“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight, but no vision.”
4 weeks after MacGyver quit the Phoenix Foundation
“Get behind me! Get behind me!”
Jack’s voice was tight, demanding. Bozer didn’t hesitate.
Holding tightly to the small hand trembling within his grip, Bozer tore around the corner, tugging the little girl with him. He tucked up close behind Jack’s body, using the older man like a shield—as if Jack wouldn’t be ripped apart if he made one wrong move.
Bullets shredded the wall just shy of their position and Bozer closed his eyes, wincing at the spray of cement and mortar from the impact. The retort of the fire fight was so loud, Bozer’s ears hissed. The small body next to his instinctively pressed closer.
“Grab them, Boze,” Jack shouted over the melee of gunfire, nodding with a tight jerk of his neck toward the elderly couple crouched on the floor behind Bozer. “Get in that side room.”
“What about you?” Bozer shouted, his voice cracking.
“I’ll be right behind you.”
Famous last words, Bozer couldn’t help but think.
He didn’t have much of a choice; the Lithuanian diplomat and his wife were their responsibility until Matty sent in the exfil team. Gesturing to the couple, Bozer tugged on the little girl’s hand, ushering his three charges through a set of heavy, wooden doors into what appeared to be a large dining room set up for some sort of group dinner.
“Go across the room,” Bozer said, unconsciously raising his voice as though that would make his inability to speak their language suddenly unimportant. He loosened his hand from the little girl’s grip, waving toward the far corner of the room. “That way.”
The white-haired diplomat nodded his understanding and ushered his wife and granddaughter ahead of him. Bozer turned back to the door, ready to push it open and reach for Jack when the man in question burst into the room in a red-faced flurry of harsh gasps and chambered rounds. Jack pulled the door shut and shot a glance over his shoulder.
“Their next step will be to cut the pow—“ Jack broke off as the lights in the room went out, the only illumination coming from the long windows gracing the far wall. “Okay, grab one of those tables over there and make a barricade.”
“Barricade?” Bozer squeaked. “What is this, Les Mis? How’s that gonna help?”
Jack shot him a look and for a fleeting moment Bozer registered how worn down the man looked. “Bozer, just do it!”
Huffing, Bozer made his way over to the corner Jack had indicated and grabbed one of the long tables that had been set up in what looked like preparation for a large dinner at the manor. He pulled it over toward where the family was huddling, tipped it on its side and kicked the thick table cloth away. With a few quick shoves, he’d blocked the family in, the hefty table acting as protection.
Looking back toward the door, Bozer saw that Jack had used the corded draw-back ties from the thick curtains draped over the windows to tie the door shut and was pulling the other large table over to block the entrance. Impressed, Bozer bounced his head once.
“Nobody’s getting through that door,” he declared.
Jack shifted his rifle from his back to his hands once more and moved toward Bozer, eyes scanning the shadowed room.
“Doesn’t mean they can’t get in here,” Jack muttered, gaze flicking over the windows.
Despite being close to midnight it was wasn’t even twilight outside, the sun still high enough in the sky to illuminate the exterior of the estate grounds where they were dug in. Good for their rescue party, bad for hiding.
“They are bulletproof,” came an accented voice from the other side of the table.
Jack blinked, casting a startled look toward Bozer. “What was that?”
Bozer shook his head, eyebrows up. Jack made his way to where the diplomat sat with his arms around his wife, his nine-year-old granddaughter curled up in his lap. He looked up at Jack, blue eyes shockingly calm.
“The windows,” the diplomat told him. “They are bulletproof.”
“Good to know,” Jack nodded, shifting the barrel of his rifle up, resting the stock on his hip. “Might’ve mentioned you spoke English, though.”
The man shrugged. “You never asked.”
Jack’s eyebrows went up, matching Bozer’s expression. “Fair point.”
The noise from outside the heavy doors quieted. Bozer kept his eyes on Jack, looking for a cue as to what to do next. He was so far out of his element at the moment he felt like he was drowning.
Their instructions had been to go in, get the diplomat and his family, and get out. Bozer had been outfitted with a standard-issue Kevlar vest and a med kit. Jack, however, had arrived with enough guns on him he looked like the Terminator. It was almost as if he’d known that the Op was going to go south.
Bozer should have clued in then, but…he wasn’t a soldier. More importantly, he wasn’t MacGyver. And that put him at a distinct disadvantage.
“Look,” Jack sighed, slinging his rifle once more across his back.. “It’s going to get pretty cold in here soon. But at least it won’t be too dark.”
His voice was low, but his tone casual, and Bozer felt his shoulders relax slightly. There was something about Jack’s voice: even in the middle of chaos, it seemed to say I got you.
“What about those guys?” Bozer asked, looking nervously over at the door before pinning his eyes once more on Jack.
Jack lifted a shoulder. “They wanted the documents; they thought this guy,” he jerked his thumb in the direction of the elderly diplomat, “was just icing on their cake.”
“So, wait…we’re going to just let them get the documents?” Bozer asked, confused.
Jack glanced down at the diplomat. “You want to tell him, or should I?”
“I am the only one to translate information,” the man—Bozer was drawing a blank on the diplomat’s name—replied.
“They’re encrypted. And by the time those d-bags figure it out,” Jack dropped a heavy hand on Bozer’s shoulder, “we’ll be kicking back with some brewskis in sunny L.A.”
“How long to wait?” The old man was calm, staring up at Jack with complete trust.
Jack twisted his arm slightly, looking at the watch face on the inside of his wrist. “No more than six hours, tops.”
“What can I do?” Bozer asked, finally feeling his quaking heart settle a bit.
Jack narrowed his eyes and looked around the room they’d barricaded themselves in. Other than the two tables they’d tipped over to use as blockades, there were wooden chairs strewn around the room and two broad banquet tables at the back, complete with waiting catering dishes set every few feet. Jack bent over and grabbed up the discarded table cloth from the mess of dishes and silverware that had fallen to the floor when Bozer dumped the table over to create the barricade.
“Grab all of these you can find,” Jack instructed. “We can use them for blankets.”
Bozer took the tablecloth from Jack, watching as the other man went to the banquet table at the far side of the room. Jack grabbed what looked like small canisters from beneath the metal tubs awaiting food, then turned back around. Tucking two wooden folding chairs under his arm, he made his way back over to the family.
