Mac felt like a complete coward, but he left his discharge papers on the hotel room bed with a note telling his folks he'd be in touch, to use the hotel room. He had to get away from all of it. He was just glad he'd done it before they arrived. It had been five hours since he'd spoken to them and they could arrive at any time, if they'd gotten a flight out.
He'd just put his bag in the car when someone screeched up beside him and a redhead jumped out. "Mac! We were worried. Why did you leave? I didn't burn the milk until after you left." She extended her hand to his chest, brushing over the fabric there. "I'm so so sorry I hurt you. Are you mad?"
Mac watched Jethro get out of the car and the fire in his eyes. Good. He knew what it was like to have his heart ripped out too. "No, Shannon. I'm not angry with you." He managed a brittle smile to Jethro. "So, you guys are getting married on Valentine's Day, huh? That the case, Jethro?"
His lover had one chance to get it right.
"I never agreed to that. Shannon has plans, doesn't mean I'm going along with them Mac." In trying not to hurt Shannon, he'd apparently hurt Mac badly. "You took off before I could try and make this right. I don't want to hurt you or her Mac. Can't you give me a chance here? I need to do this right, and I've managed to fuck it up."
"You ... didn't?" Shannon asked, turning to look at Jethro. "We're in love, we have to get married. Jethro..."
Mac looked at the young woman for a long moment. "Sweetheart, Jet and I have some talking to do. Can you hang out in my hotel room while we get all of this sorted out?
Shannon looked from Mac to Jethro, knowing there was a bunch of stuff out there that she didn't understand but it was cold and her coat wasn't very thick. "O ... okay."
She walked to the hotel room with the opened door and switched the Tv on before hiopping onto the bed. She'd watch some television while the boys did their boy stuff.
When she was gone, Mac leaned against his car. "You have a chance, but before you say another word, I'm giving you fair warning. Not in a good place right now, Gibbs. They kicked me out, effective tomorrow. No chance of appeal. Will gladly leave everything. Well on my way to getting blitzed. You got your chance. So talk."
"Put the bottle down. Last thing you need is to be drinking on all the medication you're on." Never would Jet have dreamed that Mac would get a medical discharge. There had to be some way to fix him, something that they could do to make it better. "You're not leaving everything. Maybe it's time for me to step up to the plate here. You need some help, I can give it to you. I've got time off left, need to let my arm heal. We'll get a place, I'll take care of you. I make enough for something small if you don't mind eating Spaghetti-O's for a while. You heal and figure out what you're going to do next, I'll stick in the corps until you're established doing something else. Might have to take a couple of deployments, but I'll be around most of the time. We could really have something here, I meant it when I said I was ready to be a lifer Mac. Not changing my mind now, because you're hurt. I just have to break it to Shan. 'Cause I've always taken care of her."
"Mom and Dad are coming here. They can take care of me. I'm not your responsibility." But God he wanted to let Jet take the lead and take control. He wanted to let someone else be the strong one. He stared at Jethro for a few minutes and then something hit him. For the first time in this mess, the bombing, the cowardice, the works, he was being given the choice to take life by the balls and make his own future.
"You'd want to do that?" Mac asked in a teary voice.
Jet just nodded and Mac handed him the bottle. "I ... concede. You wanna take care of me, then ... I'm yours."
Letting go of his own iron control was like a band breaking inside him and he could breathe again. He sagged against the car, starting to cry hard, reaching his hand out to Jet. "Don't leave me. You're all I have left."
Taking Mac's hand and giving him a gentle tug so he was now in his arms, Jet tried to comfort his lover. "I'm not leaving, wouldn't have tracked you down if I was would I have? I brought Shannon, which might not have been the best idea. But now that I know you aren't running, I have to talk to her. I can take care of her without marrying her. She just needs to know that know."
Mac tipped his head back, not ashamed of his tears. "Before ... you say yes, I have to clear the air. That day ... I ran. I let my guys ... Jet ... I abandoned them. I'm a fucking coward, beautiful boy. You have to know that before we go on from here..."
Jet just kept looking at him, so Mac plunged onward. "Want me to come in or stay here when you talk with her. Or ... are you not doing it tonight?"
