“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven.”
- John Milton, Paradise Lost
Outside of San Jerónimo Coatlán in south-western Mexico
Jack Dalton opened his eyes to darkness.
“Hey, wake up.”
He groaned, closing his eyes again. The voice was familiar, demanding.
“’m ‘wake,” he mumbled, then frowned. “Why am I awake?”
He blinked slowly, grit catching his lashes and making the motion more of an effort.
“It’s your watch.”
MacGyver’s voice was lower than usual, worn through like a balding tire. Jack pressed the heels of his hands into the hollow of his eyes until he saw stars against the darkness, then blinked his sight clear. Not that he could see much; their hide-out was nearly pitch-black, starlight the only thing coming through the rectangle window Mac had cut into the sniper blind.
“Right,” Jack yawned, the word cutting off mid-point as his jaw cracked. “Shove over then.”
Mac released his hold on the night vision scope and rolled stiffly to his side. There wasn’t enough room in the blind for either of them to straighten their legs, but they could sit side-by-side. Jack fumbled for the stake-out piss jar and took care of business before shifting into position, eye on the scope.
“Nada,” Mac mumbled. Jack heard the sacks of dirt that made up one of their walls crunch as Mac shifted into a more comfortable position. “It’s almost like the man knows what he’s doing.”
“Ooh, sarcasm. Somebody needs a nap,” Jack teased, not taking his eye from the scope, and instead bumping his partner’s shoulder with his hip.
Mac sighed. “It’s just…stupid.”
“What? Staking out your nemesis so we can stop him from killing you?”
“He’s not my nemesis,” Mac muttered. “And we don’t know that warning was about me.”
At this, Jack did spare his partner a glance. Or, rather, a glance in his partner’s direction as he couldn’t even see the outline of Mac’s profile in this light.
“Uh…, yeah we do,” Jack countered. “You humiliated the guy and got him sent back to prison. Really pretty sure ol’ Joaquin was pissed enough to call out his minions.”
“That was a year ago, though,” Mac continued to protest.
Jack looked back through the scope, trying not to remember the chilling moment he stormed El Noche’s compound and realize Mac had been forced to breathe pure nitrogen as a form of torture. “Takes time to plan a war.”
Mac was quiet, his silence screaming into the darkness.
“Men like Joaquin ‘El Noche’ Sancola do not forgive, Mac,” Jack said calmly. “You know this is about you, so why are you fussin’ now?”
There were several beats where all Jack could hear was the quiet of the night hissing against his ears. He knew Mac didn’t want to respond, but he also knew how to wait him out. When dealing with an unwilling MacGyver, patience was the key.
“You.” The word was a reluctant pull of sound, falling from Mac’s lips in a quiet confession.
Jack sat back on his heels. “Me?”
“If it’s about me, then I should be the one to tag the mark, call in the strike, and be done with it,” Mac declared, his tone like venom. “You shouldn’t even be here.”
Jack’s mouth dropped open, any words he might’ve said evaporating before they could escape. The quiet inside the sniper blind pressed against him and he felt more than heard Mac exhale roughly. The scrape of boots against the dirt seemed to echo against the darkness. He knew Mac was curling his legs close to his body, pulling himself into a tight, defensive position, as though bracing for Jack’s response.
“Get some sleep,” Jack said quietly, leaning toward the scope, the compound they were spying on motion-free in the green glow.
“Jack….” The apology in Mac’s tone permeated the name.
That outburst hadn’t been about them. It was Mac’s automatic coping mechanism: push them away before they can leave. Figure out how to do everything possible to survive alone.
Don’t need anyone.
Jack knew this about his partner. He’d worked around it and through it so many times over the years it had become his norm long ago. But there were times when knowing MacGyver only went so far.
He could remind Mac that he wasn’t alone every day; at some point, he needed the younger man to believe it.
When Jack didn’t reply, MacGyver exhaled slowly, then shifted until his slim back was against Jack’s hip. After a few minutes, Mac’s breathing changed and Jack knew he’d drifted off. Jack leaned back, rubbed the grit from his eyes, and refocused on the scope.
The last several weeks had been tough ones for Mac—for both of them really, as Jack couldn’t help but take on his partner’s struggles as his own. It was the only way he knew how to help. New, and not very helpful, information had surfaced about Mac’s father soon after they’d returned from a mission in the Northern Canadian wilderness.
Mac had been pretty wrecked after that mission—mentally and physically. He knew Mac had been going to his friend—and former sniper—Freddie’s group sessions, but it wasn’t clear if he’d actually talked about anything, especially concerning his missing father.
When another enemy from Mac’s past—with the apt moniker of The Ghost—tried to kill the pair of them by blowing up Mac’s house a few weeks ago, memories had surfaced, triggering nightmares and the kid had retreated a bit into his head, which was never a good thing.
For weeks, Jack had been able to see Mac’s wheels turning, puzzle pieces shifting, a quiet, desperate internal struggle seeking a clear path and only finding yet another bramble-covered trail.
If he had to guess—which he did, since Mac was reluctant to spell it out for him—he would say Mac’s biggest struggle wasn’t around memories of what he had or had not done in Afghanistan, or around Phoenix missions that had gone sideways, or of people he’d lost. It was finding a way to cope with being abandoned by his father as a boy and toyed with as an adult.
And that pissed Jack off.
There were days he wanted to beg Mac to just let it go. Just accept that his father left and wasn’t coming back and these enigmatic clues were nothing more than yet another way to mess with the kid’s head. He would never ask that of him, though—not because he had any hope of Mac actually solving this puzzle, but because he knew that sometimes surrender could be as savage as any attack.
And if using hope as a tactic was the only way Mac could stay the course, Jack was ready to build a whole strategy on hope.
He took a quick drink from his canteen, then refocused on the compound. They’d received word that one of El Noche’s partners were en route to one of the drug lord’s many remote locations with a shipment—and it was largely hinted that this shipment was not drugs, but human contraband. A special task force had been assigned to confirm and while they hadn’t found evidence of human cargo, they had returned with a partially-burned envelope.
With a surveillance photo of MacGyver inside.
Matty Webber assigned the case to the pair of them and put Jack and Mac on the first transport to Oaxaca, Mexico, with orders to shut down the operation, human cargo or no. This latest piece of information meant that El Noche was orchestrating smuggling runs from prison, evidently still very much a player in the Cartel, and they needed to cut the head off that snake.
The minute they had evidence that the compound was more than just a sprawling, rural estate several miles outside of a village of no more than 5,000 people, their mission was to paint the target and call in an airstrike.
And Jack fully intended to do that himself.
There were things they told themselves to keep moving forward in this world—stories they believed, stories they wanted to believe, stories someone else made them believe. Each story clamored for attention within the thin confines of their skulls, drilling and gnawing, boring its way free to be the one truth that they held onto and acted upon.
One such story, clearly, was Mac thinking he was capable of ordering the deaths of El Noche’s men inside that compound. Mac had been responsible for death, yes, but never when there wasn’t another life in immediate danger.
