It had taken them a day to figure out that Chloe O'Brian's apartment was too small for two people, even with Jack having nothi

Author's Notes:

A word of my own before you read the conclusion. At 7:25 pm Eastern time on Dec. 30, 2006 I finished one of the most amazing writing journeys I've personally ever taken. I leave this story a different writer than when I began it months ago, and a better one, I hope. Some of you may even see the difference. I thank all of you who have reviewed for going on this journey with me, being my guides and being my encouragement.

If you've read this far, however long has passed, please let me know what you think good or bad. I welcome the input and the opportunity to improve, either if I do another fic or compose something else. Nothing you learn goes to waste. Your feedback gives me the chance to become better.

I have had some professional experience the post-traumatic stress, I have been a student of martial arts, and of military strategy and history, all elements that compelled me to bring this story to life. My first inspiration, however, was Kiefer Sutherland's absolutely stunning performance as a gay man dying of AIDS in a movie called "Behind the Red Door", a role as far from Jack Bauer as you might ever imagine but where the image of his vulnerability was an inspiration.

My inclination to even do a Jack and Chloe piece came from that simple and stunning exchange at the end of Day 5 when Jack asks of Chloe to go with him the final mile and take down the President of the United States and, taking one last look at the rest of the friends and coworkers she'll betray to do it, she agrees and offers herself up as a possible traitor if they fail. The plot about Logan started with Chloe's complete trust and ended with Jack's and from that moment on I found the idea of them together irresistible, but irresistible needed a vehicle… and so "The Constant" began.

I want to thank all of you especially who responded to Cassie and Gwen Winters. So often when you need to introduce your own characters into something as dynamic as "24" it fails miserably, looks sappy, or comes off badly for a number of reasons.

We knew Jack was going to need a shrink but Chloe and Jack needed a catalyst, and Cassie was born. She never was intended to be the major story element she became but she took over and wrote herself, and found her place and I think "she" did it well. She was the one character who I constructed from beginning to end, from working at night to speaking Japanese so that she would have a function and make a necessary contribution on more than a substitute for Chloe in Jacks mind. She's been a chore and a joy!  I hope some of you might have a moment somewhere in Day 6 when you wonder when Chloe's loud, funny, tough sister will show up and then remember she won't. I leave her behind with much regret. Never having done comedy before, she was a challenge from which I gained much and I'll miss her.

So… all that said, dear friends and readers… here begins the last chapter of "The Constant". Forgive the delay holidays and work and the desire to end with the quality I hope you expect from me made this last longer than I hoped.

To Kiefer and Mary Lynn, thanks so much for the chemistry, even if, for now, it's only over a comm.

The Constant:

Epilogue

It had taken a day to figure out that Chloe O'Brian's apartment was too small for two people, even with Jack having nothing more to bring to their cohabitation than the clothes he had bought while staying with Audrey. Yet the other immediate alternative had required a long night of consideration for Jack Bauer.

He had laid in the small bed and stared at the wall, aware of little more than Chloe embracing him from behind and saying nothing as the night wore on, offering no opinion and not wanting to do so, trusting that Jack would accept her neutrality.

In the years since her father had allegedly been dead the first time Kim Bauer had used her childhood home as a lucrative source of income, leasing it out to business clientele and mid-level government bureaucrats who wouldn't be there long enough to feel the need to redecorate. She had ordered the estate agent to be extremely careful, selecting only those who could afford a stiff security deposit and would sign a waver against damage.

Jack Bauer stood in his former living room with an understandably shaken expression, troubled more by what hadn't changed than what little had. Clad in jeans and a navy pullover, he took a slow look around and then climbed the stairs, Chloe tagging silently behind him, not intruding as memories called to him from every corner, an unsettling amalgam of comforts and regrets. In one room there were still pictures on the wall, a storage room that had stayed locked to every tenant. Chloe stood back as he made his way slowly down the wall, his hand brushing the glass in each frame, his gaze moving in and out of focus as he maneuvered around boxes of other items with which Kim had been unable to part. He left the room after several minutes, retrieving only one photo from the wall, remembering when he had clutched it to his chest and slept the intermittent sleep of the damned for months. Chloe said nothing as he shut the door and locked it again.

They came, at last, to the master bedroom. The king-sized bed was made, the woven light green spread touching the floor; the pale walls reflected the late morning sun filtering in through the closed blinds, but beyond that there was a Spartan aura to the room, one that spoke of lives lived in transition. Jack sat down on the side of the bed, his eyes taking in the stark contrast of Chloe, wearing black pants and a dark red sweater, standing in the doorway, not having followed him in here. His expression of confusion was quickly replaced by one of understanding and appreciation of her respect for this last sanctuary. Her head was down; the toes of the boot on her right foot tapping the tan carpet; she seemed about to take a retreating step but looked up before she did, a smile twitching across her face when their eyes met; Bauer automatically extended his right hand, the other still clutching the photo in his lap. She closed the distance between them and took it in both her own, still saying nothing even when he leaned forward and rested his head against her side. She freed one hand and drew her fingers through his hair, not moving until he looked up at her several minutes later, disbelief at his own words in his eyes as he spoke. "I'm glad she's not here, glad she never had to deal with what happened or had to see what's become of Kim and me."

Chloe's gaze narrowed slowly and she dropped down to her knees in front of him. "Jack, most of the things that happened were out of your control. The ones that were, well, you always tried to do the right thing for everybody else, the country, CTU, … me. I mean, I think sometimes I shouldn't have called you that day Palmer was killed. I'd figured out they were killing everybody who knew you were alive, that maybe I was bait, and I called you anyway, so this was more my fault than anybody's." Tears crept slowly out of the corners of her eyes and back toward her ears as she looked up at him, her lips making a familiar twist.

Jack sighed thinly and shook his head, "They knew I was alive, Chloe. It was already too late, and if I hadn't saved you, I would've had no one, especially no one to trust. They would have just drawn me out some other way, cost more people their lives. Trust me; I had time to think all this through. I was trying hard to find someone to blame but that isn't you."

Chloe frowned and accepted the truth, then turned it back on him. "Well, counts for you, too, okay? … and Kim will come around. She's getting older, Jack. Her life'll get more complicated. She'll start having to make choices herself that aren't easy; she'll understand more then."

A slow look of relief slowly relaxed his features. "I never thought of it like that."

