"God, small towns creep me out." Three miles of trudging through the rain had done nothing to dampen Rodney McKay's volume. Every head in the diner turned.
Daniel pasted on his best we-come-in-peace smile, but Rodney was just getting started. "I keep expecting to look over my shoulder and find myself being chased by a diabolical slot machine telling me I'm on the last train to Willoughby," he announced as he folded his umbrella. He set both computer cases in a booth and made a show of stretching out his shoulder.
Hanging his own coat on the rack by the front door and running a hand through his sopping wet hair, Daniel refused to feel guilty. Rodney had claimed the umbrella, he got to carry the laptops.
"I need coffee and your dinner menu. I can't believe there are still places in the continental United States that don't have cell phone coverage. Have you people even noticed there's a twenty-first century out there? Where's the public telephone?"
"Make that two coffees, please," Daniel asked the waitress who stood watching them from behind the lunch counter with the same mixture of annoyance and interest Daniel saw on the faces of the handful of patrons. Two white-haired men in overalls at the counter, a very young family at the back booth, father and mother both looking hardly old enough to be out of high school, their toddler shredding the bun of her hamburger. At another table, three middle-aged men were smoking and drinking coffee. "Rodney,"Daniel said, "there's a pay phone there on the back wall."
"Right." Rodney stomped past the row of booths. "And could we please have a non-smoking section?"
That coaxed the first smile from the waitress. "I reckon you're already sitting in it."
"What?" Rodney turned around and looked at Daniel and the stack of computer cases only three tables down from the smokers. "Oh, wonderful. This really is the Willoughby stop."
The waitress brought two cups of coffee and packets of creamer and sugar substitute while everyone in the diner cheerfully watched Rodney scream at the employee of the rental car company luckless enough to take his call. "You fellas get caught in the storm?" the waitress asked Daniel.
"I think we must have taken a wrong turn around Gadsden when we got off I-20, and we never hooked up with US-411. Uh, are we anywhere close?"
The waitress regarded him carefully, looking a bit like she was trying not to laugh. "Just where was you aiming for?"
"Huntsville. The Marshall Space Center. Something went wrong with the car about three miles back so we had to leave it and walk into town, and believe me, we're very glad to find you open on a Sunday night. Um, do you know how far it is to Huntsville?"
"Bless your heart, sugar." She opened the plastic-covered menu for him. "I'm gonna bring you a nice slice of meatloaf -- it's fresh today -- and some mash potatoes with gravy."
"We're nowhere close, are we?" Daniel said, dropping his head into his hands. "Rodney kept saying we were lost."
The waitress patted his shoulder. "My second cousin and her family used to live in Huntsville. It's about a four hour drive, maybe a little more."
"I see." Daniel sat up and squared his shoulders. "In that case, the meatloaf sounds great."
"For your friend, too?"
"Oh, ah, no. We better let Rodney order for himself."
"Excuse me." Rodney wasn't actually shouting, but his voice carried impressively. He was holding the phone against his chest. "Is this fine principality actually graced with a name?"
No one answered. Daniel tried. "Where are we?"
The waitress sighed and shook her head. Obviously she couldn't understand why Daniel and Rodney were even allowed out on their own. Her hair was pulled back into a long blonde ponytail like a teenager, but there were deep lines around her eyes and mouth, and her hair was streaked with gray. "This is Chatsworth, hon."
"Thank you. Rodney," Daniel called back, "We're in Chatsworth."
"Oh, of course we are." Rodney turned back to the phone, and Daniel picked up his cup of coffee. It wasn't very good, but it was hot and freshly-made, and for some reason the first sip made him realize just how wet and cold and tired he really was. Another hour at least before the rental company would show up with a replacement, then four more hours to Huntsville.
No doubt about it. Gate travel had completely spoiled him. This traveling cross country like the rest of the word was hard work.
He pushed his way to his feet and walked to the back of the diner. Rodney was no longer yelling into the phone, but his precisely enunciated demands to speak to a supervisor didn't sound promising. Daniel refused to worry. Rodney was unlikely to be happy with any arrangements short of the Daedalus beaming them straight to Huntsville.
Come to think of it, that didn't sound so bad to Daniel right now either.
He found the door to the men's room between the kitchen and the back exit. A bucket with a mop standing in it propped open the back door. Outside, the rain was still coming down in sheets.
Rodney was off the phone when he came back. "Three grilled cheese sandwiches," he was telling the waitress. "No lemon."
She picked up the menu. "No lemon with your grilled cheese," she repeated, straight-faced, apparently having reached the point where nothing about Rodney and Daniel could surprise her anymore. "I'll be sure and tell the cook."
As usual, Rodney was deaf to other people's sarcasm. "Good. Thank you." He turned to Daniel. "Those bastards from the rental agency are refusing to get a replacement car out to us until tomorrow morning."
Daniel sagged. "Oh, you're kidding."
"Why, yes, I am," Rodney snarled. "Because nothing could strike me as any funnier than being stranded somewhere in the godforsaken wilds of Alabama." The table of men with cigarettes and coffee all turned around to look. Rodney was oblivious, draining his cup of coffee in one gulp. "I'm sure it's the water pump. We'll just find an auto parts store and get a ride back to our car. Take me twenty minutes to replace, tops."
"It's pouring down rain out there."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "You can hold the umbrella." With that he got up, still clutching his mug. The waitress had disappeared back into the kitchen so he leaned over the lunch counter to refill his coffee himself. Then he turned and examined the other people in the diner, honing in on the table of men. "Excuse me," he announced, no doubt endearing himself by trying to wave the cigarette smoke away. "Could any of you tell me where to find the nearest auto parts store? We need to replace the water pump in a Ford Taurus. Daniel, did you notice if it was a 2004 or a 2005?"
"Oh, no, I didn't. Sorry."
Rodney gave him a tight, why am-I-not-surprised smile and went on, "While we're there I should probably get a new belt, too, just to be on the safe side, but I'm sure I stopped before that was damaged."
The men just looked at Rodney. So did all the other customers in the diner. Daniel was trying to think of an interjection when one of the men stubbed out his cigarette butt and drawled, "Well, there's that Auto Zone up in Murfreesboro. That ought to do you."
"Yes, thank you, yes. Exactly what we need. How far away is 'Murfreesboro' ?''
The men at the table looked at each other. "You reckon it's fifteen miles?" one said at last.
"Nah, it's twenty, closer to twenty," another disagreed.
"Twenty miles." Rodney deflated a little. Then he drained his second cup and squared his shoulders. "There doesn't seem to be a phone book by the telephone. I guess it's too much to hope any of you know the number of a local cab company?"
The men at the table exchanged glances before one ventured, "You're wanting to get a taxicab?"
It was clear Rodney was restraining himself with an effort. "Why, yes. Yes, as a matter of fact I am. It seemed preferable, somehow, to walking twenty miles at night in the pouring rain!" OK, not doing such a great job of keeping his temper. Even the toddler had abandoned her hamburger and was turned around in her seat, standing against her father's arm to watch the show.
"You was wanting to go tonight?" A chuckle went around the table. "Well, friend, even if you could find a cab company closer than B' mingham, don't you know no place is gonna be open on a Sunday night?"
Rodney put his cup down on the lunch counter behind him. He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed both temples. ''No. It turns out I was not aware of that rather salient fact." A thought struck him. "There's got to be a private garage around here."
"Oh, sure." Nods all around. "Leon can get you fixed right up, sure as I'm sitting here."
"Or if he can't do it, there's Beebe's place out in Red Bank," someone else put in.
"But they ain't gonna be open tonight either," the first speaker continued. "They're at home right now having Sunday dinner with their families."
"OK, OK, I get that." Rodney was trying so hard that Daniel ached for him. "But surely one of you knows Leon or, or ... Beebe. You could give them a call at home. We just need a water pump. It wouldn't take five minutes to open up and sell it to me. Five minutes! I have money. I'm not asking for a handout."
Daniel winced. They probably would have had a better chance before the mention of money. At least Rodney didn't pull out his wallet, but the smiles around the table became tight-lipped. No one spoke.
"All right," Rodney said after a long, painful silence. "Thank you." With exaggerated dignity, he turned to get another cup of coffee, but by now the waitress had returned, and she poured for him without a word.
"Don't fret none," said one of the white-haired men at the counter. "My grandson's gonna be driving up past Red Bank in the morning. He wouldn't mind a bit dropping you all off at Beebe's on his way."
"Yes, well, that's very, very --" Rodney was visibly gritting his teeth. "But the rental car will be here in the morning. That more or less obviates the need to patronize Beebe's no doubt stellar establishment, unless I decide to start repairing fleet cars myself for the fun of it."
Rodney stomped back to the table. Daniel said, "Thank you all the same," to the white-haired man, braving Rodney's glare as he slid into the booth.
"All right, there's no need to panic," Rodney said quickly.
"I wasn't actually --"
"It'd be a lot easier to replace the pump than fix it, but since we seem to be stranded in the nineteenth century here, I'm sure I can jury-rig something to keep the car going long enough to get to Huntsville."
"Are you sure?"
"After the last few years? If I can't get a damn water pump working, I might as well give up and go home right now."
You are home, Daniel didn't say. "No, I mean, it's a three mile walk back. In the rain. You'd be working in the dark without any tools."
"Right. I appreciate the pep talk there."
"Rodney," he tried again. "You don't have to."
Rodney shook his head doggedly.
"We'll just find some place to spend the night," Daniel continued before Rodney could interrupt him. "There's no emergency here."
"I know I can fix up something for us. I simply need --"
"Rodney, that's the whole point. You don't need to. You don't have to fix anything."
Rodney just stared at Daniel. Then he put his hands over his eyes and leaned forward hard on the table. "Jesus," he muttered, his voice hardly above a whisper.
Daniel reached out a little clumsily and patted Rodney on the shoulder. Without looking up, Rodney said slowly, "I'll call Radek and tell him we won't be able to make it until tomorrow. The world won't come to an end. The galaxy is safe." He suddenly snorted. "They don't tell you about this part. Does it get easier?"
Daniel shrugged. "You're really asking the wrong person."
Rodney finally looked at him, one side of his mouth crooking. "Well, that's for damned sure."
The waitress arrived with Daniel's meatloaf. "Your grilled cheese'll be up in just a minute."
"Excuse me," Daniel stopped her. "Can you to direct us to the nearest hotel?"
"You're wanting a hotel?" she asked unhappily.
"Or we can just sleep on the sidewalk," Rodney said. "Apparently that option's still on the table."
