The Orinoco sat on the launch pad of DS9, powered up and ready to fly. By the open hatch, O'Brien and Sisko stood talking. O'Brien carried a small kitbag over one shoulder and looked uncharacteristically put out, while Sisko's expression was sympathetic.

"What luck. What bloody luck," O'Brien griped.

Sisko patted his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Chief, but you're the closest person with the necessary expertise. If there were anyone else I could send, I would."

The chief sighed. "I know, Commander. But what are the chances that the colony's power grid would blow the day before Molly's birthday? Keiko and I have been planning the party for weeks!"

"When I spoke with the colony's commander, he said that they've only got a limited technical staff, and by the time they realized that the damage was beyond their ability to repair, they'd already been on reserve power for several days. Their supplies won't last another week. If it weren't so critical, Chief..." Sisko raised his hands helplessly.

O'Brien tried hard to smile. "Ah well, Keiko swore to me that she'd postpone the party until I get back, so I guess there's no harm done."

Sisko wasn't fooled for an instant. "It's not the same, Chief. I missed Jake's eighth birthday because a star unexpectedly went nova and I was sent to deliver a scientific team to study the phenomenon. I'm sorry that you're going through the same thing."

O'Brien sighed. Sisko's empathy made the burden a little easier to bear, and the chief's grumpiness was slowly easing. "Thanks, Commander. I should be back within a few days. You'll remind the major that if her console starts going dim, she should --"

"Yes, Chief. See you in a few days," Sisko hastily replied, all but pushing him onto the ship.

After watching the runabout take off, Sisko headed to Ops. Kira looked up at his entrance. "Has the chief left?"

"Not without trying to give last minute instructions about the care for your console," Sisko grinned.

Kira smiled back, shaking her head. "Are all StarFleet engineers this obsessive?"

"Only the good ones," Sisko replied in mild reproof.

"There's no denying O'Brien's talent, but the man needs to learn to let go!"

Dax joined in, chuckling. "Remember how hard it was to get him to take his last vacation?"

Sisko shuddered at the memory. "I thought we'd have to have Dr. Bashir tranquilize him just to get him onto the runabout! At least this time, he wasn't quite that bad. It only took a few gentle shoves."

Kira looked over Sisko's shoulder to the turbolift, and called out, "Chief! I thought you'd gone!"

The commander flinched in horror, then slowly, reluctantly turned around, already formulating his apology. "Chief, I --"

There was no one there.

He spun back to face Kira, and the grins on her face and Dax's told him that he had fallen for it. With as much dignity as he could muster, he said, "I'm glad you're so easily amused, Major."

Kira's eyes twinkled at him. "I'm sorry, Commander, but I just couldn't resist."

Dax tactfully changed the subject. "Was Miles very upset to be missing Molly's birthday?"

Sisko sighed. "Yes, and who can blame him? This is the worst part of life in Star Fleet: the sacrifices you have to make in your family life."

"But isn't Keiko delaying the party for him?" Kira asked.

"Yes, but..." Dax looked sad. "I remember when one of my -- I mean, Dax's -- children was in a musical recital, and I promised Ennera I'd be there, but -- "

Kira recognized the approach of a long, child-oriented story, and moved quickly to forestall it. "Jadzia, please. It's hard enough to keep track of your previous hosts. Don't make me responsible for their children as well. I'll be happy to take your word for it that O'Brien still has reason to be upset."

Dax shrugged good-naturedly. "At least the party was supposed to be a surprise, so Molly won't have been looking forward to it."

"Yes," Sisko agreed, "and if the party has to be delayed, at least the job which has called the chief away is an easy one. There's nothing too difficult about fixing a power grid, and O'Brien deserves a rest."

Kira returned her attention to her console. "312 is an awfully quiet colony. By the time O'Brien gets back here, a child's birthday party will seem like riotous fun."

Aboard the Orinoco, O'Brien was seated at the pilot's position, feeling more philosophical than sulky by then. He understood Sisko's position, but he still missed Molly. Then he brightened; at least he could send her a message. He activated the computer and leaned back in his chair. "Computer, record message: Molly, honey, it's Daddy. I miss you so much already, but I know you're being a good girl and helping Mummy and --"

A noise from the rear of the ship startled him. "What the-- Computer, stop recording." He rose and cautiously moved to the rear of the cabin. Before he could reach it, however, one of the large storage lockers opened and Quark climbed out.

"Quark! What are you doing here?"

Quark calmly brushed himself off, not in the least perturbed by O'Brien's indignation. "I heard you were going to Star Base 312 and decided to tag along."

"What do you think this is, a courier service?" O'Brien demanded, irate. "I've a good mind to turn this thing around and deliver you to Odo! Stowing away aboard a Star Fleet vessel is --"

Quark's sorrowful shaking of his head interrupted him. "And make yourself even later for your little girl's birthday? That wouldn't be very fair to her."

"Don't talk about my family! And don't try any of your tricks with me either. Why would you want to go to Star Base 312? It's just a tiny backwater agricultural colony barely two years old."

"One of my customers gave me a very useful tip: it seems the planet recently discovered a rich deposit of Binterion Root, and since struggling young agricultural colonies are always eager to set up new trade agreements --"

O'Brien shook his head disgustedly. "You decided to cut yourself in on the profits."

Quark shrugged complacently. "And why not? After all, who can provide them with more contacts than I? Why, given my location, poised on the brink of the Gamma Quadrant, yet with easy access to Bajor and --"

"Spare me the sales pitch, Quark." O'Brien turned away and returned to the pilot's seat. "I suppose that short of stuffing you out the airlock I can't get rid of you. Looks like you've cadged yourself a free trip, but you'd better not get in my way, and I'm not going to hang around waiting for you when I'm done, either."

Quark settled comfortably into the adjacent seat. "Naturally, naturally. Like yourself, I've no desire to spend a great deal of time at the Star Base. I had to leave Rom in charge of my bar, so I want to get back as soon as possible."

O'Brien rechecked his instruments. "You must expect to make a bundle at 312 if you're willing to trust your place to Rom. The last time he took over for you, didn't he nearly lose the deed in a crooked dabbo game?"

The Ferengi sighed heavily. "Yes, and the game was rigged in his favor. At least Nog shows more promise. Speaking of children, Chief, I couldn't help overhearing your touching message to your daughter. Doesn't she have a birthday coming up?"

"Yeah," O'Brien answered shortly.

"My holosuites have a program just perfect for children's parties. It --"

O'Brien spun to face him. "Quark, if you make me listen to one more advertisement for those blasted holosuites, I will stuff you out the airlock. Now shut up and let me fly this thing. The sooner we reach the base, the sooner I'll get you out of my hair."

Quark subsided, recognizing that O'Brien was not a likely market after all, and the rest of the trip passed in silence.