CHAPTER 20 (FINALE PART 2/EPILOGUE)
"No offense, but I regret that your profession needs to exist."
"So do I" – Conversation in "Man on Fire" starring Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning
REHOVOT, ISRAEL, 15 MILES SOUTH OF TEL AVIV
Jack rode in silence with Ambassador Cornett as the Lincoln Town Car with diplomatic plates made the twenty minute drive south from the U.S. Embassy to the modern suburban community of Rehovot. Jack's mind was still spinning from everything as they left the freeway and drove slowly down some residential streets. Rachel's childhood home, where her parents still lived, was located in a comfortable but not extravagant neighborhood. He saw a plumbing van parked on the street, part of the business that her father had started three years ago. By Israeli standards, this was probably as middle class you could get.
Rachel greeted Jack at the door, immediately rushing over and jumping on him. Despite the trauma she had experienced, it was clear she was trying to get back to normal the best she could. Cornett was definitely out of place as Rachel's father invited Jack and him in. He felt awkward being there for multiple reasons. Even in the Third World countries he was stationed in before coming to Israel, he operated in the world of fancy state dinners and diplomatic reception balls. Never in his career has the career Foreign Service officer actually been in the home of an ordinary family from the host country. The normalcy of all this, the sun-soaked living room with the TV, and the backyard with the small above-ground swimming pool and the plumbing van parked out front was very jarring for him.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Friedman," Cornett said in a respectful tone that was nonetheless laced with the official tone his job had molded into him. "I am Scott Cornett, United States ambassador. I've been briefed on everything you've done. It's an honor, ma'am." Jack wanted to knock him out stone cold right there, knowing the true role that the ambassador had played in the day's events.
She gave him a casual smile. "Thank you, sir, Mr. Ambassador."
The thought of how he never spoke against Moshe Doron when he suggested letting Rachel die devastated Cornett. He never quite understood that behind the statistics and decisions made in the halls of power were real people, real lives. Indeed the State Department had been satisfied with him, and had hinted that he would get the Netherlands post. But Cornett could never live with knowing what he had almost done for the sake of his career. In fact, he was already working on his letter of resignation from the Foreign Service citing personal reasons. Rachel's mom offered him some fresh orange juice, but he turned it down, wanting to get his last official task out of the way.
"On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation, Major Friedman," he said, reflecting her new promotion, "I would like to present to you the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for your instrumental role in preventing a devastating terrorist attack on our country and saving the lives of countless American servicemen and women. This is the highest American award available to a foreign citizen, ma'am."
"It's….I…." Rachel began hesitantly. "I'm not a hero. We were both just in the wrong place at the wrong time, everything went to hell, and we did what we had to in order to stay alive, and when we stumbled on the plot, there's no way we could have just let it happen. First my own government, than you. I….I just don't feel like I deserve all this." Rachel had also been given full retirement benefits typically reserved for a career IDF soldier. She tried her best to turn it down, feeling she couldn't benefit in any way from the high school tragedy, but they had insisted, stressing the second part of the mission involving the nukes instead. She finally agreed but had decided to donate half of each retirement check to charities supporting military veterans and terrorism victims. The rest would go toward her college fund since she would still be classified as an international student until she obtained a green card in the US, then toward starting her new life. Still, she never wanted any of this.
"You've earned it, ma'am," Cornett said. He did felt strange talking to her that way given she was half his age.
Cornett left as quickly as his duties were finished, leaving Jack in the house with Rachel's family. As expected, Rachel's parents and older brother showered him with gratitude for saving her life, even though he could have said the same about her. The truth was, they got each other through it, and all the accolades certainly made him uncomfortable. Jack was never much used to praise, even though he understood the relief Rachel's family felt after almost losing their daughter and sister. His own father was never satisfied with anything he'd done, it seemed, and Henderson and his other superiors in the Army mostly grilled him, and then grilled him some more.
As Jack ate dinner with them outside beneath the early evening sky, however, he thought of the other families who would never experience something like this again. This very moment, people were gathered at funeral homes in northern Tel Aviv, paying their respects to children as young as fourteen years old, brutally murdered in cold blood. Back in America, on a frigid Colorado morning, the coffin containing the brutally desecrated body of 19 year old Nicole Katz was being carried out of a cargo hold at Denver International Airport as her parents her two younger sisters waited along with her many friends from Golden High School and the University of Denver. This is never going to end, Jack thought. This will never be over.
