I'll save you the excuses. But at long last I got this chapter done.

-Stonehenge.

Fire

It was September 2, 2007 when I arrived at Hierlark for the first time. To be honest my expectations were rather low. I saw the place as little more than a stepping stone, a layover to the place I was actually going. Though at the time I no clue where that was. To compound things getting to Hierlark proved to be much more of an adventure that I ever cared to have. I had been ordered to report there by that morning, and the military made travel arrangements for me to get thereā€¦on a plane. Like always I was more than broke at the time and couldn't afford to have someone bring my motorcycle all the way North, or have it shipped as freight. So stubbornly I decided to ride my bike all the way to base. Long story short, I should have just sold the thing.

I was sore and exhausted rolling into the base just before six, almost falling off my bike at the gate. On top of that, Hierlark was a place that was just perennially cold, the only difference between the seasons for the most part was snow or no snow. The only thing I could think of was when I would be allowed to retire to my quarters, and everything until then was just an obstacle, everything and everyone. And this was day I would first meet him.

The base was small, at least in terms of military bases. It didn't take long to find where I was supposed report. Not far from where I parked I found a bunch of people queued in front of some folding tables where a lot of stamping was taking place. I looked at the new cadets and recognized none of them. None except one, a woman who saw at the head of the line that I had meet only the previous month, Nagase. I watched her have as they ordered her papers, and before leaving she looked back and met my eyes.

Just like the rest, I grudgingly got in line and waited with a duffel bag in one hand and a worn briefcase in the other. I think it was about five minutes later that someone tapped me on the shoulder. And there he was, wearing a black flight jacket and aviator sunglasses even though the sun had barely risen. He had the most smug grin I've ever seen in my life, worse than Bartlett's. He had such an air of arrogance around him, and I was angry before a word came out of his mouth.

"Hey," that was all he said to me at first.

"Yeah?" I did my best not to glare. Even if I was though, I doubt Chopper would have cared.

"I've seen you somewhere before."

"Okay." I turned away, trying to send a signal of how disinterested I was in conversing at six in the morning.

But he of course persisted. "I'm serious. You really look familiar."

"Fine." I was suddenly hoping the line would move faster.

"No really. I think we've met."

I turned around and looked him in the sunglasses. "No I don't think we have." I was hoping that would end it.

"Oh I know," he said like he didn't hear me. "You're that guy."

"What guy?"

"That guy. Soltara, that one club with triple deck, you were playing guitar in that one Firebreaker's show about a year ago."

"Uh?" It took about then seconds for me to remember. That particular show was about a year ago. The band I had played with only formed to play that one show. It was one of about six I had done in that week. I barely remembered it all. "Yeah that was me."

"Yeah! You played the solo to 'Line in the Sand.'" I couldn't remember if that was one of the songs or not.

"Sure."

"You played it all wrong man."

"What?"

"You didn't play it with the right feel." It was too early in the morning I was too exhausted. Though looking back I never did take criticism that well. I was worse before I went to the academy, but I still wasn't that patient. I definitely was not in the mood to stand there in line and just take that criticism.

"Really?" I snapped back.

"Yeah."

"So how exactly would you play it?"

"Oh I don't play." I ended up dropping my bags and turning around to look him in the eye. He didn't react at all, just like he knew that I was going to react that way. "But if I did though I would definitely put a lot more soul into it."

I leaned in, almost ready to start something, which was not usual for me. "I'll keep that in mind."

He was still calm. "Don't get me wrong though. You're pretty good."

"Thanks," I hissed, right in his face.

After a moment a glaring I began to hear the other cadets complaining loudly. One particularly tall and built flight cadet pointed behind me to the tables. "Yo idiots. Move up in line!"

I didn't need or want a confrontation that early in the morning, so I decided to just drop it. Chopper though felt differently. "Hold your horses bambi. You're not going to get there any faster."

I rolled my eyes in frustration. Why he had to be a smart ass at every turn was a mystery to me for a long time. Maybe he thought it was funny even when it sometimes landed him in a lot of trouble, like that time. Chopper didn't move, but the other cadet did. "Just move up in line jackass."

"Well since you asked so nicely," Chopper replied, but instead of moving he dropped his bags on the ground and folded his arms. I didn't want to be a part of whatever was going on and picked up my bags. Before I could walk away though Chopper grabbed my shoulder. "C'mon man don't give in to this douche."

"This is your fight" More of the cadets were beginning to yell at us.

"Aw c'mon."

"No. Alright?"

"Fine. Whatever."

This is where things get a little subjective. As I remember it, Chopper (or someone) pulled on my shoulder from behind. Somehow while I ended up standing in front of his suitcase, so when this person pulled on my shoulder I fell backwards and one of my duffles went flying into the face of the cadet.

Chopper ended up catching me. "Nice move. Now go get him." And he tossed me back to my feet.

"What?" That was when the first punch came. And It was hard enough to knock me back down. Chopper caught me again and pushed me back to my feet. The second one I saw coming, and countered with a quick hit in nose. I could feel it squish as the cartilage cracked and my hopes of a quiet morning also cracked. I don't think I've ever seen an angrier face. He came at me, furiously trying to smash my face in. I stayed clear, my head still ringing from the first punch. Eventually I was able to get him into throw position toss him into a group of more cadets that were watching. Then things got nuts.

Someone jumped me from behind and before I knew it I was in the middle of massive mosh pit of junior flight cadets. Not a minute later whistles and all the guys on top of me were pulled away by base MP's. I found lying myself face down on the ground with my hands bound behind my back on my first day in Hierlark. And who do you guess was lying right next to me.

"Hey man. Nice moves!" He had the most conceited look on his face. A minute before if I had saw that face I'm quite sure I would have killed someone. But there, on my stomach, being arrested, I could only laugh. "My name's Alvin Davenport, but I rather you called me Chopper."

"Blaze."

"What do ya say Blaze, why don't we be friends?"

That was how I met Captain Alvin H. Davenport. That was how I met the ace pilot Chopper. That was how I met my friend.

The Osean Army's victory in the Jilachi desert was widely celebrated in the media. Howell made the rounds on all the Sunday talk shows, saying the same tired lines he had been pontificating since the beginning. The Vice-President went everywhere else, not saying the sames things. I thought maybe the victory might prompt some conciliation. With our army tearing through the countryside one would think the Yuke leadership would want extend an olive branch. But they didn't, and watching the Vice-President's condemnations, I'm not sure our side would have accepted.

As for the four of us, we were enjoying what would be our happiest times at Sand Island, in a relative sense at least. Even looking back, it feels weird, even a little wrong, to say that, but the Four Wings of Sand Island were at the peak of their popularity.

Operations Desert Arrow and Desert Blitz got a lot press soon after they had begun. High in skies fighting the Yuke fighters usually goes more or less unnoticed by war-time reporters. But flying low under radar, over a major river and firing several air-to-sea missiles into a massive Yuktobanian battleship is hard to miss. Someone got a video of Nagase's plane firing, and launched a bonanza of replays that will echo into the eternity of cyberspace. Even so though, the Air Force wouldn't comment on the incident, except to give general praise to "all the braze men and women protecting our soldiers. So the public and the press had no idea that it was us, except of course for one friend of ours.

