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Solid Ground

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“The only thing that makes battle psychologically tolerable is the brotherhood among soldiers. You need each other to get by.”
- Sebastian Junger

***

 

Los Angeles
Present Day
0200
Matty

Matilda Webber was no stranger to loss.

Both personally and professionally, she’d learned to come to terms with the lesson that losing people—those she loved, those she trusted, those she was responsible for—was part of the journey. It came with the job. It was a risk she knowingly took every time she sent agents into the field.

Knowing loss was an ever-present shadow waiting just out of her field of vision didn’t make it any easier to accept. Nor did it give her the words she knew her team—people she loved, trusted, was responsible for—needed to cope with loss of their own. If anything, watching each of them deal in their own ways made her pain that much more acute.

Losing Jill had hit Matty harder than she could have anticipated. She imagined herself ready to receive word that any of her agents in the field hadn’t made it out safely. But she’d never prepared herself to lose someone she purposely kept close, kept safe.

It changed something inside her.

Changed how she connected to her team. Changed how she assigned missions. Changed how she pushed back on Oversight’s orders.

Over the last week, ever since Jack Dalton and Angus MacGyver had returned safely—albeit by the skin of their teeth—from Dalton’s self-imposed rescue mission in Honduras, Matty had taken to keeping herself slightly separated from the team.

She needed to step back, widen her view so that she could see the whole board.

Something was changing, causing a shift in the tenuous balance she’d created across this small band of capable misfits. It started with MacGyver’s sudden departure three months ago. It had continued with Jack’s quiet downward spiral in Mac’s absence. It had crashed into painful reality with Jill’s murder.

And they weren’t over it, none of them. Each of them was dealing with the damage in their own ways.

For the most part.

She’d seen an uncertainty, almost a fragility hovering in Mac’s blue eyes when she’d commemorated his official return to the Phoenix Foundation by handing him a new Swiss Army knife to replace the one he’d lost. The kid would be true to his word when he said he was back in; she’d never known him not to be, and she’d been watching him for over half of his life.

But being back at Phoenix was weighing on him, that much she could see. As brilliant as Mac was, he’d never really been given coping skills to deal with emotional upheaval in his life. She’d seen it when his grandfather had died. She’d seen it when he’d returned from Afghanistan.

And she was seeing it now as he tried to make the right choice in the wake of an incredible shock: the knowledge that the man he’d thought abandoned him was near him all along.

The role Matty played in James MacGyver’s betrayal was not something she took lightly, and as a result, she found herself pulling back. Being careful. Working to keep herself disconnected from the family her team had created so that she was able to do her job: send them into dangerous situations. Not buffer them from the realities of the world in which she lived.

She was fairly certain the only one who’d picked up on this tactic was Jack Dalton.

The man played the fun-loving goof-ball, but she’d known him for over a decade. She’d seen him navigate some treacherous waters both in the field and in his mind and the minds of his team. He was savvy, skilled, and missed very little when it came to people he cared about.

She’d never openly admit it, but she was glad to fall into that category. Even if it meant she couldn’t hide as much from him as she’d like.

Matty swiped her access card to enter the main doors of the Phoenix Foundation, the quiet pop of the lock as it gave way a welcomed sound as she made her way through the dimly-lit halls to the darkened War Room.  The building was quiet at this time of night; there was always someone in the observation room, but they ran a skeleton crew when an Op wasn’t in process. Tapping the glass to trigger the frost and shield the interior of the War Room from view, she turned on the lights, Jack Dalton’s recent phone call still echoing in her ears.

“It’s too soon to break us up again.”

Jack’s late-night check-in, several hours earlier, wasn’t his typical disgruntlement. Matty had heard all the adolescent-type excuses for why he should or should not be on an Op, protesting anything from the location, to the amenities, to the actual mission itself. Sometimes she wondered if he did it just because she’d come to expect it from him.

But he wasn’t just complaining this time. He wasn’t just worried.

This was something deeper. This was…fear.

“You’re not being broken up,” she’d sighed. “The Saltillo Op was better suited for your skill set.”

“Bullshit,” Jack snapped. “This is Oversight twisting the damn screws.”

Matty didn’t want him to be right. But the timing was a bit too convenient.

James MacGyver had been livid when he’d found out that Mac had joined Jack in Honduras without his permission or knowledge. There hadn’t been time to take any action; the day after they returned to the states, practically the same time as Jack’s former Delta team had left Los Angeles to return to their homes, the team had been sent to Belize to retrieve plans for a potential biochemical weapon.

However, the minute they’d returned from Belize—before they’d even debriefed with Matty—Oversight sent Jack to Saltillo, Mexico, to stop a gun-runner from making a huge sale of military-grade weapons. The team had barely dropped their packs in the Phoenix hanger before another crew was collecting Dalton and getting him back in the air.

Jack had called her the moment he’d landed in Saltillo and found a secure line.

“Check on Mac,” he’d entreated.

“He’ll be debriefed in the morning,” Matty had snapped, somewhat irritated at being woken up. More irritated that her team had been usurped by her boss.

“Not just a debrief,” Jack insisted. “That’s…limited. Look past the facts.”

She knew what he meant.

Mac was excellent at compartmentalizing and quieting outward displays of distress. He’d been doing it since he was young—since his father had walked away from him without a word. She’d watched with varying degrees of disquiet as the boy she’d been assigned to observe channeled his pain, his anger, his confusion, turning him into a young man who was a thunderstorm bottled up in a diamond-hard gentleness.

When life didn’t fit into an easily-explained resolution, Mac would often punish himself with long runs, hard workouts, late nights, and long hours.

“Something’s not right with him, Matty,” Jack pressed.

When it came to knowing his partner—especially this partner—Jack Dalton’s instincts were unmatched. Matty had come to depend on them, to listen to them when she found herself in the rare instance of being uncertain. Jack hadn’t been her first recommendation when asked for a soldier to pair up with the young scientist she’d been observing for seven years, but there wasn’t a moment since that she regretted her ultimate decision.

The bond Mac and Jack developed went beyond partners. Beyond brothers. There was a connection between these two—a dependency, almost—that Matty hadn’t seen often in her years in the CIA, in dealing with soldiers, or with government operatives.

Jack sought a purpose, Mac an anchor.

The result was two men who were no longer whole without the other in their life. As though without one, the other would simply cease to exist. At least in the way she knew them now.

It frightened her a bit.

“I was too…hurt and pissed before to see it,” Jack had continued, and Matty could practically see the man rubbing the back of his head as he paced, berating himself and doing the one thing he could think of: calling the only other person he trusted to watch out for Mac. “I should have…I should have been paying more attention, but then there was Worthy, and I just…. I missed it.”

There had been something almost broken in Mac’s eyes the night Jack’s old Delta team celebrated the successful rescue of Worthy and return home. He’d masked it well with a familiar grin, sitting near Jack, listening quietly to the older soldiers telling stories.

But she’d seen the shadows shifting in those blue eyes. She’d seen the way his gaze would drift into the middle distance, as if he weren’t truly present in that moment. She’d seen a tightness draw his skin close to the bone, giving him a haunted look.

