You can’t make a mistake when you improvise.
– Patti Smith
Part 1: Before
The darkness was heavy, as if the very air had weight.
Not the scientifically provable atmospheric pressure of 14.7 psi, but something less tangible, less solid. Something that pressed around him from every side, offering resistance to the natural state of breathing. As if he had to consciously remind his lungs to inflate, deflate.
It was exhausting, this weight.
It kept MacGyver from the peace of sleep; kept his muscles tense, coiled, ready. It kept him from being able to stand down from a mission that ended five days ago, nothing having called him into the Phoenix Foundation since they’d landed in a flurry of shouts and blood and lights.
The sound of water running through pipes caused Mac to jump; he’d been sitting on the living room couch since the latest nightmare shook him awake with the force of a punch. His sheets had been soaked through from sweat—again—and the voices and images from his dream chased him into consciousness until breathing became simply one of several options.
The living room offered more space, but it was stifling. Almost as if the darkness around him was growing. And he knew what could wait in the dark.
Knew better than almost anyone.
He sat still, his fists in his lap, his shoulders tense against the couch, focusing on finding the outlines of familiarity in the space around him. The TV, the bike he was forever fixing, the tattered chair Bozer wouldn’t get rid of. He focused on the sound of the water turning off, on Bozer humming tunelessly as he got ready for his day, on the uptick in traffic on the 101 as dawn approached.
He focused on his own breathing.
Bozer headed to the kitchen, flicking on the light and coffee maker in a simultaneous, unconscious motion. Mac barely moved, tracking his friend’s motion through knowledge of his habits rather than sight. Since completing his training, Bozer had been going into the office early, taking on additional lab work to help other field teams.
Mac knew that Matty was trying to find the right fit for Bozer’s talents other than allowing him to stick with his best friend just because. He supported the effort; Bozer had a ton of potential and skill in prosthetic design. He didn’t want it wasted just so that Bozer could keep tabs on Mac.
A travel mug of black coffee in hand, Bozer wandered from the light of the kitchen to the darkened living room, humming to himself and inserting lyrics about finding his keys and cell phone as he reached for the light switch.
“Damn, man!” Bozer jerked back at the sight of Mac sitting stiff and silent on the couch. “You trying to give me a heart attack, lyin’ in wait like that?”
Mac lifted one hand, holding out Bozer’s keys. “You left them on the coffee table,” he said, surprised at the rasp of his voice. “Didn’t see your phone. You probably left it in the lab. Again.”
Bozer drew his head back at the sound. “You look awful, Mac.”
“I’m not kidding.” Bozer advanced in two strides and snatched the keys from Mac’s hand like he was afraid the other man was about to make a break for it. “Your bruises look bruised—and what the hell are you doing sitting here in the dark? It’s five in the morning!”
“Couldn’t sleep,” Mac replied, feeling his split lip pull slightly with the motion of words. “’s too hot.”
His tongue darted out instinctively to dab at the healing wound. He could feel the cut that bisected his forehead down to his right eyebrow, pucker slightly as he shifted to stare more fully at Bozer, challenging him to say more about the marks on his face.
He knew his eye was still blackened, his cheek still bruised. He knew the bones in his hand were fractured. Those wounds didn’t matter. They would heal.
The ones Bozer couldn’t see, those were the ones Mac felt now.
“Uh-huh.” Bozer nodded slowly; Mac could see the wheels turning in his friend’s head. “You maybe talk to Jack about this whole not sleeping thing?”
Mac looked down and away, shaking his head. “Jack’s got enough to deal with.”
Jack had a concussion and temporary hearing loss. Because of Mac. There was no way he was adding to that just because of a few nightmares.
“This is the fourth night in a row, man,” Bozer argued.
Mac frowned, rubbing the flat of his palms against his sweat pants. “Fourth night of what?”
“You not sleeping,” Bozer replied, as though the answer should have been obvious. “And don’t bother denying it, Mac. You seem to forget how well I know you.”
“I didn’t forget.”
“Mmm-hmm. So…you’re saying that’s why you decided to rebuild my old man’s Ham radio the other night? Or this whole it’s too hot bullshit?”
Mac lifted a shoulder, still not looking at Bozer. “It is hot.”
“Oh, like you couldn’t find fourteen different ways to super-size our AC power if you wanted to.”
Sighing, Mac pushed to his feet, hoping Bozer missed his slight waver when he stretched to his full height.
“When’s the last time you ate something?” Bozer demanded, one hand on his hip. He may be worried about Mac’s self-induced insomnia, but he took not eating to a whole new level. It was a personal affront to his friendship.
“Pizza,” Mac replied. “With you, last night. Remember?”
Bozer’s face folded into a familiar expression of denial mixed with incredulity. “Uh, no. You ordered pizza. There’s a difference.” Shaking his head once as if deciding something, Bozer gestured with both hands. “Tonight, we’re doing it up right. Steak dinner, all the trimmings. And I’m getting Jack over here to talk some sense into you.”
