Night of the Living Dread
Vala slipped through a herd of Marines and emerged on the other side of the corridor beside little miss Rory Gilmore. Vala followed Rory into the elevator and waited until they were headed deeper into the mountain to ask, "Who's winning?"
Rory never lifted her eyes from her papers. "Colonel Darsen, in the chemistry lab with the acetone."
"And here I had all my money on Dr. Freyd in the Gateroom with a ZPM," Vala lamented. She thrust her hand in her pocket and emerged with a handful of linty mints. "Candy?"
Rory made a face. "I'm not sure that's the kind of fiber the FDA wants us to add to our diet," she said as the elevator doors opened. "Why are you down here? Are you coming to my final scientific briefing with the General?"
Vala shook her head, picking lint from a mint. "Daniel is in the middle of working on something... somewhere," she said. "As much as I'm going to miss you in Atlantis, darling, I wouldn't sit through a science briefing for all the tea in China."
"You don't like tea," Rory pointed out.
"For all the Smirnoff in Russia?"
Rory laughed, a startled happy sound that Vala had not heard enough in the last few months. And now, Rory was going to leave the galaxy
for Atlantis and Vala was going to be left behind. Again. This sort of thing always happened when she made a friend; they would pack up their things and leave. At least she still had Daniel and Mitchell and Teal'c, which was solely an observation and not any kind of sappy emotional lamentation.
"Are you still going home afterwards?" Vala asked, bounding ahead of Rory up the stairs.
"I think so," Rory said. "Unless the General needs me to do any extra work before I leave for Atlantis."
Vala emerged into the briefing room to find General Landry and Mitchell leaning stiffly around the briefing table. Sure, Mitchell called that pose the 'military parade lounging', but Vala refused to attribute the word 'lounge' to anything a person did while vertical.
General Landry broke off his side of the conversation when he spotted Vala. "You're early for the briefing, Vala," he said with a hint of humor in his voice. "All of that hanging around Ms. Gilmore finally starting to rub off on you?"
"I sincerely hope not," Vala said with a grimace. She hopped up onto the table beside Mitchell. "Don't tell me you're becoming an ego-head."
Mitchell sighed. "That's 'egg-head'," he corrected.
"I don't know, I like ego-head," Rory said shyly. For some reason that Vala could not torment out of her, Rory was still inexplicably hesitant around General Landry.
"Ooh, or Eggo-head," Vala added.
"Would that make someone a waffle brain?" Mitchell tossed in with a grin. Rory blushed and Vala added one more weapon to her 'Tease Rory' arsenal, the girl's minor crush on Lt. Colonel Cameron Mitchell.
Vala said to the General, "Are you going to be mean and keep Rory here instead of going home to see her mother?"
"No, Ms. Gilmore is free to go home for a few days before the personnel move out to Atlantis," General Landry said. "As long as she manages to stay out of casinos."
"It wasn't my fault that we were arrested in Las Vegas," Vala protested. "Blame Daniel and his paranoia!"
"It wasn't his idea for us to stay in the hotel that looked like a pyramid," Rory reminded her. "And you were the one acting suspicious around the roulette table."
"Only because you were ignoring me while you were breaking the bank at the black jack table." Vala sighed wistfully. "I still don't see why they were so mad at you for counting cards. Isn't that the point?"
Mitchell coughed. "Rory wasn't counting cards, Vala, she's just got good luck at gambling."
"It wasn't luck, I was just playing the odds on when to fold," Rory told him. "And I gave most of the money back to the casino and they decided to forget we were there." She was smiling, though. "It's been a while since the cops came to break up one of my birthday parties. I was the talk of the school in grade three."
"Grade three?" Mitchell repeated.
"The cops arrested the clown and then the fire department had to come to get me and Lane down out of the church roof. Mom got one of the firefighter's phone numbers and I still have to hear about it at Thanksgiving."
"Sounds like loads of small-town American fun," Vala said pointedly. She was not scowling. That would have been immature and sulky, two things that Vala was certainly not, thank you.
"It's home," Rory said. She placed her papers on the briefing table and adjusted them very straight. Glancing up at the General, Rory began, "I know it might not be possible, sir, but..."
"Yes?" the General prompted, not unfriendly under his gruffness.
"I mean, things around here are going to be slow for a few days," Rory said, her eyes wide and innocent. "Would it be okay if Vala came with me to Connecticut?"
After nine months of being around Rory Gilmore, not much surprised Vala anymore. But still, whenever Rory brought out the 'cute and adorable little girl' face, Vala was amazed how people fell for it. Well, not 'fall', Vala mentally amended. But perhaps were weakened by it. Like by radiation poisoning, or low blood sugar.
General Landry glanced at Mitchell and surprised the hell out of Vala by saying, "Sure."
Vala sprang off the table, tripping over Mitchell in the process. "I can go?" she demanded, not believing she'd understood.
"Yes, yes," the General said irritably. "You're free to have a few days of leave, after all this time on post."
"But you do realize that I'll be gone without military escort," Vala said. "No Daniel hiding in the trunk or Mitchell in the closet."
"Why am I stuck in the closet?" Mitchell asked, but he was ignored.
"I am aware of what I'm saying," the General said. He made a shooing motion at Vala and Mitchell. "If Ms. Gilmore can put up with you for a few days, that's her call."
Rory grinned widely as she caught at Vala's sleeve. "You can come to Stars Hollow!" she exclaimed.
"Excellent!" Vala slung an arm over the girl's shoulders and hugged her quickly sideways. "You can explain all about these insect customs on the plane."
"Insects?" Rory asked, then shook her head. "Not 'wasps," Vala, the acronym is W.A.S.P. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants."
Vala dismissed the explanation. "Maybe I'll ask Daniel for a guidebook," she mused as other white coats began to drift into the room. "But don't you leave without me!"
"Of course not," Rory promised. She turned back to her papers as Mitchell and Vala headed out of the room, narrowly missing more scientists.
Vala made it as far as the control room before she caught Mitchell's arm. "What's going on?" she demanded.
Mitchell hitched his shoulders in that annoying way he had, which he only did when he was trying to be sneaky and subtle. "The General just wants you to have some time off, that's all."
Vala glared at him with all the withering contempt she usually reserved for the Goa'uld. "The last time I asked to leave the base without you or Daniel, he told me it'd be a cold day in hell."
Mitchell shrugged. "You know, there is this global climate change thing--" He danced back as Vala's hand sailed through the air, narrowly missing his arm. "No beating up your commanding officer!"
Their 'conversation' was beginning to turn heads in the rest of the control room. "There's regulations somewhere," Mitchell shot back. "Can't you just go along with this?"
Vala narrowed her eyes. "This isn't about me at all, is it?"
Mitchell motioned with his head and they escaped into the hallway, away from the insatiable gossips that inhabited the control room. "It's sort of complicated," Mitchell said in a low voice that was probably supposed to be confidence inspiring or something.
Vala didn't buy it. Cam Mitchell was many things; buff, brave, and adorable in dress blues. One thing he was not, however, was versed in the arts of subtlety. "Do you think something might happen to Rory? Is that why you're letting me go with her?" she asked.
Mitchell pursed his lips while he thought of an answer. Vala rolled her eyes. She didn't have the time for this.
"Here's the deal, sunshine," she said. "I'll go with Rory and keep an eye out and if anything happens, I'll call you and you can ride in, blasters blazing."
"There's not going to be any need for calling out the cavalry," Mitchell protested.
"So why the big deal? Who could possibly want to hurt Rory?"
Mitchell crossed his arms over his chest, hunching towards Vala to keep the conversation private. "McKay junior is quite possibly the smartest brain Earth has on its side right now," he said in a low voice. "The General wants someone to keep an eye out for her. Someone who has experience in looking over their shoulder."
"Rory is Earth's last, best hope," Vala said.
"And you're sending her to another galaxy."
Mitchell looked confused. Adorable, true, but confused. "Yeah, so?"
Vala looked to the heavens and prayed for some external guiding source to gift her with patience in working with these foolish Earthers. "Fine, I'll go with Rory and be the beauty and brawn to her brains."
"Good." Mitchell gave Vala a soldierly pat on the shoulder. "Don't get into too much trouble."
Vala waited until Mitchell was almost to the end of the hallway before shouting after him, "I expect hazard pay for this!"
"Talk to me about it when you get back!" Mitchell called, passing Daniel at the bend in the corridor.
Daniel twisted around, almost losing his handful of papers, looking first after Mitchell, then switching his befuddled glassy gaze to Vala. "Where are you going?" he asked.
Vala beamed ear to ear. "Bat country," she said, sauntering towards Daniel. "Don't stop the car."
Daniel went back the way he came.~~~
Vala put down her duffle bag on the curb and took a deep breath. So this was small-town America. Gods, she was already bored.
Rory tucked her wallet back into her bag before joining Vala on the curb. The taxi's red taillights faded into the darkness, leaving Rory and Vala the only two apparent occupants in the town square. Dry leaves blew across the pavement, skittering over the playground, moving in time with the empty swings. Vala had seen cheerier worlds after the Ori had left. "Nice place you've got here," she observed.
"Where is everyone?" Rory wondered. "Come on, let's go to Luke's." The girl picked up her suitcase and moved across the street towards a brightly lit and seemingly empty diner.
Vala followed, suddenly regretting leaving her smuggled zat gun at the bottom of her duffle. Things were strange in this little town, and the one motto that Vala lived by was that strange was only good when Vala was the one making things strange.
So that wasn't really her motto, but good words to heed, if one could remember the general meaning under fire.
Rory stopped on the diner's front step, her hand halfway extended to the door handle. She had gone pale in the sickly light of the overhead street lamps. Vala looked at the diner again. This must have been the diner where Rory worked, before Jack O'Neill had found her and brought her to her proper place at the SGC. Vala still wasn't sure about status in the non-military parts of Earth, but from what she had gleaned from prodding Daniel with a stick, a smart person who had graduated from college and who worked in menial labor was considered a disappointment.
As someone who had worked as a waitress in a diner for a few weeks, Vala thought this view was utter trash.
Still, Vala supposed that Rory might have internalized said trash, and would need a little moral support to walk through that door. "Do you think they've been eaten by zombies?"
Rory turned startled eyes on Vala. "I-- huh?"
"Zombies." Vala gestured around the empty town with its shuttered shops. "Do you think we're in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse?"
"What do you know about zombies?" Rory asked, a smile starting over her face. The expression was quickly wiped away. "Oh god, are there actual zombies
"Of course not," Vala said. "At least not the ones that eat brains."
Rory glanced over Vala's shoulder at the deserted town. "I can't believe we're having a conversation about zombies on Luke's front doorstep."
"You're right." Vala poked Rory in the arm. "Brain-eating-zombies are a topic best had over burgers."
"Luke makes the best zombie burgers in the state," Rory said. She led the way into the diner, a lovely place that smelled of fresh coffee and delicious food, with hardware signs covering the walls in a distinctly anachronistic way. Vala thought the place quirky. Knowing that Rory had pretty much grown up in this diner explained so much.
"Be out in a minute," called a gruff male voice from the depths of the kitchen. "Sit wherever."