"You think of her first as your little girl, Jack. You can't help it."

He looked away then, knowing that he hadn't at least once, remembering what it had felt like when his daughter had taken a firm hand with him in the safehouse, calming him when he'd first seen her, how the beating of her heart had eased him to sleep as his panic faded. Chloe was probably right and as much as he wanted Kim's life to be easy, he knew there was no escaping its complications, and that those complexities might well bring her closer to him. His mood far lighter, he suddenly looked down to catch O'Brian's eyes again. "You looked around. Do you want to stay here?"

Chloe came to her feet and after one more uncertain smirk, pausing for a few seconds more before she sat down on the bed Bauer had shared with his wife for so long. "I don't know, Jack. It doesn't matter to me. It has to be okay with you. I mean, and I know this sounds like I'm just a dumb geek but as long as I can have a workroom and a secure connection, I'm okay. Of course, you have an actual kitchen so maybe I can learn to cook."

"And CTU has a list of domestic servants we're supposed to be able to trust."

Chloe's lips twisted. "Yeah, but we won't and… I don't want them in my workroom." A look of dull surprise slackened O'Brian's face a few moments later as the small, lopsided smile on Bauer's face made her realize what she had said. "Okay, I guess I said 'yes' as long as you're okay with this but if you want to look for somewhere else that's good, too. We'll just tell the real estate agent I'll do all the finance work beca--." The kiss cut her off as Bauer took advantage of her mouth still being open, pulling her back on top of him and reaching up to put the framed photo he was still holding face-down on the headboard. Finding herself suddenly straddling him, Chloe sat up across his hips and settled herself down more firmly. A blush reddened her smirk. "Gee, I guess you are okay with this."

Not quite turning his mind over to his body's demands just yet, Bauer held himself still a few seconds more. "Teri would have wanted me to be happy, Chlo, and you're the example my daughter needs. You took care of me, you accepted me. I'm going to be selfish for the first time in a long time: I want you to come home with you; I want to find you here at night."

Chloe's smile twisted further as she gathered his hands and gently kissed his fingers, a look of false innocence on her face as she ground her pubic bone against him. "I don't think that's all you want."

He moved then, lifting her off him and turning on his side, "I told you, I'm in a selfish mood. Right here, right now, I want to start again, honor what Teri wanted for me."

Chloe gave it up then, her lingering worry that he was simply grateful for her help over the past few months, blinded by the intensity of their time together, his former dependence, and Audrey's reactions and departure. If Jack Bauer was finally indulging in a bit of selfishness Chloe O'Brian was perfectly happy to serve as a facilitator again, amongst other things. She reached down, stroking the firmness between his legs and feeling her own body surge with energy again when the low groan escaped him.

Jack pulled her hand away regretfully, impatiently helping her out of her sweater and then twisting out his own, as he did he smiled to feel her fingers working at his fly. He pulled the sweater free of his head to then see the fingers that had so often worked their magic to save him snake their way down his stomach and hook into the waistband of his trousers. Chloe pulled them past his hips and half way down his thighs as Bauer rolled on top of her, laughing when he felt her still booted foot insert itself between his legs to push them the rest of the way off him.

Chloe sat back, smirking, and folded up her legs one at a time, wedging off her boots, then her pants and letting them drop, feeling Bauer's fingers against the arch of her back as he unhooked the clasp of her bra. She yanked it off eagerly when he succeeded and tossed it to the floor as well, turning back and stretching herself overtop of him. His mouth was waiting for her, his tongue sliding between her lips as his hand slid under the edge of her panties and between the slick walls of warm flesh preparing themselves for him. Chloe growled and flexed her hips down as his finger entered her, sliding her hands beneath his shoulders to pull herself down onto him more tightly, her breasts firm and provocative against his chest. She tightened down on his finger and he slid two into her when she relaxed. Chloe groaned eagerly when he did and then slowly inserted her thigh between his legs, parting them to return the favor, to find his erection tensed almost painfully against his briefs. She pulled herself up and off of his hand reluctantly, writhing quickly out of her panties when she realized his readiness. She pushed off him slightly as she did and suddenly put her own needs on hold as she looked down at him, her tongue caught in her teeth.

Jack Bauer opened his eyes and pulled himself up on his elbows, about to ask her if something was wrong he saw that she was biting at a smile and simply watching him. He swallowed twice before turning on his side toward her and sitting up as well, acutely aware of the briefs that were still constricting him. "Chlo'?"

O'Brian leaned forward to kiss him quickly, touching his chest and taking the back of his neck in her hand. "Everything's fine. It's just that… you've been through so much… I just want this to be perfect for you. I want this to be what you want, so I thought I'd stop and ask and, believe me,… that wasn't easy."

Jack laughed softly at the look on her face but the rest of what she'd said had touched him enough that it took him a moment to understand his own reaction, to wonder at the feeling of a gentle hand constricting his heart in his chest. A momentary sting heated his eyes, a prelude to the tears that escaped down his cheeks. He didn't brush them away, enjoying the strange sensation of tears brought on by happiness, tears that slid over the smile parting his lips. "It doesn't matter, Chlo'; that you even thought to ask makes more perfect whatever happens." Bauer sat still for a long moment then leaned forward and kissed her slowly, shaking as he gently took her face in both hands.

O'Brian kissed him in return, her hands finally reaching for the waistband of his briefs. He arched off the bed as she slid them down, hissing with relief when the pressure was gone, at least that aspect, from between his legs. He bent his knees and she pulled his shorts away completely, tossing their one last article of clothing to the floor. Settling back beside him, her hand returned to stroke the feverish underside of his erection, then used the pad of her thumb to slowly circle the seemingly paper-thin skin at the tip. Jack nearly came just by her doing so and she drew her hand back slowly when he began to gasp, taking in the sight of him as she hadn't been able to before now, glad that she was facing him this time as her hand teased his scrotum with feather-light touches. Spasms ran through his hips each time she ran her thumb across the hypersensitive head of his shaft, now slick with pre-cum, its flesh tight and gleaming.

A fine sheen of sweat coated Bauer's face; his eyes were closed, and the hand he was leaning on had twisted into the pale green bedclothes. He hung on for a moment more and then turned toward her, his eyes so intensely bright and clear that O'Brian's jaw fell open when their gazes locked. She followed his hands without thinking when he came to his knees then sat back, guiding her over his shaft and letting her take him at her own pace.

