a thousand petals, a thousand paths

When Daniel Jackson needed to think, he paced, most often in his office, sometimes through the long, jagged corridors of the SGC, and sometimes in the briefing room, pausing often with arms folded to contemplate the great ring of metal and light that had so changed the course of his life. It was so large, so overwhelming, even now, after eight and a half years and so many trips to worlds that could never have even been imagined. Until now.

If he dwelled on it all too much, he would be burdened to his knees, the force of the memories, of the good and the bad, a weight beyond anything Atlas might have been able to shrug off. So he focused, tightly, faced forward, raced forward, always looking to the next battle, the next translation, never quite allowing himself to relax. For when he relaxed, he was afraid that he would be drowned by it all, and he would be useless. To everyone. Including himself.

Of course, Vala Mal Doran was, ironically, a help these days. While she was the most annoying woman he had ever met in all his wide experience through the galaxies, she was, he had to admit, lively. A tender word for such an amazing ability to get under his skin and bring out his most prickly and cantankerous characteristics. The fact that she was pregnant had added a new facet to her selfishness and desperation, but it had also slowed her down. Daniel valued that above everything else. He could be distracted for as long as he could handle, then scamper away before he really felt like killing her.

He shook his head. The compromises that must be made at every turn, he mused. Sometimes, he wished he had the blunt directness of Jack O’Neill. It would be a refreshing change from this damnable habit of his to weigh every argument, inspect every option, consider every word. But how could he bemoan what he was? It is as it is, he told himself, and began pacing again.

“You’re going to wear a hole in the carpet,” said a voice behind him, “and I very much doubt that new rugs are in the reduced SGC budget.”

Speak of the devil. Turning on his heel, Daniel Jackson laid eyes upon his lovely, delicate nemesis, a dark-haired woman with a streak of white at either temple, blue eyes, and a very prominent stomach. “Weren’t you just irritating me half an hour ago?” he asked, the crinkling around his eyes belying his harsh tone. He wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but he had almost become … oh, he couldn’t even say the word. The hell with it. He turned his back on Vala and her unborn child and went back to studying the stargate.

“Does it speak to you?” Vala asked, standing beside him and enjoying the same view. Her voice lacked its usual brusqueness and sharp, defensive edge. Daniel wouldn’t say that pregnancy had softened Vala any. But perhaps it had broadened her world view a bit, what with a new life on the way for whom she would have to be responsible. “Does it whisper sweet nothings in your ear, inspiring lovely thoughts to warm your bed at night?” she added, and Daniel reconsidered that whole world view thing.

“Do you ever shut up?” he asked her, his folded arms tightening. One part of his mind began gearing up for another sparring match while another part was running translations in his head. With a whole universe to explore, over twenty-two teams out doing just that, and his position as consultant to the Off-World Research subdivision of the SGC allowing him to poke his nose into any mission reports, there was always something to consider, to ponder, to translate, to add to the vast storehouse of knowledge that was called his brain. By this time, he was adept at verbally dueling with Vala, translating, listening through a briefing, and thinking about when he would go grocery shopping, all at the same time. It brought multi-tasking to new and dizzying heights.

Vala imitated his position, folding her arms over her burgeoning belly. “Only when I’m bored out of my skull,” she said matter-of-factly. “While I appreciate the SGC doing their best to protect me and my darling daughter-to-be, I’m beginning to think that taking my chances with the Ori would have been preferable. It certainly would have been more interesting.”

“Is it possible,” Daniel began, his temper sparked, “for you to think of anything b – what? Did you say daughter?” he asked, diverted.

Vala grinned smugly. “Of course,” she said, a hand reaching up to her hair to twirl a pigtail. “I just got the news from Dr. Lam.”

Daniel was momentarily lost in the memory of a child, little hands clutching at his shirt, rosy cheeks highlighted by the gentle white light of a higher being, then a feeling of deep and wrenching regret that he and Sha’re had never had a child together. “That’s wonderful,” Daniel said, true gladness for her in his voice.

“Well, thank you, Daniel,” Vala said, surprised by the genuine quality of his tones. “The Mal Dorans are all women, you know. The only men are our husbands, or mates, or consorts, or whatever you want to call them – always depends on the world we’re on. We have been daughters to daughters for a good many generations.”

“You have sisters?” Daniel asked, startled and somewhat dismayed. The idea of more Mal Dorans unleashed upon the universe gave him serious pause.

“Oh, yes,” Vala replied, shifting on her feet and putting a hand to the small of her back. “Rub my back, Daniel,” she implored, her voice just this shy of a command.

Daniel’s eyes slitted. “I would rath – ” he began when the PA system blasted into the briefing room.

“Unscheduled offworld activation!” the speaker blatted just as the rings began churning, the chevrons lighting. “SG-4’s IDC!”