"I didn't mean that," She corrected him sternly. "But the Motel 8's clear up in Murfreesboro. "
"Twenty miles away," Rodney said. "I know. We heard."
"Well, Arlene," said the same man at the counter who had offered his grandson's carpooling services, "What about Lida's place? I know she'd be glad for the business."
"Bless your heart, I didn't even think of Lida," she agreed happily. To Daniel and Rodney she said, "Lida Corlene took it into her head to open a bed and breakfast a few years back. I don't know as it ever did much business, but her place is right across from the courthouse. I'll show you all the way after you finish your supper here."
She seemed pleased to be able to offer more than food to such a particularly hapless pair of wayfarers. "Thank you," Daniel said. "That would be very kind."
Rodney managed to contain his response until she left. "And here I thought I'd left bedbugs behind in the last galaxy," he said, not nearly sotto voce enough.
"There's still the sidewalk, " Daniel informed him, unamused.
"Don't wait for me," Rodney said, gesturing towards the plate of meatloaf and potatoes. "I wouldn't want to hold up your dinner. Especially when you're a braver man than me." Rodney eyed the meatloaf pointedly, and Daniel wondered if Rodney was deliberately trying to get them lynched.
Then he felt guilty for trading in crude regional stereotypes, and forked up an extra large bite of the meatloaf in penance.
"Brave man," Rodney said again, just as Arlene returned with a plate of grilled cheese sandwiches
"There you go, honey. Either of you boys need catsup?"
Daniel shook his head. "No, thank you."
Rodney had already crammed half a sandwich into his mouth and didn't appear to think the question merited an answer.
Arlene wrote out their bill with a few swift scribbles, then laid it on the table between them. "Just let me know if you decide you'll be wanting some dessert," she said. "We got some real fine strawberry chiffon pie. "
"Excuse me." Daniel suddenly reached out, stopping himself before he actually touched her wrist. "I couldn't help but notice -- do you mind me asking where you -- that's a fascinating tattoo. Was it done locally?"
The smile vanished from Arlene's face. She stepped back without answering and turned on her heel. Looking up, Daniel saw everyone else in the diner was staring at him. Of course, they'd been doing that since he and Rodney had walked in, but it gave him a funny chill all the same.
"Nice going," Rodney mumbled around another mouthful of American cheese and white bread. "Even I know better than to ask strangers about their jailhouse tattoos."
"But did you see it?" Daniel whispered back.
"I see it looks like the rain's going to keep falling all night," Rodney said in loud and unconvincing tones, and Daniel subsided. Rodney was probably right. The cluster of thick scar tissue and black ink on the inside of of the woman's wrist was apparently an amateur job, and a cruel one at that. And no matter how tantalizing the suggestion of non-Western religious traditions -- it was none of Daniel's business. Really. He turned back to his dinner.
Rodney was finishing his third sandwich. "I'm going to call Radek, let him know where we are and what's going on. Maybe he'll be moved out of the goodness of his heart to drive down here and pick us up."
Rodney snorted. "Roust that lazy Czech out of his warm bed on a Sunday night? Right. Then I'd know we were in a Twilight Zone episode." He walked back to the phone, watched with cheerful interest by everyone in the diner. Daniel ate a few more bites of meatloaf and potatoes, allowed himself indulge momentarily in wistful thoughts of food that was crisp and green, and dug out his wallet.
Arlene appeared to take his twenty, smiling as though Daniel hadn't asked about the tattoo. "Was everything all right?"
''Very good, thank you."
Rodney had evidently gotten hold of Dr. Zelenka. "Yes, it was all part of my cunning plan to see rural America at the government's expense." He was taking no pains to be quiet. "Don't be an idiot. Our plane landed in Hartsfield instead of Birmingham because of the storm. We could have driven in the time we would have spent waiting for a connection." A pause. "Well, yes, obviously if the damn car hadn't broken down!"
Arlene winked at Daniel. "Some people are just born with a burr up their backsides, ain't they?"
Daniel laughed before he could help himself. "He's had a long day."
"I think you both have." Arlene brought his change, most of which Daniel left on the table.
"Is the bed and breakfast very far from here?"
"Let me show you, hon." She pushed open the front door, and she and Daniel walked out under the awning. It was still raining. The courthouse across the street gleamed white in the street lights.
"You want to cut straight across the lawn there," Arlene directed. "The house is clear on the opposite side. You can't see it from here, but you'll know it. It's got two stories with big ol' columns on the front porch. There's one of them historical markers on the sidewalk out front, and Lida Carlene has a sign in the yard, too."
"Thank you," Daniel said, leading the way back inside the diner. "I don't think even Rodney and I can get lost from here."
"You just tell Lida that Arlene sent you. She'll get you and your friend fixed up real nice."
Rodney was back at the table, finishing off another cup of coffee. "Are we ready to go yet?"
"I've got directions," Daniel said. "It's right across the square."
"Great." Rodney gathered the laptops. "Still raining?"
"Why am I not surprised? Not like this trip could get any more uncomfortable and inconvenient at this point."
When Rodney turned, the toddler from the back of the restaurant was standing right behind him. Daniel smothered a grin. The same thing had happened repeatedly during their airport layovers. Small children were apparently a lot like cats, unerringly drawn to the one person in the room who least wanted to be the object of their attention.
Except Rodney actually very fond of cats.
"What's your name?" the child demanded. She had mustard crusted on her nose.
Rodney closed his eyes as though looking for inner strength. "It's Dr. McKay."
"My name's Dakota."
"Did I ask?"
"My mom says you're a very rude man."
Daniel glanced back and saw that rather than looking embarrassed, Dakota's parents were laughing as they watched their daughter.
Rodney's expression got tight. "Yes, well, I generally extend courtesy to people who show themselves worthy of it."
"What does that mean?"
"In your case, I think it means you'd have a better chance of learning manners in foster care."
"Rodney," Daniel said nervously as the toddler reared back and socked Rodney solidly in the thigh.
"Ow! Would you mind restraining your precious hell spawn here?"
Dakota's parents were choking with laughter. The rest of the diner watched with lively interest.
"And you're a damn Yankee!" Dakota continued triumphantly.
She was cocking her fist again when Daniel knelt in front of her. "Look at this!" he said hurriedly and produced a quarter from behind her ear. It was clumsy sleight-of-hand -- Jack was the amateur magician, not Daniel -- and Dakota eyed him suspiciously.
"You had that all along!" she declared, but she snatched the coin from him anyway, and Daniel caught his breath in surprise. On the outside of her arm she had the same mark Arlene had on her wrist. It hadn't been tattooed like Arlene's -- frankly, it looked like it had been quickly drawn with an El Marko pen -- but it was the same sign, Daniel was certain.
Looking up at him shrewdly, Dakota decided she didn't like the expression on Daniel's face. Or maybe she was just afraid he might reclaim the quarter, and she ran back to her still-laughing parents.
"Vicious little monster," Rodney muttered, still rubbing the outside of his thigh. "Let's get out of here before they sic her on me again."
Daniel couldn't disagree, though he would have liked another look at the mark.
Outside Rodney struggled to get the umbrella over his head without dropping the laptops, and scowled out at the weather. "How far is it?"
Daniel pulled his raincoat around himself. The rain was coming down less violently, pattering on the sidewalk. A stoplight at the far end of the square flashed yellow, and the lights from the diner shone across the wet asphalt. "Other side of the courthouse, Arlene says. Did Dr. Zelenka have any news?"
"He grumbled about me pulling him away from the archives. Still thinks he can see markings that look like Ancient. I don't know if he's found footage that's clearer or more extensive."
Daniel nodded. "Cool. I can't wait to see it."
Rodney grunted. Daniel didn't take it personally. He knew Rodney had wanted Elizabeth to fly across the country with him to see the strange basalt plinths on the recently-unearthed original footage from Apollo 11, but apparently she hadn't shown any interest. Given Rodney's unwillingness to talk about her now, Daniel wondered privately if she had even been returning Rodney's calls.
"This sidewalk ought to take us around the courthouse." Daniel directed their steps. "I'm not eager to go tromping through the wet grass."
"Why not?" Rodney grumbled. "It'd be in keeping with the rest of this trip."
"It is amazing when you think about it. All the technology we have available -- everything we can do -- and there's only one machine left in the world that can play the footage taken on Westinghouse's lunar camera."
"And it's located in north Alabama, accessible from absolutely nowhere," Rodney finished. "Sounds about par for the course to me."
The sidewalk curved over a neatly maintained lawn and took a sharp turn at the inevitable Civil War monument. They passed the statue in silence, though Daniel ran his fingers over the raised letters on the brass placard on the base, and fleetingly thought of asking Rodney for his flashlight. In the end he let it go. He could read the commemoration in the morning.
Then he felt a funny tingling at the back of his neck and whirled back to look at the statue again.
Dammit!" he burst out. "I knew I wasn't imagining things! Arlene and Dakota really were wearing the sign of Exu. The town has a monument to him in the town square!"
"I told you that meatloaf was a bad idea," Rodney said. "Who the hell is Exu?"
"He's known in African and South American spiritual traditions. God of the crossroads, the divine trickster. Look!" The monument was all stark outlines, black against the night sky full of roiling gray storm clouds. "He has the archetypal horns on his head and the exaggerated phallus --"
"Definitely the meatloaf. I'm no archaeologist," Rodney snorted, "but even I know little towns in the Southern U.S. don't generally erect statues with big dicks to wave over the town square."
"Which doesn't change the fact that we're standing right here looking at it."
Rodney was digging in the outer pocket of one of the laptop cases, producing at length a flashlight that he trained upon the rain soaked monument. The wavering yellow light destroyed the silhouette, suddenly giving the monument weight and depth, texture and color. Marble, brass. The figure of a soldier with his rifle at his side leaning wearily atop a columnar pedestal.
"On April 30, 1863, Confederate Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest's brigade caught up with Union Col. Abel D. Streight's provisional brigade," Rodney read off the placard at the base. "They attacked the rearguard at Day's Gap on Sand Mountain, but the Federals repulsed this attack and continued --"
"All right, all right," Daniel said.
"Not a whole lot here about Exu and his supernatural penis," Rodney pointed out mercilessly.
"Just turn off your flashlight for a minute."
"Because there's nothing like shedding a little dark on a subject," Rodney snapped, but he turned off the light. Daniel blinked, waiting for his eyes to adjust, and tried to brush the rain off his face with his fingers.
But the illusion was gone, and no matter how Daniel tilted his head or squinted he couldn't recapture his original impression. The monument looked nothing like the horned, priapic sculpture Daniel had first seen. Or first imagined, he corrected himself. "You're right," he admitted. "It's a Civil War monument."
