The Poachers



Author's notes:

The first story "Scar" was written as genfic, while "Scars n Roses" was slash. For some reason I can't recall at the moment, "Scars n Roses" was set in season 7 with Jack as General and with no Janet Fraiser, and as I didn't want to go that route again because literally, it meant Jack would be stuck on Earth with the team offworld and I always want Jack *out there* with SG-1. So for those folks who have read both, may I ask that you forget the slash fic and consider this one as following on the shirttails of "Scar"?

- - - - - -

"Doctor Jackson."

"Major Castleman?" Daniel wasn't sure what it was he heard in Castleman's voice, but the man wasn't prone to hysteria and his voice had seemed... odd. That plus a hint of... something expressed on his face had Daniel immediately dismissing the dozens of photographs he and his team had been studying spread out on his desk and turning towards the man, giving him his full attention.

"Doctor Jackson," Castleman repeated. "Sir..." This last was aimed at Jack, then his gaze took in all of SG-1 as he took a few steps into Daniel's office. "You have to come and see this."

"Didn't you just come back from P3X 593?" Idly tapping the pen he'd been toying with against one of the photos in front of him, Jack looked at the man, obviously waiting for an explanation.

"Yes, we did. A very backwards civilization with little technology in and of itself, but it's also a hub for trade between several planets. Which is where we found the..." The man glanced at Daniel, then looked away, seeming suddenly ill at ease, which in turn was making Daniel a little anxious. "Sir, General Hammond asked that Doctor Jackson examine it and ascertain its identity."

"It?" Sam asked. "What did you bring back?"

"Major, I'd rather not say. It's perhaps best that you all see for yourself."

Without another word, SG-1 stood, Daniel taking the lead with Jack immediately behind him, followed by Sam, and then Teal'c. Daniel was a little surprised at Castleman's obvious uneasiness, so he decided to try and see if he could get some answers. "So, what you brought back was something you traded for on 593?"

"Yes. There was only one of them left and they're apparently very popular. The merchant wanted everything we'd brought to trade with, and two of our watches."

"I hope it's made of gold." When Daniel glanced over at Jack, his friend had a closed look on his face despite his flip words. "Those watches are worth a small fortune. Should be at least gold plated."

Castleman turned haunted eyes towards Daniel as they stopped in front of the elevator and his expression caused Daniel to pause before asking another question. Apparently it didn't faze Teal'c.

"This commodity you returned with, does it have major consequences for the safety of the Tau'ri world?"

"Um, no, it doesn't. It's not a weapon or..." Castleman rubbed his palm over his jaw as they stepped into the elevator and he punched the 21st floor. "Look," he said after what appeared to be a long moment of soul searching. "They were brought in by hunters. Poachers. They're in great demand and apparently very difficult to capture." The elevator doors opened and Castleman hurried out of the car, forcing SG-1 to walk quickly to catch up.

"Wait a minute." Jack pushed past Daniel, moving next to Castleman. "Poachers? Capture? What the hell did you bring back here? An Unas?"

"No, Colonel." Castleman glanced once more at Daniel before he entered the infirmary. He said nothing further as he led them towards the labs. He pushed through the doors to one of the rooms and stepped inside, holding the door open for them.

At first all Daniel saw was Janet and two technicians looking at something on a table. Something long and grey and very familiar. Daniel's stomach knotted up suddenly as he took in the small, pointy-head similar to a mix between a cat and a fox and the snakelike body that was floating a couple of inches above the table. The grey stripes seemed identical, even the small scar which was a few inches away from the snout. "Oh my God."

Daniel reached for the floating animal, then pulled his hand back when he realized that there was something wrong with its eyes. Instead of dark grey eyes, these were bright orange. And the eyes were fixed, staring straight ahead. The mouth was wrong, like it had been sewn shut. And it was just floating there, without any of the curiosity or vitality of Scarlett's kind.

"Daniel, she's dead." Janet's voice was soft and strained with pain.

Slowly, Daniel reached a finger and touched the soft, furry body. The contact caused it to move a few inches away from him. It was cold, lifeless.

"They stuffed it?" Jack's voice was loud and grating in the still room. "What kind of pervert would do this?" Jack reached with a hand that shook slightly and wrapped his fingers around the body. He pulled it closer, turning it so that they could have a good look at the animal's face.

Daniel grabbed Jack's arm and held it still so he could examine the scar. He's spent many an hour rubbing his fingers along the ridged skin and after a good look, he was certain who this wasn't. The knot in his stomach lessened as he spoke the words.

"It's not Scarlett."

There were collective sighs all around. Even Castleman appeared relieved, despite the fact that Jack was still holding onto what could be one of Scarlett's children or a sibling. With a little less trepidation, Daniel carefully took the body and held it in his arms, stroking the soft skin sadly.

"We asked around, trying to get a 'gate address for the poachers, but nobody knew where they came from. We did discover they come by every few days, as these have become very popular in trade. They're due back in about three or four days."

Without a word, Jack left the room. Daniel was pretty sure he knew where his friend was going. With a last stroke, he handed the stuffed creature back to Janet before hurrying after him. Jack was going to need his help convincing General Hammond that these people needed to be stopped before they massacred all of Scarlett's brethren.

- - - - - -

Jack tilted the bowl towards him to catch the last few floating Froot Loops, along with the remaining milk. He chewed and swallowed, dropping the spoon onto his tray and glanced over at Daniel, who had barely touched his breakfast.

"Worrying isn't going to make Hammond come to a decision any faster." Jack brought the Styrofoam cup to his mouth, sipping at the cooling coffee as Daniel rolled his eyes in frustration. Jack put the cup down and pushed Daniel's tray closer towards him. "Eat. Whether we get to go or we end up staying here, you still need your strength."

Carter waited until Daniel had picked up his fork again before she gave him an encouraging smile. "I'm sure even if we don't get permission to go after the poachers, General Hammond will allow us to go back to P3U 330 to check up on Scarlett."

Daniel had scooped up some scrambled eggs onto his fork, but he dropped the fork down with a loud clatter, causing the egg to spill onto the tray. "Why? As General Hammond pointed out, there's no military gain to go back to a planet that's devoid of any useful technology, and there's no military advantage to returning to a planet that we've picked clean�"

"He didn't say no."

"He didn't say yes either. There are people out there who are murdering innocent lives and selling them for a profit. We have to put a stop to this�"

"They're animals, Daniel," Jack said quickly. "Not people. It's not like�"

"That could have been Scarlett!"

"Yes, it could have. But we don't even know if the poachers got that... critter... from 330... maybe it was from a totally different planet that has the same�"

"Oh, come on. What are the odds of that happening?"

Jack's quickly darted a look towards Carter and he was relieved when she didn't quote probabilities. "Look, Hammond has to send SG-3 back to P3X 789 to finish their assessment of the place and see if we can find some allies or something useful to trade. Even if he doesn't send us back with them, I'm sure Castleman will get some intel by then about the poachers and�"

"Colonel O'Neill?"

Relieved at the interruption, Jack turned to give Walter Harriman a large, fake smile, along with raised eyebrows. Harriman stared at him with wide eyes for a long moment, before visibly collecting himself and remembering why he'd interrupted in the first place.

"General Hammond would like to see you in his office, sir. All of you." Harriman smiled at Jack's team, and Jack began to feel a little confident as he pushed away from the table to follow Harriman back to the elevator.

"Any idea what this is about?" Jack sidled up next to the technician, almost crowding the man as he stepped into the car.

"No, sir. I'm just the messenger."

"Right." Jack glanced at Daniel, who was shifting his weight from foot to foot, apparently eager to step out of the elevator. He took a nervous sip of coffee, nearly choked on it and gave Jack an apologetic look as he coughed.

Jack leaned closer to Harriman and lowered his voice, despite the fact that there would be little chance of Daniel not overhearing in the tight quarters. "Daniel's a little eager to find out about the alien... you know...?"

Harriman smiled and nodded. "We're all worried about Scarlett's fate, Colonel," Harriman answered in as low a voice, throwing Daniel a worried look. Daniel had stilled, staring straight ahead at the closed doors, Styrofoam cup held halfway to his mouth. Harriman leaned closer to Jack, lowering his voice even more. "But I did see the new roster charts, and SG-1 is teamed to leave with SG-3 first thing in the morning."

"Ah." Jack winked at Harriman. "Thank you. I'll make sure to act surprised when General Hammond tells us the good news." Jack could see Daniel's smile when the man raised the Styrofoam cup to his mouth to hide it.

- - - - - -

The village market was bustling, giving Jack many not so pleasant memories of times spent in less than ideal conditions. The children who had followed them from the Stargate quickly scattered once they arrived at the market. Several merchants heartily greeted Castleman and his men; apparently they'd made an impression by trading for the floating balloon critter.

Dead, floating balloon, Jack corrected mentally. "Where're the guys who sold the...?"

"This way." Castleman led them to a stall dab smack in the middle of the market. Apparently this merchant was making a lucrative business. Unlike the majority of the other merchants, he had gauzy curtains around his little vending place, which could be closed to ensure privacy.

Oh, Jack was sure to ensure privacy, all right. With Carter and Castleman's team keeping watch, Daniel and Teal'c stepped into the stall, while Jack pulled the curtains closed. The vendor, a fat man with a nose that had been broken more than once, looked at them with calculated interest. Then his eyes fixed on Teal'c, widening as he took in the tattoo on his forehead.

Teal'c took advantage of the man's realization of his former status. "We wish to meet with those who provided you with the floating creatures."

"I... I... I..." The man swallowed audibly as his eyes flicked from Teal'c to Daniel, and then to Jack, who hadn't moved from the edge of the curtains. His gaze continued bouncing from one to the other, and Jack wondered if he thought either he or Daniel were a Goa'uld. Jack ignored the large skin of an enormous tiger-like creature hanging from a pole and fingered one of the smaller items the man had on display, something made of glass that looked expensive and delicate. "I have no means of contacting them, but if you wish m...more of the Awen, I would be happy to offer you a discounted price for the�"

Teal'c stepped closer to the man, who had begun sweating. The scent of perspiration was suddenly strong in the close area. The merchant dragged his gaze from what Jack was playing with to Teal'c's face, again staring to his tattoo. "We do not wish to purchase one of these creatures. We wish to speak with those who hunt them."

"The hungers will be returning to trade within a few days. Perhaps you could come back then?" The man's voice rose with the last few words.

Stepping away from the curtains, Jack pushed past Daniel and stood shoulder to shoulder with Teal'c. He gave the merchant a tight smile as he juggled the bauble from hand to hand. "I'm kind of thinking that your best suppliers would at least have left a calling card... you know, a piece of paper with the 'gate address where their business is set up?"

"No." The man shook his head vigorously. "They insisted they would come to me. But�" He pulled a dirty cloth from a pocket and wiped his face with it. "But the children surely know the symbols of their planet."

"Children?" Daniel leaned forward, pressing against Jack's back as he tried to get closer to the merchant. "Why the children?"

"They enjoy watching the Chaapa'ai as it erupts. Some of the merchants�" He shook his head quickly�"Not the ones who supply the Awen, but others, allow the children to press the symbols when they leave. In return, the children help them carry their supplies to the market, and announce their wares to arriving clients."

"So the kids might have seen the address." Jack motioned towards the exit with a tilt of his head. Daniel pushed the curtains open, and Jack sauntered outside. Teal'c remained facing the merchant for a few long seconds before turning and walking out.

"Colonel?" Carter fell into step with him as he moved through the crowded streets, with SG-3 right behind them.

"We're going back to the Stargate. The kids hanging around there might know the address." Jack slowed as he passed a stall with what had at first appeared to be another dead, stuffed floating creature, but a cursory glance revealed it to be an obvious fake, hanging from a stick. He exchanged a look with Daniel before moving on. "We'll let you know if we find anything."

"Fine." Castleman pointed to a stall to the right. "We'll start here. They had some pretty interesting carvings made from an ore which had some unusual properties."

Jack waved at Castleman without turning to look at him, noting from the corner of his eye that SG-3 had left them. Another minute and they'd left the market behind, the Stargate looming before them. When the kids noticed them, they stopped playing and swarmed the team. Immediately Daniel began talking, questioning them whether they'd seen the poachers come through the Stargate with the stuffed creatures. Jack stepped back and watched as the children excitedly began describing the animals. Daniel easily turned the conversation to the 'gate address and two of the kids happily drew the glyphs in the sand.

"We could'a saved ourselves some time if we'd asked the kids first," Jack said with a sigh. He reached for his radio. "SG-3 niner, this is SG-1 leader. We have the coordinates and are heading back."

"Copy that, SG-1 leader. Good luck."

- - - - - -

Jack hated the whole protocol thing. Of course, waiting for SG-14 to come through the Stargate after going to Scarlett's planet to check things out wasn't helping take the stress out of waiting. He could sense Daniel's impatience climbing incrementally over the past sixty minutes. He knew Daniel wanted to be out there doing something. Hell, so did Jack, and he hated the idea that there were folks cruel enough to be killing critters as cute and charming as Scarlett.

Finally the active Stargate rippled and four men stepped through. Without a word, all of SG-1 hurried towards the stairs, right on Hammond's heels, meeting SG-14 in the Gateroom before they were halfway to the exit.

"General." Major Santini glanced over at Jack before giving Daniel a sympathetic look. "There was no sign of the aliens, sir. Their lairs were abandoned, and the nearest food source seems to have been abandoned."

"They're all gone?" Daniel's voice was almost shrill, and his face paled visibly.

"There are definite signs of people having gone through the Stargate recently. At a guess, sir, I'd say the creatures have moved away from the Stargate. We explored the few areas we were familiar with but we didn't have time to go to the further feeding grounds."

"So there's a chance they're still alive," Hammond asked.

Santini hesitated before nodding slowly. "Although every time we'd gone there in the past, the Stargate activating brought the aliens to us in swarms. This time, we didn't even see one."

