The Constant

Chapter One

Chloe O'Brian looked at the summons in her hand only long enough to roll her eyes and refold it. She was probably in trouble again, had said something to someone who thought she might benefit from another round of coaching on workplace relationships and teamwork. The only thing that made her wonder was that the notation at the bottom of the letter had also included Bill Buchanan and Audrey Raines. Great… it was probably a disciplinary hearing, too, although she had no idea what Audrey would have to do with that.

She saw them outside Doctor Winters' office when she finally got down to the psych department of the infirmary, Audrey in a navy blue skirt suit and Bill dressed in gray. Underdressed again, she thought, not particularly concerned about it. The screens didn't have eyes and unless she was an algorithm neither did most of the people in her dept. Her plain tan slacks and pink sweater suited her just fine. It was always cold at CTU.

Bill turned to acknowledge her when she got close enough, worrying at the edges of the meeting summons. "Good to see you. How's the refit going?"

"Done, just tuning things up." Her eyes went from Buchanan and back to the still guarded high-security section of the clinic.

Audrey's gaze met her halfway there. "I think this is about Jack."

Chloe's eyebrows quirked then. Six weeks had passed since Chloe had found the freighter that had been Jack's home for three hellish weeks. Four ships had left the port of Los Angeles the day he had brought down a president and then disappeared. A quick report on a freighter's usual crew compliment and an infrared scan that told them which one was exceeding it had found him home as soon as they could get the warships in place. They had managed to seize it in international waters as it plowed westward. Freighters tended to pause when confronted with an aircraft carrier and its escort fleet, no matter what they were hiding.

There had been a protest, of course. The Chinese government had denied everything, blamed Jack Bauer's bloodied presence on a powerful, soon-to-be prosecuted Asian mafia, and had spent the next several weeks trying to hack CTU's systems. CTU had finally filled them full of World War II tactical data and let the Chinese in, gathered evidence to blackmail them internationally, and then set up a new network. In the meantime, as Chloe worked to build the system from scratch, along her own appropriately paranoid protocols, Jack had recovered, physically at least, but had yet to be allowed more than a semi-conscious state. He had attacked two doctors and nearly killed Nurse Takamura when someone had thoughtlessly put her on the rotation schedule. Bauer hadn't known his own remaining strength.

Doctor Winters arrived in a swirl of the usual white coat, her ice-blond hair piled in a knot, her green pantsuit flashing out as she took long strides toward them. "I'm glad you're all here. I'm sorry I'm late."

Audrey dismissed her with a flip of the hand. "It's okay. Is this about Jack… Jack Bauer?"

The doctor focused laser-blue eyes on her and looked uncomfortable for several seconds. "Let's go inside."

She lead the way into a small office and through its glass wall they could just barely see Jack, laying peacefully as he had been for the past weeks, carefully tended, shaved and clean, still however, in restraints because there were times the drugs couldn't stop the nightmares. Audrey made a point of sitting down with her back to him so that she could focus.

Buchanan looked the doctor directly also. She had been brought in specifically for Bauer, the world's leading traumatic stress specialist. She had taken charge of his treatment at CTU where he was being kept until a way could be found to fully protect him from the Chinese. The scandal of Logan calling them, all of which had been recorded and intercepted at their end was proving a very powerful negotiating tool. "You don't look happy. I take it Jack Bauer isn't about to make a full recovery?"

The doctor gave Audrey Raines another uncomfortable look before answering. "Actually no, there is every reason he should. The wounds he suffered were consistent with someone who was to be kept alive but under control, painful and disorienting but not permanently debilitating. Physically, he's mostly healed but very weak from atrophy. Fighting the restraints when he does sleep hardly keeps him active enough, although sometimes it seems it would. I've called you all here because I am going to suggest something be done that is a bit radical. My hesitance is because this involves a personal matter for Miss Raines and a personal involvement for Miss O'Brian."

Audrey glanced at the others in the room and opened her mouth to speak. When she said nothing Chloe took up the chance. "Why am I here though? I can only help Jack if you're talking about setting him up with a new identity and right now he just needs help just sitting up."