"So how are all of you doing?" he asked us the four of us the next morning around 0950.

I found myself feeling a little critical of the question. "You've been here the whole time. What do you think?"

"I just want to get a sense of how you're all feeling. things seem to be going well for all you."

"Well despite just being sent into overwhelming odds, asked to complete missions that are more than above and beyond the call of duty, and not even getting a thank you from our superior officers...I'm feeling alright."

Genette just grinned. "Captain Nagase, we haven't really gotten a chance to talk since you were rescued. How have you been holding up?"

"I'm fine. Thank you."

Everyone turned to Grimm, who had suddenly given out a great yawn. "Hans are you alright?" Genette asked.

"Yeah. I'm just a little tired. I keep getting assigned extra duties."

Assigned was hardly the word. Perrault dumped a lot onto him, sometimes asking me to do it, or more often just going right around me. Pops was the real culprit though, somehow I think Grimm was more a less happy do it whatever it was.

"And do I need to ask you Blaze?" he asked me.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Well you're the squadron leader. Doesn't that make you the most responsible for this?"

I was going to respond with something a little qualitative, just to take some of spotlight off me. I didn't want to talk about myself, not on the record. Before I could say anything, Nagase said. "Yes." I turned to look at her, and she met my eyes for a moment before continuing. "Without Blaze in the lead, we would never have gotten this far."

I saw Genette write something down on his note pad, but I was too late again. "Absolutely," Grimm said. "He saved my life before I was even in the squadron and at least a dozen time since."

I had to stop the conversation before it gained too much momentum,, but that chance blew away when Chopper got the chance to speak. "Kid's the best pilot I've ever seen. He's probably gotten more kills than the three of us put together."

Genette looked at me then. "Is that true?" I didn't get the chance to answer.

"No matter what the Captain's always incredible. Every time we sortie I'm always afraid I'm going to fall behind him. He never seems to make a mistake," Grimm added.

Genette had almost five pages filled by then. I was getting a little overwhelmed. There was no way I was what they said. Even with the experience and skill I have now, I doubt I could live up to that expectation.

Chopper came next. "I'm serious Kid could single handedly win this war. It's almost scary. More than scary, it's terrifying."

"Am I going to get a word in?" I said, but Genette didn't have the ears to hear it.

"Nagase, you're his wing-man. How do you see the Captain's flying?"

Now that question got my heart pounding. Just imagine someone you trust most was just asked to honestly judge you. I was afraid of what she would say, not that it would be harsh, but I was afraid because I knew would surely fall short.

The room seemed to pause right before she began to speak. "It's hard to explain. Blaze has a way of reading the tide of battle to sets him apart. His flying is effortless and elegant, I don't believe we're flying the same plane sometimes. It's amazing. I don't think I'll ever be as good as he is." She looked at me once with a smile on here face. "I only hope to keep the enemy off his six'o'clock."

"Yeah," Chopper began. "Kid's the real Demon of Razgriz."

"Stop saying that."

"Why? You think there's some curse that goes along with it, Kid?" Chopper asked me.

"No, but I don't need you getting any more complacent than you already are."

There was some amusement around the table. "Ah after all the times he saved my ass, I thought it was because he liked me."

"Maybe it's because the Captain wants to shoot you down himself?" Grimm added.

"Grimm!" Chopper said wounded.

"Is he far off?" Nagase asked me.

"Well sometimes..." I was thinking more toward his antics with Command during missions, but he took it a whole other way.

"Are you still bitter?" he asked.

"A little bit," I replied.

"Did something happen between you two?" Genette asked.

"It's was no big deal," Chopper proclaimed throwing his hands in the air.

"Did he get you in trouble?" Nagase asked me.

"He got me arrested." Her hand went straight to her mouth.

"What happened?" Grimm asked. And all of their faces, Nagase, Grimm and Genette were focused as a laser on me.

Chopper started first, "Well Kid started the fight."

"What?"

"Yeah."

"Really?"

"Absolutely." It was always this way with him.

"You started the argument," I countered.

Chopper retorted, "Yeah but you clearly finished it."

"You see what I mean?" I said to Genette.

"Well, at the very least you last mission made quite a splash it looks like," Genette commented. "You're starting to get some attention from the top brass."

"And how would you know this? You're here with us?" I asked.

"Let's just say that I have more than a few friends in the Capital, journalists and otherwise."

"What if it's the same kind of attention we got last time?" Grimm asked. It was a fair point.

"No kidding, if we get another order to report to Oured, I might just go ahead and defect, since that's what they're expecting us to do anyway." All of us jumped on him at that comment.

"Careful," Nagase cautioned.

"What?"

"If the Base Commander heard you say that..." I began.

"You don't need to tell me Kid. C'mon I was joking," he defended himself. "Besides I would never say it in ear shot of..."

There was a knock on the door, and we all had a flash-thought to who it was. Hamilton opened the door and we all rose to our feet. "Sorry to interrupt the interview," he said to Genette.

"It's no problem. We can pick it up later," Genette hesitantly replied, still sitting by the way.

He looked at me then. "Captain, Colonel Perrault wants to see you."

"Yes sir." It was a rare summon. He never wanted to talk to me in person, not just me at least. Usually it would be the four of us, and usually it was more of a lecture than a conversation. It was always unpleasant actually in hindsight. My memory, and I would bet it's the same for Nagase and Grimm, is a little tainted by what would happen later. I always got the sense he was trying to claim something when he talked to us, claim some credit for our skill. That is not give everything to Bartlett. He wanted to talk to me alone, I couldn't exactly fathom what was going to happen.

So there I found myself, walking silently, a little behind Hamilton on our way to the Base Commander's office. Hamilton was the one I would usually deal with, almost exclusively. I haven't mentioned it, but we saw quite a bit of each other. There is some administrative work that come with being a squad commander, and the person I reported to was Captain Hamilton, usually several times a week. It was always business, always serious. There was only a few times were any other subject besides logistics came up. This was one of those times.

"So the SuperHornet definitely seems to suit the squad well," he said.

I looked at him. His eyes were still straight ahead, focused on were he was going. "Yes sir. It has far better maneuverability than the F-5's we were using initially."

"I'll bet. I actually got into an argument with Bartlett about what new planes should be requisitioned for the squadron. He wanted the SuperHornet. I wanted the F-15."

"That's an older aircraft, Captain."

"There's a newer model recently developed. Trust me, the F-15S/MTD is definitely the strongest fighter in production. I thought it would better choice."

That was the first time I had heard of the fighter. But I would certainly become familiar with it later.

Hamilton continued, "Bartlett wanted the squadron to have more versatility. Considering what the Yukes are putting in the skies these days, I thought it would hurt the squadron. I obviously was wrong though."

We arrived. He opened the door for me. I looked me in eye for the first time since the walk began. "Good luck, Captain." He walked away.

While it was always civil, there was also something that kept me from liking him. I would guess it was the same way for him. I couldn't tell you what it was even if you were there and had asked me. Not then.

