Jack's desperation had nearly given way to insanity when he heard the gate klaxon sound. Thankful for an excuse to do something - anything - he rose from his desk and ran to the gateroom.
He arrived in time to see the first of the team step through. He nearly sobbed with relief when he saw Sam come through on a stretcher, in the capable hands of the med team.
Jack forced his focus away from her when Daniel and Teal'c came through next and approached him. He didn't trust his voice, so he waited for one of them to speak.
"Major Carter has been located," said Teal'c, stating the obvious. Daniel rolled his eyes and told Jack what he wanted to know. "She's going to be okay," he said, both his and Jack's eyes trailing the retreating med team with their much beloved patient. "Very dehydrated, and she's got some ugly cuts from the trap, but -"
Daniel's words registered through the relief. "Hold up," Jack interrupted, eyes snapping back to Daniel. "What trap?"
"Major Carter was found secured to a tree with a steel trap surrounding her ankle," Teal'c supplied.
Jack felt sick. "Choran?"
Daniel nodded. "We went to catch him but he escaped through the Stargate before we arrived. We don't have the coordinates."
This was terribly disappointing to Jack, who had already begun planning Choran's disembowelment.
"But," Daniel continued, "we've convinced the villagers to stop mining, and we're helping them with supplies and medical equipment. Thanks to Sam, no one else will suffer because of the mine."
Jack opened his mouth to speak and closed it again. His friends held his eyes for a moment, and then he abruptly turned around and left the room. Daniel and Teal'c knew better than to follow.
* * *
Jack was a mess when he left the base that evening. After his final checkup at the infirmary, he blindly plowed through the building and headed home. He desperately wanted to see her, hold her. But knew he'd fall apart, and he had to get himself together. The veneer was hanging by a thread, which Sam's thin fingers could quickly pull and he'd be undone.
He futilely reminded himself how strong he was on the drive home.
Finally arriving home, he headed into the sanctuary that was his living room, cold beer firmly in hand. Exhausted, he spread out on the couch and turned on the TV, watching it and not seeing a damn thing. He tried to tear his thoughts from her, but wasn't very successful. She must've been so scared, and she had been massively dehydrated. What if they had been too late?
Jack sternly told himself he was just tired when his vision blurred. He rubbed his temple and closed his eyes, willing away the memories.
There was a knock at the door.
Jack groaned. His muscles argued with him as he struggled from the couch and pretty much staggered to the door. His stomach dropped when he saw Sam through the peephole. He closed his eyes momentarily. He was not ready to face her yet. He hadn't put himself back together. But with the past couple days of desperation weighing on him, he wasn't going to ignore her. Taking one deep, steadying breath, he opened the door and tried to look noncommittal. "Carter."
"Sir." He looked at her and waited. She didn't say anything else. Finally he said, "Would you like to come in?"
He stepped aside to give her access, and she walked in, limping a little. When she brushed past he was close enough to smell her shampoo. He closed his eyes and breathed her in.
"What the hell are you doing out of the infirmary?" Not exactly the perfect conversation starter, he figured, but it was better than falling apart right in front of her.
"I harassed and pestered them until they agreed to release me." She grinned. "It actually wasn't too hard. I just pretended I was you."
Jack was amused but couldn't quite muster up a smile. Sam looked concerned. "Are you okay?"
I am now, he thought. "Yes." Best to stick to short words. "Why?"
She leaned her head to one side. "Daniel and Teal'c told me you've had a rough couple days." She didn't quite have the courage to look him in the eyes. Didn't matter, because he couldn't look at her either.
"I know I did," she added.
"I'm sure you did," Jack replied. "I'm sorry -" his voice shook a little "- that I didn't...protect you from that...and I'm sorry that I didn't come find you..."
He broke off and quickly walked to the other end of the room so he could start out the window. It was obvious to him that he was struggling right now, and probably just as obvious to her. He felt her walk up behind him and put one gentle hand on the back of his neck.
"You don't owe me any apologies. That's not why I said that." She paused and took a breath. Jack was listening, barely able to breathe. "It was rough," Sam continued, "not because I thought I would die, but because I never would've been able to tell you...how I feel about you."
Jack briefly wondered if his heart stopped before it cranked up again full speed. He turned around and tried to look strong, but he felt his game face crumbling away.
"I love you, Jack O'Neill," she said softly. One slim hand reached up to caress his jaw line. "And I know you love me too."
And that was all it took.
Jack was undone, the veneer of indifference completely ripped away. "God, yes," he choked, ashamed that his eyes now had tears in them. "Yes."
And then she was in his arms, rocking him gently, soothing him as he cried like a baby. He knew he should pull himself together - project his usual strong, capable image. But at that moment, he didn't care. Nothing mattered - nothing except this woman holding him now and his relief that she was safe. He buried his face into her neck, silently vowing that he would never let anything happen to her again. It was a selfish vow. He knew that he would be completely shattered if he ever lost her.
Sam was shocked at his intense display of emotion. She held on tightly, trying to absorb the tremors his from his sobs. Touched that she was seeing a side of him he usually kept carefully hidden away, she caressed the back of his head as he cried into her neck. She wanted to absorb his pain.
After a few minutes the tide subsided, and his breathing slowed. Sam still held onto him as he came back to himself. He lifted his head to look sheepishly into her luminous blue eyes. "Sam - "
She put a soft finger to his lips. "Don't," she breathed, her voice barely above a whisper. "Don't apologize. You let me in. That's all I ever wanted."
Jack closed his eyes and realized how weak he felt. He hadn't slept since he came back without her, and the strain of not knowing where she was had taken its toll. Wordlessly, he took her hand and she followed him willingly down the hall toward his bedroom.
Tomorrow there would be decisions to make. He would most likely retire effective immediately - if he could talk Sam into it. But one way or another he wasn't going to waste another minute without her. Life was too precious - and too uncertain.
But for now, Jack needed to sleep, to heal. And he knew he couldn't do either one if she wasn't there. He gently pulled her into the bed with him, and Sam melted into his embrace as he pulled her close. Her head found a home on his shoulder, as she lay on her side and encircled both arms around his waist. Jack threaded one arm under and around her and held her.
His body sank into the bed, cradled by Sam, and he felt exhaustion overtake him. One of his last memories before losing consciousness was Sam planting a reassuring kiss on his temple.
"I do love you, Sam," he whispered hoarsely, confirming what she already knew.
Sam stroked his cheek. "Sleep."
And it was at that point he knew that he was truly okay.