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When We Get Around to Talking About It

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She was a woman, yes, but first and foremost she was a scientist. An aeronautical-engineering analyst for CNA. A “civilian contractor.” A TOPGUN instructor whose expertise focused on the technological prowess of the enemy. She spoke Russian. She had a PhD in astrophysics and really earned it. The Pentagon listened to her because they knew she could calculate vectors and thrust angles and the proficiencies of young pilots better than anyone in the country.

But she also believed in the Scientific Method the way zealots believe in God. So it really shouldn’t have surprised anyone that she fell for Pete Mitchell. 

(No one called him that, except to introduce him. They called him Maverick. She even called him Maverick in bed.)

At first, she really did just want to know about the MiG-28. The fact that he wouldn’t tell her only intrigued her. Why? Why wouldn’t he tell her? What about it was so secret? Yes, she could dig through the files, call up Norton at CNA’s operations research branch and just ask, but if she just asked, she might have lost out on the opportunity to conduct an experiment.

She was interested in the fact that he did everything all-or-nothing. No in-between. He flew by the seat of his pants and fucked like it, too. When he was defensive, he flew aggressively. Every time she thought he’d overshoot, he reigned in his gunsights and hit the target. She’d sit in that TACTS trailer laughing to herself, wondering how she got so lucky—Maverick, the one percent of the one percent. She just wanted to be the one to tame him.

“If I wanted help, I would’ve asked for it.” 

Sure, Lieutenant. Sure you would have. God-damn, he was an asshole when he wanted to be. Just like he could be sweet and tender when he wanted to be. His arsenal of sweet-talking missiles was always calibrated a little off; he’d give you some pick-up line that had no business working and it was his lack of self-awareness that would get you in his bed. And those hands, and those eyes—

“So you’ve already left?” —She remembered saying, her voice hard and bitter.

But then he came back, then he took a position at TOPGUN, then she was staring down at a rotary phone on her desk trying to get the order of the words right— “Hi, Mr. McDonnell. I’ve thought about your offer, and I’m very flattered, but I think I will stay here in Miramar for the foreseeable future. Thank you so much for considering me.”

Let’s see if we can make this work.

The rules: Do not break the hard deck. Do not flirt with women who aren’t me. Do not leave your wingman. Show up on time when we set a date for dinner. Define the enemy before you engage. Not every argument has to end with sex. Maintain contact with ATC. Just because you don’t pull your punches in the air doesn’t mean it’s gloves-off with me, too.

All-or-nothing. Days without coming over, days without calling, then he’d bring over flowers and champagne and woo her with sweaty sex against a bare mattress. “Sorry for not calling,” he’d say, and at first she’d tell him “no apologies,” but then she gave up. It would’ve been nice to hear him apologize for once. Actually: it would’ve been nice to see him change. 

It was too confusing. The experiment had too many variables. He didn’t know who he was and neither did she; she loved him but hated him sometimes when he walked out the door; she hated how little she knew him and how much she wanted him to know her. Did he ever ask? Did he ever ask about her PhD, about her parakeet in a cage on the back porch, about her dog, about the salads she ate religiously, about the Rabbit parked out front, about her lipstick, about her hair, about her job? Did he ever ask?

He’d tell her about his day, he’d tell her about his father, he’d tell her about Goose, but he’d never talk about himself. That was private. He’d never tell her about the MiG.

(The MiG! It all came down to the MiG. Why won’t you tell me about the MiG?)

“One day I’ll tell you about the MiG,” he’d reassure her, licking a stripe from her collarbone to her ear; she could hear the cocky smile in his inflection. “One day.” 

(When they argued, he’d take off on his motorbike and ride for hours. As he’d put the key in the ignition she’d stand in the driveway shouting and he’d pretend not to hear her.)

In the back of her mind she knew he was planning to propose, to tell her about the MiG before he dropped to a knee, and that was a romantic idea she might have swooned over once. But at the forefront she was impatient, furious, doubtful. You famous MiG insulter, you, pressing her into the mattress with those hips and those hands and those intent blue hawk’s eyes, had you been lying to her the whole time?

She’d stand in front of the TACTS trailer with Maverick at her side grinning behind his mirrored aviators, reflecting back a room full of tired hotshots, and wonder where she went wrong, why he wouldn’t tell her now. Pleading in her head: C’mon, Maverick. Marry me so you can tell me about the MiG.

“One day,” he told her. “One day.” 

Always holding it over her head, until the experiment lost its value, the test subject warped beyond all constraints and parameters, and she was standing there in Captain Sherman’s office as he explained to her that Maverick kept breaking the rules and did she think he really was a good fit for TOPGUN, and she said, “No, I don’t think so.”

“Hello, Norton, I’m looking for Mr. McDonnell. —Hi, Mr. McDonnell. This is Charlie out at Miramar. I was wondering if the Engineering Research Head position from last year is still open? —It is? Is there any way I might be able to fill it?”

Making love to Maverick against the kitchen counter, in the shower, between the sheets. Standing over him as he slept and thinking, What the hell am I still doing with him, anyway? Calling it quits, taking off in the middle of the night for D.C. and never looking back. 

She did hear that Captain Sherman took her advice, kicked Maverick out of TOPGUN. It made her heart a little sore, a little guilty.

Years later, she’d find out that he’d been called back. That they wanted him again, and that besides Maverick, another one of her students had been called back, too. The Iceman, coldhearted son of a bitch; that was one thing she and Maverick could agree on. She regretted, just for a second, that she hadn’t been around to watch that experiment unfold. Then, she was just glad.

She never would find out about the MiG-28. But it wasn’t worth it, in the end.



Chapter Text

“Now, I have seen that sad surrender in my lover’s eyes,

and I can only stand apart and sympathize

for we are always what our situations hand us… 

It’s either sadness or euphoria.”

 

Goose has been dead for a week and a half when Kazansky’s wingman gets shot down and goes slip-sliding into the sea.

“Wood’s been hit!” Kazansky’s calling over the radio; “Wood’s been hit, Wood’s been hit! Shit!"

And here’s the thing: it actually hasn’t been too bad of a week. The brass tell him it’s not his fault, Goose was a good man, but if you fly long enough these things happen (Viper’s words), and Maverick maybe shouldn’t have been so damn impatient. The fake excuse that Goose’s death was partly—if not mostly—Maverick’s fault is enough to stitch up the open wound inside Kazansky for the time being, and he still hates the guy, maybe even hates him more now. You wanna keep burdening my conscience, Maverick?

He’s calm and collected enough to pick up the TOPGUN plaque at graduation and grin when he reads their call signs etched into the brass. He’s even calm and collected enough to think, hey, maybe this is it, his big break, maybe he really is the best around.

But then two bogeys over the Sea of Okhost become four become five, and then Hollywood and Wolfman’s Tomcat gets shot out from under them, and then Kazansky and Slider are all alone twelve thousand feet in the air with six MiGs on their tail.

And the lead MiG starts firing, tracers heading right for them; Kazansky breaks right and pulls a roll and doesn’t think his heart has ever beat this fast in his life; it might kill him before the bullets do, and he says: “Mustang, we are totally defensive, launch the Alert fighter!” praying there’s someone else beside Maverick to help them survive.

“Maverick’s supersonic, I’ll be there in thirty seconds,” says Maverick. Jesus, the Navy might lose six aviators today. 

The textbook’s out the window now. Kazansky’s just aiming for the one square inch of blue sky where tracers aren’t ripping by. “Move your ass,” he hollers, pissed to hell, “I’m engaged with five, repeat: five, I’m in deep shit!"

One of the MiGs fires a missile; they break right, but there’s another three MiGs cornering him there, too, and he’s forced to pull an Immelmann, bringing her around and back, and he’s thinking he’s the best pilot for surviving this long but also that it means nothing because he’s about to die. "Shit, that was close—” He doesn’t know how long it’s been— “Maverick, how about some help down here, where are you, goddamnit—" And he sees another fat lumbering Tomcat out of the corner of his eye and he’s never been so mad in his life— "Maverick, how about some help, engage, goddamnit—!” And if Maverick shitting his pants is the reason he’s about to die, if he survives—not when he comes back, if he survives—he’s throttling Maverick himself.

“Maverick, we got a MiG on our tail,” says Merlin. Good, Kazansky thinks to the MiGs, shoot down the motherfucker before you shoot me so I can have the satisfaction before I die. Then Merlin shouts, "Shit, we just flew through his jet wash! —Get control, Mav, get control—!”

Kazansky sees them on a flat spin above the sea for just a second before he pulls around again. And he closes his eyes. Can’t get distracted. Not now. And he’s cold as ice.

Merlin’s pleading with Maverick to re-engage— “C’mon, Maverick, we have to go help Ice! C’mon, let’s get back in and engage, Maverick—C’mon—”

Maverick: “Naw. No, it’s no good.” / Merlin: “C’mon, get in there, Maverick—” / Maverick: “It’s no good! It’s no good!” / Slider: "God-damn-it! Maverick’s disengaging!” 

Iceman says: “I knew it! Shit!" Because he did know it: Maverick is the flakiest fighter this side of the sun. He pulls another Immelmann and an inverted rollover to escape another missile.

Merlin: “Get in there, Maverick, you can’t leave him, c’mon! Maverick, what the hell are you doing?! Get in there, for Christ’s sake! Ice is in trouble, he’s got no cover, get in there, Maverick, he won’t last down there alone, you’ve gotta fight, for Christ’s sake— Maverick! Maverick!”

And it’s like a switch flips. Maverick re-engages. Iceman’s still alive, Maverick’s re-engaging, it’s the day of miracles over here.

“I can’t get him off my tail,” Iceman shouts to Maverick, trying to roll enough to throw off the MiG’s targeting system. 

Maverick says, “Ice! I’ve got your MiG dead ahead. —Good tone. I’ve got good tone. —I’ve got tone, I’ve got tone! —Firing!” And he shoots the MiG’s left wing clean off like it’s that easy. And Iceman’s never hated someone so much in his entire goddamn life. “Got two MiGs, dead ahead!”

“Maverick, we’ve got a MiG coming round on our tail,” yells Merlin. “We’ve gotta get out of here!”

Maverick says: “I am not leaving my wingman.”

Iceman comes around, catches the bastard, finally has a shot at it: “I’m on his tail, I’m on his tail, I’m going for it”—switches to missiles—“I’m going for it, I’m going for the shot right now—roger, engaged—I’ve got radar lock— good tone, I’m taking the shot— fire!" —and lands his first confirmed air-to-air kill ten thousand feet up, a fireball, no time for a parachute, no room for mercy— "BINGO!”

Maverick: “Ice! That bogey’s still behind ya! I’m maneuvering for a shot! / Merlin: “Stay with him, Mav, stay with him!” / Iceman: “Take the shot, nail ‘im, nail ‘im!” / Maverick: "Shit. Ice, I can’t get a tone!” / Iceman: “Take the shot, Maverick, I can’t get him off my tail—” and it’s true, he’s rolling and cutting away and still can’t shake this guy— / Maverick: “Ice! On the count of three, break hard right! Three—two—one— Break!" He misses. "Damnit. Missed!” / Merlin: “Don’t let him go—keep on him, Mav—” / Maverick: “I got him—I’ve got tone— SPLASH THREE!"

Thank God for Maverick.

He’s the better pilot, Iceman’s thinking, watching out of the corner of his eye as Maverick evades the next MiG’s spray of bullets, banking far and away with unswept wings to come up behind it, and he hates himself for thinking it and he hates Maverick that it’s even true, but Maverick is the better pilot. Maverick pulls a high alpha maneuver, hits the brakes, shoots up into the air; bastard flies right past him. Maverick gets a lock. Maverick gets splash number four.

“Mustang,” Merlin says, “this is Voodoo Three. Remaining MiGs are bugging out.”

Jesus Christ, Iceman’s thinking, Jesus Christ. What have we gotten ourselves into?

 

 

He’s feeling charitable, feeling at the top of the world. Flying next to Maverick, wingtip-to-wingtip, he picks up Maverick’s pantomime: You, me. Tower.

Yeah, okay. 

He buzzes the bridge on full afterburner with Maverick because he owes him that one. Owes him that and nothing more.

Then they’re landing, caught by the sling, and Iceman’s sliding out of the cockpit like a ragdoll, dead on his feet, shaking Slider’s hand, vibrating with adrenaline. Hollywood and Wolfman jump out of the rescue chopper before it even touches the ground and rush over, pulling them down out of their planes. It’s cacophanous celebrations; he’s getting slapped on the back; he’s nodding and thanking people he’s never met before and it’s clear that the hero of this story is Maverick, not him, and he’s trying not to be bitter. But damn, is it hard.

“You are still dangerous,” he tells Maverick, staring him down, trying to shout over the noise. But maybe it’s the adrenaline, maybe it’s gratitude, maybe it’s something else entirely that gets him grinning like a cat—he grips Maverick’s forearm and tells him, “You can be my wingman anytime.”

Maverick gives him that satisfied little smile and laughs and says, "Bullshit. You can be mine.” And then he’s got his arms around him and thumps him on the back like a brother, and the crew of the Midway loses its shit.

They don’t know it now, but they’re making a promise.

And then they’re stumbling back to the pilots’ quarters and they can both hear the other retching and shuddering as the adrenaline crash hits but neither offers any help.

 

 

He and Slider get sent out to the Bering Sea, and the last he’s heard, Maverick gets promoted to Lieutenant Commander, something that smarts Kazansky as if he’s been smacked across the cheek. Maverick’s had his honor and glory; now he’s kicking his feet up at TOPGUN as an instructor—that’s laughable!—while Kazansky and Slider are out defending their country.

Kazansky’s good about keeping in touch with people. He always has been. That’s how you make people remember you, that’s how you get promotions, that’s how you work your way up the ranks. Be better than everyone else, but also, show up first, and show up early. He keeps in touch with Viper, Jester, Stinger, Hollywood, Wolfman, Sundown—everyone except Goose, who’s dead (don’t think about it, don’t think about it), and Maverick, who might as well be dead to Kazansky.

That’s why it takes him so long to find out that Maverick’s already been kicked out of TOPGUN.

“Ha!” He’s reading Viper’s telegraphic letter out loud to Slider; they’re eating in the officers’ mess hall on the USS Chesapeake.

Viper writes like he’s being held at gunpoint: all he wrote is, Lt. Iceman. Glad to hear you’re doing well. Give my regards to one Cdr. Aldo aboard Chesapeake. You may be pleased or not to know that LCdr. Mitchell no longer at Topgun. I’m sure you can guess why. Keep in touch. Cdr. Viper.

“Of course,” Slider says. “That’s right: take the guy who’s the most hemmed-in by the rules and stick him in front of a classroom teaching pilots to follow ‘em? Of course that shit was never gonna fly.”

“Christ,” Kazansky laughs. “I mean, sure, get the guy out in the saddle, let him do his little voodoo magic, and he’s a swell pilot, but by God, who thought it was a good idea to let him be a teacher? If I had my way, Maverick’s got his three kills, he can retire happy and alone, if he wants. Or, hell, even if he doesn’t. Guy’s unsafe.”

 

 

It’s during his posting out in the Bering Sea that Kazansky tallies up his next two confirmed air-to-air kills. The circumstances aren’t happy.

The Captain of the Chesapeake gets a call from the Secretary of Defense, or so the story goes, apologizing for the oddity of the request, but he’s just had the Soviet Ministry of Defense on the line and the Soviets are saying they’ve got two rogue pilots heading out for San Francisco, nobody knows their payload, and the Soviet air fleet is strapped right now and could an American please take them out of commission very discreetly so neither country has to feel embarrassed?

Yes, sir, says the Chesapeake, already scrambling her jets: just two of them. Commander “Scalpel” Aldo and his RIO Scourge ask for Iceman and Slider.

“Now, listen, kid,” says Scalpel, flying on Iceman’s wingtip. “I’ll do the talking, you do the shooting. If we can get ‘em to turn around without anyone getting hurt, that’s A-1, but if we can’t—that’s your department.”

“Copy,” says Iceman, and then: “Tally two, twelve-o’clock high!” They rise up a few thousand feet above the cloud level and come even with the two MiGs.

Scalpel waves the two Soviets down, doing some complicated charade. “Shit,” he says. “They can’t understand me. Ice, attack envelope.”

“Copy. Assuming attack envelope,” Iceman says, pulling back a little, behind and to the right of the second MiG.

“The payload isn’t that wild,” says Slider, peering down under the MiG’s wing. “Standard Sidewinders, or something like that. Did they genuinely think they could just waltz into San Francisco and start shooting the place up? With the mothball fleet out in Alameda and that air base in Richmond?”

“Sec-Def made it sound like it’s a suicide mission,” Scalpel says tightly, “kamikaze and all that.”

“Bonsai,” Scourge yells, because one of the MiGs flips out of the way, pulls back and starts shooting. “He’s firing! He’s firing!”

“And missing,” snaps Scalpel, though he evades all the same. “Break right!” They do. “Okay, kid, listen up. Classic decoy maneuver, you hear me? I’ll set it up, you tee off.”

And that’s what they do. Scalpel drives up through the cirrus clouds and both MiGs stupidly chase after him, and then Iceman’s got tone on the first one, takes the shot, splash one, then wheels around and chases after the second MiG and sprays the bastard with enough bullets to take his engines down, splash two. The fucker parachutes, but what goes unsaid over the airwaves is, No one’s coming to get you.

“Well,” Scalpel says on their way back to the Chesapeake, “job well done, I guess. What’s that you’re up to, now, Kazansky?”

“Three, sir.” 

“Three! That’s the highest I know of of any lieutenant—well, there’s Maverick Mitchell, that guy’s one crazy son of a bitch—but he’s a Lieutenant Commander, now, so it doesn’t count.”

Kazansky grinds his teeth and calls the ball.

 

 

The circumstances of what happened a few hundred miles off the coast of Oregon are highly classified—it’s the first time Kazansky’s been a part of something considered “Secret” —but the Commander of the Pacific Fleet, who’s thanking him for sparing both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. a world of embarrassment, says he can brag about it to “your other pilot friends”—he just can’t say where he was, who he was with, or why he had to do it. “Just say it’s classified. That usually gets everyone’s balls rolling.”

Kazansky is standing straighter than a yardstick, eyes dead ahead, shoulders back, though the afternoon sun coming through the porthole is literally blinding. “Yes, sir,” he says, lightning quick. “Thank you, sir.” He thinks absentmindedly that he’d like to command this much power some day. Thank a pilot for saving San Francisco and still make the pilot feel like a kicked puppy while doing it. That’s the kind of thought that goes straight to his head, and he must be smiling a little.

“Alright,” says Admiral Anderson, flicking his eyes between Kazansky and Slider. “I can tell your heads are up in the clouds, boys. Go on, get outta here, go tell all your little girlfriends. Dismissed.”

Kazansky and Slider wheel out into the hallway, all high-fives and back slaps, laughing and joking and swearing up a storm. They’re on a three-week assignment to the USS St. Louis before they can take a few weeks of well-earned leave. (Where’s Kazansky gonna go? He doesn’t know yet.) “The Commander of the Pacific Fleet,” Slider’s saying, “just told me to tell my girlfriend we shot down two Soviet bogeys. You know how wet my dick is gonna get when I get back to Cincinnati?”

“I gotta get me one of those,” says Kazansky, and they’re laughing, but it’s true, it really has been a while. He had a thing going with a blonde back in Miramar, but that was months ago, and she probably doesn’t remember him. Well, maybe he’ll try it on anyway. “You see how polished his epaulettes were? How long a day—in minutes, Ron, tell me—how long does he spend polishing his stars, do you think?”

“Iceman,” says Slider, reaching out and shaking him a little, “I’ve never met a man so adept with euphemism.”

“I’ve never met a man who’s read the dictionary cover-to-cover, yet here you are!”

They’re back in their cabins and writing a flurry of letters. Dear Sarah, Kazansky writes to his sister. Hope you’re doing well. I just wanted to tell you I’ve finally racked up splashes two and three. Don’t take it too hard. It had to get done & it was for the good of us all you know. Please write back I want to know how New York is, if you get to see Chorus Line on Broadway, tell me if it’s any good. I will be on leave in a few weeks and might come visit but I’m thinking I might go back to San Diego. My respects to Bobby and hope you two are alright. Love your brother Tom “Ice”

Then he’s writing to Viper, to Jester, to Chipper and Sundown and Wolfman and everyone else he can think of—Iceman finally made it to three kills, he can die happy now, rest on his laurels et cetera, but then it’s past midnight and he’s staring up at the ceiling from his bunk and wondering if he shouldn’t call Maverick, just to gloat a little, just to rub it in. See, shitstain, you’re not the only one who can fly a plane. But that would require knowing Maverick’s phone number, and would also require talking to Maverick, and after everything, he’s just not sure he wants to do that. So he’ll let Maverick find out about it from everyone else. Secondhand hurts worse. Let that salt the wound a little.

 

 

He’s smoking a cigarette with Janice in a smoky bar in San Diego. “I took you here when I first came to TOPGUN,” he tells her. “Don’t you remember?”

Janice giggles, takes a sip of her screwdriver. She’s already plastered and they just met here. “Not really, Tommy,” she says, and kisses him long and deep, tasting of cigarette ash. “How’ve you been, baby?”

“Good,” he says, looking around the bar, uncomfortable. She’d been fun last year at TOPGUN, but now she was concerning him a little. “Real good. I shot down two Soviet planes a couple weeks ago.” And he’s tossing back a neat glass of gin and puffing on his Lucky Strike again. 

“Two Soviet planes!” she gasps. “But, Tommy, you never.”

“You’re starting to sound like Sarah.”

“Who’s that, baby?” Janice smacks him on the shoulder. “Some other girl I should be worried about?”

“My sister, I told you that,” he says, and she squints at him through the smoke.

Then she says, in a moment of shocking lucidity, “And I recall telling you I loved you, Tommy, but you left anyway!” 

“You actually love me, though?” he asks facetiously, laughing and ordering another glass of gin with a look and a pointed finger. “I’m not sure about that.”

“It was true, you great brute,” she’s saying, and the pounding music is a little loud all of a sudden. “It was true, and I’ll prove it to you. Where are you staying?”

He tosses back the next glass of gin. He’s staying in temporary billets near the waterfront, but— “I can get a hotel,” he says.

“Oh, good on you, Tommy, taking what’s good for you.” 

 

 

He’s good at getting women. Always has been. They tell him he has steady eyes, like that makes him trustworthy. They like his wide shoulders, they like his skinny little swimmer’s hips. They even like his stupid spiked hair that, after TOPGUN, seems a little immature for him, and he’s thinking of buzzing the whole thing off and starting fresh (but he won’t). Women like Kazansky, he likes them. He just can’t get them to stay.

It’s a communication problem, he thinks. They just can’t relate to each other. Things are changing in the Navy, just like in the rest of the world, but the truth is that the women he’s talking to will never have any idea what it’s like to have both hands on the throttle and fingers squeezing the triggers. The idea of sweatstained flight suits isn’t romantic to them, it’s something to deal with. They can’t imagine staying up late at night wondering about the lives of the men they’ve killed or seen die. Women are simple, Kazansky decides, and he’s glad they are. He likes simple women. They’re fun, good for a fling or even a several-month excursion. Complicated women lead to complicated problems, long arguments, late nights, philosophy discussions, plans for the future. No, thanks. 

One of these days, he thinks, he’ll find a simple woman who won’t ask too many questions, who will wait up for him until his ship comes home, who will purse her lips when he tells her of violence he’s witnessed but won’t pry, who will wash and dry his uniform for him and kiss him at the sound of reveille. That makes sense. It fits together in his head.

He leaves Janice in the hotel room with a note in the morning. She’s outwardly simple, but she’s complicated on the inside, addicted to booze and cigs and hotshot pilots, and Kazansky’s got enough on his plate as it is.

He catches the first flight to New York.