“Boze!” Jack snapped, startling Bozer. “You okay?”
“Y-yeah,” Bozer stammered. “Yes, just…what are you doing?”
Jack dumped his loot on the inside of the table barricade. “Improvising.”
Bozer blinked, nodding as he scrambled to get the tablecloths—already able to see his breath in the swiftly chilling air. Hearing clattering across the room, he cast a glance back to where Jack was fetching one of the metal tubs from the banquet table before he hefted himself over the table edge.
“Does she speak English?” he heard Jack ask.
“She does not,” the man responded. “Only I do.”
Bozer climbed to the interior of the table crouching next to Jack and handed the table clothes to the civilians. He tried not to think about how badly he wanted to be huddled next to them, wrapped up in a heavy table cloth for warmth, waiting to see what Jack would do to save their lives.
Having that responsibility land on his shoulders almost took his breath away.
“Here, Boze,” Jack said suddenly, thrusting one of the wooden folding chairs into his arms. “Break this bad boy up, will ya?”
Bozer darted his gaze from the huddled family to Jack’s face, trying to absorb what the man was telling him. He took the chair, realizing only then how badly his hands were shaking.
“Break it up?”
Jack nodded, his dark eyes intent as they watched Bozer’s face. “Yeah, I need some kindling.”
“Like…for a fire?” Bozer asked, still not quite sure what the other man was up to.
Jack nodded again then crouched down, flipped the metal tub over and dropped the canisters into the bottom. They were Sterno cans, Bozer realized, filled with flammable jelly. He began to break up the chair and hand pieces of wood to Jack.
“When I get this going,” Jack glanced up at the family, “we’ll be warm and toasty until our ride gets here.”
The elderly man murmured quietly to his granddaughter, his wife keeping shell-shocked eyes on Jack’s hands. Bozer finished breaking up one chair and grabbed the other, thankful to have something that kept him busy. Jack used a brass lighter he pulled from one of the pockets of his TAC vest and lit the Sterno cans, the purple-blue flames licking upwards to catch the dry wood of the chairs Jack and stacked in a pyramid above the canisters.
“Is a good idea,” the diplomat nodded, smiling. The family leaned toward the flames, seeking its warmth.
“Got the idea from a friend,” Jack told him. “Wicked-smart kid—way smarter than me,” Jack smiled at the little girl who grinned back as though she knew exactly what he was saying. “He pulled this trick once when we were stuck in,” he quickly glanced toward the diplomat, checking himself, “uh…another really cold place. I thought he was nuts. But just like every other idea he’s had, this one worked. Kept us from freezing to death at least.”
Bozer felt the sharp tug in his chest that always reared up whenever Mac was mentioned, even in passing. It had been a week since he’d heard from his friend, four weeks since he’d seen him. In that time, Bozer had stepped up as best he could, trying to do what he thought Mac would want, trying to keep an eye on things, but realizing with each passing day that life just didn’t work the same without his friend around.
This time without him felt different than when Mac had gone to MIT, different from when he’d been sent to Afghanistan. This didn’t feel like Mac was elsewhere doing something good, saving the world. This felt like Mac had run away, chased by demons all too real.
Bozer continued to stack the wood, watching as Jack picked up one of the longer pieces and handed it to the girl, letting her add it to the flame. As he had with Bozer, Jack seemed to realize that giving her something to do helped her feel less afraid, more in control of her situation and surroundings. Until he’d joined the Phoenix, Bozer didn’t realized how essential that tiny bit of control was to his sanity.
“Atta girl,” Jack said softly as the girl leaned the piece of wood against the pyramid. “You’re a natural.”
He smiled at the girl, earning another grin in return, and it struck Bozer how long it had been since he’d seen Jack smile.
At anyone. About anything.
While they’d all been hit when Mac quit the Phoenix, his absence affected Jack the most. The man had changed—startlingly so. Gone was the carefree goofiness that enticed affectionate eye rolling from Riley and a teasing raised brow from Matty. Gone was the infectious energy that seemed to infuse them all with a will to press forward no matter their own exhaustion.
In its place was a façade of purpose and intent, warmth only fleeting in his eyes.
He completed missions with a singular focus, handing out death sentences with seemingly little concern. Bozer imagined this version of Jack to be the CIA officer, the Delta soldier—the Jack Dalton that existed before he met Angus MacGyver. It was as though Mac had been the light Jack drew from and without that light, his inner darkness had the power to hold sway.
“This friend…he is soldier?” The diplomat asked, snapping Bozer’s attention back to their current situation.
Jack sat back on his heels, his arms wrapped around his knees, eyes on the flames. “He was, yeah. Once upon a time.”
Bozer sat with his back to the table, creating a triangle of people between the diplomat’s family and Jack. He watched as the older man absentmindedly flicked the top of the brass lighter open and closed.
He wondered where he’d picked up that lighter; Jack didn’t smoke. It wasn’t standard issue. It looked old. Worn. Familiar.
“He’s a genius, this kid,” Jack continued. He smiled sadly, shaking his head once. “He can get so focused on figuring out a solution to some problem you kinda have to steer him away from sign posts, y’know? But then at the same time…he notices everything.” Jack shook his head, looking down. “Everything.”
The little girl whispered something to her grandfather and the elderly man looked up. “Sophia asks why you are sad.”
Bozer looked from Jack’s hands to his face and watched the man’s expression melt from nostalgic sorrow to schooled resolve, his eyes a shade just before black, hiding everything that might have exposed a true emotion. And Bozer knew the only person in the world who could have seen through the mask Jack had just expertly slid in place wasn’t here.
“He, uh…had to go away. And, I miss him,” Jack replied simply. “He taught me a lot—like how to use my environment to my advantage. I’m a soldier; I see a bad guy, I shoot them.” He made a gun with his finger and thumb, pointing toward the heavy door, a pic-que sound on his lips. “Mostly, I just hope for the best. Mac, though. He never sees things as they are…he sees them as they could be. He got us out of so many scrapes, man.” Jack shook his head, eyes on the middle distance. “He’s like a flame. Burning through the world.”
And he got caught up in the fire, Bozer mused.
The odd light from the midnight sun played across the far corner of the room, their barricade thrown into darkness and shadow by the large table. Bozer could see the greenish-blue hue of the Aurora Borealis playing across the sky from the corner of his eyes and he smiled softly, thinking how Mac wouldn’t be able to help himself—he’d start rambling about solar wind and charged particles or whatever the hell actually created the phenomenon.
