Leaving Time

Many thanks to my beta reader, Alli, for her work on this story.


 When he finds him, Daniel's wearing a collar. Seeing it dark and tight around the grubby, bruised neck makes Jack cold inside, closes his ears momentarily, blinds his eyes. He breathes out slowly and hooks his fingers inside it to find the fastening.

Daniel screams, as high and loud as he can, given the state of his throat. It's a cracked whimper of a cry that hurts to hear. Jack's fingers slip free and he rubs them clean on his leg against the mud-encrusted fabric, frantically trying to scrub off the hideous twitch and slither and squeeze.

"What the hell is that?" he asks, revulsion choking him. Looks like leather, utilitarian and brown, rough-edged and primitive but it moved.

Daniel rocks out of his crouch to kneel, sitting back on his heels and brushing the dirt from his palms. His eyes focus and he blinks. "Jack?"

"Yeah." Jack kneels in filth and reaches out his hand. It hangs, irresolute, as he tries to find a safe place to pat Daniel and then falls to his side. He's already told Daniel it's him, already given him water, but Daniel doesn't seem able to hold onto it, any of it. "You knew we wouldn't leave you, right? Knew we'd come back..."

"Knew you'd come back..." Daniel echoes doubtfully.

Jack grits his teeth and rests his hand with infinite care on Daniel's shoulder, placing his finger just so and making sure he doesn't press down on raw, grazed skin, showing red through the faded, torn cloth. "We came as soon as possible after the Shalin dropped out of touch. Had to gate to the next planet over and come here by Tok'ra ship, but we've got people working on unburying the 'gate in the village; you'll be home tonight, I promise you."

"It took us a long time to bury it," Daniel says, his hands flexing as if they're clutching a shovel. Blisters crack and clear liquid makes snail tracks through the dirt painting his palms brown and grey.

"They made you --?" Jack bites off the words. "Yeah, guess they would."

Daniel nods and doesn't stop, his head bobbing up and down, impelled by an exhaustion deep enough that the effort of moving is less than the will needed to stop. Jack's hand cups his face and stills the movement. "It's going to be okay, Daniel."

Stone-dry, tear-empty eyes stare up at him.

"Really." Jack's talking for both of them now, wondering where the hell Carter and Teal'c are, and then knowing he doesn't want them to see Daniel like this. "Get you cleaned up, get you back; let Janet fix you up... get that thing off you..." He screws up his nose, glad of the chance to do it without hurting Daniel's feelings. The man stinks; organic odours of piss and shit and sweat. Jack's brain is screaming at him to run, kill, hide, all kinds of memories stirred up in the first sniff of the air inside Daniel's cage. He stares at the collar. "What's it made of?"

Daniel doesn't touch the collar. Jack's used to watching Daniel's fingers absently caress what he's describing, but he doesn't miss that habit now.

"It's flesh from a lindess tree."

Jack waits, puzzled, but Daniel's finished talking as if he's said enough. He offers Daniel some more water, holding the canteen to the split, dried lips, and waits until Daniel's swallowed five, six times before he takes the canteen away, hating how easy it is to fend off Daniel's clutching fingers. "Take it slow, huh? Don't want you throwing it back up again."

Daniel stares at him as if he hates him.

"Want me to cut it off? The collar?"

"No! Nonononono..." The words chatter out in a panicked rush and lose their meaning half way through for both of them.

"Easy!" Jack's hands fit snugly around Daniel's wrists and hold him in place. "Daniel, tell me why you don't want that fucking thing off you."

"You'll kill it." Daniel's shivering now, convulsive shudders that crawl over his skin like spiders.

"What?" Jack stares at it. "It's alive?" He's seen too much weirdness to be entirely disbelieving, especially since he remembers the way it moved against his skin.

Daniel gives a jerk of his head that Jack takes for assent.

"Okay. So we kill it. I've got no problems with that."

None. Zero. Jack's still coming down from the fight. His skin is slicked with sweat and his face splattered with blood, dried and flaking; it itches but he doesn't care.

Not his blood, after all.

Daniel turns around, hunches over, and very carefully splits the shaggy fall of hair at the back of his neck with his hands.

Jack edges closer and peers at the collar where it presses against the nape of Daniel's neck. In the dimness of the hut, it takes him a moment to work out what he's looking at, and when he does, he turns his head and spits out sourness, stomach heaving.

"God..."

How deep the tendrils go inside Daniel's body, he doesn't know. Enough that they're piercing the once smooth skin, blood black and crusted around the entrance wounds. Enough that Daniel's doubly bound by the thing.

"What the fuck is it?"

Daniel turns back, so that he's close, too close, and Jack can't stop the instinctive recoil. Daniel reaches out and snatches the canteen off him, gulping at it, cradling it to him. Jack knows that's something that's going to be left behind. No way could he ever drink from it again.

"It's part of a sentient tree." Daniel lowers the canteen and gives Jack a look that's still vaguely hostile. "The Shalin shape the branches when they fall and they retain a connection to the mother tree until it dies. The resultant artwork is fascinating; some of it is centuries old and still living, changing subtly... " The crisp, swift explanation falters to a drawl, as if Daniel's clockwork-driven now, winding down. He plucks at the torn, stiff jacket he's wearing. "Dirty. Do you think they'll let me requisition another?"

"Yeah," Jack says. "It's a write-off."

"I think it is," Daniel says seriously, as if the loss of a uniform matters when he's got a fucking alien life form screwing his brains up.

"So what do they do with this tree? They make wicker baskets out of it, or something?"

Daniel snickers. "Noooo. Just basket cases."

Jack glances toward the door, ignoring Daniel's breathless, gasped giggles. "Daniel; this place stinks and I can't see you. Want to get the hell out of here and let me torch the place?"

Daniel bites his lip to silence himself, his teeth fitting neatly into already dented skin. "Out?"

"Yeah. Out." Jack goes to the door and looks around. The smoke from the fighting and the fires hangs over the village in wisps of grey, tainting the fresh air he's sucking gratefully into his lungs. He can't see anyone alive in sight. He'd told Carter and Teal'c to join him once they'd overseen the start of the digging -- with a jolt, he realises that they've only been gone a short while. It feels as if he's been inside that cramped hovel for an hour.

He goes back to Daniel and takes his hand. "Come on. No one's out there. It's safe."

There's something inside that's telling him Daniel needs shielding, shouldn't be seen like this. It's the instinct of a child covering for an alcoholic mother. No one's going to look at Daniel with pity or disgust. No one.

Daniel leaves the hut readily enough and Jack leads him across to the shallow river on the eastern side of the village. He's got spare clothes in his pack; no spare boots, but Daniel's been going barefoot for a while by the look of it. They can strip him down, wash him, scour off some of the dirt. Daniel's moving like he's still trapped in a space too small to stretch out in. His skin's peppered with contusions and scars, but Jack can't see anything that would make a wash a bad idea.

Unless that fucking tree around his neck doesn't like getting wet.

They've been walking past bodies without Daniel reacting but he pauses at one, his gaze scanning the twisted, limp corpse curiously.

"What?" Jack asks. This was one of his kills. He remembers it. Bullets sewing a red thread across the man's chest and a sword swinging up from nowhere as Jack got closer...

"It's Sacer," Daniel says.

... the hilt of the sword warm in Jack's hand as he took it out of a loose grip and --

"Didn't he have a head?" Daniel turns a puzzled look on Jack. "I think he had a head." Dull eyes brighten as Jack nods silently at a brownish lump a few yards away, stripped of personality by death. "Oh, right. There it is."

Jack swallows. "Yeah. I didn't mean to --"

"He's the one who put the collar on me," Daniel says dreamily. Jack feels some of his guilt slip away, replaced by a sour sting of hate towards the dead man. He tries to ignore both emotions; not important right now. "They're loose at first, you know, wet with sap, and then they tighten as they dry. If they aren't the right size they strangle you slowly."

Jack's hand tightens on Daniel's sleeve but he doesn't trust himself to reply.