At that, Mac turned to face his friend. “Bozer, just leave it, okay? I’m fine.”
“You and I have very different definitions of the word, fine. And I’m pretty sure mine can be found in Webster’s, so yours don’t count.”
“Look,” Mac exhaled, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I just need a little more time, okay? You don’t have to go all….” He waved his hand in Bozer’s general direction, hoping his friend picked up the non-verbal cue.
“What? I don’t have to go all, what?”
Mac sighed again. “Overboard.”
Bozer lifted his chin. “So that’s how it is, huh? I worry about you and it’s overboard? Someone’s gotta keep an eye on you, man.”
“C’mon, it’s not that bad.”
“Not that bad….” Bozer set down his coffee, his free hand landing on his hip. Mac braced himself. A two-handed hip stance was never a good sign. “Want to know the last time I saw you like this?”
“Not really.” Mac crossed his arms over his chest.
He knew it was a defensive posture and he wasn’t doing himself any favors but he couldn’t seem to help it. If it wouldn’t draw too much attention to his state of mind, he would have put his back to a wall.
“When Nikki died,” Bozer plowed forward. “Or, well, when we thought she died. In a car wreck. That you were in as well. Only you weren’t because you’d been shot. Not that I could know that since I was out of your circle of trust—y’know what? That’s not important. Not important.” Bozer sliced his hand through the air, dismissing his words. “How ‘bout when you came back from Afghanistan, huh?”
Mac brought his chin up, feeling the blood drain from his face. He’d been anticipating the Nikki argument—it was rehashed enough times he’d learned it by rote. But Afghanistan hit a bit close to the mark. And Bozer saw it, stepping closer.
“You were wrecked then, man. Wrecked. Took you weeks to get back to sleeping in your bed—and not on the couch or, hell, Mac, the floor of my room.”
“Yeah, time,” Mac argued, his face flushing suddenly with heat at the reminder of how unsteady he’d been back then. “Like I said…I just need more time.”
He started to turn away from Bozer, heading toward the deck and some open space. Breathable air. It was not empirically possible for the room to heat up simply by their emotions, and yet he swore he felt the flash of flame against his back, the vacuum of an explosion’s backdraft tugging on his lungs.
“I read the file, Mac,” Bozer revealed, halting Mac’s escape.
“You what?” Mac half-turned, gaping at his friend in disbelief.
“What?” Bozer spread his arms wide, opening himself up for Mac to challenge him. “I’m a full-fledged Agent now. Capital ‘A’. Part of the team. I need to know what this team has dealt with—know where we have weaknesses.”
Mac looked away, worrying his wounded lip. He knew Bozer was right; he’d read the files from when Jack or Cage or even Riley had been on missions without him. He needed to know his team’s history. But this one…it just wasn’t….
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“Don’t.” Mac shook his head, not looking back at his friend.
Bozer stepped forward and Mac stepped back. Bozer stopped his advance, but not his attempt to get through. “You did everything you could to save that family.”
“A kid got killed, Boze,” Mac argued, seeing it all again playing in Technicolor through his mind’s eye.
He could smell the semtex and the gunpowder, the sweat and blood. He could hear the mother’s shout of protection and the boy’s anguish cry of denial. And he could feel the flames licking against his back as Jack pulled him to safety, leaving the family they were meant to save behind to be destroyed.
“…know why Jack was on medical leave and you were taking time off, but weren’t with him,” Bozer was saying. “I mean, Jack being on leave was enough for me to check into it, but you weren’t talking, so.”
“So you just had to find out for yourself,” Mac rasped, putting his back to Bozer, staring toward their deck. He needed air. Now.
“Yeah,” Bozer asserted. “And I know you, man. I know you’re blaming yourself, but…it’s been a week. I think your…internal processor might be off-line.”
“Is that right?” Mac breathed the question. Every muscle was tensed to move. He just…couldn’t bring himself to walk away.
Bozer paused, either picking up that Mac wasn’t handling this conversation well, or running out of ways to push his friend to talk. “Look. I gotta head in early. Let me just call Jack—“
“No.” Mac turned quickly, dropping his arms, his hands fisted at his sides. “I told you: he has enough to deal with. He doesn’t need…,” Mac shook his head, swallowing. “This is nothing.”
“Mac, the hearing loss…it was temporary,” Bozer argued. “Jack’s fine—he’s back at work.”
Mac frowned. “What?”
Bozer nodded. “I though you knew. I mean, with you two it’s like…you drink too much, he gets the hangover.”
Mac rubbed the back of his neck. Jack was fine? Back at work? How had he not realized…?
“Look, man, I get it—“
“No,” Mac shook his head. “You don’t.” He looked up at Bozer. “You don’t get what it means to be the only thing standing between some kid and death and then to move out of the way.” He took a step forward, oblivious to the way his hands trembled at his sides, or the way Bozer pulled back in reaction to his tone. “You don’t get what it means to see a mother die to save her son and then see that son hit by so many bullets it shreds him.”
