Part One: The Road Down
Sam stepped out of the wormhole onto the ramp of the gateroom. As always she felt a sense of relief that she was back home, but this time it was tempered by some anxiety. For the first time she had done something that couldn't be undone, and it would change everything. For eight years she had been a member of SG-1 and walked through that gate. But now, she had become something else.
Besides the usual complement of SFs, O'Neill and her father were there waiting for them.
Once he saw he had her attention, Jacob raised his arm to wave to her. "Hey, kiddo. How did it go?"
"Hi, Dad. Sir," that was to O'Neill. "We found her." She started slowly down the ramp, with Asheron, Daniel, and Teal'c behind her.
"Thank God," Jacob said with a heartfelt sigh. "That was quick." Then he looked at Asheron and frowned. "And you, my friend, look like crap. Are you all right?"
"Malek and I are well," Asheron answered.
"Rii-ight," Jacob retorted dryly. "But I think we'll hold off on the annoyed, 'Why the hell didn't you tell us' 'til later anyway."
"So," O'Neill stepped forward and rubbed his hands together. "Where's the new Tok'ra queen, then? One of you has the jar in your pack?"
Sam hugged her dad, and she knew the instant Selmak sensed the other symbiote. Jacob stiffened and withdrew partly, keeping his hands on her shoulders, to look in her eyes. "Sam?" he whispered.
She nodded once. More loudly, so that O'Neill could hear too, she announced, "Her name is Turan. And there is no jar, General. She's in me."
O'Neill took a step back, away from her, and she glimpsed the utter revulsion on his face for just a moment until anger replaced it. This his gaze fixed to Asheron, narrowing his eyes. "You did this."
"No, General O'Neill, I did not," Asheron strode down the ramp to stand beside Sam, with his arms folded.
"I did it. I had to," she explained. "She was going to die."
He stared at her, and didn't seem to know what to say. She knew anything he wanted to say was sure to be offensive to the Tok'ra.
"Jack, why not let them all go to medical," Jacob suggested, with a deliberate glance at the watching SFs. "We'll debrief later."
"Right, good idea," O'Neill seized on it like a lifeline. "Debrief in one hour, people."
He turned on his heel and was out the door as if he couldn't bear to be near them one second more than necessary.
Sam exchanged a glance with her dad and let out a sigh.
"He'll get over it, Sam," Jacob reassured.
She just raised her eyebrows. She hoped so, but she knew how long O'Neill could hold a grudge. "Okay, let's get upstairs."
She led the way, realizing only when she got to the door that Asheron wasn't following. Gesturing Teal'c and Daniel ahead, she went back a few steps. "Come on. You, too."
"We're fine," he insisted again.
She snorted. "Maybe. But just let Doctor -- " she started, but Jacob moved forward.
"Sam, let me." He put a friendly hand on Asheron's shoulder. "I know you don't think it's necessary, but you really do look terrible. And I know if you look terrible, then Malek's not well either. Besides, it's procedure. Don't argue, don't complain, just do it. I'll keep you company and ward off any nurses who might get too friendly."
Sam glanced at Asheron, narrowing her eyes at the thought of overly friendly nurses. But her frown deepened as she got a good look at his face in the brighter light of the gateroom. Her dad was right -- Asheron did look unwell. His skin still looked ashen, and when she touched his hand, his fingers were trembling. More disturbing was the way his gaze had drifted, to stare at the bulkhead blankly.
It hadn't been that long since that priest had tortured him unconscious with a Goa'uld pain stick. Despite his earlier reassurances, he didn't look much better now.
She squeezed his hand to get his attention, but let go before she made a spectacle of herself in the gateroom. "You look like you're about to pass out," she murmured. "Are you sure you're okay?"
He blinked and dug up a small smile for her. "We need only rest."
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her father glance from her to Asheron and back, and a small frown appeared. She grimaced slightly, knowing the secret was almost out of the bag. He was going to ask, and she was going to have to answer and tell the truth.
"Come on, let's get out of here," she suggested. "At least the infirmary is quieter."
He followed this time, and Jacob brought up the rear.
The best thing about knowingly bringing a symbiote into the SGC was that there were no startled alarms during her MRI.
She wanted to protest that she already had a symbiote so she didn't need an MRI to look for one, but unfortunately she had been one of the writers of the host protocol after Jolinar, so she had to submit to it all.
Turan didn't seem to like the noisy MRI; she kept trying to make Sam's legs move to escape, but all she could do was make them twitch.
Sam tried to think at her, reassuring, "It's okay, it's almost over. Just be quiet." But it was concentrating on peaceful images like walking in the park and looking at flowers that seemed to do the most good at calming Turan down.
After the MRI, the nurses took enough blood to feed a vampire for a week.
All the testing took place with armed guards in the room with her, which she thought ridiculous when Malek had vouched for her symbiote. But perhaps when O'Neill and everyone could see the images of her definitely tiny new friend, they'd relax.