"That's how Alice died," Daniel carries on. "She was in the cage next to me and she was choking and gasping and begging Sacer to cut it off her. It took a long time for her to die and I could feel my collar getting tighter and tighter, squeezing my neck, cracking my bones until the blood gushed out and I drowned."

"That wasn't you," Jack says urgently, shaking Daniel until he stops droning out the details of Alice Stewart's death. Jack remembers her in the gateroom; blonde, with short, wispy hair tied in a knot on top of her head, blue eyes snapping with excitement because she was off to another planet; one of Daniel's fellow geeks.

"Will of the gods," Daniel mutters. "Why is it always the will of the gods? Why can't they just admit that they're sadists with a disturbing knack for torture and an inability to measure?"

That sounds promising. Anger, spiced with spite. Jack's all for encouraging that.

They make it to the river with Daniel still muttering imprecations against Sacer and Jack nodding agreement, Daniel's weight numbing his arm. Jack's feeling optimistic. He's found Daniel, and even if he's the only survivor from the six who were taken, even though he's got a fucking twig rammed into his skull, well, he's alive, sane enough to be sarcastic, and apart from Benson cracking his wrist, the rescuers have suffered no injuries.

Fraiser'll get it off him Jack thinks. Or Thor, or the Tok'ra, or Carter. Between 'em, they can do just about anything. Shit, we can spray it with weed killer if it comes to that.

Daniel stares at the water and then at Jack.

"Daniel -- one friend to another; you stink." Jack shrugs out of his pack and rummages through it, bringing out a folded set of BDU's and a pair of socks. He tosses a small bottle of liquid soap in the air and catches it. "Get in, get the worst of it off, and then use this," he says, keeping his voice light and impersonal.

Daniel starts to undress, his movement hesitant, averting his face. It's not shyness --God knows they've showered side by side often enough -- but shame, Jack realises. Daniel doesn't want him to see --

Oh God.

The last of the rags fall to the ground and Daniel takes an unsteady step forward and then stumbles. Jack watches him start to fall, shocked into immobility. Daniel goes down on one knee, steadies himself with a hand and then starts to haul himself upright, teeth gritted, holding back a moan of pain.

"Shit --" Jack goes to him and helps him up, yanks him up, dragging Daniel to his feet and running his hands over the skin that's covering a skeleton that's subtly not right. Too much of it, too many bumps and protrusions.

"Am I beautiful?" Daniel asks him, his eyes blue again under the sky. "He said I would be. Said it was a pity criminals were never exhibited because I'd be much admired."

Jack wishes he wasn't working this out so quickly.

"Not wicker baskets."

Daniel's head is cradled against Jack's arm, his body cool and oddly weighted. Too little flesh, too much --

"No. Just me."

Hollows and dips and sunken, shrinking, stretching skin... Daniel sucked dry, changing...

"What will -- how will it end?"

Hardest question he's ever had to ask but Daniel just shrugs, easing out of Jack's grip and walking toward the water.

"I won't die from it," Daniel says. "Not all the way. You'll have to kill me. Promise you will?" The sunlight scatters across the water and dazzles Jack's eyes so that all he sees is Daniel, naked and smiling at him, serenely confident that Jack'll agree. Then the water swallows him up and Jack blinks away the sting of tears and slides his sunglasses on.

By the time Daniel's dressed, matted hair slicked back, body mercifully shrouded, Jack's starting to wish he had more people to kill.

"They said you were being held," he tells Daniel. "Unharmed and held, pending an investigation."

The ponderous, measured tones of the Shalin ambassador had left Jack on edge. Hammond had remained calm, arguing for a release, pleading the case of Daniel's team -- what was left of it. The deaths of the marines sent to guard the archeologists were already dealt with, the four men buried with words like 'regrettable', 'unfortunate', 'tragic misunderstanding' carved on their gravestones.

"We were," Daniel says dryly. "The investigation just didn't take as long as they told you." He's walking with confidence now, as if the wash and fresh clothes have helped, biting hungrily at an energy bar Jack's found, crumbling and squashed, in his pocket. "They really don't care about lying. Not after what we did."

Jack halts Daniel with a hand on his arm. "Just what did you do, Daniel? Any of you? What the fuck could you do to deserve this?"

Daniel stares at the woods where Carter and Teal'c can be seen hurrying along a narrow track. "We forgot that this isn't Earth, Jack. We broke the rules."

"Yeah, well, we do that sort of thing all the fucking time," Jack snaps.

"Yes, we do," Daniel agrees, starting to walk again, angling away from his approaching friends. He pauses by a tree growing out of a heap of rocks. "But we don't get away with murder," Daniel says, studying it dispassionately as Carter and Teal'c approach. "Sacer liked this one, but he said Simon struggled too much at the end. The best results are when you let the tree have control of your final shape, but not many people can do that. It hurts quite a lot, you see. He hoped I'd be braver than Simon was and I said I'd try."

Simon? Oh, God.

Sickness takes Jack, twisting his gut until he thinks he might actually puke. That hasn't happened to him in years, but the tree's swaying without a breeze, the rustle of its leaves a sibilant scream, and if Daniel's going to be like that soon --

Carter's eyes are wide and anxious, her hand on Daniel's arm, Teal'c's impassive face lit by a small smile that fades fast, but they're all close enough to touch now, the team in one place again.

"Daniel?" Carter sounds freaked and concerned and Jack realises she's heard what Daniel had said. "What are you talking about?"

Teal'c does what Jack couldn't have, not ever, and rests his hand against the bark of the tree. "I believe Daniel Jackson is telling us that this was once a member of his team, Major Carter." He sounds shaken out of his customary composure. "Although I do not know how this has been done, or the purpose of it."

"It's done as both a punishment and a privilege," Daniel says. "Those who volunteer are greatly honoured. They create a living blend between the two dominant life forms on the planet, you see."

"No," Carter says, shaking her head violently. "I don't see. How can it be a punishment if it's an honour?"

Daniel smiles as Teal'c snatches his fingers back as the tree shrieks at him, woken and angry. "The ones who blend are allowed to forget. Absorbed entirely. Gifted with wisdom and immortal. The others -- the tree takes from them and gains strength from their life force, but gives nothing back." The intent furrow between Daniel's eyebrows deepens. "They remember who they were. It's why they scream like that. It's forbidden to look at the punishment trees; they're taboo, but Sacer told me that he's heard music made from the sounds they make and that it was.." Daniel's lips pout as he tries to remember. "Compelling and eerily complex," he says finally with a nod.

He starts to walk away. "If you set fire to it, I think that will work," he calls back over his shoulder. "For Simon's sake, I hope you can find a quicker way to kill him, though."

***

By the time the 'gate's been disinterred, Jack's managed to piss off everyone within reach, snapping out orders that Carter quietly counters with impeccable reasons why that's not such a good idea, sir, no, really, if you set fire to the village, well, it could spread to the forest and --

He's not listening and as he stares at her uncomprehendingly, Teal'c tugs him away to the side.

"O'Neill."

"Yeah?" Jack rubs at his eyes. He's been awake for a long time now and he's starting to feel the effects. Hasn't slept well since Daniel went missing.

"The Tok'ra vessel has returned from its sweep of the city."

"Well?"

Teal'c shakes his head.

"No one left?" Jack's not sure of the numbers involved; this isn't one of the industrialised worlds, densely populated like Earth, but he recalls a report speculating that the main city had housed a few hundred thousand people.

"No human survivors," Teal'c says carefully. "It seems that the Lindess are unaffected but as we have no way of communicating with them --"

Jack smiles tightly. "Give me an axe," he says. "I bet I can get a dialogue going in no time."

The corners of Teal'c's mouth turn down. "I do not believe that would be wise, O'Neill. General Hammond has instructed us to be diplomatic."

"He didn't know what they'd done to Daniel and his team when he said that," Jack says.

Teal'c nods. "That is so. However, I do not think he would approve of --"

"It was a joke, Teal'c!" Jack snaps. It wasn't.

