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Old friends, memory brushes the same years — silently sharing the same crackers

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Michelle looked at the caller ID on her phone and sighed. Jack was calling again; the third time this week. Every time she had seen his name flash on the cell screen she had felt the guilt tighten her throat — and had let his call go to voicemail.

It was too soon.

Tony had been in jail for almost four months now, but she felt it would always be too soon to face his best friend. She tightened her jaw and pressed ‘decline’. She hated that she was ignoring Jack, but the guilt was still easier to handle than the thought of having to talk about her husband to anyone, even an old friend.

She placed the phone back on the counter and returned to opening her mail, when the damn thing rang again. Jack Bauer, said the caller ID. She sighed and pressed the green button.

"Jack! Sorry I was in the shower when you rang and…"

"Hey, it’s ok Michelle. How are you?"

"I’m...ok, I’m ok. How are you?"

"I’m good, thanks. Look, I'm calling because I’m going to be in Seattle for work on Thursday, and I thought it’d be nice to catch up. How about we go get a drink after work?"

"Oh, sure. Uh, yeah,” the question had taken her by surprise. She winced and dug her nails into the palm of her hand, "I mean I would love to, but work has been really crazy lately so can we confirm that day? If that’s ok?"

"Sure, that’s no problem. Why don’t I just call that evening to decide what we’re doing?”

The soft tone of his voice felt soothing, and she felt a sudden wave of sadness that she had avoided talking to him in recent months.

"Thank you. And Jack, I’m…I’m really sorry I haven’t returned your calls earlier. I meant to, it’s just—it’s been a lot with work and moving here and…" her voice trailed.

"It’s ok, Michelle. I know you’ve had a lot on your plate,” she could hear the smile in his voice, so clearly that she could almost see it too. He paused and added, "look I’ll let you go, but I’ll see you Thursday, alright?"

"Yeah, see you Thursday…thanks Jack," she added before hanging up.

She knew she would come up with an excuse on Thursday, and that if Tony knew he would actively disagree with the way she had thrown herself into work and avoided friends. But it was still too soon.

—————

That Thursday, Michelle left work on time — probably the first time since she had started her new role at Division, and went straight back to her apartment. The idea she was about to lie to Jack had been on her mind all day, and added to her tiredness. She longed to be home — or the closest she had to 'home' these days. She wanted to curl up on her couch, wait for sleep to overtake her so she would no longer think about inflicting pain on those close to her, and temporarily forget about disappointing the ones she cared about.

She had just taken off her heels and jacket when her phone rang.

"Hey Jack."

"Hi! I was just calling to see where you wanted to go tonight."

She sighed and pressed her eyelids shut. "Jack, I’m really sorry but I don’t think I can go out. It’s been a tough week and — do you mind if we do this another time?"

"I thought you might say that," he said, right before her buzzer rang. The sound echoed both in her apartment and on the phone.

She turned around, opened the door and there he was — phone in one hand, wine in the other, and a box of Graham Crackers under his arm.

"Hi," he said again, and the next thing she knew he had placed the items on the counter and gathered her into a tight hug.

In the weeks after Tony’s arrest, Michelle had come to recoil at the mere thought of hugs. She hated the awkward ones that people felt were of circumstance (as if a hug from a colleague would change the fact her husband was charged with treason), as much as she hated the oppressive ones from her family and friends which felt dripping with pity at her and disappointment at Tony’s actions. The hugs had made her want to scream, especially when the only embrace she truly wanted — needed — was Tony’s, and that wasn’t an option.

As Jack’s arms wrapped around her, Michelle was brought back to the only time she had been allowed to visit Tony since he’d been sent to jail. She was desperate to feel his arms around her, but federal prison came with strict rules. As she’d walked in the room where he was waiting for her, the prison warden had greeted her entrance with a loud warning of, “No touching!"

"No touching," Tony had repeated dutifully — to indicate the rules had been understood, to beg that her long-awaited visit not be interrupted by more warnings.

And yet, Michelle thought as she leant into Jack, surprising even herself, that was a hug she didn’t mind. It felt good. She heard him sigh then gently pat her shoulder. It seemed like he felt the same.

"I hope you don’t mind," he said, finally breaking their embrace, “I thought it might be nice to just have a quiet drink."

"Thank you," she said, and she found she really was grateful that he had showed up at her door.

"Go sit," he nodded towards the couch, "I’ll bring things over."

He walked to the kitchen and she saw him discreetly look around the bare apartment. If he noticed the minimal furnishings and lack of decor, he didn’t say anything. He picked up two glasses in the cupboard, opened a bottle, and found a bowl in which he placed some crackers. He didn’t even seem to search for things, the way she still did when she needed a glass of water in the middle of the night and instinctively looked for it in the spot where things would have been at their house in L.A.. But not Jack; Jack somehow always looked like he was at home in any space he occupied.