Never when there was another way.
Jack blinked his blurring vision clear as he saw the gates they’d been staring at for the last fifteen hours begin to open.
“’bout time you got this party started,” he muttered, checking his watch. 0527. Very, very a.m. He debated waking Mac, but the kid had only been asleep for a little over two hours. He waited.
After a few moments, a box truck pulled up to the open gate. Jack could see words painted on the side of the cab.
He couldn’t make it out.
They’d set up their blind a mile away from the compound and the night vision scope was only so powerful. If it had been daylight, he might have been able to pick out the letters, but as it was, he was lucky to see there were letters.
He waited, watching as the truck pulled through the heavy wooden doors and the gate closed behind it. Sighing, he eased back from the scope. They had to get closer, see what was in that truck. And they needed to do it before the sun came up.
“Mac,” he said quietly, resting a hand on his partner’s shoulder. He felt MacGyver instantly tense beneath his touch, going from unconscious to aware inside a heartbeat. “We gotta move.”
Mac turned; Jack felt the sacks of dirt next to him shift.
“You see something?” Mac asked, voice rough from lack of sleep. He cleared his throat.
“Truck pulled in,” Jack reported. “Big—moving-truck sized. Had some writing on it, but I couldn’t make it out.”
“Okay,” Mac nodded, sitting up to dislodge the blind cover. “Let’s go.”
Jack was a soldier. He knew how to compartmentalize, to pack away the emotion and move forward with the mission. He knew the right time and the wrong time to delve into someone’s damaged psyche.
But this was Mac.
And from the moment he’d met this kid, every bit of logic and good sense took a back seat to his emotions.
“That’s it? Just…let’s go?”
He could practically feel Mac’s frown.
“Should there be something else?”
“Okay, enough,” Jack reached out blindly in the dark and grabbed for Mac, catching the younger man’s TAC vest. “I’m done with this macho-man bullshit routine you’ve been practicing since we got this damn assignment. This ain’t you, Mac. You gonna tell me what the hell’s going on with you?”
Jack shook his head, pulling Mac close enough he could feel the other man’s breath on his face. “No, uh-uh. Don’t you ‘Jack’ me. I know you, bud. Something is burning through you like acid in your gut. Now spill it or you’re staying in this sniper blind and I’m going to check out our friends in the moving truck.”
“You really think you can keep me here?” Mac challenged, his tone devoid of emotion.
“I’ve been watching your back for eight years, pal. Even a jarhead like me can pick up a move or two.”
Not to mention he outweighed the kid by thirty pounds of muscle, easy. If he wanted to immobilize Mac, he could do it. But the last thing he wanted to do was hurt him. So, he waited. If they’d been able to see each other, it would have been a staring contest.
“It’s a trap,” Mac sighed.
“Okay, Admiral Ackbar,” Jack scoffed. “You want to elaborate?”
“The fact that this is one of El Noche’s compounds? The false lead about human contraband? The picture?”
Jack felt Mac move as he lifted his arm—presumably to tick off fingers, proving his point.
“He wants us here, right here,” Mac practically growled. “We played into his hands and now you’re going to suffer for it.”
“Oh,” Jack loosened his grip slightly. “So, you’re saying it would have been better if I’d have just let you go on your own, huh? Face this guy’s minions down all by your lonesome.”
Mac was quiet a moment then sagged slightly in Jack’s grip. “At least you’d be alive.”
“Dammit, Mac,” Jack released the younger man’s vest, sinking back on his heels and resting his hands on his thighs. “You are the damned dumbest smart kid I know. What, exactly, do you not understand about me watching your back, huh?”
“And would you have stayed home all cozy while I trapesed out to take care of my nemesis?”
“No, but I—“
“Of course not. Now, I don’t want to hear anything else about you doing this on your own, hear me?” Jack didn’t give Mac a chance to reply. “You aren’t doing another thing on your own. I am with you. Every step of the way. You don’t know that by now, I’m fixin’ to beat it into you.”
“I don’t want you to get hurt,” Mac rushed out, trying to shove the words into the space Jack left by taking a breath. “Especially because of me.”
“Mac,” Jack said, reaching forward in the dark and finding the side of Mac’s neck. “I’d rather be killed watching your back than alive with you dead.”
“I’d just rather you be alive,” Mac returned.
They quieted a moment, and Jack had to shrug. “Well, I’ll give you that. It’s the preferable option for sure.”
The dark settled around them like a blanket on their shoulders.
“Sorry I was being an asshole,” Mac offered after a few beats.
“It’s okay,” Jack replied, smiling. “You’re allowed to get salty every once in a while.”
“You want to go check out that truck before the sun puts a spotlight on us?”
They slid the blind cover aside and slipped out of the shallow hole they’d dug, the sides shored up by bags filled with the dirt removed from the hole. Their desert camo was dusty from spending the night in a hole. They shouldered their packs and Jack pulled out his rifle while Mac grabbed the scope, then they started walking quickly across the rugged terrain.
Jack scanned the brush at their feet, eyes tripping up periodically to check the dark of the valley around them. Sunrise was just beginning to bruise the sky and create a soft outline of the mountain range, the dust from the dry, packed earth kicking up with each step as they avoided cacti, rocks, and snake holes.
They’d had to drop in several miles east of San Jerónimo Coatlán to avoid the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains, hiking the distance to the isolated compound well outside the village. Just south of their drop point, the mountains had fallen into the sea, making this one of the most physically remote missions they’d been sent on since Canada two months ago.
And it reminded him a hell of a lot of Afghanistan.
“You thinking about Farah?” Mac asked, his low voice rough with memory.
Not really wanting to confess that yes, in fact, he had been and send Mac on that particular trip down nightmare lane, Jack decided to deflect.
“Actually, I was wondering how a kid like you gets so many nemesis-es…nemesi?”
“It’s just nemesis,” Mac chuckled.
“I mean, c’mon, dude…The Ghost, El Noche, Murdoc? You’ve got more enemies than Han Solo and you’re not even on the wrong side of thirty.”
“Hey, maybe this is the wrong side,” Mac offered. “And besides…it’s not like you haven’t made some enemies yourself.”
Jack chuffed, almost nostalgic. “Yeah…yeah, that’s true.” He sobered. “But none of them are actively trying to kill me, so. I win.”
“Well, at least no one’s put a bounty on your head,” Mac offered, playing along. “As far as we know.”
“Hold up.” Jack put a hand on Mac’s arm, slowing him as they approached the wall of the compound. “El Noche’s minions setting a trap for you so they can collect on your bounty isn’t exactly a mark in the ‘plus’ column, bud.”
“So you admit it’s a trap,” Mac hissed.
Jack looked over at his younger partner and grinned. He could see Mac’s indignant expression in the fading starlight as the horizon edged a cool blue. “I always think everything is a trap,” he quipped. “Which is why I’m still alive.”
Mac shook his head, pressing his lips closed over whatever retort he’d immediately formed.
