Disclaimer: This is fanfic, based on the show Once A Thief. Characters are property
of Alliance. This story was written for fun, not profit.
Go to author's notes.
It always starts with the briefing. The Director sometimes likes to dress up for the occasion, wearing an outfit somehow evocative of the mission she's about to give us. This time, she walked down her staircase wearing canvas work pants, steel-toed Caterpillar boots, a beige baby-T (she had to get the sex appeal in there somewhere) and a hard hat.
Li Ann, Mac and I eyed each other apprehensively. The Director gave us all a predatory grin. She tipped the hard hat off her head, spun it around on one finger, then tossed it to me. I snatched it out of the air, and gave her a questioning look.
"This one's for the boys," the Director said. Li Ann sat back, looking both relieved and disappointed. I know that if it involves hard hats and work boots, it's not her kind of gig - but she does hate sitting out. The Director slid a pair of dossiers across the table at Mac and me. "You're going undercover." Inwardly, I groaned. I hate undercover. Who wouldn't? Like the Agency doesn't mess up my life enough under normal circumstances. "You're going to be dockworkers at the container pier in Halifax," the Director went on. Halifax. It's a small city on the east coast. Never been there. Never especially wanted to go. "We know that weapon parts are being smuggled into Canada across the American border in remote locations, and then loaded onto ships in Halifax, after which they're being sold to nasty people all over the world - terrorists, brutal military dictators, you know the sort. We have reason to suspect that the weapons-smuggling operation has infiltrated the container pier staff. I want you two to penetrate it if possible, and, failing that, learn who's involved and how they work."
I'd already flipped open the dossier, and was glancing through it as she spoke, more or less tuning her out. Everything she said would be in the dossier anyway. "Hey - we're posing as brothers?" I looked at Mac doubtfully, and he looked at me the same way.
The Director shrugged. "You squabble like siblings. Brothers don't always look like each other. It's believable."
"And we're sharing an apartment?" Mac asked, in a rather unhappy tone, skimming the first page. The last time we'd tried that - way back in '98, after Love killed several male agents - it hadn't gone so well. Surprisingly, I found that I didn't mind the thought of trying again. These days we got along much better than we had back then; it might even be fun.
"You two will need to collaborate closely," the Director said. "You'll be deep undercover - no contact with the Agency for the duration of the mission. If you do manage to get involved with the smugglers, you'll probably be under close surveillance by them. These are big-time players." She gave us a look that almost managed to be tender. "Be careful out there."
The Halifax waterfront was bitterly cold in January. Freezing winds whipped their way over the Atlantic Ocean and right through my bones. Mac and I were not pleased to be there.
The jobs we had were cold, boring, cold, tiring, and did I mention cold?
Sadly, we were not hired to operate the tremendous cranes that lift the containers - each one huge, a rail boxcar or the back of a tractor-trailer - on and off the ships. Mac and I agreed that that would have been the only job worth having. First, it looked like fun, and second, it would have involved spending the days in the nice, heated control area.
We were basically gophers. (You know... "go fer this! go fer that!") Low men on the totem pole. We spent most of the day carrying items from one place to another. When we weren't doing that, we were wandering around doing inventory or security, just making sure nothing untoward was going on between the stacks of containers. There was no sign of smuggling activities, at least not at first. This was expected. The Director had warned us that she expected this operation would take several months.
Mac complained a lot about Halifax, right from the start. I think he felt it was his duty - after living in Hong Kong, Vancouver and Toronto, he had to express disdain for this much smaller city, which didn't even have a Chinatown. I liked it all right - it felt safer and friendlier than the other places I've lived.
Our living arrangement sucked. To maintain our cover, we were actually expected to live on our salaries - $7.00 an hour each. The Agency had got us a rather dingy apartment in the cheap part of town. At least it had two bedrooms - I wouldn't have put it past the Director to expect us to share.
"It's your turn to wash the dishes," Mac said.
"No it's not." I'm a reasonable guy. I never try to skimp on my share of household chores. But Mac was constantly trying to get out of his share, and this was a source of friction.
We were sitting at the kitchen table, finishing off the last of the franks and beans. Mac complained about my cooking, too, but he rarely offered to cook himself - I was pretty sure he just didn't know how, though he wouldn't admit it. To be sure, there wasn't much I could do - with the budget we were living on, gourmet ingredients were not an option.
The kitchen was a depressing room. It was lit by an uncovered incandescent bulb, and there weren't any windows because our apartment was in the building's basement. The walls might have been a cheerful yellow in the past, but now they were splattered all over with grease stains that just wouldn't go away. The stove was puke green, and the fridge was dingy beige - both probably dated from the seventies.
"Is too," Mac insisted. "I washed the breakfast dishes yesterday."
"That was a plate, a bowl and two glasses. It doesn't count."
This was typical of our interaction these days. No big blow-ups, but we were definitely stepping on each other's toes.
I decided it wasn't worth the fight. "I'll wash them. Will you at least dry?"
He sighed, like it was a big concession. "OK."
We finished eating, and got started on the dishes. There were about two days' worth built up.
We started speculating about which of our co-workers were in on the smuggling. It was one thing we could usually talk about without letting the conversation degenerate into bickering - our professionalism took over. No matter how much Mac had been annoying me with his immature attitude about, say, doing the dishes, he'd quickly win my respect back when we started talking shop. He was a good agent.
Tonight was different, though. Mac responded curtly to most of my questions, and didn't contribute many observations of his own. At first I thought he was being childishly petulant about helping with the dishes. But after he sneezed a couple times (courteously turning away from the dishes, I was glad to note), I started to notice other little details. He was clearing his throat a lot, and a couple times he rubbed his temples as though he had a headache. By the time we'd finished the dishes, I was pretty sure that Mac was coming down with a cold. I figured this would explain him being more irritable than usual, and I almost felt bad for getting on his case about the dishes. Almost. Not quite.
The next morning, Mac emerged from his bedroom looking even more haggard than he usually did before 6 am. Sitting in the kitchen eating my bowl of porridge, I could hear him coughing and blowing his nose in the bathroom. (The walls of the apartment were unpleasantly thin; I often heard our neighbours having sex through the wall of my bedroom). When he staggered into the kitchen, I offered him a glass of orange juice and a sympathetic look. "How are you feeling?" I asked, expecting him to give me a catalogue of his miseries, closely followed by a request to let the boss know he wouldn't be in today.
"Fine, how are you?" Mac said, giving me a look like it was an odd question to ask in the morning. He took the juice and sat down, sipping at it.
"Um, fine," I replied, automatically. His voice was hoarse; he obviously had a cold. But hey, if he chose to play it tough and say nothing was wrong, who was I to point out the obvious? I was surprised, though - I would've expected Mac to be the type of person who wants to be pampered when they're sick. He just had that high-maintenance feel.
Even though I'd shrugged it off in the morning, I found myself watching out for Mac all day, and even worrying about him a bit. I scolded myself inwardly, told myself I was being a mother hen, but I couldn't help it. It was a nasty day - minus 5, with a wind-chill factor of minus 20, and it was a damp cold on the waterfront. When it was time for the first break of the day, I peeked into the workers' shack and saw that Mac wasn't there yet, so I looked around for him. I found him with a clipboard, checking the numbers on containers against some list.
"Break time," I yelled at him over the clunking of containers and the low roar of the wind.
He looked at me, his brow furrowed with confusion. OK, it was true I'd never come and reminded him to take a coffee break before. But then, he was usually the first one to stop working at any opportunity, so this was doubly weird.
"I just want to finish this list!" he yelled back.
"Finish it after the break!" I grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the shack; he didn't resist.
The shack was warm inside, and crowded. On a day like today, everyone spent as much time in here as they could get away with.
I got a cup of hot coffee and pressed it into Mac's hands. I noticed that he was shivering - but so was I, it was fucking cold out.
