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Fool the World (And Never Fool Myself)

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Vala knew it was a sign of trust, that she was allowed to leave the mountain without an escort. Whatever it was Teal’c had done when he’d lived on his own, it had forever prevented Vala and anyone like her from actually living off-base, but at least she could go to the cinema and the shops like a normal, Earth-raised woman without Daniel or some hapless Airman dogging her heels.

She was standing in line at a coffee shop Daniel liked - with every intention of buying him some of his favorite coffee to apologize for annoying him on their most recent mission through the gate - when she heard an accent, just like her own. Or at least, an accent like whatever it was the gate’s translation system made her sound like. Not even the vaunted Rodney McKay, smartest man in two galaxies, could explain why Vala had one accent and Teal’c another, and yet Jonas Quinn sounded just as American as the rest of SG-1 under the gate translation system.

“Yes, thank you, Cassandra, I appreciate it,” the woman was saying. She was standing in front of Vala and talking on her mobile. She had curly blonde hair and was slender, had a figure most of the men Vala knew would consider attractive.

The woman ended her phone call and sighed. “Poor Cassandra, caught in the middle of bureaucratic madness. And to top it all off, I don't even get a decent cup of tea.”

Daniel had done his best over the years to educate Vala in the ways of ‘her people’, and she knew tea was important to the British. She said, “If only they hadn’t thrown all the tea into Boston Harbor, there might be a chance for a good cup once in a while, eh?”

The woman laughed and turned. “So true, isn’t it?” But then the smile slid off her face, and she said, “Qetesh!”

The woman actually started to back away, terror in her eyes.

“No, no!” Vala said quickly. The woman knew the name of Vala’s former captor. She was afraid. She’d spill something classified. Vala would be in so much trouble. “Please, no, it’s just me. Vala. Vala Mal Doran. I’m - free.”

The woman paused. “Free?”

Vala nodded vigorously. “Yes. For - a while now.” She stepped closer, lowered her voice. “Are you like me? From, you know, the other side of the gate?”

“No,” the woman said, eyes still wide, breathing panicked. “I’m from - here.”

“Oh.” Vala studied the woman. “Then how did you know -?”

“Osiris.”

“You met him?”

“I was him.”

Osiris had been quiet for - a very, very long time. Qetesh had assumed him and Isis dead. She’d been wrong. “I’m so sorry.”

The woman shrugged. “It’s over now.” Then she managed a watery smile, offered a hand. “I’m Sarah, by the way. Sarah Gardner.”

“Pleased to meet you. As I said, Vala Mal Doran.” Vala shook her hand.

One of the baristas said, “Ma’am, are you ready to order?”

Sarah spun around. “Oh, yes, pardon me.” She stepped up to the counter to order her drink - an ordinary coffee - and then stepped aside to wait for the order to be made up.

The barista beckoned, and Vala recited her order - plain coffee - and was ridiculously pleased with herself when she could recite Daniel’s order without hesitation: Sumatra Mandehling, one cream, two sugars. She paid with her very own debit card - which General Landry had been very hesitant to give her, even though she did receive a salary - and told the barista her name was Val and then stepped aside to wait for her order.

“I have a friend,” Sarah said, “who used to order his coffee just like that.” She smiled tentatively at Vala.

“It’s not for me. It’s for one of my colleagues.” Vala smiled back.

“My friend, Daniel - we studied together. Archaeology.”

“Not Daniel Jackson?”

Sarah’s eyes went wide. “You know Daniel?”

“We’re on the same…team. Well, we were. Team’s a bit disbanded now, what with other people getting promotions and moving on.” Of course Sarah knew Daniel. Even if she hadn’t known him in school, she’d probably known him when Osiris was in control of her. Chances were Daniel and the rest of SG-1 had freed her.

One of the other baristas called Sarah’s name, and she went to fetch her coffee. When Vala went to pick up her order, Sarah said, “Could I call you? Sometime? I understand if you don’t want to talk about -”

“I’d love for you to call.” Vala fumbled in her purse for a business card - she was officially employed as a civilian consultant - and handed it over. “We should have tea sometime or something.”

“Tell Daniel hello for me.” Sarah waved and carried her coffee out of the shop.

Vala watched her go, then headed outside to the motor pool car she’d borrowed from the SFs on base. On the drive back to base, she contemplated her encounter with Sarah Gardner. The only other former Goa’uld hosts she knew were Jack O’Neill - and he’d been host to a rogue Tok’ra - and Sam Carter - also host to a Tok’ra - and Stephen Caldwell - who hadn’t been particularly friendly to her even before he became a host. Vala had never been particularly close with Jack, and both his and Sam’s symbiotes had died instead of being extracted. None of them had been hosts for very long, and none of them had suffered through the Tok’ra extraction process. And none of them had been hosts to System Lords.

Back on base, Vala presented Daniel with his coffee, and he was pleased.

Vala would have stayed around and needled him about his recent mission to Atlantis, but she needed some time to think for herself. Daniel was perhaps the closest to Vala. Even though Sam was a woman, Vala and Daniel had experiences in common that no one else had.

She’d just never dared talk to him about them before.

She paused in the doorway of his office. “Daniel -”

He looked up at her, blinked. “Yes?”

“Sam mentioned, back early in the program, you had a run-in with Hathor.”

Daniel’s expression shuttered.

“I was just wondering.” Vala swallowed hard. “After my run-in with the Ori and - Adria. How did you - ? How did you get your self back?”

Daniel set down his pen, motions slow and deliberate. Finally, he said, “I’ll let you know when I figure it out.” Then he peered up at her, brow furrowed. “Are you okay? Did something happen while you were off-base?”

“No. I just -” Vala took a deep breath. “It’s been so long since I - I was me. And I think some days I’ve forgotten who I really am. Sam is a soldier and a scientist, and she keeps getting promoted. She’s commanding her own battle-cruiser. You’re the Stargate Program. You know all the languages and planets and people. Mitchell is the new 2IC on base, and he loves being a leader, loves teaching all the young soldiers. Teal’c has his lady friend and the Jaffa Free Nation, his son and grandchildren. And I just - sort of go wherever they tell me. Like getting picked last for basketball. Need a spare body on a mission through the gate? Bring Vala.”

“You’re valuable to the program,” Daniel said.

The program. Vala wanted to be valuable to people. Daniel and Mitchell and Sam and Teal’c were her friends, but -

“Thanks, Daniel. Enjoy the coffee.”

*

Another mission, another planet lost to the Ori. Vala was tagging along with random gate teams, doing her best to clean up. She always felt like the Ori invasion of the Milky Way Galaxy was her fault. Yes, Daniel had been transported to the Ori Galaxy with her on that first trip, but she’d been alone on the second trip. While she hadn’t agreed to bear the Orici, it was her body that had given the damned creature life. She knew that being host to Qetesh wasn’t her choice either, but some days she wondered if she didn't have some kind of sign painted on her, or if she wasn’t emitting some kind of signal that said ‘use this body’ or ‘for rent’. Maybe it said ‘easy mark’.

So Vala came back through the gate, trying to shake the after-images of another Ori-ravaged planet, and turned in her gear to the Quartermaster. She went to the locker rooms to shower away the stench of blaster-fire and burnt buildings and death. Then she went to her office, which she was pretty sure had been Daniel’s closet at one time, and wrote her AAR.

It was the middle of the night, according to the little clock in the corner of Vala’s laptop screen, but night and day were abstract concepts under the Mountain, where there was no sky and gate teams departed and returned at all hours. The SGC was as busy at midnight as it was at noon. How anyone on a gate team managed to have any social life outside of the Mountain was a mystery.

Once Vala finished her report - Captain Hailey was handling the in-person debrief with Colonel Ferretti, the gate team supervisor - she was at a loss as to what to do with herself. Daniel was on his way to Atlantis again. Sam was on her way to yet a different galaxy on the General Hammond. Teal’c was on Dakara with his family. So Vala had no one. And she didn’t have Sarah Gardner’s phone number. Even if she did have it, she couldn’t call because it was the middle of the night.

After a few minutes of staring desultorily at her phone, Vala took herself off to the shooting range. She signed the check-in sheet, signed a pistol and earmuffs out from the rangemaster, asked for a box of ammo, and picked an unoccupied lane.

As a Goa’uld host, she had stark memories of using all manner of weapons. Goa’uld were not weapons masters by nature and often relied on the superiority of their weapons or physical strength in battle. Vala’s sharp-shooting skills had been necessary for survival, and she had earned them all herself. She’d never understood the draw of being a professional soldier, with all the rules and regulations, no matter how attractive she looked in some uniforms. But she did understand the thrill of combat, of overcoming seemingly impossible odds, and she understood the meditative quality of physical coordination. Of her body doing what it was told, when it was told. Of steadiness and precision.

Few people understood how it felt, not to have their bodies listen when they issued it commands. Vala had felt that powerlessness for too long as Qetesh’s slave. Now she reveled in her body and its skill. There was a certain rhythm to the inhale, exhale, squeeze, re-center of firing a weapon. While Vala had excellent sniper skills, the true test of a good combat shooter was instinctive shooting. Did her body know where to aim the gun so she could hit what she was looking at as soon as she looked at it, if she didn’t have time to steady her gun and line up the sights, close one eye and squint through a scope? That was the harmony of mind and body. That was all Vala.

After each magazine, she’d push the button to bring her target back so she could admire her own accuracy, and then she’d reload. A couple of the younger Marines paused behind her to watch, and she received more than one admiring whistle when they saw her targets: center mass or head shots, tight groupings every time.

When she’d used an entire box of ammo, she returned the gun and the ear-muffs to the rangemaster, signed out, and returned to her quarters. It was some consolation to know that she had some of the nicest quarters on base, other than the ones given to visiting dignitaries. It only made sense, given that she lived on base full time. She’d done her best to make the room her space. She’d never had a permanent home for this long, not since childhood, and she wasn’t sure she’d ever known how to make a place her own. Her quarters now had a cute comforter she’d picked out while shopping with Sam (pink and black zebra stripes), and pictures she’d taken over the years, of herself with her team and other personnel on base she considered friendly, if not friends. She also had a few bits and bobs from other planets she’d been allowed to keep from missions. A stack of CDs and DVDs that Sam, Daniel, and Mitchell insisted were essential to human culture were on the bookshelf she had bought and put together herself (with Siler’s help). Also she had some books, passed along by Daniel and Mitchell and other personnel on base.

Vala changed into her pajamas and sat down on the edge of her bed, brushing her hair for the night, and wondered what she should do to try to shut down and sleep. Listen to some music? Watch a film? Read a book?

In the end she settled on none, plaited her hair, turned off the light, and slid under the covers.

She tried not to dream.

That kind of trying was always in vain.

She wasn’t sure what time it was when she woke, breathless and terrified. Not nearly as long as the dream had felt. She switched on the bedside lamp and looked around for some clean clothes, pulled them on.

She didn’t dare go back to sleep.

The usual nightmare-memories of her time as Qetesh had been intermingled with visions of Ori troops raining destruction down on naive humans. The worst thing for Vala was seeing the planets that were still destroying each other, now that the Ori had been defeated. The factions who’d joined with the Ori were still bent on destroying the non-believers, even though they now knew the Ori weren’t deities.

“It’s not about religion anymore,” Sam had explained once. “It’s about power and politics and pride. We see it all the time on Earth. The terrorists who claim to fight for religion usually don’t believe it. Maybe their foot soldiers do, but the leaders, the ones in power? It’s not about faith for them.”

Vala stood up and started for the door. She could go to the commissary, get some coffee. That would keep her awake. And maybe she could watch a movie or two. Those would keep her awake, too. If she didn’t like the ones in her collection, the base Archivist had a much wider selection. And there was always borrowing Sam’s subscription to Netflix, which she never used because she was on Earth so sporadically.

