Series: Firestorm Universe #1
Chapters: 001 Word Count: 10128
Character(s): Jethro Gibbs
Category(ies): Alternate Universe, Angst/Drama, Character Study, Established Relationship, Friendship, Romance
Summary: A surprising revelation changes everything on Jethro and Mac's first holiday together.
Author Notes: Disclaimers: Sadly, not ours. If they were, it'd be a clothing optional slashy world!
Dedicated to our families and Gary Sinise, who have to put up with Ange and Bree together this weekend in Chicago :)
“So, this is the place.” Mac jammed his hands in his coat pockets and looked at the house. It wasn’t quite a farmhouse, though they had a few acres of land attached. “It looks…homey, Jet. I can see you probably had a great time here with your folks.” Both of them had been only children, but Mac had grown up in the city, while this was countrified living at its best. Or worst. He could tell why Jet had enlisted to get out.
Mac wrapped his arms around Jethro, being careful of his arm and the cast that encased it. “I’m sorry you don’t have them any more, babe. If I could spend every day letting you know you’re loved and have a family with me, I would. You’ll see how different my home is.”
“It’s ok, Mac, just being here brings back a lot of memories.” Jethro looked at the small porch that used to hold a rocking chair for his mother to sit in, and the darkened windows. It wasn’t the same as he remembered, smaller and more dingy, and he could only imagine how it looked to someone who didn’t grow up there.
“You know, we knew that we were losing my dad, it was very obvious he was sick before he ever was diagnosed. It’s what happens when you work the mines as long as he did. But the accident that took my mom and her friend, that was so sudden. Dad, he wasn’t ever the same, and within six months he was gone. It just made it that much easier to walk away and not look back.”
Mac stroked Jethro’s hair. “I can’t imagine. My folks are a little older…and I’ve often wondered how long they’ll be around, but an accident, that doesn’t touch age, Jet. That could happen at any time.” He liked the house, a lot.
“It looks like a home, it looks like a comfortable place, Jet. A real home. They raised you well, I’m sure you were so loved. Oh, beautiful boy, you’ve had a lot of loss for a young guy. You’ve got me for life, okay?”
“I’m going to hold you to that. I take care of Shannon, her mom was in the car with mine, and her dad was useless. Drinking himself to death before his wife was killed. She won’t say, but I’m pretty sure he hit on her too. But she’s kind of like family, in a little sister who grew a whole bunch of curves she doesn’t know what to do with.” They had talked about Shan a little bit, how she lived off base and gave him a place to get away. They were romantically involved to a point, when it suited them. He hadn’t told her that he was stateside yet, she wouldn’t understand that he needed to be alone to start with.
“I know. You guys haven’t had it easy. I can see where you’d want to spread your wings and fly. We still spending New Years with her? What do you want to do for Christmas? Hotel? Just the two of us?”
“Yeah, she’ll be surprised, but I’d like you to meet her. She’s important to me, the only family I have left.” Which was true. He didn’t want to see Shannon hurt and he wouldn’t abandon her. “Don’t you want to spend Christmas with your folks? You won’t always be able to, and since you have the time, I thought you’d want to stay there.”
Mac nudged Jet’s shoulder. “I’m family too. You have a brother now. And I want to spend Christmas with you. Since you’re dealing with my family for Thanksgiving, we’ll do whatever you want for Christmas. Think about it, sweet boy.”
“I will. Something fun, maybe someplace warm. A quiet beach, a cooler of beers and no one else in the world to bother us. Sounds pretty good to me.”
“Oh yeah. Sounds good to me too. Both of us could use some sun. If your cast is off by then, we could drive to Miami or the Keys in a day or two. Pretty different from the Windy City.”
“We’ll find someplace, although the Windy City might not be so bad either. You might be able to convince me I could be a city boy.”
“Maybe someday, but not a city like Chicago. You’re more an Iowa or South Dakota city boy. I guess we’ll find out, huh?”
“Iowa has cities? Come on, I do okay It’s not like I’ve never been out in the world. I’m sure Chicago isn’t that bad. You love it here and you’ve got pretty good taste.”
“Yeah, I do. I fell for you.”
“Now you’re going to make me blush. All the compliments are going to go to my head.”
Mac sighed, rubbing Jet’s back. “You ready? We have a long drive and until you get that cast off, you don’t get to take the wheel. I’ll let you work the radio, but none of that country crap. Mom wants us there for dinner tonight. She wants to fuss over us.” What Mac didn’t say was that he was feeling this urgency to get home.
“Yeah, I’m ready. And all you’re going to get down here is country crap, baby.” Since he’d left, two more country stations had popped up and still not a rock station to be found. “You’re in the country, so you get what you get. By time we hit Ohio, we might find something you like. If you’re lucky.”
Meeting the parents, that wasn’t something Jet was really looking forward to. He knew it wasn’t like Mac was taking him home for approval, but it still made him nervous. He was pretty sure that Mrs. Taylor was only being nice in allowing him to tag along and would rather it was just Mac coming to visit. “You know, if you think your mom isn’t going to really want me there, I can stay here and meet back up with you on base. I don’t want to do anything to mess up the time you have with your family.”
“Jet, both my mom and dad want to meet you. Trust me, Mom’ll complain that I’m too thin and try to fatten me up and she’ll fall in love with you. All they’ll ever know is that we served and were injured together. But my folks know that I don’t make friends easily and that you’re someone special. It’ll mean a lot for them to have someone else to spoil. Don’t worry, Jet. We’re very casual.”
