Riley winced in sympathy as the car hit another bump. Her eyes automatically went to the front seat, trying to catch Jack’s eyes in the rearview mirror, but he was worriedly glancing back and forth between the curving dirt road and his partner sitting in the passenger seat.
Mac sat silently, his head braced firmly against the headrest turned away from Jack. His eyes were hidden behind dark sunglasses and his entire body was rigid, locked in place in an attempt to minimize the jolts from the road. From her place in the middle of the back seat, Riley had a perfect view of the two men in the front of the car. She was less than two feet away from Mac’s injured shoulder and yet there was nothing she could do to help him.
At first glance, other than the pinched look of pain on his face, you wouldn’t know there was anything wrong with the young man. No visible cuts or scrapes, bullet holes, or the usual signs of torture that accompany their job. If you knew what to look for though, you could have seen the odd way Mac was holding his left arm on the trek back to the car. And now, sitting behind him on the way to the airport, Riley could see the way that his left shoulder sloped downward and seemed slightly pushed forward. Dislocated, Jack had said.
Jack maneuvered the car, going way faster than they probably should have been, around a sharp curve, not knowing about the deep rut in the road just around the bend. The car jolted as it crossed the shallow bump and Jack let out a string of curse words under his breath as Mac took in a shuddering breath.
“Mac?” Riley asked hesitantly once the car was back on a stable stretch of road. She resisted the urge to reach out and comfort him in some way, knowing that they didn’t know each other well enough yet for him to feel safe letting his walls down around her. He was hurting and the last thing she wanted to do was make the situation worse.
He took another shallow breath before grating out the words “I’m fine.”
Mac must have realized how unconvincing that had sounded because Riley watched his Adam’s apple bob up and down as he swallowed, trying to regain some composure, before insisting, “Riley. Really, I’m fine. I’ve had worse.” His voice was softer, more like the Mac she had grown to know, but his pain was still evident.
In a move that showed just how close the two men in front of her were, Jack took one hand off the steering wheel and reached out, giving Mac’s knee a gentle squeeze. “We’re still about half an hour away from the airport, kiddo.” His voice was apologetic, as if the distance from the African base camp to the small private airport they were flying out of was his fault. “Think you can wait till we’re in the air before I reset that shoulder?”
The fact that Jack Dalton knew how to reset a dislocated shoulder didn’t surprise Riley, nor did the fact that he was so willing to do it. And she was extremely glad he did know, because it's not like she had a clue how to fix something like that, she was just definitely not looking forward to the moment it would happen.
“Don’t have much of a choice” Mac replied, not even attempting to move his head so he could see Jack as they talked.
“Of course you have a choice.” The older man insisted. “I can pull this car over up here, pop it back in real quick. We’ll be back on the road in twenty minutes tops.”
“That’s twenty minutes wasted.” Mac answered. “We have to get that hard drive back home as soon as we can. Thornton was expecting us to just email it to her. It’s already going to be like, nine hours late since we couldn’t upload it.” He sighed, as if just saying those few sentences had exhausted him.
“I could drive.” Riley declared from the backseat. “Just move both of you back here, you do whatever you have to do to his shoulder and we keep going. He’ll be fixed up by the time we get to the airport.”
Jack met her eyes in the rearview mirror for the first time since they had loaded in the car and hit the road. From the look of surprise in his eyes it seemed as if he had almost forgotten that she was with them.
“Appreciate the offer Riley, but it ain’t that easy.”
Apparently her confusion read on her face because Jack continued. “Not enough room back there. You have to have a pretty open space so you can put the right amount of leverage on the joint to get it back into place. If you don’t you could screw it up even more.”
If someone had told her two months ago that she would be thankful for Jack Dalton she never would have believed them. Now though, she once again found herself grateful that Jack knew what he was doing when it came to an injury like this because she would have had no clue what to do. All she knew was that she hated feeling helpless and she hated seeing people she cared about hurting and this car ride was filled with a lot of helplessness and hurt.
“I’m fine. Just drive.” Mac insisted. So Jack pressed the gas pedal down even further, Mac tightened his already white-knuckled grip on the side of his seat, and Riley sent up a prayer to whatever god was listening that they would make it to the airport quickly and without any more incidents.