* * *
Asheron had quite enough of all this ridiculous, useless medical testing. Having his blood pressure taken was bad enough, but when the nurse smiled brightly at him and said she was going to do a blood test, he was done. "No."
"But -- "
"No. There is no purpose to it, and I won't allow you to poke me with things to check off some list." He stood up and reached for his t-shirt, determined to leave.
"But, sir -- "
"I said, no." He felt a little sorry for the young woman, but not enough to sit there and endure her needles.
Across the infirmary, waiting for Sam, Jacob noticed the confrontation and came over. "What's going on?"
"Sir," she greeted him with some relief, "Doctor Brightman recommended we get a blood sample. His pulse and blood pressure are elevated against the norm we have in his file and --"
"I had a bad morning," Asheron interjected, tone sharp and impatient. "But Malek has the healing well in hand and if you people would stop getting in the way with all your tests, it would go that much faster."
Jacob glanced at him, frowning. "If the doctor feels it necessary then why not -- "
"This doctor knows nothing about Tok'ra," he snapped and yanked the shirt over his head. "And I'm not going to get poked with needles just to satisfy her curiosity."
Jacob paused, probably weighing his knowledge of Asheron's stubbornness and the useless test, and told the nurse, "He's right; it's not medically necessary right now." He waved her away to go tell the doctor.
Asheron watched her go and let out a breath. "Thank you."
Jacob raised his eyebrows at him. "So what was that all about?"
He thought it had been completely self-explanatory. "What do you mean?"
"We so rarely see you in a temper, and I can't help but think it has nothing to do with having your blood taken. What happened this morning?"
It was only after Jacob said it that he realized he was quivering with a deep boiling anger lodged in the middle of his chest and stomach that seemed to threaten to burst out of its confinement. He took several breaths, and Malek helped to ease the excessive response until it faded.
"The last person loyal to Ishtar on the entire planet decided to avenge her," he explained. It felt strange to tell another Tok'ra the truth after so many years of avoidance and outright lies. "Sha'nik prongs. I suppose I've had my fill of pointy things for the day."
Jacob winced. The Goa'uld torture stick was designed specifically to torture hosted symbiotes. In an ordinary person it hit the pain receptors, intense but not lasting, but in a host it attacked the symbiote as well, disrupting its neural connections to the host.
"Malek's not finished yet?" Jacob asked in concern.
Asheron shrugged. "It wasn't that long ago. We came straight back after Sam blended with Turan. She did volunteer, Jacob. I tried to talk her out of it."
Jacob nodded. "I believe you. We'll deal with the consequences later." He looked at Asheron, frowning.
Asheron tensed, knowing what Jacob was going to ask about. And he was right.
Jacob said, "You were the Last King of Naritania; you killed Ishtar. Selmak wants to know why you kept it a secret from her."
Slipping the BDU jacket over his t-shirt let him not look at Jacob. He concentrated on the feel of the buttons, hard and round under his fingers as he buttoned the front. "From everyone, not only Selmak. I didn't want to talk about it."
He'd heard the story of the "Slayer of Ishtar" and how it made him some kind of hero. What the story didn't mention were the two years before he'd killed her -- two years of suffering and death and horror, while he'd been the toy of a vicious Goa'uld queen. They were two years he'd tried very hard to forget.
He felt the weight of Jacob's sympathetic look and could imagine the memories Selmak was letting him share. The nightmares had lingered for years, something Selmak knew, but they had finally faded, as the walls he'd put around the past solidified.
Jacob glanced down and Selmak murmured, "We could have helped you more when you came to us, if we had known the truth. You didn't have to suffer alone."
"I had Malek; I was never alone."
Selmak's hand squeezed his shoulder gently. "That is, of course, true, but you have friends who will listen, now that it seems you are more ready to reveal what happened."
"I appreciate that." He said the words, managed to inflect them with sincerity, but he knew he wouldn't. Dredging up the past was only going to make everything worse -- the trip to Naritania proved that. That life was long gone, and he'd rather just shut the door again.
Sam entered then, and he turned to her, grateful for the interruption. "Everything is all right?" he asked.
She made a face. "Turan wasn't fond of the MRI. But other than that, sure. You ready to go change and debrief?"
He knew it was going to be difficult with O'Neill's hostility, but he agreed with a nod. "Certainly."
In his head Malek was amused. *Shall I take over?*
*Yes, because you were so polite the last time he was rude to us,* Asheron retorted.
Malek sent back his disdain about that, but acquiesced with good humor.
* * *
Sam took her usual seat at the briefing room table, wondering how badly this was going to go. She could see O'Neill in the general's office, talking on the phone, and her stomach tightened with apprehension, wondering who he was talking to and if it was something to do with her.
Her dad took the seat next to her, but instead of sitting on her other side, Asheron sat across from her, next to Daniel. She was both disappointed and relieved that he was outside touching distance, but it was probably the wiser choice. But his position let her look at him easily, and he seemed better, not so pallid or drawn. He caught her gaze and lifted his eyebrows in question. She just shook her head a little, smiling.
