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Chapter Text

In the week following the Rainbow Room shooting, Mac did not have a single moment alone. Vic and/or Li Ann watched him constantly.

Theoretically, Mac thought, this should have felt sort of insulting, or stifling. But actually it made him feel incredibly safe.

The jokes about his fainting spells did get a little irritating before they finally trailed off around Thursday. But Mac didn't make a big deal about it. First of all, because he suspected that if he did, they'd never stop. Secondly, because he actually did faint again Sunday morning, and it was nice that Vic had been hovering sufficiently (and protectively) close that he was able to catch Mac before he smashed his skull on the bathroom sink.

Well, that was what Mac got for trying to change his own wound dressing.

Once Mac had come to, rested for a few minutes, and drunk a glass of water, his partners got him to sit on the closed toilet lid so that Li Ann could change the dressings. Vic stood to his left and squeezed his hands tightly and held his gaze, and chatted with him about things unrelated to blood-soaked bandages. Mac tried not to think about what was happening on his right side. It mostly worked. By the time he started to get dizzy again, Li Ann was already patting his shoulder and saying that it was all done. Figuring that the worst was over, Mac thanked her and stood up—and passed out cold into Vic's arms.

After that, whenever the dressings needed changing, they got him to sit on a towel on his bed, and they played his music fairly loud, and Vic stood to his left and squeezed his hands and told him jokes, and as soon as Li Ann finished with the dressings they got him to lie down for a few minutes and they gave him an ice pack to put on his forehead. That prevented any further fainting. Maybe the whole routine should have been a bit embarrassing, but actually it made Mac feel very loved and protected. Particularly because, while he was lying there afterwards with the ice on his forehead, trying not to think about blood, Vic and Li Ann developed the habit of lying down on either side of him and nibbling light little kisses along the sides of his face.

They meditated a couple of times every day. They put the sofa cushions on the floor in a circle and sat on them, cross-legged. Li Ann started them off every time with a variation on the familiar instructions that Sifu Jinpa used to give them: follow your breath. If your mind wanders, don't get upset, just return to your breath. That's the whole practice.

Easy peasy.


Mac's mind wandered.

When they sat Sunday morning, he kept thinking about the shooting. No surprise, maybe, with the gunshot wound throbbing along his right side.

He'd been shot at so many times in his life, it was honestly astounding that this was the first bullet that had ever made contact with his flesh. (Shot by a sad sack of a marshmallow dinosaur.) The bullets flying all around him had always scared the hell out of him, but at the same time he'd had a sort of vague conviction that he could never really get hit. (In the warehouse with his mother, he hadn't even ducked).

The bullet had grazed his right side. He'd been moving to the right, turning and pushing Ben towards the relative cover of the stage-left curtains. If Mac had moved a little faster, the bullet would have hit him full-on. It could have pierced his liver, or his spine.

Breathe. Remember to breathe.

To Mac's left, Vic shifted restlessly and murmured "How much longer are we doing this for?"

"We've been sitting for three minutes," Li Ann said mildly, following a quick glance at the timer she'd set. "We said we were going to do ten."

Actually, Vic's restlessness was a great comfort to Mac. It gave Mac an opportunity to roll his eyes at Vic, feel momentarily superior, and re-focus.

The bullet lancing along his side.

Let it go. Breathe.

Run across the stage a little slower—Ben gets hit. Half a step faster—a bullet in Mac's spine.

Let it go. Breathe.

Vic shifted his legs again, groaned, rolled his shoulders.

Mac smirked (grateful for the distraction), and then his breath caught and he started coughing.

Once he'd started coughing, it was hard to stop, and every convulsion of his chest made fresh bright fiery pain spike outwards from the gunshot wound.

He felt Vic's arm around his shoulders, heard Vic saying, "I think maybe we should stop. Do you want to stop?"

Mac nodded, because he couldn't quite speak yet. His eyes were watering from the pain. He'd had his fill of the meditation session (enough thinking about bullets; the practice was to let the thoughts go, but it was so fucking hard) and he was happy enough to take the coughing fit as an excuse.

"Well," Li Ann said, "That was four minutes. We can try again this evening."

Mac was still sick. He'd been sick since Wednesday night, when he'd shivered and sneezed all though his seven-hour shift outdoors in his too-thin coat. (Winter in Toronto sucked. Why did anyone live here?)

Vic wanted Mac to complain about it, and that was hard for Mac to wrap his head around. Mac was pretty sure that his ability to tough things out and get the job done was one of his better qualities. But Vic kept poking at him about it all day Sunday—How are you feeling, Mac? How's your head, how's your throat, does it hurt when you breathe? Tell me about those wolves.—Li Ann looked bemused, but she didn't interfere, and she backed Vic up when he insisted that Mac spend basically the whole day (apart from wound care and meditation) wrapped up in three blankets on the couch, with Vic bringing him tea and soup at intervals.

Mac was in a lot of pain, and he was very tired, so lying on the couch and letting Vic take care of him had its appeal—but it also felt very wrong. There were times in the day when Mac felt like he was going to squirm out of his skin from the wrongness of it. Late in the afternoon it really got to be too much, and when Vic left him unattended for a moment, Mac got up and tried to do something useful. His gun needed cleaning.

Vic came out of the bathroom and found Mac sitting at the dining table with his gun in pieces, and immediately shooed him back to the couch without letting him finish. "I told you to rest," he half-fussed, half-snapped, tucking the blankets back around Mac. He turned to Li Ann, who was perched delicately on the round red chair reading a book about Renaissance art, and said, "Why didn't you stop him from getting up?"

"I'm sure he was fine," Li Ann murmured, turning the page without looking up. "He was just sitting at the table."

Vic shook his head, and frowned, and went and got the thermometer. Mac rolled his eyes but let Vic tuck it under his tongue, because he knew better by now than to try to stop Vic when he was on a mother-hen kick.

"See?" Vic said, maybe a bit triumphantly, when the three minutes were up. "You still have a fever. A hundred and one." He squinted at the tiny numbers. "Point five."

Not like that was news to Mac—his joints and muscles were still aching, and he couldn't shake that shivery feeling even when he was wrapped in all the blankets. That didn't mean he was incapable of doing anything, though. "That's a low fever," he pointed out. "I can fucking sit at the table and put my gun back together."

Vic just shook his head and frowned. "Michael really did a number on you, didn't he?"

Mac felt a useless shot of adrenaline just hearing the name. But he couldn't figure out why Vic had just said that. "What the hell does any of this have to do with Michael?"

"He's the one who taught you that you shouldn't admit when you're sick," Vic said.

Mac shook his head, confused. "Why do you think that?"

"I told him," Li Ann said from across the room.

"Why do you think that?" Mac asked.

"Because it's true," she said. "I remember how Michael used to tell you to push through it if you were hurt or sick. He didn't give you the option of showing weakness or vulnerability. You had to keep going even if you could barely stand up."

"Okay, sure," Mac conceded. "But it's not like I was fighting him on it. I knew he was right."

"He wasn't right," Vic said, giving Mac a sharp look. "That's the whole point. You make things worse when you push yourself. You need to rest, so that you can heal."

"Remember the malaria?" Li Ann added mildly, and turned another page.

"Okay, you have a point about the malaria," Mac had to admit. "I probably should've gone to the doctor on the first day."

"Uh huh," Li Ann said.

"But that was a one-time thing. Usually pushing through is fine." Mac tugged the blankets tighter, and tried to put a finger on what exactly was wrong here. Why giving in to the weakness and vulnerability felt so risky. It wasn't all about Michael. "Sometimes you have to push through," he added. "If you're not in a safe place."

"But you are in a safe place," Vic pointed out.

That was true. "Uh," he said. "Yeah. I guess ... I'm not used to that." He frowned. "When I lived on the street it was pretty important to keep going no matter what."

Vic gave Mac a sort of searching look, and then sat down on the arm of the couch next to Mac's head. "Shit," he said, touching Mac's cheek gently. "I hadn't thought about that. Did you get sick while you were on the street?"

"Pretty much constantly," Mac said, thinking back to it. "I mean, I was hungry, I was eating literal garbage sometimes, I was sleeping in alleys in the rain, trying to keep one eye open in case somebody decided to hurt me.... So yeah. I got pretty sick sometimes, and I was never really in good shape. And if I'd just curled up and rested, like you keep telling me to, I would have died."

"Uh," he heard Vic say. He couldn't see him, because Mac had squeezed his eyes shut, and he didn't think that all of his shaking right now was due to the fever. "Shit Mac," Vic went on. "I am so sorry that you went through that." Mac felt Vic lifting him by the shoulders, heard the rustle of Vic sliding down off the arm of the couch so that he could get his lap under Mac's head, could hold him. "I really, really wish I that could reach back in time and protect you from that."

"It's okay," Mac said, because Vic sounded really distressed. "I got through it."

He felt Vic's hand cupping the side of his face. Without quite deciding to, Mac turned his head a little, to press his face into the touch. It felt so good.

"You did," Vic said. "And you don't talk about it very much, do you?"

"Why would I?" Mac asked. "It sucked."

"Okay," Vic said. "I can understand not wanting to dwell on it. But you've gotta remember, I don't know any of this stuff if you don't tell me. And I want to understand where you're coming from, Mac. The shit you've gone through is just so far outside of my experience, I'm not going to figure it out if you don't tell me. I really thought that the whole deal about refusing to slow down and admit that you're sick was a machismo thing that Michael had forced on you. I had no idea that it was about not feeling safe."

"Um," said Mac. Still shaking.

He felt naked. Stripped down bare, pinned like a butterfly. All his neuroses on display. How was he going to look Vic in the eye after this? He kept his eyes squeezed shut.

"I'm glad that I know," Vic said. "Now I can do a better job of looking after you. Now I know what I need to tell you. You're safe, Mac. I'm here, and I've got you."

"If any ninjas break in," Li Ann added from the other side of the room, "you just go ahead and relax, Mac. Vic and I will handle them."

Mac couldn't help laughing at that, and in laughing he opened his eyes, and what he saw was Vic looking down at him with a quirked-sideways grin.

"Thanks," Mac managed to say. And he felt his body unclenching.

He felt safe.

Vic's cell phone rang in the early evening. Mac heard him answer it.

"Oh, hi," he said. "Yeah, they're doing okay. ... They're both here with me, actually. ... Well, Mac's licking his wounds, he's still pretty sick with the flu ... Sure, I'll ask him." He looked at Mac and whispered, "It's Ben. Do you want to say 'hi'?"

Mac took the phone.

"Hi, Mac," Ben said. "I wanted to check in with you, and thank you again for what you did for me yesterday."

"Don't worry about it," Mac said. "It was no big deal."

Ben cleared his throat. "You saved my life. You took a bullet for me. To me, that's a big deal."

"All in a day's work..." Mac said.

"Yes," Ben said. "Well. About that. I was thinking it would be nice to have a chance to get to know you and Li Ann as yourselves. Not undercover. Maybe when you're recovered, we could all go out for dinner? You could bring Vic along too."

"That sounds nice," Mac said, feeling a little jolt of happiness. He'd made a new friend! And the Director was letting him keep him! "Only, if we're going to be talking about who we really are, it'd better be somewhere very private."

"Hm," Ben said. "How about at the Rainbow Room next Saturday, before it opens for the night? Casey will lend me the key if I ask him. We could bring take-out."

"Sure," Mac said. "We can bring the food. Do you like Chinese?"

When Mac hung up, he handed Vic's phone back and grinned at Li Ann. "Ben still wants to be friends!"

Chapter Text

Mac, Vic and Li Ann showed up in the briefing room at nine a.m. on Monday, because nobody had told them not to.

Well. At eight, when they'd woken up (Li Ann and Vic sandwiching Mac for the second night in a row, and Mac felt so amazingly safe and loved in between them), Vic had wanted to call in and say that they weren't coming. Mac and Li Ann together had overruled him.

Okay, Mac had sworn up, down, and sideways that he was feeling a lot better and definitely wasn't going to faint walking down to the car. When that hadn't worked, he'd just promised that he'd keep his arm over Vic's shoulder the whole time so that if he did faint, Vic could stop him from falling.

(Vic and Li Ann really seemed to have developed a thing about Mac fainting. They teased him about it, making it into a joke, but they kept darting worried looks at him as he walked around the bedroom getting dressed.)

Mac felt good about getting dressed in a crisp white shirt and a fresh-from-the-dry-cleaners suit. The suit jacket hid the padded bump of bandages on his right side. He strapped his shoulder holster on, secured the spare holster at his ankle, checked his guns, and topped it all off with his favourite sunglasses. Then he tipped the sunglasses down his nose, peered over the top at Vic with his best careless grin, and said "Lead on, Sir Galahad."

He had to let Vic support him on the walk down to the parking garage. That didn't mean he had to look lame while doing it.

The Director seemed a little surprised to see them, actually. When she came down the stairs to greet them, she was still buttoning up her shirt.

"Well," she said. "Hello. Did you ... finish writing your reports?"

"Reports," Vic echoed, a bit weakly.

"Ah, no. We haven't finished," Li Ann said carefully.

Which was true, since none of them had started.

"Oh," said the Director. "Well, in that case, you might as well go back to Mac's place and get to work on them. Bring them to me on Friday at noon. I want a minimum of ten thousand words out of each of you. With correct spelling and grammar, for once. You can proof-read each other's. Li Ann, you'd better do the proof-reading for Vic, he needs the most help."

Mac grinned at that. The Director had just awarded him second place for spelling and grammar! He smirked at Vic, who wrinkled his nose and looked unconcerned.

"Oh, and I want them written longhand," the Director went on. "On parchment. With ... dip pens. The kind you use with an inkwell. And no smudges!"

Mac stared at her, wondering if she was joking. Sometimes she joked.

"I'm not joking," she said. "I'll call down to the supply room. They'll have it all waiting for you when you get there."

"We can use ballpoints and loose-leaf for the rough drafts," Vic suggested, as they all sat around Mac's dining table, staring daunted at the thick sheaf of parchment, the sharp nibs and the ink bottles.

"We've got plenty of spare parchment," Li Ann pointed out, and reached for one of the bottles. "We're going to need to practice writing with these pens. I learned calligraphy with a brush, it was entirely different."

"This is a ridiculous make-work project," Mac grumbled, screwing a promising-looking nib onto the pen handle he'd chosen.

"Uh, yeah," Li Ann said. "But she gave us all week to do it. And you'd better believe she'll be checking our spelling at the end."

"Guys," Vic said, "She's just given us a week off." He eyed Mac. "To recover."

"She could've actually given us a week off, then," Mac complained. "Instead of giving us a writing assignment."

"She used up our vacation days on the Dog Pack case," Li Ann reminded them. "And we used up the last of our sick leave after Mac's concussion. She's keeping us on the clock this week to make her paperwork come out right."

"Maybe," Mac muttered. "Or maybe she just thinks it's hilarious."

After thirty minutes, Mac had half a page. A third of which was scratch-outs. "How many pages is ten thousand words?" he asked.

Li Ann looked thoughtful for a moment, counted the words on her own (full) page, stared into space and wiggled her fingers in a counting kind of way. "About forty," she said.

Mac groaned and let his forehead thud gently on the table. "I need a nap," he said.

"No you don't," Vic said without looking up from his work. He had a black smudge on his upper lip.

Mac rolled his head sideways to stare at Vic. "Why would you say that? Yesterday you made me stay on the couch all day. You were begging me to tell you when I wasn't feeling well. So now I'm telling you: I need a nap."

"If you needed a nap," Vic said mildly, "You would be telling me that you were fine, you'd be sitting up straight, and the first warning that I'd have that anything was wrong would be you falling off your chair."

Li Ann snickered.

Mac groaned, and sat up. He was starting to see some disadvantages in letting Vic get to know him intimately.

Forty minutes later, Mac was focused. His hand was cramping, but he had two solid pages. His eyes were sort of blurring, he had to keep blinking to clear them, but he was pretty sure that he could squeeze out another half-page about his first dance rehearsal with Ben if he just stayed in the groove.

He felt a hand on his shoulder.

"Now you need a nap," Vic said.

"Huh?" Mac said vaguely. "No, I'm fine."

"Oh my God," Li Ann murmured from across the table. "I see what you mean."

"He's really compulsive about it," Vic said—talking to Li Ann, as though Mac wasn't even there. Meanwhile he was tugging Mac up gently by the shoulders, and it was easier to just go along with it.

Vic led Mac to the bedroom, got him to lie down on the bed (still fully dressed, on top of the covers), and shut the curtains. It was only eleven o'clock in the morning, and it was a sunny day.

"Will you nap with me?" Mac asked hopefully.

"Sure," Vic said, and climbed onto the bed next to him.

"So, uh, logistically," Mac asked, "if I ever do figure out how to actually tell you when I need to rest, how will you know that I'm not just shirking?"

"Hm," Vic said. He trailed gentle fingers down the side of Mac's jaw. "I guess we need to work on that. It would help if you weren't in the middle of doing a writing assignment that you obviously hate."

"Gonna be doing it all week," Mac murmured, and groaned, and closed his eyes.

When he opened them again, the sun had moved, and Li Ann was lying next to him, propped up on her elbows, reading a book.

"Huh?" he said.

"Vic's making lunch," she said. "How are you doing?"

"Fine," Mac said, and rolled away from Li Ann so that he could cough.

"Hm," Li Ann said. "Vic specifically told me that if you said that, I should ask you again. I thought he was being a bit weird, but I'm increasingly seeing his point. How are you doing, Mac?"

Mac caught his breath, and managed not to swear at the pain in his side. "Better than yesterday," he finally said. Yesterday he hadn't been able to stop himself from swearing.

"Okay," she said. "So how were you doing yesterday?"

"Um," Mac hesitated. "Pretty bad."

She closed her book and tousled his hair. "There you go—you complained! Vic will be so proud of you."

In the afternoon they sat down to write again. Mac was already lagging behind, so he figured he shouldn't mention the headache that had started as a twinge just after lunch and quickly grown to a throbbing tightness behind his forehead.

On the other hand, his nose had started tickling again, and that was a lot harder to hide. He really didn't want to sneeze—it hurt even more than the coughing did. He sniffled, and blinked, and wriggled his nose, but the tickle wouldn't go away, and finally he gave up and just squished his wrist against his nose the way he'd learned to do a long time ago (hiding, in the dark) and swallowed the sneeze silently when it came.

Unfortunately that hurt his throat and made him start coughing again, so he really didn't come out any further ahead in terms of avoiding straining the stitches.

Vic and Li Ann both looked up from their own writing, with matching frowns of concern. "You okay there, Mac?" Vic asked.

Mac ducked his head in an attempt at a nod that only got half-way before he felt his breath catching for another sneeze. Fuck. He managed to stifle that one too, a little more successfully, without triggering another coughing fit, but his gunshot wound was really starting to ache and the sneeze had triggered a newly stabbing level of pain in his head.

"I really wish you wouldn't do that," Vic said, frowning. "I honestly think you might hurt yourself."

"You don't want me to sneeze?" Mac asked, blearily. "I don't want me to sneeze. I'd stop if I could." Already he could feel another one coming; he sniffed hard, trying to make it go away.

Vic shook his head, stood up, came back in a few seconds with a tissue box, which he put in front of Mac. "No, I mean you shouldn't stifle them like that," he said.

Mac shook his head. "I can't help it. That's how I sneeze." He took a tissue and blew his nose, which he thought would help, but instead it triggered a painful series of three more sneezes, one after the other, which he stifled silently into the tissue.

When he managed to blink the tears clear from his eyes, he saw Vic watching him, his mouth quirked in perplexed concern.

"You stopped stifling them the first night you were sick," he reminded Mac. "After a while."

Mac shrugged. That first night was a bit of a blur. "I got tired," he said. "I couldn't help it. I was trying to stifle them, it just stopped working after a while."

"If you couldn't help not stifling them," Vic said, "then obviously you don't have to stifle them."

"Um," Mac said, "I guess?" And then blinked quickly at the fresh prickle in his sinuses. He sort of didn't even realize that he'd squished his wrist against his nose again until it was over, and he'd swallowed the sneeze. That one made his ears pop. Ow. It was possible that Vic had a point about all this. "I, uh, don't think that I can decide not to stifle them on purpose," he admitted sheepishly.

Vic rolled his eyes. "Is there some kind of traumatic childhood story that explains this, too?" he asked.

"Uh," Mac said, "Maybe."

Vic gave him a sharp look. "I was joking," he said. "Shit. I really should learn not to joke about that. Mac, is there?"

"I just had to be really quiet sometimes," Mac said.

Vic laid a hand over Mac's wrist and asked, in a low voice, "When? And why?"

"When I was sleeping in the closet. In the hotel rooms. When my mother had men in. Some of them were pretty nasty pieces of work. She didn't want them to know she had a kid."

Li Ann, who'd been following the whole exchange silently with an air of, if anything, tolerant amusement, suddenly went fairly blank and still. Mac realized, with an ice-water chill, that Li Ann had immediately intuited the possible consequences if those men found out about the child in the closet.

Vic probably hadn't. He was still stuck on the closet thing. "The closet?" he said.

"It was fine, she gave me all the pillows, it was pretty comfy," Mac said.

He needed to change the subject. The thing that Li Ann was obviously thinking about right now had only happened three times, and in two of those cases his mother had caught them before it was over and killed the man. He really didn't want Li Ann to ask him about that.

He couldn't think of how to change the subject, but then his body did it for him; his sinuses attacked him with a vengeance, and next thing he knew he was pressing the heels of both hands against his mouth and nose, shuddering into an endless silent sneezing fit.

Well, it felt endless. It was maybe five or six sneezes. At the end of it his ears were ringing and he really had to put his head down on the table for a while.

"Ah," Vic said, "Never mind the report writing for now. Mac and I are going to go into the bedroom, and he's going to practice sneezing properly."

"I'm what?" Mac asked, staring at Vic through teary eyes.

"Sneezing the way nature intended you to," Vic said, with a firm nod. "Without hurting yourself."

