Shed Feathers

It had been sometime since the will had been read, but Blaze hadn't kept track. He was in his room now, looking out at the airfield from his window, seeing the squadron's three F-14 Tomcats being fitted for combat. Blaze solemnly reflected when he had started out as squadron commander, and the difficulties of getting the F-5E Tiger IIs his squadron started out with replaced with better fighters. In fact, the reason his squadron were using navy fighters was because the Air Force had been strained in resources at the time. Not that Blaze complained, the Tomcat was a well-performing design, and after a few modifications (such as updating the avionics and changing the cockpit around so the planes could be flown without RIOs or Radar Intercept Officers), they were much better fighters than he could have asked for.

Shifting back to reality, he remembered why their planes were being fitted. In a little more than twenty-four hours, Wardog Squadron was going to be deployed again into Yuktobania to provide aid for the ground invasion. Blaze had heard that once the invasion force has broken past the last bastions of Yuktobanian resistance, they would launch a third assault on the Cruik Fortress, better known as the "Coliseum" for its dish shaped design, and that he, Nagase and Grimm would provide air support for the attack. Blaze figured he should have been out looking over information on Cruik's defenses, but since the attack was still being planned and the operation wouldn't begin until a few more days, he really didn't feel like it.

Instead, he remained in his room, watching the outside while listening to some of Chopper's rock and roll records. The song currently playing on his stereo was "Dreams" by Eddie Van Halen, which was a bit upbeat for everything happening around Blaze, but he didn't mind it. At one point, he saw some F-15s on the field, and felt a sudden jolt of adrenaline come over him, but he calmed himself when he realized they were standard C models. Not the F-15S/MTDs that the 8492nd were rumored to have used, since they lacked canard coreplanes on the front intakes and Tomcat-like vector thrust nozzles. Besides, there were no S/MTD models supposed to be in combat service officially, the plane was designed just to experiment with the concept of vector thrust control, thus the designation STOL and Maneuver Technology Demonstrator.

This brought back more hatred toward that number and the squadron it represented. Due to insufficient evidence, and the fact that the squadron doesn't "exist" in the Osean Air Defense Force, the 8492nd remained out of reach for a court martial. Only the recorded transmission from Thunderhead, regarding the orders for reinforcements to return to base, was Blaze's only real proof to their existence. Even then, the speaker never specified himself as the commander of the 8492nd Squadron, Blaze only recognized the voice as the same one that ordered the said squadron to attack the Yuke engineering college.

"It doesn't matter what the brass thinks. They weren't the ones fighting out there. Damn hypocrites." Blaze told himself. He looked at the setting sun in the Horizon, seeing Chopper's smiling, unserious expression. "Chopper, the same people will come after us again, and when they do, I promise you, you'll have a front row seat at watching them fall from the sky."

That's when a knock came at the door, snapping Blaze back to reality. "Who is it?" he asked.

"Nagase, sir." came the reply.

Blaze narrowed his gaze. Sir? He thought, slightly confused. She never called him that; even when he took command of the squadron and grew in rank ahead of her, she still called him by his callsign. Curious to see how this would play out, Blaze decided to let her in. "It's open." he told her.

The door opened and Kei Nagase entered the room. She was wearing a white tanktop and cargo pants like she did during off hours and Blaze couldn't find anything unusual about her. "What's up Nagase?" he asked casually.

"Just wanted to see how you were doing, Blaze... er, Captain." Nagase caught herself.

Blaze smirked. First 'sir' and now rank? I haven't heard her be this professional since Captain Bartlett went down. "It's alright Nagase, I won't bite." he said, "You can call me Blaze, as always, or if you prefer, Daniel..."

"Sorry, I've been a little jumpy lately. Colonel Perrault's been clamping down on abuse of protocol lately." Nagase explained.

Blaze sneered at the mention of Perrault. "Good for that fat tight-wad for reminding us of his command here. Not that I care Nagase." he explained to her, going back over to his desk and sitting down. The song had ended now, so the stereo randomizer activated and switched Disc 5, Track 6, which was "Who Wants To Live Forever" by Sarah Brightman. Blaze himself looked back out the window, even with Nagase in the room. "Sorry if I'm being rude. I'm still a little mad..."

