Asheron sat in the padded chair next to the small table of the sitting room of Baal's personal quarters, trying not to show how tense he was. But he was. Malek was helping keep his reactions under control, but he still felt like a strung bow. He'd never thought to be here again, and now that he was, it was much harder than he'd expected.
One of Baal's lotars poured them both tea, and Baal waved him out. Baal came back to the table and picked up one tea cup with the hand without the ribbon device on it. He handed the delicate porcelain to Asheron, with dark eyes intensely watching Asheron's face.
Reaching out to accept the cup felt symbolic, as if the cup was representing something more. Asheron reminded himself sharply that it was a cup of tea.
Yet there was no denying that Baal smiled when Asheron took the cup from him He continued to look pleased as he took another chair and leaned back casually. He never took his eyes from Asheron even when he sipped his tea.
Asheron broke the silence first, indicating the sitting room and the tea with a wave of his free hand. "I have to admit I'm… surprised. I thought you were angry."
Baal nodded a little, agreeing. As always when they were in private, he dropped the Goa'uld tone - a habit Asheron appreciated, even though he knew it didn't change who was speaking. "I was. I was going to kill you. But then," the frown deepened on his face and he gazed for a moment at Asheron, "I remembered… The last time you knelt on the floor before me." A small smile turned his lips, widening into a chuckle when Asheron had to look away.
Because he remembered too.
Their last day, early morning, before it had all gone to hell --
*Stop,* Malek snapped on the memory, forcing the image away. *I don't want to remember any of that.*
Neither did Asheron, but looking at Baal was making it difficult.
Funny thing was, he had remembered the first time he'd knelt before Baal, not the last…
* * *
In audience with Ishtar, when she asks what boon her victorious general desires, Baal's gaze falls on Asheron, kneeling beside her throne. "Your zhi'lotar, my queen. For one night. I wish to learn why he fascinates you so." He smiles very slightly. It's a challenge, and everyone in the chamber knows it.
"You want my pet?" she asks, but not angrily. Her hand strokes his hair. He stiffens and makes his face blank. He fights the urge to flinch away. Her touch makes him want to be sick. But there's fear too, from what she says. She sounds like she's considering it. She might, for the first time, give him to someone else. He hates her and fears her, the pain is often more than he can bear, but at least he knows what to expect. He opens his mouth to object or plead, but her fingers twist in his hair and jerk back his head.
"Careful, my love," she purrs. "You are mine to do with as I please. If I wish you to entertain the priests, or if I wish to give you to my general for a night, then I will. I have heard that my dear Baal can be quite… passionate." The sharp fingertip of the ribbon device on her other hand trails down his exposed throat to the gold collar that marks him as her property, "Perhaps I should let him have you, and see if he can teach you new tricks. What do you say to that, little one?"
He knows the answer to this one. "As you wish, Radiance." The words come out automatically, hoping to please her so she won't punish him for his earlier insolence.
Now here he is, forehead bowed to the carpet of Baal's personal quarters on his ha'tak. Ishtar has reminded him of the need for obedience and not to embarrass her with her general. After the reminders, the sarcophagus left him without a mark on his skin, but he is jittery, and it is hard to keep still. He's nervous-- he wants to please, but he isn't sure what Baal wants from him. He believes it's the same thing Ishtar wants, but he doesn't know, and the not knowing is more frightening. Even if he's right, it doesn't help. He knows in theory he can do to another man what he once liked for himself, but beyond that, he has only the vaguest idea. He's never done it before. He certainly doesn't want to, although he knows his wants have nothing to do with anything anymore. He never wants to touch Ishtar either, but he does. If he pleases her well, usually she won't hurt him.
"Rise." Baal's voice is deep, with the timbre of all the Goa'uld.
Uncertain what he means, Asheron straightens his back, but dares not look up. He puts his hands on his knees, having to remind himself not to clutch them. His fingers itch restlessly and an annoying tingle creeps across his skin.
"Stand and let me look at you," Baal orders, and so he does, relieved to be moving. He wears only a pleated kilt and the golden collar and bracelets, as she prefers. Though he's rarely discomfited by being so underdressed in even a public audience anymore, he's aware of the dark eyes examining him from the other side of the room.
"The appeal is undeniable," Baal says and it is a purr of unmistakable interest. "My queen, as always, has exquisite taste in her servants, if not their clothing."
He keeps his gaze down, but he can see that Baal appears to be fully dressed in a high-collared coat and layered tunics of dark green and brown. He's standing by a table set for tea with two chairs. There is no bed in this room, so the bedroom must lie behind the opposite door, probably with the sarcophagus.
"Asheron, isn't it?" Baal asks, in a conversational tone.
The sound of his name makes him flinch. He's had this test before. Very softly, he replies, "No, my lord. Not anymore."
But the reminder stirs him inside, that he is Asheron. Every day it grows harder to keep hold of Asheron, but there remains a small core that remembers the promise that someday all these invaders will be overthrown and his world will be safe.
His shoulders twitch in an involuntary shudder, and he tries to stop. But the prickly feeling passes down his body to his bare feet, making his toes curl into the carpet.
Baal lets out a short breath of disgust. "Ishtar's command, of course." He pauses a moment in thought, and then declares, "Your name is Asheron. And while we are here, in private, it is what I will call you and what you will answer to. Understood?"
"As you wish, my lord." The answer is perfect, but he suddenly can't stop trembling. His heart starts racing, pounding in his chest, and he puts his hands up, pressing on his ribcage as if he can make it stop. Something's wrong. The sarcophagus must not have fixed him correctly, because suddenly he's shaking and his heart is beating like the frightened wings of a hover bird. His eyes fly up to meet Baal's, and he opens his mouth, maybe to do something foolish like ask for help, but nothing comes out.