"Uh..." Mac blinked away the tears, but clearer vision didn't make Vic's suggestion any less incomprehensible. "You want me to sneeze all over you? Aren't you worried you'll get sick?"

Vic rolled his eyes. "You've been sneezing all over me since last Wednesday. If I was going to get sick, I probably would've already. Anyway, I got my flu shot in November."

Li Ann raised her hand, lips quirked. "Me too."

"I, uh, forgot," Mac admitted.

"Yeah," Vic said. "Observe my shock. We can call up Medical, get you set up with one next week after you're better."

"It's a bit late for that, maybe?" Mac said, hunching his shoulders.

"Nah," Vic said cheerfully. "The shot usually protects against a few different strains. And there's plenty of winter left!" Then he grabbed the tissue box with one hand and Mac's wrist with the other hand, and tugged him towards the bedroom. "See you later, Li Ann!"

Mac was starting to notice a particular lilt that would develop in Vic's voice when he was implementing some crazy plan that he'd just come up with to try to improve Mac's life.

Well. It was good that Vic got some satisfaction out of all this. Because, in all honesty, Mac had a lot of damage. He hadn't even realized himself how much damage there was, until Vic had started poking at it, had started being appalled at all sorts of things that Mac had just accepted as normal.

Such as the sneezing. Any normal person would've just accepted that Mac sneezed in a particular way, and moved on. Not Vic. He kept poking, and prodding, and trying to fix things, until he had Mac talking about the nights in the closet and realizing that yes, this was another way in which he was broken.

Okay. So here they were. Vic had piled all the pillows up at the head of the bed, so that Mac could sit up and lean against them. Vic was sitting cross-legged, just off to the side. The tissue box was between their knees.

"Uh," Mac sniffled. "Now I don't need to sneeze."

"That's okay," Vic said mildly. "We can wait."

Mac sniffled again. "You are so weird."

Vic shrugged. "I like to fix things. This seems ... fixable."

Mac narrowed his eyes. "What exactly do you want me to do?"

Vic looked thoughtful for a moment. "Tell me if your nose starts to tickle," he said. "I'll try to figure something out."

"What if it doesn't?" Mac asked.

"Then we'll just hang out and talk. At least I got you out of report-writing for the moment," Vic pointed out. "If we let Li Ann get a few pages ahead of us, we can both cheat off of her."

Mac laughed.

Laughing made his head and his side hurt, but it felt good anyway.

Ugh, his head was pounding.

He leaned his head back. "I have a headache," he said quietly, experimentally.

Instantly, Vic was leaning in, grabbing Mac's shoulder, peering at him with intense concern. "Are you going to pass out?" he asked. "Do you need to lie down?"

"No," Mac said, rolling his shoulder out from under Vic's hand. "I just have a headache. You keep asking me to tell you these things. So, I am. It hurts. I'm not going to fall over."

"Oh." Vic leaned back. "Okay. Um. Thanks. Good job."

Mac laughed weakly. The laugh only hurt a little, this time. "You're ridiculously sweet, Vic."

"Hm," Vic said, sounding unconvinced.

Vic probably thought that he was normal. But there'd never been anyone else in Mac's life even remotely like him.

"Oh," Mac said suddenly. "Actually I think I'm gonna—" He lost the rest of the sentence in an involuntary indrawn breath, and his hand was headed up to his nose to stifle the sneeze, but it didn't make it because suddenly there was a iron-hard band around his wrist—both his wrists—and instead of bringing his hands up Mac was hunching his shoulders down, and sneezing openly into his own lap with a soft "t-shiew."

He sniffed, and shuddered in confused reaction, and stared up at Vic, who was gripping both of his wrists. "What the hell was that?" Mac asked.

"I grabbed your hands and stopped you from stifling it," Vic said, looking pretty self-satisfied. "I thought that might work."

"I sneezed on our hands," Mac pointed out, feeling an embarrassed flush rising on his cheeks.

"Yeah, flu shot or not, I'm definitely washing my hands with hot soapy water after this," Vic said, and pulled a tissue out of the box to hand to Mac. "Here, blow your nose. So, did it hurt less that way?"

"Yeah," Mac admitted. "Um. I really don't think I could do that without you grabbing me, though."

Vic raised an eyebrow. "You figure you're going to master a new skill in one attempt? We're going to be here all afternoon. And the way things are going, I think you're going to get lots of practice."

Two hours later, Mac and Vic emerged from the bedroom. Li Ann looked up from her book; she was getting near the end of it. "How did, um, sneezing practice go?" she asked.

"Great!" Mac said, cheerfully. His sinuses and head felt like they were stuffed with cotton wool, and the gunshot wound in his side was a constant throb, but actually he thought he'd made real progress.

"Ah," Vic said, "Progress has been ... slower than I expected."

Li Ann raised an eyebrow at the discrepancy.

"I need to drink some tea," Mac declared. "And then have a nap."

"Okay," Li Ann said.

Mac headed for the kitchen, and Vic stuck close to him in that ready-to-catch-him-if-he-fell way that he'd developed.

Halfway there, Mac stopped suddenly, blinking against a sudden prickling in his nose. His breath caught. "Vic, I'm gonna—" His hands flapped in sudden panic, and he felt Vic catching them even as his eyes squeezed shut, and Vic pulled him in close, and Mac muffled-but-didn't-stifle the sneeze against Vic's shoulder, "t-chff!." Then Mac kept his eyes closed and his forehead tucked in against Vic's warm, strong shoulder, partly because his nose was still tickling and partly because it was really embarrassing that Li Ann had just seen that.

"What was that?" Li Ann asked, sounding taken aback. Mac could very clearly imagine the confused expression on her face.

He felt Vic's shoulder lift and fall in a bit of a sigh. "That's as far as we've gotten," Vic said. "The eventual goal would be that he sneezes into his own shoulder. But, um, every time we tried that he just stifled it." Mac felt Vic letting go of his hands, but Mac clung to his fingers.

"Not yet," he gasped into Vic's shoulder. "I still—eh... ha-tsch! eh-tsch!" It was weird and embarrassing, but it hurt so much less than the way he usually sneezed.

He felt Vic wriggling his fingers around so that he could hold both of Mac's hands with just one of his, and then he felt Vic's freed-up hand massaging the back of his neck. "Are you done yet?" he asked, very gently and tolerantly.

"Mmm hmm," Mac said, sniffling. He didn't move, though. It felt really good to be tucked in against Vic's shoulder.

"Just so you know, Mac," Li Ann said, "There is no way I'm doing that for you."

"S'okay," Mac said, still cuddled into Vic's shoulder. "It's my special thing with Vic."

"Uh, no," Vic said, "This is our thing that we're doing very briefly until you gain more basic life skills."

Mac laughed into Vic's shoulder, and enjoyed an affectionate snort from Vic in reply.

"Don't think that the fact that you are extremely messed up means that you get to use my shoulder as a kleenex forever," Vic muttered.

And that was okay, because Mac was extremely messed up, but the fact that they were joking about it made it a lot less overwhelming.

Amazingly, after his next three-hour nap Mac woke up feeling almost not sick. His sinuses had calmed down, his headache had gone away, he didn't have much of an urge to cough, and apart from the throbbing around the gunshot wound his body wasn't even sore.

After supper—a meatloaf with ketchup, made by Vic, which was about the most Anglo-Saxon thing Mac and Li Ann had ever eaten in their lives, but they'd had to admit it was tasty—they meditated again.

Li Ann timed them.

Vic fidgeted a lot, and Mac was grateful for Vic's fidgeting because it was more effective than his own breath was for bringing him back into the present moment.

That was the key, in meditation—returning to the present moment.

It was the practice of doing it again and again, as your mind wandered, that made you better at it. Everything improves with practice.

This was why Mac was meditating. He really, really needed to get better at coming back to the present moment. His present was a good place to be, and his past was ... not.

The problem, of course, was that the practice involved his mind wandering. Sitting meditation was such an effective practice, and so hard, because there was nothing for your mind to do but wander.

Tonight, thanks to the conversation earlier in the day, Mac's mind kept wandering back to the men in his mother's hotel rooms.

His heart would start racing, his mouth would feel dry, his fingernails would start to dig into his knees, and he'd be back there

—and then Vic would shift his legs, and grunt, and Mac would be back on the cushion next to him. Breathing.

And then he'd remember the darkness of the closet again, and the sounds outside, and the first time one of the men had opened the closet door after his mother was asleep—

—and then Vic moaned a little, and rolled his shoulders, and said "How many minutes are left?" and Li Ann said calmly, "Four," and Mac knew that he was safe in their presence.

And the men kept coming back, and Mac's breath kept catching in his throat and his adrenaline kept spiking, but when he breathed in and out he was syncing with Vic now, and Vic was here, and the men weren't.

"Done," Li Ann said. "That was ten minutes."

"Oh thank Christ," Vic said, stretching his legs out. "I don't know how you guys could sit there so peacefully."

"I was sitting still," Li Ann said mildly. "But it wasn't peaceful."

Mac couldn't say anything; he'd balled his hands into fists and he was just gratefully enjoying the fact that he'd survived the whole ten minutes without screaming.

"Uh," Vic said. "It wasn't?" He looked at Mac, raised a concerned eyebrow at the clenched fists. "Neither of you moved at all the whole time."

Li Ann rolled her shoulders, looking serious. "Actually, my mind went to some very dark places. I didn't enjoy that. But I'm not sorry that I sat with you. It was good practice ... having some of those memories come up, and not letting them swallow me."

Mac forced himself to meet her eye. "Sorry," he half-croaked. "For bringing that up."

She nodded, and then just sort of watched him for a minute, looking concerned.

Vic looked back and forth between them. "Uh, what did I miss? What did Mac bring up?"

Li Ann bit her lip, and then said quietly in Cantonese: "I think we should clue him in."

Mac shook his head, and replied in the same language, "I really don't want to talk about it."

"I could guess that," she said mildly, "from the fact that you've never mentioned it before in the thirteen years we've known each other. But I could hear the way you kept panicking while we were sitting. It was making me panic."

Mac's eyes widened. "You could hear that? Vic didn't." He gave a little weak grin and a finger-wiggling wave to Vic, who was sitting there uncomprehending and clearly hovering between being worried and being annoyed. He'd shown a lot of restraint in letting the conversation go on this long without him.

Li Ann rolled her eyes. "He couldn't hear anything over his own puffing and fidgeting. He is so bad at this."

Mac laughed a little. "He's bad? We're the ones who were sitting here barely managing not to scream."

"But we did manage," she pointed out. "And I think that if we can manage that, we can manage to talk to Vic about it a little bit."

Mac took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and said "Okay," in English.

Vic looked back and forth between them. "So what was that about?"

"While we were sitting tonight," Li Ann said, carefully, "I had some recurring thoughts about some of the sexual experiences I had with men in the brothel."

Vic went very pale. "Shit," he said. "Li Ann. I'm so sorry. I don't know what to say."

So obviously Vic hadn't figured out what Li Ann had meant just now by 'dark places,' even though he was aware of that part of her history. Fuck. By extension, that meant that Vic had absolutely no clue about the significance of Mac's closet story. Which meant that Mac was going to have to tell it cold.

"It's okay," Li Ann said. "You don't have to say anything. It's a thing that happened to me; it was a long time ago. I just wanted to share with you that that was where my mind was going tonight. It's ... helpful to me, actually, to know that you know."

"Okay," Vic said, and reached over with his nearer hand to catch at Li Ann's hand, and squeeze it. "I hear you."

Oh, good, Li Ann had modelled the whole thing. Mac could do this.

"My thing also happened a long time ago," Mac said. "I'd rather not talk about it."

"Wait, what thing?" Vic said, turning to him with a puzzled look. "Were we talking about a thing?"

Oh, oops, Mac had skipped mentioning the actual thing. Even Li Ann was looking a bit confused, and he had thought that she'd already sort of guessed it. She must have guessed it; that's why the closet story had made her think about the brothel.

Okay, try again: copy Li Ann's phrasing, be brief and specific. "While we were sitting tonight I had some recurring thoughts about the times my mother's boyfriends raped me. But I don't want to talk about it."

Vic eyes had gone very wide. "What?" he said.

Mac hunched his shoulders. "I don't want to talk about it."

Vic looked at Li Ann. "Did you know about this?" He sounded pretty upset.

She shook her head. "I had a suspicion, when he mentioned needing to hide from the men," she said. "It was a worst-case-scenario."

"Hiding—" Vic said. "You're talking about that thing he told us earlier, about sleeping in the closet." He stared at Mac. "Mac, are you telling me that the reason you compulsively stifle your sneezes is because when you were a child you had to stay absolutely silent in your mother's closet or her boyfriends would find you and rape you?"

"I ... guess so," Mac said. He'd never exactly put it together like that. It sounded pretty bad when Vic put that way. "But that only actually happened three times," he added, because Vic looked like he was about to completely freak out. Mac hunched his shoulders tighter, and with an effort resisted the urge to curl completely into a ball. "Could we stop talking about this? I really don't want to talk about it."

"Fuck," Vic said. "Mac..." He took a breath, clenched his fists, released them again. "Okay. You can keep sneezing on my shoulder for as long as you need to."

Mac blinked. "No, you were right, I need to get over that. It's really not practical."

Vic shook his head wordlessly, and then scooched himself over to Mac and wrapped him in a hug. "Mac," he said. "Fuck."

Mac's body took the hug as permission to curl up into a ball the way it had been yearning to, and start shaking hard enough to make Mac's teeth chatter. He squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his teeth together, and felt Vic's arms tightening around him.

"Sorry," he heard Li Ann say from a couple of metres away. "I thought he'd be able to tell you about it without breaking down. He made it through the meditation."

"The meditation," Vic repeated, in a distressed tone. "The past ten minutes—I was feeling like I was going to go crazy because I kept getting this itchy spot right in the middle of my back, and meanwhile the two of you were sitting there stone-still having flashbacks to the times you'd been raped? Li Ann, maybe this isn't such a good idea."

"Vic, I was never raped," Li Ann said. "The men had paid. I understood that. I didn't fight them."

Mac felt Vic take a sharp breath, and somehow even before Vic spoke Mac knew that he was going to say a cop-thing; and he did. "Li Ann, you were twelve," he said. "You could not consent. Those men raped you. They should have gone to jail."

"Well, that was a long time ago," Li Ann said tightly, and Mac could hear her standing up. "I'm going to go make some tea."

Mac wanted to tell Vic to go with her, not to leave her alone after Mac had stupidly made her think about the brothel. But he still couldn't talk—or maybe he was just too selfishly weak to say anything that might result in the withdrawal of Vic's warm, comforting strength wrapped all around him.

"Mac?" Vic said quietly. "Do you want to go lie down?"

Mac thought about shaking his head, but somehow he couldn't get himself to do it. His body wasn't taking orders from him, for the moment. It was just curled up and trembling.

"That's okay," Vic said after a few seconds, as though Mac had successfully communicated somehow. "We can stay here."

After a little while, Mac felt Vic shifting. His hold on Mac loosened, and then was suddenly gone.

Mac was going to fall; he was going to shake himself to pieces. The darkness was swallowing him. He heard a high-pitched keening coming from somewhere, and he also felt it in the back of his throat.

"Shit," he heard Vic saying, at the other end of a long tunnel. "Sorry, shit, sorry Mac—" and the arms were back, holding him tight, holding him together, holding him here. "I've got you. I just needed to adjust my legs, they were falling asleep."

The wailing stopped (Mac stopped wailing?). Paradoxically it was easier to breathe with Vic's arms wrapped tight around him. Mac thought that he would probably stop shaking soon. He could tell that he was safe here. Vic wasn't going to let go.

A while later, Mac heard approaching footsteps, and then a bit of rattling and a soft thunk on the floor, very near. He smelled hot steam and ginger.

"I made tea," Li Ann said, very calmly, close by. "Mac, do you want some?"

Mac thought that he would like some tea. But his body was still just doing its own thing, ignoring him.

"Vic?" Li Ann said. "Tea?"

"I, uh, don't think I can let go," Vic said. "A couple of minutes ago I let go for just a second to adjust how I was sitting, and he started freaking out. A lot."

"Hm, I think I heard some of that," Li Ann said, and then Mac heard her pouring. It sounded like she was pouring three cups. "What do you think you'd like to do for lunch and dinner tomorrow? I need to go to my apartment to pick up some things. I can do a grocery run at the same time."

"Huh?" Vic said, sounding perplexed. "You want to settle this now?"

"Yes," Li Ann said evenly. "I think that it would be a good idea to talk about what we're going to eat tomorrow. In detail. You know, I've been craving avocado. Do you know how to make guacamole? Maybe we could have nachos for lunch. Remember how they used to serve that sometimes at the Agency cafeteria in Vancouver? It was one of my favourite things there. I wish the Toronto site had a cafeteria."

Riding along on the banality of Li Ann's monologue, Mac found that he was able to open his eyes and uncurl. He reached over and plucked one of the full teacups off of the red lacquered tray that Li Ann had set near his knees, and sipped the hot liquid. His hand barely even trembled.

"Ah," Vic said, easing back. "Okay. I don't know how to make guacamole, but if you can wait until supper for the nachos, I can go get a new cookbook in the afternoon."

"Sure, that sounds good," Li Ann said. "Stir fry for lunch, then?"

At bedtime that night, Mac noticed that somebody had cleared all of the pills out of his medicine cabinet, even the over-the-counter painkillers.

The scissors and rubbing alcohol were also missing from his first-aid kit.

"Still okay in there?" Vic asked, from immediately on the other side of the door. "Keep talking to me, Mac."

"I'm fine," Mac said. "I'm taking a shit."

"No you're not," Vic said. "I can hear you opening and closing the cupboard doors."

Mac rolled his eyes. "I'm brushing my teeth."

"You don't need privacy for that," Vic said, and opened the door. Mac saw him looking at the open first aid kit.

"You didn't need to hide the scissors," Mac said.

"Li Ann hid the scissors," Vic said, mildly, leaning against the door jamb and crossing his arms. "We took your advice. She's in charge of hiding things. I'm too predictable."

Mac didn't mind that they'd hidden the scissors, exactly. But their decision to do so was a little perplexing. "You haven't hidden the kitchen knives," he pointed out.

"We're not letting you be alone in the kitchen," Vic said. "Uh, Mac? Should we hide the knives?"

"No," Mac said. "I told you, I don't want to kill myself right now."

"Yeah..." Vic drawled. The muscle at the side of his jaw twitched. "And until you can say that convincingly, without qualifiers, Li Ann and I will decide when and where you have access to sharp objects."

Mac shrugged, and got out his toothbrush.

While he was scrubbing his teeth—temporarily relieved of any expectation of conversation—he thought about the situation.

It was a little awkward. Vic and Li Ann really seemed to believe that he might attempt suicide at any moment.

He hadn't been able to promise them that he wouldn't kill himself ever, but that didn't mean that he was about to try it right now. They didn't seem to understand the difference.

He really couldn't understand why they were so worried. He'd made it through the past thirteen months without them hovering over him.

Okay, granted, two weeks ago the drinking had taken a pretty dangerous turn, and the Director had been off her game (still recovering from her own gunshot wound?) and had missed it. If Vic hadn't shown up and stopped him, Mac might have managed to kill himself.

Might have. Had been trying to. Fuck.

Mac had to drop his toothbrush so that he could grab the edge of the sink with both hands. He spat out the foam, and gagged. Then he swallowed hard against the abrupt feeling of nausea.

"Mac?" Vic was moving in, quick concern in his voice, a hand under Mac's shoulder ready to stop him from falling. "What's wrong? Are you dizzy again?"

Mac shook his head, although technically he was, a little. "Thanks," he managed to say instead. "For hiding the pills and the scissors." Because he was suddenly realizing how much safer he felt knowing that he couldn't reach for them in the thirty seconds after the bathroom door closed. And speaking of reaching for things, "What about the vodka? Is it still in the kitchen?"

Vic shook his head. "We got rid of it yesterday."

"Okay. Shit." No vodka. That was both good and bad. Nothing to reach for... "Maybe you should hide the knives."

"Ah, okay," Vic said, now sounding like he was making significant effort not to sound alarmed. Mac felt Vic's fingers gently touching his chin, turning Mac's face so that he was looking into Vic's eyes. Their corners were crinkled in a worried kind of way. "Mac, is there something you want to tell me?"

Want? No. But Mac realized that he'd be safer, going forward, if Vic knew. "I think I was trying to kill myself two weeks ago," he said. "With the vodka. You stopped me. Twice."

"Ah, okay," Vic said, with patently false calm. "You weren't just trying to black out, then?"

"Maybe. That's what I told myself I was doing at the time. But usually when I want to black out I measure the shots ahead of time and put the bottle away before I start. So that I can't go too far. Those nights that you caught me ... I didn't do that."

Vic was still touching his face, peering into his eyes. "Mac," he said, "you just asked me to take away the kitchen knives. Do you want to hurt yourself right now?"

Mac shook his head. It was hard to explain. "No," he said. "If I did, I wouldn't have told you to take the knives away, would I have? I don't want to get hurt. Probably the kitchen knives are fine anyway. But I might feel safer if I know that they aren't there."

"Okay," Vic said, and he was obviously working very hard at sounding calm, but Mac saw his nostrils flare. "What about the guns, Mac? We have a lot of guns."

"I'd never shoot myself," Mac said. "Fuck no. If I ever kill myself, I don't want it to hurt."

"Knives hurt," Vic pointed out.

"I've heard it's not so bad in a hot bath," Mac said. He grinned as he said it, because he was trying to make light of it—it wasn't like he'd ever seriously thought about slitting his wrists in the bathtub, it was just a fallback plan in case everything went to shit.

Vic didn't grin back. "Mac, I want you to come with me to your bedroom and lie down on your bed, okay?"

"Okay," Mac said. They'd been getting ready for bed anyway.

Vic led him by the hand—keeping a pretty firm grip—and brought him to the bedroom. "Now can you just lie there for a bit?" Vic said. "Don't move, okay?"