“If you say so. But seriously, Mac, if she gets sick of me, just let me know. I can come back here or fly back to base and meet up with you when you report back. I know how important your parents are to you and I want you to get all the time you need with them. But we’ll play it by ear, okay?”
Jet would try not to worry, even though he had a full day’s ride to think about what was going to happen. “You could use a couple of pounds, your mom is right. She’s going to think they don’t feed us. Which is partially true, the food sucks and neither of us are great cooks. A home-cooked meal is going to be great.”
“And trust me, sweet boy, they respect limits. They’ve had to, they had me with my head buried in a book forever. And yeah, if I could gain, I wouldn’t be so thin, but I have a high metabolism. When I hit forty, I’ll probably slow down and gain three hundred pounds or something.”
“I doubt it. You’re too active to put on that kind of weight. But five pounds so that your hip bones aren’t sticking out so prominently, sure, that would be sexy.”
“Hey, I’ll do what I can. Not all of us can be the former quarterback with the killer abs.”
“The former quarterback works hard to make sure he doesn’t put on any weight. Not all of us have a naturally high metabolism. I actually have to exercise to try and keep up with you.”
“You look good. Damn good, Jet. Not scrawny like me.”
Mac drove in silence for a few hours, and by mid-afternoon, they were approaching his house. “Ready, babe?”
“As I’m ever going to be.” Jet opened the door, and grabbed the bouquet of flowers he’d made Mac stop for at the local grocery. His mother would have skinned him if he had showed up without flowers for the hostess, even if her son said it wasn’t necessary. “Last chance to put me on a plane and send me home.”
“Never, Jet. Never, sweet boy. I love you, my forever boy, my oxygen.” He left the bags in the car for now and motioned Jet toward the door of the pretty nondescript house. “Mom? Dad?” He eased the door open, wishing his parents would lock up.
They were standing, moving toward him, and Mac felt a rush of gratitude. His mother clasped him around the waist and rested her cheek on his chest and he gasped in pain when she brushed against the injured area.
His father gave him a serious look and cupped his head in his hands, kissing his forehead.
“Welcome home, MacKai, my boy. Emily, I think that’s where he was hurt. Be careful.”
“It’s okay, Dad. Really.” Mac gently disengaged himself and motioned Jet over. “Mom, Dad, this is Lance Corporal Gibbs, Jethro Gibbs, he likes to be called Jet. He’s more than a friend, he’s a brother to me after all we’ve gone through, so please treat him like the brother you deprived me of.”
“Jet, my folks, Keith and Emily Taylor.”
“Ma’am, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” Holding the flowers out to her, he was pleased at the smile he received.
“Call me Emily, please, Jethro. Ma’am makes me sound older then I already am.” Taking the flowers, she handed them to her husband before hugging her son’s friend. “Could you please put these in water for me, darling? I want to get to know MacKai’s friend better. It’s such an honor to have you join us for the holiday. When we heard that you were taking care of our boy, we insisted he bring you to meet us. He’s not the easiest child to get along with, and any friend of his we want to get to know.”
“He took good care of me as well, Ma…Emily. We both needed some quiet time away from the world to heal. It was nice to have the company of someone who understood what I’d been through.” Jet didn’t want to speak too much about what had happened, that was for Mac to tell his parents, not him. “He’s been a good friend and I appreciate the invitation this weekend. Mac has told me all about how wonderful his parents are and I can’t see that he was exaggerating any.”
“And you me, Jet. You helped me more than you know, bea—buddy.”
“We, we’ve been good for one another. I think we both needed the time away from the world. I was just lucky enough to be able to provide a location.”
“He’s a good guy, Mom. Really good.”
“I can see that. You’ve always had good taste in friends. If you bring someone home, you can bet he’s not only a good boy, but important to you.”
“He means the world to me,” Mac admitted. “More even than a brother. I can’t quantify it and I don’t think there are words. When I couldn’t even drink the horror away, there he was.” He was being starkly honest with his mother and if she read their true feelings into it, he didn’t care. He wasn’t leaving his beautiful boy and if his parents couldn’t adjust, they’d lose.
Mac swallowed. “It’s been hard, Mom. I needed to be here and let my guard down. Be a son again instead of an officer.”
“You are our joy, MacKai. You can be an officer when you’re out in the world, but when you come home, you’re still the little boy with the scraped knees, who was smaller than all the other boys on the block. My baby with the brown curls and the expressive eyes, even before you could crawl or talk, your eyes would tell me what you were thinking.” Tapping her son’s nose, Emily had a tough time imagining her baby when looking at the man he had turned into. “And you, son of mine, were always thinking. There was always something going on in your head.”
“That he’s been saying anything to anyone is what amazes me. He was always such a quiet and studious boy. The Marines must have brought out some of his social skills.”
Emily turned back to her son, and hugged him again, being careful of his injury. “You’re too skinny, boy. I’ll make a few extra pies and treats for you. It’s not healthy to be so small. You’re hurt and you won’t ever heal right without eating right.”
“You owe me, Jet. I told you it wouldn’t take more than ten minutes for me to hear how scrawny I am. Small? Dad, work with me here. I’m not six-two like you, but I’m not a munchkin like you either, Mom.”
Keith snorted. “Mac, I love that munchkin. I haven’t any comment at all though you could use a little fat on those muscles.”
"I wouldn't call you scrawny MacKai." Jet was going to love knowing Mac's full name, he wasn't going to let him live it down. "But I'd never turn down home made pie. You call yourself a smart man, but I'm starting to doubt that."
