They pulled off Route 44 into a tiny parking area, so small that it probably couldn't hold more than one car, though the two motorcycles fit easily. MacGyver carefully looked for any indication that camping wasn't allowed here, but there was nothing, so he turned off his bike and waved at Sam to do the same. Once the bikes were quiet and their helmets off, Mac asked, "Look okay to you?"
Sam sighed, but obediently looked around. They were in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania, near the end of autumn, and the sun was just starting to sink below soft, rounded peaks, so different from the rocky crags of the west. The trees that surrounded them were gilded with golden sunlight, and the few leaves that remained gleamed in brilliant shades of yellow and orange. A creek passed under the road a few feet ahead, clearly the reason for the trail that they were currently parked beside, and the rush of water over time-worn rocks sounded cheerful in the brisk autumn air. It was one of the most beautiful spots they'd ever stopped at, a hidden treasure that couldn't be found on any map.
"It's okay," Sam said, already unpacking his bike.
Mac gave a sigh of his own, and began the process of untying his own gear.
When they'd begun this road trip four months ago, Sam had been thrilled at the suggestion that they sometimes camp instead of staying in cheap motels every night. Many nights, at least in the beginning, Mac could barely get Sam to stop enthusing long enough to set up a camp, and the pictures Sam took on those days were some of the best of the whole trip.
Sam hadn't even taken out his camera for at least a month.
Mac figured it was mostly his fault. They'd already traveled around the country once, hitting all of the major attractions. Mac had been the one to suggest a second trip, this time with a focus on the small, little-known attractions that could only be found by driving past them. Sam had taken some convincing but he'd eventually agreed, and Mac took him at his word, despite the visible reluctance. It was becoming apparent that that acceptance had been a mistake.
They set up the camp a few yards down the trail, the bubbling creek on one side and the cool gray granite so characteristic of Pennsylvania on the other. It was beautiful, but Mac's ability to appreciate his surroundings was muted by Sam's clear lack of interest, and they worked in near silence.
It wasn't until they'd started a small fire to heat up a simple dinner of rice and beans that Sam spoke. "Tell me about my mom."
Mac stared for a moment. He'd been expecting questions about Kate since he and Sam had first met, but after months of silence on the subject, he had decided that maybe Sam knew all he wanted to know about his mother. Apparently not, and Mac felt a tiny bit of warmth in his stomach at the knowledge that this, at least, was something he could give his son. "We met in the Chemistry Department's stock room," he began, the corners of his mouth already curving up at the memory. "I was getting some...I think it was pyridine - which smells awful, like cat urine - for an experiment, and your mom was stealing some silver nitrate - which turns black in sunlight if it gets on your skin - because the photography department had run out and it was going to be a couple of days before they could get any more.
"Anyway, she was sneaking around because she wasn't really supposed to be there, and I was thinking about my experiment, which was already cooking and which I really wasn't supposed to have left, and we literally ran into each other. Chemicals got everywhere and I got pretty angry, because at that point my experiment was going to be ruined, all because of this stranger in the stock room. Your mom, being your mom, tried to brazen her way out, which probably would have worked if we hadn't gone outside during the argument and suddenly found ourselves completely covered in giant black splotches. And, of course, smelling of cat urine."
Sam was chuckling now, and Mac's face was split into a full-out grin. "So, not the best first impression. I probably wouldn't have ever seen her again, either, if she hadn't started dating Jack Dalton soon after." Sam groaned and Mac's grin widened. "Yeah, that Jack Dalton. And, if you can believe it, he was even more wild back then." His smile softened a little at the memory. "He and Kate had a lot of fun and got into a lot of trouble and most of the time I somehow got roped into going with them.
"Because Jack's, well, Jack, it couldn't last, but because Jack's Jack, we all managed to stay friends. We met Mike around that time-" and at that Mac's voice grew softer. He hadn't told Sam about Mike before; it still hurt every time he remembered their ill-fated climb, especially her terrified face as the equipment failed and she fell to her death. Clearing his suddenly tight throat, Mac brushed past the moment as quickly as possible, "-and the four of us got thick as thieves."
He stopped again, getting his emotions under control before continuing in a more level voice, "I knew I was falling for Kate for months before I said anything, but I didn't want to hurt our dynamic. Besides, there was the fact that she and Jack had dated before. Jack's pretty easygoing, but I always thought he carried a bit of a torch for her."