He walked over to the couch and handed her a very full glass, then sat opposite her and placed the bowl on the table between them. She raised an eyebrow.

"Graham Crackers? Not what I expected the great Jack Bauer to carry with him."

"Yeah, Kim and Chase’s kid love them and I had a box in my bag from when I saw them a few days ago. And thought why not bring it up."

Crackers. They both knew Tony loved the dry snacks, but neither brought it up. The unsaid lingered awkwardly between them for a beat.

He fidgeted with the label on the bottle then looked at her. "You look good. How have you been doing?"

"I’m…ok, all things considered,” suddenly she felt self-conscious about her distinctly corporate outfit and her straight hair. She looked different from her former days at CTU LA: a new look that helped her get through her days — keep her countenance as taught and in check as the hair she pulled back so tight, so that no loose tendril ever fell out of place. She knew the implication wouldn't have been lost on Jack.

She ran a hand over her skirt to smooth the fabric and added, "being back at Division is different. I'm grateful I could transfer so quickly, work has been…helpful."

"I take it you’ve thrown yourself into it?"

She nodded and he smiled.

"Yeah, I know the feeling. I would say ‘careful not to over-do it, give yourself some time to process things first’, but…I guess I’m hardly one to talk."

"People have told me I should take some personal time. At this stage it’s easier being there than at home,” and she found she still couldn’t say the word ‘home’ without a pang in her chest.

"If you ask me, doing overtime is a better coping mechanism than heroin."

She choked on her wine and simultaneously produced a laugh that sounded more like a snort. She wiped her mouth with her hand and found him staring at her, amused and pleased he’d got such a genuine reaction out of her. He’d guessed this was the closest she’d come to laughing in months, and she couldn’t help but return his smile.

"How are you doing with that, by the way? How…are you?"

He nodded to himself a couple of times.

"I’m good. I’ve completed the rehab programme CTU had requested, and I’m clean."

She smiled approvingly, "I’m really glad to hear that, Jack."

"Erin Driscoll fired me, though."

"She did?"

"Said the addiction made me a liability. I guess I can see where she’s coming from, even though I don’t agree with her position,” he paused, “come to think of it, I don’t really agree with her on anything. Working for her would have been…challenging," his eyes widened slightly when he said that last word.

"I’m sorry Jack, I had no idea you’d lost your job."

He laughed, “She said she could make some phone calls for me, and I told her I could get my own fucking job. Then I walked out."

"In those exact words?!"

He nodded and she couldn’t refrain a peal of laughter. Maybe it was the wine on her empty stomach, but it felt good to laugh again. It felt good to sit in her house with Jack, too. Well, it was nice and it wasn’t, this feeling of homely comfort that made Tony’s absence all the more glaring and raw. But mostly having Jack sitting on her couch felt familiar — something she hadn’t experienced since she’d moved to Seattle, and that she suddenly realised she’d missed.

She finished her wine and he leant forward to top up their glasses.

"Thanks. So what do you do now?"

"Nothing for now. I have a couple of interviews scheduled with the DoD in D.C. next week, we’ll see how that goes."

She frowned, “Didn’t you say you were here for work?"

He chuckled and said sheepishly, "I lied. Figured you wouldn’t say yes if I said I wanted to come visit, and I wanted to see how you were doing."

Michelle wasn’t sure what to say. She felt her throat tighten and pressed her lips in a thin, sad smile.

"Thank you," she murmured, then added, "Jack, I’m really sorry I haven’t been in touch..."

"It’s ok, Michelle. I understand, I do,” he gave her a small smile, “after I lost Teri, the last thing I wanted was to speak to anyone. I ignored everyone’s calls,” he laughed bitterly, "I couldn’t take one more person telling me they were sorry."

She nodded quietly and realised their glasses were almost empty again. She poured the rest of the bottle and picked up a cracker. That would have to be dinner for now.

“How are Kim, Chase and the baby doing?”

“They’re good. They send their love. They seem very happy in Valencia, and Chase is recovering well from the surgery.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” she smiled. She really was. Chase had been affected by what had happened to Tony and her, and had provided genuine support even in the middle of his own difficult recovery.

Jack picked up a cracker and the two of them silently munched on the snack. After a while, Michelle got up to get the other bottle. Alcohol was something she had initially relied on, especially on days where she felt she was about to start screaming and never stop. But after a few weeks, drinking had made her anguish feel even more heightened; she had since avoided any kind of alcohol since. Tonight felt different, though. Jack had brought with him a sense of stability; an inherent softness that promised her things would be ok, eventually. Thinking of Tony wasn’t as bad when Jack was around.

“He would have hated those crackers,” she whispered, and her eyes filled up.

Jack chuckled wistfully, “He did. He only liked the salty kind. Thought these tasted like a Christmas candle. Chase brought some into the office once, that he probably got from Kim. Tony and Chappelle were so angry.”