"They're smart. They learn fast." Daniel made a quick, nervous hand movement. "They've come to associate danger coming through the Stargate and they're staying away." Lips compressed tightly together, he looked at Jack with an almost glare. "It's our fault. We made them trust us, trust humans. So when confronted with a human who saw them as a means to make a profit, they were lambs led to the slaughter."

"Daniel�"

"Yeah, I know. We couldn't have known." Daniel looked ready to hit something. "But we should have. I should have." Without another word, Daniel turned and left the Gateroom.

"He's right, sir," Carter said softly.

"I know," Jack said just as softly.

- - - - - -

By the time SG-1 walked up the ramp and through the Stargate, Daniel had calmed down. Or at least he'd gotten his emotions under control enough to appear calm. Inside, he was tense, his stomach in knots. When Jack silently motioned towards the buildings visible in the valley below, Daniel uncharacteristically kept a hand on his holstered handgun, almost wishing for a reason to pull it out and use it.

"Teal'c, you and Carter check out the cabin. Daniel, you're with me."

Sam and Teal'c continued past them, heading for a large, prefabricated-looking cabin a couple of hundred feet away from a series of lean-tos. No smoke came from the chimney, and in the cool temperature of this world, fire would be a necessity. There was a rough corral with some kind of creatures that resembled deer, but with antlers that looked almost like ivory. Rough cages held an assortment of animals, some of them cowering in fear, some of them hissing or growling menacingly as SG-1 neared. There was even a glass cage with an odd eight-legged animal that looked uncomfortably like a giant spider. Two tanks fed some sort of gas into the cage.

"Looks like a damned zoo," Jack grumbled under his breath as they continued to take in the various captive animals.

They rounded the enclosure, Daniel having counted at least forty different species of animals. But there had been no sign of Scarlett's kind anywhere. Daniel stopped near a cage holding a timid-looking creature that had silky, golden fur. He squatted and examined the makeshift lock and figured that anything with the intelligence of a monkey could easily get out.

"Colonel, the house is empty. But there's a fairly used path leading from the house going up into the hills. "

"You and Teal'c go ahead. Report every fifteen."

"Yes, sir."

"Wouldn't hold Scarlett for more than ten seconds, would it?" Jack squatted next to Daniel and fingered the lock.

"So if he's holding any of her kind here, he'd need a more elaborate setup. Glass cages need oxygen, so that would be too expensive an upkeep." Daniel stood and looked up towards where the Stargate was. The path down the hill had been smooth, but there were places where the rockface was sheer. And unless he was mistaken, that was a cave.

"Oh, crap."

Daniel turned at the sound of revulsion coming from Jack. His friend had moved on, past the last lean-to, and had a look of disgust on his face. Even as Daniel approached the area, the stench of death hit him. From the looks of the bloodstained table and equipment, this was probably where the poachers killed their prey and stuffed them. Then they saw the cat, bigger than a lion, its belly laid open and ready to be stuffed. A pump was injecting some sort of liquid into its flesh, probably a preservative of some kind. Parts of the body were still bloody and parts looked like it had been turned into some sort of rubber.

Daniel swallowed back the bile that threatened to rise and reflexively took a couple of steps back even as Jack stepped forward.

He needed to get out of here, and fast. "I saw something over there..." Jack glanced quickly over his shoulder at him and he waved towards the cliff. "Might be a cave. Might be where they're holding the..."

"Okay. Just check in�"

"Every fifteen minutes. Gotcha." Daniel couldn't leave fast enough. Not that he hadn't seen blood and gore before, but this was too close for comfort. Just the thought that these butchers had slaughtered innocent and defenseless animals for profit was something he had trouble accepting.

He found a trail leading up to the cave, which made climbing there easier. As he reached for his radio, he stopped to look around. He had a clear view of the area and the previously overcast sky was now full of dark storm clouds.

"I'm heading into the cave. And Jack, head's up. Looks like we're in for some rain."

He spotted Jack heading back towards the corral and cages. He watched as Jack stopped and turned his way, and after a moment he waved.

"Need any help?"

Daniel waved back, then took out his flashlight and shone it inside. The cave was no more than four feet deep with a metal door fitted into the stone. A simple, heavy bolt kept the door closed.

"No, this shouldn't take more than a minute."

He entered the cave and examined the lock. To his surprise, the bolt had been pulled open, the door unlocked. There were odd, scratching sounds coming from behind the door along with a chittering he knew very well. Holding back the urge to barge inside, he pulled the door open slowly and froze at the tableau before him.

A cat similar to the dead one lay unmoving on the stone floor, apparently having been dragged from a small enclosure secured with metal bars as it was lying half in and half out. A heavyset man holding some sort of weapon in one hand, was pushing four of Scarlett's kind aside as they limply floated through the air. In another cage reinforced with wire mesh, were several of the flying aliens, and from the noises they were making, were obviously unhappy with what was happening.

The noise of the aliens had masked the sound of the door opening, but the movement must have caught the poacher's attention. He turned just as Daniel made a belated grab for his weapon. Before Daniel could clear the gun from its holster, the man fired on him with the weapon.

Pain erupted through Daniel and he fell to the floor. It felt like a zat blast, only more painful. His body continued to convulse painfully with the energy flowing through him, rendering him paralyzed. His chest seized, forcing the air from his lungs. Daniel wanted to scream from the pain; instead his throat was making funny little sounds as his lungs strained for air.

There was a loud crashing sound which seemed to make the ground beneath him shake. Or was it his body that had caused the stone floor to shake? Then his chest spasmed and drew in a painful lungful of air. And then another.

Slowly, through the pain, his vision cleared and he realized his face was mere inches away from the snout of the large cat. He couldn't help but focus on the large incisors. He forced his gaze away from the teeth and realized the cat's dark brown eyes were gazing back at him. It wasn't dead, but was watching him.

A painful kick to his thigh brought Daniel's attention back to his attacker and he managed to roll his eyes sideways. He blinked, and an unkempt face with heavy brows came into focus. The mouth was moving but he couldn't hear anything. In a strange, surrealistic scene, the aliens, either dead or paralyzed like Daniel, slowly revolved and floated in the small enclosure as if there was no gravity.

One alien in particular floated close to the poacher's head. He pushed it back in annoyance when it bumped his neck and as it spun away, Daniel's heart constricted when he realized that this was the one alien he had prayed had been safe with its family on its home planet. He struggled to call Scarlett's name, but his mouth and tongue, like the rest of his body, wouldn't work.

A second kick to the same place caused him to gasp in pain just as his ribs contracted again, forcing air from his lungs. This time, Daniel thought he was going to suffocate as he strained to breathe, then his chest muscles relaxed again and drew in a breath with a loud rasp.

His hearing cleared suddenly.

"�Lucky to have survived." Harsh laughter followed the man's words. "The Tamer was set to maximum for the cats. Considering they weigh at least four times your weight, it's a wonder your heart didn't give out with the�" Thunder pealed loudly, the vibrations of the clap echoing loudly in the small space.

"Who are you and how did you get here?" The words were followed with a third painful kick to his thigh.

The man crouched down next to Daniel and prodded him with the weapon, poking him in the chest with it. "Wonder what a second charge will do, huh?" He fiddled with the setting and aimed it at Daniel's arm. "Let's see what'll happen with a lower setting." Daniel's body jerked helplessly as pain erupted everywhere. The agony became all-consuming and his vision and hearing faded as he fought to stay conscious.

Slowly he became aware again, and found himself staring into the cat's eyes again. It pulled back its lips, exposing more of its teeth. Daniel would have shuddered had he been able to. Instead he strained to breathe as electric fire coursed through all his nerves and sinews.

Fingers caught his hair and yanked his head sideways. It should have been painful but Daniel felt nothing, the agony from the Tamer still causing painful jerks to his limbs, which took precedence over the smaller hurts. With difficulty, Daniel focused on the man, who was watching him with a smug smile.

"We deal with thieves in our own way. Got a few contacts who won't mind damaged goods, as long as they're still breathing. Most likely you didn't come here alone; we'll find your friend, or friends, and deal with 'em just like I dealt with you."

The poacher straightened and grabbed Daniel beneath the arms and began pulling his unresisting body towards the enclosure. Try as he might, Daniel couldn't get his body to obey him. Although he now had some minimal control over his limbs, he couldn't get his muscles to do what he wanted and only managed in jerking his arms and legs to the side. His gun lay only a foot away. If he could break free and roll, grab the gun and shoot the poacher, he and the rest of the animals here might have a chance. But with every second, the gun loomed further and further away as Daniel was dragged around the big cat and into the cage.

The sudden flash of lightning accompanied by the sound of a deep growl punctuated by a cough, startled Daniel. And then he fell, landing hard on the stone floor as thunder deafened him. A moment later he realized the man was screaming.

Moving with spasmodic and painful movements, Daniel managed to turn onto his side. The cat had somehow shaken off the effects of the Tamer and had ripped the poacher's leg from thigh to ankle as he'd shuffled by. It was uncoordinated, attempting to get to its feet as the poacher tried to push himself towards his weapon.

With a desperate act, Daniel threw himself forward, rolling onto the Tamer and curling his body around it. Hands grabbed at him, trying to force the weapon away and Daniel sluggishly brought his knees up to his chest. Then there was a deafening scream right in his ear, followed by a sickening crunch and a heavy weight fell against his side. Daniel heard a soft snort, and turned his head enough to meet the gaze of one brown, feline eye barely an inch away from his.

There was a disturbing silence for several long seconds. Even the aliens had stopped their screeching. The eye disappeared, as did the weight, followed by the sounds of something being dragged. With trepidation, Daniel turned his head, and gasped. The cat had the poacher by the neck, and was dragging him away. The man was clearly dead, his neck broken.

Growling, the cat dropped the body near the exit and turned to look at Daniel. It snarled and for a moment Daniel thought it was going to go after him next. But after yet another loud growl, it left the cave, moving unsteadily.

Daniel hadn't realized he'd held his breath and he released it noisily. With hands shaking almost uncontrollably, Daniel reached for his radio. It took several attempts, his mouth and tongue not quite working properly yet, before he realized that the radio was dead. Whatever jolt the Tamer had given him had probably shorted the radio also.

He needed to warn Jack that the other poachers were still around. Moving with less coordination than the cat had shown, Daniel managed to get onto hands and knees. With head hanging, he locked his elbows as his arms shook beneath his weight. He breathed as deeply as his cramping chest muscles would allow him, hoping that the effects would wear off so that he could stand because at this point in time, he didn't know how to get his body up onto his feet.

There was a soft meep near his ear and something soft and warm caressed his neck. Scarlett's soft, sinewy body wrapped itself around his neck and shoulders, and her body heat made him realize how chilled he was. He wondered idly if it was due to the Tamer's effects or simply the chill of the storm.

"Hi, sweetheart," he managed through thick lips and tongue.

Scarlett rubbed her face against his cheek, then with a soft chitter, untwined herself and pushed against his throat. When she repeated the movement, Daniel realized she was trying to get him to stand up.

"I know, just give me a sec." Afraid that his arms were going to give out and that he'd fall face first, Daniel forced himself backwards so that he was sitting on his haunches. The cave spun for a moment, the shadows from his dropped flashlight looming oddly as a couple of the aliens flew around the cave in what seemed to be confusion. Daniel wondered if they were afraid to go out into the storm, or if they were still stunned from the effects of the Tamer.

His leg throbbed constantly and he rubbed the area where he'd been kicked. It took him a moment to realize that his pants were wet. He looked down to see his hand covered with blood.

"What the..." With trembling fingers, he inspected his thigh. There was a deep and painful bruise high up on the side of his leg where he'd been kicked repeatedly. Several inches below that, his pants had been sliced clean through. He pulled the material away and saw four identical three-inch gashes right above his knee.

Scarlett flew down, butting her head alongside his hand, trying to see his wound. He pushed her aside gently as he tried to get his legs under him.

"I think the cat got me when it attacked him." Daniel glanced at the dead man, holding back a shudder as he reached for the wall. "It's not so bad, the scratches aren't deep." Scarlett reached for his jacket collar with her teeth and began tugging. Daniel couldn't help a small smile as he got up onto his knees. Then Scarlett froze and turned suddenly to stare towards the exit. The other aliens flew into a corner, their bodies a tangle of grey as they chittered pathetically.

"Morvin, haven't you finished in here yet?"

A stranger stomped into the cave and stopped in shock. Without hesitation, Daniel threw himself towards his gun, rolled onto his side and struggled to flick the safety off just as the second poacher aimed his Tamer at Daniel. Knowing he didn't have the dexterity to fire the gun, Daniel threw it and jerked to the side. The beam, similar to that of a zat, hit the cage behind him. The sound of electricity crackled noisily as Daniel fearfully peered towards his attacker.

The man was down; he'd hit him in the temple with his gun.

"C'mon. Let's get the hell out of here." Fear of being surprised by more of the poachers lent Daniel the strength to get to his feet. He favoured his injured leg as he shuffled past the two men, until he was sure it would hold him. Wind and rain buffeted him as he stepped outside. In all the excitement, he'd forgotten it was storming.

Immediately blinded by the deluge, Daniel slipped his rain-speckled glasses off. The rain made the trail slippery and he knew immediately with his loss of agility and his injured leg, getting down the trail was going to be hazardous. And adding to the complexity of everything was a very unhappy Scarlett. She immediately tried to burrow into his jacket to get out of the wind and rain, only to scold Daniel when he slipped on wet scree before she could get under cover and he slid several feet down the trail before landing on his butt.

Flying in circles above his head, she continued her harangue until she was joined by a dozen of the other aliens. Their chatter was nearly lost in the noise made by the rain and the continuing claps of thunder.

Daniel got to his feet and continued down the trail, now with five of the aliens trailing behind him and several on either side of him, trying to stay out of the wind. He was sure if they had little hands, they'd be clinging to his jacket.

By the time Daniel got to the bottom of the trail, he was trembling from both the aftereffect of the shock weapon and the cold. The rain was still pouring, making visibility difficult. He looked around, trying to get his bearings. Scarlett flew around him, rested her head on his shoulder and gave a pathetic little cheep. Her small body trembled visibly as she fought the wind to stay in that position.

