Bright colors, cheerful sounds, and enticing smells were all around, and the bustle and rush of the weekend crowd had Vala convinced that Tau'ri malls were one of the best inventions in the galaxy. Already, she and Sam—or Samantha, as she preferred to call her, since the colonel was far too lovely to be a 'Sam'—had raided five clothing stores, two shoe stores, and a little boutique which sold costume jewelry and hair accessories. Vala's debit card to her very own bank account had finally arrived only a few days previously, and when she'd asked Samantha about the best internet retailers for adding to her wardrobe, her new friend had instead suggested a shopping spree.
This, Vala decided, almost made living in a concrete hole in the ground worthwhile.
Arms laden with purchases, the two women stopped at a home store to admire the end tables and lamps which were on sale, and Vala decided to purchase a large gilt-framed landscape to hang over her bed at the SGC, as the room was in dire need of some color. After making arrangements to pick the painting up at a later date—when they could borrow Teal'c's spacious Durango or Daniel's less-spacious-but-environmentally-friendly hybrid Escape—they at last turned back for Samantha's car.
"Oh! I almost forgot," Samantha exclaimed as they neared the sunny entrance. "Before we leave, I want to get a birthday present for Daniel."
"It's his birthday?" Vala asked, intrigued. From what she had read in the numerous magazines she'd hoarded since returning to the SGC, birthdays were supposed to be celebrated by ambushing the person in question, then making up for scaring the victim by plying him or her with gifts, sugar-glazed baked goods, and cold sweet cream.
Samantha shook her head. "No, it's not 'til next month... it's just that I don't go shopping all that often, and I better get his gift now before I forget about it." The slight flush of color which rose to her cheeks suggested to Vala that Samantha had accidentally forgotten Daniel's birthday on at least one previous occasion.
"Should I get him something, too?" Vala asked. "Oh, dear, what sort of things does he like? Besides boring old musty tomes and crumbling bits of pottery, of course."
The other woman laughed. "Well, there's always gourmet coffee, some sort of nice shirt or jacket, or a couple of books." She shrugged her shoulders. "I'm getting him books this time... I keep hearing good things about The Da Vinci Code and its prequel, and I think he'll like those."
"Oh," Vala replied flatly, disappointed. She was hoping to follow Samantha's lead on purchasing a gift, but there was simply no way she would ever give Daniel yet another boring text to bury his head into when he could have been doing far more interesting activities. Would it kill the man to take her out to dinner?
So into the bookseller's establishment they went, Vala feeling a little disconcerted by the crowd of people milling about amongst the shelves. There was an entire mall full of exciting things, so why were there so many people interested in droll, boring books? Enthusiasm for magazines, she could understand somewhat, as at least those had pretty pictures. Even more disturbingly, Samantha seemed to know precisely where she was going, which suggested she had more than passing familiarity with the bookstore.
"They have them in hardcover!" Samantha exclaimed. "Oh, I don't know whether he'll prefer those or the paperbacks..."
Leaving the indecisive colonel to her debate, Vala strolled around the end of the aisle and began to absently trail her fingertips down the spines of the books resting on the shelf to her right. The slick feel of the covers intrigued her, and she stopped for a moment to investigate further. Instead of the heavy canvas and leather-bound volumes which littered Daniel's office, these books had glossy exteriors with bright lettering.
Pulling one out of the row to inspect it more closely, she was shocked to see a scantily clad brunette swooning in the arms of a bare-chested eyepatch-wearing hunk. The Pirate's Queen, proclaimed the cover, and when Vala flipped the book over to see if there was more to the picture, she discovered more writing on the back.
Betrothed to a widowed baron twice her age, ravishing beauty Angelique Collins is forced to leave her beloved Caribbean home for England, but her ship is attacked on the high seas! Intrigued by the spirited temptress, dashing pirate captain Blake Webb vows to make her THE PIRATE'S QUEEN.
Curiosity piqued, Vala tentatively opened the book to its approximate midpoint, and as she skimmed the text, her eyebrows made a break for her hairline. There, in the middle of the bookstore, the aforementioned Angelique and Blake were having sex. Well, they weren't actually having sex in the bookstore, but Vala was standing in the bookstore reading about it, so it felt almost as naughty.