 

 

Sarah won’t return a single one of his calls, won’t answer a single one of his frantic letters. He suspects it’s his fault—he shouldn’t have mentioned the MiGs he shot down. That might have tipped her over the edge.

He sees A Chorus Line on Broadway. It’s just okay. He feels a little embarrassed to be sitting in the audience alone.

He’s gotta get back, back to where things make sense, where up is up and down is down and Maverick’s on a flat spin out to sea and there are orders to tell him where to go and what to do. But he’s not due in Seattle until next Thursday.

Instead, he takes the Long Island Railroad all the way out to the very tip and heads to the Air National Guard Base, just to see jets again. Except he’s being told he can’t be here and he doesn’t have the clearance—

“No, that’s okay! He’s with me! Hey, Iceman, how’s it going?” And it’s Maverick, the cocky-grinning son of a bitch, popping out of the duty office, shaking his hand up and down like an earthquake. “What the hell are you doing here? This ain’t the Navy, son.”

“I could ask you the same question!” Kazansky says, a little shocked, then wondering if he has to call Maverick “sir,” which is a bridge too far. “What the hell are you doing here, Maverick?”

“Leaving! C’mon, let’s get a drink.” 

And the last thing he wants to do is get a drink with Maverick Mitchell—God, Slider’s gonna have his head—but it feels too serendipitous, too perfect, to pass up. What the hell.

They go to some shitty diner in Westhampton that serves bums and billionaires and that’s about it. The summer evening yellow fades to a summer evening blue. Maverick’s still wearing his flight suit, and Kazansky’s put-off by it. He can rib Maverick just plenty in a public setting where everyone knows each other, but a one-on-one dogfight, wearing a button-down and khakis? The odds aren’t so even.

“I’ve got a gig as a delivery pilot,” Maverick says, and Kazansky guesses he doesn’t like it too much because he gives a smile that’s more grimace than grin and orders a vodka-water, as if he’s trying to get smashed. “You know how, when a millionaire buys a boat, someone’s gotta drive the boat from the factory to Venice Beach or East Egg or whatever? Well, that’s me, but for the military. It’s the only thing left I can do.”

“I bet you still do barrel rolls and stupid shit like that. Taxpayer money.” He doesn’t mean it as a joke—he’s gobsmacked that the military would let Maverick fly planes still, after getting kicked out of every program that would have him. Some guys just aren’t meant to make it.

“That’s right,” says Maverick, grinning, maybe intentionally misunderstanding Kazansky’s tone. “Still doesn’t explain why Ace Pilot Iceman Kazansky shows up at an Air National Guard base.”

“I’m not an Ace, Mitchell,” Kazansky snaps, suddenly so embarrassed he can hardly see straight. Maverick must know his two most recent kills were nothing but a formality, no challenge in it, no glory—just two suicidal idiots put to sleep in a heartbeat—and he doesn’t want to gloat anymore.

“Getting there, Kazansky, getting there,” says Maverick. “And, anyway, I heard you were with Commander Aldo. Scalpel’s a crazy son-of-a. He and I flew together in eighty-five. And you stole those two kills from right under his nose.”

He’s got this grin on his face like they’re old friends, which is as insulting as it is stupid. He’s funny, he’s charming—and if they weren’t in the Navy, sure, they might have been friends once. But he’s seen how Maverick flies. He’s seen how Maverick treats his superiors and his peers. And Kazansky’s not in the mood to be friends.

“That’s not really how it happened.”

“Who cares?” says Maverick, ordering another vodka-water. “It’s the story everyone cares about, not the truth.” And he knocks back the entire glass.

Kazansky watches him with a bitter taste in his mouth. So, what, Maverick’s going to get pounding drunk and sermonize and wax poetic? He changes the subject. “I was in New York visiting my sister.”

“Didn’t know you had one.”

“Well, I might as well not have one,” Kazansky mutters. “Where you headed to next?” Not that he cares, he’s just making conversation.

But Maverick only looks at him oddly. “What do you mean?”

Kazansky frowns. “Didn’t mean for you to get snagged on that.”

“Well, toss me a bone, Kazansky.”

Kazansky picks at the label of his beer. He really doesn’t want to talk about this with Maverick, but there’s not much else to talk about. “Sarah took a shine to our grandma when we were growing up. Kinda Woodstock now, total hippie. Drugs, maybe. After Nam, completely anti-military. Stopped answering my letters after splash one, probably won’t ever see her again after two and three.” He shrugs. Doesn’t care. (He does.)

Maverick hums, not outwardly affected. Entirely disinterested. “Parents?”

“Nah,” Kazansky says. “Dad was in the Army, but he got shot down over Bien Hoa. Bell Huey pilot. Probably why Sarah’s like that. You know how women are.”

Maverick shrugs. “Some women,” he says, giving a little private smile, and Kazansky knows he’s thinking about that TOPGUN instructor—what the hell was her name again, Charlie— and wonders how that’s going. “Well, dead pilot dads, that’s one thing we have in common.”

That makes Kazansky uncomfortable as hell. He knows about Duke Mitchell and would rather not talk about it, because it’ll be embarrassing for both of them. He searches high and low for what to say next. “I keep telling Sarah the pilot thing’s only temporary; fastest way to make it to the top, and once you’re at the top you can start doing good, real good. No more of this heartless brass in Viet Nam bullshit. You’ve gotta change the system from within, and that starts with making it to the top. But she doesn’t wanna listen.”

“Yeah, after her brother made it to the top of the kill board I can kinda see why,” says Maverick, and that stings. “So you just wanna be the best at everything, huh?”

“Yes,” Kazansky says seriously, then, confused, squints at him. “Don’t you?”

“Of course not,” Maverick says. “I just wanna be the best pilot."

“Huh,” says Kazansky, wondering if there’s a difference between Maverick and Mitchell. “Maybe you shoulda stayed at TOPGUN, then.”

Chapter Text

What does he remember about his eight weeks at TOPGUN in 1986? 

For the better part of a decade, he’ll want to remember nothing. The plaque will collect dust in a moving box that never gets unpacked. Someone will ask him about it—he’ll change the subject. Let’s talk about something else.

The fact of the matter is, none of his memories of Miramar are very good. It was fun —or at the very least, it was supposed to be—a friendly competition between the top one-percent of Naval aviators designed to push them to the edge of the envelope, or so Viper’d said. The flying was fun, when he was winning. Flying’s always fun. A set of problems to figure out, a sudoku puzzle where one wrong number can get you killed. High-stakes gambling, and does Kazansky have a gambling addiction. He knew the competition would be fierce when he left Corpus Christi for Miramar—it was TOPGUN, after all—but not that fierce, not that deadly.

There were more funerals than he expected, more late nights staring at the ceiling, more furious moments when he considered punching Maverick straight across the jaw. And maybe he should’ve. 

What does he remember?

He remembers sweaty locker room banter turning aggressive, slammed lockers, raised fists.

He remembers the sick moment of realization, like his plane had fallen out from under him, when he realized that Maverick had flown through his jet wash, and mayday-mayday-mayday, they’re on a flat spin out to sea, eject, eject, eject, they’re in the water.

What can you do in a moment like that? The best of times and the worst of times: his fingers kept wanting to steer the plane to find Viper, finish the mission, bring home the trophy; his brain kept shouting No, no, no, if you keep flying you’ll look guilty, like you did it on purpose, and if you look guilty they’ll kick you out of the Navy and you’ve lost a forty-million dollar plane and what’s worse you might have lost one of your wingmen… and in the end he flew in confused circles like a bird after running into a window.

He remembers the beads of sweat on his nose and forehead, standing so straight his back ached in the military tribunal room, closing his eyes—but only for a second—when the court of his superiors told him he was not guilty of killing Goose. “If anything—Maverick should not have been so impatient.” 

He remembers Maverick sitting on the bench outside, his head in his hands; he remembers thinking This is all your fault, you bastard son of a bitch; he remembers a violent fantasy he doesn’t want to remember anymore.

He remembers chewing on his dogtags past 0400 hours the night after Goose’s funeral and thinking, Oh, Jesus Christ. It is my fault.

What happens when a jet plane flies through someone’s jet wash? The fumes starve the plane’s engines of oxygen; they shut down, no combustion, and before the pilot can re-launch them his momentum throws him into a spin whichever way he was going, and then Maverick’s on a flat spin out to sea. He’s in the water. (The words change in his head every time they pass through. He can’t remember exactly what he said.)

He remembers coming into the locker room to change from his fatigues to his flight gear and watching Maverick pack his shit, get ready to hightail it out of there. He remembers something like regret, regret and guilt, and fighting long and hard to find the words to say, something that made sense, something that absolved him of responsibility— “Mitchell,” he said, and that was hard enough. “I’m sorry about Goose. Everybody liked him.” Searching high and low for words that would make it right, coming up empty, finishing weak: “I’m sorry.”

He remembers standing on Goose’s front porch, biting down the shame before raising a fist to knock on the door. She was in tears already by the time she opened it: Carole (was that her name?) Bradshaw and her little kid Bradley (they must not have liked him very much when they named him). “You’re Tom, aren’t you?” she’d said. “Kazansky. Iceman. Thought you’d be too cold to come. But thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Nick would’ve wanted me to forgive you. I know you two were friends at Annapolis. What happened with you two? Huh? Iceman? What happened? Was it just Maverick? Is it? Is that why you—why he—oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Excuse me. One second, let me find a tissue. —I’m sorry. I don’t blame you for what happened. They told me it was an accident. I know it was an accident, and I don’t blame you. Sometimes things get out of hand. I’m glad Maverick’s still flying. I hope he finishes TOPGUN with you. You two are good boys. I’m glad you’re still flying, but sometimes—sometimes I wish Nick had never gone up in a plane in his life.”

And what do you say to that?

 

 

He gets a letter from Viper telling him to call at his earliest convenience, which he thinks he should probably do, because Viper doesn’t seem like the kind of man to call just to chit-chat. Kazansky finds a pay phone in Seattle and gives him a ring.

“Lieutenant,” Viper says coolly. “I’ve got a request you may not like.”

“Shoot, sir,” Kazansky says. 

“I want you to come back to TOPGUN.”

“Oh, yeah?” says Kazansky, a little smugly. “I already won once, sir. How many more times I gotta do it before I impress you?”

“Don’t kid around with me, Lieutenant,” Viper says, and though he’s half a country away Kazansky snaps to attention. “I told you Commander Aldo was my friend, didn’t I?”

“That’s right, sir.” 

“He says you’re hankering for a promotion. Want to move up and become a commanding officer, and if I’m hearing him correctly a flag officer. Is that correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, I’ve got a route for you to take. Jester’s retiring in a few months, and I’m getting up there; we’re casting a wide net for replacements. Jester wants you. Says you can be a team player when you want to, and you manage to eke out success without breaking a rule. You’d make a good teacher, he says.” 

Oh. Come back to TOPGUN as an instructor.

“Am I supposed to get from that that you want someone else?” says Kazansky, pulling out two extra quarters and dropping them in the slot. He’s not sure how to feel.

“Well,” sighs Viper. “Not to replace you, son, to join you, but yes. Jester wants you. I want Maverick.”

He’s sure his eyes pop out of his head. “What?”

“When he’s not breaking F.A.A. regulations, his set of skills complements yours perfectly, as I’m sure you noticed in the air over the Sea of Okhotsk. And—as a MiG simulator, he’s perfect. No MiG pilot is ever going to follow the rules; no MiG pilot will ever show you mercy. They’ll do what it takes to get your ass, which is what Maverick does. I think you can keep him in line, and I think you might be the best instructors TOPGUN’s ever seen.”

Viper’s frankness is startling. “But,” Kazansky says. “I’m not sure I’m the right person to tame him, sir. We push each other past the breaking point. That’s what happened to—That’s why—Goose.”

“And you’ve learned from that, haven’t you?” Viper says. “And you were competing, then. Imagine what it’ll be like to be on the same team.” He pauses, clearly sensing Kazansky’s reluctance. “I’m not making any promises, not giving you any orders. Yet. I have to see if I can get you, first, and then you’ll have to come out to Miramar to learn how to fly an A-4. Think of it as an experiment, Iceman.”

“Didn’t—didn’t he get kicked out of TOPGUN, sir?”

“Correct,” says Viper, and Kazansky gets the sense he’s smiling. “But not by me. Standby, sailor. I’ll be in touch.”

Then he’s gone, and Kazansky slams the phone back onto the box, pissed to hell that he wasted two whole quarters on that.

Then he’s fishing another quarter out and calling Slider. “My friend, I got some bad news. Our time together might be at an end, and you will never goddamn believe whose fault it is this time.”

 

 

So he goes to Miramar and learns to fly the A-4.

It’s unfamiliar as hell to him, light and zippy and jumpy as shit, like driving a Porsche 911 for the first time after years of driving a Buick pickup. The A-4 Skyhawk is a rabbit instead of a rhinoceros, all impulse and motion, feather-light touches. He’s never been a really impulsive pilot—that’s Maverick—Kazansky goes by the book, does what the book tells him to do, but there’s no book at ten thousand feet and he has no RIO sitting behind him, no radar to tell him where to go. It’s sight-systems only. That’s a disadvantage: but he’s smaller, faster, his movement straddles the knife’s edge. That’s an advantage.

He gets real good at squinting out a windshield canopy into the sun and spotting giant fat lumbering Tomcats on the horizon. He gets real good at making tight instantaneous turns, screwdrivers, inverted dives. He gets real good at discerning the sweep of a Tomcat’s wings and letting the fuckers run out of kinetic energy.

And it’s starting to feel like second nature to him, he’s starting to think he’s pretty good at this Skyhawk thing, when Maverick shows up and blows his ass out of the water.

“Alright, boys,” Jester says, taking them out to the hot range and signing the flight order sheet. “Maverick, it’s been a year or so since you’ve flown the A-4 at TOPGUN, is that correct?”

“No,” Maverick says, blowing a bubble of chewing gum behind his aviators, stretching his arms across his chest. “Sir. I delivered three Skyhawks to the Missouri, to Gabreski, and, uh… oh, the Carolina."

“Okay,” Jester says, “I don’t give a shit. You’re gonna spit that gum out right now, on the floor, if you have to.” (Maverick tucks it behind his ear.) “Iceman here’s been training on the A-4 for the last few months. You two will be going up against me in the Tomcat. Let’s see what you’ve learned.”

“Lucky me,” says Maverick under his breath, that stupid cocky bastard grin pasted on like a mask.

They’re on their way to their planes—already stenciled with LCdr. Pete Mitchell / “Maverick” and Lt. Tom Kazansky / “Iceman” —when Kazansky decides to do some of that diplomacy shit Viper was talking about. “Listen, Maverick,” he says, stretching the Mav and popping the K with unconscious irony, “it’s our first day. Let’s just play it cool, play it safe. There’s a time and a place for showboating.”

“Don’t forget, Iceman,” Maverick says. He’s one of the few to stress man instead of running it together, and it’s disconcerting. “I outrank you. You’re my wingman today. We’re gonna do this how I want or we’re not gonna do this at all.”

“You outrank me for the time being,” Kazansky mutters, climbing up into the cockpit. If he plays his cards right, he can get Maverick out of TOPGUN for a second and maybe final time and have unfettered access to its opportunities. Alright: he won’t say a word when Maverick breaks the rules. Just let it happen and let him take the fall.

He is Maverick’s wingman today, unfortunately, instead of the other way around. So when they agree over the radio to assume a combat spread, it’s Iceman a thousand feet lower and three thousand feet away. Jesus, these things are small, he thinks, peering out at the horizon where Maverick sits above him, barely the size of a bird. “Maverick, let’s get a little closer. Not sure we’re gonna be able to see each other—”

“Tally one, low on my nose,” calls Maverick— “He’s passing right between us!”

“Communicate,” Jester says, pulling an Immelmann and heading back right for them. “It’s your only hope when you’re in birds as small as a Skyhawk. No RIO.” 

“Which one of us are you going for, Jester?” says Maverick unnecessarily—because, contrary to orthodoxy, Jester picks Maverick, the high fighter.

“Alright, kids: let’s see what you can do.”

Iceman goes after him in an instant, gunning his engines and swinging around high to chase him down. As soon as he’s thinking this is easy shit, Maverick flips out of the way to avoid Jester’s radar lock— “Maverick, what the hell are you doing? Bring him around to me!”

“I’m going after him now,” Maverick says, picking up speed on the descent. “Cover me.”

Cover me yourself, Iceman’s thinking, flooring the acceleration—something he could never do in an unstable Tomcat—and they’re on each other’s wingtip, each trying to angle enough to take the shot—and suddenly it comes back to him, vying for a spot to take out Viper and being too slow and We flew through his jet wash and—he’s gasping and pulling away from Maverick before he can think about it, shaken to the core, and he reaches out in a split second to crank down the ECS before he sweats all over the electronics. 

“I’ve got him, I’ve got him,” Maverick says gleefully, glad for the opportunity, but just when they both think it’s over, Jester pulls a high yo-yo and seats himself behind Maverick’s tail. “Oh, Jesus. Ice, get him. He’s on my six.”

“I’ve got him,” Ice says, wheeling back up and around, trying, trying, trying—

And Jester does it again, re-shuffles the playing board and the natural order of things, backwards-leapfrogging so he’s behind them both, and they all turn around again, and just when Iceman thinks he’s got a shot—a real shot—Maverick says, “You’re mine, Jester—” and cuts Ice off, swerves in front of him—

And Jester splits the throttles, pulls down and out, hits Iceman from the side. “I’ve got tone. Splash Ice. You’re dead.”

Viper’s waiting for them on the tarmac, a little satisfied smile on his face as both Maverick and Iceman rip off their masks and helmets, glaring daggers at each other. “That was some dogfighting up there,” he calls.

“No, it wasn’t,” Kazansky says. “He cut me off. He got me killed.”

“He sure did.”

“And Ice is always too slow to take the damn shot,” Maverick says, the blood high in his face. 

“He sure is.” Viper looks at them appraisingly. “You both know how to fly Hawks by now, you’ve proven that. But as we keep telling you: in a single-seater Skyhawk, you have no RIO. You’re each other’s eyes up there. You’re not fighting for a trophy anymore, boys. You’re fighting for each other. When you realize that, it’ll stop holding you back. Figure it out.” And Jester pulls him away, shaking his head with his voice low, leaving Maverick and Kazansky alone on the tarmac.

“You cut me off, you bastard,” Kazansky snarls, spitting low and hackles up like a cat. 

Maverick waves him off, already walking away. “Try not being so damn slow all the time. If you pulled a half-cobra—you could’ve had him that second time. Just had to change your angle. Not my fault.”

Kazansky shoves him, hard, and Maverick whips around, furious. “You got me killed. Because of you, I’m dead. I am not your enemy, Maverick.” 

Maverick shoves him back, and they are dangerously close to brutalizing each other right there on the asphalt under the sunset. “And when’s it gonna get through your thick skull that I’m not your competition?” he shouts back. 

But aren’t you? Kazansky almost says, bites his tongue, and he knows it’s written all over his face.

Maverick shoves him again. “I’m not. We want different things, man. I want a maneuver named after me, like Immelmann. You want an aircraft carrier named after you. The USS Ice-Ass. I want to die with glory, you want to die with a four-star pension. I get that. I didn’t get called back to TOPGUN to get babysat. So stay out of my way.”

Kazansky chases after him at a cool, brisk walk. “What did you get called back to TOPGUN for, then?” he bites.

“I don’t know, Kazansky, I’m asking you the same question, because it’s clearly not flying,” Maverick yells over his shoulder, stripping off his NOMEX gloves, gearing up to give him the bird.

Kazansky doesn’t let him get that far. He swallows down the bile in his throat and says, through gritted teeth, “Let me buy you a drink, Maverick.”

That stops him in his tracks. He turns back, face all screwed up in something between anger and confusion. “What?”

“I said,” Kazansky says, thinking of Viper’s assignment: Keep Mitchell in line. “Let me buy you a drink. At ten thousand feet, we’ve gotta be wingmen. I can’t be yours and you can’t be mine if we’re both just trying to get the first cheap shot.” Or get each other killed.

He watches Maverick calculate the risks and the benefits in his head. He wears his heart on his sleeve, letting everything unsaid come out of his expression anyway. Finally he grimaces and says, “Okay. I can’t promise the conversation’s gonna be any good.”

 

 

Predictably, it’s not. They’re both nursing bruised egos and a glass of whiskey. Kazansky hates whiskey, abhors it, drank too much of it at an Academy party and spent eighteen hours puking up his guts and now just the smell makes him nauseous, but Maverick had ordered two glasses of whiskey “on ice” like a fucking clown (who drinks whiskey with ice?), so he’s stuck with it now. Some watered down shit he’s not gonna drink that he has to pay for. And that’s pissing him off way more than Maverick’s blessed silent treatment.

Finally Maverick says, “I don’t think this is gonna work.”

“Why’s that?” Kazansky says sullenly.

“Is that really why Viper called you up? To babysit me? Even though I’m a whole rank above you?”

“The words he used were, something along the lines of, when he’s not fucking the F.A.A., you and Maverick fly okay together."

“Did you laugh? ‘Cause that’s pretty funny. And I don’t fuck the F.A.A., I make love to it.”

“That’s not how it looks from the outside,” Kazansky says. “And, no, I didn’t laugh. The only time we ever flew in combat together we both came home alive.”

“Thanks to me,” Maverick says bluntly. 

Kazansky’s got his shoulders back, a cool upright position, but he doesn’t feel like he ought to. He’s surveying the crowd of the O-club behind his aviators, wondering which one of these little fools is going to win the next TOPGUN trophy and think he’s at the top of the world. “Sure, thanks to you,” he says bitterly. “But we’re even now. You’ve got three, I’ve got three. If we combine ‘em, we’re an Ace and then some.”

“Combine ‘em,” Maverick scoffs. 

“Look,” Kazansky snaps, “no one said this was going to be easy. I’m just trying to make the pill a little sweeter to swallow. Eventually you’re gonna have to piece it together that we’re on the same team, trying to do the same thing, and we’ll both get what we want—you’ll get to stay in the Navy and I’ll get promoted out of TOPGUN and then that’ll be it.”

“Well, civilians make policy, not fighter pilots,” says Maverick, sliding his aviators on, too, so Kazansky can’t see his eyes. “But I’m curious how you think that’s gonna work.”

Kazansky’s out of breath, too vulnerable. Suggesting solutions to other men sometimes feels like offering up his jugular. “Trade it off. Pick ahead of time who gets the kill. If one of us gets the perfect shot, we’ll take it, but until then, everything we do is to get—let’s say the wingman—his kill.”

Maverick looks away, down at the sticky counter, worrying his lip, working it over. Costs and benefits. Maverick’s a risk-taking calculator in a man’s body, when it comes down to it. “You only said wingman because it’s my turn next.”

“That’s right. I’m trying to be diplomatic.”

“Hell,” Maverick says. “Maybe someday you might actually wear some stars.” He hesitates, then reaches out his hand to shake.

They both drop each other immediately and turn back to their un-sipped whiskey.

 

 

“Kill’s all yours, Maverick,” he murmurs, sliding past him on his way to his plane.

Maverick mock-salutes, just two fingers, and clearly neither of them are confident this is going to work.

“Alright,” Iceman says once they’ve cleared the hard deck. “No mistakes.”

“You’re telling me,” Maverick says.

“Assume combat spread. Two thousand feet distant, and just two.”

“Copy,” Maverick says, descending and spreading right a little. “We’ll net him right up. A little Jester guppy.” They’re gambling that Jester will pull the same trick and go for the high fighter again.

“See ‘im, Mav?” 

“No… he’s hiding good today. I—oh, shit, tally one, twelve o’clock high, he’s right on top of us!” 

“God damn it,” Iceman says. Jester went for the weakness of the A-4: its low thrust-to-weight ratio, its slow acceleration to altitude. “I’ll go up first.” And he does, pulling up sharp and gunning the gas, dancing in front of Jester to get his attention. “Hey, Jester. No mistakes today.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it, kiddo,” says Jester, slamming into full afterburner, springing quick as a cheetah away. He breaks right into a dive, nose towards the desert, and Iceman follows him, angling his HUD to take the shot.

