"I loved someone once. Never again. Not ever." Vala Mal Doran swallowed against the venom in her voice, and ran a finger along the rim of her glass. The melancholy drunk act generally made people lower their guard. Useful, in her line of work. This time, the truth added a bit of fire to her performance. An expensive enhancement, and a free agent of her rather formidable level of skill hardly needed to stoop to honesty, but she always played the cards as dealt. Well, usually. Or sometimes, anyway. She would this time.
"What's wrong with love?" Her young mark retrieved a bar rag and mopped up a puddle of spilled beer.
"It'll ruin you," Vala said, again with more verity than she'd intended. Who would have thought authenticity would make her role harder to play?
"It doesn't have to," the girl said. "Not with the right person."
Vala swallowed hard. "Aren't you a naive little thing. What's your name?"
"Nice to meet you, Eliya." Vala forced a smile. "I'm . . . Scully."
"That's an unusual name."
"It means skeptic."
Eliya nodded and headed to the other end of the bar.
Maybe she should have tried her luck at the tavern nearer the stargate, where the other travelers conducted their business, but the atmosphere in the One-Eyed Pony suited her mood far better. Possibly to her detriment, if her mood scared off her only candidate. She drained her glass and laid yet another heavy coin on the bar.
The girl returned with her refill. "Are you in town for Lord Aaryl's ball?"
Now they were getting somewhere. Vala had worried she'd have to hear the girl's entire life story before they reached this fortuitous turn in the conversation. Everyone else in this town could speak of nothing else. "I haven't quite decided."
"Oh, you should! I'd go in a heartbeat," Eliya said, but the light in her eyes faded as she flipped the bar rag over her shoulder. "Of course that'll never happen. Real life isn't like the stories."
Vala waited as the girl turned back to her work, which carried her away from the bar as the locals began filling up the tables. She didn't want to drain another beer to lure the girl back into the conversation, lest she end up crying into the next one. Her funds weren't exactly unlimited, either. Damn Daniel Jackson to Hell for knocking her so far off her game.
"The ball," Vala said carefully when the Eliya finally returned. "Why not go and enjoy yourself?"
"I would. There's only one problem." Eliya sighed theatrically, and didn't continue.
Vala sighed, less theatrically. She already knew the nature of the problem, but she needed Eliya to say it. She couldn't very well offer her genius solution completely unsolicited.
"I hear the musicians are coming from offworld." Another wistful sigh. Another swipe of the bar rag. "I've never heard offworld music performed before."
"They'll have all the finest wines, and the best pastries . . . "
"Sounds lovely," Vala said without feeling. "What's the problem?"
"An invitation," the poor child moaned. "Lord Aaryl wants to fill his party with interesting people -- successful galactic people -- not local barmaids like me."
Successful people. Pfft. Lord Aaryl just wanted the chance to rob them blind, with any penchant he had developed for offworlders motivated not by any desire for eclectic company, but purely by his own earlier successes, which left most locals with little for him to steal. But Vala needed to keep that kind of thinking under wraps for her plan to move forward. "And who's to say you're a local girl?"
"But of course I am. I've lived here all my life."
"Does Lord Aaryl know you?"
"Heavens no, why would he know a nobody like -- "
"Well then, he doesn't know you're a local." Vala lifted her glass and swirled the dark brew around in the bottom of it. What did she have left to lose? She swallowed the drink and took the plunge. "So, how would a charming young offworlder such as yourself, passing through this modest village on business, like to attend the upcoming ball?"
Daniel poured over reports from every corner of the galaxy, but they all boiled down to the same thing -- the Ori were everywhere, but Vala, not so much. She'd simply vanished. They didn't have even the slightest hint of a clue. She'd barely escaped with her life after cheating at cards on the planet where they'd left her, and there the trail went cold. Maybe she'd stolen the very cargo ship she'd risked her life to win, but they'd found no evidence to support the theory, and either way, that was weeks ago. Not that he had any right to expect a trail, they'd given her every reason to cover her tracks.
"Daniel?" Sam stood in the doorway, her arms full of file folders.
"Got something?" He nodded at her armload. He knew better than to get his hopes up, but at the moment he'd settle for the tiniest scrap. It was likely all they could hope to get.
"Nothing on Vala," Sam said. "But we just heard from the Jaffa."
"They just got a message from their agent within Ba'al's fleet. He's captured Adria."
