In the other ward, she sat at Asheron's bedside, when he asked about the commotion he'd noticed. He was able to sit up for a little while now, and most of his outer injuries were healed. But Malek was still comatose and Asheron was still on the i.v. because he wasn't tolerating solid food. She didn't want to trouble him when his recovery was still chancy.
"It was nothing," she said. "It's all over with now."
He looked at her closely. "Sam... what is it? You can tell me."
"There's no reason to make you worry about things you can't do anything about," she protested.
"And now I'm going to worry about something I know nothing about," he pointed out. "Just tell me. I'd... like something else to think about," he admitted.
She gave a sigh. "All right." She explained what had happened to Daniel, and the prior of the Ori who had visited, and the very disturbing implication that the Ori had discovered the Milky Way as ripe for conversion to Origin.
"This... is not good," he murmured. "All the power of the Ascendants turned toward evil, and followers with superhuman powers. What does Selmak say?"
Blind-sided by the question, she caught her breath on a surge of pain and didn't know what to answer at first. She was about to tell the truth, then she looked at the thin and shadowed face and the fragile mind behind it, and she knew she couldn't put the additional grief of Selmak's death on him right now. So she lied, "Dad is in D.C. advising General O'Neill. Did you know he got kicked upstairs, to take over for Hammond? General Landry's the new base commander."
Asheron would've caught her lie if he'd been looking at her, but he was looking down at his bandaged hands. "No, I didn't know that. So Selmak doesn't have any ideas for how to help Malek?"
And that, she realized, was why lying never led anywhere but more lies. She drew in a breath and answered, "No, we tried them, and they didn't work. He said that all Malek might need is time to get rid of the toxins that built up in his body."
"Oh." His fingertips, encased in the splints, pulled against the blanket. "It feels different, than when he was asleep. Then I felt alone, but at least there was this... door between us and I knew he was on the other side. Now, I don't feel him at all."
"He's there," she reassured him. "Look," she pointed to Malek's EEG. "That's his readout. It's low, but there is activity."
Asheron followed her finger and stared at the monitor, his eyes unfocusing as if he was calling inside for Malek to answer him.
Worried by his long silence, she picked up the cup from the side table. "Here. Doctor Lam said I should try to give you as much of this milkshake as you'll take. I know you probably want tea, but at least this is chocolate."
With a jerk, his attention snapped back to her, and he reached out to take the cup, soon defeated by the splints in his attempt to hold it. "Here, let me," she offered, and held the cup for him while he drank from the straw.
She didn't miss the clench in his jaw that was irritated at his own helplessness. So she was half-expecting some sort of reaction. "They have nurses for this kind of thing, don't they?" he asked. "I'd think you have better things to do."
"No, I don't," she answered, calmly, with a smile. She'd already played this game with him, and if she hadn't backed off when he gave her lurid details of sleeping with Baal, she wasn't letting him push her away from helping him.
He didn't drink much. "Thank you." As she turned to put it on the cart, he murmured, "I don't understand why you're here."
She didn't think she was supposed to hear, but frowned at him. "Me? Where else should I be?"
He shifted his weight in the bed once, and then back again restlessly and didn't look at her. "Nevermind."
"No," she pulled closer, concerned. "What did you mean?"
"I -- " His expression was so open for a moment that she was startled, as uncertainty and pain passed through his face. His gaze dropped to his hands, hunching over in a defeated ball. Still he didn't speak, and she found herself biting her lip. This was all wrong; Asheron shouldn't be tentative or defeated.
"I betrayed you," he murmured finally. "You should be angry at me. You should hate me for what I did."
She understood finally, some of it. He felt guilty about all he'd done with Baal. "I could never hate you," she reassured him. "You had no choice -- "
"I had a choice," he insisted, gaze snapping up to hers. "I choose a Goa'uld. I was a Goa'uld. I could've said no."
She doubted that was true. He might believe it, might even need to believe it for his own sanity, but she remembered how possessive Baal had been at the gate. He hadn't looked very willing to give up his prize. But she was certainly not going to disagree.