“I’ve got him, Mav, you coming?” he calls, and Jester straightens flat, trying to loop up and over, but Iceman’s right on his tail, following every move.

“I’m on my way,” says Maverick.

“Where is that son of a bitch?” Jester barks, slammed forward by the G-forces he’s pushing on his F-5, then he shoots straight and heads out to sea. “How many times I gotta tell you, kid, you can’t leave your wingman—”

“I haven’t left him, Jester,” Maverick says, and Iceman sees him streaking up from eight-o’clock low, half-obscured by a cloud. “Haven’t left him at all. That’s a good tone. Jester, you’re dead.”

“God,” says Jester, and leaves the rest of his curse or prayer unsaid.

 

 

They go three more rounds that day and win each fight, trading off kills as cards trade hands, and they’re not always in sync, but when they are—

“Nicely done, gentlemen,” says Viper, and though Kazansky’s never seen the bastard’s face change expression he would hazard a guess that the old man’s tone is pleased. “I don’t know what changed, but it’s welcome.”

Maverick’s smiling. “We strategized.”

“Grew brains, did you?” says Viper, turning away to the window. “Well, we’ll give it a few more shots, but then—Lieutenant Kazansky, everything’s in order to fit you out Lieutenant Commander. Consider the experiment concluded. Welcome to TOPGUN, son.”

Then they’re out in the corridor, just the two of them, silently heading to the instructors’ small locker room, and as Kazansky tugs off his flight suit and his golf shirt he’s wondering why it was that easy. 

“Lieutenant Commander, huh,” Maverick says, scrubbing his sweaty face and under his arms with his T-shirt. “Gosh. Can you believe it?”

He’s still an aggravating piece of shit. “Shut up, Maverick.”

“Hey, your gamble paid off, though,” Maverick says. “Didn’t think it would, but that was a good idea. Team up on him beforehand. Smart.”

“Thanks,” Kazansky says, looking for his hair gel in his locker, when he notices Maverick’s outstretched hand in his periphery.

“I mean it,” Maverick says, and he’s all bravado and cheek except when he’s not, like right now, when he’s deadly serious, duty-bound and honorable and sweaty with glory, and even as he’s considering shaking Maverick’s hand a small part of Kazansky’s brain is despairing, crying, You know how good of a pilot you’d be if you followed the rules once in a while?

He considers it, thinks about it. He doesn’t like the bastard, still. Thinks he’s too cocky for his own good, and their gamble paid off against Jester but might not when they’re on their own against teams of students. But he has to respect the man, now.

He smiles a little and shakes Mitchell’s sweaty hand.

Mitchell grins, and the heroic facade breaks. “Now you’ve gotta let me buy the drinks, Lieutenant Commander.”

Chapter Text

So Kazansky is promoted to Lieutenant Commander and immediately receives orders for a two-and-a-half year tour at TOPGUN. That’s it: that’s all he’ll have to make it through. And if he does his job well enough—if he does his job as well as he does everything else—he’ll leave TOPGUN with the rank of Commander and aim for higher horizons.

The fact that his plan for the future revolves around Maverick does not inspire confidence.

That is, until they go up against Viper, agreeing that this one’s all Ice’s, and chase him up beyond the clouds so Ice can take him down. “Done and dusted.”

Kicking his feet up in his own private office in the air base complex: “God damn, I could get used to this.”

“Keep up your kill streak and one day you’ll have a corner office in the Pentagon,” Maverick calls from his own office next door. Kazansky pulls his feet down and heads inside, morbidly curious, and finds Maverick taping photos to his desk: Goose, Goose’s wife, friends from flight school and various detachments that Kazansky doesn’t know.

“Don’t you have frames or something?”

“Can’t be bothered,” says Maverick, his dogtags dangling from his neck as he leans over to tape another one down. “I don’t talk to half these cats anyway.”

Kazansky mulls that over, heading back out into the hallway. Does Mitchell have friends, or is it just Goose’s wife left now? He has a sudden memory of a night two years ago now, fraternizing with the enemy in the O-club, Janice on his arm until she wasn’t: I’ve heard that about you. You like to work alone. And Maverick’s cocky little smile.

“So tell me this,” he says over a beer at the O-club the night before their first real class starts; they’re sitting in the back, dressed a little covertly, not making eye contact with any of the kids they’re trying to scope out. “And can I actually ask this? Without you punching me or something?”

Maverick’s got his eyes on a chick draping her legs all over a prospective student. “Depends on the question, I guess.”

“The MiG. Negative four-G inverted dive. Was that real?”

“Sure was.” He smiles. “You sound like Charlie.”

“Oh, yeah,” Kazansky says, remembering. Across the room, one of the kids is absolutely crushing another at darts. He’ll keep an eye on that one. “What happened with that?”

Maverick shrugs, and Kazansky can’t tell if he’s uncomfortable or just entirely unaffected. “We wanted different things. She’s just as much of a tight-ass as you are. Relationships don’t work out when you can’t see eye-to-eye on shit like that. On the rules.”

“Oh, the rules," Kazansky mutters. “God help the second cohort of TOPGUN eighty-eight.” He’s wondering how many other women Maverick slept with before Charlie called it quits, if that’s the kind of rules Maverick means. He says as much: “Never thought of you as the relationship kind.”

He meant it to sting, but Maverick just nods. “I’m not,” he says, and he’s still got his eye on that girl—dark roany curls, long legs, a red dress with a neckline far too low for a military club. Kazansky himself’s got eyes for her for a moment before Maverick says, “I’ll probably die alone surrounded by women. You feel me?”

Kazansky laughs and takes a big slug of his beer. These kids aren’t hardly any younger than he is. He might have rank over them, and infinitely more combat kills, but he remembers how he was speaking to Mitchell just weeks ago before he was promoted. It might be hard to get these students to respect him. 

“I’ll tell you what,” he says, “why don’t we do a little good-cop, bad-cop routine?”

“Huh?”

“I’m just thinking—look around. These hotshots are our age. Hell, some of ‘em might be older. Definitely older than you.”

“Shut up, Kazansky.”

“We’re gonna need to get them to respect us some kind of way.”

“That happens,” Maverick says, taking a slurp of his scotch and soda, “when we start flying against them.”

Kazansky’s about to say something when someone taps him on the shoulder. He looks up: it’s the girl they were both making eyes at. “Care to dance, soldier?”

Sailor, actually, Kazansky thinks, but he tosses on a blinding smile and stands to meet her. “I can’t dance, really,” he says. “Or I’m not supposed to. I outrank everyone in the room.” He pauses for effect, looks down at her mouth. “But I could take you home.”

He watches her decide. Then she turns a little to Maverick, who’s watching with an expression that’s half-amused and half-disdainful, and says, “Sorry. I prefer blonds.”

Maverick shrugs, already scanning the room for his own target. “So do I,” he says with a grin. “No skin off my nose. Have fun.”

They do.

And it’s past midnight and he’s got this little thing tucked under his arm in bed and he’s asking her if she wants a taxi and she says, Done with me that quickly, are you? And he’s apologizing, asking what exactly she thought this was, and she laughs a little and kisses him on the nose, I’m only joking, soldier, scooping her dress off the floor and leaving his bedroom naked to dress in the hallway where he can’t see her.

Sailor, he thinks, and he waits for the front door to close before he closes his eyes. 

 

 

“I had this little blonde chick wrapped around my finger,” Maverick’s murmuring to him; it’s 0630 and they’re checking the flight sheet over, signing off the pairs: Jazz / Denmark, Polestar / Senior, Holler / Luxury... “At some points in the night, literally.”

“I’m not sure this is the professional conversation we should be having,” Kazansky says, watching one of the flight techs stencil Lt. Don French / “Frenchie” on the side of a Tomcat. The paint dries so quickly it’s kind of nice to watch.

“We’re wingmen, aren’t we?” says Maverick. “No matter how much we don’t want to be. And I was your wingman last night, Ice. Picked you up that nice girl from, oh, where was she from.”

“I didn’t ask.”

“Even catch her name?”

“Something German. Liesl or Elsa or something like that.” No, he didn’t catch her name. He slides his aviators on and zips his flight suit over his golf shirt. 

“You’re just naming characters from Indiana Jones now,” says Maverick, spitting his gum into his hand (where it disappears somewhere). “I take it she was a whirlwind, then.”

“I never said I was the relationship type, either, Maverick,” Kazansky says, looking down at his watch. “C’mon. Time’s up. Let’s go show these kids what we know.”

And Viper’s saying, “That’s it for the prelims, gentlemen. It’s my honor to introduce you to your two flying instructors—Lieutenant Commanders Mitchell and Kazansky. Call signs: Maverick and Iceman. Three confirmed combat kills each, both graduates of TOPGUN eighty-six.” He pauses. “You may have read about them in the paper.”

And standing there in front of sixteen awe-struck hotshots—well, that’s a feeling that goes a little to his head. More to Maverick’s, though, because out of the corner of Iceman’s eye he can see that stupid little smile.

“Gentlemen,” Iceman says, cool and strict like Viper, “I’m gonna tell you a secret you already know. Training for combat is nothing like combat. Aerial Combat Maneuvering: A.C.M. Dogfighting. You know it, I know it. It’s what we do. But when you’re out there in the saddle, you forget maneuver names, you forget combinations, you forget protocols and regulations. All you have left is your instinct. And that’s what we’re going to whip into shape over these next eight weeks.”

“Lieutenant Commander Kazansky and I will be flying A-4 Skyhawks,” Maverick jumps in, “to simulate the enemies you might spot out in the wild: MiGs-28 and -29, to be exact. You’ve only ever gone up against your own kind in scrims and scrums. I think you’ll like this.” That daredevil grin.

Iceman pulls Maverick aside before they hop into their planes. “Don’t encourage bad behavior. I mean it.”

“He means it,” Maverick says to the guy holding the chocks for his Skyhawk. Then he turns back. “Right, so, we’re going up against pairs. You or me?”

“For both?” Iceman says. “You first, since you got me that girl. We’ll switch off. Just don’t let one of ‘em get me before you get him.”

“I guess I would say the same for you,” Maverick says, shoving his helmet down onto his head.

Then they’re up and off, taking their two-minute head start with ample leisure.

Dutch and Jack, Blackbeard and Chevy are up first. "Don’t leave your wingman,” Iceman chides them, and then Maverick follows up with: “Too close for missiles, switching to guns. Got sights on Dutch. You’re dead.”

Denmark and Jazz, Frenchie and Sousa. Maverick’s the bait this time, Iceman the switch. “I’ve got tone on Frenchie. Sorry, kid. You’re out.”

They’re conferring in low tones over the radio before the next group hops, thinking they might have a winner in Polestar, the pilot who was beating his RIO, Senior, at darts the night before. And he does get close—real close, too close for comfort; Polestar’s maybe two inches away from radar lock on Iceman when Maverick says, “I’ve got tone. Splash Polestar.”

And going up against pilots who mostly follow the rules and do what they’re told is something of a shocking experience to Iceman, whose own TOPGUN experience was irrevocably tainted by Maverick and his jackassery, and Maverick’s giving Polestar and Senior and Holler and Luxury their briefing— “You guys were good, really good, but Holler, you’ve gotta save your wingman when he’s in a tight spot, that’s your priority, not getting your own kill” —and Iceman is staring at him with his jaw unconsciously locked, this foolhardy bastard with his dark hair sweaty and cowlicked from his helmet, thinking, Why wasn’t it this easy when you were my wingman? Why didn’t you engage then? Why is it just now that we’ve finally figured out how to fly?

Viper brings the hotshot students back into the classroom to debrief and discuss and examine the polygons on their computer screens in the TACTS trailer, and the day’s over for Maverick and Iceman.

Mitchell smacks Kazansky on the back a few times once they make it back to the showers. “Good team,” he says, exhaustion bleeding into his voice. "Good team.”

“I know,” Kazansky says, peeling off his flight gear and tugging off his shirt. “How come just now, huh?”

“Well,” Mitchell says behind him, “we’re wingmen, aren’t we?”

Kazansky wraps a towel around his waist and heads for the shower. “Shit. If you keep flying like that, Maverick, I’ll be your wingman for as long as you like.”

 

 

And this is how it goes. 

They don’t win every match together, but that’s the point, isn’t it? They’re teaching these kids how to beat them. One-on-one their statistics are about the same. Iceman loses most frequently to pilots who fly like Maverick, unpredictable and jumpy, and Maverick loses to pilots whose first instinct is to stay the course, no mistakes. Viper watches everything with that same droll face but a smug look in his eyes: I told you you two were complements.  

The second cohort of TOPGUN eighty-eight graduates with stars in their eyes and each pair gets deployed somewhere else, escorting lost boats to international waters and planes out of national airspaces, et cetera. Then the third cohort arrives and it goes much the same way, and 1988 becomes 1989, and the months go on.

“He’s not a bad pilot when you give him a goal,” Kazansky tells Slider over the phone. “When the goal is I’ll give you a shiny trophy if you beat everyone else, of course the bastard’s gonna trample all over everyone to get there first. But when you tell him the goal is to keep his wingman alive—well, he’s doing it, is all I’ll say.”

“Yuck,” says Slider. “Sooner or later you’re going to have him replace me as your RIO.” He means: Sooner or later you fuckers will be fast friends.

And the tough part is—Kazansky thinks he might already be on the way there. The fact that Maverick isn’t trying to kill him anymore has kind of lightened the mood. At first, they decide whose kill it is by flipping a coin; then it becomes games of gin rummy after hours; then it becomes picking the hottest girl in a downtown San Diego club and betting who can go after her first (mixed results on that one).

They’re getting to know each other a little—every dinner date to a movie with a girl is followed by a conversation the next day about said movie, not about the sex or about the girl, and they start to realize they have a few opinions in common. Mitchell says he was born the day after Marilyn Monroe died and has always felt kind of a kindred connection with her (and clearly a psychosexual connection, but he doesn’t say that), and Kazansky’s confessing that when the dime theatre on his block showed Gentlemen Prefer Blondes he’d snuck into the back row every night for a week straight just to see her again.

They both think Sylvester Stallone is the height of cool and that if anything was gonna end the Cold War it was Rocky IV, and because they’re still in the Cold War after Rocky IV clearly the Cold War will never end. (“Well, they’ll keep signing our paychecks, then.”)

Both of them are only-slightly-ironically turned on by the thought of driving a bitching muscle car, something with chrome everywhere, to the point of gaudiness, all leather seats and a varnished-wood steering wheel, and they can’t decide on the color (Mitchell wants Ferrari red and Kazansky wants Batman black) but they agree to compromise on the fact that the 1969 Chevy Camaro is it, the Dream Car, except then Kazansky finds out that Mitchell can drive a motorbike but never got his license to drive and that’s a joke in and of itself. “Probably can’t reach the pedals, that’s why.”

They both like girls who are a little rough in bed but sweet and gentle afterwards, and over the first year of instructing at TOPGUN together they probably rack up something like fifty combined notches on their bedposts, in addition to their six combined confirmed air-to-air kills. Their philandering ways are jested about, poked at, made fun of, but never seriously discussed with each other. They don’t know each other that well.

 

 

Kazansky’s packing his things from the shower room into his bag to head home for the weekend one Friday when he hears an excited child’s cry and Mitchell’s shout of joy: “Hey-hey, look who it is!”

And a voice he recognizes from maybe a dream or a fuzzy memory—a woman’s voice: "Maverick. We’re late already. Let’s go.”

He’s not ready to face the world yet; he hasn’t spiked his hair or even combed it, really, but he’s got clothes on and he’s curious, so he shakes the last drops of water out and wanders into the hallway to see who it is.

Oh. “Maverick, I don’t think they can be here.” It’s Goose’s wife and kid looking at him like he burst through the wall. 

Mitchell’s still crouching in front of the kid, a stage smile pasted on, and he makes a big show of looking up and down the hallway. “They can be here if you don’t tell anyone,” he says, then pulls Gosling close and whispers something in his ear that makes the kid crack up, pointing at Kazansky, probably something like This one’s a hard-ass, kid.

“Tom Kazansky, isn’t it?” Carole says, over-polite. “You remember Bradley.”

“That’s right,” he says, not meeting her eyes. His hair’s still dripping wet and flopping all over his forehead. And he could bust them, he could send them out of the Naval Fighter Weapons School since it’s classified anyway, no civilian clearance, but he feels like he’s intruded on something he wasn’t meant to see. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“That’s alright,” Carole says lightly. “We were just heading out anyway. Come on, Maverick.”

“Off to Bradley’s ‘Pasta-que,’” Mitchell says, “not like any of us know what that is. See you Sunday, Ice.” And he scoops Bradley up to his hip and they take off, leaving Kazansky confused and alone behind them.

 

 

“We’re not together,” Mitchell explains later. “Me and Carole? No. We’d tear each other to pieces. And we’d make each other cry, which is worse.”

Kazansky’s trying to make light of the whole situation, trying to push away the horrific wave of Goose-begotten grief and guilt cresting inside his head. “You cry often, Maverick?”

Mitchell shrugs. “When bad enough shit happens, sure. But I don’t like anyone watching.” (And that’s confusing for Kazansky, who hasn’t cried since his mom died and isn’t sure if he remembers how anymore.) “No. Carole says she wants someone to be there for Bradley, a role model, maybe. Someone she can hang off her arm at social events to show she’s moving forward.”

“Is she?”

Mitchell’s face closes off. That’s private. (But the answer is obviously no.)

“Sorry. That’s personal,” Kazansky acknowledges. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“S’alright,” Mitchell says, sighing. They’re eating in the officers’ mess at a table by themselves away from the lieutenants, the way they do when they have something to discuss. “I think Carole wishes I were a better role model. Someone else. Someone not flying forty-million-dollar jets for the U.S. government, because now Bradley wants to fly just like his dad. And she thinks I’m teaching Bradley to break the rules.”

Kazansky slides on his aviators because he needs something to do. “I wonder where she got that idea.” Then takes them off to polish the lenses with his napkin.

“I know,” Mitchell says self-consciously. He puts his aviators on, too, because the sun has come out from behind a cloud; he’s looking out the window now, thinking something over in his head. Kazansky can practically hear the gears turning. “You know, every other week Carole has me over for dinner? And I can’t cook worth a damn, I’m warning you, but—well, we were talking about it, and she’d like you to come over, maybe, if you wanted. It’s baseball season, you know. We might listen to the Padres game.” He’s still looking out the window, but Kazansky understands the tone of his voice: You’re guilty about Goose, too. Here’s how you make it up to her.

“Okay,” he hears himself saying, and regrets it.

 

 

So he goes to Goose and Carole’s house. She stayed here, in the San Diego billets, for a reason only God knows. The front porch makes him clench his jaw; he’s furiously pulling out a cigarette and lighting it and puffing it down in two minutes flat, just to get his head a little lighter. He can hear the radio on inside, the muffled crack of a baseball hitting a bat, the low roar of the crowd. 

Carole pulls the door open when he knocks. “Tom!” she exclaims, like she’s surprised he showed up; she graciously accepts the bottle of two-buck-chuck wine he found in some dusty moving box and gives him a kiss on the cheek that goes as much to his head as the cigarette did. 

“The Iceman appears,” says Mitchell from the kitchen, where he’s putting on a full performance for Bradley, who’s just eating it up. This is weird, Kazansky thinks; he’s in jeans and a golf shirt. It is weird. The whole thing’s weird. He and Mitchell killed this kid’s dad and his mom wants them over for dinner?

“Oh,” Carole says, a little disappointed. “What did you do to your hair?”

“What I always do, Miss?” Kazansky says, taken-aback.

“I liked it loose. The way it was on Friday. You looked less threatening.”

“I think the whole point is to be threatening,” Mitchell tells Bradley. “You want me to explain what I’m doing, kid, or you just want to watch?”

“It’s too long loose,” Kazansky says, his face hot. Of all the things to start the evening with, talking about his hair was not on his imagined shortlist. “Against regulations. Gotta keep it spiked.”

They’re all trying too hard to put on a chipper performance for the kid, and if Bradley notices anything slipping through the facade he doesn’t show it. They’re near-silent throughout Maverick’s mediocre dinner—Carole says grace and the only other person who says Amen is Bradley—and it’s painfully tense, just the Padres game on the radio in the background keeping them all afloat. Words unsaid, memories relived. Is it like this every other week?

Bradley takes everyone’s plates to the kitchen sink and then returns to the table and interlocks his fingers. “Uncle Mav,” he says primly. “You said you would tell me a story about my dad.”

Mitchell’s devastated for just a second before he meets Kazansky’s eyes, a scapegoat found. “Why don’t you ask Iceman about your dad? They were friends at the Naval Academy.”

“You were?” says Bradley, showing off two missing teeth. “Where’s that?”

Carole’s pleading with Kazansky through her eyes, Mitchell’s down on his hands and knees.

“Annapolis,” Kazansky says easily. Sure, he’ll put on a song and dance, if it makes everyone happy. “That’s in Maryland. All the way across the country from here. Twenty-six hundred miles. It’s a long way.”

“But you knew my dad, though.” He’s discerning for a five-or-six-year-old.

Kazansky settles back into his chair. “Yeah, I knew Goose,” he says. “Not super well. Your dad and I spent time with different people. He was a RIO, do you know what that means?”

“Radar intercept officer,” Gosling recites proudly.

“That’s right. And I’m a pilot. I fly the planes, guys like your dad help me steer it, help me figure out where I should look. We were in completely different programs, different classes, different everything, and we each got assigned a partner much later on. I got—well, my friend, he’s called Slider. You might meet him if you ever go to flight school. He’s an instructor there now. And your dad got Maverick here a few years down the line. So I didn’t spend a lot of time with him.” He hesitates. “But there’s one Goose story I have, though. I think it’s a good one. I really didn’t know your dad at the start, but we did get to know each other at parties. Goose played a pretty mean game of billiards. There aren’t a lot of girls at the Naval Academy, just so you know: beware. But there are girls at parties. Goose comes up to me and challenges me to a game of pool and whispers to me that there’s a girl over there who’s got her eyes on me and he’s gonna help me—he’s gonna help me make her like me. If I beat the famous billiards king Goose at his own game, she’ll have to be impressed with me. So he throws the game, like Shoeless Joe Jackson. —Did your mom or Maverick explain that to you? Well, anyway, he loses on purpose to help me out. But it turns out the entire time the girl was interested in him, no matter if I won or lost. But your dad wouldn’t have it. Goose throws his arm around me and says, ‘If he couldn’t lose to me at pool, what makes you think he’ll lose to me with girls? If he can’t have you, neither can I.’”

It’s not that funny a story, but Bradley’s laughing, a child who laughs at an adult joke without understanding because he knows laughter is expected, and Carole has tears in her eyes.

It’s drizzling outside when Kazansky and Mitchell leave to head home. They walk back to Kazansky’s car and Mitchell’s bike, both parked in the cul-de-sac at the end of the street, and Kazansky has one leg in the car when he notices Mitchell hasn’t even touched his bike. He’s just looking up at the rain falling upon him in silence, hands buried in his pockets. 

It’s a long, precarious moment. Mitchell’s like Noah standing in the rain and realizing the Deluge has begun. 

Then he turns around, realizing he’s being watched. They look at each other for a second, the rain dampening their hair, soaking into the patches on their G-1 bomber jackets. He says, “You made that up, didn’t you?”

Kazansky says nothing.

Mitchell continues: “Goose lost every billiards game he ever touched. Always overshot. No accuracy. It’s why he couldn’t be a pilot.”

Kazansky looks down at the ground, shining blue and wet. “It wasn’t pool. It was beer pong.”

“Ah,” says Mitchell. That’s different.

“And he didn’t say that shit at the end. He laughed at me and took her home.”