"That's not why I'm staring at you. I have never once since I met you considered you a coward Mac. Ever consider that when you ran, it was a natural defense? The men who died, the would have run too given a chance. They weren't given that chance but you were. Can't feel guilty for that. I don't feel bad that you survived, and you shouldn't either. The men who died are heroes. The ones who somehow managed to survive are heroes too. Shouldn't be beating yourself up about this, you're here and we're going to have a long life together. There's a reason you survived, and it was to be here with me."
"Semper fi?" Mac said softly. "Maybe I can see me like you see me, but right now I feel like a coward who got kicked out for all the right reasons." He brushed a hand over Jet's face. "Lemme get this clear in my head okay? You're giving me forever if I want to take it and letting me be the scared little boy who needs to heal?"
"And you forgive me for living when I should have died?"
"And you ... love me?"
"If you've got to ask, I really need to work on the way I communicate. Love you so much, baby, it's hard to think when you're around. You have made the worst thing to ever happen to me bearable because you've been there to hold my hand. Let me try to do the same with you now. Won't ever be able to make it right, but I can make it better for you."
"I'm a bit buzzed and have had a hell of a day, beautiful boy. Give me a break if my thought processes aren't so clear right now." Mac let out a shuddery sigh. "Just like that you've taken all the turmoil inside and tore it away. I actually feel a little bit of peace right now. And a hell of a lot of hope."
"Then I'm doing my job. Just stay calm and let me handle things inside. Once I make this better, it will make you feel better. We'll start working on your mental as well as your physical health as soon as I deal with Shannon."
"Deal." Mac said quietly. "I'm here, for what it's worth."
Jethro knew he needed to deal with Shannon, the sooner the better. "I should do this myself. You trust me to go in there on my own? You can come, but I don't want you to feel like you have to. It might get ugly in there, and you don't need to subject yourself to that."
"I trust you. If it gets too cold, I'll put the engine on. But I won't leave. I promise." The bite of the cold was making him feel alive and that gave him a strange sense of hope. "Go, sweet boy. I'll be okay as long as I know you're coming back to me."
"You better not. I'll track you down." Jet kissed Mac on the cheek, knowing he was taking a risk to do even that. "Stay here, shouldn't take too long."
"Good luck, sweet boy. I'm here."
Shannon looked up as the door opened. She'd taken off her coat and the dress and had organized herself on the bed in her sexiest position. "Happy New Year, soldier. Is your friend all okay now? How about we make fireworks of our own?"
"Shannon, put your clothes back on sweetheart." This was going to be difficult, but he had to put an end to this now, before it got worse. "We really need to talk. I should have said something before but I was trying hard not to hurt your feelings. But I can't see any way around it. I can't marry you sweetheart, can't continue to have a relationship like this. I've met someone else, and I'm in love."
"Why ... not? Why not?" Shannon grabbed the blanket and wrapped it around herself. "You love me, Jethro. You took me away from all that. You didn't say no when we were talkin' earlier. Who is she? What's she got that I don't. I'm even a redhead." She reached out for him. "You take care of me. That's the way it's supposed to be, me and my soldier. Not some hussy and my soldier. You can be makin' love to her but just come home to me. Like my daddy and mama, we can have an arrangment. Just don't leave me alone, Jethro."
"Shan, I do love you. And I'll always take care of you. Didn't take you away from all that just to turn you loose on the world." He had to stay strong, make sure that Shannon knew he'd always be there for her, but just not in that way. "I want to make sure that everything is going to happen for you that should. You've got so much life to live sweetheart. School and traveling and meeting a man who loves you more than anything else in the world. That isn't me. I couldn't love you the way you deserve. You're a little sister almost, someone who I'm always going to adore, and who's boyfriends I'm going to threaten. But I can't marry you and play along. Not even to make you happy."
"But you don't have sex with your sister and we had sex a lot." She bit her lip. He couldn't do this to her. "Who is the hussy? I wanna know so I can claw her eyes out, Jethro. How dare she make a move on my man! You're mine and everyone knows it. You been mine for years now."
"We did, and it was always good. Maybe neither of us looked past that to see that we weren't right for one another." Jet wouldn't tell her about Mac, not now. She was upset and would only act out. And Mac wasn't in any condition to try and protect himself. "Who isn't the problem Shan, and you know it. I will always love you and take care of you. Just because I'm not having sex with you won't change that. I want you to be the strongest, best Shannon you can be, and you won't do that if I marry you. It's not fair to you for me to do that, and let you be the little housewife our mothers were."