“Thanks for the support, Leroy. We both have name crosses to bear.” When his parents frowned, Mac gave them a small smile. “I’m teasing. The name MacKai is a pretty cool, just don’t call me ‘kay’ or Mac-Kay. It’s MacKai. It’s a Scottish name, son of the earth, keeper of the keys. What else, Pop?”
“The literal translation is beautiful son. Jethro, we tried so hard to have a child and when this one was born, he had those big green eyes, a head full of curls. We named him in that moment. She picked Mac and I picked Kai.”
Mac smirked to Jethro. “Beautiful son. They used to call me beautiful boy, not bad for a scrawny troll. See how incredible my folks are, Jet?”
Tears sparkled in Emily’s eyes. “You are, honey, inside and out.”
Keith hadn’t been married to his wife for forty years without knowing what she needed and right now, she needed to see MacKai’s reactions and assess his condition herself. If he and Gibbs were here, that wouldn’t happen.
“Come with me, Jethro. Let me get you a cold drink, or would you like coffee?” He led the other marine into the kitchen and motioned to the table. “Have a seat, Jet. I have a question for you and I’d appreciate an answer. I don’t know that we’ll get one from Mac directly.” He paused. “How badly injured was he? I think it was significantly more than the little scratch he claims. He was in pain and my wife barely touched him.”
“Coffee would be great sir, black, please.” Sitting down, he took a second to relax and consider what he was being asked. Mac didn’t want his parents to know how bad it was, hadn’t even admitted how bad it was. Seeing him without his shirt on though, it was obvious that it was more then a scratch.
“When I found him in Germany, he was nursing a beer in a bar off base. This might have been two days after he was out of surgery. You raised one hell of a Marine, he’s an incredible example for his men. But yeah, it’s more than a scratch. He won’t let on and he’s doing better than he was. Getting stronger, but he still is having issues. He’ll be fine though. They did surgery and removed the shrapnel and any bone chips that were caused in the explosion. He got off relatively easy, considering.”
Keith’s hands shook as he measured out coffee and turned on the machine. “It’ll be ready shortly, Jethro.” He sat at the table next to the young man and arranged the flowers, eager for something to do.
“Emily and I had lost four babies before MacKai came along. We’d been married almost twenty years, had thought we’d never be parents. We’d stopped trying, stopped dreaming and hoping. Then he was born, this wonderful little boy, this miracle, the best of both of us. Brilliant, Jethro. Did he tell you he was accepted when he was only sixteen? He was skipped two grades and we started him at school at age five. I’ve often wondered if he’s been driven to achieve because he had a premonition that he might lose his life very young.”
“My wife has an aptitude, not the sight or anything like that. We’re practical salt of the earth people here, Jethro, but when it comes to our son, she senses things and she has been telling me all the while that it was bad, much worse than he let on. The Corps doesn’t send able bodied young men like you both home for scratches. Both of us know that. I took shrapnel in the war and I wasn’t even in med bay an hour, Jethro.”
Emily watched her son’s expression and body language after Jethro and Keith left the room. “He means a lot to you, doesn’t he?”
“He’s my world, Mom.”
“MacKai, if you’re saying what I think it is that you’re saying, it’s fine.” Emily wasn’t sure if she was hearing her son right, but if he and Jethro had a relationship deeper than being friends, so be it. “Your father and I have always just wanted you happy. I know we pushed you hard when you were younger and that you’ve always just wanted to please us. Just you waking up was enough to do that, you never had to push yourself the way you did. Just having you and whoever it is you choose to bring home is enough for your old parents.”
Mac nodded, leaning in close. “I’m deeply, desperately, totally in love with him, Mom. I wasn’t looking for a relationship, but he found me. He found me, Mom.”
“I need to get to know this boy better then. He’s very good looking, I can see where you would be attracted to him.” Not surprised by her son’s pronouncement, she was still concerned. “You two are being careful, aren’t you? Marines aren’t known for being horribly tolerant of anyone they perceive as being different. I don’t want anything to happen to you stateside, either.”
The pot gurgled and Keith stood, pouring the young man’s coffee just as he wanted it. “I always hoped the Corps would break Mac of his black, two sugars rule. Boy has a sweet tooth. But I guess you’d know that, being with him like that. Two boys, an isolated cabin, must lead to some speculation. Not that Emily and I would mind if MacKai was interested in that sort of thing. We just hope he finds someone special before we’re dust in the wind. And grandchildren would be nice.”
“He still likes his coffee tainted, sir. When I was stocking up for our stay at the cabin, I bought him hot chocolate so he could mix it with his coffee. It’s his little indulgence, although he drinks it black when he’s around his men. They’d tease him horribly if they knew.”
What did he say to Mac’s father? He probably meant what he said, that it wouldn’t be a problem if his son was anything but straight. But that wasn’t his story to tell. “No one but you and Mrs. Taylor knew where we were, sir. There isn’t anyone to speculate anything. We both realized the chance we were taking with our careers, but since we are only friends, it isn’t a problem. As I told your wife, we both needed someplace quiet to go heal and I happened to own a place.
Keith gave the young man a gentle smile. “And he has you to keep him drinking coffee the way real men drink it.” He sipped his own drink before he spoke again, hoping he wasn’t opening a can of worms.
“Nobody sees the way my son cocks his head to the side and gives you that tender smile of his, the one only his mother has ever gotten before? Nobody saw how he was chewing on his lower lip as he introduced you to us? How his eyes softened almost to blue as he mirrored your posture? The way his voice gentles as he says your name? He can hide a lot of things, but the signals the body gives out are always transparent.”