Rory placed her suitcase beside the counter, shaking and pale again. Had she really thought how to explain her leaving? So much of Rory's time in the past two weeks had focused on wrapping up her work at the SGC, not to mention finishing something called 'orals' at the university, something Vala had supposed wasn't nearly as fun as it sounded, as Rory had been a sleepless wreck for days before and after.
And now Rory was back at home, in the same place she'd been before all of the excitement of the SGC. Vala probably knew Rory best of all the people in the SGC, but sometimes she didn't understand the younger woman at all.
Maybe that was because the girl didn't know herself, not amid the whirl of knowledge and new discoveries stampeding through her brain. How often had Vala seen Rory surprise herself with some new discovery or observation? It wasn't the McKay influence, or the science, but a fundamental confusion at work within her.
As if Rory had changed in ways that even Rory didn't realize.
A burly man in a baseball cap and a flannel shirt rumbled out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a rag. He stopped in his tracks when he saw Rory.
"Hi Luke," the girl said, giving him the first honest smile Vala had seen on her in weeks
The man threw his rag on the counter and rushed Rory, sweeping her up into a hearty hug. "When did you get here?" he asked. He pulled back to give Rory the once-over, managing to look both startled and ecstatic at the same time. "They didn't kick you out of the Air Force, did they?"
That would be the day, Vala thought, perching on a bar stool. Considering the investment the U.S. Air Force had in keeping Rory Gilmore in their employ, the girl's corpse probably wouldn't be getting out of the SGC morgue until three years after her death.
"No, I just have a bit of leave. I mean, time off," Rory said. "It's good to see you again."
"It's been seven months," Luke said. "Your mom didn't tell me you were coming home."
Rory stepped away, twisting her hands together behind her back in one of thirty-seven nervous gestures Vala had catalogued through months of observation. This one Vala had classed as the 'I am keeping things from my mother and it makes me feel like an insect' hand-wringing, just slightly different from 'I just blew up a million-dollar piece of equipment and don't think I'll be able to blink my way out of this one'. The difference was all in the wrist.
"Mom didn't know I was coming," Rory was saying. "I tried to call her at home and on her cell, but there was no answer. I left messages. Also at the Inn, but Michel's pretending he doesn't speak English today and he refused to understand my 'Colonial accent'."
Luke waved his hand. "Paul Anka dropped Lorelai's cell in the sink a few days ago. She's at a business meeting in Hartford all day. She was even going to miss the town meeting."
Understanding dawned on Rory's face. "So that's why the town looks as if it's been decimated by the T-Virus." She turned to Vala. "I've told you about town meetings, right?"
"Ineffective briefings run by a cardiganed megalomaniac who runs the grocery during daylight hours?" Vala smiled at Luke. "I hear that he's your neighbor."
"Yeah, Taylor," Luke agreed. "And you are..."
"Oh, right," Rory said. "Luke, this is Vala Mal Doran, a friend from Colorado. Vala, this is Luke."
"And who else could you be?" Vala asked, holding out her hand to Luke. He was sort of dopy-looking when he was confused, rather like some of the thicker-skulled Jaffa she'd known. "Rory has told me all about you."
"Right." Luke stuck his hands in his pockets, awkward now and uncertain. "Lorelai said she'd be coming by the diner after her meeting, seeing as how I'm stuck here until eleven. Do you want to wait?"
"Actually, maybe we can sneak into the town meeting?" Rory suggested, glancing Vala's way. "It's part of that East Coast Americana you wanted to see. We'll be back after."
"Sounds good," Luke said quickly. "You go and watch. Watching is good."
Vala raised an eyebrow in the man's direction, which he missed but Rory caught and oh, the glare she sent Vala. "We'll be back for burgers later on," Rory promised Luke. "And if Mom comes in, tell her to come crash the party."
Rory pushed her suitcase and Vala's duffle behind the counter and fairly danced out the door, Vala in her wake. They crossed the deserted streets and headed in the direction of a large low hall, so similar to those Vala had seen off-world that it sent a twinge of familiarity down her spine. How many times had she narrowly escaped death in a building just like this?
"How do I look?" Rory asked, smoothing her hands over her skirt. "Do I look okay?" Her dark navy suit and pumps looked wildly out of place in this hall. The clothing was better suited to the going-away briefing she'd had with the Joint Chiefs and IOA reps, where she had dazzled the military men with her smile and understanding of the tactical situation in Pegasus, and deftly handled the egos of the scientists by understanding their research, and had caused Mitchell to mutter under his breath, "That kid's got what it takes."
"Good enough to sell to Bastet," Vala said in a twist of a phrase from her childhood. "Why are you worrying?"
"Because I know these people."
As explanations went, Rory had done better. "Because you knew these people when you were crazy?" Vala tried to stay calm. She was so much better at dealing with Earth culture now, and it wasn't like she was walking into Baal's camp alone. It was just a group of humans who were most likely unarmed and uninterested in sacrificing her to their gods. "You look darling. Stop worrying."
A nervous smile hovered on Rory's lips. "I'm being silly, that's all."
Vala patted Rory's arm. "I know."
The back door of the hall eased open under Rory's touch and the two women stepped in out of the cold. The hall was crowded with strangers, reinforcing Vala's unease. At least there were no large fire pits into which to throw the victim.
The man on the platform droned on, but a few people in the back rows turned around to see the latecomers. Whispers spread out like ripples and by the time Rory and Vala had taken seats by the wall, people were craning in their seats to see Rory.
Finally, the man at the front realized that no one was listening to him. "Honestly, people, what could be more important than a discussion of the town snow-removal budget?"
"Catching up on my sleep?" a capped man in the front row suggested. The plump woman beside him smacked his arm.
"Rory's back, Taylor!" the woman chimed, and the room assented.
"She's so populaaaar," Vala said sotto voce
to Rory. The girl blushed, but was smiling.
"And?" Taylor asked, leaning down over his podium. "Would you like me to stop the meeting so you can all say hello?"
A small dark-haired woman popped to her feet. "Would you? Thanks!"
Taylor glared her down. "We are not going to stop the meeting! We've got seven more line-items to discuss in the budget!"
A muted roar rose in the hall. Taylor held up his hands, but it was no good. "Speech!" someone shouted, and the room took up the cry. Vala turned an amused glance on Rory, who by now was crimson.
"It was your idea to visit home," Vala said pointedly.
Still bright-red, Rory stood to a two-person cheer. "It's, um, good to be back," she said when the chanting stopped. "The place looks really good. So do all of you." She paused. "And Luke's will be open after the meeting." Another two-person cheer. "Thank you, I'm here until Saturday. Please tip your server."
Vala didn't understand the roar of laughter, but that was par for the course with most of what Rory said, and she joined in the applause as Rory seated herself. Vala nudged Rory in the side. "That was interesting," Vala said quietly as Taylor took up the meeting again.
"Welcome to my town," Rory said, a flush remaining on her cheeks. "I'd forgotten how much I miss this."
Vala gave Rory's hand a quick squeeze. Nothing in the galaxy would be able to keep Rory Gilmore from Atlantis, but for the first time it seemed as if Rory was realizing what she would be leaving behind.
The standing dark-haired woman had worked her way through the crowd and squeezed onto the bench on the other side of Rory. The two girls hugged and squealed quietly and hugged again, totally ignoring Taylor. "What are you doing here?" the stranger asked. "Why didn't you tell us you were coming home?"
Rory tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, in the Rory Gilmore 'My new life of being the most brilliant person in the galaxy doesn't mesh with my former life of being a journalist and I feel awkward' nervous gesture number four, and shrugged with one shoulder. "It was a bit of a surprise to me as well. I had to come home before-- I wanted to get a chance to come home." She tried to cover her flustered state by gesturing over her shoulder at Vala. "This is Vala. She's a friend from the office. Vala, this is Lane."
"It's nice to meet you," Vala said with a small nod of the head. The young woman was less sanguine, staring at Vala in a guarded way.
"Hi," Lane said quietly. She looked between Vala and Rory. Vala, knowing raised hackles when she saw them, sat back and pretended to listen to Taylor blather on about money.
Rory and Lane resumed their conversation, and Vala drifted in and out of attention, instead looking around the hall (old wood and much-patched beams) and the people (bundled up and slow and not a warrior's bearing amongst them) and the clothing (never in a hundred years would Vala understand Earth fashions, and that was SG-1's one area of blanket agreement). She wished people were at least standing up and milling about; she'd have been able to practice her pick-pocketing.
The words from the front of the hall caught her attention a split second after Rory tensed at Vala's side. Vala almost went for her non-present sidearm. Rory was absolutely frozen, tension screaming through still limbs, her bright blue eyes fixed on Taylor at the front of the room.
The only other time Vala had seen Rory go so still had been on Rory's one off-world mission with SG-1, just moments before a mothership appeared on the horizon. She'd later claimed she'd heard the engines, and for all Vala knew that was the truth, but the snake-like stillness in the girl set Vala's heart pounding with adrenaline.
"--will have to cancel the Memorial Day fireworks and festivities next May," Taylor was saying, and the few people who were awake enough to hear him sent up a round of 'boos'. "People, the budget only goes so far and if you want to have the bonfire next year, funds need to be reallocated--"
"Sacrificed," Rory said quietly, her voice normal but she hadn't moved a muscle and Vala was beginning to wonder if there was something Mitchell hadn't mentioned when he sent her to watch (out for? over?)
"--and we have the Snow festival in a month and the outdoor ice rink isn't going to pay for itself!"
"Come on, Taylor, there's got to be the money somewhere!" said a tiny curly-headed woman with a grating voice.
"Yeah, canceling Memorial Day is just uncool," contributed the man beside her.
Taylor huffed and puffed behind his podium. "To have even the most basic of celebrations, with appropriate permits and everything, would cost five thousand dollars that we don't have."
"At least he's not canceling Christmas again," Lane said, but Rory didn't seem to hear her friend. Voices suggested other public holidays to cancel, but not very enthusiastically.
The previous Memorial Day had been Vala's third on Earth, and she knew how to act at the memorial service in the Gateroom for the members of the SGC who had been killed and injured in the line of duty. She'd known what to wear (that demure black dress Sam had bought her the year before) and where to stand (between Teal'c and Daniel, with Mitchell by the Generals at the Gate) and that there was nothing for her to say on that day. Any other day of the year, she would have questioned or pestered or maneuvered a hasty exit, but remembering the dead was a ceremony known across humanity, and one that even a loner like Vala understood, more so now that she had worked with the young men and women of Earth who had died in protection of their fellows and their world.
Rory stood by Vala and Daniel and Teal'c on that day, and Vala knew the girl had been shaken by some realization, but she hadn't asked and Rory hadn't explained, just followed Vala and Daniel around like a lost puppy until Daniel joined Mitchell and Vala escaped to the rec room where Teal'c had holed up, and they all watched children's movies in silence until the day was over and the Earthers had a chance to properly grieve their dead.
And then Vala understood. Rory wasn't listening for alien fire, she was suddenly, blindingly angry.
