"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.
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.