Despite Henderson's words running through his head, Jack's' mind temporarily pushed those thoughts away as they went into Rachel's bedroom later that night and she closed the door behind them. Before he faced the darkness that lay in his future, Jack needed these couple days. Aside from the usual movie and popular music posters on the walls, there were plenty of pictures of her family as well as a particularly cute one with Rachel and her cousin in Maryland making goofy faces as they worked together collecting entrance fees at the state park.
"You know, Jack, even a lot of my best friends outside of high school haven't been here, so you really should feel as special as you are," she said with a disarming smile and a cute wink.
"I'm assuming you gotta make sure I'm cleared for this then," Jack replied. "I understand if you have to pat me down real good."
Rachel took off her tank top then began unbuttoning Jack's shirt. "That goes without saying."
THREE DAYS LATER – SEA OF GALILEE, NORTHERN ISRAEL
Jack took full advantage of the R and R that Henderson had granted him, deciding to let Rachel take him for some sightseeing in Jerusalem and a relaxing getaway to the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. She had almost insisted on it since she was supposed to accompany the American college students here anyway after their visit to Ariel Sharon High School, and now it would just be the two of them. Jack found Jerusalem's architecture to be interesting and did his best to picture the Biblical events transpiring there, particularly as they traced Jesus's footsteps along the Via Dolorosa and the Stations of the Cross along with crowds of tourists from around the world. It only made Jack more confused about his faith visiting the sites. The various denominations couldn't even agree on what the site of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection was. Some denominations claimed it was where the Church of the Holy Sephulcre now stands while others believed it was the Garden Tomb. She also showed him the Jewish Quarter of the Old City including the famous Western Wall.
Even as they spent some much needed quality time together, Henderson's words and the repeated images from that day coursed through Jack's mind. Now he and Rachel were sitting on plastic chairs on a dock on the Sea of Galilee, in reality a large freshwater lake despite its name, watching for any movement on their fishing poles. It was a comfortable, sunny day and everything was at peace. It was like they mutually decided on some quiet time as they relaxed in the sun, Rachel reading a Nicholas Sparks romance novel as Jack stared ahead across the water. So this was the water that Jesus was said to have walked on, and where He multiplied the fish in the sea and fed the crowd of ten thousand.
Jack wished there was some kind of miracle right now that would give him an epiphany, some guidance on which road he would embark on, because he knew there was no turning back. Sunday school had been so long ago, and he had stopped going after his mother had passed away from a stroke when he was eleven. He wasn't even sure if those stories were even true. He then glanced back over at Rachel, looking content in her chair with her book, smiling to herself as she turned a page. They could easily have not had this moment. This entire region could have descended into complete chaos had the nukes reached their targets. Was God with him? Was there even a God? He really didn't know. But there was him. Jack certainly didn't like to brag or take credit, but he knew that he was able to stop the attack. He was able to ensure that this moment he and Rachel were enjoying now was possible.
Why did it have to be him with those skills? Why was he the one on the spot? Yet the whys didn't matter at all. It is what it is whether he liked it or not, and out of all the famous quotes in his mind, what came to the forefront was Uncle Ben in Spiderman telling Peter Parker, "With great power comes great responsibility." Jack never was much into the superhero stuff, and particularly hated the Spiderman movie but somehow that quote came back to him. No, I'm no superhero, Jack Bauer thought to himself but I made a difference. He knew he couldn't live with himself if he had the power to stop another attack and didn't. He couldn't just depend on miracles, and he couldn't just hope that somebody else would do it since none of that was certain. It was then that Jack Bauer made the decision Christopher Henderson already knew he would.
Jack knew that this decision would definitely cost him his relationship with his father, which was never much to begin with. It was the likelihood of losing Rachel that pained him. He highly doubt she would be happy with his decision. All she talked about how much she looked forward to going to America, graduating from college and teaching school. She wanted the world of county fairs, neighborhood potlucks, white picket fences, lazy summer afternoons spent fishing by the creek or sipping sweet iced tea on the front porch, taking the kids to swim meets and football practice. All the pleasant things about America that people all over the world wanted to be part of. The truth is though, Jack thought is that none of it would be possible without the sacrifices he knew he would have to make. He wouldn't blame Rachel if she didn't accept it. She wasn't like him, and she had been through enough and done far more than anyone could have asked of her. She deserved all the benefits her government was giving her and had even turned a lot of it down.