“Now,” Jack continued, “let’s go in real quiet like so this doesn’t end with your ass frozen in carbonite. Or…worse.”
They crept along the stone wall that surrounded the compound until they reached the wooden doors that had opened for the truck. The wall was over six feet high; Jack could stretch to his full height and not see over the top. They’d previously checked for cameras when scoping the place earlier, so there was no option to have Riley hack in and view the interior virtually. The best they were going to be able to do would be to peer through the cracks in the gate—or find a way over the wall.
“I can see the truck,” Mac whispered, the side of his face near a crack in the gate. “Says…Cerberus.”
“Wait—I know that,” Jack whispered, their voices barely holding sound. Only the comms in their ears enabled them to hear each other clearly.
“Yeah, it’s the mythical three-headed dog that guards the gates of hell,” Mac said. “Hercules caught it as one of his trials in Homer’s Odyssey.”
Jack huffed. “Right. Because I’ve read the Odyssey. Or know shit about Greek mythology.”
“Well,” Mac shrugged. “You did read Percy Jackson.”
Jack scowled at him. “I’m telling you I know it from something else—wait!” He smacked Mac on the shoulder with the back of his hand. “That creepy amusement park.”
“What, the one we passed outside Coatecas Altas?”
“Yeah, remember? It was abandoned and all…haunted looking?”
Mac dropped his chin, one eyebrow arched. Jack took a moment to register being able to see that expression on his partner’s face was not working in their favor.
“Puertas del infierno, remember?” Jack prompted, his Texas accent butchering the Spanish. “Gates of Hell. The broken-down rollercoaster? It had a picture of a three-headed dog on the side.”
“Cerberus,” Mac breathed, once more looking back through the cracks in the gate. “I remember…,” he glanced back at Jack. “Although I’m not sure if I should be impressed or worried that you do.”
“Hey, you remember Homer, I remember coasters,” Jack offered, shifting his grip on his rifle to try to stretch up and peer over the wall. “Especially haunted ones.”
“You think this truck is from that amusement park?”
“Could be,” Jack offered. “I mean, who else around here has means to build a freaking amusement park besides El Noche, huh? He goes away and it goes to shit.”
“Coatecas Altas is miles from here,” Mac hedged, doubtful. “You really think El Noche’s influence in this region spreads that far?”
“Only one way to find out,” Jack responded, then pressed his comm. “Matty, you got your ears on?”
There was a significant pause. Jack exchanged a look with MacGyver, then tried again, risking a slightly louder whisper.
“We’re here, Jack,” Riley’s voice came across their comms, causing both men to jump. She sounded half asleep and Jack couldn’t blame her, remembering belatedly that it wasn’t quite four in the morning in L.A. She’d probably drawn the short straw of monitoring their comms all night.
“We are going over the wall,” Jack informed her.
“Is that smart?”
“No,” Mac replied. “But it’s all we’ve got.”
“Keep the mic hot,” Jack instructed. “And find Matty and Bozer.”
If this thing went sideways, he did not want Riley in the War Room alone.
“You got it.”
Using hand signals, Jack motioned Mac further down the wall where it met up with an Ahuehuete tree’s rambling branches. Silently, they climbed the tree, slipping over the wall and dropping down to the other side in the shadows of the security lights. Acutely aware of the possibility of motion-sensor lights, they hugged the length of the wall until they reached the side of the large box truck.
The truck did indeed have a faded image of a rollercoaster on the side, with the three-headed dog standing guard over the tracks. They moved along the side of the truck to the back. Jack shouldered his rifle and stood behind Mac, his head on a swivel, as Mac reached for the latch that kept the sliding door locked down.
Every fiber of Jack’s being shouted that there was something wrong—it was too easy, too quiet. But he controlled his breathing and kept his eyes open as he heard the door start to slide open. It wasn’t until he heard Mac’s mumbled, shit, that he turned, part of him afraid they’d waited too long and the truck was actually going to be filled with dead human contraband.
What met his eyes, however, wasn’t the bodies of innocent women, but lots and lots and lots of drugs—packaged tightly and stacked high—guarded by four men with machine guns.
“Hola, fellas,” Jack grinned, sweat breaking out on the back of his neck.
“Apoyo,” the largest of the four men barked. Mac began to back up, toward Jack, as though obeying a command. “Baja tu arma.”
“He wants you to put your gun down,” Mac translated in a low hiss over his shoulder toward Jack.
“He could want me to grow wings and fly but that ain’t happening either,” Jack returned, keeping his rifle aimed center mass of the big man. “We are going to back away real slow, you hearing me?”
“Not sure they’re gonna let that happen, Jack.”
“No te muevas!”
“He doesn’t want us to move,” Mac said out of the side of his mouth.
Jack held his body still and shifted his eyes to the side, checking for exits. Off to the side of the seemingly deserted main building, he saw a small adobe building that resembled a garage within running distance. If they weren’t ventilated by bullet holes first, that is.
“Mac, when I say now, I want you to turn and run for that garage just to the west of us. Copy?”
“Baja tu arma y no te dispararemos—“
He had to hand it to the kid, Mac was wicked fast when he wanted to be. Jack got three shots off, felling three men, just as Mac cleared his side and was in a full-on sprint for the garage. Jack shot at the fourth man, but missed, hitting the man’s gun instead and knocking it from his grip. They reached the building at the same time, their collective thrust and body mass crashing through the locked door.
Shutting it solidly behind them, they separated, Mac looking for something to use to defend themselves, Jack dragging a heavy table in front of the door. The building was spacious but crowded with empty shelves, dusty work benches, and three cars covered by stained, canvas tarps. Dawn lit the interior with a dusky grey light, giving Jack the feeling he was squinting through shadows.
“The window!” Mac shouted.
Jack tugged the cover off of what looked like a ’67 Chevy and flung it over the window just as a smattering of bullets shattered the glass. They ducked as one, protecting their heads.
“Tell me there’s stuff in here you can MacGyver into a bomb or a rocket launcher or something.”
“How many people you think are out there?” Mac replied, straightening up and resuming his ransacking of a sparsely-stocked work bench.
Before Jack could answer, another hail of bullets cut through the walls, pinging off of the Chevy, burying themselves in the ground. Jack gasped as one tugged at the sleeve of his shirt, barely missing his arm, and looked wildly over at Mac to make sure he was still in one piece.
Seemingly unfazed by the latest assault, Mac was gathering what looked like jumper cables and a roll of copper wire. He turned just as another shot crashed through what was left of the window and Jack saw him jerk to the side, spinning and falling hard as something struck him.
Leaving the shelter of the Chevy, Jack sprinted forward to his partner’s side, his stomach dropping when he saw blood covering half of MacGyver’s forehead and spilling down into his left eye.
“’m okay,” Mac mumbled, reaching for Jack, and using the other man’s grip to pull himself to sitting position. “Just grazed me.”
“Can you see okay?”
“Depends on what you want me to look at,” Mac replied, one side of his mouth pulled up into a small, shaky grin.
