Title: Lines of Symmetry
Rating: R (for themes and implied violence, not sex)
Word Count: ~3000
Categories: Gen (with implied current/past Vala/Tomin, Vala/other); drama, angst, AU
Warnings: Character deaths; violence (implied and/or non-graphic); see version on livejournal for more specific warnings
Summary: Five universes where Vala wasn't the mother of the Orici.
A/N:Thanks to ziparumpazoo for beta reading.
Vala shifts slightly, her cramped muscles protesting the low crouch she's adopted to blend in with the other unwashed, unwanted, and unmentionable beings who dwell in the no-man's-land between village and palace. Once again she scans the entrance through the dusty curtain of hair falling in front of her eyes; for what feels like the hundredth time she counts the Jaffa spread out along the walls and the road. Then she counts again.
It's not time for a guard change, but they're massing in greater numbers than usual. She tenses, wondering what they're up to. Not that she's had any idea what they've been up to the past few days; they certainly didn't apprehend Marika for the simple crime of petty thievery. Jaffa aren't known for their interest in matters of local justice. And there's been nothing of use in the gossip of the local villagers, only the usual pompous pronouncements about the whims of their capricious but oh-so-beloved goddess.
So for three days she's lingered, skulking near the entrance to the palace, dressed in the worst of beggar's rags and enduring kicks and taunts from Jaffa and human alike. For three days, she's studied tradesmen and counted sentries while eating stale food and drinking filthy water and peeing under a damn bush. For three long, hot, demeaning days, she's ignored the voice in the back of her head that insists that if Marika was coming out again, she'd have come out already. But despite three days' application of Vala's resourcefulness and tradecraft and sheer determination, she's found no way to breach the fortress.
Vala's not used to failure.
Three days ago, she watched her partner - in crime, if one cared to label an artistic bit of swindling with such an ugly word - hauled off with her head held high and her arms wrenched tight behind her back, a Jaffa staff weapon pointing at her side. And that ought to have been the end of the story; Marika's nothing but a business associate; a hard and impatient woman with an incongruously sweet face and a gift for conning unsuspecting men out of their money. They'd sworn no secret oath of honor, Vala reminds herself; the risks they took were all their own. There's no cause for her to linger here, lurking about and looking for a way to save a woman Vala's certain would never have stayed to rescue her. Although that particular point's academic, as Vala's equally certain Marika wouldn't have evaded the patrol with the ease Vala had in the first place.
Then they'd both be in that pile of rock, and where would that leave them?
Still, it's only chance – a literal flip of a coin four days before – that put Marika downstairs with the tradesman in his parlor and Vala upstairs snooping through his clothes. And that chance dropped Marika in the hands of a Jaffa patrol while Vala scrambled nimbly out the second-story window and slipped off down the alley beyond.
Irritating or not, Marika deserves a chance, too. Besides, she owes Vala for their bet, because there wasn't a blasted thing in that drawer but underwear.
The Jaffa are advancing now, armor clanking as they fan out into the crowd; Vala moves a little bit slowly when the line of humanity is forced back, trying to see past the sea of legs and arms and into the now-open patch of ground in front of the palace. All she gets for her trouble is a rough grip under her armpits and a quick, dragging trip back amongst the villagers. "Watch your place, slave," the Jaffa on the other end of the manhandling mitts spits out.
She rolls her eyes at his over-armored departing back.
The crowd falls silent, and Vala scoots back toward the front of the assembly.
"Behold!" The voice carries from the front of the palace as Vala crawls through the dirt, ignoring the low curses and kicks aimed her way. "The most high, our beloved, glorious and eternal …"
"Somewhere out there," Vala mutters as she shoves herself into a space behind the front row, "there must be a Goa'uld," and she peers between the legs of a tall, skinny man who smells unappetizingly of cow, "who can be introduced in less than five minutes."
Then she spots the Goa'uld in question, and her throat seems to freeze shut.
"Our queen Qetesh!" the Jaffa herald calls with a flourish.
Our queen Qetesh, indeed. Standing there wearing Marika's face.
The crowd cheers. Vala turns and fades away.
Vala's not certain how many years it's been since she knew freedom. Two perhaps, her rational side estimates, or maybe three – the rest of her insists it's been more like two or three hundred. Time passes strangely when one's locked in one's own mind, that much she'd learned quickly. Stretches of sensory deprivation broken by dreams-turned-nightmare and the periodic crystal-clear day or week or month when her possessor lets Vala watch the world around her, not out of pity, but from a deep greed for Vala's anger and fear and unending pain.
Today involves pain, too, but not the sort that Qetesh prefers to watch. Not the sort Vala's grown accustomed to. Her side throbs where she'd been kicked by booted feet, her scalp smarts from being dragged by the hair, and the small respite she's now being allowed is making things worse, not better.
