Chapter 29 – The Return

December 22, 2010 0910hrs, Kirwin Island

I had reported the Yuke's plans to attack the fleet to Captain Anderson yesterday and he said that there was nothing that we could do about it. Pops informed us that we had to wait for Captain Bartlett to make his move before we could do anything. The thing that bothered me about this plan was that we had no idea what he planned on doing. The waiting part was what really pissed me off. The longer we sat here, more meaningless death would occur and the Belkans were probably getting closer to their endgame.

Everything was a total mess right now. President Harling kept trying to broadcast his voice over an open radio channel so that everyone in Osea would realize that they were being used. However, the central government labeled all of it as propaganda and censored everything so that the public wouldn't hear it. The Vice President was intent on dragging this war out for as long as he could until he beat Yuktobania into submission. We also had to worry about the Yuke fleet headed our way and our inability to do anything to reveal the truth. There was also the fact that I had pretty much turned into the demon that I feared I'd become.

I spent most of last night meditating on the flight deck so that way I could get my thoughts in order and I spent all morning doing the same thing. I was angry that I couldn't do anything and I wanted people to listen. There was no way that talking to people would resolve anything. Only action would. Time wasn't a luxury that we had and I wished that everyone would realize this.

They do understand the gravity of everything, Kid.

"Then why aren't we doing anything?"

You can't expect everything to become resolved in the blink of an eye just because you stopped the enemy from making their move. War is like a game of Chess. You have to wait for your opponent to make their move before you can counter it.

"But we know their next move, we have to move now!"

Listen, bro, I understand! I know you're a man of action more than anything, but you just have to trust that Pops and Captain Anderson know what they're doing. Everything will come full circle once the time is right.

I sighed to myself because I began to accept the fact that there was nothing that I could do except wait. This was just one of the things on my mind that was really bothering me. The other was how I had pretty much lost myself and turned my back on the morals I stood for. Six years ago, I would've accepted that this was who I was. But now, I didn't want to. I never wanted to become involved in this war because I already had enough blood on my hands as it was. I foolishly accepted Harkin's proposal again and dug myself into a bigger hole than I did last time. If I wanted to be angry at someone, I had to be angry at myself. It was my fault I was here, but at least I was doing something worthwhile. I didn't want to think about what would've happened if I hadn't accepted the job. Dammit, focus! I grunted because my mind began to stray from the real reason I was sitting out in the cold, freezing my ass off.

I cleared my head again and tried to think about why I harbored so much hate towards an enemy whom I could understand. The Belkans wanted justice for what happened fifteen years ago, but pitting Yuktobania and Osea against each other wouldn't get them anywhere. War was the only way to get a country's attention because talking politics was a waste of time with their situation. I'd harbor some kind of hatred towards Osea with how they treated Belka after the war. President Harling wouldn't have let Osea take advantage of Belka after Ustio had seceded. Maybe after all of this was over, he could help Belka get back on its feet. The only thing that worried me was Belka's willingness to accept if President Harling did offer. It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love. This is how the whole scheme of things works. All good things are difficult to achieve; and bad things are very easy to get. I didn't hate the Yukes anymore, but I wasn't sure if I could easily forgive the Belkans. After everything that they've tried doing so far, I don't think anyone could forgive them.

"Captain," said a voice behind me. I looked back to see Grimm standing behind me a few yards away. "President Harling wants to see us in the hanger."

I sighed before I got up and headed with him towards the hanger. "Grimm, can I ask you something?" I asked.

"Anything, sir," He replied.

"What do you think about our enemy? The Belkan's I mean."

"They're formidable pilots, sir. I can't say that the Yuke could measure up to them."

"That's not what I meant," I said. "What I meant to ask was do you hate them?"

"I… I've never given it any thought. I mean, the lengths to which they'll go to keep this war going are unfathomable. Why do you ask?"

"I've just been thinking a lot lately. We're fighting for peace, but what lengths will we go to so that we can achieve it? More specifically, I've been thinking about the lengths I'd go to."

"If you don't mind my asking, sir, how far would you go?" asked Grimm to which I felt myself frown.

"I told myself that I'd do whatever it took… but I think I lost myself in the process," I said grimly.

"Sir," he said perplexed.

"It's nothing. Just forget about it," I muttered.

Grimm didn't say anything as we continued to head for the hanger and we ended up meeting with President Harling, Pops, and the others from our team. There was also a squad of armed Marines as well. Kei was still wary of me and how I've been acting lately. I hadn't seen her since she told me about how I've changed. There wasn't really anything I could say to her and I couldn't hide how troubled I was about what she told me. My mind was racing with thoughts about everything she and I had shared up until now. Does she think that she's misjudged me all this time? The stress of everything had already gotten to me and it was only going to get worse if I didn't do something about it.Speaking of which, the President looked like he was stressed enough as it was. He turned to us and sighed before he began to speak.

"I understand that you're all tired of fighting. Believe me, I am too. I'll probably never understand how you feel, Captain," Vincent said to me. "You might not think so, but you've done a lot of good in this fight and I can't thank you enough. But now, it's time for me to step up and risk my life for once."

"What do you mean, Sir," I asked.

