Daniel paused at the door to Vala's quarters. He hated to invade her privacy, but he'd do anything to get her back. More importantly, he knew she wanted him to, even if he had to drag her back kicking and screaming. Or worse. She'd made him promise.
Her plan had sounded crazy when she'd first explained it, the slightest tremor creeping into her voice as she'd told her friends what kind of false memories would drive her from the SGC. Her deepest fears, spilled out on the briefing room table, and Vala had the courage not just to share them, but to face them all. While Sam programmed that damned memory device, he'd followed Vala back here, to her quarters.
"Vala," he'd said. "I don't want you to do this. It's too much."
"Well I don't particularly want to do it either, Daniel, but lives are at stake."
"Vala -- "
"We need to do something, and when it comes to Adria, I'm the most tempting bait we have."
He'd sighed, because she was right. "To pull this off -- Vala, you won't just be alone. You'll believe none of us have your back."
"I can take it." Her stubborn bravado dissolved into a watery smile. "For a day, anyway."
"One day. And then we're bringing you back here, whether or not we get Adria."
"I won't go quietly."
"If you have to lock me up, make sure I'm guarded, because as much as I hate to brag, escaping is a particular speciality of mine. I'm pretty talented."
"That you are."
"And when I come through the stargate, don't try to convince me of anything, and don't you dare trust me. Not for one single second, Daniel. I'll be looking for a chance to get away from Adria, and I'll be none too pleased to have a welcoming committee. You might have to zat me. Or shoot me, even, just -- "
"Vala -- "
"Promise me, Daniel. Promise me you won't go all soft and longwinded, and try to convince me. You drag me back here, whatever it takes."
"Vala, listen. I may not be wild about the risks in this plan, but trust me when I say that I will hesitate at nothing in order to bring you home." He'd shrugged and added a dry laugh. "Besides, I can't honestly claim zatting you lacks appeal. Turnabout is fair play."
"Careful with the sweet talk, darling, I may be forced to swoon."
At her hollow laugh he'd stepped closer, to squeeze her arm and offer assurances she would soon forget. "Jokes aside, if it were real, the scenario . . . nothing would stop me from supporting you."
He'd swallowed hard at the unwavering confidence in her eyes, then, and as he remembered it now, his failure burned in the pit of his stomach. "I wish we had a backup plan. Some way to make you question the false memories. Just in case."
"I'll pack something." She'd picked up several objects, then, only to put each one back in place again. Then she'd pulled out a dress, and he'd frowned as he recognized it. "I'll wonder why I brought it," she'd explained. "It's not valuable, or particularly useful, and it's not . . . "
He hadn't pressed. Not even as her eyes darted back to the dresser, and he'd wondered which of the objects there fell into the undefined category that the dress did not.
Now, he took a closer look at each of them. The necklace he'd given her for Christmas -- brainwashed, she'd pawn it or gamble it in a heartbeat, and he was glad she'd thought enough of it to leave it safely behind. The stuffed giraffe she'd demanded he win for her from the claw machine at the team's favorite rib joint -- although the victory had been more hers than his, she'd grabbed the controls more than once during the process. He smiled at the memory. A dogeared book about pop culture -- a gift from Teal'c, if he remembered correctly. Most of the remaining clutter consisted of hair accessories and makeup.
Then he spotted it. Not exactly the most sentimental of gifts, but he'd seen it and thought she'd enjoy it. The conversation they'd had at the time came back to him now, and he realized that very conversation probably gave her the idea for her ill-fated plan in the first place. He slipped the object into his jacket, and headed back to his office. He needed one more thing.
Under any other circumstances, if she'd had anything even resembling a better option, Vala would have bailed on this heist. The brutal warlord and his paranoia-driven security measures were danger enough, but a goa'uld, even a minor one like Athena -- she had no backup, no one to look for her if -- No, best not to think about the worst case scenario. With her limited options, she had to go forward as planned. She left Eliya on the dance floor and slipped out through the kitchen. Things would look brighter once she strapped a zat to her thigh.
She gathered up her heavy skirt and groped her way through the woods by the dwindling light of the fast-setting sun. When she drew within sight of the wall, she retrieved a fallen branch and used it to sweep the underbrush. By the time her stick thumped against the pocket of empty air she sought, an inky darkness had swallowed the woods. She heard a twig snap behind her. Her breath caught in her throat, and she grabbed for the Sodan cloak, fumbling blindly to free it from the pack and fasten it instead to her arm.