Keith swallowed another mouthful of coffee, the special Jamaican blend Emily had bought for the special occasion. “He was more nervous about the introduction than about facing us when he must have known we knew he was more badly injured than he let on. I’m not a fool, Jethro, and I’m not blind. I know how my son reacts in every situation. We only had the one child, so we became students of his every expression and mood.”
Mac wondered if he could find the words to explain how he felt about Jethro. “It’s not his looks as much as his heart, Mom. He’s just an incredible human. Gorgeous, yeah, great personality, as intense as I am, but his heart is what caused me to fall for him. I want you and Dad to get to know him. See what I see.”
He looked deeply into his mother’s eyes. “We’re both lifers, Mom, and nothing will stop that. We’re very careful. We’ll be very careful, but it would be nice to relax in here, behind closed doors, like we did at his cabin. We both value honor, Mom. We both had great upbringings and we would never disrespect the values you and his folks instilled.”
Mac paused, trying not to grin, but failing miserably. “ We met before we shipped out, drank a few beers, got to be friends. We found each other in Germany, right after the bombing. Two injured guys, two natural leaders who were helpless, scared, haunted. We’d just intended to sleep off base, get a hotel room, try to relax, but…something happened. Comfort, more, I don’t even know. Magic… He made me feel safe for the first time since the bombing. I slept…when you haven’t slept for a week, that means the world.”
“And when I woke up beside him, my first reaction wasn’t to grab my gun, to panic. It was to snuggle down under the blankets and go back to sleep. It wasn’t about…you know…the physical. Mom, it was about healing, reaching out to someone else. It was spiritual.”
Mac swallowed hard. “And then we went to his cabin, and did completely mundane things. He made you and Dad something, a carving. I read a lot. And in all those mundane moments, I fell in love with him, Mom. Me, who has never been attracted to a guy, who loves leggy, curvy blondes. Loving him is as natural as breathing, being with him is as necessary as oxygen.”
Keith walked to the kitchen door and peered out, seeing MacKai and Emily speaking, heads lowered and together. When he came back, he put gentle hands on the younger man’s shoulders. “Hypothetically speaking, if my son was in love with you, you would be welcomed into our hearts and family with open arms. Neither of you will ever be judged in my home. You are incredibly brave American heroes, Jethro. If you and Mac do have those strong feelings for each other, you don’t have to tell us, but you also don’t have to hide behind that front door. You took care of my son when he wouldn’t even allow us in, and that makes you family, be it my adopted son or my son-in-law. You always have a home here and you always have family to go to.”
He squeezed Jethro’s shoulders gently and sat back down next to him. “As a surrogate father, is there anything you need to get off your chest about the bombing, your injuries, MacKai? Any of it? I saw a great deal of combat myself and I had my share of injuries.”
“Thank you, sir, I appreciate all of that. My parents are both gone and Mac has always raved about how wonderful his parents are. I could use an adopted father, someone who doesn’t mind giving me advice when I need it.” His parents wouldn’t have been so accepting of his relationship with Mac, but he was glad that Mr. And Mrs. Taylor weren’t going to be running their son out of town on a rail because of him.
“Mac said you served and it was part of the reason he wanted to join up. But your over achieving son had to one up you and go through the Academy. He’s only wanted to make you proud, but I keep telling him that how could you not be proud?”
Keith took the younger man’s chin in his hand. “Jethro, you don’t need to hide behind Mac. I’ll be glad to speak of him, of course, but you could use some support as well, I reckon.”
Keith would do this Jethro’s way for now. “I was proud from the moment he arrived, two weeks early, squalling. I have been proud every minute of every day since. He was a good boy and now he’s a good man, a good soldier and a good officer. A father could not be prouder. I trust that he knows that and I will tell him. Just as your parents are very proud of you, Jethro, wherever they may be now. I see fierce intelligence in your eyes as well as the need to right the injustices of the world, much as I see in Mac. I understand how the two of you have been drawn to each other.”
Mac watched his mother, feeling sympathy for her. Despite her acceptance, this couldn’t be easy. “I’m glad you brought your girlfriend home, MacKai, or your companion as it may be. I don’t ever want you to feel that you have to hide from us. Your father and I love you, if you’ve fallen in love with a very cute Marine who isn’t leggy, curvy and blonde, or if you’ve fallen in love with the female counterpart of that. I never cared, although I would like to see a grandchild some day before I’m too old to enjoy one.” That hope, she knew, wasn’t likely anytime soon, but she hoped to live to see it. “Someday, not anytime soon. I have no intention of leaving you yet. I, at least, have something to live for. That and to take care of you boys, because it’s obvious you need a good female influence in your life. You’re both good boys, but I want to see you grow up to be good men.”
“My soul mate, Mom. Let’s not get wrapped up in word choices. He’s the most important person beside you and Dad to me.” Mac pulled her close, into a gentle embrace. “I knew that you’d accept this, but a part of me was still worried and scared. And I want to be a father. It could happen. Look at how Jet found me.” He held her tighter. “The biggest thing you and Dad ever offered me is love and acceptance. You made me into the man I am, Mom, the officer I am. And the Corps has taken that and shaped me, but I’d be nothing without you guys and your guidance.”
Mac just wrapped his arms around his mother and whispered thanks to her. He hadn’t always been the son they deserved, but at least they didn’t know some of the stupid things that had happened when he was younger.
“You’re welcome sweetheart. But you never have to thank me for loving you. I was doing that before you were even born. Just like I want to fatten you up.”
Mac tightened his arms around his mother, just drinking her presence in. “I’m not as thin as I look, Mom. I’ve gained a lot more muscle. I just lost some when I got hurt. And Jet’s a great guy, one in a million. He’s as easy to talk to as you and Dad.”
