Happily Ever After?

A/N The characters in this story belong to Don Bellisario et al. I hope they don't mind that I've borrowed them for a little while.

Van Nuys, California

Late November, 1996

It was raining, a miserable driving rain that was occasionally blown almost horizontally by a chill wind, lashing against windows and windshields. Streetlights reflected in puddles irridescent with oily film, car tires hissed on wet pavement, and the few pedestrians on the sidewalks scurried along in a hurry to reach shelter. Although it was barely seven o'clock in the evening, darkness had long fallen after a brief gloomy twilight. It was a night to be at home, sitting in front of a pleasant fire, the weather held at bay by drawn curtains, the sound of rain on the roof only emphasizing the quiet comfort within. Some Bach or Mozart on the stereo, a glass of something cheering at hand, a good book to read.

Well, he had a glass of something, although the beer wasn't providing much cheer.

Hawke had intended to go back to the cabin tonight. But when he'd finished work – what there was of it – just after five thirty, he felt too tired, and found the idea of taking off into the streaming cold darkness too unappealing. Instead he had headed for a semi-industrial area close to the airfield which boasted an assortment of fast food restaurants, bars and strip clubs. He opted for the first bar he came to, found a table in a corner where the cigarette smoke in the air wasn't quite as thick as the rest of the place, and ordered a sandwich and a beer. Then he realized that he wasn't hungry after all, but the beer went down well, and he ordered a second. To hell with trying to get home tonight, he'd just bunk down at the hangar. Again.

Stringfellow Hawke had always been a loner. Some had described him as a hermit. His cabin on Eagle Lake, surrounded by pine-covered mountains and an hour's worth of flying time away from the city, had been his home, his refuge and solace for many years, but increasingly of late he hadn't been able to summon the energy to travel back and forth every day. Instead he spent more time at the hangar at Van Nuys Airport that was the home of Santini Air. He lived on coffee and fast food, crashed on a bunk in the office at night, and spent his days surrounded by helicopters and the remnants of what had been a thriving air service when Dominic Santini had owned it, before he'd retired and handed it over to his close friend and surrogate son.

Hawke had taken it on, both because he'd needed something to do and because he knew Dom wanted to see the business continue. He also had a shrewd idea that the older man wanted to make sure that Hawke didn't just retreat into self-imposed isolation at the cabin. The two of them had made a good team for years, and Hawke had always enjoyed the work – well, most of it, anyway. He'd usually tried to get Dom, or Caitlin O'Shannessy when she'd worked with them, to handle the flying lessons and charters, but the movie work and aerial photography that Santini Air had been known for had usually been challenging enough to be fun. But without Dom, it hadn't been the same. The older man had people skills, in spades. Friendly, outgoing, and garrulous, he could deal with everyone from nervous novice pilots to demanding, self-centred Hollywood bigwigs. On top of that, he'd been more competent at managing the business side of Santini Air than anyone would ever have suspected from looking at the paunchy, jovial, gray-haired man with the huge ready laugh.

Hawke did his best to be polite to the paying customers, but on a bad day, his cold demeanor had a tendency to scare them away. While he was perfectly capable of running the business, his complete lack of interest in anything to do with paperwork resulted in overdue bills and overdrawn bank accounts. Finally he'd hired an accountant and a secretary to deal with all that, but even getting the books sorted out and the office tidied up couldn't disguise the fact that business had dwindled badly since Dominic had retired.

And, these days, Hawke had nothing else with which to occupy his mind.

He took another few swallows of beer and wondered, not for the first time, just what the hell he was doing. Maybe it would just be better to forget all this and go bury himself at the cabin. Live on fresh air and fresh-caught trout, drink himself into oblivion, and forget that life had once meant much more than rattling around a hangar, fixing aircraft and waiting for the phone to ring with another humdrum job offer. Once it had meant challenge and excitement and companionship, a need to constantly be at his best physically and mentally, happiness shared with people whom he trusted with his life, and a knowledge that he was doing something good and worthwhile.

It hadn't meant sitting in a loud smoky bar, drinking beer, knowing that he was sliding fast and not really giving a damn about it.

He ordered a third beer. What the hell. When it came, he swigged it straight from the bottle, not bothering with the glass.

"If you're gonna drink all that booze, you should at least eat the sandwich."

Hawke nearly choked on his drink. Slamming the bottle down on the table, he looked up at the face of the woman who had suddenly appeared at his side. Then he looked back at the bottle. Then back at the woman. Still there.

