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off to love you like a lover should

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Anyone who cares to know — and frankly, even anyone who doesn’t — understands that Natasha Trace is one of the boys. There’s no point in flirting with her, there’s no point in testing her. On the outside, she is steel. She’s heard the usual jokes about why “it’s called a cockpit” or faux concern over her breaking a nail. But her record of service speaks for itself — and she did it all while putting up with twice as much bullshit and doubt as her male peers. 

TOPGUN put an end to a lot of the doubts thrown her way. She emerged from the program ranked first in her class.

And her best friend even crossed the country to attend her graduation ceremony. Of course he did; she had done the same for him.

She knows people like to assume things about her and Bradley Bradshaw, second in his own TOPGUN glass behind only Hangman, but the truth is that she can’t quite define them herself. Nor does she want to. They’re friends. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. Now, her own feelings on the matter have never stopped the rumors — ever since the pair met at flight school in Florida, ever since he told her in a small voice how terrified he was to go to the program where his dad died, ever since Payback walked in one one of their many Facetime calls on base and asked if she was talking to a boyfriend… it’s been endless. But Rooster never seemed to mind, so she decides that she doesn’t either.

People can think what they want. Changes nothing about her.

She hasn’t heard from him in a while. It’s typical, considering he’s been sent somewhere overseas while she’s been in Lemoore, but she misses him. Sporadic texts can only do so much when she’d grown so used to his steady presence in her early years in the Navy. But she has distractions aplenty in California — including Hangman, who sticks around her like a leech whenever they find themselves in close proximity. He probably considers her a friend in that weird way he has with people he begrudgingly respects but has no idea how to truly connect to. She finds him exhausting, personally, and sticks to Payback, Halo, and Fritz as much as she can.

But she still finds herself returning to her phone, hoping to hear something, anything, from her best friend.


Perhaps this new mission bringing her and her friends back to TOPGUN will get her mind off him.

Well. So much for that.

After the Hard Deck, after "Great Balls of Fire" and a good amount of beer and shots, Bradley gently touches her shoulder and asks if she’d like to get some quiet at the beach. She smiles up at him, loving the sight of him relaxed in his Hawaiian shirt and aviators. She’d like to see him have reasons to smile more.

She can't stay mad at him. She's missed him too much to bother with that shit.

“You’ll have to keep the shades off,” she warns. He picks them off his face with a small smirk and places them right on her head.

“They missed you too,” he says when she raises a brow at him. She used to steal them from him all of the time in Florida. “Sorry I didn’t call when I got back. Things have been moving pretty fast.”

Understatement of the century.

“I’m satisfied with my revenge,” Nat says with a wink. “And I’m very happy you’re here.” And really, she is. He may be shit at texting, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more fully present and attentive in-person than Bradley Bradshaw.

His face reddens in that way it does whenever she tries to compliment him. He once joked that he’s allergic to compliments, it gives him a rash. 

“Feels weird to be back,” he admits, eyes out on the ocean. 

“Good weird or bad weird?” Nat asks. He shrugs.

“I don’t know.” Nat glances at him, taking in his wind-rustled hair and the pensive quirk of his lips. “I feel out of place.”

“Why?” Nat asks. “We’ve got Payback and Fanboy back together again, Halo’s here — wasn’t she in your TOPGUN class?” Rooster gives her a sidelong look. 

“I’m not as close with them as you are,” he points out.

“There’s an easy way to fix that, you know,” she points out gently. “You’re not giving yourself enough credit, Bradshaw. You’re a great pilot, and an even better person. You just gotta let the others see that.” She pauses, then adds, “Maybe not Hangman.”

He gives her a withering look, but his lips have quirked into a small smile.

“I think Hangman likes you,” he says. She rolls her eyes.

“He’s intimidated by me,” she corrects. “It’s because I’m the only other first-placer at Lemoore.” She nudges Rooster. “Besides, I’m too much woman for him and he knows it.”

“You’d eat him alive,” he agrees. She preens, and then he adds: “You should be team leader.” Nat snorts.

“You don’t even know the mission parameters yet.”

“Doesn’t matter. You’re the best we got.”


“I’m not joking and I’m not exaggerating.” He looks at her fully. “The only reason you don’t have Hangman’s air kill is that you’re not looking for it. You’re a smarter flyer.”

“You’ll make me blush if you keep sweet-talking me, Rooster.”

“Good,” he says with a smirk. “Been trying for years.” Nat rolls her eyes at him and he plants a loud kiss on the top of her head. “Come on, let’s go inside and make sure nobody’s started hazing your new WSO.”

Bob — as close to a southern belle as Nat thinks she’ll ever meet — has drifted to the edge of the pilots again. Natasha hip-checks him as she comes up next to him, Rooster at her other side. He’s one of the few aviators at Lemoore Nat hadn’t met, having just finished his own time at TOPGUN. He’s unassuming and friendly, and Nat thinks they’ll work together just fine. Some male pilots can’t deal with

“So you don’t get queasy, do you?” she asks. Bob’s smile is indulgent.

“If I said yes, would you try to pawn me off to Hangman?”

“He wouldn’t let her,” Rooster chimes in. "One-man show."

Nat grins at Bob. “I would never do such a thing to you, Bob,” she promises. Rooster’s eye flick back and forth between them, and his smile widens as Payback and Fanboy join them.

“Fellas,” he says as Fanboy hands him a beer. “I think Phoenix here is adopting Bob.”

The man in question blinks. “Adopting?”

“She loves strays,” Payback confirms. “She found me just about as soon as I arrived in California with none of my pals from flight training or school.”

“Welcome to the pack,” Fanboy says to Bob. “I flew with Phoenix in Pensacola. She’s great.”

“Great… but not your soulmate like ol’ Payback,” Nat quips as Fritz and Halo wander over. Halo immediately makes a beeline to Nat, squeezing between her and Rooster.