He didn't want to disturb this moment though, as he got up upon seeing a small splash as a fish took the bait. He felt like a kid who already knew he had a D in math but was still a week away from his parents getting the report card. Rachel put down her book as Jack reeled the fish out of the water. The moment of truth had to way. Both of them deserved a few more carefree days together. The talk with his father, though, was something he would get out of the way first.
BAUER ESTATE, SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA
Many people had a "home office", but for Philip Bauer it was as literal as it could be. The large study in his sprawling estate was a mini command center for BXJ Technologies, with instant communications with offices around the globe and the company's performance on the world's various stock exchanges constantly flashing across plasma computer screens overhead. For Philip, life, work, family, and company were one and the same. Philip recalled an article featuring him in Los Angeles Magazine where one person after another wrote in the online comments section that his priorities were twisted, that he wasn't quite right in the head, that he needed to get some help. Philip had laughed at all that. This was why he was one of the most powerful men in the nation, and they were not. It was not the money or the luxuries that made Philip tick. If so, he would have enjoyed his extravagant home a lot more. No, the home, just his private jets, were just status symbols. It was power itself that Philip Bauer was obsessed with.
His checking on the opening of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange was disturbed by the ringing of his secure personal phone. Philip snatched the phone from the receiver upon seeing the name of an Israeli telephone company on the caller ID. Jack was on a payphone a block away from his hotel in the Galilee. Not wanting to risk ruining his time with Rachel prematurely, Jack chose not to call from their room phone. Jack told Rachel he wanted to take one more stroll around the block as she hopped in the shower after their relaxing Jacuzzi session by the hotel pool.
"It's me, dad," Jack began.
"I figured it was you. About goddamn time you called, after everything you put me and this company through!"
"Sir, I appreciate the measures you took to ensure my safety and…."
"You're a fucking idiot, Jack!" Philip snarled, "I don't think you even begin to comprehend the risk you put us in! If everything wasn't classified, this could have destroyed BXJ Technologies, everything I and this family has worked for all these years! You know how important you are to this company, to me, yet you surrendered yourself to some of the world's most fanatical terrorists for a girl and you couldn't even keep your mouth shut!"
Jack winced. "I needed to make myself valuable to Nakkash so he would agree to the trade. I couldn't just let him kidnap Rachel so she can be gang raped every day and slowly tortured to death. She's a 20 year old girl, dad."
"I don't give a shit who she is or how old she is! You've obviously never learned anything I tried to keep you about staying focused on the big picture. You would tell me it was worth risking everything that I've built?"
"Dad, I made a miscalculation and put you at risk, and I'm sorry about that. But I don't regret going back for Rachel." Obviously he couldn't actually reveal the nuclear threat to his father. The government had simply pretended to have not noticed the deal Philip made with Nakkash, including their agreement to silence the Israel-based BXJ employee who had the unfortunate task of delivering the guidance system to the carpet shop. "I told you not to give the terrorists anything. I didn't even expect them to contact you at all. I thought the most they would do is use you to pressure the government into making demands they would never agree to."
"You know how important you are, Jack, and if you had been involved with BXJ in the past few years like your brother has you would know some of the sensitive things we deal in!" Philip shot back. Jack noted that he didn't mention anything about loving his as a son, only his importance to the family business. This made the next part a heck of a lot easier.
"So it's all about what plans you have for me in the company. That's the real reason you cared about what those animals did to me. That's all that's ever mattered to you. It's been that way my entire life," Jack said bitterly.
"Are we really going to go through this again? Your last night here before you headed out to your deployment, we stood in the garden, and I told you I never wanted to hear from you again unless to hear that you've come to a decision about things. This bullshit we've dealt with in the past few days, it doesn't change anything except maybe highlight how I feel about your stature. If Graem put himself in your exact same situation through his own stupidity, I would have just told Nakkash to go ahead and kill him."