“Ah,” Mitchell says again, a fond smile, red heat bleeding through his cheeks. “Doesn’t make for that good a story.”

“I really didn’t know him that well. And, no, it doesn’t, especially not in front of his wife and kid.”

Mitchell worries his lip through his smile. They’re well and truly soaked now, the two of them, drowned rats in the middle of a deep blue cul-de-sac. “But he offered to help you.”

“That’s right," Kazansky says. "That part shouldn’t be surprising. I think he might’ve said all that, if he liked me any better.” He shrugs, helpless. “I guess I’m not really a guy people like you and Goose pride themselves on liking.”

“Well,” says Mitchell slowly, his mouth open wide enough that rainwater drips in. “I can’t argue with that, except I think Bradley likes you. I think he likes you a lot.”

And Kazansky knows what that means.

 

 

He doesn’t get invited over every time, but it starts becoming an expectation. Kazansky will show up Wednesday nights in a button-down with a cheap-ass bottle of wine and make up stories about Goose and if they really think about it for longer than a second it’s fucked-up, but good thing they’re not thinking about it. 

“It’s kind of you,” Mitchell tells him. “The kid could use a break from the doom-and-gloom, you know?”

Kind's not a word Kazansky would ever have thought Mitchell would ever ascribe to him, but he’s just doing his part, just playing his role in this giant game of dominoes they’ve somehow built around themselves since Goose’s death.

In the meantime, time moves forward. They take on their fifth TOPGUN cohort and then their sixth and seventh. They’ve got their routine down pat, now, still deciding who gets a kill by winning bets and games of cards, still blowing every team out of the water the way Jester and Viper did when Maverick and Iceman showed up to TOPGUN, and all the while getting better. Pilots are predictable creatures. There’s an infinite number of vectors a plane could travel along, but only so many maneuvers a plane can take inside those vectors. By the end of their eighth TOPGUN cohort, they both think they’ve got lieutenant pilots on lock. And then Kazansky’s making plans to leave TOPGUN already.

Viper calls him into his office one day in February of 1990. “Kiddo,” he says, his new facetious nickname for Iceman and Maverick both. “You’re rounding out your second year here, and I’ve got some news.”

“Shoot, sir.”

“I’ve been throwing your name into the ring for a promotion to Commander. See if we can’t get you out of TOPGUN and back in the service like you want, one last go before you’re on desk duty for the rest of your life. There’s a squadron out on the Pacific that’s got your name on it. You remember Commander Aldo?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, he’s planning to retire in the next two years. He wants to make you his X.O., his second in command. Give it a year-odd and that squadron is yours. V.F.-Forty-Seven. The Eagle-eyes.” Viper pauses, looks at him with a rare smile. “You’ve done exceptionally well at TOPGUN, Ice,” he says. “Managed to tame Maverick and produce eight of the finest cohorts the program has ever seen. I don’t say that lightly. I’ll be sad to see you go.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You don’t have to call me sir anymore,” Viper says. “Not now that you’re on your way up to my rank. Mike will do.” He taps the bottom of a couple folders on his desk to settle them out. “Two more cohorts, son, that’s all I’m asking of you. Round you out to a nice even ten before you go, and we’ll start looking for replacements. Someone you think Maverick might work with.”

Kazansky considers it. “The kid who won our first cohort. Polestar. Maverick liked him, and he expressed interest in coming back to teach. Hell of a pilot, too.”

“I’ll send the word,” Viper says. Then he gives a wry grin. “Alright. Go on.”

“Well,” Mitchell says later. They’re back to their old habit of scoping out this term’s competition the night before instruction begins, haunting a table at the O-club behind their aviators. “FITRON Forty-Seven, huh?”

“We’ve both flown with them,” Kazansky says. “You in eighty-five, right? And that’s where I got my last two kills.”

“That’s right. Scalpel’s retiring, eh.”

“I guess. Kind of a hard-ass, though.”

“I’m sure you got along.” Mitchell’s watching a golden-haired lieutenant try it on with one of the ladies.

“I gotta confess, Mav,” Kazansky says, the words falling out of his mouth before he can stop them. “Those kills up there. It wasn’t all honor and glory. It was just procedure.”

“It always is procedure,” Mitchell says.

“No, that’s not what I mean. We were only in combat for ten seconds, maybe. The circumstances are classified—I can’t tell you in the O-club—but these two Soviets were suicidal. They just let me do it. No honor in that.”

Mitchell considers this, tips his beer away from him to study the label. “Doesn’t matter how hard the dogfight is. You came home, didn’t you?”

Kazansky just stares.

 

 

He explains to Bradley that he’s leaving, that he has to go fly the planes off the big boats, that he has to go shout at pilots and make them listen to him but that’s what he’s really good at (making a joke about Maverick), and Bradley’s hugging him round the waist and crying and crying and crying and…

“I told you he likes you,” Mitchell says. They’re standing on the tarmac in their flight suits after the final “Alpha Strike” mission, watching the sun approach the horizon. “You’re good for him. Kinda the yin to my yang, if you get me. Carole likes it when you spend time with him more than she likes it when I do.”

“I don’t really understand her, still,” Kazansky sighs. “Can’t tell if she forgives me for what happened or hates me for what happened.”

“Well,” Mitchell says, patting him on the shoulder roughly. “We’re in the same boat, you and I.”

“Good kid,” Kazansky says absentmindedly. He has a week left at TOPGUN, just the last graduation and administrative paperwork to get through; there’s a nagging suspicion in the back of his head that he’ll never fly again. He thinks about it hard, thinks about Maverick and Bradley and Carole and Viper, and about this school and about his plane, and before he can stop himself he says, “Let’s hop.”

“What?”

“You and me. Hawkfight. One-on-one. Last go around the merry-go-round.” He grins. “See who’s really the best pilot.”

Maverick’s already halfway to his plane and Kazansky laughs, We still have to get cleared for flight, you idiot, but then they tussle and argue with ATC and get cleared for flight and they’re on their way up, flying away from each other ten miles like gunslingers making ten paces.

“Hard deck’s a little squishy,” Iceman allows. “So let’s set it at twelve thousand. Give you two thousand to fuck around.”

“He’s letting me fuck around, he wants to lose,” Maverick says. 

Iceman doubles back at ten miles and shoots straight skyward. He wants to get above Maverick before Maverick gets above him. “Not so sure about that.”

“On your way to me, Ice?”

“That’s correct.” He’s at twenty thousand barometric feet and still climbing, and he speeds along in silence until he spots Maverick below him a couple miles.

Silent and stealthy. Iceman falls out of the sky, aiming his nose right for Maverick, angling the HUD—

“Oh, no you don’t. Bastard.” Maverick pulls up and away, a sharp near vertical angle, and then pulls a Lufbery back around to the sea—he’s so flighty that Iceman never has any idea what he’ll do next.

It’s a good dogfight. The best of his life. Gets his heart pounding and his mouth dry, and he’s filling the airwaves with cuss words and pulling so many Gs he might black out, locked in a helical spiral earthwards until they break apart at ten thousand feet and try again. They’re both the other’s biggest weakness: Iceman, who never makes a single mistake, and Maverick, who makes so many he’s unfollowable, dangerous, unpredictable as hell. 

And then—he thinks they might have to call it quits, give up the game and call a stalemate at fifteen minutes, when Maverick flips around from below him and confronts him head-on, nose-to-nose. “Too close for missiles. I’ve got you, Ice.” 

And in the split second it takes for Maverick’s thumb to switch from missiles to cannons, Iceman desperately shoots skyward, hops over him at an oblique angle, rounds down, and—still inverted—catches Maverick on his upward turn. “No, you don’t. I’ve got tone. That’s a good tone. Splash one. You’re dead, Mav.”

There’s a second of silence; they’re flying away from each other, one towards the red sunset, the other towards the darkness. Then Maverick laughs and pulls up and settles on his wingtip. “I sure am.”

“Now we know,” says Ice, grinning so wide he thinks his face might crack open. Then—because he’s feeling charitable, he’s feeling at the top of the world, he says, “Tower, this is Thunderbolt. Requesting permission to perform flyby.” 

“Pattern’s open, Lieutenant Commander,” says Tower, “give me a minute.” 

There’s some crackling static, and then the Air Boss comes online. “It’s your last flight, isn’t it, Kazansky?”

“That’s correct, sir.”

“Permission granted. But make it quick and make it quiet.”

“Aw, shit,” cries Maverick. “It’s no fun when they give you permission!”

“I’m sure it’s not,” Iceman says, except it is; they speed past at full afterburner and probably register on the Richter Scale, and they’re both shouting and whooping and hollering over the radio and all of a sudden it hits him— Shit. I got to Maverick and he got to me, too. Fuck.

He’s patting the nose of his Skyhawk affectionately when Maverick joins him on the tarmac, dripping sweat from the ends of his hair. “Good go. You’re alright in the air when it comes down to it, Kazansky.”

“Guess there’s a reason I earned that plaque, huh?” he says, reaching up and rubbing the stencil of his name under the cockpit canopy one last time. Then he turns to Mitchell, who’s looking at him oddly, some bittersweet mixture he can’t put a name to, and feels a little bad about boasting. “Maverick. I’ve got a handle of tequila back at mine. We can get wasted before graduation even starts."

“One last go?” says Mitchell, still with that strange nameless look to him, like he’s been blasted away. “Okay. But I gotta shower first.”

So they’re back in their jeans and T-shirts when they make it to the little three-roomer shack Kazansky’s been renting, all decked-out in framed pictures of his friends and distant family relations he only ever talks to in letters once a year.

Mitchell’s staring at one picture, resting on the sideboard; it’s the picture of their TOPGUN class. Just a memory, now. Then he investigates the picture of Sarah and her boyfriend. “She’s pretty.”

“Gets it from our mom,” Kazansky says easily. “They were high school sweethearts. Her boyfriend’s kind of a piece of work, though. Actually Communist, and I’m not making that up. Bobby. He and I never talked. But Sarah says they’ll never get married because they don’t need the government to sign off on their idea of love.” Maverick pops his head up, surprised, a little gobsmacked. “I know,” Kazansky says. “That kind of people.”

He pulls the top off the bottle of Patrón and pulls out two clean glasses from the sink—he never invested in shot glasses; he does most of his drinking at the O-club anyway—and by the time he hands Mitchell his glass Mitchell’s standing close to him and they’re looking at each other like each knows what the other’s thinking. But Kazansky doesn’t. He has no idea. His heart thumps slow and steady, but the way Mitchell’s looking at him makes him nervous. “What?” he says, holding his glass out to clink the rim.

Mitchell leans back against the sink next to him and downs his glass in one go, then shakes his head like a dog to make it go down. “Nothing,” he says. His dogtags are out, and Kazansky notices for the first time that he’s got three, not two. Oh. One of them is Goose’s, surely. “It’s just,” he continues. “I have to be honest, I was about ready to call it quits with the Navy until Viper called me back to TOPGUN. And it hasn’t been easy, but I think it’s about to get a lot harder with you gone.” He pauses, and Kazansky’s a little disappointed that Mitchell wants to get introspective-drunk instead of party-drunk. “I’m paying you a compliment, douchebag.”

“I got that, Mitchell,” Kazansky says. “Thanks. Man, it’s gonna be a pain to be away from flying, you know that? I’m good at flying. Commanding a squadron, I’m not so sure.”

“Well, let Scalpel know. He’ll send you up one day. He’s a good guy.” Mitchell hesitates again, a long second. 

This is weird as hell. 

And then—and then Mitchell reaches over and hugs him, thumping him on the back the way he did on the Midway after they landed, and Kazansky thinks, That’s it, he’s got his affection out, we can go back to normal now. 

But then Mitchell doesn’t let go, and the context of the situation pulls a one-eighty.

Oh, Jesus Christ, Kazansky thinks, his pulse skyrocketing and his palms going sweaty, and he lets Mitchell go but Mitchell just moves his hands down to Kazansky’s waist, and he’s trying to force the words out that he’s not, that he’s never, that he’s never even thought— and he’s so pissed that they’re not even drunk—

Mitchell’s nervous, his breath stuttering in his throat; he doesn’t have any clue what to do; he’s got a hand on Kazansky’s belt buckle, and Kazansky’s so goddamn pissed that neither of them have the excuse of being drunk that he shoves Mitchell away from him, maybe a little more forcefully than he ought to have, and they’re staring at each other in the dark kitchen, gasping for breath, and he’s saying, “Mitchell, what the hell—"

Mitchell gasps, presses the heel of his palm into his eye and sighs through his nose, eyes screwed shut and face burning red. “I need,” he says, and for a terrifying second Kazansky thinks Mitchell is going to say he needs him, but he says, “to go home. Sorry.” 

And then he’s gone, and Kazansky is still leaning up against the sink with sweaty palms, his chest still heaving and his heart still pounding, staring out the door-half-open, thinking, Jesus Christ. You break the rules every time you breathe. And now this.

 

 

They’re both eerily good at acting, at pretending. Mitchell glows in his dress whites, his slacks finely pressed and his hair nicely combed; he shakes hands with Arco and Verbatim, the two winning aviators of their tenth TOPGUN cohort, who are grinning and throwing their arms around one another. They’ve got the plaque between them; Kazansky passes it over to Arco and shakes Mitchell’s hand with a firm grip. Mitchell meets his eyes, but there’s nothing behind them, like he’s shuttered off the windows of an old house. 

Then graduation is over, and Viper asks them if they want to get a drink, the way they typically do afterwards, but Kazansky says he has to pack to leave, and Viper says, “You’ve still got a week, son,” but Mitchell says he double-parked his bike and he’s gotta rescue it from the MPs and the whole thing gets called off.

Then they don’t see each other for six days. 

Kazansky classifies it in his head as an “incident.” Nobody thinks straight after a dogfight. Nobody. Competition’s hard, always has been, emotions running high and blood pounding at a fever pitch, and it’s the Navy, after all, so maybe there’s something wrong with Mitchell and not with him. 

He’s trying to figure out what could have caused it, running back in his head every interaction over the last four years, trying to pinpoint the moment he provoked something, stirred up some unresolved heat between them. Asking Mitchell to drink with him at home: could that have been interpreted as some kind of signal? What about asking Maverick to dogfight? Was that a subconscious euphemism? Telling Mitchell about Sarah and Bobby, something about love and the government—did Mitchell read into that more than he should have? And then—all those nights at Carole’s house—Bradley and Mitchell’s shitty home-cooked dinners—was that some kind of attempt at domesticity he wasn’t picking up on? What the hell have they been doing all this time? Maverick can only ever be at his throat with teeth bared, trying to kill him, or getting him off, is that it? Is that how he sees it? It’s an insult, it’s a thorn in his side, it’s something hot and precipitous kicked up in his blood that he can’t filter off.

Because he’s not— he’s not any of the words he might use to describe that interaction, words that embarrass him deeply; and God, how many naked pilots has he shared a shower with and never thought anything, never even had the desire to look, never felt anything out of the ordinary; how many hundreds of women has he made love to over the years and never felt the need to try anything else? He’s pissed, that’s all he can say, summing it up: he’s god-damn pissed that Mitchell thinks he is, that Mitchell interpreted something about Kazansky wrong, and he’s trying to figure out what that thing is so he can stamp it out and move on.

But Mitchell doesn’t give him the chance. He takes his paperwork home with him and works on it there, something that’s breaking about a dozen classification rules, but Kazansky’s sure he’ll make a lifelong enemy if he calls him on it now. Kazansky does his own paperwork in between taking photos down and removing plaques and ribbons and awards from his office, packing them into cardboard boxes and between styrofoam peanuts. And every time the hallway door opens he cranes his neck to see who it is, and every time it’s no cigar. C’mon, Mav.

And then it’s the night before he has to catch the Chesapeake back in port and he’s spitting mad, an adrenaline kick pounds through him every time he thinks about it, and he’s packed his shit into storage by 2100 hours and he just can’t take it anymore, he’s gotta confront this son of a bitch—

And he finds himself on Maverick’s front porch already having knocked. 

“Kazansky? What the hell are you doing here?”

“We need to talk, me and you,” he says, then forces the anger down a little. “I can’t leave for sea duty with a grudge.”

Maverick shows him inside, face grim-set and weary already. It’s pitch-dark. He hasn’t turned on a single light. Kazansky leans up against the kitchen counter, trying to figure out a way to channel his frustration into a question, except he doesn’t actually think he wants to know the answer. 

“We need to talk,” he says again, because they do, and he’s hoping Maverick will start talking first so he won’t have to.

Maverick just looks at him, shoulders back and chin raised, his eyes flashing the reflection of the yellow streetlights outside the window. They’re both made of potential energy, shoes waiting to drop, planes ready to fall from the sky. He says: “No, we don’t.”

And that’s the kind of stupid Maverick logic you can’t really argue with—a bullheaded statement with which you already agree but can’t say yourself: No, we don’t need to talk about it, it really is that easy, just quiet and don’t do anything and let me—

“I’ve never,” Kazansky breathes, his eyes closed; Maverick’s already between his thighs, brushing his nose against the side of his throat, hands on his waist; and Kazansky’s terrified, mortified, petrified, “I’ve never done anything like this, I…”

Maverick starts trying to unbutton his shirt, but Kazansky shuts that down with an errant hand, because it’s not—it’s not like that, it’s not that serious, they’re just—and Maverick instead grips his belt and undoes the buckle and he says, so quietly Kazansky almost misses it, hardly a breath, as if he’s trying to choke down the shame of it, the guilt— "I have." And before they can consider the implications of that, the fact he even said it out loud, Maverick takes him in a warm curled hand and Kazansky’s mouth opens in shock; he hadn’t thought they would get this far.

He’s losing his mind a little; it’s like he’s flying for the first time again, pulling a barrel roll and staying inverted, up is down and down is up and the ground speeds along above him and the sky below; he’s leaning back into the barstool and tugging Maverick’s belt undone, too, because it’s polite to reciprocate, but he has no idea what he’s doing what the fuck are we doing what are we doing and neither of them are making any noise at all because they don’t want the other to hear the noises they make, and they’ve each got their faces buried in the crook of the other’s neck so they don’t have to look at each other, and Kazansky’s close—so close he’s already getting nervous about what comes after this—when Maverick stops—stops!—and leans back to look at him, but the look isn’t smug or malicious, it’s raw and open like knuckles after a hard punch, and he says, “Tom.” As if trying to remember Kazansky’s first name, as if making sure he has it right.

Tom holds him at arms’ length, his heart racing like a hummingbird’s, and says, “Pete.”

And then they’re both gritting their teeth and closing their eyes and it’s all over in another ten seconds anyway, no noises, no gasps or shudders or anything—stealth mode, Kazansky thinks wryly, just as soon as his brain stops contracting and his vision clears and he can think for the first time in a few minutes; a covert op.

Mitchell pulls out from between Kazansky’s thighs and turns away so Kazansky can’t see him zip his jeans up. Kazansky does his own and stands—his knees are weak, are you fucking kidding—and keeps his head down as Mitchell crosses the kitchen to rinse his hand off in the kitchen sink. He turns the tap off and leans forward over the basin, thinking so hard Kazansky can hear his neurons firing, and then he says, “It never reaches your eyes. You know that?” And Kazansky’s stunned stupid, and when it sinks in it both insults him and reassures him, because at least Mitchell’s confirming Kazansky isn’t… But then Mitchell says, “I see why they call you cold as ice.”

And Kazansky takes that as his cue to leave.

 

 

He spends two months shit-scared that someone’s gonna find out, that someone’s gonna call him into their office and strip his wings and chew him out or, worse, make fun of him, and when he gets called into a Rear Admiral’s stateroom onboard the Chesapeake he’s genuinely sure this is it, he’s hosed, except then the Rear Admiral shakes his trembling hand and congratulates him on getting promoted to Commander.

So he joins Scalpel again with the Eagle-eyes, VF-47, as their Executive Officer, second-in-command, and it’s boring as hell and so stressful that he starts smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. It really sinks in for him here: he is now living life on the Outside. The rest of his life will not consist of flying planes, it will consist of watching men younger than him fly planes. Shit, he’s thinking over a cigarette, watching the four Eagle-eyes take off for patrol in the South China Sea, I should’ve stayed with Maverick.

And maybe instead of muttering it under his breath whenever the LTJGs do something stupid-as-hell, he’s actually praying, because in July they receive urgent notice that a squadron of Soviet fighters has been threatening an American oil tanker near their position. Over the phone, around a fat Cuban cigar, Scalpel says, “We don’t got the pilots that requires.” Then he frowns and hangs up. “They’re sending TOPGUN graduates.”

He’s right; the Eagle-eye pilots are better-trained for patrols than they are for combat, so it really shouldn’t be any surprise that Maverick and a few recent graduates hop out of a chopper a few hours later and hit the flight deck running.

“There’s Maverick Mitchell,” Scalpel says, narrowing his jowly eyes. “Crazy-ass fool.” Then he looks up at Kazansky, squinting into the sun. “You wanna go, don’t you.”

“I do,” Kazansky says. 

“Then go. I won’t stop you.”

So the teams get scrambled again, and Maverick and Iceman end up with two RIOs they only barely know—Curveball and Strikeout, two kids who look like their combined age is still lower than even Maverick’s, and Maverick’s on Iceman’s wing according to Scalpel, with two pilots on their six backing them up.

They’re on the flight deck gearing up when that old fear strikes like a waiting viper, and he crosses over to Maverick and grabs him by the collar, curling his fingers in the tough fabric until they go white, and says, “You do not leave me, do you hear? You do not disengage. Your job is to keep me alive and my job is to keep you alive. Do you understand?” 

And Maverick stares at him like Iceman’s aiming a pistol between his eyes and says he understands, and they hop.

The Eagle-eyes run into the Soviets about a hundred miles out, where they’re hovering over the tanker ship like flies over a slab of meat. Two MiGs and two Yak-38s. It’s all intimidation, all for show, they’re dancing in and out and around each other and Iceman’s getting sick to his stomach, thinking I can’t do this shit again, when the MiGs start trailing after Touchdown’s Tomcat like they’re gearing up to get lock on him.

“Kill’s all yours, Ice,” he hears Maverick say over the radio, so he guns the gas and sits right on the tail of one of the MiGs and holds radar lock on him, nice and firm, then dips his nose and fires a few stray tracers. Warning shots. 

And the Soviets decide they don’t want a fight today. They bug out and go home. 

It’s the last combat mission Iceman and Maverick ever fly together.

It’s the last combat mission Iceman ever flies.

It’s past 0100 hours when they finish their debriefing—Curveball had an instant camera he was using to take pictures of the Yak-38s, and they all just bullshit each other and blow smoke up each other’s asses about what such-and-such marking means—and Kazansky slip-slides his way back to his tiny-ass room on D Deck and finds Mitchell waiting for him there.

“What the hell—I can’t, Maverick. I gotta sleep. Get out.”

But Mitchell stares him down with a frightening intensity. The hand resting on the desk is curled into a fist. “You thought,” he says, “I was going to leave you.”

“You did last time,” Kazansky bites, unbuckling his watch and turning away. “You said, it’s no good, and left me to die, practically.”

“Until I came back.”

“Sure. Hell of a gamble with my life. But thanks, honestly, for sticking around this time.” 

He shoves a hand into his hair, just trying to relieve some of the tension in his sinuses, and turns around to find that Mitchell is locking the door, and then is crossing the room, and then has pulled the zipper of Kazansky’s flight suit all the way down, and then has put Kazansky in his mouth.

There’s nothing he can say, no words; he backs up onto the cot and bites his own tongue so hard it almost bleeds and squeezes his eyes shut, because this cannot be happening—Maverick Mitchell can’t be on his knees sucking Kazansky off, can’t have his bare hands gripping Kazansky’s hips under his T-shirt; Kazansky isn’t covering his eyes with the back of his hand so he doesn’t have to look down and see Maverick on his knees, he’s not standing here in his flight gear on the USS Chesapeake with his cock in another pilot’s mouth after nearly engaging four Soviet fighters in air-to-air-combat, he’s not coming so hard he nearly blacks out and nearly puts a dent in his Annapolis ring with his teeth, he’s not, he’s not…

But he is.