"Clearly you didn't let that hold you back," Sam said wryly, but his eyes were locked on Mac's face and his fascination was obvious.
Mac managed a quick smile to cover the rush of unexpected emotion that Sam's attention caused and hurried on with his story. He was almost finished, anyway. "A couple of months before graduation, I couldn't wait anymore, and our first date wasn't even over before I was head over heels in love. I think your mom loved me too, but it built more slowly for her and she knew a lot more about what she wanted out of life than I did. After graduation, she told me that we would always be friends, but that she had been offered the chance of a lifetime: a story in South America that had the potential to be her first professional byline. Jack, Mike, and I had already decided that we were going to travel around the country together, and after Vietnam I wasn't thrilled at the idea of spending time in the wilds of South America, tracking down evidence of drug runners. Plus, your mom was already pulling away at that point; I think she knew that she couldn't have both a husband and the opportunity to travel around the world, and she had decided what was more important to her. Unfortunately, that wasn't me."
Mac cleared his throat again. To this day, he thought that Kate's decision had been the best possible one for both of them, but it still carried a lingering feeling of loss. "So we went our separate ways," Mac finished quietly. "And I never heard of Kate again till I met you. But I think she would say that she made the right choice for her at the time, and I know she was happy to have you. She'd always wanted children."
There was a long silence before Sam quietly said, "Thank you, Dad." He turned over then, away from the fire and away from Mac, and Mac felt a momentary rush of panic. He could still remember the keen sense of loss he'd felt during those long years of estrangement from his grandfather, his last living relative before finding out about Sam. The few times they'd gotten together before Harry's death weren't enough to make up for the decade of loneliness that came before, and to this day Mac regretted waiting for Harry to take the first step towards reconciliation.
Since then, Mac had been given a tremendous gift: a new family, a second chance. Yet here he was, absolutely terrified that he was about to lose his son the same way he'd lost his grandfather.
Telling himself he was being ridiculous, Mac went on to tell another story about Kate's misadventures, sometimes with Mac, sometimes with Jack. Eventually he relaxed, getting lost in the memories, and he continued telling tales late into the night, until the fire had almost died down to nothing.
Two days later Sam went back west, leaving Mac behind.
As he cleaned up his campsite and packed up his meager belongings, MacGyver wondered once again why he had been so excited about retiring early. Practically speaking, it had been the right thing to do: he was financially set for life, thanks to good investments and the bonuses that Pete had carried over from the DXS to the Phoenix Foundation; he had come to the notice of too many countries to be able to move freely, even with false passports; and, frankly, Mac was always looking over his shoulder, just in case Murdoc came back to life and came gunning for him. Again.
Most importantly, however, he had thought the break would be an opportunity to spend more time with Sam, the son he hadn't even known about until the boy was already a man. Mac still remembered that road trip as one of the highlights of his life, despite the way it had ended.
What he hadn't anticipated, however, was the relentless boredom that came with a peaceful life. Mac had never realized just how addictive adrenaline was until he was no longer getting a regular fix; now he found himself undertaking personal challenges of ever-increasing difficulty, just trying to find a hint of the excitement that had made his previous life so interesting (albeit often terrifying).
Take his current 'adventure'. Three months in northern Canada, equipped with nothing more than his trusty pocketknife, a lighter, a tiny roll of duct tape, and a thin blanket. Even in the summer he was close enough to the Arctic Circle for the nights to be chilly, and he'd had to work relentlessly to feed himself and to stay safe and warm. And yet, there had been no real danger. Mac hadn't come up against anything that had really stretched him, that had made him challenge his mind for new and unique solutions to unexpected problems. Food, water, shelter - all difficulties that he'd solved within the first week. After that it had just been a matter of labor.
Oh, well. Maybe he could find use for his newest survival skills on his next adventure, whatever that was.
Mac sighed and shoved his bangs from his forehead with the back of one dirty hand as he inspected the dirt pile that used to be his fire pit for any signs of smoke. Civilization might be boring, but at least it had barbers. It's a good thing Pete couldn't see - Mac suspected his hair was getting suspiciously mullet-like, though, thankfully, not as bad as it'd used to be. Really, it was more fluffy now than anything else. Wait, not fluffy. Shaggy. Really. Mac sighed again.