“You don’t get what it’s like to stop this bomb and that bomb and keep moving forward only to have an entire convoy blow up because you missed one.”
He didn’t realize how close he’d gotten to Bozer until he felt his friend’s hands on his shoulders, stopping his motion, the weight almost unbearable. He took a shuddering breath, stepping back.
“And I hope you never do.” Turning he made his way toward the deck, tossing one last statement over his shoulder. “Don’t call Jack.”
Stepping from the living room to the open-aired deck, he didn’t stop until he was standing at the balcony edge, staring over the city as the sun began to make its ascent. He could hear Bozer’s slightly rebellious reply of, “Don’t have my phone anyway,” slipping through the gray dawn toward him.
He gripped the railing and pulled the cool morning air into his starving lungs. He closed his eyes, concentrating on the feel of the slightly splintered edge of the wood beneath his fingers. He ran his palm over the worn flat of the rail, focusing on the grooves and ridges, centering every thought on that touch before opening his eyes.
The sky was red.
Not even the burnished bits of gold that edged the horizon as the sun climbed from the shadows tempered the inflamed morning. It meant something. A sky like that, it was a warning. Mac focused on the slow rise of the sun, the way nature continued, relentless in its cadence regardless of the meager lives within and around it.
Nature was constant. It didn’t miss. It didn’t waiver. It didn’t fail.
The burgeoning light seemed to strike each building, car, and street sign, turning the city into a blanket of gold. It felt as though, if he stared at it long enough, the peace that momentarily enveloped the city might actually be real. Something he could hold onto. Believe in. Trust.
Moving toward the horizon, sandwiching the light with its mass, was a storm cloud, turning the air cooler and enveloping everything the light touched, including MacGyver.
A sound reached his ears—not one from the waking city around him, but a voice. Bozer was talking to someone. For a moment, he was puzzled: wasn’t Bozer leaving? And who would be here this early in the morning? Then it hit him. Bozer might not have his phone, but he didn’t need it if he was intent on reaching Jack.
And when it came to helping MacGyver, Bozer was nothing if not intent.
Sighing, Mac moved over to the small alcove on the side of the deck and picked up the other landline they had installed for emergencies. Covering the base with the palm of his hand, he breathed shallowly, listening.
“…shouldn’t be doing this, but…I really think you need to be here, man. I mean, damn him and his tough-guy bullshit anyway.”
“What. Time. Is. It.”
Mac bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling at the poison in Jack’s tone. If Bozer were calling about anything other than Mac, there would have been hell to pay.
“Man, yeah, I’m going in early ‘cause Matty has me working on this lab thing—I mean, ever since I got through spy school she’s been trying to plug me into any random area she can so I haven’t really been around to pay much attention to Mac since you guys got home and clearly I’ve missed some important clues—“
“Dude. Land your plane.”
Mac felt his heart rate pick up speed.
He could interrupt at any time. He knew that. He could stop Bozer’s ramble before he got anywhere close to why he was calling. He could shut this down in its tracks. Right now.
So…why couldn’t he get his voice to work?
“Right…right, sorry. Here’s the deal. Mac’s not sleeping. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen him eat more than like, a power bar. He just…he says he needs more time, but—“
“You’re not convinced.”
“He’s having nightmares again. I’ve heard him. I’m telling you, man, last time he was like this was—“
Bozer’s exhale was filled with relief. “Yes. Thank you.”
Mac heart was pounding so hard he was surprised Bozer and Jack couldn’t hear it through the phone line. He heard Jack sigh tiredly into the phone. He could also tell the man was now moving around his house—most likely grabbing whatever clothes were handy so he could head over and rescue Mac from himself.
He should stop him now. Say something. Deny needing anything, let alone his partner’s solid, reassuring presence.
“Our boy is aces at compartmentalizing,” Jack was saying, “but sometimes…you just run out of storage space.”
“I’m pretty sure the only thing that is keeping him from completely decompressing is the fact that you guys managed to bring the Ambassador home—even though he was messed up.”
Mac closed his eyes. Messed up didn’t quite cover it. The man was on life support, and his family was dead. Even if he did survive—
The buzz in the pocket of his sweats made him jump as Jack said, “Shit, hang on,” at the same time. Mac grabbed his cell phone from his pocket. Matty. Texting them to get to Phoenix immediately. The Ambassador had just died.
“Aw, dammit, Matty.”
“What? What is it?” Bozer demanded.
“Ambassador didn’t make it.”
“Damn. Maybe we can wait to tell Mac?”
“Too late,” Jack growled. “Matty texted both of us.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m way ahead of you, pal.”
“Just…maybe don’t say I called you? Mac specifically asked me not to. Said you had enough to deal with and made it pretty clear he didn’t want the extra attention.”
