Title: Benediction
Fandom: 24
Pairing/Characters: Renee/Jack, Chloe, Kim (and family), Cole, OFCs
Rating: PG-13, with mentions of canon sexual assault
Summary: Sequel to Twenty. The road to recovery is never a straight route.
Spoilers: Up til 8.07, and AU thereafter
Disclaimer: 24 does not belong to me.
Author's note: Sequel to Twenty. And, yeah, despite my earlier declarations, I just couldn't work in Jack/Renee sex into this one. And probably not the next one either, as that is too plot-heavy. (You'll see why at the end of this fic.) But, um, after that one? Totally doing some Jack/Renee smut. Pinky swear!

It's been one month – just one.

The first time she'd spent the night in Jack's bed, they'd done nothing but sleep. She woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, the haze of memories choking her with the taste of blood, vodka, and screaming.

Every night since, there's been some variation on a theme – a nuclear blast, Vladimir Laitanan, and Jack dying – the nightmares cycle through her head, over and over again. It's gotten better, though. Sorta. She isn't the type to prescribe to psychology 101, but she knows it could be worse. That if she hadn't redeemed herself somehow, a part of her would always be caught on loop in nightmares of that day. She wants to move on.

God, she's ready for it.

It already feels like a lifetime ago, and Renee sometimes doesn't want to remember what came before, because if she does, it'll show her an image of just another black hole and she's currently set about crawling out of one already. She doesn't need more battles to fight, and her issues before Vladimir, before the peace conference, before Hastings and CTU, before that moment when Jack walked back into her life – sometimes, those memories are a distant thing. Foreign, irrelevant and messy.

Sometimes, it's all she can think about.

The first few times he calls her sweetheart and honey, she fights the urge to do a double take.

It's the little things that throw Renee more than the big ones. Their relationship has leapfrogged all the normal conventions of romance with all the expediency and elegance of a freight train, so it's not surprising that sometimes Renee has trouble adjusting to the concept of Jack Bauer as her… what,boyfriend? The title seems quaint, too pedestrian. But he can be infinitely gentle and soft when he wants to be, so in contrast to the harsh persona of his reputation and the deeds she'd seen him do.

It's not just with her, either. No one can make Jack light up as quickly as his granddaughter, even just over the phone. She sometimes watches him talk, as he ducks his head and smiles, his gravel voice worn smooth like velvet.

"I miss you too, baby," he tells little Teri, "Your mom says you're gonna visit soon, so I'll see you then, all right?"

Before they'd ever met, Jack Bauer had been a legend of the infamous variety, a cautionary tale told to criminals and rookies alike. It had taken less than an hour for Renee to start trusting him, and less than a day to, perhaps, start falling for him. In that time, he'd proven every one of her preconceptions wrong, and he continued to do so long after she realized she might be one of the few people in the world that really, truly got what made Jack tick. Those things that were most precious to him, he would protect at all costs.

It humbles her to realize that she's part of that, now.

On her worst days, she's still not convinced she deserves it.

She picks up the phone, dials her sister's number, then hangs up before it can connect.

She's done that seven times today.

Kim and her family fly back from Los Angeles during a time when Chloe still has a cast on her arm and Hastings' grave is only a few weeks old. Renee spends most of that first week away from the apartment; she's practically living with Jack, a maneuver that happened wordlessly, seamlessly – almost unconsciously. But suddenly it feels like a bright light is shining on her whenever she enters a room, and Renee can't stand the spotlight.

She likes Kim – how can she not? She's smart, capable, a great mom and she knows how to make Jack smile, a gift that little Teri has inherited in spades. Still, sometimes, Kim watches Renee with this searching look that Renee can't read. A daughter's love is something Renee can't define, but with Jack and Kim, she knows the normal rules don't apply. Renee doesn't want to step on any toes, unbalance any of the happiness they have so painstakingly carved out for themselves in this Bauer family – or what's left of it. She feels like an intruder in those moments, like she's interrupting a world that's not her own.

