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I'm Gonna Give All My Secrets Away

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Here’s a secret Nat will never admit to anyone. Ever. 

Not to Bob. Not to her mother. Not to her priest, her mentor, her childhood best friend, and not to Rooster. Definitely not ever, even on the pain of death, will she admit this to Rooster.

She, Natasha “Phoenix” Trace, is friends with Jake “Hangman” Seresin. They are legitimately good friends, who make a point of grabbing a beer and a bite when on station together and of calling or texting periodic updates when they aren’t.

It started at the Naval Academy. Jake was a year ahead of her, but they both majored in aerospace engineering and took aviation related electives and took flying lessons at the same civilian flight school off-campus. The point is, throughout the three years they overlapped at Annapolis, they spent a lot of time together, and even though he was a cocky son of a bitch even then, a begrudging fondness developed. Then they were at flight training together in Florida and it just feels like their lives are inexorably intwined and frankly it’s easier to enjoy the company of the people you’re stuck with than to hate them. So they’re friends.

She wants to be explicitly clear here: her feelings for Jake are and have always been non-romantic. He’s hot—and such a manwhore—and while she has fun bantering with him and he has her back, Nat has zero desire to date him.

And despite Jake’s inability to not flirt with every female he comes across—she knows he feels the same about her. She knows this because his innuendos and slightly cutting teasing remarks only come when in a public setting where they have to keep up appearances, and promptly change to an arm draped around her shoulder or non-mocking endearments only when she needs an escape from some guy in a bar.

Walking away from the latest creep in Pensacola, she tells him, “I could have handled him myself.”

Jake doesn’t drop his arm from her shoulder. “Oh I know. But getting arrested for a bar fight will get you booted out of flight school, and I’m not going to deal with these mediocrities without you.”

She rolls her eyes but smiles as they meander back to their group of classmates. As they approach the pool tables, Bradley Bradshaw looks up from where he is about to take his shot. Four years older, a prior enlisted OCS comissionee, Bradley has quickly become one of Nat’s best friends and study buddies here at primary flight training. His gaze locks onto Jake’s arm, still wrapped around her, then flits to her face. She drops eye contact quick, and shrugs herself free. When she looks at Bradley again, his focus has returned to the pool table.

After primary flight training, and intermediate flight training, and the months spent at the same Fleet Replacement squadron, Nat and Jake are stationed out west. Bradley remains on the east coast.

One hot California night, on the rare occasion neither of them are underway on an aircraft carrier, Jake comes over to her condo for a beer on the patio.

“You hear from Rooster recently?” Jake asks.

Nat keeps her face deliberately emotionless. “Yeah.” She takes a sip from the beer bottle. “He texted earlier. Got back from Bahrain a few days ago.”

“You two were such peas in a pod during training, always quizzing each other on flight manuals and competing in the simulator. Can’t believe the Navy broke up the dream team.” He teases.

She scoffs, and throws a sideways glance at him, pretending to be hurt. “I thought we were the dream team.”

“I’m a solo act, baby.”

They’re quiet for a few minutes, enjoying the sea breeze and watching for the green flash as the sun slips below the horizon.

“Did you ever get over that ridiculous crush you had on him during training? Or do you still pine for good old Rooster?”

Nat thinks about the selfie Bradley sent her that day. He was shirtless, a mock-pout on his handsome face as he looked up at the overcast Virginia sky. The accompanying text had said something about not being able to maintain his Middle East tan in these conditions.

“No.” She says firmly.

She doesn’t clarify which question she’s answering, and Jake doesn’t ask.

They’re all in different Top Gun classes, and that’s a relief because she is sure the three of them are the best LTs currently flying but gun to her head, she can’t rank them. When she graduates top of her class, she sends a photo of her plaque to Bradley. He tells her he’s proud, but not surprised. Then he surprises her by showing up to her graduation ceremony, saying his flight training route had him in the area.

They go to dinner, share a bottle of wine. It’s a nice restaurant, in San Diego proper, rather than in Fightertown. No other aviators around, just soft candle light. There’s a brief moment where she thinks, “this is it.”

Conversation turns to reminiscing, as it always does, of their time in training, of shared carrier tours.

