Betrayal is the only truth that sticks.
- Arthur Miller
Somewhere between Sao Paulo and Berlin
It started because of a paperclip. Or, really, the lack of one.
Jack could see Mac’s fingers twitching out of the corner of his eyes. The subtle shh-shh of callouses against denim in the too-quiet interior of the plane was keeping Jack from the rest his body needed. Forcing himself to exhale slowly before shifting in his seat, Jack checked his watch.
They’d been awake for over twenty-four hours. Correction: Mac had been awake for over twenty-four hours. Jack was able to sleep on the plane. In the back of a truck bumping over the back roads of Brazil. Even leaning up against the wall of a millionaire’s man cave waiting for the bad guys to show up. It might not have been the healing, restful slumber he enjoyed wrapped in his IKEA duvet, but it was sleep.
Mac, though. He didn’t sleep. Not really. Not until the mission was complete.
Problem was, over the last week, they’d been burning through missions like chain-smoking nicotine addicts.
“Hey, bud,” Jack said softly, registering Mac’s slight flinch at the sound of his voice in the quiet.
“Thought you were sleeping,” Mac replied, not looking away from the window and the darkness.
Jack wondered what he was seeing, looking out into all that black.
“You’re thinking too loud for me to sleep,” Jack complained. “Want to tell me what’s going on in that big brain of yours?”
“Berlin,” Mac replied, this time sparing Jack a brief glance. “You know…where we’re headed? Formula for dangerous explosives, rich psycho, black market, any of that ringing a bell?”
Jack ignored the undercurrent of sarcasm lacing Mac’s words and shifted so that he could slouch sideways in the seats, his boots up on the aisle armrest.
“Sounds vaguely familiar,” Jack tilted his head. “’course…kinda all blends together with the bank robbers in San Juan last week, and the corrupt religious sect in Islamabad three days ago, and a different rich psycho in Sao Paulo yesterday.”
Mac offered him the concession of a half grin, his head bouncing once. He was quiet for another moment, then, “You think Bozer’s okay?”
Jack swallowed, frowning at the way Mac’s voice thinned with the question, worry turning him young in four words. “Yeah, he’s fine. I separated my shoulder plenty of times.”
“Yeah, but…,” Mac shrugged. “We’re soldiers.” He glanced over at Jack. “We’re built for this.”
Jack scoffed. “No one is built for this, bud. I ain’t had a drink of whiskey or slept in a bed in ten days,” he quoted with a grin.
Mac chuckled. “Nice one.”
“Think of it like this: Bozer and Riley are back in the LA sunshine, kicking back with a brewski—“
“Or anti-inflammatory and pain meds,” Mac interjected.
“You say potato…,” Jack grinned, tilting his head. “C’mon, man. He’s fine. He just needs some down time.” He sighed, dragging a hand down his face. “Shit. We all do.”
“Maybe we’ll get it after this mission,” Mac said softly, hope clear in his tone as he bounced his fingers against the sides of his legs.
Jack had never wanted a box of paperclips more in his life. Something, anything to give his partner some way to channel his energy, to keep himself focused and present. Mac pulled a piece of paper from the file in the pocket of the seat in front of him and began to fold it.
Jack watched this kid’s hands partly in awe, partly in irritation. Mac wasn’t even looking at what he was doing; he was staring out through the window into the night once more, but his fingers never stopped moving until he had what looked like a small bird sitting in the palm of his hand.
“If I give you my phone to turn into a toaster, will you settle down?” Jack asked, only half teasing.
Mac looked over in surprise. “What?”
“You’re like this big ol’ ball of nervous energy.” Jack waved his hand to indicate Mac’s lanky frame. “It’s downright distracting.”
“Sorry,” Mac frowned. “Besides, I’d need more than your phone if you wanted a toaster; the battery isn’t enough of a heating conductor to—“
“Oh my God,” Jack huffed, pulling his cell phone from his back pocket and tossing it toward Mac. “Go up there and show the pilots how you can increase the average airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow with my phone and your origami thingie there.”
MacGyver caught the phone with a sideways grin that accented his dimple, then slid out from his seat. “You know, you’re kind of bossy when you’re sleep deprived.”
“Git,” Jack jerked his chin in the direction of the cockpit and watched as Mac made his way to the front of the plane.
Crossing his arms over his chest, Jack closed his eyes and settled back against the wall of the plane, his legs stretched out across the narrow aisle so that his boots rested on the seat Mac had just vacated. He was about three deep breaths from dropping off when he felt a vibration against his boot. Frowning, he opened one eye and looked across the aisle. Seeing nothing, he straightened up and saw Mac had indeed situated himself in the cockpit with the pilots.
The vibration repeated and Jack sat forward, realizing that it was Mac’s phone. He’d left it in the seat when he’d taken Jack’s—why the kid could never use his own phone for his cockamamie plans, Jack would never know. Grabbing the phone, Jack flipped it over. He knew Mac’s numeric code as well as his own: it was the first five numbers in his Army serial number.
Typing in 24601, Jack frowned at the amount of missed calls and texts. He opened Mac’s call history—repelling the little voice in his head that scolded him for this invasion of privacy with a louder argument that he was watching out for Mac. There were eight missed calls and twelve texts from Carlos.
Thinking about the fact that last time he’d seen Mac’s Army buddy back in Puerto Rico, the guy had a barely-healed bullet wound in his leg, Jack checked once more to make sure Mac was still in the cockpit and then listened to the last of the three voicemails Carlos had left him.
“Hey, Mac, it’s me again. Uh…yeah, so I just wanted to make sure you were okay, man. You just…you seemed off when you left and…uh, I know your job’s not the safest and all, but…. It was…it was good to see you, man. I owe you, y’know. A lot. Just…call me back, okay?”
Jack leaned his elbows on his knees and hung his head.
Carlos was right; Mac had been off in Puerto Rico. When he’d learned that his friend was in that bank, Mac had all-but jumped out of the car to turn himself into a hostage, his full focus on getting Carlos out of there with little regard for himself. It hadn’t been much different when they left San Juan for Pakistan and Mac had come up with an inspired method for diffusing the volatile situation in Islamabad, and then saved Bozer’s hide with a shield built out of modern art in Sao Paulo yesterday.
Jack had talked with Freddie Tillerman before they’d left for San Juan, seeking ways to help his partner cope with the things life had thrown his way in the last few years. The former sniper turned VA group therapist had reported that Mac had been showing up to group more frequently, but wasn’t any more forthcoming with details of the darkness haunting him. Freddie had seemed worried, but controlled, cautioning Jack to not take on too much of Mac’s pain, even if it was still very much a part of the younger man’s life.
Taking a breath, Jack crawled out of the seat and moved to the back of the plane before dialing Carlos. He didn’t register the time difference until Carlos’ sleep-heavy voice answered.
“Hey, no, man, it’s Jack Dalton.”
Carlos cleared his throat and Jack heard rustling in the background as Carlos changed locations. “Is Mac okay? Why are you calling from his phone?”
“Yeah, he’s fine, man. Look,” Jack sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m sorry for waking you up. We’ve been on the road since we left you and I kinda forgot about time zones.”