"Thanks," he said. His shoulders were hunched up still against the cold; he held the coffee with two hands, and brought it up to his mouth to blow on it. Doing this, he coughed. He looked haggard - but then I decided that was partly because of the stubble. For the first time I could remember, he hadn't shaved that morning.
"No problem," I said. "So hey, are you finally growing a beard?" Almost all the men working here had full beards; any protection from the icy winds was welcome.
He grinned, and patted my fuzzy cheek. "Yours is so cute, I figured I'd give it a shot."
I felt my cheeks going hot; I snorted derisively, to cover up the fact. If he noticed, he'd tease me even more, and I didn't feel up to parrying his pretend flirting in a room packed with beefy, blue-collar men. Time for an escape. "I'm getting my coffee now." It was time to stop talking to each other and get to work, anyway; coffee breaks were the most valuable part of the day, as far as our actual mission was concerned. We had to get to know as many of the guys as possible - and make sure that we were known as a couple of guys who needed money, and weren't too fussy about where it came from.
As usual, we drove home together in the crappy 8-year-old Toyota the Agency had provided us with. Today, I drove.
Mac wrapped his arms around himself in the passenger seat, trying to warm up. Typically the car's heater would kick in about the time we were pulling into our parking space at home. "I might have found something," he said.
"Oh yeah?" That got my attention. Like I said, we hadn't managed any progress on the mission at all, up to this point.
"While I was checking the containers, and, you know, sneaking around like a cat burglar, I overheard Larry and Bruce talking about some shipment happening 'tonight.'" Mac cleared his throat. "But I was doing the check for the next ship going out, and that's tomorrow."
"Ship coming in?"
"I don't think so."
"Well, maybe it's something." I glanced over at Mac, gave him a tight grin. "Closest to something we've had yet, anyway. Good work."
Immediately, I started working out our next move. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mac get out a kleenex to blow his nose.
Normally, we'd want to make the most of this - go back to the pier tonight, do a stakeout, see what we could see. But the Director had told us to move cautiously on this job - we wanted to find out enough to take down the whole operation. If, say, we got caught tonight, it'd be game over, and all we'd know - assuming we survived - would be the names of a handful of dockhands on the take. Anyway, Mac wasn't looking so good. Stopped at a red light, I took a better look at my partner. He had dark circles under his eyes, and I thought he looked pale - though that was partly the contrast with the dark shadow of his one-day-growth of beard. His nose looked raw, like he'd been blowing it a lot, and he was coughing into the tissue now. Tonight would not be a great night for him to spend back at the pier, freezing his ass off.
The light turned green. "We've got to go back tonight and see if we can see anything," Mac said.
"Hah," I sort of laughed, "I was just thinking the opposite." I repeated out loud what I'd just thought about proceeding with caution, not risking getting caught at this early stage.
"Oh come on, Vic," Mac scoffed, "We've gotta take risks. That's the game. If we don't try this, then tomorrow we'll still know nothing."
"Wrong. We know to try to get closer to Larry and Bruce," I pointed out.
Mac shook his head. "If they're in on the bottom level, they couldn't help us even if they wanted to. We've got to get a better idea what's going on - then we can start working on the right people."
I sighed. I wasn't sure why he was being stubborn about this, but I figured I might as well point out the obvious. "Look, Mac. I can tell you're getting a bad cold. You should just rest tonight. I'll make chicken soup or something."
"Fuck off," he snapped. "I'm fine."
I was so startled by his reaction, I nearly ran a stop sign. 'Fuck off'? Sounded like Mac had some issues here. "Okaay..." I said slowly, stalling for time while I tried to figure out what was going on. Mac was sick, but he wouldn't acknowledge it. Was this normal for him? I didn't know - he'd never been sick before in the time I'd known him. We were a pretty healthy group, overall.
Like I said before, this didn't fit with what I'd expect of Mac - I would have expected him to be high maintenance when he was sick, demanding days off and food delivered and pampering, and probably all sorts of bizarre Chinese remedies. But then again... I often forget the actual circumstances of Mac and Li Ann's teenage years. Both of them have the demeanour of former privileged upper-class private school brats, you know? And I of all people know that it's an act, but that doesn't stop it from subliminally influencing my expectations of them. So let's review Mac's life briefly - what little I know of it. As a preadolescent, after his mother was out of the picture, he was dragged around the world by his father, who cared much more about the cons he had in progress than about his son. I can't imagine his father being very nurturing if Mac ever got sick. Mac might even have been afraid his father would just ditch him if he got too inconvenient - I mean, eventually it did happen. Then Mac somehow survived on the streets in Hong Kong for about half a year. He was thirteen then. Mac never, ever talks about that period of his life - I only know the time frame because Li Ann told me once. I could probably make some pretty good guesses about what his life was like then - I dealt with street kids in Toronto sometimes, when I was on Vice. At that time, for certain, he'd had to play it tough no matter what happened to him. And then the Tangs took him in, which must have been a big improvement on the street, but I never got the feeling the Tang family was close in a nurturing kind of way. I couldn't really picture old man Tang tucking Mac into bed when he was sick, or bringing him soup. In that kind of environment weakness is usually despised, either subtly or overtly.
I snuck another glance over at Mac. He was staring out the right window, resting his elbow on the door and his chin on his hand, avoiding my eye. "It's no big deal," I said. "It's just - my grandma always said you should get lots of rest when you have a cold. Stay warm and dry, y'know? Exactly the opposite of spending the night sneaking around the container pier looking for bad guys."
Mac snorted. "Yeah, your grandmother. You are such an old biddy. Let me put it this way. If the Director were here, do you think she'd let me sit out 'cause I have the sniffles?" And then he sneezed. I smirked at the timing.
"Sure she would. She wouldn't send you into possible combat when you're at less than a hundred percent." Actually I wasn't at all sure about this - who knew what the Director would do? - but I was willing to stretch the truth to support my side of the argument. "And you sound like shit, Mac." His voice was all husky - which was actually strangely attractive, but still, definitely a sign of illness. He was sitting here in the car coughing and sniffling. "I am not taking you out on a stakeout."
" 'Taking me'? You sound like we'd be going on a date. I'll fucking go without you," Mac said, sounding very irritated. "I'm fine - OK, I sound worse than I feel. Just... let's stop at the drug store on the way home, and I'll get some drugs. 'K?"
I shrugged. That was probably a good idea in any case. So we stopped at a Lawton's, he picked up throat lozenges and some pills, I grabbed a couple boxes of kleenex for him, and as soon as we got back in the car we went back to arguing about how to spend the night.
Finally we ended up opening the safe hidden under my bed, getting out the documents that stated our mission objectives, and reading them over together.
"Look, look," Mac gloated. " 'Gather all possible information on methods, scheduling and personnel involved.' That's what it says."
"Yeah but -" I knew I was losing. "It also says 'Use all due discretion.'"
"Meaning we don't let them see us tonight. I know I can watch without being seen. It's a thief thing, y'know?" He grinned at me, and bounced up and down on the bed a bit. He was kneeling on my bed with the papers spread out around him; I was sitting on the edge. I smiled, shook my head. He always got enthusiastic like this at a chance to use his skills - it was a strangely appealing, childlike quality in him, even though the skills themselves all came from his criminal past.
I had to admit, it looked like our mission called for going to the container pier that night. And now that we were home and nicely warmed up, Mac did seem less sick. So I decided to try for a compromise. "OK. We'll do it. If you go to bed after supper, and nap 'till it's time to go."
Mac raised his eyebrows. "Does that mean you'll do the dishes?" he said hopefully.
I looked him right in the eye, trying to stop my mouth twitching into a grin. "Yup."
"All right then," he agreed.
The second shift at the pier ended at 10 pm, so I figured if anything illegal was going to happen, it would have to be after that.
