No, no,” Miles says, shaking his head, “not actual bones. It’s a, you know, a saying.”

Garak glares at them. “A saying.”

Keiko, bless her, moves over to Garak and places a careful hand on his right arm. “An idiom,” she says, patting it. “Let me explain.” She turns a sway into a gentle tug, sitting down on one of Garak’s sofas and leading Garak to sit beside her.

“It’s to do with dogs.” Miles says. From the look Garak shoots him, that isn’t any help.

Keiko tries to explain it, but, to be honest, doesn’t fair much better. Idioms are always hard to translate across cultures. They require too much background knowledge, he thinks. There’s been a few sayings even between him and Keiko that had pulled them up short: something about rain on dry earth, he remembers, that Keiko’s gran used to say, has always caught him out. And he’s had to explain about hatters more than once. Life’s funny like that.

He gives in to the increasing amount of swaying he’s doing and joins Keiko and Garak on the sofa, claiming the space on Garak’s other side. He’s bracketed in by the two of them now and doesn’t look happy about it.

“It just means give him something,” he hears Keiko say, just as he closes his eyes for a second. “Give him a hint, a bit of affection! You don’t need to be so inscrutable all the damn time you know.”

“Professor O’Brien, I confess I have no idea what you mean.”

A groaning sigh escapes Keiko’s throat. “Miles, don’t just sit there.”

Alright, fine. “We know you fancy the skinny bastard.” He has the pleasure of hearing Garak gasp, and opens his eyes so he can stare him down for the inevitable denial.

“Chief,” and here it comes, “you are mistaken —”

“Bloody hell I am!”

“You argue with him all the time.” Keiko adds.

The two of them lean forward, united in thought, and Garak pushes himself back into the sofa until Miles is sure he might vanish into it. Caught between the determined stares of two O’Briens, and looking acutely aware of it, Miles spares a thought to feel sorry for him. He’s well aware of how forceful a team he and his wife make.

“We know what that means,” Keiko says, face like steel. She flicks a glance to Miles. After years of marriage teaching them their own tacit language, her meaning is clear.

Good cop, bad cop? Alright. Garak certainly won’t expect it to be this way around.

Keiko continues. “Don’t you dare deny it, we know. Did you think we wouldn’t notice? I’m sure you thought you were very clever.”

“To be fair you were,” Miles says, and pinpoints the moment Garak registers the compliment, savouring the confusion on his face. Keiko must be having fun too; she jumps right back in.

“Not clever enough though. We’re well aware of how Cardassians flirt.”

“They give you this little handbook,” Miles says, sketching it with his hands, “so as to avoid cross-species confusion.”

“The arguments, the discussion, the literature.”

He sighs. “It’s sweet really.”

“Or it would be.” Keiko leans in, eyes narrow. “If you weren’t just leading him on.”

“Why would you do that, Garak? I know he can be a pain —”

“But he’s our pain.”

“Sweet in his way, and he don’t deserve these scraps you're giving him.”

“So you’d better shape up.” Keiko wags her finger at him again. “You’d better either commit to this flirting or stop it.”

“He’s hurting something awful, with all this uncertainty. You might not mean it —”

“You’d better not mean it —”

“But the tooing and froing of it is making him as sad as a kicked puppy.”

“Why are you kicking a puppy, Garak?”

They wait then, leave Garak to stew in it for a bit. Having a child has taught them the value of a patient silence. Garak’s eyes flutter between them. His right arm twitches. It stays in Keiko’s steady grip. Still nothing. It seems like, for the first time in Mile’s experience, the tailor doesn’t know what to say.

Finally, he speaks. “And which would you rather I do?”

A deflection, most like. A plea for more time and a hint as to which direction they want him to move. Miles and Keiko share a look, and keep quiet.

Garak sighs. “I hardly think most would approve of such a relationship.”

“Is that what’s stopping you?” Miles asks. “Something so stupid?”

Blustering, Garak goes to protest. Keiko talks over him.

“No, he’s right, that is stupid. You’re a nice man, Garak.”

“Professor O’Brien, I assure you, that is not the opinion of most people of my acquaintance.”