"Caitlin!"

"That's me," agreed the woman. She had a hesitant smile on her face, as if she wasn't sure Hawke would recognize her, or would be in a mood to welcome her if he did.

"Siddown, siddown! It's good to see you. Been a while."

Caitlin sat down across from him and set a glass of beer of her own on the scarred tabletop. "Yup. Been a long while."

He wanted to ask her where she'd been, what she'd been doing and how she was, all at once. The words formed a logjam in his throat, so instead he just picked up his beer and raised it to her in a sort of salute. She grinned again and raised her own. Bottle and glass clinked together and they both took a few more swallows. Then Hawke put his drink down and took another look at her.

It had been more than five years since he'd last seen her. Caitlin had quit Santini Air a year or so after he'd adopted Le Van, the boy who might or might not have been his brother's son, but whom he'd loved like his own. She hadn't said exactly why she was leaving. It had come as a total surprise to him and to Dominic, but for some reason she seemed to half-expect them both to understand her reasons, which had made for a somewhat strained parting. Since then he'd only seen her a few times, although she always sent him and Dom a card with a letter inside every Christmas. Being a terrible correspondent, he knew Dom had made more of an effort to keep in touch than he had. Last he'd heard, she'd gone back to her home state of Texas.

But whatever it was she'd done with her life in the past ten years, it didn't look as if it had been much better for her than it had been for him. She'd always been slender, but now it struck him that she looked closer to gaunt. Her face still had its youthful freckles, but they contrasted oddly with more lines than seemed right, given that she was still on the right side of forty. There was something about her eyes that seemed both weary and wary. The sparkle he'd always seen in them was missing. He tried to think of a word to describe her, and the best he could come up with was "jaded".

"You look good," he told her diplomatically.

She seemed pleased. "So do you." Equally diplomatic.

Right.

He lifted one hand, the one that wasn't holding the beer, in a gesture that encompassed the whole smoky, tawdry room. "So what are you doing here?"

She shrugged. "I came back to see you. You know, catch up with old friends. I phoned Dom, but I couldn't get an answer."

"He's away for a few months. In Italy."

"Oh. Visiting the old country, huh?"

"That's right. Trip of a lifetime." They both smiled at that, knowing how proud Dominic was of his Italian heritage, even though he hadn't been born in that country and had never lived there.

"So then I thought I'd just head to the airfield and see if I could find you."

He looked at her quizzically. "And you wound up in here?"

"Well, I'd forgotten what LA traffic is like in the rush hour, and there was an accident on the freeway, so by the time I got here it was late, and I figured you'd have left for the day, so I decided to just stop in here for a quick drink and then head back to the motel."

Caitlin had never been the type to just stop in anywhere for a quick drink on her own, let alone a place like this. He frowned. She went on brightly, "So what's it like, being boss of Santini Air?"

"Keeps me busy. Not nearly so much fun as it was with you and Dom around."

"Anything was fun when Dom was around," she said reminiscently.

"Yeah." It hadn't always been fun, of course, and she knew that as well as he did, but if she'd come here to indulge in some nostalgia, he wasn't going to remind her of that.

Suddenly she put a hand out, laying it on top of his. The contact startled him. "String, I know it's been a long time, but I'm still so sorry about Le. I know that doesn't help. But really I am. I think about him lots, even now."

He nodded, and said "yeah" again. Everyone had been sorry, but that didn't change the fact that Le had been the victim of a fatal hit and run while riding his bike home one day in his final year of high school. Caitlin had come back from Texas for the funeral, he remembered. Come to think of it, that must have been the last time he'd seen her.

She took her hand back, then didn't seem to know quite what to do with it. "Well, how's Dom? I haven't heard from him in a while."

"Oh, Dom hasn't changed. Well, he's slowed down some. He has to take some kind of pills now for his heart. Doesn't fly anymore. But he laughs just the same."

"And how are things at Santini Air? Just like the old days?"

"Not quite. I don't know how Dom did it all. I don't have the same knack as he does, that's for sure."

"You've got a knack for different things, that's all."

"Maybe." He swallowed more beer. "Anyhow, I'm going to give it another few months, then I might just sell."

"And do what?"

He stared at the bottle, as if it might be able to provide an answer. "Dunno."