Vala opened the door and stared out at the cement floor, the cement walls, the mass of exposed pipes in the ceiling, the fluorescent lights, and couldn’t take it anymore. If she was going to go for coffee, she was going off-base. For the good stuff.

The good stuff on base involved stealing from either Daniel or Sam, and while stealing from Daniel was always an end unto itself, Vala had to get out.

Out.

Far away.

So she found her wallet and her jacket and her little mobile, and she headed for the elevator.

The quartermaster at the motor pool didn’t blink at Vala wanting to check a car out in the middle of the night, just handed her the clipboard with the sign-out sheet and a set of keys after she signed, and she was free to leave the base.

She went to the all-night diner Daniel had taken her to once. It had great coffee no matter the time of day, and maybe she could order an ice cream sundae as well, because it was never the wrong time of day for an ice cream sundae as far as she was concerned.

Vala wondered how many other SGC personnel frequented the diner, given that the waitress didn’t bat an eyelash at Vala’s BDUs (she wasn’t always sure how to dress fashionably by Earth standards, and dressing wrong was a bad way to get noticed) or her order of coffee and an ice cream sundae. Vala ate her sundae slowly, reveling in its sweetness and the contrast of cold against the hot, bitter coffee. She’d eaten a lot of dubious food in her time (or simply gone without food at all; Goa’uld didn’t require food and drink, though they sometimes indulged in it), so she’d never really appreciated the way the soldiers tended to complain about the food on base - and apparently every military base. She had to admit that the coffee off-base was better, and getting ice cream on base was nearly impossible, unless it was a special occasion.

Did she really want to stay on Earth and with the SGC? This was the longest she’d stayed in any one place of her own volition since her father had sold her into slavery. The SGC had mounted an amazing fight in the last decade and some change, taking on a technologically superior race that had dominated the galaxy for millennia and breaking their power-hold in about eight years. They’d gone on to handle the Ori in three. There was still clean-up and dealing with the aftermath, and it seemed the best way to effectuate change in the galaxy was to work with the Tau’ri, but Vala had never been one of those people, not a hero, not a fighter.

She was a survivor, and she’d survived.

So why should she stay when there was nothing to stay for?

Vala finished her sundae and coffee - she saved the cherry for last - and paid with her card, left a generous tip. She smiled at the waitress as she left, and then she headed out into the chilly night. She could go back to the base, or she could - walk. Enjoy the night air. So few planets in the Milky Way were technologically advanced, were rural and quiet, sort of like Mitchell’s hometown, because the Goa’uld had gone to great lengths to prevent anyone from rising up and challenging them. Vala liked - energy. Liked being around people. Liked the sounds of people living. Colorado Springs was alive even at night. Vala knew there were other cities that were much busier in the small hours, but here there were cars rolling along the streets, and there were bars and clubs and restaurants alight, noise and people spilling onto the sidewalks. Downtown was always the busiest, Daniel said. It was where people and businesses congregated.

Maybe Vala could go dancing. But the thought of strangers trying to get their hands on her - no.

She could listen to the music, enjoy the lights, and watch the people, though. Maybe that would help her decide. Did she want to throw her lot in with the Tau’ri for the foreseeable future? For the rest of her life?

Most of the Tau’ri seemed to think that most of the planets in the Milky Way had been modeled after Earth, were Earth-lite, all looked like Canada in varying degrees, that every off-planet culture was a derivation of one of Earth’s, that something of every planet could be found on Earth these days, so fitting in would come in time, at least to someone fully human like Vala. There were things from her own planet that she missed. Like dancing under the singing tree with other girls her same age, waiting for the blossoms to open and the songs to pour forth. There weren’t singing trees on any other planet that Vala had ever seen. She missed that jubilance, that innocence, that song. There was no music like it anywhere else.

Vala drifted toward a bar that purported to be a jazz bar, which, as she understood it, meant drinks and music but no talking to strangers if she didn’t want to. The neon sign flashing in the window indicated there was live music tonight. Did she want live music? Or would it just make her miss her childhood even more? She paused just beyond the light spilling from the door and pondered, curled her hand around the car keys.

She could go back to the Mountain.

Or she could go inside.

A commotion rose from the shadows behind her, and she turned, alert. Listening.

Heard a scuffling and low voices, rough laughter, and a girl say, “Get your hands off me, jerk.”

Vala started toward the noise instinctively. The voices sounded - young. Adolescent. But the young could be just as dangerous as the mature and the old.

There, in the shadow of a side street, three boys were circling a girl, taunting her, reaching out and plucking at her hair, her clothes. Her body.

She was short, dark-skinned, reminded Vala vaguely of Captain Satterfield on SG-17 around the eyes and nose. The girl tried to swat the boys’ hands away, but they just laughed and dodged. Vala guessed none of them were older than eighteen. None of them were particularly large, but there were three of them, and they were all bigger than the girl.

“I said stop,” the girl hissed, and one of the boys laughed.

“Why should I?”

“Because she told you to,” Vala said.

The boys paused, turned.

One of the other boys wrinkled his nose and sneered at Vala. “This is none of your business, you old bitch. Move along.”

“I’m making it my business,” Vala said. “The ones who should move along are you three, so this young lady can be about her business undisturbed.”

The girl had a bruise along the side of her face. And she was favoring one arm.

The three boys were all of a similar build - tall, lanky, still narrow in the shoulders. One had brown hair, one had black hair, one had red hair. Vala noted the way they looked lest she be required to describe them to law enforcement officials later. They were wearing matching jackets, too. Some kind of uniform? A gang of sorts?

Red nudged Brown. “Dude, she’s wearing a military uniform.”

Brown snorted. “Then she’s from the base. You know what they do up at the base? Deep space telemetry. They’re a bunch of Air Force nerds. I’m not afraid of her.”

“Oh, but you should be.” Vala smiled sweetly. “You see, I have lived a colorful life, one filled with ups and downs, and as a result of said life, I have several pet peeves, one of which involves people who think other people’s bodies are their property to do with as they wish. Her body is hers, not yours, and if she tells you to keep your hands to yourself, you should do so, and if you do not, there shall be consequences.”

Black laughed. “Who are you, my mother?”

“No, I am not. Your mother loves and wishes for you to go through life unharmed. I do not love you, and if you touch that girl again, I shall harm you very much, and when the police come, I shall cry great big crocodile tears and tell them I was terrified for my life, and they shall take you away and lock you up for a very long time because you frightened little old me.”

Black lifted his chin. “Oh, yeah? What would you do to me?”

Vala tilted her head coquettishly. “I supposed it would depend on how much time I had. I’m a lady, and I like to take things slow, so I’d probably tie you down and skin you, slicing off your skin inch-wide strips, maybe six inches long at a time? I’m so terrible at inches. We don’t use inches where I come from. But if I were pressed for time - well, you’d be surprised at how easy it is to kill someone with your bare hands. None of that fancy kung fu business. No, grab your head, twist, knee you in the jaw, break your neck. Or just knock you down and then keep kicking you in the ribs till they puncture your lungs and you drown in your own blood.”

Black blinked, shifted. “That’s really messed up, lady.”

“So is putting your hands on someone against their will.”

Red nudged Brown. “C’mon. Let’s go. If I get busted out after curfew again, my mom will tell Coach Jennings, and I’ll be sidelined for the next game.”

Coach Jennings. Sidelined. Game. Noted.

Black nodded his agreement. “Yeah, let’s go.” He tugged on Brown’s shoulder.

Brown eyed Vala, but he acquiesced. “Fine. Let’s go.” To Vala, he said, “You’re crazy, lady.”

“You meet all kinds in the middle of the night,” Vala said evenly.

The three boys walked past Vala, careful not to touch her. She watched them till they were out of sight, then turned to the girl.

“Are you all right?”

“Yeah. Thanks. That was pretty crazy, though. You wouldn’t really have done all that, would you?”

“Just be glad you didn’t have to find out whether I would.” Vala stepped closer to the girl, hands raised in surrender. “Do you have somewhere safe to go?”

“I go walking in the middle of the night sometimes, when my mom gets drunk.” The girl shrugged one shoulder. “I wait till she’s probably passed out before I go home, then I can get some sleep.”

“Did your mother do that to your face?”

Again with the one-armed shrug. “She gets mad when she gets drunk.”

“How’s your arm?”

“Not broken, I’m pretty sure.”

“You should see a doctor.”

The girl shook her head vehemently. “No. If I go to a doctor, they’ll ask questions and then call social services and then take me away from my mom.”

“Is there anywhere safe you can go?” Vala asked. “I could give you a ride.”

The girl snorted. “You saved me back there, but I’m not dumb enough to get into a car with you.”

“Then let me walk you.”

“Look, lady -”

“It’s the middle of the night,” Vala said. “Safety in numbers.”

You’re out walking alone.”

“As those cretins noted, I’m crazy.”

The girl eyed Vala. “I was kinda headed to a place anyway. There’s this lady - she’ll patch kids up for free. One of my friends told me about her. I heard she lives a couple of blocks from Memorial.”

“Memorial what?”

“High School.”

“All right. Memorial High School it is. Lead the way, Miss -”

“Kate. My name is Kate.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Kate. I’m Vala.”

“Vala? Not captain or major or doctor?” Kate looked Vala’s uniform up and down.

“Civilian consultant. Not from around here, obviously.” Vala smiled. “So, tell me about this woman we’re going to see. Is she a nurse?”

“My homegirl says she teaches history. Memorial’s the alternative high school - you know, troubled kids, criminals, foster kids.” Kate shrugged. “But she has some kinda medical training or something, because she always patches kids up primo.”

Vala narrowed her eyes. “Does this teacher give you drugs?”

“That’s the thing - it’s totally holistic or whatever. Energy healing. But it works.” Kate took point with a calm assertiveness Vala wouldn’t have expected, but she followed along, careful to watch their six and make sure those boys weren’t following them.

When Vala went off-base, she brought a kara kesh with her, because that was less trouble than a gun, but she knew it would be desperate times if she actually had to use it.

Kate flicked a glance up at Vala. “You aren’t my mother, you know. You don’t have to stick around, and I don’t have to answer your questions.”

“No, but I have taken on the responsibility of ensuring your safety, and even if this responsibility is temporary, I shall acquit myself appropriately.” It was the kind of thing Mitchell would say. Vala listened to him more than she realized.

Kate huffed. “You know you just said that with a southern accent?”

“One of my colleagues is from the South, and he’s always full of aged wisdom from his grandmother,” Vala said.

“You’re weird.”

“I think the word you’re looking for is unique.” Vala lifted her chin and threw her shoulders back. She was gratified when Kate laughed.

They were headed into a nicer neighborhood, not quite as upscale as where General Landry and General Hammond had lived, but the houses were newer, if smaller. Vala figured as long as they moved like they belonged there, no one would be overly zealous about calling the cops on them. Kate led them down a street that ended in a cul-de-sac. She counted the houses under her breath, then turned toward a small white bungalow with a deep red roof.

The lawn was small but neat, with rose bushes lining the stone path up to the front door. Kate skirted around the side of the house, through a gate in the fance that closed in a much bigger back yard, and crossed the back lawn to the rear porch, where she went to the French doors.

Instead of knocking, she pressed a button on an intercom - three times fast, then slow, then fast. SOS.

Once someone answered the door, it was probably Vala’s cue to leave, but she was hesitant to abandon Kate with some stranger, even though as far as Kate was concerned, Vala was the stranger.

There was no answer, and Vala opened her mouth to suggest to Kate that maybe Kate go to the ER, but then the intercom crackled.