I walked through the first door, and greeted his receptionist. Perrault yelled as soon as I knocked on the second door. "Colonel, you wanted to see me," I announce, opening the door slightly.

He was sitting at his desk, fretting over some documents in front of him. "Come in Captain. Don't bother sitting down this won't take that long."

I wouldn't have sat down even if hadn't sad anything. There was an edge of annoyance in his voice, which was usual for him, but it didn't seem like it was directed at me. He stood up, not looking at me, but turning his attention to outside the window.

"Quite the stunt you pulled out there the other day," he commented.

I waited for him to continue. I thought he would say something critical, but nothing came. "Yes sir."

"Was it Captain Nagase or you that's in the video?"

"Nagase sir."

"Hm. It's causing quite a circus. You guys are almost famous."

I had no idea what he was getting at. It seemed like he was trying to criticize me with praise. So I just went along with it. "Yes sir."

"You know everyone that joins the Air Force wants to be you Blaze."

I was completely lost at that question. "Sir?"

"You're a pilot. Everyone who joins the air force wants to fly. They want to be fighter pilots, heroes, aces. You know how many actually even get to fly?"

"No sir."

"Less than 20%. You know what makes the difference? You gotta have a lot of guts to make it. You gotta have patriotism, you gotta love you're country, more you even love your girlfriend, or yourself for that matter. Usually it comes from having a parent in the military, like mine. But even most fighter pilots don't become aces, even though they all want to. You've heard of Mobius One right?"

"Yes sir."

"Kinda makes you jealous doesn't it? But look at you. You're well on your way. More kills than 99% off all Osean pilots in history. And you've been an officer less than three years and you're already a Captain. All four of you." That was when I started to fidget a little as I stood. "So why did you join the military, I wonder?"

An easy question but it felt it was loaded somehow. "I guess I also just wanted to fly. Colonel."

"Just wanted to fly huh?" He turned around then looking me in the eye. "You work very hard. Your scores were pretty high at Hierlark, so were your grades at the academy. I thought there had to be reason. What did your father do Blaze?"

It was a question I definitely didn't want to answer. The condescension in the room was already high in the beginning, and it was becoming noxious. "I don't know sir."

"That's right, I forgot. You're an orphan. It must've been tough not knowing your parents. Makes it hard to appreciate the sacrifices men and women have made for this country. You're probably not even sure that you're a citizen are you?"

"I'm pretty sure, Colonel."

"Of course. Why would you be here otherwise?" He stepped up to his desk and pushed forward a letter, which from the letter heard came from a fairly high Air Force commander. "You performance during the last operation was phenomenal, according to a few other pilots there. High Command is no doubt pleased. There is even some talk of a medals of valor going around, for you in particular."

The Medal of Valor, was usually how one would talk about it. It definitely the highest honor you could receive as soldier of any kind. Like always it was reserved only for extraordinary feats. It wasn't usually given to pilots, since we aren't in the dirt and grime, and often the danger is much more remote than on the ground. Just the fact that was any talk at all meant something. I didn't even know how to think about it at the time.

Perrault continued, "Since I'm your commanding officer it comes down to me to make the recommendation. You've done good, no doubt. But I think you're rank is reward enough. Do you think you deserve a medal?"

I was digging my fingernails into the palm of my hand. How could I answer that question, and not screw myself either way? So I said, "I don't think it's something you deserve sir."

"My opinion too. Don't get me wrong though. The four of you have done much better than I expected. Especially you and Nagase, considering both your sort comings."

I was the edge of something, what exactly I wasn't sure. I never before felt like I was going to explode at anyone, except right then. I felt like I was looking at one of the old nuns when I was 14, always talking down to you from some high place, but never hearing you. A like then you just had to go along with it.

"Thank you sir."

"That's all I wanted to say to you Captain. We should talk more often though."

"I'll look forward to it Colonel."

He made the motion with his neck I was waiting for, the one telling me I could leave. And I did, quickly. But he stopped before I had closed the door.

"Oh, and Captain."

"Yes sir."

"Bartlett was a hell of a pain in the ass to work with. You've been better." I guess it was a compliment of sorts. I said thank you for the last and most agonizing time and flew away.

I walked, fast. Not really in any particular direction either. I just had to get away from that office. I brushed past some subordinates, not heeding any of their greetings. Burst through main door of the building and just kept on walking. I understood then why Bartlett looked the way he did when he briefed the squadron. It was unbelievable the conceit that was in the that room, and the complacency, and after all we had done.

I eventually found myself near the crew quarters, pacing around the hallway, trying my best not to punch a hole in the concrete. I wasn't going well.

Some of things he said were true, somewhat at least. There were records of my birth, none found anyway. So I don't know if I was born in Osea, or what the citizenship of my parents was. But I was an orphan, in an Osean orphanage. So under law I was citizen by that fact, the so-called 'Presumed Parentage Clause' of some fifty year old law. Did I feel a grand admiration for Military? Not particularly. But I did have loyalty to my home, at least the only place I could remotely call home. But none of that mattered. I did my job with integrity, and he no reason to doubt it.

"Hey," Nagase said, walking up behind me. I did my best to swallow my frustration, which wasn't good enough since she saw right through it. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing, just loads of bullshit."

"What?" she asked, almost laughing. "Did the meeting not go well?"

"That's understating it." I was trying not to vent everything out. Didn't want to bend her ear with something she already knew about our base commander.

"You want to get some coffee?" she asked me.

I shook my head, still too pissed off for civilized conversation. "That's alright."

She jabbed me in the arm. "C'mon. It'll calm you down." I doubted that, but I found myself unable to say no. Maybe it was because I'm too nice, or maybe it was because it was Kei that asked.

"I don't think a caffeine induced adrenaline spike calms people down," I said as we walked.

"It does if you're addicted to both. We're pilots after all," she replied.

That brought the Perrault's comment back to mind, and a soft swear under my breath. Soft, but she still picked it up. "Was it really that bad Blaze?"

"And then some. So I knew the man is kind of a SOB. But it's so much worse than that. I've never met anyone more sanctimonious, self-righteous, and egotistical...just a pompous jackass. He thinks he's not getting enough credit. I don't blame the Captain for always getting in his face." I was so engrossed in my mini-soliloquy, I didn't notice she was laughing. "What?" She waved her hand apologetically. She regained her composer but as soon as she looked me in the eye, she cracked again.

Seeing her in such a good mood did ease some of the anger though. "You're laughing. I'm not trying to be funny." She nodded, but still kept laughing. "What?"

"It's just...you're so stoic all the time. And here's the great Blaze, showing all this emotion," she explained, and kept laughing.

I guess it was funny. I was not, and even now am not, a beacon of personality. She was right, and I started to feel slightly embarrassed. I realize now how much pride I had back then, even though I didn't carry it around my shoulders.

"C'mon!" She hit me in the arm again, after I can been quiet for a moment. "What were you expecting? You thought he had a rough exterior but a heart of gold?"

"No. But just maybe that at his core he wasn't such a total fucking d..." I didn't get the last word out because Nagase clasped her hand over my mouth. A second later of group of junior officers walked around the corner. She didn't usually manhandle me that much.

