Two nights later, the low-pressure system that had brought so much rain and stormy weather took one last kick at southern California. St. John stood at the window looking out at the wind-driven water lashing against the glass. The rain was falling so hard it was impossible to make out anything aside from a few blurry streetlights, with the reflection of his brother's hospital room superimposed on them.
Suddenly, he laughed.
Aware of String's quizzical gaze, he pointed into the darkness. "It's raining out there."
"And it's dry in here."
"Saw that too."
"I'm not out there," St. John clarified. "I'm in here. Where it's dry. And warm. And I don't have to go out if I don't want to. You know what that means?"
"Means you're safe."
"God, I don't believe it. I still don't believe it. You think I ever will?"
"I'll make you believe it, big brother." String grinned up at him from the bed. St. John went over and sat down beside him.
The room was a long way from cosy, but at least the cold overhead fluorescents had been turned off in deference to the time of day, leaving the bed in a pool of relatively soft light. A few people had sent flowers – Caitlin had arrived that morning with a colossal assortment, saying that she knew Hawke would have preferred a few sixpacks of beer and some fresh trout but that he'd have to make do with these. String had made a pretense of grumbling that he didn't like cut flowers, and she'd told him tartly that he'd better learn to like them because it was going to be a long time before he saw anything else green and growing.
She'd presented St. John with a gift basket of fruit. It also contained a couple of the biggest chocolate bars he could ever remember seeing. "It's not very much, but it was all they had in the gift shop," she said shyly.
"Hey, it's terrific. Thanks."
She seemed oddly nervous around him, like he was some kind of celebrity, which he found strange coming from a woman who could fly a supersonic helicopter and knew karate. After she'd gone he mentioned it to String, who merely snorted derisively and told him that the closest he came to being a celebrity was being on more pills than three movie stars put together. St. John had opened his mouth to point out that that was nothing compared to what Stringfellow was taking. Just then a nurse had come in with another dose of meds for the younger Hawke. She hadn't understood why the two of them seemed to think that was so funny.
In the daylight, it was easy to laugh, to think everything was fine, that he could just pick up his everyday life again with no trouble. For some reason it wasn't nearly so easy at night. The palm trees he could see outside the window of his hospital room sometimes multiplied in his mind's eye and crowded around like the jungle, and he was ashamed of how glad he was of anything that would make him sleep.
Now, striving to sound normal again, he said, "I'm getting my teeth fixed tomorrow. Maybe by the time you get out of here, I'll be able to eat all those raw veggies that you live on."
"Never said I live on raw veggies. We'll go fishing, like we used to."
"Still lots of trout in the lake, then?"
String had been taken straight back to the VA hospital as soon as help could reach them at Red Star and had almost immediately been whisked into surgery. The internal bleeding that had worried the doctors before his transfer to the private clinic near Oakland had been exacerbated by the violence of everything that had happened soon after. Steeped in an icy chill that had nothing to do with air conditioning and everything to do with the fear that he would soon have to carry out the promise he'd made to his brother, St. John waited to hear the outcome. He'd already done everything he could to give String the will to stay alive; if that had failed the only thing left would be to take him back to his lake and his eagles.
Dominic, his right arm in a sling, waited with him, along with Caitlin. Faye joined them as well, standing in for Michael and Marella, who were both occupied with the shakeup that was no doubt happening right that moment at the Firm. Apparently there had been a link between Locke and Colonel Bouchard. The two men between them had been responsible for the plot to draw String and Airwolf to Burma using St. John as bait. That was interesting in a remote, academic sort of way. They were all too tired and too anxious to give it much thought for the time being.
In the end, the news was good. It took nearly five hours but the doctors had found the source of the bleeding and stopped it. String had come through remarkably well, so they said. He'd woken up for a few minutes late in the afternoon, long enough for St. John to give him a concise summary of the events of the previous day. He'd managed a grin and a congratulatory handclasp with his brother, then sunk back into morphine-induced oblivion.
St. John had staggered off to his own bed then. He was so exhausted that he slept the rest of the day and most of the night. For the first time since his rescue he hadn't needed any help from drugs. He suspected Dominic and Caitlin had done the same thing.