“You might have more muscle, but I feel more bones when I give you a squeeze. It’s not healthy, young man, and I intend to try to fix that.” It was so hard to know that she almost lost her son, the one she tried so hard to have. “You aren’t going back there, are you? I would appreciate it if you were able to stay closer to home, where they aren’t trying to kill you.”
Mac pulled back enough to look down at her. “I don’t know. I think they’ll park me at Pendleton or Lejeune, for psych reasons if not physical ones. Please try not to worry too much, Mom. I’m being as careful as I can be and I’m resting up and trying to heal as best I can. That guy there is helping a lot. He really is a brother to me.”
Jethro’s eyes softened then and there, his facial muscles relaxing under Keith’s hand and Keith knew the boy had accepted his acceptance of their relationship. “Thank you for loving him, Jethro, for seeing the man we know so well. I trust you’ll be sharing a bedroom this visit?”
“It’s hard not to love him, sir. He makes it very easy, and I think he’s the first person to really believe in me. My parents, they loved me, but they were disappointed. My father enlisted during Korea, but came home as soon as his tour was done, to work the mines. They expected me to do the same thing, but even before the both of them died, I knew it wasn’t going to happen that way. Mac, when I met him, he thought I was an officer candidate, someone he managed to miss at the Academy. No one has ever thought that, not after talking to me. He believes I can be more then I am and no one besides him ever has.”
Keith released the younger man’s chin. “Mac is very perceptive and I see great things in your eyes. Perhaps you need more people to believe in you, Jethro. Let Emily and I get to know you. Know one thing, Jethro. With intelligence and determination, you can overcome so many odds. Your circumstances are neither your fate nor your destiny.”
His mother looked at him for a long moment and Mac stepped back, out of her embrace. “You want to see it for yourself.” He knew her expression. Mac unbuttoned his shirt, knowing he wasn’t going to be able to laugh off the injury to his family any longer. It was still about eight inches long and an inch wide, though there was a wedge of scabbing covering what had been exposed muscle. As he parted his shirt, he spoke. “Mom, don’t be upset. It looks worse than it is. I’m healing.”
When she gasped, he closed his eyes, wishing he’d been anywhere but on sentry duty that day.
“A scratch, MacKai? You thought you could pretend that you were barely hurt, but look at you. That could have killed you, and do you know what that would have done to me?” It wasn’t fair, to lay on a guilt trip, but Emily wasn’t thinking about what was fair, just that she had almost lost her only child. “I understand you have a duty. Let me add one more thing to it. You will come home alive, do you hear me? I will not lose you, not after all the trouble I went to bringing you into this world.”
Mac tried to set his jaw, but his lip trembled. This was worse than the physical injury, hurting his parents. “I know, Mom. I know. I tried not to worry either of you. I should have died. The other sentries died. Everyone on gate duty but me died. I tried to comfort some of them at the end.” He blinked rapidly and stared at the wall adorned with family pictures. He would not cry in front of his mother, father, or Jet. But the tears weren’t listening and fell down his face.
“I will always come home to you, Mom.” He was careful not to say ‘alive’.”They’ll keep me out of combat situations for a year, maybe two. It’s gonna take some time to rebuild all the muscle I shredded. By then, who knows…I might be looking for a teaching position or thinking about a masters or a doctorate, like Dad did.”
“I would like that, but you need to do what your heart tells you, darling.” Wiping away the tears that were streaming down her face, Emily knew that this wasn’t the way to get Mac to walk away. If he left because he was guilty, he would always regret his choice. “I am so proud of you, with the choices you’ve made and how you serve your country. I just worry about you. It’s what mothers do.”
“Mom, please don’t cry. I’m here, I’m alive and I’m healing. We have a lot to give thanks for. A lot of our buddies, guys our age and younger, their parents are having a Thanksgiving without them. And don’t be upset with me for making light of it. I couldn’t have handled seeing you and Dad right afterward and neither of you needed that stress. I was a mess. Still am. Spooked about everything. Car doors slamming. People looking at me that I don’t know. Trucks…Trying to be fearless, but we’re just scared little boys who saw way too much over there.”
He didn’t seem to be able to stop talking. “Combat situations you’re trained for, but who can be prepared when a psychopath drives a mobile bomb into your home. Into our home, Mom. How do you come to terms with that? How do you sleep at night? How do you tell yourself or your family that they’re safe? ‘Cause Jet and I haven’t figured that out yet.”
He had to get hold of himself and be the damn Lieutenant everyone expected him to be. “Mom, please…”
Keith settled in and refilled their coffee cups. “I’m going to tell you something about circumstances, Jethro.I grew up in one of the poorer areas of our city, Jethro. My father had a ninth-grade education and didn’t wear shoes until he enlisted. My mother had a fifth-grade education. After the war, my father worked at a slaughterhouse. Neither of them could read or write more than the basics. Those were the circumstances in which I was raised.”
“After serving, I worked two jobs to put myself through college. I became an educator, got my master’s degree, just earned my Ph.D. I’ve dedicated my entire life to teaching and learning. Let that be a lesson to you, son. You can be anything you want. Set your mind to it, work hard, surround yourself with good people. Your circumstances don’t define who you are. Your character does.”
“I’d like that, sir, to get to know you and Mrs. Taylor better. I miss my folks and could use some direction at times. I miss having someone to confide in, who has been there and knows how to best maneuver through the world. I really miss my dad because of that. He might not have traveled the whole world or even gotten much more than his high-school diploma, but he always had the best advice. I want to be more than a grunt some day. I’ve moved up the ranks, but I want more than all of this. I’m in for life, at least that’s the plan, then use the GI bill to get through college. It’s not much of a plan, but it’s something to start with.”
