Crash and Burn

by firechild

Rated T (angst, references to past discipline of children)

Disclaimer: Sadly, I don't own the boys (Bellisario,) the quote at the bottom (Keller,) or the title song reference (Crash and Burn by Savage Garden.)

Warning: see rating note

A/N: This is for shot, who wanted to see something.

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1972

Dom sighed as he leaned on the doorframe, peering into the small, too-neat room.

He was getting too old for this.

Not that he'd give up the lump under the covers on the bottom bunk, or the lump in his throat at the sight. No, nothing would separate him in spirit from his charge, nothing on earth. That would take a power much higher than maximum flight altitude, and surely, after all they'd been through, that power wouldn't take this, too. Nah. He'd had his issues with the Almighty, he'd done his share of doubting and second-guessing what his internal instrument panel told him at times, of trying to alter the flight plan, of bucking for clearance from a tower that didn't seem to be talking back when he wanted it to, but they had an odd kind of understanding, he and the Navigator Upstairs, the kind of understanding that you could only really appreciate when you'd packed your life and your faith into a tin can with wings and had ridden the clouds and the light and the storms by the seat of your pants--they'd had their turbulence, their engine trouble and over-the-top Gs, but he had always walked, or at least limped, away from every landing and crash in his life, and he believed that, no matter how much blood two broken hearts were gushing or how deep the scars from this one would run in them, they would both walk away from this one, too, his boy and he. He still believed.

He had to. Without that belief, he was flying blind, because he didn't have a read on this one, not really, and his old, tired eyes weren't seeing so well through the smoke and blood of war these days.

War.

The one in the jungle.

The one right here in his own home.

That lump shouldn't be down there; it belonged on the upper bunk, where it had been for six short years a war ago.

He almost chuckled to himself, remembering that fight--after the funeral, when everything had still been so fundamentally wrong, he'd stalled as long as possible to let them adjust to the idea and to say goodbye as the house had been packed up and put on the market, and then he'd brought them home, to his home, steeling himself for more of the wrongness; he'd left them in this room, retreating to his own for a steadying breath, only to come pounding back down the short hallway, alarmed at the squawks and thunks he was hearing, to find that they were bickering over the top bunk. He'd stayed out of their conflict, and hadn't been too surprised when Sinjin had finally given in 'just to get the little twerp to shut up.' Though Dom hadn't much tolerated fighting between them before or after that, thinking that there was more than enough of that in the world and that he wouldn't have more of it in his house, whether the boys were his guests for an afternoon or the only things his oldest and truest friend could've left him that could ever mean anything, he hadn't touched this one, and in fact, he remembered it with a certain bittersweet affection--it was the first time in weeks that he saw a glimpse of the boys behind the grief, the first time that he'd really believed that they all might be alright, these wounded hawklings and he.

At the time, he'd taken Sinjin's grumbled explanation for caving about the sleeping arrangements at face value. It made a certain amount of sense, and no matter how put out the older boy often was at the unfairness of being stuck with this particular little brother, Sinjin had always been unshakeably fond of the family phenom and had as hard a time as any of them saying no to the child. Now, though, Dom wondered if, at the core of it, Sinjin hadn't been obeying a much more primal directive, to always be closer to the door, to always be the first to meet any trouble that could come at them in the night. Of course, Dom had done his best to assure them that they were safe with him, that he would never let anything get to them any more than their own parents would have, but Sinjin especially had been a wounded animal, and taking into account his having to bury his parents and knowing how very close he'd come to having to bury his brother or even dying himself, trust hadn't been high on his packing list right then.

That was Sinjin, alright--protective under a cool veneer, untrusting and always having to be in control.

Ah, Sinjin.

Dom pressed the back of one wrist against his irritated eyes, trying to will back the tears of selfish grief that he couldn't afford to indulge.

