What would you put at risk in the name of friendship? Your life, the lives of those you love? And where do you draw the line?


Chapter One


"Her name is Mathilde Panomyaong, or, in proper Thai format, Panomyaong Mathilde. Code named 'Orchid.'"

On page one of the briefing folder that Marella had handed each of them was a photograph of a stunningly beautiful Eurasian women. Her almond shaped eyes peered out of the photo with a challenging expression, as if daring an onlooker to assess her merely by her physical attributes. Caitlin let her gaze wander over to her two partners, both of whom had paused at the picture and looked no further.

Hawke's scowl announced that he was unimpressed, which simply broadcast to anyone who knew him that he thought the woman attractive but would deny it vehemently if questioned. Dominic's lips were pursued in a silent whistle and his eyes said, "Come to Papa!"

Caitlin bit her lip, hiding a smile, and flipped to the second page, beyond the biographical data, shifting forward to arrest her backward slide on the leather couch. The furniture in Archangel's office was comfortable and aesthetically pleasing – white or off-white, of course --and was probably perfectly suited for Briggs and the other men, but Caitlin inevitably felt on the verge of being swallowed by the buttery soft white leather; she perched on the very edge of the couch, forced into perfect posture. Her mother would be so pleased.

She looked up when she realized Archangel had stopped speaking; he was watching Hawke with an amused twist of a smile for a few seconds until Hawke realized he was the object of scrutiny and tore his eyes away from Mathilde's picture.

Briggs leaned back in his office chair. "Orchid is one of my senior case officers and oversees almost all Firm activity in Southeast Asia. Her primary area of responsibility is the Indochinese Peninsula, which contains, as you know, Cambodia, Laos, and…"

"Vietnam," growled Hawke, sprawled on the couch opposite to Caitlin as if he owned it.

Briggs inclined his head in their direction. "Yes, though for a number of reasons, we group the Malaysian Peninsula, Burma, and Thailand into our Indochina station as well."

"Pretty lady to head up all that activity," Santini said, eyes still on her picture even if he was obviously listening to the conversation.

"Don't let her looks deceive you," Briggs said. "She's one of the sharpest field operatives I've ever known. The Soviets stopped assigning male personnel in her territory because they kept underestimating her."

Hawke looked grudgingly impressed as Dominic's eyebrows shot up towards his forehead. Caitlin exchanged a grin with Marella, oddly pleased at the success of this female stranger, even if she wasn't surprised. Briggs's operatives might be physically attractive, but none of them lacked in intelligence or ambition.

"She's one of our top recruiters and most successful case officers," Marella added, confirming Caitlin's assessment.

"And you need us to get her out," Hawke summarized, with a slight frown.

Briggs exhaled through gritted teeth. "Yes, and the sooner the better. Orchid is privy to a number of operations that I'd rather not share, with her captors or anyone else in that region."

"We've been negotiating for her release," Marella said, "without much success. She's being held by a group near Haiphong; they present themselves as kidnappers holding her for ransom but we believe they have ties to Chinese Intelligence agencies."

"Right near the Chinese border," Hawke said quietly, as if to himself.

"I'm leaving tonight to make a final attempt at a negotiated settlement," Briggs said. "We have a number of contacts in Rangoon and in Bangkok that I plan to use as intermediaries but I don't really expect to make much progress."

"It's mainly to serve as a distraction," Marella said. "If they see Archangel making the trip to continue negotiations, they won't be expecting a rescue attempt, at least not until the negotiations have officially failed."

Caitlin turned back to the biographic details. French mother, Thai father, citizen of both countries, raised in France. Graduate of École Polytechnique. How did someone with that background end up working for the Firm instead of SDGN?

"Vietnam?" Hawke said again, this time with a sigh that Caitlin interpreted as both a question and a plea not to return to the country that had already cost him dearly.

Briggs apparently read Hawke the same way; Hawke's expression was a mix of reluctance and resignation. "It's important," he said, with intensity, and then held up a hand to delay Hawke's argument. "And not just to protect valuable information that is a lot more important to me than it is to you."

"You going to tell me that she saved your life, too?" Hawke asked skeptically, with a glance at Marella, who shook her head, whether in answer or in disgust, Caitlin wasn't sure.

Briggs shook his head. "If you recall, I wasn't the one who presented that particular fact about Moses."

"She didn't have to save either of our lives to be worth rescuing," Marella said, a little prickly. After delivering the briefing folders, she'd remained standing, moving slowly but in almost constant motion, always within ten feet of Archangel's desk.

Hawke scowled at Marella. "Thought it was Firm policy to cut ties when someone got caught, or was that just the load of bull you fed us to get him," a gesture towards Archangel, "out of East Germany."

Marella flushed. Eyes flashing, she opened her mouth to retort, stopped only by an upraised hand from the man behind the desk.

