A/N: This is a Sam/Daniel friendship fic. It's my first Stargate fic, so please let me know what you think. It's set while Daniel is ascended. It really doesn't have to fit with any particular episode - all the reader needs to know is that Sam has been captured by an unknown enemy and is able to keep going because of her friend.

Disclaimer: I do not own Stargate.

Ashes to Ashes

One of her earliest memories is of playing in the dirt beneath three pine trees in the backyard of her home. She had loved the warm, slightly moist sensation of pebbles, stunted pine needles, and pine cone flakes beneath and between the clumps of earth. But what she really loved was a special quality to the sunshine in the late day – too early to be dusk while still too late to be afternoon – that turned the flecks of muck and dust in her hands to a shimmering gold. And if she cocked her head slightly to the left, and brought her mud brown fingers to her face, and looked through the grease smudged creases of her palms in just the right way, then the whole world became brilliant and twinkling, from the decomposing detritus tangling in the grass to the clear sky above. The millions of dust motes in the sky, the bone white pebbles digging into her knobby knees, even the clumps of bird poop clinging to broken pine needles on the ground - all were surrounded by a kind of sun-filled halo, like the angels on the stained-glass windows at church. Not even when it rained did the stinging smack of water against her blond hair dim the glass-shattering glare of the pine needles and dirt and poop lit up with light.

Eventually though, as the light faded into dusk, her daddy would call her in, to scrub her clumsily with generic store soap. When he was finished he would feed her a dinner of peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches with blue jello and chocolate milk for dessert, all the while telling her about his day in words too big for even she to understand. She never minded though. He was with her. As long as he was, as long as he called her Sammy, as long as he used words too big for even she to understand, she knew all was well. The inside of her home matched the shimming glory of the outside.

Sometimes though ... as he washed her hands in the kitchen sink, one knee propping her up to reach with stubby fingers the cool spray of the leaky faucet ... she would take one last peek under his arms through the broken screen of the back door. The magic had usually faded by then, but sometimes, if she was really lucky, she caught its last display, the final jubilee - like the Great and Powerful Oz lit up with light before he became the stumpy man behind the curtain once more, less interesting than even the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion.

It was that magic hour of gold, she thinks – her way to be both Dorothy and the Wizard – that made her want to fly some day, even though she hated what it had done to her family – to her daddy who was only occasionally there to let her play outside late enough to watch the shimmering jubilee, to wash the sticky mud from beneath her fingernails while propping her up on his knee in front of the leaky kitchen sink. She had always knelt down to look up through her grimy hands at the glitter in the sky, but the naive curiosity of her child-mind had always wondered what the glitter might look like from up top. To look down through dirty fingers and down at the pine needles and bone white pebbles and bird poop on the ground was surely an even better kind of magic.

Maybe it was a different kind of magic. She just became too old to see it anymore. Or maybe less innocent. She didn't know. All she knew was that she had begun to lose her love for the glittering gold of mud after her first journey through the Stargate. Oh, it wasn't because she encountered less mud. On the contrary, after an endless succession of PX-somethings she felt like she would choke on the loam, dirt, mud, rock, gravel of all the worlds. It got into everything – ears, nose, socks, hair, and fingernails. She could feel the chalky graininess of it slipping through her fingers, and it stuck to her, no matter how many showers she took. She would always find it in her bed the next morning, gathering in the creases of her sheets, even if she took three showers and one bubble bath the night before, the bubbles masking (but never completely washing away) with a clear translucence the ever present grit. No, she had lost her love because the mud never seemed to glitter anymore.

Eventually though she started to wonder if it was more than a lack of goldness in the loam or dirt. The crumbling bits of decomposing mud that trickled through her fingers after awhile took on the prickling consistency of sand. No matter how wet the planet, however much like the Amazon rain forest or a Thai rice field a PX-something's dirt was, it felt like sand to her. If she closed her eyes, it wasn't the glittering, Wizard of Oz magic of not quite sun-filled dust that she held in her hands, but the ashy grains of sand from an hourglass. And each death going through the Stargate only added to the store of sand she could feel whenever she cupped her palms and closed her eyes. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Sand to sand.