As the arguments wore down, and Taylor told everyone that it was all for the best, Rory carefully extracted a checkbook from her bag and wrote something on the paper. This she folded over four times and handed to Lane. "Can you give this to Taylor after the meeting's over?" she whispered. "I have to get out of here."
"Sure, I guess," Lane said. "If you're going to be around tomorrow, do you want to come over? We can catch up, for old times' sake."
Rory nodded, smile brittle. She stood and Vala followed, sneaking out the back door as if they had never been there.
Outside, Rory walked past the playground, across the road, through the square and up the steps of a white wooden pavilion. Vala followed, not knowing if there was anything to say.
The sharp sound of Rory's shoes on the wood echoed around the empty square. Vala perched on the railing and waited.
After the third circuit, Rory crossed her arms over her chest in an expression of 'I can't deal with this but I have to and I'm freaking out'. "You can go back in if you're cold," she said.
"I'm fine." Vala rested her elbows on her knees and watched the girl pace off the nervous energy. "What did you do in there?"
Rory sat down on the steps. "It's been a long time since I've been back here," she said. "I guess I forgot some things, that's all."
"Like what?" Vala asked as she joined Rory on the steps. The trick in situations like this was to get Rory talking, for once the torrent started there was no holding it back.
"Just the usual rigaramole about festivals. Almost every year, one holiday or the other gets shafted and people grumble and then things move around the next year. It's just the way things go."
Vala shifted her gaze from the stars to Rory; the girl's eyes were huge in her pale face and there was something
in her expression, one of those things about her that Vala could see from here until the end of the time and never understand. "But this year is different?"
The lights from a billion dying stars reflected in Rory's eyes. "It just wasn't right. I suppose I should say something about how being home reminds me of some small-town American hero who died in the line of duty at the Mountain, but... Do you remember Major Wu?"
"With the Marines?" Vala asked, even though she already knew exactly who, and why, Rory was talking about this.
"He was from San Diego, and he always scared the living daylights out of me," Rory said. Her eyes slid across the skies. "And I don't think he liked very many people, and he really didn't like civilians going out with his team, and... well, you know how he died."
Vala did. SG-16, Major Wu's team, had been trying to evacuate the scientists at one of the off-world posts when that system's version of mercenaries descended with guns blazing. The man had fallen back to give his team some cover to get the scientists out.
They'd made it.
"I didn't grow up around people who would do something like that," Rory said, more quietly now. "They're not bad people, just different. I'd forgotten how different."
Vala hugged her knees to her chest, shivering a little in the late November cold. "Wu wasn't fond of civilian celebrations of military anniversaries."
"He wasn't." Rory closed her eyes. "He had five kids, did you know that?"
"No, I didn't."
"His wife's taken the family back to San Diego to be around her parents."
Vala watched Rory, and wondered about the sudden interest in a dead Marine, especially one who Rory had gone out of her way to avoid. "Who told you that?"
The pieces clicked into place. "Was that before or after they asked you to uproot your life and take the assignment at Atlantis?"
Rory sighed. "What do you think?"
"I think you're freaking out over if you made the right choice. Don't get me wrong, the life is glamorous and exciting and full of dashing young soldiers, but I can understand not wanting to leave the security of a world where the most dangerous thing that might happen is you eat a bit of suspect cow."
Rory rubbed her temples for the hundredth time that week. "You eat beef. You milk a cow."
"And there's another thing, there's no beef or cow in Atlantis. What's wrong with your head?"
"Nothing nothing, or nothing 'give me an aspirin before my head explodes' nothing?"
Rory sighed. "Middle ground," she admitted.
Vala reached into a pocket on Rory's bag and pulled out a handful of tiny pill bottles. "Does Dr. Lam know how many pretty painkillers you have?"
Rory plucked a bottle from Vala's hand. "She prescribed most of them, so yes," Rory said. She tipped a tiny white pill onto her palm and swallowed it dry. "It's just stress from the flight."
"Have you had any more nosebleeds?" Vala demanded. If Mitchell knew Rory was having more migraines and hadn't told Vala, she was going to glue his butt to the Stargate.
"Nothing like that." Rory shook her head. "I'm fine, Vala." She took the rest of the bottles from Vala's hands and shoved them back into her bag. "I should eat something before the pill melts my liver."
Rory stood and walked across the square in the direction of the diner. Her posture was no longer defiant as it had been in the hall. Rory telegraphed exhaustion and pain in the defeated set of her shoulders, the slow pace of her steps, not that she would ever admit it.
Unease pooled in Vala's stomach as she followed Rory. She wanted Daniel, to be there to deftly manhandle a defeated Rory out of her funk and back to herself, something the man had done over a dozen times since Rory's arrival in Colorado. He'd given up his apartment off-post to ground Rory, he'd told her stories all night more than once as she was coming down from a science-induced paranoid high, he'd arranged that birthday trip to Las Vegas, and when it came down to Rory's choice to go to Atlantis, Daniel helped her make a ten-page pro-con list and kept her honest about it. Rory Gilmore had become Daniel Jackson's pet project in her nine months at the SGC, and Vala didn't think either of them realized it.
Vala wished he was there now.
Luke was wiping a counter in the diner when Rory and Vala stepped through the door. "That was fast."
Rory slipped into a chair, touching the chipped plastic on the tabletop. "It's budget night," she said.
"I could have told you that." He brought over a couple of menus. "Hungry?"
"Starved," Vala said, because she was used to talking for Rory when the girl's mind was a million miles away. "Like I could eat a beef."
"A horse," Rory said absently.
"I thought you said beef was cow."
"The saying is that you're so hungry you could eat a horse."
"But Daniel said no one in this country eats horses."
Rory rolled her eyes. "Ladies and gentleman, my life." She turned her head to give Luke a wan smile. "Can I get a bacon cheeseburger with cheese fries and onion rings, please?"
"Sure thing," Luke said. He squeezed Rory's shoulder. "And I'll set some pie aside for after. It's Cesar's special strawberry lime surprise."
"I'll have the same thing," Vala said. "And double for the pie."
"Coming up." Luke drifted away across the diner to the kitchen.
As soon as Luke vanished, Rory got up. "I'm going to go freshen up," she said to a spot three feet over Vala's head. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"When are you the one saying stuff like that?"
"Well, don't get caught doing it."
Vala looked around the vacant diner. "I'll try my best."
Rory walked off, shoulders still set in pain, and Vala tried to concentrate on the rumbling of her stomach and not on her unease. Rory hadn't acted like this... well, since she'd come back from Connecticut the last time. Vala could understand not getting along with family, but this wasn't like that at all. Rory had seen her mother in Florida a few weeks before and hadn't been ripped to mental shreds.
Maybe Vala should have insisted Daniel come along, after all.
Rory's bag began to vibrate. Absently, Vala dug out the girl's silently ringing Blackberry. Vala hit the little green button. "Hello?" she said in her best Rory impersonation.
"Uh, hey, it's Cam. How's the trip so far?"
Vala raised her eyebrows. Mitchell was calling Rory? Off the clock? Oh, how very interesting. "It's just fine," Vala continued. She giggled. "And how are you
There was a pause on the line. Then Mitchell swore. "Damn it, Vala..."
"What do you expect me to say?" Vala demanded in her normal voice. "You just do such fascinating things."
"This is why I never call you off-hours," Mitchell grumbled. "I called to see how Rory was doing."
"She's got a headache and as of the end of the hour, she'll have shamed a hall full of New Englanders into submission."
"That's bad and... good?" Mitchell cleared his throat. "Is there anything I can do?"
"You can explain why you really called." Vala looked up to see Luke standing over the table and scowling. He was pointing at a sign that read 'No Cell Phones.' Vala pulled the phone away from her face. "It's okay, it's not my phone."
"What?" Mitchell said.
"Nothing. I'll tell Rory you called to check up on her."
"Bye!" Vala hung up in time to see Rory appear from around the corner. "Your secret Air Force boyfriend says hi."
"Who is that?" Rory asked. Luke put a cup of coffee on the table in front of Rory and received a grateful smile. "Thanks." He nodded and headed back to the kitchen.
"Who do you think it was?" Vala teased.
"How should I know?" Rory sipped at the coffee.
"Doesn't coffee go badly with those pills?"
"Only if you take it intravenously. And while we're being five years old, who's my Air Force Boyfriend?"
Vala smile. "Well, it can't be Daniel because he's not Air Force. Same with Teal'c." She waggled her eyebrows as she said this last, causing Rory to choke on her coffee.
"Oh god, Cam Mitchell is not-- You're twisted!"
"At least you didn't say General O'Neill," Vala continued, wondering how likely she was to give Rory a heart attack. "One, it would he rather out of character for him, then because it would be unseemly, as he brought you into the program, and last, he's got his eye on a girl of his own."
Rory put the cup back on the table and tried to regain control. "You're not allowed to speak ever again!"
"Why?" Vala settled back in her chair. Oh, this was enjoyable. "What's wrong with Lt. Colonel Cameron Mitchell? He's a decorated war hero, he drives a motorcycle, and you should see his naked rear end."
Rory glared at Vala with undisguised annoyance. "Cam's like twenty years older than I am, and he's not into scientists. Oh, and by the way, no!"
"You like him."
"I also like cheese, you don't see me mooning over cheese."
"He knows what a big geek you are, that has to count for something."
"Will you shut up?"
Vala stole Rory's coffee cup. "Only if you admit that you like Mitchell."
Rory dropped her head into her hands. "You're nuts." Any further commentary on the state of Vala's sanity was halted in its tracks by the arrival of two large plates. "Thank god."
"I'm known by many names," Luke said. To Vala's utter lack of surprise, he sat in a chair at the table. "So, here we are."
"Mmm," Rory said around a mouthful of cheeseburger. "How's April?"
"Back in school in New Mexico," Luke said. He cast a curious look at Vala. "She really enjoyed Disneyworld. It was good that you could make it down."
"I'm glad she could come with Mom," Rory said as she dumped a pile of ketchup on her fries. "I missed hanging around with her."
"Yes, your daughter is a lovely girl," Vala interjected.
"You've met her?" Luke asked.
"I saw a picture." Vala transferred her gaze to Rory. "Imagine finding out about your real father so late in life, and getting to know him against all odds."
Rory drove the point of her shoe into Vala's shin. "Yes, April's very lucky," she ground out.
"I'm the lucky one," Luke said. "How well do you know Rory?"
Vala shifted her chair back to avoid any more damage from Rory's shoes. "We've worked together for some time," Vala explained with a smile. "We have dinner together on post most nights, and she tells me about her work and I pretend to understand what she's talking about and we come up with ways to torment Daniel."
"Daniel being..." Luke prompted.
Vala started to respond, but she caught her tongue and instead smiled sweetly at Rory.
The girl jammed a fry into the ketchup. "Daniel is one of the archaeologists I work with," she said with deceptive calm. "He was kind enough to let me take over his apartment in town."
Luke blinked. "You're living in some guy's apartment? Your mom didn't tell me that."
"Well, she doesn't know," Rory said succinctly. "Do you mind if I get some more coffee?"
"No, go ahead," Luke said. "Vala, where are you from?"
Vala smiled even more widely and said without blinking an eye, "Burundi."