They would be, Michelle thought. That reaction was so typical of them both that she couldn’t help but smile, then blinked back a tear.

He looked at her with a gentle smile, then his gaze fell on a spot behind her, just above her shoulder. The only decorative item in her place: a framed photo of her and Tony.

Jack knew that photo; he was the one who’d taken it. It was the day they’d had a small party at their house to celebrate their decision to get married. The party was a spur-of-the-moment idea they’d had that very morning, and Jack had instantly offered his help to go get party supplies with them for the evening gathering. The three of them had driven to the store, and packed the car with beer and all the dry snacks and crackers they could find. Then, right there in the car park, Jack had pulled a camera from his bag, Tony had curled his arm around Michelle’s shoulders and she’d grinned at the camera. Unadulterated joy, captured in a split second; now a reminder of a time where a hope felt possible.

Jack’s expression grew sad, "I miss him too, you know. I know it’s not the same, but he’s the only friend I have left."

“Jack…”

“Tony’s in jail, Chappelle’s dead and I’m the one who shot him, I cut off Chase’s hand…” He chewed on a cracker to hide the tremor in his voice, and she gave him some time to regain his composure.

“None of this is your fault,” she said softly, “you weren’t responsible for anything that led to those actions. And you said Chase is doing well.”

“Not being responsible doesn’t mean I don’t blame myself. This job asks for impossible choices sometimes. And Tony is the only one who’d understand,” he finished sadly, and shook his head.

There wasn’t much either of them could say after that. They both knew Jack was right. They kept drinking in silence, in the darkening living room.

After a while Jack finished his glass and placed it down on the table. The sound of glass hitting glass seemed to shake him out of his reverie, and he looked at Michelle again.

“Hey, so how is it being back at Division? I remember Tony saying you had a hard time when you worked there before CTU.”

She stretched and frowned to gather her thoughts.

“Yeah, I did. It wasn’t necessarily the place I’d have chosen before all this—happened. It’s very corporate and bureaucratic. My back hurts from being at a desk all day. If I’m being honest I don’t love it, but…”

He looked at her quizzically.

“...the devil you know,” she finished.

Better a dull office job where duties involve little surprise, than the job which might one day ask of you the unexpected.

Jack understood, only too well. He had only said the very same thing to Kim only last week, when she’d expressed surprise to see him move from field ops to D.C. jobs.

“Well, I don’t know if you know that, but for a while Tony and I’d meet up to do a few field prep exercises for fun.” She looked at him, surprised at the change of topic. “When we’d been stuck in meetings all day and things were a bit intense, we’d go to one of those empty train yard spaces and work up a sweat for fun. Quieter than the gym, open air, and it was easier to switch off from work there. Think he kept the habit of doing those from his Marines day.”

This was all news to Michelle, but not out of character for them. She knew that things hadn’t always been great between Jack and Tony before she’d started at CTU, and that they’d eventually grown close.

“You know, Tony rarely ever mentioned his time in the Marines. If I asked, he'd often answer around my question, make an allusion to a movie or something. Think he didn’t like talking much about it.”

“It’s hard to explain what that life was like if you’ve not experienced it. I’m the same with the Special Forces.”

He let Michelle take in that thought, and added more cheerfully, “What do you say we do something like that tomorrow?”

“A military workout,” she laughed.

“Well, it’s mostly just running around and using the car for drills. It’s fun, you’ll see,” he encouraged her.

The offer was tempting.

“Yeah, I’d love that. Thanks Jack.”

Pleased to see her smile, he got up and went back to the kitchen. It had been so long since she had done, or even wanted to do, anything even remotely fun, Michelle thought. The day had taken an unexpected turn she never would have anticipated when she got up that morning. But now, speaking to an old friend — speaking about Tony, she felt lighter than she’d had in months, and more at ease with her own surroundings.

She undid the buttons of her sleeves and rolled them up, relieved to feel the air on her bare forearms. She’d thought she’d get used to this corporate style quicker, but just like with most of her new life it hadn’t been easy.

She heard Jack close the kitchen cupboard behind her and walk back to the living room.

“Saw this when I was looking for glasses earlier,” he said, placing Tony’s Cubs mug that usually resided on his desk on the table in front of her. Then he pried the cap off a bottle of beer, muttering “I’d brought a couple of those just in case, too”, and poured some of the amber liquid in the mug before handing it to her.

“To Tony,” he smiled.

“To Tony,” she echoed quietly with a grateful smile. She took a sip and handed the mug back to him.

He took it and sat back, his legs outstretched on the table. Suddenly feeling drowsy, she curled up on her side and folded a cushion under her head.

The last thing she remembered before falling asleep was Jack on the couch in front of her, drinking from the mug with a faraway, pensive look on his face. For the first time in months she was looking forward to tomorrow. She suspected Jack felt the same. Then she felt him pull a blanket over her and drifted off to a dreamless sleep.