So, Renee spends most of the time away – doing errands, sitting in that silent, almost sterile apartment that she calls her own, looking for something to fill the empty space. She has to do this on her own, at least to a certain extent. Using Jack as a crutch won't do either of them any favors, but she hadn't realized how much of her life had come to include Jack until it's all she's trying to do to exclude him from it.

She has a tethered copy of an old FBI handbook.

The table of contents for the chapter regarding psychological assessment includes the following: (a.) Communication Facilitation and Listening Skills
(b.) Ethical Issues
(c.) Stress Management
(d.) Suicide Assessment
(e.) Depression and Burn-Out
(f.) Grief Management
(g.) Crisis Management,
and (h.) Traumatic Intervention

Funny enough, she never reads through it to find the sections regarding rape.

Jack calls her over for breakfast one morning, and won't take no for an answer.

When she arrives, she finds Stephan cooking pancakes in the kitchen. Jack and Kim are still getting dressed, and little Teri is on the sofa behind her, watching TV with the volume blaring so loud it almost gives Renee a headache. So she sits, foot hooked around a stool, watching Jack's son-in-law cook breakfast with an apron that says "Cookie Monster" across the front. She listens to Teri's morning cartoons in the background, struggling for polite chit-chat when suddenly the conversation veers into something else entirely.

"You have to understand," Stephan imparts the words, head bent over the uncooked batter. "Kim handles her father very… carefully. They've been through a lot together, and she always grew up knowing her father was fiercely protective of her. What she doesn't really realize now is that she's equally protective of him. She doesn't know you. She doesn't know what to think of your relationship with her father because she's never seen him like this. Not since her mother."

She wonders how Stephan became so wise about these things, but then she realizes he's probably defused a few emotional landmines during his marriage with Kim.

"Give her time," Stephan continues. "Let her get to know you and see what you do for her father."

Renee etches the rim of her coffee cup with her thumbnail. "I don't think I do anything particularly good."

"You do." Stephan gives her a dimpled smile. "I may not know everything about Jack, but I know how he treats the women he loves."

She adds another year to her life, a date that marks her 38th birthday.

She doesn't mention it to anyone, especially Jack. The day slips by quietly, unnoticed by others, and for the most part, Renee doesn't think much about it either. Still, on occasion her mind trips over something that jogs her memories to past birthdays, to ones filled with laughter and youth. She isn't the type to get sentimental over things like these, but she wishes she could make this day mean something.

Without acknowledgement, without much fanfare, she makes a silent promise that she'll make it up to herself – next year.

Next year, maybe, things will be brighter.

The FBI still doesn't want her, but apparently CTU does.

The first time she heard the offer to get a badge back, she threw it right back in Hastings' face. She's changed her mind since then. As sickening as it is to contemplate, she can't deny it – this job, standing at the brink of some international disaster, holding back the floodgates – it's all Renee Walker was ever really good at.

Her (second) psychological review is today. (The first one she cancelled.) It's standard and routine, especially for reinstating agents that have gone as far off the reservation as Renee went. She's heard the whispers; she knows there's doubt. She also remembers a time in her career when she'd been the one overseeing these psychological reviews instead of undergoing them.

"Larry," she once told him, over three years ago when a subordinate had killed an innocent bystander in a shoot-out that should never have occurred in the first place. "Agent Warren hasn't shown any regret. Until then, his behavior will be seen as implicitly condoned by the FBI if he gets off with a mere slap on the wrists. No body is above the law, especially the people that enforce it."

Larry had agreed with her, of course. That was the old Renee. The good Renee. She wonders what Larry would think of her now, and the answer is never one that she likes. Sometimes, she wishes she could pretend otherwise because it'd be easier to just convince herself that Larry would always be proud – but that's a lie. They spent half the last day of his life fighting over one thing or another, and a line had been drawn between them.

She's gone so far past that line that she can't even see it anymore, a diminishing spot on the horizon behind her.

It's time to start running in the other direction.

She gets a hot dog from a local vendor and takes the left towards Central Park, where she sits on a bench and feeds the ducks.

