TEN DAYS AFTER PENA’S DEATH
“I’ll be seeing you, wunderkind. ” Corporal Beck’s smile is a little too wide. “You know, the EOD techs are always the best. So good with those hands.” And then he’s gone, out the door into the shifting sand that erases his footprints almost instantly. If only all the evidence he ever existed could be gone so easily.
Mac sits up slowly, trying to ignore the pain running from his back to his legs, and shudders. It doesn’t matter. I deserve anything that happens. He knows Pena would shoot that argument down in a moment. He made sure these kind of guys stayed away from Mac in EOD training, the way Carlos Rivera watched his back in Basic. But now that Pena’s gone, Mac has no one who cares enough to protect him. Charlie’s been rotated out, and Mac doesn’t really have any other friends. Most people think he’s weird and aloof. No one would defend him.
It doesn’t matter. It won’t keep me from doing my job. He stands up slowly, ignoring the pain. “Don’t tell anyone, or it’ll be the last thing you ever do.”
He tries to tell himself it’s not his fault, that he tried to fight back, that he didn’t do anything to ask for this. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter if he fought back or not. It matters that he lost. I’m not weak. I just...I haven’t been able to sleep since Pena died. Or eat. He’s functioning on autopilot, senses dulled and reflexes slowed. It’s why they pulled him off active rotation for the past couple days, why he was here in camp instead of out with almost everyone else on bomb runs. Why Beck was able to get him alone.
He tries to tell himself all of this, but it doesn’t dull the pain, or the shame. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, it happened. And now, if he doesn’t want anyone to find out, he’ll have to let it happen again. And again. And again.
38 DAYS UNTIL HE DOESN’T HAVE TO DEAL WITH DALTON ANYMORE
“Hey Carl’s Jr, did you fall harder than it looked like on that last rotation?” Jack asks. Mac ignores him, focusing on making perfect corners on the sheets on his bunk. “Cause you are not walking normally.”
“What do you care?” It comes out too defensive.
“Well, I don’t need you going out there hurt and getting us both killed. If you’re not at a hundred percent, that ain’t good. I ain’t gettin’ blown to kingdom come cause you made a mistake on a bomb.”
“I don’t need my legs to disarm a bomb.” He realizes too late that he basically just admitted injury. “If there was anything wrong with them. Which there isn’t. Just slept wrong.”
Jack can’t find out. He already thinks I’m a useless, problematic bomb nerd. If he knew...what I let Beck do...he’d know I’m lower than dirt. Just a disgusting excuse for a human being who can’t even stand up for himself.
“Whatever. Just don’t get me killed.” Jack shrugs, yanking hard on the sheet he’s fixing.
What would he do if he found out? Would he just give me the cold shoulder? Would he hit me? He doesn’t want to let himself wonder if Jack would do worse. He wouldn’t do that to me, right? Jack doesn’t seem like the kind to...but maybe he just doesn’t know that Mac wouldn’t fight back. He wouldn’t…
Mac shudders. No matter what the outcome, Jack would see how weak Mac is, how easily he’s been taken advantage of. He already hates working with me, but at least right now he knows I’m good at my job. If he knew…
Mac can’t bear the thought. Jack is already spiteful and callous, making fun of Mac’s name, and his hair, and his slow work. What if he’s the type who’d make it into a joke? At least Beck doesn’t tell the whole unit, probably wants to keep me to himself. Jack might not be able to resist humiliating Mac in yet another way. He doesn’t want to imagine the vicious taunts and jabs, the added cruelty, but he can’t help it.
He jumps at a voice that cuts into his thoughts. “We need EOD support three clicks east. Dalton, MacGyver, you’re up.”
Jack slams a meaty hand onto Mac’s shoulder and he can’t help but flinch. Stupid. Stupid. “How’d you get into the army if you can’t even take a little love tap?” He cringes even harder. Please, please stop.
AFGHANISTAN (OR AS JACK CALLS IT, TATOOINE)
29 DAYS UNTIL IT’S IN THE REARVIEW FOR GOOD
Jack hates getting called up to HQ for debriefs. He doesn’t like dealing with big brass of any description, and these guys are the worst he’s had to wrangle with; they don’t get what it’s actually like out here on the ground. West Point schmucks who didn’t earn their stripes in the thick of it with the rest of us.