She thought that was made her love the Stargate itself at first. When she was in the world Between worlds, the shimmering event horizon of the Stargate seemed to wash the sand away. In the countless seconds before she took a breath on PX-something or other, her skin felt pure and white and clean. She sometimes smiled faintly, wondering if she glittered slightly in the motion of the wormhole, like her Wizard of Oz world used to in those long ago days of innocence. Before the mud of endless worlds. Before the Goa'uld. Before death. Before the Carter Curse.

Oh yes, there was a name for the contagion that she spread like the plague every time those grains of sand transferred to someone else. The Carter Curse managed to destroy almost everyone she had ever cared about. Martouf. Lantash. Orlin. Jonas ... She could keep going, but why bother? The Carter Curse was always there. It never seemed to disappear like the glitter of those magical right-before-dusk hours outside in her backyard.

It was as if the sand settled into her very skin, turning it to pale ash with each mission. She thought, with a kind of grim humor, that it was appropriate it was ash, since her first loss of innocence took place when Daniel burned on that godforsaken planet, PX-something, and they had left him behind. Well, if that was her first loss of innocence, then maybe it was a small grace that he was sitting with her now, in the dank, four-by-four cell on another PX-something.

She knew the torture must be getting to her when Daniel appeared next to her. He was gone. He was dead. He shouldn't even be here. But no matter. He sat against the wall, with his legs folded beneath him just like her. He didn't even look at her. He really didn't need to even. She had no idea how or why he was in the dank, four-by-four cell with her. But she wouldn't question it. His skin was pure and white and clean like hers was while she was in the world Between, and not a grain of sand stained him. He was untouched by the Carter Curse. She would take what little grace she could.

She was rarely privilaged enough to hold grace because she often felt like she carried the world Between within her, even when not passing through the endless moments of the event horizon between worlds. Only what she carried was treacherous though, a different kind of world Between than that of the Stargate. It had changed from a kind of baptism that the Stargate had always been (a cleansing into grace) into a prison carried between the palms of her hands. It was no longer the world Between, but her prison Between. It set her apart, gated her off, locked her up. She was a scientist in the military. A woman in a man's world. However much she tried, through the stubborn grit and naïve curiosity and wide-eyed wonder of her glittering Oz, to carve a place for herself within that world, she had never quite succeeded. There were too many complications, too many contradictions, and one thing she desperately needed that she could never have.

But if she was in the prison Between then so was Daniel. A conscience when too many thought in terms of means to ends. An idealist among clay-footed pragmatists who only saw as far as the next mission. A man for whom the barrel of a gun or the tip of the knife still felt awkward in his hand. The atmosphere of the ivory tower had settled on him like a second skin, impervious even to the sand and ash of death and the countless succession of PX-somethings.

Maybe that was why the word friendship felt like such a trite definition of the bond they shared. It had started, after all, with only the unspoken acknowledgement that they were both Outsiders, prisoners within the world they shared. Of course, she had always thought the slight grin Daniel had made to her after that first mission was the rueful expression of a shared experience ... But there was always the slightly unfocused glaze in his eyes that made her wonder if he was looking at her, or at some artifact or dusty tome. Whatever the case, whether that first grin was meant for her or not, didn't change the fact that they were bonded. They shared the prison Between.

But she thanked God (the great Wizard behind the curtain) that Daniel had that unfocused glaze in his eyes more often than not. Because despite how much the word friendship seemed like a trite definition for the bond they shared, as small part of her felt the weight, like a pile of mud in her stomach, of disappointment that it was Daniel and not … him here with her now. She hoped Daniel never found out that every time one of his nine lives was chalked out the only thing she could think was, "Thank God it wasn't him."