"I know, I know. We're going back to look for Jack and warn him." Scarlett made an inquisitive noise and rose into the air, as if she'd understood what Daniel had just said. "I think the buildings are over that way." Daniel turned to his right, trying to find the trail. Limping badly and slightly disoriented, he began walking slowly, only to put on a burst of speed when he heard a yell coming from the cave above. Scarlett and the others suddenly zoomed ahead of him in a panic, with only Scarlett coming back to wait for him as he limped behind them.

Knowing he needed to get out of sight, Daniel rushed through the tall grass and bushes, realizing as he did that he wasn't on the trail back to the lean-tos. He continued running as best he could, finally catching sight of the aliens clumped together unhappily beneath the shelter of a large bush, only to come to a stop a few minutes later when he came to a cliff.

"Damn."

He looked behind him and could see nothing but the fuzzy landscape blurred by the falling rain. Okay, he couldn't go back because the poacher was back there. Trembling uncontrollably, he leaned against the stone, waiting as the aliens crowded close, trying to use his body as a windbreak. He tried to think, tried to remember how he'd gotten here, but all the landmarks were indistinct. He rested his forehead against the stone, feeling the rain pour down his cheeks in rivulets. Scarlett moved upwards so that her face was next to his and gave his cheek a quick lick.

His brain was slow, and he couldn't seem to come up with any actual decision on which direction to go. He debated taking shelter until the storm slackened, or following the line of cliffs, which logically should eventually bring him to the path up to the Stargate. He raised his head and squinted. Even now he couldn't see the top of the cliff. For all he knew the Stargate was right above him.

Then the decision was taken out of his hands when the aliens suddenly darted away from where they were sheltering. Scarlett followed them without hesitation, only to turn around and circle around him twice before taking off again. Daniel couldn't hear the poacher but from the aliens' reactions, he was certain the man was on their trail.

He lurched forward, his leg having stiffened up in the few minutes he'd stood there wavering. Trusting on the aliens' instincts and heightened senses, he followed them as best he could, running through more tall grass and bushes, across a stream and into a copse of woods. He couldn't keep up with them, but Scarlett constantly remained in his sight, although she flew back and forth in agitation.

Just when he thought he couldn't go any further, they were at the cliff again. Daniel stopped to catch his breath, certain they must have lost the man by now. He was shivering violently, despite his exertion. His leg was throbbing, threatening to not hold him up much longer.

To his surprise, Scarlett scolded him and began butting him in the shoulder, obviously urging him to move.

"It's okay, we've gotta be safe now. We've lost him."

In answer, Scarlett hovered directly in front of his face, struggling to stay in place as the wind buffeted her back and forth, all the while scolding him non-stop. She turned and flew along the cliff, disappearing from sight, only to return to him again. This time she cheeped softly, almost as if she were begging him to come.

"Okay, Lassie, I'm coming." Daniel limped forward, moving much more slowly than before. He didn't think he'd be able to put on another burst of speed like that again.

Then suddenly Scarlett was in his face again, forcing him to stop. She cheeped several times, then flew directly upwards. Daniel followed her progress and realized there was a cave about eight feet up in the cliff wall. He backtracked a few feet, looking for a way to climb the rough boulders. With two good legs and a body that hadn't been tortured with an alien device, he might have made the climb without a second thought. At this point, it looked almost unattainable.

With a grimace, Daniel placed all his weight on his bum leg and began to climb. By the time he reached the cave's entrance, he was literally on his hands and knees. He entered the cave, crawled just far enough to get his torso out of the rain and collapsed, shivering and gasping for breath.

He felt Scarlett land on his back and crawl around, giving out little worried cheeps. Her breath was warm against his ear as she nuzzled him. He knew he should move further away from the entrance as he could still feel the wind buffeting his legs with rain, but his body had suddenly run out of steam. He pulled his legs into the cave, trying to draw them close to his chest.

If only he could get warm and stop shivering; then he could sleep right here, right now. He was so exhausted that he thought if he rested a little longer, he might actually drift off, regardless of the throbbing of his leg and the overall stiffness of his whole body. Maybe a short nap, just a few minutes, just long enough for the storm to blow over.

A niggling thought kept running around his lethargic brain, telling him there was a reason he couldn't go to sleep. He ignored it, wishing he had the energy to move deeper into the comfort of shelter.

A sharp pain in his ear surprised him enough that he jerked and yelled. Scarlett's meager warmth left him, replaced by an angry scolding. He turned onto his back, ready to reprimand her for biting him when a warning growl came from his right.

And that was when Daniel realized the cave was occupied. His injured leg gave out on him when he tried to stand and he ended up sprawling onto his stomach. He kicked his legs forward out of desperation as one of the cats stood and approached, but it walked lazily next to him and sat right in the center of the entrance, blocking his way out. Its tail swished back and forth in the rain, its ears, one of them with a notch in it, twitched back and forth as if it were listening inside and out.

Daniel scrambled away from the cat, leaning against the wall, just a foot from the opening, with his hands and legs pressed tight against his chest, trying to make as small a target as possible. How could he not have noticed more than a dozen enormous cats lying just a few feet away from him?

Scarlett was flying around the cave, zipping over and around the cats with something akin to joy. The cats were ignoring her for the time being but Daniel's heart was in his mouth, expecting a claw-ridden paw to come up and swipe at her at the next pass.

"Scarlett," Daniel hissed through clenched teeth, quickly eyeing the closest of the felines. "Scarlett, c...come on, g...get out of here."

She ignored him, instead changing to dive bombing the cats. One of them raised its head and snarled as she brushed against its ear and she chittered happily at it.

"Scarlett! Get away from them."

The cat that blocked the entrance stood and made an odd sound deep in its throat. The two cats closest to Daniel rose to their feet, making similar sounds, and moved towards the back of the cave. Seeing a clear path out, Daniel rose onto his knees and contemplated making a run for it. He hoped Scarlett would follow him if he did.

But from his vantage point, he saw something that stopped his thought of escaping even before he began the attempt.

In the center of the cave was a cat, curled up into a ball, shivering uncontrollably, like Daniel. Three other cats lay curled up around it, like a bunch of sleeping kittens. But it wasn't the fact that the other cats seemed to be trying to warm it up that had caught Daniel's attention, it was the sight of the flying aliens curled up on top and around the shivering cat.

It must have sensed Daniel's gaze because it raised its head to look at him. It made a short coughing sound, then a plaintive mewl before lowering its head and licking the snout of the nearest alien.

He hadn't realized Scarlett had stopped flying around and was hovering close to him. And directly behind her, was the cat that had blocked his way out. It made chuffing sound, then took a step closer to Daniel.

"Um... nice kitty," Daniel stammered, feeling totally vulnerable as the memory of the cat breaking the poacher's neck as easily as he could snap a chicken's wishbone. He shifted backwards a few inches, trying to keep his distance from the approaching cat. He was trembling so hard he barely managed a couple of inches before the cat was there, right in his face.

To his surprise, it lowered its head and butted his shoulder with its forehead. It made the same chuffing sound again, looked him straight in the eye, and butted him again. Scarlett meeped, flew close to his shoulder and took the lapel of his jacket in her teeth and began tugging.

"I don't b...believe this," Daniel muttered when he realized both the cat and Scarlett wanted him to move further away from the door. He pushed himself into the space the two cats had left and this time Scarlett began tugging downwards.

"I'm not lying d...down." Scarlett was still intent on pulling his jacket and he tried to get her to stop by putting his hands around her torso. She let go and immediately curled up against his hand, moving sinuously up his arm so that she curled up against his chest.

The cat made another noise and raised a paw. Trying not to cringe, Daniel watched as the paw, nearly as big as his head, moved against his shoulder. Claws retracted, it pushed with an insistence that Daniel was afraid to challenge. He allowed himself to slide against the wall until he was lying on his side. Scarlett shifted in his arms as he curled into a ball similar to that of the cat in the center of the pride, until her snout was lying against his neck.

To Daniel's utter surprise, the cat shoved its way behind him, forcing him to inch forward until there was about a foot of space between him and the wall. Then it lowered its head and began sniffing at his injured leg.

Immediately Daniel thought this was the end; it had caught a whiff of his blood and was going to attack in a blood-lust frenzy of... no, wait, it was sharks that were set off by the smell of blood, wasn't it?

The cat, almost delicately, caught his torn pants with its teeth and pulled, tearing the material more so that his leg was exposed. It sniffed again and then ran its tongue over his wounds.

Daniel jerked from the painful sensation, his breath coming in quick pants. He tried to tamp down his fear as the cat gave the sliced skin another lick. It sniffed again, chuffed softly, then turned in the small space and lay down, pressing close against Daniel's chest and legs. Its head was only a few inches from Daniel and it stared at him for a moment before it shut its eyes and began to purr. Another cat walked over and lay down, squeezing between the wall and Daniel's back.

The heat from the two cats, combined with Scarlett, felt wonderful. His body didn't seem to appreciate it, though, and began shivering in earnest. Teeth chattering, fully aware how vulnerable his situation was, Daniel lowered his head and hoped the effects of the cold and the Tamer would soon ease.

Scarlett made an inquiring cheep and gave his cheek a quick flick of her tongue before settling down again. The cave was oddly quiet, save for the sounds of his clothes brushing against the stone floor as he shuddered, an occasional sound from one of the cats, and the rain outside splashing against the rocks. It was soothing, and if it hadn't felt so surrealistic, he'd have enjoyed the attention.

Scarlett suddenly raised her head, looking over Daniel's shoulder, towards the exit. Daniel followed her gaze just in time to see another cat step into the cave. It froze, gave Daniel a dirty look and snarled.

The cat which had licked his wound and the one who'd been tortured by the poacher both raised their heads and snarled back. The newcomer took a threatening step towards Daniel, teeth bared, and several other cats stood, growling deep in their throats, punctuated by odd, almost ululating sounds, almost as if they were talking to one another. Finally the newcomer backed down and stepped aside, allowing another cat to come into the shelter.

The newcomer was as big as a medium-sized dog, evidently a kitten. And it was limping, walking only on three legs. It didn't go far, collapsing nearly at Daniel's feet. The more aggressive cat, which Daniel assumed was a parent, hissed at Daniel and tried to urge the kitten to get up. But the smaller cat made a pathetic noise and licked its injured paw as the other cats settled down again.

Daniel could see something caught in the pad, between two of the toes. A splinter, or a thorn?

"I'm so going to regret this," Daniel told Scarlett. He sat up, which was a difficult feat with the shivering and the various feline limbs surrounding him. Making eye contact with the cat who had urged him to lie down, he was reassured by the calm he saw reflected back at him.

He faced the parent, and motioned towards the kitten with one hand. "I'm just going to take a look�"

The cat snarled and swiped at Daniel's extended hand. Before he could jerk it back, the cat lying next to him jumped up and blocked the attack. It snarled back and moved between Daniel and the aggressor. After exchanging more growls and odd sounds, it turned to look at Daniel, then pointedly looked down at the kitten.

"If you keep momma or poppa there busy, I'll see what I can do." With his injured leg extended to the side, Daniel eased closer to the kitten. It stared at him warily, hissing as he approached, but quickly calmed when Scarlett flew up to it and twirled around its neck. Daniel took the opportunity of its distraction to check its paw.

He was right, there was something stuck in the pad. The cat mewled softly as he palpitated the area. It looked like a piece of metal, and it went in deep. He tried to grasp it with his fingers but he was shaking too badly and couldn't get enough of a grasp to pull on it. After several attempts, he realized he'd have to try again when he had more dexterity.

He held his hands out to the adult cats, showing them how badly they were shaking. His protector made that soft, chuffing sound again as it looked at Daniel with intelligence in its eyes. It gave the kitten a quick lick before padding next to Daniel again. It lay down, chuffed again impatiently until Daniel took the cue and curled up between his personal warming blankets. Jack would have a field day with this one when he heard about it.

"Jack!"

Daniel sat up in a rush, remembering suddenly that Jack was still out there and would have no idea where Daniel was. And his friends needed to be warned about the poachers.

"Scarlett." Daniel's sudden cry and movement had startled her and she'd taken to flying around, scolding him when she'd realized there was no danger. Her cries had two of the other aliens flitting about now, adding to the din. "Okay, enough," he said crossly. "I need you to go find Jack."

Scarlett's tirade suddenly stopped and she canted her head to the side as she breathed a soft cheep.

"Jack. He's out there." Daniel waved towards the exit. "Do you think you can find him?"

Scarlett turned to look at the door and she chittered softly, ending with an almost inquisitive sound.

"Yes, Jack. And Sam and Teal'c."

Scarlett's eyes widened and she flew around excitedly in a circle around his head.

"Okay, calm down. You have to go and find them. Scarlett. Go. Find. Jack."

In a grey blur, she zipped outside, only to zip back in and return to Daniel with a small, wretched-sounding cheep. She wound herself around his neck, rubbing her damp head against his cheek.

"I know you don't want to leave me. But you have to go find Jack. Scarlett, get Jack."

She gave a high-pitched whine, then slowly unwound herself and drifted up slowly into the air, still hovering close.

"Jack. Or Sam. Teal'c. Go on."

Backing up slowly, she moved towards the exit again, keeping her gaze on Daniel.

"Go on." He smiled encouragingly, and she finally turned and zipped out. The rain seemed to be lessening, although everything outside looked foggy or misty.

He lay back down again, missing her already.

- - - - - -

If possible, the shivering got worse. He wasn't as cold as before, although occasionally he would feel an icy chill go up and down his spine, causing goose bumps to pop up all over his skin. But they'd subside, and he'd continue to shudder.

His leg was killing him, the cuts and bruises throbbing and cramping. Despite everything, he found himself nodding off a few times, jerking awake whenever one of the cats moved or uttered a sound.

His sense of time was skewed. His watch had stopped, presumably just like his radio, from the energy emitted by the Tamer. Whenever he looked outside, all he saw was grey mist. A few of the cats had gotten up and left; Daniel wondered if they'd all congregated here in the cave to get out of the storm, or if they were hiding from the poachers who were hunting them. He was pretty sure the skin he'd seen on P3X 593 was from this pride, or one just like it. And there was the carcass in the camp below...