Jet took a sip of his coffee, trying to get his thoughts together. He had run a number of scenarios in his head, how meeting the Taylors would go. Not one of them ended with Mac’s father asking if he’d be sleeping in his son’s room.
“Sir, a guest room is fine. I wouldn’t want to do anything that would put you or Emily in an uncomfortable position. That you offered is enough for me and I’m sure Mac will feel the same.”
His mother’s hands had pressed onto his chest, and Mac knew she was measuring his heartbeat. “Let me close my shirt, Mom. You don’t want to keep looking at it.”
“Of course, I should have thought that you wouldn’t want me to be staring at it.” She had been unable to take her eyes off the injury that had almost taken her son away. Unable to stop herself, Emily placed her hand over it, not pressing too hard, so as not to cause any more damage. She could feel Mac’s heart beating strongly beneath her fingers. “Just make sure you come home, young man. Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children and I don’t want to take any chances. I’m too old for this stress.”
“I’m not ashamed of it. It’s probably going to be a lifelong badge of courage. I just don’t think you need to look at such ugliness, Mom.” Mac rested his hand over hers. “You won’t bury me. I have a compelling reason, three of them, actually, to keep me here and safe, Mom. I promise you I’ll be as safe as I can possibly be. I intend to be eating your food and listening to you grousing about fattening me up for many years to come.”
“You had better, MacKai. I expect to be able to nag you until you’re old and grey, and if you deny me that, I will be very upset. Speaking of nagging, are you hungry? It was a long drive for you today. I should have offered you and Jethro something to eat immediately. You’re both still growing boys.”
“Starved, actually.” Mac motioned to the door. “Think we should disturb ‘em?”
“I don’t see why not. Your father is hardly a scary man and your Jet seems to be someone who can hold his own. They’re probably drinking coffee and having a similar discussion to what we’re having.” Mac never gave them enough credit as parents to see when something had changed in his life. She was sure that Keith was welcoming Jethro to the family, or something along those lines. “Your old parents are much hipper and aware of our surroundings than you think.”
“I assumed that was why Dad took Jet off. A lot has changed, Mom, including my perceptiveness. Dad has the best read on body language of anyone. I knew coming here that my relationship wouldn’t be a secret, I wouldn’t have darkened your door and then lied to you. My mother raised me better than that. Why do you think I waited until my chest wasn’t quite so raw to come home. You and Dad were charitable enough to act like you didn’t see through my façade, but we all know you did. And I needed to see you guys just like you needed to see me. If I could have handled exposed you and Dad to how bad it was, I would have. I needed both of you. But I had to protect you, Mom.”
Mac swallowed a few tears down. “I didn’t even let on to Jet how bad it was. He knew when he saw, but I tried to keep him in the dark. Pretending. We do a lot of that in the Corps, Mom. Pretending to be strong, brave, fearless. Pretending to be men in the face of combat. Pretending guys are going to be okay, even while they’re dying in our arms.”
“That pretending, when you give a dying man a little peace, that’s something to be proud of, honey. If you can do that for another human, there is nothing wrong with you. Being as hurt as you were, iIt’s amazing you’re here, Mac, you shouldn’t be. Not with what looks like a gaping hole in your chest. You never need to lie to us here, never pretend that you don’t need us. We’ll be here for you, darling, and you make us so proud. You turned into a wonderful man. I can hardly believe that I had anything to do with it.”
“Thanks, Mom. I just didn’t think I’d have to do it a dozen times or more.”
“I hope you never have to do it again. But if you do, don’t ever feel guilty in giving comfort to those around you. It’s a gift that not everyone has, but you have always been good at it. You have a good heart and watch out for those less fortunate then you. And now you have someone to share your burden with.”
He looked at the door and the kitchen. “I need him, Mom. He was my sanity, he was my guiding light when it seemed easier to have been one of the dead, when it hurt too much to want to go on.”
“You’ve got a good man, he obviously knows how to take care of you. You’re calm, you’re in control and you’re withstanding your mother’s coddling quite well. I haven’t seen a wiggle or a fidget since you walked in the door. He’s good for you, and as long as he continues to be good for you, I will support you completely.”
“I’ve got a great man. He’s amazing, and yeah, he knows how to take care of my heart and my soul. As well as my body.” He colored darkly. “Should have left that part out, huh?”
“You may want to refrain from any further mention of sex talk, Mac. I may be hip, but I’m not sure I need details of my son’s sex life. I’d say that if Jet was a Janet, in general there are certain things I don’t need to know. That’s one of them.”
“Point taken,” Mac said quietly.
“I won’t have you boys sneaking around. We can maintain appearances, if that makes you more comfortable, and I will insist on you both being respectful and discreet, but this is your home too, Jethro. If you…” Keith trailed off as Mac and Emily walked in, his wife’s expression strained, her hand rubbing over her own chest.
Keith squeezed Jethro’s hand and stood. “Let me see, son.” Mac lifted his head, standing at attention, and stared ahead as Keith undid the buttons and parted the fabric.
Dear God! How had Mac survived an injury that severe? It was longer than the entire span of his hand, fingertips to base of palm. He’d been prepared for something, but not this level of injury. “Oh, MacKai. We almost lost you.” Keith pulled Emily close and motioned Jethro over. As soon as the other man was there, Keith embraced him, centering Mac in between all of them.
“I’m okay, Dad. I’m healing. The worst is over. I promise.”
“I know. But you’ve never understood the protectiveness your mother and I feel. Someone with such hatred of our military and country nearly killed both of you boys. Live every moment without regrets. Mac, look at me.”