“It’s okay,” Carlos replied, and Jack heard the man utter a low hiss of pain as he moved. Jack knew that leg wound wasn’t going to be very comfortable for a while. “What’s up?”
“I kinda…listened to your voicemail,” Jack confessed, wincing.
Carlos paused. “You’re worried about him, too.”
“Yeah, man, I am.”
“Worried enough to get him some R&R?”
Jack leaned his forehead against the wall. “Yeah…this job. It don’t really work that way.”
“He got a VA counselor?” Carlos asked.
“A counselor—someone to talk to.”
Jack frowned, thinking of Freddie. “Nobody official, but yeah. He’s got someone.” Pulling away from the wall, he shifted so that he could see down the aisle and into the cockpit where he saw Mac laughing at something the co-pilot said. “Why? What aren’t you telling me?”
“You knew I met Mac when he first joined up—before he’d finished EoD training,” Carlos started.
“Yeah, I knew.”
“Well…there was this day early on—one of those ones that just…twist you up and you gotta…you gotta find somewhere inside of you to just stuff everything about that day away.”
Jack felt a knot of ice grow in his gut as he listened, watching Mac as he leaned his elbows on his knees to get closer to something the pilot was pointing at on the instrument panel.
“Yeah, I know those days.”
“We were out on a routine patrol, but…the convoy had to be rerouted. We lost three of our guys—one of them bled out in Mac’s arms. He’d just met the guy the day before but…y’know. Still.”
“Yeah,” Jack managed.
“After that day he started doing this…this thing. Like he’d kinda fade out. Get this look on his face like he was a million miles away.”
“I’m familiar,” Jack said quietly, thinking of Bozer telling him about a twelve-year-old boy with a thousand-yard stare.
“Only one who could reach him, really, was Pena—he was his CO,” Carlos offered.
“Anyway, Pena just…he saw the same thing the rest of us did, but he knew what to do about it. He gave Mac a box of paperclips—I remember he told Mac that when it comes to bomb dispersal, sometimes a paperclip can be the difference between walking away and going home in a box.”
Jack swallowed, eyes on MacGyver, head tipped back against the wall of the plane.
“The way Mac messed with those paperclips, man…it’s like the way some of the guys I knew used things like…snapping a rubber band on their wrist to keep them present, break them out of a flashback. You know.”
“You think Mac has PTSD?”
Jack was quiet for a moment. “What happened in that bank, man?”
“Most of it you know,” Carlos replied, his sigh tired and lean—the sound of a man who’d been stretched too thin to bounce back. “But there was this moment…after Mac patched me up and managed to get a few people out. He just went dead-eyed on me.”
Jack felt the ice in his gut grow until he was almost shivering from it.
“He stepped up, stopped the main guy from killing one of the bank tellers, and got his ass beat for it, too,” Carlos revealed.
“He never said,” Jack muttered, his brows meeting over the bridge of his nose. “I mean, his face was a bit bruised up, but….”
“I thought you guys had him checked out when you took me to medical,” Carlos commented, sounding slightly dismayed. “That guy whaled on him, man. I’m talking cracked ribs, at the minimum.”
“Don’t worry,” Jack reassured. “I got him.”
“When he took those guys back down that hall with his coffee pot full of nitro or whatever it was, he just…he looked at me,” Carlos continued. “And there was…. His eyes looked….”
“Hollow,” Jack finished, thinking about the moments after Argentina. I should have stayed and kept trying. After Canada. I don’t know what to do with this…hole. Inside me. After Mexico. I messed up, Jack. A lot, lately.
Mac was working on it, Jack knew. Dealing, reconnecting, healing. He’d been trying. But their lives didn’t really allow for healthy coping mechanisms.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Carlos agreed. “Hollow. I’ve seen too many guys slip through the cracks, y’know? They just…,” he sighed. “They act like they have it all under control. They have it all together. But…they’re just. They’re breaking. Inside. Where no one sees. Until it’s too late. And we lose them.”
“We’re not losing Mac,” Jack vowed, his voice tight with promise. “I am watching his back, and I’m damn good at my job.”
“I know, man,” Carlos allowed, sighing. “And I’m glad he’s got you.”
“You’re a good friend, Carlos,” Jack said, seeing Mac shift as though preparing to stand. “I’m going to make sure Mac calls you back, okay?”
“Thanks, Jack,” Carlos said. “Just…take care of him, yeah?”
Jack clicked off Mac’s phone and tossed it back into the seat just as Mac stood and started to turn toward the back of the plane. Jack stepped to the side, appearing to have just vacated the plane’s restroom, and nodded toward Mac.
“We getting close?”
Mac nodded. “Yeah. Landing in Berlin in about thirty minutes. You get some rest?”
“I’m good,” Jack grinned, slapping the flat of his hands against his belly, willing the ice to melt.
It was barely dawn when they exited the plane and ran toward the hanger where the Phoenix was to have a vehicle waiting for them. The ‘80’s model Volkswagen wasn’t really Jack’s idea of dependable transportation, but it was better than hoofing it into the city. He tossed his rucksack and rifle into the back seat and slid behind the wheel.
“No keys,” he muttered, his palm tapping against the ignition. He tipped the visor down, hoping, but nothing. He glanced to the side at Mac, who was half-sitting in the passenger seat. “Matty give you the keys?”
“What’s the matter?” Mac pulled the side of his mouth up in a half grin. “You can’t hotwire it?”
Jack reached down and pulled several loose wires forward. They’d been stripped beyond repair; clearly this car had been through a few drop sites.
“Can you?” Jack challenged.
“Give me a minute….”
Mac slid out of the car and stood for a moment, hands on hips, eyes rapidly skimming the contents of the old hanger. Jack just watched the kid think. There were times he imagined his partner’s brain to be a revving engine, only idling when he slept. And, based on what he’d shared of his dreams, not much even then.
When he was working to solve a problem, like he was now, Mac’s mental tachometer buried itself in the red.
“This thing is toast, bud,” Jack shook his head. “Let’s just hoof it.”
Mac shook his head. “That’s like…what, five klicks?”
Jack pulled out a laminated map from his TAC vest. “At least.”
“Then same amount back to exfil…,” he sighed, then allowed his shoulders to slouch. “I’m too tired for that,” he confessed in a rare burst of vulnerability.
“Maybe we’ll find another set of wheels along the way,” Jack offered, leaning across the torn bucket seats and peering out at Mac.
The younger man glanced at the worn-out Volkswagen over his shoulder. “Naw, this thing’s still got some life in it.” He rotated, one boot heel digging a furrow in the dirt. “Sometimes things are hidden under the surface. You just gotta know how to bring ‘em out.”
Jack saw the moment the solution hit the kid; Mac jogged to the far end of the hanger and was back in minutes with what looked like a screw driver and a cable.
“Pop the hood,” he ordered.
Jack started to comply when the release came off in his hand. “Uh….”
Mac looked up from the front of the car, his eyebrows folded in confusion. They smoothed out when Jack held up the release.
“This whole mission is like Murphy’s Law, I swear to God,” Mac muttered.
Jack climbed out of the car, watching his partner closely. Mac was their problem solver; having the kid defeated by a challenge even a little bit did not sit well with him.
“Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” Jack shrugged. “Hand me your knife.”
Eyebrows puckered once more in confusion, Mac handed him his Swiss Army knife. Jack slid his hand under the front grill of the hood until he found what he was looking for, then pulled out the screwdriver attachment from the Swiss Army knife and carefully removed the latch. Mac caught on quickly and moved around to the side of the hood, helping Jack lift the piece of metal.
Eyeing the engine, MacGyver tilted his head. “Let’s just take the whole thing off,” he said, nodding toward where the hood joint met the engine frame.
Jack complied, setting the hood to the side, then watched as Mac returned to what was left of the engine. The thing was a mess—it almost looked like someone had stripped it for parts. He was about to suggest walking once more when Mac pulled off his TAC vest then the outer layer of his shirts.
“I need a filter,” Mac said, reaching back between his shoulder blades and pulling his T-shirt off over his head. “Didn’t think you’d want to give me your sock.”
“Not especially, no,” Jack agreed, frowning at the faded bruises he could see wrapping around Mac’s left side. He thought about what Carlos had said and couldn’t help but wonder why Mac had kept quiet through two other jobs about his obviously wounded ribs.
Mac draped his T-shirt over the engine block, then turned to grab his long-sleeved shirt from where he’d dropped it. The rising sun hit his skin and Jack exhaled slowly as his eyes caught the scars that littered his young partner’s chest and torso.
A bullet wound from two years ago, when they thought they’d lost Nikki, and one from Murdoc claiming to save Mac’s life. A puncture hole from the thoracotomy Jack himself had been forced to perform on his partner, another puncture hole from where an arrow had pierced Mac’s side, a long, pink line from where a bullet graze had nearly ended his life and the seam from the wound drain that had helped save it.
Pausing in the act of pulling his long-sleeved shirt back over his head, Mac caught Jack’s eyes and froze.
“Nothing,” Jack shook his head. “Just waitin’ on you, brother.”
“Why’re you looking at me like you’re pissed off, then?” Mac grumbled, tugging his shirt in place and grabbing his TAC vest.
Because the kid bore too many scars for his age. And these were just the ones Jack could see in a five second glance. But Jack couldn’t say that, not now. If Mac was already confessing to being too worn out for a ten mile round-trip, the last thing he needed was even the idea that Jack was upset about something.
“Clearly you need to brush up on your Jack Dalton expressions, my man,” Jack said, bouncing his elbow against Mac’s side as the kid bent over the engine once more, his discarded T-shirt gripped in one hand. “That is not my pissed off face. That is my, I’m ready for burgers and beers face.”
Mac huffed a small laugh. “Yeah, I hear you. Let me get this thing started and we’ll be one step closer to being home.”
“Unless Matty has other ideas,” Jack grumbled.
“Go back behind the wheel,” Mac ordered, sliding the T-shirt over the air intake and grabbing the cable he’d scrounged from the hanger earlier.
Jack did as he was told, wondering what his partner was going to be able to do with stripped wires from four decades ago. When the cable appeared between his boots from beneath the car’s dash, Jack’s eyebrows went up.
Mac was completely re-routing the entire electrical system.
“Grab that, will ya?” His voice echoed dully from within the engine block.
Jack reached down. “Yep, got it.”
Peering through the windshield, he saw Mac was practically lying across the engine, his head and shoulders tucked into the engine block. Jack tilted his head. He supposed desperation did tend to make one sort of flexible.
After a few more minutes of clanging and several impressive curses emitting from within the dusty, worn-out engine, Mac was back in the passenger seat, leaning down below the dash near Jack’s feet. Jack didn’t miss the low grunt of discomfort as Mac folded his lean body to get to the wires needed.
“You okay, bud?”
“Fine,” Mac replied, his voice strained as he reached up beneath the dash and practically into the engine itself. As Jack watched, Mac pulled out his Swiss Army knife once more, tugged on some other wires not easily accessed beneath the steering column, and stripped two of the wires. “Just…strained some muscles.”
“You sure that’s it?”
The wires sparked twice and then the engine turned over. Jack watched as Mac twisted the wires together, then pressed his hand on the dash to push himself upright.
“I’m sure,” he exhaled. He looked over at Jack, his face flushed from exertion. “What else would it be?”
Jack shrugged, sliding the car into gear and pulling forward. “Just…you’re still sporting some bruises from that bank job is all.”
“That was a week ago,” Mac scoffed. “I’m fine.”
Jack let it go, trying to take a page out of Mac’s book and compartmentalize Carlos’ worried tone and cautionary words. They headed down the back road marked on the map provided by the Phoenix; Jack supposed it was a lucky thing the tank actually had gas in it with the way this mission had started. Avoiding traffic, Jack took a few more narrow side roads, but after slipping through one deserted intersection, Mac’s T-shirt filter came loose.
“Lemme pull over,” Jack offered as the engine coughed and sputtered.
“That’ll take too long,” Mac shook his head, leveraging his body through the window and reaching to hold the T-shirt in place.
“What the hell—!“ Jack muttered, reaching over to grab the back of his partner’s belt and keep him from face-planting on a German road. “You got a death wish or something?”
“Just keep driving,” Mac called back. “I can fix this.”
“Damn kid,” Jack muttered, keeping hold of Mac until the younger man ducked back into the car. He met Mac’s sunny grin with a glower. They were going to have a serious talk about safety protocols when this mission was complete, that was for damn sure.
Their mission was simple enough: break into the office of some Berlin big wig named Rainer and steal a formula for some kind of liquid explosive—Jack didn’t need all the fancy words Matty rattled off…all he needed to know was that it could level a city block—before he completed a sale on the black market. In theory, a milk run.
Which is why it was such a surprise when things went so very wrong.
After hiding the car, they made it inside the office without incident; however, when Jack inadvertently triggered a silent alarm, they were faced with the choice of either getting out with their hides intact, or risk getting compromised while breaking into the wall safe and stealing the formula.
Jack knew which option had his vote. He held his gun at the ready, eyes on the only entrance.
“How about I charge ‘em before they get in here while you head for the exit?” Jack offered.
“We’re not leaving here without that formula,” Mac practically growled, crouched next to Jack, his eyes darting around the room, his mind once more running at 5,000 mph. “I got an idea.”
“You need my phone?”
Mac shook his head, grabbing a pen and stapler from the desk.
“My gun? My TAC vest? My sock?”
Focused on his solution, Mac moved away, heading for the wall safe.
Jack sighed, lifting the barrel of his weapon to sight on the door. “Guess I’ll just stand here and look pretty, then.”
It appeared the Phoenix hadn’t accounted for the increased security around something that was going for $1.5M on the black market. The moment Mac opened the safe, the room began to fill with a noxious gas and Mac was suddenly shouting at him, pushing at his shoulder toward a door Jack knew was covered by men with really big guns on the other side.
But, apparently guns were preferable to whatever it was being pumped into the room because for a skinny guy, Mac was wicked strong when his mind was set on something. In moments they were outside the office, hands raised in surrender to four well-armed guards.
“That did not go as planned,” Jack grumbled as his weapon was pulled forcibly from his hands.
“I’m sorry, Jack,” Mac shook his head, stumbling a bit as he was pushed forward by one of the armed men.