The kitten mewled and its parent made a comforting phrump. Daniel watched as another adult went to the kitten and licked it on the cheek before returning to its corner. One of the aliens, which at some point had moved away from the adult cat to curl up with the kitten, raised its head and licked the kitten in the same spot, looking smug.

Daniel couldn't help but smile. The alien cheeped at Daniel when it realized he was watching and snuggled back into the small bundle of fur, only to raise its head and stare outside. Daniel felt a sudden tension in the small enclosure and realized all the cats were alert and watching the entrance.

The cat who'd convinced Daniel to lie down stood suddenly, as if to put itself between Daniel and the oncoming danger. Daniel sat up, the sudden apprehension causing his body to shake even more. He knew he'd be useless in any sort of altercation. He just hoped that if this were the poachers, the cats would be able to take them down before any got injured.

A grey blur abruptly flew into the cave, causing a few of the cats to snarl. Scarlett flew to Daniel, as if to assure herself he was still there and with her satisfied cheep still echoing in his ear, flew back out.

"All right, hold onto your horses, I'm climbing as fast as I can."

"Jack!" Daniel cried at the familiar voice.

"Daniel? Hey, you okay?" Jack suddenly appeared at the entrance and he squinted as he looked inside. Before Daniel could get a word out, Jack's weapon came up. "Whoa!"

"Put your gun down!" Daniel yelled as the cat standing in front of him took a threatening step forward. Without thinking, Daniel put a hand on the cat's back. Feeling the fur beneath his fingers, he quickly pulled his hand back. The cat gave him a curious look, but it stayed put. "Jack, it's okay, they won't hurt you." Daniel sent a silent prayer that he was right.

"Yeah, well, tell that to the dead guy back at the cave where you were supposed to be."

"The cat saved my life, Jack. And there's another one of the poachers out there, maybe more. You'd better warn Sam and Teal'c�"

"Yeah, well," Jack inched forward a couple of inches and ducked his head into the cave to look around the edge of the wall. "How many of them are there?"

"I don't know. I haven't been counting. And oh, just so you know, a couple of the cats left the cave a few minutes ago."

Whirling quickly, Jack surveyed the area outside before slowly relaxing his grip on his weapon. He didn't quite let go of it but lowered it just enough to not be an immediate threat.

"You're sure they didn't hurt you?"

"Jack, look at Scarlett, and the others." Scarlett, after having flown over and around Daniel's head a few times, was off teasing the cats again, dive bombing them as she had earlier. Two of the other aliens had also risen from their nap and were chasing one another amongst the felines. The cats themselves were still watching Jack, but some of the earlier tension had eased. "Do you think she'd be playing with them if she thought they'd hurt her?"

Daniel dragged his legs under him and surprised himself by managing to stand. He swayed a moment while Jack watched the aliens for a long time before making a grimace. "Considering the size of their brains�"

"Jack�" Daniel stumbled and limped the few feet separating him from Jack, leaning against the wall for support. The cat who'd stood to protect him sat down, but continued watching them intently.

"And her kind's tendency to constantly get into tight spots�"

"So they're curious�"

"So are you. And how many times has your curiosity gotten you into trouble�"

"Are you comparing me to a�"

"Flying balloon? No, not exactly. But considering I've got one dead guy who's been mauled by a large animal with honking huge teeth, a cage that's been slashed open by some pretty sharp claws and�"

"Cage?"

"In the cave. Broke the door right open."

"The aliens. The guy had some of Scarlett's friends locked up in there." He smiled quickly and glanced back at the sick cat. "You got them out, d...didn't you?" It looked better, not shivering quite as bad as before. Daniel wished he could say the same thing about himself.

The cat snuffled in Daniel's direction, making a soft grunting sound as if he were aware of Daniel addressing him.

"And�" Jack interrupted�"I've got two more missing team members who aren't answering their radios."

"What? For how long?"

"We were out there searching for you, and they missed a check-in about an hour ago. I'd be tempted to say the animals got 'em but�" He looked at the cats, some of whom were now ignoring them. "I'm more inclined to think they met up with the two-legged kind."

"Did you go back to the cabin and see if they were there?"

"Didn't get a chance. I was actually on my way back to the 'gate when Missy here found me. She was pretty insistent I go back with her." Jack reached up and took his cap off, then rubbed the edge of it with his thumb. "She even stole my hat." Jack showed Daniel the set of teeth marks where Scarlett had grabbed the hat. Before Jack could put the hat back on, Scarlett zoomed by and plucked it out of his hand. She flew to the far side of the cave and chittered, the sound muffled by the material in her mouth.

"Hey!"

Daniel could have sworn she was making teasing sounds. He shifted to try and take some weight off his injured leg while Jack tried to cajole her back, and nearly lost his balance.

"What the hell did you do to your leg?" Jack leaned down and glanced at the injury. "Those are claw marks. You said the cats didn't hurt you�"

"That was an accident. The cat was hurt and had trouble getting around. And it's just a scratch, it's not serious."

"Jesus, Daniel�"

The rest of Jack's reprimand was drowned out by a deafening peal of thunder. Daniel peered around Jack and saw dark clouds low on the horizon.

"I need to get you back to the Stargate. You're probably hypothermic, the way you're shivering."

"It's not the cold... the guy got me with some kind of weapon. It was strong enough to take the cat down, hell; it would probably knock an elephant to its knees."

Between the constant shuddering and his bum leg, Daniel knew he couldn't stay on his feet any longer. He slowly slid down the wall before he fell down. Jack followed him into a crouch, grabbing his wrist to take his pulse. "You're cold." Jack's eyes kept moving, keeping watch on the cats, only to occasionally flick back to Daniel.

"Yeah, well, like you, I'm a little damp. But I was pretty comfortable until a few minutes ago... the cats kept me warm."

Jack drew his gaze onto Daniel and stared at him unbelievingly. "The cats?"

"Yeah." Feeling brave, Daniel stretched to reach his protector and gave its fur a quick, friendly swipe. The cat replied with a purr before putting its head down between its paws. It continued to watch Jack. "Them and Scarlett."

Hearing her name, Scarlett cheeped. Daniel raised a hand and beckoned. "C'mon, sweetheart. Give Jack his hat back."

Making more small, mocking sounds, she flew towards them and dropped Jack's hat on his head. He grabbed at it before it fell to the ground, folded it and stuffed it into a pocket. Scarlett made a slight discontented sound before curling around Daniel's shoulders. She sighed happily and butted his chin with her head, only to jump when another loud clap of thunder echoed in the cave, followed by the sound of a deluge.

"Looks like we have another storm to wait out."

"What about Teal'c and Sam?"

Jack shifted so that his back was resting against the wall, next to Daniel. "Soon as the rain lets up, I'll go to the 'gate and get backup. No use wandering around in that; visibility's just about nil. I thought Scarlett was leading me to the 'gate, there's no way I could find my way back in this."

They sat for a little while in silence, Daniel actually missing the heat of the cats' bodies as a gust of wind sprayed them with cold rain. Two cats stood and moved further away from the entrance. Taking the hint, Daniel began shifting away from the draft, going back to the section of the cave that he'd occupied earlier. After a moment, Jack followed him.

"Feel like doing a bit of first aid?" Daniel asked when the kitten tried to stand as Jack brushed by, only to settle back onto its side with a plaintive meow.

"The slashes don't look that deep; I don't think they need stitches�"

"Not me, the kitten there. It's got something caught in its paw and�"

"Oh, please tell me you're pulling my leg."

"Jack, it's hurt and its paw is probably infected. I tried to pull it out but�"

"You what!"

Daniel mimicked pulling a splinter from his palm. His hands shook so badly that he began to fear this might be a permanent condition. "I couldn't grasp it well enough to�"

"It let you touch it?"

Without a word, Daniel shifted onto all fours and moved slowly towards the kitten and its parent. The parent raised its head and snarled, and Daniel's protector answered in kind. The parent made an unpleasant sounding noise as it got up and paced in a circle before settling down again further away from its child.

Daniel slowly put a hand to the kitten's head and rubbed it as he would a housecat. The kitten stretched and acted just like a regular cat, turning onto its back and offering Daniel its throat and belly. Moving his fingers slowly through the soft, luxurious fur, Daniel eased them down so that he was caressing the soft fur beneath its chin. He could feel the rumble of a purr start beneath his fingers.

"See it?" Daniel pointed at the injured paw with his other hand.

"So help me, Daniel." Jack settled beside Daniel and took the paw in his hands. "If it so much as shows its claws�" Jack froze when Daniel's protector moved next to them. It sat right next to Daniel and watched as Jack prodded the paw.

"It's really wedged in here. I need to make a cut..."

"Just do it." Fingers still kneading the kitten's neck and head, Daniel suspected that the adult was there to make sure the kitten didn't unintentionally hurt either of them.

Moving slowly, Jack unsheathed its knife, careful not to make any sudden movements or hide his actions from the cats. He pulled out a sterile wipe from his utility vest and wiped down the tip of the knife with it. "Wonder where it picked this up. It must have prowled around the cabin down in the valley."

"Or else the poachers have traps set for the cats. I'm sure by now the cats know enough to stay away from men."

"So why didn't they attack you?"

"Because the poacher attacked me first? I became a victim, instead of an aggressor?"

Jack lined the tip of the knife right next to the piece of metal and made a quick incision. "That doesn't sound right. These are cats, not humans." Then with a quick jerk, he pulled the splinter out.

The kitten twitched, and Daniel wasn't quick enough to pull his hand away from its snapping jaw. But his protector was there, paw making a blurring movement to push back on the kitten's neck and shoulder, preventing it from biting or scratching. Moving quickly, Jack dropped the metal splinter and manipulated the paw, allowing the blood to drip to the floor while he pulled out a small first aid kit from another vest pocket. He tossed a bandage to Daniel while he allowed the wound to bleed freely.

"Do you think it needs stitches?" Daniel awkwardly caught the bandage.

"Nah, I don't think so. I'm more afraid of infection."

While he fumbled the wrappings open with trembling fingers, the adult cat leaned over and licked the still-bleeding paw. After a few swipes of its tongue, it allowed Jack to wrap the bandage around the paw.

The parent approached slowly and sniffed the bloody piece of metal. It butted its forehead against the back of Jack's shoulder, jarring him forward. Daniel smiled through chattering teeth at the look of surprise on Jack's face. Then his own face must have reflected surprise when the kitten raised its head and licked his hand.

"Yeah, I know you're sorry for trying to bite me." Daniel pressed his fingers into the warm fur again, enjoying the feel of it while it sniffed at the bandage when Jack let go of its paw. "It was just a reflex. Good thing your friend, there, was expecting it." Daniel smiled at the adult, who padded over to Daniel and butted him in the chest.

"Ow."

Scarlett got into the act, repeating her earlier antics of grabbing at his jacket collar and pulling.

"Okay, fine." Scooting back on his butt, Daniel moved into the free space and lay down on his side. Scarlett immediately dived into the hollow of his chest and curled up in his arms while his protector stretched out against his back.

"Looks like they get you pretty well trained." There was humour in Jack's voice, despite the fact that his eyes strayed towards the exit.

"Still raining?" A loud clap of thunder answered Daniel's question. "Okay, stupid question."

Jack stood slowly and went to peer outside. A moment later he returned to Daniel's side and sat, resting his back against the wall. He hadn't quite set his butt on the ground when the kitten stood. After testing its injured foot, it managed to limp over to Jack. Although the injury still obviously pained it, it was putting weight on that paw. It tried to climb onto his lap, causing Jack a few moments of anxious squirming when the large paws shifted close to his groin. Finally it collapsed bonelessly, half on top of him, with a satisfied sigh.

Jack quickly glanced over at the parent, but it had lain back down and seemed to be dozing. "Is it just me or are these cats a little too friendly?"

The body heat was making Daniel sleepy. He replied through a yawn. "I think they're more intelligent than a normal Earth cat. I'd say Scarlett is more intelligent than a dog�"

"Yeah," Jack agreed somewhat grudgingly. "Or at least, most dogs�"

"But these cats, I'm pretty sure, are even more intelligent than she is."

"You're probably right about that. One doesn't get over mistrust this quickly. Even though they realized you were a victim, they should still have associated you with the creatures that walk on two legs that capture and kill their kind, and not distinguish between good and bad humans."

Daniel yawned again, noisily, and squirmed slightly into the cat's heat. Another cat came to join them and curled up around his legs, settling slowly and taking obvious care not to jar his injured limb.

"Comfy?"

"Mmmm." With the added heat, the shivering had abated. He wondered how the other cat was faring, whether it was recovering, because if it was getting better, then he'd have an idea how much longer it would take for him to get over this. But the effort of just raising his head was too great. Instead, he closed his eyes and�

- - - - - -

Daniel didn't so much as fall asleep, as pass out. Curiously, though, the constant trembling he'd been afflicted with stopped the moment his body relaxed. And although Daniel might be sleeping, Jack couldn't help but notice the lines that still marred his forehead. The man was experiencing major discomfort even though he hadn't complained much about it.

Moving slowly so as not to alarm the kitten in his lap or the rest of the cats in the cave, Jack stretched sideways to take a good look at the cut on Daniel's leg. It had crusted over with blood and looked clean so he opted not to bandage it for the moment. He sat up and caught the kitten chewing on the bandage he'd wrapped around its paw.

"Hey, leave that alone."

Golden eyes turned to look at him while sharp teeth continued to worry the edges of the bandage. Wary of being bit, Jack used the tips of his fingers to tap the edge of the cat's nose. It stopped immediately with a small mewl of discontent. He'd expected the kitten to continue to nibble at the dressing but it simply curled its paws beneath its body and settled down for what looked like a nap.

Scarlett chittered softly and slowly rose from where she had curled up next to Daniel. She sniffed at Daniel's ear before giving it a quick lick and to Jack's pleasure, slowly twined herself around his shoulders and neck. She bopped his chin with the top of her head, then slid down to curl up in his lap next to the kitten, sliding her head beneath his palm in an overt request for cuddling.