The Caitlin of ten years ago would probably have started in on a lecture about how he couldn't spend the rest of his life mouldering away at his cabin, with nothing but a dog and an eagle for company. The Caitlin that sat across from him now didn't bother. Instead she said, "What happened to the Lady?"

"Gave her back to the Firm a couple of years ago."

"You gave her back? Just like that?"

"Just like that."

"Why?"

He shrugged. "Didn't need her any more. No point."

"What's that mean?"

He kept staring at the bottle. "Couldn't really fly her anymore. Not like before. And she couldn't help me get St. John back. Nothing could."

"Did you ever hear – "

"No." He shook his head, still not looking in her direction. "Just woke up one morning and knew there was no point. He was gone. Maybe all those years I'd just been chasing a fantasy, like everyone said, and I finally faced up to it. He wasn't coming home, and there was nothing more I could do about it. So – I gave Airwolf back."

And what a lot of heartbreak those simple words covered, thought Caitlin.

While she tried to work out what words could possibly do him any good, or convey the grief she truly felt for him, she temporized by saying, "Michael must have been thrilled."

"Michael had already retired. It was his replacement who got her. And I doubt he was too thrilled. Hell, by the time I was done with her, she was practically obsolete."

She couldn't help a little grin, even though the thought of Airwolf being obsolete was yet another wrench that she didn't need. "But you waited just long enough that you didn't hand her over to Michael."

"Yeah." He didn't quite grin, but one corner of his mouth twitched upwards.

"String, about St. John – do you think – " He'd always seemed so sure that his brother was still alive. Everyone else had always figured it was just wishful thinking. But sometimes Hawke knew things about what was happening to the people he was close to, even when those people were miles away, and that had made her wonder if there could really be some kind of weird psychic link between the brothers. And if there was, then maybe that meant that St. John really had just died recently. That he hadn't been able to hang on long enough for Hawke to find him.

"So tell me what you've been doing lately," he cut across her words.

Subject closed, dead end, don't go there.

She shrugged. "Not much." And that reply covered a whole lot of heartbreak, too. Heartbreak and loneliness and bitterness, and sleepless nights spent wondering Where do I go from here? Just like one of those corny country songs that had pretty much made up the soundtrack of her Texas childhood. Only there hadn't been much music in the years since she'd left Dominic Santini's air service.

"You still living in Texas?" asked Hawke, fumbling for a neutral topic. He wasn't sure from her words whether she wanted to talk, or if any attempts to pry would get a door slammed in his face – the kind of door he was so good at slamming shut, but she had never been. But aside from the fact that it felt surprisingly good to see her again, he was genuinely curious about why she'd come back.

"I haven't lived in Texas for years," she said. "Didn't Dom tell you? I'm in Florida, now."

He scratched his head. Maybe Dom had mentioned it, come to think of it. "Doing what?"

"Would you believe I've gone back to highway patrol? Trying to be the oldest flying meter maid in the country, I guess."

"Thought you'd have gotten enough of that in Texas."

"I got enough of a lot of things in Texas," she said drily. "Including my mother asking me at least once a month when I was going to settle down and start having kids, and stop flying those godawful noisy, dangerous machines."

Hawke raised an eyebrow. "And the godawful machines won out over the kids?" He was a bit surprised at that. He'd seldom met anyone as naturally good with kids as Caitlin. Given ten years, he'd figured she'd be married with a bunch of her own.

"Kind of hard to have kids without a guy," she said briefly.

"I seem to remember you had guys trailing after you all the time around here," he said teasingly.

"The wrong kind of guy, mostly. After those creeps Mosconi and Sawyer, it was hard to look at someone and not think, 'Is he really interested in me? Or does he just want to use me to get at something else - like, maybe, a certain top-secret, mach one-plus aircraft that I just happen to be one of the few people on this Earth to know anything about?' Even after I left California, I couldn't stop thinking that, every time I met somebody new. Kind of hard to have a meaningful relationship with anyone when you're totally paranoid."

"Caitlin, you're a wonderful person. I can't believe there hasn't been a whole lineup of guys who didn't think so too."

"Maybe. But the first one in the line after I left turned out to be married at the time. I found out later that his wife gave birth to their second kid while we were havin' a romantic weekend in San Antone. That was it." She snorted. "I swore off romance and moved to Arizona. Got a job flying tourists over the Grand Canyon. I loved the canyon, but shuttling tourists around and around for an hour at a time wasn't like flying Airwolf."

