Why was it that nothing could ever seem to work out well for them? Once again, the mission had gone horrifically sideways, as their missions tended to often do. It wasn't that Jack was surprised - far from it, actually - it was just that they deserved a break every once in a while, right? And running for their lives through a winter wonderland was not exactly what Jack considered a break.
"Have any brilliant ideas to get them off our tail?" Jack shouted at his partner, who was a few strides ahead, his long gazelle legs helping him to leap over fallen logs and overgrown shrubbery.
"Yeah, run!" Mac shouted back, taking a moment to look behind him. As per usual, that was his undoing. By taking that split second to take his eyes off the path - well, lack thereof - in front of him, the kid's clumsiness took over, and those gazelle legs of his stumbled over a root sticking out of the snow. Mac went down with a shout of surprise, his hands quickly catching him and saving him from getting his face full of snow.
"Mac, you okay?" Jack asked, coming to a stop right next to his partner. The kid had to be okay. They didn't have the time for him to not be. Jack crouched down next to him. He hadn't stood up yet, or answered Jack, which was concerning. "Can you walk?" Mac's foot was no longer tangled with the root, and it didn't appear to be broken, but it could have been sprained.
"I don't have a choice not to," Mac muttered in reply, his voice thick with pain. He quickly tried to stand up, but the moment he put weight on his left foot, his knee buckled, and he went crashing back down with a small cry of pain.
"Mac!" Jack reached out and grabbed the kid before he could hit the ground. "Come on," he said. "Let me help you." He pulled Mac's arm around his shoulders and put his other arm around the kid's waist, taking on as much of his weight as he could. "Alright, let's go, bud."
"I'm just gonna slow you down," Mac muttered, but he did his best to move as quickly as his sprained ankle would allow. "You need to leave me here and get to exfil yourself." Mac tried to remove himself from Jack's grip, but there was no way that Jack was going to allow that.
"You know that's never gonna happen," Jack replied, not slowing his pace for even a second. He would go as quickly as Mac could go, because the kid was right. They did need to move as quickly as possible in order to get to exfil before the bad guys caught up to them. "You go kaboom, I go kaboom, remember?" Jack said, trying not to let it show how much Mac's mentality terrified him. The kid thought he was completely expendable, that no one should ever use any extra energy to help him. That was completely unacceptable. Jack had been trying for years to get him to see that he was priceless, and loved, and extraordinary, but the kid just refused to see it. He didn't see himself as the pure light that Jack did. Jack often wondered if things would be different if he did.
"But Jack, we can't outrun them if you have to drag me along too. If you wanna get out of this without getting caught, then you have to leave me behind," Mac pleaded with him. Jack still wouldn't give an inch. He wouldn't let go of the boy if it killed him - and this time, it might.
"No can do," was all Jack said in reply. He wasn't going to entertain this discussion any longer. There was no way in hell that he was every going to leave that kid behind. Never. It just wasn't going to happen, and the simple fact that Mac still insisted that it should meant that Jack needed to have another conversation with him about his worth.
Still, Mac was right. Trying to move as quickly as they could wasn't fast enough, and they both knew it. Jack could hear shouting from behind them, in Russian. It was the arms dealers. Jack tried to pick up the pace a little bit, but he lost his grip on Mac, who fell with a choked off cry of pain.
Jack stopped where he was to help the kid back up, muttering apologies the whole time.
"Jack, just go!" Mac shouted again, pleading with him to just leave and save himself. He tried to shove Jack away, but the man wasn't having any of it.
"I am never leaving you, kid, and you know that," Jack replied, practically dragging Mac along beside him. But it wasn't enough. The Russians were closing in on three sides, leaving only forward as the clear path. But forward was a frozen lake, and the ice was probably melting. Still, it was their only option.
So onward they went, onto the ice. Jack could feel Mac tense up the moment they were no longer on solid ground, but they had to keep moving if they wanted any chance at survival. Luckily, the Russians didn't follow them. That was about the only good thing that happened with Jack's plan. The Russians only stood around the lake, and holstered their weapons. On the one hand, that meant they weren't about to get shot, but on the other hand, that definitely wasn't a good sign.