The President gave me a nervous smile before he turned around to look at Sea Goblin's helicopter. "I'm going back to Oured today," he said softly.

"You can't!" protested Kei.

"They're not just going to let you walk back into the capital!" shouted Snow.

"There're no other options. I have to try," said Vincent.

"If you die, there won't be any chance for you to bring back peace!" said Kei.

"He won't bring back peace if he stays here," I said gravely.

"How can you say that? He'll die out there!"

"Captain Nagase," snapped Vincent. "You have to understand that he's right. I'm not going to change anything if I stay here, wasting my breath over censored radio channels!"

Kei clenched her fist in anger because she didn't want the President to risk his life like this. I understood her feelings on this matter, but I don't think she knew this. I didn't want the President to do something as risky as this, but there was really no other way. He could try to take a more subtle approach into Oured, but that would take time. If we weren't waiting for Captain Bartlett to make his next move I would've offered to escort him there myself.

"Isn't there some other way to ease your way back into the Capital, Sir?" asked Pops.

"We all know that'll take too much time," said Vincent. "Captain Nagase, you have to understand that nothing is going to get done if I just sit on my hands here. You've had faith in me all this time, but why are you hesitating now?"

If the situation wasn't so serious, I would've told Kei that she just got her ass torched by the President, but I digress. Kei was even more frustrated and I could tell that she almost wanted to cry. The President was our only chance to restore order within the Osean government. And if he died, there was no way that this war would end soon enough. The ground crews began to lift Sea Goblin's helicopter up towards the flight deck and we all nervously looked at the President. He gave us a smile before he turned away to head up to the flight deck. We followed him closely like we were afraid to lose him, because we were. When we made it up to the flight deck, Sea Goblin had begun their take off procedures and the President turned to look at me.

"It was an honor to meet you, Captain Castillo. I couldn't have done this without you," he said.

"It was an honor to follow you directly," I said and he smiled at me before he turned to head for the helicopter. Several of the Marines that were escorting him gave him a salute as he boarded the helicopter. He set one foot in the thing, turned around, and smiled. "Here goes," he said ad he got in.

Sea Goblin took off as soon as everyone else was aboard. It was bittersweet to see the President leave on such a noble mission in the hope to take back his rightful place in office. I stayed on the flight deck, watching Sea Goblin until they disappeared over the horizon. There was cornucopia of emotion running through my mind as this point in time. Admiration, concern, despair, envy, and fear were just some of them. But most of all, I felt a sense of hope for once. I guess that was all I could ask for. Everyone had long since dispersed when the President took off and I decided to go back to my meditation. I was just about to sit down when I heard one of the CIC members approaching me.

"Captain, Colonel Huckebein wanted me to give you this," she said and handed me piece of paper. "He said that it's from Captain Bartlett."

I looked at the piece of paper and saw that it only had the time for 1800hrs and a radio frequency. There weren't any coordinates this time and I didn't know what to make of this message. Maybe he was close to becoming compromised and he couldn't give us a set of coordinates. There were a number of possibilities as to why this was. Until that time, I started to become restless again.

1758hrs

Everyone, including myself, gathered in the crew room in front of the loud speaker. Grimm, Genette, and Kei were extremely anxious about who might come over the radio. We were all hoping that it was the Captain. I had arrived two minutes early but everyone had gotten here earlier. The two minutes that I stood there waiting seemed longer than that. When it finally came down to the final ten seconds, I could hear Kei counting down quietly. And as soon as the clock struck 1800hrs, the radio crackled to life.

"Hey, it's me!" announced Captain Bartlett. Oh, thank God. "Get the wax out of your ears and listen up, we found Nikanor, the leader of Yuktobania, and broke him out of prison." What the hell was he doing in prison? "This war wasn't his doing at all! I don't have time to get into the details, but I need you people to get your butts over here and help us reach a nearby airfield so that we can get out of here. I'm sending you our coordinates now."

Captain Bartlett cut off his radio and I looked over at Pops. He had received the Captain's coordinates and concluded that they were located on the Pobeda Peninsula in Yuktobania. As soon as I heard this, we darted out of the room and towards one of the buggies so that we could head to the hanger. The whole time I was wondering why the Prime Minister was thrown into prison. This whole time, I thought he was the one who instigated the war with Osea and I thought that he made some kind of deal with the Belkan government. If that wasn't the case, then how did the Yuktobanian government declare war on Osea? All I knew was that Belka was involved in this somehow, but I didn't know how exactly they were connected. I had more questions, but I figured that they'd be answered soon enough. When we reached the hangers, I ordered the ground crew to arm mine and Kei's X-02s with our usual side winders and AMRAAMs and I ordered Snow and Grimm's planes to carry AGMs instead of AMRAAMs.

As soon as everything was set, we got in our planes and took off from our Kirwin Island base for the last time. Rico and the other ground crews had spent the last few days outfitting our planes with tail hooks so that we could land on the Kestrel when we returned. The 3rd fleet was going to head towards open waters so that the Yuke fleet I warned Captain Anderson about wouldn't find us. Our plan was to help Captain Bartlett make his escape from Yuktobania and rendezvous with the Kestrel afterwards. I wished it was as simple as it sounded.