Two of the armed men took the lead, two behind, boxing Mac and Jack in between them. The hallway leading away from the now-sealed, gas-filled office was narrow, security lights flickering on and off as they walked, giving their path an eerie overtone. They were being escorted, but Jack was hard-pressed to say where.
Or to whom.
“I should have seen it,” Mac was muttering, almost to himself. “There was a wire and I knew as soon as I pulled the door…but I didn’t think, I just…I was trying to see all the angles, but this one I missed—“
“Whoa, easy there, bud,” Jack soothed, walking next to Mac, hands in the air. “No one’s expecting you to be all knowing.”
“Yeah, but I—“
The man behind Mac growled something in German and cracked the butt of his weapon against Mac’s back, causing the kid to stumble and careen slightly against the wall of the hallway.
“Hey!” Jack protested, reacting out of instinct. He turned, grabbed the weapon, and shoved the stock into the guard’s face, breaking his nose and splattering blood everywhere. “That was unnecessary.”
“Jack!” Mac called out a warning just before two of the other men turned their weapons on the ex-Delta.
Jack ducked just as Mac lunged and suddenly the close-quarter combat training that the Phoenix forced them to go through each month came in handy. Mac moved until his back was against Jack’s and they fought as though their moves were choreographed. Jack felt Mac’s back muscles coil as he swung a fist and he shifted his hips telegraphing to Mac when he was about to land a round-house kick.
In minutes they’d taken out two of the guards—one of them the unfortunate individual who’d hit Mac, starting this ruckus in the first place. Jack was about to grin at his partner, in his mind a half-formed plan of escape, when one of the remaining guards swung the barrel of his rifle like a bat and caught Jack across the temple.
Jack dropped. Hard.
It was as if the blow had turned something off inside of him. He was swimming through a black sea of pain, his body refusing to respond to any of his desperate commands. He tried to call out, tried to pull himself to full consciousness, but it was to no avail.
He felt as though he were trapped behind a two-way mirror.
A part of him was aware of being dragged, of desperate hands at his face, his neck, of being lifted, of a voice laced with panic and pain calling his name. But another part of him was floating in darkness, lighting strikes of pain slicing from his head through his heart and out of his fingertips.
He wanted to scream, to cry, to curl up until he was small and unseen.
Then there was nothing. For a long expanse of time. Stretching out around him like the barren landscape of the moon.
It felt like dying.
Like everything he knew and everything he meant was simply blanketed by an impenetrable darkness and he was lost. Silent and still. No voice, no contact, no pain.
“…not ready to let you go.”
He knew that voice. He’d been listening for it. Mac.
“They said if you wake up, you’re going to be okay, so, uh….”
God, the kid sounded wrecked. He hadn’t heard him sound this rough in a while.
“…you gotta wake up, okay? ‘Cause…I can’t….”
Mac was quiet for a bit and Jack realized with a fair amount of surprise that he was no longer in the hallway of the pyscho rich guy’s office, but rather in a bed. Something soft and sterile-smelling. It didn’t…feel like home. But somehow he knew he was safe.
Which meant Mac was safe. Which meant he could relax and…god damn, but his head hurt something fierce. It would be so nice to just slip back under the comfortable waves of darkness. Just go back to that place where it was quiet and painless—
“Please, Jack. I know I screwed up, man. I am so, so sorry. But…I really need you to wake up, okay?”
Jack tried, he really did. He wanted to open his eyes if only to erase that tone of desperation from Mac’s voice. He knew how to open his eyes, they just weren’t cooperating. He tried to move his hand, give Mac some sign that he was still here, still with him, but even that proved impossible.
At some point the darkness must have won out because the next time he heard Mac’s voice, he knew right away the kid was talking to someone else. Someone not him. There was an edge to the sound that was rarely present when he talked to Jack.
“…told you, I’m fine.”
“Well, that’s clearly untrue.” Matty. Using a unique mix of her I’m your boss so I know best and I care about what happens to you tones. “If you’re not going to get some sleep, how about you let me sit with him and you go get your hand wrapped at least?”
“This is nothing, Matty,” Mac resisted. “I’ve had worse.”
“That doesn’t make it better, Blondie,” Matty sighed.
Jack could hear her voice move around to the other side of his bed. He could feel more things aside from the pain in his head this time. Like the fact that there was tape on his face. And oxygen blowing through his nose. And something pinching the bend of his arm. And there was an annoyingly incessant beep from off to his left, near where Mac’s voice was coming from.
And that was another thing. He could feel Mac’s hand in his, the long fingers wrapped around his palm, fingers curled into a grip that made a statement. This kid wasn’t going anywhere.
“Look,” Mac said, a tired sigh slipping around the words. “I get that you’re trying to take care of your assets, but…I did this. I need to be here.”
Jack practically felt Matty’s ire stand at attention. “You did this.”
Mac was quiet.
“You took the barrel of an HK MP5 and cracked your partner’s skull.”
“You know what I mean,” Mac grumbled.
Matty was quiet this time.
Jack tried to open his eyes again, but as before, nothing worked. He couldn’t even twitch his fingers. He started to wonder if something was really wrong with him—was he having an out of body experience? But…he couldn’t see anything. He could only lie here, feeling his pulse beat against his temple, and listen to his partner bleed pain all over the room with every word.
“What are you doing?” Mac was asking.
“Calling someone who can talk some sense into you.”
Jack heard the sound of a ring tone on a speaker phone and then moments later Bozer’s voice swam up through the unnatural quiet in the room.
“Bozer,” Matty’s voice became brittle. “I have someone here who needs you to talk to him.”
“Hey, Boze,” Mac replied, and Jack could hear his walls slamming down. The vulnerability he’d shown earlier begging for Jack to wake was replaced by the protective shell—the alternate version of himself that was always at the ready. “How’s the arm?”
“Arm’s fine, man. How are you?”
“He’s exhausted and needs medical attention,” Matty answered for him.
“It’s not that bad,” Mac protested. Jack felt the hand in his shift, fingers tightening as though anchoring himself in case, through the power of his voice alone, Bozer would be able to take him away from Jack.
“Are we talking blowing-up-the-school-gym not that bad, or wrecking-your-bike-on-Harlow-Road not that bad?”
Neither option sounded all that great to Jack.
“Uh…the first one?”
“How’s Jack?” Riley. Jack felt his mind tighten up at the sound of her voice, but the beep remained steady, his body unresponsive, his hand lax were it lay in Mac’s grip.
“He’s…still out,” Mac replied, his voice betraying the tension that practically shook his frame through his fingers. “They said if he wakes up—“
“When,” Matty broke in. “He’s going to wake up, Mac.”
Mac was quiet.
“Heard you pulled some serious Van Damme shit on a couple of dudes,” Bozer said.
Jack felt Mac’s fingers tighten.
“Seriously, Bozer? Van Damme?” Riley scoffed.
“What? Dude took out three guards! Who’s better than Jean Claude? Segal?”
“Bozer,” Matty snapped. “This is not why I called you.”
“Right. Uh…sorry, Matty,” Bozer back-pedaled. “So, look. Matty’s there now, Mac. How ‘bout you go get some rest?”