Baal moves across the floor in only a few sweeping strides and seizes his chin to keep it raised when Asheron tries to respectfully lower it again. The lights seem much too bright. He looks into Asheron's eyes and his own narrow at what he sees. "How many times have you been in the sarcophagus today?" he demands.
Asheron can't think, he can barely breathe through the pain in his chest, but he has to answer. "Three," he forces out, "And last night. Twice, I think." He isn't sure. He remembers a blur of her voice and fire and the bright lights bringing him back to fire again.
Baal pulls him to one of the chairs, pushing him into it. "Sit."
Asheron's vaguely aware he's not supposed to be sitting in one of the lords' presence, but if it's what Baal wants then maybe he should, and it does feel better to sit.
His vision blurs and darkens, and the tingling feeling in his hands and feet intensifies, and locks his chest so he can't breathe. But the feeling fades, and his sight comes back. He's not dying after all. Not this time.
A cup of tea has somehow appeared on the table before him. He looks up in confusion, realizing Baal is serving him. There are no lotars in the room. No other lotars than himself, anyway.
"Drink," Baal says. "I will speak to Ishtar about controlling herself better. Her dependence on the sarcophagus has always been…," he hesitates and Asheron has the impression he means to make a stronger criticism, but tempers it in the end, "excessive. Drink," he orders, more sternly.
Picking up the cup in both hands, he tries not to spill it as he sips the hot liquid. Whether it's the tea, or the mere fact that Baal is sitting at the other side of the table, watching him without a move toward him, he soon feels more normal. The tea is good, a green tea blend from southern Kantara he thinks. It reminds him of his mother's favorite tea, and her parties held in the summer palace by the lake when he was a teenager.
No. Memories of Naritania are dangerous when he's with a Goa'uld. He must never be Asheron of Naritania with them. Asheron the Third does not exist, not here.
He puts the cup down, and his fingers are only trembling a little.
"Better?" Baal asks, head cocked a little to the side considering him.
"Yes, my lord. Thank you."
"There will likely be another reaction," Baal tells him. "There is nothing you can do except wait for it to stop."
Uncertain if he should reply or not, Asheron says nothing and nods once. There is an awkward moment -- part of Asheron feels he should slide down to the floor, back to his place, but the other is basking in feeling human again, at least for as long as it lasts. He's sitting in a chair, drinking tea. He can barely remember the last time that happened. He decides not to move until ordered to do so.
Baal muses aloud. "She could not refuse my request, so she tried to sabotage you and make you useless for my purpose. But I do not share her lack of patience. We have the night, and I will wait for what I want."
Asheron is stunned. Despite his obvious weakness, Baal still wants him in his bed? But he wants to take the memory of tea to his pallet and enjoy it unspoiled by what is to come.
Very carefully he keeps his head down, and tries to make his voice meek, even if he's feeling more determined than meek. He wants out and he's willing to accept the consequences. "My lord? I'm very sorry, but I feel I should warn you -- I have no experience, no training in relations with ... men. I'll be very bad at it. You should do as you wish to punish me now and find another who can please you tonight."
He expects anger, and braces for it. Ishtar would be furious with his implied refusal and rejection. She would probably ribbon him right away or grab her whip. But sometimes he provokes her on purpose, because he often has a respite from her for some days after he is especially willful. For now he'll settle for getting out of this room, back to what's familiar.
But Baal is silent and after a moment, Asheron dares a glance. Baal is watching him, and the corners of his mouth lift upward in a tolerant smile when their eyes meet. "Not as broken as you pretend, are you?" he asks softly. "I thought so. The broken ones are very dull during zhir'khallen. I think you'll learn quickly."
He still intends for Asheron to serve him, in spite of all. Asheron wonders why -- he's not irresistible. There must be more to it. But there is nothing to do about it now but endure what happens.
Ishtar warned him to obey or suffer the consequences. In any case, being used by a male body, instead of a female, seems like a rather small indignity in the face of all that he's done and suffered in the last six months. Not that there's any point in being ashamed either. His body's not his own -- he spends most of each day trying to distance himself from it.
The body is nothing -- a machine easily broken and just as easily repaired. But the mind and spirit are fragile and need as much protection as he can give. He's quite skilled at it now. He presses himself flat and turns sideways in the back of his mind, so there's very little that can touch the exposed edge. Asheron has to go away and keep safe, even if every time he does this, a little less of him comes back.
When he looks up, he's a blank sheet of paper. He has no expectations, no fear, nothing. He waits.
Baal frowns, maybe catching his change of expression or the new emptiness of his eyes. Baal seems more observant than Ishtar, which is a worry for another time. He stands and very deliberately, finger by finger, sheds the ribbon device from his left hand and sets it on the table. And his voice, when he speaks, loses that distinctive Goa'uld vibration, becoming more warmly human. "I have no interest in your pain. Only in pleasure, both yours and mine."
He doesn't believe that Baal won't hurt him. He's played that game with Ishtar before, and it was always a lie. Yet, when he sees the ribbon device on the table, something flickers back to life in his chest in spite of what his mind warns. Maybe… maybe Baal's telling the truth. Maybe tonight will be different.
In any case, there is nothing to gain from continued resistance.
He indulges himself in draining the teacup before rising to his feet. He raises his eyes to look Baal in the face. "What would you have me do?" he asks simply.
