Title: Of Duress and Deliverance
Summary: Four ways our Jack and Sam didn't say 'I love you' … and one way that maybe they did.
Season: Pretty much anything.
Pairings: Sam/Jack
Warnings: A couple of might-have-been character deaths.

I. In Solace Torn

The voice of the computer calmly and clearly articulated another number that she couldn't understand. It didn't matter, because she knew what it was telling her. There was barely any time left. She dropped her hands from the console.

"Thirty seconds," Teal'c said without emotion.

Sam closed her eyes. "There's nothing I can do from here."

Her heart should be racing, she thought; she'd have expected there to be some adrenaline involved. But her body must have conceded defeat at the same moment her rational mind did, because she'd never felt quite so still.

She knew without looking that Teal'c would stand stoically, just as he had every time he'd faced near-certain death. The colonel usually argued with her, though, anytime she said things were hopeless. She was surprised that he wasn't doing so now.

Sam discovered that she wouldn't mind if he did; that, in fact, she'd far rather have the last thing she heard be Jack O'Neill's inappropriately displaced anger than the silence that was now punctuated by a Goa'uld computer counting down their remaining seconds. It was just as she realized this, but before she could act on it, that he came to stand behind her.

His hands came to rest, tentatively, one on her shoulder and the other at her waist. Without hesitation, without thinking, really, she leaned back against him, and his arms slid around to hold her. His mouth hovered near her ear.

"I love you," he said, his voice soft but his words clear and firm.

Sam tilted her head slightly so that it rested against his. "I know. Me too."

II. Trips, Slips, and Downhill Momentum

Somehow, unbelievably, they'd gotten into a shouting match in his office about the risks she'd been taking lately. He'd just spouted something he knew was incoherent, containing far too many clauses to have any decipherable meaning, and he couldn't understand the look of shock on her face.

Jack took a moment to review what he'd said, and when he ran across the words 'I love you', all bunched up together and arranged in that particular order, he cringed and covered his eyes with one hand.

Carter's laugh broke the silence. Dropping his hand from his face, he scowled at her. "What?"

"It's just that this is really not how I imagined hearing you say that the first time."

He raised his eyebrows and waited for her to realize that he wasn't the only one slipping up and giving things away. He smirked, smug, when he saw it hit her. "Not how you imagined? Which implies that there was, in fact, imagining."

Her eyes met his, unwavering. "There might have been."

Moving swiftly, he crossed the office to stand in front of her, close but not touching. "Just for form, you want to tell me what you imagined," and he drew out the word, "saying back?"

She smiled; she'd managed in some way to retain the upper hand, but he found he didn't care. "What, you don't know?"

III. White Light Refracted

"Are you really going to do this?"

Sam tried in vain to comprehend what he was doing in her house. Part of her wanted him to stop her; part of her wanted to hit him; no part of her had been able to turn him away when he showed up at her door.

"Love's a funny thing, Carter. You can love a lot of people at once, it's true, but tomorrow you're going to promise to only say it to one man for the rest of your life."

She'd seen this Jack O'Neill many times over the years, but never unleashed on her. His voice was even but very, very hard; his face, expressionless. Silently, with great effort, she stood her ground as he advanced.

"Is there anything you want to tell me before you do that?"

His question shattered her understanding of the situation; frantically, she tried to put the pieces back together into some kind of order, but she didn't know how long he'd be willing to wait. Holding up a hand in a silent entreaty for his patience, she searched her mind, gathering up the shards of her hope from all the places she'd discarded them over the years. Then she spoke before her fears, profound fears of loss and rejection and inadequacy, could reassert control.

"I love you. I have for a long time. I've never been able to stop."

For just an instant, a moment that passed so quickly that she almost missed it, his eyes widened. He hadn't expected her to say it, and she suddenly realized that what he'd come for was that final rejection that would give him the courage to get through her wedding, a mirror image of a moment over an engagement ring months before.

"God. Are we ever going to stop hurting each other?"

He didn't answer.

"Now what?"

"There's still time to fix this, Sam," he said, and the hard edge was gone.

IV. The Thing Named Made Real

"It's time to say goodbye, Jack," Daniel said, and it was clear that this time, he would not be swayed. "You owe it to her. You owe it to yourself."

In two years, Jack had never visited her once. There was too much memory, too much regret; too many ways that he wondered if some little change might have made a difference. He'd lost too many of the people he loved, right down to those who meant the most to him. The act of saying goodbye had become impossible.

But it had been two years today, and Daniel and Teal'c were here in his office, demanding his compliance. Jack put on his coat and went with them.

He hadn't attended the memorial service, but he knew where she was. She'd been laid to rest next to her father in Arlington National Cemetery, and Jack himself had made the arrangements for both of those burials.

With his hands shoved into his pockets, he looked down at the headstone that was the last testament to Sam Carter's life. Teal'c and Daniel stood behind him, just out of earshot. Jack didn't know what they thought they might overhear. The only words he ever thought of saying to her were the ones neither he nor Sam had found the courage to voice.

I always knew I might lose you, Sam. I just wish I was sure you knew I loved you. I still love you.

He couldn't bring himself to say it now.

V. In These Days Ahead

There was no answer to her knock on his front door. Undeterred, Sam returned to the driveway and walked around to the back of the house. Today, she hadn't hesitated, waiting in her car. She'd had enough time to think this through; more importantly, she'd simply had enough. Nothing was ever going to change unless she took the risk required to change it. Every day, in every other part of her life, she worked out complicated risk-reward scenarios, and then, she took action. She needed to stop treating this as something different.

She found him sitting on the porch, legs propped up and sunglasses on. He could have been asleep, but she knew better. Walking slowly, she went to stand beside his chair.

He took off the sunglasses and looked up at her.

"I need you to know this," she said, forgoing any small talk that might distract her. "I love you. Can you please just … tell me what you want me to do about it? I thought you wanted me to stop."

There were so many words that she could have said; questions and answers, apologies and recriminations, and each and every promise she'd ever longed for the freedom to make to him. This, however, was the step that had to come first.

He stood and moved close to her. Her breath caught when he raised his hand to brush a few loose strands of hair back behind her ear. "Never stop," he said, and almost before she understood the words he'd uttered, he pulled her to him, capturing her lips with his own.

"Are you going to say anything else?" she asked when several minutes had passed and the world had finally ceased spinning around her.

"Later," he said, studying her face.

In the moment before he kissed her again, she had just long enough to marvel at hearing in his voice what she felt in her heart, an echo of wonder and of possibility. Later, she thought, was a very good thing to have.