"Oh high is the price of parenthood,
And daughters may cost you double.
You dare not forget, as you thought you could,
That youth is a plague and a trouble."
— Phyliss McGinley, "Homework for Annabelle"
She's been gone too long, Arlos of Adora sighed to himself, staring at the box which had once contained a ceremonial necklace belonging to the planet's reigning matriarch. Lying beside the case was an elegantly penned letter which stated in excruciatingly polite detail exactly what would happen to Arlos if she didn't have her necklace back in time for the marriage of her youngest daughter next month.
"Mother", as she was generally called by her loyal subjects, was a plump little woman barely even Arlos' own diminutive height, with a sweet face and a matronly disposition. She was not, however, a woman with whom to trifle. Unless he could somehow get the necklace back from the sticky fingers of Vala Mal Doran, Arlos doubted there was any planet in the galaxy where he could be safe from Mother's wrath.
"Uncle?" came a deep voice from the doorway. "Uncle, two strangers were asking for you in the city market."
"By name?" Arlos asked, daring to hope.
"Not exactly. They said they were looking for an expert on Goa'uld technologies and heard Adora was the place to look."
He smiled to himself. "I interpret that to be a 'yes', Nephew."
The muscular man rolled his shoulders. "They await you in your... testing room."
Arlos waved dismissively. Though his sister's only son his nephew may be, he never quite understood his uncle's obsession with experimenting with the gadgets left behind by the Goa'uld Ra when he'd abandoned Adora generations ago. Few other Adorans understood either, but Mother saw at least some use in his hobby.
Cleaning heirloom jewelry, for instance.
Voices wafted through the open door of the testing room, but Arlos didn't have the best hearing at his age. It wasn't until he got closer that he heard a voice with a rather curious twang to it say, "...Forty-five minutes away from your girlfriend, you're gonna turn into a pumpkin and I'm gonna have to haul your ass back there."
Though not entirely sure what a "pumpkin" was, Arlos felt fairly confident the strangely-accented voice was making a rather veiled reference to the kor'mak and the limited period of separation it allowed before adversely affecting the wearers. Entering the room, he gave the two plainly-dressed men a cursory inspection. Similar in height, build, coloring, and handsome features, Arlos guessed them to be mercenaries or traders by their appearance. Brothers, at that, he decided. Maybe as distant as cousins.
"Gentlemen!" he exclaimed, drawing their attention.
"How can I help you?"
"Well, we require your... expertise," explained the one with a scruffy beard.
Arlos frowned inwardly as a quick glance at each man's wrists revealed no kor'mak. "Expertise?" he questioned, seating himself behind his desk. Perhaps neither of these young men was Vala's latest victim, but rather advocates for a third brother currently ensnared by the wily thief.
"Well, you are the foremost expert on alien technology on this planet," Scruffy tried again, reminding Arlos briefly of Vala's frequent innocent-eyed attempts at distracting him with pleasantries.
Of course, he'd be more charming if I weren't the only expert on alien technologies on this planet, he smiled to himself. Instead, he replied, "Foremost? Well, I don't know if I'm the foremost expert... I might be among the top five..."
Grinning, the clean-shaven one reached into his coat and drew out two recognizable objects and dropped them on the desk. "Are you familiar with these?" he asked in that curious accent of his, as he and his brother took their seats.
"Yes... yes... I actually owned a pair myself up until not too long ago," Arlos replied. So if they aren't here to find out how to remove the bracelets...
"So you know how they work?"
"Of course. The bracelets create a physiological bond between the wearers. They were used by the Goa'uld."
Scruffy suddenly looked uncomfortable. "Uh, have you ever heard of the physiological bond being sustained? Say, after the bracelets were removed?"
Oh, so that's their problem, Arlos realized. And from the look on his face, I'd say Scruffy is the lucky fellow. Nonchalantly, he suggested the possibility of a sudden surge of power causing a transfer of properties. The look of understanding shared by the brothers indicated he was on the right track.
"In the unlikely event this did happen," Accent began, "Would you be able to sever the connection?"
"I might be able to."
Scruffy suddenly looked relieved. "Great! Could you tell us?"
And miss my only remaining chance to get Mother's necklace back? He leaned forward conspiratorially, watching as the two younger men unconsciously drew closer as well. "How is she?"
"Who?" Accent asked unconvincingly, then continued to pretend he didn't know exactly whom. As Arlos rose, threatening to leave, he hastily admitted the brothers did, indeed, now "a" Vala.
