I've been stranded in the combat zone

I walked through Bedford Stuy alone

Even rode my motorcycle in the rain

And you told me not to drive

But I made it home alive

So you said that only proves that I'm insane

You may be right

I may be crazy

But it just may be a lunatic you're looking for

- Billy Joel

/

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

The ceiling of the aircraft carrier was leaking. This would normally be a source of concern for the two pilots in the hallway, but they were otherwise occupied crouching by the door of Stinger's office and trying desperately to figure out what was going on inside.

"I think she said, 'my Ritalin is more important to me'," Maverick whispered.

"My children, Mav. Here -" Goose nudged her out of the way and pressed her ear to the doorknob. "Let me know when your ears pop, okay? We can communicate by semaphore in the meantime."

"Hey," Maverick complained, scooting back a little.

"'I can't do this anymore,'" Goose quoted. "Whoa. Is she -"

At that moment the door opened in Goose's face and she leapt backward, crashing into Maverick, who was so close on her heels that she fell back on the battleship linoleum with a yelp.

"What are you two doing?" Cougar looked between them.

"Uh," Goose said, scrambling to her feet. Maverick followed suit. "Noth - nothing?"

"Whatever. She's expecting you in there," Cougar said, jabbing her thumb in the general direction of the door. "I'll see you guys," she added, disappearing around the corner.

"What the hell was that about?" Maverick said, dusting herself off and zipping up her flight suit a little.

"Lieutenants Bradshaw and Mitchell," Stinger called from her inner sanctum. "Quit horsing around and get in here, goddamnit."

Maverick and Goose exchanged a look.

"Last chance to desert and become Cuban barmaids," Goose offered. Maverick rolled her eyes and they both entered Stinger's office - warily, because she was prone to flinging small objects when angry.

"Well," said Stinger. "I have some bad news."

Maverick shifted her weight back and forth, eyebrows creeping toward each other in confusion. Goose cleared her throat and threw a glance at the door.

"For me, not you," Stinger added. "Cougar just quit."

"Quit what, ma'am?"

"Her job at Steak and Shake. The Navy, Goose, you blithering moron. She turned in her wings."

Goose ducked as if expecting said wings to be thrown at her face. Stinger rolled her eyes.

"Anyway, she was the first in line to attend TOPGUN," Stinger said, "and that's all kind of shot to hell now. You two assholes were second."

"We what?" Goose responded. "Ma'am?"

Maverick tipped her head forward and let a curtain of dark hair slide over her face in a half-assed attempt to hide her spreading grin.

"You're going to TOPGUN," Stinger said. It obviously pained her to say it.

Goose looked befuddled. Maverick slid her phone seemingly out of the ether and fired off an all-caps, grammatically sub-par text message to everyone in their squadron: WERE GOING TO TOPGUN! WHOOOOO! :D

"Mitchell, what the hell are you doing?" Stinger demanded.

"Nothing, ma'am," Maverick replied, clearing her throat and sliding her phone back from whence it came.

"You know, I knew you were trouble the first time you stepped foot on my deck. Just like your mother."

There was a certain wistfulness to this statement that gave a new and vaguely disconcerting meaning to trouble. Maverick missed it, however, because her body was vibrating with excitement and every synapse in her brain was firing the same message wildly. TOP GUN! her very mitochondria screamed.

"So," Goose said, finally seeming to clue in on what was happening. "When do we leave?"

"Tuesday," Stinger said, and launched into a tirade of blah blah blah your actions reflect on me and if you fuck up I swear I will tear your arms off and make them into soup and feed that soup to homeless people and then pay those homeless people to beat the crap out of you blah blah dog shit Hong Kong cargo plane blah, all pops and buzzes barely punctuating the massive shield of Maverick's enthusiasm. She hadn't been this jazzed since Lucky Charms had introduced whale marshmallows.

/

Viper was not quite so jazzed.

She had been faxed the final list of who was to attend the academy, and it looked like line after line of mediocrity. Where did they get these girls? she wondered.

