Rooster perks up when he hears bootsteps hurrying over the knee-knockers in the hall of the ship. He catches a couple words here and there, but nothing concrete. Whatever. It probably has nothing to do with him. Everyone's business is their own around here, and he prefers it that way.
A knock on his door changes his mind. Maybe not knowing isn't such a good thing.
With trepidation in his gait, Roosters steps up to the door of his shared quarters and opens it. The metal squawks obnoxiously, but he doesn't really hear it. Standing before him in a crisp white uniform, with a small white scarf for his throat, is Iceman. It's not every day an admiral pays the ship a visit, but worse than that is that it's Ice. Roosters heart plummets into his feet.
The old man offers him a somber smile.
"Don't." Rooster says, stumbling back a step when Ice comes over the threshold.
After all the shit Maverick survived, Ice can't be here to tell him the crazy old pilot is gone. Rooster shakes his head in denial when Ice nears, backing into the corner until the only place to go is forward into his arms. Fifteen years. Rooster hasn't talked to Maverick in fifteen years, and now he's gone. Mav raised him. Even when Bradley ended up in the hospital a couple times after he left, the old man was there. He was sitting just out in the hallway both times. Uncle Ice's glances always said as much.
Rooster takes a pair of shuddering breaths against the man's hold. A small part of him wants to hate Mav for dying, for not coming home when he promised he always would, but Bradley took that from himself when he cut Mav out of his life.
He just wanted to know the truth. Why couldn't Mav tell him?
Why did Bradley wait so long?
Uncle Ice's voice scratches out next to his ear, a rare use of his voice. "He still loved you."
Bradley shudders violently, bowing his head against Ice's chest and letting out a long yell of anger and frustration and helplessness. "If he loved me so fucking much, why couldn't he tell me the truth?!"
"He loved your mother, too."
The words make Bradley's breath catch in his throat and he jerks his head up. "What?"
Ice tilts his head imploringly. His patient silence allows Bradley to think, and it doesn't take much time at all. Rooster works his mouth without sound, realization dawning. Ice knew why Maverick had done it. The entire time, he knew and said nothing for Maverick's sake, but also to protect Carole. Of course, it was mom. She was so scared when it came up to the end, and Rooster has no doubt in his mind she would've begged Mav to pull Bradley's papers if it meant he could live. She could never take the sky away from Maverick, and she knew it, but a legal guardian or a ranking officer could pull Bradley's papers to make sure he never found it in the first place.
Maverick was both of those things.
The flame borne of spite and hatred that burned in Rooster's chest all these years fizzles into nothing. Maverick was trying to protect him because mom asked him to. The old man protected him his entire life. Rooster would be an idiot not to think Mav hadn't read every single report ever produced with his name in it. Even though Bradley practically cursed the man's existence, he was always there.
And he's gone.
The man nods and pulls him close again, uncaring for the sweat and tears gathering on his uniform. He holds Bradley while he breaks down, but the hold feels wrong. Ice is too tall. He doesn't smell at all like jet fuel or like he was on fire at any point recently. It's childish and unfair, but Rooster doesn't want Iceman now. He wants Mav.
"I know." Ice murmurs, a low grit in his tone.
"The funeral is tomorrow." The admiral says, his voice firm and more like the cold pilot he was known for being. He's trying to be strong for Bradley. It's unfair that he can choose not to feel it, at least for now. "I'm to escort you home.... You'll have two weeks of leave to settle his estates."
Bradley nods, unable to stop the pitiful sound that escapes his throat.
In a matter of hours, Bradley finds himself stateside. All he has is the bag Ice had him pack beforehand and the clothing on his back. To his surprise, Iceman drops him off at an airstrip.
"We just got here. Where am I going?"
Iceman sits placidly in the seat of the official vehicle. "Nowhere."
Rooster stares at the open hangar door. Beyond the large metal building lies a house. Oh. This is Mav's place. Bradley touches the door handle and has to force himself to open it. His fingers shake when he shoulders his bag. Every step he takes toward the hangar feels heavier, and when he sees the old plane inside, he stops entirely. He can't go in here. This is Maverick's place, and Rooster can't bear to invade. How could he?
But Iceman's car pulls away.
It leaves him only two choices: walk away from Maverick forever, or face the consequences of his choices.