And Bozer would just have just sat here thinking it was pretty.
“Your friend is a special person,” the diplomat commented, wrapping an arm more tightly around his wife.
“Yeah, he is,” Bozer chimed in, catching Jack’s surprised glance. It was as if the other man had forgotten he was there for a moment. “And he’d be real impressed with this set up,” Bozer nodded toward the Sterno fire and table barricade.
Jack offered Bozer a small smile, then looked over at the diplomat. “We got a few hours to kill,” he said, shifting slightly when the man blinked in surprise at his choice of words, “that is…we have a little time until our ride gets here. How about you guys get some sleep, yeah?”
The diplomat nodded, then whispered to his wife and granddaughter. The wife immediately closed her eyes, beyond exhausted, but the little girl kept her gaze on Jack. After a moment, she untangled herself from her grandfather’s embrace and crawled across the small space, around the fire, to sit next to Jack.
Leaning back against the wall, Jack uncurled from his tight posture and stretched out his legs. Taking that as an invitation, the girl crawled onto Jack’s lap and put her head against his chest, one hand on a pocket of his TAC vest, fingers curled into a light grip.
“Now, that’s something you don’t see every day,” Bozer muttered.
Jack shifted until he had an arm around the girl to keep her balanced. “What are you talking about? Kids love me.”
Bozer chuffed. “Name one.”
Jack flicked the brass lighter once more, then seemed to realize that playing with a lighter while a little kid sat in his lap wasn’t the best choice. He tucked it into the top pocket of his TAC vest.
“I am telling you, man,” Jack continued. “I am a very soothing presence for kids.”
“And you know that…how, exactly?” Bozer pressed, enjoying the distraction of giving Jack a hard time. “How many kids have you encountered in your lifetime?”
“Not counting you, Riley, and Mac, you mean?” Jack’s grin was ornery.
Bozer shook his head. “We’re not kids.”
“Riley wasn’t much older than Sophia, here, when I met her mom,” Jack pointed out, dropping his head back against the wall, his voice going soft. “And man, she was a tiger, that one. Fierce.” He paused, closing his eyes. “Fierce and fragile.”
“Fragile?” Bozer asked, thinking of the dark-haired hacker.
Jack lifted a shoulder. “Fragile like a bomb.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”
“Dude,” Jack chuckled softly, his hand resting almost protectively on Sophia’s shoulder. “She spent the first six months I was with Diane just pissed at me. For existing. I mean, if I asked for some water, she’d hand me a glass of ice and tell me to wait.”
“What changed her mind?”
Jack smiled, rolling his head against the wall and blinking over at Bozer. “Me,” he replied. “Couldn’t resist the ol’ Dalton charm.”
Bozer added more bits of wood to their fire, keeping the flames up. “Well, Mac and me don’t count.”
“The hell you don’t,” Jack huffed, closing his eyes once more. “Mac was all of nineteen when we met.”
Bozer sighed. “Yeah, but Mac was never a kid.”
“Mac’s still a kid,” Jack argued.
“Dude, he was old when I met him and we hadn’t even hit double-digits. He even screwed up like an adult,” Bozer shook his head. “When we got busted for blowing up the football field back at school, I was freaking the fuck out, but Mac was just like,” Bozer pitched his voice lower, “I understand what you’re saying, sir, and I can promise you it won’t happen again.” He shook his head. “I mean. Harry was great at handing out fortune cookie wisdom, but when it came down to it, Mac’s always had to be grown up.”
Something in Jack’s expression darkened as he listened to Bozer. His brows bent over his closed eyes.
“He may think he’s got us all fooled, thinking he can take whatever life hands him because he basically grew up on his own, but he needs us now more than he ever has,” Jack said quietly. “He doesn’t do ‘alone’ very well.”
On my worst days, I almost died alone.
Mac’s words hummed in Bozer’s memory. Mac had always been strong, had so rarely ever seemed afraid. Even when they were young. He hadn’t really carried himself like a kid. He’d just always been…capable.
It was like Jack had said: he saw everything. He was aware of everything going on around him, every day. All the time.
It had taken Mac literally walking out of their lives for Bozer to realize that while his friend had been metaphorically looking over his shoulder all his life, it hadn’t been out of protection against an unknown threat, but to see if anyone had his back.
And Bozer wasn’t sure right now what Mac’s answer might be.
“You know,” Bozer said quietly, his voice cutting through the sound of the treated wood snapping with the heat of the fire. “You play like you’re this tough, old soldier. You’re…Aragorn and we’re just a bunch of little Hobbits all hoping you get our asses out of Mordor.”
Jack brought his head forward, opening one eye.
“But, we’re a helluva lot more than that.”
Bozer hadn’t forgotten that there were people sitting behind the barricade with them, or that there were armed terrorists on the other side of the door, or that their exfil was still several hours out. But in the safety of the firelight, with the pearled hue of the midnight sun saturating the windows, he was able to ignore all of that for a moment.
Just long enough to remind Bad Ass Delta Jack Dalton that Wilt Bozer knew he was as scared and broken and lonely as the rest of them.
“Bozer,” Jack said quietly, a weight to his voice that Bozer hadn’t heard in a long time. Something about the way Jack said his name reminded Bozer of his father and he instinctively sat up straighter. “I know you’re much more than…than kids. You’re asked to cope with more, survive more, than almost anyone else your age. Some of you more than others,” he sighed, shifting so that he was able to sit forward without disturbing the sleeping girl on his lap. “You do it with…with grit. And fire. And I see it, man. I see that…that desperate desire to live another day play out in every choice you each make.”
Bozer lifted his chin in appreciation of Jack’s words.
“But even with all that,” Jack said, raising an eyebrow, “you’re never gonna catch up to me.”
“And here I thought we were having an actual moment,” Bozer scoffed.
Jack grinned, tilting his head back. “You been hanging around Leanna too much, dude. Aragorn? Really?”
“Shoot, Jack,” Bozer chuckled. “Leanna hates the Lord of the Rings. That’s pure Mac, right there.”
Jack chuckled. “Yeah, I suppose it is.”
It was on the tip of Bozer’s tongue to ask Jack about what he knew of MacGyver’s whereabouts in that moment, but a small explosion on the other side of the door distracted them. From that moment until exfil, it was simply noise and smoke and following orders.