Without hesitation, Daniel and Vala moved for the spiral staircase that led down into the gate command room, Daniel listening to make sure that Vala’s steps behind him were steady and sure. Out of the corner of his eye, he was satisfied to see that she was holding firmly onto the railing for support.

They entered the command room from one door as Colonels Mitchell and Carter, the Jaffa, Teal’c, and General Hank Landry entered from another. Gathered behind Chief Master Sergeant Walter Harriman, the group waited to see how the team came through. There was the usual rumble of space belchings, and the water-like surface of the event-horizon smoothed itself within the great rings.

Then SG-4 came through the gate, weapons cocked on the shapely figure sandwiched between them. Pale skin glowed beneath the glistening green leather that hugged her form, dark hair flowed down her slender back, and green eyes rode above a wide, generous mouth that curved just like the one that gaped beside Daniel. “No!” Vala gasped, now yanking fiercely on her pigtails with both hands. “It can NOT be!”

“Who is this, Major Kellen?” Landry asked into the microphone.

The Major tilted his head up to see the people behind the blast-glass of the control room. “This is – ” he began.

“Xala,” Vala hissed, hauling on her pigtails ‘til her knuckles were white. “Xala Mal Doran.”

Obviously, the microphone was must have picked up her voice, for the woman in the gate room stiffened and glared through the protective glass. “Vala,” she replied, her voice equally snaky with rage.

Vala growled and turned on Daniel accusingly. “Well, Daniel, you wanted to know about my sisters. There’s one of them. Meet Xala Mal Doran, the most hateful, spiteful, cruel, selfish, back-stabbing woman in the universe.”

“Then she’s your twin?” Daniel asked, unable to resist yet knowing, even as the words left his mouth, that this wasn’t the right time for slamming Vala.

Instead of coming back with something equally cutting, Vala merely stared at him for a moment, and he was shocked to his back teeth to see a tear begin to form in the corner of one eye. “No,” she said finally, the tear disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. “If she were my twin, I might actually feel something for her.”

 

Never, before coming to Stargate Command, had General Landry found himself so frequently irritated and exasperated. Between the (certainly understandable and allowable) quirks of his number one team, the daily challenge that was Vala Mal Doran, and the usual juggling that was running a military operation, Hank Landry was finding himself a little shorter of fuse these days. He couldn’t claim that he was always even-tempered, but the SGC was unlike anything he’d ever seen or imagined. But what could you expect from a facility that derived its purpose from things that were literally otherworldly?

Yet even that generous explanation could not gild the wilting lily that was being in the same room with not only one Mal Doran, but two. The two women – sisters – were glaring at each other from opposite ends of the conference table, the anger practically snapping off them. They hadn’t said anything else after Vala’s words in the gate room, merely exchanging glance for poisonous glance as everyone made a bee-line for the briefing room.

And now here they were, and Landry was still to hear why he had two Mal Dorans in his bunker when, really, he wanted none.

“Let me try this again,” Landry said, his hands flat on the table. “You sought out SG-4? Why did you do that?”

The woman Vala had named as Xala turned reluctantly to look at Landry. “You are aware of the Ori?” She had the same accent as Vala, something like Australian, but with a sultry flare to it.

“We know of them,” Landry said dryly.

Xala narrowed her eyes. “Then you know they are an evil greater than even the Goa’uld,” and for some reason she turned and looked nastily at Vala. “And they are sweeping across worlds with a speed that a Goa’uld would envy.”

Daniel felt his usual constant worry about the Ori deepen into something more frightening. “How fast are they moving?” he asked.

“They subdue worlds within a matter of days. Their numbers of followers are growing exponentially. There are many worlds in this galaxy, but it’s only a matter of very short time before the Ori have completely subjugated every inhabited planet.”

The ripple of tension flowed through the briefing room. The SGC had thought the Priors were going to be quick, but this was worse than they had thought.

“And you came to us … why?” Mitchell asked, skepticism plain on his face.

“Because you are the Tau’ri,” Xala said simply. “You defeated the Goa’uld, and you defeated the Replicators. While your alleged primitivism is derided on many a world, the fact that you are a powerful, and tenacious, race cannot be denied. I figured, if anyone could do anything with the information I have, it would be the Tau’ri. So I gate-hopped until I found a world that had seen you recently. And I followed you from there.”

Mitchell’s eyebrows rose. “Well, that’s all very flattering, but what do you want in return for this information? You can’t be giving this to us for free.”

Xala rounded on Vala again. “You’ve been up to your usual tricks, haven’t you?” Vala tried to look innocent.

Xala shook her head and addressed Mitchell. “I want nothing in return. I’m offering this up freely. The Ori must be stopped.”

Carter’s face mirrored Daniel’s with its raised eyebrows and doubtful blue eyes. “How did you come by this information?” she asked.