It also occurred to me that I could just let Mac sleep - I bet he would've slept through 'till morning. But we have to trust each other, as partners - I wouldn't go back on my word to him. So, at about 9:30 I tapped on the door of his room. He'd left it ajar, so I went in.
Mac was lying on his side, facing towards me, snoring slightly. There were several crumpled tissues lying on the floor near the bed in the approximate vicinity of the wastebasket, and one of the boxes of kleenex was sitting on the bed in front of him. Once again, I was struck with the impulse to just let him sleep. After I'd realized in the car on the way home that he'd probably not had anyone look after him when he was sick since he was a very small child, these feelings of protectiveness had started building in me. But, as I'd already realized, that wasn't an option.
"Mac, wake up," I said softly, not wanting to startle him too roughly out of sleep. One time I'd woken him up too fast, and he'd managed to kick me to the floor and pull a gun on me before he was awake enough to remember who I was and where he was. I guess that's a good self-defence reflex, but it's pretty disconcerting. Now, he didn't stir. "Wake up," I repeated, a bit louder. He moved a bit, made a sort of mumbling noise. I perched on the side of the bed, and tapped him on the shoulder. "It's time to go."
His other hand came up to trap mine, and stop me tapping him. His eyes opened blearily. "What?" he croaked.
I let my hand rest on his shoulder, under his hand. "Well, it's time to go. Only, if you want to go back to sleep, that's fine, actually. I'd rather not go."
He shook his head, levering himself upright. "We're going. Just give me a -" he broke off, coughing. I sighed. Funny thing - my hand was still in his, though both our hands had slipped off his shoulder when he sat up. He was actually gripping my hand tightly, as he stifled his coughing into his other elbow. I wanted, very intensely, to comfort him. I squeezed back, and was answered with an even tighter grip of his own. With my other hand, I rubbed his back. He was still coughing. I figured his throat had gone dry while he was sleeping - that always happens to me when I have a cold.
"Hey, I'll get you a glass of water," I offered. He let go of my hand very suddenly, like he'd just realized he was holding it.
"No, I'll be fine," he insisted, just barely managing to get the words out. I rolled my eyes, and went to get him the water anyway.
We started the stakeout in the car, parked across from the container pier and up a hill. We took turns with the binoculars. Mac was popping Halls throat lozenges like they were candy, but otherwise it was like the two of us on any old stakeout. We talked about TV shows. We insulted each others' taste in music. We each tried to figure out what had gone wrong with Li Ann - three years had gone by, yet the topic still fascinated us. We speculated about what the Director, Li Ann and Jackie were up to without us. We followed that up by fantasizing about what the Director, Li Ann and Jackie were up to without us. We developed an elaborate story about how there weren't any smugglers at all, but the Director had just wanted us out of the way so that she could concentrate on building some sort of lesbian dynamic between Jackie and Li Ann. We got bored.
Then, around 2 am, I thought I saw a flash of movement in the pier. The whole thing was lit up bright as day, 24/7, so it wasn't a great place for sneaking around at night. "I saw someone, I think." I focused on the spot.
"Night watchman?" Mac suggested.
"I don't think so - looked like they were running." We traded the binoculars back and forth some more, and sighted a few more hints of movement. Everything we glimpsed was through a narrow opening between two huge stacks of crates.
"There is definitely something suspicious going on down there," Mac confirmed. "But we can't see a damn thing from here. We're going to have to go for a closer look."
We'd dressed in black and brought ski masks along, just in case. Mac had his tool kit with him, and we knew the pier inside and out - including the locations of all the security cameras. I let Mac take the lead, since he was the pro, but he and Li Ann had been helping me perfect my 'thieving' skills over the past four years, so I knew I could fade into the shadows right behind him.
With no trouble at all, we got close to the action. Then Mac slapped a mini-camera on the side of a container with a view of what was going on, and we crouched behind, listening. I had goggles on that got the feed from the camera and displayed it for my left eye, as well as recording it.
There were about six men involved that I could see - I recognized only Larry, Bruce, and the night watchman, Chris. They were unloading medium-size wooden crates from a tractor-trailer and stowing them in one of containers waiting on pier. I whispered the info to Mac.
"I checked that container this afternoon," Mac whispered back, very softly. We both had our guns out and we were watching all around; no one would be able to approach us without us seeing. "It's cleared to be loaded on that Russian ship tomorrow morning."
This was worthwhile info. Maybe Mac had been right after all about coming out here. Tomorrow, we could use the secure mail drop to let the Director know the name of the ship and the number of the container.
"Shit," Mac whispered suddenly. My adrenaline spiked, and I looked around, gun at the ready - nothing, nobody. I looked at Mac. He was rubbing at his nose, through the ski mask, with his free hand. "I'm gonna sneeze," he whispered. Oh, fuck. We were close enough to the smugglers, they might hear him, and then we were in serious shit. I started cursing myself silently for letting Mac talk me into this. What was I thinking? He was sick. He should be in bed.
"We know enough for now," I whispered, "let's get out of here."
Mac was still struggling. He sneezed - his head and shoulders jerked forward - but he managed to stifle it so all I heard was a muffled "hehchh." He kept his hand up over his mouth and nose, so I guessed he wasn't OK yet. I shuffled my feet nervously, keeping one eye - literally - on the view through the camera, and the other on the area around us. Mac quivered with another stifled sneeze. The view from the camera reassured me that no one was paying this direction any attention. Mac leaned against the side of the container, hunched over, totally defenceless as he directed all his effort to not giving away our position. "I've got your back," I whispered, so quietly that I knew even he couldn't hear me. He sneezed again, and louder than before, and I felt another adrenaline surge, but he'd been quiet enough - no one looked our way. And then he seemed to be OK.
"Fuck," he whispered. "Sorry. Let's get out of here."
I made sure no one was looking our way, then I snaked my hand around the edge of the container and grabbed the camera. I stuffed it and the goggles into my backpack, and then we started sneaking our way out of there.
Then our luck ran out.
I was ahead of Mac. I ducked around the corner of a container, and came face-to-face with a big, rough-looking man who I didn't recognize.
"Hey!" he managed to say before I landed a roundhouse punch on his jaw. Unfortunately, that didn't even daze him, and he came back at me with a straight punch to my gut, which I deflected, and by then I had my gun pointing at him and he had one out, pointing at me.
"Pete! Get over here!" the man yelled. Oh fuck. Where was Mac?
A black form dropped from the sky onto the man in front of me, taking him down. I hit the ground, trying to get myself out from in front of the big man's gun in case it went off, which it didn't. I rolled and was back on my feet in time to see Mac slamming the man's head into the concrete, and another man rounding the corner behind him with a gun out pointing at Mac - and that man fired. Mac fell forward on top of the big guy. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. No time had gone by, it was an instant, Mac was still falling and I had my gun up, fired, shot the other man. He went down.
A thing to understand here: Mac and I were both wearing bullet-proof vests. Of course. But, despite the name, bullet-proof vests don't always stop bullets. It depends on the gun, the bullet, the range, the angle - and luck, always the angel of luck.
I ran for Mac. I'd carry him out if I had to. We had to get out of here now now now now now. He was lying still. At that moment I was certain he was dead. I was supposed to watch his back, but I'd failed, he'd been shot in the back. If I'd let him die I'd kill myself.
He moved, he sat up when I grabbed his shoulder. "I'm OK, I'm OK," he gasped.
I can't remember ever feeling such sweet relief. I swear I actually hallucinated white light and harp music.
I could see tears in his eyes. Even if the vest stops the bullet, it can still mess you up, break ribs - no matter what, it fucking hurts. I yanked him to his feet and dragged him away. He was staggering at first but got his stride quickly, and we were out of there.
As soon as we got across the highway we dropped into the ditch on the other side, looking back to see if there was a pursuit. Rather, I looked back where we'd come from while Mac doubled over completely, coughing.