The afternoon passes, and Renee watches a man hoist a little girl up on his shoulders. (She thinks of Jack and Teri.) She sees a woman jog past – ponytail bouncing, iPod blaring, oblivious to the worries around her. (She thinks of her younger sister, Zoey, and how she was in college.) She spots a woman sitting under a tree with an open laptop, typing away. (She thinks of Janis and Chloe.) There's a couple, dressed professionally, sitting on the park bench opposite of her, enjoying a quiet lunch. (She thinks of Larry and herself – of a life she could have had, maybe would have had, if things had gone down a different route.)

Renee sits quietly, never saying a word, never interacting, just watching.

She has no idea why, but it calms her.

During the latter half of Kim's visit, Jack starts spending more time at Renee's apartment because Renee is barely spending any time at Jack's. A part of her is relieved and a part of her questions why he's here. (Is it because he wants to be, or because he wants to take care of her?) She can't sleep without him, and she's never slept with a man before without having sex with him – but that's what they're doing. It's all very adult and mature, but she can't help but feel guilty that it's all give with Jack – he constantly gives, never takes. Such a contrast to the man he is out in the field, and she knows he does that because it's what she needs. At least for now, she tells herself.

The running tally for hours slept in the past week is in the low digits, most of the nights spent alone watching infomercial after bad sitcoms on late night TV. It gets bad enough that when Jack offers a deal to trade off nights, one night here and one night there, Renee agrees.

So, it's nothing unusual when Jack drops down beside her on the sofa an hour before they're turning in for bed. She never draws away when he touches her, even when everyone else gets a reaction that ranges from a stifled flinch to a full fledged recoil. She doesn't remember a thing of Vladimir when she glances aside to study Jack's profile: sharp features, hard jawline, deep blue eyes. He is, without a doubt, one of the sexiest men she has ever met.

In that moment, for once, she's not thinking about anything else.

So it isn't that surprising when two minutes later, she has a leg curled around his waist, leaning back against the cushions, allowing Jack to trail open-mouthed kisses across her collarbone and neck. She buries lazy fingers through his hair, and there's a moan half-caught in her throat, only strangled loose when he sucks at the spot where her pulse beats, all pressure and wetness that makes her dizzy and weak-kneed.

She presses hands against his chest, feeling warm muscles and the rapid beating of his heart. She shivers when he breathes her name against her skin.

The pressure of his body, though, turns from a welcomed weight to a distinct reminder. Vladimir's face flashes across her mind, and Renee snaps her eyes closed, focusing on Jack – his touch, his hands, the feel of the rough calluses on his fingers. She won't let that bastard haunt her forever. She tugs free Jack's shirt, fingers unbuckling his belt, and her heart's beating fast and erratic, and she's touching him even as her breathing turns frantic.

"Hey, hey," Jack stops her. "It's all right. We don't have to—"

"Jesus, Jack," she breathes, red-faced. She wants him to get angry, to make her own up to this, becauseshit. She can't panic every time it gets physical. She can't be that weak. "You have to stop being so goddamn understanding at some point."

"I'm in no rush."

She squeezes her eyes shut in burning mortification. "You've waited long enough."

There's a long beat of silence, thick and heavy like molasses. "I've damaged everything I've touched. I'm not going to do that to you."

When she opens her eyes, Jack isn't watching her. Instead, his gaze is trained on something distant, foreign – and she realizes why. His shirttail is still untucked, buttons undone to expose the scars on his chest. China, she realizes. He was tortured and brutalized for two years in ways she probably can't even imagine. What does that do to a man? And Teri and Audrey – they're ingrained in his psyche as failures, as burned bridges and women he's destroyed. Even Kim to a certain extent.

Her throat clenches, and she threads her fingers through his. "You're the only thing keeping me whole," she tells him in a soft whisper, and finally he looks up. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you, Jack."

Later, when they're getting ready for bed, it's only when she's crawling across the mattress that she glances up and notices the bags under his eyes. They're far darker than before, and she realizes he hasn't been sleeping without her either. Abruptly, she wonders if she's missed the obvious somewhere along the way.

That in saving her, he might just be saving himself.

One night, she screams so loudly coming out of a nightmare that she wakes the baby.