December 23, 2010 0700hrs, Pobeda Peninsula, Yuktobania

"It's me," whispered Captain Bartlett over the radio. "I'm okay so far, and the car's hidden under a bush. Other resistance members are hidden all over the place, but I still got a bad feeling about this. We're storming the gate at 0705 hours. Keep us covered. I'm counting on you. I think there's going to be an ambush waiting for us."

We had arrived in the area Captain Bartlett was operating and we were briefed about his plan of attack along the way. His route of escape was blocked by several checkpoints along the way to the airfield he was going to attack and resistance was expected to be stiff. In short, we had to provide CAS for everyone while they fought on towards the airfield. If they took too long, the resistance members who had already arrived at the airfield would be overrun and the Captain's only chance to escape would be cut off.

"We got you covered, Captain," I replied.

"This is Heartbreak 1, the jail break tour starts here. We're counting on your escort from the air."

"I'll be witnessing your bravery from down here, everyone," said a woman over the radio.

Who the hell…?

"Yes, ma'am," replied Grimm nervously.

"Umm…is there someone else in the car?" asked Kei

"Me? I'm Mystery Woman Number 1," said the lady.

"Sir, does she have a real name?" I asked.

"Her name's Nastasya," said Bartlett.

"Right," I muttered as I saw two enemy radar signatures ahead. "Alright, people. We've got work to do."

Kei and I sped ahead to deal with the attacker while Grimm and Snow stayed to cover Bartlett and his two escorts. They couldn't see our black planes against the dimly lit ground and our stealth capabilities prevented them from picking us up on radar. As soon as both planes fell to the ground, I took a look at the route Captain Bartlett was heading through, but I noticed that there were two routes. There was one that was a more direct route towards the airfield, but it was heavily defended. The other was a longer path around a hill that was lightly defended. The shorter route was nothing that we couldn't handle, but it was still riskier.

"There's a fork up ahead. We have two choices," said Nastasya. "Take the shorter way and face heavy attacks, or take the safer route which takes more time."

"Hey Kid, which route looks better to you, should I take the shorter one?" asked the Captain.

Why the hell are you asking me? "Sure, go for it," I said.

"Okay, I'll bust through the shortcut."

"They're going through there?" asked Grimm.

"You two can handle it. Just cover them as best you can," I said.

"He told me all about you guys. Kid, Chopper, and…umm…" said Nastasya.

"Nagase…Kei Nagase," said Kei in a perturbed tone.

What was that all about? Hostility between women who've never met before was something that I've never really understood. Kei already seemed pissed that Captain Bartlett had another woman in the car with him and this made me think that Kei had a thing for him. The thought of this really irked me and I pressed forward to attack more of the incoming Yuktobanian forces. The pair of Mi-28s and Su-25s that tried to stop the resistance didn't last long against the both of us.

"Blaze, Captain Bartlett is approaching the first checkpoint," said Grimm.

"Yee-hah, we're busting though!" howled the Captain. "Hey Kid, break down the front gate for me!"

"I got it, Captain."

As soon as Grim blew the gate, artillery shells began to rain down all around their armored cars. Snow had already pinpointed where the attacks were coming from and was headed in to deal with them. The rest of us stayed to provide cover for the resistance in case they ran into more trouble. Captain Bartlett was encountering heavy enemy fire, but the Yukes couldn't shoot worth a damn. Kei had already sped on ahead to deal with some incoming Su-34s. She fired a missile at one of them from head on and rolled over into a split S while she was fifteen hundred feet above the ground to attack the second aircraft from below. When she was finally in position, she fired her gun into the back section of the cockpit. Both of the Yuke pilots managed to bail out and Kei turned back to engage another set of incoming attackers.

"Nagase, you fly like that and you're still not dead. You're really something," said Bartlett.

"Thank you, Sir!" replied Kei.

What the hell was with that backhanded compliment?

"Is that you, Grimm? I was planning to promote you to the squadron on the next evaluation."

"Thank you very much, Sir," replied Grimm.

"Snow, the Yukes are setting up more defenses up ahead. I need you to take them out," I said as I began to engage a pair of Su-35s.

"Captain Snow from the Naval Air Force," asked Bartlett. Sorry I haven't introduced myself. I'm kind of shy, you know."

"So I hear, Captain. Greetings," replied Snow.

"And I gather that's your brightest student…?" asked Nastasya.

I had just shot down one of the Su-35s and now I had to deal with his flight lead. He was sticking to me like a tick, but I was just waiting for him to get closer. I pulled into a climbing left turn and the Yuke followed me. When I reached the top of my climb, I used God's G (the effect of Gravity on aircraft performance when engaged in a vertical fight) to yaw towards the ground and my attacker followed. He wasn't expecting me to roll under him and fall into position behind him where I shot my gun into his right wing.

"You mean Kid? Well, that goes without saying," said Bartlett.

I looked back down at the resistance's convoy and saw that the Captain was leading them through heavy enemy fire. I wasn't sure how well their vehicles were armored, but I didn't like how they were speeding through all of those defensive positions.

"Captain, you're taking too many risks!" shouted Kei.

"Hey, Nagase, you're starting to sound like my mom," he replied.