"You're from Burundi?" Luke repeated.
"Born and raised." The lies tripped neatly out of Vala's mouth. It had been so long since she'd to spin tales like this. It was fun. "Well, born. My parents were missionaries but I was educated by nuns."
Rory slid back into her chair, an eyebrow arched. "Yes, nuns," she said. "From the convent of Saint Trinian, wasn't it?"
Both Vala and Rory turned their smiles on Luke. He shook his head. "I'll get that pie."
Rory took another bite of burger. "The idea of you being educated by nuns is terrifying."
"Well, je suis le président de Burundi," Vala said.
Rory sputtered into her coffee cup. "This is my fault, isn't it?"
"I have no idea what you mean."
"I introduced you to YouTube."
"Sixty-five billion videos online, and all the world wants to watch are dyed blondes, laughing babies, and Harry Potter puppets. It's a miracle your planet didn't kill itself off tripping over discarded clothing in the dark."
"Is Daniel still bothering you about that?"
"No, because then he'd have to admit he was in my room
at three in the morning."
Rory shook her head. "You two are such an old married couple."
"Only without much sex."
"See my previous comment. Also, stop it."
"You were perfectly willing to mock Daniel's tribal marriage to a Captain in the Royal Air Force and I can't even mention that the last time I had anything resembling fun with a pair of handcuffs was--"
Rory clapped her hands over her ears. "I'm not listening!"
Satisfied, Vala settled back in her chair. She was going to miss Rory's banter.
Sidling over, Luke deposited two large slices of pie on the table. "You want anything else? The meeting's going to let out soon and I need to prep for the crowd."
"How about some hot sauce and whipped cream?" Rory asked.
"You worry me," Luke grumbled.
"You missed me. Um, right?" Rory's confidence started to slide away, until Luke put his heavy hand on her shoulder and she brightened again.
Once again, Vala reflected on Rory's seriously messed-up paternal relationships. She craved attention and approval from older male role models, and that wasn't even starting on the uncomfortable (abet one-sided) relationship she had with Rodney McKay.
Vala wondered how messy things would get when Rory and her father actually met.~~~
The cold wind swept along the street, making Vala shiver. "Are we almost there?"
"Almost. Just a few more blocks."
"And you didn't want to wait for your mother to show up at the diner, and chose to walk to your house because..."
Rory sighed. "The meeting was going to let out and I didn't want to talk to anyone."
"And have them ask you why you're suddenly all pro-Air Force?"
"Yeah, that would have gone great. I'd have said that it's because I work with people in the Air Force, and they'd ask why I was so centered on Memorial Day, and I'd say I couldn't tell, and they'd press, and I wouldn't be able to explain because of oh, I don't know, global security issues, and they'd get all worked up and my head would explode all over the diner."
"And it doesn't matter, because here we are," Rory announced. She led Vala up the walk to a blue house with white trim, with lights shining inside. Rory unlocked the front door and pushed inside. "And this is my house," Rory said. She dropped her suitcase to the wooden floor.
"Different from the SGC," Vala commented as Rory closed the door behind them.
"Above ground," Rory agreed. "And not full of security check-points."
"Where's the fun in that?" Vala hauled her duffle bag into a room with couches and chairs. "There's no handsome Marines threatening a strip-search--" She stopped as one of the fuzzy blankets lifted itself up off the couch and growled at her.
"Paul Anka!" Rory exclaimed. She pushed into the room past Vala and hugged the thing. "I missed you!"
Vala flinched as the thing licked Rory's face. "What is it?"
"It's my mom's dog," Rory said. She ruffled the thing's fur. "You've seen dogs before, I know you have. Remember Cassandra Fraser's dog?"
"That was small and pointy. That
is all full of hair." Vala jumped back as the dog barked at her. "Go away. Shoo."
"Paul Anka's not going to hurt you." Rory rubbed the creature's side. "He's probably scareder of you than you are of him."
"I'm not afraid," Vala said quickly. "I'm merely cautious."
The dog wormed its way out of Rory's grip and bounded across the floor to Vala. It stopped a merciful three feet away, sat back on its haunches and regarded Vala with beady little eyes.
"Aw, he likes you!" Rory said. She smirked in Vala's general direction. "That's adorable."
"That's annoying." Vala risked taking her gaze off the dog for a moment. "Where do we sleep?"
"My room, I suppose. This is the living room. Upstairs is Mom's room and the good bathroom. I could show you the rest of this place but you'll have to turn your back on Paul Anka."
"You're hilarious, do you know that?"
"Come on." Rory led Vala past the front door into a kitchen. "This is where food should be, but Mom never cooks, which is probably why I can't be bothered to, either. And that's my room," she finished, gesturing at a closed door.
"What would that be like?" Vala opened the door before Rory could protest. She switched on the light to a room with books on shelves and posters on walls, and the whole place felt so unlike the girl Vala had come to know that she didn't know what to say.
Rory crowded into the doorway beside Vala. "This is me," she said softly.
"Interesting." Vala went over and bounced a few times on the bed. "So, give me the stories."
"What are you talking about?"
"This is your childhood room, right? You must have little treasures with stories. Share with Vala."
"You're only doing this to torment me later, aren't you?"
Vala grinned. "I did the same with Mitchell when I went to his high school reunion. Come on, give it up."
Rory looked around the room, hesitating. Then she picked a box of baking soda up off the dresser. "I shoplifted this from Taylor's when I had my first kiss."
"Crime and passion," Vala said sagely. "A good mix."
"It wasn't quite like that," Rory protested. "More like, oh god, what just happened? And then I told Lane, my best friend, and Lane's mom told Lorelai, and Lorelai totally freaked out on me and actually invited
Dean over for movie night and totally humiliated me. But it worked out all right in the end."
"Dean..." Vala mused. "That was the married one, right?"
"Yup," Rory said. She paused in putting the box back on the table. "It's cold of me, just saying 'yes' like that, right?"
"Save the shame and embarrassment for the important things, like genocide or accidentally walking into the mess hall naked."
"How does one 'accidentally' walk into the mess hall naked?" Rory asked.
"Ask Daniel," Vala told her. "Okay, more stories."
Rory plucked a book off the desk and flipped it open. "Have I told you about Jess? He stole my book the first time he was here--"
"Why do all of your good stories involve felonies?"
"You're one to talk!"~~~
Half an hour later, Rory had pouted until Vala finally broke down and started on a story of her time as a Goa'uld host, involving a complicated digression into Goa'uld politics and history and Vala as the dashing heroine. Paul Anka had, at some point, flopped into Rory's room and was drooling on Vala's shoes.
Then a door crashed open down the hall and an unfamiliar voice called, "Rory?"
"Mom!" Rory exclaimed, bouncing off the bed and almost sending Vala careening to the floor.
Vala followed at a more sedate pace, leaning in the doorway while mother and daughter had their reunion.
Lorelai, who Vala recognized from photographs, held her daughter tight. "When did you get here?" she asked, voice muffled against Rory's hair. "Luke told me you showed up at the diner but didn't wait for me. Why didn't you call me?"
"Your phone wasn't working," said Rory. She pulled back from her mother, sniffling just a little, but happy.
Lorelai around, her eyes lingering on Vala for an instant before going back to her daughter. In the moment before Lorelai opened her mouth, Vala suddenly had a flash as to what was about to happen, but there was nothing she could do to stop it.
"I left home this morning at nine," Lorelai said. "Are you telling me that you just came home on the spur of the moment across country?"
Rory took a half-step backwards, hand brushing her hair behind her ear, in the rare but painful gesture of 'I don't know what I've done wrong.' "Actually, yes," Rory stammered.
"Well-- well good!" Lorelai declared loudly. "What a nice surprise." She hugged Rory again. "Anytime you want to surprise me by coming home, you can. Day or night. Well, if it's three in the morning you might want to ring the bell before you come in--"
"Mom," Rory said, interrupting the verbal explosion. "Stop. There's something I need to tell you. Right now."
Lorelai stemmed the tide of words. Even from this distance, Vala could see the rising worry in the woman's eyes. Lorelai took a deep breath. "Okay, what's up? Are you getting married?"
"I'm not getting married," Rory said, straightening her spine against her task. "But I took an assignment overseas."
The words toppled into the room with the cold precision of jewels on marble. Lorelai stepped back into the living room, leaving Rory alone in the middle of the floor.
Rory's fingers twisted together, over and over, a waterfall of movement that Vala had only seen when Rory was on the verge of creating new science. "I'm leaving on Monday morning," Rory continued. "And I don't know when I'll be back. But I wanted..." She broke off for a moment. "I wanted to say good-bye."
Lorelai didn't speak. Stillness returned to the house, with Rory and her mother in almost the same pattern as Vala had stood with Adria, those many months ago on the Odyssey, at the end.
Vala pushed those memories away. There was no profit in revisiting the past.
"So, I guess that's what I had to say," Rory said.
Lorelai turned around and walked into the living room. Rory took a step towards her mother, hand outstretched, but her mother did not see, and in another moment Rory let her arm fall to her side.
"Right," Lorelai said, turning around. "So you're going away."
"I didn't think the Army could make civilians go anywhere."
"It's the Air Force, Mom," Rory corrected automatically. "And it wasn't an order. I volunteered."
"You..." Lorelai's jaw wagged soundlessly for a moment. "Where are you going?"
"I'll be moving around a lot," Rory said.
"Which means what?"
"Just that." The tension in Rory's shoulders grew more pronounced. "The project's exact location is classified."
"Which country?" Lorelai pressed. "Hi, Alex, I'd like to buy a hemisphere?"
"I can't tell you that," Rory said. "And I don't know when I'll be back. But I can contribute things to the project that no one else can," she said. "I made my decision last week."
"Did you make a pro-con list?" Lorelai asked.
Rory's hands curled into her skirt. "Mom, please don't do this," she said in a way that might have been pleading if Vala listened hard enough.
"I'm not--" Lorelai pressed her hands together. She was trying, Vala could see that. "I'm not mocking the list, I'm just trying to deal with this."
"She made a list," Vala said from the kitchen. "And she checked it many times. It was a very long list that had many boring points on each side. I snuck a few points of my own points in at the last minute, but I couldn't change her mind."
"Needing someone around to feed Daniel's fish wasn't a plausible reason to not go," Rory said. She took five careful steps to the living room and sat on the sofa, hands shivering and she reached for her bag and if she pulled out the little white pills again, Vala was knocking Rory unconscious and carrying the girl to a medic herself. "Mom, this is Vala, the one from work I was talking about?"
Vala nodded at the woman, not really smiling because she was keeping an eye on the bag and Rory's hand, but all Rory removed from the satchel was her small notebook.
Lorelai frowned in thought. "Rory said you're not a scientist, but she didn't quite explain what you do. Are you in the Air Force?"
Vala wondered if she could find a way to go back in time and make Daniel go on this trip instead of her. "No, I'm not in your military. I'm more of a cultural attaché."
"She's from Burundi," Rory muttered as she flipped open her notebook.
"Rory and I met on her first day at the mountain," Vala said. Rory was already scribbling on the paper. "What, you just couldn't wait to make a journal entry on your first night back at home?"