“Hey Nat,” Bradley smiles across the table at her, loose limbed and relaxed, so handsome she doesn’t even have the urge to mock him for the stupid mustache he’s insisted on growing since she last saw him. “Our friendship is everything to me.”

She laughs a little. “I’m glad we’ve stuck together for so many years too, Rooster.”

“No,” he says a little more seriously. “I couldn’t have gotten through all this without you. I’ve seen competition destroy relationships. You’re the best pilot I’ve ever flown with…and the best friend I’ve ever had. I don’t want anything to get in the way of this.”

Doesn’t want anything to get in the way of their friendship. Anything like competition to be the best, and anything like the ache she feels in her chest whenever she looks at him.

Nat smiles through it. “Wingman forever.” And she lifts her wineglass for a toast.

Later that night, alone in her bedroom while Bradley lays just a few yards away in her guest bedroom, she gets a text from Jake.

Did cock-a-doodle-do man up and properly congratulate you on coming in on top?

She doesn’t even question how he knows Bradley is here. The aviator community is small, and surprises are few and far between.

We went to dinner. We’re friends. That’s all.

There are response text bubbles right away. Nat has to resist the urge to put her phone down to delay reading whatever asshole snark he’s about to send.

No, we’re friends. That’s all. I didn’t fly across the state to take you to dinner. He flew across the country.

She sighs. It’s complicated, Jake.

No it’s not. Rooster can’t make a move, and you’re too good to wait around for him. You deserve better, Phoenix.

She knows he’s invoking her call sign to tell her to rise above it, and get over Bradley. Damn it, she really wishes she could get over Bradley.

Just tell me I’m the best pilot and you’ll buy me a drink next time we’re on station to celebrate.

If I hadn’t already finished at the top of my class, you’d have been number two. I’ll buy you a drink to celebrate.

Nat laughs, and goes to sleep.

The recall to Top Gun brings out the worst in all of them. Jake is unbearably cocky, out for number one in a way she genuinely thought he’d left behind in their Academy days. Bradley is moody as fuck, all sullen and tight lipped. Nat reverts to pure professionalism, wears her badass aviator persona like a coat of arms to shield herself from the hurt and loneliness of her two best friends being right there but so far away.

Her unrelenting crush on Bradley is a little easier to bear this time around. The constant training and failure and unknown of the mission ahead is a distraction, though her heart flutters plenty when he picks her up from the hospital and drives her back to base. Or when they inevitably end up singing together at the piano at the end of every night out. Or when he gets into a fight with Maverick and she has the chance to wrap him up in a tight hug. No woman could avoid the heart flutters with Bradley’s arms crushing her against his strong chest. There’s a moment where she swears his lips press onto the top of her head, but when they peel apart from one another, the old distance is back in his eyes.

She doesn’t have the time or energy to worry that these feelings may be more than the silly crush she’d chalked them up to in Pensacola. In her heart, she already knows eventually she’s going to need to say something someday because it’s got to end at some point, but there’s too much at stake right now to give that thought the consideration it requires.

The only interpersonal drama she cares to address is the one between Jake and, well, everyone. Two nights before they’re all due to board the carrier, the cohort goes to Hard Deck for what may be the last time for some of them. There’s the usual pool playing, dart competitions, beer drinking, but the mood is far less casual than usual.

At some point during a game of pool with Coyote, Fanboy, and Bob, she looks up to see Jake slip quietly out the back door. Without hesitation, Nat hands off her pool cue and follows him into the beach air.

“You’ve been exceptionally shitty lately.” She says, and rests her forearms on the balcony railing next to him. They both keep looking straight ahead at the roiling sea. “Wanna explain why?”

“Higher-ups aren’t expecting everyone to come home from this one.” Jake replies.

“So? That’s not new to us.” And she means it—they’ve all flown dangerous missions. Every time they go up in the aircraft, even for routine training, there’s the chance of malfunction, of a bird strike, of some fatal mistake. It is what it is.

Jake sighs. “I’ve never flown a mission like this one—where I have to rely heavily on everyone else I’m up in the air with. You’ll get picked—that’s great, obviously you can handle your own.”

Nat rolls her eyes. “Everyone else here was top of their class too, asshole. We aren’t exactly special.”