“Hello?”

“Hey, my name is Kate. I’m one of Eliana’s friends. She said you could hook me up if I needed some, you know, patching up.”

“Yes. I’ll be right there.” The woman on the other end sounded sleepy.

“You can go now,” Kate said.

“Not till you’re safe inside,” Vala said firmly.

Kate rolled her eyes but didn’t argue, instead peered through the glass into the dim, shadowed house. Vala saw movement, reached instinctively for her kara kesh.

A woman was shambling toward the back door,yawning and drawing a dressing gown around her. The woman was pale, her clothes were pale. Something about her was familiar. She looked like -

“Sarah?”

Sarah unlocked one of the French doors and pulled it open. “Vala?”

Kate peered up at her. “You two know each other?”

“Yes,” Vala said. “I mean - not well. We have a mutual friend.”

Sarah rubbed her eyes sleepily. “Vala, what are you doing here?”

“I was escorting Kate, to ensure she arrived safely. I was having an evening constitutional and happened upon Kate while she was in the clutches of some feral boys -”

“Football players from my high school.” Kate rolled her eyes.

“ - And I effectuated a heroic rescue, and now here we are, so she can be patched up.” Vala smiled and filed away the information about football and Kate’s high school for later. “I didn’t realize you taught history.”

Sarah yawned delicately behind her hand. “Well, archaeology is actually a subset of anthropology, but I know enough history to be able to teach it to teenagers. Now, Kate, is it? Did those boys do this to you?”

“No,” Vala said. “I intervened before they could damage her too much.”

Sarah raised her eyebrows. “Kate, was this one of your parents?”

Kate set her mouth in a thin line.

Sarah sighed. “I’m a teacher. I’m obligated to report if your parent -”

“It was the football players,” Kate said flatly. To Vala, she said, “You can go now.”

Vala caught Sarah’s eye. “Do you need any assistance? I know some field medicine.”

“I was planning on using -” Sarah waggled her right hand meaningfully, and Vala realized. She had possession of a tel’kesh.

Vala swallowed hard. “Oh. Of course. Yes, that’ll be very effective. Perhaps I should stay, to ensure Kate makes it home safely after.”

“I don’t need you,” Kate snapped, but Sarah said,

“Yes, that would be good. Please, do come in. Let me put on a kettle and we can get started.” Sarah led Katie and Vala across her living room and into the kitchen.

Katie hovered near the door, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice, so Vala sat down at the kitchen table.

“I’ve been meaning to call,” Vala said, “so we can have tea and catch up on old times and our mutual friend, but things at the Mountain are a bit - chaotic. And I forgot to get your number when we were at the coffee shop.”

“I understand.” Sarah put the kettle on the stove, fetched cups and saucers and spoons and a tin of tea leaves. “It’s midterms at school, so things have been chaotic on my end as well. How is Daniel?”

“He’s doing well,” Vala said. “Spending a lot of time at one of our more remote outposts, but it’s the research opportunity of a lifetime for him, and he’s very glad.”

Sarah’s brow furrowed; she didn’t know about Atlantis, then. “I’m glad for him as well. Are you still -?”

“Active in the field? Yes, though not with a permanent team. I just help out where they need me. Does Daniel know you still live around here? That you teach?”

“We stay in contact via email, though - he’s Daniel. You know men. Not very good at keeping in touch.” Sarah had several silver tea strainers, into which she measured tea. She served up three cups, smiled at Kate. “Do you want cream? Sugar? Honey?”

Kate remained standing beside the door. “Honey, I guess. Thanks.”

Sarah sat down beside Vala, facing Kate. “So, you know Eliana. I don’t recall seeing you at school.”

“No, I go to Cold Springs,” Kate said.

“Junior?” Sarah’s smile was gentle, pleasant. Non-threatening.

“Sophomore.”

Vala filed that away too.

“All right. Well, here’s the deal, Kate. I’ll patch you up, few questions asked. You don’t ask questions about the technology I use to patch you up, and if you ever need a safe place to stay, you can call me.”

“Or me,” Vala said. “I mean, I basically live on the base, but I’m resourceful, when it comes to looking after myself.”

Kate narrowed her eyes appraisingly. “Do you two know each other because you’re both from England or something?”

“England’s a country, not a town, and we don’t all magically know each other,” Sarah said. “And as mentioned before, we have a friend in common. His name is Daniel. He and I were at university together. Now he and Vala work together.”

“I’m not actually from England,” Vala said. “I’m from - a former colony, you could say.”

“What, like Singapore?”

Vala wracked her brain. That sounded about right. “Yes, though without the Singa and the Pore.”

Kate looked confused. “How do I know this isn’t some kind of set-up?”

“You trust Eliana, don’t you?” Sarah asked.

Kate nodded.

“Then you can trust me, and you can trust Vala, because I trust her.” Sarah rose up just as the kettle started to whistle, brought it back to the table and poured boiling water in all three cups. “You know what things are like for Eliana, yes?”

Kate nodded again, wariness deepening.

“Vala and I know what things are like for Eliana as well.” Sarah kept her tone measured and calm, but her gaze was sharp and dark.

Some of Kate’s wariness faded.

“Vala,” Sarah said, “honey is atop the refrigerator. Let me go fetch my equipment.” She stood up, and so did Vala. While Sarah left the kitchen, Vala went to fetch the honey.

Kate approached the table now that it was unoccupied. She accepted the plastic bear full of honey that Vala gave her, and she set about fixing herself a cup of tea.

“This really isn’t a set-up?” Kate asked.

“Were you planning on being accosted by those boorish football players?”

“No.”

“Then I couldn’t have set you up, could I?”

“Maybe you know those boorish football players.”

Vala poked in the refrigerator and found a cardboard container of cream. “No, and I’m glad I don’t, and if I did, we wouldn’t be on friendly terms.”

“Because they got handsy with me.”

“Because they violated a most basic tenet of human existence - the right to bodily autonomy.” Vala scooped up her teacup and saucer and carried it over to the counter, stirred in a dash of cream. “Want any?”

Kate shook her head.

“Have some tea with your honey, why don’t you?” Sarah said lightly. She entered the kitchen, clutching a tel’kesh.

“Is that a ruby?” Kate asked, watching Sarah fit it onto her hand.

“No. Hold out your arm, so I can scan the damage.”

Kate obeyed. “Scan? Where’s your screen for a readout?”

“No questions, remember?” Sarah furrowed her brow in concentration, and a familiar hum filled the air.

Vala knew it discomfited people when she used her kara kesh, though no one seemed to mind when a Tok’ra tried to assist in someone’s medical treatment with a tel’kesh. Vala wondered if a hara’kesh, which was smaller and more portable than a kara kesh, was a better thing to carry in the field and when she was out and about in town. She ought to keep a tel’kesh in her off-world gear for emergencies.

“Right,” Kate said. “It feels - warm.”

“Is it hurting you?”

“No.”

“Good. I doubt I can heal all the damage, but I can get you to a level where it’ll be bearable, though you’ll probably have to take some aspirin or ibuprofen to manage the rest of the pain.” Sarah healed the bruises on Kate’s face before moving back to work on her arm.

Vala said, “I’m surprised they let you keep those. After you separated from the, er, program.”

“They confiscated the ones I had,” Sarah said, “but I knew where to find others. And yours?”

“My original set was lost long ago, but I have since found replacements.” Vala sipped her tea. It needed a couple of sugars. “So you just offer medical treatment to whoever needs it?”

“To my students and their friends,” Sarah said, “who can’t otherwise access it.” She caught Vala’s gaze and held it, and Vala understood.

It was one tiny way to make up for the atrocities their bodies had been used for. The Goa’uld had permanently stained their blood with naquadah in their quest to subdue all humans. Now Sarah was using that same naquadah to help humans.

There was a certain poetry in that mindset that Vala could appreciate. “Well, if you ever need help, I can pitch in.”

“That is very kind of you,” Sarah said.

Kate laughed. “Wow. You two sound like Jane Austen mixed up with a spy novel.”

Vala smiled wryly. “We aim to entertain.”

“Actually,” Sarah said, “I recently read a fascinating article about how teachers should also be entertainers. If we wish to impart knowledge, we need to engage our students, and some of that involves a measure of entertaining, as it were. Granted, there’s discipline required on the student side - not faffing about with mobiles, not talking out of turn, that sort of thing - but teachers who are endlessly boring aren’t fully doing their jobs. What do you think, Kate?”

“I agree. Boring teachers suck,” Kate said, so vehemently that Vala had to laugh.

Sarah earnestly entreated Kate to describe what she thought was a good teacher, and a lively discussion ensued about what made a good teacher, a good student, a good class session, and a good course over a semester.

Vala, who’d never attended formal school, had learned basic letters and numbers so as to get by in markets and doing errands for her various masters, and she was intrigued by the discussion. Before being taken slave by Qetesh, Vala had been book-poor but street-smart. After being blended with Qetesh, Vala understood Goa’uld technology and the science of the universe better than anyone would ever give her credit for. She had to concentrate hard to be able to do very technical things, like repairing the hyperdrive in a hatak, and her technical skills generally weren’t useful in the heat of a battle, but she was by no means stupid.

Daniel and Sam, who tended to get caught up in the minutiae and details of their own subjects and briefings, could veer toward the wrong side of boring very quickly if they weren’t careful - or if Mitchell or Landry weren’t there to nudge them back toward the right side.

Sarah, though, was charming. Funny. Bright and engaging. Kate was invested in the conversation, and her answers to Sarah’s seemingly casual questions were honest.

And soon, Sarah finished healing Kate.

“That’s as good as it gets, I’m afraid,” Sarah said. As good as it got from her, maybe, but not as good as it got from the technology. She probably had much less experience with the tel’kesh than Vala did.

But Vala suspected that Sarah didn’t heal Kate all the way because she wanted Kate to have a remnant of the pain, a warning, a memory - and she was hoping that someone else would see, someone else would know and get Kate the help she obviously needed.

Sarah shucked the tel’kesh and set it aside, smiled at Kate. “Thank you for stopping by. I hope you’re safer in the future. Know that you and Eliana are always welcome here - for more medical help, or help with history homework, as the need may arise.”

“Thanks, Miss Gardner,” Kate said. She shook her arm out experimentally, eyes wide. “Wow. That’s - wow!”

“Now,” Sarah said, “Vala ought to walk you home. And then I suspect Vala will need to sleep as well, yes?”

Vala hid a yawn behind one hand. “Yes, I suppose I ought. It was a long day, and a short night. But before I go, we should actually exchange contact information, shouldn’t we? Phone numbers, email addresses, that sort of thing.”

“Of course. We should go for tea sometime. I know one of the fancier hotels downtown serves high tea. We could make an afternoon of it.” Sarah rose up and crossed the kitchen, poked through some drawers before she came up with a notebook and pen. She wrote quickly - Vala despaired of ever being able to write that quickly in English; typing was so much faster - and tore out a sheet of paper, folded it and handed it to Vala.

“High tea sounds lovely.” Vala had no idea what it was, but she suspected it was something British, something she ought to know, on top of the broad strokes of Earth culture.

Kate heaved herself to her feet. “High tea. That some kind of Downton Abbey thing?”

Sarah laughed. “Yes, indeed it is.”

Vala and Kate stayed long enough to finish the tea, and then Kate grudgingly agreed to allow Vala to walk her home.

Kate lived in a rundown neighborhood a few blocks from the downtown alley where
Vala had first encountered her. While they walked, Vala entertained her with carefully edited stories about her coworkers - Daniel talking to natives, Mitchell’s high school reunion, Teal’c’s rocky relationship with his lady love.

The sun was still a few hours from rising, but Kate wouldn’t get much sleep before she had to wake up for school - if she went at all.

