Jack took a swig from his second beer in 15 minutes and continued to stare straight ahead, further frustrating the whatsherface sitting on the stool next to his.
"Listen," the woman finally said, tucking her bleach blond hair behind her ear, "I don't have all night. And you're not my only option. So, last offer."
He slowly turned his head to her, giving a glare that was at once blank and yet the most emotion he'd expressed during their entire one-sided conversation. She smiled and nodded acceptingly, standing as she muttered, "Goodnight, Jack."
He turned back to the bar as she walked away, unable to recall giving her his name. He brought the bottle back to his lips and settled back into the daze he spent a lot of time under as of late. And why not - when he'd decided to take an indefinite leave of absence from his life and simply let things happen as they would, he was certainly justified. Bill promised him that CTU was waiting for him when and if he was ready to return, In fact, little more than CTU was waiting for him. Los Angeles held more memories of people he loved than the actual people. Kim had moved on, Audrey had moved on, hell, even Marilyn had moved on - all without him, leaving him behind in a world he didn't have the energy to escape from.
So there he was, inside a hellhole of a bar, inhaling the random clouds of smoke carelessly floating about, when somebody walked in and inadvertently changed dramatically his plans for the night.
She didn't realize it was him until she was a few feet away, when she caught a glimpse of the tattoos peeking out from under his short sleeves. Her heart flipped at the sight, as it always did when she found herself near Jack Bauer. Of all the places in LA they could both be, how did they wind up at the same dingy bar not even close to where either lived? Even more importantly, how did he always manage to find a way to re-enter her life every single time she tried to move on from her long-abandoned yet still consuming fantasy of some sort of life with him?
The familiar voice roused him out of his stare, and he looked up to meet the eyes of an old friend he hadn't spoken to since longer than he could remember. "Chloe?" he uttered with the same amount of surprise he saw on her face. "What are you doing here?"
She tried not to roll her eyes as she pulled up the stool next to his. "I'm really glad to see you, too."
He watched as she asked the bartender for a draft, his reaction to her a little bit stronger than maybe he would have expected to be. He wouldn't show it, of course, but perhaps his suddenly focused gaze on her familiar face gave it away a little bit. Silently, she removed her jacket from her shoulders and glanced nervously at him, digging deep in her brain for something to say.
"So, you're alive. That's good," she finally said as his eyes turned away.
"I'm sorry," he muttered, staring down into the bottle cradled between his hands. "I haven't meant to lose touch with everyone. I've been busy, that's all."
She knew he was lying. Sometimes she'd check up on him through her resources at CTU, and because of that, she knew he didn't have a job, wasn't looking for a job, and was generally wandering wherever the wind took him. She wasn't about to call him on his lie, though - she was too busy marveling at his effortless ability to make jeans paired with a simple dark t shirt look so damn good.
The bartender set the mug down in front of her, snapping Chloe out of her awkward stare. He watched in mild amusement as she chugged down the frothy brew, grinning slightly as he said, "I never pegged you as a beer drinker."
Her brows furrowed a bit as she placed the mug back down on the bar. "Yeah, I guess I'm just full of surprises."
"No, it's just..." he quickly abandoned his thought, opting instead to press her further on his first question. "You still haven't said why you're here."
"I'm meeting a friend," she replied, cuing his turn to detect her lie.
"What kind of friend?"
"What?" she asked, meeting his eyes.
"It's a simple question," he replied, a twinkle in his eye.
She looked away, Jack being the last person she wanted to admit the truth to. "It's none of your business."
"I didn't say it was. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't tell me."
"I'd rather not."
She rolled her eyes, knowing he'd figure it out sooner or later. "Fine. I'm meeting Milo's friend Perry."
Jack paused as he connected the dots. "You're on a..."
"...blind date," she nodded, dreading his reaction. "And yes, I know it's horrible and pathetic, so you don't have to say it."
"Wasn't going to say anything," he muttered, taking another sip. But he didn't stay silent for long.
"So who is this 'Perry'?"
"I'm sorry, did I not just say I don't want to talk about it? Because I don't," she snapped, giving her best stink eye.
"Milo, no less," he continued. "Since when do you trust his judgement?"