“And what, exactly, is the information?” Teal’c added calmly. Of all of them, he seemed to enjoy Vala the most, weathering her machinations and quips with an equanimity and amusement that Daniel envied. To Teal’c, Xala was just as amusing as her older sister.

“There are so many Priors, now,” Xala said, speaking to the table at large, “that they have to gather every once in a while to share information. A sort of conference, where they can swap tales and get tips on how the crusade is going. There’s going to be a meeting very soon of the Priors. A lot of the Priors.”

“So much for the Ori being all knowing,” Mitchell murmured. “You’d think they’d give their guys unlimited calling packages with no roaming charges.”

Carter grinned briefly before repeating her question. “How did you come by this information?”

For the first time, the anger softened off Xala’s face to be replaced by a certain evasiveness. “I … overheard a conversation.”

“You overheard a conversation?” Daniel echoed. “Between whom?”

Vala spoke before Xala could gather a breath. “She was spying,” she said flatly.

Xala gritted her teeth. “Yes, fine, I was spying. But not for the reasons you think. I wanted to know what the Ori are up to. Somehow there has to be a way to stop them, to at least gain something on them.”

“Why do you hate the Ori so much?” Teal’c asked.

“Don’t we all?” Xala asked and Teal’c’s eyes bored into her for a moment before he bent his head in acknowledgment. It was clear to everyone in the room that Xala had more to say, but that she wasn’t going to say anything further at the moment.

 

“You can not trust her, Daniel,” Vala said again vehemently, stalking – well, waddling about her quarters at the SGC. “She’s devious, sly, and completely untrustworthy.”

“Don’t make me say the obvious, here,” Daniel begged, watching her pace, her hands at the small of her back. He never knew if she was really in pain or was just milking the situation for some extra drops of sympathy that wouldn’t normally be forthcoming.

Vala grabbed a box of Kleenex off a side table and threw it at him. “I’m serious, Daniel!” she said. “How could General Landry even be considering taking her seriously?”

Daniel stooped, snatched up the tissue box, and tossed it on the bed. “She says that the Priors will be meeting – although where, she won’t say. Look, it’s a priceless opportunity to get some intelligence, talk with them, turn them, perhaps destroy them, if need be. Anything we accomplished would be better than the nothing we’ve currently got. We’ll use the frequency interruption units, with a random level generator, and they’ll never know. I mean, why would the Priors have to use their powers on each other? We’ll be safeguarded, and we’ll get what we need.”

“But you can’t trust her,” Vala said for a third time, and Daniel was almost positive he heard panic in her voice.

“Vala,” Daniel said in his calmest voice, “why do you hate her so much? She’s your sister. Just minutes before she came through the gate, you were about to wax all rhapsodic about your sisters and the Mal Doran women.”

Vala bared her teeth. “If I could deny our shared genes, I would. I haven’t spoken to Xala in years, and I’d hoped I’d never see her again.”

“But what did she do?” Daniel asked again, curious as to what could incense Vala to such an extreme. And this was a woman known for her extremes.

Vala sighed and sat in the chair at her desk, a desk, Daniel noted, that actually had stacks of papers and reports on it. He wondered on what she had been working. “I’ve told you how Q’tesh chose me to be her host, how she took me against my will and ruled through me.” Daniel nodded. “Xala was the reason I was chosen.”

Daniel actually felt his jaw drop. “Huh??”

Vala nodded. “Now you know why I hate her so much. She’s the reason I was imprisoned in my own body. She’s the reason I was tortured by my own village after the fall of Q’tesh. She’s the reason for everything!” she said violently, and swept her arm across her desk, sending papers flying. “She was my favorite sister when we were young, we were as close as twins. We did everything together, shared everything, had our secret language. And she sold me out to the Goa’uld. You cannot trust her, Daniel,” she repeated, watching as he gathered up the strewn papers from the floor. “You should just dial the gate at random and send her through. Get rid of her.”

 

Landry shook his head and shared a commiserating glance with Mitchell. “That’s out of the question, Colonel,” he said to Carter from across his desk.

“I knew there was a catch,” Mitchell murmured, looking at his fingernails. “There’s always a catch.”

“Sir, she absolutely refuses to tell us the coordinates of the planet where the meeting will occur unless we take her with us,” Carter stressed, clearly not liking the situation any more than Mitchell did.

“Definitely a Mal Doran,” Mitchell groaned.

Landry rubbed his temples. Yes, he was getting a headache. He sighed. “Is there any point to me even trying to think of a way around this? Knowing her sister, I’m going to guess that Xala won’t budge an inch. I’d say the hell with her, but if there’re are going to be that many Priors … you know what? I’m not even going to argue this. Get her geared up. Give her the usual Mal Doran speech about not saying or doing anything unless she’s told to, and let’s hope she actually listens.” Mitchell and Carter snorted in unison, and left the General’s office.