"Who is the problem 'cause I'd have you if not for that hussy!" She was getting very angry, furious even. "I wanna know who she is. Is it someone back home. I shoulda known you going home wasn't any good. Was it Cindy or Winnie? Cause I'll claw their eyes out! And what about what I want. I wanna be a housewife and a soldier's wife. I want that!"
"It's not someone from home. I wouldn't do that to you. Shan, it doesn't really matter who it is. They know about you and really want to get to know you. I was very up front about our relationship. You're my girl, but I can't be with you the way you want me to be."
"It does to me," Shannon said tearfully.
Keith and their neighbor had called in some favors and they had secured seats on the first flight out. He and Emily had been white knuckled all the way to Washington, through the car rental lines and driving toward Quantico, where their son was. They pulled into the parking lot and Emily let out a relieved sob. Mac was sitting on the hood of his car, looking as despondent as they had ever seen him, but nonetheless still alive. They could heal him. That opportunity hadn't been taken from them.
Keith nodded to Emily, motioning that she should go talk to him while he stayed in the car. "He needs his mother, darling. Go to him." When she hesitated, he hugged her tight. "Go on, darling. I don't want you to see me cry."
"I'll wave you over, when we're ready."
Keith nodded, silent tears of relief falling.
Emily got out of the car, and walked slowly towards her son, as if she were walking up to a wounded animal she didn't want to spook. "Mackai, what are you doing out here in the parking lot? I told you we were coming, but I didn't expect a welcoming party."
"Mom," he whispered, gesturing her closer, hugging her fiercely and resting his head on her shoulder, like he'd done when he was a young boy. "I was thinking about leaving, but Jethro and Shannon showed up. They're in my room, talking. He ... he wants me, Mom. I might ... make it. Where's Dad. Why isn't Dad here too? I need you both ... I have no strength left, no will to fight any more."
"Of course he wants you. How could you doubt that, my darling boy?" Emily held her son close, paying attention so not to damage his chest. "You two are in love, and not even a high school sweetheart can change that. That you thought he'd let you walk away is what amazes me. Your father is in the car, didn't want you to see him getting all emotional. Sent the strong one in the relationship to feel things out, then he'll come strutting in like he had control of the situation from the beginning. We'll let him believe it, because it's what we do. He'll think he had us fooled the whole time."
"Because..." Mac began. "Because I'm a coward, nobody a real soldier would want to be with. They were talking about a wedding date. He just laid on me that he's been involved with this kid for a while now, and she's barely seventeen and yeah they have sex and yeah he supports her financially on the pittance he makes, and yeah she has expectations but its okay, this time he'll sleep on the couch. And he was talking about them like a unit and me as the outsider. And then, they started talking about wedding dates. It was all just a lot ... too much."
He looked at his mother, really looked at her, let her see all the pain he'd been carrying around. "I'm sick of pretending. I'm tired. I can't do it any more. I can't act." He took a deep breath.
"Mom, when the shrapnel tore into me it was bad. They told me that it was probably career ending." He swallowed back stomach acid. "No. No more lying. They told me it'd be a miracle if I lived and that I'll need a couple more surgeries, especially if any of it shifts. Or if it goes south, I could drop dead. I've been playing this denial game. Been taking what I could in a last ditch effort to live. And look at me, I fell in love. And ... he loves me back. And ... God, Mom. Could I really have a future when for the last three months I've been saying a silent goodbye to everything, just in case?"
Emily had thought the bombing itself was horrible but this was a new type of horror altogether."We aren't going to let you say goodbye Mackai. Why didn't you tell your dad and I this? You could have dropped dead at the dinner table and we wouldn't have even known it was a possibility." Someday she and her child were going to have to talk about his sense of honor over riding his sense of self-preservation. "You and I are going to find the very best doctor that money has to buy. We're going to get a second opinion and we're going to get you taken care of. I don't care how many surgeries it takes, I'm not going to lose you three months or three years from now because of shifting metal. You are too important to me to just give up on. Do you understand me?"
Mac refused to stop looking into his mother's eyes. This was his penance."I didn't tell you because I'm selfish. I wanted to claim the time with you and Dad without doctors and arrangements and what ifs. In case it was all I had left. Jet didn't know either. I was hiding it from all of you."
