The universe is against her, that's the only conclusion. She just didn't realize it until Murdoc came back into the picture and spilled her deepest secret to the entire team. A secret that she'd been hoping would never see the light of day, a secret that she'd be able to keep pushing down and forget about it in time. But then Mac found out and it was like her entire world fell apart at her feet and she didn't know what was going to happen.
So she tried to play it off, had hoped that that would be the end of it after she told Mac some semblance of the truth and then they hugged outside the building in Mexico. She'd finally felt at peace, like even though her secret is out and she knows he doesn't feel the same, it won't hurt nearly as much as it has and they can just put it behind them. That they can just move on and keep being friends and she'll eventually get over him with some more time.
But then he showed up at her apartment later that night asking her if her emotions actually passed, and the look on his face made her heart race. She tried not to read too much into it, though, couldn't let her mind go there. So she gave him as vague of an answer as she possibly could, looked anywhere but in his eyes, and told him she was exhausted from the mission and needed to go to bed before she passed out right then and there. She thought that would finally be the end of it, that they could forget about everything and he could live happily with Desi while she did her best to get over him so she could stop hurting.
And then Matty assigned them to the same op a few days later, just the two of them. So yeah, the universe is most definitely against her.
It'd been easy enough to avoid talking about it while on the plane and on the mission, she just claimed that they needed to focus on the op and not get distracted. But she could feel Mac's eyes on her throughout the whole flight. She'd hoped that he would sit in any of the other seats except for right in front of her, but again, the universe is against her.
She'd tried her best to keep her distance from him during the op, didn't want to stand too close to him like she's done before and give him the wrong idea. But of course, that didn't stop Mac from invading her personal space whenever he could find a chance. No matter what she does he always finds a way to get close to her again. And it's driving her crazy. Because he's right there and it'd be so easy to let herself give in to her deepest wishes. But she can't. So she stays focused.
And as with just about every op they go on, things go fairly well. Until they don't. For a moment she thought they'd be able to make it through this one without any significant bumps and bruises, and with nothing going wrong. But of course, they're never that lucky. Which is how they wind up running through the woods trying to evade capture from the very people who will benefit from this country's entire government collapsing.
And their trip through the woods hasn't been a walk in the park, either. Far from it. They'd already fallen into the river earlier and soaked their clothes through completely, making it harder to move. She'd also nearly passed out too, not long after the ordeal with the river, though she's not entirely sure why. Thankfully Mac had been right there just like he always is, ready with a space blanket to keep them warm as he pulled her into his arms. But unfortunately, after that, they lost the space blanket and they had to keep running.
It feels like they've been running for hours. She doesn't know how much further she can go without feeling like she's going to pass out again. And she's definitely wishing that they'd been able to hang onto the space blanket, even if it puts her feelings for Mac on the fritz, being so close to him. But she can suffer through it if it's for their survival.
"Riley. Hang on."
She stops moving, her breathing heavy, and turns around to see Mac leaning against a nearby tree and staring down at the ground.
Her brows furrow. "Mac? You okay?"
He shakes his head. "I don't know. I feel...I'm not sure. But it's like my insides are burning, almost. But everything outside is still cold."
"It's not that bad, though," he says, trying to sound nonchalant. "I can handle whatever this is. We have to keep moving."
She moves closer and puts her hands on his shoulders to stop him. "Mac, stop. We can take a few minutes to figure out what's going on. You probably just need to rest for a second."
He shakes his head, stepping out of her hold and moving across the ground. "No, I can't. We need to keep going. We need to—"
Her eyes go wide and her breath catches the instant she sees Mac collapse on the forest floor. "Mac!"
She doesn't hesitate, immediately rushing to his side and dropping to her knees. She pulls him closer to her with shaky hands. "No no no." She settles his head in her lap, brushing his wet hair back and tilting his head toward her, already feeling the tears welling up in her eyes. This can't be it, this can't be how things end for them, for him.
"Hey! Stay with me, Mac! Stay with me. Please. You've gotta tell me how to help you." Her heart's beating erratically inside her chest, her mind flashing back to when Mac got shot during their camping trip with Bozer. It had only been in his leg, but she still managed to help him and get him to safety. Except for this time he isn't coherent enough to tell her how to save his life. His eyes keep opening and closing but they're unfocused when they're open. He's still breathing, thankfully, and still has a pulse, albeit a faint one.