“I’ve never lost anyone I’ve flown with. You know it’s going to be you and me up there, but who else? Rooster, probably considering his weird shit with his dad and Maverick. What if his hesitation gets one of us killed? What if Coyote can’t handle the Gs and passes out and causes a crash before we even get to Coffin Corner? There’s too much to risk going up with someone who isn’t ready. So excuse me if I’ve been shitty lately.”

“Ok.” She blows out a hard breath, and bumps her shoulder into his in an attempt to get him to loosen his grip on the railing. “If we’re all going to survive, we need to be a team. It’s not enough to be the best pilot, you need to be a better teammate too. No more needling Rooster or insulting Bob—that’s not going to accomplish shit. it’s just going to destroy their confidence and create more problems in the air.”

His hands flex before he shoves away from the balcony. “Yeah. You’re right.” The words appear to physically pain him, judging by the grimace he makes as he forces them out. Nat cocks an eyebrow, waiting for the inevitable. A smirk twists his lips and she resists the urge to punch it off. “You may be the second best pilot here, but you sure are the smartest.”

Nat sticks her tongue out at him. “I can’t believe I’ve put up with you all these years.”

Jake smacks a kiss on her cheek. “Glad you have.”

She watches him walk back inside…and freezes. Bradley is standing in the window. There’s a glass pane so she doubts he heard the conversation, but there’s a stark look on his face. Their eyes meet for a moment and in this unguarded moment, Nat cannot even begin to guess what put the dark look behind his eyes.

She breaks eye contact first. Shoulders back, chin up, eyes straight ahead. She’s got a game of pool to win.

Here’s a secret Jake and Bradley each individually and silently swear to keep from Natasha: they’ve talked about her.

The aviators fly to the carrier about forty eight hours before the mission. Unlike a usual tour where they’d be crammed two to a room, they each have their own berth in a relatively tucked away hallway. Maverick quietly informs them that the evening is theirs—final briefing will be at 0600 the following morning, and then final preparations for the mission begin.

Nat gets her meal from the mess to go and takes it back to her berth to eat. She stays there for the remainder of the night, and only exits at 0530 the next day.

Rooster, on the other hand, finds himself feeling claustrophobic in the berth. He lays flat on his back, fists clenched at his sides, visualizing what will happen if he gets picked for the mission. And also visualizing what will happen if he doesn’t. They’ve already been told Maverick will be leading the mission so that’s one of the four planes filled. There’s no doubt Nat and Bob will be there, and Fanboy and Payback probably as the other duo.

That leaves one single plane. It’s him or Hangman. One of the two of them is going to be the lead plane for dagger two, going to be responsible for the safety of the other pilots. Pilots—he smacks the mattress out of sheer helplessness—that will inevitably include his surrogate father figure and the woman he’s been in love with since he first commissioned in the Navy. Fuck. He’s terrified he won’t be a good enough pilot to keep them safe, but he’d rather chew off his own arm than to entrust their safety to Hangman.

The memory of Hangman kissing her at Hard Deck flashes through his brain again. He really fucking hates himself for every moment he wasn’t honest with Nat about how he felt about her, for every opportunity he had and wasted to find out if she’d felt the same way. Hangman had been kicking his ass in every category since flight school and that hasn’t changed at Top Gun—of course he’d found the balls to make a move on Nat before Bradley did.

Sleep isn’t going to happen for him right now, and he’s just pissed off enough to decide to make that someone else’s problem.

He hits the door to Hangman’s berth once, hard enough he knows it’s heard. The door is yanked open to reveal Hangman standing there obviously dressed for sleep. “What kind of twisted booty call…”

Bradley doesn’t let him finish the sentence before he slams his palms onto the other man’s chest and shoves him inside. “If you leave them hanging out there on the mission, I swear to God I will fucking throw you off this carrier and let sharks eat you.”

Hangman shoves back, “Get off of me, asshole.”

Breathing hard, Bradley steps back and gives him a little space.

Jake rubs his hand over his face, clearly disoriented. “While I appreciate your concession that I am obviously the better pilot…”

“I’m serious here.” Bradley feels his jaw clench, closed fists trembling with the urge to bury them in Hangman’s eye socket. “If you get picked tomorrow—if it’s you and not me, you will swear on your mother’s life that you will take care of Nat—of the rest of the team up there.”

