Title: The ABCs of Growing Up
Rating: PG-13. Possibly R later, if I don't chicken out.
Disclaimer: Not mine, all of it belongs to the head honchos at FOX. The title comes from a song by Imogen Heap called ‘Speeding Cars’.
Cliché: One of them attends their high school reunion.
Notes: I dedicate this little ditty to glorylinnemann for her helpful tips on how to write Angstypants Jack (though I doubt I did her suggestions any justice), and for generally being such an awesome person.
Sitting in the empty break room, Chloe glanced over her shoulder before slipping a pale parchment-coloured card out of her purse. She read the embossed text for what probably amounted to the fifteenth time, but found herself no closer to an answer. Twirling the card between her fingers, she frowned at the concrete wall, deep in thought.
Footsteps signalled someone closing in, and Chloe quickly stuffed the card back into her purse. She was struggling with the sticky zipper when Nadia entered, looking worn.
“Hey Chloe,” she greeted, heading to her locker. “How come you’re still here? I thought your shift ended already.”
“It is. I’m going,” she said shortly, tugging at the stubborn zipper. Nadia sat down at Chloe’s table. She took a large bite of the apple she had dug out of her own bag, and watched the other woman struggle with a hint of amusement.
“Need help with that?” Nadia asked finally, reaching out to tug the purse out of Chloe’s hands before she ripped it apart.
Chloe possessively snatched the bag out of Nadia’s grasp, spilling the contents on the floor in the process
“Dammit!” She moved to gather the items, but Nadia beat her to it. She plucked out one item in particular and held it up between her fingers, giving Chloe a raised eyebrow.
“I thought you said you weren’t going to make a big deal out of this.”
Feeling decidedly petulant about Nadia touching her stuff, Chloe snatched the card away and tucked it into the pocket of her skirt. Dropping the last tampon back into her purse, she clutched the ruined bag under her arm and stood up stiffly. “I’m not, okay?”
“Then why are you still carrying that around?”
“I wasn’t! I just…forgot it was in there.”
Nadia rolled her eyes. “Whatever you say, Chloe. But my offer still stands. Those earrings will go great with—”
“Bye, Nadia,” Chloe gritted out. She turned on her heel and stomped her way across the CTU bullpen.
After terrifying the red-shirted guard who had the audacity to ask for the ID card of a woman he’d seen check in and out of the building every day for three years, Chloe slid into the driver’s seat of her blue Prius and slammed the door shut. She rested her forehead against the steering wheel.
There is something seriously wrong with your priorities, O’Brian.
Her cell phone chirped, startling her. Digging around in the now-disorganised bag, she felt her bad mood fade just a little bit when she read the name on her caller ID.
“Chloe, it’s me,” he said without preamble. Introductions were unnecessary. After all, their primary mode of communication was often over the phone, and Chloe was fairly certain that she could pick out his voice in a sports stadium filled with Lakers fans in the seconds following a winning playoffs game.
“Hey, Jack. I’m just leaving work.”
“Good.” She could hear the smile in his voice, and it made her cheeks tingle to think that he was looking forward to seeing her enough to call and remind her.
“Can you grab some beer on your way over? I’m all out, and it’s damn hot out here.”
She rolled her eyes and barely refrained from snorting. “Sure, Jack. Anything else? Can I pick up your dry cleaning for you while I’m at it?”
“See you soon, Chloe,” he said, the smile still resonating in his tone.
Negotiating the hellish LA rush hour traffic, Chloe made her way toward the outskirts of town, dropping by a liquor store to pick up the requested beer on the way. The traffic congestion eventually tapered off the further she drove from the heart of the city. High rises and apartment buildings gave way to sprawling suburbs, which eventually became empty fields dotted with the occasional crumbling house or barn.
Almost an hour of flat, straight road later, she indicated left—unnecessarily, as the road was empty—and pulled into a gravel driveway surrounded by expansive green fields on either side. At the end of the drive would be a house that could politely be described as a ‘fixer-upper’. Of course, the first time Chloe had seen it, she thought it looked like an overlarge glorified shack and had said as much to its new owner. It was an old colonial farmhouse layered with several decades worth of dirt and rot, and topped off with a some possible earthquake damage at the foundations just for added character.
But as she pulled up closer, Chloe’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. In the month since she had last been here, the peeling wood exterior had received a new coat of gleaming white paint, and with the banisters replaced and repainted, the wraparound porch no longer looked like a smile with missing teeth. Weeds were whacked, the rusty screen door had been repaired of any holes in the netting, and all the windows on the bottom storey had been refitted with clean, crack-free glass.