"They know the ice is too thin," Mac said, breaking through Jack's thoughts. "It's pointless to kill us if we fall in and drown anyway. It's a waste of bullets." The kid's knee buckled out from under him, causing him to crash down onto the ice. The crack, although quiet, was deafening. Mac stayed where he was on the ground, and spread himself out to take up as much space as possible. "Jack, you need to get down," he said. "Spread your weight out over the most surface area as you can."
Jack nodded, even though Mac wasn't looking at him, and slowly crouched down and began to spread his weight out, just like the kid had told him to do. He glanced back up at the Russians, and noticed that they were leaving, some of them laughing along the way. At least that was one problem taken care of.
But other problems just had to appear. As Mac tried to move forward, he took all the weight off his injured foot - Jack didn't blame him for that, the kid was in seething pain - which just so happened to push all his weight onto an already weaker patch of ice. That ice couldn't hold up. It was like Jack was watching a movie, where he could do nothing to change the outcome. One moment, Mac was right next to him, gritting his teeth against the pain and cold, and the next, his eyes were going wide as the ice underneath him fell through, causing him to fall into the freezing lake.
"Mac!" Jack shouted, his voice drowned out by the splash of his partner hitting the freezing water. He stared at the spot where the kid fell in panic for moment, before reaching down into the hole and moving his arm around until he felt something solid. The water felt like thousands of tiny knives against his skin, more freezing than Matty's stare after Chechnya. He couldn't even imagine what it would be like to feel that over his entire body, which was what Mac had to be feeling. Jack grasped onto that solid form he felt. It had to be Mac. He reached out with his other arm and pulled, quickly bringing soaking blond hair to the surface. Mac was gasping for breath, and shivering so much that Jack could feel it through his grip. He pulled as hard as he could, with Mac helping to pull himself out once he got his arms up. Jack moved back to give him more room, and quickly had Mac entirely back on the ice. He moved them both onto the thickest ice he could see, then let them both sit for a moment to catch their breaths. "Are you okay?" he asked the kid, still not releasing his grip on Mac's shivering arms. He saw the way his partner was still favoring his ankle. Mac probably wouldn't tell him, but he looked to be in immense pain.
Mac only nodded shakily in response. His teeth were chattering too much for him to be able to form a coherent sentence. He pointed off towards the other side of the lake, towards exfil, his hand shaking. Jack got the message. He pulled Mac's soaking wet arm around his shoulders, and helped them both to stand up. Mac didn't protest, so either he was too cold too, or he believed that the ice was thick enough for falling in again to not be a problem. The kid was leaning into him, and Jack didn't know if that was due to his inability to put any weight on his left foot or because he was so cold, and Jack was warm. It was probably both. But Jack didn't have time to worry about that. He had to get them both off the ice and to exfil, and fast, or Mac was going to become hypothermic. The kid was already showing signs. He had to get him warm.
Jack didn't say anything as they continued to make their way painstakingly across the lake. If he said something, then Mac would likely feel compelled to respond, and that would take extra energy that Mac didn't have to spare. He knew that he didn't have to panic until Mac stopped shivering. The body would continue to shiver until the hypothermia got to the point where shivering wasn't producing enough heat to compensate for the energy lost by shivering. Jack took at quick glance over at his partner, and saw that he was still shivering heavily. As much as it pained Jack to see, that really was a good thing. But he couldn't drag Mac another mile to exfil. Exfil was going to have to come to them.
"We're stopping here, kid," Jack said the moment they got off the ice and were back in the forest. The Russians were all gone, having assumed that they both would die out on the ice - and that's why you can't assume things.
"Ex-exfil," Mac stuttered, wrapping his arms around himself to try to conserve some warmth.
"You're not gonna make it there, bud, so they're gonna have to come to us," Jack replied. "Now let's get you out of some of those wet clothes." Jack's own sleeves were soaked through, but the body of his coat was dry, so at least Mac could have that. He helped the blond out of his drenched coat and long shirt, leaving him temporarily only in his tee shirt, which was a little bit more dry than the rest of his clothes. Jack pulled Mac's arms through his warmer coat and bundled him up in it.
