He stood at the intersection of East and Alameda, weary blue eyes cast down to the cracks in the sidewalk as he leaned, idly, against the corner crossing sign. Pedestrians keep moving, the sign commanded, but the blonde man chose instead to rebel, opting to linger. Shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans, he turned his head to glance sidelong--only briefly--down the sidewalk.

No sign of his contact yet. Leaning back against the crossing sign, Jack Bauer continued to wait.

With a heavy sigh, he turned those same world-weary eyes toward an offensively blue sky. The brilliant sphere of the sun beaming down on what otherwise would have been quite a lovely morning seemed, to Jack, a blasphemy under the circumstances. It seemed to mock harshly the cruel reality of the world that surrounded him. It didn’t fit that a morning so deceptively bright with promise should be the beginning of one of the darkest days in the nation‘s history. It simply didn’t make sense. Then again, Jack thought, there wasn’t much that did. Not anymore.

In just a matter of hours, Jack had seen the world as he knew it gone swiftly to hell. No hand-basket required, he had found himself thinking dryly, on more than one occasion thus far that day. Vaguely, names, places, faces circled in his mind and he struggled to remember them all, envisioning them all as ghosts of that morning past.

There was Cheng. He recalled being on the plane from China, headed back toward the States, wondering what the hell he was about to be thrust headfirst into this time. There was Bill Buchanan, the director of CTU. He had asked Jack to sacrifice himself for the sake of the country’s security. In turn, he would be handed off to a man with terrorist ties by the name of Abu Fayed. In return for Jack--and twenty-five million dollars--Fayed would give CTU the location of one Hamri Al-Assad, the main suspect in an eleven-week series of lethal terror strikes that threatened to bring the United States to its knees. This would be his final act, to give his own life in order to save his country from the siege of violent terrorism at the hands of a fanatical enemy. That day, he vowed, he would die for something.

At least, that had been the plan.

It didn’t take long for Jack to discover that neither Abu Fayed nor Hamri Al-Assad were who they seemed to be. Chained to a chair in Fayed’s torture room, surrounded by instruments that ripped and drilled painfully through flesh and bone, Jack came to learn the truth as Fayed himself told it to him. He could still hear Fayed’s words ringing in his ear, remembering it as if it had all been some sort of surreal dream--a nightmare, with no tangible hope of ending.

“Assad has lost faith in our fight,” Fayed had said matter-of-factly. “He’s begun talking about compromise, laying down our arms and negotiating.” Comprehension hit Jack full-force, blindsiding him completely. “Assad,” Fayed continued, “is a traitor. And soon, inshaa’ allah, he will be dead.” His voice was barely above a murmur, but Jack heard him loud and clear, the words all but echoing in the small expanse of a room. The staggering realization of what was happening, the implications of it all, sent Jack’s head reeling.

“Assad isn’t behind these attacks,” Fayed had declared, with a smug, sadistic satisfaction. “He’s come here to stop them. He’s come here to stop me.” Jack felt his blood run cold in his veins. If Assad hadn’t been the one responsible for the attacks, then--my God. The wrong man was about to die, and the real mastermind behind the attacks allowed to remain free--and the consequences, he knew, would undoubtedly be devastating.

There was something that Fayed had said to Jack that stood out in his mind, those last departing words as he walked out the door. “You will die for nothing,” he had said.

Looking back, Jack thought, it was odd how things had a way of working out.

As for Hamri Al-Assad--well, he was of a different sort altogether. Earlier that day, Jack had burst into Assad’s safe house, and found himself squarely in the crosshairs of Assad‘s semi-automatic pistol. Eyes of amber fire blazed at Jack, challenging him, daring him, to make a move. If you are telling the truth, then you will not need that gun. Jack had never met quite such a multifaceted man of Assad‘s caliber--incredibly intelligent, both well-learned and street-savvy.

He was calm and cool, charming and charismatic when he favored it. Still, there was an air of danger about the man, a certain je ne sais quoi that both intrigued Jack and put him slightly on edge. Indeed, the man that was Hamri Al-Assad was an enigma, a scrambled code that Jack couldn’t begin to crack--though he wanted to. Badly. Whether a morbid curiosity or a desire to know Assad more intimately, he wasn’t sure. He feared more than anything that it was the latter.

Presently, Jack’s cell phone buzzed in his pocket, yanking Jack back into present tense. He dug it out, flipped it open and read the text message on the tiny screen in front of him. Two words: I’m here. Jack raised his eyes and quickly, discreetly surveyed his surroundings. He saw nobody he would recognize, certainly not his contact. In fact, he was rather caught off guard when he sensed the man’s presence close by, indeed sensing him before seeing him.

“Do forgive my lateness, my friend.” The pleasant voice, ringing with melodic undertones of some far-off desert land, came from somewhere far closer than Jack had anticipated. Next to him, Hamri Al-Assad stood, mere inches from his left shoulder. Jack twitched slightly, for reasons he wasn’t quite aware of. “I came as quickly as I could,” Assad was saying apologetically. “I thought to avoid the traffic, it would be easier to walk the few blocks to the corner, only to find that LA has just as many pedestrians as drivers…”

Jack listened halfheartedly. He wasn’t listening to him as much as he was just watching him speak, talking with animated hands, the way his brow furrowed as he complained harshly--something about the West and its backwards societies and frivolous copulation as a form of entertainment. A good-natured stab, realized Jack, as Assad offered a wry smirk as an afterthought. He was joking--or, at least, Jack thought he was. It was hard to read his eyes behind those obnoxious, mirrored Aviators he wore in an attempt to blend with the superfluous Western society. Jack didn’t have the audacity to tell him that it wasn’t quite working.