“You guys want to know who’s better than Van Damme?” Mac was saying, completely bypassing Bozer’s very logical suggestion. “Dalton.”
There was a strangely disconnected tone to the kid’s voice. It made Jack focus every effort on curling his fingers around Mac’s, fear slicing through him when he was still unable to move.
“He’s saved my ass more times than any of you will ever know,” Mac continued. “I mean, Matty knows some, sure. Files and reports and…whatever. But…none of you were over there. None of you ever saw what this man did to keep me alive in Afghanistan. Every damn day.”
He spoke as though he was claiming territory in a battle they’d not yet started to fight. Jack felt the hairs on his arm stand up where Mac’s skin brushed his. He needed to open his eyes, to show this kid he wasn’t losing him. If he’d been able to make a sound, he would have shouted in frustration in that moment.
“Mac…,” Bozer started, but a quiet shhh in the background told anyone listening that Riley was picking up on Mac’s need to just…talk.
The kid didn’t open up often, but when he did those closest to him knew to listen.
“There was this one time when I was…stubborn. He’d probably say I was being a dumbass, but…. Anyway, I got cornered by four hostiles and Jack…he, uh,” the strangled sound of Mac’s voice tightened something in Jack’s chest, “he was still watching out for me. He took out four guys with two bullets. I mean…who else do you know who can do that, huh?”
“Not many,” Matty admitted softly.
Jack registered a change to her tone, then realized it was reflecting the shift in Mac’s. The kid’s hand was getting heavier in his, and Jack felt warmth against his leg that he registered as Mac’s body, probably leaning on the bed.
“He might…y’know…clown around a lot, but,” Mac sniffed and Jack heard him clear his throat. The level of his partner’s exhaustion was evident then: Mac never allowed himself to be this exposed to anyone but Jack. “It’s all just…. That’s not really Jack. He’s like this…shield.”
“He is,” Matty agreed, almost as though she was willing to agree to anything if it got Mac to stand down.
A memory surfaced. One of Mac, broken and rain-soaked, admitting to staring down a darkness, and the only thing standing between it and him, was Jack.
“Y’know…my dad told me once,” Mac said, his voice getting deeper, his words slower, “he told me that with the right parts…you can make anything. No matter what happened to us over there, Jack, he…he always had the right parts, y’know?”
“Pretty sure he’d say the same thing about you,” Bozer replied.
Jack felt Mac shrug where he was slumped against his legs. “I always have to find them. Jack’s got them…inside. Like he always just…knows who he is and what he needs to be. No question.”
Mac was quiet for a moment and Jack realized they were all listening for him, waiting to see how long it would take until the kid gave in.
“I took my dog tags back,” Mac said suddenly.
The air in the room tightened a bit; Jack felt it press against his skin as Mac’s body became heavier against his legs. Matty hadn’t known this, Jack realized, and there wasn’t much she didn’t know. Jack felt his mind tense, his body remaining unresponsive.
“I saw,” Bozer informed them quietly from the speaker of Matty’s phone.
“I just…I couldn’t figure out…who I was, y’know? And…I don’t know. I’ve been looking for my dad so long…trying to figure out…why.”
“Why what, Mac?” Riley asked.
“Why he left me,” Mac sighed tiredly, and Jack felt the kid’s arm fold against his knee, his head lowering to pillow itself on the appendage. “Seemed like there should be some part of me. Something that was too much. Or not enough. I mean…we’re all just a series of choices, right? All of us. The only thing that makes us relevant in relation to our world are the choices we make. Every day.”
Leave it to the kid’s big brain to pull out something philosophical on an empty tank.
“Dunno. It’s stupid. Just…thought maybe if I could figure out why, it would help me make sense of…who I am.”
Mac was quiet for a moment and Jack wondered if he’d finally fallen asleep. But, then—
“If the Army can define us by the dog tags…maybe I could, too.”
Jack felt the weight against his leg increase, and the fingers wrapped around his palm relax. Save the beeping of the machine, the room was quiet for several minutes before Matty spoke again.
“Thanks, Bozer,” she said quietly.
“He asleep?” Bozer asked.
“Is Jack really okay?” Riley pressed.
Jack felt Matty hand on the side of his face. “He’s okay. Get some rest.”
He heard the click of the phone as she hung up on the other two, and with the heavy sigh that slipped from her diminutive frame he knew now would be the perfect time to open his eyes.
But he was just so tired.
“I know you’re in there, Dalton. You’re listening to everything we say,” Matty said quietly. “Don’t make a liar out of me. Our boy needs you.”
Jack wanted to nod, maybe offer her a flicker of an eyelash. Something. But the quiet of the room, the weight of Mac’s head on his leg, the comfort of his partner’s hand in his all conspired against him and he was once more floating in a semi-darkness that offered solace and healing.
This time Matty’s voice was less of a plea and more of an order. And something told him that he had better obey. He’d been sleeping long enough.
He blinked his eyes open, lashes gritty and clinging together. His body felt heavy, achy, and stiff. As if he’d been lying immobile for a long time. He flexed his hands, surprised to find them empty.
“There you are,” Matty said, her smile the first thing he saw when his vision cleared.
“Here I am,” Jack rasped, grateful when a straw was placed against his lips and the soothing coolness of ice water coated his dry throat. “Where’s here, exactly?”
“Army hospital, Frankfurt.” Matty hoisting herself up into a chair next to Jack’s bed.
“We’re still in Germany?”
Matty nodded. “You’ve been here three days. More or less unconscious.”
He reached up to where he felt tape pinching his skin. Running his fingers lightly over the two-inch gash that ran parallel to his hairline along his temple, he felt where they’d glued his skin together, using several butterfly bandages to keep the wound from re-opening.
One more scar to add to his collection.
“How long have you been here?” Jack frowned, leveraging himself a bit higher in his bed, wincing as his head protested.
“Two days,” she replied, her voice pitched almost purposefully low.
Jack noticed that the lights in the room were dimmed and the beeping he’d been hearing as a constant back-beat was muted. He was grateful—the way the pain in his head slid from his temple down his neck and wrapped around his chest told him he was going to be craving darkness and quiet for some time.
“Got on a plane the second I knew Mac got you out of that building alive and was trying to get you to the exfil with a cadre of Berlin’s finest on his tail.”
Jack felt tension flood his system, his muscles clenching at the mention of Mac’s name. His lungs slackened when Matty tipped her head to the side and Jack instinctively looked across the room to see the kid on a small sofa, his lanky frame folded up like he was all of twelve, a blanket pulled up to his shoulders.
Matty continued, despite Jack’s diverted attention. “The doctors said once you completely regained consciousness, they’d have a good idea of your recovery.”
“Why’s he all bruised up?” Jack asked, eyes skimming the purple mark on Mac’s cheek and the bandages wrapped around his visible hand.
Matty gave him that head-tilt-side-eyed look that always put him on guard. “What do you remember?”
Jack shrugged; thinking made his head pound and that was all kinds of not fun. “We got to the safe, bunch of guards grabbed us, and then…curtains.”
“I’m surprised you remember even that much. You have a severe concussion,” Matty informed him. “The rifle cracked your sphenoid bone; you were extremely lucky that you didn’t have a subdermal hematoma.”