Chuckling softly, Jack complied, eliciting a soft crooning from the pliant body. He sobered quickly, hating the situation. His instincts cried out at him to go back to the Stargate and get backup ASAP and go search for Teal'c and Carter, but he knew Daniel wasn't up to the trek back to the 'gate and if he forced him out now, Jack would have to abandon him out in the storm. And there was no way he was leaving Daniel here alone with a pride of cats, no matter how friendly and smart they appeared.

He had no choice but to wait out the storm and hope that by the time it let up enough to allow him to make out landmarks, Daniel would have recovered enough to accompany him. And still he knew every minute he waited here, chances of finding the rest of his team alive were dwindling.

"I still can't believe you found me," Jack said softly when Scarlett turned over to give Jack access to her throat. "I gotta admit you've earned your weight in gold. I wonder if you could find Carter and Teal'c�" At the mention of the teammates' names, Scarlett's eyes widened and she cheeped inquisitively. "Yeah, maybe you could, at that." He slid his hand along her body. "Not now, maybe later."

Jack froze when a large cat stepped into the cave. It immediately locked its eyes on him and growled. A few comments from the other cats in the cave seemed to convince him he was harmless because it gave a grunt and walked amongst the others, apparently already unhappy with being wet, finally settling down in a free spot and began licking itself dry.

Taking advantage of the quiet time, Jack fished a power bar from his vest pocket. Scarlett made a happy sound at the crinkling of the paper and when he offered her a bite, she eagerly accepted it. And within seconds, the rest of the flying contingent had gathered around him. Smiling, Jack shared the power bar with them, along with a second. He ended up eating his third and last while the aliens played with the wrappers, fighting for possession of the crinkly packaging amongst the cats.

Daniel slept through the chittering and occasional feline snarls. The depth of his slumber began to worry Jack; what if he wasn't just sleeping and had gone into a coma or something? Jack leaned over Daniel and shook his shoulder, calling his name.

"What?" Daniel muttered, turning his head slightly towards Jack but not opening his eyes.

"Hey, you sleeping?" Some of the tension eased at Daniel's response. Jack smiled when Daniel's answer was unintelligible. He stood, trying to ease the numbness in his ass from sitting on stone. He paced the few feet clear of cats near the exit. He looked outside as he walked, noting the clouds weren't quite as dark as earlier. Hopefully the worst of the storm would soon be over. He realized he hadn't heard thunder in a while.

One of the cats stood and stretched lazily. Jack recognized it as the one Daniel had said had saved his life. It didn't appear to be steady on its feet and it was only after it moved past him to lap at a puddle of water did he realize that the occasional jerkiness it was experiencing was the same affliction as Daniel. It stretched again, slowly, then proceeded to walk around the cave, moving between and over many of the animals who were lying around. By the time it had done several circuits of the cave, it was moving with more assurance and was less clumsy.

"Good to see the symptoms ease," Jack said as the cat passed him once again. It grunted in reply as it continued. The next time it came around, Jack's heart nearly popped into his throat when it went directly for Daniel and eased its head right up to his face. It sniffed him for a moment, then gave Daniel's neck and cheek a long lick.

"I'm up, I'm up." Limbs moving without coordination, Daniel sat up, blinking owlishly at Jack. His brain cells must have kicked in a few seconds later because Daniel only seemed to see the cat at that point. "Oh." Smiling, Daniel tentatively brought a hand up to the cat, who immediately bumped his palm with his forehead, similar to what Scarlett had done earlier for attention.

"Jack, what's going on?"

Before Jack could reply, the cat reached for Daniel's collar with the tips of its teeth and tugged.

"I think it wants you to get up." Jack reached a hand down and helped Daniel up when the cat let go. Tremors still wracked his friend's body but they were nowhere as debilitating as they had been earlier. "Try moving around, I think it'll help get the kinks out."

Daniel gave Jack an odd look before shuffling a few steps, following the same route Jack had earlier. Jack followed just far enough to peer outside and to his surprise, the rain had nearly stopped. There was still cloud cover obscuring the sun but it was obvious sunset was imminent.

"Thirsty?" Jack flipped the cover open and handed Daniel his water bottle. "Got anything to eat?" he asked as Daniel drank thirstily. Nodding as he lowered the plastic bottle, Daniel fumbled through his pockets and removed a somewhat crushed power bar, holding it out to Jack. Shaking his head, Jack waved to the offered meal-on-the-go. "Eat it. It might help."

Daniel took a bite and chewing, broke off another piece and held it out to Scarlett, who was pacing Daniel in mid-air. Her blue tongue flicked out to lick her lips, but she turned mournful eyes at Jack.

Daniel stopped walking and held out the treat right under her nose. Scarlett's reaction was to zip away and circle the cave. "Is she sick?" he asked worriedly.

"No, she ate already and she knows you need the food more than she does." Jack waved a hand at the flying alien. "C'mere, girl." When Scarlett landed on his shoulder, he gave her extra attention. "Good girl. We'll make sure you get a treat when we get you back home, okay?"

Daniel continued to pace, his steps becoming steadier and stronger as he ate despite the pronounced limp. Jack and Scarlett stared at the sky, watching the hint of colour coming through the clouds as the sun sank beneath the horizon.

"Think you can make it back to the 'gate?"

Daniel was in the process of licking his fingers. Wiping them on his pants, he nodded. "Yeah, I might not be able to run a marathon but I can make the hike. But aren't we going to look for Sam and Teal'c?"

"We'll give the homestead a look-see, but we're gonna need backup. I don't think you and I, at least not in the condition you're in, can go up against two or three of those guys. Not if they're armed with something that can take a cat that size down. I need you to get to the 'gate and tell Hammond what we've found."

Daniel stood next to Jack, looking out across the valley in the dimming light. He pointed to the right. "Stargate's over there, you can just barely make it out up on the cliff."

"Which means the zoo's just south of it." There was a faint whisper of smoke coming from the direction he assumed the poacher's cabin was. Probably they were cooking supper. Jack took his compass out and checked it against the Stargate and his destination. In the dark, there wouldn't be any landmarks to follow.

"Ready?" Even though Daniel gave Jack a smile, he could see how much Daniel was hurting.

"How's the leg?"

"Throbbing like a bitch but it's just bruises."

"I thought the cat..."

"Yeah, but on top of that, the idiot who caught us decided to try clean his boot tops with my leg."

"Sonofa�" Jack held back the flash of anger which tempted him to smack his fist into the stone wall. As if being tazered with some alien device, getting his leg slashed by a cat's claws and then playing sheep in a pack of wolves wasn't enough, Daniel had so thoughtfully omitted to mention this newest injury.

"I can walk, Jack. I told you I could make it to the�"

"Anything else I should know about before we go?" The words came out angrily and sarcastically and Daniel's face, for a moment, reflected the hurt Jack knew he'd caused. Then as usual, Daniel's expression became neutral.

"No, just the bruised and slashed leg and I'm still feeling shaky but I can make it."

"Good." Feeling guilty at losing his temper, Jack put a hand to Daniel's shoulder and squeezed gently before turning to Scarlett.

"Okay, now's the time. Think you can go find Carter and Teal'c?"

The lithe body tensed around Jack's shoulders before she rose into the air excitedly. She stared at Jack expectantly. "Carter. Teal'c. Go find them."

"Scarlett." The flying alien turned to Daniel, her body thrumming with so much excitement that it was wiggling slightly. "Find Sam and Teal'c."

She gave a high-pitched sound and zipped out of the cave and across the valley. Seconds later two of the flying aliens flew past in a rush of air, flying directly behind Scarlett.

"Be careful," Daniel said softly.

"At least she's got backup." Jack watched until he lost them from sight amongst the trees. "Okay, let's go." He took the lead, moving slowly down the rocky cliff face, ready to give Daniel a hand. But Daniel was being stubborn, refusing Jack's help and sliding onto his butt if he thought his leg couldn't take it. After a few minutes, they were on the ground. Jack began walking in the direction he'd noted on the compass. The landscape was still fairly easy to traverse, the last of the reflected light making shadows on the ground. And the sky was clearing fast; if they were lucky there'd by starlight and maybe even moonlight to help guide the way.

"Jack?"

At the odd note of wonder in Daniel's voice, Jack stopped and looked back. And froze. There were nearly two dozen big cats on their tail. Most of the cats stopped a few feet away from them, waiting, while one walked up next to Daniel. Jack recognized the notched ear; apparently Daniel's protector decided he still needed protecting. "You think they know what we're doing?"

Daniel laughed without mirth. "Either that or they're making sure we get home safe. Hell, I think that's almost all of them from the cave, and then some."

Jack continued on, feeling somewhat Tarzan-ish with the big cat walking between him and Daniel. He couldn't help himself; he kept looking back at the cats. He even recognized the one who'd been tazered along with Daniel in the mix. As illogical as it sounded, Jack hoped that the cats did understand what they were going to do and that they were willing to try and get rid of these poachers once and for all.

They'd been walking for close to thirty minutes. Jack could see the shape of the Stargate and figured the path leading up to it was close by.

"How d'ya think the cats will react to a couple of armed teams sneaking into their territory?" Jack asked softly. His plans of getting backup might not be as easy as he'd thought at first.

"Hard to say. It could get pretty messy if they take our guys for the enemy."

"Yeah, that's what I was thinking. We should go check out the camp first."

Jack hadn't taken more than a few steps before he heard an inquisitive cheep from above. "Scarlett?"

"No," Daniel said, pointing at something in the air before him. "It's one of the others." It zipped around them a few times before flying towards the camp. It kept coming and going, encouraging them with soft warbles, only scolding them once when they detoured around a section of marshy ground.

A puff of wind brought the smell of feces and wood smoke. Wrinkling his nose, Jack muttered, "I think we're close." The cats growled restively but held their positions behind them.

There were several high-pitched exclamations from above as a second flying alien joined the first. They immediately quieted when Daniel shushed them. One of them flew down close to Daniel and uttered a low hum, butted his shoulder once before taking point again while the second one disappeared.

Jack paused at the edge of the zoo. With the trees and canopy overhead, the going was dark. There were all sorts of boxes and storage in the area that the only way to navigate without tripping over something was probably to either cross the stream and detour around, which would take them a lot longer than just walking up to the cabin. Taking the more direct way meant Jack would have to turn his flashlight on and that would probably warn the guys inside.

"I wonder where Scarlett is," Daniel whispered as Jack contemplated what to do.

A whisper of wind next to his ear was all the warning he got before Scarlett cheeped softly.

"She's right here." He saw Daniel reach out for her and the little alien twirled around him once before flying out of reach. The other two remained close to her.

"Did you find Sam and Teal'c?"

Scarlett chittered softly and turned to look at the cabin, whose lights could clearly be seen through the trees.

"I'm guessing you did." Deciding to take the short route, Jack fished for the flashlight in his vest pocket. His fingers barely touched the flashlight when two of the cats brushed past him and took point. They led the way through the obstacle course unerringly, almost like seeing-eye dogs, and Jack and Daniel were soon approaching the cabin, keeping low to the ground.

Jack eased slowly up to the nearest window, staying out of the reflected pool of light until the last possible moment, while Daniel took a stance on the opposite side of it. The door to the cabin was open and Jack could hear talking. He couldn't make out the words. His quick, questioning glance to Daniel was answered in the negative.

Jack took a quick peek inside. The scene was about what he'd expected. Carter was tied to a chair; Teal'c was lying on the floor, apparently unconscious. Both looked like they'd been manhandled and beaten. Six men were inside, more than Jack had expected.

As he pulled back, he realized that Scarlett was bumping against the glass of the window as if trying to get inside. He grabbed her and pulled her away. With just an upraised finger, he warned her to stay put, then he signaled to Daniel what he'd seen and motioned him to step away. The two of them couldn't take the cabin, not with Carter and Teal'c inside. He made the decision to return to the 'gate for backup � if the cats saw him accompanying the rescue team, hopefully they'd not mistake them for the enemy. He just hoped none of the poachers decided to kill them before he came back with the cavalry.

They hadn't moved more than beyond the pool of light from the window when all hell broke loose. Sounds of breaking glass, angry snarls and terrified screams filled the air as the cats stormed the cabin. Three of the poachers made it out the door, only to be brought down by the big cats waiting for them.

Without thought for his own safety, Jack ran towards the open door, intent on protecting Carter and Teal'c from the cats. He skidded to a stop at the sight of them unharmed, bumping into one of the cats and receiving an angry snarl in response. Moving quickly, he cut Carter's bonds, ignoring the look of shock on her face. When he turned to Teal'c, Daniel was already there, struggling to turn him so that he could grab him beneath the armpits.

"Get Carter out of here." Jack pushed past Daniel, grabbed Teal'c and began dragging the heavy man out the door. There were no longer any sounds coming from the men, all of them lay in gory heaps, with some of the cats standing guard over their "kills" while others continued to maul them.

Jack dragged Teal'c back towards the zoo, moving between the angry cats.

"Sir?"

Looking up, he saw Carter standing there in the doorway, frozen at the sight of three big cats snarling in their direction.

"Just walk slowly. They won't attack."

"Come on, Sam." Daniel took her arm and pulled, and she seemed torn between staying where she was and joining Jack and Teal'c. Finally she began walking, with Daniel right behind her.

He put Teal'c down at the edge of the zoo, watching as some of the cats seemed to be walking the perimeter.

"Are you hurt?" Jack asked as Carter crouched down next to Teal'c. He took his flashlight out and waved it over her.

Shaking her head, she put a hand to Teal'c's neck. "Just bruises. They wanted to know who we were, how we found them. They found a gun in the cave..." She glanced at Jack's thigh, saw his holstered pistol and her eyes went to Daniel. "So they knew there was at least one more person out here. They searched most of the day and gave up at sunset. That's when they began torturing Teal'c with some sort of�"

"Tamer," Daniel said, sitting down hard on the ground and rubbing at his thigh. "Gives a pretty nasty jolt." Jack could see how his hands were shaking. "How is he?"