"That's the standing order, yes," Briggs said. "However, the order does permit some managerial autonomy and I don't like leaving any of my people in unfriendly hands. If you won't do it, I'll find another way…"

"With greater risks and less chance of success," Marella interjected.

"Orchid is my top person in Southeast Asia. She's critical to our success in all investigations and operations in that area." The slight emphasis Briggs laid on the word 'investigations' might as well have been shouted.

"You saying that she can find St. John?" Hawke asked, doubt evident in the set of his face. He shifted position on the couch, finally climbed to his feet, restless energy stirred at the mention of his brother's name.

"I know she's been looking," Briggs answered, leaning forward with a compelling gaze that didn't waver when meeting Hawke's hostility. "It's one of her primary assignments, one that I personally assigned her."

Caitlin heard Dominic's groan before Hawke even had a chance to reply.

"Sure, play the St. John card," Santini said, not bothering to hide his anger. "We're not dogs, you know. We don't get hungry just 'cause you ring a dinner bell."

Briggs opened his mouth to reply and then closed it. Biting his lip, which continued to twitch, he looked as if he was trying not to laugh, which didn't seem the appropriate response at all to Santini's frustration and appeared only to incense the other man further. Santini began muttering imprecations under his breath and Briggs took a deliberate breath and turned back to Hawke.

"If St. John's in Southeast Asia, Orchid's the best chance of finding him."

Hawke raised an eyebrow. "If?"

A simple one word question, yet it sounded to Caitlin as if it contained every question Hawke held about his brother's disappearance. Hawke was standing almost at alert, his controlled stillness giving away his desperate need for control over the ghost that had eluded him nearly his entire adult life. It made Caitlin want to weep for his sorrow.

"If your brother is alive," Briggs said carefully, "and if he is in Southeast Asia, Orchid is the best chance of finding him." He tilted his head, acknowledging everything he wasn't saying, almost as if apologizing. "There are a number of variables outside our control."

"Yeah," Hawke said, tension easing from his body, replaced by disgust. The excuses why the US government couldn't find his brother were familiar and were almost comforting in their familiarity. "You don't know where St. John is. She," he waved the briefing folder at Briggs, "doesn't know where St. John is, but if anyone might be able to find him, she'd be it. That what you're saying?"

"It's never been anything but a long shot," Briggs answered, his face creased with a hint of compassion.

Hawke tossed the briefing folder back onto Briggs's desk. "Don't start telling the truth, Michael. It could develop into a bad habit."

Marella was chewing on her lower lip, giving away a state of nerves unusual for her. Caitlin watched as Marella's gaze shifted between Briggs and Hawke, as if she was listening to the silent negotiation that was going on between the two men and was worried that Hawke would turn down the mission. Caitlin thought Marella's worry was a little misplaced. Hawke rarely turned down a mission, would have to have serious doubts and concerns about the safety of a mission or its value to turn it down, and after Archangel had dangled the lure of St. John, it would be so out of character for Hawke to say 'no' that Caitlin was already mentally rescheduling their jobs for the next week.

"What makes you think this isn't an attempt to grab Airwolf?" Hawke said, shoving his hands in the pockets of his jeans and watching Briggs with a sour expression.

Santini turned his face to the ceiling as if appealing to the heavenly saints for patience and protection. Caitlin gave Marella a small smile of reassurance. When Hawke started worrying about a trap, he was more than halfway committed to the mission. They all knew that, Archangel included, and he was smart enough not to overplay his hand. She wondered what the weather was like in Vietnam at this time of year.

"Could very well be," Briggs replied frankly. "The kidnappers appear fairly unsophisticated but we suspect they have someone behind them. Everything points to the Chinese, but it could be someone else entirely; someone who hopes or expects that I'd send Airwolf to rescue Orchid."

Hawke scowled. "If that's supposed to reassure me…"

Marella stepped forward. "There's just as much chance that Archangel will be walking into a trap in Bangkok. Why stop at a case officer when you can grab a Deputy Director?" She shrugged. "We're taking steps to mitigate the risks for everyone involved."

"The probability of either occurring is about equal and neither is very likely," Briggs summarized, raising an eyebrow as if asking for a commitment that Hawke still seemed reluctant to give. He waited, frowning, as Hawke walked to the window and stared out into the bright sunshine of a California midday. No ghosts in the sunshine, Caitlin thought, but sunshine doesn't chase away the shadows in a man's mind or his heart.

"Walk us through the plan," Briggs said quietly to Marella, his use of 'us' a simple courtesy when he obviously meant Hawke.

"It's 13:30 right now. You're scheduled to leave here tonight at 20:00 hours. Flight time to Bangkok using a Firm jet is approximately sixteen hours, meaning arrival at 03:00 Thursday morning, Bangkok time." She smiled wryly. "Fortunately, negotiations aren't scheduled until Friday morning. Archangel will meet with the Assistant Deputy Director for Asian field ops on Thursday and make the go/no go decision on the rescue by 23:00 hours Thursday, Bangkok time."