Titillated, Vala closed the book and tucked it under her arm, then selected another from the shelf. The new book's cover was remarkably similar to the first, though it featured a redheaded female and blond-haired male sans eyepatch. Her Viking Dream proclaimed the front of the book.
Fed up with her dead-end career, Marian Wallace longed for a simpler existence away from the stresses of modern life. After accepting a gift from a mysterious fortune teller, the Boston beauty woke to find herself a captive aboard a Viking longship! Will savage warrior Olaf Ericsson win her heart or will this all turn out to be nothing more than HER VIKING DREAM?
Grinning impishly, Vala thumbed to the middle of the book, but frowned when the only action on the pages involved Marian complaining about the lack of decent moisturizers and sanitation products. Flipping a few more pages toward the end, she finally hit upon Marian and Olaf having bad sex. Well, badly-written sex anyway.
Vala jumped and turned toward Samantha, slightly embarrassed at having been caught. "Oh! Well, maybe." Waving the book in her hand at the rest of the books on the shelf, she asked, "What are these?"
Samantha flushed lightly. "Oh, those are, um, romance novels."
"Romance? As in... courting?"
"Wooing, courting, dating... They're sort of a—I don't know—a guilty pleasure, I guess."
Vala arched an eyebrow. "You read these historical accounts for fun?"
"Oh, well they aren't 'historical accounts', they're fiction, but yeah. Sort of makes up for having no life of my own, I guess," the colonel admitted, grimacing.
"Made up. None of that stuff actually happened; it all comes from the author's imagination."
Vala felt her throat seize, and she glanced down at the vivid book covers with wide eyes. "Imagination? You mean to say... these aren't real?"
Samantha took a hesitant step forward. "Vala? Are you okay?"
She nodded to show that she was fine, but to her embarrassment, her eyes began to well up with tears. Wisely concluding something was most-definitely amiss, Samantha took her by the arm and guided her over to a plush couch near a wall, vanished, then returned moments later with their shopping bags.
"Vala, what's wrong?" she asked, sitting on the couch next to her and fumbling a packet of facial tissues out of her purse. "What... I don't understand what just happened."
Blowing her nose on a proffered tissue and sniffling, Vala blinked at her friend with watery eyes. "Nothing's wrong. I just... I never... Oh dear." Taking a deep shuddery breath, she traced a finger over the edges of the books in her lap.
"When I was a little girl," she began at last, "my mother used to tell me the most wonderful stories of make-believe. As I got older and she began to teach me how to read and write, I asked her if she could write down some of her stories so that I would be able to tell them to my own—" she faltered, but steeled herself "—to my own daughter one day."
"Oh, Vala," Samantha sighed, reaching out and rubbing her shoulder.
"No, this isn't about Adria," Vala protested, shaking her head. "You see, my mother told me that she couldn't write down the stories because writing was permitted for only three things: trade, tradition, and tribute. Contracts of labor and purchase could be written, assuming either party was willing to pay a scribe. Scribes were also called upon to record historical accounts and make note of births, deaths, marriages, and the sort. Finally—and most importantly—writing was for telling others of the deeds of the gods."
She smiled wanly. "My mother told me that if she was caught with any illegal writings, her hands would be publicly smashed as a lesson to all scribes that such flights of fancy were not permitted. This... 'fiction' wasn't really even supposed to be shared orally, either, but that wasn't very enforceable in the privacy of the home."
Samantha's face was lined with empathetic understanding. "My mother used to tell me stories when I was a little girl. I stopped asking for bedtime stories not long after I learned how to read, since I preferred to read on my own until I was too sleepy to stay awake any longer."
Vala sniffled, and dabbed at her face with the tissue again. "You Tau'ri don't even realize how lucky you are sometimes. To have lived all your lives without the oppressive rule of a System Lord... to be able to read and write and share and teach..."
She cleared her throat. "After I was freed from Qetesh, I asked some of her worshippers to begin composing plays in her honor to entertain me. They weren't sure at first how to do that, but they soon became adept at making up victorious encounters and imagined triumphs, and I loved it. You see, all this time, the only writings or public performances I've encountered were more of what I was used to: histories, transactions, and praise for the Goa'uld or the Ori or whomever, and I never even realized you had these."