He'd just managed to reassure himself that there was no danger of a forest fire when he heard the sounds of a small plane flying low for a landing at the nearby lake. His ride. Time to head back home. He did miss the ocean. Maybe he'd try surfing again, though that was hard on his knees.
It took a few minutes to hike to the lake, and Mac took the time to appreciate the land that had sheltered him for the last few months. His temporary home was heavily wooded for the area, with flowers dotting the ground anyplace that sunlight broke through the canopy, adding touches of color to the clumps of grass. The trees were shorter than he was used to, only stretching to a few feet above his head, but they were healthy and brilliantly green and looked especially striking against the orangish-brown dirt beneath them. He'd had to work to find enough wood for cooking and he'd used alternative methods to stay warm at night. Fortunately the leaves had made for good insulation.
Mac was still contemplating nature when he came out of the woods next to the lake and it took him a second to register the man standing on the small sandbar that the plane was using as a makeshift pier. "Pete?" he said, staring in disbelief.
Pete smiled ruefully and raised his hand, his eyes looking in Mac's general direction but not looking directly at Mac. Despite his best efforts, that lack of eye contact had bothered Mac a little when Pete had first started losing his sight, but after more than a decade, Mac was used to it. Now he focused on other details, trying to figure out what was going on. For one thing, it was a very bad sign that Pete was wearing a suit, which meant he had come directly from the Phoenix Foundation. (Unlike Mac, Pete had been smart enough to work as long as they'd let him, though he probably only had a few more years left. Mac didn't envy the guy who got stuck trying to replace Pete Thornton.)
"Pete, what are you doing here?" Mac asked, a sliver of dread working its way under his skin.
"It's Sam," Pete said, climbing back into the plane.
The dread grew into panic. "What about Sam?" he asked, swinging his way on board and shutting the door behind him.
Pete buckled up and gripped the armrests as the plane accelerated over the water. "I hate small planes," he muttered.
MacGyver gritted his teeth and forced himself to wait. As soon as they were airborne, he repeated, "What about Sam?"
Pete sighed. "He and Lisa broke up."
It was like a punch in the gut. Last he'd heard, Sam and Lisa were engaged to be married. "What happened?"
"I don't know," Pete answered. "Lisa wouldn't tell me." He hesitated. "Do you know what he and Lisa had planned for their honeymoon?"
"White water rafting in New Zealand, right?"
"Yeah," Pete said, shaking his head. Mac had taken him white water rafting when they were younger. It hadn't gone well. "But according to Lisa, Sam decided to celebrate their break-up by taking the trip on his own, a few months early."
Mac stared at him. "Not now." Pete shrugged. "It's winter in New Zealand."
"He's your son."
"Trust me, I haven't forgotten," Mac said dryly. He rubbed his face. "So what you're saying is that Sam is white water rafting in New Zealand, in the winter, on his own?"
"Kayaking," Pete said.
"He's kayaking. In the Fiordlands."
Mac closed his eyes. "That idiot. I'm going to kill him."
"Yes, well, you'll have to find him first."
"He's missing," Pete said ruefully. "That's why I'm here. He was supposed to arrive in Te Anau yesterday. When he didn't check in, they called Lisa. She called me."
And, thank God, Pete had gone straight to Mac. At least one person was thinking clearly. "When can I leave?"
"I've already got the flights lined up. You'll arrive in New Zealand around this time tomorrow. A chopper is waiting to drop you near where they think he might have lost control of his boat. No way to know for sure, but there was a surprise storm that caused flooding in one part of the river and that seems to be where most folks have problems. It's apparently very rugged terrain. You'll have to parachute in."
"What about an emergency beacon?" Mac asked. "He must have carried one."
"He was using an analog beacon attached to the kayak. By the time they picked up the signal, the boat and the transmitter were nearly to Te Anau."
Mac groaned. This was not good. "What are they doing to find him so far?"
"Search parties moving up from Te Anau. That's how they found the boat. No sign of Sam himself."
"What about my supplies?"
"I have a pack waiting for you. I know you'd prefer to do it yourself, but I figured time was more important. You're already losing a day just flying-"
"You did good, Pete," Mac said, before his friend could work himself up too much. "Thank you."
"Thank me when you and Sam are back in civilization," Pete said quietly.
"Don't worry," Mac said, just as quietly. "I'll find him."