Bozer would say one thing about Jack Dalton: the man did not know how to quit. The easy-going manner Jack had allowed to infiltrate his façade evaporated with that explosion and in its place stood a merchant of death.
While Bozer did his best to not get hit by a stray bullet, Jack took out three hostiles without so much as a flinch. One of them with the mercenary’s own knife, covering Jack’s hands with blood as he kept the man from strangling him and putting himself between the bad guys and the people he was protecting.
When the notice came through that exfil was on deck, Jack got Bozer and the diplomat’s family to the truck that took them to a waiting plane without a scratch on any of them. It made Bozer wonder how different missions were for Jack without Mac there making the impossible possible, finding paths through tangled mazes of chance, and flirting with Fate until she smiled on them.
Bozer thought about talking to the older man on their flight home, but when he saw Jack sink slowly down on the bench seat at the back of the plane as though gravity had extra pull, his head falling forward heavily, his blood-stained hands shaking as they hung between his knees, Bozer swallowed his words.
Anything he wanted to say could wait.
The diplomat brought Jack a warm towel as his family rested; Jack looked up with a smile of gratitude and used it to clean the blood from his hands while the diplomat waited. When he’d finished, the diplomat took the cloth from Jack and folded it almost reverently, then nodded slowly, offering a silent thank you for their lives.
Bozer watched the whole exchange, logging a new appreciation for the man who was at once friend, protector, soldier, and spy.
When they landed, the family was transported to a safe house, Sophia peaking over her grandfather’s shoulder at Jack with a small, shy smile as they parted ways on the tarmac. Bozer and Jack returned to the Phoenix Foundation headquarters, heading to the armory before meeting Matty for their debrief. Bozer watched as the man pulled out multiple weapons, checked each one meticulously, removed the ammo, and put the weapon back in its case.
“I’m sorry I was extra work today,” Bozer spoke up.
Jack glanced at him. “What makes you say that?”
Bozer shrugged, absentmindedly tugging on the strap of his Kevlar. “Just watching you. All I had to do was stay out of the way. You kinda had to be both Mac and Jack in one today.”
“Just doing my job, man.”
“I thought your job was protecting Mac,” Bozer commented without thinking.
Jack shot him a dark look, but continued to unpack his weapons.
“Did you know Mac was sick a week ago?” Bozer suddenly found himself asking.
Jack’s shoulders twitched. “This some kind of test, Boze?”
Bozer blinked, straightening up and unclipping his Kevlar. “No,” he replied mildly. “Just…y’know. Asking.”
“When we were kids and he’d get sick,” Bozer continued, eyes tracking Jack’s movements as the man removed his TAC vest and began to empty the pockets, “he’d hide in his room. Like he was afraid he’d get in trouble or something. He ever tell you that?”
Jack nodded. “In Afghanistan,” he replied. “He got the flu real bad one time but didn’t tell anyone. Hell, we were always dehydrated, sweating our asses off…it was hard to tell he had a fever. Until he pitched face-first out of the Humvee.” Jack glanced back at Bozer with a rueful grin. “That was a pretty big clue right there.”
He turned back to his vest. “I got him to the infirmary and read him the riot act. Kept demanding to know why he hadn’t said anything. He just,” Jack shrugged, chuffing. “He just looked at me, these big blue eyes like some kind of kicked puppy. And when I finally stopped long enough to take a breath, he told me he was supposed to take care of it himself.”
Bozer nodded. “When I moved in with him, I stocked us up on cold and flu meds. He told me he knew what I was doing and I just…y’know. Acted dumb.” He smiled, eyes sliding away from the figure of strength and willpower Jack painted, resting his gaze on a thin crack in the wood that ran vertically up the side of the gun cabinet. “He didn’t actually come out and say he was sick this time. I just…knew. And, damn, I wanted to do something.”
Jack half turned toward him. “Did you?”
“I…,” Bozer shifted uncomfortably. What had started as a fishing expedition to find out what Jack knew about his best friend now felt a bit like an interrogation. “I would have. Hell, I’d’ve used company resources to send a med kit to him. But…I don’t know where he is now.”
Nodding, eyes cast down and expression hidden from Bozer, Jack pulled the brass lighter from the pocket of his TAC vest and slipped it into his pants pocket.
“What’s the deal with the lighter, man?” Bozer asked suddenly.
Jack looked surprised, then pulled the rectangular tool from his pocket, regarding it resting in his calloused palm. The laugh lines around his dark eyes gathered and creased as memories played tag across his features. He flipped the lid up, striking a flame.
Bozer could see an engraving on the back of the lid: For those who fight for it, life has a flavor the protected will never know.
“It was my Pop’s,” Jack told him. “He carried it with him in ‘Nam.”
Bozer nodded, waiting for more. He’d become pretty good at that lately. It was one thing that had changed about him with Mac’s departure. He no longer found himself fueled by nervous, anxious energy. Patience was now the gravitational pull with their motley little family.
“I had it in this box of things of his—dog tags, money clip, sunglasses,” Jack lifted a shoulder. “Just those little things that don’t mean much to big picture people, but mean everything when you’re missing someone.”
Bozer hummed a quiet understanding. Jack let the flame die, closing the lid.
“Anyway, when Mac lost his granddad’s Swiss Army Knife on a mission, I started carrying this bad boy. Kinda felt like we had at least one of those guys with us, y’know?”
“You got Mac another knife, though,” Bozer said, drawing Jack’s eyes. “He told me.”
“Well, sure,” Jack grinned. “You ever see our boy try to complete a mission without that little red knife?”
“He’s not completing any missions now,” Bozer muttered, fully aware that he sounded sullen.
When Mac left for Afghanistan, Bozer set up an email specifically for Mac to reach out. He’d only semi-jokingly called it proof of life. Since Harry had died before Mac left MIT, and they had no idea where Mac’s father was—at the time—there was no one else Mac had in his life who cared if he lived or died over there.
Just shy of four weeks ago, Bozer came home to find a quiet house and a note. Two days later, he got an email from Mac. Proof of life. Each time had been from a public IP address. Riley had been able to trace it to a general location, but there was no way to check to see if Mac had been in those locations or had simply dropped into a library on his way to somewhere else.
I’m good. Don’t worry. Be safe.