"His pulse is strong." Carter curled her knees up to her chest and stared at the cats. "Sir...?"

"Ask Daniel. He found them."

"Actually, Scarlett found them, Jack. I just followed her and..." Daniel looked around in a frantic movement. "Scarlett, where is she?"

"Scarlett?" Carter put a hand on Daniel's arm. She frowned at him even as she asked for clarification. "You mean�"

"She of the flying balloons. The one and only." Jack stood and tried to see if he could spot any of the aliens flying around. He took a few steps back towards the carnage and stopped suddenly when Scarlett flew straight up to him. She gave him a few anxious cheeps then twisted in mid air and flew back the way she'd come.

Daniel began to stand but Jack waved him down. "I know. But I need you to stay with them, just in case..." Jack looked back towards the cats, most of whom were still prowling the grounds. As he followed Scarlett, he realized he had a tail. He'd lost track of the whereabouts of Daniel's protector and he realized that the cat had probably stayed close by during the attack.

He didn't have to go far; the area Scarlett had led him to was on the far edge of the cabin. She flew towards something hanging from a tree and with a mournful sound, batted it gently with her head. Jack aimed his flashlight on it and his heart fell. It was another of the flying aliens, but from the gleam of its unseeing eyes, it was already dead and stuffed.

"I'm sorry." Jack took the stuffed animal in his hands and held it up to her. He let it go and it floated aimlessly, tethered to the tree. "It's dead. There's nothing we can do."

Her huge eyes stared at him, then shifted back to the dead alien. She made more of the sad, little noises deep in her throat as she twined her body along that of the alien, then settled onto Jack's shoulders, as if too tired to fly.

With a hand gently rubbing her head and throat, Jack made his way back to his teammates, Daniel's feline protector following right at his heels.

He was more than pleased to see Teal'c sitting up, leaning against a tree trunk. Someone, and Jack presumed it had been Daniel, had gotten their hands on a couple of oil lamp, illuminating their little area fairly well.

"O'Neill."

"T." Jack sat next to him and gave him a frown. "You don't look that good." Teal'c was trembling much as Daniel was, but even as he watched, the quivering began to ease. Scarlett slid off his shoulders and went over to greet first Teal'c, then Carter. It was obvious from her lack of exuberance that seeing her dead brethren had affected her.

"My symbiote eases the discomfort even as we speak. I shall be fine."

"Ah." Jack gave Teal'c a tight smile. "So, who got the lights?" He turned to stare at Daniel, who was busy with the cat, who had decided to lie down right next to him. He refrained from commenting as Daniel threaded his fingers through the luxurious fur.

"Ahhh, actually, Jack, the cats brought them over."

Jack scratched his cheek. "Um... yeah, right."

"Sir, actually, they did. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. Two cats, each carrying one lamp in their mouth..."

Scarlett left Carter and Teal'c and moved over to the cat. Hovering right before its face, she gave it a quick lick between the eyes, making that sad little noise again before moving over to Daniel and curling up on his lap. Jack didn't miss the wince of pain as he shifted her body off his thigh and into his arms. She took the cue and wrapped herself around his neck and shoulders, hiding her face into his neck.

"What's wrong with Scarlett? What did she want you to see?"

"There was another of her kind, dead and stuffed. I guess she got a little spooked by it."

Daniel crooned to her and she cheeped back, turning her head to lick his chin, then settling her head on his shoulder with a loud, heavy sigh.

"You guys up to walking to the 'gate tonight?" Jack didn't feel they were in any danger from the cats, but he'd feel better getting his team to the infirmary.

"Jack, what about all the captive animals?"

"I don't know, Daniel, what about them?"

"Well, we can't just leave them here. We need to return them to their homes. Most of them probably wouldn't survive for long even if we set them free here. They might need special types of food, or�"

"Colonel, when we first searched the cabin, we came across a list with 'gate coordinates. I suspect they might be a description of the animals they caught along with what planet they took them from."

"It would be logical to retain a log of where the animals were procured." Teal'c was watching Daniel and the cat with wary caution. "In this way, they could return to hunt for more if the creatures were popular with their clientele."

"The only problem is that Teal'c and I didn't recognize the writing. Maybe Daniel�"

"Okay, we'll check it out in the morning." Jack didn't miss the full body shudder Daniel made, which he tried to hide by shifting around on the ground. "After Frasier checks you guys out."

"No, that'll take too long." Daniel released Scarlett, where she floated next to him while he got up, hissing in pain as his leg seemed to cramp on him. "Let me at least get the log and see if I can decipher the writing. Maybe we can start sending some of the animals home tonight."

"Daniel." Jack's curt tone didn't stop Daniel from limping towards the cabin, followed closely by Scarlett and the big cat. With a roll of his eyes, Jack stood and stomped after him. After a moment, Teal'c and Carter followed.

Eyeing the dead bodies, he realized the carnage wasn't quite as bad as he'd feared. Careful of the spilled blood and the cats, they made their way into the cabin. Scarlett zipped around the bodies and with a sudden angry screech, descended upon one of them lying in an ungraceful sprawl near several bunk beds.

Grabbing onto the man's ear, she began pulling it with ferocious rage, making a noise Jack had never heard her make before. It took Daniel several minutes to get her to calm down enough to let go, and when she did, there was blood on her muzzle.

She wouldn't go to Daniel, though, and shot up out of reach, near the ceiling, despite his cajoling.

"Leave her be, Daniel," Jack said after a few more minutes. "There must be a reason why that one guy got her so mad � chances are he's the one who took her. She got her revenge; let her mope in peace for a bit."

Daniel looked torn but he finally turned to Carter, who'd picked up a large book which had been lying in plain sight. While Teal'c and Carter cleared a space on the table, Jack slowly walked over to where Scarlett slowly "paced" the ceiling, and leaned against the wall.

He watched while Daniel sat, absently rubbing his thigh while leafing through the various pages. Jack gave him a minute before calling his name. "So, can you read any of what's in there?"

"Yes, it's Phoenician." Daniel glanced at Jack. "They've got both the descriptions of the animals they took and the 'gate address. We can send them back to their homes."

"Great. We can do that in the morning. Let's go."

Carter stiffened and began taking a step towards him, but Daniel continued leafing through the pages. "Daniel. Now."

"Jack, we don't know how long those animals have been captive. They might be in need of food or water � we have the coordinates, it shouldn't take that long to open the 'gate and send them on home."

"In. The. Morning."

"Jack, if it was you in one of those cages and you were stuck inside for another eight hours because your rescuer was tired�"

"Oh for crying out loud!" Jack stomped across the room, startling one of the cats and eliciting a hiss before it settled back down. "Bring the book with you. Once you translate that stuff, I'm sure Hammond will send someone here to send the creatures back where they belong."

"But General Hammond might not have anyone to spare for a few days. Jack, we need to do this now, before any of them die."

Jack stared at the lines of symbols filling the pages. "How many?"

"How any what?"

"How many 'gate addresses."

Flipping quickly through the pages, Daniel counted. "Twenty... Thirty... Forty... five."

Carter leaned over Daniel's shoulder. "Do any of the addresses repeat? They might have taken more than one animal from the same planet."

Daniel gave Carter a quick smile and went through the list again. "Um... No... Wait. Yes, there's two same addresses. So, we just have to dial out forty-four times�"

"That'll take the whole night."

"Then we better get started." Daniel stood then stumbled forward against the table. "I'm fine. My leg's just stiff."

"I've got Tylenol if you want some�"

Daniel smiled gratefully at Carter and accepted the blister pack.

"Think that's a good idea, considering you're still feeling the effects of that taser?"

Daniel frowned a moment, then popped two pills from the pack. "I'll chance it." He dry swallowed the pills and started limping for the doorway. He slowed as he passed by Scarlett. "Hey, sweetheart, we're going outside. Wanna come help?" His voice was gentle and he waited a moment before moving on. Scarlett gave a soft cheep and followed Daniel. After a moment she moved to his shoulder and draped herself around him.

Jack caught Teal'c's gaze as he passed by. "How're you feeling?"

"I am well. I am capable of conveying the cages to the Stargate without any ill effects."

"Great. That's at least twenty trips up and down that hill, in the dark no less, with a bunch of spitting and hissing critters that'll wanna rip our fingers off."

Grimacing, Jack picked up the nearest cage. It held a lamb-sized animal that resembled a guinea pig, with very long, silky fur. The moment the cage moved, however, it showed Jack a set of extremely large fangs.

Jack snarled right back at it, then aimed his flashlight ahead of him. With all of them carrying at least one cage, he led the way up to the Stargate.

"O'Neill." At Teal'c's quiet call, Jack turned around. He felt his jaw literally drop and had to make an effort to shut his mouth. There were at least a dozen cats behind them, all of them carrying small cages in their mouths.

- - - - - -

The Stargate shut down, bringing the clearing into abnormal dimness once more. The oil lamp, balanced on a pile of empty cages next to his elbow, seemed to throw off too little light to read by after the illumination of the wormhole.

Daniel's hand was shaking so much he could barely hold the pen. The symbols in the book kept blurring and he dropped the pen to slide two fingers beneath his glasses to rub his burning eyes.

"Okay, which one's next?" Jack's voice held fatigue and frustration and Daniel couldn't blame him. He'd gone through the Stargate twelve times already. Combined with Sam and Teal'c's ventures, they had only six more animals to return. Although one of the animals required special requirements, and Daniel knew they'd need environmental suits to go to that planet.

He forced his eyes to focus and he read the remaining descriptions. Pointing at the porcupine-like animal, he stood and began dialing the 'gate address. Jack picked up the cage and accompanied, as always, by two of the big cats, he strode through the wormhole. A moment later, the wormhole winked out.

Daniel made a notation next to the log and identified the next address just as the Stargate began dialing in. As Sam and her bodyguards stepped out, he simply pointed at the cage holding what looked like a couple of dozen mice. Exchanging the empty cage in her hand, Sam waited while he dialed the 'gate and without a word she stepped through. The moment the Stargate winked out, it dialed again, and this time Teal'c came through.

Fifteen minutes later, everyone was back. All that remained was the giant spider that needed gas tanks to survive and the herd of deer-like creatures in the corral. They all stared at the spider and Daniel held back a shiver of disgust when it stood and moved in the cage. Its size made it somewhat reminiscent to the replicators.

Jack stepped in front of the glass cage. "No way are we going to bring that thing back without a M.A.L.P. to check the planet out first."

"You're right," Daniel said tiredly. Actually he couldn't complain; they had gotten the job done more quickly thanks to the help from the cats. "Although I don't know how we're going to bring those deer up here. There's at least twenty�"

"I would suggest we attempt to capture the animals one at a time with a harness and lead them to the Stargate. If that fails," Teal'c said, his voice remaining serious, "we can always employ the zat'nik'tel and carry them here."

Daniel couldn't help but smile at Jack's incredulous look. He looked away and caught Sam's own grin, which only succeeded in making his own grow broader.

"Okay, let's go rope ourselves some deer." Jack pointed a finger at Teal'c. "And let's try it the old fashioned way before we start hogtying them and lugging them back here." He lowered the finger and turned to Daniel. "You stay here and get some rest while we�"

"Jack, I'm fine. With me helping, we can get this done a quarter of the time faster�"

"Yes, it would, if you weren't at the end of your rope. In any case, I need you here ready to dial the 'gate before we get those deer up here � the kawoosh might just spook them more than they already are."

As Daniel's three teammates turned and began walking down the valley, Scarlett zoomed from her supervisory position and headed after them. She circled them, stopped, and cheeped inquisitively at Daniel. He waved her on, and after a second's hesitation, she followed.

He leaned against the DHD the moment everyone was out of sight, taking the weight off his leg and wrapping his arms around his chest in an effort to hold back the shudders. When the trembling eased, he turned to the log and found the appropriate 'gate address and made a notation, then sat on the ground, his back to the DHD's support. He was glad they'd gotten all the animals home but after these deer, there was one last planet he'd have to dial and he knew he was going to miss its inhabitant.

There was a bit of a breeze; earlier he hadn't felt it much but suddenly he felt cold. His clothes had dried but they felt too thin, or maybe it was just him. He was so tired and he wanted nothing but a hot shower and a warm bed. He pulled his uninjured leg up, knee his bent, crossed his forearms against it and laid his head on his arms.

A moment later, Scarlett came zipping into the clearing, chattering loudly, followed by the rest of the flying aliens. They were all making so much of a racket that he failed to hear his team's return.

"Dial the 'gate," Jack yelled as he ran towards them.

Struggling to his feet, Daniel yelled back over his shoulder. "Which planet?"

"The deer! They're coming. Hurry."

Daniel glanced at the address then quickly punched the glyphs. The light of the active wormhole hurt his head and he turned his back on the 'gate as his teammates ran up to him and stood next to the DHD. He barely opened his mouth to ask what was coming, when he saw them.

The cats were herding the whole drove of deer-like animals. The deer appeared spooked, ready to run at any moment, but kept in check by their fear of the cats.

The first one hesitated at the steps of the dais until the nearest cat hissed, and a moment later it jumped through the wormhole. Like a flood, the rest of them followed at a run. Within seconds, all that was left were two dozen cats who stood there watching the wormhole with an eerie gaze, as if expecting the deer to come right back out. It was only once the Stargate winked out did they start moving again. Several of them began intertwining with the others, making sounds that sounded like coughs and whines. A few minutes later, those cats separated from the pride and began walking north. While Daniel was watching them leave, he realized that a few more cats were doing the same routine. They eventually left in the opposite direction. Pretty soon all that remained was six cats, which included Daniel's appointed protector and the one Daniel had saved as well as the kitten.

Sam moved close to Daniel and he gave her an inquiring look.

"You know, that makes sense."

Daniel nodded. "Yes, it does. I didn't realize it at the time, but that big a pride couldn't live for long around here. They'd run out of food in weeks."

