Cassie is midway through her fourth year of college when Sam leaves her for another galaxy. It shouldn’t have surprised her, not really. Ambition is almost as deeply ingrained in Sam as duty. Cassie has always known that.
But she is surprised.
Which really pisses Cassie off, even more than Sam actually leaving. It’s not exactly a new feeling though, all things told. She’s pretty used to being angry.
Of course, Cassie can’t just deal with this like a normal person (just take a look at the people she is supposed to emulate to if you want to know why she’s as psychologically stunted as she is) and instead she ends up stomping around doing exactly the sort of reckless things they are always warning her against, like some boneheaded form of silent protest. Blowing off class, staying out late, driving just a little too fast.
It’s never the deliberate misbehavior that comes back to bite her in the ass though, but rather the completely unexpected. Despite everything, she really hadn’t intended to break her leg during a (supposedly) friendly game of touch football, especially since she already knew what the general reaction would be.
Circle the wagons!
She’s perfectly capable of being treated at a normal hospital. The trace of naquadah in her system is insignificant enough to ensure that no normal doctor will pick up on the anomaly. Hell, all she needs is an X-ray and a cast, not a thorough life history complete with a panel of blood tests. But the rules have been in place since long before she was old enough to think to protest, so she dutifully rides in the military transport to the SGC, gets rolled into her mother’s infirmary where a doctor who is all wrong for the post now plies her trade. She’s just too…tall.
The only godsend is the fact that Daniel is off at some distant conference, Teal’c is on a much-deserved vacation, and Mitchell is visiting his parents. With Jack in Washington and Sam in Pegasus, Cassie is at least ensured that there will be minimal hovering or conversations about her insistence on putting more energy into reckless recreation (you know, ping pong is just as fun as football!) rather than schoolwork.
With her leg set and the perquisite overnight observation period passed, Cassie is finally allowed to get back to her apartment in Boulder. She doesn’t realize she’s been assigned a ‘helper’ until Vala sweeps into the infirmary with a giant duffle and way too many sparkly barrettes in her hair.
Suddenly Daniel’s benign and confused indifference is looking much more appealing.
“What are you doing here?” Cassie demands.
Vala ignores her obviously hostile tone, jumping up on the edge of Cassie’s bed with little regard for her injured leg. “Hi! Ready for our girly week of fun?” she says, looking way too excited by the prospect.
Cassie grabs for her cell, hitting speed dial.
“Jack,” Cassie snaps the moment he answers, not really caring that Vala is actively listening. “I don’t need a babysitter.”
“Why, hello to you too, Cass,” Jack says. “How are you doing?”
Cassie rolls her eyes, ignoring his pointed critique of her lack of manners, primarily because he’s the last person in the universe who should lecture her on etiquette. She’s heard way too many stories over the years for that to fly. “I have more than enough friends at school to help me out,” she says. “I don’t need Vala hovering. Plus, there isn’t exactly room for someone else.”
Next to her, Vala seems highly unconcerned with the conversation, instead intent on fixing her hair in the reflective bottom of a bedpan.
“I thought your roommate was studying abroad this quarter?” Jack says.
Damn. How is it that he can be the densest man on Earth when it serves him, but never when she actually needs him to be? “So?” she throws back, knowing she’s reverting to disgruntled teenager, but not particularly caring.
“So, you’re in a cast,” he says, sounding a bit disgruntled himself. “You’ll need help.”
Cassie sighs deliberately right into the phone, knowing how much he hates that.
“Try not to think of it as Vala babysitting you, Cass,” Jack says, clearly trying another approach. “Think of it as you keeping her out of trouble.”
Right. Rolling her eyes, she hangs up without saying goodbye, knowing a losing battle when she sees one. She’s been losing this one for years.
“So, ready to go?” Vala asks, her enthusiasm not even remotely dampened.
* * *
As neither Cassie nor Vala are able to drive, they have a car complete with airmen escort to get them to Boulder, schlep Vala’s many, many bags, and get Cassie up the three flights of stairs to her flat.
By the time Cassie finally makes it to her place, she’s considering calling Jack back again just to hang up on him.
Vala is currently slamming around in her kitchen. “I think I should let the boys take me to the store, to bulk up on supplies and such,” Vala says, staring at her perennially empty cupboards. Cooking is definitely one of the most neglected parts of Cassie’s education and, interestingly enough, the only deficit that actually bothers her.
“Yes, that sounds great,” Cassie says, doing everything but push Vala out the door (and she might have done that too, if not for her complete ineptitude with crutches). “Don’t forget the chicken noodle soup.”