“Good to know there’s another brain cell on this mission, Nat,” she says.

Fritz blinks. “Ouch, Cal.”

She flashes him a middle finger. “Am I wrong?” He stammers out some sort of reply, but Callie cuts him off by tossing him a bottle of water and telling him to keep drinking it before turning back to Nat. “You being here is the best news I’ve heard in months.”

Nat arches a brow. “Better than being paired with your best friend from base?” she snorts. Callie snickers as they look back at poor Fritz, rehydrating obediently, before looking over at Bob. “I remember you, Bob.”

“Thanks, Halo,” he says. “Not many do!”

“We’ll change that,” Phoenix promises him. She can feel Rooster’s eyes on her, so she looks back at him behind Callie’s head. “Where’s Yale and Harvard?”

“Catching up with Bagman, probably,” he replies. “They’re going to be so much more annoying with him around.”

“I’ll protect you,” Nat assures him with an exaggerated wink. 

“Oh god, they’re being cute again,” Halo huffs, weaving out from between them. “I can be cute too, you know.”

“Phoenix is nice to her best friend,” Fritz pouts. “You bully me.”

“You love it,” Halo shoots back, and Fritz can only shrug. 

“I think that was very cute,” Nat says.

“Adorable,” Rooster agrees, shifting closer so she can lean on him the way she usually needs to after enough drinks. Bob blinks at them and then looks forward.

She can guess what he’s assuming. Maybe he’ll figure out the truth on his own.

Phoenix has never minced her words. There’s no point. When she scolds Rooster for his ridiculous, dangerous stunt with Maverick, she knows she sounds harsh, but he needed to hear it. The other pilots are walking on eggshells around him, unsure what’s going on with him. She has no such qualms; if she can’t get through to him, nobody can.

Someone has to act like an adult, here.

She offers him her hand on the tarmac and pulls him to his feet. And because no one’s around, she pulls him in to her and wraps her arms around his torso.

“I’m sorry,” she murmurs into his flight suit. “But I need you here, Rooster. You’re my wingman.”

His arms wrap around her in turn, and she feels him heave a shaky sigh.

“I hear you, Phoenix,” he responds softly. She pulls back after a moment, and flicks his mustache with a finger. 

“Did Mav really invert above you?” she asks. “Payback bet that Hangman was exaggerating.”

Rooster winces. “Yeah, he did that.” Nat tries to school her face to hide how damn cool that is, but she must not do it quickly enough, because he adds, “I guess I should be glad he didn’t flip me off like he did that MiG.”

She can’t hide her curiosity. “That story’s real?”

He actually cracks a smile. “I had to pull some strings to find out… but yes.”

Nat grins. “You have strings to pull, Bradshaw?”

“A man of mystery,” he quips. “You’re allowed to like Mav, you know. Or, well, you don’t have to pretend not to around me. He’s a good pilot, our stuff aside.”

“I like you more, if it helps,” she offers. His smile softens.

“It does.”

They make their way to the dorms, where Bob, Payback and Fanboy are waiting for them. 

“Go change,” Nat says to Bradley. “We’re gonna get some drinks, and you’re going to shake this off, kay?”

“Ma’am yes ma’am,” he replies with a small salute, ducking into his room.

Nat changes quickly, having already showered, so she and Bob head to the Hard Deck early to grab their group a table while the boys wait for Rooster to freshen up. Nat can feel the questions churning from her new backseater in the heavy silence on the drive, so when they finally arrive and park, she turns to him in the passenger seat.

“I guess it’s a good sign that I can already hear you thinking,” she says bluntly. Bob, to his credit, looks a tad chagrined.

“I don’t want to pry.”

“We’re friends now. You can pry,” Nat says. “I’ll just pry right back.”

Bob nods, looking emboldened. He’s cute. Rooster was right about her adopting people. Bob’s a sweetheart whose shy demeanor hides what is clearly a razor-sharp mind and clear-cut focus. She can see why the brass would want him flying with her.

Bob’s expression turns serious. “Is Rooster okay?” he asks.

She blinks. “That would be a question for Rooster.”

“I don’t think he’d appreciate me asking him.”

“And you think he’d appreciate you asking me more?” Nat shoots back. Bob’s expression remains steady.

“I just thought you might have some insight,” he says gently. “Considering you and he…”

“He and I…. what?” Nat prods.

Bob sighs. “You’re close.”

“He’s my best friend,” Nat says simply. “What of it?”

“You’re the kind of close,” Bob says carefully, “where I’d trust you to know if something was wrong more than him. He keeps his cards so close to his chest, it’s obvious. I’d like to know how best to help him.”

With that, Bob goes from “friend” to “lifelong friend,” Nat thinks.

“I won’t tell you his history with Maverick,” she says. “That’s his to tell. But the wounds run deep, and I’m worried that between Hangman’s needling and Maverick’s presence, he’s going to second-guess himself out of the mission.” She frowns. “I think Rooster is one of the best pilots I’ve flown with. And that’s with all the baggage he refuses to let go of. He’s smart, he cares about his team and he isn’t afraid to ask hard questions.”

“But he thinks too much,” Bob surmises. Nat nods. “Could I pry one more time?”

“If you do, you’ll owe me the name of your girlfriend.”

“Boyfriend, actually.” Nat’s eyebrows shoot up. “I’ve had girlfriends too, though, so you weren’t totally off.” She chuckles sheepishly. “Have you and Rooster ever been… involved?”

It’s a fair question, and one she honestly expected earlier than this.

“No,” she says.

“Do you wish you had?”

Ah, the better question.

“I try not to wonder,” she says. “Especially heading into a mission where we might not all make it back.”

Bob nods. “Fair,” he concedes. “More prying. Would you be mad if I said I thought you were dating when we first met?”