“Well you’re nice to Julian,” Keiko points out, which is true. Garak might try to argue it — he does, the idiot — but they’ve been watching him, seen him. Apart from this romance nonsense, neither of them have ever had any reason to doubt Garak’s relationship with Julian. Miles has his suspicions, of course, but they’re general, Cardassian spy suspicions, not anything specific to Julian. He might not like the bugger, but he’s not about to toss him out an airlock.

Telling Garak this doesn’t seem to do much other than ruffle his feathers.

“While you vote of confidence is appreciated, Chief,” and boy the sarcasm in that could curdle milk, “you are one among many.”

“What,” Keiko says, “you think we’re just gonna let people bad-mouth you and Julian?”

“There is no ‘me and Julian’ —”

“But there could be, and we’ll have your back.” Keiko says, confident that has settled the matter.

“I’ll punch any blighter that has anything bad to say about Julian — don’t tell him I said that.” Miles says.

Garak still does not look convinced. “And I suppose, if I were involved with Julian, that would include me?”

“Of course,” he says, his tone saying ‘Obviously, idiot’. Are all Cardassians this obtuse? “I told you, I might not like you —”

“I like you,” Keiko says, and they’ve almost come full circle with this talk now, except, “but if you hurt Julian I will use you as fertiliser.”

Miles can’t help but smile. “That’s my Keiko. So, don’t like you, like Julian — don’t tell him I said that — Keiko likes you because that’s the kind of person she is, we’ll kill you if you hurt him, but, also, if you do like Julian and you do actually act on all this damn talk you’ve been doing you’ll get, you know, automatic entry to the group.”

“He means we’ll kill anyone that hurts you,” Keiko adds. “Well, maybe not kill them. You can’t kill people just for saying nasty things. There’d be an, an appropriate response for each action, of course. But I can do a lot of nasty things with my garden.”

“And I’ll punch them in the bracket.”

“The bracket?” Garak says.

“The mouth.”

“You, Chief Miles O’Brien, who has confessed to be no friend of mine, will punch in the mouth anyone who chooses to engage in verbally attacking me, simply if I were courting your friend?”

Miles blinks and processes it. “Yeah. That’s what I just said isn’t it?”

“And I’ll poison them,” Keiko says, “mildly. Or maybe laxatives. Do you have anything to drink, Garak?”

It turns out Garak’s replicator doesn’t do much that isn’t either Cardassian or Bajoran, but with a bit of tweaking Miles has it putting out a whiskey, three shots of saké, some red wine, and a glass of water. Garak downs his saké with caution, looks pleasantly surprised, and permits Keiko to get him another. They take a moment to sit and drink, Garak still sat between the two of them. Miles’ head is swimming a bit, but, all things considered, the hangover he’s likely to have tomorrow will be worth it. They’ve done a good thing tonight.

Keiko shifts from where she’d draped herself over the arm of the sofa. “Wait, you do like Julian, don’t you?”

“Course he does,” Miles says, “it’s Julian.”

“But he never actually said.”

That’s true, so Miles turns to look at Garak. He’s sipping softly from his glass of water, blinking slowly at them. Now they’ve stopped looming over him he seems remarkably unconcerned about two drunk humans having bustled into his quarters and interrogated him. As far as he’s concerned, his posture says, they could be having a friendly chat about fabrics in his shop of an afternoon. Nevermind it’s now gone 23.00 and he’s in his pyjamas.

He clears his throat. “It would be terribly awkward if I didn’t, wouldn’t it?”

“Garak,” Miles says, a warning.

Garak clears his throat again. “You’ll be pleased to hear your intuition was right. I do.”

“Good.” Keiko says, and that’s that. There’s not much else that needs to be said.

Miles considers for a second. “He likes tulips,” he tells Garak, “but you didn’t hear that from me.”

A few more shots of saké are had, Miles mumbling the whole time, throwing out little things he knows Julian likes (poetry of any kind, songs about home, British puddings), half of which Garak probably already knows, and none of which is enough that anyone could accuse him of giving Garak a hand. Definitely not. Keiko has started humming, some song he doesn’t fully recognise right now, but will later, and she chimes in occasionally with specifics (red tulips, 23rd century Egyptian love poems, apple crumble) but mostly just listens.