"We should probably cool it," she suggested. "Nobody doubts you Blaze. We trust you."

"Yeah you guys keep telling me that. Just don't expect to perform miracles though." That was more or less what I had been trying to say earlier.

"There are no miracles Blaze. It's all you," she stated. It was perhaps one of the nicest things said about my flying. A statement of confidence void of distorting hyperbole. It left my buzzing for a moment. "Now," she began, "how did Chopper get you arrested?"

I should have known she was going to ask me about that. "It's not a very interesting story."

"Bullshit," she challenged.

"I'm serious."

"You got into a fight. And you got arrested," she pushed.

"Neither of which would have happened if Chopper didn't have such a smart mouth," I explained.

"So it was his fault!"

I was trying to steer the conversation to something else. Wasn't succeeding. "Yes."

"And?" I didn't respond, till she prodded me again with her elbow.

"And nothing."

"C'mon. You said he started the argument. What was it about?" she asked, leaning her head in.

"I don't remember," I lied, and she knew it.

"I'll find out eventually you know."

"Then you don't need me do you?" She hit me on the arm again.

"When did you get so stubborn?" she asked.

"Maybe you just don't know me as well as you think you do?" I suggested.

"I'll have to fix that then." The way she said it implied a lot more than I think she wanted to. Enough to stop us both in our tracks. For the first time I saw a flash of fear on her face. "I meant..."

"I know what you meant. Let's go get some coffee," I said. I took the lead, walking toward the lounge. She caught up a moment later.

The next two days saw little change in our status. The Osean Army was advancing rapidly in Yuktobania. And we were just sitting alert, waiting for orders for another deployment, as usual. I had felt pessimistic when the invasion began. I thought it could potentially be years of fighting before there would be any sign of the enemy surrendering. But I found myself feeling optimistic for once. Seeing how fast the army was moving, it was possible we could take the capital before the end of the year. Even if that end was an Osean occupation. And I was actually looking forward to that. For once I saw a future for myself outside of Sand Island. A future where I wasn't wandering the country alone.

Our next mission came on November 29th, in the late morning, and it wasn't what I was expecting. There was peace ceremony taking place the same evening in November City. None of us had heard of it, but it was a huge event. It was going to take place in November International Stadium which seats more than 70,000 people, and they were expecting a full house. The premier of the event was a speech by Vice President Applerouth. And we, had been ask to do a flyby as the part of the performance. It was flattering honesty, or as Perrault put it,

"Don't screw this up! You should consider this an honor, and do your part to boost citizen morale. This is the Vice President we're dealing with here, so consider this a guard detail as well, and be prepared for anything out there."

I guess it was an honor, at it least so it felt when we were taxiing on the runway. It did occur to me then, sitting in my plane, that the timing was pretty short for this sort of thing. Why were being told the day of? But that kind of short notice was par for the course for us. I wasn't bothered at all.

"Wardog, everything check green?" the tower called me over the speaker.

Nagase, Grimm and Chopper had signaled there were ready. "This is Blaze. Roger all check green. Wardog is ready for takeof," I replied.

"Copy. We still have a few transport aircraft inbound. Stand by five minutes," the chief ordered.

"Roger Control, standing by five minutes," I confirmed. It wasn't atypical for them to make even us wait, depending on runway traffic. So we had to wait for five minutes.

"So how should we do this?" Chopper asked.

"I know a sequence," Nagase said. "It's tight formation. A little tough."

"How tough?" I asked.

"Well it can't be as bad as trying to keep up with you Kid," Chopper commented.

"Still it's seventy thousand people and the Vice President. If we screw up..." Grimm worried.

"We won't. And if we did they wouldn't know," Chopper conjouled.

"I can lead the formation for the fly-by. If you don't mind Blaze?" Nagase asked me.

"I was about to suggest that. Everything else is the same. Then just a combat air patrol ending at 1730 hours."

"Easier than cake," Chopper added.

"It's 'easy as cake.'" Grimm said.

"You actually can have your cake and eat it too, Grimm," Chopper responded.

I'm still not sure where the joke was in that. "Shut up," I ordered. "We just been given launch clearance."

It was relatively short flight to November City. We arrived in the airspace just before sunset. It was a clear day and the whole horizon was light was bright orange glow. Good day as any to have a peace ceremony. It was exactly 1700 hours when we arrived at the position. Right on time. Nagase took the lead, right as the city came into sight.

I hailed the AWACS, "Wardog to Thunderhead. We're in position."

"This is AWACS Thunderhead. Roger that Wardog. You'll proceed with your ceremonial flight on my order. Stand by."

"I'm proud to be able to fly like this," Grimm commented.

"Hopefully it won't just be window dressing, and actually lead to something," I added. It was ironic to have a peace ceremony when Osea had invaded more than half of Yuktobania.

"This is a ceremonial flight. Watch your manners, Kid." Chopper got on my case.

"Everyone form up and don't stray apart from each other. Okay, Blaze?" Nagase asked.

"Roger. I'll go trail and follow," I answered.

"Great. Let's begin," Nagase stated.

I was a little nostalgic as I pulled into the rear position. I had to remind myself it wasn't that long ago when that was my usual spot, when Bartlett was in the lead.

Thunderhead radioed in a moment later. "It's time. Begin your ceremonial flight."

Ceremonial flying is more challenging than it looks. No one is shooting at you, but the formation is often so tight that slight mistakes could kill everyone in the squadron. It's why the pilots that fly air shows are so carefully selected. The flight lead has to one what he is doing. And Nagase did. We did two passes over the stadium, one on the side to show the squad emblem, and the second Chopper and Grimm did an "exchange"maneuver, at least that's I called it.

"We're flying beautifully!" Nagase exclaimed during the maneuver.

As soon as we cleared the stadiums airspace a second later.

"This marks the end of your ceremonial flight. Good work Wardog," Thunderhead radioed.

"Copy Thunderhead. Thanks," I acknowledged.

"You wouldn't expect anything less from this group. We were really smooth up there," Chopper commented.

For once I agreed with him. We certainly hadn't 'screwed up.' "Nice job everyone. Alright form up on me. We'll head to 2000 feet just outside of city airspace."

"Now we just have to wait around another twenty minutes till the speech is over?" Grimm reminded us.

"You say that like it's a problem Grimm," Chopper harassed.

"Wardog, cut the chatter," Thunderhead said.

"We can listen to speech if you push to 89.9 MHz," Nagase announced.

"You really that interested in what he has to say," Chopper asked her.

"Thanks Nagase," I said and tuned in.

It wasn't exactly riveting oration, not for me, but he was the Vice President, and I should listen just because of that fact. It went something like this,

"People of Osea, please, lend an ear to this broadcast. As your Vice President, I stand here on behalf of the President of Osea. Listen your fellow countrymen cheering before me. They are filled with anger against Yuktobania, and they swear that they will not drop their weapons until Yuktobania has surrendered. Now, I ask you to listen, listen to their cheers!"

"Aw great," Chopper moaned. "Here comes the thunderous applause."