The road smoothed out when they neared the airport and as the car whipped into the parking lot they all let out a sigh of relief knowing that they had made it to safety. Jack jumped out of the car first, yelling at the pilot standing next to their awaiting plane to be ready for take off as soon as they boarded.
“Riley get the bags. I got Mac.” He ordered before slamming the car door and jogging around the front of the vehicle.
As Riley shut her own door and began digging their packs out of the trunk of the car where they had been haphazardly stored, she heard Jack helping his younger partner out of the car. “Easy buddy, nice and slow…” By the time she had her arms loaded up with the three small duffle bags Mac was standing beside the car, wobbly and relying a little too much on Jack to keep him upright, but standing.
“You good to make it to the plane?” Jack asked as he carefully slung Mac’s good arm across his broad shoulders. Mac nodded, just two quick dips of his blonde head, but his determination was evident.
Riley took it upon herself to go ahead of the two men, quickly making her way across the asphalt to board the plane first. Once she reached the steps leading to the plane door, the pilot, who was standing by ready to lock up and take off, helped her load the bags. Upon seeing the two men slowly but surely making their way towards him, he turned to Riley and said “There’s a first aid kit in the overhead storage compartment, looks like you’re gonna need it.”
When Jack finally managed to help Mac into the plane, the first aid kit was already open, waiting for them by the seat closest to the door. Mac let go of his grip on Jack’s shirt and moved to collapse into the seat but the older man stopped him. “I can’t do anything about your shoulder with that jacket on, kid.” With a heavy sigh Mac shook his good arm out of it’s leather sleeve and then waited for Jack to help him slowly tug the other half off his injured shoulder. Then, as if they had practiced the move a million times before, Jack took the coat in the hand that wasn’t gently lowering his partner into the plane seat and tossed it, without even looking in her general direction, perfectly into Riley’s surprised arms.
“Is there anything I can do?” She asked softly once the plane was in the air and Mac was safely seated, wanting to help but not sure how.
Jack shook his head no as he dropped to his knees and began digging through the huge first aid kit. Thinking it was probably better not to press the issue, she moved over to the opposite side of the small private plane. Out of the way, but just close enough if they needed her.
“Heck yeah.” Jack exclaimed quietly a few seconds after Riley had gotten settled in her seat. “Looks like we still got a little bit of good luck after all, Mac.” He held up a small pill bottle between two fingers and shook it. “Good stuff. Thank goodness for military grade med kits.” He took out two pills and placed them in Mac’s outstretched hand. “Let me just find you a water or somethin’ to take those with…” But before Jack could finish his sentence, let alone get up to find Mac something to drink, his partner had tossed back and dry swallowed both pills.
“Jack, just do it.” Mac said with another sigh as he leaned forward, bracing his good elbow on his knees.
“Alright now, just hold your horses.” Jack insisted, scooting forward on the floor until he was eye level with his partner. “I know you're hurtin’ but there’s no point in getting in a hurry. Let’s just wait a few minutes until those pills kick in, huh?”
“Jack those pills aren’t going to do anything to dull the pain of you resetting it. You know that. So just do it. Get it over with. And then when the pills do kick in the worst of it will be over and hopefully I can just sleep the rest of the way home, okay?
This time it was Jack’s turn to sigh. “You sure?”
The two men locked eyes and though neither spoke a word, Riley was sure that an entire conversation was shared that only those two men would understand. Eventually though Jack gave a sad nod and stood up.
“I don’t have to warn you that this is gonna suck, right?” Jack asked.
“I trust you.” Mac replied.
Now looking at the two men Riley wasn’t sure whose face was showing more pain; Mac’s physically or Jack’s emotionally. She knew that even though he was helping his partner, the fact that he had to hurt him more to do so didn’t go over well with Jack Dalton. But he squared his shoulders, took a breath, and placed one hand on Mac’s good shoulder, while the other gripped the elbow of his partner’s injured arm.
“Ready?” He asked softly.
Mac nodded and took a shaky breath. Riley closed her eyes, not needing the mental image of the joint snapping back into place haunting her already frequent nightmares.
