Gul Dukat was hardly the only one wearing an unsavory smile when he extended an invitation to Colonel Kira to travel to Cardassia Prime to visit her beloved Odo. Garak and Damar shared his superior, diabolical smirk.

Reading all too clearly their unpleasant intentions from their faces on the viewscreen, Kira demanded distrustfully, "And what would you want in return for this...'kind'...offer, that is most definitely not coming from the goodness of your hearts?"

"I won't bother to deny it," Dukat allowed grandly.

"Well?" Kira coaxed barely patiently.

"I think you know," Dukat countered smoothly. "We'll require a continuation...and a finale...to what we three began with you on our last visit to the station."

The Bajoran woman bristled visibly. "I'm supposed to...." She hissed the next word, "...submit to the three of you...." She attempted cleverly, "...after my private visit with Odo?!" Kira veritably seethed.

"Oh, no no no," Dukat feigned reassurance in all mock sincerity. He actually puckered his lips as he all but whispered, "Before."

Kira uttered a Bajoran expletive, and then said bitterly, "As payment for allowing me time with the man I love!"

"Come now, Kira," Damar observed smugly. "You had to know that we would come back to this eventually. We said as much. We simply preferred to be in a position of greater strength before making demands."

Garak was nodding confidently. "You do have a choice, you know. You can come here and submit to us, and receive time alone with Odo as your reward. Or, you can refuse. And we'll go there, to Terok Nor. And we'll still have our way with you."

"But quite a bit more roughly, if we have to go after you," Dukat continued.

"And with no reward of Odo," finished Damar. "Because we'll be there, and he'll be here."

Kira was clearly enraged, but she swallowed hard, all the same. Given the multiple, monumental upheavals in the Alpha Quadrant and beyond, directly caused by these three men, no one anywhere was in any position to deny the Cardassians anything, and they knew that she knew it.

"All right," she growled. "I'll be there."

"Oh, and there is just one more thing," Dukat added smoothly.

"What?" Kira's voice was strained.

Garak took over, "Be sure to bring Doctor Bashir and Chief O'Brien with you as well. We have unfinished business with the two of them, also."

"Understood." Kira smacked hard at the disconnect.

"What the devil do they mean unfinished business with us?" O'Brien demanded. "Seems to me they finished their business with us when they were last here, pretty damned well!" His anxiety was apparent.

"I would've thought so, too," Bashir murmured more pensively, uncertainly. "But still, maybe they just want us around for our company."

"You mean our amusement value!" barked the Irishman indignantly. "What, they want us to be their court jesters?! Or they intend to scare the devil out of us until they make us beg, and then relent to show us how 'magnanimous' they are,...and then start it all over again the next day?!"

"Easy, Miles," Bashir began.

But Kira cut him off and flared, "What are you two worried about?! We know what they intend to do to me!"

"Oh, Colonel." Bashir tried to put a consoling arm around her shoulders, but she shrugged it off and pulled free somewhat viciously.

"We can't stay here indefinitely!" bellowed Kira from the Defiant, in orbit of Cardassia Prime. "We have a station to run!"

Dukat was unconcerned. Never losing his grin, he oozed, "Ezri can handle it."

"And ride herd on Quark, too, I suppose, in addition to everything else she'll have to do??"

Garak interjected smoothly, "Oh worry not; we have Quark firmly under our collective thumb. He answers to us, and won't dare to make any sort of a fuss."

Standing beside Kira on the viewscreen, Bashir gathered his courage and asked point-blank, "And what about us, Garak; what about Miles and me? Are you going to torture us?"

Damar put in, "Torture is such an ugly word."

"For an ugly deed!" O'Brien growled.

"It depends," Garak said enigmatically.

"On what?" prompted Bashir.

"On your behavior," Dukat finished firmly.

"It will be exemplary," Bashir assured them automatically.

"We shall see," Dukat replied noncommittally. But from the unsavory twinkle in his eye, it was unclear whether he wished for them to display good behavior...or bad.

"We'll be testing you on a regular basis," put in Damar, seemingly confirming the nonverbal impression that Dukat was projecting.

"In other words, we'll be the entertainment," O'Brien surmised bitterly.

"Some of it." Dukat's twinkle ramped up to dazzling as his gaze shifted to Kira. "But not the most important part."

"Nor the first part," agreed Damar.

More bitterly than ever, Kira snapped at the two human males at her side, "In other words, they'll settle for tormenting you two only after they grow bored with me."