Mac nodded at his mother's pronouncement. He'd known that would happen and in a strange way the burden was off his shoulders now. "I understand, Mom. And I'm sorry for laying this out on you like this. I should have gone to Dad instead." He looked over at the car. "He's gone. Shit ... I mean..." he sighed. "Jethro's gone to talk to Shannon. I'm not sure having Dad there is the best thing for either Jet or Shannon."
Emily followed her son's gaze, sighing."You still should have told us. I would have tried to respect your wishes, and wouldn't have bothered you too much about it. But we can't help you if you won't let us, Mackai. I understand you not wanting to tell me, but yes, you should have gone to your father." Now that Emily knew, she was already trying to figure out where to start in getting her son taken care of. "Your father can handle himself. He's good with teenagers, which you've said Shannon is. He'll be able to handle it I'm sure. Don't worry so much, it's not good for you."
"Oh, come on, Mom. You and I both know you would have been consumed by it. And add Jet and Dad in and we would have all been in turmoil. It was important to me that things went as they did, so if I dropped, Jet would have a family. It relieved me so much when you and Dad accepted him. I knew if I had to go, I wasn't leaving any of you alone."
He pulled back, subtly shifting the balance of power back to him comforting his mother. "You try not to worry too much either, Mom, okay? I know I've given you a lot of reasons to do so, but it relieves me if we're both hanging in okay."
"I worry, even without knowing how badly injured you were. I'm a mother, it's a given. But not telling me, was wrong, Mackai. Do you know how I would have felt if something had happened to you, and I could have done something to prevent it? I love Jethro, and will love him because he's the man you brought home as your partner. But I want my child to be there with him. I appreciate you wanting us to be there for him and the other way around, but I expect you to be with him do you understand me darling?"
Mac nodded. "Wrong or not, it was what I did. I hope you can forgive me for being too damn noble." He sighed now, thinking back to Shannon, "She's so damn young, Mom. Not just chronologically, but mentally. She's a kid. That bothered me the most, that he was with a child and he didn't see the harm in it"
"I'm not saying its right or wrong. I don't know Shannon, but I do know Jethro. He seems to be an honorable young man. I'm sure he wouldn't take advantage of a young woman. I'm also sure that if he's chosen you, that aspect of their relationship will be ending. But you're going to have to learn to live with the fact that Jethro will always take care of her. You wouldn't respect him if he just walked away from her."
Mac shook his head, sighing. "I'm not asking that of him. She's just young, Mom. So young. It bothers me. Disturbs me a lot, even if you don't think the reasons are sound or rational."
"I can see that, Mackai. And I won't tell you it's wrong to feel that way. But you'll have to discuss it with Jethro. I can't make you feel better about it and only you can decide if you can live with what happened in the past."
"How would you feel, Mom, if I was sleeping with a girl who should still be in high school. Someone who was pretty young mentally. Giggling, giddy. " Mac shook his head. "You may not understand, but I know how I feel."
"Do you remember how old you are, darling? Not so far out of your teen years. It's not right, but it's not as if Jethro is your father's age." Her boys should still be young and enjoying their time not prematurely old because of the bombing. "I wouldn't object to you bringing home a younger woman, if that was what you decided to do. It may seem a lifetime right now, but a few years. I was married when I wasn't much older than Shannon is now. And your father is a few years older than I am."
"Today? A thousand years old." He sighed, shaking his head. They were on a completely different page. Maybe if his mother got to meet the kid, she'd understand. "You know the only one I ever want to bring home, and he's an old soul, and not a woman."
Emily wished she could get through that hard head of Mac's."You've both seen things you shouldn't have. I can't change that for you darling, but we're going to have to work on this some. My son shouldn't be feeling the same age I do. You're barely old enough to be considered a man, and yet you have seen things that even men your father's age haven't seen." How could she make her son better, when she didn't even understand what was going on in his head? "You know that isn't what I meant by that Mackai. I don't care that you're in love with Jethro any more today than I did when you left Chicago. Doesn't change how I look at you."
"I signed on to serve, Mom. Not to be hurt and then discarded like a piece of trash. Not to ... to run. To choose life over honor, to not have to hold my brothers while they bled out. How can I not feel old after that? Lot of guys my age are looking for jobs. Partying, drinking, barely graduating college. I lived a lifetime over there. Sentry duty ... you see a lot at the gates."