"There is nothing amusing in this," Teal'c says heavily. His gaze travels to where Daniel sits cross-legged, staring at what's left of Simon Foster. "Has Daniel Jackson spoken of what transpired here?"

Jack sighs. "Little bit. Not much. He keeps... drifting away. He'll be talking fast, the way he does, and then he just loses it. I'm not sure how reliable he is."

Carter joins them, her face pale and smudged with ash and dirt. "The Stargate's in place, sir. I've run some tests and it seems to be working."

"That's good," Jack says, giving her a vague smile she doesn't return. "Dial home and I'll talk to General Hammond."

"Sir? We're not leaving?"

"Oh, I want to, Carter," Jack tells her. "But as we still haven't found the rest of Daniel's team --"

Carter swallows. "We've -- we've found some bodies, sir."

"Oh?" Jack's fingers drum against his rifle. "Tell me more, Carter."

"Three bodies, sir, buried in a shallow grave just inside the forest. Doctors Simcoe, Franklin and Sheldon. All apparently dead of strangulation. The collars are gone but their necks are marked. They've been placed in body bags and taken to the 'gate."

Jack nods acknowledgement of that, wondering if it's safe to take the bodies through, knowing he won't leave them behind. "And we know where Daniel and Simon are, so that leaves one person missing," he says.

"Doctor Julia Talbot," Teal'c supplies.

"She's like Simon," Jack says, hearing the bitterness in his words. "Daniel just doesn't know where she is." He stares at the trees pressing around the small clearing of the village. "Yeah. Needle: welcome to the haystack."

"God," Carter says, looking away for a moment and then staring down at the ground. "Sir -- how long does Daniel have?"

"He says he was collared last because they were using him to translate the writing in that ruin he found. Maybe a day. Don't count on it, though."

"Sir, we have to get him help!" Carter's face is tense with barely controlled anxiety, the bones sharp under her skin. Clean, straight bones. Daniel's features are already shifting out of true so that Jack can't look at him without squinting, trying to bring him into focus. "Maybe some form of stasis, something to slow down the transformation... "

Daniel joins them, scattering the tight circle they've formed. His skin is darkening and there's something not right about the way he moves, something that's bringing every inchoate fear buried deep in Jack's head to the surface.  "There's nothing you can do, Sam. The Lindess won't permit it."

"Daniel?" Sam touches his arm lightly. "We still don't know what happened? Only what the Shalin told us you'd done, and they really weren't specific, and then they buried the 'gate --"

Daniel sinks to the ground, scratching at a scab on his arm and peeling it back. The blood that pops up in bright beads is still red. That's good, Jack thinks as he squats beside Daniel, joined by the others. Red blood. Human blood.

"We'd come to investigate the ruins," Daniel says. "We didn't know the village even existed." He looks pensive. "We send a MALP through, or a glider, and we think we know a planet. It's laughable."

"It's the best we can do," Jack says harshly. "Go on."

"The writing on the walls was in Ancient, as you know. No sign of any Goa'uld activity and we weren't approached on the first day." Daniel's face is settling into peaceful lines. "It was fascinating; a real challenge to translate and the others were finding all sorts of artifacts..."

"Then night time came and you --"

"Lit a fire, yes." Daniel shrugs, spreading his hands wide. "Most of the wood was just that, but the marines had gathered some from a lindess tree and when it burned..."

His eyes widen and Jack sees him start to slip away. "Hey! No losing it, Daniel! You've got to tell us."

"The forest screamed," Daniel mutters. "The mother tree first, and then it spread... Before we knew what was happening, Sacer and the other villagers were surrounding us, holding pointed sticks..." His hand traces a line in the air. "They held them out and let them go and they flew..." He slams his hand hard into his chest. "Thud." He frowns. "Thunk? It was a weird sound." He hits himself again, experimenting. "No, that's not quite right."

"The sound is not important, Daniel Jackson," Teal'c says softly.

"No?" Daniel glances at them and then nods agreeably. "They killed the marines but they didn't kill my team. I think it was because they weren't armed, but I was and they left me alone, too, so I don't -- Sacer told me later that they'd been watching us at the ruins and heard me translating. They can't read Ancient, you see, and neither can the Lindess. They were interested. Really interested."

"So when they told us you'd murdered someone, they were talking about a fucking tree?" Jack demands. "About burning a dead branch?"

Carter clears her throat. "A sentient life form, sir, and the branch wasn't exactly dead."

"No," Daniel agrees, "it wasn't. A shed branch doesn't die; it sends out roots and forms a new tree. That's very rare, though; they're usually gathered up and merged with a human."

"How do they know one's been shed?" Carter asks, curiosity letting her ask questions Jack doesn't want to think about. "The Shalin, I mean?"

"The merged trees communicate with them," Daniel says matter-of-factly. "All the trees are connected to a certain extent, including the ones that are drawing upon a human's life force. Some of the unmerged Shalin -- like Sacer -- have the ability to receive messages."

"Telepathy?" Carter asks.

"In a limited way," Daniel says. He nods. "That's about it; we came, we killed, we were punished." He drags his finger through the dirt leaving aimless squiggles and curves behind, humming to himself.

Jack exchanges glances with Carter and Teal'c. "Daniel -- you know we killed the people holding you."

"Yes..." Daniel doesn't even look up. "I saw the bodies."

"We didn't plan on doing that." Jack winces just thinking about Hammond's probable reaction. "In fact, we were told we had to get you all back without any... unpleasantness."

Teal'c clears his throat. "They were insane, O'Neill. It was unavoidable."

"Yeah, they were acting kinda nuts," Jack says, remembering a blade slashing at him and blank, dead eyes. He touches the dry, hot skin of Daniel's face, getting his attention. "They're all dead, Daniel. Whole planet, as far as we can make out. Some kind of plague or something. We wanted to talk to them; see what they could do to reverse this, and they're just -- dead."

Daniel peers at him. "Dead?"

"Dead."

"But not the Lindess."

"I don't think so," Jack says irritably. "How the hell do we know? Do their leaves fall off? We don't even know how many of them there are --"

"Two thousand and thirty-three," Daniel says absently. "Not counting me."

"Not --" Jack hisses through his teeth, his temper boiling over. "Daniel -- no, look at me, dammit -- we get that collar off you, what happens?"

Daniel lifts a shoulder in a shrug. "I don't know. I'll die?"

"Assume we can do it without killing you."

"How should I know?" Daniel asks reasonably.

"How did you know how many Lindess there are?" Teal'c asks.

Daniel twists his head sharply. "Good question," he says, giving Teal'c a bright smile. "I just do."

"But you don't know why the Shalin are dead?" Sam asks.

"He's been locked in a cage I wouldn't keep a rabbit in, Carter," Jack snaps. "How the hell can he know anything? This isn't his fault."

"I'm sorry, sir," Carter says, "but you have to admit that we don't -- this has happened before. We've come to a planet and set events in motion that have --"

"Carter..." Jack says meaningfully. "I don't want to hear it."

"No," Daniel says thoughtfully. "That's probably my fault, too. All of them dying, I mean."

"None of this is your fault, Daniel," Jack says. "You didn't build that fire, and even if you had, you didn't know you were --"

"Burning a baby alive on it?"

Teal'c makes a soft sound in his throat and Carter shudders. Daniel looks at Jack with a patient stubbornness he knows all too fucking well but Jack shakes his head.

"No. That's bullshit, Daniel. And even if it wasn't, four marines died; how much blood do they want?"

"A lindess tree lives for thousands of years, Jack. To match that, a lot of humans would need to die."

"And it still won't bring the tree back," Jack points out. He blinks. "What; are you saying one branch gets toasted and the whole population dies to make up for it?"

Daniel smiles. "No. Sacer seemed to think that we'd be sufficient." His smile fades. "He hated us so much. Loved hurting us. Hurting me. I've never -- hurt..." He starts to tremble, face going slack, curling in on himself.