“On three. One… two...”
Mac flinched on two, expecting Jack to pull the old trick and go a count earlier than he said. And in the split second where Mac was distracted, Jack called out “three,” forcing Mac’s arm up and forward until a sickening ‘pop’ echoed throughout the jet.
Riley cringed, only imagining the pain her friend was currently in. Mac, somehow, had managed to stay silent through the ordeal. When she opened her eyes to look at him he had collapsed forward into Jack, breathing heavily into the older man’s chest with his good hand twisted tightly into the fabric of Jack’s shirt.
She could see Jack’s lips moving, keeping time with the hand that was gently carding through Mac’s hair, but she couldn’t tell what he was saying. It didn’t matter though, it wasn’t meant for her to hear.
“Hey Ri?” Jack called quietly as to not startle Mac, this time words meant for her to hear. He motioned with his head for her to come closer. “There’s a sling in the med kit over here. Ya mind grabbing it for me?”
She scrambled out of her seat and to the side of Mac’s in record time, digging through the various medical supplies until she found what Jack was talking about. She tore through the plastic wrapping, tossing it aside, and unfolded the sling before reaching it to Jack.
“Hey buddy, I know you don’t feel like movin’ right now but you think you can sit up? Let me get this on ya?” Jack asked softly.
Mac nodded slowly, his face still buried in Jack’s chest, and used his good arm to begin pushing himself to sit up. Jack jumped in to help, moving him slowly, until the younger man was sitting again. Then Jack gently maneuvered Mac’s injured arm into the sling, ignoring the way his partner winced at every slight movement. Both men let out a sigh of relief once the sling was securely strapped in place, knowing that the worst of the pain was over.
“Thank’s Riley.” Mac said, looking up and giving her a forced smile, acknowledging her for the first time since the car ride. He was starting to look a little better, not nearly as pale as he had been earlier, but the exhaustion and traces of pain were still evident on his face.
“No problem.” She assured him. “I’m gonna go email Thornton, let her know what’s going on.” Mac nodded, though it looked as if he was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. “We’ve got like, six hours left in the air Mac.” Riley told him. “You might as well crash for a while.” He nodded again but didn’t move into a more sleep-appropriate position.
She shrugged, knowing she had done all she could do, and went back to her seat to find her laptop. When she looked up from her email a few minutes later though, she saw that Jack had taken the seat beside his partner and Mac’s head was resting on Jack’s shoulder. Though she couldn’t see his face, she could tell by his steady breathing that he was finally resting.
Apparently Mac wasn’t the only one who was exhausted though, because the next thing Riley knew, she jolted awake and looked at her watch to find that three hours had passed. She yawned and stood up, stretching. Wanting to check on Mac, but not wanting to wake him if he was still asleep, she walked as quietly as she could around to their seats and smiled at the scene in front of her.
The two agents were both asleep. At some point Jack had flipped back the armrests between both seats, giving Mac easier access to his makeshift pillow but Mac’s head had slipped down, now resting more on Jack’s chest than his shoulder. His hand was still twisted in the cotton fabric of Jack’s shirt.
She couldn’t help herself. She took her phone out of the pocket of her jeans and quickly snapped a picture. Unfortunately the sound of her camera’s shutter woke Jack. He looked at her, then quickly scanned the cabin and upon analyzing that there was no threat looked down to check on Mac.
He smiled at the hand entwined in his shirt, and seeing that his partner was still safely asleep, Jack leaned his head back against his headrest. Before closing his eyes and drifting off to sleep again though, he lifted his arm closest to Mac and pulled it around the younger man, drawing him closer. Keeping him safe.
Riley shook her head and rolled her eyes as she walked back to her seat but she couldn’t quite wipe the fond smile off her face. She pulled out her laptop again, but before she could log in she heard a voice come from the other side of the plane cabin.
“If that picture ever finds it’s way off that phone, you’re gonna find yourself right back in prison.”
And Riley couldn’t help but smile upon hearing his threat. Because that was just Jack. It was what he did. He took care of and protected his partner at all costs. From dislocated shoulders to embarrassing pictures, Jack Dalton had Mac’s back. And he took his job very seriously.