And she knew Jack had seen it, too.

“He’s stronger than you’re giving him credit for,” Matty had protested in reply to Jack’s worry. “He just needs some time—”

“That’s not it. You know it,” Jack countered. “I know you know it. You think I don’t know you’ve watched that kid grow up? Don’t tell me you’re not worried.”

Matty exhaled slowly, turning on the iPad she’d left on the table next to a bowl of paperclips that had remained a fixture of the War Room, even while Mac was gone. She began scrolling through the files.

“He’s in the hurt locker, Matty,” Jack had said, a rough edge to his voice she didn’t often hear. “And I…I gotta help him.”

When Mac left them, Jack’s natural tendency to worry about his partner had escalated to extreme levels. He hadn’t slept; he’d practically lived in the War Room, watching the satellite feed, keeping tabs on Mac’s whereabouts. But Matty hadn’t been worried about the younger MacGyver.

Matty had been worried about Jack.

The man she’d first met was on edge, a few staggering steps from walking away from everything. But when Oversight asked her for a recommendation for young Angus MacGyver’s Overwatch, she’d known that despite her personal history with the man, Jack was the one. Jack’s skill as a soldier, and his ability as a CIA Operative, overpowered any concern she’d had for his mental well-being.

What she hadn’t realized at the time was that protecting the brilliant EOD Tech had healed something in Jack Dalton. It had given him something to pivot from, something to keep his compass calibrated.

Losing Mac—even temporarily—had sent him reeling, back to that other man. The one on edge, compass spinning as if it had been set on top of a magnet.

Jack had also dealt with his share of loss over the years, but what Matty hadn’t fully appreciated was the level of dependency Jack had in MacGyver. She knew when Mac left that the kid would find his way; he’d had to do it before. If no one was actively trying to kill him, he’d find balance on his own.

He’d climb inside his head and live in comfort and security, alone. Letting people in, trusting them, allowing himself to depend on them…that was Mac’s struggle. It had been quite the opposite for Jack.

Matty’s father had once told her that humans don’t mind duress—in fact they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary. For Jack, Matty knew, it had been more than simply missing Mac. It was more like Mac was missing from Jack.

Without Mac to protect, Jack lost his purpose. And, she now realized, they’d almost lost Jack.

In theory, having Mac come home, return to the team, was the solution they’d all needed. But once more, the impact of one man’s decision fifteen years ago was affecting her team today. Because no one—including Matty—fully appreciated the damage Mac’s father had visited upon him.

Not just by leaving him all those years ago, but also by coming back into his life and assuming he had a place.

“I’ll check on him,” she’d promised. “You just finish that Op and get your ass back here.”

“How about telling your boss not to take me away from our boy again, while you’re at it?”

“Don’t press your luck, Dalton,” Matty had groused before hanging up.

After that call, sleep was elusive.

It hadn’t taken her long to decide to come into the Phoenix. She first checked the Medical logs to see if MacGyver had reported in as instructed—shaking her head in resignation when she discovered that he had not—she decided to prep for his debrief. Selecting the file she’d been looking for on the iPad, she sat back as a video opened on the large wall monitor.

At first the image was grainy, bouncing in and out of focus, but then it settled. Matty clicked a button on the small remote left forgotten on the table and the screen split, displaying two viewpoints.

Several months ago—before Mac had discovered the truth about his father—Oversight had commissioned special tactical vests with built-in body cameras. The idea had been to both study tactical maneuvers for future Ops and to be able to better monitor agents in the field, supplementing the reporting each agent was tasked with upon mission completion. It wasn’t always convenient, but whenever possible, Matty had dictated the team wear the camera-ready tactical vests.

The cameras were built into the vest center-mass, the angle wide enough she could see head to waist of another person standing directly in front of the lens. The feed was automatically uploaded to a Phoenix server via a sophisticated encryption Riley Davis manufactured. Matty was confident that the files could not be easily hacked, but she’d made it a habit to move them within 24 hours of a completed mission.

Allowing the Phoenix Foundation to get infiltrated once was bad enough. She had zero intention of a repeat performance.

“…just outside of Banque Viejo del Carmen,” Mac was saying as the mic triggered. “Riley said the plans are in a safe deposit box inside the bank.”

Matty’s eyes shifted between the split-screen view of Jack’s camera to Mac’s. She heard a clip being slid into Jack’s Beretta, a round chambered.

“Simple in and out,” Jack commented.

“Except for the fact that the bank has one of the most robust security systems in the city—not to mention it’s supposedly heavily-guarded,” Mac muttered, Jack’s camera catching his profile.

Mac rolled his bottom lip against his teeth, worrying the skin there as he mentally worked through their next steps. Matty imagined she could see bubbles blossom and burst above Mac’s head like carbonated thoughts.

“We just survived a small army of mercenaries,” Jack bragged, Mac’s camera tilting slightly as the younger man pivoted to face his partner. “What’s a few guards?”

“Well, a…we survived because Matty managed to save our asses,” Mac reminded him, “and, b…we had a lot more guys with us in Honduras.”

“Since when have we needed more than just you and me, partner?” Jack’s grin was clear in his voice as Mac’s camera shifted away.

Matty watched the footage as the two men temporarily misappropriated, as Mac would say, a truck, Mac’s camera going a blurry dark as he slid beneath the dash to hotwire it before sliding to the passenger seat. Jack climbed behind the wheel and for some time all Matty saw was the landscape of rural Belize.

She listened, though. Look past the facts.

“Your team get back home okay?” Mac was asking.

“Yep,” Jack replied. “Checked in with Worthy this morning. He was happy to be back with his kid, safe and sound.”

“You did a good thing there, Jack,” Mac said quietly.

“You’d’ve done the same for me, bud.” Jack’s voice was matter-of-fact. “You have, in fact. Like…just a few weeks ago.”

Mac was quiet, the recording picking up nothing but the loose rattle of the truck’s frame and rumble of the engine. After several minutes, Jack spoke up.

“What on your mind, brother?”

“Nothing.”

Jack huffed. “Well, I know that’s not true.”

Matty smirked, listening.

“What do you mean?” Mac replied, and even Matty could hear the edge in his tone.

“You got two kinds of quiet,” Jack revealed. “You got the I’m mentally solving world hunger kind and you’ve got the I’m getting lost inside my head kind.”

Mac didn’t respond. Matty watched as the camera on Jack’s feed shifted so that she could see Mac’s profile. Her first instinct was to mentally admonish the man to keep his eyes on the road. Her second was to examine her young agent’s features when Mac shot a look over toward Jack, frowning at the scrutiny.

Looking now, she realized what she was seeing had been present for some time. If she had to guess, it began the moment James MacGyver stepped into the small village where Mac had been hiding. It was certainly present from the moment Matty had shown up to officially welcome him back into the fold, after the former Delta team had returned from Honduras.

Shadows lingered beneath Mac’s blue eyes, evidence of sleepless nights. Although strong, he seemed thin, his face lined with the strain of one constantly on alert.

“Mac?”

Mac looked back toward the road and Jack’s camera shifted again so that all Matty could see was the steering wheel, dash, and wavering horizon.