We all were probably thinking something along those lines. What else would they do? We're at war. Yuktobania started it, inflicting massive causalties within a few days. They were the aggressors, so what else could the public want? Instead of the sound of clapping hands though, there was a short silence, short but heavy. And then a murmur of a song that I didn't recognize, not at first. And don't ask me to sing it. But the Vice President, and it was exactly the opposite message than what he wanted to convey.

"Wait, that song...Citizens, please, stop this..." It was such a terrible reaction, I almost turned off the radio just out of embarrassment for him.

Chopper was enjoying himself though, singing along, "'Thoughts endless in flight, day turns to night..." He should never sing.

"That's not exactly Rock'n'Roll you know," Grimm reminded him.

"Who cares?" Chopper responded. "Hey they wanna get along with the enemy too, right? Man, this song's got soul!"

I would have agreed with him, but I didn't get the chance. Right at the moment the IFF alerted enemy contact. Incoming bogeys, several, almost right behind us.

I had to blink for a moment. Again? Even after Apito, I still doubted what the radar was telling me. But I knew it was right.

"Blaze!" Nagase hailed me frantically.

"I know. Four bandits, vector 290."

"This is Thunderhead. Approaching enemy formation confirmed. Wardog engage them."

What else would he say?

"Tally ho. Enemy fighters," Grimm said. "This is why we're armed right?"

"Are we...the only allies here?" Nagase asked, and I could definitely hear some worry in her voice."

"McNealy Air Fore Base tried to scramble fighters, but the runway was blocked after someone crashed on takeoff. I'm calling for reinforcements now. It'll be six minutes before the nearest squadron arrives."

It might be only six minutes, but it's certainly sufficient time to cause major damage. It didn't seem to make any sense either. There was no obvious strategic advantage to attack the ceremony, even if they did manage to destroy it. I began to have a sinking feeling my gut.

"Roger that," Nagase acknowledged.

"So we're on own till then?" Grimm asked.

"It's no problem," I said, maybe a little halfheartedly, but what did it matter? We had to protect the city. "We'll be conservative, and engage the bandits as they enter this airspace."

"Copy that Captain," Grimm responded.

"We don't have time to twiddle our thumbs, Kid. Here they are," Chopper announced.

There were six in the first formation, more coming not far behind. SU-27's, which meant these guys weren't going to attack the stadium. Just us.

"Okay," I said, once I understood the situation. "Let's break their formation. Then break off and shoot them down."

"Roger that Captain," Grimm confirmed.

"Good enough for me," Chopper sounded. "We won't let them get near the stadium."

"Alright." It was a tactic that had become routine, ever since the incident with the cargo plane, and the important passenger inside. We flew head on right at their center, and they did likewise. I got a lock on one of the planes. They broke right before I fired, and passed bellow us. Exactly what I was hoping for. I saw a handful of them break toward the stadium. Chopper and Grimm broke off to follow. That left three for Nagase and I to deal with.

"3'o'clock low Blaze," Nagase reported the position.

"Roger, I'll take him." We banked right, pulling in behind the bandit. It was only a second until I was in missile range and fired. "Bandit down."

"Nice kill. Two more coming in on our six," she warned me.

"Alright Edge, I'll take left, you take right."

"Copy," Nagase acknowledged.

I banked left vectoring back toward the two bandits. I found one of them right in front of me, trying his best to get out of my sight and back behind me. He got way too close though, and scrapped his plane with gunfire as it passed in front of me. I pulled back around to confirm, and I could see the fuel leaking from his damaged wing. He wasn't going to be in the air much longer. "Bandit hit, and no factor." Then I tried to find Nagase.

"Edge?"

"Just a few more seconds," Nagase replied. I found her plane, following the Su-27 as it came out of a turn arc. "Locking on. Fox 1." The missile flew from her jet and hit the enemy just above the fuselage, turning it a flying fireball for a few seconds before it disintegrated.

"Nice kill Edge." Chopper and Grimm, had already shot down two of the three that had broken their way.

"There's additional aircraft incoming." That wasn't the reply I was expecting from her. But she was right. The IFF showed at least eight more bandits.

"Roger, I have them on radar. Thunderhead what's the ETA on the reinforcements?"

"Five minutes Wardog. You'll have to hold out till then." I swore under my breath. Why did time have to work against us at this moment, that's what I was thinking.

"...Hey, wait a minute." Chopper began. "Whoa, they're still singing. Why aren't they evacuating the stadium? Where's the air-raid siren?"

"Captain?" Grimm hailed me.

He was right. They weren't evacuating anyone. And I could here some radio that wasn't encourgaging. "Are you saying the enemy's invaded this far inland?" one said. "Are you sure those planes are headed for this stadium?"

They had to take care of themselves though. "Never mind that. We have fighters incoming. Thunderhead?"

"I've radioed the situation to City. They'll take care of the civilians," Thunderhead responded.

"Blaze, two fighters coming in at, ten'o'clock," Nagase said. I saw them, more Su-27 Flankers. So I wasn't going to get a chance to think?

"I got 'em just watch my six." She copied. We flew at them fast, but they broke as soon I was in range. "Damn!" I wasn't about to give up on them that easily. I pushed up the throttle and got a lock. The missile took nearly ten seconds to hit, but it did, and the plane went down. The other was running as fast as he could, and I wasn't going to bite. And it looked like Chopper and Grimm needed an assist.

"Chopper, what's your status?"

"Well I'm dancing around with this funny guy who's trying to plug a missile up my ass. But other than that I'm great!" I heard him yell under the strain of a turn.

"Roger we're on our way," I replied.

It was a few seconds before we got into visual range. Chopper was in hot pursuit of one while the other was dancing with Grimm. I saw the enemy fighter gain a little bit of distance on the turn and for a moment I was afraid Chopper was going to lose it, but then I saw the spoke trailing from the engine then the pilot bail out.

"Yeah! Bandit down kid!" Chopper yelled.

"Good work," I said. Grimm wasn't doing nearly as hot. "Grimm bank a hard right on my mark. We'll take him," I ordered.

"Roger Captain. I was starting to get pretty dizzy." At least he was discouraged.

"Edge?"

"Roger." She broke off gaining a little altitude to get a better firing position. When she was ready, she yelled, "Grimm!" He did as he was told and just as he was clear, Nagase fired, destroying the Flanker in a few seconds.

We may have shot those down, but there were still more out there, and the feeling in my gut was just getting worse. And the reinforcements were still three minutes away.

"This is nuts!" Chopper announced, after a few heavy breaths.

"You said it," Grimm agreed.

"They're focusing all their attacks on us," Nagase said. "You think there's another squadron inbound to attack the stadium?"

There was a definite fear in her voice. "Maybe," I answered. I bet Nagase was feeling the same thing I was. "But we don't have to..." Thunderhead cut me off before I could finish talking.

"Wardog, four more enemy bandits incoming, 12'a'clock."

"Roger that!" Only three minutes, I kept telling myself we just have to last another three minutes. Despite all the other missions, we never had the deck stacked that much against us as it was on that mission. I noticed how fast my heart was pumping at that moment, like I was in some sort of deadly race, rushing toward a finish I wasn't sure I wanted to go to. Not a pleasant feeling.

