Pairing: Jack Bauer/Renee Walker
Word Count: 33,600 total – approximately 5000 for this chapter (I’ll put one up every couple days so as not to spam the comm.)
Rating/Warnings: R; sex, violence, language, references to physical and sexual abuse, spoilers for the entire series
Summary: But every once in a while when the guards were down, he’d click off the filters and let himself have her back, only for a minute. Light of her smile, smell of the skin on her neck, brush of her hand on his chest, checking for wounds. Rich stereo soundtrack of her voice.
Author's notes: With Chapter One
Chapter 2: I lie awake and try to recall how your body felt beside me
Something was wrong with the lemons.
Their scent, tart and tangy, hung thick in the air around her, but it wasn’t pure. There was something underneath, a smell that reminded her of-
She couldn’t make the connection before a cold spike of pain pricked her arm and the defective lemons vanished into the dark.
She was floating, warm and comfortable. A soft, swishing whir whispered in her ears, filtered down her back in a lulling vibration.
But . . . she was forgetting something. This thought darted at the edges of her consciousness, flitting like the tiny white butterflies she used to follow in her backyard at dusk. She reached for it with her mind, grasping, trying to keep up as the elusive memory swooped at an angle and feinted left.
She was still playing shadow tag when again she felt a chilly stab on the inside of her elbow and she had no choice but to let the thought rush upward and escape.
Her chest was on fire.
Renee opened her eyes, cringing as her pupils adjusted to the glare of the ceiling lights. She had to breathe in tiny shallow gasps, but she worked to press the pain inside so she could figure out what the hell was going on. Shifting her eyes a little, she saw the reflective metal of a railing on the side of her bed. Beyond that, a small brown table (the kind where they tried to make the plastic look like wood grain) covered with gauze, tape, and several bottles. She couldn’t read the labels, but there was a great deal of black type and multiple fluorescent orange and green warning stickers. The only other thing she could see was an IV stand, holding two plastic bags that dripped into a tube, rhythmic.
Explosion, shattered glass, blood, no air, Jack’s hand on her neck and his voice in her ear.
Oh god, Jack.
Despite the pain that made her chest feel as if it might burst open at any second, she tried to sit up. Out of nowhere, a hand hit her shoulder, pressing her down. Firm, but not threatening.
“Stop. Even if you could make it up, you’ll pass out in ten seconds. Lay back and I’ll get you some pain meds.”
“No, please-” Her voice was a rusty croaking whisper, but she was scared to tighten the muscles required to clear her throat. “Where’s Jack?”
“Ms. Walker.” Renee squinted to bring the source of the voice into focus. A dark-haired twenty-something woman in standard blue scrubs, wire-rimmed glasses, hair pulled back.
“Where-” The pain morphed into a rolling tide of nausea. Beads of sweat rose prickling on her chest, over her scalp and down the back of her neck. “Is. He?”
The woman (Renee assumed she had to be a nurse) took a step closer, her hand still on Renee’s shoulder. “Listen carefully. I’m under orders to sedate you the second your level of agitation indicates you could hurt yourself, and you’re already dangerously close.” She moved her hand to Renee’s wrist, pressing for a pulse. “If you want me to tell you what’s going on, I suggest you close your eyes for a minute so you won’t vomit, take a few deep breaths, and stop trying to move. Understand?”
“Good. My name’s Gretchen. I’m a nurse with the FBI.” She walked over and fiddled with something on the wall. The lights dimmed, and the hammering in Renee’s skull became slightly less audible. “You’re in the medical wing of our Covington facility.”
The place that wasn’t on the tourist maps, in the brochures, that didn’t show up on any Internet search under ‘FBI.’ The place Renee only knew about herself because she’d spent almost a decade as a field agent.
The place where they held people for recovery and/or training before releasing them into Witness Protection.
Renee shut her eyes and felt for the fabric under her palm, scratchy and cool. A demon scream swelled inside of her – the condensed sound of rage, panic, frustration, and helplessness.
For at least a full minute, she concentrated only on the sheet under her hand, the faint back and forth friction of her skin on cotton. When she trusted that words and not the scream inside would come out, she whispered, “Witness Protection then. We’ll get to that in a minute. Where’s Jack?”