“You got it!” Vala says, shooing the airmen back out into the hall.
Sighing with relief, Cassie settles on the couch, grateful for a few moments to herself without poking and prodding or inappropriate flirting with poor airmen. Only then she decides she’s thirsty.
Things go rapidly downhill from there.
She’s loopier than she realizes, the painkillers messing with her sense of balance, not to mention her mood. All she wants is one goddamned glass of water. Is that so much to ask? When you’re stuck with crutches and a cast it apparently is.
Vala, of course, chooses the absolute worst moment to return. Cassie is stranded in the middle of the room, a broken glass and pool of water next to her, and completely inexplicable tears of frustration streaming down her cheeks.
Vala looks like she wants to say something suitably witty, but seems to change her mind. “Let’s get you back to the couch,” she says instead, her hand surprisingly soft on Cassie’s elbow as she helps her back to her feet.
“I don’t need another mother,” Cassie blurts. Three women have claimed that role, more or less. But that doesn’t mean any of them actually stuck around.
Vala’s hand tenses a bit on her arm, but her voice is breezy. “Good. Because one daughter was more than enough.”
Cassie narrows her eyes at Vala, not sure what she’s referring to, but doesn’t bother to ask. When Vala starts to guide her back to the couch, Cassie resists.
“Oh, for…,” Vala complains. “I swear I am not trying to mother you!”
“No. It’s just…I have to go to the bathroom,” Cassie mumbles, now beyond mortified, staring at her toes.
“Excuse me?” Vala says, carefully stepping around a piece of glass.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she repeats through clenched teeth.
“Oh,” Vala says, propping one hand up on her hip. Cassie gets the feeling she’s similarly thrown by the situation. Glancing around the room, Vala eventually leans down to retrieve the fallen crutch. “Well, that’s easy enough, I suppose.”
Cassie takes the crutch; lets Vala hover near her side and steady her when the unwieldy weight of the cast knocks her off-kilter. Opening the door to the bathroom, Vala helps her navigate the tight confines until they are standing together over the toilet. Vala glances from the fixture to Cassie.
“You can do this next part on your own, right?” Vala says, beginning to look a little panicked.
Cassie nods emphatically. “Definitely.”
“Great!” Vala says, actually clapping her hands a bit in relief. She gestures back over her shoulder. “I’ll just…be outside. Shout if you need a hand!”
Cassie would have to fall and break her other leg before she would. Luckily that doesn’t happen, even though there’s a moment or two that are close.
Another twenty minutes and Vala has her back on the couch, bowl of chicken noodle soup in hand, and a fairly silly movie about crazy highway patrolmen on the TV.
Cassie watches Vala’s profile. “I don’t want any more of the vicodin,” she says, bracing herself for the inevitable argument.
But Vala just nods and reaches for some popcorn. “Yeah,” she says, giving the bottle of pills a suspicious look. “That sounds like a good idea.”
* * *
Cassie didn’t like Vala the first time she met her. It’s only later that she thinks to wonder if her instant dislike had to do with Vala herself or more because of the way she seems to draw all attention whenever she’s around. They rarely had reason to be around each other one-on-one, so Cassie didn’t bother to think too hard on it, to analyze it against the backdrop of childhood dreams and her intense possessiveness of the last few people she can still call family.
Minus one more, now.
Vala isn’t quite as bad as she remembers. Sure, she never lets an opportunity to say something inappropriate pass by underutilized, but Cassie has long ago begun to suspect that the people around her take things just a little too seriously anyway. She remembers the look of barely contained panic on Sam’s face whenever she felt the need to step into Cassie’s life in any sort of parental capacity. And don’t even get her started on how any interest in a guy on her part is handled by her ‘uncles.’
Which is why, on day two, when Brad, sweet, unsuspecting Brad, shows up at her apartment with a partially wilted, obviously hand-picked clutch of flowers, Cassie braces herself for general unpleasantness.
Predictably, Vala takes less than ten seconds to get a read on the situation. Oh, God.
If Jack were here, he would interrogate Brad. Teal’c would stare until Brad squirmed, just to see how long it would take. Daniel would be embarrassingly engaging, suddenly taking interest in something outside his books just long enough to mortify her. Sam would just…try too damn hard.
Cassie suspects Vala will prove to be something else entirely. God, she won’t actually try to flirt with him, will she?
