Chapter 14:

The shadowy footsteps echoed down the suburban pavement, as the four men approached their target. The suburban houses looked innocent in nature but the men believed one held a dark secret within it. They reached the target, a large semi-detached house with a slightly overgrown garden out front. As they pushed through the creaky gate the men heard the hum of the television set and friendly laughter – he was in.

The men knocked on the door and waited, strains of silver by their side. Footsteps approached the door, the latch unsealed – the men were primed. They burst in, a lunge, a scream, a struggle, a sudden throb. A man fell to the floor - another had blood pouring from his side. Then the men had gone.

Kei Nagase shot up bolt upright in her bed, cold sweat dribbled down her face. The young pilot had struggled to sleep since she heard of what had happened to Blaze. Every time she woke up she looked across to the other bed, her captain was still deep in sleep. This time his slightly muscular chest and torso was visible from where she sat, Nagase had noticed how Blaze seemed to move around in his sleep each time she had woken up he was facing a different direction. The young wingman looked back down on her slim body; she did not have scratch on her, despite been involved in her own past traumas. It was still too early to get up even for Nagase, she turned on her side facing her captain and gradually drifted off into her world of sleep.

A sharp beep cut through the early morning silence and Blaze awoke with a thump. The Osean captain had attempted to turn off his alarm clock but instead he had managed to fall out of bed as he lunged for the "snooze" button. As Blaze felt the cold floor on his body, he felt a clunk on his head as the alarm clock dropped from its perch. "At least the bloody thing is off", Blaze thought to himself as he dusted himself down and placed his alarm clock back on his bedside table.

Blaze looked across to his wingman's bed to his surprise Nagase was still sleeping peacefully. She was gracefully leaning away from Blaze, her head leaning onto her left shoulder and her sheets reaching just above her chest. "I never thought she would be such a good pilot" Blaze thought to himself as he reached down to pick up his clothes. The Wardog captain then scribbled out a note saying he had gone to get changed and left it beside Nagase's red book.

The young captain crept out of his room as he pulled his T-shirt on and went to the bathroom. The corridor was bitterly cold in comparison to his room and Blaze quickly scurried to the bathroom which to his delight was empty. As Blaze washed his face in the basin and combed out his hair so it looked presentable, he thought about the events of the past night. He wondered how is relationship with Nagase might be effected by her knowing his secret. She was the only person apart from Bartlett and Hamilton who knew about it, Blaze realised as he brushed his teeth.

Ten minutes later Blaze stepped back out of the bathroom, his camouflage trousers and light T-Shirt from the day before where the only clothes Blaze had with him. The groggy look in his face had been replaced with a slight morning glow and his hair had a much more business-like, almost menacing look about it as it swept across his forehead. As Blaze walked back down the corridor he noticed the dim light nights that were used to illuminate the corridors at night without waking anyone had gone out, a sure sign that the base was about to become a hive of activity. The noise of giggling woke Blaze from his thoughts as he walked past two girls in their flight suits, Blaze had noticed them whispering and looking at him in from the audience the night before. Blaze said "Hi" and gave a quick salute which caused the girls to blush and quickly salute before scurrying off. Blaze smiled and shook his head as he reached Nagase's room.

"Alright Kid!" Blaze turned round just in time to catch a basketball that the seemingly awake Chopper had thrown at him.

"I'm not bad Chopper, Where you get this?" Blaze asked studying the ball.

"Nicked it from some nuggets quarters, he won't miss it" Chopper grinned.

"And that point of having it is?" Blaze asked with a sense of annoyance in his voice.

"You'll see" Chopper winked and took the ball off Blaze, before the Wardog leader could answer, his number three was down the corridor and out of sight.

"Idiot" Blaze murmured to himself as he opened the door to Nagase's room. The room was in a very similar state to how Blaze had left it, with his duvet typically strewn across the floor as he had literally tried to walk it out the bed. As Blaze picked the duvet up off the floor, Nagase awoke from her slumber with a graceful sigh.

"Morning" Blaze said as he neatened up his duvet which he had proudly put back onto the bed.

"Morning Blaze, you sleep ok?" Nagase asked as she noticed Blaze was already dressed.

"Yeah not too bad, yourself?" replied Blaze as he re set his alarm clock which to his surprise was actually still on snooze.

"I slept fine thanks Blaze" said Nagase, deciding not to mention the dream she had.

"You sounded like you were anyway!" Blaze laughed as he picked up some of his clothes.

"What do you mean? Oh god I wasn't snoring was I?!" exclaimed Nagase as she realised what Blaze had meant.

"Just a little, nothing compared with what Chopper is capable of that's for sure", smiled Blaze.

"Phew anyway what time is it?" asked Nagase as she typically went back into business mode.

"Seven o clock" said Blaze as he quickly studied the alarm clock which he was now taking the batteries out of, as the snooze button didn't seem to be responding.

"Already?! I slept in, I really need to get up" Nagase said almost leaping from the bed.

"Hey calm down" said Blaze trying to reassure Nagase, "There's no point getting up now, the base is going to be crawling with nuggets any second. Wait half n hour than get up, where not due to briefing till half eight anyway".

"I should really get up though, set an example an all" insisted Nagase.

"There's no rush Nagase you might as well get some extra sleep we're been overworked enough as it is. Chopper and I are going to give the nuggets a pep talk anyway so you don't need to rush about."