He kept going, irritably, "And everyone persists in treating me like I’m some sort of hero, when I'm not."
Hs voice cracked and he looked away.
She nodded her understanding. Very few people -- SG-1 and Landry -- were privy to the real story. Everyone else had been told he'd been spying on Baal and Anubis, before Gerak had mistaken him for a Goa'uld. Many people had openly told him he was very brave and there was a great deal of unspoken pity and sympathy for what he'd suffered.
But there was more that most people didn't know. He had ruled Saphon as Baal's deputy, with Baal's iron fist only slightly softened, and helped strengthen Baal's empire. There was probably a lot more that she didn't know. But she also knew he was being hard on himself, seeing only the bad of his choices.
"You saved the Hak'tyl," she said. "You saved the people of Erindan and I don't know how many others. And you gave us intel on Anubis so we finally defeated him and the Replicators."
"And I spent three months in Baal's bed," he reminded her sharply.
He was trying to shock her and push her away, just as he'd tried before. But this time the provocation perversely made her calmer. "I know." He looked down again, his brief flare of temper withering away as his right hand rubbed at his bandaged fingers as though they hurt him.
She continued, "I got used to the idea awhile ago. I don't understand it," she admitted softly, "but I accept it. He's a part of who you are. But I'm not angry. For God's sake, I thought you were dead. It would be awfully petty of me to be angry about something so trivial, after all you've been through."
He let out a long breath, gaunt face settling into lines of exhaustion, and he didn't speak.
She added, just in case he thought she was saying the words only to make him feel better, "All I want right now is to help you. So please, don't imagine I'm mad at you, because I'm not." She laid her fingers on his forearm and squeezed lightly. "Okay?" she asked.
He nodded. She couldn't tell if he believed her, or if she had helped at all. "I just want to help," he finally said. "And I can't. I can't do anything."
She shook her head and her hand went up his arm to gently stroke his cheek. He closed his eyes under the touch and she murmured, "The best thing for you to do right now, is put your energy to getting better. You look tired. I think you should rest."
"That's all I've been doing," he complained petulantly, and she smiled.
"That's probably because that's what you need to do," she said and kissed his forehead. "Shall I read the next chapter in the book? "
He took a deep breath and opened his eyes again. "Actually, I'd like to see that book of Origin. Somebody might as well read the whole noxious thing - and it's not like I have anything else to do."
Though she didn't think Origin was probably a good topic before sleeping, she was also pleased by his interest, she popped off the chair. "I'll go get it from Daniel; I think he had it last."
When she came back, Asheron was asleep and she put the book on the side-table where he could see it. Then she smoothed back his hair from his forehead, hoping he slept peacefully.
* * *
She should've realized a healthier Asheron meant a bad, irritable patient. He was gone for awhile in the morning while the doctor took new x-rays, and when Sam found him back in his bed, it was without the splints on his right hand. He picked up a pencil for Lam to prove his dexterity, but didn't seem very happy about the improvements.
Daniel, who had come with her to get Asheron's thoughts on the Ori, grinned, "Look at that. You're so much better, it's amazing."
"I feel fine now," he muttered, and everyone else was kind enough not to laugh at the lie. He looked at the other hand, still wrapped in bandages, then looked up at the doctor. "I want to go shower," Asheron demanded. "Take all this out." He tapped on his i.v. and stared at Lam in distinct challenge.
"I don't think that's wise," she started.
"I want to go shower," he repeated flatly. "I'm dirty, my hair is disgusting, and I smell. It's making me sick."
Sam shook her head a little. She knew that Lam didn't think Asheron was up to it, but he was adamant about getting out of bed.
But she was no pushover either. "Fine," she agreed. "Bath, not a shower. And you go there in a wheelchair. I also want someone in the room with you."
Asheron stilled, and his gaze flickered with something. Sam's stomach tightened with concern as she realized there was more to this shower thing than just getting clean. "They can wait outside," he said.