"Mm'kay," Mac said. His body felt weirdly light and heavy at the same time. It was good to lie down. He stared at the ceiling.

He heard Vic going back to the bedroom door and calling, "Li Ann!" in a kind of panicky tone.

"What's wrong?" she asked, arriving.

"Mac is talking about killing himself," Vic said, sotto voce. Mac was pretty sure that he wasn't supposed to be able to hear him.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

Vic repeated the highlights of the conversation that he and Mac had just had in the bathroom. Mac had to admit, it sounded bad in the third person.

"I think we're fucking up," Vic finished. "I think we're making it worse. I think we should consider calling 911."

"Vic," Li Ann said, and Mac could imagine her putting a hand on his arm. "Stop and think. The Director would never let one of us go into a normal psych ward. Even if we tried, she'd have him extracted and brought to the Agency. And we do not want him getting the Agency's version of psychiatric care. Remember Dr. Fry?"

"Shit," Vic said. "You're right. But what the fuck are we going to do, Li Ann?"

"What we were already doing," she said. "And I'll hide the knives and the guns. But I don't think we're making it worse."

"Hello, you saw what happened earlier," Vic said. "And look at him now. He's gone catatonic."

Mac wasn't sure why Vic had said that. Maybe Mac wasn't blinking enough. Experimentally, he blinked. It felt good. His eyes had been getting a bit dry.

"Tonight was rough," Li Ann conceded. "I really didn't anticipate that he'd break down like that. But Vic, I think it's important that he feels safe enough to break down. And that he trusts us enough to let us know that it's happening. He's not trying to tell us that everything is fine now, is he? I think that we just need to keep him safe and give him some time to heal."

Mac liked that explanation. It sounded very reasonable. And it included a light at the end of the tunnel: Li Ann expected him to heal.

"Okay," Vic said, although he still sounded uneasy. "Li Ann, what's your plan for tonight? Are you going to stay with us?"

"I think so," she said. "I'd been sort of hoping to go home, but ... maybe I'd better give you backup for one more night."

"Thanks," Vic said. "Listen, I don't think we should let him have the last Valium."

What the hell? They'd let him have one last night and the night before.

"Are you sure?" Li Ann asked. "It seems like tonight he could really use it."

Yes! Thank you Li Ann!

"Yeah, but that was because he was sick and he needed the sleep. I really don't think that we should be letting him depend on drugs to make it through the night," Vic said. "And he doesn't feel feverish anymore. I'll check his temperature to make sure, though."

Damn it.

Vic went away and came back, and sat on the bed next to Mac. He touched Mac's face and said, "Hey Mac, I'm just going to check how you're doing."

Mac continued to stare at the ceiling. He thought very seriously about moving his eyes to look at Vic, but he just didn't seem to have the follow-through.

"Fuck, I hope you're still in there," Vic muttered, and then Mac felt the hard, smooth bulb of the thermometer sliding under his tongue.

Vic sat next to him, holding his hand, for three minutes. Mac could hear Li Ann moving around elsewhere in the apartment. Taking away the knives and the guns, maybe. That was nice of her. It was good to know that they were out of the way. Even the guns, really. That way Mac didn't have to keep deciding not to use them.

"Here we go," Vic said, pulling the thermometer out of Mac's mouth. "Uh huh. Ninety-nine degrees. Congratulations, Mac, you're finally on the mend."

Which meant no Valium. Crap.

Li Ann came back into the room. "We still need to change the bandages before bed," she pointed out.

"Oh, hell," Vic said. "That whole thing ... can you do it with him lying down?"

"No," she said, "I don't think so."

Vic snapped his fingers in front of Mac's eyes. That was weird.

"He's totally unresponsive," Vic said.

"Try kissing him," Li Ann said.

"What?" Vic said. "Like Sleeping Beauty? Are you serious?"

"I don't know," Li Ann said. "It just seems like something that might get through to him."

"Hm," Vic said, sounding skeptical. But then a moment later, he was leaning over Mac, and their lips were brushing together.

Mac's breath caught, and he closed his eyes and opened his lips.

"Oh thank God," Vic murmured against his lips. "There you are."

"Here I am," Mac agreed. He opened his eyes again, and sat up. "Um. Sorry. Things just got kind of ... overwhelming."

Vic touched Mac's cheek with his fingertips. "Okay, try not to do that too much. That was a little scary for me."

"I'll try," Mac promised. He was feeling sort of light and airy, actually. He'd been putting so much fucking effort into trying to be okay. And now he could let go of that. Vic and Li Ann knew how not-okay he was. And they were still here, and they were keeping him safe.

The night sucked. But every time he woke up, Vic and Li Ann were there, holding him. Again and again, he emerged from heart-pounding terror into the strong arms and gentle caresses of his partners, who loved him. The bed was soft and warm, and Vic and Li Ann smelled nice. He wasn't even sure sometimes who was gently kissing the side of his face and who was holding his hand and who was squeezing his shoulders, but he wasn't afraid to go back to sleep because he knew that they'd still be there, every time he woke up.

Chapter Text

In the morning, Vic made scrambled eggs, and they all ate with spoons. Then there were bandages to change and reports to write.

When Li Ann suggested taking a break from writing, mid-morning, for another ten minutes' sitting practice, Vic was hesitant.

"Maybe we're rushing a little too fast into this whole meditation thing," he said, his gaze shifting uneasily between Mac and Li Ann. "Last night seemed pretty ... rough. Maybe you two could use a break?"

"No, I think I need to keep doing it," Mac said. "I think it's helping."

"Helping?" Vic repeated, sounding incredulous. "Mac, last night you went somewhere really bad, and I wasn't sure you were going to come back from it."

"But I did," Mac pointed out. He took a deep breath and tried to think of how to explain this properly. He could understand why Vic was scared by what had happened last night, but this was important. "You brought me back. And you can do it again, if I need you to."

"Um, but, maybe it would be better just not to go there?" Vic said.

Mac shook his head. "I'm going to go there, Vic. At some point. I try to shove it all away but it always comes back."

Vic's forehead furrowed. "You mean the nightmares?"

"Yeah. There's that. And then sooner or later they start creeping out into the day, and that's when I need to take a nosedive into a bottle." He played with his pen as he spoke—rolling it around and through his fingers. "Anyway, I thought I needed to do that. Because otherwise those memories were going to get me by the throat and start choking me out. I thought I couldn't survive facing them head-on."

"But you did," Li Ann said, "during meditation last night." She gave him a thin smile.

Mac tightened his lips, mirroring her expression. She got it. He didn't think that Vic did, yet. "Right," he said. "I sat with those memories for ten minutes, and I practised letting go of them over and over again."

Vic looked deeply uncomfortable. "But afterwards, you completely fucking lost it."

"But it was okay," Mac pointed out. "You were here with me. And the booze and the knives were all gone. Nothing bad could happen."

Vic shook his head, still clearly worried. "It really didn't seem okay. Mac, you were talking about killing yourself afterwards."

"Vic," Li Ann said suddenly, "when we practice throwing each other—when we practice falling—do we do it on the bare floor of the gym?"

He blinked, obviously confused by the sudden change of subject. "Well, you and Mac do, sometimes."

"Okay, yes. Because we've been training since we were kids. But when we're helping you practice falling, what do we do?"

"Ah, we put out the mats," Vic said.

Li Ann gave an encouraging nod. "Right. So. Mac needs to practice falling, and he needs to do it on the mats."

"Oh." Understanding dawned on Vic's face.

Mac was very grateful to Li Ann for the assist. "So are we gonna sit, or what?" Mac asked. "I need to bruise my metaphorical tailbone some more."

It was one thing to joke about it and make martial arts metaphors.

It was another thing to sit quietly, cross-legged on a re-purposed sofa cushion, and experience an interior slideshow of all of the worst moments of his life.

Breathe in. The man has a gun to Mac's head; he's told him that if he whimpers, he'll pull the trigger. He's undoing his belt.

Breathe out. Let it go. It's not happening anymore. It was a long time ago. Mac is safe now. If he reaches out his left hand he can touch Vic's knee; with his right, he can touch Li Ann's. But he doesn't need to do that; his hands can rest on his own knees, and he can be here in this moment, safe between the two people he loves.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Michael's not taking 'no' for an answer, and his thumbs are pressing into Mac's windpipe.

Mac choked a little—really choked, in the present moment, and Vic's eyes flicked over to him, concerned. Mac shook his head, forced a little smile: It's okay.

Breathing in. The truck bursts through the warehouse doors, the soldiers spray bullets in all directions.


"Yikes," Vic said. "Mac? Slow down, you're hyperventilating."

Okay, that was the trouble with leaning too hard on the breathing. Vic's hand was on Mac's knee, now, and that wasn't exactly standard form, but focusing on the touch helped Mac to breathe properly again.

Breathe in. And it starts all over again.

"That's ten minutes," Li Ann said. "I should get a bell."

Mac shuddered.

Vic squeezed his knee. "You okay?" he asked, quietly.

Mac nodded automatically, and then remembered that he wasn't supposed to be doing that anymore with Vic. He shook his head.

A moment later, Vic's arms were around him. "Okay," Vic said. "I've got you."

Mac closed his eyes and let himself lean into the hug. He was only shaking a little.

"I'll make tea," Li Ann said.

That afternoon, Vic went out for a while. He left Li Ann in charge.

(This was explicit. Vic gripped Mac's shoulders and looked him straight in the eye and said, "Li Ann's in charge. Do whatever she says.")

"So," Mac said when Vic was gone. "What are your orders, mistress?"

Li Ann gave him a startled look, and then rolled her eyes with a bit of a smirk. "That's not what he meant."

"Shall I bring you fresh apricots from the sultan's garden? A finely woven rug? A dozen camels?"

She snorfled. "Where would I put them?"

"A foot rub?" Mac suggested, as a more practical alternative.

She thought about that one for a second, glancing at partly-written reports scattered all over the table. "Okay," she said.

They settled at opposite ends of the couch, and Li Ann swung her bare feet up onto Mac's lap. He took her right foot, to start with, and started working the pressure points with his thumbs.

"Mmmm," she said. "I missed this."

"Wow," Mac said, "Yeah, it's been a while."

"In Hong Kong," she said—and then stopped, although her inflection had made it clear that that wasn't the end of the sentence.

"What?" Mac asked.

"I'm having second thoughts about asking this," she confessed. "Without Vic here."

Mac thought about that one. "You were going to ask something about the past. But you're worried I'll have another breakdown."

She nodded, looking a little sheepish.

Mac shrugged. "I'll try not to," he offered.

She gave him a long, measuring look. "It's okay if you do," she said finally. "I'll hold onto you. If you need me to."

Mac cleared his throat and looked at her toes. "Thanks," he managed to say.

"I'm just laying out the mats," she said.

He nodded, and smiled a little. "That works."

"Okay, I was going to ask—in Hong Kong, how bad was it?"

Mac blinked. "How bad was what?"

"Everything," she said, making a vague, all-encompassing gesture. "This. Living with the nightmares, and your memories. We never talked about it."

"Um," Mac said, rubbing her toes carefully, "it wasn't so bad. I mean, I wouldn't want to go back there now. But at the time, it seemed fine. Sometimes my thoughts would get pretty dark, but Michael helped with that."

She frowned. "Mac, Michael abused you. We've established this."

"Well, yeah, that too," Mac said. He ran a thumb along Li Ann's instep. "Sometimes I needed that."

"No you didn't," she said, staring at him.

"I mean, obviously sometimes he was just an asshole with control issues," Mac said. "But sometimes he would hurt me so that I wouldn't hurt myself."

She retrieved her feet, and gave him a searching look. "Mac, when Vic gets back I think that I need to tell him that you said that."

She was acting weird, like Mac had said something crazy. "I don't mean that I liked getting hurt," Mac clarified quickly. "I don't swing that way! Not that there's anything wrong with that."

"I didn't think that was what you meant," Li Ann said. She sighed. "We should get back to working on the reports. I'll make more tea. Do you want a hug?"

He really did. He almost said no anyway—it was deeply ingrained in him, the impulse to tuck all the vulnerable bits away and stand up and grin.

But that's not how they were doing it this week. And Li Ann was setting out safety mats for him. "Yes," he said. "Please?"

He wasn't sure why he started crying when she hugged him. But he did, and then he couldn't stop. He tried to be quiet about it, at least, but she rubbed his back and said "It's okay, it's okay to cry, Mac," and somehow that turned the quiet little gasps into full-throated sobs.

He didn't have a sense of time passing. Li Ann was holding him, and he felt safe in her arms. It was like he was barfing up a dose of psychic poison with each wracking sob, there was such a physical feeling of release. And eventually it felt like all the poison was gone, and he quieted into hiccups. His throat was sore again and his nose was stuffed up from the crying, but he felt clean. Clean, and exhausted.

"All done?" she said. "Let's go lie down on your bed. I think we need a nap."

He heard Li Ann talking to Vic when he woke up again. He heard her telling Vic what had happened, and what he'd said.

They both seemed to consider it disturbing that Mac credited Michael with helping him through the dark places by hurting him. Mac wondered whether they were right.

Well, probably. In an objective sense. But at the same time, Mac's relationship with Michael had been a lot more complicated than either of them was ever likely to understand.

He'd told Michael when he'd had thoughts about killing himself. And he used to think about it a lot, in his teens. Fuck, there were times when he'd outright threatened it—tried to use it as leverage to get Michael to let him get drunk, when Michael thought that it was too soon to do that again. And Michael knew that Mac didn't like pain, and Michael knew all sorts of ways to inflict pain—ways that wouldn't leave a mark, or would only leave marks in the secret places that nobody else saw. So when Mac threatened to kill himself, Michael would hurt him. And that had kept Mac safe.

Vic and Li Ann had other ways of keeping Mac safe, and their ways were a lot more pleasant than Michael's. Hugs and attention and kindness, and a carefully cleaned-out apartment. Mac appreciated it deeply.

It was only in the most fucked-up, secret corners of his soul that a part of Mac wished that Michael were still here to hurt him.

Vic had gone to the bookstore. He'd acquired a cookbook—as per the plan—and some other things, too. He tucked the bag from Chapters down behind his duffle bag and told Mac to stay out of it.

Of course this made Mac curious.

One annoying thing about having Vic and/or Li Ann hovering constantly within arm's reach to make sure that he didn't faint or break down or try to kill himself, was that it left him with absolutely no leeway to go rifling through Vic's stuff.

Tuesday evening, while Mac hunched over a piece of parchment scribbling notes about the night the Dog Pack had shown up at the club, Vic settled on the couch with a copy of Guns'n'Ammo Magazine. Mac was only vaguely aware of this; he was sharing an open inkwell with Li Ann, and it took a lot of concentration to make sure he didn't let little drips of ink spatter the table after he dipped his nib.

When Mac eventually looked up, rubbing his neck, he noticed something odd. "Vic," he said, "Why are you hiding a book inside of your magazine?"

"What makes you think I'm doing that?" Vic murmured, and very obviously flipped a page which was not a magazine page.

"He doesn't want you to know what he's reading," Li Ann said, dipping her pen.

Mac turned to her. "Do you know what he's reading?"

"Yes," she said. "He showed me the books when he brought them home. You were napping."

Mac stood up and went over to Vic. Vic closed the magazine over the book and looked up at him innocently.

"Come on," Mac said, plopping himself down next to Vic and making a not-very-serious grab for the magazine. "What is it? Porn?"

Vic rolled his eyes. "I wouldn't show porn to Li Ann and then hide it from you."

"Something embarrassing, then," Mac guessed. "Penmanship for dummies?"

"Low blow," Vic murmured, and Mac kissed his ear to let him know that he was only teasing. Of the three of them, Vic was struggling the most with the dip pens. His fingers were mottled with black stains, and he had a few on his lips, too.

"But what is it actually?" Mac asked, plucking ineffectually at the magazine cover.

Vic kept a tight grip. "Could you maybe just trust me? I don't think you want to know what I'm reading."

Mac sat back. "I do trust you," he said. "But I don't like not knowing things."

"Just show him," Li Ann said, from the table. "He's going to find out anyway. I'm running out of places to hide things."

Vic sighed, and slid the mystery book out of the magazine. Keeping his place with his finger, he held it up for Mac to see.

The cover had a picture of storm clouds. One dramatic ray of sunlight stabbed down from the middle of the clouds. Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the title read.

"Why are you reading that?" Mac asked.

Vic just looked at him for a moment, and then handed him the issue of Guns'n'Ammo. "Here. If you need a break from report-writing, you can read this."

Mac took the magazine, flipped it open. "Nice. There's a feature article on silencers." He skimmed the page, but he couldn't concentrate. "I'm not crazy," he said.

"Nobody said that you were," Vic replied without looking up from the book.

"You think I have PTSD."

"You definitely do," Vic said. "Do you want me to read you the list of diagnostic criteria?"

"No." Mac gave the book a leery glance.

"Okay," Vic said, and turned the page.

"Why were you hiding it?" Mac asked.

"I thought it might bother you," Vic said.

"That you think I'm officially crazy?"

"That I'm trying to learn about psychology. I know you don't like the Agency's shrink."

Mac thought about that one for a second. Did it bother him?

The thought of Vic reading a book about a psychological disorder and drawing lines from the book to Mac's brain did make Mac feel a little anxious. Exposed.

But on the other hand, he could also see that it was an incredibly sweet thing for Vic to decide to do. He was doing extra homework that he hadn't even been assigned, and he was obviously doing it because he cared about Mac.

"Patricia treats me like I'm a bug under a magnifying glass," Mac said finally. "And she reports directly to the Director. Obviously I don't like talking to her." He shrugged. "I don't mind if you read a book."

"Okay, good," Vic said. "Because I actually bought a stack of books."

Tuesday night, Li Ann went home to sleep. Mac was sorry to see her go, but he'd been expecting it. Li Ann needed her own space sometimes. It was the way she was wired. But Vic had promised to spend every night with Mac, so Mac could kiss Li Ann good-bye at the door and send her off with a jaunty wave and a grin that wasn't even fake. "We'll be fine!" he promised.

"Just make sure to come back tomorrow morning in time to help me ange-chay the andages-bay," Vic added.

Li Ann looked confused. Mac felt confused.

"What?" Li Ann said.

Vic looked at them both. "You don't know Pig Latin? Ha! I guess now we're even."

"Even for what?" Li Ann asked.

"Languages," Vic said, grinning. "You guys know Cantonese. I know Pig Latin."

"That doesn't do you any good if neither one of us can understand you," Mac pointed out.

"That's fine," Vic said. "It's still very satisfying for me."

"We can turn the lights off," Mac said at bedtime.

"Are you sure?" Vic asked.

"Yeah," Mac said. "I sleep better with them off." He woke up better with them on, which had been important while he was running a fever and getting caught in confused half-awake nightmares, but he was recovered now. He wanted Vic to know that he wasn't afraid of the dark.

"Okay," Vic said, and clicked the lights off before he climbed into bed.

Mac curled into Vic's warmth, with his head tucked under Vic's chin. He felt a little exposed without Li Ann pressed against his back, but he told himself not to be greedy. Vic was here, and that was enough.

"I never have to sleep alone ever again, right?" Mac murmured into Vic's chest. Vic had already said it more than once, but Mac craved reassurance like a junkie craved heroin.

"Never again," Vic promised, and Mac felt a kiss on the top of his head. Mac's body shuddered gently in reaction.

This feeling of utter safety was still very new to Mac, and in some ways he wasn't even sure how to handle it. A nervous, deep-down part of him fretted about the catastrophes that would surely result from letting his guard down. And it was definitely unnerving, on some level, that he'd become so dependent on Vic, so fast.

But depending on Vic was clearly more sane than depending on Michael had been, and Mac had depended on Michael for a decade. So this was probably okay, really.

"I love you," Mac whispered, seeking another hit.

"I love you too," Vic replied, without hesitation.

Mac sighed happily at the endorphin rush, and wished he could stay curled up in Vic's arms forever.

Chapter Text

The report-writing was coming along. More or less.

"Mac," Vic said, looking up from the pages that Mac had just handed him for proof-reading, "What the hell is this stuff about me getting you off in the shower doing in your report?"

Mac gave a one-shouldered shrug, careful not to disrupt the smooth line flowing from the tip of his pen. He was really getting the hang of using these nibs. "I needed to get my word count up."

Across the table, Li Ann put another red mark on Vic's draft and bit her lip, very obviously hiding a smirk.

"You can't turn this in," Vic said.

"Why not?"

"Your report is supposed to be about the case." Vic tapped the offending page. "This was not a part of the case."

Mac dipped his pen and kept writing. "It happened during the case." He wondered how long it would take Vic to realize that Mac was just winding him up. He had no intention of submitting that page to the Director. He'd written it for Vic. "I was running out of things to say about standing in front of the club for eight hours at a time, checking IDs and freezing my ass off. Just check my spelling, please."

To Mac's discreetly suppressed delight, Vic scowled, peered at the page, bit the end of his pen for a while, and then reached for the dictionary.

I saw that agent Victor Mansfield was in pursuit of the shooter, so I went back to Jasmine (a.k.a. attorney Benjamin Goldman) to verify that s/he was uninjured, Mac wrote, in careful cursive. The full names and titles made it a bit stilted, he knew, but damn did he ever need to pad his word count. He only had thirty-two pages, and he was nearly at the point where he'd passed out. At this rate he really would need to turn in the sex scene.

Vic snapped the dictionary shut, looking frustrated. "Is handjob one word or two?"

"I think it's hyphenated," Li Ann said. "Let me see that."

Vic handed the page over, and Mac squirmed a little. He hadn't intended for Li Ann to see it; Li Ann was proof-reading Vic's work and Vic was doing Mac's. (Mac was doing Li Ann's, not that she needed it. It was interesting, though, seeing her detailed reflections on the experience of doing drag. He hadn't realized that it had been so affecting for her. He'd already decided that he was going to make sure she made it back to the Rainbow Room in drag again—maybe even on Saturday, after their dinner with Ben.)

"Hm," Li Ann said. "This is pretty hot."