Riley swallows thickly, trying to force back the lump forming in her throat as the tears continue to build. Her vision grows blurrier by the second as the tears start flowing freely down her cheeks and she doesn't bother wiping them away. Not when Mac's life is on the line. Not when she's lost track of where they are and she can't hear anyone over her comm.
"Mac, come on," she tries again, gently patting his cheeks when his eyes start to flutter closed again. "You need to hang on, okay? For me, Mac. Hang on for me, please. Please!" she shouts when he still doesn't respond. "Mac, I need you to wake up. Come on, please. I...It didn't work, okay?" she finally confesses the truth that she'd been trying to keep to herself, fearing that if she doesn't say it now then she'll always regret never telling him.
"It didn't work," she cries. "Of course it didn't work. You don't even understand how badly I wanted it to work. I wanted the pain of seeing you happy with someone else who wasn't me to stop, but it never did. And I don't know if it ever will." She grabs onto one of his hands and squeezes, bringing the back of it to her lips. "Please don't leave me, Mac, I can't lose you too. We told each other we'd never be alone, remember? So you can't leave me alone right now, you're not allowed. Please, Mac."
She chokes on a sob as she cradles his head closer to her body, her cheek resting against his hair and her voice lowering to barely a whisper, "I love you, Mac. Please don't go."
Letting out a quiet groan, the first thing Mac's aware of is the hand clasped tightly around his. And then all of his other senses start to kick in and he's picking up on every other thing around him. He keeps his eyes closed, though, lets his body come slowly back into consciousness. He takes the time to focus on the hand holding his, the corners of his lips twitching at the familiarity of it. It's such a small gesture, but it brings a greater amount of peace and calmness than most other things in his life do.
He shouldn't be surprised, Riley's been one of the few constants in his life the last few years. He knows he can count on her, that she trusts him completely the same way he trusts her. They've always got each other's back, no doubt or hesitation. Not anymore, not after everything they've been through together.
And despite how stilted things have been between them the last couple of days, he still trusts her and wants to be near her. Of course, that could be largely in part to the feelings he's been developing for her that he tried to push down and ignore because he never once thought she could feel the same way.
But then Murdoc happened. And Mac realized that his feelings were never completely one-sided. It was just never the right time for either of them to act on those feelings. The universe was never aligned correctly for them to be able to give in to whatever they were feeling for one another. So he started trying to ignore his feelings and let them fade away and hope that he could stop looking at her like she's far more beautiful and incredible than any of the pieces of art he's seen over the years.
But he couldn't ignore his feelings anymore, couldn't ignore the chance, however slim it might be, of experiencing something more than just friendship with Riley. He needed to know if what she felt for him was still there lingering somewhere, wanting to be the focus.
When he asked her about it, though, she just gave him a vague answer that only left him with more questions and less clarity about so many things.
It didn't help matters when they got assigned to the same op just a few days later, just the two of them, and Riley did everything she could to avoid the unresolved situation hanging between them. She wasn't wrong in saying that they needed to focus on the mission, but it didn't stop him from constantly wondering if she was lying to him in any way at her apartment.
And then the whole op goes sideways, as they tend to do, and he eventually finds himself experiencing a physical pain like nothing he's ever felt before. And he thinks that maybe it's the universe's way of getting back at him for whatever reason, and he probably deserves it. He probably deserves all the karma coming his way, starting with this pain.
He tries to play it off, though, to push through it so that he and Riley don't waste any time and they can get home safely.
But it seems the universe wants to prolong his suffering because the next thing he knows he's staring up at the sky and nothing's in focus. The only thing he's aware of is Riley's hands on him and her voice in his ear, but he can't make any sense of what she's saying. Everything keeps coming in and out, it's hard to stay awake.
He can hear her crying, can feel the tears hitting his skin. He wants to hold her hand, squeeze it, and let her know that he's going to be okay. Even if he doesn't quite believe it. But he can't. He physically can't. But he wants to, desperately. He needs to.
"I love you, Mac. Please don't go."
Everything goes black after that. The pain disappears and everything fades away.
But now everything's coming back into focus and becoming more clear, and he's fully aware that he's no longer lying on the forest floor. He's in a bed, just not his bed at home.
Slowly opening his eyes, he lets them drift, smiling a little when his earlier suspicion is confirmed. Riley's sitting in a chair next to his bed, curled up in a seemingly uncomfortable position, one of her hands clasping his tightly. It's a nice sight, and he's glad to know that despite everything that's happened between them, she's still here.