The answer turns out to be what he expects, but so much more as well. Baal teaches him what to do with surprising acceptance, never angry, sometimes even amused by his moments of ineptitude. But he also touches Asheron in return. He's nothing like Ishtar: not the sound of his voice or the smell of his skin or the very masculine feel of his body, hard where she is soft. The touch of his fingers, skillful and delicate, coaxes him past reflexive fear and the sharp memories of pain.
It still takes time, but Baal never loses his patience, caressing the last tension away. The memories soon pass away, and all he can do is surrender to the moment.
Asheron bites his lip to keep from crying out, his head back against the mattress. He can't stop thinking about what's happening: the weight atop him, the ache in his back and legs from bending nearly in half, and the fingers that penetrate him, rubbing warm oil, and stretch him open with gentle yet maddening care, before something bigger replaces them. He shudders at the mere thought of another man's cock in him, and again at the feel of it, pushing within him snugly as if the space was made for it At first, it's strange, not quite comfortable, but nothing like the pain he's accustomed to feeling. Soon even the strangeness dissipates.
He can't hide, pulled back into his body by the new sensations. There's a heavy feeling deep inside that anchors him in place. Genuine arousal flowers in him, filling him with desire and need. Nothing else matters anymore. Now all he wants is to finish, before it gets taken away from him.
"I was right," Baal murmurs in his ear at some point, as Asheron clutches his shoulders in unvoiced demand. "Passionate."
He gasps on each inward push at the repeated touch of something that aches, yet the heat builds inside him. Something he thought died with Arvalle.
"Please… please, don't stop," he begs hoarsely.
"Never," Baal smirks in satisfaction before bending to cover his mouth with his own.
By the end of the night, he feels exhausted and worn, but also more alive than he's felt in months. He feels like Asheron of Naritania again.
When he returns to Ishtar, one look is all she needs. "Remember, my pet, you are mine."
His blood drips on the carpet, and his screams echo in the small chamber, until he begs her forgiveness. He means it, every word. But the only person's forgiveness he needs is Arvalle's.
Because, as the Jaffa drag his failing body to the sarcophagus at last, Asheron knows that he will do it all again.
* * *
The memory faded and Asheron found himself looking down at the tea in his cup.
Malek was silent for a moment, and when he did speak in Asheron's mind, he seemed subdued. *I am sorry, beloved, for all that you suffered.*
*I never suffered with him.*
Malek didn't reply, but Asheron felt Malek's reluctance to agree, even though it was true. He had tried to forget that set of memories, but not because he had suffered.
Baal remembered the tea, also, that much was clear. He'd set up this entire encounter to echo their first meeting. Why? To evoke gratitude? Memories of automatic obedience?
If he wasn't angry any more, as he seemed not to be, then what did he want?
Asheron lifted his cup and cautiously sniffed the tea before taking a sip. Just because Baal drank the same tea didn't mean there wasn't something in the tea meant for both of them.
*Nothing.* Malek said, after tasting it, but he was uneasy. *I would prefer his anger to this… civility. This is disturbing.*
*Baal has always been disturbing,* Asheron answered. It was true, and yet didn't begin to cover the tangled things he felt. Hate and disgust, gratitude and guilt, but also a strong thread of something like anticipation. Because it seemed that Baal still wanted what he'd always wanted.
Baal asked, lifting his brows in sardonic amusement, "You expect me to poison you?"
"Or hek'tariv flower extract," Asheron answered dryly.
Baal laughed, but there was a glint in his eyes when he stopped. "You remember."
"I remember throwing up for a whole day." Asheron was sorry he'd mentioned it. Because of course, though Baal's attempt to use a Goa'uld aphrodisiac on him originally had been a poison, later with Malek, he'd taken it twice with predictable results. He dropped his eyes to his cup again, wishing he was anywhere else. Malek was right – torture was better than this. At least then he could be stubborn and angry, but this mannered conversation forced him to be civil, since he didn't like to sound churlish. Which Baal knew very well, which was probably why he was doing this in the first place…
"I remember something quite different," Baal mused. Asheron felt the warmth rush to his face at the reminder and wished he'd stop reacting.
*You must be careful,* Malek warned. *He is doing this intentionally, to remind you of the past and to keep us off-balance. Stop him.*
"Those days were long ago," Asheron said, as coolly and repressively as he could.
"Not that long. We came to an agreement --"
"Which you broke," Asheron pointed out. "Trying to keep us by force."
Baal straightened, some irritation in his face. "I did ask," he protested, as though the mere idea of asking was such a gift Asheron should have been content with it.
"Things are different now," Asheron said. "You're busy trying to conquer the galaxy. Not to mention," he lifted his eyes, letting out Malek's fury, "You killed our people."
"I am pleased you survived," Baal answered, ignoring his anger. "I instructed the Kull soldiers to bring you back to me, but when only two came back empty-handed, I didn't know whether you were alive or dead."
"Alive, no thanks to you. And my people are dead." This was good, Asheron thought. He could nurse Malek's hatred as a shield and keep himself safe.
"I am more one of your people than the cowardly Tok'ra ever were," Baal waved one hand in dismissal and leaned forward, looking at him intently. "You forget, Asheron -- I know you. How long did it take for you to be impatient with the incompetence of the Tok'ra leadership?" Baal demanded. "How long before you rose to be a leader among them? I was told five years. Was that true?"
Asheron didn't answer, but he didn't have to. It was less than five really, because he'd found power in the tunnels ridiculously easy to grab. Walking away from it had been hard, but necessary, to shed his memories of Asheron the Third, Ishtar, and Baal himself.
"You were born to rule," Baal continued. "You can't fool me that you were content with them, or with the Tau'ri, who squander your abilities and talent. I can offer you so much more."