O'Neill emerged from his office, and Sam started to rise, but settled back down at his gesture, as he headed for his chair.
"All right," he said after he took his seat and let out a long breath. "Last I heard, you guys were digging around in the archives, looking for a clue to where Egeria hid her missing daughter, future of the Tok'ra race. Now you find her and she ends up in Carter. How the hell did that happen?"
"Egeria was on the run from Ra - it was probably one of her last acts, to birth a daughter and hide her," Daniel explained. "We know she chose Inannar because Ishtar was a strong enemy of the house of Ra."
Jack circled his hands for Daniel to hurry up. "Yes, Ishtar being the bitch goddess successor of Marduk and Tiamat, I remember. And then she got waxed by Asheron here, and we got Baal in her place. Such a charming family."
"Anyway," Daniel said, clearing his throat. "It turned out that the tablet which led us to Inannar had a double meaning. We went through a set of transport rings up to the shrine at the top of the ziggurat. But the priest we were with deciphered it first, and he ambushed us. He wasn't willing to let Ishtar's enemy or her betrayer -- " he glanced at Asheron, "find what we were looking for."
"We fought him," Sam added, "but in the firefight, the stasis box was hit and broken. To save her life, she had to take a host."
"And it had to be you?" O'Neill challenged.
She very carefully didn't clench her fists on the top of the table, keeping them flat except for her fingernails digging at the smooth surface. "Malek was going to sacrifice himself so Asheron could take her, but that seemed stupid. Teal'c couldn't take her. That left me or Daniel, and it had to be me. At least I'd had Jolinar, I know what being a host is like."
"Yeah, controlled against your will and then left in the lurch," O'Neill muttered.
Sam stiffened, but that was nothing compared to Asheron's reaction. He jerked back in his chair as if struck across the face and then leaned forward, fixing O'Neill with dark, cold eyes. "Kanan would never have gone to rescue Shallen if not for you, O'Neill. That was your choice."
"My choice?" O'Neill repeated incredulously and then got angry. "Let me tell you about my choice -- I didn't have one. From the instant that snake came in my head, it was nothing but hell - controlled and manipulated and abandoned like a coward --" he snarled the word.
"You tell yourself stories all you want, but you and I both know that's not all there was to it, " Asheron interrupted. "You agreed, didn't you? You agreed Kanan should go; you just didn't understand the price you were going to pay for it. That wasn't his fault. He was trying to protect you."
"He was trying to save his own slimy ass!"
"He died for you. Then you wonder why we never trusted you, when you never acknowledge what we've lost because of you," Asheron spat out furiously.
Jacob interrupted, trying to get control of the discussion that had gone so rapidly off the rails, "Asheron, Jack --"
Asheron stopped abruptly, eyes flickering, and his lips tightened in chagrin. He addressed the rest of the table, lifting his gaze to Sam, "Forgive me. It's been a difficult few days." He shoved his chair back and walked out of the room.
In the silence that followed, Jacob gave a sigh. "You could try to be less provoking, Jack."
"He could try to be less of an ass," O'Neill shot back.
Sam bit her tongue on saying that applied to him, too.
But Jacob just shook his head and used that impatient "dad" chastising voice she knew all too well. "He was tortured this morning and had to return to the place he suffered horribly for two years. Cut him some slack. And stop blaming him for what happened with Kanan. Kanan's dead, and except for the three of us, so are the rest of the Tok'ra. Let it go."
O'Neill was still looking mulish, so Sam added, trying to get through to him, "Asheron and Malek didn't force me to take Turan. It was my choice, not theirs."
"All right, fine." O'Neill held up both hands in a gesture of surrender, and pulled in a deep breath to set his anger aside with effort. "So where are we at? You're sure this is a queen Tok'ra? Not a Goa'uld? It was a Goa'uld temple, after all."
Daniel answered, "The box was right where the tablet led. And it was marked in the Tok'ra symbol of the two fish entwined in a sort of yin-yang symbol."
"That's not much proof."
"Sam? You should know," Jacob invited. "You've had a larval Goa'uld before. You should be able to tell."
"She's very different than that Trust clone," Sam answered slowly. Funny - it just proved how 'interesting' her life was, when she'd nearly forgotten her short time as a Goa'uld host. "It tried to take me over, even though it wasn't very good at it. Turan just feels ... young and scared. She's very quiet so far."
"Well, that's good, I guess," O'Neill said and tapped his fingers on the table, thinking. He glanced at Jacob. "I don't suppose you know of some potential new hosts? Or are we gonna have to recruit here on Earth? Because I'm not looking forward to that, at all."
Sam exchanged a glance with her dad, and O'Neill caught it. He let out a groan. "What is it now?"
Jacob answered, a little too apologetically for Sam's taste, "That's not possible. A larva that immature can't stand the strain of taking another host. She would die."