Winters turned her attention on Chloe and suddenly seemed much more at ease. "That's not really true. In preparing what I've decided to recommend for Mr. Bauer, you are actually the key."

Chloe stared at her, speechless for once; Audrey, however, recovered her voice in that moment. "Chloe? No offense to their friendship and all that Chloe's done before now and to find Jack but he and I are… involved. I would think---."

The doctor raised her hand slightly. "That's just the problem actually. Miss Raines, I'm afraid I can't go on without embarrassing you considerably."

Audrey took a quick look at the blond man several yards away through two glass walls. "You don't know what we've all been through together, Doctor. I have no secrets from these people."

The doctor's voice was measured and distant suddenly, accepting the other woman's words. "All right… I do have some idea what all of you have shared. I was given the clearance to know all of what Mr. Bauer has done and experienced the past several years, otherwise I couldn't begin to help. I'm aware that it was found out two months ago that you had an affair with a certain Walt Cummings, a disgraced White House official."

Audrey folded her arms across her middle tightly. "That's right. Jack and I were involved but he led me to believe he was dead. I didn't think much beyond the moment when Walt happened."

"And even under intense interrogation, you lied about it to Mr. Bauer for a relatively long time, in a situation which resulted in his using some level of force against you."

Audrey looked at the floor and then met the doctor's eye. "All that is true. I had my reasons."

The other woman's voice was not without compassion. "We're all Human, Miss Raines. I'm sure you did but by the same token, whatever it cost you, it cost Mr. Bauer twice. First, it provided a reality wherein you would lie to him up to a point about something as trivial as a one-night liaison with national security at stake and the assassination of President Palmer involved, second, he was forced to deal with you by severe means to finally get to that truth. Under interrogation, he was compelled to assault you, a woman he had had relations with, all for the fact that you were embarrassed about a dalliance. I'm sure he's forgiven you consciously but the doubts are still there and they could affect what I have in mind."

Bill rested a hand on Audrey's shaking one as the past resurfaced and worse, seemed about to interfere with anything she might do for Jack. The sight of her interrogation was a wound to all of them yet and pushing Jack as she had with her silence had now damaged him more deeply than the crude and comparatively insignificant truth. "You still haven't said what you think will help him." She returned her focus to Jack after a moment of self-recrimination, tears stinging her eyes.

The doctor nodded and folded her hands in front of her. "It's simple, some might say too simple, but I've had it work before now for returning agents who have been under long term deep covers and lost touch with who they had been. It's something I labeled "trust immersion". Mr. Buchanan, I need you to grant Mr. Bauer a leave of absence, length to be determined and paid, – on medical reasons, him and one other person."

"If you think this'll work, of course, but to whom else--?" The moment he asked the question he knew the answer, so did Chloe O'Brian by the way she suddenly sat up in the chair and looked from her three colleagues to Bauer's inert form and back again.

"Me. That's why I'm here."

Winters nodded, a slight pout on her face. "I've looked through your file, his, and the entirety of your history. If this might work at all, Miss O'Brian, you have the best chance of anchoring him back. You've faced danger with him, stood with him when no one else could, more importantly… when no one else… would. You've broken the rules, even broken federal laws, been arrested more than once. Through several extraordinary circumstances, you have been his only constant."

Chloe blushed and kept her eyes away from the others. "I did those things because I knew Jack was right. I wasn't trying to be something I wasn't… to him or anybody else."

"But you did those things in an atmosphere of absolute trust, at cost to your career, even possibly your freedom. Your assistance allowed Mr. Bauer to function effectively in the face of what would have seemed impossible odds and I'm hoping to build on that."

"You already said all that," Chloe snapped. "And you could have told me all this without a damn audience."

Winters sighed and realized mutely she was correct. "I'm sorry. I should have but I was primarily interested in expedience. Mr. Bauer is losing time in a sort of suspended reality, and I know he's not a man who would appreciate that; he fought too hard to control his heroin addiction. I apologize to all of you."