He’s actually grateful to be back in camp. Now he just has to track down Carl’s Jr. and let him know they have a new assignment, a rash of bombings that have the Ghost’s trademark all over them. And no one knows the Ghost like the kid does.
Thinking about MacGyver puts Jack slightly on edge. Something’s off about that kid. Well, more off than normal. The past couple days, he’s seemed glued to Jack’s side, which is a little odd. Usually he’s tried to stay as far away as possible, but lately it seems like he doesn’t want to be left alone. He invents excuses to stay wherever there are groups of people. Kid struck me as an introvert. Liked to hide out reading or making his weird stuff in his bunk.
“What’s eatin’ you, Dalton?” Wilson asks, as he walks past. “Get scolded by the brass, coming back with your tail between your legs?”
“Lookin’ fer my EOD tech.” Jack tries to sound flippant, but the kid looked so scared earlier. He hates my guts, why didn’t he want me to leave?
“Saw him head up toward that abandoned farm.” Wilson nods toward the crumbling building. “Sometimes the guys go up there to smoke...or take a hit of something stronger…” He shrugs. Some of the guys pick some sketchy stuff up in towns. Jack does not need to find the kid high and more weird than he already is on a normal day.
MacGyver doesn’t really strike Jack as the type to blow off steam that way, kid’s too smart to fry his brain with whatever crap is making the rounds here. Then again, he did just lose his mentor, who seemed to be pretty much a father figure according to these guys, and people do dumb stuff when they’re grieving. No matter what, they have a situation that needs their attention right now. Whatever the kid ran off to do, he’s gonna have to wait.
Jack jogs up the slope to the half-crumbling house, already ready to ream his stubborn, lone-wolf tech out for going AWOL on him, even if it is only this far. Damn it, kid, you gotta stop runnin’ off on me like that!
He’s over halfway there when the door opens and Beck steps out. Even from this distance Jack can see a satisfied smile on his face. Damn it. Those two must come here to smoke. Beck has a rep for being a rule-breaker, but rumor has it he’s supplying the unit commander with anything he wants from his black market dealings, so the guy lets it slide. He probably picks up the drugs when he’s out on rotation, and the kid gets them from him. Jack knows Carl’s Jr. isn’t the one bringing the drugs back, Jack doesn’t let him out of his sight long enough.
Beck shoves past Jack with a scowl. Jack moves on, but Beck grabs his arm. “Hey Dalton, if you know what’s what, don’t bother taking this to Gray.” Damn right I won’t, the man’s in your pocket. I’m gonna be heading right back to HQ to report you dealing. He shakes off the grip. There’s something off; Beck’s smile was odd, and that smell wasn't drugs…
Jack breaks into a run. He slams open the half-broken door of the house. “Carl’s Jr.? You in here? MacGyver?”
There’s a gasping sob. Jack glances into a corner and sees the kid, curled on his side against the wall, his uniform disheveled, shoulders shaking, face streaked with tears. Jack’s mind slots the puzzle pieces into place, Beck’s smile, the threat, the kid’s fear of being left by himself, the way he seems stiff and sore all the time...“Oh hell no!” Jack crosses the room in two strides, falling to his knees beside the kid.
MacGyver throws his hands in front of him shakily, a fresh stream of tears escaping red, puffy eyes. “No!” The word is choked off by a sob. “No, no, no, please no,” he whimpers.
“What the hell?” Jack yells again, because he can see what happened but how didn’t I see it before? He feels like the world’s biggest idiot. Kid was right, I am just a dumb knuckle dragger. MacGyver’s been limping, clearly having a hard time sitting normally in the Humvee, flinching away from Jack’s hands. I should have seen. “How long has this been going on? Why didn’t you say something, damn it?”
Carl’s Jr. doesn’t answer, he just curls away from Jack with a gasping sob. His whole body is shaking, it sounds like he’s choking on his own tears. Jack hasn’t seen someone cry this hard since Momma got the news that Pops had a heart attack.