We continued attacking all Yuke ground forces as the resistance continued to fight through the checkpoints. The attacks from the air were the worst because the Yukes were deploying everything they had. The two AC-130s I shot down came closer to hitting them than any of the other attack. The more we fought, the more I started to wonder about what Chopper would say about the Captain if he was here. Knowing him, he'd probably complain about it in some way. Maybe he'd try to chew Bartlett out now that he was the same rank.

"I hear that voice again…" murmured Kei. "All that useless chatter, I miss that voice."

She thinks about him too.

"We're almost at the next fork in the road. We either take our chances with the shortcut, or take the long way with less risk," announced Nastasya.

"Hey, Kid, which route looks better to you? Should I take the longer one?" asked Bartlett again.

Do whatever the hell you want. "Take the shortcut," I grumbled.

"Alright I'll bust through the shortcut," he replied and his car sped up.

"That car's like a fighter jet blowing down the road," mumbled Kei.

"He must be eager to get back in the air," I chuckled.

"I'm relying on you! I can't dogfight in a car," shouted Bartlett.

"I assume you fly your plane the same way you drive? But no loop-the-loops please," said Nastasya and Bartlett just laughed at her.

Grimm and Snow wasted no time in clearing the way for the resistance. The attacks from the air weren't as intense as before, and they weren't really that big of a deal anymore. More Yuktobanian artillery shells were raining down on them the closer they got to the checkpoint and APCs were closing in on them too. Even though we were providing pretty tight CAS, the resistance's convoy was getting hammered by threats that we couldn't take care of. However, they didn't seem all that worried about it over the radio. Captain Bartlett and his girlfriend seemed more carefree than any of the others. I thought that this was rather interesting for some reason. Their recklessness was pretty tough to stand because Bartlett kept leading them through every hazard out there.

"He keeps doing this, and I'm gonna get an ulcer just watching them," muttered Grimm.

"I'm just worried about the Prime Minister at this point," I muttered back.

We approached the final check point and Captain Bartlett didn't even bother to ask me if he should take a shortcut or a safer route. Grimm and Snow had just run out of AGMs to deal with the ground threats. The resistance members who were already inside the airfield began to secure their escape route. Nastasya urged Bartlett to get to the aircraft hangar before the other resistance group got overrun and Bartlett decided to bust through the gate before we could blow it open. The other two cars followed him through in a desperate attempt to stay with him. By the time they reached the plane the resistance had secured, I could see that all three armored cars were riddled with bullet holes, but everyone was alive. I could see them boarding the plane while the remaining Yuktobanian forces tried to play catchup with them. While they were boarding the plane they stole, my team and I continued to deal with any and all straggling Yuke forces that tried to stop them. We had already done a number on them, but they weren't going to let the resistance get away. As soon as they were on board the plane, they rolled it out onto the flight line.

"Hasn't it been a while since Captain Bartlett flew a plane?" asked Grimm.

"He better remember quickly if they're going to get out of here," I muttered.

"What is this? I haven't seen a plane like this in ages," said Bartlett.

"It's a little dusty in here," commented his girlfriend.

Oh, great. I started to think that they might not be able to make it out of the base if the plane they were using was that much of a relic. No one on the ground seemed all that worried about the Yuke forces any longer. There were still threats that we couldn't deal with and they were gunning for Bartlett and his group. One of the resistance members was returning their fire with an LMG as they continued down the flight line in the plane.

"Alright, I'm taking off. Hello, sky," howled the Captain. "I'm coming home!"

"Blaze to Heartbreak 1, we'll fly past our allies' front line and head for the ocean. The Kestrel will meet us on the way," I said.

"Roger that. I just hope we don't run into any bad guys."

I want them to try.

"Incoming aircraft," said Grimm. Looks like bad guys to me. It's the 8492nd."

"Ah, the long-lost Belkan Grabacr Fighter Squadron, eh," muttered Bartlett.

Thank you, God. I tuned into the wideband radio channel after I confirmed their incoming vector towards our location. It was them alright.

"Is that really them?" asked Ashley. "I saw those planes plunge into the ocean along with the Colonel on my radar."

"It's them! The "Ghost of Razgriz"! They were the ones who attacked the mine too!" said one of his wingmen.

"Alright, let's find out for ourselves in battle."

"Kid, get the Grabacr. Don't let a single one escape!"

"The 8492nd is here," said Kei. "This will be the final showdown!"

I gunned my engines and sped towards the enemy formation. I wanted their head and I wasn't going to rest until I had them. After everything they've done and after all the hardships they put my team through, I wasn't going to let them get off that easily. My team felt the same way as they viciously sped in to claim their kills. I singled out Ashley and I knew he wanted me as well by the way he blew past the others and turned to engage me. We were in a tight spiral that wasn't getting us anywhere and I decided that I was going to be the first one to break by applying top rudder and begin to gain altitude. Ashley followed me and we continued into the ascending spiral until we knew that this stalemate wouldn't end. Most pilots would never try to pull ahead of their enemy in a fight because they'd now have the asshole on their tail. I wasn't most pilots however. As soon as I got ahead of Ashley, I snapped at roll over to the right to avoid a volley of cannon fire and dove for speed.

