Stringfellow Hawke was frowning as he finished clearing away the dishes from dinner. Sarah Lebow, Dominic and Marella were sitting around the fireplace, talking about something or other - String wasn't sure exactly what, and he wasn't interested in eavesdropping. He was more concerned about Michael, who had disappeared as soon as dinner was finished.
There had been something 'off' about Archangel all evening. At first String had thought it was because Sarah had shot him - the way the two of them had danced around the matter before she had come right out and lied about it had certainly been evidence of discomfort; but even after that little discussion (and the laughter) had cleared the air, Archangel had still been withdrawn, off-balance.
It hadn't been obvious, of course; Michael Archangel excelled at 'subtle'. In fact, if this had been two and a half years ago - before the argument that had led to him leaving the Firm's employ until Moffet had stolen Airwolf - String didn't think he would have noticed anything. He and Archangel had known each other well, even then; but somehow, the past half year of flying Airwolf for Michael had changed things. Now, he knew when Michael was planning something, or when there was something wrong. And tonight there was definitely something wrong.
The dishes didn't take all that long to wash, but Michael still hadn't reappeared by the time he finished with them, and String was starting to go from concerned to worried. It didn't help that none of the others appeared to be aware that there was a problem - not even Marella.
String's frown deepened at that. He wouldn't expect Sarah to notice anything, and even Dom was usually fooled when Archangel really wanted him to be. But Marella was Archangel's aide, and for as long as he had known them, she had also been one of Michael's few confidantes. For her not to realize that something was troubling Michael was unusual, to say the least - and meant that he couldn't simply ask her (privately, of course) what the problem was.
So, time to see if I can get an answer directly from the source.
Even as he thought that, the group by the fireplace burst into laughter.
"Hey, String, you've got to hear this!" Dominic called, waving him over.
String shook his head as he finished wiping his hands dry and tossed the towel on the counter beside the sink. "I'm going for a walk."
Sarah looked over at him, her expression surprised as he started for the door. "Oh, come on, Hawke! I promise, you'll like it--"
He ignored her, grabbing a light jacket as he went past the hooks - the sun was setting, and it would be getting cool out. Behind him, he could hear Sarah starting to get up, then Dominic telling her quietly to leave him alone. Marella joined in by asking for another story of some of the 'adventures' Sarah had had while helping her father, and String gratefully took the opportunity to escape.
To his surprise, he didn't have to go far. Michael was standing at the corner of the porch, his left hand resting on the side railing, looking out over the lake. String could see the setting sun reflecting off the right lens of his glasses, and the sight made him wonder for a brief moment - yet again - just what kind of damage Moffet's attack on Red Star had done to Archangel's eye.
"I don't believe I've ever heard you laugh like that before," Michael remarked quietly, sounding for all the world as though they were in the middle of a conversation rather than the beginning, as String came over to stand next to him. "Are you going to tell me now what the two of you found so amusing?"
String couldn't help but smirk as he remembered the expressions on Michael, Dom and Marella's faces when he'd laughed out loud at his realization of exactly what had happened to Archangel's ear. "I just couldn't believe that Sarah actually shot you," he replied, shaking his head.
Michael turned to look at him for a moment, then snorted as he returned his attention to the sunset over the lake. "Neither can I," he muttered. "I was only trying to keep her safe."
"Yes, I know." String's smirk widened. "She's still not too happy about that."
"And I suppose you didn't bother to tell her that it was your idea," Michael remarked, his tone rueful.
"No," String acknowledged with a shrug. "The point was to avoid getting her killed or having her kill Kruger - and we succeeded in that. I didn't think she needed to know exactly whose idea it was to keep her out of the line of fire that way." He settled next to Michael, resting his forearms on the railing, and the two of them watched the sun go down behind the mountains in apparently companionable silence while String tried to figure out the best way to find out exactly what was bothering the spy.
It wasn't Sarah's shooting of him, not specifically; but String was pretty sure that whatever was troubling Michael, it had at least something to do with her. So, how do I get him to talk to me?
Well, if it is something to do with her.... The pilot frowned thoughtfully, then said, "You know, Sarah's offered to help find St. John."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Michael tense, and String's frown darkened. What...?
"Sarah is an excellent researcher," Archangel stated, his tone cool - and absolutely neutral. This was the Deputy Director of the Firm speaking. "It wouldn't surprise me if she does manage to find him for you."
Damn it, String thought, furious with himself. He'd meant the comment both as a hint that Michael might be able to make use of her network, and an invitation to continue with the topic, hoping that would encourage the spy to open up to him about what the problem was. But - somehow - it seemed he'd hit a nerve instead; as an effort to fix things, it had failed miserably. In fact, he'd just managed to push Michael into withdrawing even farther. "Michael--" he started.
Before he was able to say anything else, Archangel turned to face him, a frown flickering across his face as he interrupted. "By the way, Hawke, Santini told me about that little stunt you pulled two days ago."
String blinked, taken off-guard by the abrupt change in subject. So he doesn't want to talk about it... but 'stunt'? What 'stunt'--? Does he mean the high-altitude test? "'Stunt'?" he repeated.