She was just about to spit out the first snark-tipped response that popped into her head before a voice behind her called her name, cautiously enough for her to immediately realize it was her date. Both she & Jack swiveled their heads as she braced for the worst.
"Perry?" she replied, finding him non-horrifying enough to acknowledge her own identity. He was very tall, thin, pale but not terribly so, with an average face and brown eyes masked by a small pair of rimless glasses. Basically, he was the kind of nerd she expected Milo to have met in college and still be semi-good friends with today. She breathed a sigh of relief, Milo's threatened death by bludgeoning not necessary after all.
"Yeah," he smiled, reaching out his right hand. "Nice to meet you. You're just as beautiful as Milo said you were." At that, Jack turned away and rolled his eyes, which Chloe took note of as she shook Perry's hand.
She slid off the stool and took her coat, following Perry's lead to a table as she glanced at Jack one last time. He stared ahead, trying to give her the space she at least pretended she wanted, though he had no intention of going anywhere as long as she was anywhere near this guy neither of them knew. She figured as much, hoping to God some kind of drama wasn't in the works for tonight.
Perry liked the sauce.
"So yeah, I made like thousands just off this one program I designed, and that's what I want to do: retire and make my living just sitting at home and designing software, probably mostly security packages, stuff like that."
She watched as he downed another shot, which he chased with beer. "Nothing like ambition," she replied, gritting her teeth as she smiled. So she hadn't expected Perry to be of much substance, sure, but as he droned on with his increasingly unfocused rambling, she was merely being polite not making an early run for the door. At least this way she could tell Milo she'd given him a fair shot and wouldn't be lying.
Perry laughed at her half-joke, not noticing as her eyes enlarged at the sound of his laugh. It was one of those loud, overcompensatingly enthusiastic laughs that almost prompted her to go for the taser stashed in her purse, just to make it stop. She glanced over to Jack, who was smiling to suppress a laugh of his own as he took in the whole doomed scene from the bar. She gave him a glare and turned back to Perry, in her mind cooking up an excuse to get the heck out of there but being interrupted by a question.
"So, what's it like at CTU?" Perry asked while chewing on one of the bar's disgusting array of barbecue chicken wings. "Milo doesn't say much about it."
"That's because most of what we do we can't talk about," Chloe replied, shaking her head when he offered her a wing. "So I can't say much either."
"What's the pay like?" he asked, out of the corner of his eye noticing the guy sitting at the bar watching them with apparent interest.
"Um...it's fine, why?"
"I was just curious because I guarantee you could make a lot more at a private firm, or go into business for yourself like I'm going to."
"Yeah, well," she muttered, "it's about more than money. I do more in an hour at CTU than you'll ever do sitting at home designing firewalls." That could have come out more nicely, she immediately thought to herself.
He didn't hear her. "What's this guy's problem?" he wondered aloud, seeing this as potentially an opportunity to further knock Chloe's socks off.
"Just ignore him," she replied, silently deciding to use the "I have to feed my cat" excuse to leave as soon as she got the chance. But a look of horror crossed her face instead when Perry ignored her instructions and stood up from the table, taking off his glasses for effect as he decided to pick the wrong guy to try to prove his nonexistent toughness over. "Perry, don't even think-"
It was too late, he was marching up to the bar as she followed from behind, pleading pointlessly with his drunken ego. "Hey, man, is there a reason you're staring at my girl that you want to tell me about?" Perry asked loudly enough to garner the bar's attention and further humiliate an already horrified Chloe.
Jack turned and eyed him curiously, barely masking his amusement at the cluelessness of the man standing in front of him. "You've got to be kidding me."
"No, I don't think I am," Perry countered as Chloe tried again to dissuade his unknowing suicide.
"Perry, I know him, he's not-"
"Chloe, let me handle this," Perry replied, convincing her to give up as she closed her eyes and turned around, praying Jack wouldn't hurt him too badly if they came to blows.
"Listen," Jack began calmly, rising to his feet as he attempted to try the reasonable approach. "if I were you I'd drop whatever it is you think you're trying to prove and instead try to salvage whatever chance you still have left with 'your girl'."