Chloe eased herself down onto Jack Bauer slowly and gently, not for the sake of her own readiness, but to make this new experience for them both last as long as possible. Jack bit his lip, his thighs and buttocks trembling, fighting the urge to drive himself into her. Eager as he was, he wanted it to last himself. When he was at last completely cradled within her, his hips convulsed and his head fell onto her shoulder, then a tremor passed through him that drew a sharp gasp from the woman. Humbled and touched that he was so affected, Chloe gave him a moment to adjust to his new situation then lifted his head in both hands and waited for him to open his eyes. As he did she slowly but firmly tightened her most intimate grasp on him. Jack bit his lip and grinned, gripping her shoulders as he worked to drive himself even more deeply into her, his head pushing back against the strong fingers laced through his hair, his eyes closing.

Chloe groaned happily at his efforts but leaned forward, her breasts pressing against him as she gasped for breath. "I want to see you. I want to see this happen. Open your eyes, Jack. Look at me. Look at me. Let me in."

Bauer took an unsteady breath and obeyed her, fighting to keep his eyes open when she made her next move. She lifted her hips as he retreated for the next thrust, clamping down on his shaft and moving against him as if she could force his swollen member into herself more deeply yet. Bauer cried out softly and would have thrown his head back again save that her hands were preventing him, forcing him to remain where he could look into her eyes.

Jack Bauer let himself drown in confusion again, not knowing what source of pleasure was touching him the most, Chloe moving gently against him, forcing him to a slow rhythm to prolong their experience, or the fact that seeing his pleasure was more important to her than her own. She hadn't taken her eyes off him as her hands gently forced him to face her, was still looking him in the eye when they finally quickened their pace, steadily losing themselves in one another as their climax built. Jack held onto her, gripping her arms as he so often had in the throes of other less pleasant dreams; his breath hoarse and ragged as he came, his eyes never leaving O'Brian's as he erupted within her and expended himself,. His head fell to her shoulder when she finally released him and allowed herself to come now that she'd seen him do the same. His name torn from her throat caused Bauer to unexpectedly spasm one last time before his eyes rolled back, his vision blackened, and the strength literally and figuratively drained from him. He fell boneless toward her, her legs wrapping around him as they fell to the bed.

When Jack Bauer was aware of anything else again, they were flat on the bed, the spread drawn lightly over them. Chloe lay by his side, propped on her elbow, her arm around his head, smiling lopsidedly as she carefully worked the heel of her other hand across his abdomen to ease the lingering cramps. She leaned forward and kissed his forehead and he turned in her direction, eyes still closed as he drew in her scent, a thin sigh passing his slightly parted lips as a weakness he remembered and welcomed continued to tax his regained strength. The emotion of it overtook him as the physical aspect of their joining ended and Bauer didn't resist the tears that stung his eyes for a moment, and then pooled beneath them before sliding down his temples into his hair. His throat relaxed enough to speak as he responded to O'Brian gently hushing him, felt her hand stroke his chest and her lips draw gently at his eyelids. "I… I thought about being with you… thought about this happening ever since I realized I was still able. I was dreaming about you when that happened, Chloe. I knew it would embarrass you when I put your hand on me but I had to know I was awake, that it was real."

Chloe's hand moved down between his legs again, her fingers stroking him gently, intended only to reassure. "You didn't really embarrass me, Jack. I was just happy for you, now…," she sighed and waited till he opened his eyes before offering him a teasing smile, "now, I guess, I can be happy for both of us."

Bauer was still laughing quietly as her mouth claimed his. When she pulled back, he pouted slightly but drifted back to sleep when she told him she would return in a few minutes. The world became dark and pleasant and warm, and remained so even when he turned and the thin, cotton coverlet fell away from him.

Chloe returned as she promised, smiling at the sight of Jack Bauer's slender form stretched out naked on the bed he had shared only with his wife until now, no longer buried in covers he was terrified would be torn away or that hid the torments inflicted on him, content to sink further into the post-coital abyss. Unable to stop herself, and having no reason to, she sat down on the bed and, with lingering disbelief, slowly ran her hands over his sleeping form, her strokes barely detectable as she gave herself over to the thoughts and feelings she had held back for so long. Her hands and her scent familiar, Jack didn't stir as she gently convinced herself, tears drifting from her eyes… simply that he was real. In the end, it seemed as if she'd left no part of him without the lingering warmth of her touch and satisfied, she at last leant over him to wake him with an apologetic kiss. A hand on his bare hip, the woman eased him onto his back and parted his lips with gentle fingers, her tongue and mouth taking their place until she felt him respond. "Can you do that every morning?" He muttered, his eyes half-open.

"Only if you earn it the night before," Chloe snapped, her smile predictably twisting. "In the meantime, come here." She tugged him upright with experienced hands, covering his eyes as she led him to a bathroom once again, then revealing to him the sight of a tub filled with bubbles and a pair of black candles lit on the windowsill. He lowered his head to hers as he had the first time she had brought him to the bath in the safehouse and followed her as she stepped in and sat down, pulling him with her. Jack followed her lead, still pleasantly groggy, as she turned him and guided him to lie between her legs in the steaming water. She stroked his forehead with her chin as his weight settled against her and wrapped her arms around him.

Jack Bauer drifted back toward sleep again, wondering hazily at the irony as he rested in the embrace of the warm and comforting fluid, at rest between the legs of a woman he trusted more than any other soul, and realized he had been given yet another chance at life, only this time as himself.

XXXXXXXXX

They stood out against the dark wood of the court room walls, five figures that Jack Bauer now realized were smaller than himself, each wearing a bright orange jumpsuit, their heads shaved except for the woman. It was the first time Bauer had seen her face when it wasn't painted white, something he realized had been done only to add to his disorientation and fear as she had driven the needles into him or snatched them out. They'd all seen much larger then, when his perspective had either been crippling sickness or looking up as he lay bound to the table. Only the "doctor" had met his eye as they were escorted past him; the sound of their chains striking the wooden floor echoed through the wood and marble confines of the courtroom as they moved.