Nat thinks about the way Rooster picked her up from behind and spun her around while several beautiful women in far more revealing clothes than her khakis chased after him, the way he draped an arm over her shoulder and took a swig from her beer bottle, how he didn’t even try to capitalize on his popularity with anyone that night.

It had been a while since he’d seen her, and he hadn’t bothered pretending he’d rather spend his night with anyone else.

Nat grins. Other people might not understand them, but that’s not her problem.

“You wouldn’t be the first and you won’t be the last.”

That night, Bradley tells her exactly how his dad died — and who was in the plane with him.

The mission is batshit insane.

Nat has a brief moment, while Maverick is explaining the mission parameters, where she thinks that there’s no way in hell that she or anyone can pull it off. But then she spies the fiery gleam in Hangman’s eyes and thinks that, for once, he might have a better approach than her.

She glances at Bob, who looks just as dumbfounded as she does, but is already taking meticulous notes.

She wants to fly this mission.

And she has to make sure he comes home.

The practice flights are brutal. Maverick rips into each of their mistakes, driving home just how dangerous this is, and just how real the consequences of failure are. Nat has never been driven to tears by a superior before, but when he demands for her to explain her mistakes to Bob’s family, she’s shaken.

It’s even worse for Rooster.

“Why are you dead?” Maverick asks him after he finishes the course a minute behind target. “You’re team leader up there. What are you — why is your team dead?”

“Sir,” Phoenix interrupts, suddenly exhausted and feeling her failure acutely. “He’s the only one who made it to the target.”

“A minute late,” Maverick points out, not meeting anyone’s gaze. His worry hangs in the air, thick and cold. “He gave enemy aircraft time to shoot him down. He’s dead.”

“You don’t know that,” Rooster says softly, and Nat’s blood runs cold. She defended him because she wanted him to know that someone understood where he was coming from. She didn’t defend him because she thought that exposing him to enemy aircraft was an ideal situation.

He just wants Maverick to be wrong.


“You’re not flying fast enough,” Hangman snaps, exasperated. Nat suppresses a groan. This won’t end well. She may not outrank Maverick, but she knows he’s not equipped to stop this argument. “You don’t have a second to waste.”

“We made it to the target,” Rooster argues.

“And superior enemy aircraft intercepted you on your way out,” Maverick says firmly.

“Then it’s a dogfight,” Rooster responds. It’s a careless comment and a careless strategy, Nat thinks, shaking her head as the two continue to spar back and forth. Rooster is a damn good pilot, and she’d trust him in almost any dogfight. But imagining him against a fifth-gen jet, with Hangman more focused on glory than safety, makes her stomach churn.

Nobody wins, here. And Rooster hates Maverick too much to admit that the safest plan is flying fast.

“There’s more than one way to fly this mission,” Rooster insists, voice cold. Phoenix says nothing, doesn’t want to twist the knife in front of Mav. Hangman has no such… hangups.

“You really don’t get it,” Hangman says. “On this mission a man flies like Maverick here, or a man does not come back.” His eyes roll to her, and his expression turns smarmy. “No offense intended.”

Nat lets herself imagine kicking him right in the dick as Bob says, “Yet somehow, you always manage.”

That earns him an invitation to Christmas dinner.

Hangman keeps blabbering, even as Mav tries to cut him off. Her blood runs cold when he turns to Rooster and says, “That’s no time to be thinking about the past.”

She isn’t able to stop Rooster from lunging at Hangman as he airs out his and Mav’s dirty laundry, but she does hold him back from doing something that would actually get him in more trouble than he can handle. After they’re all dismissed, and Hangman is out of the room, she leans in to Rooster and whispers, “You okay?”

“I need air,” is all he says before stalking off. She lingers int he room with Maverick, whose hands are shaking for the first time since she’s known him.

“Sir?” she ventures. “Permission to speak out of turn.”

“You’d be the first to get permission to today, Lieutenant,” he snarks quietly. “Speak freely, Phoenix.”

“I think Rooster is right for this mission, sir,” she says firmly. “But I question why he has to be taught by someone who has, in his eyes, only ever held him back.”

Maverick looks at her for a long time, and it’s only under this scrutiny that he actually looks his age. Nat doesn’t know how she didn’t see it before — the deeply seeded grief for the loss of both a friend and as close to a son as he’d ever had.

Trauma’s a bitch.

“You’re a good pilot, Phoenix,” he says. “I’m glad he has you.”

“Thank you,” she replies. “Just don’t use me as an excuse not to fix what’s going on between you two. Sir.”

His lips quirk into a small smile. “Noted.”

She finds Hangman next. Coyote steps right out of her way, knowing better than to even try to stop her as she steps right up to Hangman.

He opens his mouth, but she cuts him off. “Don’t say whatever the fuck it is you’re about to say about me being a woman, or Rooster. I don’t care.” He shuts his mouth. “You fucked up, Jake. You pushed past professionalism, and you aired out a conflict that was none of your goddamn business.”

“I was-“

“If you were concerned about how Mav’s effect on Rooster might impact the mission, you’d have gone to one of the Admirals. But you didn’t. You brought that shit up when Rooster was most vulnerable, and for what? To get on the mission, because you know you flew worse than him?”


“No. You’re listening to me,” she growls, stepping closer. The room has gone stone-cold silent. She’s never been this angry before, and she certainly has never let it show before. “You are a selfish, reckless pilot. And I’ve always, despite never wanting to rely on you, respected you. But today? You were careless and you were cruel.” She glances around the room. Halo gives her a small nod of support. “This mission is life and death. We don’t have time to be petty. We don’t have time to compete. I do not want to attend your funerals. I do not want to die.” She looks back at Hangman, right in his eye. “Grow the hell up, or get out of the way.”