Daniel raised an eyebrow. "Oh that should end well."
"At least it explains why she never came through the gate. For all we know, she never even got to Vala."
"Let's hope." The image of Vala caught in the middle of whatever plan Ba'al had hatched jolted through him. "We should never have sent her on that mission."
"I know how you feel -- "
"Do you? No, scratch that. Does she?" Daniel demanded. "Because that's all that really matters, isn't it? It's not that she's out there alone, she can take care of herself, I know that, but she's out there thinking we betrayed her. God Sam, can you imagine what she's feeling? Not to mention the risks she might take, thinking she has nothing to lose. We tampered with her memory, violated her mind, and then -- "
Sam deposited her folders on the lab table and took a seat. Vala's seat. Close enough to his own that their knees bumped, and Sam laid a sympathetic hand on his arm. "Daniel -- "
"We have to find her, and that's a problem because she doesn't want to be found. Her whole life has just been one hell after another, and we found a way to top them all."
"Not we, Daniel, this was her plan."
"Don't," Daniel said. "Don't blame her for this, she trusted us to not let this happen."
"I know," Sam said. "And we'll make it right. We'll find her. But first let's go get Adria for her."
Daniel sighed. If he was honest, Adria meant little to him at the moment, but he didn't know where to look for Vala, and they couldn't waste this opportunity. Not after what Vala had sacrificed for one.
The mission parameters involved traveling by ship, not stargate, which gave Daniel the chance to catch some much needed sleep. At least in theory. He laid on his bunk and dozed fitfully, his dreams of Vala, his mind spinning dozens of wild theories as to her whereabouts. But it was slightly more restorative than napping in a desk chair, so at least his body felt rested, if not his mind.
They reached Ba'al's ship without incident, and extracted Adria with less fuss than it usually required to pick up the dry cleaning, only to discover that Ba'al had taken up residence in Adria. The plan to cope with that little difficulty called for a second extraction, this time of the surgical variety, courtesy of the Tok'ra. Control over Adria meant control over her armies. It made sense, but Daniel had other priorities.
"Let me question her -- him," Daniel said.
"Them," Teal'c suggested.
"Whatever. The important part is now. Before the Tok'ra arrive."
Cam shifted in his seat and tapped his pen against the conference table. "You'll get more accurate intel once we've installed someone we can trust."
"Adria might not survive the process," Daniel said.
"That's true," Sam said. "We've been lucky in the past, but not every time, and this is Ba'al. He's going to put up a fight."
"And we can't take that chance. Adria has information we need."
"Okay, Dr. Jackson," General Landry said over the video conference screen. "You have a go."
"Keep it brief," Cam added. "If he overcomes the anti-Prior device -- "
"Then we're all screwed regardless." Daniel waved off the threat and headed for the Odyssey's secure room.
Ba'al greeted him with Adria's disturbingly familiar smile. "Hello again, Doctor Jackson. My host has been telling me you two were quite cozy during your time together."
Daniel shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged. "I think you'd be a little less concerned with your host's rich fantasy life and a little more concerned with your own dubious fate."
"I suppose you've come to offer me a deal?"
"In fact I have." Daniel moved closer. "I'm sure you're interested in saving your own skin. There are things I want as well."
"For once our interests are the same. The Ori Army can be sent back to their own galaxy -- you only need to release me."
"And good riddance," Daniel said. "But that's not why I'm here."
"Don't get me wrong, ending the war is a nice offer, but the catch is we can get that done without your cooperation. So if you want to strike a deal, you're going to have to bring more to the table."
"I think your best move would be to start with something easy," Daniel said. "You know, as a show of good faith."
"I suppose this is about my research on the whereabouts of the clava thessara infinitas. I suppose I could be persuaded to make you a gift of it."
"Interesting," Daniel said. "That's so impersonal, though, don't you think?"
"Then what do you want?"
"The last time my host saw her mother, she was with you." Ba'al raised one of Adria's eyebrows, with unsettling results. "Lover's quarrel?"
"Not -- " he began, but then he conceded the point with a shrug. "Well, close enough, actually. And as much as it pains me to admit it, Adria has a better shot at finding her than I do."
