Vala knew the woman in the flattering black dress and aptly named stiletto heels for what she was the instant she spotted her across the crowded room. Something in the tilt of her chin, or the grace of her walk; a degree of control in the way she held her body that even most Tau'ri soldiers couldn't match.
So much for anonymity. Like recognized like, whatever form it wore for show, and the other woman had the native advantage. No doubt she'd already noticed Vala in turn.
Well, that would make completing her mission more exciting. It had been awhile since she'd had a true challenge.
It had been many years since the last time Vala had been forced to rely on the tricks and ruthlessness that had kept her alive after the Tok'ra freed her from Qetesh. Though she'd been little more than a girl when the Goa'uld had taken her as a host, she'd already known a great deal about working a mark's expectations for her own benefit, and her experiences as Qetesh had only built on those skills. No doubt the comparison would give her father fits if he ever heard it, but that made it no less true. It hadn't been until after she'd crossed paths with Daniel Jackson-- the first man ever to withstand her favorite sting, soothe, and seduce techniques-- that Vala had found a place where she was rewarded for being merely herself. Even when she didn't entirely know who that might be.
But it was because Vala had finally found that acceptance, that she'd agreed to use those hard-earned skills on behalf of her new friends to target enemies that required less overtly military solutions. The SGC had finally eliminated the last of the System Lords, and many of Ba'al's minions had been dethroned along with him, but as long as any Goa'uld remained on Earth they were a threat to Vala's people. And if her past experiences made it easier for her to do what was necessary... well, she'd never been much of a one for volunteering, but some causes were worth the effort.
The problem with the Trust, of course, was that its members were generally wealthy, powerful, and extremely well-connected. That was how they'd been in a position to reach their fingers into the Stargate program in the first place, and why the Goa'uld had chosen them as hosts when the time had come to infiltrate the Tau'ri. That status came with more enemies than just the US government, and one of those could easily have sent the deadly redhead currently clinging to the mark's arm.
Whether that was likely or not, of course, was another story. If the woman was another government agent, Vala would be having words with O'Neill; there was compartmentalization, and then there was setting one's agents up for a painful fall.
But then again-- the mark was Justin Hammer. And the local government did have a bad habit of moving its right hand without regard for what the left was doing.
No one had paid much notice when the industrialist had wormed out of his prison sentence, grew more serious about his business, and began making obscene amounts of money from overseas investors-- not with the likes of Tony Stark sucking up the limelight. Of course, the filthy rich inventor slash superhero was a tasty morsel of eye candy, with quite the cash balance and a twisty personality to go with it, so that was perhaps understandable. Still, Vala would wager a great deal that a lot of people on the Senate Arms Committee would be kicking themselves once she reported in. The nearer she drew to Hammer, the more her nerves tingled, and not just from the sense of unfriendly eyes tracking her position. Whatever Stark's lesser shadow might once have been, the Trust definitely had their claws in him now.
That was one question answered. But how about the other? Daniel would tell her to report in before doing anything rash; but Vala knew very well that he'd been just as familiar with the axiom of asking forgiveness rather than permission as she was long before they'd ever met, and so took that imaginary advice with exactly the amount of seriousness it deserved.
Decision made, Vala dredged up a vacuous, cheerful smile, adjusted the wrap of her shirt to better display her assets, then joined a conversation with several taller, bulkier businesspersons to give the other woman time to shift her focus elsewhere. She'd gone with a black theme that evening as well, from the leather boots skimming snugly over her calves to expensive trousers, silk shirt, and the updone swirl of her hair. Not to the millionaire's tastes, judging by the sleekness of her competition-- but more than enough to draw the attention of all the males around her like a screen.
Several minutes later, she judged the risk had lowered as much as it ever would and eased back toward the bar, carefully approaching on the far side of her mark from her opponent. She kept the crowd flow between them as she moved, trusting to the crush to keep the other woman from noticing immediately, and placed her order with a silent series of gestures.