She runs into Rooster before dawn the next morning, out on her jog. He’s leaning against a light post, waiting. Typical, she thinks with a touch of bitterness. He’d refused to talk all of last night, but if he can dictate the terms of their conversation, why not? She very nearly jogs right past him, and she bets he wouldn’t even follow if she did. 

But it’s Bradley. Not Rooster, not Lieutenant Bradshaw. So she stops, taking out her headphones as she slows to a stop.

“This is textbook stalker behavior, Bradshaw,” she says, coming to a full stop in front of him. His smile is small.

“I wanted to talk.” She arches a brow. 

“Could have fooled me,” she says bluntly, feeling a little like a teenager. They’re adults. Communicating shouldn’t feel this impossible.

He shoves his hands in his pockets.

“I’m sorry,” he blurts. “For not talking, for letting Hangman and Mav get to me. I want to fly this mission, I want to watch your back. Protect you, even if you don’t need it.” He steps closer. “I’ll try harder, Nat.”

He must have heard her yelling last night. Good.

“Okay,” she says with a simple nod. His shoulders sag in relief.

Something shifts.

Mav texts all of them soon after, telling them to be at the beach by 0800. As Nat gets into the passenger seat of Rooster’s car while Bob, Fanboy and Payback cram into the back seat, her phone buzzes. It’s Hangman.

What’s Rooster’s coffee order?

She allows herself a little feeling of victory. Lots of cream and one packet of sugar.

Psycho behavior.

I’ll take a chai latte while you’re at it. You owe me.


Rooster blares “Danger Zone” and turns his speakers up so that he, Payback and Fanboy can sing while Nat laughs as they cruise down the highway while Bob watches with wonder. It’s fun seeing everyone in beach clothes, acting so casual and carefree. They get so few chances to be like this together. She feels ten years younger.

Hangman, Coyote, Yale and Harvard are already at the beach when they arrive shortly before Omaha, Halo and Fritz. Hangman approaches them warily, handing her and then Rooster two steaming coffee cups.

“For the record, I think it’s insane to drink hot coffee before a beach day,” Hangman says awkwardly. “But, ah, I owed you this. Probably more coffees.”

“Thanks, Bagman,” Rooster says, but his eyes warm a little and he nods. They’re not exactly okay, but they could get there. 

Hangman glances at Nat, and she offers a smile.

“Anyone know why we’re having a beach day?” Fritz asks as they hesitate in the parking lot. They’re not usually at the Hard Deck when the sun’s out. Feels foreign at this time of day.

“Clearly, we’re being rewarded for our stellar behavior,” Halo deadpans, coming to stand beside Nat. 

“It’s definitely not our flying,” Omaha jokes. “I think I broke the record for slamming into a canyon wall.”

“My death by SAM might have you beat,” Phoenix mutters.

Rooster shrugs. “I don’t know what you’re all complaining about,” he says casually. “I managed to befriend all of the fifth-gen planes and their pilots before they killed me.”

There’s a long pause, and then Hangman mutters, “Jesus Christ, man,” and the tension in the air breaks as they begin to laugh. Rooster, smug and slick in his trademark Hawaiian shirt and shorts, adjusts his aviators and looks down at Nat.

“You’re an asshole for that one,” she says. He nudges at her ankle with his foot.

“This is me trying,” he says simply.

They all snap to attention when Maverick pulls into the parking lot on his motorcycle, clad in jeans, a dark t-shirt and his leather jacket. 

“He’s been wearing the same outfit for 30 years,” Rooster murmurs into her ear. She glances up at him, and finds his face closer than she expected.

“And you’re an expert on vogue fashion?” she asks, eyes wandering down to his shirt and then back up again. He grins, not moving away.

“If it ain’t broke,” he starts. Nat looks back to Mav.

“-don’t fix it,” she finishes. He snorts, and she leans back against him, amused.

Maverick approaches them, taking off his jacket.

“Good morning,” he says, pausing for the chorus of “sirs” that follow. “I’ve been pushing you hard these past few days. But flying right is more than just maneuvers and fancy flying. You have to move as a team.” His eyes drift to Phoenix and Rooster. “Dogfighting is offense and defense at the same time. So today, we’re going to play a game that, like combat, makes no sense and doesn’t play by the rules you think you know.”

“What, volleyball?” Harvard asks.

Mav grins. “Now that just wouldn’t be fair, kids.” His eyes sweep over them. “We’ll get to that soon. For now, get in the water, get loose, and have a good time. And don’t clique up, this isn’t a John Hughes film.” His eyes land on Hangman. “And for each time Lieutenant Seresin here makes a comment about Halo or Phoenix being a woman, he buys you all a drink tonight.”

Hangman salutes.

Their group sets up shop on the beach, surprised to find that Penny’s prepared them a few mimosas already. Mav brings out some energy bars for the group as well, and Bob immediately gets to work building a sandcastle, something he apparently was “legendary” for as a kid. Nat, Coyote, Harvard and Halo join him on the castle, laughing and exchanging stories from their first times at TOPGUN. Nat very quickly sheds the tank top she wore, opting instead to just spend the day in her sports bra and shorts. She likes how the sun feels on her skin.

Hangman produces a frisbee, and he, Fritz, Payback and Rooster start up a game, while a panicked Fanboy attempts to run interference between that game and the Sandcastle. Omaha and Yale, meanwhile, pull out books.

“So, Phoenix,” Coyote ventures. “You and Rooster seem to be gelling well.”

Great. This again.

“They always did,” Halo interjects, winking when Nat sends her a thankful look. “You remember how they were in Florida. Birds of a feather.”

“I’m just saying,” Coyote says, a gleam in his eyes. “You seem to be whispering to each other a lot. Close.”

“Can’t imagine why, with you and Hangman snooping in everyone’s business,” Nat snorts, but Coyote is undeterred.

“You didn’t see Rooster’s face when you got rid of the tank top.”