Mac looked at her curiously. "It's turning you on?"

"No," she said. "Just—abstractly. You're clearly so into him."

"He is?" Vic said. "Let me see that again."

"You just read it," Mac pointed out.

"I was reading it for spelling and grammar." Vic's eyes tracked along the page. "Jesus," he said a few moments later. "This really is hot."

Finally. "Good," Mac said. "It was hot when it happened, too. Wanna go to the bedroom?"

"Huh?" Vic looked up. "Now?" He looked at Li Ann.

"Don't let me stop you," she said, holding up her hands.

"You might want to put on some music," Mac suggested to her as they left.

Vic was still looking a little perplexed when Mac dragged him onto the bed and started kissing him.

"We were doing paperwork," he protested vaguely, only half-kissing back.

"I was so bored," Mac said. "And I made myself horny writing about you fingering me. Didn't it make you horny reading about it?"

"Yes," Vic admitted, a little breathily. "But aren't you still in a lot of pain?"

"Medium amount of pain," Mac quantified. "Doesn't stop me from being horny." He ducked his head sideways to suck on Vic's neck, hard enough to raise a hickey.

"Ow!" Vic said.

"See?" Mac said, grinning at the red mark. "Pain's okay."

"Mac," Vic said, sounding far more serious than Mac currently wanted him to, "I absolutely do not want to do anything that will hurt you."

"I don't want you to hurt me," Mac said quickly, because he still remembered how freaked out Vic and Li Ann had sounded yesterday while discussing Mac's latest revelation about his fucked-up relationship with Michael. "I want you to make me feel good."

Maybe it wasn't the best idea, but he needed to make a point, so Mac made a dive for the bedside table and got out the condoms and lube.

"Ah," Vic said, looking deeply hesitant.

Mac had promised himself over and over that he wouldn't push Vic too far, too fast. He'd been so gentle, so careful. But it had been a week and a half already, and Mac had almost died in the meantime (okay, it was only a graze, but it could have been worse). And even more to the point, Mac was increasingly afraid that Vic's hesitation around sex wasn't so much about Vic's lingering straightness, but was rather about Vic's conviction that Mac was fragile.

"I want you to fuck me," Mac clarified, because it did occur to him that there might be a lingering-straightness issue if Vic had thought that Mac might be suggesting they do it the other way around. Mac was perfectly happy to bottom or top, but given his history with Michael he was very aware that some guys did not like to get fucked. "I want to feel you filling me up. I want to know that I'm really, really yours."

"Um," Vic said. The whites of his eyes were showing more than usual.

Fuck, was Mac screwing this up?

He tossed the condoms and lube on the bed and made a grab for the fly of Vic's jeans. It was a two-pronged attack, actually; he also smashed his lips against Vic's in a profoundly ungentle kiss.

This wasn't a mistake; Vic's cock was straining against his fly. By touch, Mac found Vic's belt buckle, undid it, unfastened Vic's jeans, and started tugging them down his hips.

"Gah," Vic said, and there it was, there was that sexy noise that Mac knew he could coax out of him. "Mac, are you sure?"

"Yes," Mac said, impatiently, backing away so that he could quickly shed his own pants and underwear. He shrugged off his suit jacket, too, but left his shirt on; it was covering the bandages, and Mac was pretty sure the bandages weren't sexy.

"How?" Vic asked then, and it was one of those one-word sentences that caught at the end, gasping, and Mac was very happy to conclude that Vic was rapidly descending into frantic lust.

Mac had already given a few seconds' thought as to what would be the most comfortable position for him. The wound in his side was still pretty painful when he moved, so he definitely needed to get Vic to do all of the actual work.

First, though, a little prep. He tore open one of the condom packets. "C'mere," he breathed. Vic's cock was bobbing upright. Mac carefully rolled the condom down over its length, enjoying the way Vic's breath caught. Then Mac squirted a generous glob of lube into the palm of his hand, and used it to coat Vic's rock-hard shaft.

"Oh my God," Vic whispered, squeezing his eyes shut.

"Well, don't come yet," Mac said, a little teasing but also in earnest. He quickly put a condom on himself, too, but didn't bother to lube it—it was just to keep things tidy. He stacked both of the pillows at the edge of the bed and then leaned over them, letting them support his hips. He crossed his arms on the bed, and rested his head on them. "Vic, get behind me," he said.

He knew that Vic had never done this before, but he figured it would be easy enough for him to figure out. In this position, Mac's ass was right out there on display.

"Uh, wow," Vic muttered, and Mac felt Vic's hands coming to rest on the sides of Mac's hips. The touch was pretty tentative, though. Mac realized he was probably going to have to talk Vic through this.

That was okay. Mac was good at talking.

"It's probably best if you start with a finger first," Mac said. "It's been a few weeks since the last time I did this." Actually Mac felt like he'd be okay with or without a warm-up, but he figured that he should teach Vic good habits. And the reminder to Vic that a few weeks ago Mac had been having lots and lots of gay sex was very deliberate. He wanted Vic to stop treating him as breakable, and fuck him already.

"Okay," Vic said, and Mac felt a pressure at the opening of his ass. Then Vic's finger slid in, and oops, it was going in dry. Mac had forgotten to tell him to lube it. It was a bit uncomfortable.

"Great," Mac managed to say in a level tone. "Now do that again, but with some lube."

"Shit, sorry," Vic half-yelped, and the finger withdrew from Mac's ass much too fast. Mac clenched his teeth and managed not to swear.

Then there was a squelching sound, and then the finger was back inside Mac but very wet this time, and it was nice.

"Now two fingers," Mac said, encouragingly.

And oh God, Vic fumbled against Mac's prostate. Mac moaned.

The fingers withdrew quickly; at least, with the lube, it didn't hurt this time. "Sorry," Vic said again.

"No, that was good," Mac said. "But do you think you're ready to try with your dick?"

"Um," Vic said, adorably hesitant. "Yes?"

And so finally, finally, Mac felt the head of Vic's cock pressing against his ass—and then sliding inside. Mac gasped. He felt full, and utterly focused, and wonderfully present. He heard Vic's breath catching too. "Oh, Jesus," Vic muttered under his breath.

"Yeah, okay, that's good," Mac managed to say, coherently. "Now you can move."

The first couple of strokes were hesitant, but Mac let out an encouraging stream of profanity-laced monosyllables, and Vic started fucking him properly, pounding into him with well-timed, vigorous thrusts. Mac's hips started rocking in a matching rhythm, making each thrust more intense. The movement made Mac's side hurt, but he didn't care. Around that point Mac's brain fuzzed out almost entirely. He was aware of gasping, and of bright, happy waves of sensation. He felt like he was floating outside of his body and yet he was also completely submerged in his body, and every cell in his body knew that Vic was with him, Vic was in him, Vic was all around him and loved him and was never going to leave him.

Mac came hard, yelling. And then his brain really stopped working for a little while. And then he noticed that Vic was still fucking him, and that was okay, because it still felt pretty good, and Vic hadn't come yet—and then he did, his tempo ramping up quickly to a frantic peak and then coming to a shuddering stop.

"Hold the base of the condom when you pull out," Mac reminded him muzzily.

"I do know how to use a condom," Vic said, sounding amused. "I used them when I had sex with women."

"Oh, right," Mac said. "Sorry."

"Don't worry about it." Vic kissed the back of Mac's neck. "I'm glad that you're careful." Then Vic withdrew, and Mac bit back a not-happy moan at the fresh feeling of emptiness.

"Can you get properly up onto the bed and roll over?" Vic asked. "I'd like to cuddle."

And then Mac didn't feel empty at all. Mac had a boyfriend who wanted to cuddle after sex!

Mac rolled over, removed and tied off his own condom, and then went fumbling for his pants. The apartment was just a little too chilly to lie around in half-naked.

Vic, likewise, re-clothed himself hastily, and then crawled onto the bed and tugged Mac down. "Lie next to me," Vic said.

Mac was happy to comply.

"Are you okay?" Vic asked.

"Yes," Mac said, emphatically. "I'd been wanting that so much."

"How's your side?"

"It's fine," Mac said. The wound had a burning feel to it, but that was to be expected after he'd been moving around.

"Mmm," Vic said, sounding a bit dubious. He lifted Mac's shirt. "Oh, crap," he said after a moment. "I think there's some fresh bleeding."

"Don't tell me that," Mac muttered tightly. He was not seeing black spots, he was not.

"Sorry," Vic murmured absently. "I just need to watch for a minute and see if this bloodstain is getting bigger."


Mac swam back up to consciousness. The first thing he felt was a damp washcloth on his forehead. The second thing was somebody holding his hand. He opened his eyes.

Li Ann and Vic were both hovering over him.

"He's waking up," Vic said with palpable relief.

"What happened?" Mac asked.

"We're not going to tell you," Li Ann said. "Because if we do, you'll probably faint again. But don't worry, you're fine."

"Okay," Mac said. He trusted her.

Anyway, the momentary confusion of regaining consciousness was already over, and he remembered what he'd been doing in the bedroom with Vic.

"You should just lie there for a little while," Vic said. He had that worried crinkle at the outside corners of his eyes again.

"Sure," Mac agreed easily. "But can we be kissing? I think I interrupted the kissing."

"That was my fault," Vic said, uncomfortably. "I forgot for a second how woozy you get when—"

Li Ann cleared her throat, interrupting Vic. "Ix-nay on the ud-blay awk-tay."

Mac stared from her to Vic. "You taught Li Ann Pig Latin?"

"While you were sleeping," Vic said.

"Kissing," Li Ann reminded them, and then took matters into her own hands—or, more specifically, lips. She ducked down and kissed Mac. "I love you," she said, with amused affection.

"I don't think you're bipolar," Vic said, apropos nothing, Wednesday evening.

Mac was sitting on the floor next to the coffee table, trying to up his page count by writing a more detailed description of his fight with the barking Dog Pack guys. Vic and Li Ann were reading on the couch; Li Ann had the Guns'n'Ammo magazine, and Vic was reading another psychology book.

"Uh, good?" Mac said.

"It was something I'd wondered, a while back," Vic said. "But it doesn't really fit."

"Okay," Mac said, and kept working on his report.

Well, it was nice that Vic had found something that wasn't wrong with Mac. Maybe Mac should ask him to go through the book and list every disorder that Mac didn't have. That might cheer him up.

Two and a half report pages later (Mac had moved on to expanding his treatment of the morning he'd spent in Records with Nathan), Vic said, "I think you might have ADHD."

"Oh," Mac said. "Yeah. The Director's mentioned that."

"Really?" Vic said. "Huh. So you actually do have it, then?"

"What's that one, again?" Li Ann asked, setting the magazine down on her knees.

"Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder." Vic looked over at Mac. "You know, there's drugs that can help with that."

"No," Mac said.

"I'm not saying you necessarily need drugs," Vic said. "Just, maybe you should look into it. It might make stuff like this easier for you." He waved at the coffee table.

"Writing?" Mac asked, mildly offended. "I'm getting the job done. I've been writing for hours."

"You've been fidgeting the whole time," Vic pointed out. "You've only written two pages. And you've turned three sheets of parchment into origami frogs."

"I like the frogs," Li Ann said.

Mac handed her one. She smiled at him.

"Appropriate medication might help you make it through a whole stakeout without jumping in and engaging the suspects," Vic suggested, which was a low blow.

"Hey, when I jump in, it's for a reason," Mac said.

"Usually the reason is that you got bored," Li Ann said. "Vic might have a point."

Mac shook his head. "I can't take those drugs. The Director already tried them on me, in July. They made me constantly nauseous. I lost fifteen pounds in three weeks."

"Oh," Li Ann said. "That's what was happening?"

Vic looked troubled. "I didn't notice anything in July."

"Why would you have?" Mac said to him, patting his knee. "But you'd notice if I lost fifteen pounds now." And that was a warmly reassuring thought. Nobody had noticed Mac's misery during the Ritalin experiment, at least until the weight loss got caught at his check-up and the Director called a halt to it. But if the Agency shrink tried some drug on Mac now that made him throw up every morning, Vic would definitely notice. And he wouldn't let it go on for three weeks—he'd probably march down to the Director's office on the second day, and demand that she fix the situation.

Mac contemplated that image happily for a moment. It made him feel very secure. It had been years since he'd been under the protection of someone who cared about him. And Michael had always been a problematical and dangerous protector.

"Okay, forget the drugs," Vic said. He patted Mac's head. "You're perfect the way you are. Who doesn't love origami frogs?"

"Oh my God," Vic said, a few minutes later. "This explains so much."

"What does?" Mac asked, not without some trepidation. Vic was still leafing through the psychology book.

"You have poor executive functioning. That's a thing."

Mac put his pen down. "Is that another disorder you think I have?"

"No, it's part of the ADHD. Listen to this. 'Adults with executive functioning disorder—'"

"You just said it wasn't a disorder," Mac interrupted.

"Never mind that," Vic said. "'Adults with executive functioning disorder lack the ability to handle frustration, complete tasks, recall and follow multi-step directions, stay on track, self monitor, and balance priorities.' This is you on every stakeout, ever."

"May I see that?" Li Ann asked, holding her hand out.

Mac decided to make another frog.

"'Spouses of adults with EFD often find themselves compensating for their partners, for instance by keeping track of their keys or glasses, or reminding them to go to appointments,'" Li Ann read. "Yes, that does ring a bell."

"Hey, if I forget my keys I just pick the lock," Mac said.

"We're always reminding you of when the briefings are, you keep forgetting to charge your phone, you never remember to bring your own extra ammo," Vic started counting off on his fingers.

Mac shrugged and grinned uncomfortably. "Well, you guys are so reliable..."

Li Ann handed the book back to Vic. "Okay, the book literally seems to be describing Mac. It's kind of eerie. But what does it mean?"

"All of his most annoying personality traits are symptoms," Vic said. "Jesus."

Mac raised his hand. "Still sitting right here."

Li Ann reached over patted his shoulder. "Shh, sweetie, the grownups are talking."

Mac stuck out his tongue at her, and then added: "Anyway, the book thinks you're my spouses."

"Well, partners," Li Ann said.

"I'm pretty sure it was referring to life partners," Mac said. "Not crime-fighting partners."

Li Ann shrugged. "I guess it's accurate either way."

"Sorry, wait, what?" Vic said. "Ah, it's a little hasty to be calling anybody here 'life partners,' isn't it?"

"I didn't mean that we were Mac's life partners," Li Ann said. "I meant that crime-fighting partners can also provide executive functioning back-up. But actually, now that you mention it: yes, Vic, we are clearly Mac's life partners."

There was a bit of a teasing edge in her voice, but Mac sat up straighter and checked Vic's expression. Vic was blinking hard and looked like he wasn't sure whether to laugh or bluster.

"I have been dating Mac," Vic said, "for less than two weeks."

"What are you counting from?" Mac asked, with honest curiosity. "The first kiss, or the first blowjob?" He finished the frog, and handed it to Vic.

"It's not important how long you've been together," Li Ann said. "What's important is how long you're going to be together. And you're both extremely clingy, so I figure this is permanent."

"I'm not clingy," Vic said, sounding slightly offended.

"I am," Mac admitted cheerfully. Even if Li Ann was obviously teasing them, her analysis of his relationship with Vic made Mac feel very happy. Li Ann knew Vic pretty well, so if she thought he was with Mac for the long haul, he probably was. And there was another thing: "Li Ann, you said we."

"Hm?" she said. "Oh, right, we are your life partners. Well, obviously I'm here."

He gave her a tentative smile. "Are you always going to be?"

"Not every day. But on average, yes." She smiled back at him.

"Okay then," Mac said, and went back to work on his report, humming contentedly under his breath.

Chapter Text

Thursday morning, Mac finally finished the first draft of his report.

Li Ann and Vic were both well ahead of him, having completed their own rough drafts the previous day. Li Ann was nearly halfway done her clean copy already. Vic was making slower progress—he kept messing up his pages with ink blots or copying errors, and needing to re-start.

Composing the report had been hard, but re-writing it neatly was easy for Mac. It was a delicate fine-motor task, like lock picking. It was tedious, but after the psychological analysis he'd endured yesterday, Mac was determined to prove that he could stay focused and finish a task. Whenever he started to feel a little too twitchy he went over to his home gym and did fifteen reps on the leg press, and then came right back to the table.

"Fuck!" Vic gritted out at one point, staring at a fresh smear of ink on a three-quarters finished page. "How the hell do you two keep your lines so neat?"

"You have to control the pressure as you're writing," Li Ann said.

"I know that," Vic said. "But how?"

Li Ann shrugged. "Practice."

Mac looked over and noticed that he'd actually pulled ahead of Vic, in terms of number of finished pages. His first instinct was to gloat, but then he realized that Vic looked sincerely miserable. The ink-stains on his lips had merged to the point that it looked like he was wearing haphazardly-applied black lipstick. He'd been rubbing his forehead with his inky fingers, too—in fact there were smudges all over his face.

"Would you like some help?" Mac offered.

"Huh?" Vic said, giving him a bleary look.

"I could copy some of your pages for you," Mac said. "The Director said she wanted them handwritten, but she didn't say it had to be your own handwriting."

"Oh." Vic blinked. "Uh. I appreciate the offer. But no."

"Why not?" Mac asked.

"I don't want you to read mine," Vic said. He flipped his stack of finished pages face down just as Mac's eyes automatically drifted over to them. "There's nothing in there that you'd enjoy. Unlike you, I didn't pad my word count by writing about our relationship."

"I'm not looking for pleasure-reading," Mac pointed out. "I was just offering to help you get your work done."

Vic shot him a tight smile. "It's a nice thought. Seriously, thanks. But I really don't want you to read about me hanging out with the Dog Pack."

"Li Ann already did," Mac said.

"I wish she hadn't needed to, either," Vic said. "Please, Mac, I know you hate getting left out of anything, but let this one go."

"You should let it go," Li Ann advised from across the table. "The whole thing's pretty rough to read. The Dog Pack guys are terrible human beings. And after you fought them that one night, and embarrassed them, they hated you, personally. They made a lot of extremely graphic threats against you. Vic recorded them in the report. You're better off not reading them."

Mac looked at their grim expressions, and made an intuitive leap. "They threatened to rape me, didn't they."

Vic winced. "Among other things."

Mac shrugged that one off with a tight grin. "Not like they were ever gonna get anywhere near me." Vic and Li Ann were both still looking at him in a really worried way, so he added, "Just because stuff happened to me when I was a kid, it doesn't mean I'm going to fall apart at the suggestion. Those guys were losers. I could've fought them all off with one hand tied behind my back. I basically did." He picked up his pen, dipped it, and started copying the next line. His letters started coming out a little too jagged, though. He decided it was time for another workout break.

He'd only done five reps on the leg press before Vic came out and sat cornerwise to him, and reached for the pull-down bar. Li Ann arrived a moment later, and picked up a pair of free weights to do some curls.

"I'm okay," Mac said. "I'm not having a flashback. I'm not falling apart. I just need to work out some tension."

"Good," Vic said.

"We just thought you could use some company," Li Ann added.

"All right," Mac said. He didn't necessarily need them to follow him around the apartment, but it was nice that they did. He felt his tension easing away a little.

It was actually pretty great that he wasn't falling apart. He was stone cold sober, he'd just brought up the fact that he'd been raped as a child, and he wasn't freaking out. Very much. The meditation practice was helping.

Maybe he could try talking about it a bit.

"One of the men might still be alive," he said. It was a thing that bothered him, sometimes.

"Huh?" Vic said. "One of which men?"

Mac kept working the leg press, resisting the impulse to speed up. He'd set the weight pretty low, so that he wouldn't strain his stitches. He could keep this up for a while. "One of the ones who fucked me when I was a kid. It's been fifteen years, and it was on the other side of the world, so it's not like I'm ever going to see him again. But sometimes I get a glimpse of somebody on the street who looks like him and I sort of freeze for a second."

He looked over at his partners. Vic had let go of the bar and was sitting on the bench with one knee up, frowning at Mac in a concerned way. Li Ann was still doing slow, careful bicep curls, one arm at a time.

"Sorry," Mac said in Li Ann's direction. "Maybe I shouldn't have—we can stop talking about this, if you'd rather."

She shook her head. "I'm okay. Mostly. That's not a thing that happens to me. I don't actually remember any of the faces. And I assume that the sort of men who would buy time with a twelve-year-old in a brothel aren't the kind of men who would have long and prosperous lives, or ever leave Hong Kong. To me, they're firmly in the past, and I don't worry about them." She looked over at him. "What happened to the other two?"

Mac gave her a tight smile. "My mother killed them." He mimed a pistol firing.

Li Ann gave a little nod. "Good."

"Mom was pretty badass," Mac said. This was new—talking about his mother with Li Ann and Mac. "She wasn't going to stand by and let that kind of thing happen to me."

"I wish my parents had known how to fight for me," Li Ann said. "They were poor farmers. I think that when they sold me, they truly believed that they didn't have any choice."

"Have you ever thought about going to look for them?" Mac asked, curiously. "They might still be alive."

Li Ann shook her head. "I don't hate them," she said. "But I don't feel any affection for them, either. Or any connection of any kind, really. They gave me up. They're not my parents anymore."

"When my father came to town," Mac said, "I still wanted him to love me. That was stupid, wasn't it? He gave me up, too."

"If your father ever comes back here," Vic said, "I will personally punch him in the face. When he was around the last time, I picked up on the fact that you had a difficult relationship, but I didn't realize at the time that he had abandoned you to live on the fucking street when you were thirteen." He looked at Li Ann. "Your parents, too. No matter how bad the situation was, selling your twelve-year-old daughter into sexual slavery is not an acceptable solution. They should have found another way." He turned back to Mac. "And don't even get me started on your mother. What the hell was she doing, putting you in those situations in the first place? You should never have had to hide in the closet, terrified of making a noise. That was not ever okay."

"She did her best," Mac said. "She always said that she wanted to keep me close, so she could protect me."