One windy grey Tuesday morning, Renee walked the long tiled hallway ten times each way, chanting the word “breathe” in her head to distract her from the burning in her stitches. When she made it back to her room, sweaty, her head pounding, even the starchy white hospital sheets on the bed looked inviting. She made herself sit in the chair instead, because that kept the call button a few steps further away, lessening the temptation to ask for more meds. As she’d predicted, the acute pain lasted only a few minutes before it began to slink away, replaced by an achy throb that she found irritating but bearable.
She ate a bowl Frosted Flakes – mental eyeroll about how this was living on the wild side here, a step up the hospital’s culinary ladder after oatmeal and plain Cheerios – and read the boring mystery Gretchen had left her (something about a forensic pathologist who had visions) until she felt strong enough to get up and take a shower.
That afternoon, a tap on the door startled her out of her doze. Still in the chair (she found herself determined not to get in bed except at night), she pushed up to a more vertical position.
A balding, middle-aged man in a dark suit walked in, the heels of his shoes louder on the floor than the Crocs or sneakers she’d become accustomed to hearing. He had a deep mahogany briefcase in one hand and a thick folder tucked under his other arm. “I’m Glen Owens. Gretchen says you’ve made enough progress to get to work on your relocation file.”
She pushed her palm into the smooth cotton of her sweatpants. “Good. Let’s get started.”
He grabbed the portable brown table and wheeled it over. Then he dropped the briefcase and opened the folder, spreading it out on the Formica in front of her. Renee stared at the stack of white pages, black type, no wrinkles in sight.
“Your name is Ashley Martinson,” said Glen.
The name of the short, dark-haired cheerleader who had sat next to Renee in tenth grade biology – citrus smack of Juicy Fruit, ripped jeans, and notebook doodles of dolphins, whales, or John Stamos’s name with a heart beside it. She’d gotten pregnant the following year and dropped out of high school to get her GED. The last time Renee saw Ashley, she was buying diapers and chocolate-chip toaster waffles at Safeway.
“Ms. Walker?” He sounded uncertain. They’d probably warned him about her – unpredictable, uncooperative, ‘handle with care.’ “If you’d like me to go over the details with you-”
“No, thank you.” She smoothed her thumb over the corner of the paper. “Leave it with me and I’ll get started. How soon can I leave?”
He looked more at the edge of her hair than into her eyes (everyone did, here, except Gretchen). “You’re scheduled to testify a week from Friday. Once that’s over, you’ll be out of here as soon as Dr. DeWitt green-lights the move.”
She nodded. Minimizing words seemed like a good idea.
“I’ll let you get to it. My number’s in the file if you have questions or need clarification on anything.” He picked up his briefcase, eyes darting toward the doorway.
“I appreciate your time. I’ll call if I have a problem.”
His loud shoes echoed as he tapped down the hallway. Renee looked at the top page of the stack, realizing (fingers digging into her upper arms as she hugged herself) that she would probably never again hear her own first name.
And Jack was the last person who had said it.
They moved her into a 1400 square foot two-bedroom rambler – blue-grey with burgundy shutters and a matching door – on a dead-end street in a sleepy Flagstaff suburb.
Pine Hollow Drive.
In some super secret compartment of herself she wasn’t ready to think about at all, she had to acknowledge that she appreciated the hollow part.
It was already dusk when she pulled her green 2007 Civic (careful conversation about what type of car a communications assistant could afford, given her ‘mortgage’) past the moving truck and into the driveway. She smelled barbecue smoke and fresh mulch. A couple of preschoolers on Big Wheels blew past her on the sidewalk as she gazed around, absorbing the neighborhood.
Evergreen trees, neatly mowed lawns, daffodils and marigolds, porches where silver-tasseled pink bikes parked by covered grills and discarded scooters rested by scratched helmets.