Each message had been close to the same—until the one saying he’d been better. That one Riley had been able to trace to an emergency room in Nepal. Bozer had spent a tense twenty-four hours refreshing his screen until Riley called to say that she’s been able to confirm that Mac was at the emergency room being treated for a lung infection. It took another twenty-four hours for ‘proof of life’ to spit out a still here message.
Bozer hadn’t said anything to Jack or Matty; it had felt a little like he was keeping Mac all to himself, which hadn’t been the case since the moment his friend met Jack Dalton in the desert of Afghanistan. Riley hadn’t made a big deal about his requests to trace the emails; she seemed to get the need for secrecy as well.
“He’s not gone forever, Boze,” Jack said, breaking into Bozer’s thoughts. He rested a hand on Bozer’s shoulder.
“I just miss him, y’know?” Bozer sighed. “I mean, the house was too damn quiet. I had to move in with Leanna.”
“Oh, you had to, huh?” Jack gave him a sly half-grin. “Couldn’t, I don’t know. Turn the radio on or something.”
Bozer shoved Jack’s hand away from his shoulder. “Shut up. You know what I mean. Mac’s just…there’s always this energy around him. He’s always tinkering with something. That damn motorcycle for one. He never really said much, but he still just…made all kinds of noise.”
Jack chuckled, rubbing the flat of his hand over his closely-cropped hair. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”
“And with Mac gone, you stopped coming around even, so it was just me and this bad-guy magnet of a house…,” Bozer sighed.
“Hell, man,” Jack dropped his hand, his thumbs hooked into his belt. “I’d move to Leanna’s, too.”
Bozer noted that the man didn’t apologize for not coming around. He narrowed his eyes. “I’m surprised you stayed here, Jack.”
At that Jack drew his head back. “What do you mean?”
“When Mac left…I thought you’d go with him.”
Jack looked askance at the door to the armory. “Yeah, you weren’t the only one,” he replied cryptically.
“I guess…,” Bozer swallowed, trying to find the right words. “I guess when you both were out there—even when I didn’t know exactly what you were doing—I knew Mac would always come home. You’d bring him home. But…now, I….”
“Mac’s coming back, Boze,” Jack declared with a sense of finality entrenched so deeply in his words Bozer felt compelled to believe him. “He’s just clearing his head. Trying to figure some things out.”
Bozer rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, maybe,” he said carefully. “It’s just…he’s been through a lot in his life. I’ve seen some of it, you’ve seen some of it. What if this is the thing that…that breaks him, y’know?”
Jack frowned. “Naw, Mac’s—“
“A guy who found out that the dad he thought was missing or…hell, dead, even…was not only around the whole time, but didn’t want to be found and put him on missions where he was, like, always in danger.”
As he spoke, Bozer’s voice grew higher and louder to the point he felt his pulse at his temple. He took a breath, watching Jack’s face, the way the man’s eyes grew harder with each word. Jack didn’t reply, but his hands curled into tight fists at his sides. Looking over Bozer’s shoulder toward the door, Jack lifted his chin and stepped around the other man, heading toward the elevator.
Bozer followed, at once regretting his outburst and feeling relieved that he’d finally said something. They rode the elevator in silence, intending to head toward the conference room for the debrief when they were greeted by a solemn-looking Riley as the doors opened.
“Change of plans,” she said, showing them the face of her phone. “We’re going to the War Room.”
“Matty say what for?” Jack asked, digging out his own phone from his jeans pocket and turning it on.
“Nope,” Riley sighed, joining them in the elevator and hitting the button for the correct floor. She glanced first at Bozer and then at Jack. “What’s with you two? You look like someone stole your lunchboxes.”
“Nothing,” they replied in unison, and Bozer cast a side-line glance at Jack.
“Oh-kay,” Riley replied, stretching the word out like taffy. “But you better button it up because Matty has not been in a great mood all day.”
“Huh,” Jack muttered. “Must be Tuesday.”
Bozer bit the side of his cheek to keep his grin in check.
It was no secret that since Mac left, Matty had been on a bit of a tear—no prizes guessing why, either. Since Oversight had made himself known, Matty’s life had become a bit complicated. Keeping her agents safe had become the first of her agenda items, the completion of the mission second.
James MacGyver, it seemed, thought otherwise.
They walked into the War Room, Riley leading the way, Bozer following and Jack bringing up the rear. They all stumbled to a surprised halt to find not only Matty waiting for them but James MacGyver as well. Bozer hadn’t seen Mac’s dad since the day Mac walked out of the Phoenix. In fact, none of them had. It had been like before: Matty reporting up to Oversight about their missions as they were completed or assigned.
Finding him lounging in one of the leather chairs, his feet propped up next to the bowl of paperclips no one had had the heart to remove, was a shock.
“Well, ain’t this a surprise,” Jack practically snarled. “Sir.”
James simply lifted an eyebrow in Jack’s direction. Bozer thought it almost physically hurt to find that expression so familiar. Just on the wrong face.
“The debrief on the extraction of the Lithuanian diplomat and his family is going to have to wait,” Matty announced, stepping forward to grab their attention away from James. “But, I will say you both did well.”
“They’re okay?” Bozer asked, thinking about the little girl with big eyes staring at Jack like he hung the moon.
Matty nodded, a small smile relaxing her features for a brief moment. “They’re fine. And the documentation is secure as we have the only encryption key currently in a safe house.”
“Good,” Jack replied, his eyes still on James. “So, what’s the story?”
Riley and Bozer moved around the edges of the couch and took a seat. Jack remained where he was, tension in every line of his body. Bozer shifted his eyes to James and saw the man stalwartly looking away from Jack. His posture felt smug, but it was possible he could be reading into it, Bozer allowed.
After all, he was predisposed to thinking of his boss as a total asshat.
“A new threat has recently emerged,” Matty said, hitting a button on a small remote in her hand, lighting up the large screen behind her. Bozer felt Riley gasp in unison with him as a familiar image clicked forward: Jonah Walsh.
Jack was around the couch and moving toward the center of the room in a heartbeat, his eyes on the image.
“Oh, hell no, Matty,” he muttered.
Without replying, Matty clicked another button and four other men whose faces Bozer did not recognize joined Walsh.
“We are familiar with Walsh,” Matty cut to the chase, “and his obsession with completing the KX7 toxin. Recent intelligence has linked him with these four men. The two on the left are French mercenaries, Gerard Bisset and this man we know only by the name Caron. The two on the right are German scientists, Hans Weber and Adam Wagner.”