"This entire half of the store is all fiction books," Samantha began, gesturing at the shelves around them. "We have books for children, teens, and grown-ups. The books over here are romance novels, those are mysteries, and the ones by the wall are science fiction and fantasy." At Vala's questioning look, she clarified, "Magic and mythology or advanced technology and aliens and... oh, well, something like what we do every day."
"I thought the you-know-what was supposed to be a big special top secret thing."
"Oh, it is! I just meant... well, I'll just have to show you, sometime. I'm surprised Teal'c hasn't made you watch Star Wars yet."
Vala blinked. "Is that fiction too? 'Cause I thought it had something to do with celebrities doing battle with one another."
Samantha laughed. "No, not quite. Ask to watch it with him sometime... he'll be more than happy to since they're his favorite movies."
"I've heard of these 'movies' from Cameron. Are they also fiction?"
"Usually, yes. Daniel watches a lot of documentaries, which are nonfiction usually—it's really funny when he corrects the narrator, as though they can hear him—but Cam's what we call a 'movie buff'. He might let you borrow some from his collection, if you ask him nicely enough."
Inhaling deeply, Vala gave her eyes a final swipe with the tissue, then squeezed the sodden paper into a ball. "So which kind of book did you get for Daniel? Fiction or nonfiction?"
Realizing she'd accidentally stashed the books in one of the shopping bags, Samantha dug through their purchases until she emerged with two hard-bound books in hand. "Fiction," she declared. "These are mystery novels, or 'thrillers', as they sometimes call them. It's probably no surprise that Daniel likes his fiction with a touch of history."
Vala brightened. "So I can get him a history mystery for his birthday?"
"He'd probably like that, yeah," Samantha nodded, rearranging the shopping bags. "But why don't you get a few books for yourself?"
"Like these?" she asked, picking up The Pirate's Queen and Her Viking Dream.
"Hmm, I've never heard of either of those authors." Accepting both books, Samantha read over the back covers before flipping through a few of the pages, just as Vala had done. "This pirate one might be okay, but the Viking one is horrible. I never did like 'time-travel' plots." She looked up. "Actually, why don't I start you with some of my favorite authors? I prefer Regency and Gothic romances—they're all set about two hundred years ago—by authors like Catherine Coulter, Amanda Quick, Shannon Donnelly, Connie Mason... Even though I would never ever want to live in that time, there's still something overtly charming and romantic about that era."
"What are we waiting for?" Vala exclaimed, pushing herself to her feet.
Nearly an hour later, the two friends finally emerged from the bookseller's check-out line, laden with their original clothing and jewelry purchases plus a bag each of books. Samantha had discovered a trilogy of science fiction novels she wanted to try, while Vala had picked out a half-dozen romance novels from Samantha's approved author recommendations. Additionally, Samantha had the Dan Brown novels she'd sought for Daniel's birthday present, while Vala had elected to buy him the first three "Amelia Peabody" mysteries she'd decided on for the Egyptian motifs on their paper covers. She also had permission to borrow any of the romance novels in Samantha's carefully-hidden collection, any of the sci-fi and fantasy novels from her not-so-hidden collection, and the assurance that Daniel would most likely let her read any of his own books when he was finished with them, just as he'd always let Samantha and Teal'c borrow them.
Vala bounced out to the car feeling lighter than she had at any time since arriving on Earth. She had planned the entire shopping excursion around indulging herself in fashionable attire and dazzling accessories, but she found she was most looking forward to sprawling across her bed in her pajamas and immersing herself in imagination. Her boredom threshold had been stressed often at the SGC, but now she knew there were things to do to amuse herself which weren't likely to get her incarcerated.
These Tau'ri were amazing, and didn't even realize it. They had brightly-lit shops full of beautiful clothes, plentiful rich food and drink, people whose sole occupation was styling hair and pampering the bodies of their paying customers, and thousands of gadgets designed to make life easier. But of all the things they had, the Tau'ri also had imaginations, and the freedom to express themselves in the written word and—has she had also discovered—in song and dance and performance and any other way they chose.
Nothing so precious should ever be oppressed by the Ori or quashed by the Goa'uld. No matter what was to come, Vala vowed she would defend Earth and its population of free-thinkers to her dying breath. Even if—or rather when—the Ori threat was abated, she felt she would continue on in her vigilant defense.
Besides, she had to stick close to use her brand-new discount book club membership, now didn't she?