Jack curses and reaches for him, ignoring the quiver of revulsion as he cradles alien flesh and bone, trying to get to what's left of Daniel to comfort him. The others watch in silence, Carter's face working as she tries to hold back tears. "Daniel..." He looks over Daniel's head. "Carter. Dial up and report in. Tell Hammond what's happened and get him to contact the Asgard; see if they know about these damn trees."

"Won't help..." Daniel murmurs shakily. "No time. Jack -- you promised --"

"I won't kill you, Daniel." Jack pulls back enough to stab a finger at him. "Not yet. We've got a problem, granted, but there's a way around it. You'll see."

"Tell that to the Shalin," Daniel says, and starts to laugh.

***

"Until you find out what caused those deaths, Colonel, I'm afraid I can't allow anyone to come back through the 'gate."

"I understand that, sir." Jack waves his hand irritably at a fly buzzing around the MALP. "Daniel can't, anyway."

"Oh? Why is that?"

"Can't get within twenty feet of the 'gate or the Tok'ra ship without that damn collar choking the life out of him." Jack keeps his face from showing his reaction to the memory of Daniel writhing in the dirt, eyes bugging out, fingers scrabbling at the slowly tightening collar. "It's not going to let him leave."

"Is that something we can work with?" Hammond asks. "Could it be that the... change can only take place there?"

"It's possible, sir," Jack says, "but I don't think he'd survive the trip through the 'gate."

"If he was unconscious?"

"Oh, he was, eventually," Jack says tiredly. "Didn't matter. Until we moved him back a couple of hundred feet, that thing around his neck kept squeezing."

"I see." Hammond falls silent and then says, "Doctor Fraiser is analysing the samples you sent back from Doctor Jackson and the villagers. So far she's been unable to identify what killed the ones who were dead before you arrived, or what's happening to Doctor Jackson."

"Daniel? He's turning into a tree, sir. Right now he's sleeping like a log."

"Jack."

The reproof in Hammond's voice is sharp, tempered with sympathy. Jack knuckles the sting of dust and sun from his eyes. "Sorry, sir. We don't know either. Daniel's the key to this, I swear he is, and he's just not telling us what we need to know."

"Hundreds of thousands of deaths -- his own life at risk?" Hammond sounds determined. "He has to, Colonel. This is a terrible thing to have happened."

"I couldn't agree more, sir."

"I meant the people on the planet as well as our own."

"So did I, sir, so did I." Jack has no problems in sounding sincere; he's truly regretful that no one's left alive to tell him how to fix what's wrong with Daniel. And they would have. He wouldn't have let them refuse. If Daniel can be saved, Jack might even spare a moment of true sorrow for them, but there are too many dead to seem real, and he didn't know them or kill them. Apart from the ones standing between him and Daniel and doing their best to kill him. Somehow, he can't feel anything more than an impersonal, pale sympathy for their plight.

Somehow, he thinks Daniel might not share his indifference. Daniel's not helping them. Daniel's not trying. Jack's getting angry with Daniel.

"Is there anything, anything at all, we can send you?"

"Time, sir." Jack squints at the sun, already low. "We don't know how much of it we've got. Ask Fraiser if she can think of anything we can do to slow down whatever's happening to Daniel. Buy us a chance to save him."

"That's a tall order when she doesn't know what's happening." Hammond sighs. "I'll tell her. Leave someone here and if she comes up with anything we'll get it to you right away."

"Yes, sir. O'Neill out."

He heads towards Daniel, his boots scuffing up the dust in impatient little puffs.

"Daniel? Want to take a little walk with me?"

He gets them away from the village and carefully avoids the path leading to the 'gate. That just leaves the woods as a destination but it'll do.

"Okay, Daniel. Just you, me, and a lot of potential matchsticks. Now tell me what you did."

Daniel's gaze skips around, jerky little twitches of his head guiding it. He's looking at the trees, Jack realises.

"Any of them -- I mean, they're just trees, right?"

Daniel nods and slides to the ground, leaning back against one. Jack thinks that if Daniel stayed still and someone walked into the small clearing, they'd see only one human. Daniel's clothes aren't hiding the changes now; they're accentuating them. Inside a bag of skin, Daniel's bones are being pushed aside, absorbed, altered. Jack's confused by the peace in Daniel's eyes and slowed down by it. He wants Daniel to panic, to need consoling. He wants something to kill and his target is snug and smug and wrapped around Daniel's neck.

"So talk."

"What do you want me to say?" It's not a flip question, the prelude to one of their ping-pong spats; it's a careful clarification of an order, and Jack wonders if Sacer taught Daniel to be that wary about obeying in a hurry.

Bastard.

"I want -- Daniel, I want you back. I can't do this. Fraiser's having kittens because she can't get at you to run tests; we're all stuck here until we find out why the Shalin died in case we've got it, too --"

"You haven't."

It's the amusement in Daniel's voice that leaves Jack gaping at him in silence. Oh, he knew it. Knew Daniel had done something, pulled a whammy out of a hat.

"Daniel?" He spreads the word out, lilting the syllables and arching his eyebrow. "What did you do?"

"My job," Daniel says primly. "I translated the writing, just like they wanted me to."

"And you what; mixed it up a bit? Changed the words? Missed bits out?"

Daniel just looks at him. Oh. Okay. That's a no-no, is it?

"I told them exactly what it said," Daniel told him. "Everything that the Ancients had written. Everything they needed to know."

Jack eyes him, still convinced that Daniel did something sneaky and smart. "Okay, this is fun, but we're on a clock here and you know how I feel about people being cryptic in emergencies."

"I know how you feel, yes." Daniel stares at his hand. It's moving spasmodically and Jack doesn't think that Daniel can hold it steady any more. "The Ancients came here when the only inhabitants were the Lindess. They accelerated their growth."

"Into gardening, were they?"

"They recognised their potential and their vulnerability." Daniel waves his hand at the forest. "Immobile. Limited in scope -- unless they're linked, and then they're everywhere, Jack, and they can learn from each other and remember, pass it on..."

"There aren't many of them for a whole planet," Jack says. "Couple of thousand after all this time?"

Daniel gives him an approving smile. "Exactly! There's obviously a need for a built-in population control but even so, their numbers are declining."

"So where do -- did -- the Shalin come into it?" Jack's relaxing now. Just like old times; Daniel's lecturing him, earnest voice, eyebrows wiggling, calm and not freaking out. No glasses, though; that's different. He wasn't wearing any when Jack found him, and he told them not to bother sending a spare pair through the 'gate, insisting that he could see without them.

Jack doesn't want to know what Daniel's eyes see now. The blue of them is starting to fade, misted over by brown.

"They're supposed to help the Lindess." Daniel's staring at his hand again, frowning. "Be their protectors until the Lindess are strong enough to take the next step."

"Which would be?"

"The merging is limited," Daniel says. "The Shalin didn't really understand how it works. Art and punishment?" He shakes his head, a flash of arrogance dispelling the calm. "They're all supposed to do it. Get to a certain age, go find a Lindess. They might have done that at the beginning, but not now."

"So they've been cheating?" Jack asks. "Doing the bare minimum, fancying it up with being an honour when the truth is it's the ultimate horror --"

"Yes and no," Daniel says. "It's horrific to you because you can't imagine a change like that and you can't see the benefits, but if the Shalin had done it properly..."

"They'd be the vegetable equivalent of Jaffa!"

"It's not quite the same. They're not really human, you see. That might be what's stopping Janet from making progress." Daniel's twisting his shaking hand from side to side and his voice is slowing. "Jack -- it hurts."

"Daniel..." Jack scrambles over to him, gripping Daniel's wrist. He can feel the heat rising from Daniel's skin, palpable and heavy, pouring off him like scent off cut grass. The thin, tough skin across the back of Daniel's hand is stretched and under it something is crawling and pushing, trying to get out. "Going to get you back, Daniel, make you better..."