"Well said," concurred Dukat. Then he became more businesslike as his smile fell away, and his tone turned coldly demanding. "Beam down now." His eyes glittered dangerously in all of their reptilian splendor.

Advancement to the transporter system was evidently another bit of progress brought to Cardassia by one or more of the triumvirate's inter-universe duplicates. Although the infinitely reluctant Kira, O'Brien, and Bashir set out together from the same transporter room aboard the Defiant, they rematerialized in three separate locations.

Kira found herself in a stunningly appointed bedroom of sorts, with a gauzy, skimpy gown lying in the center of the expansive bed. A Cardassian soldier that she didn't see startled her from behind, with the harshly spoken words, "Put it on and wait for your masters."

By the time that she whirled in response to his command, he was already exiting the room. With a heavy sigh, she picked it up lethargically, reluctantly, and stared at it in despair.

Bashir materialized in an apparent Replimat, entirely deserted except for him, and caught himself quickly on the back of the nearest chair that was decidedly too near. It stood well within his personal space, its sudden unexpected presence and the equally unanticipated absence of his two beam-down companions disorienting him somewhat. After regaining his balance via his grip on the chair, he looked around briefly, saw that he was completely alone, hesitated slightly, and then, with a sigh, pulled out the chair and sat down on it and waited.

O'Brien rematerialized in the gloom. Shocked by the obvious dispersal of the beam-down party, he nevertheless remained absolutely still until his eyes adjusted to his darkened surroundings. As his vision improved, he observed just how fortunate it was that he hadn't gone wandering even a few steps. He was standing on a metal catwalk, suspended above an open space into which he could not see. Gingerly he reached out a hand to the railing a few meters in front of him and, feeling its firm security, he let it draw him to gaze down into the void. He still could see nothing of the bottom. But that failing was no longer due to low light level, but rather to extreme distance. His grip tightened spasmodically on the railing, now clutched in both of his hands. Vertigo assailed him as his acrophobia took hold.

"Bloody hell," he whispered into the expansive dark. "How did they know? How did those reptilian demons know??" Then, he mentally chastised himself at the thought that his words could have been monitored.

Kira sat forlornly in her flimsy cover-nearly-nothing as the triad entered her bedchamber. At their entrance, she leaped to her feet and away from the bed, feeling even more vulnerable on or near it, as if distancing herself from it could possibly help in the long run, anyway.

As the three watched her, her fingers uncharacteristically played nervously with each other. "No, please!" she couldn't help but implore, even as she knew that it would accomplish nothing.

Dukat, Damar, and Garak stood there staring smugly at her; they were in no hurry.

Kira attempted to speak again; her voice failed her; she cleared her throat and began anew. "While...I was still on...DS9...." She hesitated, visibly fearful that they would correct her with a snide "Terok Nor." They didn't bother; it was too easy and way too obvious, but their smiles widened slightly in realization of her anticipated correction. She forced herself to continue. "You said that, if I didn't come here to you, and if you had to go after me there, that you would be rougher. Can I assume, then, that since I came to you...?"

"That we'll be gentle?" Dukat approached a little closer, but still didn't crowd her. "If you don't fight us."

"I won't," was her rapid reply.

"Well, then." Now Dukat went closer still, reached out a hand and caressed her hair. It clearly took all that she had not to flinch, but she mastered the impulse. "It would appear that roughness won't be necessary."

Now Damar approached as well. "Do you remember what we were doing when we awakened you in your quarters that night on the station?"

Trying not to appear grateful that he had also sidestepped the issue of what to call DS9, Kira admitted, "You all three caressed me all over, pretending to be Odo."

"That's right." Damar smiled almost kindly. His hand stroked her shoulder. "And we plan to begin that way again."

Knowing that that was the best that she could possibly hope for, Kira forced a weak smile of gratitude.

By now, Garak had moved behind her, and was ever-so-gently raising the hem of the transparent near-nothing. He murmured, "Pretty as this little slip-of-a-thing is, it's still in the way."

Kira closed her eyes, vowing frantically to herself to offer absolutely no resistance.

It felt to Bashir as if he had sat alone in that chair for quite some time before he was at last joined by the Cardassian triumvirate. Upon seeing them enter and approach his table, he asked hesitantly, humbly, "Where are Kira and Miles? Are they quite all right?"

"Oh yes, quite," Dukat assured him. "Although I dare say that Kira is rather more comfortable than the other human, since she is now with Odo."