Sinjin was--had been, he corrected himself harshly--a good boy, despite his penchant for finding trouble, or for trouble finding him. He'd always been the more often disciplined of the two, though Dom had always harbored more than mild suspicion that that had owed at least as much to String's big eyes and enviable charm, which had always made it seem unnatural to blame the young genius for anything. Philip had grumbled often in the early years about his elder son's propensity for being stubborn and for testing his patience and forcing the veteran to prove that his military experience had made him a distinctly un-soft target; even Dom himself had had to stow the 'cool' uncle and apply a hand or a handy wooden spoon to the angst-ridden teenager a few times. Oddly enough, Sinjin had also always been the more disciplined brother, and Dom hadn't been all that surprised that the kid had been determined to enlist--that lack of surprise had come in handy, actually, though Dom knew that Sinjin hadn't appreciated it either time that Dom had headed off the then-underage boy and had demonstrated the unacceptibility of running away and lying to the Army about being old enough to sign (the second time, he'd done it in the recruiting office, since the first 'discussion' in the privacy of the apartment hadn't seemed to stick--neither boy had spoken to him for a week after that, and Dom had very nearly hated himself for having embarrassed this boy he loved so much, but he'd refused to apologize, even his soft Italian heart stone-hard unwilling to accept danger to Sinjin while the older man still legally had a say.)

They'd both given him the cold shoulder for that--and that was the problem; Sinjin had never seemed to understand that, for all that String was such a prodigy and seemed to have secured the best traits and the best affections of their parents and everyone around them, the younger boy had always adored his big brother. String hadn't always liked his brother's attitude, and the younger boy had always been the loud one, the talker, the one who ran fast and hot and short, with an attention span shorter than a piece of macaroni and a way of leaving things everywhere, where Sinjin tended toward doggedness and liked to have things organized. Sinjin had always seemed frustrated that String didn't seem to see that he was being a nuisance, that String didn't seem to see how his actions affected those around him; but what Sinjin himself had never seen was that String would gladly kiss the ground his brother walked on, or the air he flew through, that String could, and would, follow Sinjin wherever he went, right through the gates of Hell itself.

And he had. Hurt, confused, scared, feeling abandoned, grieving for his high school sweetheart, feeling responsible for her death, and showing for once that he had indeed inherited some of the Hawke stubbornness, String had forsaken all of the plans and dreams laid out for him all his life, a legitimate exclusion from the draft, a scholarship to a music conservatory where he might finally have learned why he kept coming back to the cello when he thoughtlessly discarded every other earthbound pursuit, to follow his brother into the Army, into the ranks of combat pilots, into the war that raged in Vietnam and the war that had been raging in his brother's soul since that boating accident. And now he was trying to follow Sinjin down an invisible path, the one that had taken Sinjin from Dom forever and had spit String back to him, torn in half and desperate to reclaim what he saw as his--not the other half of his own soul, but the other half of his existence--even if it took him through the gates and into the pit.

From the look in his eyes, the last time Dom had actually seen his eyes, String just might see hell as a relief.

Dom was losing him.

Maybe he already had.

Hadn't he lost enough?

It was still hard to believe that Sinjin was really gone, that the embattled young man with the mulish streak as wide as Texas would never walk back through this door and flop down on the lower bunk and try to pretend that he wasn't a sweet kid--when he wasn't hopping to help out with this or fix that or fly the other or make sure that String wasn't going to break his own neck satisfying some curiosity. Dom would give just about anything to have even the churlish teenager back, to get his arms around those trademark Hawke shoulders and feel that much-fussed-with dark wavy hair against his jaw, to tell him how precious he was.

To shake him and scream at him for doing this to them, for doing this to String, for getting himself captured and tortured and killed, for letting the op get shot down, for going to war when he should have known that his brother would follow him and Dom would lose String, too.

Dom sighed raggedly and slumped heavily against the side of the doorframe, running a hand down over his face as he finally admitted it to himself--he was angry. Furious. Enraged.

At Sinjin.

The nasty little voice in his head that had refused to die all through WWII whispered that there had to be something sick about being angry at the dead, but Dom ignored it with some effort; he'd grieved for too many not to know that his feelings weren't abnormal or an actual betrayal. Knowing didn't make it easier on his heart, though. He was angry at Sinjin, and part of him wanted to rail at the kid on behalf of that pitiful lump of grief huddled in his brother's bed, trying somehow to fill his brother's place, trying somehow to be his brother.