“You ever think about doing that?” Mac asked.

Matty narrowed her eyes.

“Doing what?” Jack asked.

“Something like what Worthy did. Y’know…re-upping. Heading back downrange.”

Matty tilted her head in concern. There was a quality to Mac’s voice as he referred to being deployed in Afghanistan…a kind of waver that spoke of uncertainly. Fear. Like a kid asking if their closet had been checked for monsters.

“Why the hell would I do something like that?” Jack asked, incredulous.

Mac was quiet for a beat. “Just…you had this whole other life before my dad assigned you to me, and I…,” he tapered, exhaling slowly. “Never mind.”

“Naw, you don’t ask a question like that and then wave it off.”

“Really, it’s nothing,” Mac protested. “I…it’s stupid. Let’s just drop it.”

“What’s going on with you, kid?” Jack’s camera shifted from the steering wheel to catch Mac’s profile before rotating back.

“Nothing. I’m good,” Mac replied.

“Well, you don’t sound good, Mac,” Jack pointed out.

Mac’s camera shifted as though the younger agent was trying to get away from his partner in the confines of the cab of the truck.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Mac muttered.

“How about the truth, want to give that a test drive?”

Mac was quiet once more.

“How’ve you been sleeping?” Jack tried.

“On my back, mostly.”

Matty shook her head, practically hearing the grind of gears in Jack’s head.

“Fine,” Jack sighed. “You want to play it that way? I can go all day, man.”

Mac didn’t take the bait—didn’t even try for some tension-killing humor. Matty frowned.

Their rhythm was off. As if they were still finding their balance. So often she’d observed with barely-suppressed admiration as the two men moved as though they breathed for each other, reading intent with a simple glance, offering aid before trouble was even present.

In this moment, though, she felt Jack reaching and Mac drawing away.

A chime sounded and Matty watched Mac check the GPS on his phone. “Bank’s about ten more miles to the west of us,” Mac informed his partner. “Looks like there’s an arroyo where we can stash the truck.”

Jack didn’t reply. That was odd. He always had something to say. Matty frowned, eyes darting between the two feeds. What was she missing?

He’s in the hurt locker, Matty…and I…I gotta help him.

The extended quiet between the two men was like a held breath. Matty felt herself leaning forward, anxious for something to see other than the horizon, something to hear that wasn’t the rattle of the truck.

“I shouldn’t have let you leave,” Jack said suddenly, his voice seeming to bleed. Matty flinched from the sound, watching as Mac shifted in his seat to face his partner.

“What?” Mac bleated, the camera shifting as he reached out to brace himself against the dash as the truck hit a rough patch of road. Jack didn’t slow down. “What are you—”

“I keep thinking about it, and I…,” Jack paused. “I thought I was doing the right thing, giving you space. I mean, finding out that your dad wasn’t missing was…. Not to mention the fact that he’s been our boss all this time.”

Matty felt a pang in her chest, the familiar ache of not knowing echoing in her heart. She knew better than most what Mac experienced, what it felt like to try to go through life accepting uncertainty. Trying not to worry, trying not to fear, trying to forget.

Forgetting someone you loved is like trying to remember someone you never met, Matty remembered her father telling her, a long time ago. Those words now chased emotional evidence through her whole being.

“So, yeah,” Jack continued with an uncomfortable sigh. “You needed a chance to catch your breath. But…I shoulda gone with you. Or kept you from leaving. ‘Cause I think letting you go just…make you feel more alone.”

Mac didn’t move, his camera staying steady on Jack. Matty watched as Jack lifted his chin, his eyes on the road, a muscle coiling along his jawline. His entire body was a clenched fist.

“I didn’t give you much choice,” Mac offered, his tone finally resembling the give she was accustomed to hearing when he spoke with Jack.

Jack lifted a shoulder. “I’m your Overwatch, bud,” he said softly.

“You were my Overwatch,” Mac corrected, “downrange. Now, you’re my partner.”

“Afghanistan, Los Angeles, Cairo…it’s no different,” Jack argued.

Mac sighed. “It feels different.”

“Point is,” Jack concluded, his voice shaking as they bounced over the uneven ground, “I shoulda seen you climb inside that head of yours.”

The GPS in Mac’s hand chimed again, and Mac lifted it up. Matty saw the marker blinking on a blurred screen image.

“Two more miles,” Mac said, the mission taking precedence over any emotional reveal.

He reached out again to brace himself on the dash as the truck rattled, Jack taking a sharp left toward what Matty could only surmise was the arroyo Mac had mentioned earlier.

“Heads up, you two.”

She startled, hearing her own voice over their comms. Hilariously, the cameras she was watching immediately focused on Jack and Mac’s faces as they exchanged a glance.

“You will have less than ten minutes to get in, get the plans, and get out before bank security notices a glitch in their systems.”

“It sounds so simple when she says it,” Jack muttered, glancing over at Mac.

Matty saw Mac give him a grin, one that both hid everything and exposed everything, depending on who was looking at the time.

“We’re on it, Matty,” Mac replied, reassuring her.

“Clock starts the minute Riley gives you the signal,” Matty heard herself remind them.

Jack halted the truck in the shade of several mahogany trees. Matty watched as the two agents exited the truck, their boots sinking in the sand that edged the arroyo. Jack muttered some good-natured complaints about sand getting into his boots, followed by Mac’s scoff that he should be used to it, and they set off across the hard-packed earth of the arroyo.

Reaching another shaded area, they started running at a crouch toward a tree line across from the bank at the edge of town, Mac following Jack. They’d landed in Belize just before dawn and the sunrise was now gilding the horizon as they plastered themselves against the side of the brick building, catching their breath.

The town was quiet—which was both good and bad, Matty knew. She found it extraordinary that she held her breath while one camera showed Mac picking the lock, listening for Riley’s cue that she’d cut power to the security system, while the other camera caught Jack’s forearms as he held his gun at ready position.

She knew how this ended.

She knew exactly what her agents had done to complete the mission. And yet she was anxious for them. Anxious for Mac, just as she’d been every time she’d watched him through a lens of a camera since the kid was twelve years old.

“C’mon, bud,” Jack was whispering. “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast, you copy?”

“Copy,” Mac replied, moving in sync with his partner as Jack cleared the room ahead of him.

Matty wondered what James MacGyver thought as he observed his son falling so naturally back into the military lingo that he’d picked up during the time when his partnership—his brotherhood—with Jack Dalton had been cemented. James often acted as though he wanted his son anywhere but next to the former Delta soldier…and yet it was his decision to pair them up in the first place.

“Six minutes, Mac,” Jack said on the feed, drawing Matty’s focus back to the split view in front of her.

She could see Jack facing the interior of the empty bank, Mac facing a series of safety deposit boxes. She forced herself to breathe. Inhale to live, exhale to execute.

“Uh, Jack…?” Mac said, his nimble fingers skimming the edge of the box from which they were to extract the plans. “We got a problem.”

“We’re about to have more than one,” Jack muttered, rotating so that his camera picked up Mac’s slim back. “Let me guess—plans are missing?”

Mac’s blond head tipped to the side. “Box has a trip wire.”