"So we can get out of the rain now?" Rodney demanded and tromped off without waiting for an answer. Daniel followed, looking back only once. A brass soldier from a century-old war stood waiting in the rain. Nothing more.
To his surprise, Rodney was waiting for him when he turned back. "The adrenaline never really wears off, does it?" he said to Daniel, his voice unexpectedly gentle.
"Not so much, no." Daniel admitted. Another burst of rain pattered noisily on Rodney's umbrella and ran under the collar of Daniel's coat. Across the street from the courthouse was a block of storefronts, so dark Daniel assumed there were no shops left in them. The next block up, though, was a large white house, set well back from the street. Lamps burned at the head of the driveway, and past the artful clusters of shrubbery and trees, Daniel glimpsed the reassuring glow of lights in the lower story windows. "That's got to be it."
Rodney nodded, stomping on a little more eagerly. The driveway was made of crushed stone, curving in a half circle from the street and back again. As Arlene had described, there was a large historical tablet erected just off the street, but Rodney didn't slow down so Daniel could read it, much less offer to produce a flashlight. The trees along the drive were enormous. There was a sweet scent as they passed beneath them. Magnolia? Daniel wondered and felt unaccountably pleased. The front porch covered the length of the house and bent around the left and right as well. A weathered clapboard sign by the front steps was lit by a single spotlight.
Bed & Breakfast
A profusion of landscape roses bloomed beneath the sign. Their white heads hung low in the rain. "This must be the place," Daniel said. Rodney shot a look at him but managed to restrain himself from commenting on Daniel's gift for stating the obvious.
Up the stairs, and Rodney pounded enthusiastically on the front door panels before Daniel found the doorbell on one of the two-story-high columns that lined the front porch.
They waited. Rodney shook his umbrella and folded it up, then eased the laptop cases off his shoulder. "You want to take one of these before I end up with permanent spinal curvature? Oh, never mind. You're soaking wet." He glared as though that were somehow Daniel's fault, then paced from one end of the porch to the other. The windows were covered with frothy confections of lace, through which glowed that reassuring yellow light.
Then the floor began to shake.
Daniel looked down at his feet on red-painted wooden floorboards of the porch and wondered if he had imagined it. When he glanced up he saw Rodney also watching the floor with a befuddled expression. OK, not his imagination. The floor trembled again, and Daniel heard the rattle of the lock in the door. He and Rodney both took a cautious step back as the door swung open.
In the foyer stood the largest woman Daniel had ever seen. About Daniel's height, she was swaddled in blankets of white flesh that muffled her neck like a scarf, her chin completely hidden in the folds. Soft gobbets hung over her wrists, and her fingers emerged like plump pink anemones. The neckline of her blue satin house dress was gathered in yards of exquisite tatting, swelling over breasts like dunes and tented to the floor over a stomach that hung past her knees. She smelled of jasmine flowers.
"I declare, you boys look about as pitiful as a pair of wet cats," she pronounced at last.
"We had car trouble," Daniel said, ashamed at himself for being surprised speechless. "Is your name Lida? The waitress at the diner sent us. She said you might be able to let us have a couple of rooms for the night."
Rodney broke in, obviously feeling Daniel wasn't making their case forcefully enough. "And given that our only other option is the Motel 6 twenty miles away, we're really hoping you don't make us sleep on the courthouse lawn tonight."
She laughed, showing white teeth as small and perfect as pearls. "Yes, I'm Lida Corlene Chatsworth, and I don't believe I could turn away Old Scratch himself on a night like tonight. Not and call myself a Christian lady. But darling, I wasn't expecting no guests tonight." She stepped back from the door, fleshy curtains shifting softly across her neck and down her exposed arms like waves in the sea. "The beds aren't made and my girl won't be in for me till tomorrow morning. I'd do it myself, but I'll be honest with you, honey. Even if I could get up the stairs, my arms aren't long enough to reach the bed these days. Now you tell me if that isn't a shame."
While Daniel was still deciding whether it was a rhetorical question, Rodney blurted, "We can make beds. It's not a problem! In fact, we'd love to."
Rodney seemed to amuse her, because she laughed again, a sweet, bubbling sound. "In that case, you come right on in," she said. "The rooms are eighty dollars a night, but I'd be glad to knock off ten since you have to make your own beds." She laughed again. "As long as you all don't go away from here telling everybody what a terrible hostess I was, I'm sure I can get you boys squared away."
"Thank you so much," Daniel said fervently, stepping into the foyer and pulling the door shut behind them. The house smelled like old plaster and furniture polish, and the walls of the foyer were painted dark red. A vast spray of artificial flowers stood on a pedestal beside the staircase to the second story. "Can you take a credit card? We probably have the cash otherwise. I really appreciate this. We both do."
"Well, I certainly would be glad of the cash if it's not too much trouble." Lida winked. "Them big credit card companies sure do take a bite out of the small business lady."
Rodney favored Daniel with a tight smile as he pulled out his wallet. "And what Uncle Sam doesn't know doesn't hurt him either, does it? That's what I always say." With the door shut behind him, Rodney apparently saw any duty of courtesy as safely over. "Or wait, that's what I would say if Uncle Sam didn't pay my salary in the first place. We'll need a receipt."
She was still laughing as she took their money, rolling the twenties without counting them and tucking them into a pocket in her house dress. "Do you have any more luggage?"
Daniel said, "Everything else is in the car, three miles back."
"Well, bless your hearts. You want to get your rooms fixed up first? You can dry off a little and then come back downstairs. I'll find your room keys and have you sign the register, and then I was going to have some hot chocolate and a cookie before bed. I'd be pleased as can be if you wanted to join me."
"That would be wonderful," Daniel said. "Probably the nicest offer we've heard all day."
"And we'll get a receipt?" Rodney demanded
"Yes, honey." Her amused smile created acres of dimples across the soft white skin of her face. "And I'll write you a receipt. Now the Davis bedroom and the Alabama bedroom are at the two ends of the upstairs hallway. My linen closet is right at the top of the stairs. You'll want to get the large-size fitted sheets because those smaller ones just won't do. I believe Rozzie stacks them on the left-hand side, but to be honest with you, I haven't looked in that hall closet in fifteen years or more. You boys just call down if you can't find something. The restroom is two doors down from the linen closet towards the Davis bedroom. There's plenty of hot water. You just need to let it run for a minute."
"The rooms don't have their own bathrooms," Rodney figured out slowly. "That's -- special." He had already started up the stairs. The upper landing was as black as the night outside. "Does the upstairs have lights?"
"I'm sorry, dear. I declare my mind must be going. There's a switch at the top of the stairs besides the one at the back of the foyer." Lida smiled again, but Daniel saw a hint of weariness in her expression. He thought it was exasperation, but then he saw she was breathing heavily as well, and he realized simply standing in the foyer talking to them must be a strain.
"I'll get the light." Daniel walked back quickly to spare her extra steps. To one side of the foyer was the dining room with a table that looked like it would seat twelve; to the other side, a sitting room with spindly-legged chairs that couldn't possibly support Lida. Underneath the stairs was a three-quarter door which Daniel supposed led to a hall closet or maybe the basement.
He found the switch, and the chandelier hanging a story above blazed into light. He followed Rodney upstairs, Lida calling after him, "Now you take your time. I won't be going to bed till nine o'clock or so."
"That late," Rodney muttered. He'd already found the linen closet and was pulling out folded sheets with the dexterity of Sam Carter rerouting goa'uld crystals. Daniel looked over the banister. Lida was making her way slowly and wearily into the dining room, and at her every step the crystals on the chandelier shook.
"There," Rodney dumped an armload of linens into his arms. The sheets smelled faintly of lavender. Then Rodney led the way down the corridor, scouting the environs like he expected an ambush. The walls were hung with old photographs in impossibly ornate frames, some landscapes, but mostly stern men and women in uncomfortable-looking clothes. Lida Corlene Chatsworth's ancestors, Daniel guessed. If the photographs were any guide, she seemed the most cheerful one of the bunch, as well as the best fed. Daniel smiled.
"And here's the fabled bathroom," Rodney announced. Daniel stuck his head in. The space was huge, a footed tub standing in the middle, the walls and floor covered with black and white tile. It was clean, but many of the tiles were cracked, and the grout showed its age, crumbling a bit and discolored. "Not that I'm complaining. We're probably lucky to have indoor plumbing at all."
"Rodney," Daniel chastened quietly and fruitlessly. It was as bad as traveling with Jack. Maybe worse. At unexpected moments, Jack would switch on that thousand-watt charm. Rodney on the other hand --
Well, in the years Daniel had known Rodney, he had largely given up waiting for the charm.
"Come on, come on, we haven't got all night."
"We don't?" Daniel asked, but he followed Rodney into the bedroom at the end of the hall. A small brass plaque on the door panels read, "Jefferson Davis Room." The walls were free of Chatsworths. Instead, a tremendous oil still life on one wall depicted a bowl of red roses dropping their petals. Photo realistic bees flew above the arrangement or crawled, sun-drunk, across the picture's polished wood tabletop.
Rodney spared the painting a glance and shuddered. "Deathly allergic to bee stings," he announced before turning his attention to stripping the four-poster bed.
Daniel put down his armload of linens and moved to the window. Peeling back layers of silk voile, then peeking out through fat metal blinds, Daniel saw past magnolias that were black in the rain a glimpse of the courthouse, watery-white as a ghost across the square.
"Some help, here?" Rodney demanded.
It came as no particular surprise that Rodney was as impatiently efficient at making a bed as he was at everything else. He snapped the sheet into hospital corners and said "Excuse me, sometime today?" to get Daniel's attention when Daniel paused to smooth his palm wonderingly over the bedclothes.
"These sheets must be fifty years old," he said in amazement. "And they're not cotton -- I'm almost certain they're really linen."
Rodney didn't actually roll his eyes, but Daniel could see the effort it took.
The bedroom at the opposite side of the house was labeled "The Alabama Room" in brass on the door. The bed was canopied, and the one wall without windows boasted an enormous, hand-tinted etching of a battle at sea.
"The steamboat Alabama sinks the gunboat Hatteras off Galveston," Daniel read aloud from the plaque at the bottom of the frame. Rodney shook the fitted sheet over the bed and then just looked at Daniel for a long moment, as if trying to explain to himself how he could have wound up in a bed-and-breakfast in the middle of Alabama with a traveling companion who actually read the signs under Civil War-era pictures.
"Dibs on the bathroom," he said at last.