Bashir's relief was short. "With Odo, good! But.... Oh. That means that you three have already...."

The Cardassians sat down around the table with him, grinning.

"Had our first complete time with her, yes. But Kira behaved herself, so her only 'wounds' for Odo to comfort are emotional ones."

"That's...that's...good," Bashir admitted lamely. Then he pursued, "But Miles. You said that he was...less comfortable?" The doctor tried not to swallow hard as he awaited their reply.

Damar explained, "We placed him in an environment that he won't consider ideal. And, unlike you, he is still waiting for us to appear."

Now Bashir did swallow hard, wondering what was in store for him, as well as for his friend.

The three smiled in evident amusement at his discomfiture.

"Worried about the other human? Or about yourself?" teased Damar.

"Both, actually," confessed Bashir. "I really thought that we'd...talked everything out when you were last on the station, and that we'd put to rest any animosity...."

"Perhaps," Garak allowed conditionally. "Though, as I recall, you left us in somewhat of a hurry, when last we met."

Bashir well remembered his unnerved dash from the table in Quark's in which he had joined the three, in the hopes of placating them. His effort had not been a disaster. However, his every attempt at diplomacy had been countered all too smoothly by the reptilians, and twisted to signify something a great deal more damning than what he had meant to convey. "I...ran out of things to say," he explained feebly.

"Or, you feared that you had already said way too much," responded Garak.

"And wished to contain the damage by escaping," Damar quipped.

"And knew that we could see right through your every excuse," added Dukat.

Bashir's shoulders sagged. "All right," he confessed with a sigh. "However, I genuinely do believe that our vastly different cultural backgrounds are truly behind your interpretation of every word that I said as somehow sinister, while my intentions honestly were sincere. I don't expect you to believe that, again due to those same cultural differences, and I have absolutely no way of proving my sincerity to you, ...so I am at a loss." Quietly, he met and held the eyes of each of the three, one by one, wishing for telepathy, for them or for himself, trying to curb his hopeless frustration at its unavailability.

The three reptilians stared back at him just as intently, as if sharing the same wish, as if trying to somehow divine the truthfulness, or lack thereof, in his words. Despite his fear, Bashir willed himself not to cringe, but to continue to offer his open, intense gaze for their thorough scrutiny.

At last, Dukat relaxed in his seat. "All right. I am willing to allow for the possibility that you might be sincere."

Bashir sat back in relief. "Thank you," he breathed earnestly, finally permitting himself to blink softly and slowly. Then he turned to Garak wistfully. "Are we still friends? I wish for us to be. I have missed you."

In even, measured tones, Garak replied. "Until and unless we discover any insincerity within you, yes."

"You're going to push me off, aren't you?" were O'Brien's first words to the three Cardassian leaders when they materialized with him on the catwalk. He still clung to the rail, knowing how useless that would be if they decided to attack.

Dukat toyed with him. "Do you believe that we should? Is it the fate that you deserve?"

"No. But that won't make any difference. I know how Cardassian justice works."

"'Cardassian justice,'" Damar echoed dryly. "When we caught you, as your people say, 'red-handed,' insulting us with your species' slurs."

"I only said those things," said O'Brien, "after I saw how your people treated me, and others. Your mistreatment was the catalyst, and my insults were the results. Now you want to condemn me, in turn, for responding to your tortures and atrocities with words of condemnation. This is a vicious circle. And don't you see that your people, as we say, 'cast the first stone'?"

They watched him shrewdly, scrutinizing his every nuance of expression.

O'Brien pressed his point. "And besides, the last time that we met, and I acceded to your terms for granting mercy, you indicated that you pardoned me. Have I done or said something since to negate that? If so, I am unaware of it." He was rewarded with three slight smiles of acquiescence at that.

"You have not," admitted Dukat.

"But I'm here for you to see if I will," the human guessed. "And you intend to provoke me, to see how far I can be pushed."

"You are endlessly entertaining," Damar agreed.

"And how did you know about this?" He indicated the vast drop beneath him. "My acrophobia."

"We have our ways," Garak acknowledged smugly.

Almost pleadingly, O'Brien said to him, "Garak, you should be the first to sympathize with my fear of heights. You have claustrophobia."

"True. But that doesn't mean that I won't use others' fears against them."

"Okay," the blond human surrendered resignedly. "So I'm on trial here. For the rest of my life. One slip-up...and I...slip down." He shivered as he gazed down into the blackness. "But for now...."

"'But for now,'" Dukat echoed, "you are to be spared."

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