Pete smiled. "If anyone can, it's you." He patted Mac on the shoulder. "Get some rest. You'll need it."
The last thing Mac felt like doing was sleeping, but if there was one thing he'd learned on the perpetual adrenaline rush that was his life it was that you took your rest when you could get it. Nodding his thanks to Pete, Mac shoved his pack up against the window for a pillow and tried to sleep.
Twenty-five hours later, Mac was flying over the Fiordlands, his eyes scanning the dense vegetation for a good place to jump and shaking his head over the fact that his first trip to New Zealand involved parachuting. Really, considering he didn't like heights it was amazing how much time Mac spent in various aircraft with open doors. Even more amazing was how often he jumped out of said aircraft. At least this time he'd been given the option of rappelling instead of parachuting, but he didn't have much experience with rappelling outside of mountain climbing and, besides, the chute itself could prove useful.
The forest below was a bright green, despite the fact that it was winter. Mac had heard that the most prevalent tree in southern New Zealand was the beech, but he'd always thought beeches were deciduous. When he'd said as much to the pilot, Mac had been treated to a lecture on how southern beeches were genetically distinct from all other beeches. It probably would have been interesting, if Mac weren't so worried about Sam. As it was, his ability to appreciate the vivid colors and lush foliage was greatly reduced by his anxiety.
After five minutes of circling, Mac admitted defeat. There simply wasn't a good place to land, other than the river itself. He sighed, signaled the pilot, and jumped. This was going to be very unpleasant.
All things considered, he got lucky. He did land in the water, and he was caught in the currents, but his pack padded him from the worst of the rocks and he managed to get to the shore without injury. He lost his tent and his primary chute in the process, but thankfully his secondary chute was still strapped to his chest, unopened. Whatever had happened to Sam, the chances were good that he'd lost his supplies and this far south the nights could get dangerously cold. They'd need all the insulation they could get. With that in mind, Mac let the secondary chute sit out in the sun to dry as he waved the pilot off and debated his next move.
The first thing to consider was the fact that, despite his propensity for overconfidence, Sam was an experienced outdoorsman. In fact, if there hadn't been an unexpected storm that had caused flash-flooding in the area, he probably could have completed his trip on his own. As it was, Mac had every confidence that Sam had survived his accident.
The question was, where was Sam now?
If Mac was in Sam's position, knowing that there was a large area to be searched and that his emergency beacon was lost, he'd follow the river towards the nearest town, hoping to meet up with either rescuers or other boaters. If nothing else, following the river might give some indication where Sam had come ashore. Mac could only hope that Sam had had enough presence of mind to mark his trail in some way.
A rudimentary plan in place, Mac hefted his still-damp chute and his almost-dry backpack - in his opinion, waterproofing was way cooler than sliced bread - and started hiking.
Too worried to really focus on the beauty of his surroundings - though the rugged, snow-capped mountains in the distance and the peridot green of the ferns and beeches were undeniably lovely, and were worth coming back to when the circumstances were less dire; maybe Sam would be interested in staying for a few days? - Mac instead thought about his relationship with Sam. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say, lack of relationship.
Ten years ago, when Mac had first learned he had a son, he'd been thrilled. Sam may have been impetuous and more consumed with revenge than was at all healthy, but he was a part of Mac and a part of a woman that Mac had loved and, perhaps most importantly, he was the only family Mac had left. Giving up his job at the Phoenix Foundation to spend more time with Sam had been an easy decision, and for the first few weeks of their cross-country adventure, Mac had fulfilled a craving that he'd never before realized that he'd possessed. They'd stopped at all of the touristy destinations - Mt. Rushmore, Graceland, Disneyland - but they'd also visited the natural wonders of the United States - Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Blue Ridge Parkway - and just like Mac, Sam had preferred beauties of nature to the gaudiness of the tourist traps. Mac had found that his son was more cynical than he was, but Sam also possessed a sharp wit and a keen eye that found treasures in the most unlikely places. The pictures Sam had taken during their trip were carefully stored away at Mac's house; each one was an effortless work of art.
As wonderful as the trip was, however, there was no way they could travel forever. Sam had gradually grown more and more restless as the weeks stretched into months and, looking back, Mac recognized the same affliction that he himself currently possessed: adrenaline withdrawal. Neither one of them was cut out for the safe life, but the tedium of safety had hit Sam the worst. Mac still considered it a victory that he'd convinced Sam to go back and finish his degree, rather than immediately taking on a new freelancing job.