Chloe didn’t know whether to be impressed or worried. It was obvious Jack was putting one hundred and fifty percent into this. Either he was just trying to distract himself, or he really was managing to.
Climbing out of her car with the case of beer in hand, Chloe made her way around the side of the house where she could hear a sharp, rhythmic tapping.
She raised a hand against the orange glare of the setting sun, and peered up at Jack. Standing on the second top rung of an extended ladder, he was carefully nailing a wooden shutter panel into place. He was clad in a pair of fitted and paint-splattered jeans, and at one point, probably a shirt as well. Swallowing heavily, Chloe immediately noticed that this was no longer the case.
The tattoos encircling his biceps and snaking over his right wrist stood out in sharp relief against skin that was no longer deathly pale, but tanned and healthy looking from long days working under the California sun. From here, she couldn’t even make out the scars she that she knew lined his back and torso, although she knew he only felt safe uncovering them when he knew there was nobody around for miles.
Head tipped back, she watched him hammer the nails to secure the shutter in place with the same laser-focused intensity he used when he was tailing a suspect, or firing a gun. She also knew that that focus extended to almost everything else that was going on around him, so she didn’t worry about startling him with her unannounced presence.
It would be the understatement of the century to say that Chloe wasn’t much of an outdoorsy person, but looking down at the freshly mown grass under her feet, she felt a sudden and strange desire to feel it against her skin. She slipped off her shoes and let the bright green blades tickle the spaces between her toes as she wandered about the sprawling lawn, pausing here and there near the house to inspect Jack’s handiwork up close, but mostly just taking in the vastly different atmosphere from busy LA.
Tucking her hands into the pockets of her off-white skirt, she felt the prick of stiff paper card against her palm, briefly intruding on her thoughts, but a warm breeze swept away the worry for the moment.
When the last nail was pounded into place, he tucked the hammer into the back pocket of his jeans and began descending the ladder. Stupidly, Chloe felt her gut clench when the ladder wobbled slightly, and unclench when he stepped off the last rung onto solid ground.
She felt stupid because here was a man who had been through all nine levels of hell and lived to tell about it. There was no way Jack Bauer would be killed falling off a ladder while doing home renovations. The universe owed him at least that much.
“Beer’s still cool,” she said, pointing to the case sitting on the porch. He quickly pulled a grey t-shirt over his torso before coming any closer, then crossed the lawn and squeezed her hand in greeting. Squeezing back, she lead them over to the porch, where they sat down side by side and cracked open a bottle each, toasting to nothing in particular.
“How are things at work?” Jack asked finally, as they watched the sun sink towards the horizon.
“Fine. Same as usual. Still the second happiest place on earth next to Disneyworld.”
“Really?” He looked at her out of the corner of his eye in that way he had, and she sighed.
“No. It’s awkward as all hell having to sit two stations away from Morris every day and pretend like I don’t want to choke the life out of him.”
“Is it that bad?”
She shrugged. “We can barely even stand to speak to each other about work stuff, and it’s starting to affect our performance. I think Mr. Buchanan’s going to fire one of us if it gets any worse.”
“I wouldn’t worry. Given a choice between the two of you, there’s no way Bill will give you up. Believe me, you’re the best analyst CTU’s ever had.” He took a swig of his beer and added, “Besides, I think you’re his favourite.”
“His favourite what? Treasonous little hell raiser?” she snorted, then quickly amended, “Not that I regret the treason thing! At all! I mean, believe me, I understand when things are bigger than me and CTU and even the law, and, you know, sometimes you have to do things for the greater good or whatever.” She glanced at him nervously and was relieved to see that he was smiling faintly.
“I know. Thank you, Chloe.”
What she didn’t realise was that she had once again just reaffirmed everything that made Jack so goddamn grateful for the day he had met her, and every day he had known her since.
“Jack?” she asked hesitantly after a lengthy silence. He hummed in response. “How are you?”
Jack stared down the neck of his empty beer bottled as he tried to formulate the right response to a question that was anything but casual. ‘I’m fine’ wasn’t it, that much he knew. She would see through it in a heartbeat. But he wasn’t ready to give a voice to what he was desperately but quietly managing to keep at bay for now. He worked relentlessly during the day until his body couldn’t take it a moment longer, and then collapsed into a deep, dreamless sleep, only to repeat the cycle again starting the next morning.
Jack didn’t know what he would do when this project of his was finished. Teri had told him once that he could compartmentalize his emotions like no one else, and that one day it was going to result in a nervous breakdown that would force him to take an extended sick leave from work.
God. If she could only see him now.
“I don’t know,” he answered finally. He met her eyes, and Chloe knew he was telling the truth. She gnawed on her bottom lip.