"Alright, everyone stay in formation." That always the best option from a tactical standpoint. It gives each pilot the best position to cover his wingman, and the option to concentrate firing power toward the front when attacking. The enemy's best option to shoot us down was to break our formation and engage us two or three on one. I wasn't going to give them that opportunity if I had the chance. But right as I was thinking that, my missile alarm went off, and it was coming right in front of me.

"Dammit! They have long range missiles," I swore over the radio. I broke left and low trying to get it pass over me, and it did, though it was much closer than I would have liked to be.

"Blaze?" Nagase was screaming at me.

"I'm alright. Let's close the distance on these guys," I ordered.

"Too late for that Kid," Chopper replied. "They're right on us."

And he wasn't lying. I pulled up to find myself probably only a few thousand feet, head-on with a Typhoon, firing at me with his guns. I passed bellow him, and tried to get on his tail. Nagase was already on him but she also had one of her own bearing down on her. Even in this situation we might've been okay. But more enemy fighters came in behind them, this time MiG-31's and in course of thirty-seconds, an engagement I thought I could keep control of, turned into the worst hairball we had ever seen.

"We can't make it," Grimm began saying, just as shook off a Typhoon. "There's too many of them!"

"Hang in there. Two minutes until allied reinforcements arrive," Thunderhead reassured us.

"Alright. I'll get ready to pass the baton.

I felt the same way as Grimm did though. We weren't in a good position, and we were slowly being pushed back. Everything I knew about tactics told me we should run. the only thing that kept me from doing so was the promise of help. Little did I know.

"Attention all units approaching November city," someone announced over radio. "I guess they had us going too..."

"What?" I mumbled to myself. I had no time to ponder who it was. I had one enemy in front of me trying to get on Nagase's six, and two more behind trying to get on mine.

Thunderhead was wondering the same thing. "What? Who is this?" he asked. No answer came though.

"That was a pretty good drill they got going. Anyway, drill is over. Return to base," the voice said again.

"Wait! What are you talking about?" Thunderhead tried to hail whoever it was, but suddenly the comm became overwhelmed by static. "ECCM! Restore communication link!

And there it was. Suddenly suddenly a dreaded thought that was clouded in my head became clear. It was a trap. They didn't come for the vice president. That was a fringe benefit, a covenient excuse to attack. It was a trap for us. They knew it would be us guarding the stadium. That's why they attacked.

As much of a shock as it was, it was overidden by the enemy that was about to get a missile lock on my wingman. Too bad I got a missile lock on him first, and fired. "Edge, you alright?"

"Yeah," she responded in a breath.

"The allied planes aren't coming! What's going on?!" Grimm exclaimed.

"Reinforcements are on the way! Just hang in there!" Thunderhead replied, though even he was stressing. "Dammit, none of the bases are responding to me! What don't you understand? There's an air battle above the stadium!"

"So they aren't coming?" Chopper began, "this figures given our luck."

"I feel like I'm being sent to die as some sacrifice!" Nagase exclaimed. No doubt she was seeing the same thing I was.

"No one's dying!" I interjected. "We're all getting through this!" I stated, and made it poingent by shooting down another Typhoon. I only had one missile left though. And there were still four enemy fighters gunning for us.

"Nice kill Kid and don't worry," Chopper replied. "They can't shoot me down that easily."

"Right!" Nagase replied, a little more calm. "I'm on your wing."

That gave me a burst of confidence. There were a few Typhoons left and maybe three or four MiG-31's in the airspace, there were more on their way though. We were low on ammo but we could definitely take them, even if reinforcements were going to be late.

"New enemy formation detected," Thunderhead reported. "It's a flight of enemy stealth fighters."

"Are they inbound to the stadium?" Grimm asked.

"They're dead set on crushing us, both physically and politically!" Chopper commented. There was no doubt about that.

"Enough of that Chopper!" I said. "You and Grimm go take care of them. Nagase and I will deal with these four."

"Roger that Captain. There's no way I'm letting them get anywhere near that stadium."

'Captain'. I think it was the first time he had every called me that. For brief moment I felt a glimmer of joy in the grim situation. Likewise Chopper, there is no way I was going to let them near you. If only that had been true. "Alright Edge, one -on-two. You ready?"

"Always" Nagase responded. And we flew into them.

The enemy wasn't pulling punches. One fired at Nagase as soon as we were in range. The shot was wild though, and she easily dodged it. She pulled off and engaged him, leaving me to deal with two MiG's. I was able to hit one with me guns in a pass. He was still flying though, and I found myself following him through every maneuver imaginable before I was in gun range again. I fired and took off his wing.

"Bandit down. Edge?"

"I almost have him!" She was still chasing that same Typhoon. Her tail was clear though, and I still had another MiG to deal with.

I pulled a hard left and got him to follow, and then inverted and did a split-s to lose him and then get right behind him, got a lock and fired my last missile. "Fox 2!" To his credit he might have evaded it, had he been in Typhoon, but his MiG was too bulky to get away. "Edge?"

"I got him the other is retreating," she said, and I confirmed it on radar.

"Great!" As soon as I said it though I heard a jumble of static over the radio.

"Damn!" It was Chopper and it didn't sound good.

"Are you alright? You've been hit," Grimm asked.

"Ah it's nothing big. I'm not wonder. I oughta be able to keep this plane in air a little longer Besides planes are expendable. Right Kid?"

I broke with the MiG I was following. "Right Chopper, but you aren't."

"I know, I know. I'm coming back. Don't worry so much. Anyway the stealth fighters are down. Told ya right?" Chopper bragged. He was right though. He didn't let them anywhere near the stadium.

"Confirmed." Thunderhead came over the radio. "All enemy stealth fighters destroyed."

"Chopper can you bail out?" Nagase asked him.

"Well that's kinda difficult right now," Chopper replied. He had a point, there were still enemy fighters in the airspace. "There's nothing but houses down bellow. I can't leave this plane yet." I could hear the warning alarms in background.

"Edge." I said to Nagase. She understood. We both headed straight for him, and found flying at a fairly low altitude above the city, his plane trailing smoke. I wasn't looking good either.

"Chopper can you maintain altitude?" I asked.

"I'm trying Kid. It's doesn't look like I got that long." He breathed heavily for a moment. "Kid, you see anyplace where I can drop this plane?"

There wasn't much. Every square inch of the city looked dark from the air. Except for one. "Yeah I think I do."

"Waydago Captain. So where?"

"The stadium," Nagase said. "Can you hear me? Drop it into the center of the stadium and bail out. Do you understand." He didn't have much time.

"Roger," Chopper acknowledged. "Good idea...gives me some hope that I might just make it. I'd better wait for the crowd to evacuate some more though."

He was being too altruistic for his own good. I could see how much fuel he was losing. There was no way he was going to last another ten minutes in the air. He needed to get out.

"This is Thunderhead, Captain Davenport are you alright?" Thunderhead asked.

"A little too late man. There goes the radar. My circuits are toast," Chopper responded.

"Look forget about it Chopper just bail out. Please bail out!" Nagase pleaded with, and I had half a mind to join her.