“They booby-trapped the safety deposit box?” Jack’s tone was incredulous.

“Looks like,” Mac replied, his voice fading slightly as his fingers found a wire, following it to the latch on the box.

“Can you…y’know…?”

“Un-booby-trap it?” Mac said, a smirk in his tone. Matty felt her lips play along. “Yeah, it’s a simple enough design.”

“Well, get on it, Hoss, ‘cause our hourglass is running out of sand.”

Matty shifted her eyes from watching Mac’s hands make quick work of the wired box to watching a black car pull up in front of the bank. She knew this was where the Op went south, knew that both agents got to the exfil. But watching it was entirely different from the usual twice-removed recount of a debrief, or the disjointed audio she often got over their comms.

“Got the plans,” Mac called, but Matty’s eyes were with Jack on the black car and the five men bearing large weapons exiting the vehicle.

“Great, but, uh…,” Jack called back, “we got a little problem out here.”

Mac joined his partner. “Where the hell did they come from?”

Matty wanted to know the answer to that as well.

“This place got a back door?” Jack asked, already moving, Mac on his heels.

They flattened themselves against the wall, cameras picking up the back entrance and three more men closing in.

“Shit,” Jack muttered.

“These aren’t guards, Jack,” Mac whispered. Matty could see clearly through Mac’s camera—Jack’s currently blocked by his forearms as he held his weapon at the ready. The men wore ski masks, dressed all in black. “This is a robbery.”

“Well, that’s just perfect,” Jack growled. One arm moved from in front of the camera and Matty heard Jack shift his tone. “Riley, you copy?”

“I’m here,” Riley confirmed through their comms.

“When I tell you, I want you to make this place real noisy, you get me?”

“You want me to trigger the security alarm?” Riley asked, surprised. Matty remembered watching the young girl’s face fold into a frown as she monitored the situation from the War Room.

“Security, fire, tornado, whatever. Just light this place up with sound,” Jack ordered.

Mac’s camera rotated so that Matty could now see the front of the bank, Jack’s camera on the back. There was a total of eight men clustered around the two doors. Matty could see they were trying to pick the lock, not yet having realized that the front was already open.

“Jack….” Mac’s voice was tight.

“You got the plans secure?” Jack asked him.

“Yes,” Mac replied.

“Okay, stay on my six,” Jack ordered him. “I’m getting us out of here.”

Matty could imagine what Jack was thinking—there was no way he could protect Mac from both angles, and there was some heavy firepower coming their way. Mentally, she catalogued what they’d been able to pick up from the comms during the Op, unconsciously bracing herself for when shit hit the fan.

Mac turned back around so that his camera was facing the rear of the bank, and Matty saw Jack’s left hand reach out and grab hold of the younger agent’s TAC vest, pulling him along as he advanced toward the back door. Just then a shout sounded from behind them and Jack bellowed into the comms.

“Riley, now!”

Matty winced as the security alarm began to scream over the mic and flinched as her agents dove for cover when the men breaking into the front of the bank began to fire. Jack’s plan half-way worked: the three men at the back door scattered the minute the alarm went off, but the five at the front surged forward.

Shouting at Mac to get the hell behind him, Jack rotated and returned fire.

It was hard to keep track of the tilting, stuttering images on the split screen. She could see Jack’s arms, watch him dart quickly from behind the desk he’d tucked himself behind as he returned fire. She could see the bank of safety deposit boxes in front of Mac but couldn’t figure out what the younger agent was doing…until she saw a cluster of wires gripped in his slim fingers.

“Jack!” Mac shouted. “Go out the back!”

“What are you—” Jack shifted from his crouch so that he was facing Mac and Matty could see that the former EOD Tech held the booby-trap bomb in his hand.

“Go out the back,” Mac repeated. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Two bullets ricocheted off the desktop causing Jack to duck before he cursed and returned fire. Matty’s eyes darted frantically between Mac’s camera—watching as the agent rewired what, to her, looked like a ‘90’s era cell phone—and Jack’s camera as the man ejected a spent clip and drove home a new one.

“I’m not leaving you here,” Jack declared.

“I know,” Mac replied, twisting a wire and pressing his thumb down on a button, a bit like a dead-man’s switch. “I’ll be on your six, just go!”

Through Jack’s camera, Matty could see Mac poised, balanced in a crouch on the balls of his feet, one arm cocked back and prepared to throw.

“This is going to blow as soon as it hits,” Mac informed him.

“Son of a bitch,” Jack growled, aiming at the back door. He fired twice, blowing the glass apart and opening an escape route for them. “You better be right behind me.”

They ducked as another round of bullets peppered the wall above them. Matty could hear sirens approaching.

“Dalton, just go,” she whispered, eyes pinned to the screen.

“I will be,” Mac promised.

She saw Jack nod once and shift from the desk to the bank of deposit boxes before glancing back. Mac stood and threw the refurbished booby-trap bomb just as Jack made a break for the door.

And then the impossible happened.

Just as Jack’s camera showed him clearing the back and heading for the line of trees the two agents had used as cover before heading into the bank, Matty saw one of the thieves stand and fire point-blank at Mac. The younger agent’s camera went dark, but his comms were still on.

She heard what sounded like air rush from Mac’s lungs en force as an explosion echoed over the mic. From Jack’s camera, she saw the older man turn back toward the bank, dust and a brief burst of flames erupting from the front of the bank just as the police circled the entrance.

“Mac,” Jack breathed, the absence of a lanky blond following in his wake cutting terror through the sound.

“He’s okay, Jack,” Matty found herself whispering to the image.

At least, she thought he was okay. She knew that he returned from Belize, but she hadn’t seen her agent since that return and Jack’s anxious midnight call ratcheted her worry up to eleven. Shifting her eyes to the black half of the screen, Matty turned up the volume.

She could hear ragged breathing—almost panting—and a rough groan. The sound of rapid-fire orders and curses seemed distant, as did the clatter of metal, wood, and glass hitting the ground in the wake of the explosion.

“Fuck,” she heard Mac mutter, his voice tight and breathless, and then the sound of something ripping cut through the feed before the screen slipped to static.

He’d removed his vest, she realized.

The cameras were biometric, designed to work only for the agent the vest was programmed to fit. When the vest was removed, the feed ended and was inaccessible to outside tampering. Without his vest, not only was the camera gone but the only comms she’d now get would be through his earpiece and, based on the visual she was getting from Jack’s camera, the noise of the blast had temporarily knocked out that feed.

Clicking off the static, she expanded Jack’s feed to fill the screen, listening to the man’s anxious breathing as he scanned the shattered door of the bank where he’d exited.

“Riley, you copy?”

“I’m here,” Riley assured him.

“Cops are all over—you got any visual on Mac?”

“I’m trying to get into the bank’s security feed now,” Riley told him. “The explosion rattled everything.”

“Yeah, you’re telling me.”

“Jack.” Matty blinked, hearing her voice again. “Exfil is thirty minutes out.”

“I am currently missing both the plans and Mac, Matty,” Jack growled into the comms. “Exfil can fucking wait.”

She bristled at his tone, remembering having the same reaction last night as well, and watched as he tucked himself against a mahogany tree, camera facing the bank.