Archangel raised one eyebrow, giving him a sceptical look. "Does 'over 86,000 feet of altitude' sound familiar?" the spy demanded. "Santini said that you were less than 200 feet up when you finally regained control."
"Dom's got a big mouth," String muttered under his breath. And why the hell would Dom be talking to Archangel about that, anyway, considering how much they don't get along? "It was a test of Airwolf's capabilities."
The sceptical expression didn't change. "And the reason you chose to do this test without checking with me first was...?"
"At the moment, Michael, Airwolf is mine," String said flatly. "I don't have to check with you before running tests on her."
He was surprised to see Michael's hand tighten on the head of his cane, to the point where his knuckles went white.
He's angry? Why?
"If you keep pulling stunts like that, Hawke, you'll be dead before anyone has a chance to find St. John for you!" Michael snapped. "If you want to indulge your damn death-wish so much, do it after he's found!"
For a long moment, all String could do was stare at Michael, stunned by his vehemence - in all the time they'd known each other, he'd rarely heard Michael swear - and his words.... He thinks I have a death-wish?
The very idea was ridiculous. After all, if he died, who would look for St. John? Dom was convinced his brother was dead, and the only reason Archangel was looking was because String was holding Airwolf hostage.
Michael was watching him, his visible eye narrowed, and String felt strangely reluctant to meet the spy's gaze. Lowering his eyes, he found himself looking at the MIA bracelet he wore instead. It was only just visible in the dimming light... and for a second, it looked almost like a shackle bound tightly around his wrist.
He blinked, and the illusion was gone... but the impression it had made still remained.
Finding St. John was the most important thing in his life, and that fact would not change until he accomplished that goal. But for the first time, prompted by the combination of Michael's words and the twilight illusion - plus the memory of his kidnapping three weeks ago and how they had tricked him into believing that man was St. John - String found himself wondering what he would do once St. John was found.
It was a shock as great as the one Michael's words had produced when he discovered that he had no idea. Oh, there were vague plans: keep flying for Dom, keep working for the Firm and Michael (assuming Archangel let him fly Airwolf after St. John was found)... but some instinct told String that those weren't going to be enough. He was going to need something more, something that would give him a sense of purpose; one that would help take the place in his life currently devoted to his quest to find St. John. One that he ought to start thinking about and giving some attention to now, before St. John was found.
The worried tone of the question brought String out of his thoughts, and he looked up, able to meet Michael's gaze once again. And seeing the oddly open concern there, and remembering his own concern for Michael a bit earlier, String came to another realization - one that he'd never considered before, focused as tightly as he was on finding St. John.
He knew Michael. Just as Michael knew him. And maybe, just maybe, that was enough to build on.
Michael frowned. "Hawke?" he repeated. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," String answered, his decision made. An unusual decision, yes - even by the standards of those 'in the business' - but he felt confident it was the right one. "I am." They were close enough to touch. So String reached out and gently placed his hand against Michael's left cheek.
Michael's visible eye widened. "Hawke--" he began to object, tensing and shifting his weight in preparation for moving away.
But String knew now what he wanted, and he went after it with the same blend of determination and directness he used when piloting Airwolf. Before Michael even finished saying his name, String took a small step forward, and brushed his lips against Michael's in a soft kiss.
Michael froze, his expression one of stunned shock; and String took advantage of that momentary stillness to grip his right hand tightly enough that the spy wouldn't be able to use his cane to escape, before resuming the kiss - a bit more forcefully this time.
It was another second or two before Michael managed to react, and as String had expected, the first thing he tried to do was pull away. In response, String tightened his grip on Michael's hand and cane - and, after a split-second's thought, shifted his other hand so that he could stroke Michael's cheekbone with his thumb.
For a moment, he felt the spy tense even further; then, with a soft sound halfway between a whimper and a moan, Michael relaxed, leaning a bit into both caress and kiss.
Yes... this is what I need.
String maintained the gentle pressure for another moment or two, silently telling Michael that this was more than just an experiment, and then slowly pulled away, though he left his hands where they were. Michael might have surrendered to this kiss; but String didn't deceive himself into thinking that he'd won everything he wanted yet, and he had no intention of letting Michael get away from him until he did have everything.
He couldn't help but feel more than a bit smug, however, when he took in the dazed expression on Michael's face. It was rare - very rare - that he managed to take the spy so completely off-guard, and he was going to enjoy that for as long as he could.
Michael was distantly aware that his heart was beating a bit too rapidly, and that the fingers of his right hand were starting to hurt where String's grip was pressing them into the grooves in the handle of his cane... but those sensations were secondary, unimportant. Most of his attention was consumed with the pressure of String's mouth against his and the feel of String's thumb gently rubbing his cheek, and the odd combination of relaxation and exhilaration they were producing.
(Only one other person's kisses had ever made him feel like this, but she was halfway around the world and long gone from his life.)
He had enough control left not to make an audible protest when String released his mouth. Still, for several seconds after that, all he could do was stare at the pilot as his thoughts ran in frantic circles. What-- How... how did he...? Why did he...?
The fact that String was still stroking his cheek didn't help his concentration any.