"A pep talk? On what?" asked Nagase looking intrigued.

"Just what to do and what not to do in the sky really, I would rather tell them on the ground than at 20,000 feet." Blaze replied as he picked up his night bag.

"Good idea I guess, you doing it in the main hanger?" Nagase said looking impressed.

"Yeah I should really get going and make sure Chopper hasn't scared anyone out of the air force yet."

"Ok Blaze, good idea" laughed Nagase, "I'll stay here for a bit then I might come along to your pep talk"

"It could be interesting" grinned Blaze, "See you in a bit"

"Yeah, try to keep Chopper under control" Nagase smiled as Blaze closed the door behind him.

The main hanger at Heirelark airbase held many memories for Blaze. It was here where he had first sat down in the cockpit of a plane – a Hawk T1. At the time the jet red plane seemed to have it all, now as Blaze walked into the hanger and looked over at a Hawk under maintenance, the plane looked like nothing more than an innocent toy plane. "Innocent, that's what these nuggets are" Blaze thought as he watched them assemble.

Blaze steadied himself and prepared to address the nuggets, running through his public speaking checklist in his mind. At school Blaze had been very shy and struggled to speak to groups of three or four classmates, the techniques Blaze was now reminding himself where taught to him at a special needs class he had been forced to attend. Just as Blaze opened his mouth, a loud bang echoed through the hanger, making some of the more nervous nuggets jump. Along with the rest of the nuggets, Blaze's eyes shot over to the source of the noise, the entrance to the hanger that Blaze had just come through. The door that Blaze had slipped through without any of the nuggets in the hanger noticing was now hanging off its hinges, in the doorway stood a bemused Chopper. "erm, I thought it was a push door" Chopper exclaimed as he looked at the door then at Blaze.

"Why am I not surprised Chopper?" laughed Blaze looking at the embarrassed pilot as the rests of the nuggets started laughing as well. "If you put half as much effort into flying as you did to that door, we wouldn't need all these nuggets!"

"What you on about Kid? I always push myself to the max. Anyway I never liked that door, I always used to walk into it when I was here!" said Chopper regaining his composure.

"Does that explain why you failed your graduation test five times?" joked Blaze to the amusement of the on looking nuggets.

"Practice makes perfect Kid, well apart from when I open that door" replied Chopper.

"Yeah I think we noticed Chopper" said Blaze turning his attention back to the nuggets as the maverick pilot came over and stood by his side. "Anyway guys I've got you here this morning to lay down a few ground rules before we fly to Sand Island. First of all when were in the air listen to what we say – that's me, Nagase, Grimm and yes... even Chopper." The nuggets laughed at the manner that Blaze admitted they had to listen to Chopper as well. "We will be flying in groups of fours, Stromberg will go into this in more detail during your briefing later. The basic idea is that the pilots with the most flight experience will fly at the front of each diamond of four. Chopper will be watching you from his cockpit and making sure you're all flying in the correct formation, he'll be putting his talking to good use for once!"

"I can't wait to lord it over you guys!" exclaimed Chopper looking smug.

"I'm sure you can't" noted Blaze. "As your all nuggets, we're not going to be able to do mid-air refuelling, so we're going to fly via the Basset Space Centre – where we will land and refuel."

"Do we get to look round the space museum while we're there Kid?" Chopper butted in to the amusement of the nuggets.

"If you manage to keep your mouth shut for then ten seconds then you might do" replied Blaze sounding slightly irritated by his number three's constant interruptions. "There's also a few basic rules I want to go through for whilst we're in the air" Blaze continued in a stern voice, causing Chopper to adopt a quieter tone. "First of all if we are attacked at any point during this flight by the Yukes – do exactly as I tell you. We're not looking for heroes or pilots who can barrel roll from here to Oured, we want pilots who survive. That brings me on to the second rule of flying. Survive. My uncle always told me this, there's only one rule in war. Survive. Remember that when we're up there. Finally make sure you talk to each other, this is your first major sortie and there's going to be a lot of nervous pilots up there. The best way to lose your nerves is to talk, ask Chopper!" Blaze finished his address with a smile and surveyed the eyes of the band of nuggets that faced him. Nervous. Young. Too early for war, Blaze thought to himself.

"Are there any questions?" asked Chopper. The nervous nuggets glanced at each other before one toward the back piped up and asked, "What's Sand Island like?" Blaze and Chopper looked at each other before Blaze said, "The opposite of this place. Day long sunshine, a few long sandy beaches and the base of the best squadron in Osea." The nuggets greeted Blaze's last remark with thunderous cheers. "Now go and get ready to fly" Blaze ordered. The nuggets quickly left the hanger in good spirits and a few glanced over their shoulders to catch a glimpse of their new captain as they left.

"Good work there Kid" Chopper complimented his captain.

"Thanks Chopper, I need you to make sure these guys keep in good spirits when we get to Sand Island. This base feels completely cocooned from what's going on out there" Blaze said in a concerned voice.

"I know what you mean Kid, Heirelark feels more like a scout camp then a military base when you compare it with how Sand Island is at the moment." Chopper added.

"Yeah that's exactly how I feel" agreed Blaze, "Let's go and grab something to eat before we go anyway."

"Now you're talking Kid!" Chopper enthused. As Blaze left the hanger with Chopper he glanced back to the training Hawk in the corner as memories of his graduation flight came flooding back to him.