“I got him, Jack,” Riley declared. “He’s…looks like he’s trying to make his way to the back? But he’s not—”

“Is he hurt?”

“I can’t tell,” Riley confessed. “Could just be trying to avoid the cops. They’re entering the building.”

“Dammit,” Jack growled, moving away from the tree.

“Dalton, you stay right where you are,” Matty heard herself order him. “I do not want two agents compromised. One is bad enough.”

“Compromised! You gotta be—”

Before Jack was able to tell her exactly what he thought of her order, Matty saw Mac stagger through the broken door and head in a wavering lope toward the tree line, the commotion at the front of the bank acting as cover for his escape. Jack’s exhale of relief was audible. She watched as he stepped backwards toward the arroyo where the truck was stashed, clearing the way for Mac to duck through the trees.

Matty found herself scanning the image of the young agent, looking for wounds, for blood, anything. Mac was breathing heavily, his TAC vest missing, the sleeves of his dark-blue shirt covered with soot and dust. The same was smudged across his face, concentrated on his left cheek where he must have instinctively turned his head. But there was no blood. Matty started to allow herself to exhale in relief.

Mac crossed into the shadow of the gully, the trees now offering both men cover, and made his way slowly toward Jack, still gasping for breath.

“Am I glad to see you,” Jack declared, his voice going weak and easy. “When that bomb went off, I thought—”

His voice broke off as without a word Mac suddenly went to his knees, his face stripped of color, one hand pressing against his chest. Matty felt her stomach drop, holding herself still as she watched Jack’s camera rush forward.

“Mac?”

Jack slid to his knees in front of the younger agent, his arms coming up to catch and stabilize Mac. They were too close to each other for Matty to see anything clearly—all she got were blurred images of Mac’s shirt, occasional glimpses of Jack’s hands. But she could hear everything clearly.

“Hey, hey, easy.”

All fear and nervousness in Jack’s voice took a back seat to his instinctive need to calm Mac down. Now that he was close to the younger agent, Matty could hear Mac’s ragged gasps for breath, the exhale chased by a sort of groan, as though his lungs had been pressed flat.

“Just breathe, kid,” Jack soothed, “you’re okay. I got you, brother.”

“Jack—”

“Don’t talk, just breathe,” Jack ordered. “One easy breath. There you go.”

He straightened up enough that Matty could now see that Mac was on the ground, sand mixing with the dust and soot on his clothes, hair, face. Jack’s camera aimed briefly toward the tree line, checking to make sure no one had followed Mac, then returned to his partner once they were secured.

Matty’s critical eyes examined what she could see of Mac. His head was pressed back into the sand, his throat exposed so that she could see him convulsively swallowing. One hand was still pressed to his chest as the other one curled fingers into the loose sand around him.

“Okay, bud, okay,” Jack reassured. “Lemme see.”

He moved Mac’s hand away and unbuttoned Mac’s long-sleeved shirt, tugging up the white T-shirt beneath. Matty winced at the sight of the younger man’s sternum—a starburst of red and deep purple blossomed out from the center, right where his camera would have been.

“Damn, kid,” Jack breathed. He leaned forward, the camera blurring again as he briefly touched his forehead to Mac’s in relief. “Thank God for Kevlar.”

“What—?”

Jack straightened up, one hand on the juncture of Mac’s neck and shoulder. “Gonna have to thank Matty for those vests, yeah?”

“Jack—” Mac gasped, his voice strangled, air still a limited commodity.

“Easy,” Jack reached for Mac’s shoulder and rolled him carefully to his side in rescue position. “Just take it easy. You did good, Mac. You got out of there. Just breathe.”

The side of Mac’s face was pressed against the sand and Matty could see him blinking. He reached up for Jack’s arm, their position blocking the camera. She turned up the volume.

“It…it was…the RPG,” Mac rasped.

“The what now?” Jack leaned closer, the camera image completely obscured, their voices just whispers over the speaker.

“RPG. Came from…from the rooftop….”

“Mac,” Jack said carefully, “it was your bomb. You made it.”

Several seconds ticked by where all that was audible were Mac’s ragged gasps for air.

“Chest hurts….”

“Yeah, that’s ‘cause some Belizean bank robber shot your TAC vest,” Jack informed him.

“Belize?”

Matty frowned at the confusion braided through Mac’s tone. His air seemed to be coming easier, though, and after a beat, Jack’s camera cleared as he eased Mac upright, turning the younger man until he was leaning against Jack’s chest, blocking the camera angle once more.

“You’re in Belize,” Jack told him. “We’re on an Op. You’re not in Afghanistan, kid. We made it home. We made it out.”

Mac coughed roughly, then hissed in pain.

“You with me, Mac?”

“Yeah,” Mac wheezed. “’m sorry.”

“Hey, you’re okay, kid. Nothing to be sorry for.”

They were quiet a moment and Matty started when she heard her voice through the comms.

“Jack, sitrep.”

She saw the camera shift minutely as one of the men also jumped at the sound, but it was hard to tell which.

“Yeah, Matty,” Jack drawled. “I got Mac.”

“Why are you not on your way to exfil?”

Matty grimaced at the irritation she heard in her tone. Granted, she had no idea that one of her agents had been shot and was in the middle of a flashback, but she made a mental note to check her brass-tacks tone occasionally when her team went off comms for a bit.

“Heading there now, boss lady,” Jack reported.

The camera image shifted again and Matty could make out Mac’s dirt-smudged profile, his lips parted as he continued to steady his breathing. She couldn’t hear the ragged drag of air any longer, but a hand was still up toward his bruised chest.

“Think you can stand?”

“Yeah, I’m good,” Mac replied, his words rushed as he worked to overcome the embarrassment of the minutes prior.

Jack stood and reached down for Mac’s hand. He pulled the blond up and Matty winced as the camera picked up Mac’s chalk-white features, his blue eyes closing as he gripped Jack’s arm tightly, gaining his balance.

“Oh, Blondie,” she whispered.

From the moment she’d been assigned the job of observing him—or more accurately, of investigating James MacGyver—what struck her most was the younger MacGyver’s reticence to admit weakness, to need anyone or anything. From the moment his father had walked out, Mac had moved through life as though every step was along a fault line—there was no safety net, and no one was going to catch him.

Every pain, every lesson was on his shoulders.

Other than herself, she’d never seen anyone more alone. Until his father, ironically, had placed Jack Dalton in his path.

“I gotcha,” Jack was saying softly. Based on his camera angle, he was watching Mac as closely as she was. “I won’t let go.”

Mac swallowed again, then nodded. “I’m okay.” He opened his eyes, working his mouth into a semblance of a smile. “I promise, Jack.”

Jack hummed a doubtful reply but didn’t press the issue. They turned toward the arroyo; by the angle of the camera, Matty could see that Jack kept a hand on Mac’s shoulder.

“I sure hope you didn’t stash the plans in your vest, brother,” he was saying. Matty could tell the older man was asking that as much to test Mac’s cognitive awareness as to ensure the mission was complete.

“They’re on a flash drive,” Mac replied. “In my pocket.”