Ba'al's borrowed smile grew even more wicked. "I can't very well help you from this shielded room. Perhaps if you could see fit to turn off the device . . . "
"Now, see, I know that's not true." Daniel stepped within whispering distance. "It wasn't very long ago that I sat in that very chair myself, and I know exactly what you can and cannot do from this room. So you'd better think very carefully before you lie to me again." He leaned close and flashed the vial of symbiote poison concealed in his palm. "Maybe you can buy your freedom with the clava thessara infinitas. Maybe I even believe you will send the Ori army home. But it's all a moot point if you're dead, so how about a gate address."
Vala laid out the parts of her disguise and cast a critical eye over every detail. The so-called 'Lord' Aaryl would kill her if he caught her. He might not even hesitate to kill her if he merely suspected. He liked killing. But she couldn't elude both Stargate Command and the Ori army for long without resources, and like so many petty tyrants scattered about the galaxy, this warlord had resources in spades.
Her unwitting young accomplice had the right look. She'd match the forged credentials, which would prove the most important part. Vala had meant them for herself, when she'd first created them, but several years had passed since she'd abandoned her infiltration plan as too high-risk. She'd changed a bit since then. And more importantly, so had Lord Aaryl's family. These days, the recently-come-of-age eldest son, rather than the now-married father, made the most vulnerable target for seduction. Even if Vala could stomach the role, she couldn't quite pass as an appropriate romantic prospect for a boy of twenty.
Fortunately, she had a knack for turning obstacles into opportunities, and, as a result, she'd hatched an entirely new and improved scheme.
She heard a knock at the door, and went to peer through the ill-fitted slats. "You're early," she told Eliya as she opened the door. "Did anyone see you come up?"
"There's nobody downstairs but the cook, and he's asleep in front of the fire."
"Good." Vala pulled out a dress and held it up in front of the girl. It looked thorougly out of place on this world, which meant it would do the job perfectly.
"It's beautiful! You're really going to let me wear it?"
"You can have it." Vala pushed aside her memories of it. The shopping trip with Samantha to acquire it. Wearing it to Cameron's hometown party. The fire in Daniel's eyes when she'd ringed up to the cargo ship in it. "It's yours."
The smiling girl bubbled over with gratitude, rankling Vala's exposed nerves.
She swallowed hard. Think of all the pretty money. The wooden voice inside her head did nothing to bolster her own enthusiasm for the upcoming ball, but she needed to stay on task. "So, let's get started on your hair, and I'll tell you all about your fantastic life on P3X -- I mean, Orme."
Eliya took a seat at the makeshift dressing table beneath the tiny window, and Vala started on her hair. In the old days, Vala would have employed a high tech solution to hairdressing -- an injection of follicle nanites could change hair color or even texture within minutes -- but this time she'd do it the hard way. Between the Ori threat and her split with the SGC, side trips to planets with better hair styling products just weren't worth the risk.
"Now while your family doesn't technically exist, Lord Aayrl has definitely heard of them." Vala had made sure of that little detail, several years and a lifetime ago. "Gaining your esteemed father's respect should matter to him just enough to offer you some protection."
"Men like Lord Aayrl are dangerous." Vala swallowed hard. She really had no right to use this naive girl as a pawn. "I'll look out for you, but it's best if you avoid being alone with him. And don't be overly trusting of his son, either."
"Everyone says Tyril is kind," Eliya said in a dreamy voice.
"It's the kind ones who break your heart." Vala's throat closed on the last word. Kind, considerate, selfless Daniel Jackson, who made her believe in trusting people, only to drop her like a hot cabbage. She'd clearly gone inexcusably soft, because she never saw it coming. Weeks later and she could barely believe it happened. Too late, she realized she'd stopped rolling Eliya's hair into the curlers.
"He couldn't have been truly kind." Eliya turned around and looked up at her with those innocent brown eyes. "You'll find someone better."
"Better than the man who broke your heart."
Oh no, there was no one better. She'd been around the galaxy. Better was a myth. She'd met that myth, and believed in it for a while. The only true better was knowing better, and that was something she couldn't afford to tell this young woman. She forced a smile. "Let's finish with your hair, it needs to set overnight."
"You don't need SG-1 for this." Daniel threw the offending mission briefing back down on Landry's desk. "We need to go get Vala."