To his utter rage, Hangman looks him dead in the eye…and laughs at him. “Are you fucking kidding me, Rooster?” It’s a slight mollification that his voice is a little unhinged. Maybe Bradley isn’t the only one stewing in emotions here. “You finally want to say something about Phoenix but you decide to say it to me instead of her? And not even directly? You want to pretend it has to do with the mission and safety, and not the fact you two have been pathetically pining for each other for years?”

“It is about safety.” Bradley practically growls, barely remembering to keep his voice at a reasonable volume so they don’t attract attention from neighbors. “You’re a selfish flyer and if anyone dies on this mission, it’ll be your fault.”

“Because they’d be safer with you? FYI son, up there, decisions actually have to made and they have to made quickly. If someone dies on this mission, it’s way more likely because you kept waiting to take your shot.”

They’re both painfully aware this is about more than mission requirements, and Bradley can’t find a response.

Hangman shakes his head. “You know Maverick is going to pick you as his wingman. It’s going to be you who needs to keep them alive, you who needs to think less and act more.”

Bradley turns to the door, takes a step, then swings back around. “I’d rather get shot down than let anything happen to Nat.”

“You still don’t get it.” Now it’s Hangman who looks like he might throw a punch. “When you’re up there, you need to keep her safe, make sure she gets back. But you need to get back safely too.” He shoves a finger into Bradley’s chest, punctuating his words. “Because if anything happens to you, she’ll be wrecked too and she won’t come back from that. It’s everyone or no one here, son.”

They stare at each other for a long moment.

Hangman finally prods, “Well? What’re going to do…”

Bradley’s got no response to the paradigm shifting revelations Hangman decided to casually drop in an already emotionally charged conversation. So he shoves him again, but his time grabs his shirt and tries to take him to the floor. Hangman swings at his head but only lands a glancing blow. They bang into the side of the bed, the dresser, the desk, the loud thumps the only sound in the room other than the unending stream of curses they’re both spitting at each other.

Suddenly the door flies open, and Bob stands there, eyes wide. “Hey, hey, cut it out!” He exclaims in possibly the loudest voice Bradley’s ever heard from him.

Jake and Bradley disentangle themselves, still glaring daggers.

They both look at Bob, and Rooster is pretty sure his next thought is shared with Hangman.

“Bob will definitely be in the air with Nat.” Hangman states the obvious.

Bradley continues the line of thought. “You’re going to make sure she gets back safe, aren’t you Bob?” Less of a question, more of a threat.

Some uncharacteristic annoyance flashes over the WSO’s face. “Jesus Christ.”

Hangman and Bradley exchange a quick, startled glance.

Bob steps into the room just enough to clear the doorway, and gestures to Bradley. “Rooster, go to your berth—go to sleep. Hangman, magically become a decent person overnight, please.”

The two aviators say nothing further. Bradley leaves quickly, not waiting for Bob to go into his only berth before entering and shutting the door firmly behind him.

He’s made his point. He thinks with satisfaction, intertwining his fingers behind his head as he lays back. Hangman won’t leave anyone high and dry this time.

But, he has to concede, Hangman made his point too. A few different points. There’s a lot to think about, but it’s all moot unless everyone makes it home. That’s going to be the focus for the next several hours. Everyone coming home.

A few doors down, Nat hears muffled contours of commotion. She knows full well it involves Jake and Bradley, and at this point, she hopes they knock each other out so everyone can get some damn sleep.

They live for, breathe to, and fixate on the mission for the next two days. And then several days after that. Those are the parts of the heroic missions the movies never show—the endless report writing, debriefings, and after action reviews (improves: don’t let two pilots get shot down; sustains: everyone miraculously survived, keep doing that).

Eventually, maybe three? four? days after the group settled back into the Top Gun campus after the mission, Nat was able to catch her goddamn breath.

Technically, today is a day for them to put together their preference sheets for their next assignment. The default is for all of them to return to their original home stations—Bob and Jake in different squadrons at Lemoore, Bradley at Oceana, Nat in Okinawa—but they each get to meet with the Admiral tomorrow to state their case as to where they’d like to be assigned next. For the first time in Naval history, Nat thinks their preferences will actually be taken into account.