String looked much better the following morning. At least now he seemed resigned to staying longer in the purgatory that, for him, was the hospital, without the desperation that had driven him to make that terrifying request of St. John. Which was a good thing, because it was clearly going to be a long time before he'd be doing any fishing up at the lake.
It had crossed St. John's mind to tell his brother with a straight face that since he hadn't known at the time just where it was that String had wanted to go to die, he'd been darned lucky that he hadn't wound up with the hospital parking lot or the nearest bar as his jumping-off point to the pearly gates. Then he looked at his brother's face again, and decided that joking about that subject was something else that could be left for later.
St. John didn't mind the wait. He'd already been waiting sixteen years; another few weeks wouldn't hurt. They both needed it. The time would come.
He was still haunted by that heartbreaking plea; but he truly didn't understand his brother's rabid need to be away from the hospital. It was quiet, it was clean. No rats, no roaches, no filth. Other than talking to String, he didn't have to do anything but lie in a blessedly soft, comfortable bed. People asked him questions, instead of yelling orders. He wasn't hungry or thirsty anymore; in fact, food – delicious food – appeared even if he didn't want it, wafted in by charming women who appeared to be there for no other reason than to minister to his every wish. After his re-introduction to freedom via baptism by gunfire, he was quite content to stay cocooned here for the time being, before having to cope with the big wide world.
"Hey, String," he said suddenly. "You never said where you got that gun from that you shot Rivers with at Red Star."
"Hmm? Oh, it was Marella's. When Locke's guys came barging into my room at the clinic she managed to shove it under my blankets. Real sleight of hand. They searched her and Cait, but nobody thought of checking the guy in the bed."
"That was dumb of them."
"Yeah, well, if my aim had been a bit better, it would have saved everybody a lot of grief."
"Nobody but you is thinking that, little brother. I'm amazed you were able to hit anything at all. Besides, it gave me a chance to get better acquainted with your lady."
String grinned drowsily. He was clearly about to succumb to his nightly dose of meds. "Yeah, she's somethin', isn't she?"
"She sure is. What are you going to do with her now?"
"Haven't thought about it." He knew perfectly well that the decision was no longer up to him. He hadn't been able to get his head clear enough yet to make up his mind how he felt about that. At the time he'd made his deal with Archangel, it had all seemed straightforward. Now it wasn't so cut and dried.
After a moment, St. John said casually, "Speaking of ladies, you have any idea what happened to Ellie?"
"Saw her not long ago. Looks good. Married to Mr. Six Eighteen."
"She still loves you, St. John."
"Oh, come on. I can't believe she even remembers my name." A moment's pause. "String?"
String was out like the proverbial light. St. John stayed by the bedside for a few minutes, then got up and headed slowly towards his own room.
He was surprised to find both Dominic and Archangel waiting for him. Dom's right arm was in a sling, the hand well bandaged. Archangel was apparently going through paperwork, which he put away in a briefcase when St. John came in.
"String asleep?" asked Dom.
"Yeah." St. John flopped onto the bed, almost in the same state.
"Are you up to a little conversation?" asked Archangel. "I've got a flight to Manila leaving in three hours, otherwise I'd have left this till tomorrow."
St. John, surprised, hauled himself upright. "You're not sticking around?"
"Oh, I'll most definitely be back. Quite soon," said Archangel rather grimly. "I'd just like to get an idea of how the land lies before I go, if possible."
"How the land – oh." St. John looked more closely at both men. Dominic had a look on his face that clearly said there was something going on that he wasn't happy about. "Would this be about a certain top-secret prototype, by any chance?"
Puzzled, he said, "Why are you asking me, and not String? It's his baby."
"Because Hawke – String – won't be doing any flying for quite some time. He may never be up to flying Airwolf again. I'm not saying he won't – " Archangel held up a hand as St. John opened his mouth to protest. " – I'm just saying it's a possibility."
Now St. John was even more puzzled. "Even if he doesn't, what's that got to do with me?"
"You did a pretty competent job flying her the other day."
"Me? Hell, I just about ate the side of a mountain. Ask Dom. I'm no use as a chopper pilot any more."