It had been a long few weeks, starting with Hawke's being kidnapped by Schwartzkrieg... and the last few days, ever since Hawke had asked him about Harry 'The Dove' Lebow and Kruger, had been even longer and less pleasant. He strongly disliked being forced to face off against Hawke, especially by a girl barely out of her teens - trained by The Dove or not. Even though the Kruger situation had been resolved with minimal difficulties, he was still not pleased about it.
And things hadn't gotten any better this afternoon: the moment he had stepped out of the helicopter onto the dock, Santini had pulled him aside and told him about Hawke's little exercise in near-space exploration.
Now this... whatever 'this' was. None of his usual ability to read Hawke had served over the past several minutes; he had no idea what String thought he was doing - or why.
I need to find out.
"String..." he started.
A bare hint of a smile flickered in String's eyes, and Michael shook his head slightly - which, though it didn't manage to actually dislodge String's hand, at least stopped the stroking. Maybe now he could focus his attention on what he needed to say. "This... complicates things...."
The sound of the words coming out of his mouth startled him; he hadn't meant to say that. Hadn't meant to even imply that he might be willing to go along with... whatever it was String was trying to do.
"You've never been afraid of dealing with complications," String pointed out mildly. "Consider this just one more."
The suggestion was ambiguous, to say the least, and Michael tensed again. No... I need to know exactly what is going on. "And what - precisely - is 'this'?" he asked, taking a step back - only to bump into the railing. String had managed to get him off-balance enough that he had forgotten he'd chosen the corner of the porch when he'd left the cabin.
And as String took a step forward and moved his hand from Michael's cane to the railing he had backed into, trapping him quite neatly, Michael knew he was in trouble.
Why is it I always seem to lose control of things when Hawke is involved?
"'This'?" String repeated, his mouth quirking into a faint - and smug - smile. "Whatever we want it to be, Michael." His eyes passed over Michael's face, and a hint of seriousness entered his expression, though the smile didn't fade. "Whatever we need it to be," he added, as he started stroking Michael's cheek with his thumb again.
And once again, Michael couldn't seem to prevent himself from leaning into the touch.
This is a very bad idea, he thought desperately. Hawke already has more power over me than he knows; if we go forward with this....
I can't believe I'm even considering it!
Except he was.
When Santini had told him about what Hawke had done, how careless he'd sounded about the possibility of crashing Airwolf, it had scared Michael more than he had thought possible. Over the past six months, String had somehow become more important to him than most of his 'angels' - something he had known intellectually, though he hadn't realized just to what extent it had happened until this afternoon - and the possibility that Hawke was teetering on the edge of becoming suicidal was not one that Michael wanted to contemplate.
But I have to. Unconsciously leaning a bit more into String's touch, Michael did his own visual scan of the pilot, taking in the hint of haggardness in his face and the hollows under his eyes. The way Hawke had been behaving since his kidnapping... it was all too possible that the goal of finding St. John was no longer enough. Aside from that goal, String didn't have anyone except for Dominic; and judging by what he'd said about String's latest stunt, Dominic wasn't enough, not anymore....
"Don't over-think this, Michael," String murmured, shifting a bit closer. Trapped as he was, there was no way for him to pull back any further, and he didn't have the leverage necessary to push String away; especially when he needed his cane, having been unwise enough to take Sarah's challenge down in Paraguay.... "For once, just accept."
I can't. I can't afford to. It's too dangerous - for both of us. Michael took a deep breath - only then realizing that his breathing had been quick and shallow since... the kiss - and met String's gaze. "And just what do you want it to be, String?" he asked, silently cursing the unsteadiness of his voice.
String's smile did fade at this question, and his expression grew completely serious. His eyes flicked to his right wrist - the one that bore the MIA bracelet, the edge of which Michael could feel against his jaw - and then returned to Michael's face. And Michael found himself caught by the determination that entered String's expression. He's not going to give up....
"Do you really want the answer to that, Michael?"
He was breathing shallowly again, feeling the tension between them increase even further. I'm going to regret this. I know I am. "Yes."
"All right." String's thumb moved slower, but more forcefully, against his cheek. "What I want this to be...." He paused for a moment, then added, "I want... it can be... what I need. And I need you, Michael."
For a minute, Michael stopped breathing.
Abruptly, the cabin's front door was pulled open, and Dominic's voice came from inside the cabin. "Go on, get out of here, mutt. Shoo! Go find String!"
Michael felt a surge of relief as String - with obvious reluctance - backed off a step, lowering the hand that had been stroking Michael's cheek. This was hardly the sort of situation he would want Santini to find them in, after all.
Luckily, the only one out the door was Tet; evidently Dominic just wanted him out of the cabin. He's most likely been going after Marella and Sarah's skirts, Michael thought, as the door slammed closed again, and the blue-tick hound looked around before trotting over to them to demand attention. Attention which Michael was quite happy to give him as Tet pushed between himself and String, shoving the pilot a bit farther away and forcing him to release his grip on the rail.
String frowned, not pleased that Michael appeared to be so relieved at Tet's appearance. He'd almost had him. If Dom had waited for just two more minutes before letting Tet out....