“You scared the shit out of me,” she said bluntly, “when you decided to leave my apartment and move out here.”
“I know. I’m sorry. But I couldn’t sleep in your guestroom forever, Chloe.”
“You’re completely alone here. It’s far away from LA. You don’t even have a damn land line phone.”
“I know,” he repeated. “I just needed to...I just wanted some space. I couldn’t breathe in the city anymore.”
“I was terrified you were going to do something stupid,” she barrelled on, suddenly needing to make him understand.
He gave her a wan smile, ignoring her words. “Come on, dinner’s on the stove. Let’s eat.”
As he stood up and turned to lead them inside the house, a sudden wave of fear washed over Chloe, momentarily robbing her of breath. Her eyes whipped around at the house, the fields surrounding it, the stretch of road that went on endlessly in either direction with the sprinkle of LA lights in the east that served to remind her just how far out of his reach she and everybody else who cared about him were...she suddenly hated it all. She wanted him away from here.
There was every chance that she was overreacting, but there was no way in hell she would allow herself to take that risk. Not with Jack. Jack, who would go to any lengths to protect the people he cared about and prevent them from feeling pain, even his own.
But she wasn’t just anybody. It was her job was to watch over him. She was his eye in the sky when he was out in the field, and since that hellish day the nuke had gone off in Valencia, his well-being had become her sole focus, whether she admitted it or not.
But she couldn’t protect him from himself out here.
He turned, looking at her quizzically.
Her mouth opened and closed silently several times. “I have a...thing coming up this weekend.”
She didn’t know what she had been meaning to say, but that wasn’t it.
“Yeah,” she said, feeling stupider by the moment. But she couldn’t let this go. “Kind of a party.”
He nodded slowly. “Okay.”
Her hand dove into her pocket and she presented him with the invitation. Looking at her with a raised eyebrow, he flipped the card open and read the contents. Chloe twisted her skirt in her fist.
“Your high school reunion?” he asked, meeting her eyes. The barely detectable twinkle in his baby blues told her she was being unpredictable and weird again. But she brushed aside that twisty feeling she got in her guts every time she suspected she was being laughed at, and reminded herself that some things were a lot more important than dignity.
And boy, was her dignity going to take a serious beating for this one. She didn’t care if Jack never thanked her for the whole committing high treason, getting arrested, getting fired, lying through her clenched teeth to everyone around her thing...but this, he’d better goddamn appreciate one day.
“Yeah. 15 years. Feels just like yesterday. Want to come with me?”
He made a valiant but failed attempt to hide his surprise. “To your reunion? I don’t know, Chloe.”
“Come on, it’ll be...fun,” she managed through an obscenely false smile. Somewhere in the back of her mind, a tiny voice nudged her in the metaphorical ribs and told her that she had just asked Jack Bauer out, and he said no.
“You hate parties,” he pointed out, rather accurately.
Yeah, but there are other human beings at parties. And alcohol. And nobody there will know who you are, so you can pretend for a few hours. Play a game, just like I’m going to do, she didn’t say.
Instead, she nodded. “True. But…I don’t know, isn’t there some sort of rule about missing your reunion? Isn’t this supposed to be my chance to relive my wild teenage years?”
You're so full of crap.
“And you need me for that?” he asked, looking at her with a suddenly unreadable expression in his eyes.
“Yes?” she said without thinking. Her eyes went wide. “I mean no! I mean, that’s not what I meant—what I’m trying to say—”
The intensity faded, or as much as Jack’s eyes ever lose their intensity. “Chloe, if you want me to come because you’re nervous about going by yourself, just say so.”
Chloe tried not to look too relieved as she pounced on the signed, sealed and delivered excuse he had just provided. She blew out a sigh. “Is that a yes?”
Glancing down at the invitation again, he smiled fondly at her and handed it back. “Sure. If it means that much to you.”
It didn’t, and she already felt the first twinges of guilt settle in her chest, but glancing at the ever-distant LA lights, she felt her resolve harden.
“Thanks, Jack. I really appreciate it.”
“It’s not a problem,” he replied, studying her. Their gazes locked, and for a moment, neither could look away. Finally, Jack nodded towards the door with his chin.
“We’ll talk about this more later. For now, dinner.”
She nodded, and followed him inside, wondering not for the first time, and probably not the last, what the hell she was thinking.
A/N: I’ve now been awake for 36 hours straight writing essays this weekend, and you know when you’re so sleep deprived that you’re actually too tired to sleep and get all jittery and wired? Apparently that’s the state of mind I needed to be in to finish this piece of rubbish off. Comments and criticism desperately needed.