"I don't see anyone," I gasped. "Maybe they didn't hear the shots." Thinking back, trying to reconstruct the long seconds of combat in my memory, I thought I'd heard a pack of motorcycles roaring by on the Bedford highway just as the shooting was happening. Maybe that had saved us. "Let's make for the car, fast."
We made it to the car. We got in, pulled our masks off, and I drove quietly and inconspicuously away from there, watching for followers. There weren't any.
About ten minutes later, passing through a dark, sleepy residential area, I suddenly realized that my hands were shaking too much to steer. I pulled over to the curb and put the car in park, and sat there, staring straight forward and gripping the steering wheel with a white-knuckled grip.
I didn't realize I was crying until I felt Mac's fingers brushing my wet cheek above my beard.
"It's OK, we made it," I heard Mac say.
My chest felt tight, and my whole body was trembling. "That was too fucking close. I let you get shot in the back."
"Hey, I'm fine." He put a comforting hand on my shoulder. "That's what the vest is for."
"It could've gone through. It could've killed you." The scene was in a playback loop in my mind - Mac leaps off the top of the container, takes the big guy down. I dive, roll, come up. Shouldn't have gone down, should have just leapt to the side. Should have come up faster. Pete comes into sight. Should have got my gun up faster. Pete has his gun pointing at Mac. Should have got my gun up faster. Pete shoots. Mac goes down.
" 'What if' doesn't matter in combat. C'mon, Vic, you know that." Mac's words sort of filtered through my haze. "All that matters is what did happen. We're both fine. We got some info. We messed up some, but we didn't blow our cover."
I just lost it. I let my head fall forward against the steering wheel, and I sobbed. I felt him rubbing my back. I couldn't imagine what he must have been thinking. I'd never had a nervous collapse after a fight before.
I'd never come so close to getting him killed before.
For about three seconds, I'd thought he was dead. In that time, I'd realized that I couldn't live with myself if I'd let him get killed. I'd realized that I couldn't live without him. I'd realized that I loved him.
It was sort of like the way your life's supposed to flash in front of your eyes when you're about to die - only it hadn't been my death I'd been facing, it'd been Mac's, and it was my life with him that flashed in front of my eyes.
This love had crept over me so slowly, it was no wonder I didn't notice. When we first met, we fought over Li Ann. I was threatened by him - afraid Li Ann would go back to him. Nevertheless, when we worked together there was this instant trust, this instinct, this rhythm. I'll never forget swinging from that chandelier, tied to him, inches away from Michael's killer floor. And then Li Ann broke up with me - not to go to Mac, as I'd feared, but to be on her own. After that I still competed with Mac in everything but it wasn't so sharp. We learned to read each other's bodies in combat, to read each other's breath. Maybe you can't train and fight that closely with someone for years without falling in love. In the beginning I was looking out for him because he was my partner, I had to, just like he was looking out for me. When did I start to really, deep down, care what happened to him? Don't know, but I did. That's why I'd been fussing over this stupid cold he'd caught - especially when I saw that he was trying to tough it out, and that he didn't believe that he deserved for someone to care about him and take care of him.
And what about sexual attraction? Was that part of the love I was realizing here? Well, I'd already known I was attracted to Mac. I've been attracted to all my partners, on and off. I appreciate the beauty of the human form, female and male. Hell, sometimes the Director gives me a hard-on - I'm even attracted to Dobrinsky, on some of his less sadistic days. Mac was a beautiful man. He was full of such grace, and a sense of play which could simultaneously annoy me, mystify me, and make me want to laugh, wrap him in my arms and kiss him on his full, gorgeous lips.
When did Mac become the centre of my attention? It was before we came to Halifax. It just intensified here because we were alone together, each of our new work-mates a potential enemy. We ate supper together, said goodnight, saw each other again first thing in the morning. I heard him get up in the night and watch TV when he couldn't sleep. We squabbled about housework like an old married couple. He was always in my thoughts - just comfortably present. And then when he was in any trouble, I had this deep, instinctive need to help him - when he was shivering with cold, or sick, or ABOUT TO GET SHOT IN THE FUCKING BACK!!
We were still in the car. I was still crying, shaking. He was still rubbing my back. "It's OK, it's OK," he was repeating, low and soothing, also sounding worried, his voice still hoarse with his cold. "We're both safe. It's OK."
I lifted my head, finally, and looked at him. We weren't close to a streetlight; it was too dark to read his expression. "I nearly got you killed," I repeated. I could see he was shaking his head, about to deny it again. "I couldn't have lived, if I'd got you killed." I pushed the words out, didn't let him interrupt, didn't let myself think about the consequences of saying what I was about to say. "I love you."
I felt his hand leaving my back. I felt him drawing away from me.
"Um, you mean you love me like a friend?" Mac asked. His tone was joking, but I could feel the distance. He knew what I meant. He was startled, of course, didn't know how to react, but I could hear steel doors shutting in his voice.
"No." I couldn't go this far and pull back now - not when every time I closed my eyes I could still see his limp form, with the bullet hole in the back of his coat. "I love you, Mac. And if you'd died..." My voice broke. I put my hands over my face. I couldn't take it.
Somehow, we'd both pulled as far as possible to opposite sides of the car. This was Mac's reaction; I was just responding automatically, in sync with him as always.
Mac passed a hand over his eyes. I still couldn't read his expression in the dark.
A long silence stretched between us. I wanted to say something else, anything, but I knew Mac had to speak next.
"I'm straight, Vic. Sorry," he said.
Funny, that response seemed totally irrelevant. I wasn't asking him to love me - I'd just told him I loved him. Still, the message was clear. I just kept fucking up that night, didn't I?
"You know what? Maybe I should drive the rest of the way home," Mac said.
"Yeah...." I agreed. I felt like a limp rag. My eyes were tearing up again and I couldn't see the road, and I hated like hell to have him see me like this, but my self control was shot to pieces and it was all I could do to not start fucking sobbing again.
Mac got out, walked around, opened my door, and gave me a hand up. He kept a hand on my elbow and guided me around to the passenger seat. I sat down - sort of collapsed - and he put my seatbelt on me, then got in the driver's seat and drove us home.
Morning came way too soon. Really. We got home at 3 am, and we had to wake up at 5:30 to make our shift at 6:30. I felt like shit, so I didn't comment on the fact that Mac looked like it. The dark circles under his eyes were darker than yesterday's, his eyes were red-tinged, his nose was raw, and he was coughing and sneezing more than before. I caught all this in glimpses; I couldn't meet his eye.
The only reference he made to what I'd said the night before came just as we were walking out the door. "Don't worry about it, Vic," he said, and I knew what he meant by "it." "It doesn't bother me." He punched me lightly in the shoulder. "It's flattering, really." Then he loped ahead to claim the driver's seat.
Flattering? I felt like such a gimp.
When we got to work there were no police cars, and the place was open to business as usual. Apparently the smugglers had cleaned up after us last night.
I spent a miserable day, torn between avoiding Mac entirely and following him around to see whether he was OK. At morning coffee break I watched from across the room as he sat down at a table and fell asleep there immediately, his head on his arms. I watched over him - from across the room - the whole fifteen minutes, then shook him awake when the whistle blew. At lunch I sat with a different group of guys than he sat with, and watched him out of the corner of my eye the whole time, noting with worry that he threw away half his lunch uneaten. In the afternoon I ran into him accidentally while we were both doing chores around the pier, and I hurried away in the opposite direction without saying anything, feeling my heart pounding wildly. What the fuck was I thinking?
I drove us home that evening; he fell asleep in the car on the way. I didn't say anything about it when we got home and he woke up. He fell asleep again on the couch, watching TV, while I made dinner. I made chicken soup - what the hell, why not?
Over dinner, we started talking about the case. That was a relief - it was a safe topic, relatively speaking.
"We should definitely lie low for a bit now," Mac pointed out. "They have no reason to suspect us in particular, but they're going to be edgy, suspicious."