"I guess I'm supposed to feel flattered by you for the first time in my life, but I'm done being your asset, the one to carry on your legacy. And yes I've come to a decision. I'm going to build my own legacy different than the one you had planned for me. I'm going to go my own way, and there's not a thing in hell you can do to stop me." Jack had never spoken to his father in such a fashion before, but inside he found this conversation liberating.
Philip was stunned into silence and Jack continued talking into the phone, mentioning his plans to stay in the Army and eventually join CTU. "I'm going to take a stand for what's right, because you obviously can't be bothered with to do that."
"Did you forget the risk I took in getting you back?" Philip exploded. "Is this how you're going to repay this family, by turning your back on us? I thought it was going to be worth it! I thought the risks I took for you would finally get you on board. Jack, everything I ever provided you, all the faith I ever had in you was a waste. You're the most failed investment I've made in my entire life. From now on, you're no longer part of this family. Don't contact me or Graem again, and don't bother coming back to the house. Tomorrow, BXJ Technologies will be donating all of your things to charity. You see, Jack, I like having a positive impact on the world too." The smugness and arrogance in his father's voice made Jack want to find a way to reach into the phone and strangle him.
"Let me tell you the biggest mistake I ever made was," Jack said back, "It was wasting all these years giving a damn about what you thought!" Jack slammed the phone back into the receiver hard enough to elicit a few glances from some passerby. He apologized and made himself calm down, actually taking that full walk around the block before returning to the hotel.
The right time to break the news of his decision presented itself the following day as he and Rachel lay in the hammock that was tied between two of the date palms in her parents' backyard. They had just taken a relaxing late morning swim in the pool. Jack was still taken aback at how Rachel's family really took advantage of their yard. Jack couldn't remember the last time his father, who snubbed his nose at these "rednecky" above ground pools, ever swam laps in the heated infinity pool behind their mansion or the last time anyone swam in it aside from the lavish corporate parties he hosted for status purposes.
"Jack, I know something's been bothering you," Rachel finally said, sitting next to him, "I've noticed it this entire time, and it's not just about Gaza. It's okay, you can tell me."
Jack trembled inside, but knew that there would be no holding off anymore. He had to begin somewhere as his mind searched for words. "I know we had talked a lot about our plans for the future, me trying out BXJ Technologies while you went to school. I think Gaza did change everything, and it's not going to be that simple anymore."
"What do you mean, Jack?" Alarm bells had immediately gone off in Rachel's head. "I don't get it. You were going to talk to your father about possible positions in the areas I might be going to school in, or here if I have to wait another year?"
"The day after we came back from Gaza, Captain Henderson called me into his office and we had a long conversation. He….he told me that he's been selected to oversee the formation of the new Counter Terrorist Unit back in America and he's already handpicked me for it. He's also offered to sent me to the Special Forces school at Fort Bragg. I've been thinking about his offer for the past few days and I've decided it's what I want to do. If you get accepted to NC State, Raleigh's only…."
"No, Jack, no!" she exclaimed. "We almost got killed God knows how many times, and you want to go back? What happened to us deciding our future together, having a mutual discussion with my input? Are you crazy?"
Jack sighed. "We're having this conversation right now."
Rachel got out of the hammock and slammed her baseball cap down on the patio table, shaking her head in a mix of shock and exasperation. "We had it all planned, dammit! A week ago you didn't know what you wanted to do with your life."
"That's my point, Rachel," Jack said softly, "I really didn't. I was going to give BXJ Technologies a try just for the heck of it cause there wasn't anything better for me anyway, but now I think I do have a purpose. I've lost friends that day, you've lost friends and we both saw all the innocent people that lost their lives in the attacks. As tough as it is, I've discovered this is the life I'm meant for. I know I'm asking you to make a large sacrifice, but if I can make a difference in the world, and stop…"
Rachel cut him off. "This is insane, Jack! You're not making any sense to me at all. We did enough! I decided to stay for my IDF service after high school because I wanted to do my part just like everyone else I grew up with and I already got far more than what I bargained for, and so did you, Jack! Neither of us owes the world a single goddamn thing! We've done more than enough and you know it!"
Jack never wanted to imply that she didn't do enough and certainly had never accused her of being selfish. He had to admit everything she was saying was right, but somehow for him, it just wasn't enough. He thought of the time they had spent together in the past few days. It was probably the happiest, most satisfying three days of his life, but had come to accept that would no longer satisfy him. This regular people thing could only exist if somebody stepped up to the plate, and Henderson was right that he had the skills and instincts necessary for the job.