Mac looked into his father’s eyes and Keith reluctantly released Emily and Jethro, to hold his son’s face in his hands. “I know and I accept you. I love you. I respect you. I admire you. I respect your relationship and I’m very impressed with Jethro. You always have sanctuary here, my son. In our home, in our arms. A father couldn’t be prouder of his son.”
Mac blinked rapidly, looking at both of his parents, and then to Jet. He hadn’t expected to be thrown out or anything like that, but this easy acceptance floored him. “I…I…” He touched his chest. “I couldn’t be fuller, right here. How’d I get so lucky?”
He stepped back a pace, wrapping an arm around Jethro. “Mom, Dad, this is my hero. This is my soul. Dad, it’s not physical as much as spiritual. We have a soul connection.”
Keith nodded, hugging his wife, unsure of how she would take the news. “I understand, MacKai. The heart knows. And I’m thrilled you’ve got yourself someone who knows how to drink coffee like a real man.”
Mac rolled his eyes. “You and Jet have bonded over coffee? Oh boy.”
“Don’t look at me. I can’t help it if you like chocolate in your coffee. That sweet tooth is going to come back and bite you in the as…backside some day. Sorry, ma’am. Not used to keeping civilized company. I’ll try to watch my cussing.” Jet blushed, knowing that it was going to be a rough couple of days. Living in the barracks, he didn’t watch what he said any more.
Mac took Jet’s chin in his hand. “I love you, my beautiful boy.” His voice started to crack and he cleared his throat before moving in close, brushing a gentle kiss over Jet’s mouth, holding him securely.
He leaned in closer, whispering. “This is so fucking hard. My mother’s stricken look….and now Dad’s… I didn’t think it was going to hurt them quite so much.”
“Love you too, baby,” Jet wasn’t sure he was comfortable with this level of intimacy in front of anyone, even if so far both of the Taylors had been fine with what they’d seen. “They worry, but they know that you’re okay and that you’re here. You didn’t come home in a box, so it’s a good holiday.”
He pulled back, resting his forehead against Jet’s. “You hungry? That McDonald’s crap was hours ago. I’m famished and I know you’ll get on my case about being too damn scrawny, as if I can help it. Blame them. Their genes. Hell, Dad’s so brilliant he can probably tell you exactly which genes are responsible and how much caffeine to feed ‘em to get ‘em working double time.”
“You’re spoiled. Obviously, I’ll be working out until the day I die to keep up with you. But if your dad can really tell me how to jump-start those thin genes while I can. Or, I can just watch your mom stuff you full of pie, while I wave it off to protect my girlish figure. You know what, your dad all but told me that we’re sharing a room. You eat all the pie you want, I promise I’ll help you work it off.”
“We’re sharing a room? Serious?” He looked over at his folks, shocked and a bit touched. “Wow. He was really okay with it, Jet?” Mac kept his arm around his lover. “Dad? We’ll take you up on that offer of a shared bedroom. We both sleep a lot better with someone close by who knows the nightmares.”
“As you wish, lad.” Keith gave both boys a gentle smile. “You two don’t worry about getting up early tomorrow or any of that nonsense. Mom will serve dinner at one and you just need to be spit shined and at the table by then. You two look good together, natural, relaxed.”
“I’m a farm boy, still up at the crack of dawn. Not all of us can be as lazy as some city boys I know.” Jet nudged Mac, knowing that he’d be up just as early. “So if you need any help, ma’am, just knock. I used to help my mom get ready for holiday dinners once my chores were done. I’m a pro at stuffing a turkey.”
“Jethro, we can do that next year. For now, sleep in. Or watch the Macy’s Parade with us, go for a walk with me. You’re here to relax, son, not put that one uninjured arm to work.”
“Yes, ma’am.” It would be nice to relax, but he’d still try to keep an eye out to see if Mac’s mom needed help through out the day. “I’d like to take you up on the walk, you can give me the nickel tour of Mac’s childhood, since he was pretty tight lipped as we were driving in.”
Keith looked at his son. “Well, we’ve only been here since ’76. We moved when Mac was fourteen. One of his friends…” Mac winced and Keith sighed. “I’m sorry, son. One of his friends died tragically, Jethro. We moved shortly afterward but…”
It had still marked their boy.
Keith smoothed Mac’s hair back, leaving him in the capable hands of Jethro and turned his attention to his wife.
Mac let out a shuddery breath. Thinking about Will and Jimmy always cut deep. “Wasn’t always anyone to be admired, Jet. Maybe someday I’ll tell you about it.”
“We all have our pasts. When you want to talk about it, I’ll be here to listen.”
Keith leaned in to his wife. “Are you okay, Em? I wasn’t prepared for that level of injury.”
“Me either, but I’m fine. MacKai is home with us, in time for the holidays and I have something to be thankful for above the everyday things we have. We also have Jet here to get to know. I think it’s a great Thanksgiving from top to bottom.”
He held his wife close, tightly. “Look at them, sweetheart.” The protective way Mac was with Jethro reminded him of how their son was with his mother and how he’d be with Keith himself when he got older. “I have to say, I wasn’t expecting any of this, Em. But I like what I’m hearing, I like the way MacKai’s blossoming with him.” Keith allowed one small shudder to escape.
“But his chest, right over his heart. Whatever he says, Emily, we nearly lost him. We need to feed him, coddle him as much as he’ll let us. He left us a boy, Em, but I see a man behind those eyes.