He raised his bottle in salute. "Nothing's like flying Airwolf."

"That's what I realized after a while. Then I thought I might try to get a job with the border patrol, and Mom nearly flipped out." She grinned. "Good thing she didn't know what all I did flying with you and Dom."

Hawke had to grin back. He remembered overhearing more than one heavily self-censored phone conversation between Caitlin and her mother.

The waitress paused by their table to pick up the empties. "Hey, you want another?" asked Caitlin. "I'm paying." Without waiting for a reply she ordered two more beers.

The drinks came. "Now where was I? Oh, yeah, Arizona. Well, Mom had just been diagnosed with serious angina, so I figured I'd better not push the border patrol thing. I flew tourists around for three years, then Dad had to go into a nursing home and Mom needed help, and I moved back home again. Dad didn't know who I was most of the time, but somebody had to be there and help look after him."

"What about your sister?"

"She's got three kids and a husband and a job, and besides, I was always closer to Dad than she was."

Hawke thought a moment. "That's where you were living when you came to Le's funeral, wasn't it?" Wrapped up in his own grief, he hadn't had more than the most superficial of conversations with her then. He didn't remember her saying anything at all about her own problems.

"That's right. Well, Dad died just after Christmas that year, and to give herself something to do, I think, Mom decided she was gonna make sure I met Mr. Right. I swear, String, after a few months I was just about ready to go into a convent. Finally I couldn't take it any more, so I moved to the other side of the state. I even thought about trying to get my old job back in Pope County, then I thought, what if there's another Sheriff Bogan somewhere out there, and I have another run-in with him? Nobody's gonna come swooping in in a big black mystery chopper to save me this time."

"I doubt there's another Sheriff Bogan out there."

"Maybe. But if there is, I wouldn't be trying to take him on like I did before, that's for sure. I'd keep my mouth shut and stay out of trouble."

"Hey, if you'd stayed out of trouble back then, you'd never have met Dom and me and the Lady," he pointed out. "And I'd never have gotten out of Pope County alive."

She smiled. For the first time, it seemed to reach her eyes. "Well, anyway, I got a job working with somebody who used to know my dad. But then – I dunno, that just didn't work out either, and after that I kind of went from one thing to another, kept flying as much as I could, and then I thought I'd like to see what the Atlantic side of the country was like, so I moved to Florida eight months ago and got a job with the highway patrol flying an old Bell Kiowa out of Panama City. It's not Airwolf, but it's better'n most of the jobs I've worked at since I left here."

"No Sheriff Bogans in Florida?"

"Not so far. Anyhow, the pay's not bad. Lord knows I could use it."

"Never thought of coming back here?" He'd only meant it as something to keep the conversation going, but as soon as the words were out of his mouth he realized he'd asked the $64,000 question. Her face closed down.

After a moment she said, "Sure I did. Lots. If I had a dollar for every time I nearly picked up the phone to call Dom and ask for my old job back..."

"Why didn't you? You know you could have come back any time. Dom would have been thrilled."

"What about you?" It came out more like an accusation than a question.

He raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Me too."

"Really?"

"Sure."

"String, you honestly have no idea at all why I left, do you?"

He shrugged, not liking the way this conversation was heading. "You never really told us."

"I didn't think I needed to." She shook her head. "Guess I was wrong." She muttered something under her breath that sounded like "Damned thick-headed men."

He shifted uncomfortably on the hard vinyl chair. Did he really want to get into this right now? Truthfully, no. But it was still damned wet outside, and as long as Caitlin was willing to buy the drinks...and it was good to see her again, and to have someone to talk to who had always stubbornly refused to be deterred by his filthiest moods from telling him exactly what she thought of him. Who had, in fact, come looking for him in the first place, in what now seemed almost like a different life. Maybe he owed her something. She seemed to think so, anyway.

"So tell me," he said.

She stared at the table for so long that he began to wonder if she was okay. "Cait?" he prompted.

She lifted her head and looked him straight in the eye. "String, I'm a good pilot, aren't I?"

"Sure you are. You flew the Lady." That said it all, as far as he was concerned.

"So why did I spend so much time feeling left out? I was always the one that got left behind at the hangar watching the radio while you and Dom were off flying Airwolf. Hell, half the time you wouldn't even tell me what was going on, like you couldn't trust me with a secret! And whenever anyone needed looking after, kept out of harm's way, it was always me that had to do it. Even just with the regular work, I did the charters and the lessons, dealin' with the people you didn't want to be bothered with, and how many chances did I get to do the stunt flyin' that you and Dom did? Oh, I know I did some, but I could of done a whole hell of a lot more!" Her Texas accent was getting stronger as her voice rose.