Mac stopped for a brief water break and to check the time. Already after noon, and still no sign of Sam. Mac was starting to get worried. He should have found something by now.
Putting his water away, Mac continued through the woods, his pace quickening as his memories turned sour.
Despite assurances to each other that they'd remain close, Sam's departure had been the beginning of the end. They'd stayed in touch at first - phone calls once a week or so, letters less often but just as regular. The calls slowly started coming less frequently, however, and the letters dried up, and even the subsequent availability of e-mail hadn't been enough to reopen the lines of communication.
It wasn't that they didn't talk at all. Sam was still the first (well, sometimes second, after Pete) call Mac made after coming back from an adventure, and Sam dropped Mac an e-mail any time there was a dramatic change in is life. Still, Mac could see disturbing parallels between his relationship with Sam and his previous relationship with Harry. If Mac didn't want to become as estranged from his son as he had from his grandfather, he was going to have to make some changes.
On that thought, Mac stopped for another break. He'd been sipping water as he hiked and he finished the bottle with a couple of deep swallows before wading through the ferns that grew right at the river's edge and crouching down to get a refill. He added iodine and glanced at his watch so he'd know when the requisite twenty minutes purifying time was up, and blinked at the time. He'd already hiked most of the day. If he didn't find Sam in the next hour, he would have to give up for the night.
The thought gave him a fresh burst of energy and he stood back up, shoving the water bottle back into the webbed pouch on the side of his bag. If he pushed himself he could get another three or four miles in before-
Mac froze, staring at the tree closest to the river. The tree with the fresh scar on its bark, the white flesh of its trunk blinking through. Sam.
Moving quickly now, Mac strode past the tree, spotting another marked trunk twenty feet ahead and then another one after that. The trail was marked clearly enough that Mac began to run, dodging around giant ferns and under tree branches, desperately racing ahead of the rapidly approaching dusk.
He'd gone two, maybe three, miles when he cracked his head on a low-hanging branch that was almost invisible in the dim light. He should stop, he needed to stop, but he couldn't. Not with Sam so close that Mac could sense him just beyond his reach.
Taking his flashlight out of his pack, Mac continued to follow the trail at a jog, growing more and more worried as the marks came further and further apart. They weren't clean cuts anymore either, more like jagged hacks into the bark of the trees, and in every ragged slash, Mac could see Sam's exhaustion and encroaching weakness.
Nearly frantic now, Mac picked up the pace again, and though he managed not to get brained by any more branches, he pulled several muscles dodging away at the last minute. It didn't matter, though. Sam was what was important and Mac was going to find his son. No matter what else happened here, Sam was going to be safe.
There was just a hint of light left in the sky when Mac burst into a tiny clearing and found Sam awkwardly attempting to light a small fire with one hand. Sam glanced up and his face lit. "Dad!"
Mac didn't think, he just let out a gust of air that sounded almost like a sob, took three huge steps forward, and swept Sam up into a hug. Immediately he let go as Sam yelped in pain. "What's wrong?"
"Broken arm and leg," Sam said, cradling his left arm close to his body. Now that Mac was close enough to see through the rapidly dimming light, he was just able to make out a rough splint made of branches and strips of cloth. "And bruised ribs, I think."
Well that explained why it took Sam two days to travel five miles. Mac dropped his pack and started carefully inspecting Sam's makeshift splints. "Nice job," he commented after he confirmed that the bones looked straight and there was no visible blood. At this point, it would probably cause more damage to replace the splints outside of a hospital. "What happened to your gear?"
"Gone, along with my emergency beacon." He shook his head. "That storm just came out of nowhere. I didn't have a chance." He eyed Mac's pack. "You wouldn't have any painkillers in there, would you?"
"I should." Mac passed over his flashlight and started digging through the pack. It only took a second to find the first aid kit and he passed Sam a couple of ibuprofen along with the water.
Sam gulped the pills down with a third of the water, though he made a face at the taste. "I miss my microfilter," he said ruefully.
Mac frowned. "Here, let me see that." Sam passed the bottle over and Mac dug a mandarin orange out of his pack (he would have to remember to thank Pete for making sure those were included, because there was no way Mac could survive even for a day on MREs and powerbars alone). Propping the flashlight on a rock so that it illuminated his hands, Mac peeled the orange and passed all but two slices over to Sam. Sam immediately shoved half of the fruit in his mouth. "Been a while since you ate, huh?"