You’re not helping, you just practically screamed at him. Jack feels a sudden stab of guilt. He takes a few deep breaths; all he wants to do is run out and strangle Beck and then resuscitate him and stab him, but he can’t leave Mac here like this. He has to get a grip and make sure the kid’s okay, and then he can deal with anything else. Well, not okay okay, but not having a freaking panic attack right in front of me, that I made even worse by screaming at him. He tries not to focus on that part too much.
“Hey, hey kid, it’s okay. Sorry I yelled.” Jack says soothingly, the way he talked to frightened horses at the ranch. He wants to reach out and hold the kid, hug him or just put a hand on his shoulder, let him know he’s not alone, but he knows enough not to do that. “It’s gonna be okay, kid. I’m not gonna let him hurt you again.”
Mac watches Beck stroll out of the building. He closes his eyes when the man’s disappeared behind the broken door and tries to focus. You have to get up. You have to be okay. Jack is coming back soon, he had to leave for a debrief at HQ. When he gets back he’s going to wonder what happened to Mac.
I need to get cleaned up. I need to look like everything’s fine. He doesn’t know how he’s going to hide the limp today, Beck was rougher than usual. He wanted to scream but he couldn’t so there are bite marks on his hand and a little blood too. “If they find out I’ll make your life hell. I promise you that.” Beck’s words echo in his ears every time he contemplates getting help. And who would he tell? Their CO is bought off, Dalton hates him, no one else would care one bit. He’s all alone.
He tries to push himself up but his arms are shaking so badly. He can hear people talking outside, close. Too close. He has to get away, or hide, or do anything, before he’s found. Because no one is going to have any doubt what happened, he’s half naked and covered in blood and filth on the floor. He squirms slightly, trying to at least get his clothes on decently. And then there’s a bang and the door flies open.
“Carl’s Jr.?” Mac wants to just break down and sob right there. It’s Jack, he’s back early, and now he’s going to find out everything. Mac quickly pulls his clothes up to cover himself, but he can’t get to his feet, it hurts too much and he feels too shaky. He collapses back to the floor, heart pounding, feeling cold and sick at the thought that in seconds Jack will know. And there’s nothing he can do about it; he can’t lie anymore, he can’t hide anymore. It’s over.
No, no, no, no, no. This is so bad, so very very bad. Jack should never have found out. And not like this, especially not like this. He gasps out a broken sob and then he can’t stop crying. He can’t even bring himself to care about how weak and pitiful he is right now. It doesn’t matter anymore, whether Jack thinks he’s pathetic. He’s already going to think so when he realizes what happened.
And now Jack is yelling. Mac tries to tune it out because he doesn’t want to hear it. He doesn’t want to hear how angry Jack is, how he’s pissed that Mac didn’t tell him, how he thinks Mac’s a disgusting piece of trash, how he wants nothing more to do with him. Mac sobs harder, any dignity gone at this point. He just wants to be left alone to curl up and never come out of this hole and just die. I’m not even a good soldier, I can’t protect myself let alone anyone else. Useless. Pathetic. Weak.
He wonders what they do to people like him. Will he be sent home? Will Jack demand to get another EOD tech? Will no one want to work with him anymore? Will they make him work with Beck? He knows Beck used to be an overwatch before he got drunk and screwed up and his tech got hurt. Please no. He’s heard stories of things like that happening and he can fully believe Gray would do it out of spite. Beck owns that man, he could ask for Mac to be assigned to him, and Gray would agree without a second thought.
And then he realizes, slowly, that Jack’s not yelling anymore. He’s talking softly, gently, like Mac is a beaten puppy on a street corner. He guesses that’s more or less what he must look like.
“Listen, I’m gonna do whatever I have to to get that scumbag court-martialed, okay? I’m gonna make sure he doesn’t ever get to touch you again. I’m so damn sorry, Mac. I’m so sorry.” Mac. Not “Carl’s Jr.”, not “MacGyver”. “Mac”.
Mac blinks open tear-swollen, painful eyes to see Jack bending over him, one hand hovering inches above his shoulder like he’s afraid to make any physical contact. “Oh kid. Oh kid I shoulda known.”