Mitchell stands, looking around, and, finding no tissues in his field of view, picks up a blank spreadsheet page on the desk, spits into that, crumples it up, and tosses it into the wastepaper basket. Then he unlocks the door, gives that jaunty little two-finger salute, and is gone before Kazansky can even zip his flight suit above his waist. Payback.

Kazansky stands there, breathless, still at half-mast in his flight gear and boots, and listens to the creaking of the carrier floor beneath his feet, the almost-imperceptible rocking of the waves below him.

“Okay,” he says aloud after a moment, then cringes, because he hadn’t meant to voice it.

Okay. 

So this is how it’s gonna go.



Chapter Text

Maverick. I have leave these weeks in August and September: 08/17/90-09/03/90. Iceman.

 

 

Iceman. 348 Dwight D Eisenhower Wy, Miramar CA. Maverick.

 

 

Maverick. Leave canceled. Can’t come then, you know why. Ice.

 

 

The Iraqis invade Kuwait and the world turns upside down. Iraq has the fourth-largest air force on the planet, so there’s not much the U.S. can do in the short term except sanction them to hell and back; “strongly condemn” the invasion, as the President does over the radio; and start planning. The largest military coalition since WWII forms—39 countries, Jesus Christ, and even the Soviet Union condemns Baghdad’s aggression—and Kazansky routinely finds himself arguing on the phone with Egyptian translators and French Air Force commanders, each trying to figure out their role in the game afoot. They’re military, not diplomats, so they only kind of understand the background of the situation: something-something depressed oil prices, something-something slant drilling, something-something Saudi Arabian allies, something-something WMDs used against the Kurds and Iranians, something-something Saddam Hussein. They follow orders.

The U.N. Resolution 678 deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait passes on January 15, 1991, and H-Hour is 0238 hours, exactly, the next morning.

Scalpel and Iceman have overseen a changeover in their pilots and crew—better pilots, better RIOs, better planes that don’t have to spend four hours in maintenance for every fifteen minutes in the sky—and the USS Chesapeake is perched out in the Persian Gulf firing off F-14s at 2200 hours to go patrol the Iraqi-Saudi border.

It’s a whirlwind few days of non-stop activity and no sleep, and then the Gulf War stretches on another month, and he doesn’t think of Mitchell once. 

He gets leave in March, when the Chesapeake pulls into its dock in Alameda, and spends two weeks clubbing with Slider and Cougar (now training to be a lawyer in Oakland) through San Francisco, dancing and kissing and fucking their way through the Embarcadero, the Tenderloin, the Mission District, Daly City. They spot newspapers with headlines from Iraq and don’t bother to read them before boasting that they were there, they saw it happen, they took part in the most-one-sided military operation in history and emerged victorious. Slider was the RIO in an F-14 that shot down a Su-25 near Mukaradeeb and has made it his defining personality trait; Kazansky personally oversaw forty sorties and didn’t lose a single pilot. They’re all lighter than air. They helped win a war, a real war; not necessarily a war like the wars their fathers and grandfathers fought but a war nonetheless. 

Then he’s back onboard the Chesapeake; his squadron receives high honors and Scalpel retires and leaves the command of the Eagle-eyes to Kazansky, who decides he hates administrative work but is willing to do it if it means he’ll get promoted to Captain and off this stinking carrier within a few years.

He caught it at just the right time, he realizes: the Eagle-eyes were a pretty subpar squadron before the Gulf War whipped them into shape just in time for him to assume command. Now he and his squadron have international recognition and respect. It’ll make some things easier for him. (He gets to send a crew to TOPGUN. He wonders what Maverick thinks of them.)

Now all eyes turn to the Soviet Union, shivering in the looming shadow of its fall, and no one really knows what that means for the world.

In the middle of August, a year after Iraq invaded Kuwait, the phone on his desk rings and wakes him up at 0400 hours. “Commander Kazansky.”

“Ice?” It’s Maverick.

“Oh, Jesus Christ. It’s four in the morning here. What the hell do you want?”

“Shit, I forgot about the time difference. Calling regarding Rousseau and Pippin.”

“No way. No way. Let me go back to sleep.”

It’s not an order, so Maverick pushes forward. “I just wanted to let you know they’re gonna win.”

Kazansky smiles a little despite himself, rolls over in bed with the phone still against his ear. “I knew they would. Rousseau’s got this thing—it’s like a thought takes half the time to make it to the throttle, you know what I mean?”

“He’s pretty good. Guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found out he came from V.F.-Forty-Seven. ‘Whip your instincts into shape,’ and all that.” Maverick pauses, and Kazansky’s already on his way back to sleep. “How you doing?” 

“Good, Mav. Working my way up. Trying to catch up on sleep.”

“Uh-huh. Heard about your involvement in Desert Shield. Some pretty fancy shit. Probably looks real nice to the brass.” He pauses again. “You might think about coming back to Miramar one of these days. Since I hear you’re looking to move up to Captain. Sherman is taking off next year, retiring. Maybe you should come by and impress him before he does.”

And that's a thought. Helming the entire Miramar Air Base as Captain, shore duty for however long he wants it, close proximity to San Diego and to—

He wonders for a moment why Maverick wants him back in Miramar. 

“I’ll think about it.” With his eyes still closed, he visualizes his calendar. “I might come by in December. Think I’ll be back in California for a while then.”

Mitchell stays silent for a moment. “That’s a ways away.”

“It sure is,” says Kazansky, and hangs up. 

Then he can’t sleep, some vague shiver of unrest passing through him like a ghost, and he’s not sure if it’s anticipation or something else entirely.

 

 

The months aboard the Chesapeake plod on and on. 

In October, the first female pilot Kazansky has ever met is transferred to him; she’s about his age, a defiant little thing who doesn’t take no for an answer and faces everyone around her like she’s had to deal with guys twice as worse ten times a day for the last decade. She’s got a husband from Jalisco and a little girl, and Kazansky sometimes catches her flipping through the photos in her breast pocket when she thinks no one’s watching. She has a combat kill from Desert Storm. 

Hotshots in the Eagle-eyes flirt with her constantly, make fun, ask her if she can reach the pedals, and Kazansky’s sure they do worse when he’s not watching or calling them out on it. Hazing is bad in any squadron, but having one female pilot makes things a dozen times worse.

She comes to him at the start of November, still edged with sweat from her patrol mission, helmet (stenciled with JUNO) tucked under her arm. “Commander.”

“Lieutenant Trace,” he acknowledges, setting aside his stack of paperwork. He’s wondering if she’s going to complain about the way the Eagle-eyes have been treating her.

But Juno says, “You know Lieutenant Commander Mitchell, don’t you, sir?”

Kazansky stares at her, a little bemused. He hasn’t thought about Mitchell in a while. “I do.”

“I want TOPGUN, sir.”

“Well, the selection process is closed for the summer cohort,” he says, leaning back in his chair. He can’t help but smile a little, considering how that would work. Take a testosterone-saturated environment and stick a girl in it and see how that goes. “But I could call Maverick and Commander Metcalf and see if we can’t get you in the next one.”

“Thank you, sir.” She starts to go.

“Hold on, Juno.” When she turns back to him, he says, “Is this because of the Eagle-eyes?”

“Nothing I can’t handle, sir.”

“That wasn’t my question. You’ve outdone them all in terms of kills. Hell, you’ve got double Rotor’s flight hours. You don’t have to prove anything to them.”

She’s not angry or resigned or sad. She says, “I want to prove it to myself. I know I’m the best, sir.” And she clearly does. 

In the back of his head, Kazansky wonders if he’s attracted to women like this, hard and defiant and militant, the exact opposite of the domestic wife he’d envisioned for himself. Could he marry a pilot? That’s crazy. Juno wouldn’t have him anyway. He says, “You ever get sick of the way they treat you?”

“Who wouldn’t, sir?” Juno says. And Kazansky can’t really argue with that.

“Listen,” he says, “sometimes it’s good to turn the other cheek, keep a stiff upper lip and all that, but sometimes you gotta speak their language. They try any shit—you know how to throw an uppercut?”

“Of course,” she says.

“Well, not where I can see it. Makes it easier for everyone.” She’s clearly a little tired of this conversation, and he wonders if he shouldn’t have tried to be a white knight. “Juno. I’ll send you to TOPGUN. I’ll make it happen.”

“Okay, sir,” she says, jaw hard-set. “But I need you to know I’m trying to be the best pilot, not the best female pilot.”

Kazansky stares at her, mourns her a little in his head. “Understood, Trace,” he says. “Dismissed.”

At the end of the second day after their conversation, the comments and jabs and prods have all stopped, and Rotor’s sporting a mysterious bruise on his chin. Kazansky says nothing. 

Then, the next time he’s alone in his cabin, he makes a satellite call to Miramar. “Maverick. Good to hear your voice. Yeah, still on for December. Listen, speaking of December, I got a pilot for your next cohort. Name’s Trace. Call sign: Juno.”

 

 

“She’s good,” Mitchell says. They’re in the O-club watching the little fools fraternize with each other, and it’s just like it was two years ago, the last time they saw each other here. “You could’ve told me she was a girl, though.”

“Not my fault you don’t know your mythology,” Kazansky mutters. “And, anyway, she told me, she made it very clear she wants to be a good pilot, not a good woman pilot. So no difference.”

“She’s not as good as you or me, but she’s gonna win,” Mitchell says easily, still dressed in his fatigues but without the silver leaf on his collar that marks him a Lieutenant Commander. Undercover. “These kids are alright. Times, they are a-changin’, eh?”

“I guess,” Kazansky says sullenly, more offended than he should be that he’s being compared to Mitchell because, “I don’t think I’ll ever fly again, Maverick. I was thinking it over when I first got sent to the Chesapeake— and I did fly that sortie with you, but I think it’s over. Desk duty is my destiny. Rest of my life.”

Mitchell shrugs, entirely unsympathetic. “That’s what you wanted. That’s what you said you wanted.”

Kazansky grimaces and leans back. He doesn’t have the words to say that he wanted it in an abstract, unachievable way, the way some men want Model-T Fords but hate changing the oil every day and hate driving at a top speed of four miles an hour. He doesn’t have the words to say he misses dogfighting, misses the camaraderie of being within a squadron instead of commanding one, so he says, “I think I just miss TOPGUN.”

“Some days I miss TOPGUN and I’m teaching TOPGUN,” Mitchell says, downing a shot. And Kazansky flushes, because they both know what he means. Mitchell goes on and makes it worse: “Hey. Wanna go home?”

So Kazansky drives them back to Mitchell’s and it’s silent in the car, they’re just listening to the Rolling Stones and not saying a word. Then they’re inside and it’s pitch-black dark and Mitchell lays Kazansky out on the couch and kneels between his thighs and halfway through slips his hands under Kazansky’s shirt and it’s been so long that neither have it in them to be embarrassed. They gasp a little when they come, and it feels important, like Kazansky’s losing some part of himself, but he can’t help it. Just lets it happen. He’s gonna do what he’s gonna do. 

Mitchell’s still unhappy; he came but still isn’t satisfied. Kazansky starts heading for the door, back to the car, when Mitchell says, “Impress him tomorrow.”

It means: if you impress the Captain and become one yourself, you’ll get to stay here. 

Kazansky’s not sure if he wants that—or if he does, he’s not sure he wants to admit it—but he’s willing to try.

 

 

He’s standing in the duty office waiting for Captain Sherman to open his door and listening to Maverick dogfight Juno from the radio control room.

Maverick: “Jesus Christ, that was a good one. Holy shit. Okay, stay on my tail. I’ve got no wingman, shot’s all yours.” Then he grunts as he does some Maverick maneuver. / Juno: “Ham, how’s my lock looking?” / Hambone: “Getting there, June, trying my best, he’s—shit, he’s flighty. Can’t keep him in my sights.” / Maverick: “I ain’t going easy on you kids, but I’ll give you a hint. If I do a Lufbery and you’re behind the curve, break engagement and keep your head on and straighten out. Understand?” / Hambone: “Shit, he’s spiraling!”

Sherman opens his door. “Kazansky.”

Kazansky heads inside. “Good to see you again, sir. I’m just paying a visit.”

Sherman sits at his giant desk. “No, you’re not. But I won’t begrudge you that, son. So let’s talk.” He pops the tab on a can of Pepsi and slides it over. “You know, my last memory of you is of authorizing you and Maverick to do a flyby of the tower. Not just anyone gets to do that.”

“I know, sir, which is why I requested permission.”

“Yep. Followed protocol, unlike Maverick. God-damn that guy.” Sherman sighs. “We do miss you around here. And can I interpret from your ‘visit’ you’d like to stay here? Take my spot?”

Kazansky looks at him, thinks hard. “Yes, sir.”

“It’s shit work. I won’t lie. Worse than most other air bases, even Marine bases. There’s no glory in shouting down hotshot pilots over the radio. Sometimes they die. —Well, you know that, of course. But it’ll be you having to make an emergency call to the Coast Guard to go fish dead pilots out of the drink. You have to correspond flight patterns, sign off every flight, sit in front of the microphone twice a day and read the weather. Tedium and minutiae. I should’ve gotten into it younger, because the only thing a position like this is good for is leapfrogging it to something better. Which I understand is what you want to do.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sherman narrows an eye, interlaces his fingers. “You sure are ambitious, aren’t you? One foot stuck in the future. Well, son, if you want to eat shit for the rest of your career, I won’t stop you. I will tell you there are easier ways to make it to Captain, if you’ll stand to listen. Just might take longer.”

“Well, sir, I’ve got one foot in the future. Not a lot of time to be waiting around.”

Sherman smiles at that. Arrogant. “It’s not guaranteed. Your friend Williams wants it, too. RIO from your TOPGUN cohort, if I remember correctly. Just as ambitious as you. You’ll have to get certified up the ass. Multiple classes, trainings, eight-week-long seminars. Have to follow F.A.A. regulations, and we all know how you pilots do with those. And speaking of: you’ll have to keep Maverick in line.”

“I’ve done that before, sir.”

“Not like this, where he answers directly to you. It might be a conflict of interest.”

Kazansky flinches, forces himself to keep a straight face though his heartrate spikes. “Why’s that, sir?”

“Well,” Sherman says. “You’re friends, aren’t you? It’s always hard to get your friends to follow orders.”

Kazansky smiles, relieved. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem. Maverick and I understand each other.”

“God willing,” Sherman says. “Drink your Pepsi, Kazansky. I’ll think about it. Dismissed.”

Kazansky takes his Pepsi out into the hallway and looks around, trying to familiarize himself with the tower again. 

Maverick: “A split-S, Juno? You’re not defensive! Get back here!” / Juno: “Had to get you off my tail. I’m back in. Hammy, how’m I looking?” / Hambone: “On him! On him! That’s lock!” / Juno: “That’s tone, Maverick! You’re dead!” / Maverick: “Jesus Christ, that was the longest dogfight I’ve ever fought. Knock it off. Let’s R.T.B.”

Kazansky sits on the bench outside the duty office for an hour until Mitchell comes out of the showers, hair still damp, shirt still wet, hot and humid. Then Kazansky drives them to Mitchell’s, then he presses Mitchell against the wall and holds him there at his hips to keep him in one place, then he sinks to his knees and starts unbuckling Mitchell’s belt and puts Mitchell in his mouth, and it’s okay. They won’t talk about it, they won’t talk about what it means. It’s okay. He goes back to the billet afterwards and tries to keep his smile down.

The Wednesday night before he has to make it back on board, Carole invites him over for dinner.

Then the Soviet Union falls.

 

 

What he doesn’t understand now is that the rest of his career will involve long stretches of time away from Maverick and then short stretches of time with Maverick as they both rotate duties; change hands and commands; take on responsibilities about which they never could have dreamt at twenty-seven and twenty-four, racing each other to the top of the leaderboard before Goose’s death. Kazansky goes a year without leaving the Chesapeake, just filling time waiting to find out if he got the Miramar Captain promotion, and goes several months in the middle without even thinking about Maverick or Carole or Bradley. Life goes on. There’s a world out there waiting for him to seize it. He has bigger problems.

Juno comes back to the Eagle-eyes with about a dozen new patches on her jacket and the TOPGUN plaque, and it’s sad that winning TOPGUN is what makes her finally a part of the team, but she starts hanging out with the rest of the guys, no problem. They treat her like one of them. It’s not perfect, but she confides to Kazansky that it’s better than it was before, and that’s all she cares about.

He thinks he might be falling in love with her a little. There was never any expectation that he would get to rib her the way the lieutenants do because of his rank, so they started out at a high level of mutual respect; she drinks with him sometimes, shows off pictures of her family. There’s her husband, Miguel, whom she met in OCS; he’s an executive officer aboard the USS Wisconsin. And there’s her daughter, Natasha, who lives with Juno’s mother in Bakersfield and already knows she wants to be a pilot.

In exchange, he offers up little pieces of himself—photos of his sister, with whom he doesn’t speak and probably never will again; pictures from his TOPGUN cohort; pictures of Bradley, the closest thing he has to a child. And a photo someone took of him and Maverick shaking hands onboard the Midway that he’s squirreled away in his wallet. It’s kind of a famous picture, it was printed in newspapers all over the country, so he’s not surprised when she tells him she’s seen it before. 

“I didn’t know you and Maverick were that close,” she says. They’re looking out over the ocean in the bridge as the sun sets, waiting for patrol to come in. “But he talked about you all the time at TOPGUN.”

“Oh?” Kazansky says, a little startled. “All good things, I hope.”

“Not always,” she says, smiling. “I think he thinks you’re coming back to Miramar someday.”

“I might be.”

“You should tell him that. It would make his day.” She hesitates. “Leaving the Eagle-eyes, huh, sir?”

“Well, if I get the promotion.” He looks at her. “You want ‘em?”

“And leave my plane? I don’t think so.” But he can tell she’s flattered. “I’ll think about it, sir. But if you don’t mind me saying, you seem miserable. Do you miss flying?”

“Like a fish out of water, sometimes,” he mutters. “It’s alright. I’m doing my job. And Miramar won’t be any better.”

“You still deserve to be happy, sir,” she says, and he stares at her plainly. “I can’t stand career Navy guys who hate their jobs and take it out on everyone else. I’m just a lieutenant, my advice means nothing. But as someone who’s had to fight for happiness in her life—if that means moving to Miramar, if that means leaving this boat, I hope you do it.”

The thing is, he’s not sure what brings him happiness anymore. He’s hunting for it under every stone, in every dusty corner. Maybe he’d find it with Juno. Maybe he’d find it at Miramar. It’s anyone’s guess.

The next shipment of mail comes in the following morning.

Captain Iceman, Viper’s written. Congratulations & will see you in Hangar 24.

 

 

So he goes back to Miramar.

Sherman was right: it really is shit work. He learns for the first time how godawful it is to be on the other side of the Tower-Pilot equation. How the other half lives is pretty bad. He realizes far too late that he should have been ten times as pissed the first time Maverick pulled an unauthorized flyby. Should’ve lost his wings for that shit.

He gets promoted to Captain and doesn’t see Mitchell for a month; Mitchell’s in D.C. with Viper lobbying for more TOPGUN funding and meeting with master tacticians, forcing Kazansky to brave Carole’s dinners by himself and even cook a little, too.

Bradley’s growing up. He’s already nine years old, already packed to the brim with facts about whales and snakes and spiders, already determined to be a RIO like his dad, maybe even a fighter pilot. His closet’s full of 1/72 scale models of P-40s and E-2Cs and F-14s and F-117s. His favorite plane is the F-5 Tiger (respectable, Kazansky thinks; the Tiger is one sexy piece of work) and his favorite color, he says, is camo. A visit to the Smithsonian American History museum when he was seven gave him a facetious set of dogtags, which are already stamped with: BRADSHAW, BRADLEY / US NAVY / GOOSE JR. And shit, that hurts.

“When are you gonna settle down, Tom?” Carole’s asking, watching Kazansky try to not fuck up a pot of spaghetti on the stove. “I’m glad you’ll be back in California for a while. Maybe you’ll find some nice girl and call it quits on the bachelor lifestyle.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Kazansky says, then swears under his breath as the pot lid slips and he spills about a quarter of the spaghetti into the sink as he’s trying to drain it. 

“Oh, c’mon, you’re thirty-four. Plenty young for a Captain, but plenty old for the girls. I could go out with you, if you wanted. You keep that up, you’ll be single forever.”

“Thanks, Carole.”

Mitchell comes back from D.C. to find that his old friend Iceman Kazansky has been made the helm of the entire Miramar Air Base. “Well, you rank too high for the O-club now, if such a thing were possible. Let’s go civvy clubbing.”

“It’s the fucking worst, Mav,” Kazansky’s shouting over the shitty music, pounding grunts and synth chords. They’re pressed up against each other in the seediest joint they could find in La Jolla, college students swarming like gnats, where they’re pretty sure no one from the base would hang out. “The worst. You know how many radio signals I’ve had to memorize? And civilian hand signals and passenger jets and—Jesus Christ. Where did the days of honor and glory go, huh?”

Mitchell’s nodding his head in time to the chords, drumming his fingers on the table. Of course Maverick likes music like this. “It’s what you wanted, Kazansky,” he reminds him. “Hey, we should do this with Carole sometime.”

No, they really shouldn’t; their legs are tangled together under the table. “It was the fastest way to Captain, but god damn it if it isn’t shittier than hell.”

“If anyone can do it, it’s you, Ice,” Mitchell hollers. “Hard-ass extraordinaire. That’s why they accepted your application, you know that? You’ve got a reputation for sticklerism.”

“No, I have a reputation for following the rules. And that’s not something negative in the Navy, I’ll remind you. Maverick, you wouldn’t last a minute as a sailor.”

Mitchell grins at him. “That’s why I’m not one. Hey, you see her?” He points to a blonde girl on the dance floor. “Think I have a shot?”

“She’s probably twenty-one and five inches taller than you. Don’t even think about it.” And this is weird, because Mitchell’s still tapping his foot to time against Kazansky’s calf. The lines between them feel blurred, edges gone soft. “If you go home with her, I’m not waiting around to drive you back.”

“That’s fine,” Mitchell says. “I’ll get it done on the premises. And she’s twenty-seven, minimum.”

“The premises—Mav—”

Maverick stands and approaches the girl by dancing his way to her; he dances like he flirts, forward and energetic and slightly stupid, and she’s laughing at him as he’s nodding over his shoulder to the bathroom, and then he’s leading her off the dance floor to the back of the club.

Kazansky just downs his two shots of vodka and then picks up Maverick’s and downs those too. This is too complicated, the situation in which they’ve found themselves, and he has no idea what to feel—no idea even what he should be feeling, no idea what to do. 

“You look miserable,” Maverick says once he returns, face still flushed, hands visibly sweaty. “And you drank my shots, asshole. Quick, we gotta get out of here before it hits.”

“Piece of shit, Maverick,” Kazansky says, but he drives them back to Maverick’s place without complaining too much, except then once he’s parked on the curb he’s not sure he can drive home again. Things are starting to go blurry. The lights down the street are nothing but chromatic aberration. “If I get pulled over, Mav, I’m fucked. Fucked. Just got a promotion and thrown out before I even start.”

“Fine,” Maverick says, pulling open the driver’s side door and tugging Kazansky out. “You’re sleeping on the couch.”

And that would be fine, it really would be just fine, if Maverick weren’t sabering a bottle of Captain Morgan with a butter knife (Jesus Christ) and handing it over without a glass, just the straight handle, and watching with that look in his eyes as Kazansky swallows from the jagged lip and coughs as it goes down. Then Maverick’s drinking straight, too, no measurements, they’re just planning to get fucked-up and that’s it, no work tomorrow or the day after that, and Kazansky’s so far gone by three in the morning that when he wakes up all he has when the sun rises are disjointed memories like looking through a View-Master.