She pulled her briefcase, her purse, and the empty McDonald’s bag (grease spots and smell of salt) out of the passenger seat and walked toward the front door, scuffing her feet against the sidewalk the way her mom had always told her not to when she was little. Across the street, a small sandy-blond girl with what looked like a Twinkie in one hand and a Power Rangers helmet in the other skipped down the stairs from her front porch, stuffed three quarters of the Twinkie in her mouth all in one bite, and strapped the helmet under her chin, shoving hair away from her face.
Renee tightened her grip on the white paper bag, crinkling it beneath her fingers, because what she felt wasn’t the bag but the cool wooden border that framed the picture of Teri she’d lifted from the box in Jack’s apartment. She wondered whether Teri lived in a neighborhood that looked like this, whether she liked Twinkies or Power Rangers, whether she still had a trike or if she’d graduated to a two-wheeler.
She wondered what Kim told Teri about her grandfather.
The achy softness in Jack’s voice played in her mind, the way he could smile with sound.
Teri. Kim named her after her grandmother.
She watched the little girl slam up the kickstand and pedal away with only one hand on the bars, licking Twinkie remains off the opposite thumb. The image went blurry as the girl grew smaller, wheels spinning into the distance.
Renee put a sweaty hand on the door to her new life and pushed it open.
She stood by the window and watched the moving van pull away, breaking up the glow of the streetlamps as it drove under each one in succession. She wanted to leave the room dark, but Glen’s training booklet had apparently had some effect, because she realized it would seem weird to the neighbors if the woman from Seattle who just moved in didn’t turn on any lights to unpack.
She flipped the switch to illuminate the living room and walked into the kitchen to pour herself a glass of Merlot. The wine was unexpected, a housewarming gift from Evelyn, the seventy-something woman who lived across the street and a couple houses over. (Ashley? she had said, restraining the Sheltie that bounced around her knees. That’s a beautiful name. You let me know if you need anything. You name it, I’ve got a can of it in my basement.)
Renee kicked off her shoes and took a swallow, enjoying the bitter tang that washed over her tongue and coated the back of her throat.
In the bedroom, she shoved aside several boxes labeled ‘clothing’ (she wasn’t up to facing what she might discover in there) before she found one that said ‘sheets’ in neat black Sharpie. Ripping the packing tape aside, she moved the stiff cardboard flap and lifted out the sheets that some Washington Bureau data analyst with Level Six Clearance had chosen for her.
They were pale yellow, with tiny pink and green flowers inside a paisley pattern, and they smelled like cardboard mixed with one of those floral laundry detergents.
Apparently Ashley liked flowers.
Renee stood for a long time, holding the foreign fabric in her hand and trying to make her mind blank, trying not to think of her own plain navy sheets that smelled like original Tide, trying not to think about Jack’s soft ivory sheets that smelled like . . . him. When the sharp bark of the lab next door caught her attention, she sucked in a deep gulp of air, held it while she counted to ten, and blew it out, slow and deliberate.
Then she flicked the overhead light and threw the sheet across the bed, yanking it tight where it didn’t want to stretch.
After several days spent discussing her skill set, her comfort level with various types of work, and the obvious concern about putting her in a position where there was a greater risk of her being recognized, Glen had found her a job as a communications assistant for a small public relations firm with an office just outside the city center. The bushes that lined the walkway to the main entrance were all trimmed into perfect rectangles. Renee walked along, her low heels clicking on the concrete, and wished she could find one branch that was taller than the others, or that stuck out sideways to disturb the symmetry. But the landscape people must have made a pass over the weekend, because each verdant polygon looked exactly the same.
Approaching the Windex-spotless front doors, Renee caught a glimpse of her reflection in the shiny unsmudged glass. Below-the-knee navy skirt, skin-toned stockings, ivory button-up blouse that looked grey in the tinted glass, navy pumps that matched her skirt. Her dark brown hair was pulled back, and she found herself grateful that the early morning light reflecting off the doors made it impossible to see the deep brown of the contacts that covered her eyes.
She tried to remind herself that she’d worn plenty of less-than-comfortable clothes at the FBI – rayon pantsuits and shoes that pinched her toes. But she also remembered the soft denim of well-worn jeans, her Glock against her hip, stretchy cotton shirt that she didn’t even feel when running after a suspect or staying up all night trying to prevent terrorists from taking out half the nation’s power grid (for example).