They're waiting in a little cell, dumped onto the floor by their Jaffa guards and left alone to stare at the four blank walls without so much as a single word. Qetesh is busy mending their bodily injuries, but she can't quite keep up with the pain. And there's not a thing she can do about the anticipation of whatever comes next.
At least, in the end, they don't have long to wait. It's no more than five minutes (feels like five hundred) till the doors slide open and someone altogether new walks in.
New to Vala, anyway, but it's not like she spends a lot of time out playing with Qetesh's circle of so-called friends.
But Qetesh pulls herself up, reasserts some control over Vala's mind and glares up at their visitor. "Baal," she says, pulling her shoulders back and lifting her chin. "What a pleasant surprise."
Baal stares down at her; his gaze is hard, but he shifts forward and the fingers of one hand brush lightly against Qetesh's cheek. Then he nods once, and his fingers pull away. "Qetesh." He takes a single step back and raises his arm. "Your actions have not gone unnoticed by our master. In his generosity, he tolerates self-interest, but not such blatant betrayal. And I don't believe I need to explain the –" he pauses, cocks his head as though searching for the proper word, then smiles slightly as he continues. "The irrevocable nature of your punishment."
Vala feels Qetesh's shock first, before her own sluggish, confined mind can comprehend what's happening. And then the shock passes, to be replaced by something unfamiliar, something new, because the Goa'uld are many things, but they are never afraid. And as Baal's hand comes down, Vala is screaming, screaming in her own mind.
"It's time," says the voice next to her – disembodied, since Vala has shut her eyes in the vain hope that all of this will somehow just go away.
She should never have made herself so helpless.
"Push," the voice, young but imperious, continues, adding, "Now," when Vala doesn't immediately comply. Meanwhile, Vala's wondering what exactly happens if she really does refuse to obey. But nature has other ideas, and this particular process happens whether you will it or not.
She's going to birth a baby today, here on this backwater planet, hiding out in a cave while the metal-clad, rock-for-brains Jaffa forces of some Goa'uld she probably once commanded tromp about the chappa'ai looking for new presents to take home to their master.
It seems fitting, somehow.
She's not sure why she's here, exactly – oh, she knows how she got here, heavily pregnant and wandering from planet to planet as though she could swindle people just the same as always, as though nothing were ever going to change. But she doesn't understand why. Why she'd been fool enough to get herself this way in the first place. Why she didn't avail herself of the many means in the galaxy for ridding herself of the results of hurried and unconsidered intimacy once the Tok'ra had set her loose, freed of her the erstwhile mistress-in-her-head at last. Why she thought even for a moment that this universe was something that she, of all people, should inflict on any blameless newborn babe.
She was still so raw, and her liberation so new, and she'd been crashing about as though she were no more than a child herself; and so she wound up here, trusting her life to complete strangers whether she wants to or not.
Likewise her body's been obeying the demands of both the voice beside her and the child insideher, bearing down hard on behalf of that being that's determined to be set free no matter what the cost. Vala hears the pants and the groans and knows that it's her own voice, vulnerable and weak and everything she promised she'd never be; but she's caught in a muddle made of pain and rebirth and the constant fear she'll never admit to in the light of what passes for a normal day. She's got no strength left for sounding strong at all.
When it's over, and the commands to "push" have turned to coos over the baby and hands pressing down on Vala's belly to ease what comes after, she bites her lip hard and stares up at the rock ceiling and feels a rush of choked-up emotion as her fingertips brush the head of the still-sticky baby lying draped across her chest.
There's noise outside, now, of voices raised, and Vala's not sure if the sounds have just begun, or if she'd failed to hear them before. If it's the Jaffa, if they'd followed the sounds of her shouting to find her here, they'd best be on their guard. Because now she has one more – very tiny – reason to kill them if they cross her.
The babble beyond the confines of the cave continues, building to a clamor and beyond to uproar; then the matriarch of the village ducks through the entrance of their bolthole and stands towering over them. The last Vala had seen of her had been when the runners had dashed up the rocky path in warning of the Jaffa's arrival through the gate, heading up toward the village where Vala was lately but actively laboring. Vala, who knows that this village owes her nothing, because all she meant to do was steal from them. And she's fairly certain the matriarch knows exactly that.
The older woman stares down at Vala for a very long time.
"They've gone," the matriarch says at last, and, "There, see," coos the young midwife who's been fussing over Vala and her newborn child.
Without another word, the matriarch turns and walks back out of the cave again, proud and upright, leaving Vala to consider what she did to deserve a reprieve from the universe once again. Then the baby moves against her chest, lets out a little cry. By instinct, Vala's pushing herself up to sit and cupping the back of the baby's head and looking down at her, half in fear, half in awe.
"What are you going to name her?" the midwife asks, and Vala looks away, blinking against the tears she refuses the shed.
She wonders if this is what hope feels like.
They didn't tell her.