Then again, considering how relieved Michael was, maybe not. Though he wasn't entirely sure why, given the way Michael had responded once he'd finally got the spy to relax....
Think, String. This is Archangel. He doesn't like to do anything that doesn't involve flying without thinking it through first. Too much time in the business.
Maybe I had better give him at least a bit of time to think about this. The problem was, he didn't want to give Michael too much time, because otherwise he would over-think things. And if that happened, String had no doubt that Michael would manage to talk himself out of accepting the relationship he was offering.
Which would, String knew, leave him without a companionship he'd just discovered might be possible, not to mention the safety net he'd only just realized he needed.
So, how do I convince him without actually pushing him? Watching as Michael continued petting Tet while carefully avoiding his gaze, String finally came up with something that might work. He does want this, I know that; he couldn't - and wouldn't - have faked that reaction. So if I step back, give him enough time to convince himself that it's a possibility, but not so much that he over-thinks it.... It won't be easy, but it's the only idea I've got right now.
I hope this works. If it doesn't, I will come up with something else; but it's going to be a lot more difficult later on....
Taking another step away, he saw a flicker of surprise cross Michael's face. Keeping him off-guard is a good start. "I'm going to just go for a walk around this side of the lake," he declared, not hiding the fact that he would prefer to stay. "We'll talk when I come back."
Michael looked startled at that - and a bit alarmed. It was easy to guess which expression went with which statement. "String--"
String took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. "I know you have to think about this," he admitted. "Just... remember what I said, Michael. I need you, and I need this." With that, he turned and walked down the steps, resolutely ignoring the desire to see what Michael's immediate reaction to that statement was. "Tet, stay with Michael," he added as he heard the hound start to move.
Michael watched as String headed down toward the dock, still surprised that the pilot had obviously changed his mind about forcing the issue immediately... and still completely, utterly stunned by what String had said about needing him.
String didn't lie, not to him. He might answer evasively - or even avoid answering at all - but he didn't lie. And the expression in his eyes had been utterly serious. All of which said that String had really, really meant it--
Tet whined, and Michael looked down at the dog in surprise, only then realizing that while he'd been trying to think through String's words, he'd stopped petting the hound. And if that kept up, it would alert Santini, Marella and Ms. Lebow to the fact that Tet, at least, was still out on the porch.
"Come on then, Tet," Michael said, pushing himself away from the railing and heading for the stairs. "We'll go sit on that stump by the bushes, shall we?" The stump would let him sit down - which he really needed to do at the moment, considering the ache that had taken up residence in his knee - and it was far enough away from the porch, as well as being partially screened by the bushes around it, that even if one of those still in the cabin did look out the window, they wouldn't be able to see him all that well. Which might be important, all things considered.
Not to mention the additional benefit of not being an enclosed area String could use to trap him again....
After levering himself carefully down to a sitting position on the stump, Michael stretched out his left leg, and found himself grinning slightly as Tet sat next to him and rested his head on Michael's thigh. "You're determined not to let me get out of petting you, aren't you," he remarked as he began scratching behind Tet's ears. The hound let out a pleased sigh, and closed his eyes in obvious pleasure. "As determined as String.
"Now, if only String were as easy to understand as you..."
"Whatever we need it to be. ... And I need you, Michael."
The memory of String's words made him shiver. Yes, he was definitely in deep and sinking fast.
But this wasn't the time to be contemplating how much trouble he was already in. Michael needed to figure out what had gotten into String tonight - why he was doing this all of a sudden... and just how much more he could afford to give the pilot.
If I can afford to give anything more to him....
String had really thrown him for a loop. With pretty much everything he had done since he'd joined Michael out on the porch, but particularly both the kiss and his admission of need. And for once, Michael had absolutely no idea of what to do in response.
It wasn't as though he'd never received offers for sexual relationships before - from both women and men. Not only was he accounted reasonably charismatic (according to a number of conversations he'd overheard among his 'angels'), but he lived and worked in a world where power was important, and sexual intimacy was one way to gain that power - whether through influence on one's partner, or through blackmail. And despite his reputation as a ladies' man (Moses still owed him one for 'letting that slip' to Marella), he had certain rules that he followed when the issue came up.
Unfortunately, none of those rules helped with the current situation, because none of them applied to this situation. String's position with respect to him was... unique, to put it mildly; and that very uniqueness would make any... intimate relationship... between them a potential danger to both of them. String, because he could be seen as a hostage - or weapon - against Archangel; and Michael... well, because String could be used against him. He'd had a hard enough time dealing with the situation surrounding Hawke's kidnapping (even if Santini hadn't believed it); if they were to become involved....
It didn't help that he was attracted to String... and had been for a while. Even if he hadn't known that already, the events of the past... fifteen or twenty minutes, or however long it had been - he'd lost track - would have proven it to him.
Michael sighed as he continued petting Tet's head. Yes, I am, without a doubt, in serious trouble. "So, what would you do in my place?" he asked Tet. The hound looked up at him with wide, moist eyes, and then nudged him to make sure he continued with the petting. Michael rolled his eyes. "That's not exactly of any help, you know," he pointed out, though he didn't stop.