"But you-you're g-gonna be co-old now," Mac muttered. He sounded like he didn't want to be wearing the coat, but he didn't make a move to take it off.
"I'll be okay. Exfil should get here before I get as bad as you," Jack said. "Come on, I can warm you up more. Sit down in front of me." Jack sat down with his back against a tree, and pat the ground in front of him after clearing some of the snow away. Hesitantly, Mac sat down where Jack wanted him too, and pulled his knees up to his chest to conserve body heat. "There ya go, kid," Jack continued, pulling Mac a little closer and wrapping his arms around him. "We're gonna warm you up, and I'm gonna call Matty and get her to send exfil to us." He pulled out his sat phone from the pocket of the coat Mac was now wearing, and called the director. "Hey, Matty," he said, his voice jovial despite the situation. "We're gonna need exfil rerouted, alright?"
"And why is that?" she responded, her voice the same it always was in times like this.
"Mac can't make it there, and that's all that matters." He left out the fact that Mac was all that ever mattered, no matter what. "We need exfil brought to us as quickly as they possibly can. The kid's getting hypothermic and we can't risk lighting a fire."
Matty sighed in exasperation. "Fine, but you both need to start actually making it to exfil when and how you're supposed to sometimes," she said. To anyone else, she would have sounded angry, but Jack knew that was only part of the act.
She hung up.
"We're all good, brother, exfil's on its way to us." Jack pulled Mac closer, and tried not to panic when he noticed that the kid was no longer shivering. That meant that his body was so cold that it no longer thought it was worth it to shiver. "You stay awake, bud, okay?" He absolutely could not let him fall asleep. Jack shook his shoulder, where Mac's head was resting, to try to wake him up a bit.
"But 'm so tired," he slurred. That was another bad sign. Slurring and disorientation. Exfil needed to hurry up.
"I know, I know, but you can't sleep yet." Despite Jack's words, Mac relaxed further into Jack, his head resting against Jack's shoulder. The kid's frozen hair was ice cold against Jack's chin, but he wouldn't move the kid. Mac needed warmth, and Jack would give him all the warmth he had. He would give anything to him, absolutely anything. No matter the risk of Mac falling asleep, Jack pulled him as close and tight to him as he could. If he could provide him any warmth at all, he would. He started to shiver more himself the closer he pulled his kid, but it didn't matter. Nothing mattered but Mac. "Gotta stay awake, kiddo," he said, rocking back and forth a bit in an attempt to wake the kid some.
Mac just groaned in reply, but it felt like he was starting to shiver again, just a little bit. The kid was going to be super sore from shivering the next day, but it was worth it if he was okay. Mac had completely melted into Jack's touch, and had curled himself up so much that Jack practically was holding a ball of Mac to his chest. If it hadn't been for the circumstances, Jack would've found it adorable, and also impressive that the kid could curl himself up so far. At least it seemed to help keep him warm.
"'m s-so c-cold, Jack," Mac muttered. "It hur-hurts." The kid strengthened his grip on Jack's arm, and the man's heart broke. His kid was freezing to death and there wasn't anything he could do about it. If he lit a fire, it would alert the Russians that they hadn't died, and then they would be shot on sight. He was already doing everything he could to keep his kid warm, and it just wasn't working enough. Mac was in pain and numb at the same time, and Jack couldn't do anything else to help him.
"I know, kid, I know, and I'm so sorry," he said. "Exfil should be here soon, and then we can get you by a heater and you're gonna be just fine, alright? You're gonna be just fine, I promise." At least, Jack hoped that it would be alright. He really shouldn't make promises that he couldn't necessarily keep, but it was Mac. How could he not promise his kid that everything was going to be fine? He was his protector and bodyguard. Anything that happened to the kid was automatically his fault, even if Mac said it wasn't - okay, maybe he knew that wasn't entirely true, and that maybe Mac was right that is wasn't always his fault, but that didn't change the fact that it felt like it was.
"'s'like needles," Mac slurred, turning his head further into Jack's shoulder. "'nd fire."