When he shifts in the bed, his hand jostles hers and she jolts awake. He internally curses himself for waking her up inadvertently, he'd wanted to let her sleep.
Riley sits up quickly in the chair, her hand still in his, and her eyes lock onto his. "Mac, you're awake."
He nods. "What—" He swallows thickly, wincing a little at the dryness of his throat.
"Let me go find your doctor," Riley says, moving to get up out of the chair.
He tightens his hand around hers, stopping her before she can leave.
She sits down again and tilts her head. "Mac, let me go get your doctor."
"Not yet," he rasps out. "Please."
Hesitation crosses her face and then she sighs heavily. "Fine. Are you at least feeling any better?"
He nods again. "Yeah."
"Good. That's good. The doctor thinks we were exposed to something, but he's not sure why your symptoms were more severe than mine."
He swallows again, glancing down at their hands and then back up. "Are you okay?"
She gives him a small smile. "I'm fine. They're still running some tests to try and figure out what exactly we were exposed to."
"Okay." He glances down again, resisting the urge to start playing with her fingers. He doesn't want to disturb whatever's happening here, but he has to know, and he hopes that she will finally be straight with him about it. "Uh, Riley, can I ask you something?"
"When we were in the woods, and I passed out, I wasn't…" His brows furrow slightly as he tries to recall more details from the woods, and it's all slowly coming back to him in pieces. "I kept coming in and out of consciousness, but I heard you talking. I can't remember most of it, but there's one thing I heard you say very clearly right before I completely lost consciousness. Unless it was just my mind playing tricks on me." He chances a glance up at his friend, trying to keep the hope off his face. Maybe if he doesn't hope, the universe won't completely break him.
Riley shifts in her seat and then stares down at the floor for what feels like an eternity before she looks at him again. Her eyes are shining with unshed tears and she offers him a tight smile. "No, Mac that wasn't your mind playing tricks on you. My feelings for you...they didn't go away. I tried. I tried so hard, but no matter what I did, they just wouldn't."
He can't help the smile that pulls at his lips. "Well, that's good. Because otherwise, I'd feel guilty for not being able to push mine down."
She sucks in a sharp breath. "What?"
"I have feelings for you too, Riles. At least, I'm fairly certain that I do. I always want to be around you and make you smile, and hugging you makes everything instantly feel a hundred times better. I thought that if I ignored how I was feeling it would just go away and I could stop thinking about you in that way, but it never happened." He takes a deep breath. "I don't want to push my feelings down anymore, though. I want to give us a shot."
Riley gives him a watery smile and then laughs, shaking her head a little. "Oh, I've been wanting to hear that for so long, Mac. But we can't start anything. Not right now."
His brows furrow together. "What? But you—"
"I know," she cuts him off gently and then lets out a breath. "I know what I said. And I meant every single word of it. But I don't want to feel like a rebound if we start something now. You were ready to propose to Desi just a few days ago, and I think I need a little space to sort out a few things in my head first. And so do you."
"But you're saying we can?" he asks carefully, still trying to keep the hopefulness out of his voice.
She smiles and nods. "Yeah, Mac. We can. I promise you that I want this, that I want to see where this can go. I think we both just need a little time first."
"Okay," he says, nodding slowly. "I can do that. It won't be easy for me, but I think I can manage."
She raises a brow. "You think it'll be any easier for me?"
He chuckles. "No, I suppose not."
Silence encompasses them, but it's not awkward. It's comfortable, just how it always is with Riley. The only thing making noise in the room is the machine he's hooked up to that's monitoring his vital signs. He could stay here forever, well, not in the hospital bed, but with Riley at his side, and her hand in his. He could really get used to it.
"I should go find your doctor now," Riley's voice breaks through the silence as she stands from her chair.
"Hang on," he says, gently squeezing her hand to get her to stop. "I just...thank you, Riles. For being here."
She smiles softly. "I'm always here for you, Mac."
He smiles back. "I know. And I'm really glad we're gonna give this a shot."
"So am I." She gives his hand a light squeeze and then moves toward the door, her hand finally falling out of his.
He misses it instantly, misses the feeling of holding her hand, and is eager to do it again. He watches her walk away with a smile on his face and lets out a small breath.
Maybe the universe isn't working against him after all. Maybe it doesn't want to completely destroy him. Maybe it was just giving him that little nudge he needed to make him see and appreciate the truth that's always been right there in front of him.