"How long are we talking about?" O'Neill asked, the look on his face wary as if he knew the answer but didn't want to say it.
"Until she's an adult, by preference," Jacob answered. "Years, certainly, before she's strong enough."
O'Neill repeated it, in disbelief and horror, "Years?"
"She's very small," Sam explained and held out her fingers just two inches apart to demonstrate.
"She can't be more than a year old," Jacob added. "Maybe not much beyond newborn, if we're right about how quickly Egeria had to birth her and get her into hiding before Ra came after her. It'll take awhile."
"But years?" O'Neill repeated again and scrubbed his hand through his hair. "How many years?"
"Five years at least," Jacob answered, but Sam put a hand on his arm to stop him from going on. He was trying to shorten the time, pandering to O'Neill's hostility, but she wasn't interested in playing that game.
"It's done," she answered, looking straight at O'Neill. "I knew what I was doing. I'm her host, and I'm not going to count the minutes until I get rid of her. She's part of me now, and we need to figure out where we go from here."
He looked back, considering, then gave in with a nod. "Fine. Moving on then, as requested. General Hammond and chain of command -- " he waved his hand vaguely upward, "have ordered you to remain on base for now, until we get the ramifications of this all sorted. The threat of exposure of the program and aliens, not to mention your safety -- "
"My safety?" she repeated dubiously.
He gave her a look. "Wouldn't be the first time you'd been kidnapped because of a Tok'ra, Carter. And your new friend is going to be the worst kept secret in the entire SGC very soon, you know that."
"But, my house-- "
"-- is a security nightmare," he finished. "Just... stay on base, okay? We'll work something out, some kind of security like Jacob gets, for you to leave."
"I can't have guards all the time outside, that's ridiculous," she protested.
"Well, you should've thought about that before you decided to get an alien in your head, shouldn't you?" Jack retorted.
Daniel said in a reproving tone, "Jack..."
He held up a hand and changed the subject, "Anything else you need to tell me about your mission?"
For one heartbeat, Sam was tempted to tell him that she'd slept with Asheron, just to slap him in the face with it, but bit her tongue. Then she remembered that Asheron had one of the spacious VIP quarters up on 16, and it wasn't going to be all that bad being stuck on base. She'd have company at least.
"Nothing important," she answered, with a smile.
She felt her smile widen when O'Neill frowned in confusion when he glanced at her and realized she was smiling. He eyed her again, looking suspicious and a bit unnerved, and paused as if waiting for her to explain but she didn't.
"Okay, then," he said after a moment and tapped the top of the table with both hands. "I guess we're done."
She was still smiling when she left the briefing room.
* * *
Sam found Asheron in the commissary, a sealed yogurt cup in front of him and a styrofoam cup full of very black tea with the bag still in it. He was staring off at nothing, his gaze a million miles away. She thought she might sneak up on him, but he glanced up as she approached the table, then down to his tea. "How did it go after I left?"
Sitting in the chair next to him, she indulged in a sigh and stole the yogurt from him, pulling the top off when he gave her a little nod that she could have it. "About what you'd expect. I'm restricted to base, for "my own security"," she rolled her eyes, "while everybody figures out what to do with me."
He pushed his spoon to her. "I see. I apologize for losing my temper with O'Neill. I hope it didn't make your situation worse."
She snorted. "I doubt anything could do that. And you were-- well, it wasn't exactly the best time and place, but he was being difficult on purpose."
"I wouldn't normally fall for it, but I'm all out of patience today," he admitted.
"I can tell," she teased gently. "Are you feeling better? You look better."
He nodded. "We're fine. Except for a certain someone mocking me because I said I could handle it." His resigned tone and long-suffering expression made her chuckle.
"I have that to look forward to, then?" she asked, grinning.
"Years and years of it," he answered, trying to sound disgruntled, but he was smiling with soft affection and she knew he meant it truly, not as sarcastically as he wanted to sound.
"I'd like that, I think," she said, spooning up her yogurt and imagining what life was going to be like in years to come as Turan matured. "Someone that close to me, who understands, and who won't leave me."
He nodded. "Malek and I, we've never been apart since we blended. I think I'd be quite lost on my own, after all these years."
"Luckily, you won't have to be. And now that I have Turan I can stick around for a long time, too," she realized. Selmak's previous host had been over two hundred years old, and the thought of living another hundred years was exciting and frightening all at once. Though that assumed she wouldn't be fatally injured, since, heaven knew, the Tok'ra weren't immortal. "Turan will need Malek to teach her things."
"We'll be there," he promised, and laid his hand over hers, squeezing it.
She nodded. "Good. And in the meantime, we'll be patient as this all shakes out. It'll take time for people to adjust. But they will."
"I hope so," he answered, with considerably less confidence, and she knew they were both thinking about the same person.
But then her father arrived, with Daniel and Teal'c on his heels. Everything felt like it had before the trip to Inannar as they ate dinner.