The first question that needs answering is: Just how does String 'need' me? That's what I really don't--
Abruptly recalling the way String's eyes had flicked to the MIA bracelet just before he'd said that, and his own thoughts about that stunt with Airwolf, Michael paled - and if he hadn't already been sitting down, he would have. Suddenly. No. No, that can't be it. It can't be!
But he had the very uncomfortable feeling that he'd just hit upon the answer. It made too much sense - especially considering exactly what they'd been discussing just before String made his move.
Michael had known for years that one day, String might find that he needed something else to help him keep going when the sorrow and pain of not knowing what had happened to St. John became too much: an anchor - or a touchstone - to help keep him from drowning in his grief. It was part of the reason Archangel had first recruited him, back when Hawke was simply an extremely skilled pilot who'd had no luck finding answers about his missing brother. He'd needed someone he could count on to be willing to take certain risks in order to get his people out of the kind of danger they couldn't deal with on their own; and he'd hoped that maybe that would provide the pilot in question something else to live for.
It hadn't, not entirely. Nor had Airwolf, not even with his promises to do his best to find St. John - which he was working on. (Whatever the older Hawke brother had got into, someone was definitely trying to keep the information hidden. He'd been able to determine that much, at least, but he still didn't know anything else - not even when that information had first been buried.) And if he was right about the details of what had happened two days ago, Dominic was losing any influence that he had once held.
So what am I supposed to do? he found himself wondering, feeling at a total loss as he absently raised his left hand to rub his temple next to his damaged eye. Tet whined at the loss of the attention, and Michael - equally absently - set his cane down on the ground and began rubbing Tet's ears with his right hand. If String really does need me for that... can I afford not to give in?
On the other hand, can I afford to encourage that much dependence in him? Part of the attraction Hawke had always held for him - not to mention one of the major reasons Archangel had approached Hawke with his original job offer in the first place - was the pilot's stubborn independence. He couldn't lose that.
Damn. This is one situation where I can't seem to weigh the possible consequences with anything approaching objectivity.
In which case, it would probably be best to figure out what were the other questions he was going to need answers to before he decided what to do about String's... offer. Perhaps those answers would help him figure out what to do about his primary concern....
One of them would definitely have to be whether String wanted anything else out of this potential relationship. If the answer to that was 'no', then his answer would have to be the same. As much as he liked String, as much as he was attracted to him, Michael was not going to risk the likely dangers for nothing more than sex.
And there's part of the answer to the first question... not to mention what I need to ask next. Which was, of course, whether or not String understood what sort of danger could be involved. Secrets, especially when they concerned relationships, rarely stayed 'secret' for long in the intelligence community. And closer to home - for Hawke, at least, and his ability to run missions in Airwolf - was the matter of what Santini's reaction would be....
The sound of sticks breaking underfoot brought his head up to see that Hawke had evidently finished his walk - or had decided that he'd given Michael enough time to think. The pilot was coming back up the path from the dock; something Michael knew he could have done carefully enough not to make a sound. The warning was appreciated.
"So," String said, coming to stand in front of him, "have you had enough time to think things over?"
"And what would you say if I haven't?" Michael countered, not standing up. While in some ways, staying seated placed him in the more vulnerable position, it also meant that he could continue resting his knee - and, if need be, use Tet to keep String at arms'-length.
He received a scowl in response. "That's not amusing, Michael."
Michael shrugged. He hadn't meant it to be. "I have a few questions. I need you to answer them completely - no evasions, no omissions."
String eyed him a bit warily, but nodded. "All right. As long as you're not asking me where Airwolf is. What are they?"
As it happened, that thought hadn't even occurred to him - not for this discussion, at least. He would prefer it if he knew exactly where Hawke and Santini hid Airwolf, of course, in case of emergency; but that was for another time, when it next became an issue.
"First of all... when I asked you what you wanted out of... 'this'... you said the answer was that you wanted what you need." Michael was relieved to note that his voice had regained its usual confidence. "I believe I've managed to figure out what you mean by that." And it is something we are going to talk about, no matter what happens.... Later, though. "But is that all you want?"
He'd managed to startle String, he noticed, and wondered if the pilot had perhaps not expected him to regain his mental balance so quickly. Well, given how he'd been reacting earlier, Michael had to admit he couldn't blame him.
String crouched down and snapped his fingers, calling Tet over - the hound gave Michael a somewhat apologetic look before obeying - then looked up and met Michael's gaze. "No, it's not," he declared firmly.
A bit of the tension Michael had been feeling since String had first touched him eased at the pilot's decisive tone. "So, what else do you want, then?"
String took a deep breath and settled back on his haunches. "I know you, Michael. And you understand me - better, in some ways, than even Dom does." He began rubbing Tet's ears.
Michael was fully aware of how difficult this was; he was finding it equally so. Neither of them were all that inclined to 'open up' - but in this case, they needed to. "And?" he prompted.
String shrugged. "Is there an 'and'? You made me think, earlier, and it occurred to me that this was a possibility." The full force of his determination was back in his eyes, and Michael felt the intensity between them rising again. "A possibility that I believe is worth exploring. We understand each other, Michael. That counts for a lot." He leaned forward slightly, emphasizing his next words. "And can lead to a lot more."