It was why she afraid to touch him, and why she hated (sometimes with a white hot rage that settled in the pit of her stomach like a black hole full of nothing and everything) that she could touch Daniel and not him. The ashy sand that had settled into the very creases of her skin would someday brush off on him. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Sand to sand. Death to death. The Carter Curse. It was the curse of her lost innocence that she could not touch him without destroying them both. But Daniel, blessed with nine lives and a wide-eyed curiosity that had no will to power, was shielded from her curse. With him, it was back to the holy glitter of pine needles and mud and bird poop in her back yard.

But when she slumped against the wall after another beating and found him waiting for her, she forgot about her bitterness that it wasn't him who could be with her now. Daniel was here. With her. Now. He would help her survive. He would help her find that lost magic between the palms of her hands. Maybe some of the glittering purity of the world Between that had settled into his skin would transfer to her, would rub the sand of her curse away. She was too tired to find out though. It had been too long since she could think with the clarity of her lab ... of when she used to dream in equations and numbers. She wondered how long she had been here ... how long the torture had gone on ... In the dank, four-by-four cell time had become less of a thing that passed than an entity that pressed against her eardrums, not ticking along to its own rhythm, but pulsing in one long whole note.

Her head slumped against the wall, and she pressed her palms against the persistent buzzing in her ears, eventually closing her eyes ... hoping when she opened them it would be him sitting next to her ... sickeningly ashamed for not appreciating Daniel's gift, whatever ancient magic he had worked to be with her now …

"Sam," he whispered. "You have to … to wake up. You know I will be here for you as … as long as I can. But … you have to stay strong for Jack. And Teal'c. They still need you."

She wasn't sure if she believed him. After all, she was stuck in the prison Between, slowly becoming buried in an hourglass of sand and ash and dust. They didn't need her. Not enough to rescue her from her prison Between.

"I can't, Daniel," she murmured. "I'm too tired."

She thought he would blaze out in a fire of anger and frustration at her, stuttering and slurring his vowels in his haste to be her conscience. But instead, she felt a strange warmth creeping along her body. It started in her toes and moved up, reaching her eyes and the palms of her hands several long moments later. She moved her head slightly and looked at her skin. It was clean and white. She rubbed her palms together, gently at first, and then spasmodically, searching for the familiar graininess of grit and ash. When all she felt after the silent, frantic search was skin – just plain skin – she brought her shaking palms up to her face and looked through the creases in her fingers in just the right way. Her head felt clearer than it had since she had stumbled away from her team and been captured.

Her breath caught.

In the hazy musings between torture and pain she had not questioned the fact of Daniel's presence. What she had at first thought was the manifestation of her own need for him - for his compassion and ivory tower stubbornness and innocence (so lost to her now) - was really a physical glittering glow that had settled into his clothes, like the magic of Oz. The whole dank, four-by-four cell was lit by the very fire of his skin.

"Are you really here with me?" she whispered.

"Yes, Sam ... And I will stay with you … for as long as you need me," he said. "I will stay with you until Jack and Teal'c come. They're coming, you know. They've almost found you. You only need to stay strong for … for a little while longer. And then you can go home, Sam."

She had never meant to say it, sure that the only way out of the prison Between was to be strong, to show the world of military might and men that she could be just like them, shoving her round peg into a square hole with a single-minded determination that scraped and scoured the glitter of childhood from her skin. But somehow the obligatory "I'm fine" got lost between her throat and her mouth, and what came out was a whimpered, "You won't leave me?"

"I will be here … as long as you need me," he whispered.

She settled back against the wall and smiled slightly when his hand took hers, the fire in his skin keeping her warm until Jack and Teal'c finally came.

Right before she fell asleep in the infirmary, she whispered into the darkness, "Thank you for saving me … my friend."

The words seemed so inadequate for what he had done. It went beyond being physically saved ... But when someone saves you from the curse, from the sand of death, from the prison Between, she figures words like thank you and my friend will never be quite enough.

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