* * *
Later that evening, she bid goodnight to her father and turned toward her assigned quarters so he'd hear her going the right direction down the hall. But she turned at the cross-corridor and doubled back to the elevators.
On level 16, she caught a few stares from the patrolling SFs, and a tardy "Colonel" from one of them. O'Neill had been right about that, anyway -- everyone knew about Turan already. "As you were," she ordered, and stopped to let them clear themselves from sight.
Then she rapped softly on Asheron's door. After a moment, he opened it just a few inches to peek out. His eyes flared wide on seeing her in the hall. "Sam?" Then he pulled the door wide. "Would you like to come in?"
He was already dressed -- undressed, really -- for sleep, she noticed, and her gaze dropped down his bare chest, remembering what it felt like to touch him.
"I would," she answered, grinning, and moved into the room, making sure to trail a hand across his stomach as she passed. The room was dark except for the bedside table lamp, and the bed sheets were already folded down, like she'd got him up. "I didn't wake you, did I?"
"No," he answered and shut the door. "I was hoping you would come."
"Of course," she answered and caught his hand to pull him into her. She laughed, low and husky. "You have the bigger bed."
She slid one hand up the smooth warmth of his chest to the back of his neck and pulled him down to kiss. His hands found a path beneath her shirt and she shivered at the touch on her cool skin, pressing into his mouth.
Then he pulled back. "Are you sure?" he asked. "Here at the SGC? Things might get more... awkward, if people find out."
She shrugged. "Let them," she muttered against his lips. "Right this second, I don't care."
She could feel some hesitation still in him, but her hands caressed it away and a shudder ran through him. His hands tightened for an instant on her skin and then his touch got more certain, and his mouth on hers seemed to pull at her insides, stopping her breath. He pulled off her clothes eagerly, and her hands yanked at his boxer shorts, and somehow tore them in her haste. They fell in the bed, in a tangle of half-discarded clothing, and mere moments later, he had his lips on her breast and his fingers were between her legs. She gasped out his name, shuddering as she clutched the blankets. He knew exactly how to touch her - when to stroke and how to press and when to slide his fingers inside until she was aching for more.
He lifted her hips with that Tok'ra strength and pushed inside her, and she bit her lip on calling his name again, but not managing to hold back a throaty moan. She wrapped her legs around him to pull him deeper, and grabbed his shoulders, urging him to keep going. The feel of him, not just inside her, but the touch of his skin under her hands, damp with sweat, was hardly bearable. She threw back her head, and pulled at him, heedlessly, trying to get him closer and release some of the tension burning inside her.
Then, he froze, utterly still, before he yanked himself free of her grip and away. For the first seconds, all she knew was he was gone, and she thought he was teasing. "No, no, please, you can't stop now," she pleaded hoarsely and opened her eyes.
But then passion was abruptly gone, as she got a good look at him, sitting huddled at the end of the bed, turned away from her. He was breathing harshly, trying to catch his breath.
Something was wrong. She sat up, frowning, "Asheron, what -- what is it? Are you okay?" Before he could answer, she realized that there were long marks on his shoulders and back from her nails. "Oh my God," she whispered, staring in dismay. Two of the scores looked like he had been clawed. She'd actually taken a little skin. "I'm so sorry."
"It's okay," he answered, not looking at her, still breathing in unsteady gasps. "Really, it'll heal. I was just -- just surprised."
"I hurt you," she protested. "I didn't realize what I was doing. You were making me feel so good, I sort of forgot where I was." Smiling a little, she touched his leg, thinking to coax him back to continue where they left off.
But he flinched away. "I -- I'm sorry," he said, and scooted off the bed, rooting for his clothes in a sudden hurry. "I need to go. I can't be here, right now. I need to -- to -- walk."
She could only watch as he pulled on his pants, stunned that he was leaving. There was something else going on and she didn't get it. "Asheron, what's wrong?" she asked then bit her lip. "Really, I didn't mean to hurt you -- "
"It's not you," he answered shortly and wouldn't look at her as he put his T-shirt on. There was a trace of disgust in his voice as he continued, "It's me. It's always me. I'll be back when I have my head together again."
And he left.
She watched the door for a moment, and then lay back down, pulling the sheet up absently, and wondering what was going on. Though she was embarrassed by what she'd done -- it had never happened before, that she'd lost that much sense of herself -- his reaction had been all out of proportion to some scratches.
No, she realized abruptly, with a shock like cold water, it hadn't been the scratches; it had been the sudden pain during sex. With the memories of Naritania still so strong in his mind, she suspected that pain had kicked open some buried memory of Ishtar doing the same thing or something far worse to him.
If that was true, no wonder Asheron had recoiled so violently. She sat up, deciding she should go after him.
After making sure she looked respectable, she decided to start in the briefing room. He'd gone to the gate when troubled before, as though a part of him always sought escape. Her guess turned out correct this time. Both the briefing room and the general's office were dark, but she spied one of the chairs drawn up close to the observation window.