Sam nodded and inhaled the rest of the orange. Mac carefully set the water bottle to the side, dug out an MRE, and tossed it over. "Here, this should help."
While Sam tore into the food, Mac broke the two segments of orange into pieces and squeezed the juice from each bit into the water bottle before popping the remaining pulp into his mouth. When he was done, he put the lid back on the water, and shook the bottle. Instantly the yellow-brown color of iodine disappeared. Sam paused mid-bite as Mac handed him the bottle of crystal-clear water. "Cool."
Mac grinned, ridiculously pleased by the praise. "The vitamin C in the orange reacts with the iodine to remove the flavor." Sam looked impressed, so Mac added, "If you add a drop of starch, the whole thing will turn blue-black."
"Huh. Learn something every day," Sam said, smirking, and Mac felt a wave of nostalgia. He hadn't seen that expression since the road trip, when Mac had gone out of his way to impress his new-found son. Sam, being a journalist and thus used to close observation and analysis, hadn't taken long to figure out what Mac was doing, and it had become a running joke between them.
Now the smirk faded as Sam quickly finished off his meal and his wistful expression as he stared into the empty pouch was clear even in the rapidly fading light. Mac tossed over a powerbar, which Sam at a more sedate pace, only finishing half before carefully wrapping it up and tucking it away in his pocket.
"Full?" Mac asked.
"Mm-hm," Sam said. Mac stared at him. "Okay, full enough to not want to finish one of those. Suddenly those protein shakes of yours look really appealing."
Mac laughed. "Tell you what, I'll make you one as soon as we get home. And speaking of getting home, I should probably get to work on that." He reclaimed the flashlight to resume digging through his pack, and eventually pulled out the emergency beacon Pete had provided. It was from the Phoenix Foundation, which meant it was one of the newest available models and relied on GPS, rather than radio transmission. Mac shot Sam a smile before flipping it on.
Smile dying, Mac flipped the switch off and then back on. Still nothing. Frowning now, Mac carefully ran his fingers over the transmitter's casing. It only took a few seconds to feel the crack along one side. "Damn."
"Oh shit," Sam said, moving closer. "You swore. You never swear."
Mac sighed. "The transmitter's damaged."
"But you can fix it, right?"
"Maybe, but I can't risk opening it up till morning. If I lose a piece, we're going to be stuck hiking out of here."
The silence that followed clearly indicated Sam's opinion of that plan. Mac carefully put the transmitter back in his bag and rubbed his hands over his face. Okay, first things first. "Sam, make yourself comfortable while I start the fire."
Fortunately Sam was practical enough not to argue that he could help despite his injuries, and soon Mac had a small fire blazing in a hastily constructed stone circle. Next step was shelter, and Mac ended up building a crude lean-to out of leafy branches. It wouldn't do much to protect them from rain or animals, but it should help hold in the heat of the fire and block out the wind. The parachute would have been better, but they only had one sleeping bag between them, so they'd need to use the chute for bedding.
Once he had completed what preparations were available to him, Mac settled down next to Sam in front of the fire. "Not bad," Sam said, eyeing the lean-to. "You learn how to do that in Canada?"
Mac flushed, despite the fact that there was no recrimination in Sam's voice. The truth was, if Mac hadn't been in Canada (and Madagascar before that, and Peru before that), then he would have been around when Sam's engagement had ended and he could have talked some sense into his idiotic son. Well, maybe. He could have tried, at least. "I set up something a little more sturdy in Canada," Mac answered. "Hopefully we won't be here long enough to need a real shelter."
"I hear that," Sam said wryly. He glanced down at his leg and sighed. "Think it'd be okay for me to have a couple more ibuprofen?"
"You probably shouldn't. Does it really hurt?"
"It really, really hurts," Sam answered, rolling his eyes. "Haven't you ever had a broken bone before?"
Mac frowned and reached for his bag. "Maybe I should try fixing the transmitter now."
"Dad," Sam growled. "Stop it. We both know if you drop something tonight then we aren't going to be able to find it till morning, if we find it at all. And if you lose something really important, like the microchip, we are totally screwed." Mac stopped digging through the bag and stared at his son helplessly. Sam added, in a softer voice, "I survived two days. Another night isn't going to kill me."