"Well, close to her was a bad place to be." Vic shook his head, looking very upset. "Think about how that ended up." Then he caught himself, looking aghast. "Shit, I didn't mean to bring that up."

Mac let the weights settle onto their stack, and hugged his tucked-up knees. A little abstractly, he considered: was he about to drop into a flashback, and lose the next twenty minutes? The whole conversation had been very raw, very difficult, and now he was thinking about his mother's dead body in the warehouse.

He tried following his breath, like in the meditation.

Return the awareness to the present moment. Sitting on the workout bench. The warm feeling of freshly-worked muscles in his legs. A cool sheen of sweat drying on the back of his neck.

Vic standing next to him now, arms wrapped around his shoulders, chin resting on Mac's head. "I'm sorry," Vic said. "I've got you."

Mac leaned against him. He didn't close his eyes. He kept his breathing steady.

He realized: it would be okay to break down. Maybe he was going to, and maybe he wasn't—the question was undecided for the moment, balancing on a knife's edge. But if he did, it would be okay, because Vic would hold on to him until he came back.

And that's why it had been safe to talk about his past. Not because he was sure that he could bring those things up without breaking down (he wasn't), but because even if he did fall apart for a while, it would still be okay.

He shivered a little at the thought, and felt Vic hugging him tighter.

But he wasn't doing a deep dive into the bad places. He could still talk, if he wanted to. "Li Ann?" he said.

"Yes?" she said, moving into his field of view.

"Do you want to make tea?"

"I could make tea," she said. "Do you want tea?"

"Yes, please," Mac said.

"All right," she said, and left for the kitchen.

"So you're okay?" Vic said, and his hold around Mac's shoulders started to loosen.

"Wait," Mac said quickly, reaching up to catch Vic's arm. "Don't let go yet. Just—can you hold me until the tea is ready?"

"Sure," Vic said, and his arms tightened around Mac again. "No problem."

Mac wasn't okay, but he wasn't falling apart, either. It was an in-between state. And he hadn't frozen. He'd asked for a hug, and he'd gotten it. He'd asked for tea, and he'd gotten it. He still wasn't used to feeling so safe, and supported. But ... maybe he was getting used to it? He'd fallen apart so many times this week, and it had always been okay. Vic or Li Ann had held him, and kept him safe, and brought him back.

If this was what life was going to be like from now on, Mac was pretty sure that he could manage to keep on living it.

After lunch, as he was ripping up the pizza box so it would fit in the garbage, Vic said, "Hey Mac, do you think you feel up for going out shopping?"

"Um, sure," Mac said. He hadn't actually left the apartment all week, but he figured he'd be okay; the gunshot wound was healing steadily, and it didn't hurt much now even when he moved. "What do we need?"

"We need to get you a winter coat," Vic said.

Mac blinked. "I have a coat."

Vic shook his head. "It's not warm enough. I read your report. You wrote four entire pages about how cold you were standing in front of the club."

"I needed to hit ten thousand words," Mac reminded him. "And it wasn't a very complicated case."

"Also, you were like an ice cube every time you crawled into bed with me after a shift outside," Vic said. "Also, you got really fucking sick."

Mac made a wry expression. "I think I got sick because I forgot to get a flu shot."

"Yeah, well, that too. And by the way, we're fixing that tomorrow. But standing around in the cold for eight hours while you were coming down with the flu definitely did not improve your situation. So we're gonna go get you a nice, thick parka."

Mac decided he might as well roll over and submit. Vic had decided that he needed a new coat; he was going to get a new coat.

Anyway, Mac remembered that he had wished that he'd had something warmer to wear while he was pretending to be a bouncer outside the Rainbow Room. He'd just forgotten, afterwards. It was pretty sweet of Vic to think of it for him. To find yet another way to to protect Mac.

"Thanks," Mac said, touching Vic's arm. "For looking out for me."

"You're worth it," Vic said, which gave Mac a squirmy, tingly happy feeling. So did the kisses that followed.

So different from Michael.

Before they went out in public, Mac decided that he'd better do something about Vic's face. "You look like a chimney sweep," he said, touching an ink smudge on Vic's cheek.

"Yeah, I don't know how you two managed to avoid getting any ink on yourselves at all," Vic complained. "Maybe you could've done one or two little spots, to make me feel better?"

"We learned brush calligraphy when we were teenagers," Li Ann said. "We had to learn how to control ink."

"It was a lead-in to the lock picking lessons," Mac added. "It involves a lot of the same muscles, the same delicate control." He turned to Li Ann. "I'm going to need the rubbing alcohol. Did you hide it, or pour it out?"

She raised an eyebrow. "Hid it. Go into the bathroom. I'll bring it to you."

So Mac took Vic by the hand and led him into the bathroom. By the time Li Ann arrived with the rubbing alcohol in hand—and it didn't take her very long, it must've been hidden somewhere in the apartment, and not for instance in the trunk of her car down in the parking garage—Mac had gotten out a package of cotton swabs, and had made Vic sit on the closed lid of the toilet. Vic looked bemused.

"I can get myself cleaned up," he said.

"Theoretically, sure," Mac said. "But I'll do a better job."

There was no logical reason for Li Ann to stay, but she did anyway, sitting on the edge of the tub. Mac wetted the first cotton swab with alcohol, and started dabbing gently at a smudge on Vic's forehead. The alcohol lifted the ink pretty easily.

They were all quiet for a little while. Mac was concentrating, and Vic was holding his face still, staring into the middle distance. When Mac started dabbing at the extensive ink stains on Vic's lips, he couldn't help biting his own lip a little, restraining himself from kissing Vic while he worked.

"I'm glad you're together," Li Ann said suddenly, into the silence.

"Hm?" Mac said. The stains on Vic's lips were particularly stubborn. He discarded his current cotton swab, which had gone entirely grey, and got a fresh one.

"The two of you. I'm glad that you're a couple now." She rocked back a little on the bathtub's rim, looking up at Mac. "I couldn't be what either one of you needed me to be. But I think you're actually perfect for each other."

"We are?" Vic said. He sounded a little surprised, but not, Mac was relieved to note, particularly skeptical.

"Well, for one thing, you both like sex." She said it very primly, and Mac snickered. Vic smiled, his lips curving up under Mac's fingers.

"For another thing ... Vic, you're very nurturing," she went on. "I found that stifling, but it's something that Mac really needs."

Well, Mac couldn't deny that. But he hoped that Li Ann's theories about why he and Vic were perfect for each other didn't entirely revolve around the way he'd become utterly dependent on Vic for his very survival in the space of one week flat.

"And Vic, you've been hurt and betrayed so many times. You need someone who will love you without reservation, and who you can totally trust in return. Mac is that person. He could never betray you."

Mac cleared his throat uncomfortably. "I betrayed Michael," he pointed out, quietly.

Vic gave him a quick frown, but it was Li Ann who said sharply "Michael betrayed you. Over and over, for ten years. You stayed loyal to him for far too long. You did not owe him your soul."

Mac felt his shoulders hunching in, and he forced them to relax. He didn't want to get into a prolonged discussion about Michael, not now. He discarded another cotton swab, reached for a fresh one, and said "What about you? Li Ann, what do you need?"

"I'm not sure yet," she admitted. "But I'm glad that I get to be here on the edge of this."

"You don't mind being on the edge?" Mac asked. He'd wondered. It felt sometimes like the all-in intensity of his new relationship with Vic had really eclipsed the quiet affection that Mac and Li Ann were sharing.

"No," she said. "I prefer to keep my independence. Speaking of which—you two don't need me at the mall this afternoon, do you?"

Mac shook his head, and Vic didn't contradict him.

"Good," she said. "I'd like to go back to my place for a while."

Mac dabbed at one last little spot of ink on Vic's chin, and then stood back a bit to survey his work. He gave a satisfied nod. "All clean. You should wash your face now, get all the traces of rubbing alcohol off of it."

"Thanks," Vic said, standing up to look in the mirror. "Oh, wow, you really got all the ink off." He leaned over and turned on the tap, and splashed some water over his face using his cupped hands.

Mac screwed the top back on the bottle of rubbing alcohol, and then noticed Li Ann moving like she was about to reach for it. "You don't actually need to hide this," he said. "It can just go back in the first aid kit. I really, sincerely promise that I'm not going to drink it."

Vic patted his face dry with a towel and then turned back to Mac, looking serious. "Monday night you were afraid you might hurt yourself," he said. "You asked us to hide the knives. That was only a few days ago. And those were some pretty rough days."

"What are you talking about?" Mac asked, momentarily confused by Vic's reference to rough days. "Everything's been fine since Monday." The past few days had been the safest, most secure days of his entire life.

Instead of answering, Vic exchanged a significant look with Li Ann.

Mac thought about it a little more, considering the situation from Vic's point of view. It occurred to him that the fact that he'd dramatically broken down multiple times each day—at least once after every meditation session, a few extra times following difficult conversations, and of course several times each night—might have left Vic feeling like this was a bad time for Mac.

"Monday night," Mac said, "I got a bit scared because I realized I'd been spinning out since Michael came back, and I wasn't sure if I could keep going."

Vic frowned, and took one of Mac's hands in both of his own. "You told me that you'd tried to kill yourself with the vodka."

"Ah, yes," Mac had to acknowledge. And fuck, here they were in another of those difficult conversations, and he was really glad that Vic had started it by holding his hand. That helped. Maybe Mac could make it through this one. "I mean, I wasn't trying very hard. It was more of a Russian Roulette situation than a straight-up suicide attempt. I probably would've just made myself sick. But anyway, that was weeks ago. Things have changed since then."

"Uh huh," Vic said, still holding his hand, and looking at Mac pretty intensely. "Tell me about that."

"You guys," Mac said, "have made me feel so safe. I always used to feel like I had this, um, call it an outer shell? Like an eggshell, it was so brittle. And if it broke, my goop was gonna just gush out and spill all over, and that would've been the end of me. So I had to protect it, I had to keep everything light and keep everybody distant. But then you came along, Vic, and you started dissolving the shell."

"This metaphor is turning into that science experiment where we put an egg in vinegar for a week," Li Ann observed.

"True," Mac acknowledged. That was indeed the mental image that had just floated up.

"It was all squishy and rubbery at the end," she recalled. "The inner membrane was holding it together. Then we started tossing it back and forth between us, because we thought it was funny. And then it broke all over your hands."

"Right," Mac said. "Well, don't lean on the metaphor too hard."

"Hm," Vic said, "I think there's something there. You feel like you're not so brittle now. But you're still fragile. We're going to keep holding you carefully, and not tossing you around, until your membrane has had some time to toughen up."

"Um," Mac blinked, "I don't think the membrane actually gets any stronger with time."

Vic shrugged. "You're not an egg. The metaphor has limits."

Li Ann reached over and took the bottle of rubbing alcohol. "Let's keep the bathroom clean for a while longer, since you come in here alone. But maybe we could put the knives back in the kitchen? I'm getting a little tired of eating nothing but scrambled eggs, macaroni & cheese, and takeout."

"That would be okay," Mac said. Then he looked at Vic, and repeated, "I promise, it'll be okay."

"All right," Vic said, although he still sounded a tiny bit doubtful. And then he hugged Mac.

"Group hug?" Mac said hopefully, to lure Li Ann in.

It worked; Mac felt her embracing him from the other side. He closed his eyes and took a couple of shaky breaths, and observed that he'd just made it through that whole conversation intact. Maybe his membrane was getting tougher.

Or maybe Vic and Li Ann, literally wrapped around him, made a really good substitute for his missing shell.

Then Mac and Vic went coat shopping. Vic drove them to the mall in his truck, and he played the blues the whole way there. And not only did Mac not complain, he listened carefully, and appreciated the melodies.

"Let's try Mark's Work Wearhouse first," Vic said as they walked through the parking garage towards the door into the mall proper. "They usually have good-quality stuff."

"Okay," Mac said a bit doubtfully. The name of the store did not evoke images of high fashion. "Do they have coats without orange reflective safety stripes?"

"Yes," Vic said with a grin. "Don't worry. You're a secret agent. I understand that you're gonna want a black coat."

They entered the mall, and Mac froze.

It was a wall of sound, of bright lights and harsh colours and visually-screaming advertisements. There were people everywhere, walking in and out of stores, sitting on benches, carrying bags of who-knows-what and talking to each other with mad, leering expressions. Mac's heart was racing, and his throat was closing up.

Shit, he was having some kind of panic attack. In public. This had never happened to him before. The image of his lost shell occurred to him again. In the quiet, gentle, safe week secluded in his apartment with Vic and Li Ann, he'd let all his defences drop away, and now he needed them. Fuck.

Only a second or two had passed. Vic hadn't noticed anything wrong, yet; he'd pulled a couple of steps ahead of Mac. Mac lunged forward and made a fumbling grab for Vic's hand, successfully. He felt immediately anchored. He could breathe again, and he could see that it was just a regular mall. It wasn't even crowded; it was two o'clock on a Thursday afternoon, and the scattered customers were mostly just moms pushing strollers, and old people mall-walking for exercise.

Then Vic jerked his hand out of Mac's grasp, and turned to Mac with a quelling frown. "What the hell, Mac?" he said, in a high-pitched whisper. "We can't hold hands in public. We're both men."

Oh, God. Mac was not in an adequate state to embark on a conversation with Vic about his internalized homophobia. He wished Li Ann had come with them to the mall. Then Mac could've hidden in the truck for a while and let her handle it.

Mac tried to pull himself together. He could do this, he could. Being out in the world had never been a problem before. If he could survive finding himself alone at thirteen on the streets of Hong Kong—

No, that wasn't a good thing to be thinking about right now.

If Michael were here, he sure as hell wouldn't hold Mac's hand, and he'd fuck Mac up afterwards for asking. He'd expect Mac to walk calmly through the mall, and Mac would, because disappointing Michael absolutely wasn't an option.

Michael wasn't here, and never would be again, and that was a good thing. He'd fucked Mac up for a decade, and called it love. He'd tried to kill Mac and Li Ann, three times over. He'd nearly succeeded.

Michael wasn't here, and Vic was, and Vic didn't help Mac pull himself together by threatening him with pain, he did it by holding on to him and telling him that everything was going to be okay. Except, right now he wasn't.

Searching frantically for a way to quickly rebuild his painfully missing shell, Mac remembered the sunglasses in his coat pocket. He pulled them out and put them on. His hands were shaking, so he nearly poked himself in the eye, but as soon as they were on he felt a tiny bit better. The world was a little more distant.

"Hey, Mac," Vic was frowning. "Are you okay?"

Unable to talk, Mac shook his head. And started backing towards the parking garage door. Maybe today wasn't the right day to get a new coat. He could try again next week.

Then he missed the door, and backed into the wall. Fuck. He was trapped in the mall. He pressed himself back against the wall, swallowing down panic.

"Mac, what are you doing?" Vic asked, stepping closer.

Vic was close enough to touch, again. Mac managed to raise a hand towards him and choked out, "Vic, please, I can't—" before his throat closed up again.

Vic's eyes widened. "Mac, are you—oh, Jesus."

And then, thank fuck, Vic's arms were around Mac, holding him together.

Mac only realized that Vic had somehow manoeuvred them back out through the door to the parking garage when he noticed the smell of gasoline and concrete. Then Mac was sitting huddled on the floor, his back pressed against the wall. Vic was crouching protectively over him, casting the occasional nervous look over his shoulder and massaging the back of Mac's neck.

Some time had passed. A young black woman pushing a toddler in a stroller came around the nearby line of cars, paused next to them, and asked if they were okay. Vic said yes, and gave some kind of vague explanation about his friend needing a minute or two to adjust to the mall experience. "Oh, is he agoraphobic?" the woman asked. "My sister has that. It's no joke. She really couldn't leave the house for a few years, till she got the right meds." The baby started fussing, and the woman rocked the stroller. "Sorry, I gotta go before his majesty starts screaming," she said. "I hope your friend feels better soon."

Vic watched her go, and then turned back to Mac with a perplexed look. "You're not agoraphobic."

Mac managed to shake his head. Oh, good, he was ready to talk again. "Well, it's never happened before," he said.

"What happened?" Vic said. "You were fine, and then you just suddenly—" he waved his free hand, indicating their position on the floor of the parking garage.

"I wasn't fine," Mac said. "It was too much. I needed to hold your hand."

"Ah," Vic said. "Shit. Sorry. I didn't realize—" He stopped, then shook his head. "But Mac, we can't. At home, yes, no problem, we can hold hands all the time. But not at the mall."

Mac's first impulse was to say 'okay' and retreat for home. This whole leaving-the-apartment thing had clearly been a mistake.

But that wasn't a practical long-term solution. The Director had given him a week to lick his wounds; she wasn't going to give him more than that. Besides, he didn't want to end up trapped in his home, like random-mall-lady's sister.

Vic had dissolved Mac's protective shell; he could damn well man up and hold Mac's fucking hand at the mall. "Why can't we hold hands?" Mac said. "What are you afraid of?"

"Um," Vic said. "People don't approve of that kind of thing."

"What people?" Mac asked. "The Dog Pack?"

"Fuck," Vic said, and grimaced. "Yes. Them. And there's lots of other people out there who feel the same way, but don't bother to join hate-themed motorcycle gangs."

"Well, screw them," Mac said. "If anybody tries to gay-bash us, we'll kick their asses. And the Director will back us up, I guarantee it. We won't even get in trouble."

Vic was startled into an almost-laugh. "You're right," he said, a bit wonderingly. "I don't know why I didn't think of that."

Because you spent twenty years terrified that anyone might think you were gay, including yourself? Mac thought, but didn't say. It was only a theory. Assuming that Vic had never actually been as straight as he'd seemed—which seemed like a safe guess, considering how quickly he'd fallen for Mac once he'd found out that Mac was attracted to him—there must've been a lot of subconscious-level suppression going on.

All Mac said was, "Help me up. Let's go buy a coat."

They walked back into the mall, and this time Mac's right hand was firmly clasped in Vic's left. And this time, Mac was fine. The people and the ads and the potted plants populated the scene peacefully, at appropriate levels of intensity. Mac slipped his sunglasses back into his pocket, and it was still okay. The world wasn't harsh and glaring, it was just cheerful. The sun had actually broken through the January clouds, and was shining through the skylights, dappling the benches underneath. The woman who had stopped to ask if they were okay was sitting on one of the benches, feeding goldfish crackers to her kid. She noticed them, and waved. "Oh hey," she said. "You made it!"

"Yeah," Mac said, with an easy grin. "I'm okay now. I'm ready to face—" he deepened his voice and waved his free hand dramatically, "—THE MALL."

He thought he caught the moment when she noticed that he and Vic were holding hands. There was a fraction of a second where she froze, and blinked, and her eyebrows went up. Then she was back to making eye contact, and smiling. "Glad to hear it," she said. "Enjoy shopping." She turned her attention back to her waving toddler, and that was the end of that interaction.

"See?" Mac said to Vic, under his breath. "Nobody's freaking out. It's fine."

"Uh huh," Vic replied, sounding tense and unconvinced. "The store is this way."

They walked through the mall. Vic set a fairly brisk pace. Mac kept a firm grip on Vic's hand, and at this point his reasons were two-fold: first, the link with Vic was essential to keep Mac feeling safe and capable of walking through the world, and second, Mac needed to make a point.

And the point was that the world wasn't going to end if two men held hands in a shopping mall in downtown Toronto in 1999.

People were definitely noticing. Mac quickly sorted the looks they were getting into three categories. Most common: the people who looked, did a quick double-take, and then looked away blankly. Either they didn't care, or they were too polite and city-trained to show their reaction. And then there were the people who looked and subsequently scowled. They tended towards the older end of the demographic curve, Mac noticed, though that wasn't a uniform rule. Because there were also plenty of white-haired grannies in category three: the ones who noticed and then smiled at them.

Mac made sure to give a big friendly grin in return to all of the smilers, as well as to any of the scowlers whose eyes he could catch.

Vic was still tugging Mac along at a pretty brisk clip.

"Relax," Mac said. "Slow down. Nothing bad is happening."

"You're making eye contact with people," Vic observed, in a tone of quietly-suppressed anguish. "Stop doing that."

"It's okay," Mac said. "I'm just smiling at them."

"Maybe you're used to this kind of thing," Vic said, "but I'm not."

Okay, this was getting ridiculous. They were nearly running. Mac proactively tightened his grip on Vic's hand, and then deliberately slowed down to a normal walking pace, tugging Vic back with him. "I'm not, actually," he said. "Used to this. Michael and I were never out in Hong Kong. Li Ann was the only one who knew about us. And any other guys were just one-night stands; there was nobody I'd go out shopping with."

"What about—" Vic cleared his throat, and blushed. "Around Christmas and New Year's. All those guys."

"Also one night stands," Mac reminded him. "And sure, I did walk around with some of them a bit, but that was mostly in the Village."

"Well, you just spent two weeks working undercover at a gay bar," Vic pointed out. "And I spent those weeks hanging out with guys whose favourite expression of total contempt started with an f and rhymed with maggot."

"Ah," Mac said. "So what you're saying is ... if you don't kiss me right here in the middle of the shopping mall, you're letting the Dog Pack win?"

"That is not what I'm saying," Vic muttered.

"Yes it is," Mac countered cheerfully. "We should definitely kiss. Right here, right now." It was possible that this wasn't the best idea, but it sounded pretty appealing anyway—and he figured that shock treatment was the best way to expand Vic's comfort zone quickly.

"We'd get kicked out of the mall," Vic said.

"Probably not," Mac said. "And even if we did, big deal. We can buy a coat somewhere else if we have to. Plus, we have a friend now who's a gay-rights-activist lawyer. Ben would so have our backs."

"Still not kissing you in the middle of the mall," Vic said, and tugged him onward.

"But we really should," Mac said. Vic wasn't the only one who could be stubborn. "Don't let the Dog Pack win, Vic. They shot me!"

That caught Vic's attention. He stopped short, and Mac nearly stepped on his heels. "Fuck," Vic said. "You're right. They did."

