"So you never stopped flying for Archangel."
Stringfellow Hawke leaned on the dock railing at Eagle Lake, watching the white-and-brown speck of an eagle riding a thermal off the mountains. Trying not to take offense at the edge in his brother's voice. If it weren't for St. John, he'd be out here with his cello and Prokofiev...
If it weren't for St. John. God, what a thought.
"Did for a month," String got out. "Made it look right to the Company." And even though he'd had that blinding joy of his brother alive, well, home... every day without Airwolf's controls under his hands had eaten him alive.
St. John Hawke gripped weathered wood near him; forcibly relaxed his fingers. Lifted a hand to brush back blond hair; bright gold to his brother's dark. Glanced back toward the cabin, where a certain white-clad spy would currently be ensconced with a book on bio-warfare. Light reading, Michael had called it. "Why?"
Why Archangel? Why Airwolf? Why agree to work for the Firm in the first place? Simple questions. Hard to answer. "Like Caitlin said," String said carefully. "People whose kids go missing, whose family goes missing... it eats them up inside." I don't want to say this. I don't want to remember-
A skirl of feathery warmth wrapped around his mind. Combat assist?
The corner of String's lips twitched. Airwolf might be a Valkyrie on rotors in a firefight, but when it came to people, the AI was way out of her league. Don't think you can shoot my way out of this, Angel.
Airwolf AI inexperienced in interpersonal non-combat situation, "talking it out".
Successful resolution vital to pilot survival.
Michael Archangel highly skilled in negotiation.
Anger bubbled in String's veins. Lean on Archangel to deal with his own brother-
Prickly comfort filtered in; rough counterpoint to Airwolf's warmth. "Don't be an idiot, Hawke." Even with Airwolf passing along the thought, the spy's familiar sardonic tone came through. "You don't know each other. Not anymore."
String dug his fingers into stained wood. The hell he didn't know his-
Anger faded, diluted by the image of the bright-eyed young Hawke currently down at the Van Nuys hangar with Dominic. We found his son, String reminded himself, when you didn't think Sinj would ever get married. If you didn't know that...
Still. Letting Archangel crawl into his skin ranked high on his list of things he never wanted to do.
Michael Archangel allowed aircraft commander combat assist at Van Nuys, Airwolf reminded him.
That was life or death.
A ripple of annoyance swept out from the AI. Pilots Caitlin, Dominic, and Michael Archangel have independently proposed possible scenarios if pilot Stringfellow Hawke and pilot dependent St. John Hawke continue present course of action. Preponderance of scenarios, negative outcome. Unlikely but plausible scenario, aerial duel resulting in casualty or fatality.
Combat skills, Stringfellow Hawke, on record in Airwolf database. Combat skills, St. John Hawke, on record in Airwolf II database and accessible via hacking. Preliminary comparison indicates close match in skill level, though Airwolf II hardware slightly lesser quality.
Airwolf core survival programming advises avoiding unnecessary risks. Airwolf AI highly disinterested in becoming "scrap metal".
Archangel's amusement whispered past String. "You tell him, Lady." Mirth changed to exasperation, flicking String like a dragonfly's wing. "I'm not precisely enamored of the concept myself. The very idea of cohabiting a mind vicious as a wolverine, stubborn as Siberian permafrost, whose mental environs are likely to be about as pleasant as an emergency bail-out into the Bering Strait-"
String raised an eyebrow. Angel, are you going to let him talk me to death?
Curiosity pawed him, like a kitten with a paper butterfly. Accepting combat assist?
String shook his head. This isn't a fight!
Dark rage swept the fringes of his mind; String braced against it, tried to pull away. Fought back the impulse to find a weapon, fire, kill.
Not Airwolf. Not at all Airwolf.
This was killing rage, the cold, calculating anger that had kept Deputy Director Michael Coldsmith-Briggs III, Archangel, alive through a lifetime as a spy. The chill knowledge of what must be done, to survive, to accomplish the mission. The cost to a soul be damned.
Fury ebbed; String drew a breath, felt Airwolf shivering in the dark. Oh, Angel...
She reached back to him, burying herself in his mind as Tet might huddle under a rug on a winter-chill night. Hiding, as she so rarely hid from Michael. Michael Archangel restraining combat response.
Combat response triggered by negative emotions resonating from secondary link, Hawke; aggravated by negative echoes through Airwolf primary links from pilots Dominic and Caitlin.
Core survival programming, Archangel, classifies current situation as threat.