"We need what the Asgard are offering," Landry answered, with a subtle nod to Woolsey, who lurked in the open doorway. "They specifically asked for SG-1 -- "
"No," Daniel said. "They specifically asked for Sam. If they really wanted SG-1, Jack would have received the first invitation, probably in the form of an unscheduled beam up. The rest of us -- "
"And if during the installation the team needs someone who can read Asgard, who -- "
"Crazy suggestion, but perhaps the actual Asgard? I have other obligations."
"I'm sorry, Dr. Jackson. I understand how you feel -- "
"This isn't about my feelings." He threw up his hands in frustration. "My feelings don't matter. Why doesn't anyone understand that very simple concept? This is about Vala. A valuable member of this base. She's alone, cut off, with her mind altered -- "
Woolsey's condescending smugness interrupted. "Ms. Mal Doran knew the risks when she volunteered for the mission."
"She trusted us to bring her home."
"And we will," Landry said. "After the Asgard Core is safely installed on the Odyssey."
"Which, once again, does not require me."
"It won't take long," Landry said. "Three days. Maybe a week, tops."
Daniel pressed two fingers to the bridge of his nose. "The longer we wait, the more likely she is to acquire whatever she's after on that planet, and once she's moved on, we'll have lost our only lead."
"You don't even know she's on that planet," Woolsey said. "With both Ba'al and Adria dead, there's no way to verify -- "
"Except -- oh I don't know, here's a wild idea -- to actually look."
"We've already looked on how many other planets that you've suggested as likely?" Woolsey answered his own question. "Fourteen, Dr. Jackson. How many resources -- "
"Those were based on a hunch." Daniel tried not to cringe. First they'd checked a dozen worlds he knew for a fact Vala despised -- he'd thought perhaps she'd use his knowledge, and hide on one of them. Or perhaps she'd anticipate his train of thought and instead turn up sunbathing on a favored tropical paradise. "A theory that didn't pan out. This is different, we know Adria's abilities allow -- "
"Abilities aside, why on Earth would you trust anything she had to say?"
"Because we have to try. Vala's out there . . . " He gestured vaguely toward the gate. "She could be in trouble and that's our fault."
The general sighed. He had to know Daniel was right. "Vala is a capable woman who can take care of herself. We'll get her back, but not today."
"General -- "
"I'm sorry, Dr. Jackson. The Asgard Core is simply too valuable to risk a delay of any kind. My hands are tied."
"Scully?" Eliya's hands moved self-consciously over the black dress as she studied herself in the dirty mirror. "Are you sure I won't look out of place?"
"That's the plan. With such an exotic dress nobody will ever peg you for a local girl." Vala grinned. "You look gorgeous, and you'll be juggling at least a dozen men all night."
"A dozen?" Eliya laughed. "How am I supposed to manage a dozen men?"
"A little flirting, a little dancing. Or rather a lot of dancing. You'll have the time of your life."
"Flirting . . . what in the world am I supposed to talk about with galactic men? I barely know anything -- "
Vala put down the brush she'd been using to streak her own hair with grey. "You do. But that's hardly the point. Just smile and let men talk about themselves. They love talking about themselves. You've tended bar, this isn't much different."
The poor girl chewed her lip and fussed with the plunging neckline, but Vala kept from offering any further advice. She'd do well enough for one night, and Vala preferred it if she didn't become too proficient at this game. She needed Eliya to gain access to the compound, but she didn't want the girl entangled for the long term. It would be dangerous enough to extract herself.
"I still don't understand why you're doing this for me."
"It's enough we both want the same thing," Vala said. "Remember what I told you -- never trust anyone who expects nothing in return for a favor, but if someone freely explains their motive, they're almost certainly lying."
Eliya frowned at this, or perhaps at some perceived flaw in her own reflection.
Vala cringed just a bit. A little flattery with a side of razzle-dazzle and some young man would have this poor young thing eating right out of his hand. "Don't become some warlord's trophy wife," she warned, the image of a redheaded woman in a shapeless gown, standing barefooted on a stone parapet, floating across her mind's eye. "That path ends only in sorrow."
"Was he a -- "
"No." Vala cut her off with as much fake cheer as she could manage. She did not want to apply this fiddly makeup job twice. "He was a different kind of bastard entirely, and one best forgotten. Let's focus. We need to get into character before the ball."