Because that was what String was doing. Oh, Dom doubted that String would ever cop to it, but Dom saw it. Sure, war changed a person--to come through it unchanged was inhuman. But this, this wasn't the same war, this couldn't be pinned on Vietnam. This was one person trying to become another, and Dom wasn't sure why. He just knew that String had been shedding bits of himself and wrapping himself in his brother's attitudes and habits since... actually, come to think of it, since before he'd enlisted. The first Dom clearly remembered was the day of Cecilia's funeral--String had been pulled into himself, wound so tightly that Dom had feared that the boy would exacerbate his own injuries from that horrible wreck, and when he'd told him that it was time to go back to the hospital, String had fought against him, insisting angrily that he was fine and wasn't going. String had been a little off since his brother had left, but Dom had been sure that it would pass with time; the boy had been insisting lately that he was a man and should be treated like one, but when he pulled out that argument while literally throwing a tantrum at the edge of the cemetary and risking opening his stitches, Dom had, for the first time in years, carefully turned the kid and planted six swats on the seat of the boy's slacks. String had been shocked and angry, and Dom had quietly told him that they'd had a deal about the funeral, that a man would honor the deal and take care of himself, and that he should consider himself lucky because Dom knew String remembered what kind of response temper tantrums earned in this family. String had stared at him, wide-eyed, for several moments before jerking his arm out of his guardian's grip and stiffly turning toward Dom's most somber-looking chopper and taking the first unhappy step toward the machine. Dom had laid a hand gently on the rigid back and had told String that he loved him too much to not take care of him, and he'd heard the boy mutter something about how Dom shouldn't get too close or he might end up gone like everyone else who'd loved String. Dom had stopped in shock and watched the limping form for a moment; he'd had the urge to tan the boy for that nonsense, maybe he should have, maybe now he wished he had, but his soft spot for the hurting boy had won out, and he'd scrambled to catch up with him, not mentioning that he'd heard. Dom had never confided it to anyone, but as they'd reached the chopper, with the gold-red of sunset washing over them, he'd looked up at String, and in that one moment, in that stiff, angry, pain-hardened profile outlined in flame, the old man had seen Sinjin, an echo that transcended who'd gotten whose nose and jaw and eyebrows. At the time, it had startled him, but now that he looked back on it, the memory disturbed him, and he knew that he'd gotten a glimpse of what was to come. Maybe, if he'd known then even a fraction of what he knew now, if he'd had the sense to pay attention to what his eyes and his heart were telling him, maybe he could have done something, could have nipped it in the bud, could have used his words or even his hand to show this precious boy that Dom wasn't scared of some cockamamie curse and wasn't going anywhere. Maybe, if he'd tried a little harder to convince String that Dom was staying put, maybe then String would've fought a little harder to stay, too.

Heck, if he thought for a second that it would do one whit of good, he'd haul that young man over his knee and tan him bare right now. Problem was, he didn't think it would do any good; String wasn't being childish--he just wasn't being String. He really was becoming a man, and he'd taken Dom's words about honoring a deal to heart; he'd promised Sinjin that he'd come back for him, and he had, several times, so faithfully that the Army had stuck him with a commendation and an honorable discharge and drummed him out before he could get himself into real trouble with his quest. So here he was, not really String, not really Sinjin, no longer a soldier and nobody's son, sleeping--or pretending to--in his brother's bed while the man who loved him more than life itself watched powerlessly from the doorway. Dom would love him unconditionally, this Stringfellow James Hawke, just as he'd loved St. John Elias Hawke, but the time for him to be a force in String's life had passed, burned by the dying of the day and left in that graveyard to fade, so now he would be the soft place to fall, the warm updraft under wounded wings. Sure, String would be gone tomorrow, off to fly something somewhere for someone who might be able to pay him enough to fund the futile search for his brother, but for the moment, he was here, he was home. Dom had to wonder if the love of flying he'd instilled in both boys would survive in String, if his Hawkeling would always find release or at least relief among the liquid mountains of the sky, if anything would ever bring life and purpose back into those blue eyes.

Only one knew the answer to that. With a little sigh, hugging the lump on the bed with his eyes, Dominic Santini pushed himself up straight, sent up another prayer, and gathered his faith like fuel for the days ahead. He turned, padded to the kitchen, and put on some water for coffee. He'd doze at the kitchen table for the rest of the night, telling himself that he'd hear String and be able to catch him, at least hug him and tell him he loved him and remind him to be careful and watch his six. He knew from experience that it wouldn't happen, that String would be up and gone between snores, but if Dom couldn't be with him wherever he went, then he sure as heck would be where String knew he could find him when he wanted to, when he was ready, when he needed to remember who he was, when he needed to learn how to breathe again.

"It is wonderful to climb the liquid mountains of the sky--behind and before me is God, and I have no fear." - Helen Keller