"But how'd they know?" Grinning, his exhaustion forgotten for a moment, he turned to Jack. "This is incredible. The xenobiologists would have a field day out here."

"Okay, I'm obviously missing something other than the fact that we either have really well-trained circus cats, or they're a lot smarter than our own tabby cats."

"Just because animals resemble creatures of your own planet, does not mean they retain the same intelligence."

"The cats don't all live in this area, Jack." Ignoring Jack's glare aimed at Teal'c, Daniel shifted his weight and leaned against a tree. "The ecosystem wouldn't support such a huge number of cats. But somehow they knew there was trouble, and that's probably why they waited before taking down the camp. They were waiting for other prides to come and help them."

"Of course, sir, this is all speculation, but it stands to reason that our presence was enough for them to initiate the attack and get rid of the poachers."

"So that's why the other cats just..." Jack waved towards the dark woods.

"They're going home."

"Speaking of home, kids, I think it's time we head out." Jack rubbed his hands together and made a gesture towards the DHD.

"O'Neill, what of the camp?"

"What of it?"

"If more of these ha'taaka return to this planet, they will without doubt carry on this pilfering of creatures for profit."

"Sir, the cabin is made to be taken down quickly and moved easily. Most likely the poachers don't stay in one place for very long. If General Hammond sends a team back here, they could get rid of all signs the poachers were here and we'd have ourselves a mobile unit for offworld travel."

"That work for you, Teal'c?"

"Indeed."

With a look from Jack, Daniel turned to the DHD and began punching in the coordinates for Scarlett's planet. When the Stargate kawooshed, Daniel called her over.

"Come on, sweetheart, you're going home."

"Um, Daniel, they're not coming back to the SGC. You remember the havoc they wreaked when they visited the first time."

"No, Jack, we're taking them home." Limping heavily up the stairs of the dais, Daniel put an arm into the event horizon, holding the 'gate open, so to speak. "Go get your friends," he said to Scarlett as she circled him excitedly.

"You didn't dial Earth?"

"You didn't expect me to leave them here."

"No, I sort of thought you were going to find an excuse to bring those flying balloons back home for a day or two no matter what I said."

Daniel closed his eyes, frustrated because he had actually considered the idea. But seeing he would most likely be spending the next day or more in the infirmary, he didn't think Janet would appreciate the... visitors.

"Scarlett."

Daniel opened his eyes to see Jack with his arm raised in the air, trying to get Scarlett to calm down and come to him. Daniel turned to the cat that had followed him up the stairs. He reached his free arm down and ran it over the cat's head, feeling strong bone beneath the soft fur.

"Thank you. I don't know how much you can understand, but we'll be sending someone back to destroy that camp." He smiled, feeling almost silly to be talking to a cat. "Take care." Straightening, he looked at Jack, who was still trying to get Scarlett to calm down.

"Jack, make sure they all come through the Stargate, and don't forget to bring the spider." Before Jack could object, Daniel stepped through the wormhole.

It was daytime on the planet and he winced at the bright sunshine. The heat felt good, though, as he stepped out of the way. Just in time, several grey streaks zoomed by him in succession. Scarlett made an angry squawk and turned on her tail, coming back to scold him long and loud. Within moments, Daniel's team and all of the aliens had come through. Thankfully the cats seemed to have understood; none of the felines had accompanied his team through the Stargate.

"You tell him," Jack said when Scarlett paused as if she were taking a breath. She started the harangue again when she suddenly went still, looking around in surprise. Obviously she'd just realized she'd come home.

Daniel remembered how Major Santini had said none of the aliens had come to greet him upon their arrival. It was true. The planet was devoid of aliens except for those who had come through with SG-1.

Scarlett made a curious little cheep, then flew down to land on Daniel's shoulder. Even she could feel something was wrong. Hoping that it was nothing more than extreme caution that was keeping the aliens away, Daniel began walking towards the rock cliff that had been her home. He'd hoped to be able to leave Scarlett and the others here and go home, but from their reactions, he felt uneasy leaving them here without protection until he was sure they would be okay.

The moment he began moving, she rose off his shoulders and followed, keeping close. The other aliens had also calmed, all of them flying low and keeping within touching distance of the members of SG-1. When they approached the cliff, almost fearfully, they left the group to go investigate their home. It was heartbreaking to see them flying around the cliff, calling out for their families and getting no response. They couldn't leave them like this.

"Jack..."

"Daniel, we can't stay here�"

"O'Neill, I believe there is movement amongst their feeding grounds."

Daniel turned in the direction Teal'c was staring at. Far in the distance was a copse of trees. All he could see were the trees. He waited expectantly while Jack took out his field glasses and trained them on the copse.

"I don't see anything... Wait." Jack slowly spanned the area. "Yep, there are a couple of them but they're not moving around much."

"Do you think they're sick?"

"No, they're watching us so I'm thinking they're being cautious." Jack handed Daniel the binoculars. Pushing his glasses onto the top of his head, Daniel adjusted the focus and looked towards the trees. But his hands were shaking too much to make anything out so after a moment, he handed them back.

"Sir, do you think we should go investigate?"

Daniel didn't miss the quick glance Jack gave him. "How about you and Teal'c and the rest of the flying balloons go check it out. I'll stay here with Daniel."

"I don't need a babysitter."

"No, but you might appreciate the company while you wait."

In the end, Jack had to shoo the aliens to get them to go with Sam and Teal'c. It took Scarlett a little more coaxing before she went after them, waiting until the others were halfway to the grove before taking off.

Sitting still for a long period of time now that they were out of danger, Daniel found himself nodding off before Sam and Teal'c reached the tree line.

"Do you have any water left?" he asked, looking for a distraction.

Jack, who'd been following their teammates' progress on and off with the field glasses, handed Daniel the water bottle without taking his eyes off them.

"Thanks." He took a sip, then found himself gulping the water, not realizing how thirsty he was in the first place. He forced himself to stop and capped the bottle reluctantly.

"Finish it."

"No, it's okay, I�"

"We'll be leaving either way. There's no need to ration."

Daniel closed his eyes in frustration. The damage those poachers had done might be irreparable here on this planet. But Jack was right; there really wasn't much they could do but hope for the best. He twisted the cap off and finished the water.

When he clipped the empty bottle onto his utility belt, he found Jack watching him. "They're in the trees," he said. "Look, why don't you lie down. It'll be a while before they�"

"Colonel?"

"And then again, maybe not." Jack keyed his radio. "What'd you find, Carter?"

"They're all here. A little spooked and pretty wary of me and Teal'c, but Scarlett's flying around happy as can be with a couple of them. They wouldn't come up out of the trees at first, trying to hide in the leaves but they've relaxed a little since Scarlett's spoken to them."

Daniel leaned his head back in relief.

"Carter thinks they talk?" Jack asked in a surprised voice.

Daniel chuckled. "Can you doubt they don't?"

Jack waggled his eyebrows. "Yeah, Scarlett sorta reminds me of my aunt Gerty, always harping at my dad's brother."

"Since everything seems to be in order here, sir, Teal'c and I are on our way back."

Daniel glanced back towards the trees and saw his friends coming towards them. Which meant that in about thirty minutes, he'd have to get up again. Each time his leg seemed to ache more and more and moving was getting harder to do. Hopefully this was the last time. Janet would probably be jabbing needles into his ass by the time they sent the spider home so it would, unfortunately, become someone else's problem.

He watched them walk, his vision blurring in and out as he fought sleep.

"Daniel."

The sound of Jack's voice in his ear startled Daniel awake. Too tired to be embarrassed at finding himself leaning against Jack, his head nestled against his shoulder, he pulled his weight off his friend and turned lethargically to look at him. Jack merely tipped his chin to the side. Squinting to focus, Daniel saw that Sam and Teal'c had almost made their way back. And behind them was a large flock of aliens, who were quickly catching up. Within seconds they flew over his teammates, a few coming down to circle them before moving on after the flock.

Flying uncharacteristically silent, the aliens passed over Jack and Daniel and headed for the cliff which had been their homes. Several broke off and went towards the 'gate while others seemed to be simply looking around. Daniel wondered where Scarlett was, until he felt a bump against his shoulder. He turned his head and saw her there, next to him. She gave his neck a quick lick in greeting. There was a gleam in her eye as she watched the aliens investigate their homes and slowly settle with quiet cheeps and squawks. They were still skittish, though, a few spooking occasionally, causing a flurry of panicked aliens in the immediate area.

"I wonder if Squirt and Squiggle are here."

Scarlett cheeped happily and Daniel couldn't help smiling as he remembered Scarlett's children. "Yeah... I wonder if they remember us," he added, nostalgia lacing his voice. Then he heard a couple of high-pitched squeaks directly behind him.

Turning in surprise, he saw two half-grown aliens watched them, eyes wide with apprehension.

"Hey. The gang's all here." Jack put a hand out in invitation, waggling his fingers slowly.

One of the younger aliens cheeped softly, and its mother made a comforting noise. It approached Jack cautiously, glancing up at Scarlett once before sniffing Jack's hand. It made a small yip and rubbed its face against Jack's fingers.

Seeing its sibling getting attention from Jack, the other one approached also, moving more cautiously. Scarlett slowly encouraged it, until it was being lavished praise and affection by Sam and Teal'c.

"I wonder how long since they've been hiding?" Sam rubbed her fingers over the twin's head and it gave an appreciative cheep.

"There was evidence of much excrement amongst the trees." Teal'c kept his voice low, as if speaking too loudly would startle the aliens. "I estimate they have been living there for at least two weeks."

"They must have been terrified..." Daniel broke off as the baby left Jack and came to greet him.

"Hi there. Do you remember us?" Suddenly fearless, Daniel found himself with a squirming, half-grown alien baby who wanted nothing more than to lick any bit of skin it could get its tongue onto. "I guess you do, huh?"

The baby left Daniel and rushed to Sam, giving her the same quality of greeting. Pretty soon the other twin began making the rounds also, until Scarlett rose in the air and chittered, and the two kids reluctantly left them, coming to gather close to their mother.

Scarlett rubbed against Daniel. She licked his face, then turned to look at him. "Go on, sweetheart," he urged when she cocked her head, almost doglike. "Go on home. You're all safe now."

She rose, flying a slow circle around them, then with a burst of speed, flew towards the cliff, the children right behind her.

Jack stood and reached a hand down to Daniel. Gratefully, he accepted the help. Wobbling slightly as his legs shook, they all watched Scarlett's progress as she brought her family home. Occasionally an alien would rise up to greet her and then would go back to its nest. Scarlett finally stopped, turned to look at SG-1, then disappeared from view with her children.

"Well," Jack said, clapping his hands together, "as much as I hate to break up this party, I think some of us have an appointment with Fraiser."

Daniel didn't even bother looking at Jack. Instead he turned towards the Stargate and began slowly limping towards it. He couldn't help looking back, though, hoping for a last glimpse of Scarlett. By the time Sam went to the DHD and dialed the 'gate, although they'd seen an occasional alien rise from the cliff face, he couldn't be sure if any of them had been her. Still, he stopped and waved in their general direction before stepping through the Stargate.

- - - - - -

Jack straightened as Fraiser entered the infirmary, as did Carter. Teal'c, who'd been standing behind Jack's chair, remained unmoving. They all watched her approach Daniel's bed, her footsteps softening with the last few feet.

Curled up on his side, Daniel had gone dead to the world during his examination and once asleep, hadn't woken up, even through the X-rays and blood taking.

"Well, he's very lucky." Frasier leaned back against an empty infirmary bed and smiled down at Daniel. "There's no sign of infection in the claw marks, and his leg's badly bruised but not broken.

"The tremors have me a little worried; we'll do more extensive neurological tests tomorrow when he's rested. I'm hoping that it's just a residual effect of the device used on him compounded by exhaustion and stress. You did say, Colonel, that the cat that had also been tortured was exhibiting no symptoms by the end of the day?"

"Yeah. It looked fine, but it slept more than Daniel did."

"When we were taken prisoner, the poachers kept boasting about how their Tamers could take down a cat with one charge. Considering the animals weigh a couple more times than we do, isn't it possible that Daniel is still experiencing side effects because he got a higher charge?"

"That's most likely it, Sam. My worry now is that there's no lasting effect�"

"Like what?"

Fraiser grimaced, then shrugged. "Damage to his nervous system. The tremors, for example. Weakness, headaches, blurred vision�" She put a hand up before Jack could ask whether Daniel had been suffering from any of these symptoms. "These are also symptoms of fatigue, so like I said, I don't want to assume anything until he wakes up."

Daniel looked dead to the world, breathing deep and rhythmically despite the conversation going on around them. Jack glanced down at his friend, checked to see that he wasn't waking and then went to ask Fraiser how long she expected him to sleep.

"He'll sleep until he wakes up on his own, Colonel. That could be ten hours from now, or twenty."

Noting the warning in her voice, Jack nodded. Waking up a sleeping archaeologist was definitely not on his to-do list.

"I'll make sure you're informed when he does wake, sir," she said more kindly.

Sighing, Jack nodded again. He thanked Fraiser and headed off to his office. He had a report to write, and a debriefing to attend.

- - - - - -

Jack walked into the infirmary with a smile on his face, only to find his grin falter when he saw that Daniel was still sleeping. He snagged a nurse who was walking by and said softly, "Doctor Fraiser said that Doctor Jackson was awake."

The nurse turned to look at Daniel and nodded. "He did wake up, sir. Even managed to eat a bite of breakfast but it looks like he drifted off again." She patted his hand, which was still gripping her arm. "Come back in a couple of hours. He'll hopefully be up by then."

"Thanks," he muttered as she walked off. She'd just left the main ward when he realized he hadn't asked if Fraiser had decided if Daniel was going to be okay. He moved up to the bed, trying to see if Daniel was really asleep or just dozing. After ascertaining that Fraiser wasn't anywhere close by, he *accidentally* bumped into the bed.

The only movement was Daniel's head shifting slightly on the pillow as the bed settled.

"Daniel," Jack hissed, resisting the urge to grab Daniel's shoulder and shake. Still he glanced around furtively; Fraiser would never let him hear the end of it if she caught him deliberately trying to wake Daniel.