 

“You don’t think it’s strange that the General didn’t put up more of a fight?” Carter asked Mitchell as they walked through the SGC corridors.

Mitchell shook his head. “No, not really. I think Vala’s worn him down, and to be honest? I think the Ori worries him a good bit more than any Mal Doran sister.”

“Sisters,” Carter stressed, and smiled.

Cameron shook his head. “I pity Jackson, that’s for damn sure.”

 

Daniel wasn’t to be pitied at the moment – at least he didn’t think so. Not yet, anyway. But he was certainly reaching his threshold of Mal Doran for the day. Vala had been unrelenting in her hatred of her sister, and her vitriol had reached new heights when she learned that Xala would be joining the team mission to the Prior meeting.

“You’re putting your faith and your life in the worst possible hands,” Vala raged as she watched Daniel double-check his gear as they waited in the gate room for the rest of SG-1 and SG-3.

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” he said wryly, and for once he wasn’t directing the comment at Vala. He tugged harder on the back of his black bandana, making sure that the knot was tight.

Mitchell sauntered into the room with Sam at his heels and Xala Mal Doran, looking peevish in her black BDUs and her hair plaited back in a braid. “This is ridiculous,” she said, yanking at her belt. “I was perfectly fine in my other clothes.”

“Shiny green leather isn’t exactly inconspicuous,” Mitchell told her, double-checking his zat and P-90.

“Yes, but at least I knew how to move in it,” Xala argued. “This … this is just like wearing big, ugly bags with belts.”

“Definitely a Mal Doran,” Daniel grinned, “always concerned with the wardrobe,” and Vala gave him a nasty look, smoothing the front of her black tunic (black is always slimming, she insisted, no matter what your reproductive state).

“Everyone have their mikes and recorders ready? I want a check from everyone,” Mitchell said, tapping the earpiece that was snugged along his jaw. There was a check from the other four, and Mitchell nodded in satisfaction. “Good. We’ll keep chatter to a minimum once we hit the planet, but keep all frequencies open. If anything goes out on the sound waves, I want our equipment to have a chance to pick it up. Remember, any information we can get on these guys is better than nothing.”

Neither sister looked at the other until Xala was forced to move past Vala to get to the gate ramp. “Don’t bother coming back,” Vala hissed, her hands resting on her rounded belly. “You’re one aunt my baby can do without.”

Xala stopped a long moment, and anger and something … something pained rose in her eyes. Daniel eyed her speculatively. “I’ll do my best to get killed,” she said softly, and followed Mitchell up the ramp towards the blue water of wormhole, leaving Vala with her mouth slightly agape in surprise.

 

The planet was dark when they exited the gate, with no light from either of the planet’s moons; a soft breeze was blowing, redolent with the smell of very pungent grass. Mitchell spoke quickly and quietly with Colonel Pierce before leading SG-1 into the treeline, leaving SG-3 to guard the gate. While the drive of their mission was to be as stealthy as possible, it never hurt to keep all asses covered.

For all that his senses were tuned to his teammates and the prerogatives of the mission, Daniel couldn’t help but watch Xala closely. She may have been at home in the shiny green leather, but the BDUs didn’t seem to be a problem for her. She moved smoothly and absolutely silently, her braid a long tail down her back. Daniel noticed that her hand was constantly close to her right thigh, even though her holster had been emptied by Mitchell; she was used to having a weapon at hand. He realized that they really knew very little about Xala Mal Doran, and that they had been very trusting to bring her along with so little intel. But then, she was a Mal Doran – for all that they drove you out of your mind, Daniel had to, reluctantly, admit that they were .. resilient. And they were also fairly good-hearted, even if that heart was riddled with greed and a highly developed sense of self-preservation. Daniel could be nothing but honest and knew that, while Xala might have her sister’s acquisitive gene, she would also be concerned with the bigger picture that the Ori presented. Or else why had she come to them?

Indeed, why had she come to them. That was the biggest question of all, wasn’t it? What had she been doing on that planet to begin with, how did she overhear the Priors, how did she know where the meeting was being held, how did she know how to find the Tau’ri? So many questions, and zero answers. And yet, he didn’t feel that she was on this mission to betray them – but there was definitely something … off. She was certainly hiding a great deal, and Daniel hoped that Vala wasn’t right about her sister.

Abruptly, they all halted as Mitchell, ahead of them, raised a clenched fist for a stop. Then he gestured, and Teal’c, Daniel and Xala went in one direction, and Carter and Mitchell went in another.

It wasn’t an impressive temple. It wasn’t a towering ziggurat. It wasn’t an imposing pyramid. It wasn’t even a modest parthenon. It was a simple home, built of wood and stone, and from a chimney a curl of smoke rose into the darkling sky.

“Priors get chilly?” Teal’c heard Daniel murmur softly, and he almost smiled, though he kept one eye on Xala and the other on the house before them.