“I see that too. He’s changed, I was telling him just that. Not that he was a bad child, but he just carries himself more confidently. He’s not my little boy anymore, and I’m not just talking about the silly haircut. Even the way he deals with me, he doesn’t want to say something that will hurt me.” She didn’t want her child to hide things from her, but she was sure he was hiding to a point. “He confessed that his injury was worse than he let on. But he didn’t want us to worry. As if we weren’t worried anyway, just knowing he was hurt. Someone needs to tell him that he’s not the parent and he doesn’t need to protect us.”
“I’ll have a quiet word with him later. You need to get to know Jethro. Good, sensible boy there. Our MacKai may just be okay.”
“From Mac’s description, I feel like I already know him. I trust my boys to have good taste in people. If you like him and it’s obvious Mac likes him, I know I’ll love him.”
The next day
Keith must have spent half the night making sure the boys were sleeping well. Every time he peeked in, Jethro lifted his head, gave him a nod and smiled. Mac had been snuggled up close and looked completely at ease. Sometime around five, they changed watches, Mac staying awake while Jethro slept. By ten, both boys were sound asleep and Keith had convinced Em to push lunch back to late afternoon.
Jethro and Mac stumbled to wakefulness sometime after three and were showered and dressed in uniforms for dinner before five. They looked so mature and he was so proud. Maybe later he’d bring Mac around to the neighbors. They’d all been worried about him.
When the boys were seated, Keith handed Mac the carving knife. “We have a tradition here, Jethro. Each of us cuts the meat for the next person and as we do so, we say a few words of thanks. I’m sure Mac will help you out. Mac? You want to start?”
This was a huge honor, reserved for the man of the house, and Mac knew the subtext behind it all. He cut several thick slices for Jethro, arranging them with care on his plate. “I’m thankful for all of you. Mom, Dad, I couldn’t have dreamed up better or more supportive parents. I aspire to be a tenth the man you are, Dad, a tenth the supporter and parent you are, Mom. And Jet, you saved my heart and soul, beautiful boy. Happy Thanksgiving.”
He handed Jet the carving knife, keeping the fork back so that he could spear the pieces of poultry Jet carved, for whichever of his parents Jet chose to pass the torch to.”
“I’m not sure how graceful I’ll be at this, having one arm in a cast doesn’t make any fine motor skills real easy.” Jet was thankful Mac was there to assist as he attempted to cut some consistently sized slices.
“I’m thankful for the welcome that I received yesterday and for the fact that both of you were willing to accept us, even though I’m sure that this wasn’t the relationship you expected for Mac, but you still were gracious in your reaction. I’m also thankful that you allowed me in on the secret behind Mac’s full name. I never would have guessed that it was anything other than what he introduced himself as.”
Turning so he was looking at Mac, he continued on. “I’m also very thankful that Mac is able to be home and is healthy. That he has allowed me into his life to meet his parents and see a little of what made him the man he is today.”
Handing the knife over to Mr. Taylor, he watched Mac serve the meat he’d just cut. “Thanks, Mac, I’ll remember to call you when I need an extra pair of hands, you’re good at that.”
Mac squeezed Jet around the waist. “Don’t forget to give them the carving you did, sweet boy.”
Keith took the knife and serving fork from the boys. “I’m so thankful that you’re both here alive and healing. I’m so thankful that you boys have given your service to our country. And that you found each other. That the good lord blessed us with a son after so much heartbreak and that MacKai has become a great man. That my wife is here by my side after forty years together. That you boys told us about yourselves instead of trying to hide.”
“Good food and drink and family, I’m a very lucky man to have all of you here. And to have someone new to spoil, another brave soldier who knows how to drink coffee like a real man.”
He put the slices of meat on Emily’s plate and handed her the knife and fork.
Taking the carving utensils from her husband, Emily beamed at her boys. It was easy to consider Jethro as one of them, he quickly fit into their family. “When MacKai called from Germany, I didn’t know if he’d be able to make it home for the holiday, or anytime soon. I’m thankful that my boy made it home, and makes us so proud every day when he’s out protecting our country. I am thankful he brought Jethro home with him, allowing us to get to know him and welcome him into our family.” Emily’s eyes were filling with tears, but she wasn’t embarrassed about it. “I have a wonderful husband who I’ve spent more then half my life with, who always provided me a comfortable life and allowed me to stay home and raise our son. I am such a lucky woman, I couldn’t ask for more than to share dinner with all of my boys.”
Emily served Mac and sat quickly, moving her chair closer to her husband’s. “We’re all blessed this year, and I’m glad that we have a brief respite from the outside world to enjoy this dinner and each other’s company.”
“Happy Thanksgiving, Mom, Dad, beautiful boy. There’s no place I’d rather be and no people I’d rather be with.”
After dinner, Jet slipped away from the living room, leaving Mac and his mother watching some black and white movie that he had no real interest in. Finding the box he had made sure to pack in his suitcase, he brought it out and went in search of Mr. Taylor. He didn’t want a big fuss made and he knew that would be exactly what Mac’s mother would do.
Finding Keith puttering around in the garage, Jet cleared his throat to let the man know he was coming. “I have something for you and Mrs. Taylor, sir. I thought you might be able to find a place for it somewhere in the house.”
Keith turned and looked at the young man. “You didn’t need to bring anything for us, Jethro. Just having you here has been a gift.” But Keith took the box and opened it.
“Did you create this, Jethro?” He was touched and brought the newest member of his family into a tight embrace. “Thank you, Jethro. The work you put into this is breathtaking.” He pulled back a little and looked deeply into Jethro’s eyes.
“Thanks to you, we have our boy back. I’ll forever be thankful for that, son.”