Right, Asheron thought with a mental snort, as if any Goa'uld had any interest in sharing power. No, he knew that Baal wasn't really offering Asheron any sort of command position in his domain. That wasn't what he wanted. "You're wasting your time," Asheron retorted. "Trying to seduce me with promises of power. If there's anything I learned from that bitch Ishtar it was that power never lasts."
"If promises of power won't seduce you, what will?" Baal asked, the corners of his mouth curling upward in a knowing smirk.
*Nothing,* Malek answered in his head. *Right? Asheron? Tell me there is nothing he can offer.*
But for a moment Asheron couldn't answer, either Baal or Malek. What was wrong with him? Why couldn't he just say what Malek wanted him to? The answer was simple. Because there was something Baal could give him in exchange.
*No,* Malek objected, knowing his thoughts even before Asheron articulated them. *This is a very bad idea. It was bad twenty years ago, and it will be worse this time.*
*If we can get Turan and Sam free, won't it be worth it?* Asheron asked.
*That is not your only reason,* Malek observed, in a calm, fortunately non-judgmental manner. *You are confused. You believe he cares for you – but he does not, not truly. He seeks only to possess you. And you are grateful for the moments of pleasure he gave you in the midst of torment. But you were still his slave – would you return to that?*
Asheron pushed back from the table and walked away from dark eyes that saw too deeply, and in vain hope of escaping the one in his head who knew him too well. Because Malek was right, and yet he was also wrong. There was possession in Baal and his thirst to acquire what kept eluding him, Asheron knew that. But there was also more that Malek didn't want to acknowledge. The Tok'ra refused to believe that the sarcophagus left the Goa'uld any capacity for love, and while Asheron was not so naïve as to believe Baal loved him, there was something there. If there wasn't, Baal had no reason not to just force him into compliance. Besides outright torture and rape, there were ways to manufacture willingness. Hek'tariv flower extract was just the beginning, if all he wanted was Asheron in his bed.
*So you will barter away our freedom,* Malek said, *on the chance that he is not merely reflecting your desires back at you, to manipulate you? He is our enemy, Asheron. He killed the Tok'ra. He enslaves whole worlds, tortures and -- *
*I know!* He was so frustrated it nearly came out aloud. *I know.*
*Do you?* Malek challenged. *Do you know you have already decided to do this? To make this bargain?*
Malek was right. He was going to do this. *I have leverage. I have to use it to get our friends and Turan to safety.*
*Your 'leverage' is his obsession with you. He doesn't want your body, Asheron – or, rather, not only that – he wants your soul. If you do this, I fear he will have it. You are too willing to believe there is something in him to redeem, but there is nothing. He is evil, and dressing up in civil conversation and occasional acts of capricious mercy does not make him less evil.*
But now Asheron was getting angry. Telling him this wasn't helpful. *Enough. We both knew this was inevitable when the bounty hunter recognized me. I will pay whatever price I must, to get Sam and Turan out of here, and so will you. But first, perhaps a test -- *
Asheron plucked an antique porcelain vase from his homeworld from a niche, and threw it to the floor between him and Baal. It shattered into several glimmering shards on the tile, which slid to rest against Baal's boots.
Baal's hand snapped up from the table in a defensive motion, the ruby of the ribbon device glowing and ready. But he didn't activate it. He frowned when he realized Asheron was just standing there. "You disliked it?" he finally asked, brows arching.
Asheron folded his arms and curled a lip. "Cheap Kantaran fake."
"Was it? Really?" Baal glanced down at the shards with a little frown, then shook his head once to dismiss the distraction. He lowered his hand. "Perhaps, but I think you were hoping to provoke me into some rash action against you. If I feared for my life with a crazed Tok'ra tossing pottery at me and I threw you into the wall, you would feel justified in rejecting my offer. If so, I am sorry to disappoint you. I have no intention of causing you unwanted pain. I enjoy those demanding moans you make during pleasure much more." He smirked as Asheron had to look away, flushing in embarrassment. "You haven't answered my question."
Asheron hesitated. His stomach twisted into knots, as the moment stretched tight. Malek was silent, knowing further objection was useless.
"Freedom for my friends," Asheron said abruptly. "That is my price. They all go free, and I'll stay. Same terms as last time."
Baal smiled in pure delight, but the expression turned calculating. "The same? No, I think not. One week is not enough. I might still have to pay five million linars for the Tau'ri and Teal'c. I will let them go if you stay by my side until you die. Some hopefully long years hence," he added.
"No," Asheron shook his head once, but moved two steps closer to the table and to Baal. "They are my friends, but they wouldn't want that. One month."
"I doubt they want you to do this at all," Baal commented dryly. "They're very valuable – Teal'c alone has information about the Jaffa rebellion. Their capture will solidify my position as supreme once the others learn of it. You ask me to give up a great prize. Five years."
Asheron felt some relief, at least the term had come down from 'forever', despite what Baal said. He countered, "It's your decision how great a prize I am in exchange. Six months."
Baal stood and his eyes narrowed. "Now, you mock me. Two years. No less time than Ishtar."
That had the tone of finality. Asheron bit his lip and nodded. "Two years. But you will not attack Earth, or in any other way cause anyone else to attack the Tau'ri."
Baal let out a small, irritated sigh. "Not unexpected," he muttered, then raised his glance back to Asheron's face. "Accepted. But I reserve the right to kill any Tau'ri or other Tok'ra I find in my territory. They're still my enemies."
Asheron thought fleetingly of Sam, and hoped she would be wise enough to stay away. This was for nothing if she and Turan were captured again and killed. But he agreed. "Fine. But I will not assist in any way, or reveal their secrets."