She and Bob have already talked about it. He’s got a husband and two kids all set up in California and no desire to relocate. Neither of them are interested in flying with anyone else. So Lemoore, and more specifically Strike Fighter Squadron 154 with Carrier Air Wing 11, it is for this unlikely pair. Added bonus: the carrier group had just returned from a deployment which meant a good, long stretch of not being at sea. They all loved flying missions, but it was time for a break.

Not everyone felt that way.

“Pretty sure I’m going to be able to talk my way onto Air Wing 9’s deployment in a few months. How could they possibly turn down the pilot with the most in-air kills?” Jake dropped down next to her. “What are you doing out here anyway?” He asked disdainfully.

She looked around the pocket park she was currently lounging in. “I’m enjoying nature, Jake. Trees, dirt, a breeze that I’m not hurtling through at mach 3. It’s…pleasant.”

He pulls a face. “Because hurtling through the air at mach 3 isn’t pleasant? What kind of aviator are you?”

“One who is glad to be on dry land, and glad all my friends are too.” She leaned into him for just a moment. They’d had a heart to heart already—Jake sniffled, she remained perfectly stoic obviously—where she’d told him how proud she was of him and he told her what a badass she was. “So you’re asking for 9?”

Jake grinned. “California suits me. I want to be underway sooner rather than later. Bob is staying put, which means Phoenix is coming back to the good ole US of A.” Nat is mildly irritated at how well he knows her. “Air Wing 9 has all that and more.”

Now that Maverick is officially an Ace—a pilot with 5 or more in-air kills—it is only to be expected that Hangman actively seek out every opportunity to match him. Nat knows her friend—he will refuse to be grounded until he gets six, even if he is the longest time in grade captain since Pete Mitchell himself.

“I’m glad you’re staying at Lemoore.” Unguarded sincerity shines in her voice for one brief, rare moment, and then she laughs and says sarcastically, “You’ve still got some growing to do to become a fully adequate human being.”

He laughs too. “I’m sure another decade of friendship with you and I’ll get there.”

A shadow falls over the bench they’re sitting on, and she looks up still smiling. Bradley stands in front them, a serious look on his face.

She and Jake both stand up, but Bradley gestures a pause motion with his hands. “Nat, got a sec?”

“Of course,” she replies, caught in his intense eye contact. God, his eyes are so pretty. Not that the rest of him isn’t—even now her fingertips itch with the urge to trail them over the skin of his abdomen, half in appreciation, half to reassure herself his various bruises and cuts are healing adequately. The typical garish Hawaiian shirt covers what she knows is a still aching body, only recently allowed to leave overnight observation at the medical facility.

Hangman waves his hand between them, drawing focus. “Well I know when I’m not wanted.”

He pauses for a moment, like he’s waiting for either of them to contradict him. Neither do.

“Right then, I’ll be on my way.” He makes a move to brush past Bradley, but Bradley shifts instead, slightly, to put his hand out for an overtly masculine handshake that obviously signifies more to them than it does to her. Some look passes between the two of them, and Nat doesn’t know what it means but she clocks the way Bradley almost imperceptibly nods as they both tighten their grip.

Jake walks off in the direction of the dorms. A true officer and gentleman, Bradley waits for Nat to sit before he seats himself next to her.

Children squeal from the playground a few hundred yards away, and distantly, a squirrel chatters in the trees. Nat resists the urge to swing her legs front and back like a little girl as she waits for him to start. Actually, maybe that’s the problem—she’s been waiting for him to start for years now, and he never has. She’s a fucking Naval aviator and she waits for no one.


“I’m meeting with the Admiral first thing tomorrow morning.” He cuts her off. So much for an officer and a gentleman. “0800. Pretty sure he isn’t taking office calls earlier than that.”

Nat nods. “I’ve got 0900. Hangman’s 0830. Bob’s 1000. Haven’t heard of anyone scheduled past noon.”

Bradley grins, the kind he only gives when completely disrespecting the chain of command. “You know how those flags are, gotta tell everyone where they can shove their preference in the morning, then unwind on the golf course all afternoon.”

She snorts a little. “Guess if you’re not happy with your next assignment you can just track him down at Torrey Pines.”

“You trying to come back stateside?” There’s an attempt at casual made. It is ineffective.