Bauer stood apart from the five people who were with him, an unbowed figure in a dark suit. Even if they didn't look him in the eye, he knew they were aware of him as they passed, four walking and the woman in a wheelchair; he could feel their defeat, the resentment, and most familiar of all, their sense of helplessness as the rest of their lives was stripped from them, as those in their government who had issued their orders gave them up to a joyless living death that would last for decades. The woman was still bandaged from the explosion of the transport van weeks ago, one side of her face scarred by the accelerant-driven fire. While the rest were sent to Gitmo, its sparse accommodations for women meant she had been sent to the Federal prison in Leavenworth, not that it had made any difference. He hadn't been their first victim, certainly, nor would have been their last; he stood for the rest as the one for whom they were finally paying.

Jack remained frozen until they were gone and then felt his breath leave him. He forgot to take the next until a small hand touched his back. He hadn't taken his eyes off O'Brian during the first part of his testimony at the closed hearing but his eyes had left her more and more as he'd spoken, his voice steady but gruff as he recalled for the judge the tortures he had suffered and identified the five of his captors who had survived the sinking of the Shanghai. Jack turned to look down at the woman beside him. Chloe O'Brian suddenly seemed a bit smaller as well, but then he'd spent a lot of his time looking up at her, too. He took the hand that had been on his back as he turned, clutching it briefly as he looked into the eyes of the woman who had guided him through the literal and figurative nightmares of the past several months and now stood with him again as they left one more behind, this one for good.

Chloe O'Brian, in turn, looked up at Jack Bauer, watching another small burden fall from him, tightening strong fingers against his now firm grip. "Let's get the hell out of here."

The late afternoon Southern California sunlight, especially in fall, was unrelenting, made more so by the visage of white marble around the figures walking slowly down the steps of the Federal District Court House on North Spring Street. This time nothing had gone wrong, not one shot had been fired, not one hand raised in conflict, not one more life lost in the execution of justice. Three white vans turned the corner of the tree-lined boulevard, headed in the opposite direction of the six people who had now reached the street then turned and for a long moment paused to look up at the white columned building and the small group of flags before it.

Bill Buchanan tapped the key fob and opened the locks of the SUV, climbing in and listening to the others joining him. He looked back to see Jack and Chloe in the middle seat and Cassie Gibson's long form bent awkwardly on one knee fussing over how to get the seatbelt around the sling on Curtis Manning's arm. Only by virtue of working with the latter man for so long did he know that Manning was not merely allowing but enjoying the attention. Buchanan offered a hidden smile to the sharp-eyed blond woman in the seat beside him, thinking about how much he had missed Karen Hayes in the past several months. She shook her head a fraction and turned back, making clear her amusement with the younger generation behind them. Buchanan started the car as soon as Gibson was belted in herself, her long legs stretched out between Jack and Chloe's seat. As the sunset began out over the ocean, he turned on to Pacific Coast Highway and headed north, finally stopping in Santa Monica, at a restaurant perched on a cliff overlooking the water. They refused the valet parking and stood watching the end of the sunset, Cassie happily hanging back away from the railing that separated the parking lot from the edge of the cliff.

They were escorted to a small private room, hidden by a heavy red curtain that cut off the noise from the rest of the restaurant. The maitre'd closed it only to have Buchanan open it again and restore their view of the rest of the diners while Curtis waved some device around that beeped and flashed a green light before he returned it to his pocket. Buchanan took his seat across from Karen Hayes and next to Gibson, his eyes on her as he fooled with the linen napkin. "I've been here a few times before. You'd think they'd learn I don't like the privacy drape drawn."

"And the other things was to… scan for listening…?"

"Exactly."

Gibson's lower lip disappeared between her teeth as she shook her head and looked them each in the eye. "My life used to be so safe and dull… and simple."

Across the table from her, Jack Bauer saw the glint that only her sister saw otherwise. "You're still a cop to the rest of world yet. It's not too late."

The sarcastic smile faded as she met the bright, intense eyes of the man facing her, becoming a look of near apology when her gaze moved to the woman beside him. "Sometimes it's too late the first time. I started this; people put their lives on the line because of it. If I back out now, I'm nothing."

A fierce pout blew up the sides of Chloe O'Brian's face, only the whites of her eyes were visible for the next few seconds. "Mom is gonna' kill me. First she's a cop, now she's a cop and works with CTU."

Gibson shrugged, her sense of duty quickly hidden for her sister's benefit behind the perfected veneer of humor. "So, let's get Mom clearance and make her head of Interrogation."

The waiter interrupted the banter and his departure left a change in mood as the longer wait for dinner began. Karen Hayes, having seen Jack Bauer only briefly before the hearing, was studying him carefully but covertly in the reflection of the knife blade. He was trading small talk mostly with Curtis, Chloe, and the strapping detective, politely including Hayes as she was seated beside him but remaining unaware of her scrutiny or benignly accepting that he would be under a certain amount of it. After all, the last time she'd seen him before today, he'd been in CTU Medical, unable to even understand he was there or even safe. Karen traded small talk of her own with Buchanan but he kept it very small indeed, well aware that she was watching Jack Bauer and making her assessments. Winters releasing him for light duty and Colson's further reports were all fine on paper but there were some aspects of judging people that she still preferred to leave to her thirty years of experience. The topic of the apparently imposing mother of Detective Gibson and Agent O'Brian had passed, migrating – as it would inevitably to work, to the dangerous world around them that never ceased to provide job security.

Hayes waited for a pause in the conversation, some technicality of arrest warrants issued by CTU versus those issued by the LAPD and let Jack feel her gaze upon him for the first time. He turned to her slowly, his eyes never resting on her face for more than a few moments. For someone who was capable of the things he had done, the man could seem amazingly withdrawn at times. Jack returned the smile that pinned him, however, his expression calm and strangely resigned, as if he knew what was on her mind already. Behind him, O'Brian and the detective were happily having at each other over something beyond arrest warrants and he took the opportunity to focus on the older woman.

"I don't remember thanking you for coming here today."

Hayes gently pulled on the silver necklace that had been laying over her pale pink blouse. "You did, when I surprised you at the court house. I thought someone coming in directly from Washington to witness the proceedings might wipe any thought of leniency from the judge's mind. I wanted him to know the people who believe in this government, the way it should be, appreciated what you had been through." She paused but shook her head when he took a breath to speak. "I also wanted to tell you I was glad Martha Logan brought Gwen Winters in for you; she only sees six to ten actual patients in a year, Jack, but it only took Martha telling her about what you'd been through on the day Charles was arrested and since then for her to agree to help you."