"Fight back against organized hate," Mac said, encouragingly. "Kiss your boyfriend at 2 p.m. in the shopping mall."

Mac knew that he'd won when Vic turned fully towards him and linked their other hands. "Mac," Vic said, putting an amazing amount of exasperated affection into one syllable, "I love you." And then he tugged Mac closer, put an arm around his shoulders, and kissed him.

Mac's heart raced in a good way, and he kissed back with enthusiasm.

After a few seconds they parted, and resumed walking towards the store. Vic seemed more relaxed now. Mac saw that a couple of people were smiling in their direction, a couple of people were scowling, and most people were ignoring them. Par for the course.

Mac grinned, held hands with his boyfriend, and went to buy a coat.

Chapter Text

Vic dropped Mac off at Medical at 11:30 in the morning.

"So ... I'll see you in the briefing room, after," Vic said.

He seemed a little hesitant to leave.

To be honest, Mac was a little hesitant to be left. He literally hadn't had to spend a moment alone since last week; Vic or Li Ann had always been right there, usually within arm's reach.

But, well, this was the Agency. It wasn't like Mac could ask Vic to sit with him through his medical appointment.

Okay, time to rip off the band-aid. "See you there!" Mac said in his best easy tone, and managed to plant a quick kiss on Vic's lips before Vic could blanch and try to duck it. Then Mac slipped away through the door to Medical while Vic was still sputtering "Mac, we're at work!"

The examining room was empty, but Mac was sure that he wasn't unsupervised. He spotted a discreet security camera in the back left corner of the ceiling. Privacy during their most intimate moments was not a thing the Agency offered its employees. The Director had made that clear from the beginning.

Mac hopped up on the examination table and swung his legs. He wondered if he should preemptively strip naked. He settled for just taking off his jacket and unbuttoning his shirt. Optimistically, he figured there was no need to remove his pants.

The doctor was taking his or her time. Mac plucked the stethoscope off the wall to play with, and then remembered that he'd gotten in trouble last time for desterilizing the instruments.

Oh well, too late now. Anyway, if they didn't want him to play with things they shouldn't leave him waiting in here. He put the stethoscope ends in his ears, and tried listening to the wall.

Hm, gunfire. Typical Friday at the Agency...

The door opened. Dr. Markov walked in, and immediately scowled at him.

Mac gave her a big, cheerful grin in reply.

"Give me that," she said, snatching the stethoscope. (Geev me zat. Dr. Markov had a thick Russian accent, a brusque bedside manner, and zero history of smiling, ever. She was Mac's favourite agency doctor. Someday he was gonna make her laugh.)

She tucked the ends into her own ears, and immediately plunked the chilly bell against his chest. "Deep breath."

He blinked innocently at her. "Morning, Dr. Markov, how's the cat?" One time she'd shown up with a set of shallow, parallel scratches on the back of one hand. Either she had a cat, or she'd been fighting raccoons. Toronto did have a raccoon problem, but Mac was still betting on the cat.

As usual, Dr. Markov slightly raised one eyebrow but otherwise ignored his conversational gambit. "Breathe," she repeated.

Deep breaths still made him cough. He tried to get away with a shallow one.

"No, like this," she said, and mimed it for him, as though he were a five-year-old. Which was pretty much their usual dynamic.

Mac gave up, took the deep breath, and had his inevitable coughing fit.

"Hm," she said, and stuck a thing in his ear.

"Ow," Mac said, because she'd stuck it in hard.

The thing beeped. "Good," she said. "No fever. You can get the flu shot. The cough should go away on its own in another week or two, so do not worry about it."

This was one of the reasons why Mac liked Dr. Markov; she didn't ask him how he was feeling, she told him.

"Take off your shirt. How often are you changing your bandages?" she asked next, tucking the stethoscope and thermometer into the big pockets of her lab coat.

Well, that was a slightly awkward question. "We're down to twice a day," Mac said, and didn't specify that 'we' was a crack team of two secret agents, which did not include Mac. He shrugged off his shirt and put it on top of his folded jacket.

Dr. Markov started unwrapping the gauze that was wound around his chest. "Has there been any fresh bleeding in the past two or three days?"

Time for Mac to avert his eyes, and preferably his brain. "Have you ever thought about putting some decorative posters up in here?" he asked. "Maybe a 'hang in there' kitty, or a Van Gogh reproduction? Cover up some of the concrete? It would really brighten the place up. Wow it's getting dark in here..."

Markov gave him a sharp look, and then said, "Lie down." She didn't wait for him to obey, either; she planted a hand on his chest and an arm under his shoulders, and manhandled him into a prone position. Not that he wasn't grateful—the room brightened right up again once he was flat on his back.

He noticed that she was holding his wrist, with two fingers pressed against the pulse point, and gazing up at the wall clock.

After a little while she released his hand, setting it down across his belly. "Have you recently been experiencing periods of lightheadedness? Dizziness?" she asked.

"Sometimes, when Vic and Li Ann are changing my bandages," Mac admitted. "Ah, I kind of have a thing about blood. That's not in my file?"

"No," Markov said. She looked displeased—but then, she always looked displeased. "Tell me about this 'thing'. Have you ever lost consciousness?"

"A few times," Mac said. "But Vic usually talks me through the bandage changes. If he distracts me it's okay. I'm okay now," and he started to sit up, but she pushed him right back down.

"Stay there," she said. She leaned down, opened one of the drawers under the table, and came up with scissors. "We will do it this way," she said, and started snipping through the gauze mummy-wraps. "How are the nightmares?"

Mac was caught so off guard by the question, he couldn't even think of how to deflect it. "They suck," he said. "They're nightmares. Anyway, isn't that more of a Patricia-question?" He liked Dr. Markov because she didn't ask him shit like that.

"You do not talk to Patricia," she pointed out.

"True," Mac acknowledged.

"Neither do I," Dr. Markov said. "But your file says you are taking Zoloft to alleviate nightmares. And you have not had a follow-up since July. So, how is that going?"

It was a good thing that Mac had been working all week on developing the ability to have a conversation like this without losing it. "I guess the pills help some," he said. "As long as I remember to take them."

"Do you have trouble with that?" she asked.

"Not anymore." Not since Vic had started reminding him every morning when they woke up. "But I forgot for a few weeks after Christmas."

"Hm," she said. "It is not recommended that you stop taking that medication abruptly. There can be unpleasant discontinuation symptoms. Did you experience muscle aches, dizziness, nausea, anxiety, beginning perhaps five days after you stopped taking the pills?"

A couple of days before New Year's? Now that she mentioned it—yes. Mac had thought he was sick. It had lasted for a week. He'd pushed through it. "That was withdrawal?" he said. "Fuck me."

"When did you resume taking the medication?" she asked.

"Almost two weeks ago," Mac said. He remembered exactly, because he'd slightly/almost had a fight with Vic about it, right after things had gotten sexual. Vic had found out that Mac wasn't taking the pills anymore, and he'd insisted that he start again. Mac had been pissed off, but he couldn't explain why. After all, the pills did help, some. When he was taking them regularly, he had fewer nightmares.

"It might be another one to three weeks before full effectiveness resumes," Markov mentioned. "Do not change dosage without permission."

"They were never fully effective," Mac observed, just to be contrary.

"The nightmares continue? Hm. Do you wish to talk to Patricia?"

"No," Mac said. "She's the one who gave me the pills in the first place."

"You do not appreciate the pills?"

Mac shrugged. "Giving me pills isn't going to change what happened."

She looked at him. "What happened?"

"Buy me a drink sometime, maybe I'll tell you." He tried for an impish grin. Possibly it came out a little sad, but in response the corner of her mouth almost flicked upwards. At the very least, that was a hint of an exasperated smile.

She patted his side. "All done. You can sit up now."

"You were distracting me," Mac realized, suddenly impressed. "Nicely played, Dr. Markov." He sat up, and swung his legs over the side. "Anything else?"

"There remains only to give the vaccine," she said. "One moment, I will fetch. Hands off the instruments." She gave him a quick glare, and vanished through the side door.

Mac tapped his fingers on his knees.

The room was a bit chilly with his shirt off. He had goosebumps.

He wished Vic were here to cuddle him.

Vic was waiting in the briefing room. Li Ann was probably there too, by now.

Thinking happily about joining his partners soon, Mac started absently humming.

The door opened and Markov came back in with a small vial and a syringe. "Here we are," she said. "You do not have problem with needles, do you? Some people do."

"Ah, no," he said. "No trouble with needles."

She cleaned a spot on his upper left arm with a disinfectant wipe. "The cat is fine," she said.

"Huh?" Mac said.

"The cat. You always ask. I found him in alley, he was very cranky and suspicious at first. Thus the scratches. Now as soon as I get home and sit down, he jumps on my lap, starts to purr, falls asleep."

She was distracting him again, he realized. Fine. At least now he knew for sure about the cat.

There was a quick sting in his upper arm, and ...


... and he was somewhere. Where? Lying down. Shit, had there been gunfire? Was he in a fight? Better roll over, find cover.

Hands caught at him, blocked him from moving. "Easy there, Mr. Ramsey," a woman said. "No need to go over the edge quite so literally." It was the Director.

Mac's vision cleared along with his head, and he realized that he was still on the examining table in Medical. The Director was looming over him.

"What happened?" he said. "Where's Dr. Markov?"

"I dismissed her," the Director said. "She assured me you'd be fine as soon as you woke up."

Woke up? He hadn't been sleeping, he'd been sitting up. "What happened?" he repeated.

"A psychologically-triggered rapid increase and then drop in your blood pressure," the Director said. And then, dryly, "You fainted when she gave you the flu shot." The Director leaned in, peering into his eyes. She scraped a thumbnail along his left eyebrow, delicately. Mac suppressed a shiver, and held his breath. "I'm not sure what to make of that," the Director said. "You certainly didn't used to have a problem with needles."

She stepped back. Mac seized the opportunity to sit up and hastily throw on his shirt and start buttoning it. He never really knew what to do or where to look when the Director invaded his space. And he wasn't quite up for making an awkward heroin joke, although the pause in the conversation certainly seemed to be demanding one. "I had to deal with the blood thing a lot this week," he said instead. Excusing himself. "I think it made me more sensitive."

"Yes, the blood thing," the Director mused. "I knew about that one. Really quite awkward, for someone in your line of work. I confess, I had hoped that if I let you curl up with Vic and Li Ann for a week, you'd emerge more functional, not less."

Well, now Mac felt like he had to defend Vic and Li Ann. They'd done their best. Mac hadn't given them a lot to work with. "I am more functional," he said. "I am almost definitely not going to die of alcohol poisoning in the foreseeable future."

"Well, that is an improvement," the Director admitted, and offered him a hand down off the examining table. "Let's go check in with your partners. I am looking forward to getting those reports."

In the briefing room, Li Ann and Vic were sitting together at the table, talking in low voices. They looked up when Mac and the Director walked in. Mac gave them a casual wave.

Without making a big deal out of it, Vic smoothly swapped chairs so that by the time Mac got to the table, the available chair was the one in the middle between Vic and Li Ann. Mac dropped into it with a feeling of relief. Under the table, he felt Vic immediately grab his knee and squeeze it. Li Ann just casually rested her left elbow on the arm of Mac's chair.

The Director settled into her own high-backed chair on the other side of the table, and gave them all a tolerantly amused look. "Don't feel constrained to subtlety," she said. "The surveillance in Mac's apartment is still active. I looked in occasionally."

"You what?" Vic choked, on Mac's left. The hand jerked away from Mac's knee as though burnt.

"Just to check that all was well," she said. "Historically, when either one of you has shared a living space with Mac, he's driven you batty in the space of a day. I hoped that the changed dynamics of your various relationships would lead to a more successful cohabitation this time, but it's always best to make sure."

Mac was pretty sure that the upshot of all that was that the Director was telling them it was okay to hold hands in the briefing room. He reached over to grab Vic's.

Vic's eyes bulged a little and his nostrils flared, but he didn't try to avoid the hand-holding; in fact, he squeezed back, and edged his chair closer to Mac's so that their joined hands could rest on Vic's knee without forcing Mac to overextend his arm. That was nice. Mac wondered if Vic might be remembering Mac's slight meltdown in the shopping mall yesterday. He hoped Vic didn't think that Mac would literally collapse if they didn't hold hands right now. It wasn't like that—he just liked holding hands, it felt very nice and it was comforting.

Li Ann was slouching in her chair a little so that her knee could press against Mac's, under the table. That was nice too.

Their reports were sitting on the table, three tidy little piles of parchment. The Director hadn't given them any instructions for binding them, but they'd numbered the pages in case they got dropped or shuffled. While they watched, the Director picked them up one at a time and read a few pages here and there. "Good," she finally said, stacking them all together. "It appears that you took my spelling and grammar requirements to heart. I look forward to reading them in detail." She picked the stack up and knocked its bottom edge against the table to neaten it. "Now," she said, "I'd like your report on this week."

"What?" Vic said, a bit weakly.

"You want us to write a report on the week we spent writing reports?" Li Ann asked, faintly incredulous.

"That's a bit recursive," Mac observed. The Director raised an eyebrow at him, probably at the vocabulary word. "Where does it stop?" he added.

"Have no fear of infinite regress," the Director said, dryly. "I'm asking for a verbal report, this time. Effective immediately. Extemporize." She waved a hand at them. "Go ahead, I'm waiting."

"But there wasn't a mission," Vic said.

"Explicitly, no," the Director agreed. "Implicitly—of course there was. Get Mac back on his feet, and figure out how you're all going to move forward with these greatly altered team dynamics. Who sleeps in which bed when, that sort of thing."

Vic made a little choking noise. "You can't ask us to report on our private lives. That has nothing to do with our work for the Agency."

"Victor," the Director chided softly, shaking her head. "After all these years, you still think of your role here as some sort of continuation of your previous career in law enforcement. You think of me in analogy to your old Superintendent. You really need to let go of that." She leaned back, steepling her fingers. "The Agency is not an organization that you work for; it is the entity that owns you. There is no work/life distinction. I am your boss, your social worker, your parole officer, your tormentor, your saviour, your mother, your god. Mac and Li Ann understand this."

Oh hey, the Director was using Mac as a good example! He wasn't used to that. He nodded sagely.

"We do," Li Ann agreed. Her tone was a bit chilly. "Because it is analogous to our relationship with our previous organization."

Their previous organization? Oh, the Tangs. Li Ann had just compared the Agency to the Tangs. Zing! Mac grinned. And then saw that the Director was ... nodding.

"Star pupil, as always," she said. "Now. Your report? I really would like to hear about those sleeping arrangements."

Well, if nobody else was going to jump in, Mac might as well. There was no way the Director was letting them out of here without finding out what she wanted to know. "Vic is sleeping with me every night," Mac said. "Li Ann joins us sometimes."

"And does this also reflect the state of the sexual relationship?" the Director asked.

To Mac's left, Vic moaned faintly and slouched down in his chair. Mac squeezed his hand tighter for reassurance. "Do you really need to know that?" he asked. Mac had no problem with over-sharing, but Vic was clearly not comfortable with this conversation.

"Well, I'm not asking entirely out of prurient interest," the Director said, but she shot him a quick, playfully smouldering look. "As I've explained before, I manage my teams carefully. I need full information about the state of your relationships if I'm going to make good decisions that get the job done and keep you alive."

"I still really don't see how our private sex lives are relevant to our work," Vic said.

The Director rolled her eyes. "Oh, for instance, Victor. Six months ago I could use Mac as a honey trap for an arms dealer, without facing resistance from you. Now I have to re-calculate."

Well, that got Vic's attention. He sat up straight and leaned forward. "Okay," he said. "Mac and I are having sex. And I care about him. And if you ever try to give him another mission where you are literally prostituting him, I will fucking tear this place apart, office chair by office chair." Vic's hand was gripping Mac's painfully tightly now. A deep-down thrill ran down to Mac's toes. Vic was threatening the Director on his behalf.

The Director just sat back, smiling calmly. "You see? This is a productive discussion. We need to get these things out in the open. Li Ann, where do you fit in to all this?"

"Well, ripping apart office furniture isn't really my style," Li Ann said. "But yes, I would very much like you to stop sending Mac on missions that sexually exploit him." Unlike Vic, she spoke mildly—but Mac could hear the steel underneath.

This was pretty amazing. Vic and Li Ann were facing down the Director for him.

Not that Mac had even cared all that much about the fact that the Director always chose him for the missions that involved going in half-naked and getting pawed at, or worse. At least she never used Li Ann that way. Speaking of which—"If somebody has to do it, though, it should still be me," Mac said. "Not Li Ann or Vic. Seriously. I can take it."

The Director circled a finger in the air, an impatient moving on gesture. "Yes, yes, you're all very protective of each other now. I'll take it into account. Li Ann, do I take it then that your previous relationship with Mac has also resumed? Perhaps with a little reconciliation with Vic on the side?"

"We're not having sex," Li Ann said, "if that's what you mean."

For the first time, the Director looked slightly surprised. "So, when you spend the night in bed with the boys ... you paint each others' nails? Dish over the latest issue of Cosmo?"

"Effectively," Li Ann said. One corner of her lips twitched upwards. "More likely Guns'n'Ammo magazine than Cosmo, though."

"All right," the Director said. "Who am I to judge. And this new arrangement—would you say that it's stable?"

"Uh," Vic said. All three of them made quick, uncertain eye contact.

All Mac knew for sure was that Vic had promised that he'd never have to spend another night alone. And that was a kind of stability, right? So, "Yes," Mac volunteered.

"Well," Vic said.

Mac gave him a sharp, panicky look.

"Yes," Vic said quickly, looking at Mac directly and squeezing his hand. "We're together. That's not even a question. Just—it's all pretty new, and we haven't really worked out the details yet."

"What details?" Mac asked, not without trepidation.

Vic cast a sideways look at the Director. It was clear that he wasn't enthusiastic about having a conversation about their relationship with her listening in, but here they were. "We don't necessarily always have to sleep at your place, do we?" he said.

Oh, that. Mac relaxed. "Nah," he said. "As long as you make some room for me in your closet. I don't want to live out of a duffle bag. My suits would get wrinkled."

"Vic's place is comfy," Li Ann mentioned. "I like it too. And I can get by with just a drawer, since I won't be there every night."

The Director rolled her eyes. "I've been wanting to get Vic out of that place and into a secure Agency building since he started working for me. But fine. You're negotiating closet space—I think that sufficiently answers my question about the stability of your relationships. But speaking of what's stable—as you've certainly gathered by now, Mac isn't. How are you dealing with that?"

Mac felt a physical chill race through him—ice water down his spine, and the bottom of his stomach dropping out for good measure. "Oh hey," he said weakly, fumbling for his sunglasses in his jacket pocket. "Don't you have some more intrusive questions to ask about our sex lives? Come on, you must." Sunglasses on. Grin fixed.

"I'm sorry, Mac," the Director said, in that gentle voice she occasionally used with him when he was barely holding it together. "I need to know."

"I'm not sure what you're asking," Vic said, carefully. He was still holding Mac's hand. And on Mac's right, Li Ann reached in and took Mac's other hand, twining their fingers together. Mac took a slow breath and pressed himself back in his chair, as far from the Director as he could get. Vic and Li Ann were going to handle this. Mac didn't have to say anything. He could hide behind the sunglasses and feel the strength of his partners' grips on his hands, and just sit this one out. "If you were spying on us," Vic went on, still talking to the Director, "don't you already know how the week went?"

She shrugged. "I looked in occasionally. Just to make sure that nothing was on fire, so to speak. Now I want to know what actually happened. Last Saturday, you called me because you were worried that Mac was suicidal. You told me that you intended to keep a 24-hour watch on him until you were convinced he was out of the woods, and I gave you my blessing. So—it's been a week. How's it going?"

Mac saw that Li Ann and Vic exchanged a look. They were clearly trying to communicate telepathically. Mac wondered how that was working out for them.

"Mac's been working really hard," Li Ann said. "He's been facing some very difficult issues from his past head-on."

The Director tapped her red-lacquered fingernails on the table. "That's nice, I'm sure. But is he ready to take on a mission?"

"No," Vic said immediately. "Jesus, he was shot less than a week ago."

The Director waved a hand dismissively. "It was a graze. He can get the stitches out on Tuesday. He's cleared for light duty as of now—physically, anyway."

"Well, 'physically' isn't the whole story, is it?" Vic said. "I've been doing some research about PTSD. Mac's got it pretty bad. And it's going to take him a lot longer than a week to get over it."

The Director rolled her eyes. "Spare me your amateur psychoanalysis. Who said anything about getting over it? I need him working; I don't care if he's sane."

Considered as an HR policy, that explained a lot about the Agency.

"He's not ready to work yet," Vic said.

Li Ann pursed her lips. "Actually, I think it might be good for him to get back to work. Downtime has always been pretty hard for him."

True. Mac had always liked the idea of a relaxing, idle vacation, but he'd never successfully enjoyed one.

Vic shook his head. "I didn't tell you what happened at the mall yesterday."

Oh, crap. Mac had sort of hoped that they wouldn't need to talk about that.

"What happened?" Li Ann asked, sounding concerned.

"He had a breakdown as soon as we walked through the door. He ended up spending twenty minutes huddled on the floor of the parking garage before he could even talk to me again and tell me what was wrong."

Fuck, had that been twenty minutes? It had felt like one or two.

"But you did end up getting a coat," Li Ann said, sounding a bit confused.

"Yeah, eventually. But I had to literally hold his hand to get him through the mall."

Vic was still traumatized by the public hand-holding, obviously. Mac would really need to work on that with him.

"Well, malls," the Director said. "Malls are tricky. It's perfectly normal to have trouble with malls."

"I really don't think that what happened yesterday was normal," Vic said. "Anyway, it wasn't just yesterday. That kind of thing has been happening all week."

The Director leaned forward a bit. "Elaborate. What's been happening?"

"He's been having some pretty overwhelming flashbacks." Vic squeezed Mac's hand as he spoke, which he probably intended as reassurance.

"Meaning what?" the Director asked. "He relives old combats? He lashes out?"