It did, and it could; Michael couldn't dispute that. Especially given that was a large part of what was tempting him to give in. A very large part, now that String had stated that he saw things the same way. But still....
"Have you considered just how dangerous this kind of involvement could be? It would make you a target for my personal enemies, String, not just the groups who are after Airwolf."
String shook his head. "Despite what you and Marella appear to think, I'm not that naïve about how things work in the business. And as for not currently being a target for your personal enemies - what about Bruck?"
String... had a point with that, Michael admitted reluctantly to himself. The reason Bruck had wanted to get his hands on Airwolf was because it would both advance him and let him thoroughly discredit Archangel. But.... "I have a number of enemies who are worse than Mitchell Bruck. He was relatively minor when compared with some of them."
"And when compared to the groups that are after Airwolf?" String countered.
Michael was starting to wonder if this offer of String's was quite as spontaneous as he had first thought. Not that Hawke wasn't skilled at making up plans on the spur of the moment - that was one of his more valuable talents - but his arguments had the flavour of something that had been contemplated more than once. Not that that matters right now. "Most of them could be considered... equivalent," he admitted, beginning to feel a bit desperate. The problem was, he wasn't just fighting String; he was fighting his own interest as well. And with each point String made, that fight was getting harder.
String was starting to look smug again, and Michael grabbed for his last-ditch weapon. If nothing else convinced the pilot it wasn't a wise idea, this might. "What about Dominic?"
That took String aback. He blinked, the smug expression vanishing, and frowned. "What about Dom? What does he have to do with anything?"
Michael sighed. "Dominic doesn't like me, String. What do you think his reaction would be if we were to become involved?"
A flicker of irritation crossed the pilot's face at that. "I'm not sure whether to be more insulted that you seem to think I'm unable to make my own decisions without Dom's 'approval', or that you think Dom will throw a fit about this."
"Dominic is important to you," Michael pointed out. "I would think that his opinion would hold some weight. I would prefer not to be a bone of contention between the two of you. At least, not more than I already am," he added. He was well aware of Santini's opinions - both of him personally and of Hawke's involvement with the Firm. Dominic certainly never hesitated to make them known.
"Dom doesn't think you're that bad, Michael."
"I could debate that, but that's not the issue," he stated firmly.
String shrugged. "The way I see it, what Dom doesn't know won't hurt him. This is our business, not his. Not to mention that he, at least, seems to realize that I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself."
Michael blinked, uncertain that he'd heard correctly. "Are you suggesting that if - if - we go through with this, we try to keep it a secret from Dominic? Do you have any idea just how impossible that would be?"
"Yes, I do know," String declared calmly, a hint of smugness returning to his expression, though Michael wasn't sure what had prompted it. "I'm simply saying that there's no point in making it obvious. Dom may be good at figuring things out, but it will take time."
"Which still doesn't solve the underlying issue. Dominic--"
"You're stalling, Michael." String's voice went flat, though the spy could still hear an undertone of determination. "Dom may be - probably will be - surprised when he finds out, but he won't argue. Not when I know that this is what I want."
"But--" Michael started. He wasn't sure what he intended to say, aside from the fact he suspected Dominic would object, quite vehemently, to any relationship more intimate than the one they already had; he just knew he had to say or do something to head off what he could tell was coming.
Except that String wasn't inclined to let him. "You're stalling," the pilot repeated, frowning. "If I didn't know better, I'd say that you're scared of this."
Michael grabbed his cane from the ground and used it to help lever himself to his feet. "And what makes you think I'm not?" he countered. It wasn't something he would ordinarily admit to, not even to Hawke - but this situation was so far from 'ordinary' that it was almost funny.
Almost. He wasn't feeling much inclination to laugh, however.
"I know you," String said as he rose to his own feet. "And while you may be nervous, I doubt you're actually afraid."
While he'd been speaking, String had managed to move until he was once again close enough to touch Michael. And whether the pilot had actually planned it that way or had simply taken advantage of the opportunity, Tet was now in the perfect position for him, rather than Michael. The hound was lying where String had been, head on his paws, watching them. He didn't look as though he intended to move between them this time.
Michael wasn't terribly surprised when String ignored him and reached out to touch his cheek again. And once again, he couldn't prevent himself from leaning into the touch, shivering at the thrill that ran through him as String resumed stroking his cheekbone. For some reason, that particular touch seemed to get through all his defences....
"You've asked your questions, Michael; now it's my turn," String stated. "Under the same conditions as yours." He met Michael's gaze. "Do you want this?"
He would choose that question. Michael shivered again, unable to pull away this time, not because he was trapped, but because String had effectively won. The majority of his objections had been met and countered, and the rest couldn't stand against the fact that he did want what String was offering him - did want String. Wanted him enough to give in.
He closed his eyes, surrendering. "Yes."
The next thing Michael was aware of was the press of String's lips against his own.