More radiation exposure. Damn. She'd really hoped to avoid that. Her finger hovered over the button as she calculated the risks, but the abstract threat to her health failed to compare to the very real danger of being dragged back into the ball at gunpoint and presented to the warlord, and worse yet, his dance partner.
"Someone's out here," a male voice said. "I'm sure of it."
"No one's fool enough to prowl around in these woods," his companion replied. "Especially tonight. Not with that crazy gadget on the wall. You probably just heard one of the dogs."
Crazy gadget? Just what had her research missed? Dogs were a problem, too. A Sodan cloak wouldn't fool a dog's nose. She had to move. With as much caution as she could muster, she slipped the pack over her shoulder and crept silently toward the two guards.
Neither man noticed as she shadowed them back in the direction of the kitchen. The dogs, on the other hand -- she tensed as a low growl rose from the nearby bushes.
"Is that damned mongrel growling at us?"
"No, I'm telling you, there's someone out here!"
Vala skirted around behind the men as the first one poked his weapons into the brush. The menacing growl grew in volume, and two yellow eyes glowed from between the leaves. Eyes that stood a good two feet taller than the average dog.
The first guard -- the stupid one -- poked the energy rifle he carried directly at the glowing eyes.
The glowing eyes exploded out of the bushes and -- quite rightfully, really -- went for his throat.
Vala grabbed the idiot's shirtcollar and yanked him from harm's way.
"What the -- "
The smarter guard -- comparitively -- turned to run, which meant the large feline owner of the glowing eyes now had a moving target to pursue.
Vala scrambled to free her zat from the pack on her shoulder.
The creature leaped.
The now-unconscious animal fell, its momentum slamming it into its intended target. Predator and prey landed in a heap, just outside the rectangle of light spilling from the kitchen door.
Vala's second shot took out the other guard as he climbed to his feet. Witnesses were the last thing she needed. Then she fled back into the kitchen and ducked into a pantry. It would take a moment to restore order to her somewhat tangled skirts.
This proved harder than expected with the Sodan cloak rendering her clothes invisible, so she shoved a barrel of sugar in front of the door and deactivated it. She made a mental note to pick up a goa'uld healing device on the next world, to counter any ill effects from this latest dose of radiation.
Once she had her zat -- among other vital equipment -- strapped in place, she smoothed out her skirts and checked her reflection in the side of a scratched tin spice container. Her gray hair looked appropriately dry and stiff, while also free of stray twigs and orderly enough, and her makeup would do. Glamorous it was not, but it concealed any hint of the bracing bit of exercise which had no doubt added color to her cheeks, somewhere beneath all the layers of ashen powder.
Vala slipped from hiding and made her way back to the ballroom with slow, careful steps. An old woman, already tired from the energetic festivities. Everyone ignored her. She cast an eye over the dance floor. At least Eliya's limited role seemed on track. The pretty young woman -- and her offworld father's fictional money -- had settled squarely at the center of attention, with Lord Aaryl's handsome young son one of the many vying for her next dance.
Good. That could give a certain frail old chaperone the perfect excuse to have a chat with the hostess. On the other hand, if Athena entrenched herself in that same inner circle, things might get complicated, but Vala chose to look at the bright side. At least for the moment.
She took the time to study Lord Aaryl's wife, who sat on one of the upper platforms above the dancers, chatting with a few other women -- Athena thankfully not among them. Vala had spent a fair bit of time over the last few days studying this woman on paper, but this was the first time she'd laid eyes on her.
Flocarline D'Mare, formerly of Kalitan, wore her dark hair up in an elaborate coil of braids, and she had small jewels set in the polish on her perfectly manicured fingernails. The curious style was neither an artifact of Kalitanian fashion nor a local custom. A perfect conversation starter. Vala could use that. Careful to keep her face in shadows, she edged closer to the group.
That's when the hysterical shrieking erupted from the kitchen. Drat. Someone had discovered the security guards and their feline friend napping in the kitchen yard already?
So that was a yes, then.