He thinks later it was fun, the way he always looks back on late nights drunk out of his mind through rose-colored glasses (even that whiskey-fueled day of hell back in Annapolis had been fun at the time), but he’s not sure what he felt in the moment. 

He wakes in the morning tangled in someone’s sheets with the yellow morning sun slanting into his eyes and the worst headache he’s ever had in his life. 

Where is she, the girl he slept with? She’s across the bed from him, back turned; he closes his eyes again and tries to sleep for just a few more minutes before it hits him that those are a man’s shoulders; he’s in Maverick’s bed and he’s got no clothes on and his hips are sore and his mouth is unpleasantly fuzzy and-and-and—

Oh, shit.

A line’s been crossed. A rule broken.

In flight school they drilled it into his head, so far that it might have turned into a complex, that in emergent situations the first course of action is to keep one’s head on one’s shoulders, force down the panic and think rationally. So he thinks rationally. 

If he shouts obscenities and flees the scene, he’ll keep his dignity and lose Maverick. Can’t do that, they’re about to work in the same building for the foreseeable future. The alternative:

Slowly, so slowly it aches every muscle, he slides out of the bed and looks around on the yellow-lacquered oak floor where they’d apparently scattered their clothes in the night. He finds his fatigues and his T-shirt, all hopelessly wrinkled beyond repair, and slips into them again. 

As soon as he’s upright from tying his shoes, the urge to vomit overwhelms him. Very slowly and calmly, he makes his way to the bathroom and silently chokes up a burning fluid that hurts just as much coming up as it must have going down, and then he flushes the toilet and leans back against the wall with the heels of his palms pressed into his eyes.

He has the distinct feeling that he’s been fucked. Not that he ever has been before, but sometimes you just know. He can feel it in his legs, the ache in his back, the ache in his elsewhere. He feels wrung out like a dish towel. What does that mean? Oh, shit. He can’t think about it. Oh, shit, shit. This is bad.

Head on straight.

If he doesn’t eat anything the hangover will fuck him harder. So he heads into the kitchen and finds that, hand to God, the only food Maverick has is a loaf of stale-but-not-yet-moldy bread and alcohol. 

Kazansky makes four slices of toast on the stove and manages to burn them somehow. No matter; Sarah used to tell him that eating charcoal would cure a hangover, and this is pretty close. 

And then Mitchell comes downstairs, naked but for a pair of briefs, utterly gobsmacked to see Kazansky still here, cradling his head in his hands and chewing on blackened toast. 

They eat their toast in silence, and Kazansky really can’t figure out who fucked whom because they’re both obviously uncomfortable sitting down. He doesn’t know if it’s better or worse if it was both of them instead of just him. 

Mitchell says: “I should go to the grocery store.”

Kazansky says: “No shit.”

Mitchell says: “I really didn’t think you would stay.”

Kazansky says: “I wasn’t planning on it.” He pauses. “This is too complicated, Mav.”

Mitchell says: “No, it’s not. Got drunk. That’s it.”

And Kazansky’s so desperate for an excuse that he accepts the Maverick logic wholeheartedly. That’s it. They got drunk, they were confused, they fucked, that’s it. Guys have done worse with a bottle of Captain Morgan. And Kazansky’s a captain himself now. Captain Kazansky Spiced Rum. It’s fine. If he thinks about it, it’s funny.

(Except it’s not. It’s not funny at all. Because he sees everything through rose-colored glasses and when he tries to remember what happened that night all he can remember is how good it was.)

 

 

There’s Janice again. Then there’s Mary, and Susan, and Maria, Lisa, Julie, and Linda, Donna, Patty, Tracy, and Kimmy… So many he can’t keep ‘em straight, forgets birthdays and favorite restaurants and who wants a relationship and who doesn’t. They’re god-damn impressed, kissing him with stars in their eyes, at the fact that he’s a captain with a capital C; a couple ask him where his boat’s parked and then he doesn’t go out with them anymore. He has to explain over and over again that he runs the Naval Air Base and the Naval Fighter Weapons School (also known as TOPGUN) out in Miramar, and that’s two thousand Navy pilots and officers who answer to him, and it’s a big-fuckin-deal and so is he and if you come home with him he’ll show you why.

Maverick’s got his own spat of lovers, girls he doesn’t pretend to know, but instead of pretending he’s courting them he just fucks them and forgets them. It’s very unchivalrous and entirely Maverick. And of course it’s the only thing they talk about at work. Sometimes their conquests even overlap and Kazansky has to thumb through his mental files and remember if Alice or Nancy was one of the ones who wanted a relationship so he can get mad at her and use it as an excuse to break it off.

They’re both burning the candle at both ends, because the real secret is that they might come and see and conquer five girls a month but they’re still fucking each other at night. 

It’s the Thing-Never-Discussed, the Elephant-In-Every-Room, the Untouchable-Subject: there’s no excuse now. They drink sometimes, but not often. No, it’s better sober, better when they can feel what it is they’re doing and really mull over the consequences of it, like rolling steel ball bearings in their mouths. It’s heavy. The consequences are heavy. And maybe Mitchell fucks so many girls because he likes it, but if he’s anything like Kazansky, he’s just trying to throw off the scent of anyone looking with too keen an eye.

Mitchell still stands straight at attention when Kazansky calls him into his office, still calls him “sir,” still heeds his orders and stays in line, but there’s always that moment after every interaction where the facade drops for just a second and that Maverick grin pops up— later. 

The horrible part? The part that makes Kazansky panic if he thinks about it too hard? It’s good. It’s really, really good. And as the months go on, it keeps getting better. They don’t talk about it, even when they’re at a bar, even when they go out to dinner, even when they’re shooting the shit in the early-morning parking lot. “They want me to focus on Pugachev maneuvers today,” Maverick might complain as he parks his bike; or, “Can you talk to those slackers at maintenance and get cats one-one-two and eighty-seven back in service?” or, “Viper’s such a god-damn hard-ass when it rains, fuck;" and then they go their separate ways and don’t discuss the fact that the sex they had the night before was some of the best in Kazansky’s life. 

Neither of them ever stays the night, after their rendezvouses; they never do anything that might cross a line. No—no kissing. Nothing like that. They keep most of their clothes on. They’re still men. It’s still just sex. They fuck and then hold each other for twenty seconds and then the embarrassment sets in and one of them leaves.

Kazansky still goes over to Carole’s every other Wednesday night and entertains Gosling while Mitchell cooks. He tells him about pilots who pissed him off (“If a tower tells you to R.T.B., Bradley, you better get your butt back to base before you can say Bradley Bradshaw”); about flight school; about paperwork he still has to file; about his dream of being a pirate when he was in kindergarten; about his dream of commanding the Pacific Fleet someday, though the odds are stacked against him. Bradley eats it up, follows every word like a bloodhound. Carole watches with a grimace she doesn’t think anyone can see. 

Sometimes he’ll drive out into the desert and watch Maverick’s dogfighting and think, You really are the better pilot. Jesus Christ, you’ve gotta be the best pilot on Earth. What the hell are you still doing here? Then he’ll think: Jesus Christ, please don’t leave.

Work’s boring. He knew it would be. Paperwork and radio signals and codes he’s memorized and shouting at pilots and dismissing grudges and overseeing court-martials when things go wrong. Does it make it worth it, when Mitchell rides over at one in the morning and they fuck each other’s brains out for half an hour before he leaves again? If anyone knows, it’s not Kazansky. He has no clue about any of it. He just doesn’t know. This is so far out of left field, so far out of any idea of what he thought his life would look like, that there’s no recourse, no rules, no textbook. He’s flying by the seat of his pants and hanging on tight. There’s no ejection handle on this one, no HUD, no radar, no compass. Sight-systems only. Either he rides it out and sticks the landing or crashes and burns.

 

 

He’s at that point in his life when he’s still young but getting older. Halfway to seventy, fucking Christ. Practically ancient, but he can still dance, can still hold a drink, can still fuck. (And maybe he is having a mid-life crisis.)

He’s kind of going steady with this girl from La Jolla, a UCSD PhD student he met halfway through his master’s degree in International Affairs (something the brass has recommended he pursue if he wants to progress to flag officer status). Her name’s Laura; she’s thirty, whip-smart, forwarding research on the effects of dietary fats on the human heart, a firecracker in bed, and also pretty nice to talk to. He tells her he’s guilty, sometimes, about his career; he tells her about his Commie sister who hates the military and thinks he’s a murderer, and Laura holds him and never mentions how odd it is that he never cries. It’s nice, to be held every once in a while.

Maverick still comes over past midnight twice a week. But that’s different. If he gets married to Laura that should probably stop. 

“You really like her, Tom?” Carole’s asking, spooning Mitchell’s nearly-inedible green bean casserole onto his plate. “I mean it, don’t dodge the question: do you really like her?”

Kazansky tugs on his collar like a kid, keenly aware that he’s being watched on all sides. “I think so.”

“Iceman’s got a crush,” Bradley exclaims; he’s eleven now, old enough to have fallen into the ubiquitous trap of elementary school romances. That is to say: he knows what a crush is, and is obsessed with the very concept.

“He does,” Mitchell says smugly, then chokes down a bite of casserole with a giant swig of water. 

“I want to know everything about her,” Carole decides. “But not here.”

And Maverick finally achieves his dream of taking both Carole and Kazansky clubbing. They leave Bradley with a babysitter and hit the streets of San Diego.

Kazansky’s on the dance floor half-drunkenly explaining that Laura’s ten times smarter than he is; she worked with some guy named Ancel Keys at the University of Minnesota and he’s the one who designed half the MREs used in WWII and figured out that saturated fat leads to heart conditions; he’s like the Eisenhower of nutritional science and Kazansky’s girlfriend got to work in his lab; she’s so god-damn smart… 

Carole asks if he loves her, and he confesses that he might, and then Carole kisses him with an open mouth right there on the dance floor. 

The DJ’s blasting Kool & the Gang’s “Get Down On It” and he’s kissing the wife of the man he killed while explaining that he loves another woman while the man he’s fucking looks on, and that's an interesting set of emotions if there ever was one. He could make this work. It’s like a drug, how fucked-up this is.

Then he opens his eyes and sees Mitchell’s horrified expression and he shoves Carole away and pulls her aside later and explains she really can’t do that ever again. 

Then he’s driving to Laura’s apartment all the way up in La Jolla and they’re making love on the couch and then the floor and then ending things because this is all too complicated and he’s gotta cut something out if he’s gonna survive.

Then he’s getting off Highway 52 and driving aimlessly through Miramar and pulling up in front of Mitchell’s place.

“Jesus Christ, Kazansky, are you drunk? —How far did you drive? —What the hell—"

Kazansky’s confused, he doesn’t know where he is (or maybe he does and maybe that’s worse) and he’s pulling Mitchell into Mitchell’s bedroom and tugging off Mitchell’s shirt and undoing Mitchell’s belt—

“You still smell like sex,” Mitchell says, almost an afterthought. It’s more a moan than a statement. He’s got his tongue around the chain of Kazansky’s dogtags.

“It’s—” Kazansky can’t keep the words down; he’s fighting them hard as he can, and he forgot to turn the light off so they can’t see each other but for once he doesn’t give a shit; he’s drunk and delirious with desire though he doesn’t want to admit it— “It’s better. With you.”

Mitchell holds his gaze, keeps his eyes open even as Kazansky slides home into him. “I hope,” he says, gasping a little; “I hope you didn’t tell her that.”

Kazansky kisses him. There’s nothing else he can do.

Mitchell kisses him back, and just as with everything else Maverick does, he kisses against orthodoxy; he somehow manages to kiss without his lips and without moving his head, reckless abandon, like a wildfire, still steady and constant, all Dallas-Texas-cowboy desperation— 

They break apart; Kazansky’s close already, and Mitchell just reaches up to hold his jaw and says, mystified delight staining his voice, "There you are.”

Kazansky isn’t sure what exactly that means, but he’s pretty sure he gets the gist.

After they’re both finished, he tries to extricate himself and head home, but Mitchell holds him fast, arms circling his waist. “Don’t go,” he says, his eyes squeezed shut like he’s just stared into the sun. 

Kazansky thinks about it, leans back against Mitchell’s chest. He’s more tired than he’s ever been in his life, and he’s not sober. This isn’t the kind of easy decision he can make while drunk. They’re on the edge of a cliff, one foot hovering above the abyss.

He reaches over and turns off the light and settles into the mattress and lets himself fall. He’ll deal with the consequences in the morning. And that’s that. 

He’s not aware of it now, but he’s never leaving again.

 

 

“Well, Ice, here’s the deal,” Admiral Petersen says, still flipping through his personnel file. The two stars on his shoulder glisten in the sunlight. “You can’t apply for a position like this. There’s no application. And, Jesus Christ, you’re thirty-five. Here’s the deal. One of us has to nominate you, and then you go up in front of a board of your superiors, and they poke and prod you and tell you to turn your head and cough, and if you’re not up to snuff then you don’t get it and you’re a little embarrassed.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now, I’ll be honest, your record is nothing short of stellar. Never seen a Captain this ambitious, I must say: three air-to-air combat kills, TOPGUN trophy, TOPGUN tenure, command of an excellent squadron during Desert Storm and beyond, master’s in I.R., letters of recommendation all the way down, and of course your time at Miramar has been nothing less than reformative. But, as I said before: you’re thirty-five. Just a baby, practically. A very impressive baby, but I hope you understand that we want to give the more senior commissioned officers a chance to get past the bouncer.”

“I understand, sir.”

“Don’t misunderstand me, Ice. If you want me to nominate you, I would in a heartbeat. But if you want a shot at becoming an Admiral—well. My advice would be: stay at Miramar. Do another tour, rack up a few more years, a bit more experience, a few more letters of rec., do a few more favors. I know base duty is scraping the bottom of the barrel of hellish tortures. Trust me: I know. I was at Lemoore for a decade. But you’re so young that right now you just need to waste time.”

“I understand, sir,” Kazansky repeats, and he really does. He really does understand. For once, what he wants and what he has to do are one and the same. “I’ll stay at Miramar.”



 

 

Chapter Text

“…So I say to the kid, I say: ‘Look, kid, you’re a great pilot’ —and he is a great pilot, really. But I keep telling him, ‘You’re a great pilot, you’ve got your instincts on lock, but if you keep breaking protocol, one of these days Viper is gonna have it and kick your ass out.’”

“Someone shoulda knocked that into you way back when,” Kazansky laughs.

“That’s what I was thinking! Well—no, that’s not what I was thinking, but that’s what I told the kid,” says Mitchell. “I told him, ‘I don’t have a problem with it, those radio codes can be a bitch, but sometimes there’s a reason for doing things, and I know how hard Captain Kazansky works to correspond those flight patterns’ —and, yes, I did call you ‘Captain Kazansky.’ ‘I know how hard Captain Kazansky works to correspond those flight patterns, and it’s a sign of disrespect if you keep fucking them over like that.’”

“Well, thanks for looking out for me, Mav.”

Mitchell laughs a little at that and tips his head back to take a shot. He shivers to make it go down, and then, his voice a little hoarse, he says, “Someone’s gotta. Won’t somebody think of the poor O.-sixes?” He looks around the bar, coming to a laser focus. “Alright. Here we go. This is what I call a target-rich environment. You know me, I’m partial to blondes, but I won’t turn down a redhead if the opportunity presents herself. —What about that one? You think she’s natural?”

Kazansky rolls his eyes, but he looks anyway. It’s kind of a girly bar, which is why there are so many girls, and maybe twenty guys who are circling like sharks, just like Kazansky and Mitchell. They’re sitting at the bartop with roaming eyes. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Sometimes you can’t tell until you really get up close and personal to the baseboard trimmings, you know what I mean?” says Mitchell, half-distracted. “Look, there’s a blackbird over there, I know you like the ones with dark hair. —Don’t look at me like that. You just broke up with your girlfriend, Kazansky, I’m just looking out for you. I think you have a shot with her. Why don’t you go try it on?”

Kazansky takes a slug of his beer for courage. He’s just going along with the ruse. Playing the part, reciting the lines. He knows when to put up with Mitchell’s bullshit. “Alright, maybe I will. What do you think, should I introduce myself first, or just—?”

“Well—not right now. You told me you’d buy me a drink, and I’ve yet to see that O.-six-salary wallet make an appearance.”

This is all he can do. All he can do is follow the stepping stones Mitchell lays out for him. 

So he smiles and says, “Alright, Maverick, I’ll buy you a drink.” 

And he buys Mitchell a drink, and then three. And then half an hour later he’s in Mitchell’s bed and Mitchell’s kissing him fiercely (cheap vodka on his tongue) and then turning him over and murmuring filthy unrepeatable words and dragging his teeth down the skin over Kazansky’s vertebrae and then starting over again at the top and kissing his way down, and what can Kazansky do? This isn’t the kind of situation you can easily extricate yourself from.

It’s temporary. That’s what he keeps telling himself, because it’s the truth. This confused, unspoken thing between them is just temporary. Maybe it’ll last until he’s experienced enough to get promoted away from Miramar, and that’s about the longest it can last, the worst case scenario. Maybe it’ll last until next Tuesday, and that would be preferable. One of these days they’ll both come to their senses and move on. This thing between them is pretty sophomoric, pretty juvenile. One of these days they’ll grow up.

But maybe not anytime soon. That’s the problem. They’ve crossed a line. Maybe that’s too casual an explanation: there’s drawing lines in the sand, and then there’s moving to a new beach entirely, and that’s what they’ve done. The rule broken this time: Mitchell kisses him now.

Kissing Mitchell is an exercise in losing restraint. Mitchell kisses like he’s angry, voracious, starved; he switches between his teeth and tongue as he switches between guns and missiles in the air. He’s so eager he nearly draws blood. Like a wolf, dangerous and hungry like that.

And, look, Kazansky can only do the best with what he’s been given. This is just another chessboard he’s going to have to manipulate. He can rationalize it, when he wants to; he can make excuses. He’s good at eking out explanations from questionable source material. Well, it’s not like they’re really doing anything wrong, because they’re still flirting with every girl who comes up to them at a bar, and sometimes one of them will even manage to take her to bed. Well, they’re both stressed half to death; sometimes Mitchell’s working a hundred hours a week updating the TOPGUN lecture sets and sometimes Kazansky has to oversee three separate court-martials in as many days, and maybe they need a little relief, and it’s no one’s business but theirs who they turn to after hours. Well, they flew in combat twice together, have killed together, and that’s the kind of bond—like rivalry, like hatred, like shared guilt—that can be twisted around to something equally intense; he’s heard it happen before.

Doesn’t mean he’s not scared shitless. The whole point is that no one is supposed to hear.

He’s sure it shows on his face, when he’s at work. He’s sure everyone can hear it in his voice when he sits in front of the microphone, clearing flights and shouting down pilots. He’s sure everyone knows by now. Everyone’s in on the joke except him. Everyone knows that the night before, he was inside of TOPGUN Lieutenant Commander Mitchell while TOPGUN Lieutenant Commander Mitchell had his tongue in NAS Miramar Captain Kazansky’s mouth. He wakes up in the middle of the night sometimes, breathless with fear, with guilt. It shows, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that kind of shame show on a man’s face?

Apparently not, because the weeks keep dragging on, and 1994 becomes 1995, and no one says a thing. No one knows. He’s good at keeping secrets. And he’s gonna need to continue to be good at keeping secrets if he wants to keep his livelihood. If he wants to keep his future. If he wants to wear those stars. And he does. 

So he takes precautions. Sometimes, on his way to Mitchell’s place after work (and sometimes they’re really just shooting the shit and nothing else, really), he’ll take four left turns in a row, just to make sure no one’s following him. Sometimes he’ll go weeks without seeing Mitchell at work, building avoidance into his schedule by design, just to make sure no one thinks they’re too close. Sometimes he’ll sleep half the night in Mitchell’s bed, and then get back in the car at three in the morning and drive to his own place, and squeeze in another three hours of sleep there before going to work and doing the whole thing over again. 

The safe thing to do would be to stop. Draw a line in the sand, and then dig it out into an impassable trench. I’ll go no further. This ends here. The safe thing to do would be to turn back to women and women only, find another nice girl and stick with her this time. The safe thing to do would be to think about it, at the very least.

Except then he hears Maverick on the radio with his hotshot students, giving them that asinine motto of his like passing candy to idiot babies— “Don’t think. Just do.”

And Kazansky’s fine taking his advice, just this once. This thing between them, it’s dangerous. Asinine. Idiotic. But he does it anyway.

 

 

“What about her? I bet her name’s something exotic. With hair like that? Probably French. Antoinette, maybe. Or Collette. I think I saw that one on a T.V. special. Oh, go on, Ice. Just give it a shot. Look, she—oh, my God, she just looked at you. Go on. Be brave and bold, son. Don’t fire till you see the whites of her eyes, though.”

“Look, Maverick,” Kazansky sighs, still nursing his beer, still exhausted as he ever is. Too tired to think. “Would you prefer I went home with her, or would you prefer I went home with you?”

Mitchell smacks him on the shoulderblade, so hard he wants to cough. “You know what gets me going, is when you do both.”

“Yeah, I’m not that young anymore.”

“Maybe not. Still younger than half the geezers in this bar. But I see your point. Alright, if you want the best of both worlds, skip the girl and drive us to mine.”

Does he want the best of both worlds? That’s the thing. He’s not sure what he wants. He sure as hell doesn’t want to toil away here at Miramar for the rest of the decade. And maybe fucking Mitchell three times a week is an interesting (albeit fucked-in-the-head) way to go about asserting control over his life, but he’s not even sure if he wants that, either. He’s just going along with it, just letting Mitchell lead him into the darkness.

Sure, he wants it when the opportunity presents itself. When Mitchell’s there in front of him, already unbuttoning his shirt, already unbuckling his belt, already taking him apart one piece at a time. Sure, he wants it then. And it’s Maverick Mitchell—who wouldn’t?

But every other time—couldn’t care less. Mitchell could be fucking the little green men on Mars, for all he cares. Kazansky spends his days signing paperwork and arguing with the radar techs and talking to NWS specialists and executing orders from the brass above him, and he sure as hell doesn’t want Mitchell interfering with any of that. Once a month Mitchell comes into his office to present reports, ask for advice, extend invitations to the next TOPGUN graduation, and their conversation is professional, clipped, muted, and Kazansky doesn’t want him then. Okay, let’s stay workplace acquaintances. That’s what we should be, anyway. Until Mitchell gives him that Maverick grin as he’s walking out the door, and that’s when the switch flips. Where are you going?

But then… But then there are the times in between the wanting and the not-wanting, and those are the times he can’t wrap his head around. Decision-making times. Times when he leads himself into the darkness instead of being led. He doesn’t want Mitchell, except then he’s in his car at 2200 hours, taking four left turns to make sure no one’s following him. He doesn’t want Mitchell, except then he’s at Lemoore asking a two-star admiral for career advice, and then pushing quarters into a payphone just to ask Mitchell how the new crop of TOPGUN students is faring. He doesn’t want Mitchell, except then he’s paying Mitchell’s tab at a seedy bar and taking him home. 

He’s standing in the shower and Mitchell’s beating on the door outside— “Hey, asshole, I thought they taught you how to take quick ones on those big boats you love so much” —and he’s suddenly thinking, What the fuck am I doing? and, really, what the fuck is he doing? He has soap between his legs and the fear he might vomit on his mind, and then he’s pulling a towel around his waist and finding the words to end this unspoken thing between them: I can’t do this anymore, not with you. If you touch me again, I’ll kill you. This isn’t the man I am. I don’t want you. And then he’s pulling open the bathroom door with the words already on his tongue, and Mitchell’s already there waiting for him, and Mitchell’s already sinking to his knees and tossing the towel aside, and Mitchell’s mouth is already wet and warm around him, and Kazansky’s already closing his eyes and locking his knees and thinking, Fuck, I do want you. I want you so bad.