Here, she wasn’t responsible for saving . . . anything. She would show up at 9 a.m., take an hour-long lunch break from 12-1 (Glen had spent like five minutes detailing his research on the pros and cons of each restaurant within walking distance, as if where she’d spend lunch break for the rest of her mundane life was high on her list of concerns) and go home at 5:30 sharp.
She’d never had regular hours in her life.
Her mind slipped back to one particular all-nighter with Larry, Janis, and Tina. The four of them, high on quadruple-shot lattes and Snickers, each at their own computer, working their asses off to sort through the data but sometimes exploding into fits of hysterical laughter over a funny name or street address.
They’d found the key piece of information at something like 5 a.m. Renee remembered trying to yell to the others with her teeth stuck together, noise muffled by a mouthful of sticky-sweet peanuts and caramel.
She had to stop. It was gone, that life, and a huge part of the new one waited for her behind the spotless amber-tinted doors.
She grabbed the handle and walked inside, wishing she hadn’t eaten that extra-large bowl of Chocolate Cheerios for breakfast.
Her first day at Pan Communications Inc. felt more like five.
Renee followed her boss, Kelsey Iverson (5’2” if that, gold hoop earrings, and a flowing gypsy skirt with a lavender paisley pattern) through winding corridors on the office tour, nodding or responding with “okay” or “sure” at the appropriate moments. She’d been psyching herself up to confront the expected sea of cubicles, but when Kelsey stopped at one and announced brightly, “Here’s your home base!” Renee had to squeeze her fingernail into the pad of her thumb until she idly wondered if she’d drawn blood.
She glanced around, absorbing the spectacular lack of personality in the 5 x 5 space. Computer on a small Formica corner desk, telephone, credenza, file cabinet, and what appeared to be one of those expensive ergonomic chairs you could adjust to provide lumbar support or . . . whatever.
At the FBI, she’d never spent enough time sitting to need a fancy chair.
Kelsey scribbled something on a pink sticky note and handed it to Renee. “Here’s your login info. There should be a file on one of our new clients in the dropdown list from the D server. The company name is ‘Bread In Motion.’ Don’t ask – we’re talking to them about that. Take a look at the company profile and start to brainstorm ideas. We’ll meet tomorrow morning to work out a more concrete project plan. No stress. You’ll have lots of time to settle in.” She was about to walk away when she whipped around and exclaimed, “Oh! Come meet Emma. She’s next door.”
Renee stepped a few feet sideways and found herself staring into a cubicle that, while set up precisely like hers in terms of amenities, could not have been more different in aesthetics. Emma’s computer desktop was a high-res photo of two little girls, maybe five and seven, with their heads resting on the soft fur of a large chocolate lab. A framed wedding photo stood next to the computer, and a corkboard on the wall was covered with a mishmash of thumbtacked photographs interspersed with random company announcements. Several coffee cups dotted whatever free space was available (which wasn’t much). One of them featured a pale, grumpy-looking cartoon woman, and the black lettering read, “Do I LOOK like a people person?”
The edges of Renee’s mouth turned up a little.
“Emma, this is Ashley Martinson, our new hire from Seattle. Her cube’s next door. Can you help her out if she needs anything?”
“Absolutely. Nice to meet you.” Emma extended her hand and Renee took it automatically. “It’ll be nice to have someone over there again. Not that I was sad to see the jackass you’re replacing leave.”
“Emma.” Kelsey sighed, rolling her eyes a little in resignation. “Sorry. We’d fire her if our three biggest clients weren’t convinced she’s a genius.” Her Blackberry beeped and she glanced at the display. “I’m late for my 9:30. Please try not to scare Ashley away on her first day? I’ll check in with you later.” She disappeared around the plastic corner of the ‘room.’
“You’ll get used to her,” said Emma. “She just has too much energy for one person.”
Renee didn’t have a response to that, so she shifted her weight uncomfortably and said, “I guess I’ll go have a look at that file.” She could already feel the beginning of a headache tightening the back of her neck, spikes of pain expanding upwards.