He stared at her in astonishment. "Cait, Dom and I were getting our butts shot at most of the time in Airwolf! There was a damn good reason for those times that you got left behind, like you call it! We were trying to protect you!"

"Well, you didn't have to try quite so hard! I was a cop before I met you, remember. I could look after myself."

"Like you did with Sawyer?" he said without thinking. Almost immediately his own words appalled him. "Cait, I'm sorry," he apologized. "Forget I said that."

The remark had hit her like a slap in the face, and he wasn't sure she'd heard his apology. "You can get at anyone, through their weak spot," she said shakily. "And everyone's got a weak spot. People tried to get at you through St. John. Didn't mean you couldn't fly Airwolf."

"I know. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say that."

"But you thought it, though, didn't you? Well, I had a weak spot, all right. It was you."

"Huh?"

"Yeah, huh! There was somethin' about you, Stringfellow Hawke, that made me chase all the way from Pope County, Texas to California after you! And I didn't even know it right away, but when I started thinkin' about it, I realized maybe you were the Mr. Right that my momma was always tryin' to find for me, even back then. Problem was, you didn't know it either. Okay, I thought, this guy's gone through a lot, I've just got to be patient, and one of these days he'll wake up and smell the jet fuel, and realize that he can't scare me away, either with his attitude or all the baggage he's haulin' around that he thinks nobody else can see. But in the meantime, there was a whole heap of other girls that seemed to think the same way I did, but you didn't have any problems seein' them, did you? Let me tell you, it was nice having a guy like Sawyer – or like I thought he was – bein' all charmin' and romantic and treatin' me like I was the apple of his eye for a change, when you were so busy bein' Mr. Love 'Em an' Leave 'Em with half the pretty girls in California.

"So finally I realized I was gettin' tired of waitin' for you to notice what was right there under your nose. And I was gettin' tired of bein' left behind to babysit an' all the other stuff. And anyhow, why should I expect you to want to go strollin' up the aisle with me, just 'cause of what I felt? I couldn't exactly say, 'Stringfellow Hawke, I've been waitin' for so long, you owe it to me to fall in love.' There just wasn't any future there, either with you or with Santini Air. So I left."

He was staring at her like an idiot. All he could think of to say was, "Why didn't you tell us how you felt?"

"Partly 'cause I figured nothing I said was gonna change anything. The pair of you were both so hell-bent on protecting me. An' I knew you meant well, an' it was sweet an' chivalrous of you an' all that, but you both just overdid it a lot of the time. And partly," she said miserably, not looking at him again, "it's because it's taken ten years and a lot of drinks to work up the courage."

He cleared his throat. "And – is that why you've come back?"

"I came back 'cause I found that after flyin' the Lady with you and Dom, it turned out there wasn't a future anyplace else either. Nothing else can even come close. It wasn't just Airwolf. It was what we did together, making things come out all right for people. And I liked you. Hell, all right, I loved you, both of you. In different ways, of course."

"Of course," muttered Hawke.

" And I trusted both of you. And I've never been able to find that again. Like I said, I've never even come close. An' I never will. So finally I came back to L.A. because I thought, well, maybe there's still somethin' here for me after all. I mean, you never know, I hadn't heard from Dom in awhile, and Lord knows I hardly ever heard from you, String, so I made up my mind I was just gonna walk up to Santini Air like I'd never been away, and see what happened."

"And you got stuck in a traffic jam."

"No. No, I didn't get stuck in a traffic jam." She paused, rummaging in the pocket of her jacket for a tissue, and swiped at her eyes, then her nose. "I got as far as the gate, and then I chickened out. I came in here instead."

"Why the hell did you chicken out? Did you think I wouldn't be be glad to see you?"

"'Cause I'd just gone an' spent all that money on airfare just to realize you can't ever go back again, that's why! I've hardly heard a word from you since Le's funeral. What if you'd found somebody else? What if you weren't even there? What if I went in and found some other name on our hangar?"

He cleared his throat. "Well – uh – maybe it's true about going back. But how about going out for dinner?"

She sniffed, and eventually managed a watery smile. "Sure. Why not. Is The Pub still there?"