Daniel coughed once, sighed, and resumed the deep breathing of someone totally relaxed and asleep. Jack drummed his fingers lightly on the table next to the bed, trying to decide whether to try again or just go. He didn't have much time so he decided he'd leave and come back to see Daniel when he got back. He'd barely taken three steps when he heard Daniel's voice.

"You're not staying?"

"You're not sleeping," Jack said, irritated at Daniel's sleepy grin.

"I was. Dozing, that is."

"You just wanted to see me get in trouble with Fraiser." Jack narrowed his eyes at Daniel.

"Hey, you can't blame a guy for looking for distractions. Janet won't let me read or�"

"Work?" Jack asked sarcastically.

"Yeah, well..." Daniel dropped his eyes and seemed to find a stain on the blanket very interesting.

"So... how are you feeling? Fraiser mentioned she was going to run some tests...?"

"Oh. She said that my neurological responses are fine." Daniel glanced up at Jack before starting to rub at the stain with his thumb. "She thinks with some more rest, the tremors will go away completely."

"So you're still shaking?"

Daniel stilled his hands and met Jack's gaze. "It comes and goes. Nowhere near as bad as back on the planet but it's damned frustrating to try and take a sip of coffee just as you get a full body shiver."

"Ah." Jack now understood where the stain had come from.

"So..." Daniel looked at Jack, his eyes pointedly going up and down his body. "You're heading off somewhere?"

"Yeah, we're scheduled to go offworld in ten minutes with SG-14." Jack suddenly felt guilty leaving Daniel while his team sent out again. "We're going to pack up the cabin the poachers were using and clean up the zoo area, you know, as a deterrent in case there were others�"

"What happened to the spider?"

"SG-12 had the pleasure of returning that sucker home," Jack said with a shudder, recalling the M.A.L.P. video feed. "You should have seen that place � kinda looked like it was out of a SciFi movie. Purple mist and weird trees..."

"Not some place we'll be exploring soon, I suppose?"

Jack shrugged. "They did find some sort of ruins..." Daniel's eyes opened wide and Jack couldn't help but smiling. "Not to worry. They took plenty of video footage for you. It's waiting in your office for when you get out of here."

Daniel's smile turned into a yawn. Jack checked his watch, knowing he was going to cut it close. "Gotta run. I'll come see you when I get back." He took a few steps backwards, waving back when Daniel waggled his fingers, mouth wide open in another yawn. He turned and made it to the elevator at a brisk walk.

- - - - - -

"So he's okay?" Jack asked, taking the thermometer from his mouth.

Fraiser simply gave him a pointed look and he stuck the device back into his mouth. "Daniel's prognosis looks very good." She glanced at the chart in her hands, looking through the nurse's notations before the nurse had finished with Jack's post-mission exam.

"And so, he's out taking a shower?" Okay, the thermometer had only been out of his mouth for all of three seconds, he didn't warrant a second glare from Fraiser. He pointedly looked around to Daniel's clean, made-up infirmary bed. Nobody had been able to answer his questions as the nursing staff had just changed shift and SGs-1 and 14 had apparently come in before they could brief one another.

"I wouldn't know." The look she gave Jack seemed to dare him to open his mouth before the thermometer registered, so he tried raising his eyebrows and widening his eyes in inquiry. Finally she laughed softly. "I sent him home, Colonel."

Suddenly able to breathe more deeply and freely since seeing Daniel absent from the infirmary, Jack simply grunted as the thermometer finally beeped.

"Everything looks good," she added as she glanced at the readings. "You're good to go." She scribbled something in the chart and smiled.

"How long will he be�?"

"Three days sick leave, after that he's to come back for an evaluation." Clutching the chart to her chest, she gave him a serious look. "He's still a little shaky but overall everything looks good. If you plan on visiting him, though," she added quickly as Jack got up off the bed, "don't be surprised if he doesn't have much energy. It'll take a few days of rest before he feels strong enough to shake the effects of the alien weapon."

Jack nodded, quickly calculating how long it would take before he could leave. It was already mid-afternoon here at the mountain; their debriefing should go without a hitch as they hadn't encountered any problems. They'd brought back a ton of stuffed animals for the xenobiologists to study plus the contents of the cabin so everything would now be out of his hands after reporting to Hammond. He had plenty of time to pick up the surprise Carter and Teal'c had for Daniel, grab something for supper and drop in at Daniel's.

- - - - - -

Jack shifted his hold on the bag, feeling the heat of the plastic containers burning his fingers through the paper. For the third time, he knocked on Daniel's door, this time exercising more force � the hell with the neighbours.

Finally he heard noise from within the apartment. When he heard stumbling footsteps followed by something banging against a piece of furniture, he leaned close to the door and called Daniel's name.

A moment later the lock engaged and the door opened. Daniel stood there, sans glasses, blinking at Jack through squinting, sleep-glazed eyes. Shirt and pants rumpled, one sock was half pulled off his feet so that the toes on his right foot seemed to lie several inches beyond his left. His hair was messed on one side of his head, obviously flattened by a pillow and there were red creases on his cheek.

"Jack?" Daniel asked in a breathless voice.

"Brought supper." Jack hefted the bag in his arms and shoved it forward as proof. Daniel simply stared at Jack and then the bag as if he'd spoken some thrice-dead language that even Daniel had never heard of. Hell, those big cats on that planet had gotten less of a reaction from Daniel, even obvious as it was that they were somehow communicating. "Supper, as in food? Eats? Chinese. Got chopsticks?"

Daniel blinked and finally seemed to wake up. "Um, yeah." He took a couple of steps backwards to make room for Jack to enter.

Jack stepped inside and immediately headed for the sunken living room. He deposited the bag on the coffee table, moving a couple of artifacts out of the way to make room and taking in the rumpled blanket which lay half on the couch and half on the floor. He turned and saw Daniel had closed the door but was still standing there watching him, obviously confused.

"What, you don't have chopsticks?" He spotted Daniel's glasses on a side table near the couch, picked them up and took the stairs quickly. He handed Daniel the glasses as he entered the kitchen and went straight for the fridge. As he'd hoped, there were a few bottles of beer left and he snagged two. He twisted the cap off one bottle and began to toss it into a corner, halting the motion when Daniel cleared his throat meaningfully. That seemed to get Daniel moving and he shuffled next to him and removed two packaged sets of chopsticks from a drawer.

"You didn't have to come over�" Daniel cleared his throat awkwardly as he tore the packaging open.

"Hey, I was hungry and thought you might be, too." He handed Daniel the opened beer bottle and accepted a set of chopsticks in return. He twisted the cap off his bottle of beer and dropped both caps onto the countertop. He saluted Daniel with the bottle and took a swig of beer. Daniel hesitated a moment, and followed suit.

"You look like shit, you know that? I thought Fraiser said you were better." Jack surreptitiously patted the envelopes in his jacket pocket with his other hand, making sure it was still there.

"I was sleeping," Daniel said in an aggrieved voice. "People don't look their best when they're woken from a sound sleep by someone banging on their door loud enough to wake the dead."

"Obviously the first two times I banged wasn't loud enough to wake even you," Jack countered. He started to take a second swallow, when he noticed two pieces of toast sitting in the toaster. He picked them up, grimaced and headed for the garbage can.

"Hey, I was going to eat those." Daniel made a grab for the toast just as Jack dropped them into the refuse.

"They're hard as rock." Jack wiped the crumbs sticking to his fingers on his pants. He turned, giving Daniel a pointed look. "You made those for breakfast, didn't you?"

Daniel blinked several times, then squinted at the clock on the microwave.

"Damnit, Daniel, you haven't eaten all day long?"

Checking his watch against the time on the microwave, Daniel mumbled, "That can't be right."

"You slept the whole day, didn't you?"

"No." Daniel gave Jack a quick, almost embarrassed look as he moved past Jack, heading back to the living room. "I did get up to pee at one point." He sat on the couch and began taking the containers out of the bag.

Taking a seat opposite him, Jack pulled the blanket up off the floor and tossed it into a corner. He watched Daniel struggle with a plastic cover, noting thankfully that there was no sign of tremors. Jack helped himself to an egg roll and bit into it.

"So�" Daniel asked tentatively as he picked up a piece of chicken and held it to his mouth. "How was the mission?"

Jack chewed quickly and swallowed the greasy vegetables and fried wrapping as he put the rest of the egg roll on a napkin. "Uneventful. A couple of the cats came to watch, but other than the kitten�"Jack picked up a container and his chopsticks, and pointed at Daniel with the ends of the chopsticks before fishing for a meaty piece of rib� "The kitten's paw looked fine, by the way, it wasn't limping even though the dressing was gone." Jack smiled as he recalled the kitten bounding up to him and butting its head against his legs, demanding attention. Unlike the adults, it had followed him around for the majority of the mission. The adults had simply watched, and had given off a warning growl to the kitten only a couple of times when it seemed it was about to get into mischief.

"Did you see�?" Daniel asked around a mouthful of rice.

"Yeah, your private guardian hung around the whole time. I think we saw a total of four of the beasts in all, but they kept trading watches so I'm not a hundred percent sure."

Jack went on to describe the highlights of their mission, recounting the antics of the kitten while pushing the various dishes over to Daniel's side of the coffee table. When he'd gotten several smiles out of his friend, Jack moved on to the more serious part of their mission. "We found a lot of dead animals� Dr. Redden is gonna have her hands full with what we brought back."

"What about Scar's friend...?"

Jack grimaced before tossing the chopsticks onto the coffee table. He stood, grabbing their empties and went to get some fresh beers. "Whatever makes them float seems to be wearing off," he said over his shoulder. "Dr. Redden said that with the evisceration, she can't tell us what causes them to fly but that preliminary tests showed the presence of helium and some other gas she can't identify. That it's probably embedded within their cells." Jack quickly opened the beer bottles and returned to the living room. "You can ask Carter for the details, she was taking notes."

Daniel smiled as he took the beer Jack handed him. There'd been a bit of a haunted quality to Daniel when Jack had arrived, and he wondered if it had been caused by bad dreams or simply the events of the last mission finally catching up to him.

"It's pretty clear from the stuff we took from the poacher's camp, that we got all of them. The flying balloons and even the big cats, are safe." Jack leaned back against the couch and making himself comfortable, pushed aside the remains of their supper with his leg to make room. He ignored Daniel's pointed look and reached for one of the envelopes in his pocket. He tossed the package over the coffee table, aiming for Daniel's lap. "Compliments of Carter, me 'n' Teal'c."

With a quick, confused look, Daniel grabbed at the envelope before it slid onto the floor. He put the beer down and removed the six pictures Carter had very carefully cropped before getting General Hammond's permission to give to Daniel.

"Jack!" The confusion turned to obvious pleasure as Daniel looked at the first photo of a close-up of Scarlett's face. "These are�"

"Hammond gave us permission to do a quick side trip to check on the critters. They're doing fine, by the way," Jack added as Daniel moved on to the second picture. All the photos were edited so that the alien creature resembled a close-up of a dog or fox, but anyone who knew Scarlett could easily make out the intelligence behind the gleaming eyes. "A little skittish, but they did come to investigate when the Stargate activated."

Daniel's attention seemed glued to the photos. He went through them several times, the smile on his face getting wider and wider.

"There's more at the SGC; these ones, you can keep." There was one that Teal'c had taken which was almost heart breaking � Scarlett had kept flying towards the Stargate, as if expecting Daniel to come through. She couldn't seem to understand why her favourite human hadn�t come to visit and had calmed only after Jack had coaxed her to settle and allowed him to pet her. Teal'c had captured her staring at the 'gate and the look of confusion was evident on her face.

"I don't know what to say�"

"Thank Teal'c. It was his idea to bring the camera." Jack reached into his pocket once more and took out a second envelope. "These two are classified, but I thought you'd like to see 'em now." This time Jack removed his feet from the coffee table and leaned over, handing Daniel the photos.

Daniel stared at the first photo for a long moment, then looked up at Jack, the smile turning into a grin.

"Yeah, looks like the baby's growing up okay." Jack waved at the photo of a half-grown, alien baby, a very noticeable crook in its back, hovering close to Carter's outstretched hand, with Scarlett supervising close by. It was obvious that the baby was skittish and wary, but the second picture had the baby curled happily in Carter's arms, head extended, trying to lick her chin. Carter's smile in the picture was almost as wide as Daniel's.

Leaning back against the couch, Daniel continued to peruse the pictures. Jack stood and began gathering the leftovers. When Daniel went to sit up, Jack waved him back down. "I got it. You just sit there and rest."

"I can help clean up. Look, the shaking's gone." He held up a hand, holding it out.

Jack glanced at the rock-steady hand. "You can do the favours next time you eat at my place, okay?"

"And of course you'll make sure you dirty every pot and pan in the process," Daniel shot back while suppressing a yawn. But he didn't argue, he simply sat there and continued to admire the photos.

By the time Jack had placed everything in the fridge, Daniel had his eyes closed, his hands lax on his lap, photos still clutched between his fingers. Gently, Jack eased the pictures and placed them in the corner of the coffee table. Hating to take away the two which had given Daniel so much pleasure, he vowed to put them on Daniel's desk first thing in the morning, along with all of the copies Teal'c and Carter had printed.

He gave the living room a last glance, gave the coffee table a quick swipe with a cloth, and covered Daniel with the discarded blanket. His friend looked relaxed in sleep, the corner of his lip raised in the tiniest smile. Jack smiled to himself as he flipped off all the lights but the one in the corner, and let himself out. Daniel was going to be fine.

 

FINIS!


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DISCLAIMER:The characters mentioned in this story are the property of Showtime and Gekko Film Corp. The Stargate, SG-I, the Goa'uld and all other characters who have appeared in the series STARGATE SG-1 together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MGM-UA Worldwide Television, Gekko Film Corp, Glassner/Wright Double Secret Productions and Stargate SG-I Prod. Ltd. Partnership. This fanfic is not intended as an infringement upon those rights and solely meant for entertainment. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author.