“That’s good ‘cause I wasn’t gonna go back in that bank,” Jack informed him.

Mac huffed a low laugh. “Right, and I bet you were all ready to tell Matty that, too.”

“Hell no,” Jack scoffed. “I was gonna let you do that.”

“Gee, thanks,” Mac chuckled.

“Don’t mention it,” Jack’s camera view shifted as he turned a bit to the side, a hand on Mac’s shoulder. “She likes you better, anyway.”

They hit the arroyo and Matty saw the truck across the way, shielded by the cluster of mahogany trees. Mac reached for the handle of the passenger door and Jack paused, making sure the younger man was able to climb inside. Moving around to the driver’s side of the truck, Jack slid behind the wheel. The camera image blurred as Jack ducked beneath the dash.

“What’er you doing?” Mac asked.

“What’s it look like?” Jack returned, his voice strained by his position.

Matty could hear what sounded like mini electrical shocks, then the truck roared to life.

“You can hot-wire a vehicle?” Mac exclaimed.

Jack straightened back up and shifted so that the camera caught Mac’s incredulous expression. He wasn’t as pale, and the T-shirt hid the nasty bruise on his chest, but his blue eyes were wide and glassy, and Matty was almost ready to march right out of the Phoenix Foundation and over to MacGyver’s house on her own to haul his ass down to Medical.

“Kid, I’ve been following you around for almost eight years now,” Jack said, a grin plain in his voice. “Eventually, I was bound to pick up something.”

Mac narrowed his eyes. “You always knew how to do that, didn’t you?”

Jack rotated back to face the steering wheel. “Let’s just call it benefits of a misspent youth and leave it at that.”

They pulled away from the arroyo, turning in a tight circle before heading back toward the airstrip. The quiet in the cab had Matty leaning forward once more. Looks past the facts.

“How you doing, kid?” Jack asked after a few minutes.

Mac didn’t reply at first; when he did, Matty drew her head back in surprise.

“You ever think life will get small enough we can fit inside of it and not get lost?” he asked.

To his credit, Jack didn’t miss a beat. “You’re not lost, bud.”

“Sometimes, I’m not sure.”

“Mac,” Jack’s voice leveled, drawing Matty’s focus. “You remember me telling you about how Worthy pulled me out of that dark place?”

Mac hummed a response. Jack shifted in his seat so that the camera picked up the younger man’s profile. Mac was staring with an empty expression through the front window, slumped against the door, one arm wrapped around his midsection. The camera rotated back to the dash for a moment.

“He told me that…that every day is like a little mission,” Jack continued. “You string enough of those missions together, it’s a life.” He turned quickly back toward Mac, seeing a pair of blood-shot, blue eyes pinned to him. “You aren’t lost in that life, Mac. You just gotta keep living it.”

Matty felt her eyes burning, listening to this man. Due to their history, she sometimes found herself taking Jack Dalton for granted. But occasionally, he’d remind her that the deep well of emotion he kept just beneath his surface had been dug by a multitude of experiences.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you,” Mac said quietly.

“When?”

“When you were…y’know. In that…dark place.”

Jack huffed. “Mac, you were barely sixteen. Still blowing up football fields and figuring out how to graduate high school before everyone else. You and I met exactly when we were supposed to.”

“Yeah,” Mac scoffed. “Because Oversight arranged it.”

Matty tilted her head. Not my father. Not even James. Oversight. Three levels removed from familiarity.

“Nah, kid,” Jack reached across the cab of the truck to grip Mac’s shoulder. “He’s only part of the equation. He had nothing to do with me re-upping when my sixty-four days as your Overwatch were up. That was all me.”

Mac shifted in his seat as Jack’s camera turned back to the dash. “Why’d you do that?”

Matty allowed herself a small smile. She remembered James’ face when he got the notice that Jack hadn’t even made it out of Afghanistan before returning to watch over his son. The man had been, in a word, shocked.

“I did it…’cause Worthy threw a grenade out of the back of a truck and saved my life,” Jack said. “I did it ‘cause you didn’t leave me when I stepped on a pressure plate in Kabul. I did it because you…kid, you were one of the most infuriating people I had ever met and yet for some reason…the minute I left you, I knew if I didn’t go back, I’d never see you again and I just…I couldn’t live with that.”

The truck rattled as Matty waited for one of them to speak again.

“You came back to watch over me because Worthy saved your life?” Mac asked, a tremble in his low voice.

“Worthy saved mine, I saved yours, we saved Worthy…,” Jack shrugged, his camera shifting quickly to catch Mac’s expression. “We just keep making each day count, bud. And…someday, it’ll all make sense.”

Mac was quiet until they reached the exfil. Jack exited the truck and headed to the plane, glancing back frequently to make sure Mac was following him, but didn’t crowd the younger man. Matty could tell by the forced casualness of his tone when he greeted the pilots that he was trying to keep things as even-keeled and normal as possible. Mac’s greetings and assurances were subdued, but he got into the plane and into his seat under his own steam.

As they strapped in for take-off, Jack leaned across the aisle, gripping Mac’s shoulder once more.

“You did good, kid,” he reassured him. “We completed the mission, we’re going home.”

“You did good, too,” Mac replied, the drowsiness in his tone matching the exhaustion that drew lines of tension on his face. “You kept us alive.”

“Yeah,” Jack sat back, and Matty heard a tale-tell ripping sound. “I’ve gotten kind of addicted to this whole living thing,” Jack joked, just as the camera went to static as he pulled off his vest.

Matty sat still for a moment, just breathing. After a few minutes, she shut off the big screen, and archived the video files. Checking her watch, she saw that it was just shy of six a.m. MacGyver wasn’t due in for his debriefing until eight.

Look past the facts.

The facts were this: her agents had infiltrated the bank, retrieved the plans, and returned home alive. An untraceable piece of equipment had been left behind, but it was nothing they hadn’t handled before. The bioweapon would no longer be created—at least this particular bioweapon—and a global crisis had been averted. Successful mission.

However.

She had also observed two of her best agents struggling for connection, had seen one of them wounded and experience a slight dissociative state, and neither had visited Medical. Not only that, the conversation on record would be enough for MacGyver to undergo a psych evaluation, which meant that unless she could figure out how to help him get past this, she needed to lose that video file or bench Mac. And finally, the one person who could bring balance back into the young agent’s life was in Mexico under the guise of mission criticality.

An idea formed—inexplicably and without method.

Matty picked up her phone. Three texts later, she had reassigned an agent to take Dalton’s place in Saltillo and arranged an exfil to bring Jack home. She’d also alerted Medical and prepped them for a stubborn patient. And she’d made sure Riley was in town and free for the evening.

Next, she called MacGyver, unsurprised when she received his voicemail.

“MacGyver, if I do not see you down in Medical in the next hour, you can consider your invitation back into the Phoenix Foundation rescinded.” She tilted the phone away from her face so that she could bark the threat more forcefully.

Finally, she called Bozer.

“Time is it?” Bozer answered, groggily.

“It’s time for you to get up and go check on your roomie,” Matty ordered.