"My thoughts exactly," I agreed. "Anyway, I'm taking the package for the Director to the mail drop as soon as we finish eating." Actually, I'd already finished my soup. Mac was halfway through his bowl, and he didn't seem to be eating any more. I didn't want to tell him to eat - not after last night. I didn't feel like I could show any concern for him - he'd think I was coming on to him, or freaking out again. But damn, he just wasn't eating enough today.
When I got back from the mail drop, Mac had gone to bed. I noted with surprise that he'd done the dishes first. I had no idea what to make of that. Anyway, I was glad he'd gone to bed. I could stop worrying about him for the night - and worrying about what he was thinking when he looked at me.
It was only 8:30, but I was exhausted, so I went to bed too.
The next morning was a lot like the last, only a bit less awkward, and I for one felt less crappy after nine hours' sleep. Mac didn't look any better, though. The lower half of his face was a dark shadow now, with two days' growth of beard, and that did make him look scruffy, but it didn't explain away his racoon eyes or his pasty complexion. Once again I bit back the expressions of concern on the tip of my tongue as he ate half a slice of toast, drank a glass of juice, and said he was full.
The weather was miserable as usual, but a different miserable from the previous days'. The temperature had climbed to zero overnight, and today we were being plastered with freezing rain. We wore plastic ponchos over our heavy work clothes, but the wind blew them around and the rain trickled through and I was soaked to the bone by lunch. I didn't even see Mac all day; the foreman had him doing some sort of inventory at the other end of the pier from where I was.
About two in the afternoon, the foreman - George - approached me where I was working. He was short man, thick with muscles, in his fifties. My first thought when I saw him coming was a panicked flash that it had to do with the night before last - he was involved, he'd found out that I'd killed his guy, he was going to do away with me. That was silly, though. He was my boss; there were a million reasons he might want to speak to me.
"Hey, Vic?" he called out.
"Yeah?" I put down the small - but heavy - toolbox I was carrying.
"I think you should take your brother home. He's sick like a dog." Oh God. George kept talking. "And it's Friday afternoon, hey? You two have the weekend off. Just take off early. I won't dock your pay."
I stuttered thanks, or worries, or something, and George led me to the workers' shack, where he'd left Mac. While we walked, George told me that he'd been working with Mac and a couple other guys, opening some crates to spot-check the contents, when Mac had suddenly just fallen over in a dead faint. They'd noticed already that he was sick, so when he woke up after half a minute and insisted he was fine, Bob and Carl - both of them big guys - just took one arm each and carried him to the shack. "I left Bob with 'im to make sure he didn't go out and try to start working again," George added with a chuckle. "Your brother's a dedicated guy, that's fer sure."
The shack was nearly empty, since it wasn't break time. Mac was sitting at a table with his head down on his arms. Bob was standing nearby, arms crossed, looking both bemused and concerned.
I felt a surge of anger when I saw Mac. I was surprised at that, and at its strength. But really, what was he thinking? He was a grown man - he should know enough to recognize his limits, and not push himself so far he gets hurt. I felt like growling, like punching someone. OK, maybe I was scared. He didn't raise his head from his arms until I said "Hey. Mac. I'm taking you home now."
I guess I sounded angry. Bob looked at me quizzically, and said "Hey, go easy on him, OK?"
"Sorry," I said. "Didn't mean to yell. I'm just..." I looked at Bob, searching for understanding. "I'm worried about him."
George clapped me on the back. "Go home. Both'a you get dry clothes on. If he's not lookin' better tomorrow, get 'im to a doctor, all right?"
I nodded. "Yeah. OK, come on, Mac." I gave Mac an arm up. He was white like a sheet, and his lips looked grey, but he grinned at me anyway. My stomach clenched with apprehension.
"How about that?" he said, leaning on me as we walked out. "I got us off work early. Bye, George, thanks!" he called behind us. I glanced back and saw George give a little wave.
We had a long, wet, cold walk across the parking lot. I held Mac's arm, afraid he'd faint again, and he didn't lean on me but he didn't pull away, either. I could feel him shivering.
"How are you feeling?" I tried.
"Fine," he snapped.
"Mac, this is stupid." I was yelling at him again, but I couldn't help it. "You are not fine. You shouldn't have gone to work today. How sick do you have to get before you'll admit it? Fuck!"
He didn't answer me; he just coughed. I fumed. Idiot. We got to the car, and I made sure he was safely sitting in the passenger seat before I went to the driver's side.
As soon as we got home, I turned the heat in our apartment up five degrees, to 25. Fuck the heating bill.
With my boots and coat off, but still wearing my wet clothes, I went and grabbed a big towel from the bathroom, and a blanket. I went back to the entrance, where Mac was sitting on the floor and had only got his boots off so far. I could hear his teeth chattering.
"We're taking your clothes off. Now," I told him. It occurred to me too late that this might bother him, since I'd recently told him I loved him. But I shook that thought off - Mac'd never shown any signs of being inhibited like that.
With my help, he peeled off all his layers of wet clothes. When I saw his naked back, I was momentarily shocked at the huge purple bruise halfway down on the right. That was where the bullet had hit, of course. When I'd failed to protect him the last time. I wrapped the towel around him, hiding the bruise, and rubbed him vigorously. I only stopped when he protested, "hey! Vic, that hurts!"
"Shit, sorry." I dropped the towel.
"Don't worry about it. I mean really, you are worrying way too much. It's sweet, but honestly, Vic, you need a hobby." Mac's casual expression was spoiled by the shivering - what he said actually came out 'D-don't w-worry ab-bout i-it' and so on. I wrapped the blanket around him, and only barely stopped myself from hugging him.
"You'd better get out of your own wet clothes, Vic," Mac pointed out with a shadow of a smirk. "You'll, uh, catch your death of cold."
"Sit on the couch," I ordered him, and went to my room to change.
I came back a moment later wearing sweats. It felt really, really good to be in warm dry clothes after that day. I'd also grabbed clothes for Mac - thick flannel pyjamas. Needless to say, he hadn't bought those for himself- our wardrobes had been provided, along with the apartment and our identities. Anyway, they were warm, dry and comfy.
He put on the pyjamas, and I went back to get him wool socks, which I remembered when I saw his bare feet. I handed him the socks, and he gave me a funny look.
"You care too much, Vic," he said. "It's your biggest flaw."
I didn't know how to take that. "What, about you?"
"Yeah. And in general. It keeps getting you hurt." He was sitting on the couch, wrapped in the blanket. He had more colour in his face now, I was glad to see. But what was he trying to say to me?
"Even George was worried about you today," I pointed out. I sat at the other end of the couch, facing him. "You fainted." Mac grimaced at the word. "That's a bit scary," I insisted.
"OK. Maybe I pushed myself too hard," Mac finally admitted, obviously begrudgingly. "But hey, we've got the afternoon off. Let's just watch TV."
It sounded like a good idea to me. We each kept to our own end of the couch, and I let Mac pick what we watched. He kept coughing, but then after fifteen minutes that slowed down, and then his head was tipping forward with his eyes closed.
"Mac," I said softly, poking him, "Why don't you just go take a nap?"
"Yeah, OK," he agreed, blinking awake. He pushed the blanket away and stood up.
He stood there for a moment, and I'd just sensed something was wrong when he crumpled. He collapsed right to the floor before I could move to catch him, his head luckily falling on the plush edge of the couch instead of the floor. My heart leapt to my throat. All the blood had drained from his face; he looked like a ghost.
I shifted him, carefully, so he was lying stretched out flat on his back on the floor. I was just considering dialling 911 when he blinked his eyes open and tried to sit up. I stopped him with a firm hand on his chest.
"Whoah," Mac said. "I just stood up too fast, didn't I?"
"Yeah," I said. "I guess so. I think you should go to bed." He tried to sit up again. "Not so fast." I still had my hand on his chest. "I think I'll carry you."
"Oh, no way," Mac protested.