"I think I figured out something that might help in the power encryption simulation," Rory said. "If we rework the comprehension of the base number structure into a variance between base eight and base ten, then there's a chance that this just might work after all. And I have you to thank for it!"
"You're welcome," Vala said, as usual not understanding a word the girl was saying. "How exactly did I help?"
"By mentioning Santa Claus," Rory said, as if it should be obvious. "It's that old math joke. How is Halloween like Christmas to a mathematician?"
"If you're waiting for me to come up with a punch line to that one, you're going to starve to death first," Vala reminded her.
"Oh. Right. Well, it's because October 31st is equal to December 25th." Rory gave her customary two-second pause. "You know, 31 in base eight is equal to 25 in base ten?"
Vala just stared.
"Daniel would have gotten that joke."
"Daniel's brain has been run through a sieve over the last twelve years."
"But he still would have gotten it."
"Which makes me worry more about you than him." Vala pushed herself off the doorframe. "Now, stop writing and catch up with your mother and reassure her that you're not going to get eaten by werewolves while you're away."
"What are you going to do?" Rory asked without looking up from her notebook.
Vala shrugged. "Maybe I'll bother Daniel."
"He's in another state."
"Which will make it all the more challenging." Vala shuffled out of the line of sight deeper into the kitchen, wondering what she could possibly do to keep herself occupied while Rory had it out with her mother.
All, of course, while Vala listened very hard to the low conversation occurring between Gilmores in the living room.
"So, kid, you're going traveling," Lorelai said.
"Sure, I guess," Rory replied. There was a pause just long enough for Rory to slide down the sofa cushions, her own default reaction to stress. "How's the inn?"
"Rory, sweetie, forget about the inn," Lorelai said. "When did you find out they were shipping you to Destination Nowhere?"
"They asked me if I wanted to go, Mom, it's not like they're going to toss me in a crate and air-drop me over 'Nam."
Vala extracted Rory's Blackberry, cunningly concealed in her breast pocket, and logged into the email program.To: D.Jackson@cheyenne.af.mil
Subject: Small Town America
Body: Why did I let you talk me into this? So far, Rory's already basically set up a memorial to a Marine she didn't like, has convinced her mother that she's been brainwashed by the military, and has another headache.
On the upside, I had PIE.
"But when did you find out?" Lorelai pressed.
"Before today," Rory admitted. "But I've been busy with stuff and couldn't get away and I wasn't even sure they'd let me go."
"They asked you to go but wouldn't say if they'd let you? Is that Military Intelligence at work?"
"I had to pass my orals first."
"I'm assuming not dental."
"No, Mom. I stood up in front of a bunch of very smart people and they verbally eviscerated me for five hours before agreeing that maybe I was smart enough to make it worthwhile continuing in the program. I'm going to be working on my doctorate while I'm away."
"Of course you're smart enough! Who said you weren't smart enough?"
The Blackberry vibrated at the arrival of an email.To: R.Gilmore@cheyenne.af.mil
Subject: Re: Small Town America
Body: Vala? What's going on? What's wrong with Rory?
>Rory's already basically set up a memorial to a Marine she didn't like
Who? There are security regulations for that sort of thing.
Teal'c wants to know what kind of pie.
Subject: Pie (was Re: Small Town America)
Body: Take the mutant offspring of a strawberry and a key-lime pie, and coat it in sugar and you have the best pie on this side of the country. But Mitchell's mother still makes the best pie ever. I'll see if I can bring the recipe back for Teal'c.
Never you mind about security regulations. I'm the one who breaks those, not Rory, remember?
Kisses and handcuffs
"Mom, it's just complicated."
"Are there going to be other smart people there, in whatever field you're in--"
"Theoretical high energy physics."
"That. Ooh, are you going to Switzerland?"
"Switzerland is where they have that big underground thing, right?"
"CERN? Yes, that's in Switzerland, but I'm not going there."
"Rats, I was going to ask you to pick me up some chocolate."
"I heard a rumor they deliver now."
"But you get to travel? On Uncle Sam's dime?"To: R.Gilmore@cheyenne.af.mil
Subject: Re: FWD: Pie (was Re: Small Town America)
>But Mitchell's mother still makes the best pie ever.
Vala, if Rory's feeling sick, take her to a military hospital and we can evacuate her back to command. I'll clear it with the General.
"Wait, what do you mean, I can't call you? What kind of bum deal is this?"
"The kind where we're going to be under radio silence. We can still email."
"But I hate email! It's not the same writing things into a computer. If I wanted to write letters I'd have become my mother."
"I'm going to tell her you said that."
"Oh, and by the way, are you going to tell your grandparents that you're leaving?"
"I hope so. I mean, I know that tomorrow's Friday and you're probably having dinner with them--"
"And you wanted to tell them then? Are you trying to give them a heart attack?"
"That's not funny!"To: D.Jackson@cheyenne.af.mil, C.Mitchell@cheyenne.af.mil
Subject: CALM DOWN
Body: People, please CALM DOWN. Rory is fine. Just a headache, and she says that's why she has those white pills. And she's dealing with family. If I were her, my head would have already exploded.
Erase these emails from the server, will you? I think she can hack into the servers.
Email complete, Vala slipped the Blackberry into her pocket and faced the coffee maker. She'd been around Daniel and Rory enough to be able to make coffee all on her own, she figured. And considering the Gatelag she was facing, coffee might be an idea.
"Whoa, Rory, I'm sorry, I didn't mean anything--"
"Grandpa's still sick, how can you make jokes like that?"
"Rory, I said I was sorry, it was just a joke."
Vala opened cupboards at random until she found what looked and smelled like coffee grounds. She read the instructions and set to work.
"I'm not trying to give anyone a heart attack, but I have to tell them that I'm going, and how can I tell them that? 'Hey, I'm leaving on a jet plane and don't know when I'll be back again'?"
"You didn't seem to have any trouble launching it on me and I'm your mother."
"What do you want me to say? I only found out today that I'd passed my orals and that I can actually go. This is the opportunity of a lifetime--"
"To see the world?"
"Something like that."
"But you're only twenty-five, you're still a--"
"If you say I'm a baby or a little girl, I am so
going to be upset."
"--a young woman who is very much not a baby..."
"You forgot what you were going to say, didn't you?"
"No, I did not! I was going to say that if you wanted to travel, you can use your trust fund and travel the world on your own without being in the army."
"Mother, I'm working with the Air Force."
"Don't say 'mother' like that."
"Like the word 'Dearest' should go after it."To: D.Jackson@cheyenne.af.mil
Subject: I take it back
Body: Remind me again whose idea it was for me to come here?
"You know what? I'm calling a hydration time out." Footsteps sounded on the floor and Vala barely had time to hide the borrowed Blackberry in a coffee cup before Rory stormed past her and headed to the sink. She poured herself a cup of water from the tap, then squared her shoulders for a second round. Vala gave her the thumbs up as Rory went back to the living room.
"So, round two?"
"Mom, we're not fighting."To: R.Gilmore@cheyenne.af.mil
Subject: Re: I take it back
Body: That bad?
"But if we don't pack six months of arguments into the next few days, it'll be a sad situation. Gilmores, calm and collected?"
"Please, we're not you and your mother."
"And now I'm going to tell her that you said that."
Subject: Re: I take it back
Body: Her mother isn't saying it out loud, but she doesn't want Rory to go.
"So what did you do when you got in? Luke was less verbose than usual."To: R.Gilmore@cheyenne.af.mil
Subject: Re: I take it back
Body: And that's why you're there. Rory needs a friend.
"Long enough ago."
"Why, what did you do?"
"Vala and I went to the town meeting."
"Ew. It's budget night."To: D.Jackson@cheyenne.af.mil
Subject: Re: I take it back
Body: If you start talking about rainbows and unicorns I'm going to hurt you.
"I know. We left quickly. That's all."
"Is that why that crowd of people was making its way to Luke's diner with shovels and rakes and implements of destruction?"To: R.Gilmore@cheyenne.af.mil
Subject: Re: I take it back
Body: Wouldn't dream of it.
"There was not."
"You know what I mean. Luke didn't know what was up and I made a run for it before I was trampled. What happened?'
"I donated some money to the Memorial Day celebration, that's all. Lane was supposed to give it to Taylor after the meeting," Rory said.
"Sort of." Vala poured the coffee into a mug, taking a small taste and figuring it wasn't too vile. Mitchell made worse off-world. She set about exploring the rest of the kitchen while Rory hedged in the other room. "I sort of made a donation to the Memorial Day celebration."
"So? What difference could a couple bucks make?"
"It wasn't like that?"
"How much did you give? Fifty bucks?"
Rory mumbled something.
"You gave Taylor seven thousand
dollars?" Lorelai exclaimed.
"Yes, I did."
"You gave the town seven thousand dollars for Memorial Day?" Lorelai said again.
"For crying out loud," Rory muttered. "Forget it! They were going to cancel the Memorial Day celebration and it wasn't right!"
Wondering idly how long this would go on, Vala pulled a box of 'Pop Tarts' out of the cupboard. Maybe these things were edible. She was getting hungry again.
"What else am I going to do with my trust fund?" Rory demanded. "I already paid back Grandpa for Yale with Great-grandmother's money, and I have a job and a place to live, and the Air Force will be paying me while I'm away, so it's not like I need the money for anything!"
"But why should you be paying for a town festival? Are you going to be back in May?"
"I have no idea," Rory said. "I might be. But probably not."
"When are you going to be home?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know when you're going to be coming home from a mystery assignment in a mystery place, and you don't know when I'll be able to contact you?"
"How could you agree to this? You'd have more freedom in jail!"
"You're being supportive, remember?"
Vala opened a foil package and sniffed the contents cautiously. There was pastry, and there was icing, even if it was bright blue. It looked somewhat edible.
"Of course I remember!"
"I agreed to this because it's an amazing opportunity."
"An amazing opportunity you can't talk about."
"All right! I'm sorry!"
"It's the best thing that could happen to me! I'll be working with some of the top minds in the field, on equipment that we can't get here--" at which point Vala dropped her pop tart in an explosion of crumbs and moved with alacrity towards the living room. "And I'll finally be able to-- What?"
Lorelai and Rory were on opposite ends of the couch, facing off over cups of coffee. Vala sat on the stairs and made herself smile a warning at Rory. "Just wanted to join in the conversation, as it's about work."
Rory pushed her hair back from her eyes. "As I was going to say," she said with a glare at Vala. "I'll finally be able to do this work the way it should be done. It's the opportunity of a lifetime."
"But you'll be gone! It'll be like you living in Grandma's pool house all over again."
"Mom, listen to me." Rory put her hand on Lorelai's knee. "Best opportunity in the universe: I has it. Go me. Right?"
When Lorelai didn't answer, Vala said, "It's really quite good, I hear. The Air Force won't even let Daniel go, even though he begged and pleaded and would have snuck onto the transport unless General O'Neill had put a tether on him."
Rory looked quizzically at Vala. "Metaphorical tether?"
Vala smiled happily at the memory. "No."