"But you're hurting," Mac said.
"Yeah, well, it's not the first time," Sam said with a small, but genuine smile. "I'm a stringer, after all."
Mac set the bag aside and frowned. "Exactly how much trouble do you get in?"
"Enough. You ever try getting out of Tibet when the Chinese army is showing its muscle?"
"Actually, something like that did happen to me." Mac couldn't help but smile at the memory, though it hadn't seemed particularly amusing at the time. "Me and Jack Dalton."
Sam chuckled. "I can just imagine. Your Jack Dalton stories are the best." He stretched out his good arm to pull over a moderately large rock and used it as a backrest. "Tell me?"
Mac's smile grew a little larger and he found his own rock to rest against as he began the tale.
They exchanged stories deep into the night, until Mac's eyes started to droop and Sam's shivering was too obvious to ignore. "Time to call it a night," Mac said, piling more wood on the fire in the hopes that it would last for a few more hours.
There was a hesitation before Sam asked, "You've only got one sleeping bag, right?" Mac didn't have a chance to answer before Sam said, "You're not giving it to me."
Mac shook his head, but he knew better than to try to out-stubborn his son. "It'll be best if we share. I've got the secondary chute, too, and we can use our coats for more insulation."
Sam considered that before nodding. "Should we add leaves?"
Not a bad idea, but when Mac tested a few, he found them damp and rotting. "I think we'll be okay without."
Convincing Sam proved to be the most difficult part of the operation. Mac laid his bag on the ground, completely unzipped except for the very bottom. It would mean their feet would be very close together, but it would hopefully keep their lower legs warm. On top of the bag he layered the parachute and his own coat, and as soon as Sam hobbled over to the lean-to, they added his coat to the pile. When all was said and done, it looked very cozy.
Sam slid in first and it proved to be an awkward process. By the time he was settled he was white-faced and Mac didn't think the renewed shaking was from the cold. Mac was very careful not to jostle any part of Sam as he squeezed in next to him.
They shifted around trying to find a comfortable position, and in the end Sam used Mac's shoulder as a pillow and Mac put his arm around Sam to keep him steady (and also because he couldn't figure out what to do with it - it had been a long time since Mac had slept with another person). "Comfortable?" Mac asked.
"Way more so than last night," Sam answered. He shifted a bit closer. "Warmer, too."
Mac smiled, feeling a rush of affection. Right now it didn't matter that Sam was thirty or that Mac hadn't seen his son in over a year. All that mattered was that Mac was holding his only child in his arms, watching over him and keeping him safe. It was a potent sensation and the most honest, most real feeling he'd had in years. He tightened his grip and closed his eyes and fell asleep to the sound of Sam's breathing.
When Mac woke up, it was light out and he was alone in the nest of bedding. Bolting upright in a panic, he was scrambling to free himself from the chute when he saw Sam sitting a few feet away, poking at a burgeoning fire. Mac groaned under his breath and rubbed his face, feeling older than he was.
By the time Sam got the fire going, Mac had packed up his gear and disassembled the lean-to. He settled next to his son and dug out the transmitter. "Hungry?" he asked, offering the rest of the bag to Sam.
Sam shook his head and continued to pensively stare into the fire. Mac shrugged and set the bag aside.
Mac was just about to open the transmitter casing when Sam suddenly asked, "Dad, why didn't you ever get married?"
After learning about Lisa, the question wasn't exactly unexpected. "I don't know," Mac answered as he popped the transmitter casing open. "I never met the right woman at the right time, I guess."
Sam nodded, but didn't say anything. Mac delicately pushed aside some wires. "Thinking of Lisa?" he asked casually.
Sam sighed. "Yeah."
"Want to talk about what happened?"
"No," Sam answered, but a second later he said, "I saw it coming, you know. I saw it coming and didn't do anything to stop it."
"What do you mean?" Mac got to the battery, and immediately identified the problem - one of the connectors had broken when the outer casing had cracked. He set aside the transmitter and started digging through his pack.
"Lisa didn't like me going on dangerous jobs," Sam answered. It was kind of surprising that he was showing no interest in Mac's repair job, but then Mac figured he had a lot on his mind. "When I got offered a chance to go to Iraq, I knew she wasn't happy about it, but it was such a huge opportunity. I mean, to show the world what was really going on, not just what the US military was shilling? Who wouldn't jump at the chance?"