"Agreed," Baal nodded. He moved closer, watching Asheron with interest with his head cocked to one side. "Your negotiating skills have improved since last time. Anything else?"
He might as well see how far he could push. More than twenty years as a Tok'ra had changed him too much to permit things to go back to how they'd been under Ishtar, even for Turan.
Asheron lifted his chin and folded his arms. "Yes. I will be bound by my word: I will not betray you, I will not try to kill you, and I will not leave unless you want me to. But I will not be your slave or your servant. I owe you no obedience. Not ever again."
Baal shook his head once, but surprisingly it was not to deny the wish to remain an equal. "If I grant all that, there is one thing you must do in exchange. You know what I want of you." His fingers reached out and very delicately caressed the side of Asheron's face and jaw, ending with his lips which he traced with a fingertip. Asheron stood very still under the touch, a shiver spreading across his skin.
"You must agree to share yourself freely, as you did before," Baal murmured. He hooked his forefinger just within Asheron's lower lip, "I have dreamed of you returning to me and the hours we would spend together. If you do not agree to become my mate, there is no agreement."
The desire in Baal's eyes was almost unbearable to see, a fire that would consume the merely mortal.
"I said the same terms, didn't I?" Asheron asked hoarsely barely able to speak. His heart was pounding and his mouth had gone dry. Mates? Goa'uld rarely took mates, as the Tok'ra did. It implied a relationship of more equality and commitment than most Goa'uld were willing to even pretend to have. In fact, Lord Yu and his queen were the only sworn mates among the system lords, so far as Asheron knew.
Baal smiled ever so faintly. "I want to hear you promise."
*It means nothing,* Malek reassured him. *We are promised to Samantha. A promise under coercion means nothing.*
*We are not being coerced,* Asheron said. It was a bargain. Asheron was free to refuse, as long as he was willing to accept the consequences of refusal. Which he was not. Not when he had the means to free the hostages and protect Earth from Baal's conquests. So therefore if there was no coercion, this promise still meant something. While he was not one of those whose code of honor was unyielding, he also believed that he should not make promises he intended to break. Not even to a Goa'uld.
He thought of Sam with a sharp, twisting pain in his heart. The truth was, he was going to lose her either way. If he did this, he could never look at Sam again, knowing he would see the revulsion in her eyes. He felt an unexpected kinship with Jolinar suddenly, and understood why she had never wanted to tell Martouf of Netu.
Yet it didn't change the fact that he had to get them out of here, before Baal figured out who Sam's symbiote truly was. Turan was the future of the Tok'ra, and the Tau'ri needed Sam. He would pay a price worse than this to save them, even if he could never see them again. So he thought of Sam, silently bid her farewell, and very carefully boxed those memories of her and put them away.
His gaze met Baal's waiting dark eyes, which were gleaming with eagerness. He had to swallow hard to find his voice again. "I promise."
"Promise what?" Baal prompted.
"To be your mate," he drew in a deep breath. "To share myself freely with you, and you alone, for pleasure's sake, and to stay at your side until our agreement is finished." But just as Baal was looking very pleased with himself, Asheron added coldly, "And if you break the agreement again, I will finish what I started twenty years ago, and I will kill you."
But the promise didn't seem to bother Baal at all. He slid his hands down Asheron's arms, to hold his hands in both of his own. "I have what I want, I have no need to. In two years time, you will choose to stay with me. For my part, I promise to be your mate, to revere your body and soul above all others and to place you at my side, where you belong." He started to draw Asheron close. "Now that the tedious negotiating is done …"
"No," Asheron yanked free and stepped back. "Sam and Daniel and Teal'c go free first."
Baal held up both his hands in a gesture of acceptance. "As you wish. But you should come with me, to see them off."
Asheron knew it was a test of his intent. "All right."
"Then I will speak with R'zac." At the door, he turned back around, looking smug and eager. "You and I will do great things together, Asheron."
*That is what I'm afraid of,* Malek muttered, returning sullenly to his head as Baal left.
*We have an opportunity to infiltrate at the highest level of court,* Asheron reminded him. *How can we not do it?*
He went through the doors into the bedroom. Everything looked exactly as it had twenty-odd years ago. There was no sarcophagus here - that chamber was hidden beneath the temple and used only when Baal was injured - just the large bed and its wrought-iron canopy, small tables and two padded chairs, a hidden viewscreen inside the wooden wall unit, and a wide window overlooking the valley. Laid into the floor was a set of transport rings. Doors led to the bathing facilities, and another to the dressing room.
Asheron opened the latter, startling two of the lotars. They scrambled to their feet and bowed, trying to hide their confusion. "My lord?"
He smiled. "I need to change clothes." The smile fell away as he regarded the doors to the clothes closet. "I used to have a few things here. But that was ... a long time ago. Maybe there's something Baal hasn't worn or doesn't like?"
*What are you doing?* Malek asked in confusion. *Why change clothes?*
*So he thinks he's won.* Now that the decision had been made, his mind was clear and fearless. He knew what he was doing.
One of the lotars hesitated, frowned, and then rooted around in the closet for a minute, looking for something. He came out with an outfit that Asheron recognized. "Is this it, my lord? Lord Baal ordered us to keep it clean and pressed, even though he doesn't wear it."
He stared at the deep green jacard coat and felt a new apprehension tightening his gut, as he realized he'd stepped into something deeper than he expected. "He kept it?"