He walked away once, and he thinks he regrets that more than anything else in the world right now. Bradley takes a breath, fighting back tears as he moves inside. A pleasant lounge space resides behind the plane, flanked by a tarped motorcycle. A second tarp lies on the floor, obviously intended to house a second bike. A peek under the first tarp reveals the missing one to be Mav's old bike. Bradley learned to ride on that bike, his little hands on the crossbar because he couldn't reach the handles.
Bradley shakes himself, easing a tearful breath out of his mouth and steering his steps toward the small display room. The walls are covered in plaques and medals, rows upon rows of accolades granted to him for distinguished service. In the middle of it all are pictures.
An image of his own face stares back at him, proud and smiling for his high school graduation. Before everything went to shit.
"Mav." Rooster swallows down a sob. "Why did you keep this?" He braces his hands against the shelf, bowing his head before the memories of both his fathers. "Why did you leave me?"
The pictures hold their still, stoic vigil, mere echoes of the happy times Rooster can't even remember.
Rooster can't bring himself to move anything, especially not if Iceman left him here for the reason he thinks. The admiral would be privy to the contents of Maverick's will. This place will be empty without Mav in it, but it's all he has left of him. It's the same reason he kept his mom's house in Texas.
If he can just make it through the funeral, then he can worry about what he's going to do.
And yet, even when he stands there the following day in his dress blues and watches Iceman nail the pair of wings to his godfather's empty coffin, he doesn't know what comes next. He watches the navy men fold Maverick's flag. It doesn't feel real. Goose's death felt real when he was only four coming to grips with the fact that he'd never see him again, so why not this?
Rooster jerks at the voice, whirling on the spot. All the funeral attendees turn as well, but only Bradley and maybe Iceman know what they're seeing. A dusty, dirty, singed figure in flight gear hobbles onto the grounds of his own fucking funeral.
The old man just barely keeps his feet when Bradley dashes away from the casket and crushes him in a hug. He curls his arms around Rooster, hushing him when the younger pilot utters apology after apology into his hair. The hiccupping sobs rip from his mouth no matter how hard he tries to stop them even once he loses his words.
"I'm okay, kiddo." Maverick whispers.
Rooster grips him tight, holding him safely in the circle of his embrace. "I hate you so fucking much, Maverick."
The old man nods against his chest. "I know."
Bradley only puts him out at arm's length so he can get a better look at Maverick's physical condition. "How in the hell did you get here, old man? Did you walk all the way?"
"Well, I flew most of the way." Mav grins that stupid grin of his. "Then walked a bit. Hitched a ride for the rest. Thought about calling myself a taxi from the navy, but then I figured I might let 'em think they'd gotten rid of me before I started kicking the hornet's nest again."
"Mav, you ejected past Mach 10! You should be dead! Lucky I don't kill your stupid ass myself after this."
Maverick chuckles tiredly. "Casket's right there."
Bradley flinches, curling his fingers into the tattered ridges of his godfather's flight suit. Even though he feels Ice's glare demanding Maverick's attention, he doesn't let go. His ire can wait. "That's not funny."
"You put the idea out there."
"Don't." Rooster begs. "Please, don't. You don't get to leave me that easy."
Maverick relaxes at that, relief flooding his face. It makes him look ten years younger, like the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders. He pulls Bradley down to hug him over the shoulders, meeting no resistance from the younger aviator. "I'm sorry, Roo. I'm so sorry."
"You better be." Bradley chokes out, closing his eyes in sheer relief when Maverick cradles his head protectively.
He buries his face in the crook of the old man's shoulder and neck, breathing in his smoky scent as though he might die without it. Mav quiets him when he begins trembling in earnest, rubbing his back. Rooster couldn't give less of a shit about what kind of stains the old man might be getting on his dress blues.
"I'm still gonna hold you, kiddo, but Ice is glaring at me, so I'm gonna talk to him over your shoulder. That okay?"
Rooster nods. He doesn't think he could get his fingers to let to if he tried.
"Heya, Kazansky. Miss me?"
A soft cough comes from behind them, then something that sounds more like a snort. Ice probably isn't that upset, then. "You're a fucking lunatic."
Bradley wheezes a laugh through his tears.