"I thought you'd know better than to make a mistake like that. I was such a fool to think that you'd actually challenge me," said Ashely.

"I thought you'd know better than to under estimate your opponent," I said calmly as I pulled out of the dive and allowed Ashley to get closer. He snapped another burst from his gun at me and I narrowly avoided it by breaking to the left.

"Ha, I win," he laughed.

My maneuver had positioned me for a perfect missile shot, but I wasn't the slightest bit worried. Before Ashley could launch his missile, he broke off his attack to avoid a stream of 25mm cannon shells aimed at his cockpit. Kei shot past my attacker from his nine o' clock with another Grabacr pilot on her tail. My maneuver allowed me to line him up in my sights so that I could fill him full of holes. My gun sight settled on the F-15's cockpit as I pulled a ten G left turn and I was about to kill the pilot, but I stopped myself. No… I waited a fraction of a second so that his engines were now in my sights. It was then that I pulled the trigger and scored a dozen critical hits on him and caused his plane to shudder violently and blow in half. The Grabacr pilot bailed out as soon as he knew I got him and I could see him floating towards the ground against morning sky.

"You were just lucky. We'll decide whose better another time," said the Grabacr pilot.

"Whatever, bitch," I said as I gave him the finger and flew past him.

The remaining three Grabacr pilots tried to regroup and tried to come after me. They must've been really pissed that I showed up one of their pilots, but I didn't care. I wanted them to come after me for the sole purpose of humiliating them. Killing them would've been great, but then I remembered how great killing an asshole's pride felt. I doubted that this fight would be enough to do it because the claim of how I 'got lucky' showed that they didn't think that I was just that good. Evading the attacks of the three remaining enemies just proved my point. The coordination among them now was off and my team began to try and take advantage of the confusion, but the Grabacr were able to fend them off while they still came after me. I was cool headed the whole time and everything became clear. Cipher taught me that anyone who panicked in a fight was the most vulnerable. Every time I dodged an attack, I did it like it was nothing and these guys were coming after me harder than the Yellow Squadron.

"Look at the way the Captain moves… so that's how an ace pilot flies," said Grimm in astonishment.

"Blaze just keeps surprising me. He's getting better and better every second," added Snow.

I didn't say anything as I evaded one of the Grabacr planes and dove after him. His allies were trying to clear me off of his tail but Kei and Grimm were already dealing with them. Snow was escorting Captain Bartlett out of the area because he knew that this was our fight. It really didn't seem right for us to exclude him from this fight because we did help him deal with Ofnir. Anyways, my target was throwing his plane all over the sky in an attempt to make me loosen up, but it only got me closer to killing him. The Grabacr pilot pulled into a vertical climb, but he didn't try to turn or roll out of the way. I had him dead in my sights and I knew that I had to be walking into a trap. I quickly rolled my plane to make sure that I wasn't being set up, but I was clear. When I looked back at my mark, he began to pull a cobra turn in the middle of his climb and he stalled. His plane's nose dipped back towards the ground and he was already firing his gun in preparation to hit me, but I rolled out of the way at the last possible moment and flew past him. That was kind of clever. I kicked my Wyvern over and dove after him as he tried to recover from his stall, but he had lost too much speed. The pilot knew that he was as good as dead and bailed out before I even thought about pulling the trigger on his ass. Nevertheless, I shot a missile into the F-15 to make it count as a kill.

"Fucking cowards," I growled.

"What did you say, boy?" growled Ashley.

"You heard me you shit load of fuck! All of you are fucking cowards," I yelled. "I don't know how you started this war between Yuktobania and Osea, but you and your leaders are just a bunch of chicken shits that would resort to nuclear weapons and murder to restore something that you let happen fifteen years ago. And now, you think all of this will make everything change for the best?"

"We're doing this for revenge. You and the rest of the dogs you follow will know what it's like to fight and struggle to survive," he snapped.

"You don't what it means to survive…" I growled and I turned to engage one of the remaining fighters.

Ashely was tied up with Kei and Grimm was chasing the last Grabacr wingman. I knew they could both handle them, but I headed in to help Grimm first when I saw him trying to get away from his attacker. His flight path was too sinuous for my missile to track its target properly and there was the danger that I could probably hit my wingman. I was coming in on the F-15's four o' clock high and I pounced when Grimm broke hard right to evade a stream of bullets. I snapped out a burst ahead of the Belkan and he broke right as well to evade my attack. Grimm took advantage of my distraction to continue into right climb as I over shot and began to try to get away from my attacker. I continued to weave through the enemy attacks and I was able to determine how much training the guy had. He was good, but he wasn't as disciplined as other pilots I've flown against. He was firing erratically to the point where I didn't have all that much time to evade his attack. His missiles weren't getting a good enough lock either and he had wasted all of them in an attempt to shoot me down. I pulled a hard right break in an attempt to throw him off, but he didn't fall for it.

"Any day now, Grimm," I said over the wideband radio.