Bozer cleared his throat and she was pretty sure she heard a female voice utter a low curse. “I’m not at home, Matty,” Bozer informed her.

“Then get your pants on and get over there,” she demanded. “Pronto!”

“Yes ma’am,” Bozer replied, sounding one-hundred percent awake now. “What’s going on? Is Mac okay?”

“That’s what you’re going to tell me,” Matty said. “I want him in here and reporting to Medical before eight a.m. Clear?”

“Crystal,” Bozer replied.

“Oh, and Bozer,” Matty caught him before he hung up. “What was that restaurant you were talking about last week?”

“Uh, restaurant?” Bozer asked, clearly confused.

“Yes. Restaurant,” Matty enunciated the word, knowing she was throwing him a curve ball, but using his confusion to her advantage. “As in, a place where people consume prepared food.”

“You mean The Kitchen?”

“Yes, thank you. That’s the one,” Matty smiled. “Clear your calendar for this evening. And tell Leanna to do the same.”

“Uh, okay. Sure, Matty.”

Smirking, Matty purposefully hardened her voice. “Are you at MacGyver’s yet?”

“On my way!” Bozer yelped, then hung up.

Roughly three hours later, Matty lingered outside of Phoenix Medical, working through files on her iPad and studiously ignoring the ongoing alerts from Oversight blinking in the corner of her screen.

She’d been informed the minute Bozer had dragged a very reluctant, very disgruntled MacGyver into Medical, and timed her arrival for when she knew the exam would be completed. Stepping through the main doors, she met the doctor’s eye and nodded back at him when he indicated which curtain currently hid her agent from prying eyes.

Bozer had successfully deposited Mac at Medical and immediately high-tailed it to the safety of his lab. She knew Jack was en route from the landing strip, so it was the perfect time for a minor tete-a-tete with her agent.

That is, until she heard the unmistakable voice of James MacGyver following her through the doors.

“Director Webber.”

Matty winced. There was no way Mac hadn’t heard that voice, as close as she was to the exam curtain. She turned smoothly, a smile painted on her face.

“Sir,” she greeted, steel in her voice. “How can I help you?”

“I was informed that you belayed direct orders and reassigned personnel.”

Matty arched an eyebrow, feeling her muscles tense at his tone. “Both of which are under my purview as Director,” she reminded him.

“I assigned—”

Matty stepped forward, pitching her voice low as she interrupted. “I know exactly what you did,” she practically hissed. James blinked, pulling his head back in surprise at her advance. “Ask me what I’m doing in Medical, James.”

The elder MacGyver had the grace to look momentarily chagrined. “I know why you’re here.”

“Do you care to check on him before I get in there?”

James shook his head once. “He doesn’t want to see me,” he replied.

Matty narrowed her eyes. “Do you know why he’s here?”

At that, James simply blinked at her.

“We are down one biometric TAC vest because one of our agents took a bullet point-blank,” Matty informed him. “Luckily for us, the reinforced Kevlar behind the camera worked perfectly.”

Matty wanted to smile when James MacGyver’s face lost a bit of its color.

“That wasn’t in the report,” he offered.

“You mean the report he hasn’t had a chance to submit since he was getting his chest x-rayed during the time his debriefing was scheduled?” she asked.

“What are you up to, Matty?” James asked quietly.

Matty tilted her head. “What makes you think I’m up to anything other than ensuring the safety and well-being of my agents?”

“And you’re insinuating that I am after something else?”

Matty narrowed her eyes, pitching her voice lower. “I’m not sure what you’re after, James. I’m not even sure if you know that.”

“A chance,” James replied on a whisper. “That’s all. Just a chance.”

Matty arched an eyebrow. “You’ve had several,” she reminded him. “And you’re starting to run out.”

James stared at her for several beats longer, then sighed. “I’ll back off on the Saltillo Op. Egerton is not as good as Dalton, but he’ll do,” he acquiesced.

“I’m glad you think so,” Matty replied. “Now, if there’s nothing else, I’m going to check on my agent.”

James glanced toward the bank of curtains behind where Matty stood, then at her once more.

“Carry on,” he nodded, turning on his heel and exiting the facility.

Matty once more exchanged a look with the doctor who’d examined Mac, but this time she saw both suspicion and irritation in the other man’s expression. And it wasn’t directed at her.

“Oversight will want a full report on this agent’s prognosis, as per usual,” she informed him.

The doctor nodded but did not look happy. Matty ignored him; she didn’t have time to take care of everyone’s feelings. There was only one person she needed to focus on right now. Making her way to the curtain, she moved it aside, then climbed up into a chair to face MacGyver.

The young agent didn’t look up. He sat on the bed, his long legs hanging free, dressed in only a T-shirt, jeans, and Converse sneakers, his long-sleeved shirt lying on the bed next to him. He’d showered the dirt and soot from his skin at some point and was currently examining the palm of one hand as though the lines there would reveal answers to the mysteries of the universe.

“So, I take it Dad says hi,” he finally muttered, still not meeting her eyes.

Matty let the bitterness in his tone go past. “Why didn’t you report to Medical when you returned last night?”

Mac lifted a shoulder. Sighing, Matty pulled up the doctor’s report emailed to her on her phone.

“Grade 1 concussion, hairline fracture to the sternum, severe bruising,” she read. Mac didn’t react. “You should not have been home alone last night.”

“I can’t have a babysitter all the time,” Mac replied. He finally looked up at her. “I mean, isn’t that the whole point of sending Jack to Saltillo? Reminding me that I have to be able to work alone?”

Matty narrowed her eyes. “Dalton’s assignment to Saltillo was made without my knowledge or authorization.”

“Assigning agents is under your purview,” Mac stated, reminding her that he’d heard the conversation in the hallway.

“Well, we all have bosses, MacGyver,” she said quietly. “But making sure you don’t slip into a coma while you’re sleeping because of a concussion is slightly different than having a babysitter.” She tilted her head. “Why didn’t you ask Bozer to stay home?”

Mac just shook his head. “He shouldn’t have to turn his whole life inside out just ‘cause I’m back,” he said quietly, his voice directed toward his hands.

There was something lingering just outside of his words, something Matty couldn’t put her finger on. Something that had driven him to worry about Jack heading back to Afghanistan, something that had him asking about Worthy, something that sent his concussed mind back to their time deployed.

“Why Nigeria, Mac?” Matty suddenly asked, bringing the younger agent’s head up sharply. “You could have gone literally anywhere. Why did you pick a remote village in Nigeria to hide?”

Mac frowned. “I wasn’t hiding,” he protested. “I was….”

He blinked, looking for all the world as though the words he needed had literally turned to dust before his eyes.

“What made you choose that place?” Matty pressed.

Mac shook his head slowly. “I don’t…I don’t actually know,” he confessed. “We’d never been on assignment there. As far as I knew, my father had no connections there, it seemed like some place I could…,” he lifted a shoulder, looking to the curtain opening and empty hallway, “breathe.”

Matty nodded. “You know, Jack found you within a day,” she revealed.

“I figured.”

“And he checked on you via satellite, sometimes three or four times a day,” she continued.

Mac looked down, his brows drawing together over the bridge of his nose. “Yeah.”