*I warned you,* Malek said. *I'm afraid my attempt on his life only sealed his obsession. It isn't too late for us to escape with our friends.*
For a moment, Asheron was tempted, but he pushed it away. *No, this works to our advantage. He wants to believe me.*
Malek would've sighed if he could. *You want to believe yourself.*
Asheron ignored his discontent, and with the lotar's help, he changed into the outfit that Baal had given him years ago. The tunic was snug across the shoulders and chest, since he'd gotten a bit more muscular over the years, but at least the trouser waist still fit. Slipping into the long, heavy, robe-like coat reminded him of his formal cape he'd worn on Naritania occasionally, and when he shrugged his shoulders, it fell into place perfectly with a comforting familiarity.
Returning to the sitting room, he waited until Jaffa came to escort him to meet Baal.
* * *
Sam made desultory conversation with her friends in the other cells as an hour, then two, crawled past. It wouldn't have been so bad, if she didn't have the heavy feeling that Asheron was taking up Baal's attention, so SG-1 were all but forgotten. She stared down the hall, praying the door would open and the Jaffa would throw him into one of the cells.
She got half of her wish, when a full complement of Jaffa came through the door. But instead of bringing Asheron, they let Sam, Daniel, and Teal'c out, and escorted them through a maze of underground passageways. Daniel asked several times where they were going but got no answer.
They were herded up some stairs, outside, across a flagstone courtyard wide enough for a thousand Jaffa to muster, and through a set of double doors into a different hall. This one housed the Stargate.
"We're being set free?" she asked in astonishment. But again no one answered.
There were two Kull warriors there at the gate. Unnerved by the sight, Sam went willingly when the Jaffa herded her over to the side, not far from the DHD. The hall was impressively proportioned, with a high roof and an upper level walkway ringing the gate, where there were armored Jaffa on guard. Scarlet and black flags with Baal's sigil in gold hung down from the upper level, providing a bit of color in an otherwise stark space of stone walls and concrete floors. The room was cool, with cold air leaking in through the open doors and upper level windows.
Daniel again tried to get information from the Jaffa with no results. Sam wished he'd stop trying.
Finally, Baal appeared in the doorway, walking casually with his own escorts of two Kull behind him. To her surprise Asheron was at his side, unbound. He was dressed similarly to Baal, in pants, shirt, and a long coat in green and brown with gold embroidery at the high collars and draping cuffs. He looked like a Goa'uld, she realized with an inward shiver.
She looked at him intently, looking for signs of injury or drugs or something, but there was nothing. But his gaze refused to meet hers, staying fixed on the Stargate, so she didn't think he was a Goa'uld.
What was going on?
Baal stopped and announced, "You three should give thanks that Asheron was with you, Tau'ri. For his presence has spared your lives. You may leave and go where you wish."
"But what about Asheron?" she asked, casting an anxious glance at him. He still wouldn't look at her.
Baal smiled. "He stays here where he belongs. With me." His fingers touched Asheron's face, tracing his cheek and jaw and down the side of his neck. Asheron didn't move, and his eyes were dark and shuttered, revealing nothing.
Oh God. She realized then what Asheron had done -- traded his compliance for their freedom. She shook her head. "No, no, Asheron, you can't do this. You can't, don't do this -- "
His voice was cool and distant, with nothing of their relationship in it at all. "Take care of yourself and Anise, Samantha. Do not attempt any foolish rescue attempts, I know what I'm doing. Daniel, Teal'c, farewell." He nodded his head once at them and turned away.
"No!" she cried. "Asheron, no! Malek, don't let him do this!"
He didn't even hesitate, just walked away.
Baal's smile widened in satisfaction. "Go, Tau'ri. Before I change my mind."
Teal'c moved to the DHD and started dialing. Sam stared at Asheron's back, shocked. She'd hoped for a moment that it was a subterfuge, that he was planning an attempt on Baal and then an escape through the Stargate. But he was now at the doors, with one of the supersoldiers behind him.
"If I find any of you in my territory again, I will kill you all," Baal warned. "Asheron's presence buys you leniency only once. Get out of my sight."
"Come on, Sam," Daniel took her arm and started leading her to the open gate. Defeated, she followed, glancing back once to see Asheron's figure halfway across the courtyard outside. He had stopped and turned around, and he seemed to be watching them.
"We can't leave him here," she whispered urgently to Daniel just outside the event horizon.
"We don't have a choice," Daniel said, and pulled her in.
The transition was wrenching. She stepped out the other side, stumbling in her haste to get down the steps. "We have to go back."
Teal'c grabbed her shoulder. "Colonel Carter, you must not."
She shook herself free. "Teal'c, do you know what he's doing?" she demanded frantically. "He made a deal -- we go free in return for being Baal's plaything!"
Teal'c said, "Yes, he has chosen to be Baal's zhi'lotar in return for our freedom. But did you not hear him call your symbiote Anise? He is still protecting the identity of Turan."
Teal'c was right, she realized, slumping. It wasn't about the three of them going free -- it was about saving the future for the Tok'ra race. She knew as well as anyone that Malek and Asheron both would sacrifice anything and everything for Turan's safety.
"Sam, it's not that bad," Daniel added, "Think about it. Now that we're gone, he doesn't have to worry about us, or us being used against him. I'm sure he's planning to kill Baal as soon as he gets the chance."
Sam gave him a look as she walked to the DHD and started dialing the Beta site to retrieve a GDO. "Baal knows that, Daniel. He's not going to give him the chance." She didn't have the whole picture but now she knew the general outlines as certain things made sense. She shut her eyes and added in a softer voice, "Don't you get it? They've done this before. Baal wants him back. That's why there was a huge bounty for Asheron to be alive, and nothing if he was dead. Asheron served him when Ishtar was alive."