He's losing Daniel again. Every shuddered breath takes Daniel away; every garbled mess of words spilling out of the slack lips keeps him there. Jack's left wishing they'd had longer, or he'd wasted less time. Daniel can't fucking do this to him, can't lapse into incoherence just as he was about to tell Jack what he needs to know --

His mouth brushes Daniel's face as he puts his arm around him, trying to lift him. It's not a kiss, but it feels like a betrayal, because he jerks away, sickened by the rough skin that stinks of decay and rot and green.

Daniel turns and he can see him struggling to stay. Chewing down on the inside of his mouth, Jack lays his hand against Daniel's face and keeps it there as he leans in and kisses the wet, desperately working, lips briefly, doing penance. "Tell me, Daniel. They're not human. What are they?"

He draws back, fighting the urge to wipe his mouth clean.

Daniel says very clearly, "Compost," and starts to giggle. He's shaking and trembling and the giggles don't let him breathe but there's nothing left to hear Jack's orders for him to shut the hell up and when Jack hauls him back to the village he's still laughing weakly.

***

Carter takes a deep breath and starts to talk, her words absorbed by the dead, warm air. Jack listens. He always does, even when he tells her to shut up halfway through. She tends to hit the high spots early on and then circle back to add details.

"Janet's sent back a request for a sample from the collar."

"Can't be done, Carter."

"I do not believe the life form will react well to that, Major Carter."

Teal'c's as wordy as Carter in his own way.

She pushes her fingers through the mess of her hair. "No, I know, but I thought we could send some from -- well, just a little, from --"

"Simon Foster?" Teal'c asks when Carter dries up, her eyes pleading with them not to make her say it aloud.

Jack's face scrunches up in thought. He's been trying not to think about Foster, or the yet to be located Talbot. They're not forgotten, but they can't be helped as far as he knows, and Daniel's got all his attention right now. He's having trouble thinking about anything else and it's slowing him down, weighing him down. Daniel's lying on a makeshift bed of blankets in the shade, his eyes closed. Jack knows that Daniel's not asleep, although he doubts he's listening with any comprehension.

"Yeah, we can try that," Jack says finally. "I don't suppose it'll go well, but we don't need to... chop, right?" He makes a motion with his hand. "Whittle. We can whittle."

"A relatively small sample should be sufficient," Teal'c says. He reaches out across the table they've dragged out of a hut and placed in the open air and picks up a notebook. It's small in his hand, not one of the larger journals Daniel keeps, but Jack knows it's Daniel's before Teal'c speaks. Something about the way the cover's worn although the book's new.

"God, he kept notes, didn't he?" Jack shakes his head. "Of course he did. Torture him and he'd ask for a break so he could scribble down what size pincers you were using."

"Daniel Jackson has done just that," Teal'c says with a faint distant disapproval hovering over his words. "It is -- not pleasant to read, O'Neill, yet it is my hope that it contains much of value."

"Carter?" Jack asks, taking the book from Teal'c's hand and repressing a shiver because the rough, thick paper cover reminds him of skin now, Daniel's skin. "Have you read it?"

She shakes her head. "No, sir. I've been going through what we think was Sacer's hut, looking for something... I don't know what. Just something that would help Daniel. There's nothing."

Jack looks at Teal'c. "Give me the Cliff's Notes version, Teal'c; I told you what Daniel said before he lost it; too much to hope for that there's a bit about how to remove the collars?"

Teal'c doesn't bother to answer that.

"Daniel said that the Shalin shaped the wood into a collar," Sam says.

"Yeah? So?"

"How?" Sam asks, glancing between them. "We've seen that the trees react badly to being touched by us and you'd think that tools would be almost as bad as flame."

"Daniel said the Shalin weren't human," Jack reminds her. "Maybe they just ask nicely."

"You might have something there, sir," Carter says.

"I do?" Jack smiles at Teal'c. "See; just like always; I say something dumb and Carter whips into words of wisdom, just like that, and saves the day." He tries to snap his fingers and misses. "Damn."

"Well, I'm not saying --" Sam begins and then ducks her head as Jack glares at her. "What I mean is; if they've got some sort of rapport, maybe it allows them to persuade the wood to take whatever form they need. We don't know they only make the collars with it for instance."

There's something Jack needs to remember. He stares across the clearing, seeing not the dusty emptiness, but the fighting, as Carter stops talking.

"O'Neill?"

A sword in a hand. A hand... a circle around Daniel's neck and around...

"A ring. Sacer wore a damned ring." Jack's fist smacks into the table. "I'll bet you that's how he stayed in contact with them."

"Sir, we can't be sure of that."

Jack's already striding over to the hut where they've piled the bodies of the villagers. No one's had time to bury them, and with the whole planet a charnel house there doesn't seem much point.

It's not pleasant, looking over the corpses, but it's instructive.

"They all appear to be wearing a ring fashioned from the wood of the Lindess tree," Teal'c observes.

Jack's found Sacer easily enough; he's the only one with no head. "Yeah, they do. How about that." He pulls out a small penknife and touches Sacer's ring gingerly. Nothing happens. "Either it died when he did, or it was on the way to killing him when I gave it a hand."

"We need to send this back to base, sir," Carter says. "Can you remove it?"

Jack holds up the knife. "Oh, yeah."

***

"So you're saying that it looks as if everyone is wearing one of these rings?"

"Can't say for certain, sir, but I sent a team to the city and there wasn't a corpse without one."

Hammond sounds tired. "I see. Colonel, do you feel that you're in any immediate danger?"

"Not unless we get the urge to start accessorising, sir. Any progress at your end?"

"Doctor Fraiser is preparing something right now. Although the Lindess didn't seem to mind taking over Doctor Foster, she thinks that our bodies and in particular our blood doesn't contain all it needs. She's hoping that if we make Doctor Jackson's body even less of an ideal environment it'll slow down the transformation without provoking the Lindess into attacking its host."

"Sounds risky, sir."

"We don't have much choice, Jack. And she's far from certain that it'll work."

"He doesn't have much time, General."

"I'm well aware of that. We're doing all we can."

"Yes, sir. O'Neill out."

Jack fingers the notebook in his pocket as he walks back to Daniel. He's putting off reading it but he has to. Teal'c might've missed something -- God knows, Daniel's handwriting's something you need Daniel to translate -- and Jack has to know what happened, because not knowing is even worse.

He's still a hundred feet away when Daniel screams, and he's running, P90 smacking painfully against his hip because he's still holding on to that damned notebook. He shoves it into his pocket and grabs at the rifle to steady it.

Daniel's huddled over and when Jack goes to his knees beside him he has to deal with the frantic, agonised noises Daniel's making, as well as some solid hits from a flailing fist. Teal'c appears and between them they get Daniel out of the tight curl he's in, held down by their hands, Jack's knee pressing down hard across Daniel's thighs.

"Dammit, Daniel, talk to me!"

"His hand, O'Neill," Teal'c says.

"What?" Jack focuses on the hand that hasn't left his lip bleeding and has to look away for a moment. "Oh, God."

"Jack..."

The pain's done what none of Jack's pleading could, and Daniel's back with them, his eyes wild and lost.

"Yeah, right here, Daniel."

There's a splat as Daniel's blood gathers and drips off the spur of wood sticking out of his hand, landing on the thirsty ground. It's dark and sharp and Jack wants to pull it out so they can shake their heads over it admiringly and slap a band-aid over the gouge, all fixed, good as new, here's a sucker for being a brave boy.

He doesn't touch it.

Behind him, he can hear footsteps, fast and hard. Carter. She gives the torn, invaded flesh of Daniel's hand a swift glance and starts to tear at the packing around a small box.

"Came through just after you signed off, sir. It's from Fraiser."

Daniel's staring at them, mute and panting for breath. Jack's reminded of Sara giving birth and hates that he is because it's tainting a memory and he can't -- won't -- see this as being an act of creation.

It's destroying Daniel and he wants it to stop.

Carter's injecting Daniel with something, Teal'c's hands gentle on Daniel's arm, holding the twisted limb firmly, carefully. Daniel starts to squirm, bucking up under Jack's weight.