He wanted the privacy, she suspected. Being in the infirmary was a lot like an airport terminal on a good day, and Asheron hadn't been left alone once since waking up.
"No," Lam answered calmly. "You could drown. Someone goes with you, or you don't bathe. Nurse Evans, preferably."
Asheron's mouth tightened and he looked mutinous. He didn't demand again, but Sam didn't take it as acquiescence. He was going to do something else to get the privacy he wanted, something Lam couldn't prevent. "I'll go with you, if you like," Sam offered and smiled at him. At least he wouldn't be with a stranger. That had to be better. "Nothing I haven't seen before, right?" she teased.
But instead of looking relieved or glad, his gaze dropped and he swallowed, "That's okay, Sam. Maybe ... maybe Doctor Lam's right. I shouldn't. Thank you though."
He didn't want her with him. She ignored the twinge of hurt, reminding herself that she couldn't take it personally.
"Are you sure? What about me?" Daniel offered. "I can help you, if you want."
Asheron hesitated, still reluctant, but Daniel's offer won out. "Thanks. I'd appreciate it."
* * *
Sam left, and Asheron was relieved. He didn't want her to see.
Lam unwound the bandages from his left hand carefully, and locked off and taped the i.v. shunt under his collar bone. He'd hoped she might take it out all together, but she gave him a look even before he voiced a complaint. "Until you start eating real food, it stays," she said.
He stared at his hand, willing his fingers to move. But only his thumb and littlest finger bent, while his ring finger only twitched a little. The first two fingers were frozen and bent, and clearly thinner than the fingers on his other hand. But they ached, those crippled fingers, all the way past his wrist, throbbing when the bandages were gone. Nerve damage, Lam had said, from when his shoulder had been left dislocated for so long.
A shard of something white and sharp pricked him in his memory, and he lifted his eyes away hurriedly. "Okay, let's do this." He was dizzy when he stood up, and his legs started to tremble. He was glad for the wheelchair, in spite of himself.
In the bathroom, he glanced at the outer door, wishing he could lock it. But then, resigned, he stood up.
"Do you, uh, need help?" Daniel asked awkwardly.
Asheron shook his head. The tile was cold on his bare feet, as he walked over to the mirror above the closest sink. Daniel followed close by, and his expression in the reflection looked concerned and puzzled, but he didn't ask why Asheron wanted to go to the mirror rather than the filled therapy tub in the corner.
It was difficult to take off the shirt without much use of his left hand, even though it was only tied closed in two places in the front. Daniel stepped forward to help pull it off his other arm.
He pulled in a sharp breath of shock at the sight of Asheron's back. "Oh my God," he whispered. "Asheron -- "
Asheron turned to see, looking over his shoulder. He had to shut his eyes and turn away. It was worse than he had thought. There was a map of thin lines across his back, that turned into several thicker red ropy ones across his shoulders and at the small of his back. There was also a knot of scar tissue on the back of his neck and down his spine where they had tortured Malek individually.
"I had no idea," Daniel continued, sounding horrified, and still staring at Asheron.
Asheron jerked, as the room dimmed and there was a Jaffa there, bloody flail in his hand.
Then he opened his eyes to see only his own ravaged face in the mirror. He fell against the sink, stomach heaving suddenly. He retched helplessly, long after there was nothing left to bring up.
He settled, chest heaving for breath and legs quivering, with his forehead against the sink. Daniel's hand was on his hair, gently, and he stood close to brace him upright. "Should I get the doctor?" he asked, sounding worried.
Asheron shook his head. "No. Please."
"I can't ask if you're all right, because that sounds really stupid," Daniel said, "but can I do anything to help?"
"Water?" Asheron asked, hoarse. Daniel turned on the water, and Asheron rinsed his mouth and straightened He studiously avoided looking at his own face in the reflection, not wanting to see confirmation of how weak he felt.
But his gaze was helplessly pulled to his torso His front was less scarred, just a few crossed lines and small white dots from the sha'nik prongs. The line of his shoulders dropped on the left side, and his bones protruded too much.