But after a moment of looking between the two of them, Vala merely plucks the bouquet from Brad’s fingers and ushers him further into the room. Retrieving a glass, she fills it with water and sticks the flowers in it, setting it next to Cassie’s spot on the couch. As Vala leans down, her back to Brad, Cassie swears she winks at her.
“So, Brad, is it?” Vala asks, turning back to him.
“Yeah. Hi. I just…wanted to see how Cass is doing.” Despite her sense of impending doom, Cassie finds herself beaming at him. He’d been playing football too, that day. He’d looked down at her injury with panic and as she’d monumentally tried to struggle against crying, announced that if it had been him, he would have been bawling.
He’s just…really, really nice.
Plus, his hair sort of does this swoopy thing…
“Well,” Vala says, interrupting Cassie’s train of thought and slapping Brad congenially on the back. “Perfect timing. I have to run out to do some errands and Cassie isn’t to be left alone even for a moment. Would you mind staying with her while I’m gone?”
“Oh, sure,” Brad says, looking relieved to have an excuse to linger.
“Great! Well, there are about a million videos over there and pop tarts in the kitchen. Shouldn’t be more than a few hours!”
With that, Vala disappears out the front door, and it won’t occur to Cassie until many hours later that Vala doesn’t have a car. She never finds out where exactly Vala goes that day.
“Think I could sign your cast?” Brad asks, leaning in closer, his hair falling into his face.
Yes, Cassie thinks with a smile, clearly she judged Vala far too harshly that first meeting. She’s actually…pretty cool.
Of course, Cassie’s only deluded enough to think that until later that evening when Vala spends three hours singing a slightly twisted version of ‘Cassie and Brad kissing in a tree’.
Whoever taught her that particular ditty has a lot to answer for.
* * *
“What’s your daughter’s name?” Cassie asks.
Outwardly, Vala doesn’t react to the question, still staring at her cards as if the small piles of M&Ms up for grabs are precious gold or something. While she waits to see whether Vala will answer, Cassie pops a few M&Ms in her mouth out of her own rapidly dwindling supply.
“That’s no way to win at cards,” Vala admonishes, “eating all your currency.”
Cassie just smiles. She’s already lost this game to Vala over and over again, and half suspects that either she made this game up or is cheating.
“Adria,” Vala says, laying her cards down.
For a moment, Cassie is sure she’s forgotten yet another rule of this strange game, that the word has something to do with the specific cards, but then Vala looks up at her expectantly. Cassie stares down at the queens and kings, notices the way Vala’s finger taps briefly on the dark head of the queen of spades.
“My daughter’s name,” Vala clarifies. “Adria.”
“Adria,” Cassie echoes. It’s an interesting name, a word that slides off the tongue and still manages to be abrupt and blunt against the back of her teeth. A bit of a contradiction. Just like Vala.
She wonders what it would be like to have a mother like Vala.
“Are you close?” Cassie asks, wondering where this daughter is, why she’s never heard of her before.
Vala scoops the cards up, sliding them together with casual efficiency, tapping the edges against the tabletop. “We didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things.”
Cassie trips a moment over the past tense, is left to assume there is a rather large rift between them. “Does that…disappoint you? That she isn’t more like you?”
Vala’s eyes latch on to Cassie’s, a look far too perceptive for comfort. “I imagine any disappointment between us was mutual.”
Cassie doesn’t know what to say to that, a bit unnerved by Vala’s flat eyes, the way her focus seems to be somewhere else entirely. Some distant place on the far side of the Stargate, perhaps.
“Vala,” Cassie says.
Vala leans forward, scooping her bounty towards her and by the time she looks up again, she’s looking mischievous again. “You know,” she says, popping a green chocolate in her mouth, “I read something very interesting about this specific color of candy.”
Cassie rolls her eyes and picks up the deck to deal another hand.
* * *
Vala has Cassie’s foot pulled in her lap as she applies nail polish, one color for each nail. It gives the surprisingly pleasing effect of Cassie’s poor, swollen toes being part of a rainbow.
“What was your planet like?” Vala asks during a commercial break.
Cassie looks away from the TV. “Small.” Even Cassie isn’t sure if she means geographically or philosophically. Or maybe just in significance.
“Have you ever been back?”
She’s never been given the option. “No. You?”
Vala flashes her a smile. “Oh, I’d say that ship left dock a long, long time ago.”
Cassie knows what that’s like. “I’m sure most people here would call Hanka primitive.”
“Hmph,” Vala mumbles absently as she leans over her big toe, her face scrunched up in concentration.