Her heart is beating like a jackhammer against her chest, her tank top soaked through and through with sweat. Jack is beside her, but all she can remember of her dream is blood and horror and a knife in her hand. She can smell Vladimir on her skin.

It isn't until a few seconds slip by that she realizes that Teri is crying in the distance. Reality rushes back to her when the light in the hallways switches on, hearing Kim and Stephan moving about. Renee scrambles off the bed, feeling mortified.

"It's all right," Jack tries. "They don't care—"

"I care!" Renee cuts in.

The baby continues to cry, a siren song laying claim to all of Renee's failures like an exclamation point at the end of a really bad joke. Embarrassment floods her system, and before Renee even realizes it, she's grabbing clothes off the ground, a discarded pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, slipping it on and over, and she's headed out the door.

"Renee!" Jack calls after her.

She grabs her keys, forgets her purse, and stumbles over an inelegant apology to Kim and Stephan when she finds them in the hallway.

"You all right?" Kim asks her, nonplussed.

Renee doesn't know why, but the urge to laugh bubbles up and she – she really needs to get of there. She waves the concern away, and heads for the front door, aware that Jack is following on her heels the entire winding route.

"Renee," he tries, but she just keeps walking. "Renee, stop!"

"Leave me alone, Jack," she warns as her hand fists around the doorknob. "Just this once, don't follow me."

Renee rushes out the door, through the hallway, down the elevator, and into the cold night air. She takes the subway back to her neighborhood, walking the quiet streets at three AM. Twenty minutes later when she finally arrives back at her place, she's left a little heartbroken when, turns out, Jack's heeded her plea.

Parts of the CTU building have been replaced and restored, and it's impossible to tell that months back portions of it had been demolished in an explosion that killed three people, including Hastings. When she visits for her weekly psyche eval, they sit her down in a glass office where she fills out paperwork quietly for the first ten minutes. There's a swift rap against the outer glass of the office, and Renee looks up to find Cole standing in the doorway.

They exchange quick greetings and easy pleasantries, and even if it isn't her place to ask, not really, the absence of Dana is too obvious to ignore.

"Suspended," he tells her, "pending a review."

Renee flinches. "A lot of that going around." She pauses, delicately. "How're you doing?"

He shrugs. "Taking it one day at a time. This is the job, right?"

Renee watches him, and it strikes her – almost hard across the face like a slap. Cole Ortiz is just like she used to be – hard working, loyal, clean as a whistle. He's an agent that wears the badge with pride and a touch of that old fashioned honor that only a few people ever really got. She turns away, thinking they might represent a bad rendition of before and after.

"Hey, Agent Walker," he calls.

She turns back to him. "I'm not an agent yet, Ortiz."

Kim hunts her down the day before she leaves. "I'm sorry," she says, unexpectedly. "I didn't know what to make of you – of you and my father. It threw me and I—"

"Don't apologize," Renee cuts in. "Your father's been through a lot. I don't blame you for not wanting me around him."

Kim balks. "That's not it at all. I didn't understand before."

"Didn't understand what?"

"What you went through," she answers, then pauses, heavily. "You know about my mom, right?"

Renee nods, because she knows as much as the FBI file reads, along with the bits Jack has been willing to talk about. (Which is almost nothing at all.) Teri Bauer is all vague brushstrokes, the same details afforded to her story as something she's seen on the local news. She knows nothing concrete beyond the bare bone facts, but she feels the presence of her ghost nonetheless. Especially in her daughter's apartment, especially sharing the bed of her husband.

"She was raped," Kim says – just like that. Fast, painful, like pulling off a band-aid except ten million times worse. "The day she died, she was raped."

Renee stays silent for a long beat, because she doesn't know what to say. Doesn't think there issomething you say to that. Months since Vladimir, and Renee has never even uttered the word rape; during debriefing, it had been framed as "sexual intercourse to maintain the cover." Like it was voluntary. Like she had a choice.

This is all running through Renee's head, so it takes her a second to realize why Jack's daughter is telling her all this.

"My mom never got the chance to recover," Kim says softly. She reaches across the table, pressing a hand over Renee's. "I hope you do."