Jack swallowed. They needed to get out of there, call in the strike, finish the mission. He pulled off his scarf and pressed a balled-up section against the long slice across Mac’s forehead. The younger man hissed and instinctively pulled back, but not away.
“Must be reloading,” Jack commented when the firing paused.
“’s getting light outside,” Mac informed him, squinting past the curtain of the scarf against his head. “Maybe they’re regrouping…since their ambush didn’t work out quite like they’d planned.”
“Maybe they think we brought an army with us.”
“You did,” came a voice in his ear.
“Hey, Matty,” Jack smiled, shifting the placement of the scarf against Mac’s head so that he could better see his partner’s face. “Good to hear your voice.”
“You were supposed to call the strike in from outside of the compound,” Matty reminded him.
Mac grunted as he moved to his knees, easing the now-blood-covered scarf away from his head. “You wanted evidence of human trafficking,” Mac told her, grimacing with pain, “and we weren’t going to call in a strike if there were people in that truck.”
Voices shouted from outside of the building—the Spanish too rapid for even Mac to follow based on his frown.
“Okay, look,” Mac started, reaching for the copper wire he’d dropped when he was hit. “I think I can use one of these cars to rig up—“
He didn’t get a chance to finish his thought as the front of the building was suddenly peppered with rounds, some tearing through holes already made, plaster and mortar projectiles perforating the front of the Chevy.
“Son of a bitch!” Jack shouted, gathering Mac up against him as he plowed forward, using his body as a shield as he moved away from the firing, running them both in a low crouch to the furthest tarp-covered car. “What’d they get, a Gatling gun?”
He could hear Matty’s voice in his ear, tinny and far away as she demanded a sitrep. Mac was shouting something about getting out through the back of the garage.
The bullets-on-adobe chaos filled Jack’s head. Luckily, after so many battles and so many missions, in situations like this his body worked like something separate from him—running itself perfectly with no need for input.
The barrage of bullets slowed and Mac stumbled, Jack’s hands at the kid’s waist propelling him forward ahead of him. As the firing paused, Jack let go of Mac and turned, his rifle already in his hands. He heard a crash and darted a look over to where Mac had wavered and fallen against a shelf, his hand pressed to the cut across his forehead.
“’m okay,” he replied breathlessly. “Just…just dizzy.”
In the pause of bullets, Jack heard the screech of twisting metal as the nearly-destroyed door began to open.
“Get behind me, get behind me!” He shouted to Mac and began firing.
The first two men through the door landed in a heap, Jack’s bullets finding their targets with ease. The next one started firing before he moved through the door, but Jack took him down, too. Another came at the window and Jack forgot where his body ended and his weapon began. He lost track of his partner, of his environment, of his need for shelter—he simply saw a target and fired.
He was so zoned in on preventing the men from getting to them that he nearly elbowed Mac in the face when the younger man grabbed at his arm in a desperate bid to get his attention.
“Jack, come on!” Mac shouted—and it occurred to Jack that the younger man had been shouting his name for several minutes.
He moved backwards, Mac’s hand on his shoulder guiding him as he kept an eye on the shattered entrance to the garage.
“I found a way out,” Mac was saying. “There’s a storehouse about twenty feet to the south. It’s concrete, not adobe.”
“Better shelter,” Jack stated, finding the wisdom in Mac’s retreat.
“And it backs up to the external wall,” Mac elaborated.
Now that he knew where they were going, he turned and ran with Mac, the pair of them once more slamming their shoulders against the side door and sprinting for the next shelter. He could hear Matty demanding they get the hell out of there—which, no shit, thanks for the tip, boss—but he didn’t have breath to spare in answering her. He just ran, Mac matching him stride for stride as they headed to relative safety.
He never heard the shot.
It slammed into his leg like a sledgehammer, knocking him sideways and sending him careening against the side of the concrete building. Mac reached out blindly and grabbed his TAC vest, pulling him through the opened door and shoving him forward, then closing and bolting the door.
The minute they were inside the storehouse, Jack knew he was in trouble. His leg burned, the blood pouring from his wound like liquid fire. Too much blood, flowing too fast.
He couldn’t catch his breath—the wound itself wasn’t even painful yet, but his whole body felt hollowed out from the shock of impact. He stumbled backwards against a metal shelf as Mac found the lights, his partner’s quick mind already leagues ahead in figuring a way out of this latest predicament.
Jack’s thoughts slowed as his leg weakened, his body starting to shiver even before he slumped to the floor.
“M-mac…,” he stuttered, “think I gotta…gotta lil’ problem here.”
He couldn’t seem to release his rifle, his gloved hand fumbling for his leg. The minute he touched the wound, fire rushed through him and he cried out helplessly.
“Oh, shit…shit, Jack.”
He hadn’t even seen Mac move. One minute the kid was across the room looking through the bottles and boxes on the storehouse shelves, the next he was beside him, pressing both hands against the wound on Jack’s thigh.
Time was skipping on him; he couldn’t quite keep Mac in focus.
“’s bleedin’ a helluva lot,” Jack slurred.
“I think it hit your femoral artery,” Mac replied, a savage twist on the last word. “Matty, we need an evac now.”
“I can’t get to you inside the compound, Mac,” Matty reminded them, her voice brittle with worry. “You have to get to the exfil!”
“That’s over a mile away, Matty!”
Mac pressed harder on Jack’s wound, his head dropping forward as Jack cried out. Pain seemed to turn the air around them silver, shimmering with a surreal light that wrapped around Mac as Jack fought to keep his eyes open.
“They’ll wait for you,” Matty promised.
Jack felt his body shiver from the inside out. It was almost as though his heart were shaking. He reached up a blood-covered hand and grabbed Mac’s shirt sleeve, curling the material in his fist and bringing his partner’s gaze to his.
“You g-got this, bud.”
Mac’s blue eyes seemed to stand out like neon in the dim lighting from the overhead bulbs in the storehouse. Blood turned his blond hair to rust and gathered in the creases of his eyelids. For one heartbeat, they stared at each other and Jack felt his world tip sideways as though every promise he’d ever made to Mac was sliding into an empty void.
“You got this,” he whispered again, his breath trembling across the sound as his body shook.
Without another word, Mac ripped open the hole in Jack’s pants until the wound was exposed.
“This is going to hurt.” Mac’s voice was grim, tight.
Those five words were the only warning Jack got before his partner turned his leg inside out. Or at least that’s what it felt like. Mac plunged two fingers into the hole in Jack’s leg, dexterously finding the damaged artery and squeezing it closed.
Jack screamed—the sound ripping from him as though someone reached down his throat and yanked it upward from his gut. All rational thought flatlined and his vision went white.
“God, stop stop stop stop—sonofabitch!”
He didn’t realize he was speaking until he felt Mac’s hand on the side of his face, the contact of the kid’s warm palm against his cold skin drawing Jack back from a precipice of darkness.