Jack's silence frustrated Rachel. "And besides, Jack," she said, "Why can't we find other ways to make a difference? Help out in community events, do fundraisers for the 4H club or the local library or cancer awareness. You can even be a volunteer firefighter if we end up in a small town! Just leave the counterterrorism thing to someone else."
He didn't know how to reason more with her. "Leave it to who? The problem is that everyone else is probably thinking the same thing, while our enemies around the world grow stronger and bolder every day, and it goes beyond radical Islam. We have the communist agents constantly trying to sabotage our infrastructure and the cartels flooding our streets with drugs and weapons. I think about the Latifs and Minaj, how they gave their lives for us." Jack winced as he thought of their broken bodies left behind on the windswept, sandy ground of Gaza as they stood now in this irrigated and manicured backyard next to the cozy, modern duplex.
"You going back into this war is the last thing they would want!" Rachel screamed as they made their way back into the house and she slid the screen doors shut so the neighbors wouldn't hear the commotion. Besides either one of them could slip about stopping the nuclear attack. "Remember when Merina told me about Yasmin? She wanted me to live the rest of my life in peace the way her daughter never got to!"
"Please, Rachel, I understand where you're coming from…"
"Oh, do you, Jack? Do you really?" She was angry and desperate at the same time. She loved Jack. God knows she loved him with all of her heart, but there were limits. She told herself she shouldn't be screaming at him. After all, he had saved her life. Part of her even still blamed herself for bringing all this on Jack because if she hadn't met him, Jack wouldn't have ended up in the school or in Gaza. Jack had been willing to sacrifice himself for her, and she had done everything she could to convince him not to pursue her. But everything had its limits.
Jack breathed out deeply and paused. "I know it can be tough for military families…."
"This is not about me being in a military relationship and you damn well know that!" she shot back. "Everyone here in Israel is technically in a military family! My dad was in the reserves until he turned 40, just like every man in this country. Every time things began to heat up in Palestine or Lebanon, he could potentially be called up to fight. During the Lebanon war he was called up, and we hoped and prayed he wouldn't get sent to the front lines. Thankfully he wasn't. I know it's the same in your army.
"But I know I'm not going to be the girl praying her man's unit wouldn't be deployed to Afghanistan and that if it was, that he wouldn't be given a dangerous mission assignment. What you'll be doing with the Delta Force and this Counter Terrorist Unit they're putting together, I know you're going to be in the worst of it. It's not a question of hoping you'll never be sent into combat. You'll basically be seeking it out, Jack! I'm going to be open and honest with you right here and now before either of us gets any more hurt. If you go down that path, it's not going to work out between us. Besides I don't think you realize that it's not going to just be about you. These jihadists and other groups you'll be fighting like the drug cartels and the communists are known for going after family members too. Just the other day in Mexico, the Lobos Sonora Cartel killed someone they suspected of being an undercover DEA agent along with his wife and kids and dumped their bodies in front of the American consulate in Nogales. Neither of us are going to be safe! If that makes me pathetic, or a coward, then I don't really care at this point. I've done making sacrifices. I've given everything I can."
Jack hoped it was just the stress of their recent experiences, but deep down, he knew that she would never accept his decision. He had been so hopeful just a week before. He never would have thought he would meet a girl like her halfway around the world. He had thought about what a cool story it was, meeting her in that interrogation room thanks to Henderson's undercover training operation. The ride she gave him that truly was just a simple act of kindness beyond her official duties, not her even trying to get with him yet they just bonded and hit it off with each other. One moment, everything in his life was falling into place, but then came that fateful day, and a day could change everything.
"You know how much I love you," Jack said, looking her in the eye. He knew that behind her anger, there was a real pain and hurt. He knew Rachel was as disappointed as he was that their plans for a future life together had fallen true. I have the power to change all this, a tiny voice in the back of Jack's head told him. But then he thought once again to the mere three minutes left before the stolen nuclear missiles would have hit their targets. "This is who I am now. There's no going back for me."
Jack should have seen her slap coming but he didn't. Maybe he deserved it, and the sting he felt was certainly not limited to his left cheek.