Jack looked into his beer glass and nodded. "I know I wouldn't be here without her. I never thought I could trust someone that fast with what I'd been through and what I had at stake. She found the one person I trusted without a question and went from there."

"I watched some of the things that Agent O'Brian did for you the day Logan went down, and found out about a few of them later." She smiled and rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. "Needless to say I wasn't surprised when the report came back that she was facilitating for Doctor Winters." Hayes took a sip of the glass of white wine she had ordered and watched the small smile fade from his face. "Important and appreciated as that all was, Jack, it's something that you've put behind you to a great degree. No pressure now, I know you and Chloe are just settling in to your home, but I was wondering if you'd given any thought to your plans going forward. I know you don't want field operations and after what's been done to you, there's no one who doesn't understand that or who'd expect it, but if you have a position in mind at CTU or elsewhere, well, I'd be privileged to act as your facilitator on that count. The U.S. Government is at your disposal, but if you're inclined to go to the private sector, Bill and I will give you the highest recommendation possible and without regret. I'm not asking this of you, Jack – you've given your country too much already – I'm asking it for you so that you can determine what you want and be free to do it."

Jack sighed and loosened his tie, mostly as a stall, remembering fleetingly his second to last conversation with Audrey where his choices had all been made for him. His eyes went involuntarily to Gibson who sensed the mood on him and tuned the others out, not to eavesdrop but to offer help if he wanted it. She kicked her sister under the table. Chloe bit off her response to being kicked when she caught her sister's eye and she turned her attention to Jack. Suddenly realizing he was now the center of attention, Bauer looked at all of the friends around him, sensing their love and their unconditional support for the man he had been and whomever he might next chose to be. Between their chairs, his hand sought O'Brian's and found it already reaching for his.

"God, I hate speeches." A blur of gentle laughter moved around the table and Bauer felt a blush darken his skin. "First thing's first, though, I suppose." Bauer's eyes dropped to the surface of the table, then lifted to the flame of the dark candle burning there, "One of the worst things they did to me – on the ship, was to make me feel helpless. It's strange to feel that way now but I do, because I feel helpless to thank any of you enough. Curtis, you were the first clue I had that any of it was over." He looked up then, looking Manning in the eye and weakly returning his smile. Next to him, Cassie Gibson was making no effort to stem the tears that had begun to flow down her otherwise calm face. Jack never took his eyes off her as he shook his head. "… and you. I didn't even know you – only for a day, but you knew how to give me my strength back then you taught me I could still laugh."

Gibson held his gaze for a long moment, then glanced over at the woman to his left. "And you… you gave me back the baby sister I thought I'd never be real with again." She reached out a calloused hand and Bauer took it briefly before he turned his attention to Buchanan and Karen Hayes.

"And the two of you gave them everything they needed, the backing, the authority, the resources, did everything you could to find me alive." Buchanan offered him no more than a slow, dismissive smile that Bauer knew he meant he wasn't about to trust himself to speak. Karen Hayes, however, took his hand.

"In perspective, Jack, what you did and what you withstood because of your dedication to this country outweighs anything any of us have done here. If you'll do me one last service, I want you to work on accepting that. Once I understood what was happening, I'd never felt so privileged to work with another agent in my life."

Jack lowered his head again but this time only for a moment, and turned at last to Chloe O'Brian who had been waiting, whether in dread or anticipation he didn't' quite know, for her turn. She didn't lift her eyes when Bauer drew a breath to speak and suddenly felt him tilt her chin up so that he could see her face. "And you, these people may have saved my life, but you made me want to start living it again."

Chloe O'Brian let her chin remain in his hand but her eyes still avoided them all and in the end she simply took the hand from beneath her face and, unlike her sister, wiped away the tears as they flowed toward an embarrassed smile. She poked Bauer in the ribs after a moment and a familiar smirk reasserted itself. "I guess, but, uhm, maybe now you should tell them the other stuff, okay?'

Jack turned from her and nodded. They'd compromised. He'd thanked her in public and she'd not bolted from the room. It was time to deal with the rest. "Well, I guess you've all been wondering where I'm going now that you've gotten me this far. I learned something besides that I could defend myself again when I was with Cassie, I learned I'm a good teacher. Bill, if you would, I want the paperwork telling me what steps I need to take to instruct for CTU. I'm not committing myself but I think that might be the best way I can contribute from now on, if you'll have me."

Buchanan smiled thinly, his eyes kinder than Bauer had ever remembered them. "They'll be on your desk in the morning. Take your time, Jack. This has to be about you, though, and not CTU. You don't owe us a thing."

Curtis lifted up the beer glass before him and held it up in a small salute. "But, you know, the idea of a bunch of Junior Jack Bauers out there might scare the world back in line."

XXXXXXX

It was the last thing he expected to see in the remote suburbs of Chicago but there they were, lunging after one another, barking, tongues hanging as they fought happily over a twisted red Frisbee. There were at least six of them, perhaps eight and then the ninth appeared, a black and tan streak that came from behind the pack and darted back across the long driveway with a bit of red added to the blur of color. Jack Bauer's head turned to follow the dog until the snow trimmed bushes intruded on the view.

Chloe stopped the car as the rest of the pack crossed back over the driveway, too absorbed in reclaiming the toy from the brawny thief to pay attention to the sedan approaching their flank. She looked over to see Jack smiling, his eyes searching the snow-painted forest a moment more before turning in her direction. "That was Todomachi. We must be here."

Chloe nodded and reached into the back seat, pulling a stuffed bloodhound out of a bag on the floor in back. "It's kind of a tradition, well, it is a tradition, everyone is supposed to bring a dog, real if you have it. It's a pain in the ass for some of them but we all do it. Cassie took the train a couple days ago."

Jack leaned forward, straining to see further down the snow-covered driveway that snaked through the stands of trees as Chloe started the car moving again. She took a last hairpin bend and suddenly it was there, a sprawling three story farmhouse that had once been a round-roofed barn. Six cars were pulled up out front and one gray minivan. Snow coated the roof and icicles gleamed in the watery sunlight along the eaves of the light green house, looming over the three-car garage. A wreath of pine cones hung on the dark green door, the silver ribbon running through it competing with the sunlight. Framed by evergreens, smoke drifting from the wide chimney, the farmhouse looked as if it hosted Thanksgiving dinners 365 days out of the year.