"One thing you can say for Ishtar," Asheron said, "at least she used the sarcophagus. It kept down the scarring."
Daniel didn't know what to do with the statement and ignored it. "How much --" Daniel asked hesitantly, "How much do you remember?"
Asheron looked at the reflection of his bad hand, tightening his other hand into a tight fist so he could focus only on the small pain of his nails digging into his palm. "All of it," he murmured. "It's all there. I can feel it, pushing at my thoughts. I don't want it back, Daniel."
It was a heavy weight, pressing on him, a weight that he knew he wouldn't withstand once it opened and fell on him. He was playing for time, hoping he could wait long enough for Malek to get well, before his mind cracked like a dropped egg.
*MALEK?* he shouted silently in his mind. But there was no response.
He turned from the mirror and headed for the bathtub, before the nothingness in his mind called forth memories of small, dark places.
* * *
Sam didn't want to leave to go to P8X-412, but as one of the few people immune to the Prior-inflicted plague as Turan's host, she didn't feel she had any choice. In the end she and Vala working together using the hand device weren't enough to accomplish anything. She returned with a heavy heart, glad Cam had survived, but fearful of what this disease meant for everyone. She wished for Malek's biochemistry expertise to help Doctor Lam investigate it, but the symbiote was still barely hanging on.
"I'm glad you're back," Asheron greeted her. "I heard from the doctor how terrible it was there. How are you doing?" he asked, sympathetically.
For a moment, she could only look at him, wondering that he even had the strength to worry about someone else. He was still so painfully thin it hurt to look at him, and the skin around his eyes was thin and bruised looking. "We lost," she answered, with a shrug, not wanting to make a big deal about it. She sat down in the hard plastic chair beside the bed. "The Ori took the planet. But at least we all came back. How've you been?"
"Sleeping mostly," he said, and just when she was about to point out that wasn't really an answer, he added, "I finished the Book of Origin while you were gone."
She made a face. "Don't spoil the ending," she joked, but when he didn't smile, she asked, "What did you think?"
"It is puerile sophistry at its finest," he answered, with a twisted lip of disgust. "Full of morality plays and propaganda disguised as received wisdom, all of it twisted to the Ori's worship."
"That good, huh?" she teased.
He shook his head. "It's appealing as those sorts of things are. But it insidiously implies a message of choice, even though there is none. The Ori are far more clever than the Goa'uld ever could be."
"They've had longer to polish their message. We're going to need something to counter them with, and I think the person who started a program of un-deifying Baal should get on that," she said with a smile, and a squeeze of his arm. But when he nodded, all neutral-faced like he was accepting a mission, she felt a little chill. "After you get better," she added sternly. "If you make yourself worse, Doctor Lam will very unhappy with us."
"I am better," he protested. When she thought of what he'd looked like when she first saw him, that was true. He was better. But when she thought about what he'd suffered, and how the physical injuries were probably only a very small component of that, she was suspicious. He was entirely too alert and normal, and while she didn't want to upset whatever tenuous control he'd put on himself, she didn't think locking it all away like he'd done with Ishtar was healthy either.
He must have read the concern in her face because he reassured her, "Sam, please, don't worry so much. I think Malek must have protected me from the worst of it. Maybe that's why he's hurt and why I don't remember."
It made sense, but she also remembered Jolinar had tried to protect her from the pain of the ashrak's torture, but that hadn't lasted an hour. She doubted that Malek could've held Asheron away from the pain all that time they were prisoners. But it wasn't something she could argue about either. "I hope so."
Then, in a transparent move to change the subject, he asked, "Would you read the next chapter in the book?"
She did, wishing she could believe that he was as recovered as he seemed.
* * *
He woke slowly, groggy and unwilling. His shoulder was throbbing, and he wanted to curl up and go back to sleep, but the pain was insistent and so he opened his eyes.
The room was bright enough for him to identify the infirmary immediately, but the dim lights still made the sick taste of fear rise up in the back of his throat and tighten his belly.
He'd barely swallowed and started to calm down, when his eyes turned to the side and saw the Goa'uld sitting there.