Daniel didn't argue. He tucked in the sheets on the other side of the bed, stuffed the pillows into cases, and helped Rodney pull the bedspread back over the bed. Little cottony balls hung down on three sides of the spread, brushing the scuffed oak floors. "Do you care which bedroom you sleep in?"
Rodney studied the print. "Let's see. I can spend the night having nightmares about killer bees, or celebrating the slaveholders' victory in a battle at sea. Tough choice."
"Fine." Daniel said, suddenly feeling very tired. "You can have the killer bees. I'm taking this one."
For half a minute Rodney looked like he wanted to argue about it. Then he shook himself a little and walked to the door. "Are you going to go have hot cocoa and cookies with our extremely ample innkeeper?"
Daniel nodded. "It seems like it would be the polite thing to do."
Then he asked, "Bring me some cookies?"
Daniel found Lida Corlene sitting at the dining room table putting together a jigsaw puzzle of Appaloosa horses grazing on a hillside. "Well, hey there, sugar," she said, not looking up until she finished fitting in the next piece. "Did you and your friend find everything you need?"
"Oh yes," Daniel said. "I really appreciate your letting us stay without reservations. I don't know what we would have done otherwise."
"Oh, listen to you. Hush up now. I'm running an inn! You don't think I'm tickled pink to have company?"
"Well, we really do appreciate it," Daniel said again.
"There's some hot chocolate on the sideboard." Lida said. "I hope you don't mind if I ask you to help yourself."
"It's no trouble." Daniel filled an eggshell-thin cup from the silver-plated electric teapot. The scent of cocoa and almonds frothed up from the cup. "This looks wonderful."
"Get yourself one of them snickerdoodles, too," Lida directed. "My girl Rozzie makes them, and they're just not half bad."
Spotting a crystal cookie jar behind the teacups, Daniel deduced snickerdoodles must be cookies, and he helped himself to a cookie glittering with cinnamon sugar. "You don't mind if I join you?"
"Didn't I just say that, darling? You can help me with my puzzle." Piano music was playing on the stereo, which was a massive piece of furniture across the room from the sideboard and almost as large. The record hissed and popped softly, and Daniel couldn't remember the last time he'd actually listened to vinyl. He picked up a piece of puzzle -- fluffy clouds and a sliver of blue sky -- and fit it into place. Lida beamed at him. "Now see if you don't have a knack for puzzles! Not everybody does, you know."
Daniel smiled back. "I'm an archaeologist by training. So in one sense, I guess I solve puzzles for a living."
"Well, listen to that. Where were you and your friend trying to get to on a night like tonight?"
Daniel laughed. "You don't think we were on our way to Chatsworth?"
"Oh, you're a caution," Lida chided him. "Don't nobody come to Chatsworth unless they already live here, and don't take this the wrong way, honey, but you ain't from around these parts."
"Is it that obvious?" Daniel laughed again. "Well, we did sort of get lost." He fit in another piece of puzzle. Some grass and a fetlock. "We were trying to get to Huntsville."
"Huntsville?" Lida looked up from her puzzle, turning a piece over and over in her softly puffy pink fingers. "Where did you two start from?"
Daniel heard the clanking of pipes. Rodney starting his bath. "Our plane was diverted to Hartsfield, but it looked like a pretty straight shot when we Googled the map."
"Hartsfield? You mean the Atlanta airport? Honey, I don't know what kind of a map you were looking at, but there's no such thing as a straight road from Atlanta to Huntsville. You can drive up to Chattanooga and double back or you can go to Birmingham before heading north, but unless you're a crow, you can't go the way he's gonna fly."
"Yeah." Daniel slumped a little in the chair. "I think we figured that out. On the other hand," he summoned a smile, "this way we're getting to see a lot more of the countryside."
Lida cackled. "Well, that's God's honest truth. "
So the name Chatsworth," Daniel ventured. "I guess your family must have deep roots in this part of the country."
"And that's God's truth, too," Lida agreed, draining her own teacup.
"Can I get you some more?"
"Oh, my doctor would fuss at me!" Lida exclaimed. "Lida Corlene, if you can't get those lazy bones of yours out of the chair to fix it yourself, you don't need to be drinking it!"
"Well, I won't tell," Daniel said, taking her tea cup to the sideboard and filling it with milky cocoa. He brought her another cookie as well. "When did your family first come to this area?"
Lida was glad to enlighten him as she sipped her chocolate and nibbled delicately at her cookie. The Appaloosas took shape grazing across the table, and Lida bragged happily about the thousand acres of corn and cotton her family had cultivated before the Civil War, the officers who had served from her family and the battles in which they died. The war might have been barely a generation ago, not a hundred and fifty years back. The loss of the family property obviously still stung like a personal slight, even though from what Daniel could tell, everything but the house itself had been sold by the turn of the last century.
"That was when the last of the colored folks finally moved to Birmingham or Chicago to work in the mills. After the war they had stayed on as sharecroppers on the very same land where they'd been slaves. Did you know that? I'd like to hear some New York politician explain that to me."
Rather than answer, Daniel got up and turned the record over. Liberace's glittering performance spilled anew from the gold mesh-covered speakers as Daniel sat down again, trying not to think about the travails of the Jaffa, freed from slavery after incalculable generations.
He was glad Rodney had stayed upstairs.
"I noticed the statue in front of the courthouse when we walked over," Daniel said. "Do you know when it was built?"
"I'll tell you a funny story about those statues," Lida said with a smile. "The northern veterans groups sent money down here to have their own memorials built, but most times, they didn't send nobody down to keep an eye on how that money was spent. Well now, their statues went up, but you can bet not many of them were built in the middle of the courthouse lawn. To this day you'll be tromping around out in the woods deer hunting, and you're liable to come across one of them Yankee monuments, clear out in the middle of nowhere." Lida shook her head, chuckling.
"But do you know anything in particular about the monument in front of the courthouse here?" Daniel pressed. "I thought it reminded me of something very different when I first saw it in the dark."
Lida looked at him. "Different from what, honey?"
"You know, I'm not really sure. Does the name 'Exu' mean anything to you?"
"What should it mean? Are you working on a crossword puzzle? That sounds like one of the clues I never get until the whole puzzle's filled in."
Daniel smiled. "It does sound like a crossword puzzle doesn't it?" There were no marks reminiscent of Exu or anything else on Lida's ample white arms. Rodney was right. They both were. Years in the stargate program had apparently rendered them both incapable of living a normal life. "Exu is a god associated with African and Central American spiritual traditions. Anthropologists don't know exactly when--"
"Oh, no, sir." Lida stopped him "I don't mean to interrupt a guest, but I don't hold with studying false idols in a Christian household. I'm sorry, but no, sir."
"So you've never --" Daniel stopped himself. "I apologize. I didn't mean to offend you. Rodney and I both tend to get a little too wrapped up in our jobs, I think."
Lida smiled with obvious relief at Daniel's willingness to drop the subject. "Of course, my pastor would tell me that the way I eat fried chicken is worship of a false idol too," she said. "And I'm not so sure he's wrong about that. No, hon, don't you dare bring me another snickerdoodle. Do you believe your friend's going to come down for some hot chocolate?" From upstairs, Daniel could hear the sound of the bathwater draining.
"I think Rodney was probably going to get some work done tonight," Daniel said, trying to excuse him. "He's very busy."
"And don't he make sure everybody knows it, too," Lida said with a wry smile, but there was no malice in it. "Well, you take him some snickerdoodles when you go upstairs. I bet he ain't too busy for a cookie."
"Thank you. I'm sure he'll appreciate that." He saw Lida trying to cover a yawn and got to his feet. "You know, I think I'll go upstairs, too."
"You have a good night's sleep," Lida told him, sounding grateful. "In the morning my Rozzie will fix you a big ol' plate of eggs and country ham and some buttermilk biscuits, and maybe by the time you leave here, you'll have something nice to say about Chatsworth, Alabama."
"I already have nice things to say." Daniel assured her. "It's been a very pleasant evening."
"You're an angel-love," Lida said, and oversaw his wrapping a pair of cookies in a cloth napkin for Rodney before he started upstairs.
He heard Lida's ponderous footsteps crossing the floor as he reached the landing. After another minute the florid music was mercifully switched off. Daniel made his way to the Alabama room. Rodney's door was shut.
"Hang on a minute!" Rodney yelled. Then, "All right, all right, what is it?"
Daniel pushed the door open. "I brought you some cookies. They're good." Rodney was in bed with his laptop beside him, the sheet pulled up to his chin, and his clothes hung up to dry from the canopy of his bed. He took the napkin-wrapped cookies from Daniel without loosening his left handed grip on the bedclothes. "Only two? "
"Sorry," Daniel said, though he wasn't very. "Lida promised us ham and eggs for breakfast."
Rodney sniffed cautiously at one cookie and then took a very tiny bite. "Did you get the receipt for our rooms?" he asked
"Oh, no, I didn't. Lida was working a jigsaw puzzle and neither one of us even thought about it."
Rodney sighed heavily, and Daniel said, "We'll just get it in the morning. It's no big deal."
"Uh huh," Rodney said skeptically. "I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for that big breakfast either."
Daniel left Rodney still nibbling cautiously on his first cookie. The chandelier over the landing had been turned off, but shafts of yellow light spilled from the open bathroom door and his own room. Daniel made his way to the bathroom and shut the door behind himself, tired and a little queasy from all the hot chocolate and cookies. He was planning to take a quick shower, but the tremendous, footed tub was tempting, and he ended up running a bath for himself instead, dumping in a handful of bath salts whose packaging promised they were from the Dead Sea itself and assured the Savior's blessing on his bath.
Daniel sank blissfully into the hot water and drifted until he was on the verge of falling asleep. He climbed out, feeling lazy and peaceful, thinking this really was a more pleasant evening than he and Rodney would have spent in the researchers' apartments in Huntsville. He turned off the bathroom light and made his way down the dark hallway with a towel wrapped around his hips and his still-damp clothes in his arms. When he closed his bedroom door behind himself and turned the latch, he remembered belatedly that he hadn't gotten the room keys from Lida either.
Somehow he couldn't find it in himself to worry too much about that, but years of traveling with Jack meant certain habits were hard to break. He pulled one of the side chairs over and propped it under the doorknob before crawling into bed. The linens felt heavenly soft against his skin, and he fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.
Daniel awoke to the unmistakable sound of Lida's footsteps in the upstairs hallway. He sat up muzzily, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and fumbling for the bedside lamp. Hadn't Lida said she didn't come upstairs anymore? Frankly, he was surprised she could make it up the steps at all. He was about to call out and ask if something was wrong, when he heard a key turning in the lock. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck.