Mac sighed. "I know you don't look at me any differently. That wasn't what I meant. God ... Mom. When did talking to each other get to be so hard? Part of me wishes I was that kid, Mom. The one who could just lie in your arms and feel safe. Even ... don't tell him this ... but even Jet doesn't make me feel safe a lot of times. I don't seem to be able to make myself understood ... lost the ability to find words or something.
"I'm understanding you, at least I think I am. I just don't want to upset you any more than you already are. Although I suppose that the amount you've had to drink tonight could have something to do with it. I can only try to make you feel better, and with time I have to believe that you will feel like that. You've lived through major trauma, and you need to get to a point where it isn't so fresh. Some day, this won't haunt you. You'll see, trust your mother."
"Alcohol numbs me, Mom. Makes the pain bearable. Inside and out. I hope it won't haunt me but this is the defining moment of my life so far. All built up to eighteen months in the Corps and now nothing. Maybe not even Jet. I have hope, but I'm worried. Where do I turn? What do I do?"
Emily had the hardest time dealing with the anguish in Mac's tone. "Well, you did a good thing calling me earlier. You will always have my support, even if I don't approve of how you are coping. The alcohol isn't fixing anything, it's just masking it. But we'll work on that when you've managed to get a grasp on life again." She'd seen too many good men, friends of hers from high school who hadn't come back right from the war, who had drunk themselves into an early grave. She wasn't going to let her child do the same thing. "Let's worry right now about getting you healthy and trying to give you a sense of peace in a crazy world. Jut baby steps, to get through right now. Big plans can come later."
"I don't like to be a problem. I wanted to protect you, Mom." He closed his eyes. "Don't worry about drinking. I don't do it often. I just do it when nothing else works. You and Dad shouldn't have come all the way down here. God ... how much money did you spend? I could have slept it off." He wouldn't admit that he was leaving. It would just hurt her to much.
"It's so easy to get caught in this cycle of pain, and anger, and fear." He looked into his mother's eyes. "I wasn't prepared. Annapolis was supposed to prepare me to be a leader. But when push came to shove..." He sighed, unwilling to retread his cowardice.
"You are worth any money we had to spend. I wasn't going to leave you down here by yourself, not knowing what was going on. I've never been that mother, and I never will."
She had no idea what she should be doing for her child. He was pulling away from her and no matter how much she tried, Emily had no clue how to pull him back to her. "No one is ever prepared for what you lived through, Mackai. You could have spent a lifetime at Annapolis and not been prepared for the hell that was brought to your doorstep."
"I know. But I've also never been the guy who needed Mommy so much. Too damn independent, I guess." Even though he wanted to be strong, he knew he was breaking apart in ways that he hadn't since he was a little boy. The constant stream of images, of blood and smoke, death ... they were killing him.
He rested his head on his mother's shoulder, completely surrendering. "Is it okay if I just hang on real tight?"
"You never need to ask, Mackai. One thing I'll always be here for is hugs and cuddles. You might think you're too old, but I can promise you that you aren't." She would do whatever she could to make her son better. "If you ask nicely, I'd even consider making your favorite cookies. What ever it takes. I'm not giving up on you."
"I'm supposed to be a man, in control. Empowered. Leader. Not needing my mom to make it better." But Mac couldn't deny how deeply he needed this. "This is what it takes. You, Dad, Jet. Safety. Sanctuary. Hope. Honesty."
And he needed to be honest. "I was out here because I was going to take off, Mom. I left my discharge papers on the bed. Don't ask, I don't know where I was going or if I was going to do something permanent. I know you think you're losing me. And you were. I don't know if you are still. Fifty fifty right now. But you gotta hang on to me, Mom. Even if I try to push you away. I could break everyone's heart but never yours. I don't want to burden you with this, but I need to."
"I'm not letting you go anywhere young man." Emily had known he was close to the edge, as had Keith. She'd never seen him so grim as she had on the flight and drive here. "You can be a man and still let me take care of you. You aren't completely healthy, and need help. I'm not giving in to fifty percent chance of losing you, Mackai, because I won't let you go. I'm not losing my child and you need to promise me you'll try to stick around. I want you to fight any urge to leave, and come talk to me before you do anything."