“Hans,” Jack scoffed. “That’s just perfect.”
Ignoring Jack, Matty continued. “As he hasn’t been able to finish the KX7 formula, it appears that Walsh has gotten his hands on another biochemical weapon called Syntac XR. It’s unclear where the connection point between Walsh and the scientists was made, but since we’ve been following Walsh very closely for the last few months,” Matty glanced toward James, “the Syntac XR popped up on our radar.”
While Bozer was trying to remember to breathe normally with this latest bout of terrifying information, Jack was shaking his head.
“Y’know, this is usually the point where Mac breaks in with all his science stuff to bore us to death,” he quipped.
Matty smiled slightly in understanding; the tension in the room was palpable and Jack’s words had started to ease the posture of the two agents on the couch.
But then James MacGyver pushed to his feet, eyes trailing Jack from buzzed hair to combat boots. Bozer watched as Jack pulled his chin up, his eyes dark and challenging, surveilling James crossing the room like a panther.
“Syntac XR is an aerosol-based paralytic,” James informed them, eyes on Jack alone. “It has been known to cause blindness and burning and blistering on contact. If inhaled,” he stepped closer to Jack, his posture blatantly challenging, “it’s been proven to damage lungs similar to sarin gas, and while it hasn’t killed outright, it will cause extreme pain and disorientation. Its full effects are as yet unknown.”
Tilting his head slightly, he studied Jack carefully. “Bored yet?”
Bozer felt Riley slide closer to him across the couch and he met her halfway, not taking his eyes from the two men at the center of the room.
“Y’know, Sir,” Jack replied, somehow making that word sound derogatory, “I seem to remember you had a hand in helping Walsh with KX7. Maybe you helped with this Syntac, too? Are we cleaning up another one of your messes?”
“Jack!” Matty barked as James stepped forward.
“That’s a pretty dangerous accusation, Agent,” James returned. “We’re talking about a formula that could injure millions—maybe even kill, we don’t yet know the extent of the damage it could cause.”
Bozer felt Riley’s hand clasp his as they watched the verbal sparring match. He felt himself trembling from the inside out with an unnamable rage. Everything about this moment was wrong.
Jack tilted his head, clasping his hands in front of his belt. “Too bad we don’t have an Agent on staff with MIT-level intelligence and weapons expertise to help us figure out what to do about neutralizing it.”
“I didn’t make Angus quit!” James nearly shouted, his façade of dominance finally slipping.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Jack returned, his voice like a cracked whip. “The only thing you taught that kid that stuck with him was how to walk away.”
Bozer flinched at that and felt more than heard Riley draw in a sharp breath.
“All right, that’s enough!” Matty snapped, stepping between the two men, her smaller stature inconsequential in the face of her indignation. “You both will back down immediately or you will clear out of my War Room.”
Jack responded instinctively, taking a step back and tucking his hands behind him at parade rest. James turned to stare at Matty.
“This is my War Room, Matilda,” he reminded her.
Matty’s dark eyes were snapping with anger. “Not when you behave in a threatening manner toward one of my Agents, Sir,” she reminded him, her tone clipped but professional. “Now, do you and Agent Dalton need to speak privately, or can we continue to prepare for this Op?”
Bozer dared a glance at Riley and saw her mouth twisted in a small grin of approval.
James took a steadying breath and turned away from them, facing the screen. Jack, however, was wired. Bozer could practically see the man vibrating from where he sat. Moving toward the frosted-over windows, he began to pace in a quick, eight-step pattern while he listened to Matty.
Turning back to the screen, Matty picked up where she left off. “We have received word that the French and Germans are working with an Italian scientist to turn the Syntac into a water-based weapon. No word on who the Italian scientist is, yet. And there’s no confirmation that Walsh is with them.”
“Are we sure Walsh is involved?” Jack asked, arms crossed tight over his chest, jaw muscle visibly bouncing with tension.
“He is,” James replied. “Trust me.”
Matty sighed and closed her eyes as though anticipating Jack’s response.
“Trust,” Jack said in a voice so unlike his own Bozer found himself watching the man’s mouth to make sure it was actually moving. “Funny word for you to toss around.”
It looked like Jack was gearing up for another head-to-head with James when the elder MacGyver turned around to address Jack’s tone, but before either of them could speak, Matty broke in.
“The French and Germans are preparing to meet with the Italian scientist,” she continued, looking over her shoulder at the images. “They arrived in Rome this morning.”
“What?” Jack broke in, his voice strangled. There was something so desperate about the way he said that word, Riley stood up as though to go to him. “Where did you say they were, Matty?”
Matty looked at him, clearly surprised. “Rome.”
Jack swallowed and rubbed at the top of his hair with the flat of his hand. “Mac’s in Rome,” he choked out.
At this, Bozer stood up. Jack knew. Jack knew where Mac was.
“I know,” Matty replied, narrowing her eyes at Jack. “But I didn’t know that you knew.”
“Neither did I,” James chimed in, coming up to stand behind Matty, eyeing Jack.
Jack ignored their boss and kept his eyes on Matty. “Did you really think I asked Jill to teach me how to use the flux capacitor in the lab? I’ve been tracking him.”
Matty frowned with confusion, “The flux…?” She glanced at Riley.
“He means the decoupling capacitor,” she spoke up, then waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “It was this whole big…y’know what? I was just happy he remembered Jill’s name.”
“You’ve been tracking him?” James repeated. “Since when?”
Jack shot him a look. “Since the minute he walked out of this office four weeks ago,” he replied. “You think I was going to just let him out there, on his own, with Murdoc on the loose? Let alone The Ghost, El Noche? There are more people who want him dead than care about keeping him alive.”
James blinked at that, visibly subdued. Bozer was still stunned silent. Though, in retrospect, he supposed he shouldn’t have been. Jack never did well when Mac was in trouble, especially when he was somewhere Jack couldn’t reach.
“Have, uh…have you heard from him?” James asked, his voice surprisingly vulnerable for a moment.
Jack glanced at his boss and it seemed that instead of an evil overlord, he saw a worried father for a fraction of a second. “Yes,” he replied. “A phone call a week, and two post cards. No return addresses.” Jack had the decency to cast an apologetic look toward Bozer, clearly having surmised what Bozer had been fishing for earlier. “I didn’t have a secret email account, and…he knew I’d hunt him down if he didn’t reach out to me.”