He reached down to the end of the bed, looking for the clothes he'd left to dry, when the door was flung open. The chair Daniel had propped under the knob splintered, and Lida Corlene Chatsworth filled the doorway. She cradled a sawed-off shotgun in her arms.
Daniel didn't think. He screamed, "Rodney, get out of here!" as she leveled the gun at him. She couldn't shoot both of them at once.
"Your friend can't hear you, sugar," She sounded genuinely sorry, but the gun didn't waiver. "I just smothered him in his sleep."
Her eyes flashed goa'uld-yellow in the gloom.
"You're Exu," Daniel said in a dull voice, horror thudding violently between his temples.
Lida took another step into the room, reaching her arm out to turn on the overhead light. Daniel blinked away the spots in his eyes. "The Jaffa who carried my larval form worshiped that god by another name." A faint basso profundo rumbled under Lida's voice. "But in New Orleans he was known as Exu."
Daniel turned back the covers and reached for his jeans at the foot of the bed. Maybe this was all a really bad dream. That adrenaline surge he and Rodney couldn't shake. "How did you get to New Orleans in the first place? Oh, wait." He pulled on his pants as he worked out the puzzle of the goa'uld's existence. Modesty was pointless in nightmares. "Your Jaffa must have been kidnapped by slavers and brought to this country. And when you matured and took a host, you assumed the identity of a known god. You became Exu."
He kept watching the end of the shotgun. The short barrel meant she didn't have accuracy, but at this range she wouldn't need much. He was not thinking about Rodney at all, because Rodney was fine; he had to be.
Besides, Daniel couldn't afford the distraction of grief. That was something else he'd learned from Jack. "And ever since then you've been punishing these people for the suffering of your Jaffa host. Generations now."
Lida blinked at him. "Sugar, we've stayed here all this time because Southerners understand slavery. Don't you know there ain't no Tauri more willing to be enslaved than a Tauri slaveholder himself? Near on two hundred and fifty years now."
Daniel shook his head slowly. "You're lying to yourself. No one here really understands what you are." If he dropped to the floor, he thought he could probably roll under the bed before Lida fired. Then she would have to get to her knees to shoot at him. The goa'uld she carried meant she was far stronger than Daniel had supposed, but she would still be awkward, kneeling.
Far too awkward to have crept up on Rodney and smothered him as he slept. Surely.
He cut that thought off ruthlessly.
"You're the one who doesn't understand," Lida said gently. "As long as Jesus gets their souls, these folks are willing to let Exu have their bodies. It's been that way for a long, long time, and you ain't gonna change it. Get up now. We're going downstairs and have a talk about this."
"Why should I? You're going to kill me anyway."
"You seem like a nice fellow, so I'd rather we make this neat and quick, but we don't have to."
"No," Daniel said. "You don't have anything else to threaten me with."
"I was planning on eating fried chicken for a few more years in this body, but honey, listen to me, I could let her go now if you want to force the issue. Sure be a shame, though. Lida truly does enjoy those platters of fried hearts and livers."
Daniel understood the threat. Exu would leave Lida Corlene's body and take his own in turn.
"How long do you think you could get away with that? I have friends who will wonder why I suddenly decided to settle down in Chatsworth, Alabama. Friends who know what the goa'uld are."
Lida didn't blink. "I know you do. That's why need to have that little chat."
In the end, he allowed Lida to herd him out into the hallway. The door to Rodney's bedroom was standing open and the light was on. Daniel felt the wrench in his chest like a blow, and for a moment his vision blurred. "This was so stupid," he said bitterly. "We didn't know what you were. We would have driven off in the morning and no one ever would have known."
Lida clucked at him. "And you seemed so much more polite than most of the Yankees that come through here," she said regretfully. "But you're really not so different, are you?"
"I'm sorry if my manners don't measure up." Feeling half-mad with grief, Daniel wondered if he were about to laugh out loud. "But you're the one who just murdered my friend." He was at the head of the stairs now, eyes still on the twin barrels of Lida's shotgun.
"You think just because we talk with a little bit of a drawl we must be stupid, too?" Lida said. "You think we don't know you've been looking for us ever since you found the chappa'ai?"
"The what?" Daniel said. Unconvincingly, he was sadly certain. Obfuscation wasn't really one of his talents. It was no surprise that Lida was aware of the Stargate. Ever since Hathor had made her way to Cheyenne Mountain, it had been clear the goa'uld had a biological connection.
"Oh, sugar, don't waste my time now. For seventy-five years this town has taken care of everybody who came here looking for Exu. None of them so-called rocket scientists has ever left, and you're not going to, either. At least we'll make it quick. Just head on down the stairs, now."
Daniel stared at her, numb with astonishment. Every scientist on his way to the Marshall Space Center who had the misfortune to pull off at Chatsworth? It almost defied belief. "You really are stupid," Daniel said numbly. "No one ever would have known you were here."
Lida's eyes flashed. "Is that any way to talk to someone after you've eaten their snickerdoodles and drunk their hot chocolate?"
"Probably not," Daniel agreed and began to run, his head down, taking the stairs three at a time. He flinched when Lida cocked the gun but didn't stop. In the dim lighting with just a little distance he ought to be able to--
The shot was a thunder clap, so loud the sheer percussion knocked Daniel off his feet. He slammed shoulder-first into the railing and rolled the rest of the way down the stairs. At the bottom he scrambled to his knees hoping like hell he hadn't broken anything, his shoulders crawling in anticipation of another shot. Groaning, he fought to get his feet under himself, but he was slogging through mud, every movement exaggerated and slow. Christ, he had to get moving before Lida Corlene Chatsworth blew his head off right here in the foyer, but the faster he tried to go, the more his body seemed determined to betray him. When he finally straightened his knees, he keeled over like a tree going down.
"Now why did you have to go and do that?" Lida asked mournfully. The stairs shuddered under her steps. Daniel tried to pull his knees up, but his arms shook and gave way, and he sprawled across the carpet, gasping in pain. Something wet was running under the waistband of his jeans.
Lida walked past him without bothering to stop until she flipped on the second story chandelier. Then she walked back to Daniel, stuck out her foot, and rolled him onto his back. Daniel tried to reach her, thinking he could shove her off balance, but his arms refused to obey him.
"You got nobody to blame but yourself," she said in the tone of an exasperated mother. "So there's no use complaining to us." She disappeared into the dining room. Trying once again to get up, Daniel finally realized his torso was covered in blood. That didn't make any sense. Moving very slowly, he put his hand over his ribs and flinched when he touched flesh as raw as hamburger meat.
"Oh," he thought, ideas coming slow and stupid. Lida really had pumped him full of buckshot.
That meant he was probably about to die.
"I'm sorry, Jack,'' he said quietly, but Lida overheard him anyway.
"Who's Jack?" she asked. Daniel rolled his eyes upward. Lida had pulled one of the sturdy dining room chairs out into the foyer and had taken a seat, elbows planted on her broad, broad knees, straining the flannel of her nightgown. The vertical stripes of the cheerful Tyrolean print heaved and wound down her softly bulging form like the lines on a topographical map. "Is he one of the people who sent you here to look for us?"
Daniel took his time deciding how to answer that. After all, there was no hurry now. Lida didn't share his patience. Drawing back her foot, she kicked his bloodied ribs. "Who's Jack?"
It was a curious thing Daniel supposed, that he was aware of the echoes bouncing back from the cavernous space of the foyer before he heard his screams themselves, and long before he felt the strain in his larynx. He writhed on his back, knees bent, every loop on the carpet emblazoning a mark across his shoulder blades.
"Honey." Lida bent forward over him, her white face between the chandelier and Daniel's line of vision like a total eclipse of the sun. "Jack?"
"You don't have any idea what's going on out in the galaxy, do you?" Daniel said thickly. "The goa'uld have fallen. The Jaffa are free."
A silence. "Well, that explains why no one's come looking for us to pay tribute," Lida said thoughtfully. "I always figured Exu died in the Belgian Congo, since the only creature more arrogant than a goa'uld lord is a human being born on Earth. Is it any wonder? They haven't known the hand of god in thousands of years. " She let her tremendous, slippered foot rest on Daniel's bloody stomach. "When will Jack get here?"
"Soon," Daniel gasped. "General Jack O'Neill, and he'll be here soon. Aw, god--" Daniel broke off, groaning, as Lida increased the pressure. "He's killed more system lords than you probably know the names of. One baby goa'uld hiding out in an Alabama backwater won't even slow him down." Daniel didn't have breath for a scream this time. His vision turned dark and bloody and anything Lida might have said was lost in the roaring in his ears.
Then Lida released him. Daniel curled slowly onto his side and back again. He recognized the fuzzy thinking and light-headedness of shock, and was dimly grateful for the way it dulled the pain. When his vision cleared, Lida was making her way slowly up the stairs, stopping every few steps to cock her head to the side.
Rodney, Daniel thought. He'd known he couldn't really be gone. He struggled to get his elbows under himself with a vague idea of trying to help, but his world went watercolor red. The next thing he knew was a hand pressing down over his mouth. His eyes flew open.
Rodney was crouched over Daniel with a thunderous expression on his face. He shook his head furiously down at Daniel as Daniel's eyes slowly focused.
Daniel blinked, trying to convey that he understood the need for silence, but Rodney wasn't taking anything for granted. When he lifted his hand away, it was only so he could jam one of Lida's rolled cloth napkins between Daniel's teeth. On the verge of choking, Daniel reflexively tried to spit it out, but Rodney seized Daniel's head with both hands. Daniel grabbed at Rodney's forearms, but he left the makeshift gag alone. A moment later, Rodney pulled him to sit upright, and Daniel bit down in agony.
Still silent, Rodney quickly bundled a length of something white around Daniel's chest and ribs, bracing him against his shoulder so he wouldn't collapse. When he finished, he hauled Daniel to his feet.
Daniel grunted, biting down hard on the cloth between his teeth. He hadn't known Rodney was so strong. Or understood pain so well.
He locked his knees and concentrated on remaining conscious as Rodney wrapped both arms around his chest from the back, and began backing them both deeper into the house.
What was Rodney thinking? The front door was right there. Daniel dug his heels in, just wanting half a second to figure out what Rodney was doing, but Rodney squeezed his ribs so tight that Daniel groaned softly around the gag, and let Rodney pull him back through the foyer.
His heels bumped over a rough wooden lintel. Daniel looked up. Rodney was pulling him through the little door under the stairs. Daniel smelled mildew and rainwater and dirt. They must be at the head of the steps leading down to the basement.
