"The. Best. Sky. Scout. Master. Ever!"
"Watch the spine!" Stork disappeared under a tangle of arms and legs as he was tackled full-on by Sky Scout Troop 890.
"W-well, you'll be pleased to hear that the last of the people from Terra Neon have been sent home, and the ex-slaves are rebuilding Merbia with the colony's help. There's a lot of w-work, but we are used to hard labor. Your scout troop insisted on staying on mainland Merbia to help with the cleanup." Herron smiled fondly as he watched the young Merbs disentangle themselves, and extended a hand to help young Stork from the Condor's deck floor. It was heartwarming to know that the colony Merbs so revered those from their homeland for their sacrifices to keep the colony free, safe, and hidden. It would be so easy, especially for the rising generation, to disdain the mainland Merbs for their phobias and paranoia. "Y-you know, those three have convinced the Sky Scout Association that this is their phoenix project. Which is particularly impressive since they are technically too young to have achieved the highest Sky Scout rank. Personally, I think they just w-wanted an excuse to stay with you a little longer, Stork."
"Oh, they deserve it. Though now they'll use their new status to bring inevitable doom upon us all, I'm sure." Stork suppressed a pleased grin and turned back to study his plans for repairing the Condor using the resources from the shipyard. The carrier ship was currently docked in the Cyclonian facility, and as long as he took care not to look out the window, he was fine. "Um, so how is the return of the stolen landmarks going?"
"Almost done!" Owlsley piped up, bouncing onto the couch that curved around the mission table. "But we had to stop to let the warp array cool down again." The mechanically-inclined Sky Scout pulled out a warp crystal that he had 'borrowed' from the gigantic array, a wide grin on his face. "If Piper hadn't kicked me off the array, I could have made the cooling unit way better."
"Also Merbia gets to keep most of Terra Neon's midway!" Jumping up and down on the couch excitedly, Pidge and Griffin gave each other a sky-five. The Storm Hawks had managed to return most of Atmos' stolen landmarks with minimal damage – though the Terra Neon midway was mostly a lost cause. The destroyed amusement park would stay in Merbia's wilds and the midway would have to be completely rebuilt on Neon. Griffin especially loved the demolished rides as a great place to practice all his cool moves, while Pidge had found a wide variety of wildlife to talk to that had moved into the new habitat.
"And the Wayside is c-causing some grief." Herron interjected, lifting Griffin from off the tactical table. The multi-platformed terra was proving especially difficult.
"You know, we could just take some of the roller coaster rails to transport over with King's Castle Burger," Owlsley interjected, popping in front of the Storm Hawk carrier pilot. "And then just 'roller-table' it into place!"
"Or I could just have the giant-gallumpus fly it back."
"Umm humm. And have it devour the whole burger stock on the way there." Stork pried the scrawny Sky Scout from his back. While the idea was absurd, he was actually tempted to take Pidge's suggestion to Piper. If not actually moving the stolen monuments, they could perhaps have the gargantuan bird fan the array with its wings. The great bird's help would certainly cut down on the warp crystal array's cooling time and help speed the whole process along. Chuckling, Stork's gaze settled on the three young Sky Scouts bounding around the Condor's bridge, a grin quirking the corner of his mouth. "Last time when I said I'd take you camping again, this wasn't what I had in mind."
"Everything appears to be getting back to normal . . . if there is such a thing as normal for the Storm Hawks," Aerrow murmured softly to no one in particular as he watched the happy jumble of Merbs on the couch. 'On the surface, Stork truly seems to be okay, but I can still see the deadness in his eyes that Cyclonis forced into my pilot.' Heaving a sigh, Aerrow looked down at the make-shift survival kit in his hand. After sitting at the bottom of a lake for more than a week, the Condor was a mess, and they were just now getting around to the cleanup. The Sky Knight moved to toss the emergency pack into the junk pile, but paused, considering. "Actually, this came in real handy." Instead, Aerrow grabbed a marker and sketched a dredger-tree on the heavy, metal box and stuffed it in the bridge storage locker.
"Aerrow, do you have a minute?"
The squadron leader looked up to see Piper, a sheaf of wrinkled papers clutched in her hands and a serious look on her face. Instinctively, he knew it was about their helmsman. "For you, Piper, I'll even spare two." Aerrow's cocky grin faded. Judging by Piper's grim expression, Aerrow knew he wasn't going to like what she had to say. They had talked about Stork's situation before – both what Piper discovered about the Merb Sky Knight from Cyclonis' file as well as what Aerrow learned from Herron. Determined not to make things any worse for their helmsman, the Storm Hawks' Sky Knight had decided not to tell the carrier pilot what they had uncovered about his past. He motioned for the crystal specialist to join him out on the observation deck. "This is about Stork again, isn't it?"
