Title: I Owe You Everything
Summary: Eighteen months of desperate work had culminated in this: less than twenty-four hours for Jack to live. Spoilers for the Season 6 trailer, though I ignored the fact that Buchanan meets Jack at the hangar. J/C.
Author's Note: First fan fic ever. Perhaps a little OOC, but it's my first attempt and I'm just starting to get a feel for this, so take pity :-) Please enjoy!
Jack Bauer barely noticed the familiar surroundings of the CTU entrance hall as a cacophony of footfalls echoed against the cement walls behind him. The bullpen went silent as he turned the corner, and the phalanx of security agents surrounding him dispersed as Buchanan stepped forward.
"It's good to see you Jack," he stated simply, though the strength of his handshake and his look of sympathy spoke volumes that words could not. Jack couldn't find an adequate response and opted for a single word:
"I'm afraid we don't have much time Jack, and for that I'm very sorry. Kim's been called and should be here in about twenty minutes, and Audrey took the first plane she could from DC, but unfortunately, I don't think she's going to make it here before you have to leave."
Jack nodded briefly, processing the information. Buchanan hesitated before continuing. "Jack, I don't think I need to tell you who is responsible for your release. We've all worked hard, but you have no idea…"
Jack immediately turned to scan the silent crowd standing at their desks. She wasn't anywhere among the techies and agents. Jack only had to look at Buchanan.
"She's here, Jack. Tech One."
Jack was striding across the floor before Buchanan could say another word.
She had stepped out when the call from Curtis had come through: Jack's E.T.A. at CTU was five minutes. She didn't even remember what she had mumbled to Milo, something about adjusting server bandwidth to increase the flow of data packets, so intent was she to escape what she knew was to come. He had looked at her sharply, but didn't question her and mercifully enough, didn't even speak. She missed the looks of sympathy from the rest of the bullpen, and even Buchanan from his office, as she blindly made for the refuge of the cool dark confines of Tech One. It was no secret at CTU that Chloe O'Brian had barely slept for a year and a half: she was the first one there in the mornings and the last to leave at night, if she even left at all. It was no secret that she had pushed herself to her limits and beyond on a daily basis to find Jack Bauer, scouring satellite images and thermal scans until her eyes could not focus, and it was certainly no secret that she was the one who found him after countless futile attempts to hack the Chinese Defense Ministry mainframe. It was also no secret that Chloe had gone ashen just an hour earlier when Buchanan told her that Jack was to sacrifice himself as per President Palmer's order. She had grabbed the back of her chair, had momentarily lost the ability to speak when she realized that eighteen months of desperate work had culminated in this: less than twenty-four hours for Jack to live. She had eventually recovered enough to viciously snark at Morris, to lay into three newbies for failing to update the hourlies on time, and to rant at Nichols, for which she received a stern rebuke. She could show everyone that she was capable to dealing with it, that there were no mitigating circumstances from her end. But then Curtis had called and her resolve had shattered.
It was certainly not a hiding place that would fool anyone for very long, but she knew Buchanan had said there wasn't even time for a short debriefing. Her addled brain told her that if she stayed out of sight long enough for Kim to arrive, she could avoid any encounters. She couldn't face him: not here and not like this. She had already failed him by taking so long to find him, letting him suffer in a Chinese prison camp for months upon months, and now everyone—the government and the whole country—had failed him. She couldn't bring herself to stand before him and look him in the eye, and hammer that last nail in the coffin of his betrayal by asking for just one more sacrifice. Just this once, terrorists be damned: for her it was personal. She had stopped denying to herself her love for Jack Bauer months ago, and even though she knew it was futile, she couldn't see him now only to let him go again. The sobs began to come hard and fast as Chloe sagged against the wall.
She heard the door buzz open and self-defense immediately kicked in. Harshly wiping away the trails of tears that cascaded down her cheeks and taking a shuddering gasp, she started to whip around, eyes ready to roll and angry creases furrowing her brow.
"Milo! I told you I needed to…" she growled, and then stopped dead.