String soothed the AI, thinking furiously. If Archangel was that mad... damn it, he'd thought he only had his own temper to worry about. Thought, so long as he kept things civil, there'd be time to work this out...
"I guess it was bad," St. John offered, staring out at the lake.
Sinj was trying. Reaching out, with a clumsy olive branch of brotherly compassion. Time to swallow his pride and try to reach back.
Angel? String held that warmth near, felt her shivers slow. Can you help Michael... help me?
Wary caution; the winged wolf in his mind had felt the killing chill, and had no desire to face it again. Attempting combat assist.
The chill swept them both; but gentler this time. Softer. Like a blanket of snowfall, over the hot acid of years of grief.
Guess it could help, String realized, feeling a distance between him and the pain. Foreign habits of mind settled into place; an odd shift in perspective, setting aside emotion to focus on the problem at hand-
My brother! String objected, forcing the chill back.
The problem, that alien perspective repeated, with the same cool, calm calculation that had seen Archangel through a thousand confrontations with terrorists, arms dealers, and psychopaths of every color and faith.
"String." Annoyed. Thoroughly irritated. Yet still... there was an undercurrent of concern, washing clean and clear as the springs that fed the lake. "You have to trust me."
Trust that Archangel knew what he was doing. Trust that Archangel valued Airwolf's pilots enough to act in what he saw as their long-term best interest.
And hope what he saw included St. John.
All right. String let the wall drop, let that alien mindset walk in and take over. Let a spy's calculation overlay his thoughts, until a subtle shift in the angle of his brother's arms became a clear signal to St. John's outrage, guilt, his struggle to keep words civil. All right.
"Yeah," String said softly, taking his first step on the tightrope of emotions Archangel walked every day. "It was bad."
Well, at least he's talking, St. John thought, rubbing a finger along familiar splinters. Still marveling that he could touch this wood, drink in the scent of pine and mountains. There'd been a time he'd thought he'd never see Eagle Lake again.
There'd been a time... a very long time... he hadn't wanted to.
How can you live where Mom and Dad died, String? How can you stand it?
Even now Sinj could remember the tug of chill water, the struggle to get his twelve-year-old brother to shore, the panic of radioing Dominic when their parents didn't come out of the unforgiving lake. And then the silence, weeks upon weeks of silence; as if String couldn't bear to add one word to the cacophony that was Van Nuys.
Santini Air had still been based in Cold Creek, then; but sometimes business took Dom to the larger city, and the Italian wouldn't let them out of his sight. So where he went, they went, noise or no noise.
Sinjin had coped. Car horns? Don't listen. Neon flashing? Pull on a pair of shades. Polyester itching like crazy? Heck, Dominic went for cotton anyway; pilots had to be ready for fire and most synthetics had a nasty tendency to melt. And Van Nuys was full of planes and choppers and people, nothing like the azure silence of their parents' watery grave. A few weeks to get his feet under him, and Sinj loved Van Nuys.
String loathed it. Absolutely. The younger boy clung to the hangar like a limpet, unwilling to risk venturing far from the aircraft that would bear them back to Cold Creek. A noiseless, blue-eyed shadow, skulking in any corner that didn't have people.
Sometimes Sinj'd thought String would be silent forever.
Thank goodness for Dom.
Dominic Santini was kind, and fair, and loved life like forests loved sunshine. Leave Dom alone with a rock long enough, stone would talk. Guaranteed.
And time for me to talk, Sinj reminded himself. Might be weeks before I catch String in the mood again. "I wanted to come back, you know. All those years away... all that time, undercover with the Company... I wanted to come back."
"No, you didn't."
St. John froze, cast a subtle, sideways glance toward his brother. No condemnation in that quiet voice. No pain. No regret. Just a simple statement of fact. God. How long have you been with Archangel, little brother? "What makes you say that?" Calm. Keep it calm. He might have four solid inches on String, but his little brother could give whole new meaning to the phrase fighting dirty.
Archangel. Of course. Jason said the man was vicious about secrets. Especially secrets that touched Airwolf. Steer clear of that. String wants him in that cabin; it's his cabin, his right. No matter how much of an idiot he is for trusting anyone from the Firm. "Okay. Fine. There were times... I could have pulled out. Could have come back to the States. Could have breached my cover-"
"Could have called your family."
"You don't understand!" Splinters bit into his palms; Sinj let them bite, welcomed the distraction from the coiled knot in his heart. "You never understood."
"Damn right I don't." Blue eyes were level, still. "So tell me."