“Seriously, interrupt me if you need anything at all.”
I need to go home, thought Renee, but she smiled her most practiced fake smile (it was getting a lot of use lately) and replied, “Thanks.” She rubbed the back of her neck.
“Headache?” Emma asked, and Renee tightened her stomach muscles, irritated that she was already relaxing her guard too much.
“Just a touch.”
“Coffee machine is a quick left at the end of the hall. It’s one of those pod things, and Kelsey orders the best flavors. Try the pumpkin spice. Mocha java is pretty fantastic, too.”
“That sounds amazing,” Renee admitted, the first sentence of the day that felt like truth. She headed down the hall to make herself a cup before she got started on the unbearable excitement of her workday.
It was never the predictable things that got her – law enforcement shows on TV, a couple walking hand-in-hand along the sidewalk, Hallmark commercials, all the dating gossip at work. Alone in the pre-dawn hours at Covington, pain lancing through her chest every time she breathed or moved, Renee had considered what would be the hardest to handle after her relocation.
She never would have guessed that the worst part of her new job would be Emma’s radio. It played every minute of every day, inescapable unwanted soundtrack to her new existence.
Renee had grown up in a house filled with music. Her dad played acoustic guitar in an ad-hoc band with three of his friends, so there had always been Clapton, David Gilmour, and Carlos Santana records resounding in the living room, sneaking under the crack of her bedroom door even when she tried to hide. Her mom had loved classical, so when it wasn’t blues or rock, it was Beethoven and Rachmaninoff.
Now, on a good day, Emma listened to the local hip-pop station that played Ke$ha, Katy Perry, The Black Eyed Peas, and Bruno Mars on an endless repetitive loop. On those days Renee could (for the most part) focus, using the insane concentration she’d learned from years at the FBI to ‘profile’ clients, figure out what they wanted and how they wanted it.
On bad days, Emma would turn on some station that featured mostly Alison Krauss, Lucinda Williams, Sarah McLachlan, Patty Griffin, and fifty other female singer/songwriters likely to perform at Lilith. Renee would sit, hands clenched, chewing her lip and staring at her computer screen, as the words to ‘You Are Not Alone’ or ‘If Wishes Were Horses’ made their muffled distorted way through the thin cubicle wall.
And at that point, no matter how hard she fought and tried to redirect, she thought about Jack.
She knew the government hadn’t caught him; that would have made the news. But where was he, right now? Was he listening to music, too? Did he jolt awake every night (like she did), struggling for air, hands on his face until reality regained control? Did he have crazy dark coffee to drink in the morning, help him prep for the day? Had someone taken care of all the holes in his body?
On Friday nights, after she’d made herself a bowl of tomato soup, rinsed out the single dish and put it in the dishwasher, after she’d changed out of her work clothes into sweats and a t-shirt, after she’d watched CNN for a while (because she could never be sure), after the sun had slipped away and there were no more neighborhood noises of thudding basketballs, chattering kids on bikes, or beer-fueled conversations around the grill, after it was so dark that she couldn’t see the pine trees from her living room window unless the moon was almost full, Renee would pour herself a glass of wine, click the room into darkness, and sit smushed into the corner of her couch, knees clutched to her chest.
And she’d let herself cry.
On Wednesday nights, Renee had dinner with the McPhersons, a sixty-something retired couple who lived four doors down. Their house always smelled like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, because when Jed wasn't painting exotic birds he'd whittled from sticks he picked up in the back yard or tinkering with his '56 Ford Thunderbird, he was baking. The first time they'd invited her (the phone had rung during one of her Friday night breakdowns – Renee remembered holding her breath for a count of five before she picked up, smearing tears over her face with the back of her sleeve, trying to level her voice when she finally managed, "Hello?") she'd almost said no, because to be honest, making it through each day at work was about seven and a half more hours of interpersonal contact than she was in the mood for. But Jed had already mowed her lawn twice and refused any sort of payment, and Eileen insisted that if she didn't have someone else to help her eat the cherry tart he'd just made she'd gain five pounds, so Renee relented.