"About Chopper's death, or Perrault's stint before?"

Blaze's smirk turned into a dry, but satisfied one. After November City, the members of Wardog Squadron had gone into a silent mourning period in the Sand Island's crew lounge, trying to deal with the inner turmoil that had been remained in all of them from the battle. After a brief period, Perrault came in and scoffed at them, claiming how childish it was for the squadron to mourn for one person like a bunch of babies. He then claimed it was even more childish since that person was an irrelevant, weak-minded fool that Wardog could have done without. Grimm shot at how Perrault could be so heartless, and the Colonel explained to him Osea has no need for weak-minded pilots who would get themselves shot down over their own territory, even going into a rant about Chopper's insolence. And for the first time Blaze had seen, Grimm's temper broke like a beaver dam to a tidal wave, reinforced by the adrenaline and the pressure still inside of him. Hans actually through himself at Perrault and managed to get the fat man on the floor, his hands wrapped around his thick neck. It took Nagase and Hamilton to get him off Perrault before he choked him to death. At that point, Hans finally broke down and cried, and the Colonel went on to threaten a court martial for attacking a superior officer.

It was then that, Blaze lost what little respect for Perrault's authority that had remained in him. In truth, he had never looked at the Lieutenant Colonel as anything beyond a higher rank, with everything that was happening around him, that rank didn't hold Blaze back from doing what he did next: punching Perrault square in the gut. His body, in shape due to weight lifting and sustaining heavy G-forces, was strong enough punch through the wall of fat that Perrault built around his waist and strike him in his stomach. This caused Perrault to fall to the ground, stunned and hunched over, almost ready to vomit. Barely holding himself back from unloading on the Colonel further, Blaze "discreetly" reminded Perrault that a comrade of theirs died, and a "fat Colonel who couldn't fit into a cockpit let alone fly a plane" had no right to speak against Captain Davenport, before he and Nagase left the room carrying Grimm. Later, Blaze asked Hamilton if Perrault was still going to press charges, to which Hamilton told him he would try, but due to the intensifying conflict, it was doubtful Wardog would be prosecuted.

"Nah, I accepted the fact Chopper died, and I always wanted to do that to Perrault. I'm sure Bartlett would have done it in my place too. The thing I'm mad at is..." he gestured to the squadron's Tomcats, "We're down to three planes again."

Nagase shrugged. "That's still not so bad. Grimm and I are good pilots, and you could fight this war single-handedly if you wanted to."

"I appreciate the confidence." Blaze said dryly, "But that's not my point. It's just... It's like nothing happened at all. Bartlett got shot down here, and the war came. All those Nuggets died here, and the war's continuing. And now Chopper's dead, and the war still isn't ending." he slumped in his chair, "Whenever I see three air planes grouped together, it just reminds me people die in war. Not just on our side, but on the Yukes' too. How many of their own Choppers have I shot down..."

"Blaze..."

"How many children have I taken parents from, or parents have I taken sons and daughters from? All for what? So my country can have say over theirs?" Blaze snarled.

"Stop it, Daniel!" Nagase snapped.

Again, Blaze was surprised, as Nagase had skipped over both his rank and his callsign and had gone straight to his first name.

She continued, "When those people got into their planes, they knew that they could die, that the Demons of Razgriz might just show up on the battlefield and kill them. It goes the same for you, me and Grimm, we know the risks we're taking. Chopper knew it too, and that's why he acted the way he did. That's just how war is fought."

"Still..."

"You of all people should know, Blaze, that wars are created by politicians and people who can't fight for themselves, so they hire people who can fight." Nagase said, tears threatening to come off of her again, "Don't blame yourself for Chopper's death, and don't blame the Yukes."

"I don't." Blaze said, moving up, "I blame the one's that set us up."

Nagase's eyes narrowed, "The 8492nd?"

"Yes." Blaze said.

"Even if you could find them and kill them all, what would that accomplish?" Nagase asked.

"I can at least let Chopper rest in peace..."