“I…have no idea what you just said,” Jack confessed, “but I take it that means this headache ain’t going away soon.”
“Probably not,” Matty informed him. “And you’re off active duty for at least three weeks.”
“You mean we’re off active duty,” Jack corrected her, feeling his frown pull at the tape keeping the skin on the side of his face together.
“You and MacGyver are not one entity, Dalton, despite what you might think,” Matty raised an eyebrow.
Jack took another drink of water, then let his eyes stray back to where Mac was lying on the couch, looking worn out even in his sleep. “He took out those other guards, didn’t he?”
Matty paused before answering. “Yes.”
“You mean, did he use lethal force?”
“I mean,” Jack let his eyes drift over to his boss, leveling a look at her that had made fellow soldiers shudder, “how.”
“It appeared he was able to dismantle one of their weapons, then used one as a shield when the other fired, finally incapacitating the last guard before dragging you free.”
Hands at his face, his neck, being lifted, a voice laced with panic and pain calling his name.
Matty glanced over at Mac. “I came because...you were hurt, badly, and MacGyver was not handling it well.”
“’bout as well as I would have, I’m thinking,” Jack said quietly.
“When you’re feeling better, we really should discuss this codependency issue,” Matty muttered.
That triggered another memory, the sound of Mac’s voice pleading with him to wake.
…you gotta wake up, okay? ‘Cause…I can’t….
“Oh, that’s bullshit and you know it,” Jack sighed, letting his head drop back against his pillow, his gaze on Mac.
“Excuse me?” Matty retorted, clearly taken by surprise.
Jack slid his eyes over to meet Matty’s. “It’s not codependency. It’s…loyalty. Need. Obligation. It’s family, Matty.”
The connection between a young genius and the world-weary soldier was both a weight and a buoy. It tied them down and held them up and it had saved them more times than Jack could count. It was a bond that kept them alive…and made them willing to die.
“Jack, MacGyver is one of the most skilled agents we have,” Matty said, leaning forward, her arm pressed against the mattress. “He can solve problems that would defeat men twice his age with worlds more experience than he has.”
Jack just stared at her, waiting.
“But we need him to be a competent agent, able to function on his own no matter—“
“We?” Jack interrupted.
Matty pulled back slightly. “Oversight.”
Jack closed his eyes. “That’s not fair,” he said softly. “He’s been through so much—“
“Same could be said of any one of us,” Matty broke in.
“Not like Mac,” Jack cracked his eyes open, thinking of the kid’s scars. The ones visible, and the ones hidden, the ones not yet formed. He wanted to tell Matty about those scars…if only his head would just stop aching. “I could hear him, Matty,” he confessed quietly.
“Before,” Jack shifted uncomfortably. “It was like…being trapped inside myself. I felt his hand, felt him fall asleep across my leg.” He glanced at Matty. “Heard him talk about his dog tags.”
“You knew he took them from his personnel file, didn’t you?”
Jack nodded. “Found out back when he was stuck in Mexico. Kept ‘em with me until we got him back.”
Matty pressed her lips together, looking down. “Mac’s scars run deep,” she conceded, surprising him.
“You only get scars once you’ve healed,” Jack corrected.
He let his head rest against his pillow, bone tired despite having just woken up.
“That kid’s a walking wound, and if you can’t see that, you’re not looking close enough. He needs a break, Matilda. A real break—not building houses in Puerto Rico.” He closed his eyes. “I don’t think anyone really gets how much strength it takes to do what he does.”
Matty was quiet for long enough that Jack opened his eyes just to make sure she was still in the room.
“I’ll talk to Oversight. See if I can get orders changed,” she conceded, steel in her voice.
Jack narrowed his eyes. “Yeah, you do that.” He sighed; his vision was slipping a bit, imagined lights flashing in the corners of the room. “It’s not like we haven’t been kicking ass, right? Even if this last one was kind of a bust.”
Matty nodded, looking back over at Mac. “I argued against Berlin,” she said softly.
“Did you, now?” Jack blinked in surprise. “Why’s that?”
“Not enough intel, tenuous situation,” she shook her head, pushing up from the chair. “And agents who were too worn out to be on their game.”
“Well, that’s the truth,” Jack rubbed at his head. It felt both too big and not big enough. Like it was made of glass and if he blinked wrong, it would shatter. “How soon we going home?”
Matty started for the door. “I’m going to talk to your doctor now,” she said. “Keep an eye on our boy. I’ll get you back to the States as soon as I can.”
Mac slept through the rest of the day and into the night, with Jack fading in and out as various nurses and doctors came in to examine him. They removed his catheter and took him off of oxygen before letting him rest for the night. It was close to midnight before Jack heard Mac move.
He opened his eyes and watched as the blond rolled up on his elbow, his eyes on the floor, clearly thinking about standing. With a determined set to his shoulders, Mac braced his hands on the seat of the couch and began to push to his feet. Jack could see the moment every muscle in the kid’s body protested that decision when Mac caught his breath.
“That’s what you get for sleeping for twelve hours straight on a toddler bed.”
Mac’s head jerked up and the light that hit his eyes was reflected in the smile that slashed across his face. “Jack!”
“Is that my name? No one would tell me.”
The smile slid from his face as Mac went pale, and Jack started chuckling.
“I’m just playing with you, brother.”
Mac finally stood, his movements stiff. “That’s not even close to funny,” he grumbled, his voice scratchy from sleep.
“It was a little funny,” Jack protested, the grin feeling at home on his face.
Mac shuffled over to his bed, stretching his arms over his head and rolling his neck. He looked ridiculously young with his hair spun around his head like a cyclone and an imprint of a seam running across a sleep-rouged cheek.
“You got blood on your shirt, there, bud,” Jack lifted his chin to indicate the rust-colored smear along Mac’s shoulder.
“Isn’t mine,” Mac reassured him with a yawn that nearly split his face in half.
“So I heard,” Jack relaxed against the pillow when Mac dropped into the chair next to him. “You picked up a few fighting moves, huh?”
“You should know,” Mac bounced his head back. “You taught ‘em to me.”
“Glad you paid attention,” Jack grinned. “How’d you get me out of there, anyway?”
“I carried you,” Mac replied, his eyebrows folding slightly over the bridge of his nose as he rotated his right shoulder as though to illustrate a point. “You’re a lot heavier than you look.”
Jack patted his stomach. “It’s all muscle, hoss.” He eyed Mac closely. “Wait…are you still in the same clothes from the Op?”
Mac crossed his arms over his chest. “It was a mission, not a fashion show.”
Translation: I didn’t want to leave you.
Jack took a breath. “Go shower. Matty has a go bag over there with some clothes for you.”
“I’m okay,” Mac protested, frowning.
“I’m here to tell you that you are not,” Jack started to arch a brow, but stopped when it pulled at his broken skin. “You’re edging onto ripe, my man.”
Mac looked down at the floor. “Jack….”
“Hey,” Jack reached over and grabbed Mac’s knee. “I’m okay. I promise I’ll be right here when you get out.”
“You really scared me, man,” Mac said softly, dropping his gaze to his lap, his whole body tense.
Jack smiled softly. “I know. Definitely wasn’t in the plan to get my egg cracked.”