If Cassie were still on Hanka, she would be married by now, probably with a child or two, working her own land side by side with her husband. There was never a question of anything else. Here on Earth, she has almost limitless options for her future. She knows she should feel grateful, but three and half years into college she’s still undeclared, floating from class to class. She knows her indecision bothers Daniel and Sam, people who have known their calling since the cradle.
But what if your specific calling doesn’t exist anymore?
“I’ve thought about joining the Peace Corps,” Cassie confesses, an impulse that until today had seemed nothing more than a rebellious lark, asking to be that far away from the people dead set on keeping her safe.
Maybe she’s tired of being safe.
“Is that where you go to horribly primitive parts of this planet and dig wells and get eaten by mosquitoes?”
“Yeah,” Cassie says. “That sounds about right.”
Vala seems to consider this. “Then why don’t you?”
That’s a good question.
There’s something undeniably suffocating about having a built-in set of guardians who all know exactly how bad things can get, all the while somehow knowing very little about real life on their own planet. She is supposed to be focused, forward moving. She knows they expect her to be doctor or scientist or archaeologist, but the truth is, school has never really been her thing. As for the military, that’s the part of Earth she understands least.
Honestly, she’s scared they would think the Peace Corps is too small, not far-reaching enough. That she’s wasting her opportunities.
“I don’t know,” Cassie says, wishing she hadn’t brought this topic up in the first place.
“Well, it’s your life to squander,” Vala says with a shrug, as if it doesn’t even occur to her to tell Cassie what to do, to guide her in the ‘proper’ direction. “Just don’t expect me to visit. I require things like running water, and hotels with at least four of those little stars.”
It’s strange, but Cassie feels like she’s beginning to hear two things every time Vala speaks, contradictions carefully twined together, meaningless when separated. And she knows somehow that Vala would visit her if she asked, in whatever backwards, dirty corner of the Earth she went to. Vala would complain and let everyone know just how put out she was. But she would come.
And probably bring Cassie a bag of Tootsie Pops and a bottle of insect repellant.
But what Vala wouldn’t do is lecture her on her choices, judge her progress against claustrophobic Tau’ri standards, or try to protect Cassie from herself. Vala would let Cassie strand herself in the middle of a giant mess, and still offer a hand to pull her back out, if she asked for it.
It’s strange how appealing a giant mess is, right about now.
Vala tilts her head to the side, as if watching the TV from that angle might make the show make more sense. “Do you ever wonder how the Tau’ri managed not to destroy themselves, let alone actually defeat the Goa’uld?”
Cassie laughs, snuggling back into the couch. “All the time.”
* * *
By day five, Cassie has mastered her crutches and Vala has kidnapped her laptop for some no doubt nefarious top-secret project she won’t let Cassie in on. Not that Cassie spends too much energy trying to figure it out. Vala has the right to own secrets.
Instead, Cassie picks up her phone, hitting speed dial again. “Hi, Jack,” she says when he picks up.
“Cassie,” he says, and she can hear it now, the wariness in his voice, knows that’s her fault.
“I wanted to thank you for arranging for Vala to help me out.”
“Yes,” Cassie confirms. “You were right. I needed the help.”
There’s a beat of silence where she’s not sure if he suspects a trap or is just contemplating if she’s been possessed. “Well, I’m glad it worked out.”
She wonders for the first time if they’ve really been so protective of her, or if she’s just been too scared to bother trying to find another way. Too scared to make her own mistakes, scared to get caught too far from the Stargate, too far from an easy escape. Maybe this whole time she’s just been waiting for the world to end again.
And maybe this whole time they’ve just been waiting for her to demonstrate something, anything that could be a sign of her stepping up to the plate, actually living this second life they’ve given her. A life that’s felt suspect and tenuous since the day her second mother was stolen from her too.
Maybe Sam left because she trusted Cassie to start making her own plans.
“I’m applying to the Peace Corps after graduation,” she informs Jack, not a question, not a sulky ultimatum, just a solid fact.
“Okay,” Jack says.
Cassie lets out a breath. “Okay,” she agrees.
“I’m glad you’re feeling better, Cass.”
She smiles. “Yeah. Thanks, Jack.”
As she hangs up the phone, she catches sight of her rainbow toenails and Brad’s scrawling signature on her cast, and makes a decision. First, she’ll ask Brad out on a date. Then she’ll see about an application to the Peace Corps, and after that, maybe culinary school. She’s got a whole planet full of possibilities, after all.
“Hey, Vala,” Cassie yells, tossing the phone aside. “Want to help me with my hair?”
She’s thinking a few of those sparkly barrettes might be just the thing.