Nat blinks, and looks at Halo. She just shrugs.

“Well, I’m hot, and he’s only human,” Nat dismisses. That draws laughter, and Bob, bless him, changes the subject to asking everyone how they all met.

Eventually, Bob guides them to a sand castle that’s honestly pretty impressive for being built by (mostly) amateurs. The others come to see their handiwork right as Mav arrives back from a trip to get them all sandwiches. Nat, Bob and Rooster all crowd on a towel under an umbrella to eat as they all scatter for lunch.

“Hangman asked me about you, you know,” Bradley says over a mouthful of turkey. “Wondered if we were a thing.”

Bob coughs on his own sandwich, and Natasha stills.

“Oh?” she asks. “Must have been a team effort. Coyote asked me about you.”

He blinks. “What did he say?”

Bob is decidedly silent.

“That you drooled when I took off my shirt,” Nat says with a shrug. “Did you?”

Rooster glances at Bob, who is looking very determinedly at the ocean, and then back at her. He shifts his sunglasses down his nose to look her in the eye.

“Sure,” he says. “Should I not?”

Classic Rooster, giving her permission to tell him not to find her attractive. She snickers at how he can be both polite and challenging with one question.

“I wouldn’t blame you,” is all she says in reply, smirking at him before turning to Bob.

“I want you to remember that Hangman takes an interest in my personal life the next time he tries to talk shit,” she says. “Bet he’s jealous.”

Rooster snorts. “Of me?”

“I like you better.”

“That’s nothing new,” Rooster points out.

“Yeah, but he thinks there’s also sex here,” Nat points out. “Entirely new level of testosterone-fueled nonsense for him to agonize over.”

“You’re a terrifying woman, Natasha Trace,” Rooster says, chuckling.

Nat feels like a million bucks.

Phoenix has never lost a plane.

She prides herself on her quick reflexes, her ability to remain calm under fire. She has spent half her life, it feels, in hostile situations where the margin of error is slim.

But then she loses her plane. She and Bob escape death by mere seconds.

The nurses tell her how lucky she is the only have a few ugly bruises to deal with, and say that she should be good to return after they’ve observed her overnight. She listens with the attentive impatience of any pilot, and thanks the nurses before they leave her be. Instantly, she grabs her phone. She has messages from everyone, even Hangman.

Feel better soon, Phoenix. My team will need a woman’s touch.

She rolls her eyes at that, but lets Hangman know she appreciates the sentiment all the same. Coyote has let her know he’s cleared to fly again, and Bob, in the room next door, has sent her several memes to cheer her up.

You dealt with that like a pro, Bob tells her. I think that was our best run yet.

I’m still sorry, she replies.

Just don’t let this rattle you, Bob says. I trust you 100%.

Nat smiles, grateful beyond words to have this dorky prodigy as her partner.

She’s exhausted. More than anything, she wants to get back in the air, shake this off and continue to fly like she knows she can. She said as much to Mav when he checked on her a few hours ago.

“You know, you don’t have to take your callsign so literally.”

Nat glances up and instantly smiles at the sight of Rooster at the door, a tote bag with a change of clothes for her and Bob in hand. His eyes are a little red.

“Jeez, Rooster, you look worse than me,” she says softly as he approaches. “You alright?”

“No no,” he says quickly. “I’m checking on you first. Are you alright?”

He pulls up a chair, resting his arms on the edge of her bed and watching her closely. It’s so sweet that at firsts he can’t say anything, just reaches to clasp his forearm and give it a squeeze.

“I’m good,” she says quietly. “Or, I will be. I feel like shit for putting Bob in danger.”

“Bird strikes happen,” he says. “You both survived. You did everything right.”

“Not everything,” she corrects. “But I’ll have to live with that and move on.”

There’s warmth in Bradley’s eyes as he watches her.

“I’m real glad you’re okay,” he murmurs. “Felt like I’d lost a limb before we knew you were alright.”

“I’m sorry,” Nat whispers. “Would never want to worry my wingman.”

“I don’t have any family left,” Rooster says. “At least, not anyone actually in my life. You’re the closest thing I’ve got.”

Phoenix does not cry. But Natasha feels like she could.


“Not trying to guilt trip you or say you’re reckless, because you’re not,” he says quickly. “Just want you to know that you matter to me, and I have your back.”

“I’ve got yours too,” she says with a watery smile. “Now stop making me emotional, I have a reputation to uphold.”

Bradley rolls his eyes. “I’ll tell Hangman that I poured my heart out to you and you laughed in my face. That’ll tug at his heartstrings.”

She barks out a laugh, wincing because there isn’t an inch of her body that isn’t sore as hell. “Yes, because that will convince him we’re not sleeping together.” Bradley watches her for a moment, eyes murky. Something’s been bothering him. “What’s up?” she asks.

“I asked Mav why he pulled my papers,” he says after a long pause. “He said I wasn’t ready.” He looks up at her. “He’s not wrong.”


“I’m not Mav,” he says. “This shit isn’t easy for me. I have to try header than he ever has to be as good. I just… I thought he’d be on my side. Believe in me.”

“I’m guessing that’s not what you said to him.”

His smile is wry. “Of course not. I told him I wouldn’t make the same mistake of believing in him that my old man did. Right before he got the news.”

Phoenix frowns. “What news?”

As if on cue, her phone buzzes. It’s a group text from Mav.

Admiral Kazansky has passed away. I will share details for his funeral soon. Life is precious. Don’t take it for granted.

Nat looks up at Rooster, and exhales. 

“Shit,” she whispers. 

Things move at breakneck speed after the Admiral’s funeral.

Mav is removed as their instructor. Mav flies the course, proves the mission can be done. Cyclone and Warlock name Mav team leader.