"It's gonna be okay," was all Jack could say. He didn't trust his voice to say anything else. Jack started rubbing Mac's arms with his hands, back and forth as quickly as he could. Hopefully that would make them both warmer.
After five minutes, Mac stopped shivering again. After ten minutes, he started asking Jack where his mom was, why was she not bringing him his coat. He started asking why his dad had left, and when was he coming back. After fifteen minutes, he fell silent, and didn't reply to Jack's prompting. After twenty minutes, Jack couldn't hold back a tear of fear for his kid. After twenty-five minutes, Jack heard a sound to his right.
He snapped his head to the right, and let out a sigh of relief upon seeing that it was exfil. Freaking finally.
Mac slowly awoke to an annoying beeping sound. That was a sound that he sadly knew all too well. He was in a hospital. Mac opened his eyes, and was greeted with the familiar sight of Jack sitting in the chair next to his hospital bed. His partner was wrapped in a large blanket, and was nodding off. Mac moved his hand to get Jack's attention, and winced when that movement aggravated the IV. As per usual, Jack bolted upright the moment Mac let out the smallest sound of pain. His brain was hardwired to react to any pain that Mac was in. Usually Mac found that annoying, because it was really hard to hide pain or injury from someone who was so in tune with what he was feeling, but he'd long ago given up on expecting anything about that to change.
"Hey, bud, you okay?" Jack asked around a yawn.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm good," Mac muttered. He moved his other hand up to toy with his nasal cannula, but the moment he touched it, Jack predictably scolded him.
"You gotta leave that alone, kid," he said, gently taking a hold of Mac's wrist and pulling it away from the cannula. "That's warming your airways or something like that." Mac nodded and moved to pick at the tape around his IV. "And you've gotta leave that too! That's doing something important, don't ask me what." Jack sighed. "I swear you're like a toddler in here," he muttered, fondly shaking his head.
Mac smiled. "And what does that make you? My exasperated dad?" As soon as he realized what he said, his smile fell and he awkwardly looked away. They both knew that Mac thought of Jack as a father figure, but it wasn't something that they addressed. Even as a joke, it was a topic they both avoided, afraid that they would have to face the reality of the situation if they did.
But Jack didn't act like the situation was at all awkward. "Yeah, kiddo, you're damn right," he said with a gentle smile, lightly punching Mac's arm.
Mac's smile returned instantly. He turned back to his partner and said, "thanks, Jack."
"For what? I couldn't do anything to help you," Jack muttered in reply, looking down.
"I don't remember much, but you helping me is what I do," Mac said earnestly. He ducked his head to try to catch Jack's gaze. "When I sprained my ankle, you didn't leave me. You stayed and you helped me walk. When I fell through the ice, I was so scared that I was gonna die, because my ankle hurt too much to swim to the top, but you reached down and you pulled me back up. And then you gave me your coat and you held me close until... Until I don't know, because the last thing I remember before waking up here is you holding me, telling me that everything was going to be okay. You saved my life three times, Jack. I owe you everything. So thank you."
Finally, Jack made eye contact again, and his eyes were full of love that Mac was sure he didn't deserve. All he ever did was mess up and need Jack to save him. He definitely didn't deserve to have the man love him so much.
"I was never gonna leave you. I was never gonna let you die." Jack put his hand on Mac's shoulder. "You have to understand that. You're everything to me, kid. I would do anything to keep you safe, and when I can't, I can't handle it." He squeezed Mac's shoulder for emphasis, then let his hand fall away.
"But you always save me," Mac replied. There had never been a time when he was in trouble and Jack didn't get him out of it ever since he met the man. Yes, trouble had happened and it had been a while before Jack was able to get there, but Jack always got there. Mac could feel the drugs he was on pulling him back under, but he had to make sure Jack understood something first. "I don't have to worry, because you always save me." He yawned. It was becoming a struggle to keep his eyes open. "So you don't have to worry either, because you always save me." Mac's eyes fell closed, but the last thing he saw was Jack's face with a gentle smile. He felt a warm hand start running fingers through his hair, and he sighed in contentment.
Right as he fell asleep, he heard Jack say, "I love you, kid."
Mac hoped that Jack knew how much he loved him back.