I threw his arm over my shoulder, stood up with him, and then grabbed him under the shoulders and behind the knees, and swept him into my arms. He glared at me, but seemed about to laugh, too. I was glad he could see some humour in this. Being taller than me, he was an awkward load, but I was strong enough to carry him like that as far as his bed, where I set him down gently.
"That was excessive," he said, giving me a wry smile.
I shrugged. "You can get under the covers yourself, how 'bout that? I'll bring you supper in bed in a couple hours." I put the kleenex box on the bed next to him before I left.
"Thanks," he whispered. I thought I caught a glimmer of tears in his eyes, but I didn't stay to check - I had to get out of the room.
I collapsed on the couch, put my head in my hands. Mac was finally accepting my help, which was sort of a good thing, except he was only accepting it because he was getting really sick. I wasn't sure how worried to be about that. I mean, all my paranoia and over-protectiveness aside, he just had a cold, right? Healthy adults get colds all the time, go to work anyway, are miserable, and get better in a week. Of course, it was probably a bit worse when the work was outdoors and it was winter. Also, spending most of today soaking wet wouldn't have helped. I wondered if I should take him to a doctor. Probably. I wondered if he would go. Probably not.
And then there'd been that weird thing he'd said to me just after we got in - "You care too much." "It keeps getting you hurt." Well, maybe I could see what he meant. If I hadn't cared about Li Ann, I wouldn't have hurt so much when she dumped me. If I didn't care so much about Mac, I wouldn't have freaked out the other day after I nearly got him killed. But if you don't care, what's left?
I got off my ass and looked through the Yellow Pages for physicians. The first one I called offered me an appointment Monday morning, and I took it.
I made lentil soup for supper. We didn't have a bed tray, so I just put the bowl on a big plate and brought it in to him. I brought along a straight-backed chair from the kitchen.
It was 5 pm in January, so no light was coming through the room's high window. I flipped on the ceiling light. Mac was asleep on his side again. He looked fragile. His lips and cheeks were flushed. I didn't really want to wake him, but I'd noticed he'd barely been eating the last couple days; he needed to eat.
"Mac?" He opened his eyes, blinking in the light. I pulled the chair up to the side of his bed. "I brought you supper."
"Oh. I'm not really hungry." He sat up. I put the soup down on the bedside table, and propped his two pillows against the headboard so he could sit leaning against them. He raised an eyebrow at me, but smiled a bit. "You're too much, Vic."
I returned his half-smile with one of my own. "Just make me feel good about my cooking by eating some of it, OK?"
He gave the soup a doubtful look. "Actually, I'm feeling kind of nauseous."
"That might be because you're hungry. Just try some of the broth, OK?" I coaxed, handing him the spoon and steadying the bowl and plate on his legs in front of him.
He tried a couple of sips, but then put the spoon down, shaking his head. "Maybe a piece of toast?" he suggested. "Without anything on it?"
"Sure," I agreed. "Just hold on a minute." I took the soup away.
I went to the kitchen, feeling worried, worried, worried. Toast with nothing on it? That wasn't much nutrition.
I wanted to call the Director. She'd tell me what to do and everything would be all right. But the only way we could contact her was by mail.
I brought Mac the toast, cut into quarters, and a glass of juice. He sipped at the juice, nibbled about half of a quarter of the toast, and said "I can't eat any more."
I took the food away, and he leaned back against the pillows, looking drained. On impulse, I laid my hand across his forehead. If I knew anything about what a human forehead should feel like, he was burning up. I put my hand on my forehead to compare. It was definitely a lot cooler than Mac's. Mac closed his eyes. I brushed his hair away from his forehead. He was very flushed. He opened his eyes again, and the lashes were wet with tears.
"What's wrong?" I asked. OK, maybe it was a dumb question. Plenty was wrong - but I hoped Mac would tell me something specific.
"You're being waaay too nice to me. I wish you'd stop," he said, and slid down under the covers so he was lying down again. I went to arrange the pillows for him, but he batted my hand away and did it himself.
I frowned. "I don't understand why you'd wish that."
"That's good," he replied, cryptically. "Just let me sleep, OK?"
"OK. But I'm right outside if you need anything," I promised, and left the room. I turned off the light, but left the door ajar.
I paced around the kitchen for a while, until Mac stopped coughing. Then I assumed he was asleep. Then, like a parent with a new baby, I suddenly panicked that he'd stopped breathing entirely. I crept into his room, turned on the bedside lamp, and watched until I saw his chest rise and fall. Feeling relieved and silly, I went back to pacing in the kitchen. Then I remembered that I hadn't eaten yet myself, so I sat down to a bowl of soup. Halfway through I decided I should take Mac's temperature properly, so I went to look for a thermometer in our bathroom. The first aid kit didn't have one; I couldn't find one anywhere. Oh well. I went back to my soup. When I finished, I decided to call the doctor's office again and try for an earlier appointment. The office was closed, but the message gave the number of their 24-hour emergency line. I hesitated - was this an emergency? close enough, I decided - then called it. The nurse on the other end was very friendly, and gave me an appointment at a different clinic for 9 am the next morning. I hung up feeling a bit better.
I heard Mac coughing again, so I went in to check on him. I'd left the bedside lamp on last time I was there, but sitting on the floor, so it lit the room without shining in his eyes.
"Hey," I said. "Hungry now?"
"No," Mac sort of moaned.
I felt his forehead. He was still burning up. I couldn't make out an appreciable difference from the last time I'd felt him.
"Your hand feels nice and cool," he whispered without opening his eyes.
I was struck with inspiration. "I'll get a cool washcloth to put on your forehead," I told Mac, and left before he could stop me. I was so relieved just to have thought of something helpful to do.
I came back with a washcloth and a mixing bowl half full of cool water. The chair was still by his bed; I sat on that, and put the bowl on the bedside table. I dipped the cloth in, wrung it out, and laid it over Mac's forehead. He sort of sighed. "That's nice," he whispered.
I stayed there, at his side. My heart was pounding for some reason. I was scared for him, but it wasn't just that. This was the most intimate time I'd ever shared with him.
Every so often he'd cough, and he'd move his head enough that the cloth would fall off. Then I'd freshen it in the water, and put it back on his forehead. Then I had the idea that he might breathe easier if he wasn't lying flat; I got the pillows from my room, and built up a back rest for him so he was sort of lying at a 45 degree angle. He didn't protest, and he didn't thank me either; he just lay there looking very fragile.
Finally his breathing changed, and I realized he'd fallen asleep.
I didn't want to leave him. As far as I could tell, he'd gotten a lot worse since the morning. I thought I should stay close and watch over him. Anyway, waking up in the night when you're feverish and sick and in a strange room can be very frightening; I wanted to be there for him. I went and got a book, and sat there by his bedside, reading.
I woke up to the sound of Mac coughing. My neck was stiff, and the book had fallen to the floor. I blinked at my watch: it was 2:43 am. My eyes focused on Mac. He was sitting up, hunched over forwards, and he sounded like he was hacking up a lung. Then he stopped. I put my hand on his shoulder. "You OK, Mac?"
He leaned back against the pillows, looked at me with wild eyes, and shook his head. He was breathing very fast and shallow. His lips were blue.
Oh fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
"You can't breathe," I said.
"Barely," he gasped.
I was already reaching for the phone by the bed. I dialled 911.
The ambulance came in seven minutes. In that time, I apparently had the presence of mind to grab Mac's wallet and put on my shoes, but I don't remember doing this. I only remember holding his hand, promising help was coming, begging him to hold on.
By the time the paramedics arrived, Mac was barely conscious. They put him on oxygen before they strapped him to the gurney. I followed them out the door, only remembering to put on my coat because one of the paramedics told me to.
In the back of the ambulance, with Mac stabilized, one of the medics, the taller, black man, took out a clipboard and started asking me questions.
"What relation are you to the patient?" he asked me.