"I need to see her," he told them.
"Why?" asked Scruffy suspiciously.
Jealousy or protectiveness? he wondered, curious that one of the beautiful thief's victims seemed to actually be leaping to her defense. "It's not what you think," Arlos back-pedaled. "I'm not after revenge. The truth is, the bracelets weren't the only thing she took from me. She also stole... my heart," he finished with an inward impish grin, wanting to see how far this jealousy streak extended.
Much to his surprise, Scruffy and Accent looked surprised, not upset. "Excuse me?" asked the latter of the pair with that curious speech impediment his brother didn't seem to share.
As his many nieces and nephews could attest, Arlos was nothing if not a terrific storyteller. Illustrating with his hands, he began, "I remember it as if it were yesterday..." He chortled inwardly as the brothers' expressions changed from shock to horror as the story grew more absurd.
"Okay, great, thanks!" Accent interrupted, looking more than just a little ill. "We got the picture!" Under his breath, he muttered, "Very vivid, very disturbing picture."
Scruffy closed his eyes and sighed, looking for all the world the put-upon martyr. Feeling a sudden pang of sympathy for this young man who was just as much a victim of Vala's beauty and treachery as he, Arlos wrapped up his little fabrication, asking the brothers to return with Vala in exchange for his help. Thieving liar though she was, he still cared very much for her, as she had been the daughter he'd never had. Aside from needing Mother's necklace back to spare his own life, he had to make sure she was well, at least.
He didn't have long to wait. Less than two candlemarks after their departure, the brothers returned with Vala Mal Doran in tow. Not trusting the kleptomaniac to keep her hands off of the testing room's many antiques and gadgets, Arlos' burly nephew and one of his equally-massive friends guarded the visitors while Arlos pretended to be busy elsewhere.
It was all part of the game, of course; he was listening right outside the door.
After a long moment of silence broken only by the shuffling of feet and the rustle of cloth, Vala's very distinctive tones announced, "This is a total waste of time, you know. Arlos isn't going to be able to help us... he's the one who told me they were marriage bracelets."
"Uh, yeah," Accent interrupted, "told you. A few hours ago, he told me and Jackson they create a 'physiological bond' between the wearers. Sounded to me like he knew what he was talking about."
"Oh, please, Arlos absolutely adores me. Why would he have any reason to lie to me?"
"Turnabout's fair play?" suggested Scruffy, now identified as "Jackson".
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"The liar got lied to," he continued in a slightly sing-songy tone.
"Works for me," agreed Accent.
"Yeah, me too."
"What makes you think I can't tell the truth?" Vala huffed.
"Because you can't," the brothers deadpanned in unison.
"Vala, you are the very definition of a pathological liar," Accent added.
"And while not everything you say is a lie, finding the truth in what you do say is a little like... seeking a needle in a haystack," Jackson concluded.
"Like finding a Tok'ra at a Goa'uld bragging contest?"
"Ooh, nice one, Mitchell."
"Thanks," answered Mitchell, formerly known as Accent. "Like bulls-eyeing a womp rat?"
Womp rat? Not a species with which Arlos was familiar, but he made a mental note to do a little research on it later.
"Don't let Teal'c hear you talk like that," Jackson countered. "Like finding a contact lens on Abydos."
"Tried that, I take it?"
"Yeah, didn't work so well. Glad I brought my glasses with me that time."
Very well-traveled for mercenaries, Arlos thought, and curious that they know the world of Ra's demise. Though he was beginning to have doubts about the identities of the “brothers", the short-lived banter was very... well, sibling-like.
Vala was still on the defensive, however. "I'll have you know that on some worlds, I am considered a woman of my word!"
"And which word might that be? The word you give them before you rob them blind or after?"
A noisy exhalation of air told Arlos that Vala had crossed her arms across her chest indignantly and was now refusing to speak to either of the men. Taking his cue, Arlos stepped away from the wall before turning back to and walking through the open door.
The sight of the raven-haired thief standing with folded arms almost succeeded in cracking his emotionless facade. Vala, my dear, I know you too well at times, he sighed inwardly.
It was hardly a surprise that she immediately acted timidly frightened as she hugged him and exclaimed, "I thought I'd never see you again!"
Only because you never thought you'd get caught, Arlos mentally corrected, then said flatly, "Hello, Vala."