If this makes things worse there's nothing they can do, Jack thinks. No way to suck the stuff out of him. Daniel's bare heels are digging into the earth, grinding into it hard as his body arcs and stiffens and his laboured, harsh breaths are worse than screams.

"Sir --" Carter's voice cracks and Jack looks down as the spur retreats back inside Daniel's body with a thick, wet slither of sound.

"Way to go, Fraiser," he murmurs, exultant and trying to school himself back to wariness because they're not out of -- they're not -- "How about his neck? Teal'c?"

"The collar is still... attached," Teal'c says after a cursory glance. He cradles Daniel's head in his hands, and Daniel gives a plaintive, choked sigh, and settles back, head in Teal'c's lap, eyes wide.

Jack eases off Daniel, patting his leg absently and not taking his hand away afterwards. "Yeah, well."

"Daniel?" Carter finishes packing away the syringe and moves in closer. "Are you in pain? Janet sent something for that, too."

Daniel shakes his head. His eyes are wet but whatever he's crying, it isn't tears. Too thick, translucent not transparent. "No. No pain."

Daniel lies so badly it's fucking embarrassing to watch him, but Jack doesn't push him on it. He needs Daniel focused and sharp.

"Talk to me, Daniel. We don't have much time." Jack gestures to Teal'c. "Sit him up, Teal'c."

Without comment, Teal'c does just that, Daniel's head lolling against his shoulder, Teal'c's arm supporting him. Teal'c's fingers curl loosely, palm upward, for a moment and then his hand grips Daniel's arm.

"Going to make this quick, Daniel, before you fade out on me again."

Daniel nods, his gaze searching Jack's face.

"Everyone's wearing rings made from those goddamn trees; know anything about that?"

Daniel says a word that makes no sense and Jack's about to ask him to repeat it when Teal'c's eyebrows lift. "You made mention of that in your notes, Daniel Jackson. I did not realise it referred to the rings."

"What?" Jack hates this. Not knowing, lost, two steps behind. Usually he's faking it but not now. "Teal'c?"

"Brelinith," Teal'c says and Daniel nods.

"Okay, so what do they do? Some sort of communication device?"

"More than that," Daniel says, each word shaped by lips that weren't able to move the way they should. "Link. Permanent."

"And they all wore them?" Carter asks.

"They did after I told them to." Daniel closes his eyes. "It was too soon. They weren't ready."

"Weren't ready for what?" Carter asks gently.

"The Ancients left instructions and I translated them." Daniel won't open his eyes. "I thought that would make Sacer pleased with me. Enough that he wouldn't do this, but he still did."

"Yeah, and now he's dead," Jack says.

Daniel frowns. "No head."

"Yeah, well, looks like he was a walking dead man anyway," Jack says. "You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"

"You know I do."

"I know you do, but I don't know what." Jack considers his sentence and tacks on, "You know. Or did. What did you do?"

Carter gives him an exasperated look and he mouths "What?" at her.

"I think what Daniel's trying to say is that the Shalin weren't ready for this next stage and that it killed them," Carter says.

"I killed them," Daniel corrects her. A bubble of a giggle pops out. "I'm in trouble, aren't I?"

Jack's hand smacks across Daniel's mouth. "Stop it! You stay with me, Daniel, or so help me --"

Daniel squirms free and Jack does wipe his hand clean this time, making no attempt to hide it. "You told them the risks, didn't you? Come on; this is you we're talking about; you had to have told them!"

Daniel nods. "They didn't believe me. They wouldn't listen." He straightens, animated again, his words clear enough now Jack's adjusted to the way Daniel's talking. "It meant merging without cost, without loss, but they hadn't --" Daniel looks frustrated. "They hadn't contributed enough to make it safe. Not enough of them had merged with the Lindess to, to water them down."

"Huh?"

"No, I understand it, sir," Carter says eagerly. "If the knowledge is shared between the Lindess, then every Shalin who merged with them would have become part of that, but a lot of Shalin would've been needed to make a difference. It's like dropping a few grains of salt into a huge pail of water and then expecting an ocean fish to be able to survive in it."

"I see," Teal'c says, his voice a quiet rumble. "They were exposed to the Lindess and their minds were overcome."

"Then why isn't Daniel insane?" Jack demands.

Daniel looks at him for a long moment. "Uh, Jack... you don't notice a difference in me here? I don't know if I'm flattered or insulted."

"You are sane," Jack says fiercely. "You're pissing me off, just like normal, and you're still you. I'll tell you when you've gone nuts, okay?"

"Good," Daniel says, leaning back against Teal'c. "Because I want to know."

"So what now?" Carter asks, brushing her fingers over the wound in Daniel's hand.

"We get this collar off Daniel," Jack says, standing up and brushing the dirt off his pants. God, when he gets back home he's showering for a week.

"We don't know how to do that, sir," Carter objects.

"I've got an idea," Jack says. "Suppose we ask nicely?"

"Communicate with it?"

"Why not?" Jack asks, spreading his hands widely. "Wouldn't be the weirdest thing we've ever done."

"But how?"

"Has it occurred to anyone else that the balance of power has shifted here?" Jack asks. Teal'c cocks his head and looks thoughtful. "With the Shalin gone, the Lindess are on their own now. And if we wanted to torch the planet, there's not a damn thing they could do to stop us."

"Apart from killing me," Daniel points out diffidently.

"They're doing that anyway," Jack says. He raises his voice. "You listening to me? Am I loud enough for you? I've promised him I'll kill him before I let him end up as one of you and he won't die alone."

"Sir..." Carter hisses. "They're sentient beings -- you can't --"

"Carter, I'm ordering you to shut the hell up. I don't care what they are." Jack squats down and puts his face close to Daniel's, smiling at him coldly. "Talk to them, Daniel. They're in your head enough to know what a Stargate does and where a spaceship can take you; I think they know I mean it and I think they're bright enough to understand every word I'm saying. Well?"

Daniel's eyes close and then open slowly, the blue drenched with brown.

There's an instinctive shift of position that leaves Daniel facing the three of them and suddenly everyone's standing and Jack's finger is hooked inside the trigger of his rifle, cool metal warming fast.

"So who am I talking to?" Jack asks, stepping back just enough that he's got room to pick a non-lethal part of Daniel to shoot if he has to.

"To me, Jack," Daniel says patiently. "The Lindess don't really understand the concept of vocalising thought."

"They don't?"

"Why should they? It's not like they have mouths, or vocal chords."

"Well, I don't know! They might!"

"They communicate mentally."

"It's not like they have brains either, Daniel!"

"No, they do, they just don't have a head to keep them in."

Jack's just settling into the conversation when Carter clears her throat and the comforting illusion that he and Daniel are having one of their little chats dissolves. Dark eyes, mottled skin, twisted, crowded body --

"Can you talk to them, Daniel? I don't care if you use Morse code or smoke signals, just do it. Make them let you go."

Daniel shakes his head. "No. I've been thinking and I've changed my mind; this, all of it, is my fault. I've single-handedly destroyed something that's been developing for millennia, and I did it in a few weeks. Go me."

"First, it wasn't your damn fault, and second, it was a dumb idea to start with!" Jack takes a deep breath. "Daniel, you said it yourself; the Shalin weren't doing it right. If they had been, then who knows; maybe they'd have been ready for the rings a long time ago. You warned them and they didn't listen."

Even warped out of true, Daniel's face can still convey stubbornness like nobody else. "I owe it to them to complete the transformation. That'll be three of us, and --"

"And what?" Jack demands. "It won't make any difference. It's a waste of time and it's a waste of you." He pushes his rifle down and to the side and steps closer. "And it's going to hurt, Daniel, and you're going to be screaming in there for ever, and --"

"Sir!"

"Oh, forget it, Carter," he says, swinging around and giving her a bright, angry grin. "Daniel's in one of his heroic moods again and we all know how well that goes, don't we?"

Carter's horrified face lets him know just how giant a leap over the line he's just taken but he's too lost in misery to feel more than a pang of regret that she's looking at him like that. She steps forward and addresses Daniel, her gaze sliding away from his face. "Daniel, the Colonel's right; you're not part of this; none of us are. If there's any chance that you can get them to accept that--"

"Sam, they know who I am. What I did."