She finds the CTU-mandated psychiatrist a bit arrogant. Her name is Dr. Anya Nakia, a beautiful Russian woman with sleek black hair and dark brown eyes. Her accent is subtle, but there, and Renee can't stop focusing on it.

"Your family from Kaliningrad?" Renee asks, finally.

Dr. Nakia pauses, delicately. "Good ear. My accent is almost completely gone at this point."

"Я имел обучение таким вещам," Renee returns smoothly. "но Вы знали это."

Dr. Nakia sets her pen down, legs crossed elegantly at the ankles. "How many languages do you know?"

"Russian, Farsi, Spanish and," Renee tips a smile. "English, of course."

"But Russian is the only one that you've used in the field?"

Renee shakes her head, looking to the window. "I've had my use for all of them."

"Tell me about the use for your Russian," her therapist replies, her accent thicker as she rolls her Rs."Call it nostalgia on my behalf."

Renee knows exactly where this is headed because it's not exactly a subtle request. Six sessions in, and they've still barely even broached the topic of Laitanan. What's there to discuss? Renee doesn't want to talk about it, so she won't. "The first time I used Russian in the field," she says, and takes a bitter sip of her black coffee, "it was actually in the Hoover building. You ever heard of Robert Philip Hanssen? He was that 25-year FBI veteran that was arrested a few years ago, charged with passing classified documents to Russia."

"You spoke to him?"

"I was there when he identified three former KGB agents who were working in the US as double agents." Renee flashes her teeth a little in a wide smile. "Ironically, he spent most of his career in counterintelligence operations designed to catch spies, including the State Department."

"That must have been an interesting case for you."

Renee shrugs. "The second time I used Russian in the field, I watched a man pull a woman's teeth out with pliers, trying to get classified information on a military docking manifest. That time was a little more interesting."

Jack's eyes narrow when he grins, like he's on to her. "So you told him what?"

"I lied," Renee returns, shrugging a little as her face heats. "He's my seventy-three year old neighbor, and he's got an old sense of tradition about him. I didn't want him judging us every time you come out of my apartment in the morning."

"So you told him we were married?"

"It seemed like the thing to do at the time."

Her face is red as a beet, she just knows it, but when Jack laughs, deep and rumbling, she thinks she's willing to endure this humiliation all over again if she can just get him to do that again. He threads his fingers through hers, tugging her closer as he presses his lips against hers. It's brief and light, but the contact and affection warms her nevertheless.

"Anyway," she continues, mildly, "it was either that, or tell him that you're my brother."

The new director at CTU is younger than she is, a women named Kristen Lynn. Jack instantly dislikes her, though for reasons Renee can't figure out. She trusts him enough not to question it, though. He doesn't trust Lynn, so Renee doesn't. Still, whenever Renee heads to CTU for her latest psych eval, it's all smiles for the record. Renee played office politics with Washington sharks for years.

Kristen Lynn doesn't intimidate her.

She picks up the phone, scrolls down her list of contacts, and finally hits send. A second later, her sister's voice is on the line. Renee doesn't hang up. She doesn't back out like the coward she's proven to be thus far. Instead, trying for steady and calm, she returns the greeting with a soft hello, breath held in.

There's a long pause, long enough for Renee to wonder if she's done the wrong thing, if it's too late, if her sister will never forgi—

"Renee?" Zoey breathes, and she can sense the tears just from the hitch in her little sister's voice.

Her technique is good, but far from flawless.

Renee ducks an incoming uppercut and whirls, grabbing both Jack's arms to defend herself from a chokehold. He rebounds swiftly by twisting her elbow and she sidesteps and crouches, using her agility to break free. She sticks out her foot, snagging him by the ankle and he trips. Jack responds with an open palm thrust into her chest that pushes her back, almost skidding across the floor.

She's already worked up a sweat, and she feels muscles strain and tighten. It's been too long since she's worked out, especially in hand-to-hand.

"Good," Jack says. "Now let's test your offense a little."

She advances.

"Talk to me about Vladimir," Dr. Nakia finally says.

"I've told you already," Renee returns. "What more do you want me to say?"

