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THE ONLY THING I REGRET

posted in 24_fanfic

Title: The Only Thing I Regret
Author: marinw
Rating: PG but angsty
Characters: Karen/Jack
Summery: Post Day 7. Jack visits Karen at her Vermont home
Disclaimer: 24 is the property of Fox
A/N: My personal fanwank has Jack staying with Bill and Karen after Day 6, a wank I cling todespite having no canon evidence whatsoever. A plot bunny borne from a 24n'more challenge. cybertoothtiger is off having a life, so thanks to the guest beta by leigh57 who kindly took the time out of her own busy life to read this thing.

Karen had decided to keep the Vermont lake house.

It was ridiculous what all the so-called experts had to say about grief, how a widow was supposed to go through neatly defined phases. It wasn’t that way at all. After she had received the call from the President, Karen took a few days to be quietly devastated. Then, it was business as usual. She packed up all of Bill’s clothes minus a few favorite items. Like his bathrobe. She kept his books and had Chloe unlock the encrypted files on his computer.

Until a year ago she had worked at private security firm. Now she was on some sort of extended leave of absence. Money wasn’t a problem. Her pension from Wayne Palmer’s administration was hers for life and Bill had meticulously left his affairs in order.

As if he had known.

Karen worked in the garden and rode her bicycle on well-groomed trails. She shopped at the farmer’s market. She associated with friends who didn’t lecture her about “working through” her grief and knew better than to expect dramatic displays of emotion. Her friends respected her stoicism as her way of coping, her very way of being.

She missed Bill, but the missing was a deep, quiet, private thing.

She especially missed their breakfasts, before she went to run her errands on her bicycle and after Bill had returned from his morning swim or tennis game. She missed the silence they shared as they sipped their coffee and read the papers.

Karen was holding her second mug of coffee now, looking through the big kitchen window as she saw the black SUV pull into the driveway. She spotted a folded-up wheelchair in the back seat.

She realized the front door was atop a few steps. This would be awkward.

Karen’s fears were soon proved unfounded. Her guest emerged from the passenger seat of the SUV and waved off the driver. As the car left, the man walked to Karen’s front door, shakily and with the use of a cane, but defiantly under his own power.

The entire world still made the mistake of underestimating him.

“Jack,” Karen said warmly.

“Hello, Karen.”

“Let me help you.” Without preamble, Karen stuck out her arm.

“Thank you,” Jack mumbled without embarrassment.

He must be used to accepting help.

Getting Jack up the stairs took some doing, but soon he was comfortably seated on a deep couch in the sunny living room.

“Coffee?” Karen asked.

“Sure.”

As she fetched the carafe and poured Jack a cup, Karen was able to get a good look at her guest. Her imagination had run wild and she had expected so much worse. She had expected a man who required portable oxygen or was painfully emaciated and completely bald or covered in sores. Jack actually looked reasonably good. A little thin perhaps, as made obvious by the fit of his jeans and shirt and his jacket, but not much more so than usual.

Actually, he looked better than the last time Karen had seen him, just before he left for Europe. His eyes were softer, his face more relaxed. He no longer seemed so…haunted.

Jack didn’t require pity any more than she did.

Karen took a seat on a nearby upholstered chair. Time to get the conversation started.

“I’m sorry I missed the funeral,” Jack said.

Karen laughed. “Jack, you are the only person in the entire world who would apologize for being in a coma. I was so happy to hear that you’re going to make a complete recovery.”

“Yeah, they’re taking good care of me.”

They: Kim. Stephen. Chloe. The CDC and the staff of the John Keeler Rehabilitation Centre.

Was this the same man who had been her and Bill’s reluctant, difficult houseguest four years ago? The man who had bolted for Eastern Europe as soon as Bill had arranged for Jack to receive his back pay from CTU and Karen had called in enough favors to get Jack a new passport?

Who are you and what have you done with Jack Bauer? Karen was tempted to ask only half-mockingly.

“Karen, that’s part of the reason I’m here. You and Bill took care of me when I got back from China. I left as soon as I could and I never said thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Bill and I were happy to do it.”

“You don’t have lie to me, Karen. I wasn’t easy to live with.”

That was an understatement. At times it had almost been like babysitting a child in an adult body. Jack had gone for days without speaking or apparently sleeping, and when he did sleep he would wake up screaming. Small talk was excruciating. He tried to eat whatever was provided for him but was plagued by constant nausea. He wouldn’t take the pills the psychiatrist (a dear friend of Bill’s) had prescribed.

Karen had been ashamed to admit to herself that she was relived when Jack left, so that she could have her home and her husband to herself.

“No, you weren’t easy to live with. But I wasn’t lying. We wanted to help you. I can’t even imagine what you went through, both over there and on the day you got back.”

“Bill took me in because he felt guilty.”

“Moreso than you can ever know. There were things we wanted to explain to you. About China. About Audrey. About why things happened the way they did. But you were so angry. So damaged. We didn’t think you were ready to listen to what Bill and I had to say.”

“I’m ready now.”

“When you confronted James Heller you demanded to know why we didn’t try harder to get you out of China. That’s a fair question. The truth is I don’t have a good answer for you. At first we did try. Me, James Heller, Bill, Chloe, Audrey, Curtis. We explored every lead, called in every favor. Everything we did made everything else more complicated. Logan was in jail and the last thing the Vice President wanted was a diplomatic incident with the Chinese. Eventually Audrey grew impatient with us and left for China to work the back channels. When Wayne Palmer was elected I was offered a position of the Director of Homeland Security. I couldn’t refuse. And things got busy at CTU. Very busy. Then the terrorists attack started. The more time that passed the further down our list of priorities you became. I know that’s not enough of an explanation. And it’s not good enough. But it’s what I have to give you.”

“So that’s it,” Jack stared down at his coffee.

“Not quite.” On a nearby table there was a CD. Karen handed it to Jack.

“Bill filed complete reports on everything he did at CTU. But he also kept a private journal. The files were encrypted but Chloe was able unlock them. Bill’s will specified that he wanted you to have the journal.”

Jack turned the CD over, as if that motion would uncover the secrets held in its content.

“Have you read this journal?” Jack asked.

“I only glanced at it. Reading what Bill wrote has been…difficult. I do know that he went into a lot of detail about how he felt about what happened to you, about how angry and frustrated he was. I understand if you don’t want to read this journal. But you do deserve to have it.”

“It doesn’t matter now.”

“Excuse me?”

“Bill made it up to me, Karen. He sacrificed himself. It was supposed to be me. I don’t know what was going through Bill’s mind when he charged the door. But I think that leaving you was the only thing he regretted.”

Dammit. For the first time in days Karen felt tears spring to her eyes.

Jack leaned over. “Karen, I appreciate what you’ve told me. But it’s okay. I’m not angry anymore.”

“Oh, Jack. How is that even possible?”

“It’s hard to explain. But ever since I’ve been sick my only priority has been getting better. I can finally have my life back. Everything that happened before doesn’t matter as much. I’ve had to let a lot of it go.”

Never underestimate Jack.

“Bill had some other things he wanted you to have. I haven’t brought them down because I didn’t know if you would accept them.”

“I think I’d like to have them. If that’s okay with you.”

“It’s more than okay,” Karen stood up. “They’re upstairs. I’ll go get them.”

THE END

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