“This is too easy,” Daniel said softly, and this time, his words were meant for both Teal’c and the other half of the team.

Mitchell’s voice was sharp. “Agreed. Proceed with extreme caution.”

Daniel pulled out his zat, ignoring Xala’s look, irritated and slightly concerned, at not being allowed a weapon. Daniel had a certain sympathy for her plight, but she was a Mal Doran, after all. And, according to Vala, one who had betrayed her own sister.

Um, why was it they were trusting her information?

It was all entirely too easy. The hackles on Sam’s neck rose and she felt her body flooding with adrenaline, her senses heightening, her ears and eyes straining into the dark. Before much time had passed, she was in position with Mitchell in the bushes under the front window, while Teal’c, Daniel and Xala were by the back door to the house.

The sound of portentous voices came from within the house, strident and mellifluous, but not quite clear enough to discern specific words.

Daniel leaned close to Teal’c. “We’re not going to be able to hear anything from here,” he said, leaning into Teal’c’s ear, and Teal’c agreed. Xala put a hand on Daniel’s arm and pointed up. The eaves of the house hung very low, and it was obvious that one could climb up to the second floor and thence into the house to hear better the conversation going on. Daniel just shook his head and turned back to Teal’c. “Mitchell, what’s it look like from the front?” Daniel asked into his mouthpiece.

“I don’t see any guards,” Mitchell replied. “I’m thinking the front door looks okay.”

“Isn’t this a little too easy?” Carter’s voice cut in.

Daniel’s sense of unease grew. “Okay, someone make the call,” he muttered, and turned when Teal’c’s hand gripped his shoulder urgently. Turning the other way, Daniel saw that Xala was gone and cursed mightily.

“What is it, Jackson?” Mitchell asked.

“Xala’s going in the second floor,” Daniel growled, and moved towards the house. “I’m going in after her. Wanna be ready to give us a distraction if we need to get going in a hurry?”

“Want fries with that?” Mitchell asked and Daniel grinned briefly.

Teal’c followed Daniel to the side of the house, and the uneven wall, shingles and eaves were as good as a ladder to the second floor. The two men slipped through the second floor window in time to see Xala dart out of a door across the room.

“She is much like her sister,” Teal’c murmured, and Daniel grimaced. “Don’t remind me,” he said, took a firmer grasp on his zat, made sure his frequency changer was working, the recorder was on, and went through the door with Teal’c right on his heels.

He was relieved to see Xala perched at the top of the stairs leading to the first floor, her knees drawn up to her chest and flickering light from the main room fire illuminating her face like a kid on Christmas Eve. The voices of the Priors were much clearer, now, and a great mishmash of words floated up to Daniel that sounded to him like the usual high rhetoric. Perhaps they had to prove they still knew their verses before they got down to business. Why was it that the bad guys always had to be so damn inefficient about their plans to dominate? Arrogance, Daniel thought, and was grateful.

Mitchell whispered in Daniel’s ear through the earpiece. “Jackson. What’s going on?”

Daniel barely breathed as he answered, “They’re talking. I’ll call you back.” Xala glanced back at him and Teal’c before focusing her attention again on the floor below her.

“We must continue to show them that the way of the Ori is the only way,” one Prior said in a sudden silence. Xala hunched over, every line of her back indicating intense concentration.

“There has been little resistance on the worlds that I have visited,” said another Prior voice.

“But there have been rumors,” said another Prior, and Daniel clenched his teeth. At least three Priors were down below, and there was no guarantee that their frequency changers would work this time around, or on all three Priors at once. It worked on the planet of the Sodan, but now? The Ori were Ascended, who knew what the true limit of an Ascended Being’s powers could be? Well, he should, and for the umpteenth time, Daniel cursed Oma and his missing memories. And who knew if the frequency changers would work on all three Priors at a time? “Rumors of a race that is fighting the Word of the Ori,” the third Prior continued.

“Impossible,” said a fourth Prior, and it almost seemed like a whisper of humanity had crept back into his voice. “How can one fight the Ori? They are the Answer to all Problems.” Daniel caught his breath. Could a Prior be doubting the Ori on his own?

“They are merely primitive and uneducated as to the true powers of the Ori,” said the First Prior. “We shall come to them again and offer the true meaning of faith and devotion. Origin cannot be denied.”

“We must send word,” said the Second Prior, and a gentle humming sound filled the air. Daniel thought of Mitchell’s comment about long distance calling packages and shook his head. How could anyone truly believe that the Ori were all powerful, all knowing, if they couldn’t even provide their missionaries with a good way of sending word back home? Movement caught his eye, and he saw Xala had crept down the stairs a few feet. The firelight was even stronger on her face, and Daniel was panicked at the thought that she might be seen. He tried to gesture to her to come back up to where he and Teal’c were safely hidden, but she studiously ignored him.