"Jack, if you're mind's already made, then I want you to get the hell out of this house right now! I don't ever want to see you or talk to you again! I'm not going to spent the rest of my life wondering if you're alive or dead or which war-torn shithole country you're deployed in. That's not what I signed up for!"
Jack slowly made his way to the front door and opened it. "You're right, Rachel. You'll never know how sorry I am." He wanted to say something else that perhaps wasn't so cliché, but was at a loss for words. He gently closed the door behind him and began walking down toward the nearest major street to catch a bus or taxi, the first time he actually had to do so in Israel. He looked back at the house and Rachel's Ford Focus parked out front, fighting back his own tears as he turned around and walked on.
INDEPENDENCE PARK, JERUSALEM, ISRAEL
Jack wanted to corner Moshe Doron as he did with Nakkash Bin Rahal, and make sure he knew the reason he was killing him, but unfortunately the circumstances would not allow that. This could not look like a hit, so with the low risk it had to be low drama. But what mattered was that Doron would pay for the deaths of the CIA agents and especially for his two attempts on Rachel's life. Above all, as long as this paranoid, self serving politician was alive, Jack would never be safe. He missed Rachel, but still also felt he was doing this for her, to protect her as well as himself. Jack adjusted his wig, which had grayish hair and clipped the yarmulke onto the top of it. Jack was disguising himself as a middle aged Jewish man just going out for a walk.
Of course Jack had mapped out his plan several times after observing Doron's routine for the past few weeks. Every day, right after work, Doron would go for an evening jog in this neighborhood before returning home to his penthouse suite in one of Jerusalem's most exclusive developments. Jack looked behind and saw Doron jogging alone along the paved path next to the grassy field. The jogging path wasn't very wide and Doron would no doubt have to pass by Jack very closely. Immediately after Doron did, Jack took a device out of his pocket and a small dart the size of a skin pore flew into the back of Doron's neck. The Defense Minister looked back and saw the middle aged man with the yarmulke swatting around as if there was a flying bug, because that was what the impact felt like, an insect bite, and continued on his jog.
The toxin waited several hours to work, and when it did, it simulated a heart attack which didn't happen until Doron was getting ready for bed. And a heart attack was indeed the official cause of death on his autopsy. After all, this really had been a very stressful time for him on the job.
BEN GURION AIRPORT, TEL AVIV – 4 MONTHS LATER
Jack's tour of duty in Israel ended in early May. Most of the rest was uneventful. If anything it was boredom at its worst. His unit was never called up again. Some of his friends like Lance and Darius had fun, but Jack mostly stuck to the barracks. Most people in his unit were happy to be leaving this place and finally heading home, but Jack didn't share that enthusiasm. He didn't care one way or another. He was just tired and exhausted, and knew all that lay ahead was more training, and more fighting, but that's the life he was meant to lead.
Jack arrived at the Delta Airlines check-in counter and showed the young man working there his American passport, which he ran through a scanner. "Hold on one minute, Mr. Bauer," he said, "Please step aside." The ticket agent then picked up the phone on his desk and said something in Hebrew.
"Is there a problem with my passport?" Jack asked as innocently as he could.
"It should be fine. Just, please step aside, someone will be here to assist you."
Whatever, Jack thought. Airport security in Israel was always interesting, though even more so for him than the average Western traveler. His arrival here had proven it beyond all doubt. A single IDF soldier came and asked Jack to come with him even as his luggage was checked-in and loaded into the conveyor belt.
Jack was told to follow the soldier, but to his surprise, he was taken right through security and passed by the door to the military interrogation area, continuing into a large atrium where the airport's largest food court was. His escort did not seem threatening in any way. If anything, he looked puzzled at his assignment. "Just have a seat here," the soldier said with a sheepish smile. "Someone just needs to speak to you before you board your flight. You don't have anything to worry about."
Five minutes later, he heard a familiar voice and saw Rachel making her way past some airline passengers. She took the seat across from Jack. To his surprise, she was now dressed in a British Airways Lounge uniform with her name in both English and Hebrew on her nametag.
"I thought you never wanted to see me again" Jack commented, trying to avert her eyes. He couldn't really read the expression on her face anyway. There wasn't a hint of anger or bitterness there, but still a distance from the time they shared a bed together.
