Jack... help me...
Gonna die here...
Can't BREATHE -
Mac surged awake with a gasp, wheezing for breath, in the midst of a panic attack without realizing it. He stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom, barely making it to the toilet before losing the contents of his stomach, heaving violently, still panicking and unable to catch his breath.
"Mac?" Bozer's worried voice floated down the hall. "You okay, man?"
But Mac barely heard his friend, couldn't answer, still gasping, hyperventilating, not enough air, can't breathe -
"Mac! Hey, man, what - Mac, BREATHE!"
Breathing in poison, drowning in the nitrogen, trapped, can't -
A hard shake snapped him out of it, a little. He looked up, saw Bozer's terrified face, realized that he was at home, safe, but then why could he still not breathe -
"Mac, watch me, okay? Breathe with me, man. In, nice and slow... and out. Good, keep going, in... and out... in... out..."
A few minutes later, Mac was finally breathing normally again instead of gasping. His head was bowed, not wanting to look at Bozer just yet; the two of them were still crouched on the floor in front of the toilet.
Bozer's hand landed gently on Mac's shoulder, and Mac jumped involuntarily, head whipping up for a second before lowering again in embarrassment. "Sorry, man, I didn't mean to wake you up, I'm -"
"I swear to god, Mac, if you say 'I'm fine' right now I will slap you," Bozer interrupted, sounding angry and worried. "What the hell WAS that, Mac? You threw up, you were hyperventilating - I was about to call an ambulance!"
"Boze," Mac sighed. "It was noth-"
"That was NOT nothing, Mac, don't give me that bullshit!" Bozer yelled. "Come on, man, I thought we were best friends! I know about the Phoenix Foundation now, hell, you even got me a job there! I thought you were done hiding shit from me." His friend got up, shaking his head, sad and disappointed. "Guess I was wrong." He turned to leave.
"Boze, wait, please," Mac pleaded, pushing himself to his feet and - woah, head rush - grabbing the edge of the sink to steady himself, bringing a hand up to his head with a grimace.
"Mac? You alright?" Bozer asked, hovering in the doorway.
"Yeah, just got up too fast," Mac replied a little breathlessly, straightening up slowly. "But you're right - you're totally right, man," he admitted, taking a step toward Bozer, guilt filling him at how he’d tried to just brush off his friend. "I've lied to you about way too much lately, the least I can do is tell you the truth about shit like this."
Bozer blinked, clearly a little surprised at the easy acquiescence but mostly relieved. "Uh, okay - if you're sure? I mean, if this is something really personal or something, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have just assumed you were intentionally -"
"It's fine, Boze," Mac replied. "It is, uh... kind of personal, but like you said, you're my best friend - if there's anyone I'm ever actually gonna feel relatively comfortable talking to about this, it's you, and after what just happened, I should probably talk to someone." He glanced around, eyeing the toilet, and gave his friend a sheepish grin. "But maybe we could do this, uh, not in the bathroom?"
Bozer gave a short, surprised laugh. "Uh, yeah, man, good idea. I'll just... give you a minute, I'll be in the kitchen."
A few minutes later, the two friends were settling down on the couch, each with a cup of coffee prepared by Bozer because it may have been three in the morning, but they both knew neither of them was getting any more sleep for a while.
After a few minutes of sipping at the coffee, Bozer decided to start. "So, uh, I'm no expert, but that looked an awful lot like a panic attack."
Mac sighed, furrowing his brow thoughtfully as he took a bite of the poppyseed muffin Bozer had brought him, both friends figuring coffee on an empty stomach right after puking probably wasn’t the best idea. "That's because it was one, I think," he replied. "I mean, it started out as a nightmare, and kind of... turned into a panic attack, while I was still asleep? I think? I mean, I was already pretty much hyperventilating by the time I woke up, so..."
"Why?" Bozer asked, leaning forward. "I mean, what the hell kind of nightmare could've possibly gotten you that worked up? That... scared?"
Mac sighed softly, sipping his coffee to stall a little. "Well... so you've probably realized by now that all my work trips for the 'think tank' weren't actually... that I wasn't really..."
"Yeah, I've figured out by now that those were probably missions," Bozer replied. "Which explains why you came back walking funny or holding yourself like you were sore a lot of the time..." He stared as Mac intensely, worry shining through his eyes. "You get hurt a lot on those missions, don't you?"
"Well, I wouldn't say a LOT..." At Bozer's glare, he sighed and amended, "Okay, so it's about 50-50. But they're not usually bad injuries or anything, bumps and bruises, couple little scrapes maybe, some bruised ribs, minor stuff like that."
Bozer rolled his eyes. "The fact that bruised ribs are 'minor' to you is supposed to make me feel better?"
Mac winced, seeing his point. "Okay, but anyways, yeah, the 'think tank work trips' were field missions. If I told you I was going overseas or to another state, wherever I told you I was going to was probably actually where I was, just... not for the reasons I told you. So anyways... do you remember the trip I was on a few weeks ago, right before the whole Murdoc thing... the last one before you found out?"
"Yeah..." Bozer said slowly. "So it was a field mission... What kind of mission? What happened?"
"Well..." Mac took another sip of his coffee, hesitant to reveal where exactly he was that week, knowing Bozer would probably blow his top once he found out.
"Quit stalling, Mac." Dammit. "Where were you that week?"
Mac sighed, looking down at his hands. "Prison," he mumbled.
Bozer froze for a second, then started to laugh. "I'm sorry, could you just... say that again? I must have misheard you, 'cuz I thought you just said you were in prison."
Mac winced and took another nibble of his muffin, still not looking up at his friend.
Bozer went quiet for a second, and then:
"You were in PRISON?!?!!"