“Yeah, well, sometimes what we want and what we need are very different things,” Jack replied. “You get into the office. I’ll take care of our boy.”
Mac waited until the line went dead and then slowly replaced the receiver back in the cradle. He felt both hot and cold at once, trembling from the inside out. He wanted to scream, throw up, to hit something hard enough his knuckles bled. As he heard the latch catch on their front door at Bozer’s departure he forced himself to breathe.
Thunder rumbled in the background, punctuating the sound of his fist crashing against the wooden balcony rail. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t stopped Bozer from ratting him out to Jack. It didn’t matter that Jack knew exactly what Bozer was worried about.
It didn’t matter because it was all just words.
And whatever his well-meaning friends thought, he didn’t need more words.
He needed to move. To breathe. To get away.
The great thing about living in the City of Angels, Jack always thought, was the weather. It was unfailingly predictable. He could make almost any plans on almost any day and be guaranteed success.
Except for the two days each year when it rained. And man did it rain. Nothing like springs in Texas, but it could dump. And when it dumped, people freaked the hell out. Traffic was abysmal. Hillsides turned into mudslides. Normally bone-dry run-offs turned into white water rapids.
By the time Jack reached Mac’s house he was spitting nails and ready to rip someone’s arm off and beat them with it. Just because…traffic.
And maybe a little bit of worry about one Angus MacGyver’s current state of mind.
“Mac!” Jack bellowed, crashing through the front door without even a knock of warning.
He didn’t register how wound up he was—and therefore how potentially scary he sounded—until he saw Mac. The kid had one foot up on the edge of the couch, tying his shoe, and jumped at the noise, wobbling a bit.
It was that marked unsteadiness from someone who seemed to move with such ingrained, graceful confidence at any other time that pulled Jack to the present.
“You got Matty’s text?”
“You know I did,” Mac replied, his tone clipped as he returned to tying his shoe.
Jack frowned as Mac straightened, grabbing his hoodie. “What are you doing?”
“Going for a run.”
Jack drew his head back. “In this? Are you nuts?”
“It’s too hot in this house,” Mac tried. Jack narrowed his eyes at the thinly disguised panic in the younger man’s voice. “I need some air.”
“Bud, you’re gonna drown before you hit the highway.”
Mac pulled his hood up and moved around Jack toward his front door. “I’m fine.”
“The hell you are,” Jack countered, reaching out for Mac’s arm. The kid was too quick; he dodged Jack’s grip and hit the threshold of the door at a run, disappearing into the rain before Jack was able to say another word.
“Son of a bitch,” Jack spat, heading back to his car, pulling the front door shut behind him and making sure it latched. Continuing his blue-streaked vocabulary, Jack ducked into the GTO, dripping on the upholstery and fogging up the windows almost immediately. It wasn’t enough that it was raining, it had to be a cold rain. Just friggin’ sweet.
His phone was in his hand before he’d wiped the rainwater from his eyes.
“Why am I not talking to your face right now?” Matty Webber’s voice sounded tinny from the speaker of his cell phone.
“Well, Matty, probably because one of your Agents was hanging on by a very thin thread, which you cut when you sent out that fucking text about the Ambassador.” He wasn’t in the mood to coddle their boss. Not after seeing the haunted look in his young partner’s eyes.
To her credit, Matty paused before replying. “How bad?”
“Pretty damn bad,” Jack sighed. “Bozer had to call me. Haven’t talked to Mac in a week. Now I know why.”
“This isn’t on you, Jack.”
While Jack was working on a way to say damn right, it’s not on me and it’s not your fault, either at the same time, Matty spoke again. “How long do you need?”
“Honestly, no idea. I have to find him first.”
“He went on a run.”
“In this? He’ll drown!”
Jack chuckled mirthlessly. “Try telling him that.”
Matty paused again. “I shouldn’t have sent that text. I…wasn’t thinking about how hard that mission was on you two.”
“You don’t have to worry about me,” Jack stated flatly, immediately pushing any emotional reaction he might have had at her admission down into his gut where he could pull from it and use it to fuel him when he was at his weakest. “But I tell you what, when I find him, that kid is damn well gonna use his words.”
“Take the morning,” Matty told him. “Go untangle Baby Einstein and then check back in.”
“You got it, Boss,” Jack replied, cutting off the connection before mumbling, “Think it’s going to take more than a morning, Matilda.”
Pulling out of the driveway, Jack tried to think where Mac be headed—and if it would be somewhere he could follow in the car. His right ear began to beep—a high-pitched tone—and he rubbed at it with the heel of his hand. The hearing loss from the explosion had tapered quickly, but the tinnitus still lingered making him feel like Clark Kent hearing Lex Luthor when no one else could. It distracted the hell out of him at the most inconvenient times—like now.
He headed toward Griffith Observatory; Mac had been known to follow a trail that ended there a time or two. It was a total shot in the dark, but when it came to his partner, following his gut was often times his best maneuver. The beep faded as he continued to drive and he worked his jaw and rolled his neck, trying to keep it at bay. Last thing he needed was to have it flare up when he found Mac.