Perry replied by swinging his fist toward Jack's head, which Jack caught with his own hand midair, and with one swift, audible motion, he dislocated Perry's left shoulder. Chloe heard the cracking sound that resulted and immediately turned back around just in time to watch Perry cry girlishly in pain and fall to a heap on the floor. Instinctively she rushed to his side, looking up long enough to meet Jack's blank stare before he turned and headed for the door. Chloe let go of Perry's clutched hand and called to the small audience that surrounded them, "Could someone please come here and help this man for me?"
The bartender obliged, taking over as she muttered something about coming right back, although she knew it was probably a lie. It was Perry's fault, he'd made an enormous ass of himself - he had done it to himself, so really, was it wrong of her to rush after the one who really "had a chance" with her, no matter what he did or how many shoulders he dislocated in his lifetime?
He kept walking through the parking lot towards his car when he heard her call after him. She called again, this time with something of an angry tone, and he finally stopped and turned to face her. "What, Chloe? What do you want?"
She didn't answer, pursing her lips together as he waited for her to speak. He didn't wait long, turning back around and continuing to his car as she again followed him. She didn't know what she wanted to say, and she didn't even know why she was following him. But she knew if she let him leave, it could be another set of months or longer before he showed up again. It was the undying cycle, and it had gone from frustrating at first to unbearable now.
She stood near the trunk of his car as he fumbled with his keys, the parking lot dim and unkind to his tired eyes. "Jack, please just say something."
His hands stilled and he raised his eyes to hers, searching them before turning away and muttering, "Just do me a favor and go live your life. Forget I was ever here."
"I don't want to," she replied. "And I don't think you want me to."
"You don't know what I want," he replied, again going through his keys but not really looking for one anymore.
"Look, Jack, I'm really sorry that things didn't work out with Audrey, but let's face it, we all knew where that was going. And I'm sorry Kim hasn't come around either, but I know that she would if you would just put in the effort, and you're not. Maybe things would turn around for you if you stopped feeling sorry for yourself and start putting your life back together. You owe it to everyone who's still stupid enough to care about you," she blurted, the last line stinging her more sharply than it stung him as she turned and all but ran for her car. This time he called after her, and this time she ignored him. She'd said too much, and she didn't want to spend another minute trying to rescue him from himself. It was a fight she was never going to win, and she was sick of it being one she would never stop fighting. She turned on the ignition and sped away, telling herself that this time it was for good.
The next day Chloe found herself tapping furiously at her keyboard, trying very hard to avoid Milo as he hovered over her shoulder and interrogated her about last night's events.
"A dislocated shoulder, Chloe. I'd say that's a big deal, especially considering that you left him there right after it happened," Milo said, unaware of the identity of the man who did the deed on his friend.
"Listen, I do not have time to go over the details with you right now, okay? Besides, I should be the one pissed that you set me up with an idiot."
"Perry is not an idiot, Chloe, far from it," he replied.
"Have you ever dated him? I didn't think so. I think I know what I'm talking about. Now if you don't mind, could you please leave me alone?" she snapped, throwing in a glare for good measure.
"Yeah, fine, look...I just wanted to say that..." his voice trailed off as someone caught his eye from afar.
"Say what?" she asked, refusing to turn away from the screen in front of her one more time.
"Is that who I think it is?" Milo asked, staring ahead at the man who was garnering similar stares from the rest of the floor as he walked towards the staircase leading to Bill's office. Chloe looked up and immediately felt her heart drop - he was there? He was really there. Their eyes met briefly as he made his way up the stairs, Chloe looking away first as she suddenly felt short of air.
"I didn't think he'd ever step foot in here again. I heard he got really burned out, not that I blame him," Milo continued, not noticing Chloe's obvious reaction to the scene. Without a word, she stood and walked away, not hearing and therefore not answering Milo's question of where she was going. She headed for the closest isolation she could think of, inside the ladie's room, where she hoped she could detangle the mess of thoughts that couldn't be far away from flooding into her head.