Chloe stopped the car again and, with a crooked smile, pointed to a now leafless oak fifty yards to the south of the house. "That's where I grew up."

Jack looked at the massive tree and tried to imagine her climbing it now, laptop bag hung over her shoulder. "Never got around to building a fort?"

"Didn't need to, halfway up the tree pretty much has its own. I probably still have stuff left up there." She snorted a laugh and finished going down the rest of the driveway, pulling into the empty space next to the house inside the garage. As she threw the rental into 'park', Jack reached into the back seat and retrieved their coats. They left the car and began to struggle into them when Jack stopped and threw his over his arm. Chloe started to say something and stopped, realizing that chasing him into his coat was something she never would have done to Jack before, not when they had to do no more than pull out two suitcases and go no more than five yards to get into the house. He regretted he hadn't put the coat on a split second later, a patch of darker blue forming on his shirt where the snowball had caught him across the chest.

Jack flinched back from the impact and looked for the culprit, unsurprised to see Cassie Gibson peeking around the side of the wide doorway, her presence betrayed by her own giggling and the sudden appearance of a massive German Shepherd carrying a Frisbee. She stepped out, hands raised and grinning. "Not exactly an L.A. weapon but I manage."

Jack was about to answer when Todomachi snaked past her and leapt up to greet him, leaving wet paw prints before Jack could pull him down. He nonetheless continued to pet him, muttering with good-natured aggravation that he was certainly his mother's dog as the sound of Chloe laughing reached his ears.

"You didn't fly up here?"

"Fly requires up, Kiddo. I don't even like being six feet tall some days. Besides, it's easier to….train a dog." She grinned viciously at the pained expression that crossed Bauer's face at her twist on words. "How the hell'd you guys get here so fast from O'Hare?"

Chloe came around the back end of the rental car, grinning herself. "We didn't. We landed a really small airport about eight miles away. We rented a plane and… Jack flew us here." The rare grin became a childish smirk as she looked up at her sibling. "Guess what? I got to see the sunrise from the sky." She moved over next Bauer then and took his hand as he came to his feet.

Cassie huffed out a breath that frosted the air before her and tossed her head. "First Martha Logan, now private planes and sunrises, you're spoiling my little sister, Jack Bauer, about time someone did."

"I'm in a generous mood, though.. Fly back with us, Todomachi, too."

Cassie shook her head dismissively. "I don't fly, Fly-Boy, remember? Give me a gun, a perp and an abandoned building, then I get brave."

Jack regarded her for a moment more, then folded his arms and slouched a hip against the car. "I can change your mind."

"I can still beat you up."

Jack gave her a thin smile. "It's different if you're in control. You got me over my fear, I'll teach you to fly."

Cassie stared at him a moment more and then felt it happening, the niggling of doubt that worked its way into the back of her mind, jutting toward her as his hand had done on the cliff overlooking the Los Angeles. "Okay… maybe. Maybe, but you'll have to get me drunk to get me on board first." With a final shake of her head, Gibson took his coat from him and retrieved the suitcase on his side from the back of the rental car, carrying it inside the house, leaving him free to take Chloe's bag from her as she came around the back of the car. The galloping dogs, a mix of breeds but all of them large, were now charging about the front yard, barking and kicking up snow. Jack stopped to watch them, smiling when he watched the full-sized, mud-spattered sheepdog running behind the others and herding them forward. The cold slowly asserted itself through the wet fibers of his shirt, however, and he welcomed Chloe's hand as she pushed him forward with an expression of sudden irritation.

"Get moving, Jack."

He followed her up the stairs and let her open the outer door for him. Cassie had left the inner one open, a heavy oaken slab that hung from hand crafted hinges. Before his eyes had even adjusted to the interior darkness of the small foyer, the smell of baking bread and the sound of men's laughter came from the series of rooms before them. The hallway that led away from the foyer was long and straight, stairways angled away from it at either end. As the men quieted, they could hear the sounds of feminine chatter from the kitchen. Jack closed the door behind them and stood looking around at the rustic and welcoming interior. He'd never imagined Chloe as the country type but he also suspected the décor was more choice than a reflection of lifestyle. Most of the vehicles that had local plates were those of city dwellers.

Footsteps on the nearest stairway caused both Jack and Chloe to turn. Cassie reappeared sans her coat, dressed in a blue and gray sweater and jeans. "Come on, Mom's got the rooms all arranged. We're a little tight this year though so you're on the third floor in back but the view is great. You know the one I mean, Monk'." Before he could say a word, Gibson took the second suitcase from Bauer, then bossed their coats from them both and vanished back up the narrow wooden stairs.

The noises of family erupted around them again, the men all shouting at the same time, some cheering, some cursing. Jack realized they were watching football along with several million other Americans and wondered vaguely who was playing. He'd find out later; there was one thing he had to do first now that he was here, one curiosity he had to settle before any other. He looked down at the woman beside him and smiled. "I thought they'd be all over us."

Chloe shrugged, unable to miss the fact that he looked more than a little relieved. He'd figure out at some point that Cassie had arranged for them not to be pounced on for his sake, probably after he met the deafening hordes. "No, not with a game on. I don't get it. I can do the math and tell them who the hell's gonna' win more than half the time. They don't like me in there any more, and I can't cook all that great, so I end up setting the table and doing dishes. At least Mom has a dishwasher now." She scowled without humor this time and reached for his hand, her bright red blouse adding to the sudden, slight blush darkening her ears, "Speaking of…, come on."

Jack grimaced at the fading wet spots on his shirt as he followed Chloe down the long hallway, her grip on his hand strangely tight, as if she'd had more than one significant other bolt from the presence of the woman he was about to meet. Chloe stopped before a huge set of double doors, once again on home-crafted hinges and carved insets. With a final huff, Chloe pushed it open.