"Chopper!" I yelled.

"Okay," he began. "I guess now's the time. There's the stadium I'm dropping the plane over there."

For a moment I felt relaxed. He was there, right over the stadium. All he had to do was bail out.

"Roger," Nagase acknowledged. "Now get out." She said, and I waited. No shut appeared though. No flash of the ejection seat and the canopy breaking. I assumed for a moment that I just didn't see it. That was plausible, since I kept checking for enemy planes. But it still didn't come. And then...

"I can't. The electrical system's all messed up. The canopy won't blow. The ejection seat's probably not working either."

"Don't give up." I thought I was saying it, but it was Thunderhead. "Chopper. Keep trying Chopper!"

"Heh heh. I'm gonna miss that voice."

He broke off and flew his plane straight into the stadium floor. Straight into the Osean flag...

It's a moment of dichotomy, a schizophrenic splitting of reality. It's a moment where fact and mind bifurcate, a rush of input that crashes a data processor, a point at which one comes face to face with what one can accept and what one must accept. I saw it happen. I saw the undeniable flash and the smoke coming from the crash. I circled the stadium seeing all the detail that could be seen. I saw the result and knew outcome. But half the mind doesn't see it. Half the mind doesn't understand that existence can suddenly just be crushed into nothing. And you can't help but wish that you were wrong, that missed some crucial detail, that he wasn't gone. But it's only a moment, and then you know. You know.

Thunderhead radioed a second later. "Dammit. I hate to say this now. But there's a second enemy wave approaching. All units, engage."

Nagase and Grimm didn't acknowledge the order. They stayed on my wing, waiting. Thunderhead was right. There were ten more aircraft inbound, Typhoons , Flankers, all fighters it looked like. Nagase was right, they were coming for us, and they had gotten one. All Yuke fighters we had shot down, and all the pilots I knew didn't make it out. All the damage we had inflicted to army, and the rapid occupation of their homeland by ours. And then there was the Legend of the Razgriz mixed in with it. We were nearly out of ammo, severely outnumbered, and already one down. We must have been such an inviting target. And we could hear some of their radio chatter. "These are no demons. We can take them." So those pilots were going to do everything they could to kill the rest of us, to avenge their friends, to save their country, to make themselves into a legend. I had the same ideas in my head earlier in that war, but it was only then that I really understood what Nagase meant when she said how stupid that was. But fine. If that's how it had to be. If I had to keeping fighting even for stupid reasons. If I had to wantonly shoot them down to keep my friends alive. So be it.

"Roger. Wardog engaging." I broke off and turned into the enemy. With their superior numbers it was easy to know the kind of tactics they would employ, just overwhelm us, keeping firing until one eventually hit. We were practically out of missiles anyway, so we just flew at them at full speed. I first one didn't know what hit him, and the second was still too surprised to react. Nagase and Grimm broke off engaging on two others that broke from the enemy formation. They both shot them down. Another Typhoon spike me coming head on. He should have known though he was too close to get a good lock. The missile shot was trashed, then I was able to scrape his tail as he passed by.

The remaining enemy broke off the attack. It was probably because our reinforcements were on the way. Thunderhead confirmed that a moment later. "...Wardog. Thanks for holding out for us. The reinforcements are here. Enemy planes retreating." Fine. We took up position above the city heading west back towards Sand Island, into the dusk.

"We just got word from the ground," Thunderhead continued. "Except for a few injuries in the confusion following the evacuation. There were no civilian casualties in the stadium." At least that was true, but it was still a bitter consolation. "He...he was a model fighter pilot to the end. Join me in saluting Captain Davenport!"


There was no fanfare when we arrived back at base. Not this time. It was nearly 0300 and the entire base was asleep at that point except for the few that had the graveyard shift. Even the base commander wasn't awake. I remember how humid it was as I stepped out of the cockpit, humid and damp. It was definitely going to rain later. Not that rain meant anything on Sand Island. It always rained.

Everyone that was up there noticed immediately though what had happened. It was plain in the way they stared at us when we stepped off our planes. I tried my best avoid their eyes. I wonder if Bartlett had the same experience when he had to come back after that day when nearly the entire squadron had been shot down. I guess I shouldn't complain.

Hamilton met us before we reached the lockers. He didn't usually do that. He must have already heard.

"Welcome back. We'll debrief at 1100. Go get some rest." He turned around to leave but stopped. "I'm sorry." I nodded in acknowledgement, and he left.

We found ourselves standing there silence for a few seconds, feeling more exhausted than we ever had before. Grimm looked the worst. He was already nearly in tears just getting off the plane without him. Nagase was still held her composure, but she wouldn't keep for more than a moment. I didn't blame her.

"Okay," I began. "There's gonna be a few things that will have to be done. Since we knew him we'll have to make sure all his personal items are together, before they're sent back to his family." Grimm gave me a trembling yes sir. Nagase just nodded a few times. "There will be a service and each of us will be asked to say something. It's not required that you do though." Both of them seemed to want to talk about it. Neither did I. "We can work it out tomorrow. Let's just end this day."

I walked to the locker room, and found it more empty than usual. I threw down my helmet and tried to unlock mine. It had a recent habit of sticking, and Chopper kept telling me to buy some grease for it the other day. His locker looked like it always had, door slightly ajar, and a faded number. He never actually locked it. His point was that there was nothing in there worth stealing, and 'we live on an island.' I never had the impulse to look inside before. But then... The joints squeaked as I pulled the door open. Just like me, he didn't have much, a bunch of loose paper that looked way too old to be his, several empty packs of gum, a pasted picture of the four of us from Genette's article. The only other thing was his uniform, that hung on the side. It was fully decorated and pressed, the kind of uniform we would wear to formal ceremonies, with the captain's rank insignia. It looked like he had it ready for something when he got back. I wonder what it was.

I closed the locker, making sure the door would stay shut till the next morning, when I would have to clean it out.

My quarters were a lot darker than usual when I got there. One of my flourescent lamps had gone out again. It happened a lot, not just in my room. We lived in probably the oldest building on the base, which made the electrical system in the building the worst on the base. I didn't really mind that much. I wasn't that much of a reader. I didn't even read music that much anymore. I sat on my bed for moment, trying to think of what I should do. I should sleep for a few hours. Then get up and begin drafting a mission report. I found my mind wondering at that point though.

I remembered the last time Chopper and I were in my quarters. It was only maybe two weeks ago.

"Are you just gonna sit there the whole morning?" I had asked him. I was sitting at my desk working on a squadron assestment, and he was on my bed, lying on my bed reading a magazine that was too...explicit for him to have gotten on base.

"What Kid? It's not like we have anything really to do when we're not in the air. Besides you haven't answered my question."

"I did answer your question. So now you can go bother Grimm in his quarters," I replied, trying hard to focus on the report.

"No you didn't."

"Yes I did. I told you I wasn't going to answer," I replied, turning back to the computer.

"So you didn't answer," Chopper shot back.

"Not answering is an answer." I turned back to him. "And you know I would not appreciate it if you get caught reading that in my room."