When they finally extract themselves from the sofa, and then from Garak’s quarters, Miles is sure the only thing keeping him up is Keiko, and the only thing keeping Keiko up is her iron liver. At the door Garak gives them an odd look, something Miles can’t parse the whole of; part confusion, part gratitude, part who the hell knows what. It probably means they’ve done a good job, Miles thinks. When Keiko hugs Garak, and the man mutters something about going soft in his old age, he knows he’s right.

Their stumble back to their quarters, and they fold themselves into bed at near midnight with a deep feeling of contentment.


“I feel like I’ve drunk gravel and the fluff from the back of the sock draw.” Miles says come morning. Keiko isn’t feeling much better. There’s the distinct sound of groaning from the bathroom.

Breakfast consists of half eaten toast for the both of them, and when Keiko suggests stopping by the Infirmary for a pick-me-up, Miles hasn’t it in him to object. His shift doesn’t start until the afternoon, thank god. He couldn’t cope with reconfiguring relays in the upper pylons with his head shaking on its perch like it is. Keiko, however, has class to teach first thing, so as soon as the Fredricksons bring Molly back — both women giving him a knowing look as he appears at the door — they take off towards the Promenade. Miles feels a sudden desire to reset the lighting to the Cardassian default: its current brightness is torture.

Being only 8.30, the Infirmary is still empty. A blessing in its way. What is not a blessing, however, is that Julian is on duty. As soon as the gangly rascal sees them coming over he makes a beeline for them, chattering loudly in concern (what’s wrong, is Molly ill, what — hungover) and waving a dozen infernal instruments around.

Shooing them into a side-room, Julian can’t help but quirk a brow at them. “Night on the town, eh?”

“Something like that.” Miles says.

Keiko is keeping a bleary eye on the time. “Julian, please.”

“Alright, alright, I have something that will help. My own invention, as it happens,” he says preparing it and pressing it with a soft tshh into Keiko’s neck, proceeding to detail his innovative creation, from his Academy days, necessity mother of invention and all that, blah blah blah.

“Julian,” Miles snaps, “just give me the bloo— the da— just give me the thing already will you.” Molly giggles helplessly in his arms.

In the end Miles decides to help Keiko out in school that day, at least until his shift starts. It only seems fair. But even with the two of them working, it takes an age for lunch to come around. Lunch means an hour of the kids eating and playing games, the desks pushed to the edges of the room. It means Miles and Keiko can take a breather. They can’t really leave the students unattended — never mind that a ton of them would be unattended anyway if it weren’t for the school — so they take their coffee and their noodles and sit in the doorway. The daily rush on the Promenade provides ample distraction.

Miles has his eye on two people quarrelling on the upper level when Keiko gasps.

“Oh! Look!”

“What,” he says, and follows her finger to see Garak walking with determination along the Promenade.

His gait is measured, his chin high, and even for someone as scrupulously discerning in his clothing as he is, he is noticeably well dressed. Dark blue cloth, cut low on his shoulders, with a shiny diamond pattern leading the eye up to the neck and down to the waist. His eyes are trained, as far as Miles can tell from this distance, on the Infirmary. In one hand is a bright bouquet of red tulips.

“Oh my god.” Keiko whispers. Miles can only agree.

“Look at that neckline,” he says, “that’s practically scandalous for a Cardassian.”

Keiko’s hands flutter around her mouth, food and drink forgotten on the floor. “He remembered the tulips.”

Good man, Miles thinks, but be damned if he’ll say. He casts a glance back in towards the children. Jake is probably responsible enough, isn’t he?

Nudging Keiko with one arm, he uses the other to push himself forward. “Think we can get front row seats?”

Keiko looks back inside, then at him. “Five minutes won’t hurt.”

They sidle up to the Infirmary, and join Julian’s staff in peering round his office door just in time to see his blush and his huge, radiant grin.