The Goa'uld was making no effort to disguise his conversation, which reduced the likely value of any information she might overhear. But any data was better than none.
"Ms. Rushman, you flatter me," he was drawling as Vala took her first cautious sip, watching him out of the corner of her eye.
"Not at all," his companion replied, a smooth huskiness to her voice that could've been copied right out of Vala's book of tricks. "You were there at Monte Carlo, and sadly, that was representative of my time at Stark Industries. Mr. Stark treated me like a not particularly bright maidservant, despite the fact that Ms. Potts hired me as much for my extensive security experience as my administrative skills. And if anything, he grew more disdainful after the events at the Expo."
"I suppose I should apologize for that," Hammer replied. "Or curse you, depending; I remember the elbow to the neck, and don't think I was too distracted to notice that Agent nickname over the comms. Cute. But his loss is my gain, I suppose. He never has appreciated the true value of the treasures right under his nose."
"You're not wrong. I'm hoping to find something a little more of a... challenge... to my skills for my next job," the woman admitted, trailing an index finger up over Hammer's tie.
Oh, she was good. But unless 'Ms. Rushman' was from some branch of the SGC that Vala didn't know about, her foe would be a little too much of a challenge, whatever skills she might have. Not even the big international cloak-and-dagger agency that had dealt with the invasion in New York had been read in on the race of parasitic aliens.
Although, now that she thought about it-- didn't SHIELD have at least as much reason to be suspicious of Hammer as Vala's people? The mysterious agent could easily be one of theirs.
And if so, Vala realized abruptly, she probably wasn't alone. She threw back the rest of her drink, grimacing, and used the motion to covertly scan the rest of the room. She didn't see anything obvious... but there were several shadowed spaces, particularly in the corners near the ceiling, where anything might be hiding. She lowered her gaze again, pretending to wipe a few scattered droplets out of her cleavage, and retrieved a tracker from its hiding place in the bodice of her dress.
Let someone else follow up on Hammer; her curiosity had been satisfied, and her instincts were warning her it was time to leave while she could. Before any uncomfortable questions could be asked.
She waited for Hammer to pull the woman aside for a more private discussion, then dropped the tracker in his suit jacket as he brushed by. Then she turned and headed for the opposite exit, spine itching from the pressure of unseen eyes all the way across the room.
Vala had almost made it to the door when the itch grew to something more substantial.
"I believe this is yours," 'Ms. Rushman's' voice murmured behind her, stripped of all its flirtatious overtones.
Vala froze, then turned slowly to see the tracker clasped in sharp, shining fingernails; either metallic lacquer or genuine metal fingertip blades, she was careful not to test which as she accepted the tiny object. Then she swiftly scanned over her shoulder for Hammer... who was, of course, nowhere to be seen. Though one of the shadowed corners seemed... a little less shadowy.
"I suppose there's no use denying it," she sighed. "I do hope you know just what it is you've caught?"
A wry smile tucked at the corner of the woman's mouth. "I suppose there's no use denying it. It's a small world."
"Smaller than you'd think," Vala replied, wryly. "I suspect my people will be in touch with yours very shortly, one way or another." Daniel had just been saying that they needed to set up closer cooperation with SHIELD to coordinate responses to future invasions. This might simply be... a slightly more dramatic first meeting than they'd planned?
"And what people would those be?"
"My name is Vala Mal Doran; and if you are who I think you are, that should be enough to be going on with."
"And who do you think I am?" Question for question; but luckily, that wasn't all Vala had to rely on.
"Not Ms. Rushman, though that should still be enough for my superiors."
"Then I think we understand each other." One eyebrow rose in complement to the statement.
"I think we do," Vala said, upping the wattage on her smile.
There was only a slight pause before they each turned to leave, not quite turning their backs on one another.
What a fascinating woman. Vala hoped she was SHIELD; and that she did, indeed, have some idea what she was walking into.
Otherwise, their next meeting might be a great deal less pleasant for them both.