"You bet."

Ever the cop, she said practically, "We better get a cab. I don't think either one of us is fit to drive right now."

"Fine. We'll get something to eat, then afterwards you can come back to the hangar, if you really want to see it. Nothin' much has changed."

"I'd like that."

,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Three hours later, Hawke unlocked the side door to the Santini Air hangar and flipped on a couple of the overhead fluorescents. Caitlin stepped in behind him and looked around. "Wow, you were right. You haven't changed the place much." Her voice echoed back from the shadows.

"Except the coffee maker. That's new." Without really thinking about it, he slipped an arm around her waist.

"Guess I gotta expect some changes. Hey, there's good ol' forty-four Charlie! How's she doin'?"

"Still going strong."

"I didn't see the Stearman outside."

"Naw, I finally unloaded it on some guy who liked tinkering with things. Maybe he'll have better luck with it than any of us ever did. Damn thing never was worth what Dom paid for it."

"He told me he got it for practically nothing!"

Hawke snorted. "And you believed him?"

"Oh." She put her own arm around him and slowly pivoted, turning them both as she scanned the interior of the hangar. She felt a sense of puzzlement growing. The place looked far too clean, with almost all of Dom's tools and equipment stored away. "You've only got one chopper?"

"All I need right now. If I need anything extra I lease it. Business has been a bit slow lately."

"Well, there's only one of you. I guess even you can only fly one chopper at a time." But she still felt uneasy. Just how slow was the business, really?

"Well, y'know, if there were two of us, we could each fly a chopper."

She blinked. "What are you talking about? It's not like I could just drop in with my Kiowa all the way from Florida."

"I don't mean coming from Florida. I meant you could be here. You know. Working here. Like you used to."

For some reason that seemed to make her angry all over again. She pulled free of his arm and glared up at him. "Stringfellow Hawke, if you think I came here just to spin some hard-luck sob story to get a job – "

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" he interrupted her. "I'm telling you the truth here, Cait. I could really use some help. If you came back we could build the charter and lesson side of things up like it used to be. Make Santini Air viable again. Wouldn't be easy. And you know the pay's lousy. You'd be better off as a meter maid. Just so you know what you'd be getting into."

Now she was looking at him uncertainly, obviously not knowing whether to believe him or not. "Are you sure you're not still drunk?"

"Maybe," he said ambiguously.

"Hawke!"

"Okay, tell you what. I'll ask you again tomorrow when we're both sober. How's that?"

"I – I think that's a good idea."

,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Caitlin couldn't sleep. She lay looking up at the water-stained ceiling tiles in her motel room. They were easy to see, because there was a streetlight right outside her window, and the thin curtains did little to darken the room.

Why had she come back? Hawke looked so rough she hurt for him. Dominic was away, and Airwolf was – gone. Even though the hard-headed Texas common sense she'd always prided herself on had known it was stupid, she'd managed all these years to keep a tiny golden bubble of fantasy alive, of being able to someday walk right back through the door of Santini Air and find everything – and everyone – exactly the same as the day she'd left. Well, that bubble had sure gotten burst tonight, she thought, and served her right.

Even worse, why had she started babbling to Hawke about how she'd felt about him back then? As if the poor guy didn't have enough problems, now she'd gone and made a huge fool of herself and embarrassed them both. Caitlin O'Shannessy, you ought to know by now when to keep your mouth shut.

At least she hadn't told him that the sight of his face, even bleared and stubbly, had caused a sudden surge of that same fluttery feeling that she remembered only too well from years ago.

Well, at least he hadn't been too embarrassed to take her out for a decent dinner. And then offer her a job, seemingly on the spur of the moment. She couldn't believe, in the cold and hopefully sober light of day, that he'd really repeat that offer. And if he did, she'd have to turn it down. She couldn't stay out here in California, wallowing in nostalgia and trying to recapture the best years of her life. It was way past time to settle down and start putting some money into a pension. So what if she became the oldest flying meter maid in the country. There were worse things she could be doing. Yup, if he asked her again in the morning, that was just what she'd tell him.

There was no point in admitting to herself that, of all those worse things, about the worst of all would be to walk away from him again.

Then again, she had an uneasy feeling that drinking alone in a sleazy bar wasn't an unusual thing for him these days. Maybe she ought to stick around, just to make sure a stunt didn't go disastrously wrong at some point...?