Sitting in her own chair, she scooted it next to him and for a moment they sat in silence. She decided to be the first to break it with a simple question. "Ishtar?"
It was a little bit of a surprise when Asheron answered instead of Malek in a quiet, distant voice. "It's been such a long time… it shouldn't still affect me like this."
She considered what to say, then offered, "Who's to say what should or shouldn't be? I can't even imagine half of what that bitch did, but I saw what one of her priests was willing to do." She had also heard what that priest had said about what Ishtar had done to 'punish' him, and just the words, "chains and fire" was enough to give her chills. The idea of Asheron begging for mercy was appalling. She wrapped her hand around his forearm, where it rested on the arm of his chair. "I know from what you said that you tried to forget all of it when you left, even dropping your name so you could become someone else. But it's been in your mind the whole time, waiting to go off like a bomb if you opened the door."
He nodded, and slumped in his chair, looking wan. "I know. Thirty years dead and she's still here. I watched her die by my hand, but it wasn't enough."
She slid her hand over his, and squeezed. "I'm no expert, but you're wrong if you think you're alone. You have Malek, you have me, you have Selmak and Dad, and Daniel and Teal'c are your friends."
"Not O'Neill?" he asked, lifting his brows with a touch of dry amusement in his voice.
She made a face, "Let's not get carried away."
His lips quirked in a reluctant smile and he darted a glance her way. "You're remarkably generous with someone who left you in the middle."
"Well, as long as you come back to bed, I'll let it go," she teased. When he looked away again, expression darkening, she felt like kicking herself for phrasing it so badly. She stroked the back of his hand with her thumb. "Just to sleep," she added. "That's all I want right now. To sleep with you beside me, okay?"
He turned his hand over and clasped hers, but kept his gaze down. "Yes. I'm sorry, I don't think I can offer more tonight."
"There's nothing for you to be sorry for," she said and stood up, drawing him after. "And there's nothing else I want."
She wasn't surprised when he left most of his clothes on before crawling into bed, but she said nothing, just followed his lead and kept her T-shirt on. She cuddled next to him, relieved when he held her hand on his chest. He looked up at the ceiling, in silence, his thoughts either with Malek or somewhere else she couldn't follow.
Tracing his bold profile with her gaze, she felt amazingly lucky that he had given her the key to the walls he'd hidden behind for so long and let her in. She wondered how he'd managed to survive, if not in one piece, at least mostly intact from two years of Ishtar's torture and rape and enslavement. How had he been able to touch Sam, not to mention make love to her, after all he'd endured at Ishtar's hands and in her bed?
But he did and he had, somehow, and Sam was glad.
* * *
Sam endured a day full of experiments - having electrodes attached to the back of her neck to measure Turan's EEG, running on the treadmill, weight-lifting, blood tests -- until she was exhausted. But still, she felt good. She was stronger with more endurance.
Her dad and Malek watched her, both beaming with pride. Jacob suggested she check out the ribbon device from the armory and see if she could use it better. She was about to agree, curious to find out what it was like with an actual symbiote. But Malek suddenly left for the men's room and she and Jacob exchanged a glance, realizing his haste to leave had nothing to do with the bathroom, and everything to do with the past.
The small break room near her lab was empty, so the sound of the door shutting behind him was loud. "Maybe another time," she said. "It wasn't an easy mission for him to be back there."
He didn't speak for a moment. "Sam..." Jacob started hesitantly.
He looked everywhere but her, and she thought, 'Here we go.'
"Not that I want to interfere, because you're a grown woman now, and it's not my place to tell you what to do. But I think I should ask you -- "
She took pity on him. "We're seeing each other, yes. In that way," she confirmed and then she smiled. "It started before we left. I didn't intend it, but it seems to be working out. I like him." Then her smile faded, when his expression didn't change. "What? You don't?"
"I do," Jacob answered. "He's been a good friend to me and Selmak. And if you two were just friends I wouldn't be worried. It's ... I don't know if you know what you're getting into, Sam. Not with Malek so much, but Asheron."
She perched on the edge of the small table and frowned at him over the rim of her Diet Coke . "What do you mean?"
Jacob lowered his eyes and Selmak spoke instead, "When he first came to us, he gained Garshaw's approval to lie about his origins and never said his name. For the first five years among us, he was so consumed with revenge, he manipulated the council into a highly aggressive policy against the Goa'uld, taking advantage of Ishtar's fall and the fighting among Cronus, Baal, and Hadad for her territory."
While she was surprised by the idea of a "highly aggressive policy", since that hadn't seemed to have been a Tok'ra plan until the poison, that wasn't the part she had trouble with. "Manipulated the council?" she repeated incredulously. The council had been full of manipulative arrogant dicks like Delek and Thoran, and Malek and Asheron had manipulated them?