And then, she did what he’d been afraid she’d do. Xala stood, straightened her battle vest, then walked down the stairs, bold as you please.

“Dammit!” Daniel whispered into his mic. “Mitchell, she’s gone in.”

“She’s what?” Mitchell whispered back hoarsely.

The sound of the voices from down below had stopped, along with the gentle, mechanical hum. Then one voice rose, clear and pedantic. “Novice,” said the Second Prior, “you have returned. What word of the unbelievers?”

Daniel turned wide eyes to Teal’c, who returned the look with equal amazement. It was as if they were frozen, nailed through the feet by their own aghast realization of what the Prior’s words really meant.

The smile in Xala’s voice was evident. “They are weak,” she said dismissively, and there was the sound of a chair being drawn back from a table. “They will be no threat to us. Whomever brought word that they would be a challenge to us was sadly mistaken.”

The humming sound began again, louder this time. “Then we must inform the Ori,” the Fourth Prior said. “Earth will soon be theirs. Place your hands upon the Inquiri.”

Daniel thought he was going to be sick, literally and physically sick. Xala was working for the Ori? Believed what they were selling? Was … was betraying them? Vala had been right about her? It just didn’t seem possible, and yet, here they were … a few steps away from possible annihilation at the hands of the Priors and all because … of Xala.

The humming grew even louder, and Daniel stood. Teal’c stood as well as Daniel spoke loudly into his mic while drawing his zat and charging it. “It’s time for a distraction,” he said to Mitchell and Carter, made sure his frequency changer was on and running, and took the stairs two at a time, Teal’c right beside him.

Xala was standing and reaching just as Daniel and Teal’c burst into the room from one end, Mitchell and Carter through the front door. At the table sat four Priors, their own hands reaching towards a large contraption set in the middle of the table that seemed to be made up mostly of a glowing orange crystal. “What the hell are you doing?” Xala shouted, her hand trying to close on the orange crystal.

The Priors rose as one, their staves flying into their hands, the crystals at the tops of the staves starting to glow Ori blue. “Dammit!” Xala shouted, and launched herself across the table at the orange crystal.

Mitchell went flying, truly flying, as Carter aimed several perfect shots at the nearest Prior, none of which seemed to have an affect on him. Daniel aimed for the same Prior, thinking, perhaps, that multiple hits might weaker the Prior. Teal’c just started laying waste with his staff weapon; what didn’t hit a Prior blasted hand-crafted furniture and ripped apart plastered walls.

Xala had succeeded in grabbing the orange crystal out of its mounting, and the humming stopped abruptly. There was an inarticulate cry of rage from one of the Priors, and Xala’s body rose into the air, her body sparkling with blue energy lines. She screamed, short and abrupt, but did not release her hold on the crystal.

The Prior who had turned his attention to Sam was obviously perplexed – his hand was outstretched, but Sam was able to fire off several zat shots in a row, and the Prior collapsed, stone cold. Sam fired again, and the body disintegrated.

With the death of the one Prior, the efforts of the remaining three redoubled, but their effects were less obvious. While Mitchell still dangled in the air, and Xala remained hovering over the table, obviously still in excruciating pain, Mitchell fired his pistol. His first shot bounced off the Prior, then his second penetrated the Prior’s energy shield, and as the Prior dropped, so did Mitchell, landing with a painful and audible thud.

His body on automatic, his fingers doing the talking for him, Daniel’s light-speed mind was putting together pieces that didn’t seem to immediately fit together. Xala had gone for the crystal. He assumed that was the communication device, the thing that had made the humming noise. And Xala had been going for it before they even got into the room after hearing her betrayal. What if it hadn’t been a betrayal after all? What if it had been a set-up, not of the Stargate Command, but of the Priors? But if that were the case, why hadn’t Xala said anything to them? It was enough to make him dizzy, but the overwhelming conclusion he had was that Xala wasn’t working for the Priors after all.

Three Priors were down, and the fourth was focusing on Xala. She was still in the air, her body rigid with pain, her hands tight, steely claws on the orange crystal, her hair pulled out of her braid and whipping about her as she writhed in agony. “Drop the crystal, apostate!” the Prior bellowed, the blue light lancing from his staff and wrapping Xala in ever-tightening bands of light. If anything, her hands clenched tighter about the communication device.

“What the hell is going on!” Mitchell shouted, his pistol running out of ammo. He tossed the gun and pulled out his zat.

“I don’t know!” Daniel shouted back. “But we have to get Xala and the crystal out of here!”

With three zats, a staff weapon, and none of his fellows to back him up, the last Prior was quickly losing his ability to fight back. Combined with the constantly changing frequencies the five non-Ori were emitting, the light in the Prior’s staff was waning fast. And just when Daniel thought they’d just about beat the man down, the white-faced zealot had lowered his staff and stepped back. “Hallowed are the Ori,” he said defiantly, and promptly burst into flames. Xala fell back to the table, gasping, her face white with pain, but the now-dormant orange crystal still clutched in her hands.