“Well,” Kate said, “you’re kinda cool for an old lady.”

“Compared to you, I am old, aren’t I?" Vala sighed. She handed Kate a business card. “I can help you, if you ever need it.”

Kate took the card and studied it for a long moment. Vala was afraid she was going to hand it back and then Kate said,

“Civilian contractor for what?”

Vala smiled grimly. “Survival.”

Kate arched an eyebrow. “Don’t soldiers have survival skills?”

“There are some situations soldiers are not trained to survive.”

Kate studied her, nodded, and pocketed the card. Then she turned and crawled down a
window well and in through the window.

Vala waited, and when there was no explosion of shouting, turned to head
back to her car.

*

Over the next few days Vala and Sarah exchanged emails, making plans to go on outings together. Other than drinking tea and occasionally disdaining Mitchell’s America, Vala didn’t know much about being British, so Sarah deemed herself Vala’s chief educator in the ways of the Queen. First step: high tea. But before high tea, Vala needed a tea dress. And if she wanted to obtain a tea dress (and necessary accessories), they had to go shopping.

Vala had wondered how anyone maintained a social life or even a basic personal life beyond the Mountain. She figured it out quickly enough: she simply made plans for it. After five days of brief off-world missions to planets liberated from the Ori, Vala headed for the locker room. She lingered in the hallway with Hailey and Satterfield, waiting for the last of the men to leave, and then Captain Elliot came trotting toward her.

“Hey, Vala, we just got a call from that one planet we visited on Monday. Want to ship out with us?”

“No, thank you,” Vala said, smiling. “I have plans.”

Elliot blinked. “Plans?”

“Yes, plans. To spend time with a friend. We’re going shopping.”

Elliot continued to look confused.

Hailey rolled her eyes and said, “Kevin, women can shoot things and also enjoy going shopping.”

“Oh, right. Well, have fun.” Elliot waved vaguely and wandered away.

“What are you shopping for?” Satterfield asked.

Vala told her, explained she and a friend were going for high tea, and Satterfield beamed at her, wished her fun times.

Shopping was fun times times indeed. Sarah picked up Vala at the gate at the edge of the base parking lot, and they went to the mall. For Vala, there was a certain security in being able to buy what she wanted without having to bargain and knowing that no matter the cost, she could cover it and have money left over.

Mitchell and Daniel thought Vala’s love of things was pure greed.

She liked shiny things, yes. They were pretty (so she bought some earrings, and then the quest was to find a dress, shoes, and clutch purse to match). But she didn’t like things for things’ sake, or for prettiness’ sake. She liked things for security’s sake. Having things meant she could sell them or trade them for shelter and food and weapons.

But sometimes, Vala just wanted to feel pretty. Tea dresses were very pretty.

Shopping was exhausting, so after they acquired all their clothing and accessories, they had dinner at a restaurant near the mall. Over dinner, Sarah told Vala all about high tea, the traditions associated with it, the cultural aspects of it. For some reason, when Sarah talked about history and culture, it wasn’t boring. It was fascinating - because it was tradition and culture that Sarah lived, that Vala was being invited to join. Sarah was British, and Vala could be British too.

While they were both picking delicately at a plate of stuffed mushrooms, Vala said, “So why is it called high tea? I can’t imagine that people are actually high during it.”

Sarah laughed. “Well, one time at uni - but no, it was called high tea because originally it was at a high table. Supper was had at eight in the evening, but when workers got home at six, they were quite peckish, so tea held them over. In middle- and lower-class homes, it was called afternoon tea, and people lounged on the sofa while they drank and ate, but in wealthier households, it was high tea.”

“But we’re not going to someone’s house.”

“Well, high tea evolved from a meal at home to an occasion out, for fine dining and company and scenery.” Sarah smiled.

“You grew up having high tea, then?”

“Oh, not at all.” Sarah’s nose wrinkled when she smiled her brightest. “My family wasn’t nearly that wealthy. At uni, before I moved to America, my friends and I would stage our own high teas in the dorms. We’d dress up in our finest and cobble together our nicest china - each of us had one fine cup, and we used a pretty tea cosy to fancy up the teapot - and we’d drink cheap Earl Grey and have a grand time.”

“So high tea is about having a grand time?”

“It used to be about not going hungry after a hard day’s work, but for us, now, it’s about having a grand time.” Sarah popped one of the mushrooms into her mouth. “So, how does Vala Mal Doran have a grand time?”

Vala smiled and launched into a tale about being the guest of honor at a banquet. She didn’t exactly point out that it was a wedding banquet, because in her attempts to flirt with the lord of the castle so she could drug him and raid his vaults she’d made too good an impression, but feasts on that planet had been magnificent indeed.

Sarah smiled and listened, fascinated, chin in her hand and eyes shining. Vala recognized the look on her face. She’d seen it on Daniel’s so many times, when he was sharing what he’d learned about a new alien culture.

Vala recognized the shadows in Sarah’s eyes; she’d seen them in Daniel, too, the knowledge that these alien cultures had suffered greatly, or that learning about them had come at great sacrifice, or that the interesting parts were offset or maybe even outweighed by the horrible parts.

Sarah knew what Vala wasn’t saying, but she wasn’t going to confront Vala about it, because she wanted to hear about the interesting parts.

If there was one thing Vala could do, it was be interesting.

*

The week after high tea - which was a grand success, the pair of them had turned heads as soon as they’d stepped into the hotel lobby - Sarah invited Vala over to watch a film called Pride and Prejudice, which was based on a very famous book, and every British woman worth her salt knew it and probably loved it.

Sarah wasn’t actually all that enamored of it, but she admired the historicity of this particular production - almost six hours long - and Vala ought to be conversant in the characters and plot, should she ever talk to, well, other women. Who weren’t American. Or soldiers.

After spending a week off-world battling Ori-worshipping insurgents in a country on a planet that had undergone a bloody and explosive revolution, Vala was quite content to sprawl on Sarah’s sofa wearing comfortable yoga pants and a USAF t-shirt, drinking tea and eating biscuits and watching ladies in fine dresses snipe at each other under the guise of polite conversation.

“So many men and women romanticize living in another time,” Sarah said. “But honestly, this is the best day and age for women. We have the most freedom and most opportunity.”

“Maybe on this planet, in this country,” Vala said.

“True,” Sarah said. “Very true. But being British as we are -” and she winked at Vala - “if we were British back then, well, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun as being British now.”

“That is definitely true. But those dresses look quite nice.” Vala tugged on the fabric of her t-shirt and peered down at herself.

“The empire waistline does do much for a girl’s figure.”

Vala reached for the bowl of popcorn. Sarah had a fancy rack of spices and herbs she used to dust her popcorn, so it tasted much better than the boring popcorn at the cinema (although the giant screen in the dark room was very fun).

Sarah answered questions Vala had about the way the people lived, their manners, riding horses, the family dynamics.

“I don’t understand,” Vala said. “Why does anyone like Mr. Darcy? Apart from his money. I understand being attracted to money.”

“I never understood it myself. I suppose it’s a lesson that a man need not be nice to be good, and that a nice man is not necessarily good. Colin Firth is very attractive, though.”

Vala tilted her head. “Not my type. I like them -” Brown-haired. Blue-eyed. Mitchell. Daniel. “Well, not like that.”

“I cannot comprehend you, but we are still friends,” Sarah said loftily, and Vala laughed, but she wondered. Sarah had dated Daniel once, when they were much younger. Surely he was her type? But maybe it was more about personality than looks for her. Or maybe she had a type for looks and a type for personality, and she would pick personality over looks.

Vala preferred personality over looks, because she knew full well what could linger behind a pretty face.

Because the show was so long, they took breaks between each DVD, standing up and stretching and walking around the block in the sunlight. Sarah told Vala stories about what Daniel was like as a student. Vala told Sarah stories about what Daniel had been like as a teammate.

They were just returning to the house after a brief ‘turn around the neighborhood’ when they saw two figures standing on the front porch.

Vala recognized Kate immediately, but not the other girl, who had darker skin, thicker hair, and wider-set eyes.

“Eliana,” Sarah said. “Kate. What brings you by?”

The sun was getting ready to go down, and Sarah and Vala had had grand plans to order pizza to savor through the last two DVDs.

Kate shrugged, nonchalant, hands jammed into her pockets, but Vala saw how she was favoring one arm again. Eliana lifted her head and smiled, and there was a bruise blossoming on her cheekbone.

“Hey, Miss Gardner,” Eliana said. She had a deep voice, for a girl. “Just came by to see if we could get some patching up.”

“Get into a brawl, did you?” Sarah raised her eyebrows.

Both girls nodded sheepishly; neither woman believed them for a second.

“Come on in,” Sarah said, “and we’ll get you patched up.” She led them in through the front door, where the television was still on, DVD menu looping, and popcorn and teacups were scattered across the coffee table.

“You having some kind of party?” Eliana asked.

Pride and Prejudice marathon.” Sarah smiled.

Kate rolled her eyes. “Right. Because you’re British. It’s so dumb - all those girls get to do is get married.”

“Except Mary,” Vala said. “I imagine Mary never gets married. She would most likely sail the world and have adventures by herself, play piano for money and maybe write books. Learn to fight with a sword.”

Eliana eyed Vala. “This the lady you were talking about?” she asked Kate.

Kate nodded.

Eliana said to Vala, “Can you fight with a sword?”

“These days I prefer a gun, but in a fight, a blade will do.”

“I thought they did science, up at the Mountain,” Eliana said.

Vala smiled. “Science comes at a price.” She reached for her purse, which she never left base without, and fished inside of it for her tel’kesh. “All right, who wants to go first?”

“Let me run upstairs and fetch mine,” Sarah said. “You just walk around with yours?”

“Standard protocol for me, really.”

“And the ribbon device?” Sarah asked.

“I used to, but it’s bigger and bulkier and less subtle. So I use a, er, hara’kesh instead.”

“That is a better choice for self-defense.” Sarah’s gaze went distant. “I think I might know where to find one.” She flashed Eliana a smile. “Just a sec.” And she hurried up the stairs.

Kate sat down beside Vala and rolled up her sleeve. Vala sucked in a deep breath. She had dark and mottled bruises all up and down her arm, one of them distinctly hand-shaped.

“Was it those football players?” Vala asked in a low voice.

Kate shook her head.

“Your mother?”

Kate eyed her and said nothing, but Vala knew the answer. She slid her hand into the tel’kesh and held it out over Kate’s arm.

Using Goa’uld technology was bittersweet. On the one hand, a good chunk of it was cleverly-retooled Ancient tech, and it was amazing. Vala could sense where Kate was hurt through the device and direct energy from the device so Kate’s injuries could be repaired. On the other hand, using it was a reminder of the naquadah in her blood, forced into her like Qetesh had forced herself into Vala’s body.

Sarah returned and guided Eliana over to one of the other sofas and set about healing her face.

“Is this what they do up at the Mountain?” Kate asked. “Super fancy science?”

“Remember, no questions from us, no questions from you,” Vala said lightly.

Kate arched an eyebrow. “You asked a question.”

Vala eyed her. “True. And yes, they do super fancy science up at the Mountain.”

“So you’re a scientist?”

“No.”

“Then you’re a soldier?”

“Civilian contractor, remember?”

Kate nodded. “This technology is pretty awesome, but I’m guessing since they don’t have it at hospitals and clinics nationwide, it’s pretty rare and expensive, right?”

“Very rare,” Vala agreed, though it was probably easier to come by in the wider galaxy. “As for the price - well, I couldn’t put a number on it, and I’m very good at putting numbers on things.”