The dining room past the door looked like a mid-sized restaurant set for a private party, gilt silverware gleamed on the table and a dozen, unlit, red candles ran its length. There were three women in the room, one younger than Chloe but vaguely resembling her, a cousin likely, a petite older woman in a gingham dress, and a third who sat in a high-backed chair, with snow white hair styled far above her head and bright blue eyes that were piercing and wise even behind her horn-rimmed glasses. She was sorting through a stack of photographs, dividing them by some unknown criteria on an open spot on the table before her. The other two women stood on either side, almost as if in attendance. The seated woman looked up as soon as Chloe and Jack had cleared the doorway. She put down the photos and glanced at the other two who immediately nodded and headed out the door on the other side of the table, offering Jack curious and polite smiles. For all that they glanced in her direction, Chloe might not have existed. She didn't notice their passing either, her eyes on the woman at the end of the table in the blue and black trimmed suit. "Mom, this is Jack Bauer. Jack, this is my Mom, Gretchen Gibson."

Jack Bauer stepped forward as Chloe finished, extending his hand to a woman somewhere in her early seventies. She came to her feet, her steely eyes watching him carefully and distantly, openly assessing him even as she took his hand and didn't shake it, but held it in both her own. Jack simply stood facing her, not knowing what to expect but knowing for the first time in his life the meaning of the word 'matriarch'. This was a woman who had reckoned with the world and won without losing in herself all the things that made her human. It took her a moment but she suddenly smiled tightly at him, her lower lip pressing upward with approval.

"You are the man who saved my daughters' lives?"

Jack looked down at the white-haired woman with slight surprise when she spoke, her words thickened and slowed by a far more than lingering German accent. He wanted to dismiss her question, to answer it in a way that convinced her it had only been his job, instead he simply shrugged into the direct and unflinching eyes before him. "Yes."

Chloe sighed behind Bauer and folded her arms, "Mom, you don—."

"Hush. I owe a debt to dis man. I vill talk to him as I please." Gretchen Gibson waved a cautioning finger. "Go or stay, Daughter, but hush."

Chloe's eyes dropped to the floor after a helpless look in Jack's direction, a helpless look from a woman who had defied CTU for him, who had defied the very laws she was supposed to uphold. She screwed up her face and sat down, unable to stop whatever her mother was about to say, her eyes on the ground as her Gretchen Gibson directed Jack into a carved, wooden dining room chair while she remained standing, still smiling at him, her eyes becoming distant, however, a moment before she began to speak. "I don't believe my Chloe has told you vhat I am about to tell you but you already have reason to be thankful for it. It is vhat made my family what it is, vhat it will be till I die - no place for liars, no place for traitors." Jack Bauer sat unmoving, spellbound with curiosity and silent as Gretchen Gibson continued looking down at him, her gaze both stern and matronly.

"My father was a liar, Mr. Bauer, mostly he lied to himself, then lied to his family, and he lied to many, many others, a worthless man who stood by and betrayed hundreds of thousands of human beings, who herded them onto trains… to take them to their deaths. My mother found out and left him. She found her way through many dangers, and made a life for us here, in America. She made us make a promise to the world, to the humanity that my father betrayed, a promise to tell the truth, to serve a higher good, and if someone trusted us, to be worthy of it always. I raised my children to do the same and they now raise their children by that promise. From what little my daughter has told me of you, Jack Bauer, what her strange job allows, you are a man who has made that promise as well, for that as much as saving my daughters' lives, this house and the hearts here will always be open to you."

Jack looked up at the steady blue eyes taking him in and for the first time in his life, trusted a stranger completely moments after he met them, and along with the trust came an overwhelming sense of gratitude. He swallowed twice before he could speak, his eyes dropping to follow her as Gretchen Gibson reclaimed her seat. "I'm honored but I'm just as grateful. I often wondered why Chloe would do what she did for me, not just the past few months, but always, whenever I needed her. It seems I have you and your mother to thank for who she is."

Gretchen nodded slowly, her still sharp eyes studying him again. "You are a good man. You know what you do is needed but then punish yourself for it. I know vhat the greater good is, Mr. Bauer, and I remember that it was not easy to serve. My mother and I fled killers and my mother twice became one herself to save us and free us but there were few nights where she did not see their faces."

Jack nodded slowly, consumed with curiosity he would indulge in once he knew Gretchen Gibson better and what she was willing to share. "She must have been an extraordinary woman. She would have been proud of the women who've come after her."

Gretchen Gibson sighed, her expression softening for the first time. "She would have, but that doesn't make it any easier to have my children, to have my girls especially, follow her path, to face danger for justice. I know how I raised them, so some of it is my fault, no?" She smiled gently and then sobered. "You will do what you can to look after my daughter, Jack?"

The blond man nodded slowly, his arm going around Chloe's waist as she came to stand beside the chair. "Always, both of them, just like they have me."

Gretchen Gibson nodded, a smile warming the lines of her face again as she watched her daughter's arm encircled his shoulders. "I see you have made my Chloe happy as a woman, too."

"Mom, damn it!" A blush overcame Chloe O'Brian's face, darkening the embarrassed sneer that overtook her face, one that deepened she saw Jack was blushing slightly, too.

Gretchen Gibson's blue eyes sparkled. "Well, you have obviously learned better than to bring home another shoe salesman who wastes his mind, but…you… you need to feed this one better, fatten him up. I want grandchildren from my daughters."

Chloe's blush darkened further somehow and she pulled out of Jack's grasp to stand with her arms folded tightly over her stomach. "Well, then… tell Cassie to get pregnant." The words has no sooner left her mouth when the doors to the dining room finished opening, her sister standing between them with a rare look of shock upon her face, Curtis Manning unable to hide the grin as he stood behind her. Her astonishment faded into sisterly venom. She sighed angrily and didn't turn as she addressed him. 'Hey, Curtis, guess what? My sister's nickname is Monkey-Butt because growing up I saw more of her ass in a tree than her face."

A sound between a grunt and a scream erupted from Chloe O'Brian's throat. "Oh, that is so mature. Okay, fine! I'll play, Miss-First-Class-Clown-to-Run-Her-Own-Black-Panties-Up-the-Flagpole!"

"Uhm… well, those weren't mine but they got me four dates to the prom and two limos. How was the ride? I've heard those trunks are roomy."