Rodney's lips touched his ear, and he breathed, "Can you stand up by yourself?"
Daniel thought about it for about half a second and then shook his head.
Rodney clucked in irritation, then lowered Daniel to sit on the top stair. Kneeling beside Daniel, he unwrapped the bulky bandage he had tied around his ribs barely thirty seconds previously. The blood had hardly begun to clot, but the touch of anything against his torn side made him groan into the gag. Then without explanation, Rodney left him.
Leaning back carefully, Daniel watched his progress through the open basement door. Rodney ran silently to the end of the foyer, bent down and smeared the blood-soaked bandage before the front door. His eyes flickered up to the second floor landing. Visibly steeling himself then, he examined the front door, and after a moment of fiddling with the lock he threw the door open wide and flung the bloody cloth -- one of Lida's tablecloths? -- across the porch.
Then he flew back to Daniel and eased the basement door shut behind himself, leaving them in total darkness, save for a faint white limn around the door. Rodney touched Daniel's shoulder as he sat down beside him on the narrow step. He whispered something too quiet for Daniel to understand, and proceeded to wrap Daniel's torso again. This time the bandage was far less bulky. Daniel thought Rodney might be using his own T-shirt.
"Up we go," Rodney whispered and hauled Daniel once more to his feet. This time Daniel couldn't fight the vertigo. The darkness seemed to be closing around him like a smothering blanket. When he came to, his head was lolling on Rodney's shoulder, and Rodney was holding him so tightly he could hardly breathe. He raised his head so Rodney would know he was conscious, and the gag spilled wetly from his mouth.
"Oh, that's disgusting," Rodney muttered, not quite silently, but he didn't let Daniel go. Daniel stirred, trying to loosen his hold a little, and Rodney whispered, "Wait."
Daniel stilled. Seconds ticked by. Rodney was breathing heavily in long, controlled breaths, as if he were trying to calm himself. He probably was, Daniel thought. This whole thing was insane, straight out of those Saturday night Scifi Channel movies Teal'c liked so much.
Then he felt the walls shaking. He heard the pressure above his head, all around him. Lida Corlene, making her way back down the stairs.
All right," Rodney whispered "Here we go," He turned Daniel, releasing one arm and keeping the other tucked hard under Daniel's shoulders. Daniel understood. Rodney was using the ponderous rumble of Lida's descent to cover their own less-than-silent progress down the basement stairs. Every step was so agonizing Daniel wished he still had the gag. Something was tugging sickeningly in his lower belly, and his hip felt as though it were grinding through glass. He bit his own lip to stifle his moans.
Still, he and Rodney made it to the basement floor while Lida was still shaking the stairs above their head. Rodney didn't risk speaking. Once again, he wrapped his arms around Daniel's chest from behind and supporting him most of the way, dragging him when Daniel's legs failed, he pulled him to a wall, then turned both of them and kept going. Down here the darkness was complete. Daniel tentatively reached out his fingers and touched bricks and mortar. Overhead, Lida's footsteps stopped, then started again.
Rodney bumped into something that made him grunt softly and change direction. Daniel's inquiring fingers touched the splintering wood of a door frame. It struck him that the cellar under a house this large must be of a corresponding size. He became aware of the rough floor scraping the backs of his heels. Probably brick as well. Plenty of room to hide the bodies.
A shudder went down his spine. Nausea, shock. "OK, OK," Rodney was muttering in his ear. "We can wait it out here." He backed Daniel against a wall and lowered him to the floor. The darkness pressed very close to Daniel again, as coarse as burlap over his face and so help him, he was never going to be able to read a phrase like "velvety darkness" again. He dreamed briefly and vividly of morning on Abydos, and awoke with a pain in his heart almost as sharp as the one in his side.
Rodney's shoulder was pressed against Daniel's. He didn't have a shirt, and Daniel could feel him shivering. "What do you mean, 'wait it out here'?" Daniel asked.
"Do you think I'd just be sitting here in the basement of the Bates Motel if no one knew we were here? Help's on the way. "
Daniel wasn't following any of this. "Lida said she killed you."
"I'm sure she intended to. By the way, this is all your fault for offering cash for the rooms. Don't you know about hotel keepers in these little backwaters? Murdering travelers for their money and laptops. It probably happens all the time." He managed to keep his voice to a fierce whisper even as he got angrier and angrier. "I'd come downstairs looking for another cookie when she came out of her bedroom and started sneaking up the stairs. With that shotgun under her arm I didn't think she was bringing a damned mint for my pillow, so I called Radek from the downstairs phone."
"Christ, I can't believe you got yourself shot. Sam will so blame me for this. You couldn't have thought of that before you decided to play hero?"
Daniel grabbed weakly at Rodney's forearm. "You think Dr. Zelenka has called the local Chatsworth police?"
"He better! It's not like we have infinite time to sit around here while you inconsiderately bleed to death."
"We have to get out of here." Daniel clawed at the wall behind himself. "Help me up."
"Excuse me, how about no!" Rodney whispered back furiously. "I was able to climb out a basement window and throw rocks at the side of the house to get that monster away from you. You, however, are not going to be climbing out any windows any time soon."
"You don't understand."
"Oh, god, you're as bad as Sheppard. What part of bullet in your side do you not understand?"
"Dammit, Rodney, she's a goa'uld!"
That finally derailed Rodney, at least for a moment. "Wait. What?"
"Lida carries a goa'uld that has been taking hosts from this region since the late 1700s. The entire town has been corrupted for generations. We can't trust the local police."
Another silence. Then Rodney commented, "Well, fuck," as a siren rose in the distance.
Daniel said nothing, panting shallowly and trying to control the pain.
"We can't stay here," Rodney decided. "The police we will figure out we're in the basement in zero time flat. How bad off are you really?"
As if Rodney suspected him of malingering, Daniel thought, slightly hysterical. He considered his answer carefully, but the best he could come up with was, "Not good."
"Because you got yourself shot," Rodney huffed. "Idiot. Well, we passed that block of boarded-over storefronts across from the courthouse. I think we stand a better chance there than we do staying down here if you can make it that far."
Daniel understood the necessity of moving, but he wasn't entirely sure he would even be able to stand up. "I'll try," he said.
"Not what I asked," Rodney grumbled as he got to his feet. "Do you need more time?"
"No." They didn't have more time.
"Let's go then." Rodney shifted, squatting slightly to hook his hands under Daniel's arms. With a groan, he hauled Daniel to his feet. Daniel helped as much as he could, but as he straightened his knees he felt the sickening tug in his gut again, and his face flushed hot with nausea.
"Christ, don't fall over," Rodney muttered. He moved his hands up, shoving Daniel's shoulders against the brick wall and bracing Daniel upright with his body. "Let me know when you're ready to move. Not like we're in a hurry here or anything."
Daniel snorted at that. It hurt, and he laid his forehead on Rodney's shoulder and counted his own breaths. "I'm ready."
Rodney grunted and together they felt their way along the brick wall. He was forcing Daniel to stand on his own, not supporting the bulk of his weight like he had before, and Daniel could do this. He had to.
"This is the window I climbed through," Rodney said. Daniel could see almost nothing in the dark basement, but stretching his hand, he felt a cool draft of air before he touched glass. "It swings inward like this." Rodney seemed to be talking to himself as much as to Daniel. "Obviously, I couldn't lock it back after the last time -- ah. There it goes." Daniel felt the whoosh of moving air inches from his nose.
"Here's the sill," Rodney said, guiding Daniel's hands to a ridged ledge at chest height. "Can you get over that?"
Daniel braced his arms. All that time working out with Teal'c ought to be worth something. Taking a deep breath, he let it go slowly, and then heaved himself through.
For long, unspeakable moments, he felt as though he'd been cut in half. His head dropped. Twigs and dirt were wet under his face, and Rodney was swearing softly and constantly behind him. "Christ, what an idiot. Could you have given me a little warning? Do you know what Sam will do to me if you get yourself killed?"
As he mumbled and cursed, he wrapped his arms around Daniel's hips, then lifted and pushed Daniel the rest of the way over the window sill. Daniel scrabbled weakly at the dirt, trying to crawl. Rodney shoved his legs forward, not gently, and pulled himself out behind him.
Daniel curled up slowly. The fire in his side numbed to a pressure like an anvil wedged under his rib cage. He would have given every cup of coffee he was fated to drink in this lifetime for a soft bed and a morphine drip right about now. The siren was closer and the rain was still coming down in sheets.
"We can stay under the trees until we get to the cross street," Rodney planned. "Then we'll come up the alley behind. If I can't break into one of those empty storefronts from there, we might as well lie down and die right here."
With his eyes closed, Daniel could see Lida's puzzle of Appaloosas grazing across a hillside that stretched greenly to distant mountains. The top of Pikes Peak was hidden in the clouds.
"That's just a figure of speech.'' Rodney's aggravated voice broke through his half- dream. "We're not actually going to die, because how stupid would that be? Answer me, dammit. Places to go, people to avoid seeing. Daniel?"
"I'm OK," Daniel whispered.
"Oh, Jesus, of course you are," Rodney moaned. Daniel felt warmth above him and realized after a confused moment that Rodney was resting his head carefully and gently on Daniel's shoulder. "Can you get up now? Because really, no choice anymore."
"Right." He let Rodney pull his arm over his shoulder, and once again, Rodney got him to his feet. I'm not sure I can keep doing this, Daniel thought. The brick and clapboard of the foundation and side porch were at his back. Every light in the house was on, and the yellow glow through the windows seemed to smear in the rain.
"One step at a time," Rodney muttered. His arm was like an iron bar across Daniel's back, his fingers where they curled around the torn flesh of his ribs like talons, even over the crude bandage. "One step at a time. Daniel, I'm going to hate you for the rest of my life for getting me into this. Just letting you know. One goddammed step at a time. Come on."
Daniel's feet dragged and stumbled over dirt, then grass as they left the shadow of the house. Then the gravel of the driveway. Daniel lifted his head, nervous about their exposure. "No time for sightseeing," Rodney snapped.
More steps, each molded by Rodney's grumbling and coaxing, and finally they were in the shadow of the magnolias. Daniel didn't remember the grounds around Lida's house being more than a couple of acres, but the distance he and Rodney traveled now seemed endless. They'll never find us here, Daniel thought wearily. Miles of forest. They could lie down and sleep. Just for a little while.
"All right, hold on a second," Rodney said. "No, Christ, don't sit down." Daniel realized he'd been walking with his eyes closed, and he blinked them open. They were at the sidewalk. On the other side of the street stood the dark block of empty storefronts. A lone streetlight threw an amber halo against the storm clouds, and the sound of the siren was very close now.