"I'm guessing Lisa." Mac got to the bottom of the bag and frowned. He really missed the days when retractable pens used wire springs.
Sam snorted. "I'll say. I was only gone for a couple of weeks, but by the time I got back she'd moved out."
"I'm sorry," Mac said, putting aside the wire question for the moment.
"Me, too," Sam said softly. "But if I had to do it again, I'd do the same thing."
"Then you made the right decision."
"I guess," Sam sighed. He glanced at the transmitter. "How's it coming?"
"I'm almost there, I just need a bit of-" Suddenly Mac had an idea. "Can I see your pocketknife?"
Sam raised his eyebrows, but passed his knife over. Sure enough, attached to the end was a small metal loop intended to be used to attach the knife to a keychain. Just about the right size and it was even the right shape.
Sam was definitely interested now. "What are you doing?"
Mac removed the loop from the knife. "I'm going to use this piece of metal as a battery connector," he said, carefully sliding the metal under the tiny bit of connector that hadn't broken off. "It's not perfect, but if we don't jostle it, it should work." Moving very precisely, Mac pushed the battery into place. He didn't bother putting the casing back together before flipping the switch.
A soft beeping filled the air. It was the most beautiful sound Mac had ever heard.
Sam let out a small laugh. "Dad, you're amazing."
Mac flushed lightly and shrugged. "It's just science."
Thanks to Pete, who no doubt had the choppers standing by, the actual rescue only took a couple of hours. Within thirty minutes of transmission, a helicopter was flying overhead, and three men rappelled down from it. Two of them were armed with chainsaws and they immediately began cutting down the trees around the edge of the tiny clearing. The third man was carrying a med kit, and he started working on cutting Sam's clothes away from his broken limbs.
Once enough trees were cut down to open the canopy up to the sky, the copter lowered a board and harness. Sam was strapped in and airlifted away along with the EMT. A second chopper came by a few minutes later to pick up Mac and the loggers.
By the time Mac made it to Te Anau, Sam was already in surgery. Lacking anything useful to do, Mac sat in the waiting room with Pete and thought. And thought and thought.
Mac tapped lightly on the door before entering the room. He needn't have bothered; Sam was still dead to the world. A fond smile in place, Mac dragged a chair closer to the bed and settled in for a wait.
It didn't take long; Pete still hadn't returned from his food run when Sam's eyes twitched a few times, then opened. Mac leaned forward so that he was in Sam's line of sight. "Hey," he said gently. "How're you feeling?"
"Like they gave me the good drugs," Sam said with a dopey smile.
Mac laughed. "You're probably right." He put a hand on Sam's arm, feeling the warmth though the thin hospital gown. "I've been thinking."
Sam snorted. "Big surprise there. You think more than anyone I know. Your brain's like a hamster. You know, on one of those squeaky wheels. Squeak-squeak."
Mac just shook his head. Apparently Sam was on the great drugs. "Maybe I should tell you later."
"No, no, tell me now." Sam blinked. "And then maybe remind me later."
Fair enough. Besides, it'd be easier to say later if he had a practice run now. "I've been thinking-"
"You said that already."
"Sam, I love you, but could you please shut up?"
Sam obediently put his hand over his mouth.
Mac sighed and started again. "I've been thinking - being a stringer can sometimes be a dangerous job." Sam rolled his eyes and gave an exaggerated nod. Mac decided to be grateful that at least there wasn't a verbal interruption. "And because it's a dangerous job, it might be best if you didn't go out there alone."
"You think I should get a bodyguard," Sam said, his voice still muffled by his hand.
"More like a troubleshooter."
Sam lowered his hand, suddenly looking much more alert. "Someone like you?"
"I've got time," Mac said, shooting for casual. "And my rates are very reasonable."
Sam grinned. "Free?"
Mac's eyes narrowed. "Plus expenses."
Sam laughed. "Oh, God, Dad, this is going to be so awesome."
Mac smiled and gripped Sam's uninjured shoulder. "Is that a yes?"
Sam shook his head. "It's a yes." His smile softened. "I missed you, Dad."
Mac's throat was suddenly tight and he pressed his forehead to Sam's, his eyes closed against a sudden stinging. "I missed you too, Son."