"That's not quite the way Dom tells it. For someone who hadn't flown in years, wasn't in good shape physically, and had never been in Airwolf except as a passenger – and a pretty much unconscious one, at that – you handled her amazingly well."
"Luck. Anyhow, I still don't see where this is going."
"If I have to wait until your brother has completely recovered, Airwolf is going to be out of commission for quite some time. And I – speaking for the Firm, that is – can't wait that long. Would you be interested in serving as her pilot? Purely on an interim basis."
St. John's jaw dropped. "Me?"
St. John stared at Dom. "What about you?"
"Don't look at me." Dominic flung both arms out. "Michael already asked me. I said no. Not on any kind of basis. I like riding in the back just fine, and I like subbing for String from time to time. How could any pilot not love flying the Lady? But my job's not in the front seat. Not anymore."
"Maybe mine isn't either. I've still got some healing of my own to do." Like not seeing jungle every time he closed his eyes. Like not being afraid of the world beyond the walls of the hospital. "And I'm not sure I could fill String's shoes anyway."
Archangel levered himself to his feet with the aid of his cane. "I'll be back in four days. Think it over."
"You need to talk to String about this, Michael," said Dominic. "But if you ask me – which you didn't, but I'm gonna tell you regardless – I think it's time you reclaimed the Lady anyway. Airwolf for St. John, that was always supposed to be the deal. Airwolf – or people hunting for her – have already caused String a lot of grief, and now they've just about killed him. Sure he'll recover – this time. But his luck's gonna run out one day. I don't want this to go on. With either String or St. John."
"Dom, at the risk of sounding hopelessly maudlin, that's the risk every fighter pilot – every person who puts his life on the line in order to help others – runs," said Archangel gently. "You know it. Hawke knows it. That's just the way things are."
"Michael, back in World War II, they said those Allied bomber crews only flew something like eight missions at the most. They went out, time after time, because it was their job to keep pounding the enemy, but hardly any of 'em lasted longer than eight missions before they were shot down. There was a war on, they didn't have any choice." He stared down at the floor. "This was damn near to being String's eighth mission. And now he's got a choice."
"There's still a war on. There's always a war on. It just doesn't take place in certain strictly defined theatres any more."
St. John cleared his throat. "I'll tell you what. I'll talk to String before you get back. If he says he wants to keep flying, maybe Dom and I can just take her back and look after her for awhile. Kind of keep her in trust for him. I know what you're saying, Dom, believe me. And you have no idea how much I appreciate it, for him and me both. But if String's got any say in this – and I'm guessing he does, or else we wouldn't even be having this conversation – it's got to be his decision. Nobody else's." He put a hand on the older man's shoulder. "Okay?"
Dominic spread his hands out in surrender. "Okay. I've said my piece. You know how I feel." St. John had always been a gentler soul than his brother; less edgy, more conventional. A damn fine pilot, one of the best Dom had ever met; he would never have let anyone say otherwise, even without yesterday's convincing demonstration. But for better or worse, St. John had never possessed the sometimes lunatic brilliance that String did. Dom would rather try to fly a helicopter without rotors than admit it in front of St. John, but the elder Hawke brother could only be a second-best pilot for Airwolf. He was glad St. John didn't seem interested in the job.
Then again, with more time to think about it, who knew if he might change his mind.
"Four days," said Archangel, his hand on the doorknob.
St. John risked a glance out the window. "Hey, it looks like it's clearing." There were exactly ten well-manicured palm trees out there, he told himself. He'd counted them. No jungle. California. Not Vietnam. "Should be good weather for flying."
He was in a dentist's chair under general anaesthetic the next morning. Dominic dropped by to check on Hawke and found him scowling at the ceiling of his room.
"What's the face for?" he asked, dropping heavily into a chair.
"What? Oh, I'm just thinking. Dom, would you mind bringing Le by sometime soon? I should let the kid see he doesn't have Humpty Dumpty for an uncle. If St. John's not ready to see him, we'll work something out later. But I kinda miss the kid."
"Sure, no problem. You know he misses you too."