“I’m sorry, man, I’m so sorry but if I don’t do this you’ll bleed out,” Mac was saying, his voice rough, trembling.
Jack panted, thirsty for air, blinking a combination of tears and sweat from his eyes. Mac was leaning over him, one hand in his wound, the other at his face, his eyes bloodshot and tears leaving twin trails through the dirt and dried blood on his face. Jack reached up, his hand visibly shaking, and gripped Mac’s wrist, nodding shakily.
He didn’t trust his voice.
“Are you with me?” Mac asked, and Jack whimpered at how young he sounded. Young and scared and pissed off. “Jack?”
He nodded again, swallowing convulsively as his stomach rebelled from the pain. He would not get sick, not now. There was a noise in his head, a voice both commanding and compassionate, but he couldn’t make out the words. It took him a minute to realize that the voice was coming from his comms—that Matty and the team in the War Room were hearing every word they said.
“Look, we don’t have a lot of time, okay?” Mac said, his thumb pressing gently against Jack’s cheekbone, grabbing his straying attention. “I know you’re hurting, but…I gotta do one more thing, okay?”
“D-do…do I want…t-to know?” Jack managed, his voice to shaking in time with his trembling body.
“Probably not,” Mac said. “You trust me, right?”
“Al-always,” Jack said, gripping Mac’s wrist tight, feeling the narrow bones there shift beneath his fingers.
Mac nodded and Jack watched as the kid straightened up, wiping at his face with the back of his hand, then managed to eject a bullet from Jack’s rifle with one hand and the crook of his opposite arm, never once removing his fingers from Jack’s wound. He bent to the side and Jack lost sight of what he was doing; it was all Jack could do to keep from sobbing from pain. He could hear himself groaning through gritted teeth, but figured he was allowed that much at least.
After all, his partner literally had a hand inside his body keeping him alive.
“Hold on, Jack,” Mac ordered—pleaded. “Don’t you give up on me, man. You just…you just keep your eyes on me, got it? I’m getting you outta here, I swear to God.”
Jack could hear the tremble in his partner’s voice. “This is s-some Butch and S-sundance shit, right h-here,” he offered, trying to ground Mac.
“Butch and Sundance died, Jack,” Mac countered, tearing at something with his teeth that Jack couldn’t see. “We’re not dying today.”
Jack suddenly felt the wound in his leg flare up, a liquid pain crashing his system so that his ears were buzzing, his vision slipping.
“Okay, hang onto me,” Mac said. “This is…really gonna hurt.”
Jack saw the flicker of a flame and then his world became agony. He screamed his throat raw. He felt himself shake, falling down a hole, tumbling until there was nothing.
And that was all kinds of wrong.
Where was Mac? Panic wrapped around him like bands.
“…your eyes, Jack!”
There. Something in his chest loosened when he found that voice.
“C’mon, man. I need you here. I need you to stay strong, okay?”
He could hear the tears in Mac’s voice. He could hear the hammering sound of his own breath. He could hear the rush of his own pulse in his ear. He could hear Matty demanding he answer her.
“’m here,” he rasped, forcing his eyes open. “’m here, bud.”
Mac sagged forward, bending over Jack as though someone had cut his strings. Jack realized suddenly that Mac had both hands on his face.
“What’d ya do?”
Mac swallowed. “I kinda…cauterized your leg. With…uh, with gun powder.”
“Holy shit.” Jack blinked. His leg was on fire, throbbing up through his hip and into his teeth. “Thanks.”
“You need to move, Mac.”
It was then Jack realized there had been a semi-constant back-beat of noise outside the storehouse—centered mainly on the bolted door. It was growing louder and Jack could see sparks from the corner of his eyes. They were cutting through the deadbolt to get inside.
“That our only way out?” he asked.
He felt like he was floating, slipping between worlds. His hands were weightless as they reached for Mac as the younger man sat back.
“Depends,” Mac said, using his own scarf to wrap up Jack’s leg tight enough to act as both a bandage and a brace.
“On what?” This from Matty.
Jack scoffed. Like she had reason to doubt any thought Mac might have in that ginormous brain of his.
“On if I can blow a hole through a cement wall before they get in here.”
“Get to it, then.” Riley. Sounding rough.
“You okay, Ri?” Jack asked, hearing the slow drawl of his words.
Man, he was wrecked.
He couldn’t decide if he needed a drink, twelve hours of sleep, or a hug. Hell, what he probably needed was a shit-ton of blood, but he wasn’t getting that sitting in El Noche’s storehouse. It took him a minute to realize he’d lost track of Mac.
“…’m okay, just need you back here,” Riley was saying. Because of course. She’d heard it all.
“Sitrep, Mac,” Matty demanded.
Jack looked around, trying to track the crashing noise he was hearing in the storehouse and separate it from the shouting and clanging from outside.
“Gimme a minute, Matty,” Mac replied. His voice didn’t sound quite right. Jack couldn’t place it, but…something was definitely wrong.
Hell…, maybe it was his ears. They wouldn’t stop hissing.
“Still here,” Jack told her, shoving slowly upright, his head spinning with the change in elevation.
He saw Mac crouch down on the opposite side of the storehouse, several bottles in his hands, and something that looked like a shop towel sticking out of one. He could tell the kid was mixing several liquids into the bottle with the rag in it, but he’d be damned if he could figure out what they were.
“Talk to me, Blondie.”
“Okay, I uh…I f-found some containers of gasoline—looks like the type that has a high concentration of nitro-methane,” Mac was saying, his voice steadying as he continued.
Jack knew it was usually about now that the team cut Mac off and asked him to, essentially, use smaller words, but something told him the science was the only thing keeping the kid focused at the moment. And apparently Matty recognized that as well, because she didn’t interrupt him.
“I’m mixing it with ammonium nitrate,” Mac shot a look over his shoulder, meeting Jack’s eyes. Jack blinked hard, trying to keep Mac in focus. “And if this works, it’s going to be loud. I can’t guarantee it won’t blow out our comms. You got that exfil on the move, Matty?”
“They’ll be there, Mac.”
Mac nodded once at Jack. “You ready?”
“’m with you ‘til the end of the line, bud,” Jack replied, knowing the quote would bring a smile to Mac’s tense face.
Mac lit the rag, then ran back to Jack, curling over the other man just as the liquid exploded, rocking the storehouse and bringing shelves down around them. One fell across Mac’s back and the younger man grunted with the impact, keeping his arms wrapped around Jack’s head and shoulders until the dust settled.
Coughing, Mac shoved upright, pushing the metal shelf off of his back. It was silent outside the front of the storehouse and Jack knew they had about a two-minute window to get out. He reached for Mac’s shoulders.
“I’m good,” he declared, ignoring the heat in his leg. “I got this.”
Mac nodded, his face streaked with dust and fresh blood making an appearance along his hairline, probably from the impact of the shelf. He grabbed Jack around the chest, lifting him to his feet, and half pulled, half dragged him forward. Jack nearly bit through his lip to keep from crying out as his leg protested.