But Selmak nodded. "Yes. He took Malek's knowledge of us and used it to push us toward his intent of creating all-out war among the Goa'uld. He cared very little for the collateral damage of such a war, Samantha-- not the humans, the Jaffa, or even the Tok'ra that would fall. And he did it while suffering terrible nightmares of his captivity. To cope, he became very closed off and contained. He refused intimacy with anyone, with rare exception, over more than twenty years. I'm not sure he's emotionally prepared for a relationship."
Sam shifted, uncomfortable on the hard table top, wishing she wasn't discussing Asheron like this behind his back. It felt wrong and mean, when he wasn't here to defend himself. "I... look, Selmak, I appreciate that you and Dad care, but this isn't a surprise. He's told me a lot, and I know it's hard for him." She thought about last night's freak out and smiled wryly. "But it's not his fault that bitch screwed him over. And I refuse to let her win, when she's been dead for thirty years."
Selmak smiled. "All right, good for you. He needs someone to pull him out of his shell, and you're strong enough to do it. No wonder he loves you."
She blinked, surprised. Selmak's smile widened with mirth, and for a moment there was more than a hint of kindly, mischievous old Saroosh in her father's face. "Oh yes. Even if he likes to pretend he's a closed book."
Selmak dropped his eyes and her father was back, raising his eyebrows. "I have no idea where that came from," he admitted and reached over to squeeze Sam's shoulder. "I just wanted to make sure you knew."
"Thanks, Dad." She hugged him, glad that above everything else, the Tok'ra had given her father back to her.
* * *
Asheron watched Jacob enter the commissary and purposefully direct toward him. Selmak's host had a determined look on his face and Asheron was a little amused. *I can guess what this is about.*
Malek agreed and withdrew to let Asheron handle it.
"Jacob. Selmak," Asheron greeted. "Join me."
Jacob settled into the opposite chair. "So." He hesitated. "What are you doing with those?" he pointed to the mission files stacked up on the table.
Asheron shrugged. "Just reading them for now. Trying to get a grasp on what the Tau'ri have done. Making a few notes on possible follow up missions." He grimaced. "Things O'Neill will doubtless ignore. What about you? What brings you to my tea party this afternoon?"
Jacob looked so uncomfortable Asheron almost laughed. He was surprised that Selmak didn't take over for him, in fact.
But Jacob eventually got to it. "I wanted to talk to you. Sam told me you two are... together."
Asheron raised his eyebrows. "So you're here to warn me off?"
Jacob glanced away, unable to hold his gaze. "Not like that," he protested. "But I -- Selmak and I -- we just wanted to make sure you're... ready." He lowered his voice to no one else could hear. "Selmak remembers how troubled you were. And while I'm glad you're finally seeing someone, I can't help but be concerned."
Be concerned that his daughter was making a horrible mistake. Asheron's insides stiffened up in offense and he couldn't meet Jacob's gaze, fingers tightening on his pen before he laid it on the table.
"You're being candid with me, and I appreciate that," he made himself say in a neutral tone.
Jacob eyed him and snorted. "Ah, that would be the king of Naritania talking, right? Now I know where it comes from."
A twitch of amusement let him release some of his anger and he felt his lips smile just a trifle. "I need to stop being around people who know me so well."
"Should've thought of that before you blended, hm?" Jacob teased.
"Not much choice in that," Asheron muttered, remembering dying in the fallen ha'tak and an offer of vengeance that he couldn't refuse. He leaned forward. "Look, Jacob, I'll be candid back and answer: I don't know. Before we went back to Inannar, I would've said 'yes, I'm ready'. Now...I'm not as sure." He looked into his tea cup and finished, softly, "The claws go deeper than I ever thought. So I can't promise you everything will go well. But at least Sam knows the truth."
She knew some of it, Asheron amended to himself more honestly. She was never going to know everything.
His skin crawled and he fought against a shudder, as memory rose up from some dark hole in his mind:
*Please your goddess,* she whispers and her hand grips his chin, forcing him to look into her face. The sharp finger-tips of the ribbon device on her other hand trail lightly down his front, hardly leaving a mark on his skin, lingering and slow enough that his belly tenses with dread. Her eyes glint with cruel delight, watching his face, as her hand slips beneath the kilt. The metal is cold and he flinches, before he gets control of himself and tries to hold absolutely still and show her no more weakness. She licks her lips at his twitch, and moves her hand. At first the touch is gentle, but the caress makes his heart pound, knowing it for the threat it is....
Malek yanked him into the present and pushed the memory away with a soothing mental touch. *Enough. Don't linger there, beloved. There is no need to endure all that again.*
He blinked, relieved that it was gone. But he still felt cold and it took a moment of conscious effort to keep his breathing even, when his chest felt tight.
Jacob didn't appear to notice his moment's distraction and nodded, his expression more sympathetic. "All right. Fair enough. And all I can ask is you do your best."
* * *
Sam knocked on O'Neill's door once and he glanced up, and waved her in. "Carter, what can I do you for?"