Bad idea. She wasn't Hawke's keeper, and he'd be furious at any hint that she thought he needed babysitting. Let Dom worry about it. She'd probably gotten the wrong impression, anyway.

She rolled over, pulled the thin blanket up around her ears – why didn't they have the heat turned on in this place? – and made a determined effort to go to sleep. She had always known her own mind, she told herself firmly. Made her decisions and stuck to them. Even if some of them had hurt like hell.

Even, she realized uneasily, if some of them were wrong.

,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

When Caitlin left the hangar, Hawke stood leaning against the doorframe with a hand raised in farewell as the taillights of her rental car disappeared through the airfield gate. When the car was out of sight, he went back in and switched off the lights in the hangar, leaving just enough illumination to find his way to the narrow cot next to what he still thought of as Dom's office.

Several minutes later, lying in the dark, he wondered if maybe she was right. Maybe he was still drunk. He didn't have enough work for one pilot at the moment, let alone two. And as far as pay, benefits and job security went, she'd be a fool to take him up on his offer. And she was sure as hell right that neither of them could go back to the way it had been before, when he and she and Dominic had been a tight-knit little unit flying that beautiful black machine. How did that song go? You don't know what you've got till it's gone?

On the plus side, people in white suits weren't popping out of the woodwork anymore, and he wasn't getting shot at on a regular basis. As Dom had said once, there was nothing more exciting happening than the usual routine in-flight emergency. By this time, the chances of anyone walking through the door and offering him another ticket on a wild ride like recovering Airwolf for the Firm had turned out to be, were practically zero.

Was what he was offering Caitlin enough to make her decide to stay? What exactly was he offering her, anyway? A job, or something more? He'd just finished telling himself that they couldn't go back – especially to somewhere that had never really existed in the first place. Namely, a relationship based on anything other than pure friendship and shared dangers. Whatever Cait had thought of him back then, in hindsight, he'd done his damnedest to stomp any romantic stuff right into the ground. So why had he just jumped all over himself asking her to come back? It had been a long time since he'd given a damn about the future of Santini Air. Was he that desperate for a friendly face, a shoulder to cry on, or maybe spill beer on? Or had a jumbo-sized lightbulb just gone on?

And what did she think he was offering? His mind shied away from that train of thought like a horse from a rattlesnake. After all, what did he have left of himself that was worth offering to anybody, let alone her? Some paintings on a wall and a rare cello, that was about it. If there had ever been anything else, it had been lost along with St. John, Le, and Airwolf. And if Cait was still harbouring any romantic notions concerning the two of them, she was liable to change her mind once she took a hard look at him in daylight. She might have been interested in him ten years ago, but she was hardly likely to maintain that interest considering that his greatest claim to fame at the moment was probably being one of the most screwed-up individuals in the whole of California. And if she wasn't interested – well, no wonder she'd gotten mad at him. Offering her a job out of the blue, like he assumed that she'd jump at the chance to come back – that had been pretty presumptuous of him. She'd sounded content enough – or maybe just resigned – with the highway patrol job.

He certainly hadn't made the idea of working at Santini Air sound very appealing, either, but hard work had never scared Caitlin away. And as he'd remembered earlier that evening, he had never been able to scare Caitlin away, either, even at his most sullen and snarly. She might back off to give him some time alone, but she always came back again, teasing and forgiving at the same time, but ultimately prepared to give him a good swift kick in the butt if that's what she thought he needed. Sometimes her almost unquenchable cheerfulness had annoyed the hell out of him back then, but not seeing that happiness in her now was as unsettling as if he'd woken up one morning and found that half his art collection had vanished.

And, just as she had trusted him, he knew how much he'd trusted her with the things that had been the most precious to him. With Airwolf. With Le. With his memories of St. John. He'd let her into his life far more than anyone since Gabrielle. He'd never thought of the two women the same way: Gabrielle had been sexy, romantic, with the allure of belonging to a different world that seemed mysterious and exciting, even though he really knew better, while Caitlin was just – Caitlin. Just a skinny, fresh-faced girl-next-door who was also smart and kind and gallant and rock-bottom solid. Attributes that maybe he hadn't appreciated as much as he should have done.

Gallant? Yep, he must be still drunk. Or maybe not drunk enough. Glutton for punishment described her better. Described the both of them, her for coming back at all, him for trying to talk her into staying.

In the morning, he thought. We'll get everything figured out in the morning.

Maybe.

The End