The pilots head to the Hard Deck for one more night of relaxation before they’re off on the carrier. Everyone does their best to act normal and keep the mood light, but a heavy weight has settled over them by the time Hangman has finished passing out all of their drinks. They’re all clad in civilian garb, no one wants to think about work.

But they do anyways.

Rooster settles at the piano and begins warming up the keys. Bob comes to stand at Natasha’s side, glass of water in hand. She tries her best to experience everything as fully and intensely as possible. That’s the thing about this job — when your life is on the line, every moment becomes more precious.

“I think we’ll be picked,” Bob says quietly. “And I think we’ll come home.”

Nat glances his way. “Yeah?”

“We have things to live for,” Bob says. “That’s motivation enough.” His eyes wander over to Rooster. “Can’t hurt to tell the people we stay alive for that they’re why we stay alive.”

Nat’s eyes narrow. “Robert Floyd,” she whispers, “are you meddling?”

He purses his lips. “Yep.” Nat rolls her eyes, but there’s no malice in the move. “I just think… if it was my last free night… and I were you… I’d want to-“

“Spend it with Rooster?” Nat finishes. Bob nods.

Nat looks back over at Bradley, playing the tune of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” while hamming it up for the other pilots, including Hangman, who can’t hide his amusement. The boys are all singing like they’re twice as drunk as they actually are.

“I’m gonna join Rooster,” she says to Bob. “But it will be platonic.

“Who said anything to the contrary?” Bob asks innocently, sipping his water with a twinkle in his eyes.

Nat raises her middle finger as she makes her way through the bar patrons to take a seat beside Rooster on the piano bench. 

“It’s Phoenix!” Hangman cheers, and the boys join in, taking swigs of their beers and saluting her arrival.

“Don’t mind me,” Nat chuckles, bumping against Rooster. “I’m here for the music.” Rooster bumps against her in return, pausing his playing to drape an arm over her shoulder. She reaches up and snatches his silly sunglasses off his face.

“Gentlemen, my muse has arrived,” he crows to the others, who all laugh. “What shall I play her?” Everyone yells out a different song — Hangman suggests a Beyonce one, which draws a snicker out of Nat. “I think I have an idea.”

His hands return to the piano, and he grins wolfishly at her before the opening chords to “My Girl” ring out. The pilots all cheer at the familiar tune.

“I've got sunshine on a cloudy day,” he croons. Payback, Hangman and Fritz begin stepping in time to the beat, and Nat wonders if they’ve ever pulled this stunt on another woman before. She doubts it’s as fun when it isn’t her, though. “When it's cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.”

All the pilots — and several patrons — join for the chorus.

“I guess you'd say, ‘What can make me feel this way?’” they all sing.

The disjointed echoes of “my girl!” draw a full grin out of Nat.

Rooster’s eyes never leave her.

When the song ends and the crowd is chanting Rooster’s name as they always do whenever he plays, his arm this time snakes around her waist, pulling her close so he can press a smacking kiss to her temple.

“Can I have my shades back?” he asks, lips skimming her skin. She shudders, and knows he has to have felt it.

“The sun isn’t out,” she replies, a bit more breathy than she thinks she’s ever sounded. “You don’t need them.”

“Details,” he says dismissively, but then Bob joins their group, and his focus shifts back to their friends.

“When I get back from this mission, I am heading to the nearest dance club and I am going to lose my goddamn mind,” Hangman proclaims. “What about you, Coyote, what are you coming back for?”

It is, Nat thinks, perhaps the best act of leadership she has ever seen from him.

“My abuela makes the best taco soup in the country,” he proclaims. “I’m rolling right up to her house and eating it for days.”

“My little girl will be missing me,” Harvard says with a grin. “I think I’ll stop by one of those little shops and get her a beanie baby.”

“Do they still make those?” Fritz asks. Harvard shrugs.

Halo proclaims she’s fighting to come back and take her parents out to a steak dinner. Fritz has a nephew he wants to take to a football game. Bob has his boyfriend back at Lemoore waiting for him; Omaha wants to make it back for his little sister’s graduation. 

“What about you, Phoenix?” Payback asks. “What are you comin’ back for?”

For a moment, she has no idea what to say.

“I love flying more than anything,” she says thoughtfully. “But I’d like to last long enough to find other things that give me that same thrill.”

“What, like a man?” Hangman asks with a shit-eating grin. Nat rolls her eyes.

“Maybe,” is all she says. Hangman, being the smart man he is, doesn’t push it.

“I’m with Phoenix,” Rooster says softly. “After this, I’m gonna try harder to enjoy the people around me.” He lifts a brow and looks at Hangman. “Except maybe you, Seresin.”

“You wound me,” Hangman says with an eye roll. “I think I’d like to amend what I said earlier. When I get back from the mission, I want to be best man at Rooster and Phoenix’s wedding.”

“Please,” Nat says without thinking. “You’d make a better flower girl.”

Rooster used to get very still and quiet whenever people would make jokes about how close they were. Now, he just stares Hangman down and says, “Phoenix and I already agreed she would be my best man.”

Hangman blinks.

“Well, she can’t do that if she’s the bride.”

“Payback, then,” Nat says. “Bob can be the maid of honor.”

Rooster considers it for a moment, the nods solemnly. “That works.”

“I’ve known you both longer!” Hangman protests.

“And in the time we’ve known each other, how many of those moments do you think you’ve spent questioning my flying or pointing out that I’m a woman?” Nat asks with a snort.

“I’m not going to go into all of the reasons you will not be in my wedding party,” Rooster deadpans. “But make-believe time is done. In the real world, Hangman, I’ll take you in a round of darts.”

“Okay, but if I win, I’m best man.”

Rooster glances at Nat, eyes warm and amused. She wishes she could hold this moment in time forever.

“Fine,” he says. “You have a deal.”

Bob replaces him at her side.

“Very platonic,” he says simply.

She flies the mission. She comes back alive. She keeps Bob safe.