The Belkan pilot took the bait and broke off his attack and attempted to look for Grimm. I thought He went to go help Kei, but he stuck with me the whole time, waiting for me to give him an opening. Grimm dove after the Belkan from one o' clock. The Belkan pulled a cobra turn and applied bottom rudder so that his nose was now pointed straight down in preparation for him to go after Grimm. The chase didn't last that long because Grimm had pulled into a wide barrel roll while his attacker tried to pick up speed so that he could maneuver out of the way, but he wasn't fast enough. Again, the pilot ejected from his plane before Grimm's missile could hit the plane.

"Good job, Hans," I said and we formed up to go lend Kei a hand. She was tangled up with Ashley and neither one of them was able to gain the upper hand. They were pulling every ACM maneuver to try and gain the advantage, but they were locked in a stalemate. "Let's go lend her a hand," I said.

"Don't you even think about coming over here, Blaze," warned Kei. "This is my fight!"

"Are you nuts? You're not getting anywhere in this fight and we've all had a score to settle with these bastards ever since October!"

"I have an even bigger grudge against this asshole since we escaped Sand Island. Back off! I can do this on my own," said Kei.

My reason for coming after these guys was because of all the stress they put us through since the war started, but mainly because they left us to die in November City. If it weren't for them, Chopper would still be alive and I wouldn't still feel guilty about it. Maybe Kei felt the same way. I sighed as I pulled up to gain altitude over Kei and her mark.

"Let's go, Grimm," I said and he followed me as we circled the battle.

"What about Captain Nagase?" he asked.

"She can handle it. I have faith in her."

"That's just another way of saying that he doesn't care what happens to you," said Ashley to Kei.

"That's far from the truth. My team is composed of the best four aces in the world and I have one hell of a dedicated wingman. I can't say the same for you and your squadron, though," I replied.

"Even if I can't kill all of you, at least I'll be able to kill your friend," growled Ashley.

"I won't be shot down. No one's going to take my place as Blaze's wingman," said Kei proudly.

Kei broke out of the stalemate and dove for the deck. Ashley was right behind her and he began to fire his gun. Kei easily evaded the attack by side-slipping out of the way and she threw off her attackers aim. Her flight path veered off to the left by thirty-five degrees, but her nose was still pointed parallel to her original flight path. The skid allowed her to draw Ashley closer, but she sacrificed her speed in doing so. Ashely tried to pounce, but Kei used her plane's three-dimensional thrust vectoring engines to her advantage by suddenly applying more power and rolling away into a dive. She was too close to the ground and I felt my grip tighten around the stick when I saw her plane kick up dirt behind it. She was so close to running into the ground that I wanted to dive after Ashley and kill him, but Kei managed to pull out in time. Ashley dove after her again at full speed. Kei led him through an extremely wild chase all over the sky to get away, but Ashley wouldn't let up. He managed to fire off a burst from his gun and score some hits on Kei's right engine before she could snap roll out of the way. She was trailing some smoke and my anxiety reached an all-time high when I saw this.

"Kei," I shouted.

I was about to dive after Ashley, but Kei had finally made her move. One of Ashley's missiles was now headed her way and she deployed a set of flares to confuse it. She then pulled into a cobra turn, making herself a prime target for Ashely. I could see him center her in his sight and he was about to open fire when Kei's plane suddenly twisted ninety degrees while its nose was still pointed up. The slimmer side profile of Kei's plane made it harder for Ashley to line up and he ended up overshooting. Kei yawed to the right so that her plane was no pointed towards the enemy F-15 and gunned the engines to stay on his ass. She was finally padlock on him and there was no way she was going to let him get away. Kei fired a missile at him and Ashley broke to the left to try and evade it, but he couldn't see Kei's black plane against the dark morning sky. Kei's gun sparked to life and scored hit after hit on Ashley's F-15 with deadly accuracy. He ended up bailing out just seconds before his plane burst into flames.

"That's for calling me 'bitch', motherfucker!" she screamed and she pulled a tight turn to line up Ashely in her gun sight. "And this is for Chopper!"

"Kei, stop," I yelled, and she broke off her attack.

"We should just kill them now, Blaze. They're going to keep coming back if we don't deal with them now," she protested.

"I'm not going to have you stoop to that level. They just witnessed how superior we are to them. And if they want to try and fight us again, we'll kill them," I said to her.

"I just…"

"I know how you feel right now and believe me when I say that I want to kill them right here and now, but we're better than this, Kei."

"Roger," she muttered and she formed up on my left wing.

"We'll be back. You can count on it," growled Ashley.

"I'm giving you only one chance to walk away, asshole," I growled. "If I ever see your pathetic asses in my sky again, I will kill you."

I cut off the wideband radio and regrouped with the others. We all turned to head back towards the Kestrel in silence. There wasn't really much that we could say to each other despite everything that's happened today. I just wanted to go to sleep and not worry about anything for a long, long time. That was a very great thought, but we still hadn't heard anything about the President making it back to Oured. At some point along the way, I was expecting Captain Bartlett to ask what happened to Chopper. The silence among us was enough to make me ask the question, but maybe the Captain already knew. There was a bunch of things that I had to talk to him about, but I was too tired to care about it at the moment. I bet everyone else felt that way too.