Mac nodded. "I promise. Do you have to tell Dad? He'll lurk over me like nobody's business." Mac shuddered and snuggled close. "Mom, I'm trying here. I'm trying so hard ... That's why I'm leaning on you so hard."
"I'll tell him its' bad, not how bad it is. I'll try to keep him from lurking too much." She wouldn't add they both lurked because they worried for him, wouldn't help his situation but someday they'd have that talk as well. "If either of us lurk, it's because we love you and don't want to lose you. We're willing to work just as hard as you to make sure you get healthy again."
"Deal then. I'm on the team, Mom. You can count on me." Mac just absorbed his mother's warmth and comfort.
Keith watched Emily and Mac for a few moments then got out of the car and walked to the hotel room. He'd gather Mac's bag so that the boy didn't strain himself. Keith pushed the door open and stopped still. Jethro was there, looking frustrated and a young woman was wrapped in a hotel bedspread.
"Happy New Year to you, my son," Keith said softly, trying not to startle the girl. He crossed the room, squeezing Jethro's shoulder in a supportive gesture and when Jethro seemed to lean against him, he wrapped an arm around the younger man's shoulders. "Mom is outside with Mac, so don't worry."
He reached around and picked up the papers on the bed beside the girl, flipping them open and scanning them. "Medically unfit for duty, effective January 1, 1984. Damn them."
Shannon looked at the man, confused. "He's not your Pop, Jethro, why's he callin' you his son? Who is he anyway? You don't know much of anyone here, 'cept Mac and the other boys on base."
"Shannon, this is Keith Taylor, Mac's father. Dad, this is Shannon. Mom knows a little about her, probably not as much as she does now talking to Mac. But she's very important to me." Jethro could only hope that Keith understood. He wouldn't make Shannon feel bad, not intentionally, in fact he was willing to bet both Keith and Emily would love her. But convincing Shannon of that would be the real task. "I spent some time in Chicago with Mac, and his parents basically adopted me Shan. They're good people, give them a chance."
"Why's it always come back to Mac?" she asked, wrinkling her brow. "West Virginia and now Chicago and you didn't come back to your girl first. Or even so much as call me."
"Shannon, it is a pleasure to meet someone so important to Jethro." Keith extended a hand, trying to ignore the young woman's state of undress and what it meant. Was Jethro pursuing two relationships at the same time or were things not what they seemed? He watched the emotions flitter across her face and squeezed Jethro's shoulder as comprehension seemed to dawn.
"You're cheatin' on me with a boy, Leroy Jethro Gibbs? How could you? That's humiliatin!" She slapped the man's hand aside. "And it's sickening!" She jumped up and shoved her feet into her shoes, yanking her dress on. "Unnatural! Boys don't belong with boys, and not mine 'specially."
"Disgustin', Jethro. I ain't never sleeping with you again." She threw the door open and ran out, making a beeline for Mac and the woman he was with.
"Come on, she's going for Mackai." Keith tugged Jethro out of his shock and followed the girl.
"Get out of the way, lady." She pushed the woman away and began to hit and claw at Mac. "I hate you. Disgustin' animal. Takin' my boy away from me." She knew his chest was hurt and concentrated her blows there, clawing into his shirt. Good, he was making hurt sounds. He hurt her and she was gonna hurt him right back.
The moment of shock when Shannon shoved his mother was the advantage she needed and soon he was reeling from a pummeling that shouldn't have even fazed him. But she was going for his chest, ripping him open, and the pain was really bad. He was seeing stars.
"Mom?" He gasped out the word, needing to make sure she was okay.
"You see to Mom, Jet." Keith hurried over and pulled the woman into a bear hug, restraining her. "Come on, now. You don't want to hurt Mac. You're angry at Jethro but Mac hasn't done anything to hurt you, honey. You don't want to do this. You don't want to hurt my son."
As expected, the girl, the child really, started crying and Keith held her close, rubbing her back. He desperately wanted to see to Mac, but he couldn't leave this girl to her own devices. She was so vulnerable and young.
He settled for a gentle hand on his son's knee. "Mackai?"
Previously, Shannon Kendall attacked Mac Taylor after learning her boyfriend Jethro was in love with Mac. Mac has just been discharged from the Marines and he and Jethro nearly broke up when Jethro hid the relationship between him and Shannon from Mac.