She wasted no time in launching into her hastily-fabricated sob-story, "They overpowered me—some five, six mercenaries—one morning on my way to see you, and they demanded that I steal the bracelets... under penalty of death!"
"I don't care," he replied, seating himself in his customary chair.
She dramatically fell to her knees at his side. "Are you going to have me killed?"
"No... The memories of what we shared—and you so callously threw away—will undoubtedly haunt you until the day you die. That should be punishment enough." Not that he truly expected her to care, but Arlos, at least, would miss her. Had missed her.
"Um, yes, you're right! That should do it..." she agreed insincerely, grasping him in a quick hug.
"I'm over you," he declared, but before the wily thief could step away, he grabbed her arm. "What I am not over, however, is the theft of my Mother's necklace!" Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Jackson and Mitchell both starting slightly, glaring at Vala with equally annoyed expressions. "I want it back! Only then am I going to tell you how to sever the link connecting you."
Thankfully, Vala immediately discontinued her sulky facade, settling back to her more customary nonchalance. "Be realistic. That necklace is gone, there's no way I can get that back."
The grin she suddenly wore said otherwise. "Then our business is done," Arlos threatened, rising from his seat.
"Whoa! Hang on lover boy!" Mitchell exclaimed, walking over to them. "We'll get your Momma's necklace," he promised.
"Then we have a deal."
"There's no deal!" Vala exclaimed.
"There’s a deal!" Jackson shot back, joining Mitchell at the desk. "I am not staying linked to you for any longer than I have to, so you better help us find that necklace and find it fast."
She stubbornly crossed her arms. "And just when I thought you were beginning to like me, Daniel," she sulked.
His eyebrows rose perceptibly. "Like you? Who said anything about liking you?"
"You're trying to tell me that the way you held me at Ver Eger had nothing to do with the way you felt about me?" she pouted, twisting a finger in one of the locks of hair hanging from just behind her ears.
"W-what? I didn't—I mean I did, but—" he spluttered. "Don't change the subject!"
Mitchell waved his arm between them. "Break it up, break it up! Now... where's the necklace?"
"I sold it." At the incredulous looks she received from Arlos, Mitchell, and Jackson, she added, "A girl's gotta eat!"
"Please," Jackson scoffed. "From what little I've seen of this world so far, it's a matriarchy with a strong emphasis on the family social structure. Although there have been few concrete examples of matriarchal or matrifocal societies on Ea—back home, the ones we've encountered in the last eight years have typically been very firm about ensuring that no one went hungry, even if food was scarce."
Arlos blinked, knowing without a doubt that Jackson was no ordinary mercenary. Too observant, too intelligent, and too well-traveled by far. How he wished he'd paid more attention to the details of the conversation he'd eavesdropped upon only a few short moons ago! His curiosity was piqued now.
"Tried to feed ya 'til ya popped, did they?" Mitchell chuckled.
"Worse than a flock of Italian grandmothers," Jackson agreed. "They thought I needed 'fattening up'."
"Oh, like the way my Momma cooked for Sunday breakfast! Hell, for any meal, for that matter," he amended, his curious accent taking on a little more... well, accent. "Nothin' like good ol' Southern-style home cookin' to feed a pair of growin' boys like me and my kid brother."
"Really? You going to invite me for Thanksgiving dinner so I can find out for sure?"
Well, at least I know they aren't actually brothers, Arlos marveled, having given up on trying to follow their rapid-fire obscure references. But he was still holding out for 'cousins', at least.
Fortunately, he wasn't the only one lost in the exchange. In the two years he'd known her, Arlos had never witnessed Vala at her wit's end—she was usually the instigator, not the recipient. "All right!" she exclaimed with a small moan of exasperation. "I'll show you where I sold the stupid thing, but I can't guarantee it's still there."
"It'll be there," Mitchell sighed, turning to follow her out the door before casting a quick glance at Jackson and muttering, "I hope."
"If ever I need that 'infamous Jackson luck'..." the other man growled as he left the testing room.
Arlos sank back to his chair, a sigh of tremendous relief escaping him. For the first time since Mother's ceremonial necklace vanished from its box, he felt he had a true chance of it finally being returned to him. Most ordinary men were defenseless against Vala, yet either of these two men was clearly able to hold their own against her, and the two combined were a serious force with which to be reckoned.
And any man who can handle Vala, he decided, a small smile spreading across his face, certainly has her "father's" blessing!