Still no threat there. No hint of attack. Not like String, Sinj thought. But then, a lot of the things he'd noticed about his brother over the past year... weren't like String.
And most of those tie back to Airwolf. What is it about that helicopter?
String's Airwolf wasn't like his. Oh, it looked the same on the outside. Armor, pilot bio-sensors, armament - nearly identical, if you left out Airwolf II's laser. Even the AI, critical for Mach 1 plus near-surface maneuvers, was a copy of Airwolf's, installed by Dr. Karen Hansen; a copy without the little surprises Moffet had buried in Airwolf.
A copy without something else. Sinj was sure of it.
Archangel would never give up that kind of advantage.
But... he wasn't going to think about Archangel. Not if he could help it. "It... was you."
A slow nod.
Damn it, String - hit me, swear at me! Do something! "Damn it, String - you were always there! No matter where I went, no matter what I did. Even when I worked for the Firm, even when I went places, took missions, nobody should. You were always there." Sinj sucked in a breath, waiting for the explosion. "I didn't want to be... responsible anymore."
At last, a flinch in blue eyes. "You thought I'd go home. Without you."
"I thought you'd be safe! I thought you'd get out of the business, out of the Game. I thought you'd..." Sinj sucked in a breath, pounded a fist on gray wood. "Damn it, String... I thought you'd lost enough." God knows I did. Lost innocence, lost morals; lost, sometimes, even the very thought of hope.
"You were wrong."
"You think I don't know that?" Sinj blazed. "You think it doesn't eat me up inside, knowing all of you thought I was dead? Knowing my son-" He opened his fist helplessly, still shocked by Le Van's existence. If I'd only known...
If. If, if, if. Sinj looked down, studying dark waters. "You've been more of a father to him than I ever have."
"Dominic's a good teacher."
"Did he teach you to mess with guys like Archangel?" Great. Open mouth, insert foot.
String's fingers twitched; didn't - quite - curl into a fist. The younger man looked away a moment, drew in a slow breath. "Michael's not negotiable."
What the hell? "String. He's the Firm. He'll chew you up and spit you out. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but he will do it."
"No. He won't." Cool blue eyes met his. "Trust me."
"I can't, little brother," Sinj said softly. "Not about this." Not when he gave you what you've wanted so long. Haven't you thought about that, String? He gave you me. Don't you think he knew you'd be in his debt? Forever?
And Stringfellow Hawke always paid his debts. Always.
"Fine." String didn't flinch. "But he won't hurt Le."
"Okay," Sinj allowed. It might grate on his nerves, but String was probably right. Archangel was an agent, not an idiot. "All right. If you want to have him and Le in the same place... that's all right."
Yeah, there was String's old raised eyebrow. Not quite a challenge. But close. Time to back off. Sinj leaned against the railing. "You know, Mike surprised me yesterday."
"Yeah?" String and Rivers so far had a relationship based on avoiding each other as much as possible.
"He, ah... picked up a calculator. And checked our Airwolf's fuel supply."
String nodded. "So he knows Michael wasn't in your Lady."
"He's pretty sure," Sinj acknowledged. Glanced at his little brother, silent question in his eyes.
String shrugged. "Might as well tell him the truth. Locke too, if you trust him." He headed for the small rowboat tied to the shore. "I'm going fishing."
Oh. My. Head.
Michael Archangel leaned back in his chair, bio-warfare treatise abandoned on the low table. Stringfellow Hawke had a temper that could calmly, coldly take apart an opponent one bone at a time, simply because he was in the way. Very useful, for the Firm.
Very dangerous, for anyone else remotely near ground zero.
Fourteen years of rage, Michael thought, trying to calm his own wire-taut nerves. He was mad enough himself at Sinjin; and his anger was only the cold fury of seeing an operative pull some damn-fool stunt that could've gotten people killed. Fourteen years of hating yourself for leaving him, and hating him for hurting you...
It had to blow. And better to blow it now, in small, controlled spurts of fury, then wait until they all wound up in a life-or-death crisis and everything went to hell.
Didn't make his head hurt any less.
Dimly Michael considered the benefits of moving to the coffee-stocked kitchen versus the merits of staying put and letting his skull come apart in peace. Caffeine won.
He was most of the way through an ambrosial mug when the door creaked open. He didn't bother to look up. "I take it from the apparent absence of gunfire that the two of you managed to resolve a few troubling issues?"
"Afternoon to you, too, Michael. Why thanks, I'm fine. Nice of you to ask."