“Didn’t want you to,” Mac chokes out.
“I’m your overwatch, damn it,” Jack says, more heatedly, then catches himself. “Listen, that means my job is to protect you. And not just from the guys out there taking pot shots. From scumbags like that here, too.”
“Not...I should...should have been able...to stand up for myself,” Mac mumbles. The voice in his head right now sounds a lot like James, the first day Mac came home from school with a split lip because of Donnie Sandoz and his cronies. If you let them knock you around, they’re going to learn you’re an easy target. You have to fight back, make sure they know you won’t go down without a fight. Then they’ll go looking for someone easier. Bullies don’t like to work to get what they want. Mac tried, he really did, but whether it was Donnie Sandoz or Corporal Beck, he just has the misfortune of standing up to people who are bigger, stronger, and have more power. He can never win. Maybe if he can’t figure that out, he deserves to be hurt. You should never have to rely on anyone else to protect you. Because they can’t always be there.
“No, that’s what I’m here for, man. Division of labor and all. You’re the brains, I’m the brawn.” Jack says softly. “You don’t have to be able to do everything. That’s why we have teams out here. Not one single Captain America supersoldier. It doesn’t work like that in the real world. I’m here to do my job and look out for you, so you can do what you’re best at.”
Mac only sniffles. But you’ll leave. Just like Dad said. 29 days and counting. He curls away. “Don’t need your help.”
“Maybe not, but I’m offerin’ anyway. I’m bored. Need someone’s ass to kick.” Jack’s voice has a weak smile in it. “Trust me, it’ll make my day to punch that son of a bitch right between the eyes.”
Mac shakes his head. “Please don’t. That’ll make it worse. He said nobody was supposed to know.” He leaves the rest unsaid. Maybe he’ll leave me alone while you’re around, but in less than a month you’re leaving, and then he’s going to make my life hell.
“We have to take this to command. He can’t be allowed to keep hurting you.”
“I don’t want to.” Mac whimpers, and he knows he sounds like a spoiled child but he doesn’t care , he hurts and he’s humiliated and today has sucked. He thinks he has a right to some self-pity.
“We have to, because even if we make him leave you alone he’s gonna find someone else. He has to be stopped.”
“Gray won’t do anything,” Mac whispers, flailing for excuses as much as he’s stating facts. Please no. He doesn’t want to have to testify, to have to get up in front of people and tell them what happened to him, how ruined and pathetic he is. He doesn’t want to have to go to medical, because if they want a case he has to go before he can get cleaned up, and he’s humiliated enough already. Please don’t make me say anything or do anything. I can’t tell anyone. I can’t.
“Kiddo, if you don’t do anything it’s only gonna get worse,” Jack says. “I know it’s rough, but you gotta face your problems at some point ‘stead of runnin’ away from them.” He sighs. “If you let him keep on doing this, it’s gonna get worse. Or he’ll start turnin’ you out for favors. Guys like them, they don’t stop at just a little pleasure for themselves. Sooner or later he’s gonna want more and more, and he’s gonna have you in so deep it’s just gonna be harder to say no. You gotta get out now before he blackmails you into doing something illegal or worse. Ok?”
Mac knows Jack’s telling the truth. Maybe right now all Beck wants is a little fun, but that man has survived this long by using anything he has to further his own interests. Mac can’t help but shiver at the thought of Beck blackmailing him into running drugs for him, or stealing weapons. How far would I have gone to keep this secret? The thought actually frightens him.
Jack needs to take the kid straight to HQ. He feels awful about it but if Gray is in Beck’s pocket it’s anyone’s guess who else is. They can’t trust the camp medic not to conveniently make a mistake during the examination. So he has to take Mac to the main field hospital and pray they get there at a reasonable time for the exam to actually matter.
He sends Mac to grab their go bags from the tent, the kid needs a little privacy so he can at least straighten out his uniform and maybe clean his face up a little; Jack’s sure the kid is going to feel wretched enough having to wait until they get to the hospital to clean up any more. And the less people he has to explain himself to, the better off he’ll be. Poor kid. Beck probably knew he wasn’t one to let anyone else in on his problems.