“You just…you just dropped. You weren’t moving and…,” Mac swallowed hard, his lower lip trembling as he pressed his mouth closed.
Jack felt his heart shake a bit as he watched Mac struggle to control his emotions. The kid rotated his neck, but kept his eyes down. Jack knew he was fighting to open one of those filing cabinets in his mind and shove that fear down deep.
“You got me out of there, though,” Jack pointed out, choosing not to think about Matty’s description of Mac’s rage, or the evidence of such on his partner’s hands and face.
“I, uh,” Mac cleared his throat, tilting his head a bit as though trying to find room inside for the words to escape. “I kinda lost it, though.”
“You saved us, bud,” Jack returned. “Just like you always do.”
Mac pinched the bridge of his nose. “It was different this time.”
“You mean because you didn’t build a helicopter out of a rubber band and a paper clip?” Jack leaned forward slightly as he gripped Mac’s knee tighter. “You used your training, and you got us out of there. You did your job, Mac. The end.”
Mac nodded, dropping his hand. He looked at Jack and nodded again, a heaviness in his blue eyes that made Jack’s heart ache, before offering Jack a small smile of concession.
“I’ll go grab a shower.”
He was still moving slowly as he grabbed the go bag and headed into the small bathroom, but Jack felt better when he heard the water turn on. He tried to stay awake, wanting to wait until Mac came back out to see how the kid was doing, but found his eyes slipping closed in minutes.
When he woke next, Mac was back on the couch across the room, dressed in black sweats and a gray Henley, but instead of being folded up on the impossibly small seat, he was reading something on his phone, the light illuminating his face and drawing shadows along the angles of his cheekbones. He didn’t notice Jack’s stare, so Jack allowed himself to sink back into to sleep, knowing that it was the quickest way to heal.
Matty negotiated their release from the German hospital two days later, with the promise that Jack would rest and check in with the Phoenix doctor regularly over the next two weeks. He’d felt stronger each time he woke up, but the whispers of a migraine haunted him after he’d been up for more than a few minutes.
This concussion stuff was a bitch.
Jack didn’t argue the wheelchair this time. Mostly because he wasn’t entirely sure he’d be able to walk in a straight line.
“Sorry,” Mac muttered when the wheelchair bumped over an uneven threshold on their route to the transport.
“Dude, it’s fine,” Jack shook his head. “I’m not made of glass.”
Mac didn’t reply, just took the next transom crossing exceptionally slow. In truth, Jack’s biggest concern during the last couple of days had been his young partner. Their entire stay in the German hospital, the blond had been a man of few words. He wasn’t much of a talker anyway, Jack conceded, but this was a heavy kind of quiet.
He’d frequently checked on Jack, obliging the older man with information and the typical responses in their banter, but…there was something off. Something missing.
Unfortunately, they hadn’t been alone much—between Matty and a hyper-vigilant hospital staff, Jack wasn’t able to find time to convince Mac to open up about whatever was on his mind. He held his questions in check, knowing there would be time when they got back. He doubted the young genius was going to leave him alone before he was completely cleared by the doctors.
Jack eased himself into the back of the black SUV, Mac next to him, and Matty in front with the driver. The ride to the hanger where the Phoenix jet waited for them was quiet. Jack peered at his partner, watching as Mac once more stared out through the window as he had in the plane on the way to Berlin; this time, however, the darkness was in his eyes.
Jack had to admit he’d never seen eyes that blue carry so many shadows.
“So, I’ve been thinking,” Jack said softly, drawing Mac’s attention. “Freddie’s got a fishing cabin up in like…Oregon or Washington. Someplace like that.”
“Yeah?” Mac replied, a half-smile pulling up the corner of his mouth.
“I say we go up there for a few days. Commune with nature a bit.”
Mac huffed a laugh. “You hate nature.”
“I do not,” Jack protested, smacking Mac on the chest with the backs of his fingers. “I just prefer…y’know. Room service.”
Mac’s smile widened and he looked back toward the window. “Yeah, okay,” he agreed good-naturedly. “Assuming Matty gets my orders changed.”
“Oh, she will, won’tcha, Matty?” Jack raised his voice so that it carried toward the front of the car.
Matty didn’t bother to respond, but Jack saw the bemused shake of her head. When they reached the tarmac, Jack moved gingerly up the stairs and to the back of the plane. Matty positioned herself up toward the cockpit and immediately pulled out her laptop.
“Want to stretch out?” Mac said, offering the couch.
“See, this is the life right here,” Jack grinned, sitting down and kicking his legs up on the seat as Mac grabbed a pillow and blanket from the overhead bin. “Finally getting treated in the manner I deserve.”
“I swear if you say you should have cracked your head open sooner, I’m going up to sit with Matty,” Mac threatened, his lips quirking.
Jack eased back against the pillow Mac positioned behind his neck. “Naw, bud. I’d trade sleeping in the barracks listening to you snore any day over this damn headache.”
Mac sat down at the foot of the couch, turned sideways so that he could lean against the bank of seats behind him and still see Jack. “Is it bad?”
“Let’s just say I have a general idea of what it felt like when Benny Dyson got his head shoved into a C-clamp during shop class.”
Mac grimaced. “I’m sor—“
“Mac, I swear to God if you apologize one more time, I’m going to go up and sit with Matty.”
Mac chuffed. “Yeah, okay.”
“We’re good, okay? I swear,” Jack held out a fist and watched as Mac instinctively lifted his right hand before quickly shifting to his left. “How’s the hand?”
“It’s…been better.” Mac flexed his fingers, turning his hand over to stare at his bruised knuckles. He’d removed the bandage the day before. “Y’know, people never really get how much it hurts to punch someone in the face.”
“I hear that,” Jack nodded. “You need to talk about it?”
Mac shook his head.
“You sure?” Jack crossed his arms over his chest, watching as Mac slumped a bit further in the seat so that his head rested on the back of the couch.
“Maybe later,” Mac conceded. “I kinda just want to forget about it for a little while.”
“Mmmm-hmm,” Jack nodded, waiting as Mac’s eyes slipped shut. “You know that never works all that great for guys like us.”
“I know,” Mac replied tiredly.
The plane’s take-off pressed them both back into their seats and Jack fought back a groan at the added pressure on his sensitive head.
“Get some sleep,” Mac suggested, yawning and shifting until he was tucked comfortably into the corner of the couch. Jack decided not to comment on the fact that there were four empty rows of seats and yet Mac chose to situate himself at the foot of the couch where Jack was stretched out. “It’s a long flight.”
“I will if you will,” Jack countered.
Mac sighed. “I’ll try,” he replied, eyes still closed. “And…I don’t snore.”
“Oh, you snore,” Jack replied, snuggling down further into the couch and closing his eyes. “Trust me.”
The flight back to the States passed in no time—especially since both agents slept the entire way. Jack honestly couldn’t have testified as to Mac’s snoring this time; he was out and only jerked awake when the wheels touched down. What surprised him, though, was that he had to physically shake Mac awake.
The kid was usually so hyper-aware he registered the change in cabin pressure during the descent. Jack kept his hand on Mac’s shoulder until the glaze of sleep disappeared from Mac’s eyes and he wasn’t looking around the plane with a shaky balance of panic and confusion.