Lorelai interrupted the exchange. "Let me see if I've got the situation right," she said. Vala resisted the urge to sigh. "You're going far away on Monday, and you don't know when you'll be back, or when we can talk, or anything."
Rory's jaw was set in that creepy mimicry of Rodney McKay again. "Yes."
Lorelai rested her head on her hand for a moment. "Gah! This isn't a fair thing to spring on someone who hasn't had time to digest her coffee!"
Rory shifted forward on the couch and hugged her mother, almost upsetting the woman's cup. Lorelai hugged her daughter back, and Vala was once again left superfluous.
Vala sighed. How did she get herself mixed up in stuff like this? She hated domestics, and yet here she was, buried waist-deep in Rory Gilmore's life.
She couldn't wait to see how Lorelai reacted when she found out who Rory's father was.
Maybe helping herself to some of Rory's pretty pills wasn't such a bad idea.~~~
The door of the Dragonfly Inn opened under Vala's hand, letting her into a warm lobby with people milling about. Every single person in the room exuded that air of sleek complacency, never having known starvation or plague or subjugation. After spending her entire life on the make, alternating between Goa'uld host, cons, thieving, and finally as intergalactic superhero, being in that room made the claustrophobia rose up in Vala's throat.
Vala took a deep breath and tried to push those feelings down. She was Vala Mal Doran
, valued member of SG-1 and savior of not a few planets in her time. Spine straight and smile flashing at those people who looked her way, Vala headed to the registration area.
The man behind the registration desk placed the phone in its holder and smiled vacantly at Vala. "Welcome to the Dragonfly Inn. How may I help you?"
Vala leaned on the desk, smiling back. She rather liked the cut of his suit and how the light purple shirt worked well with his tie. "It depends, are you Michel?"
The man's smile grew real. "Oui, mademoiselle, that is I. How may I assist you on this fine day?"
"I'm meeting someone here for lunch, but I suspect I may be early for the first time in my life," Vala confided. She braced one arm on the desk and leaned in just a fraction of an inch. She knew she'd been right in wearing this particular shirt, as Michel's eyes strayed for just a moment. "Might you be able to suggest a way to... pass the time?"
Michel smirked. "Indeed, mademoiselle..."
"Vala," she supplied. "I hear you have some lovely amenities?"
"We do, we do." Michel pulled out a brochure and laid it on the desk. "The Dragonfly Inn specializes in entertaining our guests, be it for an afternoon or a week."
"Excellent," Vala purred. "What do you have in the way of an hour's entertainment?"
"A walking tour of the grounds is highly recommended," Michel said without missing a beat. "Here is a map of the premises."
"Thank you." Vala picked up the small map without looking at it. "It was indeed a pleasure to meet you, Michel."
"And you, Vala." The man's smile stayed with her all the way out the door. Really, Vala didn't know what about the man had annoyed Rory so much the previous day.
The air was bracing but not too cold. Mitchell always complained about global warming, but the temperature in Stars Hollow was milder than the weather they left in Colorado and oh so much nicer than the ice planet SG-1 had spent three weeks on the previous month. Vala wandered around the edge of the building, stepping around empty beds of dirt and deserted benches, listening to the slight breeze in the air.
How long had it been since she was alone? At the SGC, she was always surrounded by military personnel and SG-1 and Rory. Hell, the entire post lived in each other's hip pockets. It was always loud and three minutes away from certain death, and Vala missed it.
Up ahead, into the landscape stepped a big grey horse. It bent its head and nibbled at a hardy green bush.
It had been ages
since Vala had been on a horse. True, the horses bred by the Goa'uld were of smaller stock than Earth horses, but the basic shape and animal instinct remained.
Not seeing a bridle on the horse, Vala approached the beast head-on. "Hey there," she said softly. The horse raised its head and whinnied. Vala edged closer, pulling out the remains of a donut from her pocket. "What are you doing out here alone?"
Not unsurprisingly, the horse didn't respond, only tossed its head when it saw the donut in Vala's outstretched palm. It stepped towards her, mouth out. Vala let the horse take the donut, licking her palm for the sugary crumbs.
"That's probably no healthier for you than it is for me, is it?" Vala patted the horse, which was almost a foot taller than those she was used to. The creature moved into the pressure and rubbed its nose into Vala's hand. "I won't tell anyone if you won't. You know, you rather remind me of a husband I had once. He was big and blustery and if you fed him sugar and rubbed his nose, he'd pretty much do anything." Vala smiled at the horse, refusing to feel grief for a man she'd left behind decades ago. "He's dead now."
"Cletus likes you," came a voice from the path. Vala looked over the horse's back to see Lorelai picking her way across the frozen ground.
"He likes sugar," Vala said, keeping her voice deliberately light. "Is he big for an Ea-- an American horse?"
"I have no idea," Lorelai confessed. "No one really rides him and so no one's fallen off yet to tell us how far down the ground is." She cleared her throat. "Where's Rory?"
"In town," Vala answered. "She wanted to catch up with her friend Lane and I told her I'd meet her here."
"You didn't want to stay?"
"Lane has children," Vala said, failing to keep the irritation out of her voice. "They were crawling all over me. And were sticky. And loud."
"How did you get here?"
Cletus the horse stepped into Vala's side, trying to push her over until she pushed back just as firmly. "I walked part of the way and then the nice man with the vegetables picked me up and drove in the rest of the way. He was going to meet 'Sookie' for something to do with kumquats, whatever that means."
"Sookie's our chef," Lorelai explained. She hunched into her coat as the wind picked up. "The vegetable man is her husband Jackson."
"Ah." Vala slapped the horse's side, and the creature rambled away across the dead grass. "They were at the meeting last night."
"Sookie mentioned that Taylor told everyone at the diner what Rory did," said Lorelai . "Why did Rory give the town seven thousand dollars?"
"For your Memorial Day," Vala replied shortly. She had no desire to talk with this woman about her daughter, especially knowing all of the things Rory hadn't mentioned to her mother. Like Atlantis. And Rodney McKay.
"But what about it? Did something happen to her in Colorado?" Lorelai asked. "Was she trying to prove a point? What?"
"If Rory had been trying to prove a point about Memorial Day, she'd have wrapped herself in a flag and rode an SUV spouting fire into the meeting," Vala shot back. "We work with a lot of military people in Colorado, maybe that had something to do with her reasoning."
Vala would not tell this woman about Major Wu. It was none of her business about Marines who died saving others, and it was secret besides.
"So your job is dangerous?" Lorelai asked.
Vala was starting to wish she'd stayed with Rory and Lane and the sticky screaming children. "I have a different job than Rory. Rory stays in the labs." For the most part.
Lorelai blew out a sharp breath. "But you spend a lot of time with Rory, right?"
Vala put her cold hands in her pockets. "Yes."
"The thing is, she mentioned this guy to Luke, Daniel..."
"What's he like?"
"Daniel's a scientist." There. A totally useless answer.
"Are he and Rory... I mean, are they, you know..."
It finally occurred to Vala was Lorelai was getting at, which was ridiculously delayed because no matter how Vala teased Daniel about his desire to save the damsel in distress, she had never seriously entertained the idea that Daniel might be interested sexually in the girl, nor Rory in Daniel. Vala's insides shrunk back in disbelief, which might have been entertaining upon the telling but was in fact quite uncomfortable.
"No! Oh no," Vala exclaimed. "Daniel thinks of Rory as a younger... well, not sister, but cousin. Or daughter of a friend, or not a friend but a far-away colleague. He goes on these quests to save women with big eyes and sob stories, but it's the valiant knight complex and besides, he's way too old for her."
Understanding dawned on Lorelai's face during Vala's little rant. "So you and him, huh?"
"Yes. No. It's complicated."
"It usually is." Lorelai's expression had thawed somewhat. "Rory's my only kid, you know."
"She mentions it constantly."
"I-- she does?"
"Sure. There's wondering if she's developed some kind of only-child entitlement complex, and about whether you'd have been happier with more, or how her life would have been different with a sibling, and besides, there's that whole question of when you and that nice man at the diner will get back together again."
"Me and Luke
"We have a pool going at work," Vala said with a smile. "So far, the bets are on for Christmas. Rory's got odds of six-to-one on that."
Lorelai blustered for a moment, her cheeks red from more than the cold. "She's not going to be there, though," Lorelai finally said.
Vala shrugged. "Money keeps. Have you been convinced that Rory wasn't coerced into going?"
Lorelai's shoulders slumped. "Do you have kids?"
Vala smiled and lied and refused to grieve for a child that wasn't properly hers, had never been anything but a parasite in her body for all those long months as the child unborn squirmed beneath her heart. "No."
"Rory's everything that I never got to be." Lorelai paused. "I don't mean it like that. I guess all parents want their kids to do better than them, but really, Rory's done so much, gone so far."
Adria had been such a strange changeling child, with golden eyes and designs upon murderous galactic conquest. Adria had called Vala 'Mother', a lie that ached in Vala's heart on strange dark nights under alien moons.
Oddly, it was Teal'c voice in her head, telling her that they must continue on the march, that pulled Vala back to herself and this conversation with Lorelai Gilmore.
"If you want your daughter to continue to outshine you, you'll stop trying to guilt her out of going," Vala said bluntly. "She's brilliant. And I don't mean she's moderately good at what she does, I mean the top scientists in the world clamour for her attention. The scientists on post have formed a Rory Gilmore fan club and by going on assignment where she is, she's going to get to places beyond anything this--" Vala almost said 'planet', but managed to catch herself in time. "This town or this country can offer her." She shuddered. "I'm starting to sound like the General. I need a drink."
"Really?" Lorelai said, looking flabbergasted. "Rory's that good?"
Vala leveled a glare at the woman. "Of course she is. The U.S. Air Force isn't in the habit of going easy on its civilian consultants."
"That's not what I meant, it's just... science? Was never really Rory's thing. She always wanted to write."
"Well, it's science now. That bulging forebrain is being put to some abstract use." Vala let Lorelai usher her into the Inn through the back door, a semblance of a truce between them. "Although it's somewhat heartening to be around someone who refuses to chose a hairstyle between bangs or no-bangs."
"You should have seen her curly-hair days when she was a toddler," Lorelai said. "She looked like a little dandelion. People kept asking me if she'd stuck her finger in a light socket."
"I thought sticking a finger in a light socket was potentially fatal," Vala said in puzzlement. The women entered the packed dining room, where Rory was already sitting alone at a table.
"It's a saying," Lorelai said.
Rory looked up when Lorelai and Vala sat at the table. "What's a saying?" the girl asked. "Mom, are you tormenting Vala with pop culture references that she doesn't understand?"
"Not really," Vala said. She took hold of the full coffee cup conveniently located between Rory's plate and her own, and took a long drink. "Your mother was asking about life in Colorado. And the Daniels therein."
Rory tried to grab the cup out of Vala's hand. "What are you talking about?"
"Your mother wanted to know if my Daniel had any nefarious designs upon you," Vala said with a wink at Lorelai.
As she'd expected, Rory's mock outrage and Lorelai's halfhearted defense carried them all the way past the salad course and into the main dish.