Caitlin flipped through her folder to the mission details: approximately 5,000 miles to Haiphong, almost all of it over the Pacific Ocean. Airwolf's range was 950 miles with a full three-person crew and fully armed; her best range was 1450 miles but that would leave them down 1 person. Even with stopovers in Hawaii and the Philippines for refueling, they'd need at least another three midair refueling meets, or scheduled stops in other friendly islands that wouldn't ask troublesome questions about a souped-up helicopter. At 300 knots, it would take fifteen hours of flying time to get Airwolf to Vietnam. If they flew at Mach 1 the whole way, they were looking at a higher fuel consumption rate and still a minimum of seven hours flight time, plus time for refueling.

If they left the next morning at 06:00 hours, flew Mach 1 the entire way, they'd arrive in Haiphong at nearly the same time as Briggs and Marella, sometime in the wee hours local time on Thursday. Assuming they flew Airwolf at 300 knots, they'd arrive midday Thursday. Caitlin frowned; a daylight arrival was not desirable, but neither was arriving, tired, at the ideal time for a raid.

"…and if, for some reason, you need an emergency refuel, there will be a tanker that can be contacted using the identification codes provided in your packets." Marella flipped a page in her briefing book. "Now, assuming you arrive Thursday, we'd recommend landing at the coordinates provided. You should plan on hitting the facility sometime between 02:00 and 03:00 Friday morning."

Caitlin turned to the diagram of the 'facility' Marella had mentioned: a series of small, one-story buildings grouped together to form the shape of an 'L' facing a river with what was described as dense forest behind it. All of the buildings were smaller than Archangel's office and Caitlin counted only five buildings. Not a large compound to search, she thought with some relief. Not a pleasant place to be held prisoner, she thought a second later.

"Based on reliable sources, they've moved camp twice in the past two weeks," Marella said grimly, "which indicates that they've been expecting a rescue attempt."

Caitlin thought she heard Dominic swear. Hawke's expression was dour enough to make swearing redundant. Sparing of word, he was free with his glowering.

"They arrived at this camp three days ago and we believe that the new negotiations will serve as a distraction long enough to keep them in place."

"You were negotiating and they moved camp anyway," Hawke countered.

"And because we didn't make a rescue attempt during the previous negotiations, they'll expect us to behave likewise," Marella replied matter-of-factly. "They were negotiating with our ADD Asia. Flying a Deputy Director in from the U.S. is a different matter entirely. And if they move again," she shrugged, "we'll pull you back and regroup."

Caitlin closed her briefing folder. It was comprehensive; the Firm was nothing if not thorough. The rescue mission was planned almost to the recommended clothing for tolerating Vietnam in the rainy season. If the Airwolf team didn't take the job, the Firm would send in a different team who'd execute the same plan. Except that other team wouldn't have Airwolf, wouldn't have her stealth capabilities, her speed, her tactical database, her weaponry, her armoring or her pilots. The mission would be dangerous for anyone attempting it, twice as dangerous without Airwolf. She could see why Archangel wanted them to do it, liked what she'd read about Mathilde, and was worried mostly about the incredible distance.

"I'll let you know," Hawke said, almost dismissively. He strode over to Briggs's desk to retrieve his briefing folder from where he'd thrown it previously, grabbed it and kept walking, right towards the door. Caitlin felt her jaw drop, saw Dominic and Briggs's jaws drop.

"You'll let me know?" Briggs asked, incredulous enough that he was still blinking, not even bothering to cover his astonishment at Hawke's near refusal.

"That's what I said," Hawke said without turning around. "Dom. Cait. Let's go."

Santini opened his mouth to protest, looked at Caitlin and then shot a glance at Briggs who was rapidly recovering his composure. Santini shrugged, shook his head and started following his younger partner.

Damn, thought Caitlin, falling in behind Santini automatically. She spared Marella a look and was immediately sorry that she'd done so. The other woman was wearing a look that spoke of despair more than anger.

"He didn't say no," Caitlin said quietly, her words aimed at Marella, who nodded dumbly, acknowledging the unspoken sympathy.

They're friends, Caitlin concluded. Archangel didn't say it but Marella was somehow attached to this other woman in a way that made the rescue more than just Archangel's policy of not leaving his people in enemy hands. And wasn't that just perfectly Briggs, she decided: his people, as if they didn't have lives of their own; the pronoun more possessive than he might ever realize or acknowledge.

As the door closed, she heard a shattering sound and turned to the solid wood barrier to Archangel's office as if it would offer a clue. Broken china was her first thought, Michael's coffee cup, her second. The atypical and surprising fit of temper was probably from the man accustomed to having his requests treated as orders and his orders obeyed, but she wanted it to have been Marella who threw the coffee cup.