His heart leaped with panic, and he sat upright, groping for some kind of weapon. Then he realized he knew her, and she wasn't actually a Goa'uld anymore.
"Vala," he said, on the tail end of a long breath.
"You thought I was Qetesh still?" she asked curiously. "When you, of all people, should know better."
"I forgot," he answered, and grabbed for the bed controls to raise the back. That gave him a moment to try to compose himself, until he could lean back. "I didn't expect to see you here."
"You hadn't heard I was here?" Her lips tightened in a brief reflexive smile. "I've been here for weeks. I got a bit attached to Daniel Jackson."
He figured Sam must have left that part out. "I see. And you were here, watching me sleep, because…?"
She shrugged and said softly, "Being there, being her again, watching her people die and fall to the Ori... I tried but.... You know what it's like." She shook her head, falling silent. Then she murmured, hands tight in her lap. "For so long, I was angry at you. It never even occurred to you to worry about the host, until they were going to kill me."
He met her eyes, honest now as he was then. "No. It took me three years to get the Council to approve going after Qetesh, and that was my mission. Get the people to rise against her and kill her. Nothing more."
"But why?" she demanded.
"Qetesh was a queen," he answered. "Killing the queens meant fewer larva, fewer Jaffa, fewer Goa'uld. And that was more important to me than you." He shrugged one shoulder and rubbed at the other, taking a deep breath. "I know that sounds very cold. I'm sorry about that. But it's the truth. I didn't think of Qetesh's host until Partil reminded me you'd been her host only a short time and you might still be saved. So we did."
She said nothing for a long time, tucking her arms around her drawn up knees. "I suppose, knowing what I know about you now, I can hardly blame you for wanting to kill Goa'uld queens." After another pause, Vala's lips twitched in a quick smile. "We have something else in common. Unlike everyone else in this place, I remember very well what sex with Baal is like, and I completely understand. I would have stayed with him, too."
Taken aback by the topic no one else had dared to mention to him, his cheeks heated and he glanced away. "Qetesh?" he asked, in a hoarse voice that he strained to keep level.
She looked gleeful at his expression and pulled up her knees like a little girl in a chair too big for her. "Oh yes. They got together a few times. She wanted so badly for him to make her his queen, and then she planned to turn on him to take over for herself. But she was never anything to him, beyond the sex. It made her so angry," Vala grinned in spiteful pleasure.
He wasn't sure whether he was more glad that Qetesh had been frustrated in her plans, or that Baal had treated her as nothing more than a zhi'lotar. Then the ache in his shoulder flared, passing down to his hand, and he bit his lip hard, trying to concentrate on that small pain. He was now regretful that Lam had finally pulled the i.v.; he hadn't hurt so much with the drugs in the drip.
But Vala noticed the way he caught his breath. "Are you feeling all right?" she asked.
He wanted to say no, claim he was fine, but when he opened his mouth to speak the lie, the only thing that came out was, "I think the medicine's wearing off." He clenched his jaw, forcing himself to take slow, deep breaths through his nose so he wouldn't whimper.
She bounced off the chair. "I'll get the nurse."
When she was gone, the infirmary seemed different. Although it wasn't fully dark with light streaming in through the door from the hall and the emergency lights glowing green and red from the walls, that just seemed to make the shadows deeper, and the curtain blocking his sight of the other half of the ward could be hiding anything.
Don't be an idiot, he told himself, even as his heart rate began to speed up, There is nothing there. There's nothing to be afraid of.
But his body was not listening to his mind, breaths splintering and images like ghosts in the corner of his eyes or shadows behind the curtain, there and then not. He heard sounds of soft movement, until he was convinced there had to be someone there, even though he knew it was all in his head.
He swallowed and swung his legs out of bed to go prove to himself there was nothing there. The floor was cold on his bare feet and he took a step to the curtain, putting a hand on it to pull it aside.
His eyes took in the golden emblem, and his brain identified the Jaffa standing in front of him... Terror flashed through him, hot as fire and choking him into nothingness.