“Matty?” Mac called, coughing through the dust and debris. “Riley? Bozer?”
Their comms were silent; the explosion had scrambled them as Mac had suspected. They breached the cement wall and Jack realized the explosion had punched through the outer wall as well. Mac dragged him outside of the compound just as two men broke through the door of the storehouse.
The rugged terrain outside the wall of the compound where they’d made their escape offered several outcroppings of mountainside to duck behind and Mac chose the closest one to set Jack down as he turned to face the two men charging through the wall toward them. Jack gripped the top of his thigh, trying to choke off the echo of pain as he kept his eyes on Mac, watching as the kid fought like a tiger.
One man grabbed Mac from behind; Mac used the man’s body as leverage to lift his feet and kick the other man unconscious, twisting lithely out of the first man’s grip. He got in several hits, ducking and weaving out of the reach of the man’s long reach as a third man joined the fray. The third man was a big guy—he slammed his meaty fist against Mac’s kidneys twice, causing Jack to wince as the young agent’s head snapped back when he arched away from the hit.
The fight continued with Mac drawing on every bit of training the Army, the Phoenix Foundation, and Jack had instilled in him.
He dodged, he struck, and he rolled as he took a hit. Jack could see his knuckles red with his or another’s blood, it was unclear. A welt was rising under one eye, his lip was split and bleeding, and he was gasping for air as he moved, keeping the men focused on him and not Jack. Mac was good, but he was wounded and rattled and, dammit, Jack could do nothing to help.
Until he remembered he still had his sidearm.
Pulling the weapon free with trembling hands, he sighted on the bigger of Mac’s two assailants and fired, taking the man down with one shot. Mac took advantage of the distraction and landed two solid punches on the remaining man, knocking him out. He turned to Jack before another one of El Noche’s men could climb through the rubble, panting hard, blood on his cheekbone and lip.
“Goo’ job,” Jack said, dismayed to hear the words slur together.
Mac’s face paled at the sound.
“C’mon, man,” he gasped, pulling Jack to his feet. “I need you to give me everything you’ve got.”
Jack tried, he really did. But his leg was useless. He could put no weight on it and the pain seemed to flicker around him like a living thing, stroking him with greedy fingers. He held on to Mac, but as strong as he was, Mac’s smaller frame was beat to hell and he stumbled over the rocks and brush on the path.
Jack cried out when Mac went to one knee, bringing him along.
“You can do this, man,” Mac wheezed, turning and putting a slim shoulder into Jack’s midsection, growling low in his throat as he heaved Jack across his shoulders and back, then pushed to his feet. “You’re the goddamn toughest man I know.”
They reached an area of sloped terrain and Mac gripped Jack’s good leg tighter, his breath an audible punch of sound as he fought to keep them balanced. Jack could feel the kid trembling beneath him, knowing his weight was all-but crushing Mac.
“Least…least they didn’t…b-blow up…the place with us…in it,” Jack gasped as Mac’s shoulder dug into his ribs with every step.
“Shit,” Mac gasped, skidding and slipping down a small slope. “They’re gonna just keep comin’ for us, aren’t they?”
“We’ll get ‘em,” Jack promised, groaning as Mac slid further, going to his hands and knees, Jack landing on Mac’s back, then rolling free. “We’ll get ‘em, bud.”
Mac was shaking his head, though, his face flushed with exertion. He checked Jack’s bandage; satisfied with what he saw there, he grabbed Jack under his arms and helped him sit up again.
“Need you to stand,” he panted.
“Don’…don’t know ‘f I can,” Jack managed.
“Gotta carry you,” Mac groaned, trying to lift Jack up, a frustrated growl echoing against the rock outcropping when he couldn’t get him much higher than his knees. “Can’t drag you, it’ll open your wound.... Please, man.”
Jack nodded. He was starting to get hazy from blood loss and shivering from pain, but even through that he saw that Mac was nearing his limit. He gripped the younger man’s shirt, groaning as he was pulled to his feet, then held still as Mac lifted him once more across his shoulders.
Mac staggered, gasping from the weight. Jack couldn’t tell which of them was shaking. Maybe they both were.
Mac plodded forward, each step sending out a burst of air. Jack bit his lip until it bled to keep from whimpering out loud.
Jack felt Mac flinch beneath him. He couldn’t see who was approaching, but they were speaking English, so that was a plus. He curled his fist tighter into Mac’s shirt.
“Matilda Webber sent us,” continued the voice, lowering as it got closer. “Said you might need some help.”
“You from our exfil?” Mac asked, his voice thin, but commanding.
“We are,” replied another voice. “Check phrase is prison break.”
“Help me,” Mac said, half-turning until Jack could see the legs of two men clad in flight suits.
He felt himself lifted from Mac’s shoulders and cradled carefully between the two men. He blinked, trying to find Mac, bring him into focus. The world was slipping behind a gauzy film, his breath rasping through dry lips, and he was pretty sure his leg was literally on fire.
He groaned helplessly as the men holding him adjusted their grip.
“Be careful of his wound,” Mac said. Jack found him then; he was leaning over, hands on knees, catching his breath. “I had to cauterize the femoral artery. He’s going to need surgery ASAP or he could lose that leg.”
“Mac?” Jack reached out from the human hammock he was being held in. He needed to get eyes on the kid, make sure he was in one piece.
He wasn’t so far gone to not know that his partner had been rattled plenty by that bullet to the noggin. But Mac was backing away. Wait…what the hell was going on?
“They’re going to just keep coming, Jack,” Mac said, pulling a deep breath in through his nose, straightening up. “I gotta go back.”
“Are you kidding me?” Jack tried to sit forward but was held fast by one of the pilots. “Get your ass back here!”
He struggled for another second but his movement pulled at his leg and he felt himself spin, the world tilting sideways and stealing his breath with the motion. He couldn’t focus on any one thing, his ears buzzing, his mouth wet with pain.
“Cerberus, Jack,” Mac called back to him. “Find me at Cerberus!”
“Agent Dalton, we gotta go,” said the man holding his legs told him.
He couldn’t reply. Mac was gone. Finishing the goddamn mission. With no one watching his back.
“What did he just say?” Jack rasped, pain radiating through him with each step the men carrying him took. “What…?”
“You’re gonna be okay, Agent Dalton,” the same man told him, and in the next moment, he saw the green skin of a helicopter out of the corner of his eye.
He felt himself lifted into the chopper and closed his eyes as the movement sent his vision spinning again. Time seemed to slip and he was dimly aware of his body buckled onto a backboard, his leg elevated, and something—presumably an IV—pricking his arm. The sensation of flight brought him around once more and he tried to ask about Mac, but his mouth wasn’t working right.
All that escaped was a low groan.
“We need to hustle,” a voice said next to him, but clearly not talking to him. “His pressure is bottoming out.”
Jack felt the whomp-whomp of the blades vibrating through his back and he shifted his head, looking for that voice next to him, needing to find Mac, when he heard the pilot call back to them.