"Undercover in a prison, I didn't actually get arrested!" Mac rushed to explain. "For a mission - I was at Bishop Federal Prison in Texas, pretending to be an inmate, but I had backup the whole time... well, kind of..."
"Hey, I got out just fine, didn't I?" Mac asked, spreading his hands. "I'm still here, it all worked out in the end."
"You were pretending to be a CONVICT in a FEDERAL PRISON?!? Do you even REALIZE how many things could have gone wrong??? YOU COULD HAVE -"
"Died? Yeah, I could've," Mac admitted. "Just like on almost every mission I've ever been on for the Foundation. They're all risky in different ways, Boze. I knew that when I signed up."
"Yeah, well, I DIDN'T!!!!" Bozer yelled, standing up furiously. "I would've NEVER been okay with -"
"Why do you think I worked so hard to keep all this from you, Boze?" Mac retorted. "It wasn't just because of protocol - it was to try and keep your from having to worry about me constantly, man. We're best friends, and honestly, you can be kind of a mother hen sometimes. I KNEW you wouldn't be okay with this, but it's my decision, okay? It's my life. I'm good at what I do, and I can handle myself. And it's not like I'm always in danger, or like I go looking for trouble or anything - I try to stay safe, Boze, I don't have a death wish. I know there are people who care about me, believe me I do. But it's a risky job... sometimes, things go wrong. Like I said, I knew that when I signed up to do this, just like when I was in the Army."
Bozer sighed, deflating. "I know that, man," he replied, flopping back down onto the couch. "But you gotta realize that I'm always gonna worry when you're on a mission, now that I know what you really do."
Mac put his arm around his friend. "Yeah, I know."
They spent a few minutes in companionable silence, finishing off their coffee (and muffin, in Mac’s case). Eventually, Mac pulled his arm back and started to talk again. "So that mission... I was in prison, and everything while I was there went... well, not exactly smoothly, but it worked out in the end, without too many issues. It was afterwards when the problems started... but anyways. There was a drug lord serving life, called El Noche, who I helped break out in order to -"
"Woah, hang on a minute," Bozer interjected. "You broke a drug lord OUT of prison???"
"So he could lead us to the rest of his operation, Boze," Mac explained. "The kingpin was the only one the cops could pin anything on, and as soon as they took him down, the rest of the cartel started attacking police, killing innocent people... El Noche was a bad guy, but he was a businessman; without him, the cartel was starting to turn almost into a terror cell. We needed to find their compound, their base of operations. So I broke the guy out, and just like we planned, he led us right to the cartel. The only catch was..." Mac hesitated again, knowing Bozer wouldn't like this part too much. "He, um... didn't exactly believe I was who I said I was."
Bozer groaned and buried his face in his hands. "I do not like where this is going," he mumbled from between his fingers.
"Yeah, didn't think you would," Mac answered with a grimace. "Well, my cover was someone who was also serving life in prison, and when we were breaking out, I stopped him from killing a guard, and that seemed off to him, from someone who supposedly had nothing to lose, so... once we were free, he knocked me out, brought me back to the compound, and, uh, tried to... persuade me to tell him who I really was."
Bozer looked up at that, clearly horrified. "He tortured you?!?" he gasped.
"Well, he didn't, like, beat me up or shoot me or anything, but, uh... yeah, pretty much," Mac admitted sheepishly, looking down at his hands again.
A short, intense silence. Then Bozer asked, with murder in his voice: "What did he do?"
"Uh, well, he, um... kinda forced me to breathe pure nitrogen for a while," Mac mumbled. Bozer was smart, they were in science club together throughout high school, Mac knew that he knew what pure nitrogen did to the human body... so he left it at that.
After another short silence, he looked up at Bozer, who looked shocked and sickened, eyes wide and mouth hanging open. "God, man," he breathed. "That... that's what you were dreaming about?"
Mac looked back down at the coffee mug in his hands and nodded, biting his lip.
A split second later, he found himself with a lapful of Bozer, attempting to hug the life out of him, it felt like. "Hey, hey, Boze, it's okay," he tried to reassure his friend, patting him on the back gently. "I made it out, Jack found me, I'm right here, I'm fine now."
Bozer pulled back, and Mac was shocked to see that his friend was actually crying. "But you're not, are you?" he demanded. "You're not really fine, 'cuz if you were, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now. If you were actually 'fine', you wouldn't have had a nightmare so bad that it gave you a panic attack and made you physically sick!" Bozer was so genuinely distressed about this, Mac felt his own eyes start to tear up. Plus, his friend was right: he could try to convince himself he was fine all he wanted, but he wasn't, not really.
"Yeah," he admitted softly, looking down and away from Bozer's devastated expression. "I guess I'm not really fine."
Bozer sighed sadly. "I'd be worried if you WERE fine, man. But hey." He got Mac's attention and looked him in the eye. "At least tell me that fuckin' bastard is dead, or at least rotting in solitary for the rest of his miserable life."
Mac gave a slightly wet chuckle. "Yeah, Boze, don't worry - he's not dead, but he's never leaving that prison again."
Bozer settled in next to Mac, arm draped around his shoulders. "Good."
The pair spent the rest of the night side by side on the couch, drawing comfort from each other's presence, and when Mac finally broke down half an hour later and started to cry, Bozer didn't say a word - just let his best friend lean on him and held onto him, silently crying with him until they both fell into an exhausted slumber.
When 9 AM rolled around, Jack stopped by, as he'd told Mac and Bozer he would the day before, but when he went into the living room looking for Mac and saw the kid and his best friend sound asleep on the couch, Mac's head on Bozer's shoulder, dried tear tracks on both their cheeks, he stopped in his tracks. Realizing something had clearly happened between them last night, he crept quietly out the way he'd come, recognizing, even though he didn't know exactly why, what the two of them clearly needed more than anything else right now.
Sleep, and each other.