"I just couldn't let you leave," she said softly, "Without at least a proper goodbye."
Jack nodded gently. "So, you put an APB on me or something with your friends who are still in the IDF?" Jack remarked. He certainly wasn't trying to get smart with her and hoped she wouldn't take it that way.
"I still got plenty of friends stationed here I can call in favors with. I'm lucky I happen to be working today. Saved me an extra drive from home."
"Looks like you just can't get enough of this airport. At least it's the safest one in the world, as they say," Jack commented, still wondering why she had bothered to arrange this meeting. Seeing her again was definitely painful, reminding him of what he had lost.
"Oh, it's just a temporary thing for the summer tourist season. My good friends from British Airways told me they really needed some help and vouched for me! I figured I'd save up some extra money before I head off to school. Anyway, I'll be headed to WVU. My cousin got in there and Erika's there too. Mountaineers it is!" Her face lit up a little in that excited smile that Jack had first fallen in love with all those months ago as they chatted in her car driving out of the airport. "By the way, Erika really wants to thank you for saving her life back at the school."
Jack nodded. He remembered that young redheaded American hostage that had been chatting with them, and how the terrorist inside the band room had used her as a human shield as Jack charged in. He was certainly glad his shot was just right.
"I've been in touch with her a lot actually. We're really supportive of each other and dealing with everything together. Plus working here does help me keep my sanity. It's going to take some time, and some days are still tough for me, but I'll be okay."
"Congratulations on being accepted to school. You definitely deserve it. West Virginia's a good choice, with your outgoing personality you'll fit right in down there. Plus, the Bible Belt types in the South tend to be very pro-Israel so they'll love you. As far as I know, you won't have to deal with too much of the Islamic activist bullshit in Morgantown like you might have to on some other campuses. Hope you don't mind Merry Christmas and Santa Claus everywhere though."
She nodded. "Oh no! I'd love to experience a good old fashioned American Christmas, especially down South. I wonder if it will be weird for a Jewish girl to have a Christmas tree."
"It's actually a lot more common than you think," Jack told her.
"That's nice to know. Besides," she added, "I do owe it to Rafi and Merina to see what turned their lives around. Maybe everything about discovering myself in college isn't just a cliché. Two years in the army's only made me more confused."
Having this cordial conversation with her reminded Jack of what he had sacrificed. This was who he had given up, the genuinely kind hearted girl with the sincere smile that could win friends anywhere. What Jack found most painful was that this girl whose looks and personality ensured no shortage of potential suitors had actually expressed her love and loyalty to him at one point, and he had to turn it down.
Jack didn't know how to respond. Sweat began coming out of his pores, an emotion he found hard to understand himself. Somehow, this was more nerve wracking than their first meeting, when she had stood across from him in that interrogation room right in this very airport, asking him about suspicious things that Henderson's CIA friends had placed in Jack's luggage and on his person. Jack exhaled and sighed, his face drooping.
"I…" Jack shook his head, clutching his forehead in his hands. Rachel could tell the incredibly pained expression on his face. There was no hiding it at this point. "I left you alone to face all that trauma. Out of all your family and friends, I was the only one who wasn't there for you when you needed me. I was too ashamed of myself for how it ended between us. I….." he almost chocked up, "I was too embarrassed to face you again. I know how rotten that sounds and I don't have any excuses that can even begin to justify it. Please don't hate me, Rachel. Please. I just pray that maybe one day you might understand a little."
"I don't hate you, Jack," she replied as a man from one of the food court cafes came over with two Coors Light bottles. "I can never hate you." She lifted her beer off the table. Jack took the cue and they clicked bottles, each taking a sip. He needed a drink much more than she did, he could tell. He finally felt his nerves begin to calm. "You don't have to worry about that."
Rachel took another sip from her Coors and put it down. "I owe you my life, Jack. After all you've done for me, you don't ever need to apologize to me for anything. All this, it's really made me appreciate how every single day is a gift, and I'm going to make the most out of it. I'm going to follow my dreams and not put off the stuff on my bucket list. I'll be spending a week in England with my favorite British flight crew on my way to America at the end of the summer. I'm already," she had to laugh a little, "I'm already picturing myself in Morgantown and not being able to legally drink this beer anymore , and having to wait until my 21st birthday then going out with my cousin Whitney, and Erika and our new friends. I'd love to try hunting and fishing and four wheeling. I want to take a roadtrip across America and see everything. And hopefully after four years I'll finally be an elementary school teacher, even if that means I'll have to learn to be a morning person. I hope that 's worth the gift you, and Rafi, Merina, and Minaj gave me."