The kid already blamed himself for the failed mission; he didn’t want Mac to take on the guilt of Jack being hurt when there was nothing he could have done to prevent it.
“Dammit, kid,” Jack muttered, eyes scanning the side of the road for signs of a lone runner in a dark hoodie. “Shoulda never let you deal with this on your own. Shoulda watched out for you better.”
In truth, Jack had been in the hospital for a full day after their return—spending most of that time sleeping off the effects of the concussion. It hadn’t bothered him that MacGyver wasn’t there; the kid had been pretty roughed up in Argentina. He’d needed some downtime as well.
It wasn’t until he hadn’t heard from him for several days afterwards that Jack had started to worry. He pounded the flat of his hand on the steering wheel.
“Can’t believe I let it go until Bozer had to call,” he berated himself.
The group of Argentinian rebels modeling themselves after Che Guevara had set their sights on the Ambassador as their way of making their cause known. It should have been a quick in and out—pull the Ambassador and his family from the Embassy and get them back to the States. It wasn’t until Mac radioed that the rebels had planted a bomb—and then gotten himself trapped in the room with the bomb and the Ambassador’s family—that Jack felt the mission slip sideways.
He’d seen Mac take some hits as they worked their way into the Embassy—some hard enough to set the kid on his ass—but he’d kept pushing forward. There wasn’t much that could keep Angus MacGyver down; Jack had seen that first hand when the then nineteen-year-old had cleared a path of IEDs for a troop convoy through the streets of Kandahar.
Mac had kept up a running report via comms as he fought to disarm the bomb and protect the Ambassador’s family. Jack could still remember the sound of the doors blasting open, the woman’s scream followed by Mac’s shout of denial when she was shot, and his agonized declaration that the Ambassador’s twelve-year-old son had gone after the rebels, avenging his mother’s death. Mac had been left with the impossible choice of going after the kid or disarming the bomb.
Jack had made it easy for him.
He’d ordered his partner to stay where he was and kill that bomb. By the time Jack cleared the door, the Ambassador in tow, there were only 15 seconds left on the bomb’s timer and Mac was white as a sheet. Jack had done the only thing he could do: he called an audible, physically hauling Mac from the room and getting the three of them as clear of the blast radius as he could.
He didn’t remember much after wrapping his arm around Mac’s waist and grabbing the Ambassador’s arm. Later, he was informed that he’d been knocked unconscious, the Ambassador hit with enough shrapnel the medics had to do emergency surgery on the exfil chopper. Mac had somehow managed to get both of them out of the building and to the chopper on his own. Matty informed Jack later that Mac had seen the body of the Ambassador’s son, declaring him KIA in the official report.
Brake lights illuminated the shoulder and bank of the road like a one-toned Christmas tree. Jack dragged a hand down his face, trying to dismiss the memories of the failed mission and focusing on the one at hand: finding MacGyver.
Just then, he saw a figure running along the paved trail along the highway—heading right for the Observatory as Jack had guessed. The kid was running like the Devil had his name in his pocket and was coming to collect. His hood was back and rain had turned his blond hair dark.
Jack took the next exit and circled around until he blocked the path where Mac would have to cross the street. It was somewhat secluded; only one house located at the end of the street, surrounded by a stone privacy fence and metal gate. It was what Mac called the start of the muckity-muck section of his run, where all the people with more money than they’d ever know what to do with congregated.
Oblivious of the deluge that soaked him almost immediately, Jack got out of his GTO and leaned against the closed door, waiting. It didn’t take long. Mac came into view within minutes and skidded to a wet halt when he saw Jack was blocking his path.
Jack had been prepared for Mac’s indignation. He was prepared for resistance and for argument. But he wasn’t prepared for the exhaustion that shadowed his friend’s eyes or the way the rain seemed to have washed all the color from his skin.
The bruises seemed to have spread to a general smudge of sleepless shadows and his eyes were bloodshot from the rain, making the blue irises stand out like neon. Shoulders sagging, Mac grabbed a few quick breaths before looking at Jack and the utter lack of expression on his face chilled the older man.
“Jack, go. Just…let me deal with this, okay? My own way.”
“Your own way?” Jack shouted over the sound of the rain beating against the metal roof of his car. “You mean like not eating or sleeping and literally running yourself into the ground?”
“C’mon, man,” Mac rested his hands on his narrow hips, rotating away with a roll of his eyes. “Like you don’t have your own coping mechanisms.”
“How you handling the nightmares, man?”
Mac shook his head, dropping his gaze to the ground. “God dammit, Bozer.”
“Naw, uh-uh,” Jack pushed off from the side of his car and took two steps toward Mac. “This ain’t got nothing to do with Bozer, Mac. You think I forgot about Afghanistan? Cairo?” Mac’s head snapped up at that word and Jack thought he might break his teeth based on how hard he was clenching his jaw. “I’ve been there, man. I get it. And even if I didn’t know the signs, I know you,” he pointed at Mac’s chest coming just shy of poking the other man, “well enough to know when something’s chewing on you.”