Sarah finished before Vala, because Eliana’s injury was less extensive. “Vala and I were going to order pizza and finish the film. We could order a little extra, if you’d like to stay.”

The two girls exchanged looks, then nodded.

“That would be cool,” Eliana said.

Kate bit her lip. “But we have no money.”

Sarah smiled. “My treat. So, what do you like on your pizza?”

Vala had endured many a rant from Daniel, Mitchell, and even Sam about what was or was not appropriate on a pizza - seafood and pineapple were inappropriate, anything from a pig was perfect - and so she asked for pepperoni and bacon. Kate and Eliana immediately began making requests as well - mushrooms, jalapenos - and Sarah had to call for a time out while she found her mobile and called the pizza delivery service.

The four of them huddled around the mobile and, on the understanding that there were no boys around to witness them indulge in less than ladylike eating habits, ordered three pizzas between them.

They fired up the DVD and waited both for the pizza to arrive and for the kettle to boil so Kate and Eliana could also have tea. Vala was surprised at how much the girls knew of the plot of the film, even if they hadn’t seen it or read the original source material. Sarah was right; it was popular enough that people recognized names and scenarios from it.

They paused the DVD when the pizza delivery man arrived (man being a bit of an overstatement; he was a spotty-faced teenaged boy who nearly swallowed his tongue when Sarah answered the door in all her golden-haired, thin t-shirt glory). Sarah was oblivious to his interest - perhaps she was not oblivious so much as good at pretending to be, teaching teenagers all day - and gave him a nice tip, and then they brought the pizzas into the den and put them on the coffee table so they could eat right out of the boxes.

Vala adjusted her opinion of Mr. Darcy some when he came out of the water, his shirt dripping and the fabric translucent. She watched the showdown between Eliza Bennett and Catherine De Burgh with glee. Of course, it all ended in happy weddings, which Sarah said was typical of literature of the day.

“What I find interesting,” Vala said as she helped gather up the empty pizza boxes, “is Charlotte Lucas. Forced into a loveless marriage with a frankly creepy man.”

“Ah, but back then that was socially acceptable, and Charlotte made a good choice, so Jane Austen really didn’t criticize her for the choice,” Sarah said.

Eliana and Kate had both fallen asleep. Sarah tucked blankets around them, and then she cleared away the teacups and saucers, and she and Vala headed into the kitchen.

“Having been in more than one loveless marriage, for which my consent was dubious at best, I cannot imagine how anyone would think it was a socially acceptable choice,” Vala said, except her marriage to Tomin had been more like Charlotte’s than she’d like, a question of survival with a man, who though distasteful to her personally was a good person and not inclined to harm her.

Sarah glanced at her. “Sometimes what seems inconvenient to someone personally is perceived as better for society as a whole.”

Vala folded the pizza boxes the way she’d seen Sam do it and stuffed them into the rubbish bin Sarah kept under the kitchen sink. “Would you have married Daniel, if he’d asked?”

“Back then? Maybe. Not knowing what I know now. He was always so caught up in his work. Always more interested in the past and distant than the present and near.” Sarah washed her fine china teacups by hand.

“I suppose that explains why he married who he married,” Vala said. “She was sort of like - living history.”

Sarah blinked. “Daniel was married?”

“To a woman he met on his first trip through the Stargate, so the others tell me. She was taken as a host. He joined the program to try to get her back, and in the end she was killed,” Vala said.

“Did you ever meet this woman?”

“No. That all happened long before I joined the program. I don’t even know what she looks like, just that the culture she came from was - primitive. As if Ancient Egypt had never stopped being, well, Egypt. Sam said she was brave, intelligent. Started a revolution that freed her people.”

Sarah paused, her hands in the soapy water. “Well, you and I are quite dull by comparison.” She eyed Vala. “Would you be with Daniel? If he was open to it?”

“For a while, I wanted to be, but - as you said, he’s always somewhere else. In his head. I spent too much time somewhere else. I want to be here. Now.”

Sarah nodded and resumed scrubbing. “Interesting, don’t you think, that all of the women who have loved Daniel Jackson have been hosts?”

“Some might say the man is cursed,” Vala said. “Not like poor Sam. Before Pete the cop, every man she’d ever liked had died.”

Sarah winced. “That definitely sounds like a curse, if you believe that sort of thing.” She stared down at the soap suds. “Do you think people like us, having been through what we’ve been through, could ever be with anyone? Anyone who didn’t understand.”

“I don’t know,” Vala said. “I’ve never tried. I always wondered how one even had friends outside of Stargate Command.”

“It’s difficult,” Sarah admitted. “I have pleasant enough relationships with my colleagues, but before you I really didn’t spend much time with, well, anyone.”

Vala nodded. “Indeed.” Oh dear. She’d been around Teal’c for too long. “I mean, I know how you feel. I like my old teammates and the people I work with. We’ve saved each other’s lives. But -”

But she’d never had a friend like Sarah before, someone she could spend time with just because.

Sarah set the teacups on the dish rack and started to drain the sink. “Do you get nightmares? About being -”

“All the time.”

“What do you do?”

“When I can’t sleep, I like to go to the range on base and shoot things.”

Sarah raised her eyebrows. “I try to read boring books. I never learned how to use a firearm. I can use a kara kesh, but I’ve never used a gun.”

Vala smiled. “It’s meditative, the required physical coordination. And it’s just a useful skill to have. I was kidnapped, once. Here on Earth. Someone was interested in a piece of knowledge Qetesh used to have.”

Sarah turned to her sharply. “What?”

“There are dangers even on this side of the gate.”

Sarah crossed her arms over her chest, her brow furrowed. “I never thought of it that way.” She huffed. “Now it’s going to be even harder to sleep.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to -” Vala sighed. “I could teach you, if you like. How to shoot. How to fight.”

“Really?”

“I suppose it’s only fair, given that you’re teaching me all of this.” Vala waved a hand to encompass the expanse of British history and culture. “You still have clearance, don’t you? We could go to the range on-base. It’d be free. All you’d have to do is get a gun of your own. Of course, you’d have to try several before you settled on one.”

“I’d like that, actually,” Sarah said.

Vala smiled. “Then it’s settled. Our next ladies’ night will be firearm selection and training.”

They stayed in the kitchen, chatting, till the girls woke up and it was safe to send them home.

Vala hoped it really was safe to send them home.

*

Vala wasn’t sure why, but she picked a night that Daniel was off-world to bring Sarah to the Mountain for her first firearms training lesson. Sarah was very nervous when she and Vala approached the young Airman on guard at the security checkpoint just outside the lifts into Stargate Command.

The guards were used to Vala’s comings and goings at this point. She flashed her ID but didn’t step through the metal detector.

“This is my friend, Dr. Sarah Gardner,” Vala said. “She has clearance.”

Sarah handed the Airman her driver’s license. He peered at it, then at her, then clicked on his radio and had a murmured conversation.

“Are you sure we shouldn’t just go to one of the places in town?” Sarah asked as the conversation dragged on.

“This one is free,” Vala said. “I’ll talk to the range master about you getting a shooting pass.” She smiled sweetly at the Airman, who eyed her warily.

But then he nodded and typed something into his laptop, swiped a visitor pass in his keycard machine, and handed it to Sarah. “Welcome back to Stargate Command, Dr. Gardner.” And he waved her through.

They were the only ones in the lift on the way down for the first few floors.

“I’d forgotten how far underground it all is,” Sarah said. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, as was Vala. “You live here?”

Vala nodded. “Yes, I’ll show you my room. I decorated it myself. It’s very cute.”

Several Airmen, Marines, and scientists drifted on and off the lift as it descended down to the level were Vala’s living quarters were.

Sarah shifted closer to Vala, subtly. Most of them ignored her, but a couple recognized Vala, offered a respectful Ms. Mal Doran before they departed.

Vala led Sarah along the corridor to her quarters, explaining about the colored lines on the floor and which ones to follow to find the loos and the mess hall and the lifts if they got separated - mobiles had spotty service down here - and then threw open her door.

“Welcome to my humble abode!”

Sarah paused in the doorway. “It’s - small.”

“That is why it’s called humble,” Vala said. It was much smaller than some of the luxurious palaces and hotels she’d conned her way into over the years. It was certainly smaller than the palace Vala had ruled as Qetesh. But it was her own in a way none of those places ever had been.

Vala showed off her cute bedspread, her admittedly mostly-borrowed collection of books and movies, her ensuite loo (which was better than the soldiers and many of the guests got), and her collection of photographs.

Sarah studied them with the same air Daniel studied ancient inscriptions, brow furrowed, gaze distant.

“None of these are much more than three or four years old.”

“Image capture technology isn’t very consistent across the galaxy, and I traveled a lot,” Vala said.

Sarah turned to her. “You mean your childhood is lost.”

“Aren’t all of ours?” Although now that Vala thought about it, Sam and Mitchell and even Jack had photos of themselves in childhood (Jack’s in black and white, to Mitchell’s vast amusement). Daniel had one precious photo of his child self, from before his parents died. But Teal’c, like Vala, had no such thing

.

“You’ve made your room very lovely,” Sarah said.

Vala set down her purse and fetched her pistol from the drawer in the nightstand. “Thank you.”

“It’s just a bit...bleak, don’t you think? No windows. No sunlight. No fresh air.”

Vala shrugged. “I spent a good chunk of my life on spaceships. Windows and sunlight and fresh air are overrated.”

“Can’t you live off-base?”

“No. Aliens aren’t allowed. They tried it once, with Teal’c, and it didn’t go well.”

“But what if you had a roommate? Like me. I have clearance. And I think you blend in better than Teal’c does.” Sarah pressed a hand to her forehead, recalling his First Prime mark.

“Maybe I’ll ask sometime,” Vala said, “but we’re not here for me, we’re here for you! Come on, to the range!”

The rangemaster was long used to seeing Vala. He eyed Sarah warily, but when Vala cheerfully explained that Sarah was an archaeologist with no weapons training, the rangemaster helped Sarah select a pistol that worked for her - she settled on a Beretta 92FS for training - and then Sarah and Vala picked a lane.

They were supplied with targets, ear muffs, and a box of ammo each.

Vala explained about proper marksman stance. Since Sarah wasn’t going to be doing any tactical shooting or clearing rooms, a self-defense stance - wide base, facing forward, both arms straight - was easiest and best. Vala had known some people (like Mitchell) to overcomplicate shooting, but as Sarah wasn’t looking to be a sniper, what was important was that she hit what she wanted when she wanted. If she was doing that, it didn’t matter how she was doing it.

“Are you sure?” Sarah asked.

Vala nodded. “Yes. Your body will learn, through repetition, how to shoot. When you’re in an emergency situation, you don’t have time to think about stance and grip. Your body just needs to do it. But first, let’s find out which eye is dominant.”

“So I know which eye to close?”

“No, no, keep both eyes open. Unless you’re using a scope - which you’re not - keep both eyes open. So, hold your hands up like this, forming a diamond with your fingers and thumbs. So the diamond is over the target.” Vala demonstrated.

Sarah copied her.

“Now, draw the diamond close so all you see is the target.”

Sarah obeyed.

“Which eye did you bring your diamond to?”

“Oh, oh! My left eye. I didn’t even notice.”

“Then you will be shooting with your left hand.” Vala smiled.

Sarah was a very tractable student. She was very flinchy at first, but with repetition she didn’t flinch as much when the gun fired, and by the time they made it all the way through the box, she was shooting consistently, if a little high and to the right.

“It’ll take time,” Vala said, patting Sarah’s shoulder. “And practice. But now that you’re shooting small groups, all you have to do is learn to shoot those same small groups at the right place on the target. And once you can do that slowly, we’ll work on speeding you up,” Vala said.