A wild-eyed woman rushed into the ballroom, shouting and waving her arms with far more dramatic flare than a single unconscious lion should merit. The original shrill voice called again for a doctor. As whispered panic rippled through the crowd on the dance floor, Lord Aaryl glared upward with murder in his beady little eyes.
For a moment Vala's blood ran cold, but then she spotted the blur of movement off to her side as a weaselly man in a tacky red suit hustled toward the stairs.
"Apologies, sir, apologies. I'll take care of everything. No worries, no worries at all."
"I won't have worries!" Aayrl thundered. "I'll have your head on a pike!"
"Oh no, no need for dramatics." Red Suit laughed a nervous little laugh. "She's really quite docile. I'll just fetch her now. I'd wondered where she'd got to. No worries at all, sir. None at all."
Vala suspected the man took Aayrl's literal threat as mere hyperbole, but she was hardly in a position to explain otherwise, and she couldn't afford to draw Aayrl's attention. Or, for that matter, waste the distraction. In any case, she doubted the warlord would have him beheaded before the lion was contained. Well, probably.
"Oh dear," she muttered, head down, her gait ever so slightly unsteady. A little stumble might work, then she could grab for a supporting hand, but it had to look natural. Think old, she told herself. Tired, grumpy, disapproving. She thought of her mother's landlady, a lifetime ago, with her sharp mind and sharper tongue, and how everyone would scramble to ignore her the very moment she began muttering under her breath. "Oh dear goodness, what a commotion."
The hostess and her companions were all focused on the spectacle, so if Vala timed her move perfectly, she could catch Flocarline's hand before the woman saw her face. She drew closer, intent on the empty seat. She pictured the exact manner in which she could drop herself into it while grabbing at the arm of the neighboring chair.
Flocarline turned around.
Vala let her knee collapse out from under her, and fell hard. That would leave a bruise or three. But no matter, it beat letting the woman see her face. A flurry of activity closed in around her. Which hand reaching to help her up should she grab? The wrong choice and all of her careful planning went up in smoke, but she dared not look.
"Carly," she said, in her most demanding voice. She reached out the hand with the ring. "Be a good girl and help your old mama up."
A hand closed around hers. Vala squeezed, felt the ring do its job, and looked up to lock eyes with the owner of that hand.
The other woman stared with open mouthed shock. "This cannot be! You're . . . but my mother is dead!"
Daniel found Teal'c in the locker room. Alone, fortunately. "I'm going to get Vala."
"I would expect nothing less, Daniel Jackson." Teal'c looked up from tying his boot. "Do you wish me to accompany you?"
"No." Daniel took a seat on one of the benches. "No, I think I'd better go alone. For now."
"If you require assistance with your departure, perhaps a distraction -- "
Daniel shook his head. "I'm pretty sure lying to Walter will do the trick. I probably don't even have to be very clever about it, under the circumstances. But if I screw up, if she sees me coming and slips away again . . ."
"You're here because you wish me to go after Vala Mal Doran should you fail."
"Yes." He nodded. Stared at his boots for a moment. "If I fail, or get delayed. If we're not back when you return -- don't wait. Find her. Not to sound overdramatic, I know you would anyway, it's just that under the circumstances it's fairly likely her first instinct will be to toss me down some dank hole and disappear, if I screw up and give her the chance. I -- ." He paused. Swallowed. "No matter what happens, I just need her to know . . . she wasn't wrong to stop running. To make a home here. I want her to know how much . . . how much we all -- that we all care, and we always have her back."
Teal'c nodded with rather more understanding than Daniel's vague stammering should have bought.
"Here's the thing. Before she left, before the procedure, she made me promise I'd drag her back here, even if I had to shoot her to do it. I felt I needed to pass that along, for what it's worth. I plan to do my best to follow her advice, but she's smart and quick. She got the better of Mitchell, before, and despite everything she very well might get the better of me as well. If she does, don't let her get the drop on you, too."
"Vala Mal Doran will no doubt prove difficult to apprehend, but I assure you that will not deter me. You have my word, Daniel Jackson." Teal'c stood and placed his hand on Daniel's shoulder. "I hope I will not need to keep it. I wish you the best of luck."
For a moment, Vala feared she'd grabbed the wrong woman's hand, even despite the rough feel of the tell-tale fingernail jewel pressed against her palm. But when she gathered the courage to look up, she realized the even messier truth. She'd missed a rather vital fact in her research -- Flocarline's mother was apparently no longer breathing. This could be a problem.