1319hrs, Ceres Ocean, OFS Kestrel

Genette was all over the return of Captain Bartlett. I was leaning against the Kestrel's island with the rest of my team while Captain Anderson spoke with Prime Minister Nikanor. The woman who was in the car with him, Nastasya, was a Recon Major in the Yuktobanian military. I was actually surprised when Pops told me that she was the woman who broke Captain Bartlett's heart fifteen years ago. I couldn't really get a good read on either of them now that they were reunited after so long. Other than that, the reunion meant that it was straight to business with everyone. I informed Lt. Colonel Harkin about Captain Bartlett's return and he ordered me to debrief him on everything that had happened. I got up from my spot and headed over to where everyone was and requested that Captain Bartlett follow me into the mess hall.

"Why?" he asked.

"I need to debrief you on your mission," I replied and he just looked at me like he was trying to play dumb. "My CO wants me to write a report on your activities."

Captain Bartlett gave me an annoyed look before he followed me below deck towards the mess hall. Once we sat down, he began to tell me everything from the beginning. I figured by what Pops had told us that Captain Bartlett meant to be captured, but I didn't know how it all played out. The day we last saw the Captain had been set up by the IOSS so that the Captain could be smuggled into Yuktobania by their branch. The IOSS had known for the longest time about Belka's ploy to wage war against both countries, but they had no idea about how they were going to carry it out. Nor did they know about Belka's resources. Yuktobania and Osea sent some of their best operatives to each other's countries to establish a resistance incase either country was invaded. Captain Bartlett was one of Osea's prime candidates and they turned out to be right. While Captain Bartlett was in Yuktobania, he quickly found a group of people who protested the Yuktobanian government's decision to wage war on Osea. With the help of the IOSS, they were quickly able to form an extensive network of resistance members within the Yuktobanian military, government, and citizens. This was how they were able to capture the Belkan nuke and find out where the Prime Minister was. Nastasya just happened to stumble upon the resistance and joined as soon as she found out Captain Bartlett was involved. According to Bartlett, she was very good at her job. By some means, Nastasya had found out that a group of high ranking individuals were the ones who instigated the war. They called themselves the Gray Men and they were a group of business men, politicians, and military leaders from various countries. When I heard this, I began to think that the basis of this war wasn't entirely revenge. Captain Bartlett seemed to think the same thing.

"Business men wouldn't get involved with this war unless they were getting something out of it," he said.

"But the only companies that would gain anything would be the weapons industry," I said.

"Exactly, but who," he asked.

I could only think of one company and I clenched my fist in anger when I thought about it. I'm such an idiot. "Gründer," I muttered. "They're making bank with every foot of land Osea gains in Yuktobania."

"Why do you seem like you're pissed off about that?"

"I bought stock in that company because of their medical research, but I guess all I've been doing is aiding their weapon research. Anyways, that's all I needed from you, Captain," I said as I stood up and held out my hand. As much as I wanted to hit him for all the lies and guilt he made Kei feel for no reason, I was just glad he was back. Captain Bartlett shook my hand and nodded at me. "It's damn good to have you back, Sir."

"Drop the 'Sir' shit, Kid," he said.

"Alright, Jack."

"One last thing, don't tell Nagase about any of this. I don't want her to think that she was stupid to feel guilty over nothing."

I looked over Bartlett's shoulder to see Kei standing in the corridor with eyes full of rage. Pops had told her everything that happened to Captain Bartlett ever since he got shot down, but she thought that he it was just a ruse to help her get over what happened which was why she refused to believe it. I knew Kei was listening to us from the very beginning and I knew Bartlett didn't want her to know about it, but she found out anyways.

"She's been beating herself up over what happened for no reason over the past three months. She deserves to know what happened," I said. "I'm not going to lie to her."

Kei turned and stormed off down the corridor, but I didn't chase after her. I couldn't think of anything to say to her without coming across as an asshole, but this was something that she had to get over. She hated being lied to and I was the only one who understood that out of everyone else. I walked past Captain Bartlett to go and find Kei. Some of the people I asked said that they saw her headed for the hangars and I headed there as well. When I got there, I saw her working on the damage to her plane. The ground crews had just finished installing the new engines and Kei was now tuning them to her specifications. When Kei was mad, she would take it out on a punching bag, isolate herself from the rest of the world, or work on her plane. I quietly walked up to her as she adjusted the fuel injection tubes into the combustion chamber. She had only been working a couple of minutes and she already had grease smudges on her face.

"You look cute when you're working hard," I said.

"I'm not in the mood, Antonio," she muttered.

"I know," I said softly. "I just wanted to make sure that you were okay."

"I'm just fucking dandy. I've been lied to this whole time, we let go the guys who've been trying to kill us for the longest time, and now I have to tune my plane all over again. I couldn't be better."

I got the hint that Kei wanted to be left alone and I headed towards the flight deck. I was all alone again as I sat on the edge of the bow while we headed God knows where. The only people who knew where we were, were Captain Anderson and a handful other people. Anyone else who didn't need to know was never told. But it didn't matter to me anymore. We didn't know what to do now. Until we heard news of President Harling's return or until we decrypted the Major's data, there was nothing for us to do. More waiting…I hated this.

It's peaceful isn't it? The waves, the wind, the clouds; it's all so… calm. You used to know what that was like.