“You might not feel it right now,” Matty said quietly, drawing the younger man’s eyes to hers, “but you’re not alone, Mac.”

Mac swallowed, bouncing his head in a quick nod, trying to dismiss this line of questioning as quickly as possible. The tension in his posture was almost painful to see—and it wasn’t from the bruised sternum or the headache she saw building behind his eyes. It was from living too many years waiting for the next person to walk away.

“I’m postponing your debrief until tomorrow,” Matty informed him.

Mac looked up, surprised. “I can do it, Matty.”

Matty slid off her chair and leveled her eyes up at him. “I didn’t ask you if you could do it; I told you it was being postponed.”

She thought back to when she first took this position, how much it had scared her that he so often went off-book, that he improvised almost every solution. Not being able to dictate or foresee what he would do based on training and proven outcomes terrified her—she couldn’t have the death of the kid she’d watched grow up on her conscious.

It wasn’t until she realized that he did follow the rules—the ones that applied to the universe, to physics and biology and chemistry—that she found herself trusting his methods. And his giving a little and ensuring that his reports were filed with detailed briefings of each mission helped even more.

“Honestly, I’m fine,” Mac protested.

“Pretty sure that’s going to go on your tombstone,” came a familiar voice from the hallway.

Matty openly smiled when Mac’s head came up and he straightened, his blue eyes eagerly darting to the opened curtain. When Jack stepped through and headed straight for the bed, Matty watched Mac’s whole demeanor shift. Jack wrapped the younger agent up in a hug, Mac’s arms coming around Jack’s back and he seemed to melt into the embrace, his eyes closing over Jack’s shoulder.

“I leave you alone for a few hours…,” Jack teased, his voice muffled against Mac’s shoulder, his hand coming up to cup the back of Mac’s head.

Mac pulled in a breath and released Jack as the older man stepped back.

“You doing okay, kid?” Jack asked. “No bullshit this time.”

Mac’s eyes darted over Jack’s face, skimming the other man’s body as though checking for wounds before meeting his eyes once more.

“I’m okay,” Mac replied. “Pretty sore, and my head is killing me, but…I’ve had worse.”

“Don’t I know it,” Jack grinned, gripping Mac’s shoulder.

“How are you here?” Mac asked, looking from Jack to Matty and back again. “Is the Op done already?”

“I had Egerton reassigned,” Matty informed him, watching as Mac seemed to draw energy from Jack’s presence. “I need you all here for a special job tonight.”

Both men looked at her in surprise. “Tonight?” They asked in unison.

“But first,” she looked at Jack, “you are going to shower—”

“Hey now!” Jack protested, drawing his chin back in mock affront.

“—and you,” she looked at Mac, “are getting your pain meds filled and sleeping for several hours.”

Something dark slipped into Mac’s eyes—a kind of sad fear that made Matty’s heart clench.

“I’m good, Matty, really,” Mac argued. “I’ll get the meds, but I can work until you need us tonight.”

Matty and Jack both looked at him, but it was Jack’s eyes that drew Mac’s.

“How much sleep did you get last night?” Jack asked.

In a classic let me deflect your question with one of my own avoidance tactic, Mac challenged, “How much did you?  You left the hanger and headed off to Mexico without even a change of clothes.”

“Dude, I slept on the last three planes I’ve been on,” Jack informed him. “A skill you have yet to master.”

Mac frowned, sliding from the bed to square off with his partner, putting his back to the wall of the exam room. He wavered slightly, one hand on the bed to steady himself. Matty stepped to the side, aligning her stance with Jack’s.

“Look, I’m not tired, okay?” Mac protested, raising his hands as though warding them off, his words picking up a manic sort of speed.  “And…we have a lot of work to do, especially if we want to find Murdoc and make him pay for what he did to Jill. Plus, I’m pretty sure Oversight is the one pinging the hell out of your phone right now, Matty. We can’t just…just take off when we get a little banged up. Bad guys don’t take a break, neither should we! I’ll just head to the lab or camp out in the War Room so I can—”

Before Matty could cut in and stop Mac’s semi-panicked filibuster, Jack took two steps forward, gripped the back of Mac’s neck and cut off the younger man’s ramble.

“Hey,” Jack said softly. “Easy.”

Mac closed his mouth, Jack’s voice acting like a lifeline. Matty watch with awe as Jack anchored the younger man.

“Take a breath.”

Mac swallowed, his eyes on Jack’s, doing as the man asked.

There was something powerful about the sound of the human voice. The emotion caught in that sound can cut through the chaos and drive someone forward when all they want to do was stop. It can remind them they’re not alone in the madness of the world.

Someone sees them, someone knows them, someone is watching out for them.

As Mac reached up and braced himself by clasping a hand around Jack’s forearm, Matty knew bringing Dalton home had been the exact right thing to do.

“I can’t sleep, Jack,” Mac confessed quietly, a desperate edge to his words. “Not yet.”

“No one is going to make you sleep, okay?” Jack reassured him. “Nightmares wear you out. Believe me, I get it.”

At that, Mac seemed to sink in on himself. Jack pulled him forward by the scruff of the neck, allowing Mac to bury his face in his shoulder, and wrapped his free arm around the younger man’s back. Matty held herself still, waiting. Watching.

After a moment, Mac huffed out a brief laugh.

“Matty’s right,” he sniffed, straightening up. “You need a shower.”

“Oh, now who’s the smart ass?” Jack good-naturedly exclaimed. He shifted his grip to more of a gentle head lock, then released Mac entirely. “Go get your meds, you punk.”

Mac smiled, grabbing his shirt from the bed, then nodded to Matty as he stepped through the curtain opening. The minute he was gone, Jack dropped his gaze to meet Matty’s eyes.

“You don’t have to say it,” Matty told him quietly. “You were right to call me.”

“Don’t break us up again until I get him leveled out, Matty,” Jack practically ordered, his voice pitched low so that Mac wouldn’t hear. “He’s walking a dangerous line,” Jack looked over her head toward the hallway where Mac had ventured. “I’ve been there. And if you don’t have someone to pull you back,” he shook his head, looking back down at her, “it’s too damn easy to fall over the edge.”

“I know,” Matty told him. “Any idea what that whole incident was with him after the bank?”

Jack shot her a look. “You’re talking about him thinking it was an RPG?”

Matty nodded. Jack sighed, resting his hands on his hips and hanging his head.

“It’s was a…,” Jack shook his head. “He got his bell rung, he was in the sand, I was there…it was just Kandahar all over again.”

Her heart clenched again, thinking of all Jack had been through, of Mac being too young to have been there as well. “I’ll text you the location for tonight’s job. Just make sure he’s there, okay?”

Jack lifted his chin, narrowing his eyes. “What are you up to, boss-lady?”

Matty matched his look. “Just be there, Dalton.”

“Okay, okay,” Jack held up his hands in surrender. “I’ll go get our boy and chill out for the rest of the day until we hear from you.”

“You do that,” Matty agreed. She started to head out through the opened curtain before pausing and tossing one last reminder over her shoulder. “And Dalton? Seriously. Shower.”

“Everybody’s a critic,” Jack grumbled.