There was nothing but a black splotch on the floor where the Prior had stood. Everyone stood frozen for a moment, stunned by what had occurred, the only sound that of Xala’s labored breathing and rasping moans of pain.

“Jackson, let’s go,” Mitchell said, and everyone went into motion, Teal’c, Daniel and Mitchell going for Xala, Carter taking the mounting for the crystal. “We need to boogie for the gate,” Mitchell added, helping Daniel slide a half-conscious Xala off the table. “We don’t know if there are any other Priors around, or some of their new Jaffa adherents. The sooner we’re out of here, the better.”

Daniel ran point on their pell-mell dash for the gate while Carter brought the crystal mounting and Mitchell and Teal’c had Xala by her arms. She still wouldn’t let go of the crystal, even with her arms slung about their shoulders, and she was starting to talk, jumbled words that were obviously not lucid. “It wasn’t me,” she muttered, her head lolling on her neck. “I wasn’t pointing at you.”

“Shut her up,” Daniel hissed into his mouthpiece, crouching low as he hustled through a hedgerow. “There’s Jaffa ahead, dammit, between us and the Gate.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be you,” Xala said, quite loudly and clearly, and Mitchell clapped a hand over her mouth.

“Teal’c,” Daniel whispered into his mic, “come up ahead.”

Teal’c gently dropped Xala’s arm, and she sagged against Mitchell, who braced a leg to take her entire weight. Then the Jaffa slid through the shadows to Daniel’s side.

“Can you distract them?” Daniel whispered to him. Teal’c nodded and went forward a few more feet before cupping his hands to his mouth and bellowing, “Kree! Jaffa! The Priors have need!”

Daniel’s eyebrows rose and he thought, Surely they can’t be that gullible. But they were. As one, the Jaffa shouted, “Hallowed are the Ori!” made an about face, and pelted through the dark woods towards the house the Priors had used. At least now they had a chance to find SG-3 and get home.

Home. With Mitchell calling ahead on his radio, Daniel and Teal’c reached the gate before the other three and found the four members of SG-3 punching in Earth’s address on the DHD. There were a few seconds of tense waiting while the Gate dialed, SG-3, Teal’c and Carter pointing guns into the darkness, and Daniel helping Mitchell to brace Xala upright with one hand over her mouth. She didn’t seem to notice his hand, for she kept muttering and flinching within his rough, supportive embrace.

The sounds of the Jaffa were coming back, their shouts and their horn splitting the dark night just as the gate lit up with the incoming rush of wormhole. Sam, Teal’c and SG-3 popped through the gate, followed by Daniel, Mitchell and Xala, the gate shutting behind them as they tumbled down the steel ramp into the heart of Cheyenne Mountain.

 

Even now, years after the fact, Daniel still looked for the small, vibrant presence of Janet Fraiser in the SGC’s infirmary. He was sometimes surprised not to see her, for she had been such a part of the healing process at Cheyenne Mountain. Dr. Lam was competent, but she lacked a certain warmth that was so necessary to a patient’s peace of mind. And while Janet’s absence still occasionally surprised him, Daniel was even more startled to see Vala seated by her sister’s bedside. “What are you doing here?” he said softly, standing beside her.

Vala almost squirmed as she gazed at Xala’s pale face. “I don’t know,” she said finally, her hands resting on her belly.

Very gently, Daniel put a hand on her shoulder. “She’s been talking while she’s been unconscious,” he said.

Vala’s face did not move. “Has she, now,” she said finally, flatly, her eyes never leaving Xala’s face.

“She did,” Daniel said, and drew up a chair to sit next to her. “She said, ‘It wasn’t supposed to be you.’”

Vala shrugged. “That could mean anything.”

Daniel shook his head. “I think you know what it’s about.”

“No,” Vala whispered fiercely, turning blazing eyes to him. “You’re always so willing to believe the best in people, Daniel,” she said, her cheeks flushing. “And you can’t do that with her. Didn’t she betray you all to the Ori??”

Daniel shook his head again. “I don’t think so, Vala,” he said thoughtfully. “I think we misread her from the beginning. She’s been playing double-agent with the Ori, and – ”

“And she used you,” Vala said, “she couldn’t tell you the truth and used you. Used all of you.”

“Sounds familiar,” Daniel said testily, getting fed up with Vala’s attitude. There may be history between Vala and her sister, but what Daniel had seen had been nothing but a cagey young woman who had taken serious risks to deal a blow to the Ori, risks of which they were mostly unaware. “She didn’t trust us. Who can be trusted these days, Vala? Certainly not you. Oh, don’t give me that wounded look, you know it’s perfectly true. I think you should talk to her when she wakes up. There’s a lot more going on, here, than meets the eye.”