"His partner," I answered. Then I remembered that we were supposed to be brothers -shit! Oh well, it hardly mattered now. Our part in the mission was obviously over.
I didn't know the answers to any of the other questions. I couldn't even remember our address, our phone number, or Mac's supposed last name. The paramedic was clearly used to dealing with rattled people. He suggested that I look in Mac's wallet, which I hadn't even realized I was clutching in my left hand - my right hand was holding Mac's.
I flipped through the wallet and found the details of Mac's alias, including a driver's license and a Nova Scotia Medical Security Insurance card. I handed it all over to the medic.
The ER was pretty quiet. They rushed Mac right in. He was whisked away from me, and I was told to wait in the waiting room. I sat and worried in one of the plastic chairs which were put there for that purpose. There was a television mounted on the wall, set to a news channel; I watched it without seeing anything.
Finally an orderly approached me. "Sir? You're Mac Green's partner?"
I wanted to hug her just for speaking to me. "Yes."
"He's been moved up to the ICU. If you'll follow me, I'll take you there, and then a doctor will speak to you."
I followed her down halls, into an elevator, and down more halls. We came to the ICU; the nurse's station was in the middle, with the rooms arrayed around it with glass fronts for constant observation. She nodded toward one of the rooms. "Mac's in there. You can't go in just yet. The doctor will come speak to you." She turned to the nurse sitting in the middle of the station. "Paige, this is Vic - he's the new patient's partner."
Nurse Paige gave me a sympathetic look and indicated some chairs around the room. There was a woman slumped over asleep in one of them, but the rest were empty. "You can wait here as long as you like, for now," she said.
I went to the window of Mac's room. I wasn't surprised by how he looked, but I still felt deep pain seeing him with all those monitors attached to him, hooked up to an IV, and with an oxygen tube running into his nose. The head of the bed was tilted up, like I'd done at home with the pillows, so he was pretty much facing me, but he didn't open his eyes.
How did this happen? How did we get here? I'd been in a state of shock down in the waiting room; now, watching Mac lying there in the hospital bed, it was all starting to sink in. But it was hard to believe in this reality. Working as a cop, then at the Agency, I'd always been keenly aware that I or any of the people around me might end up barely alive in a hospital bed, any given day. It wasn't something I dwelled on - that would be crippling - but it was present, there, in the background. But this was different. Mac hadn't been shot tonight, or stabbed; no buildings had exploded around him. He'd just gotten sick. It'd blindsided me. Even though I'd been fussing about his cold like an old maid, I hadn't really, truly felt danger there until the moment I'd seen his blue, oxygen-starved lips and realized he couldn't breathe.
That had been a moment of fear as intense as the other night's, when I saw him get shot.
I realized something, as the night's awful scene replayed in my mind. I'd woken up, heard him stop coughing, and asked him if he was OK. I saw it again: he looked at me, his eyes wild with fear, and he shook his head. And that was the first time that I'd asked him a question like that and he hadn't claimed to be fine. I remembered asking him in the parking lot that afternoon, "How sick do you have to get before you'll admit it?" Well, now I knew. Jesus Christ.
I should have made him stay home from work. I should have pulled rank. OK, I didn't really have any rank to pull. Still. Friday morning, it'd been obvious he was too sick to go to work. I hadn't tried to talk him into staying home, because I hadn't wanted him to think about what I'd said two nights previously about being in love with him. I'd thought that if I showed I was worried about him, he'd see it as a come-on. Stupid, stupid Vic.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to face a fiftyish Asian woman wearing a white lab coat.
"You're Vic? Mac's partner?" she asked. I nodded. "I'm Dr. Kwan. Mac is under my care. Why don't we step into a private room, and I can tell you what's up."
She took me into an empty examination room nearby. "Mac has double pneumonia," she said. I nodded, swallowing hard. That's pretty much what I'd guessed, when he couldn't breathe, but it was still difficult to hear it. "His condition was poor when he came in - he was suffering from oxygen deprivation. He's stable now, but critical. I'll want to keep him in the ICU overnight at least. The pneumonia seems to be viral." She glanced at the chart she was holding. "He'd been suffering from a cold, recently?" I nodded, numb. I must've told them that at some point. "His T-cell count is low," she went on, "which would be why the cold managed to develop into pneumonia, but we're not looking at full-blown AIDS at this point. Do you know what drugs he's on?"
I found myself gripping at the back of a nearby chair, just to steady myself. Did she just say AIDS? "Um, what?" I said.
"Do you have a record of what drugs he's on?" she repeated. "It would be helpful."
"Mac has AIDS?" My voice seemed to come from very far away.
Dr. Kwan gave me a funny look. "I'm sorry... you did know your partner was HIV positive?"
"No," I managed. "Are you sure?"
"Oh dear," Dr. Kwan murmured. "You know what? There's a nurse on shift tonight who's a trained counsellor. You stay here; I'll send him to talk with you. He can arrange for you to get a blood test, too." And she walked away.
I sort of fell down onto the chair I'd been holding.
This was a lot to absorb.
AIDS. The word brought to mind gay men and drug addicts. I knew enough to be annoyed at myself for focusing on the stereotype, but it was still there. But Mac'd said just two days ago he was straight, and even in the unlikely event he was recreationally shooting heroin in his spare time with the Director's blessing, he could certainly afford clean needles. This was a pointless line of thought. There were lots of ways he could've got it, and 'how' doesn't matter in the end, does it? Still, my mind teased at the question, the 'how' and the 'when.' One time last year he'd been shot in the leg, lost a lot of blood, needed a transfusion. Was that it? No, not likely; they were pretty careful with the blood supply these days. Maybe he'd got it in prison in Hong Kong, had it the whole time I knew him? But he'd been in isolation the whole time he was in prison, right?
I shook my head to clear it. Pointless line of thought.
Anyway, he didn't exactly have AIDS. The doctor had said that. He was HIV positive. I understood the distinction, more or less.
Did Mac know he was HIV positive? If he'd known, he would've been more careful, wouldn't he, when he caught a cold?
No. This is Mac we're talking about. Careful isn't really in his vocabulary.
The Director must have known. The Agency treats us like prize race-horses, subjecting us to all sorts of tests and proddings on a weekly basis. But if she'd known, would she have sent us on this mission? Well, maybe, if she hadn't expected him to get sick. I didn't know a whole lot about HIV, other than how to avoid getting it, but I knew that you could be fine for years and years before you ever got sick.
If he knew... why would he keep something like that from me?
I felt nauseous.
There was a knock on the door, and the nurse walked in. He was a slender, attractive, twenty-something man with bleached blond hair. He had a couple buttons pinned to the chest of his mint-green hospital scrubs; there was one with a pink triangle on a black background, and one that said "Queer Positive Space." I blinked at them, slightly confused, then took the hand he offered me.
"Vic?" he said. "I'm Brett. I'm a nurse here, and an HIV counsellor. The doctor told me that your partner's in the ICU, and you just found out he's HIV positive."
"Yeah," I said faintly. "That about sums it up."
Brett pulled another chair around, and we sat facing each other. "You must have a lot of questions, Vic," he said, "and I'll try to answer them for you. I have one important question for you first off - have you been having unprotected sex with Mac?"
"No," I said, startled by the question. I hadn't been having any sex with Mac.
Oh, shit. It finally hit me. I felt like an idiot, for taking so long to realize it. When I said I was Mac's partner, they all thought I meant I was Mac's boyfriend. I almost giggled at the irony of the mistake - I was feeling kind of hysterical. I was about to correct Brett's misapprehension, but I bit my tongue at the last second. I was being treated more or less as a family member right now, because everyone thought Mac and I were more or less married. If I let them know he was just my work partner, I might get cut off.
Besides, I was in love with him. So what they thought was sort of right.
"No," I repeated. "We were always safe that way."