Her arms crossed and her bottom lip caught uncomfortably between her front teeth, she leaned against the door of the bathroom stall and let the questions tumble through her head aimlessly. Did she even want him back here, really? Could she face him again after all this time, all that they had been through, all of the times she'd let him go only for him to resurface and spin her world around before merely disappearing again? What if her words had stirred this change in him? Shouldn't she be happy for his return, assuming this was, in fact, his return? Why was she hiding when really all she wanted to do was find him, grab ahold of him, and never let him leave her again? She rolled her eyes at the last thought, as if she had any real claim on him to justify such a thought
With self-disdain for her constant inability to function properly in the face of anything involving Jack's physical presence, she turned and released the door, walking to the mirror and mentally picking apart her appearance before she caught herself. Oh, get over it, she thought to herself as she turned for the door. She wasn't going to fall back into that torturous dance again, not when she was convinced it wouldn't make a bit of difference if her make up ws smudged or her hair unsmoothed. He'd never look at her and see anything like that, so why even bother. She turned and headed back out, telling herself to get a grip before she completely lost all sense of focus
On the other side when she opened the door was no one other than Jack, who was passing by as she walked out into the corridor. "There you are," he smiled, stopping just a few feet from her. The door swung closed behind her and she looked to the floor, fighting the urge to freeze up and attempt a getaway.
"Hi," she finally muttered. "Sorry if I'm a little shocked to see you here today."
He nodded and stuffed his hands into his pockets. "I understand. To be honest I'm just as surprised as you are."
"So are you coming back here to work or are you here for some other reason?" she asked.
He paused. "I didn't expect to be welcomed back after everything that's happened, Chloe, but Bill kept his word."
"Good," she nodded. "I'm glad."
He looked away and an awkward silence fell, making the thoughts racing a mile a minute in her head scream louder than they already were. She kept her mouth shut for as long as she could before she couldn't help herself any longer. "Jack, I am so sorry that I said all that stuff last night - I don't know what I was thinking, it was the last thing you needed to hear. And I don't think caring about you makes someone stupid, and not just because it would mean I'm stupid, too, because-"
"Chloe," he attempted to no avail.
"...It was such a shock to see you last night, and it didn't help that I had a drank a little bit more than I probably should have. Plus with Perry and the shoulder thing, I was already that much more on edge than I normally am, and-"
"Chloe," he tried again, trying not to show how so adorably cute he found her incessant rambling.
"...so I guess what I'm trying to say is, I really hope this works out for you because you really deserve it and if there's anything I can do to help just tell me, although you probably won't have to because I guess that's my job, but either way I still want to help you in any way I can. Not that I think you need my help because I know you can take care of yourself, but-"
With a smile he moved quickly and closed the distance between them, taking both sides of her face in his hands as he captured her lips with his. Her arms were frozen at her side as she opened her instinctively closed eyes just long enough to make sure he was really kissing her and this wasn't another one of those dreams she had from time to time. But it was real, undeniably real, unbelievably real as she closed her eyes and kissed him back.
He rested his forehead against hers as he pulled away, his thumbs rubbing her newly flushed cheeks. "Why did you do that?" she asked timidly, staring into his clear blue eyes with her own.
"Because you wouldn't shut up," he replied with a grin.
"Sorry," she muttered as he drew closer.
"It's fine," he whispered before bringing her into another kiss.
Her world slipped into a dreamy haze as the moment took hold, temporarily forgetting where she was before the halting voice of the last person she wanted to see snapped her out of it. "Chloe, I need you back on the..." Milo barked from down the corridor before realizing what he was now watching.
Chloe opened her eyes and pulled away long enough to seethingly annnounce, "Milo, I swear to God, not now."
"Yeah, sorry," he replied before taking one last look and heading back to the floor. Well, at least he'd found them, but this was going to be an awkward conversation with Bill.
"You should get back to work," Jack said with a smile as he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
"And what about you?" she asked.
"I'm right behind you."
She smiled as he dropped a kiss on her forehead before draping an arm around her shoulders and beginning the short walk back to the floor. It took a minute before she realized that her mind was calm, maybe even peaceful, and the world around her seemed quiet for the first time in a long time. She took in a deep breath and hoped against hope this finally the end of one cycle and the start of something new.
"Thank you," she exhaled just before as they reached the corner that led back to the floor and back to work. He slowed to a pause, leaning a kiss on the top of her head before taking a breath himself and stepping back into the world he'd always end up back in at the end of the day. But this time it would be different. This time, he knew as she leaned her head against his shoulder with indiiference to whoever saw, he wasn't going to make the same mistakes he'd made a hundred times before. This was going to be different. This was something new.