Vala shifted irritably. “She gave me to Q’tesh,” she said stubbornly.

“I think you should talk to her,” Daniel repeated, pressed her shoulder briefly in parting, and left the room.

Vala sighed. She supposed he was right, in his usual Daniel way. He really was entirely too thoughtful, caring and forgiving, but she couldn’t deny that that was part of his charm. He truly cared about how people felt, about what people did, and if he thought Xala should be listened to … well, she could try. She wouldn’t like it, she probably wouldn’t believe Xala, but she’d try. When Xala woke up.

 

It was hours later when Xala woke, her body aching from the constant bolts of energy with which the Prior had tortured her. She didn’t want to open her eyes right away; instead, she lay in the cool sheets, listening to various things beep around her, and decided that she wasn’t dead, and she wasn’t at the mercy of the Priors. Slowly, carefully, she thought back, and realized she was, most likely, back at the SGC. Which meant that one or more of SG-1 had survived, enough to bring her back. And the crystal? She remembered the feel of it in her hands, hot and angular.

Painstakingly, she began to open her eyes, feeling dried gunk in the corners, the light harsh on her pupils. Silently, pictures began to slide together, solidify, hardening into various medical instruments and the unforgiving face of her sister. Vala.

“Where?” Xala croaked, and Vala reached behind her for a cup of ice chips which she slowly fed to Xala.

“You’re in the SGC,” Vala said emotionlessly, her gentle hands at odds with her stern face.

“I know,” Xala rasped, pushing at the cup. “Where’s Daniel? And Sam? And … ”

Vala bit her lip for a moment, fighting back a wave of overwhelming irritation. “They all made it,” she said, and stood abruptly.

Xala’s eyes closed for a moment. “Don’t go,” she said, opening her eyes, the irises dark and filled again with that painful something that Daniel had seen a couple of days ago. “You need to know … ”

“I already know everything I need to know,” Vala retorted and moved towards the door.

“It wasn’t me!” Xala blurted, and to her embarrassed horror she started to cry, deep silent tears that streamed down her white face.

“The hell it wasn’t you!” Vala shouted, turning on her heels to face Xala. “You gave me to Q’tesh!”

“No! I didn’t! They were making me choose! It was you or Cala or Randin! I was pointing at Randin!”

Vala froze. “What?” she gasped.

“And if I didn’t choose one of you, they would kill you. All of you. And kill our mother. I had no choice, it was either a sister or my partner or my mother.”

The blood drained from Vala’s face and she wavered, grasping at the door frame to steady herself. “What?” she repeated.

“And they took you. They weren’t supposed to,” Xala cried, snuffling into the tube that was in her nose. “And then you … and you were … and I couldn’t forgive myself, and I couldn’t forgive you, even though I know it was Q’tesh who tortured me, not you.”

Vala still stood in the doorway, the blue of her eyes nearly swallowed by the darkness of Xala’s truths. “Randin?” she said finally, stepping back into the room.

Xala nodded, and wiped her eyes with a corner of her sheet. “It was supposed to be Randin. But somehow they knew … they knew and they took you … and I tried to get them to take me instead, but Q’tesh didn’t want me, made me choose … ”

Vala approached the bed, her steps tentative. “And I thought you had chosen me,” she whispered, and sat back down in her chair. “And when Q’tesh took me, and felt my anger, she used it against me, and took you and … and we did what we did.”

Xala nodded and continued snuffling into her tubes. “I didn’t want to choose at all, Vala,” she said hoarsely. “I didn’t want anyone to be taken, least of all any of my sisters. I thought I was choosing the lesser of two evils by singling out Randin, but … oh, gods.” She buried her face in her hands. “And then you thinking I had done that deliberately, when … ”

Slowly, Vala reached out a hand and laid it gently on Xala’s head. “All these years,” she said softly. “I thought you had chosen me. Deliberately. I hated you so much and part of me was glad when Q’tesh punished you.”

Xala’s head came up sharply. “How could you think that?” she yelped.

“I had nothing else to think,” Vala answered simply.

Xala simply gaped at her, the tears running silently down her cheeks. Finally, she gasped out, “I missed you,” she gasped, crying harder than before.

Vala stared at her for several long moments, then gently eased her bulk onto the bed and took Xala in her arms. “I missed you, too,” she murmured into Xala’s hair, her own tears dampening the dark strands beneath her cheek. “And my baby will be happy to have an auntie right by her side.” Then the tears spilled freely and the sisters held each other, sobbing helplessly, the unhappy years washing away with each shuddering gasp of sorrow, pain and joy.

Quietly, Daniel turned away from the infirmary door where he’d been standing, unseen. A tiny smile curved his lips as he wandered happily down the hallway, his hands tucked in his BDU pockets.

.:.

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