Two hours later Vala finished wrapping another layer around her identity as 'Scully' took on the guise of Sada, elderly chaperone to the socialite Jana Lykke of Orme on her coming-of-age galactic tour. The young woman herself was practically unknown outside of her home world, but she came from a legendary family -- quite literally legendary, since they didn't exist. Nor did Orme, in the strictest sense of the word, as the bleak desert planet differed significantly from its galactic reputation. A reputation it owed entirely to Vala. She just hoped the elaborate planetary weapons systems she'd fabricated for it back then had kept explorers at bay in the intervening years.
"Remember," Vala said. "As a wealthy young woman touring the galaxy free of parental accompaniment for the first time, you're quite keen on ditching me as early as possible. But not too early, I need to make it through the front gate."
"Of course, Scully -- I mean, Sada."
"And have fun," she added. "That's the whole point, after all."
"Do you really think Tyril will notice me?"
"Of that I have no doubt," Vala said. "And feel free to enjoy his attentions, he will no doubt prove key to sampling the event's finer delicacies. Just keep your head. Don't fall for him."
Eliya nodded obediently in exactly the same way Vala might have under similar circumstances.
Vala twisted the ring on her finger and held back any further comment. She feared the role of chaperone would turn into more than a cover by the end of things.
The gleaming red and black carriage Vala had hired for the event blended rustic charm with elegant sophistication. Drawn by a single bay gelding of obvious good breeding, it slid along on sleigh runners rather than wheels, despite the warm weather. A cleverly concealed anti-grav unit made it possible. Paying for the thing had wiped out the last of her local money, but for a young socialite like Jana Lykke to arrive at the ball in anything less than the most unique vehicle the small town had to offer would simply not do.
Eliya's eyes lit up when she saw it, but then she grabbed Vala's sleeve and leaned close. "The driver might recognize me from the One-Eyed Pony."
"Relax," Vala said. "I've arranged to drive it myself. The livery boys will collect it -- and you -- in the morning. By then, what can they do but envy your ingenuity?"
Like a true sleigh, the carriage rode low to the ground, so even in the guise of pampered young Jana and her elderly companion, neither woman required a hand up. Vala climbed in after her charge, closed the tiny half-door which served to keep road dust out of their skirts, and collected the reins. Horses had a way of making everything just a little bit better, however briefly, and the little bay's smart trot lightened Vala's mood. As promised, the horse had impeccable manners, and the anti-grav unit made for a smooth ride.
Lord Aayrl's compound stood on a wooded hilltop, surrounded by a tall stone wall. The front gate, guarded on either side by the ugliest statues Vala had ever laid eyes upon, currently stood open. Several guards -- offworlders because Lord Aayrl had reason to fear putting weapons in the hands of locals -- milled about, checking visitor's credentials against a long list and subtly scanning for weapons. Vala carried nothing to raise their suspicions. With one exception, all of her best technology currently lay -- she hoped -- just over the wall where the woods were thickest, the Sodan cloak concealing her bag from view and hopefully not irradiating too much of the forest in the process.
The invitation Vala had procured read Jana Lykke of Orme and companion, and the guards paid the pretty young woman's plus one very little attention. Vala had been underestimated before, but never downright ignored. Elderly trumped buxom and pliant -- she'd remember that. They passed through the gate without incident, and when they reached the front door, Vala turned the horse over to a servant with whispered instructions regarding its welfare before accompanying her charge up the white marble steps.
To her surprise, young Tyril stood near the door, personally welcoming each of the guests. Unlike the guards outside, he did not ignore her in favor of the pretty girl, but instead took her hand and offered a smile.
"Arthritis," she whispered, curling one finger somewhat awkwardly to keep his skin from touching her ring. And to keep him from studying her face, and heaven forbid remembering it later, she leaned close and pressed a sloppy doddering-aunt style kiss to his cheek. The kind that made young men squirm with embarrassment and seek escape. "Enjoy your youth, my charming boy, it doesn't last."
More guests arrived behind them, which helped Vala escape the threat of deeper scrutiny. Young 'Jana' followed her closely as they strolled into the colorful ballroom. Now she just had to ditch the girl, or rather allow the girl to ditch her, seeing as she was technically the chaperone, and the plan could begin in earnest. Her eye fell on the enormous glittering fountain at the center of the beverage table. "Shall I fetch -- "
"My dear Aayrl, I was so sorry to hear of your marriage," a female voice teased, somewhere off to her left. "We could have had so much fun together."
Vala knew that voice. And the last she knew, it belonged -- at least inasmuch as possession was nine tenths of the law -- to Athena.