“We’re home, brother,” Jack said softly. “You with me?”
“Yep,” Mac said quickly, pushing upright in the seat. “Yep, I’m good.”
He offered Jack a plastic smile, but it was enough for Jack to remove his hand and step back.
Gathering their things—which mainly consisted of their TAC vests and the go bag Matty had brought, now filled with their bloody clothes—they headed down the stairs and onto the tarmac, walking slowly, in step with each other, toward the hanger.
It was just before dusk in Los Angeles. The light had started its slow slip down the edge of the horizon toward the San Gabriel’s and it was that moment of magic where the air lost the tang of pollution and felt crisp and almost cool. Jack took a slow, deep breath, then reached over and clapped a hand on Mac’s shoulder.
“Feels good to be back,” he said softly.
Mac offered him a half grin, the truth of it hitting his eyes, his face relaxing as he nodded. “I know what you mean.”
“Dalton! Blondie!” Matty barked from behind them.
They paused, glanced at each other, and then turned to face their boss.
“Change of plans,” she said, shoving her cell phone into her jacket pocket.
Jack felt himself instinctively tense. He opened his mouth, a protest poised on his lips, when she leveled her gaze on him and said, “We’re postponing the debrief.”
“Wait…we’re what?” Mac asked, surprise clear in his tone.
Matty shrugged. “Jack told me enough in Germany to get started; we can wrap it up tomorrow.”
“So…we just…go home?” Jack asked, his mouth folded down in frown of disbelief.
“Yes, Jack,” Matty said, drawing her words out like stretched taffy. “You go home.”
Jack looked over at Mac and saw his partner’s grin matched his own. “Brewskis and Bruce, baby!”
“Seriously? Die Hard?” Mac said with a roll of his eyes, turning toward the hanger once more. “Again?”
“Hey, now,” Jack cautioned, his step picking up. “Don’t tell me you don’t want to see Hans fall out of that window one more time.”
Mac chuckled and started around to the driver’s side of Jack’s GTO.
“Whoa, hold up,” Jack called out, holding up a hand. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Mac arched a brow at him. “You’re not cleared to drive.”
“You just…you never drive.”
Mac pulled the door handle with a jerk, giving Jack a look. “I can drive, y’know. I’m actually an excellent driver.”
“Okay, Rainman,” Jack chuckled, tossing his bag in the back and sliding into the passenger seat. “Just put the top down, will ya? Been closed in too long.”
“I planned on it,” Mac replied, starting up the car and lowering the convertible top. “Music?”
“Definitely,” Jack leaned back in his seat and let the evening zephyr slip over him as Mac headed toward the highway.
He said nothing as Mac pick the station and smiled slightly when 30 Seconds to Mars sang about the City of Angels. Los Angeles certainly felt like that tonight. Orange and reds lit up the horizon, tinging gold at the crest of the mountains, the heat retreated with the coming of night, and for one moment Jack felt at peace.
Mac tapped his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the music; Jack thought about trying to engage his young partner about what had been weighing on his mind while they were in Germany, but there was something perfect about the evening. He didn’t want to break it.
In typical L.A. fashion, the traffic was backed up. From where Jack was slouched in his seat, it looked to be some kind of construction. Mac’s eyes flicked to the rearview mirror, then over to the side of the road.
“Looks like they’re diverting traffic,” he announced, nodding toward a small orange sign posted at what appeared to be a frontage road.
“’kay,” Jack agreed, not truly paying attention. It seemed very few cars were branching off, so he let himself relax against the seat.
He loved Los Angeles. It couldn’t replace Texas in his heart, but it was home in a way that Texas could no longer be. It held a piece of him—the version of him who’d had to redefine normal after the CIA, after Delta, the version of him who came back from Afghanistan, the version who knew Angus MacGyver.
The rough and tumble kid who grew up playing cowboy in Texas wouldn’t even recognize the soldier who found peace inside the kinetic energy of this city.
Mac shifted in his seat, drawing Jack’s attention. The kid’s fingers had gone from tapping along to the music to white-knuckling the steering wheel.
Jack sat up. “What is it?”
“Not sure,” Mac replied, his voice tight as he glanced repeatedly in the rear-view mirror.
Jack hazarded a glance over his shoulder, trying very hard not to twist his neck too fast and set off a migraine. A dark SUV was following them. Way too close.
“They plan on mounting us or what?” Jack complained.
“They ducked over as soon as I took the detour,” Mac replied. “And no one has followed them.”
Jack started to turn back around. “Well, could be they just—“ He stopped when he saw another SUV in front of them, brake lights on. “Mac, take the ditch.”
“I’ll flip us,” Mac protested.
“No, you won’t,” Jack replied. “Take it before they—“
But it was too late. The SUV from behind bumped them hard enough they rear-ended the one in front, the two larger vehicles caging the smaller GTO, and Mac and Jack were tossed forward against the dash as their car ground forcibly to a halt.
Pain echoed around Jack’s head, muting all other sounds, as he pushed weakly back from the dash, blinking dazedly over at Mac. Dimly, he saw his partner slap at something just under the steering column, but before he could figure it out, their doors were opened, their seatbelts cut, and they were roughly dragged out of the car.
Jack was dropped unceremoniously on the ground, the impact jarring his already rattled head. When he started to push himself upright, he earned a kick to the midsection. The world spun sickeningly around him. He felt nausea build to a burn at the back of his throat. He was having trouble grabbing a breath, trouble settling his vision, and what made it worse, he couldn’t see or hear Mac.
Pushing up once more on a shaking arm, he realized that one of the men who’d grabbed him from the car had turned their attention to his partner. The other was at Jack’s back, pressing the barrel of a rifle to the base of his neck.
Mac was being held by two men dressed in all-black tactical gear and was dragged around the back of the GTO toward one of the SUVs. Jack watched as Mac fought, twisting his body like a live wire, fists clenched, head butting back against his captors. As the buzzing in Jack’s ears faded, he could hear Mac shouting wordlessly at the men, fighting with everything he had to break free.
One of the men who’d grabbed Jack marched forward calmly. Mac’s struggles had rucked up his Henley until a slice of skin was exposed at his midsection and before Jack even knew to call out a warning, the two men holding Mac released him, the blonde falling to his knees, off-balance, and the end of a stun baton was shoved against Mac’s skin, the blue sparks snapping and sizzling.
The smell of ozone and burning skin kicked through the air. Jack gasped as he watched Mac fall to his side, his back arching as his whole body went taut before shaking violently. The man removed the baton as Mac went limp with a weak cry of pain.
“Stop!” Jack cried out, trying to get to his knees.
The man at Jack’s back shoved him flat with a boot and Jack looked up in time to see the stun baton applied to Mac’s belly once more. This time when Mac went limp, his eyes were closed. There was no fight left.
The men bundled Mac into the back of the SUV. Jack tried to crawl forward, his head spinning violently, his who world turning sideways. The man who’d apparently been assigned to cover him spat on the back of his neck before walking away. Before Jack could do much other than roll to his back, both SUVs had sped away.
“Mac,” Jack breathed, his eyes slipping closed as darkness claimed him.