Never let it be said that Vala couldn't direct Rory's train of thought over a meal.~~~
Whereas Rory's childhood home was cluttered and crowded, it was at least comfortable. The large stone edifice looming over the circular drive looked anything but, cold and expensive. Usually when Vala had been in places this ornate, she had been pulling a scam. The mental comparison was unpleasant.
Lorelai and Rory were not faring much better. Rory shifted her weight from one foot to the other while Lorelai tried to drink a full cup of coffee in one go.
"Are you going to need a paramedic?" Rory asked her mother when the woman finally came up for air. "Or a bucket?"
"Ha ha." Lorelai stuffed the empty cup into her cavernous bag. "Just want to give my empty stomach a good coating before the alcohol."
"So ring the bell," Rory said after Lorelai remained where she was, a good three feet from the door.
"Okay." Lorelai turned to Rory. "Don't kill me."
"Kill you? Why would I kill you?"
Lorelai shrank back from her daughter. "I sort of called my parents earlier today to tell them you were leaving?"
Rory's eyes grew wide. "You did what
"It made sense at the time!" Lorelai said defensively. "If you just sprang the 'I'm being shipped off to 'Nam' on them like you did me yesterday, Dad's heart might have skipped out and Mom's head would explode and while that would be entertaining on any other day, I just couldn't do that to them!"
"So you called them?" Rory actually stamped her foot in frustration. "I can't believe you!" Then she hugged her mother. "Thank you," she said, voice muffled against Lorelai's shoulder.
Lorelai looked helplessly at Vala, who simply shrugged and went to press the bell.
The door was opened by a woman too young and too dark of skin to be Rory's grandmother. "Yes?" the woman inquired.
"Hi, we're here for dinner," Lorelai said, disentangling herself from Rory. "Come on, babe, you're too old to pretend your feet are glued to the ground. This isn't the Christmas of 1991."
Rory straightened up, letting Lorelai pull her into the house. Vala followed discreetly, watching Lorelai remove her coat and hand it to the maid. Vala in turn handed her own leather jacket to the woman, hoping that she'd get it back, as she'd 'borrowed' it from Sam Carter's closet since the woman was in another galaxy.
"Okay," Lorelai said. Oddly, both she and Rory seemed to be girding for battle. "Let's do this."
Rory put her hand on Vala's arm. "Just remember, they don't actually bite," Rory said.
"Where's the fun in that?" Vala demanded, but Rory just dragged her down the hall.
Lorelai came to a halt in the open doorway. As they rounded the wall to the parlor, Rory underwent a similar freezing process beside Vala. Why, Vala did not understand. There were three people in the room, an older man and woman recognizable from the photograph in Rory's wallet, and a man. Vala didn't recognize him, but her mind quickly categorized any number of men that might affect mother and daughter so, and she wondered if he might be...
"Christopher," Rory whispered, and suddenly Vala understood.
This was the man Rory had believed to be her father for the first twenty-four years of her life. And now he was in her grandparents' living room on the eve of Rory's departure for Atlantis.
"Well, isn't this awkward?" Vala said brightly. She shoved a pale Rory into the room. "I'm Vala," she continued, reaching out and shaking hands with the older man, Richard, and the woman, Emily, and then moving on to Rory's not-father. "It's nice to meet you."
"Mom, what's going on?" Lorelai demanded, glowering heartily at her parents.
"Lorelai," Emily said with a lift of the chin. "When you told us about what was happening with Rory, I thought it might be nice to invite the girl's father to dinner--"
"Without asking first?" Lorelai exclaimed.
Richard had turned to fiddle with the drinks tray to cover his discomfort, and Christopher stood, hands in his pockets, looking only at Rory. Of course, Vala thought, plunking herself on the appallingly hard sofa. Christopher knew perfectly well he wasn't Rory's father.
Rory moved physically between her mother and grandmother. "Mom, it's fine," she said carefully, eyes only for Christopher. "Hi."
"Hello, Rory," Christopher responded. "I can leave if you--"
"No, don't be stupid." Rory forced out a painful smile. "Mom, everything's okay, all right?"
Throwing another murderous glare at Emily, Lorelai flung herself in a chair by the low table. "Everything's just peachy, honey."
"Good." Rory moved across the room to hug her grandmother, then her grandfather. The girl hesitated for just a moment before reaching her arms around Christopher's neck and giving him a quick squeeze. For his part, Christopher looked nearly as uncomfortable as Rory must have felt.
Vala sat back and watched. It was like a Goa'uld drama, only with less slaughter of obnoxious family members. Well, so far.
Richard cleared his throat. "May I get anyone a drink?" he asked. "I have martinis ready."
"God yes," Lorelai exclaimed too loudly. Chris nodded, Vala brightened, and Rory sighed.
"Can you make mine a double, Grandpa?" Rory asked as she slumped on the couch beside Vala. "I don't know when I'll get to have another."
"Oh, they have alcohol where you're going," Vala said, accepting a glass from the tall man.
"They do?" Rory sounded surprised.
"Yes." Vala took a sip. These humans and their insistence on diluting their alcohol. "Of course, you have to be careful it doesn't make you blind."
Lorelai downed most of her martini in one gulp. "Hit me again," she said to her father, lifting her glass in the air. Richard gave her a look of disapproval.
Emily sat forward in her chair. "Miss..." she began, and it took Vala a moment to realize she was being addressed.
"Mal Doran. Vala Mal Doran," Vala said. She didn't understand why the woman looked so sour. Rory had seen to it that her dress, makeup, hair and shoes were perfectly acceptable. She sat with her legs crossed, she hadn't tried to steal anything since she entered the house, and she hadn't even flirted with any of the men.
"Miss Mal Doran," Emily completed her sentence. "Lorelai tells us you know Rory."
Vala gave Rory a sideways glance. The girl was totally engrossed in her beverage. "Yes, I do," Vala said. "Which is somewhat useful as otherwise it would be awkward being on vacation with her."
Across the room, Christopher's lips twitched in the tiniest of smiles.
"We met at work," Rory said, finally dragging her attention away from the booze. "Vala is also a civilian contractor with the Air Force, only in a different area than mine."
"You're not a scientist?" Richard said, handing Lorelai another full glass.
Vala couldn't stop the nervous twich in the corner of her mouth. "No. I'm a cultural attaché."
Emily's eyes flicked over Vala for just a moment, totally dismissing her in the blink of an eye. "For what sort of culture?"
Before Vala could challenge Rory's grandmother to a knife fight, Rory set her glass on the low table with a clunk. "I'm going away on Monday," she said loudly. The diversionary tactic succeeded in pulling Emily and Richard's undivided attention to her. "And Vala is not only a co-worker, she's a good friend who agreed to come home with me when I'm sure there are ten thousand other things she's rather be doing than being exposed to the bizarre eccentricities of East Cost civilization."
Richard looked embarrassed again and Emily seemed to be drawing breath for retaliation, so Vala did the only thing she could without risking arrest. "Four things, actually."
Rory turned her head. "What?"
"Four things, not ten thousand. But I've been barred from most of those places without a military escort so it made more sense to come with you." In Vala's smile lay a warning to Rory, to keep her temper before something unfortunate was said.
Rory either got the message or came to the same conclusion on her own. She let out a sharp breath and turned to focus on Christopher. "How's GiGi?"
Christopher fiddled with his untouched drink. "She's good. She started grade one in September. She says hi, by the way."
Rory's eyes drifted upwards to the overhead lights for just a moment before snapping back to Christopher. "Tell her I say hi too, please?" The words were fragile with emotion, and Vala could remember that day in June when Vala caught Rory looking at pictures of Dr. Freyd's four children and Rory had confessed, I used to have a sister, you know. Her name was GiGi
Christopher nodded as Emily started speaking again. "Rory, when you're on this mysterious mission for the military, will we be able to contact you, or will you be as 'incommunicado' as you have been since you left for Colorado in the first place?"
"Mom," Lorelai said warningly.
"We'll be under radio silence, but we'll be able to receive emails and letters," Rory said.
"Emails," Emily said dismissively. "It's not the same writing things into a computer."
Lorelai choked on her martini.
"When will you be back?" Richard asked. "Your mother was rather vague on those details."
"I don't know yet," Rory said. Her spine was very straight under the interrogation. "The project may be ongoing. But I'll know better in a few months about my rotation."
"Will this impact your doctoral work?" he asked.
"No, it won't." Rory ducked her head and smiled that little 'I'm self-deprecating but I know I'm the smartest person in the room' smile. "I spent this semester taking classes at the University of Colorado, and finished all those up. I passed the orals, too, and now I just spend the next three to four years working on my research project and presto, Doctor Gilmore."
The proud smile on Richard's face was enough to make Vala push aside his wife's snobbishness and be glad she'd come with Rory. "You didn't pass the orals, you aced them," Vala reminded Rory, and was rewarded in seeing Richard glow a little more. "Dr. Freyd was bouncing off the walls at how awesome you were."
Rory's cheeks colored pink. "It wasn't that good."
"He said that if your work wasn't shrouded under seven different kinds of non-disclosure and top secret designations, he'd have filmed the thing for posterity."
Emily, who had been checking her watch, stood. "It's time for dinner," she said sharply.
Vala bounced up, smiling at Emily. "Great, I'm starved."
Rory caught Vala's arm and squeezed her hand on the way into the dining room. "I thought you said you were going to behave yourself," she hissed.
"How am I not behaving myself?" Vala demanded.
"Can you not talk about work?"
"All you do is work," Vala pointed out. The walk to the dining room was short, and soon Rory and Vala were seated side-by-side, with Vala across the table from the handsome Christopher. "You wake up and go to school and come to work and do more work until I have to drag you to dinner and then you work some more until you pass out. Rinse and repeat."
"That's not entirely true," Rory said. "I have fun, on occasion."
Vala raised an eyebrow. "When? Name one time you did something that was fun and had nothing to do with work."
Rory had to think about that. "The barbeque at the General's house when Colonel Carter came back," she finally said. "That was fun."
"That was a three-hour break from work. Mitchell had to drag you out of the Mountain and toss you over the back of his bike to get you to come with us, and that was on a Sunday."
"But it was still fun."
The maid brought in the salad plates, and Emily struck up a conversation with no one in particular. Rory wouldn't look up from her plate, Lorelai alternated glares at everyone in the room, and Emily kept on talking.
Vala gave up. She ate her salad with the expensive flatware and drank wine from a delicate glass and wondered if Rory had ever felt she belonged in this house.
Emily's droning continued, with Christopher adding an occasional comment and Lorelai muttering snaky asides. Richard seemed absorbed in his plate, but occasionally he would transfer his gaze to the left and stare at Rory with as much true loss as Vala had seen on anyone in this house.
The meat came, more wine was poured, and somewhere in between bites of the lovely beef, Vala became aware that Rory fading out of reality. Not physically, for the girl's body was still seated in the chair, but her eyes were fixed on a point three inches over the salt shaker. In Mitchell's words, the lights were on but no one was home.
Vala was used to this behavior by now. Rory had an annoying habit of zoning out during meal times, when some problem had been filed away in the back of her head but continued to process, until finally it popped out and took over all of Rory's attention. Like now.