"Ah, no," Vic said. "More like he goes in. He gets stuck inside his head, and he can't get free of it on his own."

"It's happening because we're all letting it," Li Ann pointed out. "He's being open about his past, and letting some extremely difficult memories come up. We're giving him a safe space to practice coping with these things instead of suppressing them. He's doing really well."

"Yes," Vic agreed. "I'm not saying he isn't. I'm just saying that right now he's still in too fragile a state to put on a mission."

"Hm," the Director said. "Mac. You're being uncharacteristically quiet." (Yes, he sure was. He'd hoped that she'd just let it slide. No such luck, apparently.) "What's your take on all this? Are you ready to go back to work?"

Well, that was a good question. Mac wasn't sure how to answer it.

His instincts told him to say 'yes'. There was no such thing as not-ready-to-work. His whole life up to this point told him that—and yeah, that included his time at the Agency, because the Director had always made it pretty clear that she kept him around, kept him alive, because he was useful to her.

But Vic was pushing pretty hard right now on the idea that Mac wasn't ready. And Mac trusted Vic deeply, absolutely, trusted him with his life. Trusted his judgment? Well, Mac's judgment was crap. Mac remembered Vic forcing him to call in sick last week when he was, in fact, really fucking sick. Oh, and Vic coming over to Mac's apartment after Mac had told him he was fine, and stopping Mac from drinking the whole bottle of vodka. So, yeah, objectively there were some good reasons to trust Vic's judgment over his own.

But on the other hand, Li Ann seemed to think that Mac would be okay going back to work—maybe even better off—and Mac trusted her judgment too. She knew him better than Vic did, in a lot of ways, though there were certainly things that he'd hidden from her all along. He didn't think she'd ever really guessed how fucked up he was. (And maybe he'd assumed that she was just as fucked up, and just as good at hiding it. It had been a surprise and a relief to realize that she was actually a lot stronger than him, and better at dealing with stuff. Even if he hadn't come back from the dead, she would have been okay.)

Li Ann had come up with the metaphor of the mats. She understood that he'd only been falling apart all over the place this week because they'd made him understand that he was safe. It was a paradox; Mac seemed to be so much more fucked up than usual, but actually he was feeling more together than he could ever remember being in his life. He knew that he was loved, and protected, and so he could let all that awful stuff bubble up to the surface instead of shoving it down, down, down.

Vic had come up with the metaphor of the wolves. He wanted Mac to tell him when he wasn't okay. That was a tough directive to follow; either Mac was never okay, or he was always okay. Mac was used to functioning just fine on a severe okay-ness deficit. If he started admitting it—if he said that he wasn't ready to go back to work—when the hell would he ever be able to get back on his feet? It wasn't like the things that had happened to him were ever going to un-happen, ever going to let go of him. He was always going to be the child who was raped, who saw his mother murdered by soldiers in a hail of gunfire, who lived on the streets and ate garbage and got stabbed.

No, wait. He was working on this. He had a plan. He was learning from Sifu Jinpa's example (finally; so many years later). The meditation practice was going to get him through all this. He was going to learn how to remember without drowning.

He wasn't there yet.

"Mac?" the Director was saying. "Are you all right?"

It had possibly been quite a while since the Director had first addressed him.

"Mac?" Vic said, quietly. "What's going on?"

Mac felt Li Ann laying a hand on his arm. "He's shivering," she observed.

He could feel himself falling. Shit, he had to decide fast. Was it safe to be not-okay here?

The Director was dangerous, but she usually scraped Mac up off the pavement when he fell.

The chair was too wobbly. He'd be better off under the table.

"Oh dear," somebody murmured in the Director's ironic tones. "Was it something I said?"

"Excuse me," said somebody else in a masculine voice that felt like a soothing hand on the back of Mac's neck, "I have to deal with this." Arms wrapped around Mac. "It's okay, I've got you," said the voice, said Vic. Yes, it was Vic. Mac closed his eyes and curled tighter, tucking his head in under Vic's chin. He smelled familiar and comforting—his sweat, his deodorant, his laundry detergent. "It's okay," Vic said again, gently. "We can sit down here for a while if you need to."

"Is this a typical example of the breakdowns he's been experiencing?" the Director asked. Her voice wasn't really pitched to carry down under the table. She must be speaking to Li Ann.

"Hard to say," Li Ann said. "They're not all the same. But he'll probably come out of it okay, eventually. I'm going to go sit under the table now." And then Mac heard and felt Li Ann settling down next to him, leaning into him and squeezing his shoulder and starting to rub his back in slow circles. "Hi, Mac," she said. "I'm here too."

The Director's stiletto heels tapped a brisk path away from the table and up the stairs to the hidden office.

"Li Ann," Vic whispered over the top of Mac's head, "I'm not sure what just happened. Why is Mac freaking out?"

He wasn't freaking out. He just needed to sit under the table for a while.

"The Director asked him how he was doing," Li Ann whispered back. "I think he decided not to lie."

"Oh," Vic whispered. "Shit. This is my fault, isn't it?"

"What are you even talking about, Vic?" Li Ann asked.

"He was functional before. Then I started pushing at him all the time, trying to get him to tell me what was really going on. What was it he said yesterday? I dissolved his shell."

Li Ann's arm tightened around Mac. "You did," she whispered. "And that's an amazing gift. You've been with him for two weeks, and you've changed everything. I was with him for years and I never even realized he was broken."

"I wanted to make things better for him," Vic whispered. "Now he's hiding under the briefing table, curled up in a ball and shaking like a leaf."

Vic sounded worried. Mac should definitely say something to reassure him. He tried to unclench his jaw, but ... nope, that wasn't happening. Mac knew he was on the floor of the briefing room, and Vic and Li Ann were holding him and he was really okay, but he was also on the floor of the warehouse crawling towards his mother, and he could barely pull himself along because his arms were shaking so violently.

"He's going to be all right," Li Ann whispered. "We've been doing this all week, right? He'll come back to us soon. We just have to hold on."

The Director's stilettos tap-tap-tapped back down the stairs and over to the table. There was a rustling sound, and then the Director said from very close by, "How are you doing under there, Mac? I brought a couple of things to try to make you more comfortable."

"Is that a Canadian flag?" Vic asked, sounding perplexed.

"It's the closest thing I had to a blanket," the Director said. "I'm not well-equipped for nurturing. Look, it's from the sixties, it's 100% cotton." There was a bit of a shuffling around Mac, and he felt something being wrapped around him. He smelled the Director's cinnamon perfume.

The thought of the Director crouching under the briefing table in her high heels and mini-skirt, in order to wrap a Canadian flag around Mac's shoulders for warmth, was distracting and startling enough that Mac opened his eyes to see if reality matched his imagination.

It did.

The Director smiled wryly at him and twisted the plastic top off a condensation-beaded water bottle. "Here," she said, and touched the mouth of the bottle to his lips. "Have a drink."

The water was icy cold. He swallowed a little, and the rest trickled down his chin. Vic intervened and caught the drips with the cuff of his flannel shirt before they could run down Mac's neck.

"Good," the Director said. "Now can we get out from under the table?"

"Yeah," Mac said. It came out as a bit of a croak, but Vic and Li Ann both looked pretty relieved when he said it. He took the sunglasses off and tucked them back in his pocket.

The Director stood up first, stretching like a cat. Then Vic and Li Ann, between them, helped Mac shuffle out from under the table and get to his feet. He would have said that he didn't need help, but his muscles seemed to be all cramped up from the shaking, and then half-way to standing up his lungs decided that he'd gone long enough without coughing. Vic tugged him close and held him, and Mac ended up having the coughing fit into Vic's chest, which at least meant that it was muffled and he didn't fall over.

"I love you," Vic murmured, not letting go even when the coughing stopped, "but you really are a mess."

Mac clenched the ends of the flag in his fist, to stop it from sliding down off his shoulders. "Dr. Markov told me not to worry about the cough," he mentioned. "She said it'll go away soon."

"Hm," the Director said. "All in all, I think that a few more days of rest might be—"

The rest of her sentence was drowned out by a blaring klaxon.

"What the hell is that?!" Vic asked.

"Fire alarm?!" Li Ann speculated, wincing against the noise.

The klaxon died out, and didn't repeat.

"Not fire," the Director said. "Lockdown." The phone on her desk started ringing. "I think I'd better answer that."

While the Director strode over to the phone, Vic tugged Mac towards an available chair. "Sit," he said.

Mac sat. Vic and Li Ann stayed close to him, on either side; Vic kept a hand on Mac's shoulder. The Director picked up the phone.

"What's happening?" the Director asked into the phone. "Uh huh. Oh dear. No, I've got Victor, Li Ann and Mac with me. All right, we'll see what we can do." Hanging up the phone, she looked over at them. "It would seem that a Colombian drug cartel has broken free from interrogation room two."

"A whole cartel?" Vic asked, sounding a bit skeptical.

"Well, ten key members," the Director clarified. "Unfortunately, it being Friday afternoon, it seems that nobody's left to take care of it except for the four of us, plus Dobrinsky and Jackie. Well, the interrogation room guard was badly injured in the breakout, and Jackie's busy giving her first aid. Dobrinsky's shut himself in the armoury, to guard it. He triggered the lockdown and called me from there."

"Did he say what kind of weapons they have?" Li Ann asked.

"Just the two guns they took off the guard, for now," the Director said. "But they might find other odds and ends lying around. You know how the Agency is."

"Any idea which way they're headed?" Vic asked.

The Director shook her head. "But I have access to the surveillance cameras, up in my office. I can direct you from there." She went and fished in one of her desk drawers, and came up with a handful of comm units with earpieces. "Here," she said, handing them around. Mac took one too, but Vic frowned when he saw.

"Mac should sit this one out," he said.

Mac wanted to protest, but he had just spent an unknown period of time freaking out under the briefing room table (it had only felt like a minute or two, but he always seemed to lose time when those things happened, and his body ached like it had been a lot longer). So he could understand if Vic didn't want him guarding his back right now.

"Sure," the Director said. "He can come up to my office with me. But you two had better get moving."

"I've always wanted to see what was up here," Mac said cheerfully as he trailed the Director up the stairs. "I still can't believe you let Michael come up here."

"Well, he was a guest," the Director said. "And in retrospect, I admit I made some errors there."

That was about as close to an I'm sorry I let your asshole brother nearly kill you as he was likely to get from her, so Mac generously declared "Water under the bridge," as he followed her through the office door, still clutching the flag around his shoulders.

The room was big, but more utilitarian than he had expected. There was a large wooden desk, which had nothing on it but a computer and an ashtray. A small round glass table in the middle of the room had three bistro-style chairs arranged around it. There was a naked, free-standing pole off to one side, which seemed a bit odd until Mac reflected that the flag he was currently wrapped in must have come from somewhere. There was a red leather couch at the far end of the room, with a mini fridge next to it. And one wall was taken up by a bank of blank monitors, which came to life as soon as the Director flipped a switch. The scenes were all internal to the agency. There was nobody moving in any of them.

"Have a seat," the Director said absently, nodding towards the bistro table. Mac flipped a chair around so he could straddle it backwards, resting his arms on the back of the chair and his chin on his arms. The Director sat at her desk, woke up the computer, and started typing. The scenes on the monitors started flicking to alternate cameras.

"There," Mac said, spotting movement. "Six cartel guys, camera 21."

The Director looked over, nodded, and keyed on her radio unit. "Vic, Li Ann—the cartel's split up. There's a party of six headed west in sub-basement three, just passing Records now."

Mac kept watching the shifting scenes. "I see the other four. Camera 13."

The Director hit a key to hold the feed from the appropriate camera, and then switched the other screens to the adjacent views. The six guys in sub-basement three had already passed Records and were off camera 21 and into camera 22's field of view. The Director relayed the tactical information to Vic and Li Ann, and Mac heard their terse acknowledgements through his earpiece.

"Can you get Vic and Li Ann on camera?" Mac asked. He did understand why he'd been benched for this one, but it was making him jittery.

The Director flipped through a few more feeds, and found Vic and Li Ann sneaking down the stairwell between sub-basements two and three. Then she looked over at Mac, raising an eyebrow. "Happy?"

He shook his head without taking his eyes off the screen. "Not until they're out of this safely."

"Hm, yes. I suppose you do care about them. Personally, I prefer to avoid developing that sort of vulnerability." She flicked on the radio and gave Vic and Li Ann another quick update on the cartel's movement.

Mac waited until she'd stopped transmitting before commenting, "You're a real piece of work, huh? You've never cared about anybody?"

She gave him a wry glance. "I said that I preferred to avoid it. Not that I always successfully had."

Well, that made him curious. "Got a story there, Madam Director?"

"Not that you're ever going to hear, Mr. Ramsey. Besides, it seems that the downsides of caring would be obvious to you by now. Not that you weren't always a bit of a train wreck in progress, but before you started sleeping with Vic you at least held it together at work."

Okay. He was going to get chewed out for hiding under the briefing table. It was about time, really—that whole motherly shtick with the flag and the water bottle had been a bit jarring. "Sorry," Mac said, as flippantly as he dared. "I'll try to only have PTSD on my own time from now on. And watch it—you need to bring up cameras 25 and 11."

She made the appropriate adjustments. "So you've come around to accepting the diagnosis?"

Mac winced. That had slipped out. And snuck up on him, apparently. "I guess so," he admitted. "Vic keeps talking about it."

"Well, admitting you have a problem is the first step on the road to recovery," the Director said. "Or, wait, was that only for addictions? But then, you have one or two of those, too, don't you."

"No," Mac protested. "You know I don't. I've passed every drug test since I've been here."

"Oh, well, my mistake," the Director said mildly. She looked over at the screens. "Uh oh, the cartel is splitting up again. Hang on." She switched a few camera views, and radioed the results to Vic and Li Ann.

A moment later, Li Ann and Vic caught up to the pair that had split off from the original group of six. Taking advantage of the Director's bird's-eye intel, they caught the cartel guys unawares coming around a corner, and knocked them out without much trouble. Mac didn't realize he was biting his nails until Vic stood up after securing the second guy's hands and feet with zip-ties, and waved at the camera. Mac waved back, even though he knew it was dumb and Vic couldn't see him.

The Director could, though. She cleared her throat. "I don't object to your new relationship," she said. "In fact, strictly speaking, I congratulate you. I would have bet good money that it wasn't even possible to break Vic out of his sad, straight little world. But I think that he's been eroding your ability to compartmentalize."

"Ah, what?" Mac asked. And tugged the flag a little tighter around his body.

"It was easy for you to keep up that grinning playboy facade as long as nobody cared how shallow it was. Sure, you had the nightmares, but when the sun came up you put on your game face, and I had a reliable agent I could send on missions."

"Reliable?" Mac repeated, a bit incredulously. "You have never described me that way."

"I try not to give you compliments," the Director said. "You don't take them well."

"Cameras 8, 29, and, um, 33 or 34," Mac said. "And what the hell do you mean by that? I love getting compliments."

"Exactly," the Director said. "You're far too affection-starved. I didn't need you imprinting on me like a baby bird."

As much as Mac would have liked to object to that characterization, he decided he'd better not—he didn't want to hear the evidence that she'd bring up to support it. Anyway, the more worrying aspect of this disturbing private conference was that the Director seemed to be making a case that Vic was bad for him. "What about the drinking?" he said. "You were always on my case about that. I wasn't exactly reliable when I was drinking, was I?"

She shrugged. "At least you'd always wait for a lull in the action before going into a tailspin. Now I don't know what to expect."

"You can expect that I'll start doing better, I promise," Mac said, a little desperately. Was he pleading for permission to keep seeing Vic? He really wasn't sure where the Director was taking this, but he was starting to feel a bit frantic and shivery. "This week's been rough, but that's just because I'm not used to letting all that shit come up when I'm awake and sober. I'm learning how to handle it, I swear."

"Like you were handling it this afternoon, under the briefing table?"

Pull the flag tighter, try not to lose it. "No," he had to admit. "I fucked up there. I slipped. I needed Vic and Li Ann to catch me."

She frowned. "Your reliance on them is making you weak. I'd hoped that Vic's care would stabilize the more problematic elements of your personality, but instead you seem to be wilfully falling apart."

"No," Mac said. Shit, she had it all wrong, and if he was going to make her see how much better things were now that he was with Vic, he was going to have to tell her how bad things were before. And he was going to have to do it without breaking down, because if he did she would definitely conclude that he was useless now. And he was going to have to do it while keeping an eye on the monitors, because she was looking at him instead of at them. "Drop cameras 12 and 34," he said. "Pick up 13, 17 and 35. And tell Vic and Li Ann that the group in sub-basement four has doubled back." He waited for her to do all that, and then he said, "If it weren't for Vic, I'd be dead."

"Many times over," the Director agreed easily. "And the reverse is certainly true as well. But then that's the case for any good team of agents, isn't it? Look at Murphy and Camier. Can you even imagine how many times they've saved each other?"

"I don't mean the missions," Mac said. "I mean he stopped me from killing myself."

"Did he," the Director said, peering at Mac now with a quiet intensity. "I'm interested in hearing more about that."

Mac could hear the blood rushing in his ears, and he knew he was on a knife's edge. He was not equipped to have these conversations. He tried to imagine Vic and Li Ann next to him, lending him their strength and stability. He saw them on camera 17, entering a stairwell to avoid getting caught between the two cartel groups. He took a deep breath. "First he stopped me from killing myself, and then he stopped me from wanting to kill myself."

"Are you sure you're not being over-dramatic?" the Director asked, with a familiar wry quirk of her lips. "I know prison was tough on you, but you've been trucking along just fine since you came to work for me."

Mac shook his head. "I really wasn't. Not since Michael came back."

"Hm," the Director said. "I had a feeling that there was more to the story with Michael than you or Li Ann ever told me. Why did he suddenly decide to throw everything away for the chance to kill you?"

"It wasn't sudden. It was his plan all along."

She frowned. "He had multiple opportunities to kill you before the soy mill."

"He wanted to fuck with my head first. He didn't want to kill me until I'd let him back in—until I'd trusted him." Mac's eyes flicked back to the monitors. "Camera 14," he said urgently. "Crap. The first cartel group just found the Beretta M9 Dobrinsky keeps taped under his desk."

"How did you know about that one?" the Director asked.

"I've been under Dobrinsky's desk," Mac pointed out, not bothering to remind her of the circumstances. Whatever he'd been being punished for at the time, he'd definitely deserved it, and it was best not to dwell on the details.

The Director quickly radioed the new information to Vic and Li Ann, and then shut off the transmitter again. "Why would you trust Michael at all?" she asked. "And why would he want you to? The two of you bristled like angry dogs whenever I got you in a room together. All I hoped for was that you'd play nice long enough to finish the one case together."

Mac stared at her. "Did you seriously not guess what was really going on between me and him? I mean, I know Vic didn't pick up on it, but you've got a much dirtier mind."

"Dirtier?" the Director repeated, arching an eyebrow. "...Oh. My. You and Michael were lovers. Well, that does explain a thing or three."

So she hadn't guessed. Wow, that was a bit of a shock, actually. Mac had assumed that she'd known, and that she'd thrown him together with Michael regardless. "Vic doesn't like me calling it that," he mentioned.

"Lovers?" She looked bemused. "Does it make him uncomfortable? Jealous?"

Mac stared. She really had no idea.

Well, of course she didn't. Mac sure as hell hadn't told her, and Michael wouldn't have. She wasn't psychic, although she liked to give the impression that she was.

"No," Mac said. He tugged on the flag again, trying to replicate the feeling of Vic's arms around his shoulders. He needed to be strong enough to say this. "Vic says I shouldn't use that word, lovers, because Michael abused me."

"Did he," the Director said, the words tumbling to the floor like dropped coins. Something dark flickered in her expression, and Mac had a sudden, disconcerting insight that up until this point in the conversation she'd really only been playing. Now she said, somehow very mild and very intense at the same time, "Tell me about that."

"Uh." Mac's thoughts chased themselves in wild circles for a moment. How to summarize ten years with Michael Tang? "He needed to control everything," Mac said. "Always. He told me when to get drunk. He decided when I could talk about my nightmares, about my mom getting shot and my dad abandoning me, about living on the street, about getting raped by my mother's boyfriends." The Director hadn't known about any of that, Mac realized, not unless she'd tuned in to the surveillance on his apartment at just the right moment. So that was a lot of details about the circumstances of his fucked-up childhood for her to chew on. But she was listening quietly with a rapt expression, and he'd been trying to explain about Michael. Michael's return was the key to understanding why Mac could not survive without Vic. "Michael decided when we would have sex, whether I liked it or not. And if I did like it, great, and if I didn't, he'd pin me down with his hands around my neck and take me anyway while I was blacking out. He'd hit me if he felt like it, or if he thought I needed it, or if I really did need it. Nobody knew. Li Ann didn't know. He was careful not to leave marks where anyone would see. We were both careful. He broke my ribs once, when I was fifteen, and we told everyone it was a training accident. After that he never broke any more bones. We knew where the limits were. I loved him, and I knew that nobody else in the world understood me like he did. I knew that he was the only thing keeping me alive, because he wouldn't let me hurt myself—he was the only one who was allowed to do that."

"And yet you ran away from him," the Director said, pensively.

Mac gave a shaky shrug. "I found out the Tangs were arms dealers. It wasn't fun and games anymore. And Li Ann was going to come with me. I thought I could survive without Michael if she was there too. Actually ... I didn't really think I could survive at all, but I couldn't stay once my eyes were opened, I couldn't be a part of dealing death. Fuck, do you need me to keep talking? I need Vic, okay? Please. I know it looks like I'm a basket case right now, but this is just aftershocks. The bad stuff already happened. Vic makes me feel safe, he makes me feel like I want to keep going, it's not even impossible anymore. He makes me want to be alive next year, never mind tomorrow."