Mac pressed his lips together, sucking the rainwater off of his skin, stubbornly quiet.
“You’re not dealing with it, and it’s eating you up.” When Mac simply looked down, shaking his head slowly, Jack continued. “I’m sorry about the Ambassador—“
“No.” Mac barked, looking up, his wet hair hanging in his eyes. He shook his head once. “No, Jack.”
Jack lifted his chin, mindful of the dangerous light in MacGyver’s eyes. He’d realized a long time ago that where he tended to explode when angry, scattering shrapnel on anyone near him then cooling off almost immediately, Mac was more of a slow-burning fuse. He gathered in intensity and heat until he reached a targeted strike. And when that strike hit, it was devastating. Jack had only been the recipient of such an impact once before, and it took him some time to regroup afterwards.
He did not want to be there again.
“If you hadn’t pulled me out of there, I could have stopped that bomb!” Mac shouted, his hands fisted at his sides, his chin trembling with emotion.
Oh, hell no. Unwilling to let Mac turn his guilt into a poisoned anger that tore through both of them, Jack stepped up into the younger man’s personal bubble, not giving Mac room to maneuver.
“There were fifteen seconds left, man. You would have died with them.”
“You don’t know that!” Mac roared, leaning forward into the rain until they were practically nose-to-nose, the tendons of his neck stretching with the strength of his ire.
“Yes, I do!” Jack returned, matching Mac in volume. “You don’t think I saw you, all that time running around the Sandbox? You don’t think I know what you can do and what you can’t do?”
“You are not the EOD expert, Jack—“
“Neither are you anymore!” Jack bellowed, aching to reach out and shake the younger man. He forced himself to keep his hands at his sides as he pinned MacGyver with angry eyes. “You are a government agent now, Mac. Your job was not to disarm the bomb, it was to get the Ambassador out alive and you did that.”
“And his family, Jack,” Mac shouted, then huffed out a rough, wet breath, sinking back on his heels. “The Ambassador and his family. And I didn’t, man. I…,” his breath caught and he looked away. “I lost them.”
Jack swallowed, watching the emotion play across the younger man’s face, a shiver rocking his thin frame.
“I should have stayed,” Mac said, his voice rough from yelling and emotion. “I should have stayed and kept trying.”
“There wasn’t enough time,” Jack asserted, his hands out, open, not sure if he still wanted to shake the other man, or hug him tight enough all of his broken pieces melded back together.
For one beat Mac just breathed, his shoulders lifting and falling with the effort, rain running down his face in a hundred tiny rivers.
“Do you know what I can do in fifteen seconds, Jack?” Bright blue eyes lifted to meet Jack’s and the older man found himself catching his breath. “I can flip twenty-seven bottle caps. I can hotwire a car. I can take Bozer’s toaster completely apart in fifteen seconds.”
But Mac was on a role. His hands came up, half-reaching for Jack, his arms shaking. “I can take off my shoes and put them back on eight times in fifteen seconds. I can shuffle and deal a deck of cards. I can twist off the tops of twelve beer bottles. I can sing the half the Periodic Table of Elements song. Right up to Cadmium.”
“Stop, kid,” Jack did reach out then, wrapping his fingers around Mac’s biceps, feeling the younger man tremble.
“I can spot four IEDs, save forty soldiers,” Mac continued, running out of steam. “I could have stopped that bomb.”
“You would have been killed,” Jack said with certainty, loosening his grip on Mac’s arms.
“Maybe,” Mac lifted a shoulder, shivering as he dragging a hand down his wet face and sluicing some of the rain away. “And maybe that kid would have lived instead of being filled with so many…so many bullet h-holes he didn’t even look….” Mac shook his head unable to continue, his breath heaving slightly, shoulders shaking from the effort.
“What about me, huh?” Jack demanded. “What happens to me if you die, Mac? You think of that when you’re busy sacrificing yourself?”
“You should…h-have let me try,” Mac reiterated, voice bouncing across his rough breath.
Jack shook his head. “I couldn’t do it, man. I couldn’t live with you dead.”
Mac curled his hands tighter into fists, his teeth chattering and suddenly Jack realized the younger man’s shivering had increased—almost violently so. This was more than just being chilled by the rain. His shoulders were heaving from the effort to shove his breath out and his trembling lips were turning blue. Jack had never seen Mac have a panic attack, but he’d helped enough of his fellow soldiers fight their way through them that he recognized the signs.
He reached up and gripped Mac by the back of his neck, his hand warm against the kid’s chilled skin. As if on instinct, Mac’s fingers grabbed onto the wet material of Jack’s long sleeves.