"And they know how many of your team have died and that you didn't mean to do it," Carter says.

Teal'c nods in silent agreement and Daniel wavers, just a little, before shaking his head. "They're not -- it's too soon and the concepts you're asking them to embrace are too abstract, too alien to them."

"Why? Vengeance came pretty easy to the damn Shalin!"

"Jack, if you'll just listen -- maybe this isn't such a terrible thing, maybe it's an opportunity to learn something new, be part of something wonderful -- Jack, listen --"

"To what? You're never going to make me think that this is a good idea, Daniel. In fact, you know what? I prefer the one where I kill you."

"O'Neill, I cannot permit you to do that," Teal'c says, stepping forward.

Jack ignores him, sick with hurt and anger that Daniel would even think about going along with this willingly. "Tell them, Daniel," he says softly. "You could have told them a long time ago. I know you; as soon as that thing went around your neck, you'd have started to try to talk to them. It's what you do. And you were scared at first, and I get that, I really do, but now you're not and that I don't get at all. That makes me wonder if I'm really talking to my Daniel or some faked-up version."

"Oh, I'm real," Daniel says tersely. "Want me to tell you your favourite beer? Where you keep your porn? The last movie we watched together, and how that connects to my second question?"

Sam ducks her head, hiding a blush or an embarrassed grin -- Jack's money's on the grin -- and Teal'c's eyebrow lifts in a question he's wise enough not to voice.

"No, Daniel," Jack says, smothering his anger in sarcasm and failing to extinguish it completely, "I don't. Because I know all of that already and it proves nothing."

"Ah, sir --"

"Carter, if you're going to ask me what we watched and why you weren't invited --"

"Or I," Teal'c says off-handedly enough that Jack knows he's mildly hurt.

"You were off-world," Jack says defensively. He'd have included Teal'c; sure he would. Teal'c would've had fun winding Daniel up by waiting until Daniel was starting to get flushed, tongue darting out, glasses getting adjusted way more often than usual, and then asking questions that left Daniel trying to divide his attention between the screen and his curiosity in Jaffa customs. Yeah, Teal'c would've been welcome.

"No, sir, I wasn't," Carter says. "And I know what you watched because I took the tapes back; Daniel didn't have time."

"Can we focus here?" Jack growls. God, Daniel just doesn't get the rules sometimes, which makes no fucking sense given what he does for a day job. He's going to have words with him about that little stunt when this is all over.

"What I was trying to say, sir, was that maybe we're approaching this from the wrong end."

"How's that?" Jack's fizzing with impatience now. This is it, he knows it; Daniel can talk to the fucking trees and get them to back the hell off, maybe even do something about Foster and Talbot, and they'll all be home in time for the hockey game. It's all going to be fine, and they can waste time bickering as if they're sitting around a table at the SGC eating lunch, and it doesn't matter, he doesn't mind, because Daniel can do this. There's never been an alien he can't sweet talk, certain System Lords excepted, and this one's in his brain, dammit, in a front-row seat with a great view of the stage.

Daniel's a star, a pro, a charmer.

He's just not fucking performing tonight for some reason.

"Daniel, when the Shalin died, it wasn't instantaneous, was it?" Carter asks.

He shakes his head. "Sacer wore the ring for a few hours before you came, but I don't see --"

"So the Lindess had chance to take a lot of information from them?"

Daniel nods. "I suppose so. They -- they're used to the Shalin not coping well with the merging; they've come to expect that, but I can feel that they're shocked by what's happened." He frowns and stops, reaching up to touch his face. "I don't -- that hurt." He tries to smile. "I probably shouldn't ask for a mirror, should I?"

"No, Daniel, you look fine," Jack says, making sure he doesn't answer too quickly. "Little under the weather, but nothing we can't fix once you're back home."

"I'm not going. I need to -- I'm not finished here."

"Yes, you are."

Daniel looks at him, shakes his head, and walks away to stare at trees.

The three of them exchange glances and then Jack's radio crackles at him and it's the Tok'ra wanting to know if they can go now, and by the time he's dealt with that and updated Hammond, Daniel's slipped silently out of the hut he was supposed to be resting in and vanished into the trees.

"I'm wondering if even with the deaths, the Lindess can do what they need to do, even if it's too late for the Shalin," Carter says as they move through the forest. It's hot, and although as far as they know there's nothing dangerous on the planet apart from the trees, Jack's getting a headache from peering through greenery looking for someone about to jump them. "If we can make Daniel accept that, maybe he'll be ready to try convincing them."

"What do they need to do?" Jack snaps, spitting out a bug. Hates this planet. Hates it. "Mutate and grow legs, or something?"

Carter doesn't smile. "I don't know, sir. The trees just got a flood of information when they've been used to it coming in a slow drip; once they've processed that, then who knows what they'll do with it?"
 
Teal'c glances at her, the filtered sunlight turning the tattoo on his forehead to an indistinct dazzle of gold. "In his notes, Daniel Jackson speculated that the Ancients were trying to alleviate the shortcomings of both races, and without the Shalin, their plan must surely fail."

"What shortcomings exactly?" Carter asked, kicking her boot free of a tangle of brambles.

Teal'c shrugs. "The Lindess could not influence their environment in any meaningful way, but enjoy long lives, whereas the Shalin were mobile and able to nurture the trees, yet lived only a scant few years."

"How few?" Carter asked. "In comparison with the Lindess, I'd imagine we all seem like mayflies."

Teal'c shakes his head, maneuvering his staff weapon past a low branch. "No, Major Carter; did you not see the report on the bodies in the city? None were of babies and there were very few young children. The Shalin mature rapidly, reaching full growth within a few weeks, and die after approximately three decades."

"Thirty?" Jack says incredulously.

"Indeed," Teal'c confirms. "The Ancients must have hoped that the Lindess would have provided them with --"

"With nothing," Jack interrupts. "It's not giving them longer lives to shove them inside a tree; why isn't that blindingly obvious to everyone?" Opportunity, his ass. Does it look like Foster's enjoying himself, poor bastard?

"You're still reacting as a human," Carter says, keeping her tone respectful but firm. She's good at that. None of them are scared about calling him on it when they think he's full of shit and normally Jack likes that, wouldn't have it any other way.

Not now, with Daniel switching sides on him and making it complicated.

"I am human, Carter. I can't react any other way. And don't ask me to put myself in their shoes -- sorry, roots, because I'm not Daniel, okay?"

"I'm just saying --"

"I know what you're trying to say, Carter." Jack rolls his eyes. "Fine; maybe for both of them it was a way out, but it went wrong -- and if the Ancients had bothered to stick around and see their little science project get a big, honking 'F', we wouldn't be cleaning up their mess, so don't think they're not on my shit-list, too, because they are."

"Yes, sir," Carter says, her voice subdued.

"When we locate Daniel Jackson, what do you plan to do?" Teal'c asks. "These tracks are fresh; I believe that we will soon be upon him."

"I'm going to take him home," Jack says. "He's no risk to others and that stuff Janet gave him seemed to help."

"But we tried taking him through the 'gate before, sir," Carter says.

"Yeah, and we nearly killed him. I know. But we don't have any choice now. I figure we get the 'gate open and maybe give him another dose of that stuff, knock him out, too, rush him through..." Jack frowns. "I'm thinking once we're light years away that collar won't be able to communicate with the rest of them and we can get it off. It's a plan. Not much of one, but unless either of you can come up with something better, it's what we're going with."

Carter bites her lip but stays silent and Teal'c inclines his head, looking relieved, as if the prospect of doing something is as appealing to him as it is to Jack.

They push their way through another few hundred yards of forest and find Daniel.

Jack still doesn't know what a Lindess looks like in its natural state, and he's been giving every tree they pass a suspicious glare, but he's been wasting his time. The lindess tree Daniel's kneeling beside is unmistakable, not for its bark or foliage which, to Jack's eyes, resembles an oak, but because the soughing limbs are moving against the wind, not with it.