Yes, they were the best of the best, but by what standards? She had won ten medals, kicked a large amount of Russian ass, and fought in some of the most pivotal air battles of the decade, all by twenty-five.

One name stood out to her, however, and she couldn't put her finger on why.

Jester walked in and poured herself a cup of coffee. Having eschewed sunscreen in her twenties, Jester had aged faster than Viper, who looked alarmingly like Tina Fey - if Tina Fey wore aviators instead of glasses and had spent half her life in a tiny cockpit, barking orders at sweaty men hunched over radar screens.

"Paige Mitchell," Viper threw out.

"Hmm," Jester said, sipping her coffee. "Any relation to Daisy?"

"That's it," Viper crowed triumphantly, throwing the list onto her desk. "Daisy Mitchell. Jesus, it's been forever since I heard that name."

"You flew with her?"

"For years," Viper said. "She had a stubborn streak a mile wide. Paige..." she muttered. "She was only fifteen when Daisy died."

"And now she's following in her footsteps," Jester said. "Watch out," she added in a sing-songy voice, lighting a cigarette.

"I'll keep an eye on her," Viper grunted, adding a note on her iTouch: DEMON SEED TOUCHDOWN: 3 DAYS.

/

TOPGUN was not what Maverick had expected.

Sure, what she had expected was an enormous marble complex with wall-to-wall jets - in other words, her usual patent lunacy - but it turned out to be the opposite of that. It was just a brick building with all of its doors propped open in the June heat, a large stretch of tarmac out back littered with the latest planes, and two big hangars. Driving by the base, you couldn't even see it.

She hopped off her Ducati and waited for Goose, who had driven over in a rented Volvo. Her choice of cars had inspired the pimply teenage girl at the front desk of Enterprise's Miramar branch to refer to Goose as "Edward", for reasons that Maverick had yet to figure out.

Pilots and RIOs were arriving in droves, strolling into the building with the particular fighter pilot swagger that rivaled that of rock stars.

Maverick tried to look as nonchalant as possible. Damn straight you're at TOPGUN, she told herself. You're a badass. You're like a goddamn WWI flying ace. You shouldn't even be excited to be here. They should be excited to have you.

That didn't really calm her down, but it helped somewhat.

Goose finally rolled up and walked over. "Why are you sitting on the curb? And why are you trembling?"

"I was waiting for you," Maverick said. "And I'm high on life. Wanna head in?"

Goose shook her head. "I will never understand how you keep your cool facing death at thirty thousand feet and yet the very idea of walking into a building is giving you the shakes."

"It's not the shakes," Maverick shot back. "I'm not a diabetic alcoholic. Jeez. Here." She handed her helmet to Goose, who tossed it in the general direction of her motorcycle.

"Since when do you wear a helmet?"

"Since I got pulled over four times in the last two months," Maverick said.

"I just got off the phone with Carl," Goose said, as they walked into the barely air-conditioned main hallway of the academy. "He forgot how to change a diaper. Sometimes I wonder if I'd have been better off marrying some random prehensile mammal."

"Oh, Carl," Maverick sighed.

Once inside the dark little smoke-filled room the pilots had been instructed to crowd into, Maverick took a surreptitious look around. It was a pretty intimidating crowd. She rose onto her tiptoes a little.

"Who -" she said, gesturing at a pilot and RIO pair in the corner. One was platinum blonde, wearing a cowboy hat and chewing something - tobacco? gum? It could have gone either way - and the other had a stack of Silly Bandz on her arm and was wearing a pair of Kanye-style shutter shades that were definitely not regulation.

"Ah," said Goose. "Hollywood and Wolf. Two morons."

"Which is which?"

"The Southern one is Wolf, the asshole is Hollywood. Actually - I know a lot of these girls," Goose added, looking around. "Um - over there, the smarmy blonde, I remember her from flight school..."

Maverick didn't follow Goose's gaze - she was looking at the doorway, through which Viper had just entered.