“Brace him—airstrike called in and we’re gonna feel the blast.”
Airstrike. The compound.
The chopper rocked, pressing Jack against his restraints and darkness swept over him like a wave.
The Phoenix Foundation medical wing
2 days since exfil
Jack Dalton open his eyes to light.
And the sound of furious whispers.
People were talking around him, over him, next to him. Their voices were hushed and strained, but there were so many of them they blended into chaos. He didn’t have to know what they were saying to know it was bad.
He knew the world had changed even before he remembered how. The air tasted different—sharp and strange with a bite at the edges. He knew before he made a sound that he didn’t want to, because the minute he did, whatever it was that caused the thickness in Riley’s whisper, the strain in Bozer’s reply, and the crack in Matty’s sigh…would be real.
And he would have to face it.
“Hey,” he croaked, blinking as several pairs of eyes turned his way—two of them people he didn’t know but, gauging by their scrubs, were medical personnel of some kind.
“Jack,” Riley breathed, the exhale hitching and catching on a sob.
“Hey, kiddo,” he smiled, licking his dry lips.
Riley eased a plastic cup with a straw over toward him, helping him drink until he lay back, nodding his thanks. She reached for his hand and he wrapped his fingers around hers, feeling how fragile those bones were. He frowned at her.
She looked hollowed-out and starving, like she was made up of nothing but bones and teeth. And old. Way older than she really was.
“How are you feeling, Agent Dalton?” asked the male version of Scrubs standing on one side of his bed.
Female version was checking something on a machine next to him.
“Floaty,” he replied honestly, his eyes skimming the others in the room.
Bozer stood at the foot of his bed, arms crossed over his chest, eyes down. Matty stood next to Riley, a hand on the bed near Jack’s leg.
“That’d be the drugs,” the man told him. “I’m Dr. Banner.”
“No shit?” Jack grinned in spite of himself. “Better not make you angry.”
Banner smiled patiently.
“Guess you’ve heard that one before,” Jack muttered.
“Let’s worry about you first. Can you tell us what happened?”
Jack nodded. “Sure, but…Mac was the real hero. He’d give you a better story.”
“I want to hear what you remember,” Banner told him. “You lost a lot of blood; this’ll help me see what that did to your cognitive abilities.”
Right. His leg. He glanced down, making sure it was still there, then ran his free hand—Riley still holding the other one tightly—down to a heavy bandage weighing down his thigh.
“I got shot,” he whispered. His mind was skipping, images sliding across his vision from time past—Kabul, Farah, Argentina, Canada, Mexico. They weren’t time-stamped in the right order. They weren’t relevant to now, but they all involved the same thing: MacGyver saving his life. “Mac…patched me up.”
“He did a tremendous job, considering what he had to work with,” Banner replied. “He was able to circumvent hypovolemic shock, but you still lost about a liter, required several transfusions, a bolus of antibiotics, and muscle and tissue repair. Your artery is intact and you should make a complete recovery—provided you follow instructions.”
“Don’t worry, Doc,” Jack grinned. “All the work he did to get me outta there, I doubt my boy’s gonna let me skip on any PT.”
Banner looked down. “Agent Dalton, can you tell us what you remember about the exfil?”
“Mac blew out the wall,” Jack replied, starting to feel oddly cold. He looked at Riley, then Matty. Both women were looking into a middle distance, seeing something that painted lines of pain on their faces and made his chest feel hollow. “He…uh…he carried me—“
He could feel Mac’s narrow shoulder digging into his sternum, the way his body shook from the strain of bearing Jack’s weight.
“…but a couple guys jumped us.” He swallowed, squinting against the bright lights in the ceiling, trying to catch Bozer’s eye. “Mac fought two off; I shot one.”
Something was wrong. Really wrong. Mac wasn’t in the room, next to his bed, waiting for him to wake up, giving him hell for scaring him to death.
“How bad?” Jack asked, looking over at Banner.
“What’s that?” Banner frowned. He’d been writing on Jack’s chart as Jack spoke.
“How bad’s he hurt, Doc? My partner isn’t here, and he was pretty beat up last I saw him, so…. How bad?”
“Jack—“ Bozer started, but the strain in his voice broke the word.
“Do you remember seeing Agent MacGyver after you got into the helicopter?” Banner asked.
Jack frowned. Had Mac been on the helicopter? He couldn’t…he remembered being carried. He remembered voices and pain and darkness. Mac must have been there with him. Right?
“I can’t…I don’t….” He wasn’t breathing quite right. He looked at Matty. “What’s going on?”
There was a silence that stretched on for a millennia and in that quiet Jack heard his heart scream in panic.
“Mac’s dead, Jack,” Bozer managed, his voice slipping out as though through a sieve.
Jack felt a punch of air leave him. He stared at Bozer, the words the man had let loose in the world losing meaning the longer the silence stretched out. He shook his head slowly.
“No…no, that ain’t…he can’t be.” He couldn’t seem to catch his breath. He could hear it rasping through his opened mouth, competing with the slam of his pulse. He curled his fingers into a fist, gripping his blanket, trying to anchor himself.
“Agent Dalton,” Banner drew his attention again. “Just breathe easy. You’re still recovering from major surgery. Two days is hardly enough time to—“
“Wait, what?” Jack barked. He looked over at Matty again. “How long have I been here?”
Riley released his hand, covering her mouth to keep her emotions in check. Bozer was looking down at the ground again.
“Matilda.” Jack pushed himself up in the bed so that he was no longer leaning back against the pillows. The nurse at his side eased the top part of the bed up as a support. “Talk to me.”
Matty swallowed and lifted calm eyes to his. “At 0800, the exfil team reported spotting Agent MacGyver carrying you through one of the narrow passes between the compound and the exfil point. Agent MacGyver passed you over to them and left, presumably to return to the compound and call in the air strike. At 0815 the target was painted. At 0818, the compound was hit.”
Jack took in the information, waiting for the punchline. “You went back for him,” he said. “Tell me you went back for him.”
“A recon team returned to the compound twenty-four hours later—“
“—where they discovered that El Noche’s cell had been obliterated. There were no survivors.”
“Just because he painted the target doesn’t mean—“
“Mac’s DNA was found in the rubble,” Matty said, her voice softening for the first time since she started speaking.
Bozer turned and pulled a piece of material out of a familiar brown knapsack—Mac’s knapsack. He handed it to Jack. It was torn and burned, but Jack recognized it as the scarf he’d used to staunch the blood flow from Mac’s head wound. He could see a brownish stain still visible.
“He got…a b-bullet graze,” Jack said, rubbing the material between his fingers. “Across the forehead. I used this to, uh…to stop the bleeding.”
“I’m so sorry, Jack,” Matty whispered.
“How long, Matty?”
“Jack, we had crews over the whole blast site. There’s no other—“
“How. Long.” He shot a glance at her, fire in his eyes, heating his whole body.
They’d left him. They’d waited too long and they’d left him. His anger was a living thing. He felt like he could burn this building to the ground with the force of his rage.