"Daniel, get up and let's get out of here," Jack orders, striding over to him.

In the time that they've been apart, Daniel's lost his jacket. The curve of his spine is more pronounced now and under the darkened, still-bruised skin, Jack can see a tracery of veins, green-tinged and thick.

Daniel's hands are flat against the tree and Jack reaches down and takes hold of Daniel's wrist, rough skin hot under his hand, what feels like too many bones bulking it out.

He tugs and Daniel cries out, his head going back, dark eyes wide and open and blank. Jack stops pulling and goes to his knees, sliding the tip of his finger between Daniel's hand and the tree.

Fuck.

"It's got him," he says as the others join him. "Shoot, branch, whatever, running right into his hands. Or out of them. Hard to tell."

"Then we must free him," Teal'c says.

"I'm not sure that's such a good --" Carter begins.

Jack gets up and walks away, taking Carter and Teal'c with him. When he's about ten feet away he nods at Teal'c's staff weapon. "May I?"

Teal'c's eyebrows tug together but he passes his weapon to Jack and steps aside.

"Sir, please," Carter says urgently. "At least try talking to him -- to them."

"You want me to talk?" Jack raises his voice. "Daniel? Excuse me? Earth to Daniel Jackson? Get away from the life-sucking alien and let me save your ass. And tree, assuming you can hear me, let go of him, or I'll shoot you in your ass, and trust me, I'll find it." He gives it a beat of three and then shrugs. "Guess it didn't work. Let's go with my idea."

The blast from the staff weapon rips a hole in the bark, just where the trunk divides into branches, and the forest screams.

Jack watches Daniel's body suffer for as long as he can bear it and then fires again. Against the tortured screech and creak of wood sliding against wood -- how many of the Lindess did Daniel say there were? A couple of thousand? Sounds like more --Carter's voice is lost, and she knows better than to touch him when he's fighting, or get in his line of sight, but he can tell that she's trying to make him stop.

Teal'c's immobile, watchful, ready.

And inside Jack's head, the screaming is really loud but he doesn't think any of it's escaping through his mouth which is clamped tight shut as he fires for a third time, walking forward as he blows the trunk of the tree apart and lets go of the staff weapon.

Daniel's hands slide across the bark in a slow caress as he falls free, the bent rigid bow of his body splintering into a hundred disconnected jerks and quivers that die away and leave him limp and sprawled.

Jack drags him clear of the tree and sucks in a sharp breath when he sees the way the collar's sunk deeply into flesh. Blood's trickling down Daniel's neck and oozing from his pierced hands and Jack wants it to, because while it flows, Daniel lives. He digs his fingers under the hard squeeze of the collar and tears at it, feeling it give, just a little.

"Oh, God." Carter's beside him, kneeling, biting back useless words, her fingers trying to get to a pulse point.

"Knife, Carter!"

She fumbles one out of her pocket and sets her teeth before starting to saw at the dark band across Daniel's throat, the blade slipping in blood and fraying Daniel's skin. "I can't -- it's like it's part of him, sir."

Daniel's face is congested with blood, mouth gaping and wide, eyes empty.

Not dead. Not dead.

Jack's chanting the words under his breath, words which become, 'Don't die, don't die, dammit,' at some point, but he's not sure Daniel's listening.

The sky above is darkening, and with a painful abruptness, the lindess trees stop moving. Around them, the other trees take the stirring air and fill it with the rustle of leaves, but it's achingly quiet by comparison.

Jack doesn't need Teal'c's hoarse shout of warning to know that it isn't a good sign when your enemy stops yelling but you know they're not dead.

Every sundered splinter, every blasted branch lying scattered around the Lindess, quivers, rises into the air, and darts towards them as if thrown by an invisible army. Jack falls forward over Daniel, sheltering him, his hand grabbing blindly at Carter to pull her under him, too, as much as possible. He waits, hunched and shaking, to be torn apart, nostrils filled with the smell of blood and earth, his nose tickled maddeningly by Daniel's hair, Carter's shoulder bruising his chin as she burrows closer.

Beneath him Daniel's body heaves upwards, destroying the soap bubble of sanctuary Jack's body has made in one strong, unexpected surge.

Jack cries out, inarticulate protest and grief because Daniel's alive and he's just killed them all but nothing happens but a teeth-jarring jab from Carter's elbow.

"What the hell?"

"O'Neill." Teal'c's voice is hushed as he steps out from behind a tree. "Do not move again."

"I didn't do it last time," Jack mutters, squinting disbelievingly at the array of makeshift arrows poised to plunge into them, hanging in the air a few feet away. "Shit, that's impossible."

Carter grunts with frustration. Jack's hand is holding her in place and she can't see. "Sir..."

"No sudden movements, Carter. There's a pointy stick aimed right at your back."

She peeks, cautiously, and then glances down at Daniel. "Sir, Daniel's collar --"

Jack lets his gaze drift slowly down and he swallows. The collar is slack now, a raw, bleeding strip of skin visible beneath it. As far as he can see, it's still attached. Daniel's breathing is barely perceptible and his eyes are closed.

"Okay, what's holding those sticks up and why aren't they taking us apart?" he murmurs.

"I am, and I don't want them to," Daniel answers. His eyes open, blue and opaque, baby eyes, vague and unseeing. "Get off me. You're heavy."

"Oh, sure," Jack says moving to lie beside him. "Anything you say, Daniel."

"And if you could just stop talking, that would be nice."

Jack gets a look from Carter that's aimed at Jack, not the Colonel, and does just that. Behind them, Teal'c sighs, the small susurration speaking for all of them.

The cloud of projectiles falls to the forest floor in a succession of soft sounds and Daniel sits up and tugs at his collar with both hands.

Jack comes up to his knees and watches the myriad tendrils the collar's sent pushing and probing into Daniel's body retreat. He's lost in the speechless, soundless agony on Daniel's face. He's not screaming. He should be. Jack wants to scream for him as he hears the sucking rip of skin and sinew, the snap, crackle, pop of bones re-aligning, but in the face of Daniel's silence, he can't.

"Daniel..." Carter whispers. "Oh, God, Daniel..."

Blood and spittle froth and drip from Daniel's mouth, spat out like accusations. His hands are locked around the collar, the sheen of bone at his knuckles making small white patches on the gradually lightening skin. Shades of brown and green leach from his skin and his gracelessly jerking body is taking back its shape, moment by moment.

It ends with the obscenity of the slow, wet withdrawal of the spike from his neck. Jack crawls over to where Daniel lies and touches his hand to Daniel's face.

Daniel stares up at Jack and then starts to work the collar over his head. Jack doesn't help him. His fingers are wet with blood and he can smell the piss that's soaking warm and damp into the knees of his pants. He doesn't mind that. Doesn't even shift over out of the wet patch.

But he's not touching that thing -- he can't -- and he'll take the shame of that knowledge over the ordeal.

Daniel looks at the collar, touching the tip of his finger to a bloodstain, and then stands, grunting as his legs have to stiffen to hold him up, and carries it back to the shot-up Lindess, hooking it casually over the stub of a severed limb.

Teal'c and Carter stand behind Jack, waiting.

Too much waiting. Too much silence.

"So what the hell just happened there?" Jack demands, getting up.

Teal'c and Carter move forward, past him. Teal'c scoops up his staff weapon and Carter heads for Daniel, shielding him from Jack. Teal'c joins her in supporting Daniel, whose arms go around their shoulders. It's awkward; Teal'c too tall for that to be comfortable, but it's more for the chance to hug him without having to call it that.

Daniel doesn't look ready for hugs.

"Can you walk, Daniel Jackson?" Teal'c asks, his voice deep and concerned.

Daniel nods and lets his head rock against Sam's as she leans in and murmurs something Jack can't hear and hates that he can't.

They begin to walk slowly out of the forest leaving Jack to follow, something twisting tight in his gut because Daniel won't even look at him.


Part Two

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