“Speeding up?” Sarah echoed.

Vala brought her pistol up, emptied the entire clip into the target as quickly as she could.

Sarah stared. “That sounded like a machine gun. Will I be able to do that one day?”

“With my help, absolutely.”

Vala showed Sarah how to clean up their lane, and then they went to one of the side tables so Vala could teach Sarah how to disassemble both pistols and clean them.

“You’re right, though,” Sarah said. “It is sort of - soothing. Exhaling on the trigger pull. Feeling my entire body come together before each shot. How long have you been shooting?”

“Feels like all of my life.”

“You taught yourself?”

“That I did. Most planets have energy weapons, so learning these projectile weapons was interesting indeed.” Vala patted her pistol cheerfully. “Hurry up, get it assembled! We can give it back to the rangemaster and then go to the mess hall for dessert. On me. It’s basically free.”

*

Sarah’s cultural lessons became interspersed with Vala’s self-defense lessons. They still had movie nights (Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, North and South, Emma, every James Bond film ever, and every Beatles film ever, plus live concerts of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Queen, and other famous British musicians). They went shopping and to high tea more than once. But they also went to the range on base so Sarah could practice marksmanship (she was getting better, and now she was saving up for a pistol of her own).

And at Sarah’s house they were starting to do basic hand-to-hand. Sarah wasn’t going to go into battle any time soon, but were someone to attempt to kidnap her, she would be ready.

After several visits, they had hand-to-hand preparations down to an art: push aside the sofa and coffee table, lay out some mats, stretch out, and throw down.

Sarah had just about mastered what Sam called the shrimp out, a method of escaping from someone who was sitting on top, when someone banged on the front door.

Vala didn’t hesitate, reached into her pocket for her hara’kesh, and followed Sarah as she went to answer the door.

Kate stood with her shoulders hunched, head down, hands jammed into her pockets.

“Hey, Sarah. I, uh, need some patching up.”

It was the middle of the day on a Saturday. Was Kate’s mother getting drunk in the daytime now?

“Of course. Do come in,” Sarah said. She sounded like one of the women from Pride and Prejudice even when they hadn’t watched one of those films recently.

Kate shuffled in, head still down.

Vala said, “My tel’kesh is in my purse.”

Sarah nodded and went to fetch it. Vala guided Kate into the house, a hand not quite on her shoulder, and closed the front door.

Kate sank down on the edge of the sofa, and Vala knelt in front of her.

“Let’s see the damage, eh?”

Kate lifted her head.

Vala swallowed down fury. Kate had a black eye, a cut lip. “If this was your mother -”

“It was them,” Kate spat. “I was headed for Eliana’s, and they found me.”

“Them who?” Sarah knelt beside Vala, tel’kesh in hand.

“The football players who’d accosted her, the first night we all met,” Vala said. “They must go to your high school, then? Cold Springs? Their coach is a man named - Jennings.”

Kate raised her eyebrows, winced. “You remember that?”

“I’ve learned to be observant.” Vala could provide physical descriptions of the boys if the need arose. “Let me take photos. With my mobile.”

Kate shook her head vehemently. “No. No cops.”

“I won’t be calling the police,” Vala said. “But I want evidence. Sarah, do you have a newspaper? With today’s date.”

“I do,” Sarah said. She eyed Kate. “Are you sure this wasn’t -?”

“My mom’s at work,” Kate said.

Sarah heaved herself to her feet, went to fetch the paper.

“Do you know why they feel they have the right to do this to you?” Vala asked.

“They call me a dyke. ‘Cause I hang out with Eliana so much.”

“Are you and she...together?” Vala asked.

“We’re friends,” Kate said flatly. “And even if we were more than friends, that wouldn’t give them the right to do this.”

“I know,” Vala said quickly. “I just wondered if Eliana needs to be worried about her own safety as well.”

“That’s one perk to her older brother.” Kate shrugged one shoulder. It was Eliana’s brother who was usually the reason Eliana ended up on Sarah’s doorstep. “He doesn’t let anyone mess with her.”

Sarah returned with a newspaper, and Kate sullenly submitted to a photo shoot before Sarah set to her with the tel’kesh.

Once Kate’s pain had been reduced sufficiently, Vala and Sarah plied her with tea and biscuits. Kate gobbled down the entire plate of biscuits before she even touched the tea, and she’d drained half the tea - probably without tasting it - before she noticed that the furniture had been rearranged.

“What’s up?” she asked. “You two doing yoga or pilates or something?”

“Self-defense,” Vala said.

Kate raised her eyebrows. “Can I - can I learn? I mean, I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt -”

“Jeans and a t-shirt are fine,” Vala said. “A thug on the street isn’t going to wait for you to change it comfortable sweats before he attacks you. So - stretch out, and then jump in with us. In the meantime - Sarah, on your back. Evil men are attempting to kidnap you. Fend them off.”

And just like that, Kate - and later Eliana - became part of Vala’s self-defense class.

Vala kept an eye on Kate and Eliana, and she looked up Coach Jennings and his football players. She kept a running record of Kate’s injuries, if any, received from the football players. Kate reported successful practice of her self-defense techniques on one football player when he caught her alone, and they seemed to have backed off, but Kate and Eliana kept coming for practice just in case. Both girls refused to report what the football players were doing, and Vala could only hope they weren’t doing it to anyone else.

*

Sarah was right. Vala’s quarters on base were bleak. And half the time Vala wasn’t there anyway - she was either offworld on a mission or spending time with Sarah. Sometimes she even slept over in Sarah’s guest room - which Sarah had taken to calling Vala’s room - and no one noticed. There really was no good reason Vala couldn’t live off-base with Sarah. Sarah owned her home, said she wouldn’t even charge rent.

So Vala went to ask General Landry about it.

She swept down the corridor, head held high, and knocked on his door.

He was squinting at a report from Captain Hailey. She tended to type lots and use small font. Never missed a detail, though. Apparently she’d looked up to Jack, whose reports were, by all accounts, gripping. Like an action thriller novel.

“Come in.”

“Good evening, General.”

“And to you, Vala. What can I do for you?”

“I’m requesting permission to live off-base.”

General Landry’s head came up sharply. He opened his mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. “What the hell are you wearing?”

“My Halloween costume,” Vala said. “It’s the Halloween dance at school.”

“At school?” Landry echoed.

“Yes. I’m helping my friend chaperone the school Halloween dance.”

Landry blinked at her. “You look like -”

“An Egyptian goddess? Well, as I understand it, Halloween is a time to face our inner monsters. And my inner monster is - was - Qetesh. Sarah’s dressing up as Osiris.”

“Sarah?”

“My friend,” Vala said. “Dr. Sarah Gardner? She has clearance. She says I could rent a room from her - well, I wouldn’t have to pay rent, just my share of the utilities, which is much cheaper than rent, although Mitchell says not paying rent would make me a freeloader. Or was it a moocher? So many Earth terms I’m still trying to learn. But Sarah’s been lovely about teaching me. She’s English. I stay over at Sarah’s all the time, and no one’s been the wiser. And when we’re out and about, we’re very careful. No one suspects I’m not from this planet.”

Landry blinked at her some more. “You’ve been staying off-base overnight?”

Vala shrugged delicately. “No one said I couldn’t.”

“And you’ve been staying with -”

“Dr. Sarah Gardner. She was once host to the Goa’uld Osiris. She teaches history at a high school - the high school where I am chaperoning a dance. She and Daniel had a thing, but that was way back in the day. So, can I go be her roommate? I think she’s awfully lonely.”

“Well, I -”

“And no one else understands,” Vala said. “What it was like. To be a host to a System Lord.” She kept her tone light, flippant, but Landry closed his mouth so fast his teeth snapped.

“I’ll take it up with the IOA,” he said. “In the meantime - go. To your dance. And - wear a jacket or something. You’ll catch a cold.”

“I have a cloak,” Vala said, “but I appreciate your concern. Thank you!” She fluttered her fingers at him, spun on her heel, and headed for the lifts.

One Marine whistled at her appreciatively. Another reached for his sidearm, eyes wide.

“Relax, Sergeant,” Vala said. “It’s Halloween.” She went back to her room to make sure she had her cloak and costume - including her kara kesh and tel’kesh, which would just look like jewelry - and then she headed up the lifts to sign out a car.

Heads turned as she passed, but she kept her head held high. It was Halloween. Sure, no one at the mountain was celebrating it, but according to Sarah (and Sam and Mitchell and even Daniel, who’d had a long, anthropological spiel about it), Halloween was an American Institution, and she ought to celebrate it. Mitchell pointed out, ruefully, that a lot of people on the streets would be wearing uniforms as costumes, as Halloween was a pretty much anything goes sort of holiday. Anything goes was something Vala could do.

She did pull on her long white cloak before she stepped out of doors to fend off the cold - Goa’uld and their hosts were better equipped to handle extreme temperatures - and then she climbed into the car.

Sam had been very careful to give her driving lessons in the snow, because it was much more hazardous than driving generally, so Vala was cautious as she made her way down the mountain and to the school where Sarah worked.

The parking lot was already crowded when Vala arrived, and she had to hunt for a bit before she found a parking spot. She checked her mobile for the text message from Sarah about where to meet for the staff muster before the dance, and then she headed into the building.

Vala wasn’t particularly tall, and she nearly got lost in the crowd of teenagers milling in the hallway, wearing bright costumes. There were a handful of soldiers in the crowd, but most of the outfits were ones Vala didn’t recognize, had no cultural basis for. She kept her cloak closed with one hand, squinted at her mobile with another.

Finally, she gave in and spoke to a boy wearing a strange black and yellow jumpsuit.

“Hello, I’m looking for the teachers’ lounge,” she said.

The boy raised his eyebrows at her. “Well, hello, pretty princess.”

“Yes, hello, not a princess. The teachers’ lounge?”

The boy looked her up and down. “Why, you hot for teacher?” And he winked.

Vala rolled her eyes. “No, I’m friends with a teacher, and I’m helping chaperone this dance.”

“Oh.” The boy abandoned his flirtatious air. “Uh, teachers’ lounge is just down that hall.”

“Thank you,” Vala said. “Behave yourself tonight.” And she swept along.

Sarah met her at the door, also wearing her own white cloak over her costume. She beckoned Vala inside, where teachers and parents and other volunteer chaperones were dressed in fairly boring costumes - soldier, policeman, English judge with a wig, a nun, a priest (Sarah whispered that those two were dating), a cowboy. The principal was dressed in khaki shorts and a button-down shirt and a safari hat.

He thanked everyone for volunteering their time, then outlined the rules: no masks, no cross-dressing, no weapons, no inappropriate dancing, make sure no one got any booze into the punchbowl.

Vala, as culturally clueless as she was, had to ask what constituted ‘inappropriate’ dancing.

One of the other chaperones said, sourly, “When it looks like they’re having sex standing up.”

Vala bit back a comment about how having sex standing up was ideal as a teenager, since they had better backs and knees, and nodded. Sarah had explained about the school she worked at, that it was for children who’d had difficult lives, made bad choices, and needed some extra firm guidance in making good choices. More than one of those children were parents themselves, Sarah had said. Vala could understand not wanting any more of them to become parents tonight.

A few more rules were established - patrolling parking lots to make sure kids weren’t getting up to hanky-panky in cars (Tau’ri had so many euphemisms for sex, it was hilarious), patrolling the halls to make sure students weren’t getting into any unauthorized areas of school (like the science labs to make drugs or explosives), and also keeping an eye out for kids from other schools who might be starting fights.

Eliana had invited Kate as her ‘date’ to the dance, since a ticket for a couple was cheaper than two single tickets. The two girls had coordinated their costumes, though they insisted their costumes were a surprise. They’d both asked Vala and Sarah detailed questions about various eras in history and aspects of military life, either because they were planning on being time-traveling soldiers or because they were attempting misdirection.