Doesn’t that kind of shame show on a man’s face? Apparently not. Sometimes they’ll go out to dinner with their friends—with Carole (and sometimes Bradley), with Slider (when he’s in town), with Viper (when he’s in a charitable mood). Not a one of them has put it together yet. Both Mitchell and Kazansky are good at keeping this unspoken thing between them a secret. They’ll have to be for as long as this lasts.

And sometimes they go out to dinner, just the two of them. Two friends catching up at some awful Mexican or Asian place downtown, no one gives a shit (and maybe they should give a shit!).

“The lease is gonna run out on my place soon,” Kazansky’s complaining over Indian food sometime in late 1995. “And I’m thinking of giving it up. You know how much of a shithole it is. I’ve saved enough money by skimping on shelter that I could fund a trip to the moon. But it was not worth it.”

“That place is a shithole,” says Mitchell, shoveling rice into his mouth ravenously under the bare-bulb fluorescent lights. “Be glad you’re getting out. I was thinking of putting roots down here at some point, you know, since the TOPGUN thing’s working out. Get outta the shitholes and into the residences.”

“That’s a thought. You’ll have to civilize yourself for that. Well, good luck with the hunt. Don’t pick a place too far from mine.” (Why did he say that?)

And the very next week, Mitchell waltzes into Kazansky’s office, drops a stack of paperwork into his inbox, looks around like a common vagrant preparing to commit a crime, and then leans over and kisses him, right there at his desk. And of course Kazansky pushes him away in a heartbeat, and threatens him with a court-martial and tries to keep his voice down and frantically makes sure no one saw, but then once Mitchell’s gone he opens up the top folder and the first sheet is a flyer for some outrageously nice house down by the beach.

“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Mitchell says later. They’re both drunk half out of their minds, clinging to each other in the darkness past midnight. Mitchell’s slurring his words in between attempts to suck bruises onto Kazansky’s collarbone (“Not there, Mav, someone’ll see—not there, either—”). “It’s a nice house, if you haven’t noticed. Gargantuan. Waterfront property, very good in… investment. Three bedrooms. So—one bedroom for you, one for me, one for the kid, if he wants to come over. And you’re gonna be outta here soon, too.”

“Oh. So it’ll be all yours within half a decade. Right, a good investment. For you. Piece of shit. You expect me to keep splitting the mortgage and—and all that shit with you when I’m gone?”

“Yeah,” Mitchell says, his voice a little husky, as if it were obvious. “Home base for Admiral Kazansky. Gotta have somewhere to come back to.”

(And it’s the first time he’s ever been called Admiral Kazansky by anyone, and even though he doesn’t have a single star yet, he’s still so overwhelmed by the thought of it that he pushes Mitchell over for Round Two.)

It is a nice house. Kind of Rehoboth-Beach-esque with its white shiplap siding and wide arching windows that overlook the beach (though no Delaware beach could ever compare to San Diego). The kitchen’s too big for either of them, and as they’re checking out the oven they’re joking that it’ll never get used. (Maybe it’ll get used when Kazansky finally settles down and finds a girl who knows how to cook.)

And then he’s looking down at the first of what will, over the years, become hundreds of bank wire-transfer slips and holding a pen in his hand to sign and he’s thinking, What the fuck am I doing? and, really, what the fuck is he doing? Isn’t this crossing a line? What on Earth does this mean, to go halfsies on the mortgage and utilities with another man and not talk about it? At the very least, it’s a dogshit financial decision—what happens when one of them inevitably gets married and wants to move out? That’ll be a clusterfuck of amortized payments over a decade and a half. 

I can’t do this anymore, he’s thinking, not with you. If you touch me again, I’ll kill you. This isn’t the man I am. I don’t want you. Except then he’s signing his name and filling in the account routing number anyway. 

It’s temporary. That’s what he keeps telling himself. This secret just has to last until he gets promoted away from Miramar. The house is just someplace nice to stay between tours overseas. It’s just temporary.

(Like a madman, he keeps repeating it in his head, hoping he’ll wake up one morning and find it true.)

But even if it’s just temporary, precautions still need to be taken. The house and the mortgage get signed under Mitchell’s name (because figuring out joint ownership would require talking to a lawyer, and also talking to each other about what the fuck it is they’re doing). Kazansky still extends his lease on the shithole shack by the Highway 52 overpass. Just to keep the address open for mail. Just to keep the address in his file. He keeps paying for water and gas and electricity. No one has to know. 

He takes four left turns every time he drives home from the base. Every single time. 

There’s suddenly so much shit to do, all the stuff he never thought about before—furniture, kitchenware, calling electricians, all the shit that requires thought and effort. If he adds them to his to-do list, they get done. But it’s the split second after pencilling out a check-box where he’s thinking, What the fuck am I doing?

They don’t tell anyone except Carole. Mitchell quietly changes his address in his personnel file. And though Mitchell has his own bedroom—his own bed, his own closet, his own pictures on the wall—the second and third bedrooms only see use when Bradley stays the night.

It’s right after they move in (and that’s the worst headache of Kazansky’s life, having to care about coordinating furniture for the first time ever) that he notices Mitchell never brings girls over anymore. And neither—he realizes this with a sickening lurch in his stomach—neither does he.

He doesn’t say a word. Just like everything else between them, all that guilty history, it’s too precarious to discuss.

 

 

They’re good at keeping up appearances. “What about her? I bet you could get somewhere with her, Ice. She looks very studious, indeed. Just like you.  Go over there and start explaining the differences between a Phantom and a Skyhawk and I guarantee you she’ll marry you in a heartbeat. Girls like it when you talk about heavy machinery.”

“I’ll take your word for it, Mav. You’ve run up enough of a tab. Pay up, let’s go home.”

There’s still time to extricate himself. There’s still time to settle down and find some nice girl. This is still just temporary.

But after a while he stops thinking about it. 

 

 

(And then there are the nights he has to keep secret from even himself, the nights for which he has no excuse, no explanation. The nights when they’re both too tired or too old or too drunk to get it up; the nights when there’s no sex at all; the nights when, instead of splitting up into separate bedrooms, they just curl up together in one bed and fall asleep. Easy like that. Too easy. And when he wakes up in the morning with his arm around Mitchell’s waist and his nose in Mitchell’s hair, he’s thinking, What the fuck am I doing? and, really, what the fuck is he doing? He’s ironing his fatigues at six in the morning while Mitchell’s fucking around with the coffee machine in the kitchen and he’s fighting down the bitter taste in his mouth, fighting any possible argument against the old recurrent thought: I can’t do this anymore, not with you. If you touch me again, I’ll kill you. This isn’t the man I am. I don’t want you. But he’s in too deep now. He’s gotta live with it until he gets promoted. And he does want to wear those stars.)

The walls are still bare. It bothers the shit out of him, to be honest. He’s never owned this much wall, never thought about how much empty vertical space there is in a twenty-six-hundred square-foot house. So he sits there and grimaces and squirms in his seat as they’re eating dinner and watching the 49ers whoop the Cowboys’ asses and finally he says, “We gotta get some pictures on these walls.”

“Okay,” Mitchell says furiously. “I don’t give a shit. I got a stack, if you want; go out and buy frames for ‘em. We need more three-inch nails, too, and a box of ninety-watt bulbs for the lights in the kitchen. I’ll pay you back. I got bigger problems. We’re doing good this season, real good, and then have the gall to lose to the fucking Niners.”

And it turns out Mitchell really does have a stack of pictures. They both do—pictures of themselves, old friends, family members they don’t talk to anymore. So does Carole, when she’s pressed, and the kicker is this: she has a camera, and she has pictures of the two of them. The problem is she wants to know why he wants ‘em, when he asks at dinner. 

“Pictures?” she says, pouring him another glass of Cabernet. “Yeah, I got pictures. I mean, of what? I don’t have pictures of your friends, Tom—”

“No, that’s not what I meant. I just meant—you know, pictures of you and the kid, stuff like that. Just the usual stuff to put on the walls. It makes me anxious, having bare walls, you know? Like it’s bad luck.”

“Never figured you for a superstite.” But she rises and starts shuffling through some old boxes under the TV cabinet. 

It’s just Kazansky and Carole tonight, which makes him a little nervous. Mitchell’s late, held up at the base; there was an accident with a Tomcat and its tailhook. Something bad, but not too bad; just disciplinary action. And Bradley—now twelve, a few weeks out from starting middle school—is getting a little old for these bimonthly dinners and is “hanging out” down the hall in his room. 

Carole’s halfway through a stack of manila envelopes when she stops, turns around, and pins him down with narrowed eyes. “You want pictures of you and Pete, too?”

She knows. 

The realization sticks him like a dagger to the chest. Of course she’d figure it out eventually. But she’s the first to know, the first to put it together, and he has no idea what to do with that now.

So he says, his heart racing, “Uh, yeah, sure, I guess.”

She goes on: “I got pictures of you two. Lots of old TOPGUN stuff. Some pictures Pete was gonna throw away, but I stopped him at the last second. —And how is the bachelor pad? You’ve had it for a month now; can’t believe it hasn’t burned down yet.”

He’s still kind of panicking. Doesn’t know what this means, doesn’t like how it feels to be judged from the outside for the first time. “It’s good,” he says, clinging to the one little truth he can muster up: yeah, the house is pretty nice. Still needs a lot of work, but it’s nice, to come home to big open windows and a view of the beach. “Kitchen never gets used, of course. Delivery pizza and that’s pretty much it. But we’re both pretty good at the whole living thing by now, so stuff gets done when it needs getting done.”

“Uh-huh,” Carole says sardonically, dropping a stack of old pictures in front of his plate. “You like your bedroom? I thought the enclave above the bed was a little old-fashioned, but maybe that’s just me.”

Carole wouldn’t get them kicked out of the Navy. Maybe best to face it head on, since Mitchell isn’t here. “You wanna ask what you’re really thinking?”

She sits back down with a half-hearted shrug and takes a bite of the “risotto” he threw together (he went the extra mile to add cooking sherry hoping that would make it better; it didn’t). “I was just thinking,” she says, and then, picking something out of a red-shellacked fingernail: “I wish you’d told me, Tom.”

“Told you what?”

“That you and Pete are—” She looks at him with a dissatisfied twist to her lip. Even she can’t put a name to it. “Off the market, I guess.”

“Who said we’re off the market?” —because that’s insulting, the idea that this situation is a forever type of thing instead of, maybe, stress relief (or whatever else excuse it is this week).

“Oh, Lord,” she says. "Look at you. I swear. I don’t know what the hell happened that made you lose your mind.” She stands and opens another bottle of wine at the kitchen counter with shaking hands. Then she crosses the living room and puts an album on the old record player; Joni Mitchell’s guitar croons back at him. Song to a Seagull, “Cactus Tree.” There’s a man who’s been out sailing / in a decade full of dreams. Shit. She’s sad. 

“I don’t know either, Carole,” he says, because he doesn’t.

“Do you have a cigarette?” He does; he pulls one out of the pack in his jacket pocket and she cracks a window to light it. “Can I ask you something?”

“Guess that depends.”

She looks at him fiercely, somewhere on the road to tears. “Pete’s pretty used to getting his way. Selfish son-of-a-gun. It’s why I love him so much, but sometimes he—well, I’ll just ask. Do you actually want him, or do you just go along with things?”

He’s staring at her, trying to come up with an answer, because he doesn’t know—is he being coerced, used, taken advantage of? He doesn’t think so, but she’s right, sometimes he just follows the path without checking where it goes, writes his own rules to follow if there are none and then sticks to them without identifying if they work or not—and there’s a knock at the door.

“Hey, Carole! Is Bradley here? No? Okay, just us, then.” Mitchell swaggers in, doffing his firm-billed TOPGUN baseball cap and divesting his G-1 bomber jacket. “Just the adults. I’ve had it with kids today. How’s it going, Ice?”

“Fine, Maverick,” he says, trying to unclench his jaw. 

“Tom made risotto,” Carole says brightly, all traces of grief or disgust wiped from her face. Then she bites into the pasta with an audible crunch. “Al dente, I guess.”

“One of these days I’ll have to learn to cook,” Kazansky says, but the energy’s off. 

Mitchell’s talking on and on about the transition TOPGUN is making from F-14s to F-18s—a disgrace, he says, though he does like the Hornet more, despite the canted under-wing pylons—and talks for five minutes straight without being interrupted, filling his own silences, tailhook this and variable wingsweep that and Major General this and budgetary restrictions that, and Kazansky keeps his head down and doesn’t look at either of them, and finally Mitchell says, “Jesus Christ, it’s like talking to a graveyard over here.”

He waits for an explanation, looks between them. They say nothing, keep eating. Crunch, crunch.

“Did you guys get in a fight while I was gone? How’d that happen?”

Carole puts her fork down. “I have a request, Pete.”

“Okay,” he says, instantly disarmed. “Shoot.”

“It’s about Bradley.” Alarmed, Kazansky looks back up at her. “He’s lonely,” she confesses. “And I don’t know what to do. I think he’s finding it—hard—to be, to try to be a man without—without his dad here. He’s that age, you know. It’s tough for him. I just—I don’t want him turning into—” She gestures vaguely.

Kazansky knows what she means. That kind of military guy, guys who grew up without a sense of what it means to be normal, who have some weird thing going on with the memories of their dads and take it out on everyone else. Kazansky knows men like that can be walked back from the edge of the cliff—he sleeps in the same bed as one most nights now—but Carole’s right. Bradley needs to figure it out before he turns into a young Maverick.

Blissfully un-self-aware, Mitchell says, “Doesn’t he have friends? Teachers, someone he can talk to?”

“I guess, but he’s—he has friends, but he doesn’t like them. He’s smarter than they are, more driven. One-track mind. Never had a girlfriend. Doesn’t really talk about girls that much.”

Kazansky and Mitchell look at each other, surprised; when they were both kids, girls were the only thing they ever talked about. 

“I guess what I’m asking,” Carole says, “is if you two could spend more time with him.”

“Okay,” Mitchell says again. That Maverick grin. Easy.

Then they’re walking back to the cul-de-sac where they always park. 

“So,” Mitchell says. “Sorry, wish I could come back with you in the car. What was that with you and Carole?”

Kazansky just stares at him. He can’t say, She knows about us, because that would admit there’s something about them to know, something worth knowing and worth talking about. He can’t say it because Mitchell—risk-taking calculator that he is—might rightly assume the risk involved in continuing this situation is too high and they should stop. He can’t say it because he’s shit-scared and would rather not say anything if he doesn’t have to. He says, “Nothing. It’s fine.”

“Okay,” Mitchell says, unconvinced but clearly unwilling to push it. “I’ll see you at home, then.”

It’s only when he’s sitting in the car with the key in the ignition that Kazansky looks down at the stack of pictures Carole gave him. Yes, there are some pictures of her and the kid—but at least half of them are photos of him and Mitchell, photos he hadn’t even known she’d taken. Pictures of them before TOPGUN graduations, at restaurants, in Carole’s backyard with baby Bradley. And there’s an old picture of Mitchell—maybe the one that had been used in his personnel file—from circa 1985, dressed up in full whites, all youthful defiance. It gives Kazansky pause. 

On his to-do list: frames / lightbulbs / 3 in nails. So he goes to the hardware store and buys frames and lightbulbs and three-inch nails, and one-by-one over the next week he hangs up Carole’s pictures. With every nail he pulls from between his teeth and lines up on the drywall he’s thinking, Is this crossing a line? But hang pictures was also on his to-do list, so it gets done.

That picture of Mitchell, he frames and sets up on the sideboard in the foyer. It’s kind of a joke. Look at that. How young you used to be.

But the week after that, Mitchell responds in kind: he’s scrounged up an old picture of Kazansky—probably stole it from his file—and there they are, the two of them, young and dressed-up, sitting there on the sideboard. It’s not a joke anymore.

Mitchell still keeps a secondary set of photos in the cabinet—of Goose, of Carole, of his friends, of planes, of places he’s seen, of family members he doesn’t talk to—in case someone comes over.

They don’t talk about that, either.

 

 

So they go to Bradley’s first middle school baseball game with Carole. He’s got a good eye, that kid: he’s a natural batsman, average somewhere in the high two-hundreds, and his throw’s all technique, elbow first, whip-fast. “He’s good!” Kazansky says, throwing his arm around Carole’s shoulders; she knocks it off and leans into Mitchell’s side. 

The Stars (that’s Bradley’s team) win 4 to 1, and Kazansky drives all four of them to get ice cream afterwards. It’s unbearably domestic; Mitchell’s got his hands clapped over his ears because the Dixie Chicks are on the radio, but Carole knows all the words to “Stand By Your Man” and has her arm around Gosling in the backseat howling. And all Kazansky can do is laugh. 

It’s easy, fitting Bradley into his schedule. Into their schedule. Twice a week, Kazansky and Mitchell take the kid for dinner, talk him through math problems and girl problems, and watch Bradley start growing up. 1996 becomes 1997. The months keep going on.

There’s science fair projects— “Do one on Bernoulli’s Principle, that’s what got me through high school in the seventies” —Homecoming dances— “Christ, Gosling, who the hell taught you how to tie a tie?” —tailoring Bradley’s music taste— “Now, Ice will tell you the best rock band of the eighties is Van Halen. A good rule of thumb is that Uncle Ice is rarely wrong, but when he is, it’s catastrophic” —piano recitals— “I keep telling the kid he should learn to play ‘Don’t Stop Believin,’ but Chopin is fine, too, I guess” —and taking Bradley to see the Padres play (Mitchell bought Kazansky a pair of season tickets on a whim and they go whenever they remember, which isn’t often)— “Jesus Christ. Is Gwynn gonna bunt every damn ball that comes his way?”

Uncle Maverick teaches Bradley how to shave when the three hairs on his chin grow to trollish lengths; Uncle Iceman starts taking Bradley driving in the new Chevy Impala. (“Don’t you dare scrape the hubcaps against the curb, kid; they cost more than your five-twenty-nine.”) When Uncle Maverick sneaks Bradley into an F-5 Tiger, Uncle Iceman looks the other way and conveniently loses the flight record and is “forced” to re-write it. 

Half of Bradley’s friends are the kids of base staff and officers anyway, so Uncle Maverick and Uncle Iceman use him as an excuse to worm their way closer into the hearts of Miramar. More letters of recommendation, more favors to do, as 1997 rolls into 1998.

There’s a girl named Priscilla Brown whose father works with Uncle Iceman in the tower. “Listen, sir, I didn’t want to say anything,” Chief Warrant Officer Brown says over dinner while Priscilla and Bradley are out at a movie, “but there’s a developing romance between one of the pilots and one of the new radar techs. She’s only nineteen, he’s thirty-one. Kind of skeezes us out.”

So Kazansky puts a stop to that real quick. And later he’ll ask Bradley how Priscilla was— “She’s just a friend, Uncle Ice. But Saving Private Ryan was really good.”

There’s Bill Slidell in the duty office, whose son plays with Bradley on the Stars. “We’ve been having some friction between us and maintenance. Some of the pilots have been complaining. But it’s the Navy’s fault, not ours. We can’t get those parts.”

So Kazansky greases up the gears and makes some phone calls, and the two Falcons that had been stuck without carburetors get fixed up and put back in service.

There’s Dorothea Sanchez, whose daughter is in Bradley’s class, and whose husband works in the hospital where Goose died and will be a while late to dinner. “I have to say,” she confesses, “I never thought I’d have the Commander of TOPGUN and the head of the whole base over for dinner!”

“I’m not the Commander of TOPGUN yet, ma’am,” Mitchell says smugly, feasting on actual well-made home-cooked food for once.

“Is there a story here? If you don’t mind me asking?”

And it’s always a mad scramble to figure out who will speak first, who will explain— Well, we knew Bradley’s dad, we killed him, we feel awful about it and we’re just trying to repay a debt. Don’t look at us too close or all the secrets we’re hiding will come out of the woodwork.

“Samantha says Bradley’s the nicest boy in class,” Dorothea says. “I think she has a crush on him.” (This is added very quietly; Samantha’s in the other room showing Bradley how to use the Internet on their home computer, which might be the most inventive euphemism a teenager has ever come up with.) “Thanks for bringing him over. Sorry Aaron couldn’t be here—I think he’ll be in soon. They’re planning a medical officer strike at the hospital, too many hours for too little pay.”

“And how are you gonna deal with that one, Captain Kazansky?” Mitchell says as they’re driving back home with Bradley in the backseat silent.

“Probably get someone in to mediate. I wish I didn’t have to hear about all the problems with my base secondhand.” And that’s true, but it’s by fixing these problems that the brass above him start taking notice. He looks over to Mitchell, who’s still wearing that smug little smirk. “You wanna be TOPGUN Commander?”

“Natural order of things,” Mitchell says, shrugging with a grin. Then he leans left and says over his shoulder, “How was ‘the Internet,’ Gosling?”

Without missing a beat, Bradley says, “It was cool. She got me on A.O.L. That’s America On-Line. I think I might ask Mom for a computer for Christmas this year. She has her own for work, but I think I want one, too. Maybe a laptop, if we can afford it. Macintosh.”

Mitchell hesitates, taken-aback. “And—how was, uh. What was her name?”

“Samantha?” Kazansky supplies.

“Right, how was Samantha?”

Gosling’s quiet for a second. Then he says, clearly pissed-off, “She’s just a friend, guys.” He might as well have crossed his arms with a harrumph.

They drop Bradley off at Carole’s and get fast food for dinner, and as they’re driving home Mitchell lays a hand on Kazansky’s thigh, curves his fingers over the inseam. “You think we’re doing something wrong? By the time I was his age, I’d lost my virginity and then some.”

“I dunno,” Kazansky says, lost in thought. He almost misses a stop sign. Right-left-right. The confusing maze of Southern California streets. “I really don’t know. It’s a good skill to have, talking to girls. Even if it doesn’t get farther than that until later.”

“He’s fine at talking to girls,” Mitchell says. “But that’s it. He just started shaving. Maybe he’s not old enough. I don’t know.” He looks over. “The older I get, the less I remember about the whole growing-up thing. And it’s different now. A.O.L., e-mail, what have you. What happened to good old phone calls, huh? Hearing each other’s voice? That’s how you fall in love with a woman, listen to her talk about stupid shit over the phone. None of this text on a screen bullshit.”

“All I remember about growing up is partying,” Kazansky says honestly. “Glad the Navy mostly beat that out of me. Say, you know if Bradley’s been to a party?”

“Hmm,” Mitchell says. “That’s a good idea. Maybe we should offer to drive him. When I was his age I had to steal my aunt’s bike or walk. You know how hard it is to walk to someone’s house in Fort Worth? That city was designed by the devil. Don’t get me started on biking home drunk.”

“He might meet girls at a party, too,” Kazansky says. “Okay. Sounds like a plan.”

Then they’re home and by midnight passed out in each other’s arms. 

They see Bradley next week, after his last baseball game of the season. The Stars came in second place in the county. It’s pretty great. 

“Listen, kid,” Mitchell says as Kazansky pulls onto the highway. “How’s about we get ice cream and watch a movie at ours? I recorded Back to the Future on the V.C.R. It’s got advertisements, but we can skip ‘em.”

“Okay,” says Bradley, who is now fifteen and not eager to be treated like a kid, especially after his team nearly got sent to State Quals.

“We were thinking. If you ever get invited to a party and you need a ride, call Uncle Ice up. He’ll give you a ride there. And if you need a ride home, too.”

“I could wait, if you wanted,” Uncle Ice says.

“Okay,” Bradley says again, anunciating each syllable. Oh. Kay. “Thanks. I don’t get invited to a lot of parties, though.”

There’s an awkward silent moment. Mitchell angles his head up to look at Bradley in the mirror. “Why—why do you think that is, champ?”

“Oh, God,” says Bradley, obviously rolling his eyes. “Because I’m fifteen and I don’t know any seniors whose parents leave for the weekend?”