"Look, I know you said that we shouldn't tell Stork about who he is and what the Cyclonians did to him. But I've talked to him . . . don't worry, I was discreet . . .. But Aerrow, he was only four years old when he lost his parents. Stork remembers 'Mommy' and 'Daddy,' but not their names or what they 'did for a living.'" Piper fought back the pain in her own chest. She was about that same age when she lost her mother as well, and she still missed her. "How can we lie to him? Stork deserves to know who his parents were . . . who his family was."
"We won't lie, Piper, . . . just not tell him everything that we found out." Aerrow took his crystal mage's hands in his and looked deep into her honey-gold eyes. If ever he needed her to understand him, it was now. The young Sky Knight's own damaged signature move, no matter how temporary, had very nearly torn him apart. Aerrow knew what a broken signature move felt like. 'After all, how would I feel if, instead of three bird guys telling me that I was destined to become a Sky Knight and to rebuild the Storm Hawks, the guardians had told me, "Sorry, you could have been a Sky Knight, but now you never will be?"' A wry, self-depreciating smile tugged at the corner of Aerrow's mouth. At least now he knew what to ask Stork in Truth or Dare. "Besides, we're Stork's family now."
"Aargh!" Finn's high-pitched shriek interrupted their conversation and Aerrow and Piper peered over the railing to the skimmer deck below. "Viper-eels!" The Storm Hawks' marksman, Radarr clinging to the top of his head, leaped back from the equipment lockers that they were sorting through down on the flight deck, yelling when the flooded compartment turned out to be slithering with an entire school of palsying-viper-eels from the Merbian lake. "Quick! Where's Stork's pan-o-cide?"
"Oooh hoo! Looky what's for dinner tonight!" Junko eyed the locker of eels with anticipation, licking his lips, oblivious to Finn's and Radarr's look of revulsion. "Ohhh, sushi rolls for everyone!"
Giggling, Piper smiled warmly as she watched Radarr dig out his handy wrench and brandish it defensively as Junko tried to catch the slippery eels. The dark-skinned girl turned back toward Aerrow, but her gaze slipped past her Sky Knight. Instead, Piper's eyes settled on Stork still on the bridge, the smile fading from her lips. Her heart twisted again and she bit her lip, saddened that – despite being their teammate for almost two years – their helmsman felt that he had to bear the burden of his past alone. 'And after what Master Cyclonis just did to him, he can't bear his current burden alone as well . . . that would practically be suicide.' A doleful sigh escaped her lips. 'Stork always says that he's fine when I ask, but how much of that is a lie . . . just like he lied about his scars.' Piper shook her head, not knowing how to broach the subject with the extremely private Merb.
"But Aerrow, don't you think . . .." Before Piper could come to any conclusions, Stork dismissed himself from Herron and the Sky Scouts and stepped out onto the observation deck.
The carrier pilot turned toward Aerrow, a welding torch – not the little, jury-rigged soldering torch he had made on Merbia, but a large, proper torch – clutched in one hand. He slipped on his specially reinforced pair of sunglasses for eye protection. "Um, it's been long enough that you need to start gently using your shoulder . . . I found some suggested physical therapy exercises . . . that is, unless you'd rather not regain total use and strength."
Aerrow watched his helmsman deftly cut the 'Perfect Storm Hawk' casing from his chest. A sudden thought struck the Sky Knight at the Merb's expertise. Stork maneuvered the Condor as skillfully as any Sky Knight handled his ride. Could those times when their helmsman guided his beloved ship through barrages of enemy fire or through the wastelands without a scratch be when his broken ability tried to kick in? It was weird to think that Stork would have headed his own Sky Knight team. Aerrow couldn't even imagine the paranoid Merb not being in his squadron family. Well, whatever might have been, Stork was now his Storm Hawk. Aerrow waited until Stork was done, then caught the pilot's eyes with his own, asking – once again – two things at once. "So . . . are we okay?"
"Yeah, we're fine." Stork flicked off the welding torch, letting the roller coaster casings clatter to the floor, spilling plush animals across the observation deck. The carrier pilot placed a hand on Aerrow's shoulder and carefully probed the joint to ensure it was still in place; only a slight tremor passed between the two of them. Subconsciously, Aerrow flinched at the touch on his still-healing shoulder. A wry smirk twitched the corner of Stork's mouth. "Or we soon will be."
Attuned to her Sky Knight, Piper caught the dual conversation between her two teammates and carefully folded the papers still held in her hands. A soft, bittersweet smile touched her lips. Their helmsman – their should-have-been Sky Knight – could never completely heal, but she knew that the Storm Hawks wouldn't let him bear the burden alone. He was, after all, family. "Okay, Aerrow. We'll handle this your way."
"Dudes, I don't know about you, but I'm ready for a break." Having left Junko and Radarr to clear the rest of the viper-eels from the Condor's hold, Finn came up between Piper and their helmsman. He flashed a grin at his teammates. Merbia was the perfect setting; Stork owed him a really good Dare. "So, who's up for a round of Truth or Dare?"
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