Really, really close. The brick buildings were being washed in the regular rhythm of flashing blue.
"Behind us in Lida's driveway," Rodney said impatiently, as if Daniel had spoken out loud. Maybe he had. "I can't figure out what they're doing. Do they know we're here and are just torturing us now?"
Daniel turned his head to see and nearly passed out from the wave of vertigo. Rodney swore at him quietly, but kept him from falling. Sure enough, a police car was sitting in front of the Chatsworth bed-and-breakfast sign, just visible through the trees. "More than two hundred years now," Daniel speculated, his voice a thick whisper. "Think about it. God's been living right here in town with them. Probably hasn't been much call for actual police work."
"I hope you're right about that." Rodney straightened his shoulders and adjusted his arm across Daniel's back. Daniel moaned, and Rodney said, "Just act casual."
Laughter would have been too much work. Even Daniel's smile exhausted him as they stepped out into the street. He kept expecting the whine of the police siren to splash up behind them, but then Rodney was pulling him over the curb on the opposite side. The blue light from the police car still spilled across bricks painted with the crumbling remains of an admonition to drink Royal Crown Cola.
Around the corner, through knee-high weeds. The pavement was broken and heaved in waves underfoot. Rodney stumbled, grabbed at Daniel to keep from falling, then clapped a sweaty palm over Daniel's mouth to muffle Daniel's groan of agony. "Sorry, sorry," Rodney muttered. "Not my fault." Then after endless moments of picking their way through the trash and weeds at the back of the building, Rodney finally said, "I think I can get through here. If I let you sit down for a minute, will you be able to get up again?"
"Probably not," Daniel confessed.
"Damn. All right. Stand right here and don't fall over." He braced Daniel against the wet brick wall and slowly released him. "Are you good? OK, stupid question."
"I'm good," Daniel said.
"And I have a PhD in archeology," Rodney snorted. "Just let me know if you start to go down."
Daniel nodded pointlessly in the dark. Rodney knelt and began working at a panel of some kind that was set into the brick.
The rain wasn't coming down as hard. That, or maybe there was some shelter in the lee of the building. Daniel realized he was shivering convulsively, and he couldn't feel his feet anymore. Which was probably just as well, given the state they must be in after traveling this distance barefoot.
Rodney hadn't stopped talking to himself the entire time, although Daniel couldn't understand a word he was saying until he gave a wearily triumphant, "About time," and Daniel heard the creak of rusted hinges.
Rodney stood up beside him. "Coal chute. I'll go through first and help you down. Is that going to work for you? What am I saying? It has to work. Here. You'll need to get down without passing out first. Please don't pass out."
With some awkward scrambling, Rodney helped Daniel to his knees. "All right, I can't see how far the drop is. Probably end up with a broken leg." He wiggled through feet first. Daniel heard a muffled, "Oh, crap," and then, "OK, OK, it's not too bad. Come on."
Too tired and hurting to do anything but trust at this point, Daniel immediately swung his legs through. "It's not a race," Rodney complained. "Well right, actually it is." He wrapped his arms around Daniel's hips and helped steady his descent to an uneven floor. "Watch it. Don't blow it when we're doing so good here. And by good, I mean we're not dead yet. Can you stand by yourself for a minute while I get this panel shut behind us?"
"I don't know," Daniel admitted. "Probably not."
"Shit. OK. Lean on this." Rodney shifted Daniel until he was propped against something massive, cold and metallic, flaked with rust. The skin on Daniel's back crawled. "OK, " Rodney muttered. He braced his shoulder against Daniel from the other side, and scrabbled at wood and brick, grunting with effort. He was pushing too hard against Daniel as he struggled, and Daniel put the side of his hand in his mouth to hold back the scream.
At long last Daniel heard the clunk of wood against wood. "All right, I hope that's got it." The pressure against Daniel's back and side finally eased, and the darkness of the basement was overlaid with a frothing spill of red. "Oh, damn," Rodney exclaimed from a very long distance away. "Don't faint now."
"No, I won't," Daniel muttered. He pulled away from Rodney's overly-tight grasp, fell to his knees and vomited. He could hear Rodney swearing at him and crying.
When Daniel woke, his head was pillowed on something solid and warm. His back was covered with a tarp that reeked of machine oil, and Rodney was talking in an aggrieved whisper. "This is the final straw. I'm never leaving Area 51 again. Sheppard's been threatening to drive me across Texas, and I say to hell with that. I've seen enough of the American South to last a lifetime."
Daniel's head was on Rodney's thigh, and Rodney was softly petting his hair as he complained.
"You haven't really toured the South," Daniel said. His voice came out a hoarse croak. "Mostly all we've seen so far are the basements."
"Oh, my god, you asshole!" Rodney exclaimed. ''I thought you were dead!" He stopped petting Daniel's head, but only so he could put his hand on his face. Then he fumbled, still with that surprising gentleness, for the pulse in Daniel's throat. "I had no idea if you were ever going to wake up. Jesus." After a moment, he went back to stroking Daniel's hair, and Daniel wondered if he were even aware of what he was doing. "I don't know if you've noticed, but we're in trouble here. I've got to get to a phone and let someone know what the situation really is."
Daniel nodded weakly against Rodney's thigh. Rodney didn't sound like he was really looking for input right now anyway. "While you were napping I found the phone line to this building. Service is out to the whole goddammed block."
That was too bad, but no surprise.
"So what I want to do is see if I can break into the courthouse. What am I saying? That's the last thing I want to do, but if you're right about goa'ulds and law enforcement, security shouldn't be much of a concern."
It made sense.
"There's just one problem. No, there's lots of problems, but this is one of them. You're a sitting duck right now. If they find you while I'm trying to get to a telephone, you won't be able to get away. Hey. I guess we know why there's no cell phone coverage in this town now, don't we?"
Rodney's hand stilled on Daniel's head. "Anyway, if they -- if anything -- Daniel, you can't tell them about me. No matter what they do to you. I know, I know, SG-1, you laugh in the face of torture, but the only reason they would keep you alive is so they can find me, and once they do, we're both dead. I didn't want to leave before you -- I'm not just scared for my own neck, by the way. Well, actually I am and with good reason, but--"
Daniel reached up, grasped Rodney's hand and pushed it away. "Go. I'll wait for you."
"Right. Right. I'll, uh. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Rodney made sure Daniel was wrapped in the stinking length of tarpaulin before he left him, but once Rodney was gone, Daniel felt the cold seeping into his bones just the same. He pulled his knees up to his chest momentarily, but the pain in his side forced him to straighten his legs again. Outside, the storm seemed to have picked up. He could hear the patter of rain and in the distance, thunder rumbling in a bleak monotone. The whine of the police car siren rose and fell with the wind.
The first thing Daniel realized when he next awoke was he couldn't hear the siren any more. He raised his head cautiously, but otherwise didn't try to move. He felt as though his ribs were made of glass or ice. One incautious movement and he would shatter into a thousand pieces. Blinking, he made out shapes in the darkness. Crates, wooden flats. Shelving. Light was coming from somewhere. Soft and muzzy as dawn. Not a flashlight or electric lights. Just enough to show brick and plaster walls, and oh hell, it really was morning.
Hours seemed to pass while he tried to decide whether he should move or not. The rain had stopped and Daniel heard indistinct voices, their rumble coming through the walls like remembered thunder. Eventually, Daniel made it to his hands and knees, crawling over poured cement, then warped wooden floorboards, following the light. He pulled himself over a rusty iron threshold and found himself in a space filled with the echo of water dripping on metal. A gray morning spilled thickly through a sidewalk grate directly overhead.
Daniel hunched closer, careful to stay out of the muddy puddle of light. Then he heard one strident, frightened voice rising above the rest.
"Oh, no. Oh no, no no. You've got to be kidding me. What sort of insane -- what do you think this is going to accomplish?"
Daniel's head dropped.
"You really need to think about this. My friends in the Air Force know where I am. They'll be here any minute now --" Rodney broke off with a sharp grunt, and Daniel heard a voice he didn't recognize. He drew back into the shadows. There was nothing he could do except stay hidden. He'd been through this all before, and his memories made him tremble with impotent fury.
"Now see, that's exactly what I'm trying to explain to you idiots." Rodney's voice again, sounding breathless. "It's not just all the years of cynical race-baiting that have kept you in economic and technological poverty, it's the deliberate plan of this goa'uld living here in your midst. And here's your chance to get rid of her! Dammit, don't you want WiFi?" Then he grunted again, clearly in pain, and Daniel winced.
He had to hide. That was the only thing he could do for Rodney now. That he could do for either of them. When Rodney had desperately cautioned Daniel not to reveal anything under torture, Daniel hadn't bothered to tell him that everyone broke eventually. As rough as the first year in the Pegasus galaxy had been, he wasn't sure whether Rodney had already learned that for himself.
He heard voices, calm, implacable, and despite everything, Daniel crawled closer. "I already told you," Rodney snapped in a faint, panting version of his usual acerbic tones. "Daniel went back to the car. He's probably in Huntsville by now."
And then another voice that Daniel recognized. "No, he's not, honey. Your rental car is sitting in Beebe's garage right now." It was Arlene, the waitress who had served Daniel meatloaf the night before.
"Oh, that's just great," Rodney sounded so terribly, terribly tired. "Do I even need to point out that if Beebe had simply sold me an air filter last night, Daniel and I would have been on our way, and none of this would be necessary now? Wait -- no --"
Rodney's voice broke with an awful gurgle. Daniel looked up desperately. Directly beneath the grate were tremendous metal fans, larger and probably twenty years older then Daniel himself. Beside them, a ladder was clamped to the metal side of the engine housing. Daniel told himself that he would crawl up there because it was a good place to hide, but he knew he was lying.
He grappled his way up the ladder as quickly as he could, more than half afraid that he would pass out again and wanting to be on a level surface when it happened. His side didn't hurt as badly as he remembered, but he felt flushed and dizzy and somehow removed from the world. He wondered if that was the real reason he was trying to get to Rodney now.
When he pulled himself off the ladder and onto the rusted metal surface, the weight of his body made a hollow booming sound on the machine casing. He went still, convinced for a terrible moment that he had betrayed his presence, killing himself and Rodney as well. There was no change, however, in the mutter of voices up above. He rolled carefully onto his back and scooted as close to the grate as he dared. He knew he had started bleeding again because he could feel blood trickling across the small of his back.