“Whoa, whoa, okay. Hey, there,” Jack said, ignoring all their words from before and talking to Mac in a low, gentle tone. He pressed another hand flat against Mac’s chest. “Easy, bud. How about taking a breath for me?”
As though he was just cluing in to the fact that he was in trouble, Mac’s blue eyes darted up to meet Jack’s and Jack felt ice settle in his gut at the fear he saw there.
“It’s okay, Mac. It’s just us here now. I’ve got you.”
Jack felt Mac’s knees turn to rubber, his stance not even close to steady, and he sank to the ground with Mac held steady in his grip. A mini river began to flow around them, splashing against his boots and Mac’s soaked sneakers. The desperate gasps for air shook through the younger man, and Jack pressed his hand tighter against Mac’s chest.
“C’mon, Mac,” he continued to intone, “just breathe, man. In and out, that’s it. There you go. Nice and easy. Like falling off a bike.”
“R-riding,” Mac gasped, fingers tightening against Jack’s arms, the wet material of the shirt twisting in his grip. “’s…riding a bike.”
“Well, if that’s easier for you than falling offa one, let’s go with that,” Jack readily agreed, noting how the hitch in Mac’s chest seemed to ease, his chin not quaking quite as much. “Gimme one easy breath.”
Mac pulled in a shallow, shuddering breath, then slowly exhaled through puckered lips.
“That’s great, kiddo. You’re doing great. How about another one, and count to four on the exhale.” Jack knew that Mac would recognize rescue breathing techniques from their training and was hoping it would do the trick to get him rebalanced.
“I’m s-sorry, Jack,” Mac stuttered, water splashing from his lips against Jack’s face as he bent close to the younger man. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—“
“Hey, now,” Jack broke in. He knew Mac just needed to recenter himself but he didn’t want the unnecessary apologies to get him spun up again. “You’ve got nothing to apologize for, man. You did everything you could.”
“I sh-shouldn’t have yelled at you,” Mac said, pulling in a stuttering breath. “I was just….”
“Mad? Hurting? Helpless?” Jack nodded as Mac’s eyes met his, the blue bright in contrast to his pale skin. “I get it, man. I do.” He slid his hands from Mac’s neck and chest to his shoulders. “You need someone to lash out at, you can always pick me. I can take it.”
Mac nodded, exhaling. With concentrated effort, he uncurled his fingers from where they gripped Jack’s sleeves and dropped his hands into his lap, splashing up rainwater as they landed.
“You listen here, though,” Jack squeezed Mac’s shoulders, drawing his eyes. “If it’s a choice between you and the world, I’m choosing you every time.”
Mac started to protest, but Jack tucked a finger beneath the younger man’s chin, lifting it and wiping rain from his eyes with a quick swipe of his hand. “It’s my job, man. And I’m damn good at my job. Ask anyone.”
“Ah, I wasn’t finished. From the minute I met you in the middle of some goddamn desert in a war that no one understood, I knew. I’d been…hell, kid, everywhere. Done everything. Deltas. CIA. I’ve killed and I’ve saved and I’ve hated and I’ve loved. I’ve done what I wanted and I’ve done what I was told to,” Jack said, feeling his own chest tighten with emotion as Mac stared at him with big eyes, soaking in his words. “And I have never been more sure of anything in my life than I am of the fact that my job is to keep you safe.”
“What about my job?” Mac asked.
“To figure out impossible shit that no one else in the world can figure out?”
Mac shook his head once. “To try to keep the world safe.” He sucked the rainwater off of his lips as he visibly sought his next words. “If you always pick me, the world could suffer.”
Jack smiled, squeezing Mac’s shoulders once, then sat back, dropping his hands to his lap. “That’s what you don’t get, pal. The world is a better place with you in it, full stop.”
Mac shook his head, looking down at the rain running around their legs.
“I won’t ever apologize for saving your life. I did the right thing, Mac. I know it.” Jack ducked his head trying to catch the other man’s eyes. “I need you to know it, too.”
The bwop from a police cruiser startled both of them. Jack looked over to see a state trooper’s car pulling up behind his GTO. The cop got out and took a few steps toward them, rain splashing off the edge of his flat-rimmed hat.
“You fellas okay over there?” the cop asked.
Jack climbed to his feet. “Yessir,” he replied quickly, then reached down and hauled Mac up, bracing him as he wavered slightly, once vertical. “We just had to work out a few things.”
The cop eyed Mac closely. Jack resisted the urge to step between his young partner and the trooper. Then he saw the cop’s expression shift to something like sympathy.
“Folks in the house back there saw your car and, uh…,” he paused, hooking his thumbs in his weapon’s belt. “Well, they weren’t sure what was going on. Called us to check it out.”
Jack glanced over his shoulder at the fancy house and its protective walls. He couldn’t help but think of all the things in the world the twenty-six-year-old currently leaning against him had seen and survived—death, abandonment, the horrors of war—without any protection. No walls except those he’d constructed himself.
His only gates were a few friends, who, once in a while, were able to stand between him and the world.