Vala still wasn’t quite sure what to make of having two teen hangers-on to her and Sarah’s movie nights. Eliana and Kate did their own thing more often than not, but sometimes they did come over, either for patching up or hand-to-hand or just somewhere safe to hang out when they didn’t dare go home. Apart from occasionally having to charm children into staying quiet when encountering them during larcenous events, Vala didn’t have much experience with them. She knew teenagers were closer to adults than children, but there was still a vulnerability to them that made her nervous. She knew they were important, a culture’s future (Qetesh had known that; made sure that children were rare and precious so the people knew who was in control). She just wasn’t sure she ought to be moulding the minds of Earth’s young.

As it turned out, chaperoning a dance was very boring. Vala and Sarah were assigned to monitor the snacks and the punch bowl, to make sure the students observed basic hygiene when they helped themselves to snacks, and to make sure no one put any intoxicating substances in the punch bowl. Though Principal Safari Hunter didn’t know it, Vala was probably best-equipped to handle this task, because no one else was likely to have her experience with sleight-of-hand. However, staring at the punch bowl intently got boring after a while, even for someone as alert and intense as Vala. She and Sarah rotated duties - snacks versus punch bowl - so they didn’t get too bored.

While they stood beside each other, doing their best not to loom over the students, Sarah educated Vala in the ways of Earth culture, identifying the teens’ costumes and explaining where they came from.

“Humanoid amphibians who wear identifying colors and fight crime but live in the sewers and eat junk food,” Vala echoed dubiously, eyeing a boy in green and orange.

He flashed her a thumbs up and said, bafflingly, “Cowabunga!” before helping himself to a plastic cup full of pretzels and then wandering out onto the dance floor.

“Mitchell tells me that cows are where hamburgers come from,” Vala whispered to Sarah.

Sarah giggled. “Ah, no. It’s a phrase to express approbation or excitement. Not related to the animal at all.”

“So...that man in the black cape. Batman, yes? Does that half-mask violate the no-mask rule?”

“Yes, Batman. And...I’m not sure.” Sarah squinted at him. “I’m sure someone else will notice and make that call. We’d best not desert our posts.”

“Best not indeed,” Vala agreed. She glided toward the punch bowl, shrugging open her cloak as she went (she and Sarah were invited to another teacher’s party after the dance).

The teenage boy attempting to slip the contents of a small, ineptly-palmed vial into the ornate crystal punch bowl paused when Vala came close. He swallowed hard, looked her up and down. His gaze fixed on her chest and the skin exposed by the rather weather-inappropriate dress Qetesh had always favored until Vala cleared her throat.

“Uh, hi,” he said.

Vala smiled sweetly. “So, you’re not nearly as good at that as you think. I can see what you are holding and I know what you are attempting to do, and I recommend you stop now, before I have to stop you.”

The boy closed his hand over the vial quickly.

“I realize,” Vala said, keeping her tone gentle and non-threatening, “that right now you are more interested in my breasts than anything that’s going on around you right at this moment, but I assure you that, should you try anything funny, as they say, you shall discover that my breasts, while fantastic, are the least impressive part of my body when I am forced to break your limbs and take you outside and leave you in the snow to die of hypothermia. Slowly. So give me that vial, and stay away from the punch bowl for the rest of the night.” She held out a hand.

The boy dragged his gaze up to her face and gulped. He handed her the vial.

She accepted it, made a shooing motion, and he fled into the crowd.

Smiling and pleased with herself, Vala went to resume her place beside Sarah, prepared to regale her with a recounting of her dashing rescue of the punch bowl - and she saw Eliana, standing beside Sarah.

Eliana wore an familiar costume - short plaid skirt, button-down blouse, blue cardigan, tall socks; sexy schoolgirl - but instead of looking happy and flirty, her expression was drawn, pale.

“ - took her,” she was saying.

“Took who?” Vala asked.

“Kate. She was taken by those three football players. They were dressed as the Three Musketeers.”

Vala immediately twitched her cloak closed, clasped it at her throat to keep it in place. “When?”

“Just now, on our way here. They pulled up in a fancy truck and two of them jumped out. One of them pushed me, and they grabbed her and pulled her in, and -” Eliana was shaking. She started to cry. “I threw my phone at the truck, though. I think it made it into the bed at the back. We can find them. But we have to get her back, before - before -”

“We should call the police,” Sarah said.

Vala nodded. “You call them. Eliana, take my phone, show me how to find where your phone is.”

Eliana nodded, sniffled, accepted the phone.

Vala said to Sarah, “Ask for Detective Pete Shanahan.”

Sarah glanced at her. “Why?”

“He has clearance,” Vala said. She watched as Eliana tapped away at the phone, pulled up a map where a red dot was blinking.

“They took her to the high school. Cold Springs,” Eliana said.

Vala nodded. “All right. Let’s go. The police can meet us there. Sarah, let me speak to Pete. You tell your co-workers we need to go. Eliana, come with us - you’ll need to give your statement to the police, and you’ll need to wait outside the school for them.”

Sarah handed Vala her phone, and Vala handed Sarah her phone so she could look at the map.

“Meet me at my car,” Vala said. She and Eliana headed for the doors.

Sarah had been put on hold, and the hold music was tinny and annoying, like the kind they played in elevators, but then a man said,

“This is Detective Shanahan.”

“Hello, Detective, my name is Vala Mal Doran. You don’t know me, but you used to date one of my colleagues, General Samantha Carter.”

“Sam’s a general now? I mean, yes. What can I do for you, Miss Mal Doran?”

“I’m reporting a kidnapping. My friend is a teacher, and one of her students witnessed her friend being kidnapped by three young men who are football players at Cold Springs High School. These young men have harassed and assaulted these girls before, but this student had the presence of mind to put her cell phone into the back of their truck so we could track them, and by all accounts they are at that high school. My teacher friend and I are headed there now to rescue our friend, and we recommend you come immediately, and also maybe bring an ambulance,” Vala said.

“A kidnapping? But - why did you ask for me specifically?”

“Because you have clearance, as I understand it, and things may get - strange,” Vala said.

“What? Strange how?”

“Be at the high school as soon as possible, Detective,” Vala said. “A girl’s life is at stake.” And she hung up.

Sarah arrived, and the three of them piled into Vala’s car. Vala drove like a bat out of hell, made it across town to the other high school in under twenty minutes. She instructed Eliana to wait in the car with Sarah’s phone and to text Vala the moment the police arrived.

“What are you going to do?” Eliana asked.

Vala shed her cloak, strapped on her kara kesh, made sure she had her tel’kesh handy. “We’re going to rescue Kate. Come on, Sarah.”

*

Vala shared what she knew of Kate’s assailants, who were football players. Sarah knew more about soccer-football than American football, and the alternative high school didn’t have a football team, but she did know teenage boys better than Vala. The most common places a young male athlete spent time were the weight room, the gym, the locker room, and the football field. Vala knew the most about predators and bullies. They would pick a familiar place because it was safe. They would pick a secluded place, because it was private, so that ruled out the football field. Vala didn’t know what the boys planned for her, but she would assume the worst.

The gym was large, but less private than the locker room or weight room. The weight room might provide additional supplies for, say, torture. (Sarah went white when Vala mused this aloud.) But these boys hadn’t proved to be the brightest, and they’d proved to have big egos, and they would probably rely on the social protection afforded them by going to the locker room.

So to the locker room they went. It was empty.

Vala’s heart was pounding. She was terrified for Kate. But she was a warrior, and she had rescued people from much, much worse. She had superior strength on her side, strength that easily overcame whatever numerical advantage the boys would have.

They went to the weight room. It was also empty.

So they went to the gym, peered in the window.

And...damn. Not just three musketeers. Three musketeers, plus at least another dozen boys in various strange and bright and dark and dull costumes. They were standing in a rough circle, like one of those famous football huddles. Vala could guess who was in the middle.

Mitchell had played football in high school, Vala remembered. Would he ever have done something like this?

“What do we do?” Sarah asked.

“Text Eliana and let her know where we are.” Vala scanned the room, taking in exits and possible weapons and terrain.

Sarah was already tapping away. “And then what?”

“Are you ready to face your inner demon?” Vala asked softly.

“I - I’ve only ever used the tel’kesh as - as me,” Sarah admitted.

Vala held up her golden-gloved hand. “It’s just the same. Now stand back.” She had her tel’kesh handy in case of healing, but she had her hara’kesh strapped on her left hand.

Sarah nodded and took several steps back.

Vala raised her hand and blasted the doors open with the kara kesh.

She strode into the gym amidst shouting and panic and debris and dust.

The costumed boys had all ducked and flung themselves sideways, and Vala could see Kate tied to a chair. She had bruises and cuts on her face, but her clothes weren’t torn, and Vala let out a slow breath.

“It’s that crazy woman,” one of the musketeers said, picking himself up off the floor.

Vala couldn’t tell what color his hair was beneath his ridiculous hat.

She posed, felt confusion stir among the boys as they took in how much skin she was showing. “So you remember me.” She smiled pleasantly. “Do you remember what I said to you, about how people putting their hands on other people without their permission is a pet peeve of mine? And here you’ve gone and not only put your hands on my friend, but you’ve restrained her against her will, and you have harmed her.”

“Dude, she just freakin’ blew the doors off,” one of the other boys dressed as a skeleton said. “You said she worked up at the base, right? She probably has grenades or C4 or something.”

“No, I have something much, much worse,” Vala said.

“You can’t hurt us,” one of the other musketeers said. “That would involve putting your hands on us, right?”

“Wrong,” Vala said. She spotted a blue-clad boy off to the side trying to make a break for the door and blasted him with the kara kesh. He went sprawling.

Shit,” one of the other boys said.

Vala smiled, less pleasantly. “Yes, and you’re in some, very deeply. You have two choices: you let Kate go, unharmed, and then lie down on the floor and put your hands behind your head until the police come. Or you attempt to fight me, and you can find out what your friend just felt.”

“There’s only one of her,” one of the boys said. “And we have the little bitch. She won’t hurt us -”

He staggered to his knees, clutching his skull and screaming as the familiar hum of a kara kesh sang in the air.

Sarah strode into the gym, one hand outstretched. “There’s not only one of her,” she said. “And we are more than willing to hurt you. Let her go.”

Kate, thank heavens, was awake, was conscious, but she didn’t seem very alert, was dazed. She’d probably been struck in the head.

“Kate,” Vala called. “Are you all right? Talk to me. Did they hurt you? What did they do to you?”

Sarah shut off her kara kesh, and the boy she’d struck sank to the floor, sobbing.

Kate blinked. “Vala?”

“That’s right.”

“You’re psycho, lady,” one of the musketeers said, but he sounded shaken.

“You keep saying things everyone already knows,” Vala said. “I warned you, about laying hands on people without their permission, especially people who’ve done nothing to harm you.”

Another boy made a break toward the back corner, another door.

Vala fired with her hara’kesh. The door exploded. Smoking cinders rained toward the football players, and flames danced along the doorframe.

More of the boys shouted and swore and ducked away.

One of them reached into his costume and drew out a knife.

Sarah knocked him backward with a single kara kesh blast. She was a natural.

For one moment, Vala was overcome with the ridiculous urge to say kneel before your gods. But she wasn’t that far gone. Did she enjoy their fear? Maybe just a little bit. Did she enjoy their pain? No, but they had it coming.

But once she had achieved her goal, she would stop. And her goal was Kate’s safety.

“Crazy lady,” one of the boys said, raising his hands in surrender, “we’ll cut her loose. We swear. Just - we need a knife to do it.”