"Mama?" Flocarline's lower lip trembled, and her eyes shone with tears. "It really is you . . . "
Vala flinched as the woman's emotions slammed into her gut. To do this to someone, and then disappear -- it was cruel. Far crueler than any insincere seduction, and she regretted not falling back on that old standby. "Yes, my Carly," Vala managed. "It's really me." She allowed the woman to pull her up awkwardly, and fell into her trembling arms for a hug that soured her stomach.
Absolutely cruel. Unforgivable, really. And thinking of the money only made it worse.
"How did you survive?" Flocarline helped her to sit. "When they recovered your ship, the airlocks were blown and the walls scorched to melting."
"We had to blow the airlocks to send the fire out into space," Vala said. That part seemed likely, given the scant evidence available. Venting a ship was a desperate measure, and it pointed to a few certain facts. Vala chose one. "Last I remember, we were putting on the space suits."
"I cannot believe you're here!"
"Where else would I go? As soon as I woke up in that damned hospital I knew I had to come find my daughter straight away." She tried to smile, and plunged deeper down the rabbit hole. "Of course I also sent word home, although I do fear some doubt will greet the news in my absence."
The poor woman clutched at her hand, and Vala struggled to keep the ring from piercing her skin a second time. She had no idea what a second dose of Reol might do, and on a more selfish note, if something went very wrong and Plan B came into play, she'd need every last microgram.
As the last of the other women disappeared back onto the dance floor, or simply off to chat elsewhere and give them this moment, Flocarline leaned close to whisper. "I'm so glad to have you here, Mama. I could use a friendly face these days."
Of that Vala had little doubt. She could even guess at the specifics. Flocarline had married a monster of a man, hidden beneath a thin veneer of charm. A very thin veneer. "Oh dear, I had so hoped you'd found happiness here."
Flocarline smiled and squeezed her hand. "Oh, it's nothing dire. But it's very easy for a woman to feel alone, with the house always full of my stepson's friends, and my husband so frequently distracted . . . by his work."
Vala followed her gaze down to the dance floor, where Lord Aaryl danced with the very person Vala most hoped to avoid. She gave her ring a reassuring twist. She'd need her Plan B if Athena stuck around for the long haul. Perhaps she should have dosed the goa'uld, and let her position in the warlord's court depend solely upon the pretty young thing she was doing such a poor job of chaperoning -- the vulnerable girl currently wrapped around Lord Aaryl's insidiously polite eldest son, the dashing young Tyril.
Walter dialed the address Daniel gave him without question. Under better circumstances, Daniel might have felt guilty. Then again, under better circumstances, he wouldn't be sneaking off through the stargate in direct violation of Landry's orders.
He promptly found himself on a desolate rock without much to investigate. Grey dust, grey sky, and not so much as a single stubby grey tree on the distant horizon. He scanned the ground for the slightest evidence Vala had passed this way. A steady wind from the east had obscured any dusty footprints, but he didn't expect to find a trail to follow anyway. He knew Vala. In full flight mode, she would choose a circuitous route for her travels, and scatter irrelevant stargate addresses between each purposeful visit. In all likelihood, she'd traveled here only to dial out immediately.
Or, maybe he had it all wrong. She knew he'd remember that trick, so perhaps she'd abandoned it. Either way, why linger here, unless . . . unless she'd arranged for a dead drop. He just hoped if that were true, if she'd traded for supplies here, that she she'd left by stargate, and not by ship.
If she'd even set foot on the planet. All of this speculation assumed the intel, which came from Adria by way of Ba'al, had any grain of truth to it in the first place. Of course, if they'd followed up on the lead sooner, he could have surprised her at the dead drop, zatted her, and dragged her back through the gate. They'd be safely aboard the Odyssey right now, cheerfuly stepping on each other's nerves while performing their entirely unnecessary roles in that particular milk run of a mission.
With a heavy sigh, he settled down beside the DHD, and pulled out the laptop he hoped Sam would forgive him for borrowing. At least this particular gate didn't seem likely to see much traffic, so the most recent gate address dialed was probably his best bet as to her next stop, but the odds were equally poor it would prove her final destination.
He predicted a noisy trader's berth with a steady stream of traffic, and dialed.