At first, Daniel's eyes had trouble adjusting to the sodden morning light. After a few seconds, though, the shadows moving against the hazy bright sky resolved themselves into drastically foreshortened human forms. Work shoes. Sneakers. Daniel wondered if Lida were here. All he could see were blue jeans and polyester. A pair of dirty bare feet kicking six inches above the pavement.
Horror crashed over Daniel in a wave. He couldn't even draw breath.
But then, neither could Rodney. They'd hanged him from a street sign.
Rodney's flailing legs kicked more weakly and then hung still, swaying a bit, toes pointed towards the street. And Rodney had been so sure they wouldn't kill either of them until they found them both. Daniel had agreed. It made sense.
He should have known better. Nothing had to make sense. Jack had been trying to teach him that for years. Not a lesson that had ever taken, apparently. Angry tears ran from the corners of his eyes and spilled over his temples, hot as the blood he could feel leaking through Rodney's makeshift bandage around his ribs. He clenched his hands into fists and didn't allow himself to move or scream.
A sudden blur of movement, then a crash and darkness. Daniel flinched violently, but didn't cry out. For a moment he thought the grate had broken, but then he realized the light was blocked by a huddled shape which had collapsed on top of the grate.
They had cut Rodney down.
Daniel bit his tongue to keep silent when he saw Rodney's head lifted slightly, just enough to allow anonymous hands to loosen the yellow plastic cord noosed around his neck. Then Daniel saw Rodney's fingers clinch and twitch over the grate. "We want to find your friend," said another voice, rough from a lifetime of smoking and hard work. Daniel thought it might have been one of the elderly men at the lunch counter last night. "Lida said he was hurt pretty bad. He needs help."
Rodney coughed a little, then groaned. "Starbucks," he mumbled.
"What's that, son?"
"Sure, they burn their beans to charcoal, but not to have a single one in in town?"
Rodney was shaken roughly. His eyes opened and he stared through the grate. Right into Daniel's face, not two feet below.
Time stood still. Then Rodney flinched and rolled onto his back. "MP3 players." His voice shook. "Slashdot, for god's sake. But you'd rather have a snake in your head?"
The two police officers took Rodney by his shoulders and hauled him to his feet. Daniel saw Rodney's hands were cuffed behind his back. "No," Rodney squawked, "not again. I'll tell you what you want to know. Daniel's hiding in the basement of the Chatsworth Bed and Breakfast. That alleged innkeeper shot him, did she tell you that? I'm pretty sure we want to press charges by the way -- wait, please!"
Daniel couldn't see the noose go taut, but he heard Rodney's voice choked into silence. Then Daniel heard something else. The distant whump-whump of helicopter blades.
The wash of sheer relief was so potent Daniel's vision grayed out. His sight returned in a grid of black and white, iron and sky. A flutter of movement like a pigeon taking clumsy flight. He realized he could feel his heart beating in a thump faster and more irregular than the approaching helicopters. Trying to shift onto his side, he felt a pressure on his lungs that made his head spin. Perhaps -- perhaps he would just lie here until help arrived. Rodney knew where he was.
The awkward flutter was still in the corner of his eye. He rolled his head carefully and saw Rodney's bare feet pounding the air.
The townspeople hadn't cut him down before running for cover.
Daniel sat up in the cramped space, curled his fingers around the grate and pushed with all his strength. The metal rattled in its frame, then dropped back. Shaking, Daniel rolled onto his back and braced his feet on the grate. Lifting his knees made him feel as though his guts were oozing from his side one link at a time. He roared in agony and straightened his legs. The grate shifted to the side in a shower of rust.
There was no way Daniel could pull himself up from there, but he thought about Rodney carefully, idiotically, telling Arlene not to serve lemon with his grilled cheese sandwiches and did it anyway, spilling himself out onto the sidewalk.
From there he flung himself to his feet, weirdly aware of the muscles in his side and back like shredded beef. He wasn't in pain, exactly, but he could feel himself unraveling one sinew at a time. He fell against the street sign, an ornate affair of rusting iron. Rodney was suspended by a knot that had surely been tied to release quickly, but Daniel's fingers were as clumsy and awkward as Rodney's bare feet, kicking mere inches above the ground. The helicopters were close, probably landing on the courthouse lawn, but Rodney was going to be dead long before help could arrive.
Daniel wrapped his arms around Rodney's torso and lifted him up.
There was still no pain, just the vivid sense of pieces splintering somewhere deep inside. Daniel locked his knees and pushed his forehead hard against Rodney's chest. He wanted to hear the beat of Rodney's heart, but everything was swept away by the roar of the helicopters. Every time Daniel hadn't been fast enough, smart enough, strong enough. Not this time. Dammit, just this once he'd get it right.
The air around Daniel and Rodney was thick, stirred up by the chopper blades. Egg drop soup with too much corn starch. Shreds of white blurred past Daniel's vision. Afraid he was on the verge of passing out, he grabbed his own wrist with the opposite hand behind Rodney's back and squeezed more tightly, lifting higher. Rodney was slick with rain and sweat, motionless in Daniel's arms except for his handcuffed wrists, which jounced against Daniel's arms as Daniel lifted him.
His head whirled with memories of Antarctic snow, white as volcanic ash on the Tollan home world. Even as he thought that, the ashes began to turn black and peel away, leaving red in their wake. It didn't matter. Daniel wouldn't let go.
"Daniel Jackson," said a breathtakingly familiar voice. "Allow me to assist."
Another hallucination. Teal'c couldn't possibly be here. It was just a trick of his failing body. Flesh was so fragile, so changeable and weak. A damned shame that the spirit was no better.
Then he was no longer bearing the weight of Rodney's body, and someone stronger than himself was unraveling his knotted arms, pulling him away. When he no longer held Rodney, all the strength went out of his legs, and he would have collapsed, save for something that caught him and wouldn't allow him to fall. The clean, fast strop of the helicopter blades had dissolved into a hopeless welter. Military voices crisp as bullets. Running feet. The brief stutter of gunfire.
"Dammit, Rodney, you're never leaving Area 51 again. How do you get yourself into things like this?"
Daniel rolled his head. The world heaved and pitched, but he made out Colonel John Sheppard on the sidewalk, Rodney huddled in his arms. The plastic noose was still around Rodney's neck, but hanging low now, like a necktie loosened at the end of the day. His eyes were open, startled blue in the morning light. "Where the hell is that medic?" Col. Sheppard demanded.
Daniel looked up. Teal'c was bowed deeply over him, supporting his back and shoulders, keeping him tucked close. "Do not move," he ordered Daniel kindly. "I believe your injuries may be severe."
"You're not here," Daniel protested weakly. "It's not possible."
Sheppard must have heard him because his head came up at that. "We very nearly didn't get here," he said with a bitter grimace. "We were already landing at Robins AFB when this idiot here called back to say that a goa'uld was involved." His arms tightened around Rodney. "All of a sudden we've got to have the right security, appropriate clearances for all the troops. Delayed us nearly an hour. McKay shouldn't be allowed out on his own. Didn't anyone tell you that?"
He saved my life," Daniel said, even though it really didn't answer the question.
"Jesus, of course he did," Sheppard muttered, sounding only frustrated and angry. Daniel looked back up at Teal'c, intending to explain about Exu, but all the shattered fragments were dashing away from him now, wisps of straw blown before the storm.
For a long time, then, Daniel tumbled in and out of nightmares in which Lida's jigsaw puzzle horses thundered across Cheyenne Mountain while Rodney danced on air. When he was awake, he tried to tell everyone about the danger, but no one at his bedside seemed to understand and meanwhile, Rodney's bare feet pattered desperately, never allowing him to rest even though his toes touched nothing but sky.
It wasn't until he awoke to find Cameron sitting beside him that the maelstrom finally stopped howling.
"I've got to tell you, Daniel," Cameron said, leaning over to put a hand on his knee. "You sure know how to pick 'em."
"Rodney --" Daniel groaned. His own voice didn't want to obey him.
"McKay's going to be fine. He's too damned ornery to stay down for long. By the way, you're going to be fine, too. At least you will be if you lie still and stop fretting about everything in the whole wide world."
"There's a goa'uld in Chatsworth--"
"Yeah, we got the message. Not your problem anymore. Your problem is all the buckshot the docs are still picking out of your side. Do me a favor and concentrate on that for a while." Cameron shook his head at him and clucked his tongue, and this time when Daniel drifted out of consciousness, there were no nightmares of Rodney dancing while he died, nor of Lida's Appaloosas shaking the horizon.
Nevertheless, when he woke up to find Teal'c and Rodney had commandeered his bedside table and were facing each other over a game of chess, the first word out of his mouth was, "Lida."
"Daniel Jackson," Teal'c said and practically smiled at him. He got up and came over. "How do you feel?"
"He feels like crap, that's how he feels." Rodney didn't take his hand off his chess piece. Even without his glasses, Daniel could see the violent scoring around Rodney's throat. "This won't make you feel any better. Lida Chatsworth was dead by the time the Marines got to her door. The goa'uld was gone. They haven't found it yet -- how do you like that? Teal'c, you're in check. You're not going to hurt me if you lose are you?"
"What?" Daniel flailed, trying to sit up and then immediately desisted at the tugging ache in his side. Teal put the controls for the bed into his hand.
"This button will raise your head," he informed Daniel seriously. "This one will call for assistance. Do you need assistance?"
"Yeah, it's pretty amazing isn't it?" Rodney commented. "They corralled everyone I could identify as part of my lynch party, but the feds balked at forcing MRIs on the entire population, which is clearly the only reasonable thing to do now. What's the point of being able to suspend civil liberties for anyone your President dubs an enemy combatant if he won't do it when it would be actually useful?"
"They're just going to let a goa'uld go free?"
Teal'c scowled. "Cameron Mitchell explained that there are more serious national security concerns than one 'feral goa'uld.' However, I do not believe he was happy with the decision either."
"And on the subject of not happy," Rodney said. He was determinedly not looking at Daniel, all his focus on the chess board. "Brave and self-sacrificing are not what I was hired for. Brains, not futile heroism. The two are pretty much mutually exclusive. At least they are for those of us who don't get do-overs in life." He was snarling by the time he finished, and he still was not looking at Daniel.
Daniel glanced up at Teal'c. One eyebrow was climbing Teal'c's forehead, and Daniel thought this was not the first time he'd had heard some version of Rodney's speech. "Okay," Daniel said. "I'll remember."
And in a trailer park just over the county line from Chatsworth, Dakota Snopes celebrated her fourth birthday with a plate of fried chicken hearts and livers, and her proud parents gave her boxes of jigsaw puzzles.
Her favorites were the ones with spotted horses.