Her lips twist, and she nods. “I’m asking for Lemoore. I want to stay flying with Bob, and CONUS is where everyone I love is.”

Even if Bradley stays in Virginia (her instincts are absolutely screaming at her that he won’t), being across the country is easier to manage than being across the world.

“Bob said the 154th?”

She nods again. Damn, her WSO has gotten real chatty since surviving the mission.

“I want to ask for 25th, but there’s something I need to run by you first.”

If Bradley were assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 25, he’d be in the same carrier strike group as her. They’d be on the same deployment and training rotation. They’d not only be at the same home port, but also actually at the same station at the same time the vast majority of the tour. Nat’s heartbeat quickens at the thought.

Despite that, her voice is easy when she responds. “Shoot.”

“I want to ask for the 25th because I’d synch up with you. And I want to spend more time with you. Real time with you, not occasional catchups between deployments, and quick training trips. I don’t want to make things uncomfortable or mess up our friendship, so if you don’t want that, no hard feelings—I’ll stay at Oceana. But I’m tired of being far away from you all the time. There’s something to explore here, and if now isn’t the right moment, I don’t think there’s going to be one.”

Fun fact, Bradley rambles when he gets nervous around women. As soon as Nat sees him draw in a breath to continue to speak, she takes her opportunity and brushes her lips over his. While she’d intended it to be more of a pause in their conversation, Bradley seems to take it as a full on diversion. He places one hand on the back of her head to prevent her withdraw, and dives in to press his lips firmly against hers.

Some 22 year old part of herself who felt giddy every time the cute guy smiled at her during the morning briefing takes over. She responds eagerly, almost wantonly, considering the very public park they still sit in. Mouth parting, she bites at his lower lip until his tongue meet hers. Firm pectorals tense under her touch as she slides her hands up his chest and winds her arms around his neck, only barely restraining herself from crawling into his lap. Bradley’s dumb mustache feels surprisingly sensual against her face, and suddenly she can’t wait to get him in private to see where else she can feel it.

Separating briefly to draw a breath, he doesn’t go far—stays with his cheek pressed against hers, chests heaving against each other.

“We need to get out of here now.” He tells her hoarsely. “But does…does this mean you want this too? Want to try us at Lemoore?”
Exasperated, Nat makes a face at him. “Yes, you dumbass. I want to try us. I can’t think of anything that would make me happier than you and me flying together and trying together. Can we go back to the dorms now?”

“God, yes.” He stands, not letting go so she’s basically dragged to her feet.

They’re holding hands as they take off at a quick pace. Nat thinks her cheeks might be a little flushed, lips might be a little swollen, hair a bit mussed, but surely no one can tell what they’re about to be up to. She’s going to repeat that to herself until she believes it, but frankly she cannot bring herself to care right now.

“Hey, where is Hangman planning on going? Is it too much to ask he’ll take your spot in Okinawa?” It’s a teasing question. They’re not necessarily friends exactly, but Nat thinks Bradley and Jake have a promising future.

“Good news, Rooster!” She says brightly, already laughing at his reaction. “Dream team is sticking together. Hangman is going to Air Wing 9.”

Without breaking stride, Bradley glances at her and smiles. “I’m glad. He’s been a good friend to you over the years.”

She squeezes his hand, and agrees, “He really has.”

Some secrets aren’t meant to be kept, and in this new relationship paradigm, for once, Natasha doesn’t want to keep secrets. She wants Bradley to know all of her, and to get to know all of him in return.

Just before they hit the cluster of buildings that make up the air stations boundary, the pair slows to a respectable walk and then she tugs him behind an empty guard post for a second.

Tracing her thumbs over his lips and cheeks, Nat looks intently into his gorgeous eyes. “This is critical decision point here. Is this just a post-mission high, or are you for real?”

She doesn’t even want to ask but seeing him regret this in the morning or months from now would shatter her. She could move on this point, painfully, but still. Even another few minutes of his hand in hers and she might be forever lost.

“I’m thinking and I’m feelings, and all I’ve ever wanted is you. I’m in.”

Nat presses her face into his chest, almost embarrassed by the wide grin she can’t contain. He holds her close, resting his chin on her head.

“Hey,” His voice is husky now at her ear. “Can I please take you to bed?”

“Let’s go.”