'Served' was such a polite way of saying it, she reflected absently. Or even the Goa'uld term, zhi'lotar. Trust the Goa'uld to come up with a special term for the human slave who served the Goa'uld's sexual appetites. She shuddered -- she remembered what Bynarr had wanted from Jolinar, and she doubted that any Goa'uld was all that different. Sex and pain were very much bound together for them.
"He never even said he met Baal," Daniel objected.
"And that should have been our first clue," she snapped, but far more angry at herself than Daniel. "We always knew Baal was Ishtar's army commander, before she died. Asheron was her captive for two years. They had to have met." She felt like kicking herself. Looking back, she could recognize how he'd avoided questions, lied by omission and filtered his knowledge through Malek. He'd never let anyone get close to his secret that he'd been Baal's toy, too.
Even on Kichlor's ship, she hadn't guessed the truth, thinking that he was upset only because he was afraid of being punished for Malek's attempt on Baal long ago, when he'd had more than his share of Goa'uld torture already under Ishtar. It had never occurred to her that they already knew each other, or that Baal would want to do anything but torture Malek to death over and over.
So now she knew how wrong she had been, and there was nothing she could do to save him.
* * *
Sam stepped through the gate to home and her footsteps paused in surprise at the changes. The gateroom was dim, lit only by the emergency lights. There were heavily armed SF's with their weapons pointed at the ramp, which made her frown, since they'd given their IDC. There shouldn't be this much security.
O'Neill's voice came over the PA, "Stand down." She glanced up at the briefing room, barely able to see through the window at O'Neill, who gestured for her to stay put before he went out of sight.
She and the guys waited at the bottom of the ramp, as the guards went to at ease. O'Neill and her dad came in.
O'Neill gave the three of them exaggerated head-to-toe visual exams. "Well, you look okay. I admit I was expecting your arrival to be a little more dramatic..." he trailed off suggestively, eyebrows up.
"Dramatic, sir?" she asked, in confusion.
"You know, gunfire, running… not like you were out for a stroll."
She looked to Jacob to tell her what was going on, since O'Neill wasn't.
He explained, "Twelve hours ago we received a holographic visit from Baal. He claimed you were his prisoners, and he wanted Camulus in exchange."
"Told him I'd have to think about it. He gave a deadline, but then he didn't call back. Very rude," O'Neill added, and then gave a little shrug. "Apparently it was just a bluff."
"No," Daniel said. "He let us go."
O'Neill blinked and shook his head as if to clear it, before frowning at Daniel. "I'm sorry, Daniel, I thought I heard you say, Baal let you go."
"He did," Sam confirmed, and her gaze went to her dad. "Except Asheron and Malek. They cut a deal -- Asheron stayed behind and Baal let us go."
O'Neill turned serious and thoughtful, frowning at her news. "Baal gave up you three, plus Camulus, for Malek? Why? Because he's a Tok'ra?"
She exchanged a glance with Daniel. "That's part of it," she answered, and then looked at the guards, hoping he got the hint that this was a little too public. She didn't want to tell this part at all, but she wasn't going to hide information from her CO or her dad.
O'Neill got the message. "All right. Briefing room in thirty. You guys go get checked out. Meanwhile, I'll go see how Doctor Lee's doing with the plant. You don't happen to know a lot of botany, do you, Carter?" he squinted at her hopefully.
A plant? She shook her head, a little amused. "No, sir. Sorry."
He let out an exaggerated sigh. "Okay. A general's work is never done."
"No kidding," Jacob muttered.
"Gotta go. Glad to see you're all back," O'Neill offered at the last minute, before he was out the door.
She opened her mouth to protest the "all" but he was already gone.
Jacob looked at her. "Sam?" In his voice was all his concern, for her and for Malek and Asheron. "I won't make you run through it twice, but just tell us, is Baal going to kill Malek?"
She shook her head. "I don't think so." She took a breath and added, after clearing her throat, "Not quickly, anyway."
Her dad nodded in sad understanding, and squeezed her shoulder. "We'll get him back, Sam."
She tried to take some comfort from that promise, even though she felt frozen inside with dread.
* * *
They gathered in the briefing room a little while later. It was strange, sitting in the near dark, but she was glad of it all the same.
O'Neill came in from his office and shut the door. "Okay," he plopped down in the seat. "Eventually we'll get that stupid plant killed. Although it makes me realize how damn lucky we got under Hammond." Realizing what he said, he shot a glare at Jacob. "Don't even say it, Selmak."
Beside her, Jacob gave him a wide-eyed innocent look as if he would never say such a thing.
O'Neill put his elbows on the table and leaned forward. "So. Spill. What the hell happened out there?"
He looked at Sam, but she couldn't find her voice at first. Thankfully Daniel started, and told the story of their mission being a bounty hunter's trap, and the two day trip to Baal's homeworld of Saphon. He went on, "During the trip, Malek said -- well, actually Asheron said -- that Malek had stabbed Baal and escaped, and that's why the bounty was so high."
"He did," Jacob confirmed unexpectedly. "After Baal had solidified his position as Ishtar's successor, Malek attempted to infiltrate his court." He paused, listening to Selmak, and added with a frown, "Malek and Garshaw were insistent, though the council didn't know Asheron was already known to Baal or they wouldn't have approved it. In any case, I'm afraid Malek is a rather poor Goa'uld, and if he relied too much on Asheron's mannerisms... well, it's no wonder Baal fingered them as Tok'ra so quickly." he shrugged. "They were captive two weeks, and managed to stab Baal in their escape. Obviously he got better."