"Oh come on, Kid! We're Captains. We don't have to worry about that kind of thing." That was really not true. "Now how are you gonna ask her?"

"Ask who, what?" I replied.

"Blaze!" He moaned.

"I really don't know what you're talking about."

"Who do you think I'm implying when I say that?" Chopper asked me. "Here's a hint you're writing about her right now in that report." I stopped typing at the moment and took a deep breath. So he was reading over my shoulder.

"You I have to write about you too. I could say really bad things," I warned him.

"Come on Kid. You don't have infinite time with this. As soon as this war dies. They'll probably give Kei her own squadron. If she even stays in the military."

"I don't see how that would be a bad thing."

"Geez you're stubborn. You told me before that you like her remember?"

"And I'll admit that was a mistake."

"Ha. Come on Kid. She so wants your cock," Chopper tried goad me, and it worked.

"Hey!" I turned around in my chair. "We're not in academy anymore."

"See?" he yelled pointing at me. It me a moment to realize what he meant.

I gave up on trying to continue and writing. "You know dating within the team is a more than a bad idea. Besides there are actual rules against this sort of thing."

"So? Let me tell ya Kid, very few people are actually that those regulations that seriously," Chopper countered. "Besides that only matters if you get caught."

I had to sigh at that line. "Did it ever occur to you that maybe she actually has a boyfriend outside of base?"

"She doesn't."

"How do you know?"

"I asked her yesterday."

I could have guessed. "You need to keep your nose out of things," I told him, and turned back to work on the report.

"I'll give you that. But seriously Blaze. If you do love the girl, then the damage is already done. Why shouldn't you both enjoy it then?" I couldn't come up with an answer to that question then, and to tell the truth if he asked me at that moment, I wouldn't have had the answer.

That was two weeks ago. Now he was gone, and no more would I have that voice. You were right Chopper...Alvin At least about this, you were always right.

I sat there feeling the weight of his death, and of what he had said. There was no question how important she was to me then. But the war was not over, and with him gone, I was less sure about the future of our squadron. I felt a big knot growing inside me. I couldn't remember the last time I had been this angry.

I knew then that there was little chance I was going to get any sleep that night, and got up headed for the door. Insomnia sucks because the next you feel robbed of energy, but honestly I always kind of liked wandering around late at night. The world was just different, more peaceful, more beautiful. I ended up heading to the fourth floor lounge. It was a little used room that was almost devoid of furniture, except for a small couch. It made a good place though to watch the ocean, or just to be alone. I couldn't think of a better place. I stood up and ended up knocking over desk lamp.

"Aren't you going to pick that up?! You just gonna stand there like a useless idiot?!" I thought to myself. I wasn't sure if I was just remembering something or talking to myself. I didn't care though. I left the lamp and walked out of the room.

I was at the lounge in about two minutes. When I opened the door though, I found I wasn't the first one there.

Nagase was standing by the window. At first she seemed to panic when I entered, but once she recognized me she relaxed. I looked outside. It had just started to rain.

"Hey." She said after a second. I didn't know what to say back. So I just looked her in the eye for a moment. "I was just..."

"Can I join you?" I blurted out. She nodded, and I closed the door behind me and walked to the window, standing right beside her.

For a few minutes we looked out the window, onto the rain shocked tarmac and beyond that the ocean, neither of us saying anything. It didn't seem like there was much to talk about, except one thing.

"It doesn't seem real." She said after a minute.

"Yeah," I agreed. "If there was anyone that I thought was invincible...heh...it was definitely him."

"Yeah," she responded. "He was a better pilot than me." I looked at her then. She seemed like she was staring off into the distance, watching the large ocean waves crash against the beach. "He was always the first to volunteer in flight training, for anything. I would never raise my hand because I was always afraid I would screw up." She laughed a little. "I didn't want to look like an idiot in front of everyone. He...he didn't care. He wasn't afraid of failing, even if he did look like a bafoon."

"He told me once, 'Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It's the courage to continue that counts.' I asked him then where it was from, and he told me 'a fortune cookie'." We both laughed for minute at that.

I could see the tears building up in her eyes then. "It didn't have to be this way," she said after a moment. I didn't need anyone to tell me what she meant.

"There wasn't anything we could have done," I tried to reassure her.

"Yeah," she replied. "I just mean...this war...it doesn't make any sense. It shouldn't have happened this way. I..." Her voice cracked. All the strength and composure she had shown earlier...I didn't know.

"Kei," I tried to console her. "We can't control everything that happens."

She nodded. She didn't need anyone to tell her that. But I didn't know what else to do. "I know. It's..." She froze for a moment trying to collect her thoughts. "I just I can't help but think that the next time we sortie it's going to be..." She stopped again. It was like she was trying to say something, something very delicate.

"What?" I asked.

She looked down for second, like she was gathering her strength and then looked me in the eye for the first time. "You weren't there. You weren't in the air when we got ambushed by the Yuktobanians. I had seen people die from the air before but...to see people you knew to see, their planes just blow up in front of you, and around you." Her breath became ragged then. She was losing it. Tears were beginning to well up in her eyes.

"Kei," I tried to put my arms around her but she pushed away.

"Then Bartlett gets shot down. Now Chopper. I just can't help thinking that the next one will be..." She was out of control. She looked about ready to collapse onto the floor. I caught her before that happened. She grabbed hold of my arm then, holding herself up. Outside the window the rain was becoming so think you could hardly see the air tower.

Wherever I was then, it was outside the area of squad captain. There was nothing I could do as her superior to help. Protocol, and duty, they seemed so important when I was talking to Chopper two weeks ago. But right then I really saw what he meant.

"I'm not going anywhere." I told her. "I don't care if there's a war or not, I'm not going anywhere."

I didn't know if she heard me. She seemed to get control of herself back after a few moments, and stood up on her own. She didn't say anything though. I thought I had gone too far for a moment. I thought maybe I had read too much into it. But before I could come with my next move, Nagase pushed my arm off her. Instead moving away though, she wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me.

I didn't need Chopper to tell me. I knew how I felt about Nagase for a long time. There were times it was painful to not act, painful not to tell her. But I thought there was something greater in restraint, in putting my flying above my happiness. That's the way I always thought, and maybe that's sometimes true. But it wasn't true then. I knew what Chopper meant. I wasn't helping anyone by constantly torturing myself. I wasn't serving any higher purpose by suffering alone.

I'm not how long the kiss lasted, but it was Nagase who broke it, pushing me away. "I'm sorry. I..." I knew why. It was the same reason why I couldn't act. "I'm sorry." She backed away toward the door.

"Kei!" I screamed after her. But she was gone before I could say anything more.

The rain was getting heavy. I would never say that I was wise about anything, especially that sort of thing. But I was pretty sure that I wasn't supposed to just leave it there.

I found her outside, standing nearly twenty feet outside the door on the tarmac, just letting the rain soak her. "Nagase!" I yelled at her. She heard me, turning around to look me in the eye. Whether it be wise or foolish, on the backs of angels, or the wings of demons, I didn't know. But that didn't matter. I walked up to her and took her into arms and kissed her again. The rain continued to pour, well into the morning.