"She looks familiar," she said, her eyebrows jumping together in confusion, as they were wont to do.

"Who, Icegirl? Oh, you mean Tina Fey over there? I think she's the base commander."

"Where -" Maverick sighed. "Damn. I know her from somewhere. Like..." she bit her tongue.

"Have a seat, ladies," Viper called, breaking up the little circle that had formed around the afore-mentioned smarmy blonde, who was staring at Maverick.

Maverick sat up front, the back of her neck prickling. "Icegirl, you said?" she muttered to Goose, but was interrupted as Viper hit the lights.

/

Icegirl didn't get excited by much.

She wasn't the kind who hollered garbled declarations of jubilation over the comms, or flung herself at her RIO after making it out of a particularly rough battle . Sure, there were times when she was thanking God or whomever was responsible just to be alive, but unfortunately for Slider, she preferred handshakes to bear hugs.

All things considered, though, she had smirked for twenty solid minutes after receiving the news about TOPGUN. Who wouldn't?

Now that she was standing in the actual building, the initial happiness was being slowly replaced by insecure, competitively OCD I-need-to-win-I-need-to-win bullshit.

Luckily for Icegirl, she loved that bullshit.

As Slider blathered on about something or other, she caught a glimpse of Goose out of the corner of her eye and hit Slider with a sharp elbow. "Mother Goose."

"Oh, yeah," Slider replied, running a hand through her hair. "Huh. Wonder who she's flying with?"

The answer came through the door a half-second later, and Icegirl almost choked on her own spit.

She was brunette and small - just your type, Slider would surely hiss later - with a slim, muscular frame, dark hair falling into her eyes. Half of it was up in a ribbon, the other half doing whatever the hell it wanted, in sharp contrast to the tight, hair-sprayed ponytails everyone else was sporting. Her eyes were liquid and Bambi-wide, some incomprehensible mix of green and blue that twisted Icegirl's intestines like balloon animals.

Slider glanced at her, askance. "What's wrong with you?"

"Nothing," Icegirl breathed, poker face firmly back in place.

Hollywood swaggered over. "Checking out the competition?"

Slider bit back a comment that was more than likely a play on the first half of Hollywood's sentence.

"Who is that?" Icegirl said, sliding her Navy ring up and down her finger. It was her only visible nervous tic, besides the pen-twirling thing.

Hollywood slid her Kanye shades up and looked the mystery pilot up and down. "Oh," she said, "ho ho. That would be Maverick." She looked at Icegirl, as if to gauge her reaction. Icegirl stayed expressionless and lowered her aviators, in case her eyes were giving her away.

"I hear her callsign is pretty accurate," Hollywood added.

Slider snorted. Icegirl said nothing.

"Hey, guys," Sundown said, coming over, her corkscrew curls bouncing in a cheerful way. Chipper tagged along behind her, completing the phalanx.

"Hey," they chorused.

"I also heard she had a nose job," Hollywood said.

"Who, Sundown?" Wolf said, laughing as she entered the circle.

"Hmm?" Sundown said, glancing up from her Blackberry.

"No, Maverick."

"Who's Maverick?" Chipper said to no one in particular.

"Deviated septum," Hollywood said. It was obvious she was speaking directly to Icegirl at this point. "It was doctor-mandated, so the story goes. I heard she broke it cheerleading in high school, or something equally bourgeois."

"Thank you, Ryan Seacrest," Slider snapped sarcastically.

"And there's the Penny Benjamin thing -"

"Have a seat, ladies," Viper called out, cutting Hollywood off, who muttered "I'll fill you in later" to Icegirl.

"We don't care," Slider said.

"I wasn't talking to you," Hollywood snapped, slinging an arm around Wolf and heading for the back row.

Slider snorted.

Maverick met Icegirl's gaze suddenly, as if it had just dawned on her that someone was giving her the eye. Icegirl held it for a second and looked away as she took a seat next to Slider.