She is perfect.

But for minutes that stretch into a miserable eternity, her world has dropped from under her. There is no thundering applause when they land. She meets Hangman’s eyes, and there’s no smugness, no snark in his expression. Just desperation, the same reckless insanity she feels inside.

Bob is a quiet companion as she goes through the post-mission motions. Payback and Fanboy stay near as well, but they share the same shell-shocked expression.

They knew they might die.

But nothing ever prepares you to leave someone behind.

“Talk to me, Rooster,” she whispers. Bob pretends not to hear. “What happened to you?”

Losing Maverick, and being unable to turn around when Rooster went after him, tears at her. It went against her every instinct, leaving him behind. And if she didn’t have a WSO to think about, she would have followed him. She knows Payback would have too.

I’m sorry, Bradley. I’m so sorry.

Her mind spins, trying to calibrate to a world without Rooster, but equally defiant to accept such a reality, until she hears a shout.

It’s Hangman. He’s being sent in the air.

They wouldn’t send him in the air if there weren’t survivors.

The deck becomes utter chaos as Hangman takes off. Bob has to guide her through the mass of humanity preparing for a landing.

And then she hears it.

Maverick and Rooster are alive. And they’re flying an F-14.

Nat thinks she might faint.

“He’s alive,” Bob says, grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her gently. “Nat, Rooster’s alive. He saved Mav.”

Payback pulls her into a tight hug. Fanboy begins to laugh.

Natasha’s world recalibrates. 

And minutes later, a broken F-14 Tomcat has landed, and Natasha, Bob and Payback are shoving their way through their cheering and clapping shipmates.

Natasha feels a smile on her face. She doubts it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

Bradley is soaked in sweet, but his smile is wide as Bob reaches him first, shaking his hand as Payback claps him on the back.

Fuck a handshake.

Nat throws her arms around him for just a brief moment, pulling his face close and reveling in his exhilaration. She can’t find the words, but his eyes are so, so soft when he smiles at her, and she feels joy. Pure, beautiful joy and pride. He did it. 

She claps him on the shoulder like a proud coach and backs away as Hangman — beautiful, life-saving Hangman — approaches and holds a hand out to Rooster, who takes it with a smile. 

“Chalked yourself another kill,” Rooster says.

“That makes two,” Hangman responds, utterly himself.

“Mav has five,” Nat points out, serene and amused. “Makes him an ace.” Rooster arches an eyebrow down at her, then looks back at Hangman, whose smile widens in a way that says, “I’ll get there faster.” And it’s Hangman who pulls her in for a happy hug as Rooster goes searching for Mav.

“Saved your boyfriend,” Hangman says as he pulls back. “You’re welcome.”

“What’s with you and sharing the sky with fossils, Bagman?” she asks, unable to even pretend to be anything other than elated. “Don’t tell me you’re into older women too?”

“I’d ask if you’re jealous, but I just secured my spot as best man at your wedding, Mrs. Rooster. Or would he take your name?” She rolls her eyes, and catches a glimpse of Mav holding Rooster close. A piece of her heart sings at the sight. If a near-death rescue is what it takes for them to settle their issues, so be it.

But then Mav catches her eye, and he releases Rooster with a squeeze to his shoulder and walks up to their group.

He’s positively beaming as he says, “You all were perfect. Beyond perfect.”

She doesn’t care about decorum at this point, pulling him in for a hug and laughing as the other pilots pile on, practically jumping in sync as Mav laughs. By the time they release him, Rooster has caught up, slipping behind Nat and wrapping his arms around her from behind, pressing a smacking kiss to her hair.

“He called you perfect,” he murmurs into her ear. She knows her admiration of Mav is no secret, so she just smiles brightly. “I agree with him,” Rooster adds.

“Now we’ve both scrapped planes,” she teases. “If I’d done the rescue, we wouldn’t have had to steal a museum piece.”

“I never want to see that many switches again in my life,” Rooster mutters, pulling her closer. He looks at Bob, who’s watching them with a smug expression Phoenix can’t bring herself to care about. “Hundreds of them, Bob.”

“Kids these days,” Mav jokes, eyeing them curiously. “Phoenix, you might be the calmest pilot I’ve ever flown with, and I flew with Iceman.”

“Perks of having no male ego to contend with,” she says, elbowing Rooster. 

“I didn’t earn that comment!” Payback protests.

“I did,” Hangman says.

Phoenix chuckles, leaning back into Rooster’s arms with a sigh.

She breathes in, breathes out. Feels him do the same.

And goddamn. She feels alive.

Mav invites the twelve pilots to a going away party at Penny’s house the night before they are all set to leave for their new postings. Nat is set to return to Lemoore, with Bob joining her squadron so they keep flying together. Hangman, Rooster, Payback and Fanboy are heading to Lemoore as well. 

The drinks are aplenty, and Nat savors the time they can all spend as a group without an impending suicide mission weighing them all down. 

She’s never been one to hyper-fixate on the future. Being in the Navy, so much of her future is out of her hands; there’s little point obsessing over something so relentlessly uncertain. But almost losing Rooster got her mind working — and she’s come to the very startling realization that whenever she does think about the future, he’s there. 

Here’s the thing: she hasn’t spent her entire life lying to everyone who has ever accused her of having a crush on her best friend. Crush doesn’t quite cover it. At some point in her life, her love for Bradley went beyond the friendship she shares with her other pilots, and deepened into what she saw between her parents growing up.

She probably should have realized her feelings had shifted into romance when she never argued against being Bradley’s future bride that night at the bar, or when she left him behind and very nearly broke. Perhaps even before all that, when they lived on opposite coasts and she would pine for their brief phone and video calls.

But she didn’t realize it then. At least she does now.

And she has no idea what to do with these newfound feelings.