"Until I get some sense of where you're at, you realize I won't sign off on assigning you to CTU? These sessions will just be an exercise in futility until we get to the heart of the concerns expressed by the agency."

"CTU wants me because I'm good at what I do."

"At what cost? You have to talk about it with someone, Renee."

She does.

"This has to be the most sanctimonious article I've read in some time," Jack says in heated anger. She's stretched out across the sofa with her feet propped up on his lap, so she has to lift her head up to look at him. "I don't even understand how they got it published."

"What's it about?" Renee asks, concerned.

Jack flashes her the newspaper and his eyes brighten when they slide sideways to meet hers. "The Colts chances of getting into the Superbowl next year."

She snorts a laugh, using her feet to deliver a light kick to his stomach. He offers a lazy grunt of protest, then goes back to reading the sports section, but there's a small smile on his lips, one that she can't help focusing on, just for a second.

She lets her head fall back to the cushions, closing her eyes.

Chloe's kid turns five, and she throws a party.

She invites Jack, and by extension, Renee tags along. So, on Saturday afternoon, Renee buys a gift, wraps it, tags it with Jack's name and her own, and sets it in the back of the SUV while they drive cross-city. By the time they arrive, she already feels out of her element so at first she just sits on the outskirts, watching a group of munchkins run amuck in the park playground. There's birthday balloons, birthday hats, birthday streamers, and Renee is reminded of her own birthday from months ago, how it slipped by without notice or even one Happy Birthday, Renee uttered from anyone.

She regrets that now.

Chloe's watching Renee with something like scrutiny of the judgmental variety, but it's Chloe, so Renee tries not to let it bother her. "You look good," she announces, bluntly, when they're sitting side-by-side on the bench. "I mean, you look better than before."

It startles her, but Renee tries not to let it show. "Thanks. You look good, too."

"Pregnancy glow," Chloe returns.

"You're pregnant again?"

Chloe nods, but whatever she has to say next is cut short when Prescott skins his knee on the sidewalk and Chloe gets up to rush away. Jack catches Renee's eye from across the quad, standing next to Morris who's flipping burgers on the barbecue grill. Renee flashes them a smile while Chloe's compliment plays over in her head. Chloe isn't the type for false flattery, so it must be true.

When twenty minutes later they're cutting the cake, Renee stands next to Jack, slips her hand into his, and joins in with the singing.

She flies down to Chicago for the weekend to visit her sister.

At the airport, Renee sits in the terminal, twirling a stir-stick around her coffee while she waits. Anxiety coils in her stomach, and after a forty-minute wait, she can't sit still. She pulls her phone free and dials Jack.

"Relax," he tells her. "Your sister's probably just caught in traffic."

Or she decided not to come. Renee wouldn't blame her if that were the case. The first six months after she lost her job – lost any semblance of meaning or direction in her life, Renee had gone to a dark place. She'd said and done things to her sister that were downright unforgivable.

"It isn't your fault," Jack says.

He's become practically psychic when it comes to her moods.

"You keep saying that, Jack." Renee closes her eyes, forcing a determined voice, "But it's not true. Part of getting a second chance is taking responsibility of the mess I made in the first place. I screwed up, but that isn't the end of the story. I won't let it be."

"You never give up, do you?"

"Not like you'd let me, Jack."

"Bullshit. This one's all on you. It took me years to try again with Kim."

His voice has taken on a darker tilt, one that she doubts others would notice, but Renee recognizes it easily even just through a cell phone. "Stop looking in the past, Jack. The present is what matters. You've got Kim now, and Teri – and me."

There's a long stretch of silence, and then, softly, "I love you, Renee."

Renee glances down at the coffee table as tears gather in her eyes, and she curses that fact that he chose this moment, here, in a crowded airport terminal. He's never said that before, and she has no idea what prompted it now. It's just Jack being… Jack. It's hardly romantic, but then again they've had plenty of confessions over phones.

"Renee?" he says, when the silence has stretched on for several seconds. "You there?"

"Christ, Jack, I wish you would have waited to say that face-to-face."