“Looks like you did anyway,” Matty commented. “With company resources, no less.”
Jack held up a hand. “Now, Matty, don’t go getting after Jill for this,” he defended. “She honestly had no idea what I was doing.”
“Bullshit,” Matty retorted, though Bozer could see a small smile at the corner of her mouth. “Nothing goes on in that lab that Jill doesn’t know about. Even Riley knew what you were doing.”
Jack and Bozer shot a look over to Riley, who put her hands up in surrender. “I—I didn’t….”
“You knew?” Bozer squeaked, staring at Riley with blatant hurt painting his features. “All that time, all those weeks I was asking you to track his emails, just to make sure he was okay, and you knew?”
“Bozer, look, I’m sorry—“
Bozer shook his head, moving away from both Riley and Jack to the other side of the room. “No, y’know what? I get it. You were just trying to protect him, or whatever. I get it. But I ain’t gonna lie. This hurts, Ri.”
“I know.” Riley’s face folded in apology. “I didn’t tell anyone I knew where he was. It’s just that Jack…Mac needed Jack to be watching out for him. If he was really in trouble, I would have told you, I swear!”
“Was he really in the ER in Nepal?” Bozer challenged.
“Wait, what ER?” James broke in.
They ignored him.
“He was,” Riley replied, eyes beseeching Bozer to understand. “For two days, and then he checked out and I lost him again until he called Jack from a payphone in Rome. He’s been there for about a week.”
“He went to an ER?” James repeated, sounding slightly dazed. “Angus never voluntarily seeks medical attention.”
“And whose fault is that?” Jack challenged.
“Jack,” Matty tried once more, but it didn’t sound as if her heart was in her protest.
“He’s okay, Sir,” Riley broke in, trying to find some way to return the conversation to their version of normal. “He had a lung infection.”
“Bad enough to go to the ER,” Bozer muttered.
Riley smacked him on the shoulder with the back of her hand whispering, “Not. Helping.”
“Matty, if these bad guys are in Rome…,” Jack let the question fade out, clearly having come to some conclusion that Bozer hadn’t yet reached.
Matty took a breath and squared her shoulders, the shimmering teal of her blouse settling around her. She stared for a moment at Jack; Bozer watched the color drain from Jack’s face before the older man shook his head and turned his back, his fingers laced together against his neck. Bozer looked at Riley and saw his confusion echoing back from her expression.
“The plan is to contact Angus and reinstate him,” James declared.
“What! No way!” Bozer said without thinking.
“You can’t do that,” Jack protested at the same time, turning around to face them once more.
James focused his attention on Jack, though Bozer saw Matty looking in his direction with a bit of surprise.
“He is the most capable Agent we have to handle this situation.”
“He’s not an Agent,” Jack protested. “You can’t force him to come back just because it’s convenient.” He stepped toward his boss, his hands on his hips, body tilted forward at the waist. “Mac is a grown man—returning to this job has to be his decision, not something you orchestrate for him.”
“Angus has genius-level intelligence and is combat and weapons trained,” James returned. “It’s his duty to agree to be reinstated and help us neutralize this biological weapon before it injures or kills thousands, perhaps millions of people.”
“His…his duty?” Jack’s voice cracked. Bozer could feel rage rolling from him, slipping around the room like an echo.
Jack turned away from James, running a hand over his hair, and then before Matty could step in, he whirled around, advancing on James, making the elder MacGyver step back a few paces.
“All that boy has ever wanted in his life is to keep the people he cares about safe. Since the day I met him, he has fought and bled for those people.” Jack lifted a hand as though he meant to grab James MacGyver by the front of his shirt, then curled his fingers into a fist so tight his knuckles turned white. “He’s not some kind of trigger you can pull—a…a weapon you can use against the latest attack on humanity. He is a kid…he’s my partner. And I won’t let you use him like that. Not like that.” He dropped his hand and straightened up, his voice faltering. “Not anymore.”
Bozer’s eyes were burning; he didn’t think he blinked the entire time Jack was speaking. James tugged his shirt down, smoothing it out even though Jack hadn’t touched him.
“Well, that’s just it, isn’t it?” James replied, his voice smooth and all-too smug for Bozer’s liking. “The day you met him was only seven years ago. You haven’t known him long enough to say what he’s really wanted all his life, have you?”
“Maybe not,” Bozer replied. “But I have.”
Four pairs of eyes turned to stare at him. Bozer felt slightly separated from his body. As if he’d simply stepped aside and another person—a person with a purpose and fury powerful enough to fuel his voice—had stepped into his skin.
“You might not remember it, Mr. MacGyver,” he said, foregoing the hierarchical epithet of ‘Sir’ and retreating to his childhood nomenclature, “but I went to school with Mac.”
James exhaled slightly as though irritated by the direction this conversation was taking. “Of course I remember, Wilt. Why do you think I allowed you to be hired? Having you here kept Angus in check.”
Bozer flinched. He’d suspected it, but having confirmation that his hire had primarily been one more thing to control his best friend felt like a punch to the gut. He saw Matty look at the floor from the corner of his eye, unable to tell from her expression if she’d known that as well.
“Good,” he swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. “Then when I tell you what Jack said is true…you have to believe it. Because…I remember you, too.” He watched as James straightened, chin pulled up as though anticipating a blow. “I remember when we were nine and Mac fell out of our treehouse and dislocated his shoulder. I took him to you and you told him that you knew he hadn’t calculated the correct load balance into the structure to take both our weight. I didn’t know what the hell you were talking about but Mac did. He just agreed with you and let Harry take him to the doctors and you just…kept working.”
James started to shake his head but Bozer wasn’t done. He’d been waiting a month to put this information somewhere—to unburden himself of these memories he couldn’t seem to release. And he honestly couldn’t think of a better time than right the hell now.
“I remember I asked Mac about it after his shoulder healed up and we finished the treehouse and he said he didn’t have the math right. And I was confused, y’know? Because…how could a dad care more about math than his own kid? And Mac just said, ‘You don’t know my dad.’”
He saw Riley sink down to the couch from the corner of his eye, and he stepped forward so that James MacGyver’s pale face and squared jaw filled his field of vision. The man’s eyes were somehow both hurt and accusing as they stared back at him.