“We understand,” Jack replied, looking back at the cop. Mac had yet to say anything. “We’ll get out of their hair.”
He wrapped an arm around Mac, feeling the kid shiver against him as they started to turn toward his car.
“Hey, uh,” the cop called, pulling them to a stop. “If he, uh…needs somewhere to stay, there’s a shelter just two streets down. I think they have a few beds open.”
At that, Mac stuttered out a laugh that sounded suspiciously close to a sob. Jack just nodded and waved his thanks, guiding Mac around the front of the car and opening the passenger door, waiting until he was solidly in before shutting the door. The cop pulled away when Jack turned on the engine.
He revved it a minute, getting the heat up inside the car, then grabbed Mac’s ice-cold hands and held them up in front of the vent, hoping the heated air would stop their shaking. Jack swallowed, looking over at his partner, watching as Mac stared sightlessly out through the front window.
“Angus, listen to me,” he said quietly. He waited until Mac’s blue eyes were settled on him. “There’s gonna be things in this life that finish you. And there are some wounds that will never heal. Some scars that make us who we are, and without them…we disappear. You have to decide for yourself what’s going to be a scar and what’s going to be the end.” Jack stared at the younger man for a moment, letting his words sink in. “I’ve got a helluva lot of scars. I know you do, too. And we ain’t finished yet, partner. Not by a long shot.”
Mac nodded, cupping his hands around the heating vent, then looked back through the windshield as Jack pulled back onto the highway. They rode in silence for several minutes, Jack doing his best to maneuver through the California traffic back to Mac’s place.
“I know,” Mac suddenly said, startling Jack from his traffic-induced reverie.
Mac looked over at him. “I know you did the right thing.”
Jack nodded, biting the inside of his cheek to keep his emotions in check.
“You’re like…a shield,” Mac started. “I don’t say it enough, but…you’re the shield between me and this…this darkness. It’s like…it’s like that kind of darkness you don’t want to look at too closely because the longer you look, the darker it gets. Like black eating black.”
Jack stayed quiet, letting Mac work through his thoughts, knowing from experience that this type of confession wouldn’t come around again for some time.
“So, thank you,” Mac said quietly. “For…y’know. Keeping me from falling into…that pit.”
“You’re welcome, brother,” Jack said softly, then shifted slightly, his wet jeans squelching against the seat. “But, now, wait…are we talking Pit of Despair or the Sarlaac Pit?” He teased, desperately needing to lighten the mood. Mac chuffed slightly, leaning back away from the heater. “’Cause in one, I’m a pirate called the Man in Black, which I have to say is pretty damn cool, but in the other I’m either a partially-blind smuggler or a clumsy bounty hunter.”
Mac grinned—a genuine grin, one Jack hadn’t seen in a long time. “You’re totally the Man in Black.”
“Yeah, boy! Like my man Johnny Cash!” With that, Jack reached over and turned on his radio until he found something loud enough to get Mac to laugh and groan, the sound easing the weight in Jack’s chest.
He knew things weren’t fixed—it was going to take Mac some time to get past this latest hurdle. But that was the job, and the kid was too damn good at what he did to crumble now. Jack would make sure his walls were strong enough to hold.
As they pulled up in front of Mac’s house, the rain finally began to ebb. Walking toward the front door, Mac paused and Jack saw him catch his own reflection in the glass.
“Man…you’re right. I do look rough,” he conceded. “I mean, I didn’t realize it was, y’know…homeless person rough. But, yeah. Rough.”
Jack smiled. “You just need some of Bozer’s pancakes and a decent night’s sleep. Or ten.”
Mac headed toward his room for a shower and to change clothes, but paused in the hallway at Jack’s words. “One of those is easy,” he said, then looked over his shoulder at Jack. “I’m not real sure about the other.”
Jack cleared his throat. “Y’know, Mac…you might not remember, but…when we got back from Afghanistan, I had to sleep with the light on for a while.” Mac turned to fully face the other man, surprise clear on his face. Jack nodded, continuing. “And the radio. Anything to push back the silence. Took a few nights, but…after a while I was able to grab four hours. Then six.”
Mac swallowed, nodded. “Thanks, Jack. I’ll, uh…I’ll try that.”
“Good,” Jack grinned, then turned to head to the guest room where he had stashed a go-bag for emergencies. “I could even suggest a few songs,” he yelled back toward his younger partner, pulling out his cell and taking a look at the missed messages from the morning. Bozer, checking on Mac. Matty, with a new case. Riley, wanting to know where the hell he was.
“Anything but Willie Nelson,” Mac called back.
“You’re wounding me! I’m in actual pain, here!” Jack teased, relieved to hear the sound of Mac’s low laugh echoing back down the hallway.
He had a feeling they would need to stock up on that sound in the coming months. They just had to live as best they could for as long as they could, and try to keep the world from taking them for everything they had.
And in this job, that was the hardest part.