That's all Vala can think, staring across the room at her once-crippled husband, and she can't feel at all. He must have been their backup plan, and what she didn't know, she couldn't reveal, if caught.
Until now she'd assumed that Tomin wasn't the least bit strong.
She wonders if he knew he might die on that day the ships were meant to be destroyed, wonders if he knew and walked into the planned inferno anyway. She'd never have thought so before, but seeing him now, standing there holding the now-lifeless body of that impossible baby just born from her body, she thinks he has a mad kind of courage she'd never fathomed in those days and nights spent weaving herself into his life.
"This wasn't a child, Vala," Tomin's saying now, "This was a demon, a monster. Not an innocent." His voice is steady and calm, soft like he's talking about the day's bread or a visit they might make after lunch. He doesn't sound like he's pleading with her. But when she looks closer, she sees something different in his eyes.
It doesn't even matter if she's there right now, if his words fall on her ears or echo out into the vastness of space that's visible beyond the windows of her quarters on the priors' ship. He's telling himself more than he's telling her. But it's sinking in now, through the shock and the exhaustion and the infernal hum of the spaceship on which she just gave birth. With a simple snap of his wrist he's stolen the life from her child, and what does it matter who or what that tiny girl was doomed or destined to someday become?
Vala hadn't known she cared, before.
She opens her mouth, to scream or shout or cry, but her voice refuses to sound, as though it's still caught in the moment of sheer astonishment. And then Tomin's speaking again, saying her name and stepping closer, but it doesn't matter, because the door's burst open and the Prior is in the room, and Tomin is shoved back and down and is on his knees with a staff pointed at his chest.
His voice finally breaks as he begs forgive mebefore the prior fires the fatal blast.
Vala wonders whose mercy it is he's asking, hers or the prior's or the mother universe at large; but the truth is she'll never really know.
Water splashes out of the washtub, soap suds flying up and landing on Vala's nose as she works the grub and stains out of yet another customer's clothes.
"Mother hoped I'd make a seamstress," says the girl at the tub next to Vala's. "But I never had skill for fine work. Or patience, really."
Vala makes what she hopes is an affirming sound.
"So here I am, cleaning the fancy clothes they try so hard to ruin every day." The girl – Tana – sits back with a sigh. One hand rests on her very pregnant belly, and the other rubs at her neck.
"Break soon," Vala offers, and Tana nods, then rolls her head to ease the tension in her shoulders. She stretches her arms above her and turns to look at Vala.
"What about you?" she asks. "Did you ever dream? Have someplace else you thought you'd be?"
Vala shrugs and grunts something short and noncommittal. Really, the girl is far too bright and well-spoken to be a washerwoman, and she's not making it easy for Vala to stick to the script. She's been hiding for months now, watching and learning and trying not to get herself killed by the simple act of opening her own big mouth. This isn't the first time she's had to go to ground in plain sight; it's a strategy she's used again and again, ever since she was a little girl, laughing at the boys pursuing her as she helped the baker load the wagon in back of his shop. She'd been as invisible to them as any other laborer would be.
Spending her days elbow-deep in dingy, soapy water, her knuckles scraped raw from rubbing against washboard, isn't her favorite of all the covers she's devised, she has to admit. But it's a cover, nonetheless, and she'd prefer not to have it blown by this chatty little mother-to-be.
After all, a girl's got to make a living, even when she's stranded in another galaxy.
But she can't exactly explain all of that just now. Deflection, she thinks, is the better part of not getting found and executed by the priors. So she asks, "How's the baby?" instead, and is rewarded by far more distraction than she could have hoped.
More than she'd like, really, since she's immediately regaled by a long tale of every twitch and wiggle, every ache and pain, and every little fear that a first-time mother in the backwater of beyond could possibly feel.
"I only hope she'll be more than I," Tana says at last, and settles into silence, dragging a skirt up and down her washboard and staring at some point over Vala's shoulder, her expression heavier, more serious than before.
"Oh, this isn't so bad." Vala waves a soapy hand and launches suds across the gap between them. "At least we stay clean."
The woman laughs softly, and Vala thinks that it's not such a bad hope to have for your children, to be just a little bit more than their parents ever managed.
Until a month later, that is, when she finds herself watching a two-week-old Orici launch a fleet of ships to conquer the galaxy she calls home, with Vala's too-well-spoken friend standing a little apart from the crowd, maternal pride warped into utter, hopeless devotion on her face.
Vala's caught for a moment, unexpectedly lost in the memory of Qetesh and her devastating, overwhelming will.
And she thinks this is worse. Because that tiny slip of a teenage girl who wanted nothing more than a chance for her baby to have better than she did herself, who's now staring with such adoration at the thingshe birthed that holds a whole people in thrall – that girl doesn't even know she's been possessed. She has no idea what she's lost already, before the battle's even begun.
But Vala's got no such excuse, and she knows that now, it's time.
It's time to stop watching and find her way home.