Setting up a mental count of ten, Vala laid down her fork and casually took hold of Rory's wine glass, which was tilting precariously in Rory's fingers and threatened to dump red liquid all over the white tablecloth. She eased the glass out of Rory's unresponsive fingers on five
and set it on the table.One
. Rory shoved her chair back and hurried out of the room, interrupting Emily's tale about some revolutionary's daughter. Knowing Rory was headed for her notebook and was unlikely to come to harm, Vala picked up her fork again and resumed her meal.
"Where's that girl going?" Emily demanded, about to put her napkin on the table and follow Rory.
"Geeze, Mom, give it a rest!" Lorelai exclaimed. "She probably had enough of hearing who Buffy and Sandy are ostracizing at tea this week--"
"Don't take that tone with me!" Emily snapped. Christopher sank lower in his seat. "Richard?"
Richard ignored his wife's request. "Is Rory going to be all right?" he asked Vala.
"Oh, yes, she'll be fine," she reassured the man. "Just give her time to put all of her ideas onto paper and she'll be back for seconds. She's like one of those little wind-up toys you crank up and set on the floor and they spin in circles for a while."
Richard cleared his throat. "I meant while she is away," he clarified.
"Oh." Vala considered that one. The obvious answer was a resounding no
, as no one who went to Atlantis came back in the same shape in which they left, but the same could be said about anyone else in the Stargate program. "She'll be on a military base, so she'll be well protected," Vala offered, which wasn't really a lie. If the scientists on Atlantis got into trouble, it wasn't through a lack of military supervision by Sheppard and his well-armed Marines. "Or do you mean mentally? I know she's a little..." Vala made a whirling motion with her hand. "But the Air Force is quite strict about not letting crazy people go on these missions."
"Why would the Air Force take someone who is still only a student and send her on some kind of mission?" Emily asked. "It's ridiculously militaristic, if you ask me."
Vala frowned. "I thought you were part of a paramilitary reserve organization."
"Rory said you were part of something to do with your American Revolution?"
Lorelai sat up a little straighter. "Are you talking about the Daughters of the American Revolution?"
"Yes, that was it." Vala decapitated a vegetable stalk on her plate. "Isn't that a military reserve organization?"
Everyone was staring at Vala like she had grown another head. "The Daughters of the American Revolution are not a paramilitary organization," Emily said, and if she was flustered, then Vala took pride in a job well done.
"Ah," Vala said, feigning confusion. "My mistake." She smiled widely at Emily. "This is a truly delicious meal."
Five minutes later, Rory hadn't returned and the maid arrived to clear the plate settings. An argument broke out between Emily and Lorelai about the fate of Rory's dinner and Vala took the opportunity to escape into the hall, where Rory sat cross-legged on the patterned floor, still scribbling in her notebook.
"You almost done?" Vala asked, leaning over Rory. "The precursor to the next intergalactic war is carrying on over your impending malnutrition."
"I'm fine," Rory said automatically. As Rory would say the same thing if the world was on fire around her, Vala could only sigh and slide to the ground beside Rory, bumping shoulders.
"Your stories about this place certainly didn't convey the full picture," Vala said.
"Try growing up around it." Rory jammed the cap back on her pen and slapped her notebook closed. "Emily's just worried about me going away." The justification sounded weak, but Vala did not comment. "Some of the men of her class and age may have served in Korea or Vietnam, but very few of their sons went into the military, unless it was to military school and a commission."
"And here is her only granddaughter running away with those devilishly handsome military men and women," Vala said, receiving an elbow in the ribs for her pains. "You do know your grandfather is freaking out."
"Yeah," Rory said quietly. She pulled her legs up to her chest. "What can I say to him except that I'll be coming back?"
"You can start with that," Vala suggested. "And then send him letters and sneak in fantastical stories around the censors. Take pictures of yourself on the ocean with the not-whales."
"That might tip him off to where we are."
"Like he's going to believe it."
A shadow moved into the hall. It was Christopher. "Hey," he said. "Look, Rory, I'm going to take off."
"What?" Rory struggled to her feet, almost falling over Vala twice on her way to verticality. "No, don't go, I know it's awkward, but that's just because this family's made up of Gilmores."
Vala rose more sedately. Looking at Christopher and Rory side by side, Vala had to revise her incredulity that no one had seen Rory's true paternity before. These two had the same blue eyes and very similar features, and they looked related by blood. No wonder Lorelai had never wondered about her daughter.
"I know," Christopher was saying. He flicked a glance at Vala.
"Vala knows," Rory blurted out quickly. Her eyes went wide. "About you and me, or me and not-you--"
"That's cool," Christopher said quickly. He put out a hand, but didn't quite touch Rory's arm.
"So, um, why did you come when Grandma called you?" Rory asked. Her voice wasn't steady.
"Because you're going away," Christopher answered. "I know that things are... complicated now, but there were still those twenty-four years that I thought I was..."
"That you were," Rory said firmly. She closed the distance between them and hugged Christopher tight. "I still love you."
Christopher slowly put his arms around his former daughter, kissing the top of her head. "I still love you too, kid."
Sniffling, Rory drew back. "When I get back, I can come by and see you?"
"You'd better," Christopher said. He squeezed Rory's shoulder. "Do you have any place I can send you letters? GiGi can print now and she's insisting to write everyone she's ever met."
"Mom will have the address," Rory said. "You can write me any time."
"Good." Christopher smiled again. "You take care of yourself."
"And you too," Rory said sternly. "Cancer recover is no joke."
"I know." Christopher smiled at Rory one last time, then headed for the door. He waved back at Rory before he slipped out, leaving the hall in silence.
For only a moment. "How strange would it be if I were to hit on him the next time I saw him?" Vala asked.
Rory made a face. "It is so not allowed."
"Why not? He's not married."
"It's not allowed because I say so. Please don't turn my life into an epic Greek tragedy anymore than you must."
Vala waved off the admonition. "The maid said something about cake. Do you some?"
"The first thing you'll learn in this house is that the cake is a lie." Nevertheless, Rory pulled Vala in the direction of the dinning room.
In their absence, the cake had indeed arrived, along with coffee and tea and little silver spoons. With great self control, Vala didn't even considered taking one home with her as a souvenir.
As Daniel might say, Vala was growing as a law-abiding citizen. Good on her.~~~
After the dinner finally ended and Rory had hugged her grandparents goodbye, Vala and Rory stood in the driveway, staring up at the November stars while Lorelai carried on one final argument with her mother in the house.
"Do you miss it?" Rory asked suddenly.
"You're going to need to be a little more specific."
"Being up there." Rory waved vaguely at the sky. "On your own."
Vala could have said many things, some of which might even have been true. Instead, she said, "I'll tell you when you come back to Earth."
"Is that to get me to come back?"
"Would that work?" Vala asked hopefully.
Rory didn't answer the question. "One of the things I wanted to do before I left was to tell my mother about Rodney McKay," Rory said, staring up at the sky. "And I tried last night, I really did, but I couldn't get anything out. I couldn't even start. It was like I was choking on the words. I couldn't even send an email to Dr. McKay about... me."
"What about that message in the data burst from seven months ago?"
"I sort of pulled it?" Rory tried to smile. "I wonder if Colonel Carter told Dr. McKay. Do you think she would?"
Vala put her arm around Rory's shoulders, wondering for the hundredth time what Adria might have been like if she hadn't been Adria, and if she was being unfair to Rory by thinking such things. "I think Sam is a very smart woman, and part of being smart is to know when to avoid telling one's subordinates about their long-lost children. As for your mother... It's hard to tell people that you're not who they think you are," Vala said. "Sometimes, it's easier to let them think that you're who they want you to be."
Rory turned her head to look at Vala. "So who do people think you are?"
"No one really knows the mystery that is me," Vala said in an attempt to sound light-hearted.
To Vala's great lack of surprise, Rory didn't buy it. "I know you and I like you."
The calm Connecticut night air was suddenly too thin to breathe. "What makes you think you know anything about me?"
"I know you save the world, not because they pay you for it or anything, but because it's the right thing to do. It's not because you're surrounded by people who do the same thing, because that never makes anyone do anything for long. You do the right thing because you're a good person."
"You've been talking to Daniel again," Vala said. There must have been something in that cake, because her throat was starting to hurt.
"There are worse things in this universe than to have a man who loves you and thinks you're a good person."
Now there was something in Vala's eye, making her get all teary. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Sometimes it's easier to be who the people we love want us to be."
"I don't love Daniel," Vala said a little too quickly.
"Yes you do." Rory fixed Vala with those odd all-seeing blue eyes of hers. "There's nothing wrong with being in love."
Vala wished heartily that she could be somewhere else
but unsurprisingly, the heavens didn't split and no Asguard beam swept her up off the earth. Things like that never happened to her. "Love makes you weak," she said, voice tight. "It tears you apart."
"I know. But we still fall in love."
Vala's laughter was humorless. "What does that say about us?"
"That we're human?"
"What about you?" Vala asked, deciding that she'd had enough of this conversation. "Have you ever been in love?"
"Twice." Rory didn't sound very happy about admitting that, but Vala didn't feel vindicated. She just felt... sad.
She slipped her arm through Rory's, feeling the girl shiver in the cold. "It sucks, doesn't it?"
The house door opened to disgorge Lorelai. "All right, everybody in," the woman said, stomping towards her car. "We've got a date back in Stars Hollow ten minutes ago. Let's get a move-on."
"What are you talking about?" Rory asked. "It's almost ten."
"I know," Lorelai said. "We should have been out of there sooner, but my mother--"
"Don't blame Grandma for the longest family dinner in history," Rory interrupted. "And don't blame Christopher either. What are you talking about?"
Lorelai flung the car into gear and drove down the drive. "Since I knew this was going to be your last Friday night in the Hollow for a few months, we're having a town to-do. Movie night and bonfire at Miss Patty's, complete with hotdogs and s'mores. Everyone's going to be there."
"What's a 'to-do'?" Vala asked.
"It's halfway between a shindig and blow-out, but with more sugar," said Rory, who continued to stare at her mother. "When did you plan this? Didn't Taylor pitch a fit?"
"For seven thousand dollars, Taylor's agreed to keep his yap shut for one night." Lorelai cornered a little fast. "You didn't think this town would let you ship off to 'Nam without a goodbye, did you?"
"For the last time, I'm not going to Vietnam!"
"So where are you going?"
Vala relaxed into her seat, watching the strange American countryside flash past the windows. As much as Rory was concerned that Lorelai wouldn't understand about Rodney McKay, Vala suspected that nothing could turn Lorelai from her daughter for very long. If only Rory had such confidence in her mother.
In three days, Rory Gilmore would walk through that wormhole and into the Pegasus Galaxy, away from Vala and the SGC and her safe existence, and into the mess of Atlantis and her unsuspecting father's life.
Vala would have given almost anything to witness that little confrontation, but SG-1 had a mission on Tuesday and Vala had a team she wasn't willing to walk away from.
Maybe one day Rory would come back, and Vala could convince the General to let her join SG-1. The more the merrier, right?
And maybe she could get Sam to videotape that first family meeting.end part