"I can't think of a better way to honor their memory," Jack told her.
Jack could finally bring his eyes to meet Rachel's gaze as she continued, "I realize now that you probably feel the same thing, you found a new meaning and purpose in your life that's different than mine. And that's okay, Jack, I understand that. Maybe that's the real reason I needed to track you down, to make sure you don't blame yourself for what happened between us."
"Thank you, Rachel….you don't know how much this means to me," Jack finally said, a few tears falling from his face. "You're…..you're an amazing person that's all I can say. I'll never forget the time we spent together. At the end of the day, I'm glad you're not changing yourself for my sake. God know the world so desperately needs more people like you. It needs more of you and less of me."
"You'll find someone, Jack," she told him as she finished her beer, "And when you do, she'll be a much stronger woman than I can ever hope to be."
Rachel checked the time on her new cell phone, a Verizon iPhone this time and got up. "Looks like I gotta get back to making hotel reservations for old Anglican bishops who don't know how to use Expedia, and you got a flight to catch. And just between us, while I obviously don't want to do it again, thanks for letting me save the world with you."
As they got up, Rachel went over to Jack one last time and they embraced, then finally sharing one last long kiss as he held her tight. Jack felt her warm, fresh breath on his neck and her flowing, fragrant brown hair on his face. He wished so hard that this moment could last forever but after about twenty seconds, she finally let go and slowly walked toward the escalators that would take her toward the concourse with the British Airways gates. Jack stood alone in the food court, watching her as she disappeared into the upper level.
Inside, Jack was in pieces. He wanted to run up that escalator, chase her down, tell her that he's changed his mind, and that he would go to Morgantown with her and work for BXJ while she went to school. But, his calling couldn't allow him to. At least he could be content knowing that Rachel was happy, resilient, and had no hard feelings about how things ended between the two of them. He also knew, at the back of his mind, that Rachel had made the right decision for her own good to not be with someone entering the world he was about to enter. And because Jack loved her so much, he turned to the opposite direction, heading away from the escalator and toward the terminal his flight was scheduled to depart from.
Less than an hour later, Jack was seated on board the Delta Airlines plane that would take him to New York and then back home to Los Angeles, but there would be nobody important to welcome him home. Philip Bauer would never change his mind, and Graem had also cut all communications with his brother in deference to Philip's orders. There was no family worth going back to anymore anyway. As the plane lifted off over the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, Jack took out his laptop and began listening to iTunes radio on the plane's Wi-Fi. Ironically, one of the featured song choices was "Roller Coaster" by Luke Bryan, the one Rachel had put on the jukebox in that bar near her apartment for them to dance to. Jack finally leaned back in his seat and listened carefully to the lyrics to see what about this song she had found special, besides the slick, polished melody.
Finally, he understood the subconscious message she had been trying to send him. She had thought he was the equivalent of that guy at the beach with a temporary fling who would forever regret not pursuing the very special girl he had met over spring break. At least Jack had proved her wrong on that count and couldn't believe there had been any initial doubts in his mind about her intentions. Well that was the world she was going back to, where high stakes meant not knowing if your significant other was taking things as seriously as you were. In contrast, Jack Bauer was heading away from that world. The world he was entering was what made the everyday world possible, so that people could go about worrying about whether West Virginia would make the final field goal against Ohio State rather than if a WMD would be detonated over their heads or a car bomb detonated in the middle of their neighborhood.
The Middle Eastern coastline began fading away behind the wings of the airliner. Jack was finally leaving this place behind, at least for now. This cursed place that had taken so much from him and from all those who lived here. Yet Jack also knew that all this truly would not be behind him. One day, the terror and violence that infested this region would follow him back to the American homeland and threaten everything that he held dear. And when they did, he would be ready for them.
Jack drifted off into sleep as the plane climbed up above the cloud cover and began cruising smoothly through the stratosphere. For some reason, at this very moment, Jack Bauer was at peace with the fact that pretty soon he would never truly be at peace again.
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