Just as had happened with their first kiss, everything else seemed to disappear, leaving only the kiss, the caress, and the shivering thrill of mingled pleasure and anticipation produced by both. Even time seemed to stop, as Michael lost track of everything but what he was feeling.
String finally pulled away, and Michael slowly opened his eyes.
The first thing he noticed was String's smile. It was hardly a broad grin, but it was definitely more than the slight upward tilt at the corners of his mouth that was the pilot's usual version of a smile. And there wasn't any smugness to it now, only pleased satisfaction.
"We'll make this work, Michael."
"I never took you for an optimist," Michael managed to retort, despite the fact that String was still rubbing his cheek gently.
String felt his unaccustomed smile widen slightly. Michael had apparently recovered his balance much faster this time. "I'm not," he replied easily, taking his hand away from the spy's face. Much as he enjoyed the way Michael responded to the touch, there would be plenty of time for that later. "I just know we can do it."
"It's not going to be easy," Michael warned, but the argument had gone out of his tone the moment he'd acknowledged that he wanted this as much as String did.
"Since when have either of us taken the easy way?" String countered, his smile changing to a smirk.
Michael snorted. "You have a point.
"But String... you do realize that what happened over Kruger is unlikely to be an isolated incident? And I can't guarantee that I'll be able to come up with a plan to deal with it the next time it does...."
Despite his shrug, String didn't like the idea that his views and Archangel's plans might mean that they could end up at odds again; but it was a possibility that he'd accepted when he'd agreed to fly Airwolf on missions for the Firm. "Yes, I know. If it happens, we can deal with it then.
"Now," he continued, changing the subject as he noticed that while Michael looked better - less troubled - than earlier, there were still hints of fatigue in his face, "I think it's probably time we went back in. If only because Marella's likely to start wondering where you've gone to if we stay out much longer."
"Yes, I suppose so," Michael admitted, glancing around as though he'd only just noticed that it was almost pitch-dark out.
"As for what to tell Dom and Marella tonight... well, I'm sure you can probably think of something. Maybe that we need to talk," String went on, as they started back toward the cabin. Sensing, more than seeing, Michael's frown, he added, "We're both tired, and we both need sleep. And if you think I'm letting you get away now, think again."
"What I was going to say," Michael commented mildly, "is that there are still a few things we need to discuss about the past few days." The quiet thump of his cane against the steps punctuated his next words as he continued, "In particular, the matter of that 'test of Airwolf's capabilities', and the question of whether you've done any other tests I ought to know about."
"And what exactly defines a test you 'ought' to know about?" String questioned, as he pushed the door open and they walked in.
"Anything involving Airwolf's physical or stealth capabilities," came Michael's dry response, as Tet padded in after him. "Especially if it involves a stunt like the one Dominic mentioned to me."
Marella looked up from where she was crouching by the fireplace, banking the fire. "'Stunt'?" she repeated, quickly standing up and giving her skirt a swift brush as she sidestepped Tet's advance. "What sort of stunt?"
Dom, who was standing at the bar pouring Sarah another glass of wine, snorted.
"A test of Airwolf's capabilities," Michael answered, his tone still dry; String suspected that - just as with the spy's mood earlier - only he, and possibly Marella, would be able to sense the tightness beneath the tone. He's still angry about it.... "Or so I'm told."
"Oh?" Sarah looked interested. "What was this?"
"Most likely some manifestation of the test pilot mentality," Marella remarked mildly, joining Sarah and Dom at the bar. "For some reason, Archangel seems to find it irritating when it's anyone other than him pulling those stunts." Then she glanced up at the clock, and a frown crossed her face. "I hate to cut this short, but we need to be going, Sarah. Your flight leaves in five hours, and there's still some paperwork that needs to be taken care of."
"Are you sure?" Sarah asked as she put her wineglass down, both her expression and her voice disappointed.
"I'm afraid so." Marella's expression turned apologetic, and String felt a stirring of suspicion. "If I'd thought to check the time earlier, we wouldn't have to leave with so little warning, but your stories were so intriguing...." She shrugged.
String frowned as the stirrings of suspicion became a certainty. While he knew Marella mainly in relation to Archangel, that knowledge was enough to let him realize that she was lying. No matter how interesting Sarah's stories might have been, Marella was far too much the professional to have lost track of time. Especially not with a deadline as tight as that. What is she up to?
Shooting a glance at Michael in the hopes that Archangel would be willing to reveal the answer, he was surprised to see that the Deputy Director was as puzzled as he was by Marella's actions. But if this wasn't some plan of Archangel's....
"Well, then, I suppose I must," Sarah declared with a resigned sigh as she slid off the barstool. "I do have to ensure Kruger is brought back to my country, after all...."
Dom shot his own glance at the clock and smiled. "As it happens, I've got to get going anyway - I've got work to do in the morning, and it is getting a bit late. Why don't I fly Sarah down to Van Nuys? That way you and I can finish talking, Sarah, and you," he added, turning to Marella, "don't have to come back here to pick up Archangel because you only brought a two-seater."
"That's a very kind offer, Dominic, but I'm afraid I have to take Sarah directly to Knightsbridge," Marella declared firmly, gesturing Sarah toward the door. "Besides, I have the feeling this discussion about test pilot stunts might take a while."