“One wrong move,” Vala said, “and you end up like that door.”

“I’m reaching into my jacket for a knife,” the boy said. The three musketeers were cowering behind Kate’s chair. “See? Nice and slow -”

“Freeze! This is the police!”

Vala spun around. She recognized the light-haired man from a photo she’d seen in Sam’s office. She ran to him immediately, eyes wide and teary.

“Detective Shanahan, please, you have to help her, they have a knife -”

Pete drew his gun. “Son, put the knife down.”

Vala swallowed hard, sniffled. “There were so many of them and they were going to hurt her and we begged them to let her go.”

“I’ve got it under control, ma’am.” Pete looked a little confused - and then he was terrified when he saw Sarah. “You. With the glowy eyes. You - you shot me.”

Glowy eyes? He had clearance. He knew about the Goa’uld.

And he’d gotten clearance because he’d encountered Osiris.

“No, that wasn’t me,” Sarah said quietly. “That was someone else. I’m - just me now.” But her voice was shaking.

“Those ladies are psycho, officer,” one of the boys said. “They - they blew off the doors and used some kind of jedi mind trick on Joey and Kyle and -”

“Detective Shanahan, do you need me to call Sam? She’ll vouch for us,” Vala said.

Pete swallowed hard. “Yeah. Call her. You, with the knife, put it down. The rest of you, face down on the ground, hands behind your head.”

Sarah handed Vala her phone, and Vala dialed the Mountain. She had to provide her clearance codes before the operator let her through to Walter. Walter informed her that General Carter was, in fact, in radio range, was in orbit around Earth on the Hammond, overseeing repairs from a recent clash with the Lucian Alliance.

“Put her on, please,” Vala said.

There was a pause, that awful music. Pete holstered his gun and used the knife the boy had dropped to cut Kate loose. He helped her over to Sarah, who immediately put an arm around her to support her.

The awful music cut off, and Sam said, “Vala, what can I do for you?”

Vala said, “I’m going to put you on speakerphone, so...tread lightly.” She put the phone on speaker and held it out for Pete to hear. “I’m in town with an old friend of yours, a detective.”

“Pete?” Sam echoed. “Vala, what happened?”

“I don’t know if anyone’s told you this, but I made a friend in town. An old friend of Daniel’s - Dr. Gardner. She’s teaching high school history. She and I have - a lot in common.”

“Of course,” Sam said, understanding.

“She and I have been mentoring some troubled youth. Long story short, the one girl has had a contentious relationship with some local high school football players, and tonight they decided to kidnap her for nefarious purposes, and Sarah and I rescued her. Using - classified technology. No one was permanently injured. But your friend Pete is here, and he is rather disconcerted by his encounter with Sarah, who was someone else the last time he saw her.”

“Sam, what the hell is going on?” Pete hissed. “I’ve got a bunch of crying and injured teenage boys, an admittedly roughed-up teenage girl, and the chick with the glowy eyes who shot me one time.”

“Pete, Sarah no longer has glowy eyes. Like I explained, Sarah was an innocent host, and the entity who’d hijacked her body is gone.” Sam kept her voice low and calm so none of the boys could hear. “Vala is one of my former teammates. I trust her with my life.”

“What am I going to put in my report? The boys are saying your teammate and Sarah used jedi mind tricks on them.”

“Who’s going to believe them?” Sam asked.

“Your people can’t go around dispensing vigilante justice,” Pete said.

Vala knew that was one of the reasons Teal’c had muffed up his one chance to live off-base.

“Are the boys still alive?” Sam asked.

Pete sighed. “Yes.”

“Is the girl unharmed?”

“Yes. Ish.”

“I’ll get a JAG officer down there ASAP. Thanks, Pete. We’ll be talking about this later, Vala.”

“Yes, Sam,” Vala said meekly. “Good luck with those repairs.”

“Thanks.”

And the call ended.

Pete sighed. “Paramedics are on their way. We’ll make sure all the injured get to the hospital. And - I’ll need to confiscate your weapons.”

“Weapons?” Vala echoed innocently. “Just part of our costumes.” She held up her hand, shucked off the kara kesh. “See? Jewelry. No buttons, no - anything. Anyone who tried to use one of these as a weapon would be sorely disappointed.”

Pete sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “That’s how you all survive, isn’t it? You tell the truth and it just sounds so crazy no one will believe it. Let’s get this girl outside to the ambulance. Her friend is probably beside herself as it is. I’ll make sure the injured boys are taken care of. Go. I’ll deal with you later.”

Vala nodded and moved to help support Kate, and the three of them headed out into the night air.

*

Kate was relatively uninjured - cuts and scrapes and bruises but nothing more. The boys hadn’t had enough time to do much more too her. Too many of them had been present, had squabbled about what to do. But the things they had planned were - awful. Unspeakable.

Vala wouldn’t have wished them on her worst enemy (and her worst enemy had been inside her head for years and years).

But the boys, terrified, had confessed their nefarious, ill-thought-out plan, and charges were pending against them.

And the police, in investigating Kate’s circumstances, had discovered her mother drunk off her rocker and completely oblivious to her daughter’s whereabouts. When questioned about Kate’s safety, she’d ranted and raved and blamed Kate for always getting into trouble. (Kate’s disciplinary record was mostly limited to rampantly skipping school - to avoid the bullies there, surprise surprise.)

If Pete had somehow ended up with photographic evidence of Kate’s mother’s systematic physical abuse, oh well.

The police detectives were highly unamused at the outlandish lies the boys were telling, about a pair of psycho women with jedi powers. A couple of the detectives had inspected the women’s costume jewelry, and while it was strange-looking, it was just jewelry.

The look on Landry’s face when he arrived at the Mountain first thing in the morning on his day off and Vala and Sarah were there, with Pete and Sam, didn’t bode well at all for Vala’s chances living off-base.

“You realize what you’ve done,” he said.

Vala shrugged. “It was worth it, for that girl’s life.”

She was restricted to quarters on base for a month. Landry was at least kind enough to not revoke Sarah’s security pass, so Sarah could still come visit, bring films and tea. Sparring lessons went better in the gym on base, with the mats and a few female Marines willing to add their two cents. Sarah was getting very good with a gun.

Kate called, sometimes. She hated her foster home, only got to see her mother once a week, in a visit supervised in the social services office while someone stared at them through a one-way mirror. She was going to have to testify against the teenage boys who’d kidnapped her.

She was glad to be alive, though. She missed hanging out with Sarah and Vala and Eliana. Her caseworker hadn’t approved any of them to see her, even if Vala got allowed back off-base. Her phone calls to Vala were also monitored, so Vala made sure to keep conversation light, cheerful. She kept recommending historical dramas to Kate to watch, ones Sarah had showed her, and Kate kept refusing.

It was late, in the middle of the night, and Vala had taken herself to the shooting range after a rash of nightmares, when Daniel found her.

“So, you and Sarah?”

Vala took her pistol apart with deliberate hands. “We don’t sit around and gossip about you, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“No. I just -”

“What?”

“Can’t imagine what you have in common.” Daniel leaned in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest, wearing his thinky thoughts face (that was what Cam called it).

“She’s teaching me how to be British.”

Daniel nodded. “Okay. That makes pretty good sense, somehow.”

“I’m teaching her how to use a gun, and some basic self-defense.”

Daniel raised his eyebrows.

“I was kidnapped by people after knowledge that belonged to Qetesh. Compared to Osiris, Qetesh was a rather minor System Lord.”

“Okay. That makes sense. But - Sarah wants you to be her roommate?”

“Teal’c lived alone, had less skills at blending in. Between my own natural talents and Sarah’s guidance, I shall pass as an Earth native whenever the situation calls for it.” Vala scrubbed at the inside of her pistol slide perhaps a bit more vigorously than necessary.

“And yet you also went on a vigilante spree.”

Vala shrugged. “What can I say? I take exception to people who think they can have their way with someone else’s body simply because they’re bigger or stronger or smarter.”

Daniel sighed. “Vala -”

“You remember what it was like, being a Prior?”

Daniel pursed his lips, nodded tightly.

“I remember what it was like, as a host. So does Sarah.”

Daniel stared at her for a long moment. Then he straightened up, jammed his hands into his pockets. “I think we’re a lot alike, you and I.”

Vala blinked, startled by this change in conversation. “Pardon?”

“We moved around a lot, growing up, never really got - attached to a specific place, or really even people. Always felt like we were - out of step, with everything going on around us. And the first time we ever found a place to stop moving, a home, a family, was on an alien planet.”

Daniel was talking about his wife, his life on Abydos. Vala only knew the barest details about it, gleaned from listening to what others had to say, what Daniel mentioned himself.

“For me, that was Abydos, with Sha’re. And for you, that’s here. Earth. With Sarah.”

Vala licked her lips. “I wouldn’t be that sentimental about my relationship with Sarah,” she began, but Daniel wagged a finger at her, wearing that infuriatingly knowing grin of his.

“You can’t fool me, Vala Mal Doran,” he said. “I’ve got you figured out.” He turned and strode away from Vala’s room.

“I can shoot you when you irritate me, though,” she called after him, and startled a couple of the SF’s on night patrol.

She smiled sweetly at them and gestured for them to move along.

*

Two weeks later, Landry summoned Vala to his office. Sam, Mitchell, and Daniel were there, arrayed behind the chairs opposite Landry’s desk. Landry gestured for Vala to take a seat, and so she did, wary.

Landry pushed an envelope across the desk to her. “This is yours.”

Vala stared at it, dismayed. “Am I - am I being fired?”

“Open it,” Daniel said.

Vala tore open the envelope and stared at - papers. Inside. Papers and cards and - a set of keys.

One of the papers was a birth certificate, listing her as Vala Maldoran, born to Sally and Jared Maldoran in Colchester, England. Another paper was an immigration certificate. Vala had become an American citizen at twenty. Vala had an American passport, a real driver’s license, health insurance, car insurance, a car of her own. That’s what one of the keys was. And according to her driver’s license, she lived -

With Sarah.

One of the other keys was to Sarah’s house.

“Dr. Jackson was very persuasive,” Landry said. “Don’t make me regret this.”

“Does this mean -?”

Sam smiled at her. “I’ll help you pack.”

“I talked to Sarah,” Daniel said. “As soon as you’re moved in, we can have a housewarming party.”

Vala leapt to her feet and dragged Daniel into a hug. She hugged Sam and Mitchell, too, and shook General Landry’s hand, and then she and Sam headed back to her quarters where SFs were waiting with cardboard boxes.

*

After the last of the guests had left, Vala and Sarah sank down on the sofa.

“Did you see the look on Daniel’s face? When Kate said he was all right, but you could do better?” Vala asked.

Sarah burst into laughter. “She didn’t.”

“She did. Sam almost laughed. I was impressed with her self-control.”

“Eliana and Kate have missed you,” Sarah said. “Daniel did a lot of fast-talking with Kate’s caseworker, to convince her it was all right for Kate to see you. I didn’t know Daniel had been in foster care.”

“Neither did I,” Vala admitted.

“So much we didn’t know about each other.” Sarah sighed. “We’d never have worked out.” She turned to Vala. “How does it feel?”

“How does what feel?”

“Coming home.” Sarah smiled.

Vala gazed around the room. In addition to moving her clothes and belongings into her bedroom, Sarah had granted her wallspace to put up her own photos, mostly of SG-1 and other Stargate Command friends and acquaintances, and space on the shelves for her books and DVDs. “It feels new.”

“New?”

“And good. Very good.” Vala smiled back.

“Well, then, welcome home.”

Vala sank into the sofa cushions and closed her eyes, and for one moment, she could hear the song from the singing tree.