Brett nodded. "Well, that's good. You should probably get tested anyway. If you are positive, it's important to get started on the drugs as soon as possible."
"Is Mac going to die?" I blurted out. I wanted him to tell me no.
"From what the doctor told me, I'd expect him to recover from this illness," Brett said. I didn't like the hesitant tone in his voice. "As you probably know, there's still no cure for AIDS. But there has been great progress in the past few years, in terms of treatment, and there are people who have been living with the virus for ten or more years, and are still healthy."
I let him talk to me for a while longer. He explained a bunch of medical things, very little of which I really absorbed. Then he led me back to the ICU and I stood at the window, watching Mac sleep, for hours.
Was this why he'd told me not to care about him, that it would hurt me? Probably. The problem was, I already did care. There was no getting out of it.
Around seven in the morning, the duty nurse tapped me on the shoulder and ordered me to go home before I fell over.
"We don't expect any change in his condition for the next few hours," she promised. "And we have your home number; someone will call you if anything happens."
"Including if he wakes up?" I pressed her.
"We'll call you if he wakes up."
I took a cab back to the apartment. I was practically falling over, but I couldn't sleep yet.
Mac was a clever thief, a sleight-of-hand artist. He was very good at hiding drugs, and taking them in secret.
I was a cop. I was very good at finding drugs, once I knew I was looking for them. I found little prescription bottles of AZT, Saquinavir, and Ritonavir taped to the bottom of his sock and underwear drawer. The prescription labels were written out to his alias name, Mac Green. Nice touch.
So, obviously he knew. He knew, the Director knew - and who else? And why didn't anyone tell me?
I called the hospital, and left a message for Dr. Kwan with the names of the drugs, and the dosages marked on the labels. Then I collapsed onto Mac's bed. I chose it rather than mine because his smelled like him. I slept 'till after one in the afternoon, when the phone rang. Mac was awake.
I didn't trust myself to drive. I took a cab to the hospital.
The nurse made me put scrubs over my clothes, and a hat, and gloves, and a mask. This was to protect Mac. "Don't tire him out," she warned me sternly before finally letting me in. "This visit's limited to 20 minutes."
Mac's eyes were closed when I walked in the room, but he opened them when he heard me, and he smiled. "Hi, Vic," he greeted me very softly.
He still had the oxygen tube looped around his head, feeding into his nose. That was the detail which struck me hardest - the vulnerability of it. He was too weak to breathe normal air.
I sat in the chair beside the bed. "Hey, Mac. You look better than you did last night."
"Yeah, breathing's nice," he agreed. I had to lean forward to hear him, he spoke so quietly. "I could get used to it." He smiled a bit. "The nurse told me that you watched me though the window all night. She had to order you to go home this morning. She said she thought I'd like to know that."
"Oh, I should tell you, they're a little confused here," I confided. "I told them I was your partner, and they thought I meant I was your lover." I thought he'd find that funny. He grinned.
"Did you straighten them out?" he asked.
"No. I thought about it, and I was afraid if they knew I was just your co-worker they wouldn't let me in to see you." He frowned, and I thought I'd offended him. He had declared his straightness pretty quickly the other night; he might not like the whole hospital thinking he was gay. "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything like - you know, that. I'll tell them the truth if you want."
Mac smirked, faintly. "I wasn't thinking that. I was thinking it wasn't such a mistake."
"What?" I said.
"Well, you're in love with me, right?" I couldn't believe he said it that calmly and sweetly. Half dead, lying in a hospital bed, he was still leading me around in circles.
"Um," I said.
"Hold my hand," he whispered, so quietly that I couldn't hear him at all, but I read his lips.
I didn't ask why, at least not out loud. I just did it. I took his hand in mine, careful not to bump the IV cord. His hands were long and slender, beautiful. He squeezed my hand softly.
"Does the Director know yet?" he asked.
"I haven't had a chance to tell her," I said. "But I think I'll just call her from a pay phone here. The mission's off now, for sure." I paused. "She knew about your HIV status." It wasn't a question.
"Of course," Mac answered anyway.
"Why'd she send you on this mission?" I tried to keep all the pain and accusation out of my voice.
"I should have been fine." Mac gave a shadow of a shrug. "Just had some bad luck, I guess. I've been positive for three years now, and I've never had a problem."
"Three years?" I repeated in a whisper. "How did it happen?" I knew I shouldn't ask that, that it wasn't important. But I still wanted to know.
"Remember Claire?" he said. "That arms smuggler I was going to marry?"
"Yeah." I squeezed his hand, gently.
"Well. The old story. We had sex without a condom. A few times."
"How could - did you ever hear of safe sex in your life?" I knew I shouldn't berate him. I knew it. But I was so fucking angry.
He gave another very faint shrug. "I thought I loved her. I thought she loved me. I wanted to trust her. She said condoms gave her urinary tract infections."
"But you'd just met her." I struggled to understand. "Did you have any idea how dangerous that was?"
"Yeah," he said, looking down at our hands. "But I didn't care."
Suddenly I realized how desperate Mac was to belong to someone, to be loved. I couldn't believe I'd missed seeing that for so long. It was so obvious - with the Tangs, with Claire, with the Rivers, the story repeated again and again in Mac's life, and he always picked the wrong person to belong to. I realized I was squeezing his hand way too hard; I let go.
"It's OK," he whispered, "I'm not breakable."
"Why didn't you tell me?" I didn't want it to come out as an accusation; instead it came out nearly as a sob.
"I talked about it with the Director," Mac answered. "I'm sorry. We thought it would be too hard for you and Li Ann."
I counted up the names. "Did Jackie know?"
"Yeah. Since it didn't matter much to her."
Jackie knew. I hated her for not telling me.
"What made you think it would matter to me?" I asked.
Mac gave me a wan smile. "The Director said you're very protective of people you love."
I blinked. "When did she say this?"
"1998. Don't panic, Vic. I think she meant brotherly love."
The duty nurse poked her head in. "Two minute warning, Vic."
I looked at Mac. He was already looking tired, and he was talking more slowly and softly all the time. "I should leave."
"No, wait!" he gasped, gripping my hand tighter than before. "I have to tell you, Vic. I lied to you before."
I didn't know what he meant. "When?"
"I'm not straight."
"What?" I almost thought I'd misheard him, his voice was fading so much. But no. He definitely just said he wasn't straight. Implying?
"I've been in love with you for years, Vic," he whispered. His eyes peered desperately into mine, looking for my reaction. "Almost from the beginning. I thought you were straight, though."
"Then why - when I said I loved you - why did you say- ?" I was totally unable to articulate. Luckily, Mac seemed to know what I meant.
"I'm not good enough for you," he whispered. I shook my head, denying that. "And - I wanted to keep you out of this." With a slight movement of his head, he indicated the room, the hospital, and the whole mess of being sick and dying.
"Too late now," I said. I caressed the side of his face, feeling the smooth skin and rough beard through my glove.
"Yeah," he agreed, closing his eyes. "That's why I gave up and told you."
He loved me. I felt shaky, and light, and unspeakably grateful.
"I love you, Mac." I said it, tasting it for the first time as a wonderful thing. "And I'm going to stay with you through everything, from now on. And I'm going to protect you, best as I can."
His eyes stayed closed, and he smiled. "We can kiss later, right? When I'm healthy again?"
"Definitely," I agreed. My voice caught, and I was afraid I was about to cry, but I held on. "We'll kiss later."
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Fandom: Once A Thief
Genre: angst, h/c
Rating: PG-13 for non-explicit violence, and swearing.
Warnings: Nothing specific, but it gets pretty dark. Be warned.
Spoilers: Assume whole series, just to be safe.
Disclaimer: Characters belong to Alliance. This was written for fun, not
Notes: This story is set in January, 2001. (The series ended in 1998; I'm assuming the happy ending, in which everyone survives.) Big huge thanks to Nicole for the beta!
Feedback is always welcome!
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