The doctor paused to smile and then directed her attention to O'Brian again. "Those times you took risks, you trusted him but more importantly now, he trusted and trusts you. You don't tell someone you don't rely on without question that you're going after the President of the United States."

"Logan was piece of crap. We knew how it was going to end." Chloe countered, still irritated even if Winters had made a solid case.

"Even so, beyond all that, I know something else that you wouldn't have reason to know." Winters glanced at Bauer and back again at the slender young woman before her who only preferred blunt truths. Knowing that made things easier. "You've been in to see Mr. Bauer several times and I've monitored him after every visitor. Your visits are the only time his EEG readings back off. You even register subconsciously to him as a reassuring presence. In the past when he's heard your voice, you were telling him what he needed to survive."

Chloe scowled uncomfortably and wished the floor would either swallow herself or Audrey Raines. She could feel her face overheating. "Meaning?"

"His dreaming cycle enters a less agitated state when you've talked to him, even about some of the threats he's now missing. His pressure drops, his heart rate declines. Those changes don't even occur when his daughter is here."

Chloe shrugged and looked back at Jack, suddenly doing the next best thing she was good at after computers, not caring what anyone else thought. She did now, however, have another new reason to avoid looking at the suddenly silent Raines. "So, what do I do?"

Winters stood up and gestured them all toward the door, offering a distant but polite smile to Audrey. Her face as red as Chloe's, she was now was wishing for the same geologic event. They stared at the floor when they stood next to one another and jostled out the doorway. The doctor didn't answer the computer analyst's lingering question but separated her from the others with a hand on her arm. Audrey turned as Chloe stopped moving with them and looked back, tears forming in her eyes.

"Whatever she says, Chloe, do what's best for Jack. It's what he'd do for us and this isn't about anyone else."

Chloe wanted to smile, to offer her co-worker reassurance. Instead, she could only nod, shrug, and not look her in the eye. "Yeah, fine. It'll be fine. We'll talk. Tell Kim we're trying something else, but not… you know… that I'm the only…" Chloe sighed and turned back to the doctor, not wanting to see Buchanan hurrying Audrey off before the scene could continue. "Okay, Doc', now that you've done a number on my stress, what am I supposed to do?"

The other woman steered her down the corridor and into Jack's room, to his bedside. Chloe tried not to take the opportunity to stare, didn't want the sudden responsibility, didn't want the time off, didn't want her hand to reach for his through the blue sheet but that happened, too. "If you're ready, I'm going to give him something to wake him up, very slowly, but you'll be the only one here. He might react strongly even just with you and he'll be disoriented and nauseated. I suspect he's woken up several times in that condition under unfriendly circumstances."

"Yeah, fine." Chloe didn't look up from Bauer's face. His hand was warming in hers. "Just get on with it. You probably just fixed it so he's the only friend I have left."

Winters knew O'Brian well enough now to ignore the comment. "Again, he's weak but he might be violent."

Chloe said nothing this time and realizing there was nothing left to say Dr. Winters inserted the stimulant into the IV feed and patted Chloe's arm as she went past. "Thank you. This could be everything for him."

"No pressure, right?" A look of apology twitched her face then. "Sorry. You better go."

"I'll be observing in the next room, through that one-way glass." She pointed at the wall opposite the one that faced her office but Chloe didn't look up. When Doctor Winters reached the other side of it, she found Bill Buchanan waiting for her but Audrey Raines nowhere in sight. Buchanan frowned with alarm as he watched Chloe sit down next to Jack on the bed, lift his arm onto her leg and after a long, thoughtful moment, carefully begin removing the restraints. "Should she be doing that?"

Winters said nothing for a heartbeat, watching as Chloe released his ankles and then his other hand, folding his arms over his chest. "Probably not, if he isn't a danger to her he is possibly still a danger to himself disoriented. The last thing we need is for him to start off dealing with her in a combative state but… beyond this point, it's no longer my call. It's up to them and whatever's between them."