She went closer and stood at ease before his desk. "Sir, I noticed SG-1 isn't on the schedule for any upcoming missions, and I wanted to ask when we're going out."
He suddenly looked distinctly uncomfortable and started playing with his pen. She got a bad, twisted feeling in her gut. "Well, that's not decided yet."
"Why not?" she asked, knowing perfectly well why but wanting to force the issue. "I'm fit. Fitter than I've ever been, actually. Daniel and Teal'c are itching to go. If you'd like us to have a fourth, you know Malek is bored out of his mind, and he'd be welcome on my team. We'd like to go."
O'Neill spread his hands. "I'm sure, but right now, things are a little... difficult. There's been some rumbling, not by me or Hammond, mind you, but Davis has told us that there are some in the Pentagon and NID pushing for you to lose your commission."
She stared at him, blind-sided by the attack. "What? Because of Turan?"
He rolled his eyes and looked aggravated. "What do you think, Carter? Of course, because of that."
"But why?" she persisted. "Turan's not even grown yet. She doesn't talk to me, she doesn't share memories, nothing. Except for the physical effects and healing, which are great for the field, by the way, I am exactly the same as I was before."
"But they don't believe that. Either way, you've been compromised by an alien entity that you can't or won't get rid of."
After a moment to think about it, wondering exactly how much was 'they' and how much was actually 'him', she folded her arms and asked, "And are you fighting this? Or should I just take retirement now?"
"Don't be ridiculous. But come on, they have a point, don't they? You chose to be one of them."
"One of them?" she repeated and shook her head, feeling the anger building inside. "No, I'm not one of "them". I'm me. And I can't believe eight years of friendship and being on the same team doesn't mean anything," she accused bitterly. "Is that why Bill looked so uncomfortable when he told me there was no new tech to look at? Am I now barred from that, too? You don't trust me anymore."
"It's not that I don't trust you, Carter," he protested, but it sounded pretty hollow to her ears. "This is just temporary while we all work out what's going to happen."
She realized that 'working out what was going to happen' did not necessarily mean SG-1 again. Or her work again. Or her job. "I see."
"Oh, don't look like that," he said, wincing, and emphasized, "Temporary. Really."
"I hope so," she said. "I want my work back."
"I'll do what I can," O'Neill promised, and she left, figuring she'd better get out before she said something she'd regret.
* * *
She slammed the door behind her, not giving a damn who knew she'd gone into Malek's quarters, and Asheron looked up from the bed where he was watching the television. "No SG-1. No science. Maybe even forced out," she told him, biting off each word. "He said he's going to 'try'. Right. As if it's not his recommendation that matters most."
"O'Neill?" Asheron asked.
"Lucky guess," he said dryly. She snorted a laugh that made her feel a bit better. She glanced at the TV as she plopped down on the bed, to see he was watching CNN. Her lip curled at the sight of Kinsey, and she was glad the sound was muted.
Then he asked, "I guess this isn't a good time to ask if I could see the surface?"
She glanced at him to see he was looking at her, serious, but for the faint twitch in his lips that gave away the tease. She leaned over and whacked him on the leg. "If I don't get to see the outside, neither do you."
He leaned back on the pillows. "Good thing Tok'ra are used to living underground."
"Well, I'm not," she grumped, and he reached for her hand, pulling her over on top of him.
"Tok'ra are also stealthy," he murmured in her ear, while his hands moved up her back. "We could plan an escape."
She laughed and bent her head to kiss his lips. "I think I'd rather stay here..." Shifting so she straddled his waist, she leaned down to keep her mouth on his.
Then he held her back for a moment to look up in her eyes. "Malek wants to feel for a little while, if you don't mind?"
At first the question struck her as odd, but then she shrugged, determined to get over it.
She was Tok'ra, now, and she knew perfectly well she had to accept both Malek and Asheron. "Of course," she answered with a smile, and her fingers continued their slow easy slide down his flanks to search for the hem of his t-shirt. "I'd like that."
He shut his eyes. It was only because she was so close to him that she noticed the slight tension rippling through him at the change from host to symbiote, but she could tell by his expression that Malek was in control now.
She smiled in greeting. "Hello, Malek."
"Samantha," he said. The word was formal, but his touch on her waist was not, especially when his hands boldly cupped her breasts and he smirked, ever so slightly.
They shared the same body and she'd already learned a lot of the things he liked. Malek knew what she liked, as well, of course. And yet, everything felt that little tiny bit different. He was less sensitive to her body's cues, and she found herself giving him more direction than Asheron needed.
But it was still really good, and lying next to him after they'd cleaned up, she caught her breath and her fingers idly traced circles on his chest.
She thought about putting her clothes back on, in case there was an emergency, but didn't move. If O'Neill wanted her to stir for anything less than a planetary invasion, he could damn well start treating her like a trusted member of the team again.
FORWARD TO CHAPTER TWO