They smell of the ocean air and the movement of the ship was nauseating at the moment. But after a few deep breaths, the feeling subsided and I began to feel tranquil. The smell of the ocean breeze was fresh and clean. The swaying of the ship was relaxing to the point where I could almost fall asleep. Everything was peaceful. Damn… I'm cold. I pulled my jacket tighter around myself and pulled my watch cap over my ears. I was just going to continue sitting on the flight deck, but my phone went off. It was a message from Harkin.

Kid,

I've got some good new and I've got some bad news. The good news is that President Harling has arrived in Oured safely. The bad news is that we can't rush to get him into the capital. The Vice President has everything set up to ensure that he stays in power. We have reason to believe that he had a part in Vincent's disappearance. Anyway, we'll get him back in office soon enough. Thanks for Bartlett's report and give your gal this bit of good news. I'm sure it'll brighten up her day.

Lt. Colonel Harkin

P.S. Everything happens for a reason.

I got up from the flight deck and headed back down towards the hangar. Kei was still working on her plane and her hands were covered in grease. She's only been working for about an hour and I could tell that she's been working hard to get her engines right. The thing was that she hadn't even touched them before her last sortie. Here goes nothing. I began to walk over towards Kei again and I stood behind her as she was turning her wrench.

"I'm still not in the mood. Go away," she said.

"Seems like someone need to cheer up a bit," I said.

"Seriously, Antonio, I'm this close to killing someone. Leave, me, alone!" she shouted.

"You're mad, I get it. But you need to look on the bright side of things."

"What bright side? There hasn't been a bright side to anything within the past month."

She had me there. I couldn't think of anything good that's happened since we were accused of treason. If only Grimm were here, then he'd be able to get her mind out of this rut. Try to give her the good news first. "We rescued the President, and he made it back to Oured today," I said. Kei froze and looked at me.

"You're shitting me," she uttered.

"I said I'd stop lying to you. Anyways, that's one bright side you can look on. Another is that we saved the Prime Minister of Yuktobania and it turned out that he didn't start the war. We also stopped the Belkans from nuking Osea and Yuktobania and we got our flight lead back." Kei frowned at the mention of Captain Bartlett's return and she went back to turning her wrench. "Come one, Kei. Being mad about it isn't going to change anything. If he hadn't done it, then things might've turned out a hell of a lot differently. I know what he put you through sucks, but you've become a better pilot because of it. You've also shown me how dedicated you are to me," I said and Kei looked at me kind of annoyed. "Yeah, it might not be because of love, but your sense of duty is incredible. I wouldn't have anyone else watch my back besides you."

Kei lowered her head and sighed when she heard what I said. I might've been making things worse than they already were with what I was telling her, but she needed to hear it. "I don't know how much more of this I can take," she whispered.

"I know, sweetheart," I said as I placed my hand on her shoulder. "But we're too close to give up now. As long as I have you to keep me together, I won't give up."

Kei lowered her head and leaned back against me so that I could hold her from behind. The stress was getting to her as well and I could only imagine how Grim was feeling about all of this. By the sound of things, we all needed to talk to a shrink. I never liked them myself because I never liked talking about the horrible things I've done in my life and I really didn't like throwing my feelings out there to someone I didn't know. Anyways, there wasn't really anything anyone could do for us on this ship. The therapist on this ship could only listen to our problems and determine if we needed professional help or if we were fit to continue with our duty. I stood Kei back up and walked up to her plane. She had done a lot of things to her engines that could cause her a lot of problems in the air.

"The fuel injection hoses are too far inside the combustion chambers. It'll give you more thrust, but sudden ignition of the fuel causes a less laminar flow of the resulting pressure," I said.

"I know that," said Kei. "But it's nothing that I can't handle."

Kei and I began a stupid argument over the way she was tuning her plane and we eventually just ended up making out on the wing of her plane out of passion. It was a great stress reliever for now, but we eventually took it up the flight deck where we spent the rest of the day gazing at the sky until it was night time. We were lying on the catwalk on the portside of the ship and we held each other's hand gazing at the night sky. We began to wonder what it was like to be up in space. We eventually began to wonder what it was like back on Earth. Things couldn't have been much better over there than it was here on Strangereal. While we were lying there, we heard a couple of people walk onto the flight deck.

"The SOLG," we heard Nastasya say and we turned to look up at her. She was pointing up at something in the sky for Genette. Neither of us knew what she meant. "A military attack satellite that your country began building during the war fifteen years ago, then abandoned in the peace that followed. The Arkbird was reborn partly to resurrect that dreadful star. Now, even after the Arkbird was destroyed, the Space Center's mass driver is still launching supplies into orbit. What is that "star" receiving from them?"

Kei tensed up when she heard that the Arkbird was used to further the Belkan's plans for war, but it didn't last long. The bigger question now was what the SOLG was capable of. I would've requested more information from Harkin, but something like this probably wasn't anything for me and my team to worry about. It was a satellite after all. Wait, knowing my luck, the thing is going to be used to attack us. Kei began to ask what I thought about the SOLG's capabilities, but I didn't even want to think about it. The time for us to deal with it would come soon enough. Whatever it was, we'd deal with it when the time came.