Renee thinks she can hear the smile in his voice. "Yeah, probably would've been better if we weren't separated by half the continent."

She shakes her head. "You're with me, Jack. You're always with me."

"Good." And yeah, he's definitely smiling now. "I'll take that to mean you love me, too."

Zoey's twenty-two, with red hair (dyed red hair) and freckles on her nose. She looks a lot like Renee – or so people always tell her. But right now Zoey looks so young and innocent, still fresh out of college, and Renee thinks they couldn't be more different. They spend the first half of the day acting like strangers, finding topics to make small talk and fill the gaps in silence.

"So," Zoey says, still looking like she's trying to figure out why Renee is here. "You got a boyfriend?"


The way Zoey looks up, startled and wide eyed, one would have thought Renee had said she was considering a sex change operation. "Seriously? Miss-So-Serious-and-All-Doom-and-Gloom found time for a boyfriend? In what alternate reality did I walk into?"

"Zoey," she chides, "Don't start."

"What? How am I not supposed to start? Is he hot?"

Renee rolls her eyes. "You're so predictable—"

"I'll take that as a yes." Zoey leans forward, whispering conspiratorially, "How good is he in bed?"


Another few minutes of this interrogation go on, but Renee eventually stonewalls her sister into defeat. The matter is finally dropped, the conversation turning instead to Zoey's love-life instead of Renee's (pathetically pg-13) one.

Later that night, when she's trying to get to sleep on the lumpy fold-out sofa in Zoey's living room, she's fiercely missing Jack. There's a small, petty voice in the back of her head that silently laments the fact that she's spent months with Jack Bauer in her bed, and there isn't that many juicy details even if she did want to share them.

The topic of sex isn't an easy subject between them, even after all these months. Despite the undeniable sense of attraction, Renee doesn't often start things and Jack won't lay a hand on her until she does. She's an adult, and so is he – and what she went through with Vladimir isn't something either of them have taken lightly. Still, there are moments, especially when she lies awake cocooned in the comfort of his arms, where she feels more unscathed and whole than at any other point in her life.

Renee turns on her side, towards the spot where Jack usually lies, and his absence makes her chest tighten in an all-too-telling way.

Maybe she's waited long enough? Maybe she's finally ready?

A day later, just when things are feeling right, feeling perfect, Renee and her sister hitting a stride that they haven't had in years – that's when her cell phone rings. The caller ID flashes a CTU number. Renee freezes for a beat, then turns down the music blasting from the stereo system as she slowly answers.

"Renee? This is Kristen Lynn," the CTU director greets back. "I'm sorry to interrupt you on your vacation, but we've got some developments that could use your expertise."

That can't mean anything good. "What is it?"

"How far away are you from the Chicago Division headquarters?"

Renee pauses. "Lynn, I'm not even cleared as an agent."

"I realize that, but an urgent matter has come up that requires us to skip a few steps. When can you get to Division?"

Zoey's cooking pasta in the kitchen. "Hey, Renee!" she hollers from behind. "Can you grab the wine from the fridge?"

Renee holds up a finger, motioning to Zoey to hang on, and when she turns her back she doesn't see her sister's face fall. A thousand things rush through her mind. This is a call from CTU she's gotten before, and it isn't the type that she's ever declined. Still, Jack's voice in her head cautions her from jumping in immediately.

"Agent Walker?" Lynn says over the phone.

It's been so long since someone has called her that.

There's a lengthy pause, and then Renee finally says, "Give me an hour."

She hangs up and turns back to Zoey with a familiar apology on her lips.

Four hours later, she calls Jack but only gets his voicemail.

"Hey, it's me. Look, I won't be flying back to JFK after all. Something's come up, and I need to… I need to handle some things. I'm going to be out of touch for the next day or so."

She pauses heavily, wiping her brow. She wants to say so much more but she can't. He's not cleared, and she won't drag him back into this life. Not if she can help it. Not again. He told her once to make decisions that she could live with, and this time – this time, she knows her limits. She won't make the same mistakes all over again.

There's really not much else left to say.

Except: "Jack," she breathes, "I love you."

She hangs up the phone and reaches for her gun.