“I remember when you left, too. Not the actual day—though, Mac does. With, like, perfect recall. He even remembers what he was wearing. But I do remember how he changed. He kind pulled in, y’know? Even around me. It was hard to get him to open up about…hell, anything. For the longest time he just…he just didn’t engage. It was like he’d been scooped out.”
Bozer took a breath, dragging the flat of his hand over his mouth, trying to steady his voice. “This one day, these guys in our middle school tried to beat me up. Nothing big. I mean, I was a black kid in a small town school. Even in California, you’re going to have idiots. Mac, though, he stood up for me. And got his ass beat for it, too. They even knocked him out, did you know that?”
James glanced down. “No,” he said quietly. “Harry didn’t tell me.”
“Naw, but you were around, though, right? You never went really far,” Bozer felt bitterness creep into his tone. “You knew when he graduated a whole year early and went to MIT at seventeen and how my Mom and Dad helped him move into the dorms because he didn’t have anyone else. And you knew when Harry died. Mac was eighteen then. Luckily for you, right? I mean, technically, he was an adult.”
Bozer interrupted his boss, holding up a hand. “I get that you had some kind of control over his life, one way or another. You knew when he met Jack and that he pretty much nearly died every damn day over in Afghanistan. For all I know, you probably knew about our secret proof of life email check-in system. You knew about every one of the missions with DSX and the Phoenix—hell, you sent him on them. Put him right in the middle of the fire. You know how many lives he’s saved—how many times he’s saved my life. Jack’s life. Riley’s life. You probably have a tally sheet up there in your office somewhere.”
James shook his head slowly as if he was ready to wrap this up.
“But how many nightmares did you have to wake him up from, Sir?” Bozer challenged. “Long time before he was an EoD tech and a bad-ass spy, he’d have bad dreams about you, about his mom. About Harry. He’d get so scared he’d shake. The only thing that would calm him down is playing Sega Genesis or some shit. Something normal. Something real. Did you know that?”
James simply stared at Bozer, his mouth set in a grim line.
“So, when Jack says that he’s not a trigger you can pull, you need to believe that we all think that. We all know that. And you need to know that, too.”
Bozer felt drained. Exhausted. As if he’d run a mile in under a minute.
“Are you through?” James replied in a carefully controlled voice.
Bozer glanced around him and realized that Jack had moved to stand just behind him and to the right, as if covering his six. Riley was standing on his other side; he hadn’t even noticed her rise. Matty hadn’t moved, but her eyes were suspiciously shiny.
“For now,” Bozer replied.
James turned to Matty. “I’m going to Rome to get my son back.”
“With all due respect, Sir,” Matty replied. “No, you’re not.”
James brought his chin up again. “I may not be his boss any longer, but I’m still his father.”
Bozer felt Jack tremble with the need to negate that sentiment, but before he could, Matty spoke up again. “We need to decide which is more important: getting Mac to return to the Phoenix, or stopping Syntac XR from becoming a water-soluble weapon.”
“They’re both important!” James protested. “We need one to do the other!”
“Sir,” Matty replied patiently, her expression schooled and impassive. “If you go to Rome, we have zero chance of accomplishing either task.”
James blinked at her, apparently surprised into silence.
“Jack will go,” Matty declared.
“I’ll stop Walsh’s crew and get that weapon back,” Jack agreed, “but I’m not going to make that kid do anything he doesn’t want to do. He’s had enough people pulling his strings to last a lifetime.”
As Matty nodded her understanding, James sputtered a protest. “There is no way Dalton has enough knowledge to acquire the Syntac and stop these men without Angus—“
“Sir,” Matty stepped forward, her voice hard. “Jack is a highly skilled, trained operative. He will go and he will secure the Syntac. We will worry about the men later.”
James stared at Matty and Bozer felt something shift in the energy of the room, almost as if the balance of power had turned. James nodded once, then turned to stare at the screen.
“Jack,” Matty turned to face her Agent. “I know you just returned, and I’m sorry to do this to you, but there’s not a lot of time here. I’ll send the details of the Op to your phone and you can study up on the plane. Riley will get you set up with surveillance gear.”
“I’ll be fine, Matty,” Jack reassured her.
“I want you more than fine,” Matty replied.
Jack gave her a tight smile. “Don’t worry so much. I’m pretty invested in not dying.”
“I want to go with you,” Bozer suddenly spoke up. “I know I wasn’t all that awesome on the Norway mission, but—“
Jack stepped close, resting a hand on Bozer’s shoulder and leveling his eyes. “You were just fine on the Norway mission, Boze,” he said. “You did your job and those people came home alive. That’s all that matters. This isn’t about you being a good Agent. This is about Mac.” He dropped his hand from Bozer’s shoulder and rubbed the back of his neck, tiredly. “He’s a flight risk right now, man. He’s running and he’s…he’s not ready to stop yet.”
“Boze, if I thought this was going to be just a matter of picking him up and taking him home, I would have done it weeks ago. You think it’s been easy watching him go through this so far away?”
“No,” Bozer replied, shaking his head, slightly mollified. Jack may have known where Mac was, but it hadn’t given him any extra advantage. If anything, it had made it harder for Jack to respect Mac’s need for space. “I getcha, Jack.”
“Believe me,” Jack smiled at him, and Bozer felt the warmth of it sink into his bones. “What you did just now? That was everything.”
Bozer glanced to the side to see the back of James MacGyver as the man waited for them to leave. “Thanks,” he whispered. “But I’m sticking with Riley, and we’re not letting you guys out of our sight, you understand?”
Jack grinned. “I’m counting on it.” He nodded at Matty, then turned to head from the room.
James turned on his heel and caught Jack at the door. “Dalton.”
Jack paused and half turned to face his boss.
“Look, I…,” James took a breath, resting his hands on his hips in a posture that was so Mac, Bozer caught his breath. “I didn’t realize all that. About Angus, I mean.”
Jack scoffed. “The amount you don’t realize about your own son could choke an elephant.”
“You might do well to remember who you’re talking to, Agent Dalton,” James protested.
Jack lifted an eyebrow. “I know exactly who I’m talking to: a man who walked out on his kid when he was needed most.” He glanced at Bozer and Riley, then towards Matty before looking back at James. “Now, if there’s nothing else, I’m gonna go save the world from your partner’s friends.”