It was also the fastest way to get off the phone and continue with her regularly scheduled breakdown.
Sitting in the warm glow of their dining room, watching Jed pile her plate with more eggplant parmesan, grilled asparagus, and fresh-from-the-oven garlic bread than she would ever manage to eat, Renee had to admit that she was starting to look forward to this one night a week where she could be with other people and yet remain quiet inside.
"Is your car still making that noise?" Jed handed Renee the pitcher of water. "Sorry. I meant to get some of that pop you like but I got sidetracked before I made it to the store."
Renee smiled. "You don't need to buy me pop!" The word felt unnatural in her mouth, but Glen had beat it into her. Pop. Not soda. Pop. "And I'm not sure. The buzz seems to stop if I hit 25 or 30."
"If it's not too dark I'll take a look after dinner. Otherwise, do you have a minute to stop by after work tomorrow?"
Renee reached for her knife and began cutting into the perfectly grilled asparagus. "Definitely. Thanks. It's probably nothing."
Eileen cleared her throat, holding a bottle of ranch dressing in her hand as if she'd forgotten what she meant to do with it. "This might be presumptuous of me, but-"
"Honey, I told you to leave her alone." Renee's spine stiffened, because she'd never heard that note of flickering anxiety in Jed's voice before. He was one of the calmest people she'd ever met. "She doesn't need you messing with her life. Let's eat dinner and watch the movie. I got The Best Years Of Our Lives. It's long."
Eileen was (as usual) undeterred. "I told you I'd take full responsibility for this conversation. You're off the hook."
Jed made a grumpy noise and reached for a piece of garlic bread.
"What were you going to ask me?" Renee slipped her free hand under her leg. The food smelled a lot less appetizing than it had two minutes ago.
"My friend Stephanie has a son who just moved back here after working with some NGO in India for almost ten years. He doesn't know anyone, so I thought maybe you two could go out to dinner or the movies or-" She stopped, and Renee realized that whatever look she had on her face was not the neutral one that should have been there.
Jed’s fork gave a shrill squeak over the surface of his plate. A dog howled in the distance.
Eileen took a sip of water, more color than usual in her cheeks. “I’m sorry. Scott is such a sweetheart, and I can never leave anything alone.” Jed made a gruff noise of assent. “It’s not good for you to be by yourself so much. Sometimes I wake up at two in the morning and your living room light is still on. Do you have trouble sleeping? I know a doctor who-”
“Eileen, for Christ’s sake. Leave it!” Jed brought his glass down on the table so hard that water sloshed over the side, darkening the taupe cloth as it soaked in.
“It’s okay. Really.” Underneath the table, Renee rubbed the tip of her finger over the wooden corner of her chair until she could feel the top layer of skin peeling off. She and Glen had rehearsed this countless times in Covington, the construction of a convincing story for why an attractive woman in her mid-to-late thirties refused to consider dating. (Her own voice echoed in her head, furious and argumentative. You’d better come up with something because I’m not having dinner with a succession of idiots who have no chance of getting in my pants). “I don’t-” The word felt wrong but she forced it out anyway. “Date right now.”
She concentrated on the throbbing in her finger, anything to distract her from this lie that was so close to the truth. “I was engaged when I lived in Seattle. His name was Eric.” Her words wavered, material from her Friday night meltdowns bubbling to the surface. She felt a tear slide down the edge of her nose and swiped at it, irritated and unsettled. “He died in a construction accident a little over six months ago.”
“Oh, sweetheart. I’m sorry.” Eileen put her hand on Renee’s arm, a brief warm squeeze. “Someday I’ll learn to listen to my husband and stop letting my crazy ideas run away with me.”
“Believe that when I see it.” Jed pushed his chair back and stood up. “I’m gonna make us some decaf for the movie.” He picked up his plate, pausing to glare at Eileen for another few seconds. Then he turned to Renee. “Any chance you’re still in the mood for the peach cobbler I made this afternoon? I bought fresh cream and whipped it myself.”
Renee blinked back tears and the unwelcome flood of memory that knotted her stomach and pulsed in her head. “I’d love some.”