“You should probably just tell him,” Bob says point-blank when she sits next to him on Penny’s couch and tells him of her problem. 

She blinks. “You and I both know it’s never that simple.”

“It is when he’s definitely in love with you,” Bob retorts. “And before you ask, no he hasn’t said anything to me, I just have eyes.”

“You don’t know Rooster like I do, though,” Nat argues. “He’s just… like that.”

“Is he?” Bob asks. “Or is he just like that with you?” Nat bites her lower lip. “I don’t see him kissing Bagman on the head.”

“Yeah, well,” Nat snorts. “I don’t need to explain that he likes me better than him.” Bob snickers, and sips his water.

“I really do think you should just talk to him,” he says. “He cares about you a hell of a lot. You owe it to yourself — and him — to just be honest.”

Nat sighs.

“I don’t want to fuck up our friendship,” she admits.

“It won’t,” Bob assures her. “But keeping things from him might.”

“Thanks, Mom,” Nat says with another sigh. “I’ll think about it.”

She wanders around the party, mingling with the others to try and get her mind off Rooster. It doesn’t work well, she keeps spying him in his trademark unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, talking to the others with a carefree smile, looking more relaxed than she thinks she’s seen him in years.

She finally retreats to the backyard for some fresh air, and finds Mav also out there, nursing a bottle of beer in a small gazebo adorned with twinkling lights.

“Hey, ace,” she greets, coming up to stand by him. He chuckles.

Rooster took her down to his hangar the week before to see Mav’s plane, and she’d gotten to go up in the air with Mav — a bucket list item now checked off, though she would never dare tell anyone else that. He’d shown her his collections of Bradley’s baby photos, much to Bradley’s dismay and her delight.

Maybe he’s onto her. She wonders, now, if everyone is onto her.

“Rooster tells me you’ll be on the same rotation at Lemoore?” he asks. She nods. “That’s good. You’ve been good for him. Hotshot pilots need an adult to babysit them.”

“Who was your adult?” she asks with a snicker.

“For a while it was Rooster’s mom and my old girlfriend Charlie,” he answers. “Then it became Penny.” His eyes look at the house. “Now I think it’s Amelia who’s keeping me honest. She’s more adult than I ever will be.”

Nat met the teenager before. He’s not wrong.

Mav’s eyes turn back to her. “You keep Bradley grounded. As someone who cares for him, I don’t take that for granted.”

“Remind him of that the next time he forgets to text and call,” she jokes.

That draws a chuckle out of Mav. “Bradley’s more of a ‘show’ guy than a ‘talk’ guy, but I’m sure you’ve figured that out already.”

“Boy, have I,” she mutters.

As if on cue, Rooster stumbles out, his entranced announced by a chorus of laughter from Hangman, Fritz and Coyote in his wake.

“Oh, good,” he says when he sees them. “I’m escaping the heathens.”

Mav glances between the two of them and takes a swig of his beer. “I was just heading in, as a matter of fact. I’ll try to keep the vultures off your tail.”

Rooster rolls his eyes. “Yeah, sure you will, old man.”

Mav heads back in the house, leaving Rooster to take his place at Nat’s side.

“Feel like I haven’t gotten to see you all night,” he says. “You having fun?”

“Oh yeah,” she assures him. “I saw Omaha trick Hangman into taking a shot of Malort. The perfect night.”

Rooster makes a face. “I’d feel bad if Hangman were less… himself.”

“Exactly,” she agrees as Rooster holds out a cold beer bottle. “Why Bradshaw, have you brought me a beverage?”

“Only the finest, my lady,” he drawls as she takes it. “Been looking for you. Needed my Phoenix fix after so much time with Hangman.”

“I saw him needling you,” she says. “What’s his new tactic now that your pilot skills are the talk of the town?”

As if to answer her question, “Slow Ride” begins to blare from inside the house, and Hangman appears at a window, a huge smile on his face as he holds out a thumbs-up to Rooster.

“Apparently, I’ve been moving too slow in other parts of my life,” Rooster deadpans.


He looks down at her, and is quiet for a moment as she looks back at him.

“Yeah,” he says finally. “I’m told I’m moving too slow with you.”

Natasha nods slowly, hoping the action will hide the immediate way her cheeks go red and her heart starts racing.

Shit, she thinks. Bob was right.

“I’d be inclined to agree with them,” she says slowly. His lips curl into a smile, and he exhales, a shaky breath. Oh god, he was nervous. She makes him nervous. How in the world has she never noticed? “But I also think,” she adds, “that it would be very funny if we didn’t give them what they’re looking for.”

“Without a doubt,” Rooster agrees solemnly, taking a step closer. “But that does leave us with a little problem.”

“Oh?” she asks, stepping closer herself. “What would that be?”

His toes bump hers.

“I’d really like to kiss you right now,” he murmurs. “But we have an audience.”

She thinks her heart might beat out of her chest. Not even a high-G climb has had quite this effect on her, making her feel weak in the knees and fluttery in the stomach and light in the head, but oh-so aware of the very real man in front of her, leaning closer, closer

“We could just go behind the gazebo,” she suggests. “Or to the front yard. Plenty of cars to hide behind.”

Bradley cocks his head to the side. “So, just to confirm, you do want to kiss me?”

God, she’s been blind. Dumb, stupid, blind.

“Yes, Bradshaw,” she drolls, “I want to kiss you. Now focus on finding us a spot before I change my mind.”

His shoulders sag in relief, and she laughs.

“I don’t want our first kiss to be behind Hangman’s car,” he mutters. “That is not how I pictured it at all.”

“How did you picture it?” Nat asks, lacing her voice with innocent curiosity. He doesn’t buy it for a moment.

“Fuck it,” he mumbles, taking her face in his hands and bringing her mouth to his.

Their audience cheers.

Nat decides to let them have their moment. This kiss, this man? All hers.