Archangel arched a blond brow. "I never would have thought Hawke's propensity for enigmatic silence would seem so meritorious."
Sinjin glowered, advancing into the kitchen. "I'm Hawke."
"No, you're Sinjin," Archangel said coolly. His cane was just out of comfortable reach, but he had a multitude of other hidden weapons. Hold those in reserve. "A person your brother has loved, quite beyond reason insofar as I can determine, for years. A man he was determined to find, despite all my efforts to the contrary. And I assure you they were both manifold and extensive." Michael regarded the man before him. Tall, golden; far better and luckier with people than his brother ever had been. "I truly believed you were dead. But I promised him I would look." And I keep my word.
"And you didn't find me."
"Apparently, your cover was considered too valuable to breach for a simple pilot operative from a rival agency. Especially once that operative became the key to Airwolf." Archangel shrugged. "The Company keeps some secrets even from me."
"Archangel." Sinjin's smile was wry as he leaned against the counter. Far too close for comfort. "That's the easy way out."
"The easy way out," Archangel repeated softly, setting down his mug. "Ah. Let me mention two words you may have heard from a Company psychologist. Two words you should have heard from Jason Locke, in regards to your brother. Chronic sorrow."
Something flickered behind Sinjin's easy, edged smile. "Doesn't ring any bells..."
"It's a documented phenomenon, among relatives of the missing. Not the dead," Archangel observed clinically, "Death is final. One adapts, however great the loss. But the missing... the missing are ever with us."
A hint of true alarm on that tan face. "I don't think-"
That's obvious. "To know one of yours is missing," Archangel cut across his words, "Is to live with agony. To go for days, weeks, years; unable to eat, unable to sleep without nightmares haunting every hour, unable to stop pushing yourself until someone throws themselves in your path or you collapse from sheer exhaustion. To live with maybe and what-if and I-should-have-done. To dwell mired in a swamp of possibilities, none of which are real, all of which might be. To be missing, St. John Hawke-" and here he did let his voice rise, secure in the knowledge that String was out of earshot, safe amid lapping lake water, "-is to be a source of misery and pain, such as I would not inflict upon my worst enemy!"
"You think I don't know that?" Sinjin hissed, likewise cautious of his brother's hearing. "You think I don't feel it? I know he's hurt, damn it!"
"I think you don't realize, what you feel doesn't matter," Archangel said coldly. "Deep down, String has been angry with you for years. Every day he couldn't find you, every moment he forgot you were missing and dared to laugh, felt like a betrayal. And if you know your brother half as well as I do, you know what he thinks of traitors."
That finally brought a flinch. "It's not my fault!"
Archangel's gaze chilled. "And that, is the worst of all," he said softly. "He knows you never meant to hurt him. But he can't forgive you. Yet."
Sourness dripped from Sinjin's tone. "And I suppose you've got advice on that, too."
"No." Archangel eyed the dark liquid rimming the inside of his mug. "But Caitlin might."
"Yeah. About Caitlin-"
"Don't 'about Caitlin' me, St. John Hawke," Michael said dryly. "I'm fully aware of both her relatively recent birth date and her lack of formal training in espionage until String and Dominic got their manipulative - and at the time, heavily bandaged - hands on her. I've rarely seen a better on Airwolf's boards and she's better at hand-to-hand than your brother."
"That's not enough!"
"It's more than most of us have coming into the Game, and you know it." A ghost of a smile touched Archangel's lips. "Your brother has never run from his losses. For as long as I've known him he's clutched grief to him, held it as a miser would priceless rubies. As if all he owned, all he dared claim without the world ripping it away, was pain." He met the blond pilot's gaze. "Until he rescued a young woman in Texas, and she somehow refused to die."
Sinjin winced. "He hasn't lost everyone he loves."
"No. Not quite." Michael gathered up his cane, limped toward the porch door. The ache in his head echoed the gnawing pain in his leg; he craved sunlight to soak out the worst of it. "Just give him time, Sinjin. Give him time."
"I still don't trust you."
On the threshold, Michael cast a wry glance over his shoulder. "I never asked you to."
Tentative footfalls crept into his thoughts; Airwolf, still wary of his anger, even though she knew it'd never been aimed at her. Pilot hazard abated?
I hope so, Angel. Michael gathered the A.I. near, poured in his gladness at her touch, his pride in her courage. Facing down a Hawke was bad enough; facing String and himself, knowing either could strike and hurt... there weren't words for that kind of bravery. I hope so.