"Wait," Sam said, in shock, "are you saying Asheron was Malek's host when Malek tried to kill Baal?" Her father nodded, looking confused by her reaction. She looked down at the table at her hands, and then shut her eyes as the last piece fell into place.
That had been the bargain Baal broke. Baal had discovered Asheron was a Tok'ra, they'd made the same arrangement, and then Baal broke it somehow, forcing Malek to stab him and escape. No wonder Asheron hadn't gone into detail.
O'Neill put in. "This is all fascinating but this was something like twenty years ago. How is it relevant, Daniel?"
"Because it explains why, when we got to Saphon, Baal more or less ignored us. He demanded to speak with Asheron, and he seemed angry. He was going to cut his throat right then, but he stopped. He ordered us put in our cells, and I was sure he was going to go torture Asheron and Malek. We cooled our heels for a few hours, and then the Jaffa came, took us out of our cells, and brought us to the gate. Baal told us that Asheron's presence had bought our freedom and we had to leave."
"Oo-kay," O'Neill frowned and shook his head. "So he was angry at Malek. But why would that bastard let go of three high cards like you guys? I mean, c'mon, Teal'c, Mr. Shol'va Himself," he waved in Teal'c's direction. "So what deal could Malek possibly offer that would counter that? There aren't any Tok'ra left for him to sell out, even if he wanted to."
Daniel exchanged a look with Sam, neither able to explain.
O'Neill watched this and exclaimed in frustration, "I get there's something more and nobody wants to talk about it, but I still don't know what the hell's going on. What makes him so damn important?"
Teal'c was the one to finally say it, "Asheron agreed to be Baal's zhi'lotar in exchange for our freedom."
Beside her she heard her dad let out a soft breath of dismay. He knew what the term meant.
O'Neill looked at him, "His what? 'lotar' is a human slave, right?"
Daniel put on his scholar hat and said in a very neutral tone, "Zhi is slang for zhir'kallen, "physical or bodily pleasure."" He paused and added with an uncomfortable shrug, "Sex, basically."
O'Neill's eyes widened and he thumped back in his chair, looking shocked and disgusted. "Oh. Eww. Just when I think I know everything horrible about the Goa'uld, there's more. So torture isn't enough, he's going to get off on… " he stopped, glanced at Sam and cleared his throat. "Right. It's bad. So, how do we get him out?"
Sam was surprised. "Out?" she blurted. "You want to rescue him?"
O'Neill gave her a hurt look. "Carter, I know Asheron's not exactly my golfing buddy, but I've been a guest at Baal's hotel and I'm not leaving one of my people there."
She was relieved. She knew she should know better, since O'Neill felt very strongly about leaving people behind, but there'd been that niggling question whether he thought Asheron was "one of his."
Reluctantly, Jacob spoke up, "It's not going to be easy. We'll need intel, from the Jaffa," he glanced at Teal'c, "since there aren't any Tok'ra in Baal's ranks anymore. Baal moves around a lot, from his ships to Tartarus and Saphon. If he drags Malek along with him, it's going to be tough to plan any sort of op at all."
"Should we?" Daniel asked, speaking slowly. "One of the last things Asheron said to us, was that he knew what he was doing and he didn't want anyone to rescue him."
"With Baal and drones and twenty Jaffa standing right there!" Sam exclaimed, "What else was he going to say?"
"He didn't have to say anything," Daniel pointed out, with an apologetic look at her. "Look, I'm not saying we shouldn't rescue him. But I think we should weigh the possibility that he has a plan. Like you said, Jacob, we've got few resources inside Baal's empire. What if he's trying to do that? After all, he ran a rebellion right under Ishtar's and Baal's nose for at least a year. Maybe he thinks he can do it again."
"Maybe he does," Jacob allowed after a moment. "But how can it work? The fact is, Baal knows Asheron and Malek. That's the whole problem, isn't it? He knows what they're capable of, so he's not going to give them that sort of opportunity. Baal's many things, but he's not a fool. Besides, who would Malek pass intel to? Baal's inner circle is extremely loyal -- his lotars worship the ground he walks on, and his few minor Goa'uld underlings have been with him centuries. And I doubt any of his close Jaffa leaders are connected to the rebels."
Everyone looked at Teal'c who gave a nod. "Indeed. Though we have had some success with his foot soldiers, I have heard of little with his commanders. His First Prime R'zac has executed at least five known sympathizers of our cause personally. However I see no reason why a loyal member of the rebellion could not gain brief access, long enough to receive intelligence."
Sam listened to them and thought it was interesting, but it had nothing to do with reality. She had to tell the truth. "There's no plan," Sam said, looking down at her hands. "I think he did it to make sure Turan got away. There's nothing he wouldn't do to protect her. And me." She shrugged a little, wishing the ache in her chest would let her breathe.
"He's already done this," she reminded them, more softly. "I'm sure to his mind, better that he go through it again, than one of us. He kept trying to get Kichlor to leave the rest of us with Morrigan and go on to Baal alone. And we -- I -- kept stopping him. I didn't understand."
God, she should have done what he wanted. She and Turan had been hostages, and Baal hadn't even had to threaten them overtly to control Asheron. When she told him not to give in to threats against her, she hadn't understood she was asking the impossible when Turan was a part of her.
Her dad put his hand over hers and squeezed. Grateful for the support she glanced up at him. "We won't leave him there," he promised.
She nodded, trying to take strength from the promise, but she was bleakly certain it wasn't going to be easy. Even if they managed to rescue him, it might be too late. Asheron had sold his soul to the devil, and the devil wasn't going to want to give it back.
Go on to Chapter Five