Jack heads straight for where he knows Beck always is at this time, playing cards with some of the guys. Did attacking that kid count as part of his daily routine too? He can’t help but think that this has been happening at least since he got here. The way the kid reacted when Jack practically slapped him away from his gun... and then I beat him all to hell; when he was probably terrified and just fighting back out of instinct. He wonders, with a brief sick feeling, if Mac thought Jack was just someone else who’d take advantage of him if he didn’t fight back.
Jack doesn’t hesitate when he sees the man laughing with his buddies. He grabs Beck by the collar and starts bodily dragging him away from the makeshift table. The others get up presumably to defend him, but Jack gives them one evil-eye glare and they back off. They all know he’s former Delta, he can take six guys at once, four would be a piece of cake.
“The hell do you think you’re doing, Dalton?” Beck growls as Jack drags him behind the machine shed. “I told you, no one is gonna care what happened to that kid. Bitches like him are a dime a dozen, if they court martialed everyone who fucked one of ‘em-”
“Then they’d get rid of all the miserable worms who don’t deserve to wear the uniform,” Jack snarls. His first action isn’t to throw a punch. It’s to rip the insignia off the arm of Beck’s jacket. Then he punches him.
He doesn’t stop until Beck is on the ground, blood streaming from a broken nose, both eyes blackened and swelling, wheezing through battered ribs.
“You’re gonna pay for this,” Beck snaps. “Gray is going to have you on a platter.”
“Go ahead, run and whine to him.” Jack taunts. “You can dish it out, but you can’t even take a little bit of your own medicine. You’re nothing but a pathetic coward.”
“So’s that kid of yours. He didn’t even put up a decent fight. He was easy.” Beck spits out a mouthful of blood. “You know, I bet he wanted it. He’s probably-.” Jack swings a heavy tac boot. I hope it breaks his damn jaw.
Jack snarls. “You touch that kid again and I’ll fucking end you.” He leans down to stare the monster in the eyes. “I am not quitting until I see you and everyone you’ve corrupted in jail. I don’t care what I have to do. You’re not gonna terrorize anyone again.” He stands up and brushes off his hands.
When he meets Mac at the Humvee, the kid glances at Jack’s bloodied knuckles and his eyes go wide. “Jack, what did you do?”
“Nothing he didn’t deserve.”
“But he’s gonna-”
“The only thing he’s gonna do is rot in jail for the rest of his life.” Jack gets in the driver’s seat. “You are never gonna have to worry about him again, cause you’re not gonna ever be seeing him again, at least not without me right there with you.” Jack’s not going to think about what’s going to happen when this goes to court. He’s gonna do whatever it takes to get this case won. Dad had lawyer friends, some of them are probably still practicing. They’d help us.
Jack doesn’t care how high up the chain of command they have to go. He doesn’t care how many top brass this forces him to interact with. All he cares about is making sure this kid gets the closure he deserves.
He watches the camp disappear behind them and wonders how, in the space of less than two hours, he’s gone from wanting to leave the kid there too, to willing to go to the ends of the earth to get him some justice. I’m not going home until he can come home with me.
Mac’s sitting in the seat, doing something with some small pieces of wire. Jack glances over at him. “Mac?” The kid looks up, his hands pausing from where they’re making a little sculpture of a house. “I’m not goin’ anywhere, you hear?”
Mac’s eyes widen. Did he really think after all this, that I was actually gonna drop him like a hot horseshoe when my tour was over? Jack guesses it’s a good thing he decided to state the obvious.
“Yeah. I’m stickin’ this out for the long haul. Whatever happens, whatever we gotta do, I’m gonna be there.” Mac nods slowly, reaching one hand out tentatively to Jack. It’s the first human contact he’s had since…
Jack gently brushes his hand against the kid’s, the most insignificant of fist bumps. “Daltons never break promises. And I promise you, kid, I am never leaving you.” He doesn’t look at the kid when he hears soft sniffles. Mac’s earned the right to be emotional without thinking Jack’s judging him. We’ll work on all the other messed up stuff in his head later. Right now, all he needs to know is that he has me.