This one-shot sprang from an idea I had immediately following Episode 17 of Season 8 (well, after I had some quality time in the bathroom with a box of Kleenex). Completely AU, but a character isn't dead to me until I see an actual box going into the ground. ;-)


Breathe

Darkness.

A beeping sound that sounded strangely tinny to her ears, as if it came from very far away.

Then, flooding over her in a black tide, pain.

It pulsed at the very center of her body, a singularity of agony that seemed to draw all rational thought into its maw. She didn't who or what or where she was. Only that she hurt.

She gasped, and her eyelids flickered open. The room's dim light pressed painfully against dark-adapted flesh. At once she squeezed her eyes shut, but even so she'd caught a quick glimpse of her surroundings. Bare walls. A low chair. A bank of machines that pulsed with lights and hummed softly. Machines she guessed had kept her alive.

A male voice, one she didn't recognize. "Renee."

Renee. That was her name, wasn't it? At the moment she couldn't be sure of anything except the pain.

She felt a prick in her arm, followed by a rush of well-being. The black tide receded. For now, anyway; she knew it would return once the new painkiller wore off.

"Ms. Walker."

That was it. Renee Walker. As for the rest…well, she'd worn too many different faces, been too many different people, to know for sure who she really was anymore.

"Where am I?"

The words came out in a hoarse whisper, and not the no-nonsense tones of an FBI agent. Then again, she hadn't been with the Bureau for awhile. She hadn't been with anyone, except herself.

And Jack.

Oh, God.

She gasped and opened her eyes, saw a stranger in a white medical coat staring down at her. He was someone most people would have passed in a crowd without a second glance: middle height, middle weight, graying mid-brown hair. But his eyes were a cold gray, chilly as the hospital room around her.

"A secure medical facility, Ms. Walker. A public hospital did not have the facilities to handle the…difficulties…connected with your condition."

Difficulties. She glanced away from him, at the patient ranks of equipment that blinked and hummed only a few feet away. Tubes snaked their way into her arms, her chest, the base of her throat. If she forced herself past the darkness, she could recall more pain, blood splashed against Jack's white shirt, the glare of an operating room. The half-familiar face of the EMT who passed her in the hallway of the building where President Hassan died. The white-hot streaks of agony that tore through her body as the sniper's bullets found their mark.

"I died, didn't I?"

The ice-chip eyes didn't flicker. "Yes."

"But you brought me back."

"Yes."

She had to ask. "Does Jack Bauer know?"

"No."

Were doctors in secret medical facilities supposed to be this forthright? She hadn't really expected the truth, but she didn't think the stranger was lying. Then again, he probably didn't have much reason to. What could she do, after all, tethered to a hospital bed by morphine drips and BP monitors and who knows what else? Judging by the hollow ache in her chest, it would probably be weeks before she was even deemed fit to walk to the bathroom by herself.

She opened her mouth to speak, but the dryness in her throat stifled the words. Instead she coughed, then gasped as the movement jarred her body. Nerve endings numbed by the Demerol woke up and began to protest.

At once the nameless doctor picked up a cup from the bedside table and held it to her mouth. "Just a little," he warned, as he tipped something cold against her cracked lips.

The ice chips touched her tongue and melted at once, sending blessed moisture down a throat she guessed had been roughened by a breathing tube. She swallowed, nodded, then took in a few more ice chips before the doctor took the cup away.

"Why didn't you tell Jack?" she asked. Concealing the fact of her survival seemed foolish at best and calculated torture at worst.

The stranger only stared down at her for a moment, his expression thoughtful.

"Come on," she whispered, hating that her voice was as weak as the rest of her, "it's not like I can do anything about it."

"He's important to you?"

God knows she didn't like having to admit such a thing, especially to this cold-eyed man who watched her like a specimen in a lab.

Or maybe she just didn't want to admit it to herself.

She nodded.

The doctor appeared to consider. "Let's just say that it's important for him to think you're dead."

"Why?"

"You know why. Jack Bauer needs the fire of justice to do his best work. What better impetus than the cruel death of someone he cares about at the hands of Russian thugs?"

So the EMT had been part of Red Square. If only she'd put together the pieces a little more quickly, she might not have ended up here. As for the rest…

She whispered, "So Jack's your guided missile."

"Precisely. It's very important that he succeed. Knowing that you survived would only slow him down. Afterward…" The stranger shrugged. "We'll see. For now, you need to rest."

Rest, when all she could do was think of Jack out there somewhere, taking on the Russians and IRK radicals and God knows who else. But she was worse than useless in her current state. All she could do now was try her best to recover as quickly as possible. She had to believe Jack would survive. That's what he always did.

She closed her eyes. At least she could breathe on her own. In, then out. And again. Her body would heal, and Jack would prevail.

And then he would come to find her.