"Chopper is already at peace. Damn it Blaze..." Nagase's fist tightened, "No matter what you do, you won't be able to bring him back, and it will not bring justice for his widow and daughter." she sighed, calming herself down, "If you go on that path Blaze, you'll just turn into another monster from this war, just like the people that attacked Apito. We struck an college, so they strike a city. They kill one of our own, we kill theirs. In the end, it all breaks down to people killing each other to no end..."

Blaze sighed. He knew she was right. Had he really turned into the thing he hated since the beginning? He continued to look outside, thinking when he felt a pair of arms wrap around him. "Nagase...?" he began.

"I'm going to let you into a little secret..." Nagase whispered as she rested her head on his, with her nose just over Blaze's blonde hair. She could smell a mixture of things in his hair, such as the scent of fighter cockpit, jet fuel and other things involving fighters. Although it wasn't exactly ideal for a romance novel, to her it was masculine, reflecting Blaze's strength and determination. "When I became your wingman, I told myself I'd look out for you no matter what, both in combat and out of it..." She was still a little choked up from emotion.

Blaze didn't respond at first, because he didn't know what to say. And besides, he liked the feeling of her arms wrapped around him and her breath over his scalp. Instead, a bright smile came over his face. "You've felt like this for a while, haven't you?"

"That obvious, huh?" Nagase giggled, forcing a smile. It was hard to talk to him this close, even whispering. She tried not to choke. "I guess it happened when Captain Bartlett was shot down. I felt my whole world shatter, like I lost all reason to fly. It was selfish of me to make you take the lead, but for some reason, it just felt like the right thing to do..."

"Do you regret doing that?" Blaze asked, "Letting me be the commander instead of you?"

"No." Nagase said, sighing, feeling a small tear run down her cheek, "You're my hero Blaze, my own reason to keep fighting..." she said, despite her voice wavering, "That's why I don't want you to become like them... I love you too damn much."

"Kei..." he said, turning his chair around. Much to Nagase's surprise, he got up to face her. It was hard to meet his gaze, because no matter how many times she tried, Nagase just couldn't read into his crystal blue eyes. It was one of those moments where time seemed to freeze, and that the universe faded, leaving only the two of them in the world. But then reality kicked back in and Blaze drew a smirk. "You are too serious."

At first, Nagase wanted to reach out and slap Blaze for making fun of her in this situation, when she put out her deepest secret to him. But, again faster than she thought, Blaze scooped her up into his arms before she could protest and flop back down in his chair. She was now sitting in his lap, still looking in his face. Now, he seemed brighter, as if stress gained from the war had lifted off his shoulders. "But you know..." Blaze said, "I've always admired you for all that you've done, for me and the others."

"Is that all you like about me...?" Nagase said heartbroken, obviously trying to keep from sobbing.

Blaze's smooth expression disappeared and was replaced with a confused-hurried expression, the look he gave when he knew he screwed up. Shit, I went too far. Great move Danny, let's see how you get out of this one. His mind flashed.

"Ah, no, there's a lot..." he started to say awkwardly, when Nagase reached out and grabbed the back of his head and drew him into a kiss. Blaze felt himself nearly jump out of the chair in surprise, but fortunately, that wore off very quickly and he returned it as much as he could.

When they parted, they both had a new understanding of each other. But it was Nagase who had the grin. "You're not the only one who likes to play mind games, Captain." she said, much to Blaze's amusement. But her serious expression returned not too long after. "So... what now?"

"We take our time, see where we end up." Blaze said. He placed his hand on her head, then slowly slid it down over her cheek, caressing it, all the while smiling brightly. "You know, you have a knack for giving people hope. I think that's the part I love the most in you."

"Blaze..." Nagase said, resting her head against his chest. Even through his flight suit, she could feel his heart beat evenly and heat emit from his chest. It was comforting to her, in a way she couldn't describe, but she felt as if she were in the safest place in the world. She closed her eyes and focused on listening to his heart, and feeling his warmth against her.

Blaze soon found himself stroking her hair, feeling the silky dark threads against his fingers all the while holding her. It was a little weird for him, a grown man holding a grown woman like this, but it felt natural. With the light dimming in his room, he knew that the sun was in its final phase for descent, and it was only a matter of time before nightfall. And for perhaps the first time in a long while, Blaze felt at peace with himself.