“Mr. Bauer?” Jack snapped back to reality. He glanced up, only to find the Aviators discarded and Assad gazing intently at him, a rather annoyed look gracing his features. Apparently, he had asked a question, which had whizzed directly over Jack’s head.

“Sorry,” Jack managed apologetically. Assad’s narrowed his eyes, frowning slightly.

“I asked you, Mr. Bauer, why you asked me here.” His tone walked a line between concern and mild exasperation. “Is something the matter?”

Oh, yes, Jack’s conscience mused. There are more than a few things wrong here.

“Yes and no,” replied Jack cautiously. The ambiguous answer seemed to vex Assad, as the frown deepened. Jack promptly looked downward, finding the unyielding concrete beneath his feet far less abrasive than the other man‘s indignant glare. “Assad, the reason I called you out here was to warn you that you may be in grave danger. Someone may be trying to kill you.”

“I suppose you also wish to inform me that the sky is blue, and that the earth revolves around the sun?” The glare he aimed at Jack had all the impact of a close-range bullet fired point blank. “You called me down here, all the way from the other side of the city, just to tell me something I already know?”

“Assad--” Jack began, but Assad cut him off.

“With all due respect, Mr. Bauer, this is nothing new to me. My life has been under threat for years. People have been trying to kill me for almost two decades. Surely you don’t forget who it is that I am.” His gaze relented, just enough for Jack to catch a glimpse of empathy hidden well in those golden-green irises. “I know your intentions are good. But there are more important things at stake right now. I don’t need someone to call me all the way across LA to tell me there are people who want me dead.”

“I know you do,” replied Jack defeatedly. “I just wanted to see to it myself that you were kept in the loop.” He swallowed hard, meeting Assad’s eyes. “I had to make sure you were safe.” At this, any frustration that may have been apparent on Assad’s face merely evaporated. He sighed, inclined his head slightly, and fixed his eyes on Jack’s.

“You know, a phone call would fairly have sufficed.”

“I know,” admitted Jack. He was looking at the sidewalk again. “I just…” He took the dive, against his better judgment. “I wanted to see you in person. I needed to see for myself that you were all right.” There was a long hesitation, a heavy silence that passed between them, daring either one to break it. Assad didn’t speak, merely waited for Jack to go on. “It’s only a matter of time until Fayed finds out you weren’t killed in that air strike, if he doesn‘t know already. He will come after you. It isn’t safe for you out here.” Assad shook his head.

“No place is safe so long as he is alive,” he said. “Not for anyone.” A dark look flashed across his face, only briefly. “Which is why I must stop him. I must end this madness.”

“Not without me.” He blurted it out before he could think to stop himself. Assad arched an eyebrow in response.

“I assure you, I am more than capable of handling myself out here.” He took a step closer to Jack, placing a hand briefly on his arm. “Mr. Bauer, your country is in crisis. The last thing you should be worrying about right now is my welfare.” He moved his hand away, and Jack was almost dismayed at the loss. He offered a look that was beseeching, almost desperately pleading. When he spoke again, it was in a low voice that was almost a whisper.

“Call me crazy,” he said, “but I don’t want anything to happen to you.” Unthinking, he stepped forward, closing the space between himself and Assad easily. He was surprised when Assad made no move to retreat from him.

“You wish to protect me, Agent Bauer. Is that it?”

“Yes,” answered Jack, a little too eagerly.

“Guarding your assets?” Assad’s eyes were searching Jack’s face now, in a way that unnerved him to the core.

“You’re more than that,” he said quietly.

“I don‘t understa--” Abruptly, Assad arched an eyebrow and dropped his gaze down between himself and Jack. Only when he did so did Jack realize that he had taken both Assad’s hands in his own and was squeezing them tightly. “Well, this certainly is unexpected.” He smiled wanly at Jack. His fingers laced themselves with Jack’s and he stepped still closer. Standing on the street corner the two stood, hands clasped, bodies barely an inch from one another’s, seemingly oblivious to the rest of existence surrounding them. “I can’t figure it out,” he confessed, searching Jack’s face for something he may or may not have hoped to find there. “Why, habibi, do I mean so much to you?”

“If I knew, I’d have told you already.”

“You know, Jack, I wish I’d met you in another life. Maybe there, things wouldn’t have been so complicated for either of us.”

“Things for me have always been complicated.” He freed one of his hands from Assad’s, raising it to cup his cheek. “But I’ve never let that get in my way.” Assad closed his eyes, reveling in the touch a moment, before letting his gaze flit to Jack’s once more.

“I will warn you,” Assad said with a little smirk, “When we go after Fayed, I operate on the condition that whosoever draws first shoots first. Know, my friend, that I will draw first.” He stepped back from Jack, suddenly slipping back into action mode again. “We should go. You’re not going to save the world while you’re gazing into my eyes, you know.” He turned with a fleeting playful grin and started back up the sidewalk the way he had come. Jack felt his face flush as he followed.

“And if I draw first?” he asked teasingly. He was joking, or at least, Assad thought he was. These Americans were so hard to read.

“You won’t,” replied Assad, a smile in his voice. “So where do we begin? Do we have any leads?”

“None at the moment.”

“A good place to start,” declared Assad, optimistically. “We’ll find him,” he assured Jack. “I know we will.”

Jack couldn’t shake the feeling this was just the beginning of a very, very long day.