"Y'know, I've been thinking. Maybe St. John was right about Le. Maybe it would be worse to lie to him. What if his real father shows up some day?"
"Not going to happen," said Dom flatly. "From the sound of it, the only person who knew who he was was Le's mother, and she didn't leave any clue behind. St. John is probably legally Le's father. Le already thinks he's his real father. But who knows, years down the road he might find it out for himself, and that's what's worrying you, isn't it? You don't want him thinking that you've lied to him, that he can't trust your word, even if it was for his own good."
"So tell him. Even if St. John can't handle it – and it's asking a hell of a lot him to take on that responsibility, for someone he never even knew, when he hardly even knows which way's up yet – Le knows you'll always be there for him."
"Like I have been lately?"
"I seem to recall that him moving in with Jimmy's family was a mutual decision. Best thing for everyone. And as for this – " He made a gesture that encompassed the whole hospital room. " – this could have happened on a stunt. Or just walking across the street."
"But it didn't."
"Then it's a damn good thing you made sure he's already got a home with Jimmy as well as with you."
"Maybe," muttered Hawke.
There was a pause. "Something else on your mind?" Dom prodded eventually.
"We need to decide about Airwolf," said Hawke flatly.
"String, for pity's sake, you're in hospital. The only thing you need on your to-do list right now is thinking about getting better!"
"Michael can't wait. Why should he? A deal's a deal, right? I know you two must have been talking about it. Has he offered her to St. John?"
"Did St. John say he wanted her?" asked Dominic warily.
"Hell, no. He hasn't said what he wants. Probably doesn't even know himself, yet. But he's got a better chance than I do of ever flying her again."
"String, don't say stuff like that."
"Look at me, Dom. You think I'm ever gonna be able to take on another Airwolf mission?"
"I think that if I say yes, you'll tell me I'm full of it, and if I say no, you'll knock yourself out trying to get better so you can prove I'm wrong."
Hawke held his gaze with a glare, then finally broke down and gave a brief smile.
"Thing is, Dom, I want to be around for St. John. He's gonna need a lot of help settling back in. And we've still got years of catching up to do. Can't do that in a few weeks. And I'll give up the Lady in a minute if I have to, 'cause St. John is more important. But…" He trailed off.
"But you sure would miss her," finished Dom.
"So what you're saying is, you want to have your cake and eat it too."
"Yeah, I guess. And that's not fair to anyone."
"But Airwolf's one hell of a cake."
Hawke managed a chuckle at the analogy. "Yeah. She sure is."
"String, I've said this so many times I feel like a broken record, so will you just listen to me for a change so I can stop saying it? Nothing has to get decided right now. Just you worry about getting better. Think about you and St. John up at the lake fishing. You don't have to be afraid to think about it happening, anymore." And it was about time, he knew, that he took his own advice and stopped fretting over who Airwolf's next pilot was going to be. If Stringfellow Hawke was determined not to give up the Lady, then with or without official sanctioning from the Firm, Archangel would probably be quite happy to let him keep flying her - as if he would have any choice in the arrangement. And if Hawke kept flying Airwolf, then there was no way in hell he was going to do it without Dominic Santini in the back seat.
On the other hand, the two Hawkes had always been remarkably good about sharing their toys. Which, in this case, wasn't necessarily a good thing. He might lose both of them.
Listen to your own advice, you old fool. Que sera sera. At least he was wise enough to know, no matter how little the brothers themselves might foresee it, that potential sources of tension, if not downright conflict, wouldn't be lacking in the future. Le Van for one. Airwolf for another. And who knew what might arise simply out of that gulf of sixteen years of separation and inevitable change. The important thing now was that both of them have as much time as possible to heal – and hope that Michael would understand that, and give them that time before butting in demanding another Airwolf mission.
Yeah. Knowing Archangel, he'd probably give them all of two weeks and consider that generous.
"String, I gotta go. Got a charter up the coast this afternoon. Cait'll be in to see you later."
"Sure." Hawke looked out the window. The rain was long gone. Only a few cirrus clouds were spun out across the sunlit sky like threads of candy floss. Ceiling and visibility unlimited. In an unconscious echo of his brother, he said, "Good weather for flying."