He didn't speak. He couldn't stop himself from drinking in the sight of her. Her hair was brown, and it suited her, but she still looked like Chloe and he barely even registered the change. Instead it was the misery on her face and the hollow look in her eyes that he saw immediately, the hunched shoulders and the arms that were tightly wrapped around her torso as if she was in physical pain. Chloe O'Brian was a small woman, but he had never seen her as such: her personality more than compensated for her slight stature. He had thought about her, just as he had Kim and Audrey, and Tony and Michelle and David Palmer, as he lay on the cold concrete floor of his freezing cell, but it was when he was at the depths of his despair following each brutal interrogation session that he fixated on her, knowing that she was out there searching for him with more loyalty and devotion than he could possibly deserve, and that he still had a chance as long as she did so. Her image had been burned into his mind's eye, and yet seeing her now as such a frail figure, he realized the extent to which she too had suffered in his absence. Despite his own swirling emotions—pain and anguish, and joy at seeing her again, and dread for his task ahead—he felt concern and gratitude well up inside him. The need to touch her, to know she was flesh and blood and not a conjured image in his mind, was suddenly overwhelming.
"I thought…I'd never see…" she choked, desperate to hold back the tears for his sake, and for the sake of her sanity. "Jack, I'm so sorry. So…sorry." She turned away to compose herself, hurriedly scrubbing her eyes while trying to breathe, but she heard two swift footsteps behind her, and then the tentative hand on her shoulder was her undoing.
His voice was so fraught with emotion, his touch so warm and real even through her shirt, and suddenly he had gathered her in his arms and he was holding her so tightly she couldn't breathe, and yet she felt like she would never need air again. Her arms clutched at his shoulders and her tears stained his collar and she was sure that her love for this man, for this strong, fierce, brave man was plain for him to see and she no longer cared. And then his lips were on her brow and her knees gave out and she collapsed against the wall behind her and they slid to the floor, his arms still around her. His own eyes were screwed shut, but a tear still managed to escape and she felt it mix with her own as he pressed his cheek to hers and tangled one hand in her hair, while the other rubbed soothing circles on her lower back. She felt a soft kiss pressed to her temple, another to her cheek, and then with a start, the corner of her mouth. She hardly dared to breathe as he lightly brushed his nose against hers before a feather touch on her lips snapped her eyes open and she stared directly into the blue orbs that gazed steadily back at her. They looked at each other in silence, and Chloe was afraid to blink for fear he'd disappear. The humming in her ears was disorienting, but she clearly heard the words he murmured: "I owe you everything."
Then his gaze dropped and her eyes closed and she fell into oblivion as his lips softly caressed hers while she clung to him with all the strength she still possessed. The kiss was brief and all too soon her face was buried against his shoulder, but she understood that it was the only way he could truly convey his thanks, and apology. She curled herself into his lap as he leaned back against the wall, and it was enough for both of them to hold on to each other in silence.
Some time later, Jack began to stir. "I have to go," he whispered against her temple. Slowly, ever so slowly, he started to disengage his arms from her waist and her neck, and her body ached from the loss of heat and the aftermath of her monsoon of tears. He stood up and gently tugged her to her feet, and it was all she could do to lean against the wall behind her. He squeezed her hands so tightly she thought they might break, and then, kissing her knuckles, he quickly dropped them and strode for the door.
"Jack," she said in such a small voice that she could barely hear herself. He paused by the door and looked back with such emotion in his eyes that she caught her breath in her throat as she tried to form her next sentence.
"You shouldn't leave before…I mean," she stammered, trying to put her stream of thoughts into coherent words. Finally, she looked up. "You shouldn't go without knowing…" her voice trailed off. "I know Audrey, well, you have her but you should just know, that I…" She couldn't finish.
He was in front of her again, lifting her chin and seeking her eyes. "Chloe. I know." She stared at him in shock, then cast her eyes away as a faint blush crept over her face. He leaned in, his breath rustling the brown strands of her hair, and whispered, "I'm not going to let this end today. I need you to help make that happen."
Then he was gone with the swish and click of the door, and Chloe was left alone before she could say goodbye.
She was back at her desk on the bullpen floor fifteen minutes later, setting up comms for the impending operation with an air of resignation, as Jack walked out of the situation room with Buchanan and several field agents. He made it as far as the entrance hall before he looked back and his eyes sought hers. He held her gaze for several seconds, and then with a little nod and a fleeting quirk of his lips, he disappeared around the corner.