"Relax," the Director said. "I'm not going to take Vic away from you. He would definitely grow fangs and bite me if I tried. I apologize for causing you distress with this line of questioning. I was fuzzy on some crucial details, but I think you've cleared them all up now." She stood up and walked over to the bistro table, and sat in the chair next to his. She slid the water bottle along the table top towards him. "And I am truly sorry for having thrown you together with Michael last month. I know that you have doubts about my ethics and compassion—and let's be honest, I've cultivated those doubts quite deliberately—but please believe that I would never, ever have forced you to work with a man who had abused and sexually assaulted you, if I had known."

Mac could only stare at her, reeling with the emotional whiplash. She was okay with him and Vic. And she apologized for Michael.

If he'd known how to tell her the truth about Michael six weeks ago, everything might have gone differently.

She was watching him now with a gentle, concerned expression, and it was going to break him.

Shit, shit. He couldn't hold it together with her looking at him like that.

He was still straddling the bistro chair backwards, his arms crossed over the top of its back. Now he pressed his lips against the top of his arm, hard, and clenched his teeth to prevent an audible sob from escaping. He knew the Director could see his shoulders shaking, but there was nothing he could do about that. He kept staring at the bank of monitors, but they were blurry now.

They were blurry, but he could still see the movement on them. Even as he hugged the chair and held himself desperately tight to stop his helpless sobs from making a sound, he was still tracking the movement from camera to camera, and matching it up against his mental map of the Agency's labyrinthine underground corridors.

And when the second group of thugs left the view of camera 32 and reappeared in sight of camera 34, Mac instantly saw the danger to Vic and Li Ann.

"Look out," he tried to say, only his throat was too tight and it came out as more of a croak. The Director gave him a puzzled look. Mac cleared his throat and tried again. "Tell Vic and Li Ann they're about to get pinned. The second group is coming up behind them."

The Director pressed the button on her radio, and then shook her head. "They're in sub-basement six now. Too much concrete between us and them. It's blocking the transmission, I can't get through."

"What?" A shot of adrenaline hit Mac hard, and he straightened up. He wiped his eyes clear with the back of his hand, and stared at the monitors. Vic and Li Ann were sneaking up on the first group of four, and it looked like they were about to engage them. But they didn't know that the second group was coming up behind them—and the second group had two of the guns. "I've gotta go," he said, on his feet already and letting the flag drop to the floor.

He was braced to ignore the Director if she told him to stay put—but she just gave him a tight nod and said, "Hurry."

He ran down the steps into the briefing room, through the briefing room, and careened out the double doors into the main corridor. He hit the main stairwell at a dead sprint.

He had to get six floors down as fast as possible. He knew a way to get down the stairs that was faster than running. The stairwell was open in the middle. He got up some speed, and then he flung himself sideways across the railings, crossing the open middle and landing on the parallel set of steps descending two flights below. He ran down the next half flight, making sure he had his balance, and then did it again.

Moving like that, he got down the stairs in no time. A burning pain in his side warned him that he'd definitely torn some stitches, and he had to lean into the corner of the sub-basement six landing for a few seconds to get his coughing under control. It occurred to him that there really had been a few good reasons that Vic and Li Ann had left him behind. But the physical issues were minor, really, and it was time to move.

The last he'd seen on the monitors, Vic and Li Ann had been set to overtake the first cartel group near the entrance to Medical. The second group had been two corridors away and moving towards them, but probably unaware of their relative positions.

The moment Mac exited the stairwell, he heard gunfire. He raced towards it.

Mac didn't have a gun. Li Ann and Vic hadn't been letting him have one this week, and he hadn't thought to ask the Director for one before he'd rushed away. Li Ann and Vic hadn't been expecting trouble, so they were minimally armed. On the bright side, the bad guys only had three guns that he knew of, and none of them were fully automatic. The sporadic popping sounds he was hearing now seemed to confirm his assumptions; not very many guns, and everybody was conserving ammo.

So it was possible that he could run into the middle of it all without getting killed.

He was getting close, so he ducked momentarily into a side room so that he could catch his breath and clear his lungs. His best chance of being helpful was to come up behind the second cartel group and take them by surprise, which wouldn't work if he gave away his position with a coughing fit.

He took a quick look around the room before he left it, to see if there was anything he could use as a weapon, but actually this was Patricia's therapy room, and there was nothing in it that would be an improvement over his bare hands.

Then he was back out in the corridor, trotting along more cautiously now and stopping to peek around the corner. Bingo. He caught a glimpse of the backs of the second group, just as they rounded the next corner away from him. One of them had been pointing a gun.

Mac sprinted again, because the sound of gunfire was close and he thought that the action was just around that next corner, which meant that the second group was coming up behind Vic and Li Ann now. Mac thought about yelling a warning, but there was a pretty big chance that the nearer cartel guys would hear him and Vic and Li Ann wouldn't. Instead he just stretched his legs and pumped his arms, and skidded around the corner into the fight.

There were two bodies on the floor. Both cartel guys. Vic and Li Ann were pressed into doorways on opposite sides of the corridor, and it looked like they were pinned by one cartel guy in front of them, who was hiding behind an overturned desk in the middle of the corridor and squeezing off a shot over its top whenever Vic or Li Ann made a move. The second group was just entering the fray, with their two fresh guns, and that was bad. Vic and Li Ann were looking the wrong way.

Mac tackled the rear-most cartel guy, who wasn't expecting it. It was easy to throw him into his buddy, and the two of them went down in a confused tangle. Which only took care of the two who weren't armed. The guy with the Beretta was just drawing a bead on Vic, and Mac had to do something fast, so he threw himself at the guy with a flying side-kick. The gun went off, but wild, hitting the wall. The guy hit the wall too, hard, and the gun clattered away on the red-tiled floor.

Mac stumbled, but caught himself. Vic and Li Ann had both turned at the sound of the gunshot. Vic's eyes widened. "Mac!" he shouted. "Behind you!"

Mac didn't take the time to turn—he knew who was behind him, it was the last guy from the second group, and he had the Agency guard's Smith & Wesson. Mac dropped and rolled, and heard a series of shots go over him and slam into the wall. He came out of the roll with a horizontal kick to the cartel guy's knees. This guy was tough, though; he stumbled a little but didn't go down. He was built like a bulldozer, six inches shorter than Mac but probably a hundred pounds heavier, most of it muscle. He hit Mac back with a soccer-style kick, which caught him in the ribs just as his fingers made contact with the hilt of the dropped Beretta. Mac gasped with pain but held onto the gun and found his feet again, spinning sideways at the same time to make himself a confusing target. The bulldozer guy gritted his teeth and raised his gun, but Mac was faster. He shot the guy in the shoulder. The guy howled, dropping the Smith & Wesson and clutching his arm.

"Mac! Get down!" Li Ann yelled, and Mac dropped again—just in time. He'd forgotten about the guy behind the desk, who had a clear shot at him now that Mac had cleared his buddies out of the way. There was a series of pops, the guy behind the desk shooting at Mac while Vic and Li Ann shot back, trying to force the desk guy back down. Mac rolled sideways towards the wall, came up on his elbows, and squeezed off a couple of shots towards the desk himself.

Then a massive impact hit him from above, knocking his breath out of him and spiking fresh bright pain on both sides of his ribs. Mac remembered the first guys he'd tossed out of the way, and figured out that one of them had just landed on his back. Mac made an attempt to roll, but the guy's weight was too much, and anyway the whole thing had triggered a coughing fit and Mac couldn't catch his breath. Mac felt hands grabbing his head, and that was not good, he was about to get his neck broken, wasn't he? Fuck.

Another gunshot. The hands fell away and the weight slipped sideways. Mac bucked himself free, gasping and coughing, and saw Li Ann just lowering her gun. He was about to nod thanks to her, but he caught movement out of the corner of his eye—taking advantage of Li Ann's momentary distraction, the desk guy had come up and was about to shoot her from behind.

No messing around with shoulders this time—Mac aimed for the chest. When a gout of blood spurted from the guy's neck, Mac thought for a moment that his shot had gone high—it was hard to aim while he was still coughing—but then he saw a red circle spreading on the guy's white shirt, too, just where Mac had been aiming. He glanced left and saw Vic's grim face and his smoking gun. Okay, so that kill went to both of them.

The Smith & Wesson was still on the tiles next to the feet of the bulldozer guy, who'd slumped to the floor and was moaning. Mac snatched it up before anything else could happen. As soon as he did, the first cartel guy he'd tackled, who'd been reaching for it too, fell back with his hands up. "Ten compasion, por favor," he said, looking very pale. Mac wasn't sure what he'd said, but it sounded like a surrender.

"That's right," Mac said, circling slowly with a gun in each hand. "It's over." His ribs were aching, but at least he'd stopped coughing. He managed to keep both guns steady, switching his aim from one gang member to the next to make sure they all knew they were targets. "Stay down, and keep your hands where we can see them." He wasn't sure if any of these guys spoke English—and he was pretty sure Cantonese wouldn't help—but he guessed that his body language was clear enough.

Vic hurried with his gun drawn to secure a second, uninjured guy who was also hiding behind the desk, before the guy could do something crazy like dive for the gun that his friend had dropped. Li Ann came out of her doorway, tucking her own gun into its holster, and gave Mac a wry smile as she went to tie up the guys at his end of the corridor while he covered her. "Thanks for the backup," she said.

"No problem," Mac said. "I mean, you guys probably would've figured out something on your own, but I was getting antsy just sitting up there watching you."

Dobrinsky and Jackie arrived then, sauntering down the corridor casually (but not unarmed). "Lockdown's over," Dobrinsky announced. "The medical cleanup team'll be here soon. You three can head back up to the briefing room to check in with the Director."

Halfway up the stairs, Mac had to stop and cough. And then he couldn't quite stop himself from clutching his side and groaning, and of course Vic noticed.

"Mac," he said, sounding worried, "Take off your jacket for a minute, would you?"

"Huh?" Mac said. "Why?"

But Vic was already tugging it down over his shoulders. "Crap," he said. "You were hit?"

Mac glanced down and saw a palm-sized spot of bright red on his right side, standing out in brilliant contrast to his crisp white shirt. Another ruined shirt, goddammit. He shook his head and looked away. "That's just soaked through the bandages," he said. "I busted some stitches jumping down the stairwell earlier."

"Vic," Li Ann said. "Careful, he could fall."

"Shit, right," Vic said. And then Vic's and Li Ann's hands were bracing Mac and guiding him into a sitting position.

"I'm okay," Mac said, "I don't need to sit down." And then it occurred to him what they were probably worried about. "I'm not going to faint," he clarified. "I'm still all keyed up from the fight. The blood doesn't bother me in the middle of a fight."

"Okay," Vic said, but he was still looking concerned. "Let's go, then." He kept a hand resting loosely on Mac's back as they started climbing the stairs again, slower than before. Mac didn't ask for his jacket back; he didn't want to get any more blood on it.

One landing from the top, Mac had to pause for another little coughing fit. When he'd caught his breath, he saw Vic's sharp frown. "What else happened to you?" Vic asked.

"Huh?" Mac said. "I swear, I didn't get shot. I'm still getting over the flu, you know that. All this running around is just making me cough a bit more."

"Uh huh," Vic said. "And you've reopened the gunshot wound on your right side. So how come you keep clutching your left side when you cough?"

"Oh." Mac blinked, touched that Vic had noticed. Mac had been trying not to notice, himself. "Uh, one guy got in a pretty good kick while I was on the floor scrambling for the gun."

"You're going to need to get that checked out," Vic said, touching Mac's cheek to keep his focus.

"Uh huh," Mac agreed. His original plan had been to ignore it and hope it went away, but if Vic thought he should get it looked at, he would. "Um, thanks. For looking out for me."

"Yeah," Vic said, his look of concern gently quirking up into a smile. "Well, thanks for throwing yourself down the stairs like a crazy person and running into a hail of gunfire to save our lives." And he brushed a kiss against Mac's lips.

"You two are adorable," Li Ann said. "But we probably shouldn't keep the Director waiting."

They settled back into their abandoned chairs in the briefing room, Mac in the middle again. This time Vic shoved his chair right up next to Mac's and didn't just hold his hand, but in fact tucked his right elbow through Mac's left so that their forearms twined together. Mac appreciated the feeling of closeness. Li Ann, on his other side, smiled at them but gave them space.

The Director came down the stairs right away.

"Good news," she said, settling into her chair across from them. "Dobrinsky just phoned up to let me know that everything's under control. The seven surviving cartel members are receiving varying levels of medical attention. They certainly won't be causing any more trouble today."

"Mac needs medical attention too," Vic said. "He reopened the gunshot wound, and he might have a broken rib."

"Sorry to hear it," the Director said. "Well, that doesn't sound urgent, so let's finish up here and then he can go down and wait around for his turn at Medical. You can stay with him; I know he'd appreciate the company." She caught Mac's eye on that last phrase, and he knew she was reaffirming her permission for him to continue his relationship with Vic. Mac gave her a little nod in acknowledgement.

Anyway, he'd sure as hell just proved that his emotional dependence on Vic didn't stop him from functioning as an agent.

"How's the guard doing?" Li Ann asked.

"Guard?" the Director repeated, looking blank.

"The one who was hurt when the cartel broke out," Li Ann reminded her.

"Oh! Right. He's fine. The medical team went to him as soon as the lockdown cleared. He's resting comfortably."

"He?" Vic said. "Earlier you called that guard 'she.'"

The Director froze for a moment, and then waved a hand airily. "He, she, they. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. There are over eighty people who work here, you know. I can't be expected to keep track of all their gender identities on a day-to-day basis."

"Oh my God," Li Ann said. "There never was a guard. The cartel didn't break free; you let them go."

"Oh, come on," the Director said. "Do you think I would deliberately release a Columbian drug cartel into my place of work, just to test whether one of my agents retained the ability to function in a crisis?"

They all stared at her. "We could have been killed," Vic said, sounding stunned.

Vic always seemed to be the most blindsided when the Director fucked with them, Mac reflected. Maybe it was because she hadn't explicitly threatened to kill Vic the first time she met him.

"But you weren't," the Director pointed out. "And what's my motto? It's the results that matter. And speaking of results, I hope that you've all been paying attention. Mac did indeed rise to the occasion and leap into action when the situation required it. Even though, I might add, I put him through the wringer beforehand by drawing him into a wrenching interview targeting all of his deepest traumas, insecurities and fears."

"Oh," Mac said weakly. "Is that what we were doing."

Vic stared at the Director a moment longer, and then turned quickly to Mac with an intense, worried expression. "What did she do to you?" he asked.

Mac gave a helpless laugh. Every day was mind-fuck day at the Agency. "She threatened to separate us because I've been having all those breakdowns since we got together."

"Well, threatened is a bit harsh," the Director editorialized in the background. "I may have implied."

Mac glared at her, then looked back to Vic. "I had to explain where I'd been before you came along. I told her what it was really like with Michael."

"Yes, and before you arrange to have me murdered in my sleep, Victor, let me just say that I got more than I bargained for with that one," the Director said. "A certain Agency psychiatrist, who shall remain nameless, assured me that Mac's PTSD stemmed from several unspecified unpleasant events in his childhood. Since his father later told me how his mother died, I assumed that was the major factor. That, and his later abandonment by his father, of course."

"I don't have PTSD about Michael," Mac spoke up. His history with Michael was brutal, but complicated. Everybody kept losing sight of that.

"He definitely does," Li Ann said. "I've sat with him through some of the flashbacks."

"Yeah, me too," Vic said. "But let's ease off on this topic for now, huh? Mac's been through enough already today. And I need to take him down to Medical."

"True," the Director said. "So let me just quickly reiterate the results of today's plausibly-spontaneous Agency crisis. Mac has proved, to all of us, that he can still function as an agent when the chips are down. He therefore has my blessing to fall apart as much as he needs to the rest of the time. I'm quite optimistic that this triad you're forming will eventually patch over the missing pieces in all of your souls. In the meantime—Vic, your protectiveness is a fine quality, but don't forget to have some faith in Mac's capabilities. Granted, you shouldn't take Mac's word for it when he tries to tell you that he's fine and good to go. We all know by now, Mac doesn't have the self-preservation instincts of an enthusiastic two-year-old. But maybe consult with Li Ann a bit more. She's known Mac a lot longer than you have, and she has a better sense of how much he can handle."

Mac blinked, gripping Vic's hand. He felt thoroughly dissected. But also ... affirmed? The Director believed that he was a capable agent.

Well, she'd run him through an unbelievably fucked-up test. And he'd passed.

"Sounds like we're done here," Mac said—lightly, because everyone was looking pretty grim. "Vic, Li Ann—want to do a movie night at Vic's place tonight? Li Ann can go rent something while Vic and I are doing the medical thing. Maybe To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything? What do you think? That's the one with the drag queens on the road trip. I bet Ben's seen it. We could talk about it with him at dinner tomorrow."

"Sure," Li Ann said. "Sounds fun."

"Yeah," Vic said. "Why not?"

"Oh, right," the Director said. "Your dinner date with the drag queen. I did give you permission to pursue that, didn't I? Eh, for the love of God, just try to avoid revealing any operational details."

"We will," Mac promised. He started to stand up, and then fell back into the chair, hissing at the sharp hurt-rib pain on his left side and the ripped-stitches pain on his right. Fuck, maybe he should've asked for some ice while they were sitting here.

"Hm," Vic said, and gave him a two-handed assist so that he made it to his feet on the second attempt. "Medical. Now."

"Medical now," Mac agreed, taking shallow breaths. "Movie later."

"I'll pick up some microwave popcorn, too," Li Ann said. "And maybe some bubble tea?"

"What the heck is bubble tea?" Vic asked.

Mac grinned. "Oh, just wait. You're gonna love it."

"He probably won't," Li Ann said. "He'll complain about the texture."

"He'll complain at first," Mac corrected her. "And then we'll get him to give it a real chance, and then he'll love it."

"Okay," Vic said. "I'll try it, whatever it is. I trust you guys."

"The feeling is mutual," Mac said, happily. "See you later, Li Ann!"

She waved at Vic, blew Mac a kiss, and headed out.

Mac proceeded more slowly towards the exit, with Vic keeping a solicitous arm around his shoulders.

"Mac," the Director said, before they made it to the door. They both turned back. "I knew you could do it."

"Thanks," Mac said, and shot her a toothy grin.

"Why are you smiling at her?" Vic asked in an undertone as they left the room. "She's psychotic."

"She gave me a compliment," Mac pointed out. "She hates giving me compliments."

"She nearly got us all killed," Vic said. "Just to make a point, apparently."

Mac thought about that one for a moment. "If the whole thing was a set-up, she probably had Jackie in reserve closer by than she let on. Maybe Dobrinsky too; the armoury shuts down tight in lockdown, he didn't really need to guard it. I bet she would've sent them in if I hadn't pulled it together in time."

Vic humphed skeptically, and then apparently shrugged it off. There really was no point in trying to fully dissect the Director's twisty plans. That way, madness lay. "I knew you could do it, too," Vic said instead.

"Huh?" Mac said.

"The Director called me out for not having faith in you. But that's not why I said you should stay behind today. I just didn't want you to get hurt."

Mac frowned. "I'm not really seeing the distinction. Why would you tell me to stay behind, if it wasn't because you didn't think I could handle it? You don't want Li Ann to get hurt, either, but you didn't tell her to stay back." Vic's protectiveness was a soothing balm and a shield against the brutality of Mac's world. Mac appreciated it deeply, so he knew that he had to make peace with the flip side, which was that Vic thought that Mac was a broken person who needed protection.

"I knew you could pull it together emotionally once the crisis hit," Vic clarified. "I've seen you do it lots of times. You are a fucking expert at suppressing whatever feelings you're having and getting on with the show, did you think I hadn't noticed?"

"Um," Mac said. It gave him shivers to realize that Vic saw him doing that.

"I wanted you to stay behind because you were shot less than a week ago and you're still getting over the flu," Vic said. "And I was right, too. You tore your stitches, and you had a coughing fit in the middle of the firefight."

"True," Mac had to admit. "But I did save your ass."

"Yeah," Vic agreed, giving him an affectionate grin. "You are actually really fucking good."

Mac grinned back. "Don't you forget it." The hallway they were in was empty; Mac decided that he could probably get away with a kiss. He caught the back of Vic's neck with his right hand and eased in, smiling wide until the last moment. Vic had lots of time to duck away, but he didn't; his lips opened to meet Mac's, and he kissed him back enthusiastically. Mac's heart raced with joy, like it did every time he got to do this with Vic. He wondered if it would ever get old. He couldn't imagine that it would.

When Vic finally broke away from the kiss, he didn't pull back very far. He rested his forehead against Mac's, and murmured "God, I love you so much it hurts."

"It's not supposed to hurt," Mac murmured back, his lips twitching. He hoped Vic was being metaphorical. Then he thought of a real discomfort that Vic might be having. He darted a hand in to check, and found the hard bulge he'd hoped for at Vic's crotch. "Oh, now I see where it hurts."

"Jesus, Mac." Vic batted his hand away with a slightly strangled laugh. "Boundaries. Have you heard of them? We're at work!"

"It's not a normal workplace," Mac pointed out, which was an understatement.

"You can say that again," Vic grimaced, and tugged Mac gently onward. "Let's get you to Medical."

Mac didn't resist, or try to resume the sexy touching. Honestly, he was in no state to let Vic take him against the weirdly shaped concrete buttresses. He was happy just knowing that their kisses had made Vic hard. "I love you too," he remembered to add. He was the one who'd said it first, in this relationship, but it never got entirely easy to say no matter how much he meant it. It always felt like such a desperate gamble, putting those words in the air.

"I know," Vic said breezily.

"I love you a lot," Mac added, since Vic had absorbed the first statement so effortlessly.

Vic grinned. "I know."

"I love you so much," Mac piled on, because this was getting fun.

"Uh huh," Vic said. "I'm still not having sex with you in the hallway."

"I love you anyway," Mac said, letting himself lean into Vic as they walked, and nibbling a quick kiss against his ear.

"Mmm," Vic smiled. "And I love you, just the way you are."

That was the best one, so Mac let it hang in the air, shining with warmth and love.