Jack Bauer looked at the pair of them with an unfathomable mix of affection and amusement, his eyes bright when he looked at the beaming face of Gretchen Gibson as the exchange continued. He'd be proud to give her Chloe's grandchildren, proud if scared as hell. She smiled back at him as her daughters argued, a bit less loudly now that the others had started filtering in, most of them carrying large, steaming containers of food for the table. Last of all came a turkey large enough to feed the twenty odd people in the main room and a few more. Most of the men wearing team jerseys and already drinking beer; the women were dressed slightly more formally. Jack and Curtis found themselves the object of friendly but not fierce curiosity as Thanksgiving dinner progressed, Jack more so because it was the first time Chloe had shown up with a man since her short-lived marriage.

Presiding over the whole thing with the aura of a queen, Gretchen Gibson controlled her brood with an iron first wrapped in velvet, even somehow managing the clutch of dogs and children at a table in the next room. God knew what the carpet was going to look like but no one seemed worried. They were a loud crew, but happy to be together, begging stories from Cassie who was as happy talking as eating in any case. She kept them amused and drew their attention off Jack when she suspected it all might be too much for him yet. Gretchen Gibson, in turn, was less worried about her own plate than ensuring her younger daughter was making certain Bauer was more than well fed.

Three hours later, the dishes drying and stacked, they had retreated to the living room with its carpet of huge dogs and drowsy children, and a blazing fire. Of course, there weren't enough chairs, and Jack settled to the floor as had many of the men, tucking himself between Chloe's denim clad knees as they all shared drinks and told stories on each other for a few hours more. Ears apparently stinging from his mother's glib, ringing, happy chatter over his head, Todomachi trotted through the children and dogs to settle down with his huge head on Jack Bauer's leg. Jack stroked him absently, at home in a room filled mostly with strangers, suddenly fighting bouts of occasional distant fears that it was an illusion, that he should be terrified that it would all be taken away. In each moment of doubt, he tightened his grip on Chloe's knee and pressed himself against her more firmly until the moments passed, focusing on the fingers that never left his shoulders or the back of his neck.

It was Cassie, facing him across the large room, who saw Jack staring off into the distance when midnight passed. She came to her feet, stretching and making her way with careful steps through the tangle of now sleeping children and dogs who were serving a blankets and pillows. Only Todomachi had spared himself the indignity. She tugged the dog up by the collar and scuffed her fingers gently through Jack's hair as she leaned over him to hug her sister, glancing down at Bauer behind his head. "He's had it," she mouthed silently. Chloe nodded and kissed her sister's cheek. Cassie lingered in the room only long enough to kiss her mother good night and head up the stairs, Todomachi surging past her and Curtis following.

Chloe O'Brian came to her feet a few minutes later and Jack stood with her, his right hip aching slightly. He followed her out, nodding and waving as they said their good nights, saving the last of them for Gretchen Gibson who sent them off with a knowing smile. Jack followed the blond woman through the maze of halls and up two flights of stairs to the small room where Cassie had deposited their bags. They were there and waiting for them on the rustic-looking wooden table, the clothes even hung in the étagère. Outside the huge window in the back wall, Chicago was a scattering of yellowish lights in the distance and a light snow had once again begun to fall. The room also held the fireplace for the third floor. Everything they needed for it was there and Jack found it an irresistible temptation. He lit the stack of hardwood already in place and stepped back. He was still staring into the growing flames when his cell phone rang.

"Bauer."

"You're not on duty anymore, Dad. Try and relax a little."

Chloe looked up from rearranging the cushions, pillows, and blankets on the wide sofa when she heard a soft laugh come from Jack as he stepped closer to the window. "Where are you, Sweetheart?

"When did you get back?

"No, I haven't. We haven't. Why?

"I hope so, Honey. I'd like that.

"No, it's been… really nice."

"Thanks. Happy Thanksgiving to you."

Chloe put the last cushion into place and stood up, offering him a tired smile. "Kim?"

Jack Bauer offered her a tired smile of his own, but one with a touch of nervousness to it. "She said, she had to change her flights. She might, she's probably going to be in Los Angeles for Christmas now. She wanted to know if I'd, if we'd made plans."

Chloe rolled her eyes. "Silly, even if we had we'd change them if Kim thinks she can be with you." Her grimace changed cause a moment later as she pointed at the wide couch. 'It's not a sofa bed," she snapped, more irritated with her mother than embarrassed. "It's kind of joke, Jack. We call this room the… well… crap… the honeymoon suite cause the only time you can send two people up here is when they'll sleep together, and it's got the fireplace and the big window. I mean, the joke was… Mom and Dad only used this room to… uh… anyhow, now we only use it when we have a houseful so I guess the joke was on me this year when they knew I was bringing somebody."

Jack closed on her as he unbuttoned his shirt. "Let them laugh. I'm glad its ours."

Chloe's smirk softened into a tight smile and she helped him out of his shirt the rest of the way, then stripped down to her underwear and sat down on the "bed". Jack took off his jeans and followed her, laying down first, resting against the soft brown material of the sofa back. Chloe reached up and turned off the lights then lay down beside him, forced into his arms to keep from falling off the sofa. She reached up and dragged the thick rose-colored blankets over them.

Their heads propped on one of the rearranged cushions, Chloe reached up to stroke his face as Bauer began to relax. "I'm sorry. I got so wrapped up in being back here and showing you off that Cassie had to tell me you were zoning out."

Jack captured the fingers drifting along his face and drew them to lips. "It's fine. I had you to hold onto just sometimes… too much of a good thing is still too much." Bauer's eyes suddenly lifted from the fingers he could barely see in the darkness, hoping she could see the smile on his face. "Did you just say showing me off?"

Chloe shrugged in his arms. "Yeah, I guess I did. Nobody ever thought I'd come home with a really sexy, handsome guy. I guess I never thought I would either." Despite her self-deprecating words, she was smiling as she pressed herself closer to him and Jack tightened his grip on her beneath the warmth of the blankets, his eyes going briefly to the fire across the room. He was exhausted, his ears were ringing, and the sense of unreality still lingered in the back of his mind as he lay against the back of the wide sofa with Chloe O'Brian where he had come to expect her, between him and the rest of the world. Her arm slid over his waist and as she pressed a gentle kiss to the bridge of his nose. "So, I guess I showed them all. The Monkey-Butt geek who got to come home with the hero."

Jack Bauer started to open his mouth, wanted to argue with her, had even taken a breath to do so when Chloe's lips moved down to capture his and deny him the opportunity. He sighed through his nose as their mouths joined and let the argument go, if he had Chloe O'Brian, then maybe he was a hero after all.