Sarah shook her head and gave Dom a smile. "We will have to finish talking later, then. And we will, Dominic, I promise; after all, I have many more jokes that I have to tell you!"
"Oh, I haven't given up just yet," Dom promised, as he came out from behind the bar. "Come on, Marella, do you really want to risk leaving those two alone for even a few hours?"
"I do believe we've just been insulted, Hawke," Archangel commented, giving Dom a look which promised revenge of some sort or another. "And here I was under the impression that this was the reason you told me about the stunt in question."
"It'll be all right, Dom," String said firmly, as Sarah stopped in front of him.
The older man looked sceptical, but refrained from adding something guaranteed to irritate Archangel - which String appreciated. Greatly.
Sarah looked at him carefully for a long moment, then gave him a firm hug. "I shall miss you, Stringfellow Hawke," she declared. "And next time we meet, I shall have come up with more ways to make you laugh."
String gave her one of his usual smiles. Regardless of what had happened over the past few days, he did like Sarah. "We'll see," he replied, then turned his head slightly so that her quick kiss landed on his cheek. He was not going to give Archangel any excuse to put a halt to things; even though Michael had given in and agreed to this, String didn't want to take the risk that he might re-consider his decision. Especially given how hard he was liable to make convincing him a second time.
"Archangel," Sarah said then, moving on to Michael and holding out her hand. "I hope you will forgive me for the slap."
"Of course," Archangel replied coolly, and String watched him clasp her hand for a moment. "I can't say it has been an unalloyed pleasure, all things considered; but I am glad to see the little girl I once met has grown to be a very strong woman. I wish you the best in your quest to finish your father's work. You have both his determination and his sense of justice; I believe he would be quite proud of you."
"Thank you," Sarah murmured, looking surprised - and rather touched. Archangel simply nodded to her, and stepped back toward the bar in order to let her reach the door where Marella was waiting, beginning to look somewhat impatient.
"Come on, Sarah, let's go," she said firmly.
"You could always give me clearance for Knightsbridge - for tonight, at least," Dom persisted, as he also reached the door. "That would solve any problem with me flying Sarah there."
Marella's smile was oddly cool; she usually enjoyed verbally sparring with Dom almost as much as Archangel did. "I'm afraid that won't be possible tonight, Dominic. And if you have work that early tomorrow morning, I wouldn't want to keep you up too late. Hawke would likely never forgive me."
"Oh, I don't mind," Dom said, grinning. "It's not a big job, after all...."
"Sorry, Dominic," Marella repeated, as she let him walk past her. "I'll be back to pick you up later, sir," she tossed over her shoulder, before following Sarah and Dom out the door. Her eyes went to String, and she gave him a quick wink before adding, quietly, "Much later," and then the door closed behind her.
String could vaguely hear Dom continuing to protest as the three of them descended to the dock and the two helicopters waiting there, but just at the moment, most of his attention was focused on what Marella's parting words - not to mention the wink - had implied.
He turned to stare at Michael, whose puzzled expression had vanished at Marella's words. "Did she just--?" Guess? But how?
"Yes," Michael replied mildly, clearly not at all disturbed by the thought. "I believe she did." He leaned against the bar, his fatigue becoming more visible - presumably, String figured, because with Sarah and Dom gone, there was no need to maintain his mask.
Michael's lack of concern over Marella's apparent knowledge puzzled him, given the arguments he'd been using only minutes ago; but he could figure out the answer later. For now, it was obvious that Michael needed sleep, and String could feel his own tiredness pulling at him.
"So, if Marella's not going to be back until tomorrow, we might as well get some sleep now," the pilot 'suggested'.
Michael blinked, a hint of uncertainty flickering across his face, and String gestured toward the stairs that led up to his bedroom. "I said I'm not letting you get away now, Michael," he declared. "Tonight we're just sleeping, but we're sleeping together."
Michael met his eyes. "You're sure about this, String?"
The question was about more than just tonight's sleeping arrangements.
String nodded firmly. "Absolutely certain." This was the right thing to do; he had no doubts whatsoever on that score. "Go up, get comfortable; I'll be up as soon as I make sure Tet understands that he's sleeping down here tonight."
There was a momentary pause, as Michael studied him; and then the spy's mouth curved up in the most genuine smile String had ever seen from him as he headed toward the stairs. "Considering how often Dominic has tried to convince him to stay off the dock during helicopter landings, I do hope you'll manage to persuade him within the hour."
String chuckled as he turned back to Tet, who had been lounging by the fire since Marella had stood up. Michael knew perfectly well that the only reason Tet continued to get in the way of landings was because String had trained him to do just that; if String told him to stay away from the dock, he would.
After a quiet command of, "Stay," String went around the ground floor, turning off the lights in preparation for going to bed. He could hear Michael moving around upstairs and found himself smiling faintly as he put away the half-empty bottle of wine.
Still, it wasn't until he stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked around to make sure everything was done that he abruptly realized something had changed since he'd left the cabin in search of Michael earlier this evening; something more than just their relationship.
For the first time in a very long time, Stringfellow Hawke felt... content.