“Two days,” she replied.
“It took you two whole days to give up on him, huh?”
“There was nothing left—we were lucky to find that,” she pointed at the scarf.
“He’s not dead,” Jack shook his head, staring at the brown stain.
“I didn’t want to believe it either, Jack—“
Jack looked at Bozer. “Then don’t. You’ve known him longer than any of us. He’s a survivor, man. He wouldn’t…he wouldn’t go in if he….”
Words crammed together in head, Mac’s voice stitching them together.
I should have stayed and kept trying.
Do you know what I can do in fifteen seconds, Jack?
I don’t know what to do with this…hole. Inside me.
“Jack,” Matty tried again. “He saved you. He finished the mission. He was a hero.”
“He is a hero, Matty,” Jack corrected, tightening his fist around the scarf. “He’s not dead.”
There were too many people around him. Too many of the wrong people. They all cared about him but it didn’t matter because none of them were Mac.
He couldn’t breathe. There were too many people and he couldn’t breathe.
“Tell us what you remember, Agent Dalton,” Banner pressed. “What happened between the time MacGyver pulled you from the compound and you getting on the helicopter?”
Jack’s head pounded; he closed his eyes, replaying that morning, seeing Mac’s dirty, blood-streaked face, his tears, his fight with El Noche’s men. He remembered feeling weightless, feeling anxious, but he couldn’t remember Mac leaving him, and he couldn’t—wouldn’t—believe Mac was gone. He’d know.
He’d know if Mac was dead.
“Comms?” he asked, his voice cracking.
“They cut out,” Riley told him, openly crying. “We heard…we heard you get shot. We heard Mac patching you up, bringing you back.”
“God, he sounded…,” Bozer sniffed, wiping his face with the flat of his hand. “I’d never heard his voice sound like that, man. He was desperate. There was no way he was going to lose you.”
“The comms cut out when Mac blew the wall,” Matty told him. “We weren’t able to pick up a signal.” She leaned forward, pressing down on the mattress. “We tried everything, Jack.”
“For two days, Matty,” Jack replied, his tone holding enough sharp edges it should have sliced her.
“We were hoping you would be able to give us something to work from,” Matty said, turning it back on him.
Jack rubbed his head, trying to remember. There was something…it was mostly pain and chaos and chopper blades and burning. But there was something.
The room stayed silent, waiting. Eventually, Jack looked up, his eyes wet, a tear painting a track of frustration through the salt-and-pepper scruff framing his jaw.
“He’s not dead,” Jack repeated. “I’d know it, Matty.”
Matty frowned, the sadness in her eyes palpable. “I can’t find an agent based solely on a gut feeling, Jack.”
“He’s not…,” Jack caught his breath, a sob building in his chest. “Don’t give up on him, Matty. He’s not dead.”
I’m not losing anyone else, Jack.
They’re going to just keep coming.
I need you here. I need you to stay strong, okay?
“He wouldn’t do that to me,” Jack whispered, tears hot against his face.
“The Phoenix Foundation will be having a memorial for him this weekend,” Matty said, clearing the emotion from her voice. “Since he was never able to find his dad…we’re pretty much his only family.”
“Penny Parker,” Bozer said in a choked voice. “She’ll want to know.”
“What about anyone from MIT?” Riley interjected. “Anyone know if he has friends from there?”
“There might have been a list—“
“Stop it!” Jack shouted, cutting Bozer off and making them all jump. “All of you just shut up. I am not going to sit here and listen to you planning the guy’s funeral when he’s not dead.”
“Jack—“ Matty started.
“No, Matty,” Jack shook his head, pointing at her with the stained scarf wrapped around his hand. “You gave up. You gave up on him. But I’m not going to. I promised. I promised him that he wouldn’t be alone anymore and there is no fucking way I am willing to accept he died out there all by himself!”
“Agent Dalton, you need to calm—“
Jack whipped his head over to Dr. Banner. “Do not tell me to calm down, Doc. I feel fucking fabulous.”
“That’s thanks to the pain meds,” Banner told him, nodding to the nurse at his left. “You need your rest to continue to build up your platelet count.”
“Bullshit,” Jack started to pull the blanket covering his bandaged leg aside—purposely ignoring the fact that he couldn’t actually feel his legs at the moment. “I’m getting out of here and going to find my partner.”
Banner leaned over him, pressing him gently back into the bed. “Agent Dalton, please. We will need to sedate you if you do not calm down.”
“Doc, you come near me with a needle, I swear to God I’ll break it off,” Jack growled, causing Banner’s eyes to widen slightly. “My partner is out there somewhere—and he’s hurt and he’s alone and he thinks we’ve abandoned him because we fucking have.”
“Then where is he?” Banner asked, his voice softening. “Where, Jack?”
Jack stopped resisting Banner’s restraining hands, his eyes welling with frustrated tears, his breath coming hot and fast as panic wrapped around him with the force of a tsunami. “I can’t…I can’t remember.”
“Isn’t it possible that he did just what Director Webber said?” Banner pressed in the same, soft voice. “He saved you, he finished the mission.”
“You don’t know Mac,” Jack shook his head, his body trembling. “That kid could wrestle a hurricane to the ground with a paperclip and a stick of gum. I’m serious. He’s too good to get hit by a missile strike that he called in.”
“Then where is he?”
Jack felt a sob building in his chest. He pulled in a breath through his nose, shifting his attention from Banner to Bozer, then to Matty and Riley.
It was on him.
If he didn’t remember, they would have a memorial and call Mac a hero and move on with their lives as though MacGyver hadn’t been a fire inside them all; as though he wasn’t a comet streaking through their existence like a white-hot trail of possibilities and miracles.
Like they all hadn’t been completely changed just for knowing he was in the world.
“I…I can’t remember,” Jack sobbed, his face folding with grief. “I don’t know where he is.”
Banner released him, allowing him to sink back against the pillows, one hand covering his face. A moment later, Jack felt a sensation of cool liquid slip beneath his skin and looked over to see the nurse next to Banner had injected something into his IV.
“It’s just something to help you rest,” Banner reassured him. “Get a couple hours and you can talk to these guys some more.”
Riley picked up his hand and kissed his fingers. “Get some rest, Jack.”
Bozer gently patted his leg and wrapped his arm across Riley’s shoulder, leading her out after Dr. Banner and his nurse. Matty was the last to head toward the door.
She stopped, looking at him solemnly, waiting.
“Gimme a day…let me remember,” he pleaded, his head rolling back against the pillows.
Matty nodded. “Okay, Jack.”
“I can’t leave him out there…,” Jack said slowly, blinking slowly, his tongue heavy as the sedatives took effect. “I can’t leave him….”
“You didn’t, Jack,” Matty reassured him. “You let him save you.”
Jack felt his eyelids slip closed, the drugs coursing through his system, his battered mind seeking the solace of darkness, but instead finding dreams of fire, train tracks, and angry dogs.