“Oh, okay,” Mitchell says. Out of the corner of his eye, Kazansky sees him grimace. Absentmindedly Kazansky wonders if they should offer to host a party—but that might be going too far (and would indubitably make it back to Fightertown).

They get ice cream and head home.

Mitchell’s hooking up the VCR to the TV in the living room when he clearly decides to give it another stab. “You ever hear from Samantha again? See, I remembered her name. I care.”

“I mean, yeah, I hear from her,” Bradley says from the foyer, unbuckling his baseball cleats. “She’s in my homeroom and she’s loud as hell. Kinda hard not to.”

“Hey, why that tone?” Kazansky says from the kitchen. “I thought you guys were friends. Or close, anyway. Her mom told us she has a crush on you.”

“Listen,” Bradley says, stepping into the living room, “I know you guys mean well, okay, but it’s not gonna happen.”

“Just trying to help, Gosling.”

“I don’t need any help. I thought you guys, of all people, would understand that.”

Mitchell rears back like he’s been struck; in the kitchen Kazansky slips while trying to crack open a beer and nearly slices his hand open. “What’s that mean?” Mitchell says.

“I—” Bradley cuts off, eyes darting back and forth between them like a cornered meerkat. “Sorry.”

“No, say it.” It’s a challenge. Maverick asserting dominance in his natural habitat.

Bradley looks away, out the sliding glass door to the deck, to the dark sea and beyond. He gathers himself like clouds before a storm. “Please don’t freak out,” he says, and then he sighs, far too old for his years. “I think I’m—I’m gay.”

Kazansky can feel his eyes widen. He puts the cold bottle on the countertop before it slips out of his hand. Keep your head on straight, he’s telling himself. 

He and Mitchell are a room and thirty feet apart, and they do not look in each other’s direction on pains of death.

“Okay,” Kazansky says, and it’s kind of a joke, but then he really considers it, thinks about it hard. This is crazy. Not unexpected, in retrospect. But crazy. “Does your mom know?”

Bradley seems to get the sense that it’s safer to maintain eye contact with Kazansky than with Mitchell. He shakes his head, just a scared little kid in his baseball uniform and no shoes on a sunny white living room carpet. Back to the Future plays on mute behind him. No, Carole doesn’t know.

“Okay,” Kazansky says, always the pragmatist. “You still wanna go into the Navy? Fly planes?”

Bradley swallows. His jaw tightens, a flash of fury. Defiance, just like Maverick. Just like Maverick. Don’t you dare stand in my way. 

“Okay,” Kazansky repeats. He nods, too. Does thirty years’ worth of calculus in his head. No one has to know. “Okay. You have no enemies here.”

He heads over to the TV and unmutes the movie and sits back with his beer and ignores Mitchell’s piercing stare at the side of his head.

 

 

“He’s too young,” Mitchell says, toweling the last drops of water from his hair and tugging open a drawer. “What the hell does he know, anyway? He’s fifteen. Hasn’t even been with a girl. What does he know? I bet he hasn’t been with a boy, either.”

Kazansky doesn’t look up from his open folder, rolling over in bed and turning on the bedside lamp. But his heart is pounding. He doesn’t want to talk about this. Just move on.

“Maybe it’s a temporary thing,” Mitchell says. “What do they call it. A phase. Something all his friends are doing. You know that saying, if all your friends wanted to jump off a cliff, would you do it, too?”

“I don’t think it’s a phase, Pete.”

Mitchell looks at him strangely, the way he always does when Kazansky calls him by his Christian name, and maybe he shouldn’t have. Too intimate. It’s one of those awful nights when they’re both too self-aware of what they’re doing, one of those awful nights when Kazansky seriously considers sleeping in the second bedroom. The tension’s too high. This Thing-Unspoken-About between them rearing its ugly head. 

But Mitchell doesn’t leave, doesn’t go anywhere. He’s in his underwear and that’s it, sitting on the other side of the bed like he doesn’t comprehend the inherent hypocrisy in his argument. “How does he even know what that is? Is it the Internet? Some things you should find out later in life. So you have time to sow your wild oats, and all that horsecrap.”

“It is horsecrap,” Kazansky says, still not looking up from the classified folder he isn’t reading. “Carole was wrong. He does know who he is. Who are we to tell him he doesn’t?”

Mitchell grumbles something Kazansky doesn’t hear and slides under the sheets, still facing towards the window. “But he hasn’t even done anything. He doesn’t even know.”

Kazansky closes the folder and sets it on the bedside table. As he’s turning out the light, he says, “What people do is different than what they are, sometimes.” And that’s certainly true.

Mitchell waits five minutes in the dark before he says anything else, giving Kazansky plausible deniability. He whispers: “Do we know who we are?”

Kazansky pretends he’s asleep.

No, they don’t.

 

 

Admiral Petersen is quiet for a long moment, still looking over Kazansky’s personnel file. The sun is setting over Lemoore. Kazansky’s back aches from standing straight for so long, but he doesn’t let it slip.

Petersen says: “Alright, Ice.”

“Alright, sir?”

“I think you have a shot. I think you do. You’ve put the years in. Twenty-three years of service. Good heavens. And I’ve heard great things from Miramar. The question is, now, and don’t be embarrassed if you hesitate, because it took them two years to tear me away from this rusty place. The question now is whether you want to leave or not.”

The question pins Kazansky to the floor. “I’m sorry, sir?”

“I’ll nominate you right this second if you want it, Ice. And you’ve got a real shot, now. Plenty of open positions, and your record is impeccable. You’ll probably take over a carrier group in the Pacific to start, plenty of leave to come home when you want to. I’ll ask again. Do you want it?”

Kazansky thinks of Mitchell, of Bradley, of Carole. Of the life he’s built here over the last seven years. Of the life he’d wanted, so badly, to be temporary. Does he want to leave?

No, he doesn’t. Not at all. The realization startles him.

But he can’t phrase it like that. If he phrases it like that, it’ll open up too large a can of worms. Can’t think about it like that. No: he needs to think about it like this.

Does he want that first star?

He says, unable to ignore the ache in his chest, “I do, sir.”

 

 

He’s opening a window in the kitchen to light a cigarette.

“Jesus Christ, go outside if you’re gonna do that,” Mitchell snaps. “Or chew gum like everyone else. It’s two-thousand. Smoking kills.”

“Will you come out with me?”

Mitchell follows him out onto the deck like a whipped dog. They can see the neighbors’ dock lights from here, have to be discreet. 

Kazansky lights his cigarette. He’s so stressed that his hands shake on the lighter and make it rattle a little. “Listen,” he says. “I’m sorry. I am.”

“I get that,” Mitchell says, hands in the pockets of his pajama pants. “Yeah, I know. I knew it had to happen eventually.” He’s trying to be diplomatic, but the tone of his voice stops far short. “Just don’t fault me for being pissed about it.”

“Okay. I’m not.”

“How are you gonna explain it to Bradley, huh?”

“I’ll tell him the truth. I got promoted, I’m a flag officer now. Look, it’s cool. I’m one of a hundred and sixty, max. They fly a flag with a star on it over every boat I touch. Every base I step foot on. You know they’re gonna have to fly a flag over Miramar when I’m there, now?”

“Yeah, you’re really selling it,” says Mitchell. He’s raising and lowering the lid of the barbeque, checking the connection hose to the propane, twisting the knobs. Nervous energy. The waves crash against the beach past the backyard. “Really selling it, Ice.” 

Instinctively, Kazansky looks up and down the row of back decks to make sure no one’s watching. Then he comes close and lays a hand on Mitchell’s shoulder and another on his hipbone. “I’m sorry. I gotta go.”

Mitchell closes his eyes for a long second, then sighs. He takes Kazansky’s cigarette and stubs it out on the barbecue hood, and then he leans forward against Kazansky’s collarbone and circles his arms around his waist. “I know.” He adds, like it’s difficult, “And I’m proud of you.” That out of the way, he leans back and appraises him. “Look at you. Moving up in life, huh?”

Kazansky smiles despite himself and stands straight enough to park his chin in Mitchell’s hair. “If only you knew how sorry I am to go.”

“If only.”

 

 

The last thing he does as commanding officer of Naval Air Station Miramar is oversee Viper’s retirement and Mitchell’s promotion to Commander of the Navy Fighter Weapons School. Shit. Look at us both, he’s thinking, watching Mitchell peacock in his summer dress whites with a slow smile he’s sure no one else can see. 

And then he’s off to Pearl Harbor, getting acquainted with yet another carrier, shaking hands with staff and smiling so wide his face aches, watching maintenance techs working over an F-14 on the flight deck and—the strongest wave of jealousy he’s ever known smacks into him like a tsunami. 

For not the first time in his life, he thinks, I should’ve stayed with Maverick.

 

 

The boys on his boat are all shocked that he’s never crossed the equator before, that the admiral of their carrier group is still a pollywog, but they’re glad that means he gets to claim his status as a Shellback with them. The celebrations are endless, it seems. Always are for folly like this. But he’s got an extra card in his wallet now that he can stack next to a photo of Mitchell cutting Bradley’s eleventh birthday cake. 

How’s the Southern Seas? Maverick.

(Mitchell never learned that an e-mail doesn’t have to be written with the same economy as a telegram.)

Passed the line for the first time, officially a shellback. Missing San Diego & missing flying. Hope Gosling is OK. My love to Carole. Mav I will be home by September. Hope summer cohort goes well. There is pilot & WSO, Caesar & Bugle coming to you from my group. Didnt know them but hope they represent well. If not send them back & I will whip their instincts into shape etc. Four months then returning to SD. Maybe they will fly my flag at Miramar. Yours Ice.

 

 

It’s four of the longest months of his life. He can be honest about that, at least. A part of him is wishing that four months was long enough for both him and Mitchell to come to their senses. He’s an admiral now, no-nonsense, sacrifice-making, self-sufficient. No time for distractions, except if it means settling down and getting married.

So he’s exhausted and defeated, sitting in a taxicab at one in the morning heading back through Miramar, genuinely expecting—hoping, maybe—to open the front door and find Mitchell in bed with some girl. 

But then he opens the front door, and Mitchell’s there waiting up for him, and without either of them saying a word, without acknowledging it, without needing to talk about it—oh, fuck. 

He realizes three things in quick succession, as he’s apologizing for leaving with words that have no discernible form or meaning—they’re both so desperate, such half-starved animals, that they don’t even make it upstairs to a bed—first, that he’s never (not ever) known what he wants; second, that maybe getting involved with Mitchell was a mistake but so was leaving; and third, he’s too far down both these paths to stray from either anytime soon, so he might as well do what he’s been doing since day one: he shuts off his brain and lets Mitchell make all the hard decisions for him.

And he’s shivering and gasping for breath and rolling over to see how ruined his slacks are, and as he’s kicking off his shoes he breathes, “Jesus, it’s like you were waiting up for me the whole time I was gone.”

From next to him, wiping his hand on his T-shirt, Mitchell says, “I was.”

It’s a joke. Kazansky’s already halfway down the hallway, tugging off his coat and both shirts and then trying not to trip as he pulls off his slacks and tosses them all in the washing machine (and they really need to replace that piece of shit at some point). “C’mon,” he says, his knees still weak and his voice still a little strained. “I know there’s some nice girl you’ve been putting the blocks towards.”

“Not a one,” says Mitchell, and Kazansky looks down the hallway at him, where he’s still wiping his hand on his T-shirt as a chef might wipe a butcher’s cleaver on a dish towel. He looks up; they make eye contact; he shrugs, ever nonchalant. “Knew you were coming back. Come to bed when you’re done in there.”

It’s a joke, except maybe it’s not. Since the start of this unspoken thing between them, they’ve always lived in the in-between. 

But he only has two weeks of leave. That’s it, that’s all he gets; just a few weeks at the start of September. Fifteen days, and what is he going to do, spend the nights alone? So he comes to bed.

For the first week he’s home, he sleeps ten hours a night, lounges in bed till the sun’s high and strong, spends the days exploring San Diego with Bradley or waiting for Mitchell to come home and then stays in bed with him until it’s time for dinner. Recompense, for leaving. The first half of his leave runs out like sand between his fingers and he watches time eat it away.

It’s a Tuesday morning; the early purple sun is fighting off intermittent clouds, and he’s dreaming of flying. It’s all he ever dreams about these days. Sweaty hands on the throttle, radar lock, Slider in the backseat, a bogey in his sights. Maverick on his wingtip, sometimes. (Maverick actually letting him take the shot, sometimes.) He’s awake enough to register Mitchell slide out of bed next to him and answer the phone. He’s awake enough to hear Mitchell swear and race downstairs.

Then—panicked, genuinely afraid, Mitchell yells up to the second floor: “Tom?” 

It’s the fear in his voice that startles Kazansky out of bed, gets him tossing a shirt on and heading downstairs even in the gloomy blue-morning light; Mitchell’s yelling on the phone— “Scramble ‘em. I don’t care who I have to answer to, I want every pilot who has a plane up in the sky, now."

The TV’s on. Still bleary-eyed, it takes Kazansky a second to see it. The World Trade Center in New York, billowing black smoke from both towers, burning paper falling like leaves, circling helicopters.

“I’m coming in,” Mitchell’s saying, heading upstairs. “Captain Spielmann, you agree with me, don’t you? We’re a target, a military base with a hundred jets, we need to get every plane off the ground now, call all pilots back to base—”

Kazansky’s on the phone in a heartbeat. He’s got her number memorized. He’s pleading, praying. Watching the TV when the third plane hits the Pentagon. “Oh, Jesus Christ.” 

Sarah’s number dials and dials and dials. Dials even as Mitchell heads into Miramar on his bike in nothing but yesterday’s jeans and his leather jacket, dials even as a fourth plane crashes into a field in Pennsylvania, dials even as the towers start coming down. 

For two hours he stands there in front of the TV waiting for Sarah to pick up. Two hours becomes three. He hears the roars of twenty jets taking off from Miramar. They’re saying a thousand people dead. They’re saying three thousand people dead. Kazansky wants to call Mitchell and tell him to come home because he isn’t sure he can do this alone. He wants to ask: Why did you wake me up? Why didn’t you let me get away with just a few more hours of ignorance? Why did you think I had to watch? But he can’t stop calling Sarah even for a minute. He leaves fifty voicemails and then gives up and dials her every thirty seconds for three hours. Three hours becomes four and he still hasn’t turned the TV off. The broadcasters at CNN are in tears. The broadcasters at FOX are in tears. The broadcasters at NBC are in tears. The President is in tears. Meanwhile Kazansky’s standing there with unimaginably dry eyes in the living room watching New York blanket itself in ash waiting and waiting and waiting, listening to a dial tone—

“Hello?”

“Sarah?”

“Who is this? I’m sorry, I don’t have time, I—”

“It’s Tom. It’s your brother. I’ve been calling for four hours. Please just tell me you’re alright.”

She’s quiet for a second. “I’m alright, Tom. I’m okay. I’m safe. Are you alright?”

“I am now,” he says. 

And when she hangs up, he has no idea if he was talking to the real Sarah or to a kind stranger taking pity on him. He isn’t sure which is better. He isn’t sure which is worse.

 

 

His leave is cancelled. He spends another eight months away from home.

And he thinks—hopes, maybe—that eight months away is long enough to end this unspoken thing between them.

But then it’s not.






 

Chapter Text

It gets easier, being away from Mitchell and Bradley for long stretches of time. After he manages to weasel out of sea duty, Kazansky gets called up to D.C., gets shoved onto aircraft carriers, gets sent out to the arid wastelands of Nevada to oversee a new flight school, opens museums, rides schooners on their maiden voyages, collaborates with the Coast Guard, woos senators, mingles with post-glasnost Russians who sometimes share his last name, socializes with weapons manufacturing executives, learns the anatomy of a typical CVN-class ship in and out, shakes hands with ambassadors and wows them with his knowledge of their languages, attends funerals and burials at sea, runs interference between countries looking to buy F-18s, signs enough authorization forms to build a stack up to the moon, does all the awful banal boring shit no one else can stand to do, and still no one’s put together that he and the notorious Maverick Mitchell have been fucking twice a week on average for the last decade; still no one understands why he takes such a vested interest in some dead RIO’s kid’s education; still their luck hasn’t run out.

“We have been very lucky, Pete,” he’s telling Mitchell. But Mitchell can hardly hear him—he’s upside down on a scooter, angling a crescent wrench into a tiny compartment in the belly of his latest lady love: a beat-up piece-of-shit rust-bucket F-6K Mustang, which Mitchell keeps trying to explain is a reconnaissance variant of the P-51 but Kazansky doesn’t care and calls it a P-51 to piss him off, languishing inside a hangar he started renting last month without saying anything (“You did what?”). “And one day, our luck’s gonna run out.”

Something falls out of the plane’s undercarriage with a clank; Mitchell swears and sets about trying to find it. “Oh, yeah?” he says. “That why you’ve been eating so much shit with the upper brass? You know, in Miramar, they call you Shit-Eating Iceman, you know that?”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

“Well, it might as well be.” Mitchell rolls out from under the plane, smeared in engine oil, basically sex on legs in too-tight jeans and a too-tight T-shirt, looking for all the world like he just popped out of a Marlon Brando flick from the fifties. A little like Brando himself, and isn’t that a thought.

“It’s not the only reason,” Kazansky allows, feeling his face heat when Mitchell laughs. “And if you were in my position, you’d be trying to rack us up as many get-out-of-jail-free cards as you could. It’s not like what we’re doing is sanctioned by the U.S. Navy, or, might I remind you, the taxpayers."

“You should get down on your knees right in front of me for deigning to mention them here, in my hangar,” says Mitchell, standing with a little groan to go fetch another wrench from his rack of tools behind Kazansky. He stops to adjust an off-kilter picture he’s tacked up there, under photos of Goose and Bradley and Kazansky’s old VF-213 patch—Mitchell and Kazansky and Bradley, all grinning at the camera in some apple orchard none of them can remember anymore. Carole’s three boys.

“I could get down on my knees,” Kazansky considers. “Or we could go home and let Sinatra spin and see where the night takes us.”

Mitchell makes a face of disgust. “You and Sinatra. No, thanks.” He shakes his can of WD-40 like it’s a stick of dynamite, then takes a knee to shoot it into a joint in the plane’s engine. He surfaces with an infuriating smirk. “But you’re right. It’s not the only reason. Can I guess why you’re in such a good mood, Mister Two-Stars?”

Kazansky’s face heats a little more, if such a thing were possible, but he breaks into a stupid, childish grin anyway. “The posting hasn’t even come yet!”

“You’re not the only one with access to classified information,” says Mitchell, who’s already half Maverick at this point, all cocked eyebrows and sultry smiles. “Maybe we should go home and celebrate. You know, you’ve been hand-selected by the President. That’s pretty fucking metal.”

Kazansky squints at the lingo Mitchell must’ve picked up from a student. “It’s great, yeah.”

“You’ll get to push twice the paper, count twice the beans.” Then, seriously: “You’re not getting deployed again, are you?”

“Mm,” says Kazansky, and Mitchell’s face falls. “I’m not sure.” Actually, he has a hunch, but why ruin the mood?

Mitchell swallows, and Kazansky knows he knows; he’s been better at reading Kazansky than another living soul since he was thirty. “Well,” he says weakly, “guess you’ll have to eat some more shit and get promoted to four, huh?”

 

 

It’s fine, not a single one of his hundred-and-fifty-odd congratulatory letters from the other active-duty flag officers has even arrived yet, not even Slider knows, and they have time to figure it out later. Things are picking up their pace, now. Bradley’s back from his summer JROTC stint, the last one of those godawful things he’ll have to do, and splits the rest of his summer helping Mitchell fix up the F-6K (“Why the hell didn’t you call me? I would’ve quit the J.R.O.T.C. if I’d known you were gonna buy this old hunk of junk”) and working on his Naval Academy application with his mom, whose smile, these days, is a little strained. Carole has little to no interest in spending time with either of them anymore, not since before the summer, not even after Kazansky returned from Moscow with three sets of nesting dolls for her.

“Listen,” Mitchell says one night after some horrifically shitty delivery takeout, “I’m just getting it in bits and pieces, just picking up frequencies, but I think Carole’s figured it out.”

Kazansky’s looking over the files for a new advanced missile design, feeling a little nauseous for a few reasons. “Figured what out?” he says, not really paying attention; of the two of them, he’s always cared the least what Carole thinks.

“That her son is… you know.”

Now he looks up. “No, I don’t know.”

“One of us,” Mitchell says, coloring slightly, as if even he’s unsure what “us” means. And it’s also insulting, because Kazansky’s pretty sure the two of them aren’t two of them.

“Can’t even say it, can you?”

“Can you?"

Kazansky chalks it up to Mitchell’s long-standing fear that their house has been tapped, but then when he tries to say the word, he, too, finds it impossible. Frowning, he looks back down to the missile design, focusing on the missile’s housing, the attachment point between it and the F/A-18E, which is going to have to be redesigned, and it’s supposed to decrease civilian casualties by what percent, again?

“Anyway,” Mitchell says, obviously furiously embarrassed. “I kinda think she blames us. That’s a part of this whole moral panic, anyway. Guys who do stuff like us, they’re supposed to be bad influences on kids.”

Without tearing his eyes away from the schematic, Kazansky nods over his shoulder to his dress blues hanging pristinely from a felt-lined hanger on the doorknob, the single silver stars polished to perfection. “That look like a bad influence to you?”

“No, but you get it, don’t you? Carole knows what we—what we’re really like. I mean, think of it this way, didn’t your mom ever tell you she wanted grandkids?”

Kazansky closes his eyes. He’s more hurt than he shows. “Maverick, I swear to God, if this conversation goes on for another word, I’m gonna sock you in the jaw.”

“Right,” Mitchell says. “Well, anyway, you understand.”

The sad part is, Kazansky thinks later, he really does.

 

 

In the end, it turns out to be much, much worse.

 

 

He can’t get the leave. He hasn’t done enough people enough favors, hasn’t reached around to cup enough balls, hasn’t eaten enough shit. Are you fucking kidding me, he’s shouting over the phone, then startles out of his reverie enough to tacitly agree, “Yes, sir.” Good old Iceman, calm and cool and collected, able to stare down the impending death of the mother of his son as long as it means no one has to send a chopper across the Pacific to collect him. Should be promoted to four stars, that good old Ice, the one for whom duty always comes first. 

Fuck it. “Sir,” he’s saying, “I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but I know how to pilot a Super Hornet.”

There’s silence on the other end of the phone for a second. Then the Commander says, “Are you threatening to steal government property, Ice?”

Kazansky has no reply, because that’s exactly what he’s threatening to do.

“Well, shit,” says the Commander, probably kicking his feet up on his polished desk in the District. “Guess if you’re willing to take a page out of your Maverick Mitchell’s book, it must mean a hell of a lot to you. I’ll speak to some old friends, see if I can’t pull a few strings, see if I can’t get someone out there to relieve you, see if I can’t get you back in California for a few weeks. How’s that sound?”

Relief floods him, and then grief, because he knows hell still awaits him. 

“It sounds like heaven, sir,” he says weakly.

 

 

It’s past five in the morning when he makes it home, where Mitchell’s waiting up for him, looking worse, even, than after Goose’s death. “You got the leave.”

“I’m not sure how long,” he says, and because he needs it, he crosses the room in a few strides and holds Mitchell to him, presses his nose into the hollow of Mitchell’s throat. “Not sure at all.”

“That’s alright,” Mitchell says, sounding more defeated than Kazansky’s ever heard him. “The doctors say it isn’t gonna take long, anyway.”

“Where’s the kid?”

“Asleep upstairs. I’ve been told we’re supposed to move him into—our house.” (Kazansky knows Mitchell had been about to say “my,” but what can he do about it in the face of a universe like this one?)

“We can do that,” Kazansky says. “You shouldn’t have stayed up, Pete.”

“Can’t sleep.”

“You’ve got to try,” Kazansky whispers into the darkness.

 

 

Carole gets better, and then she gets worse. Bradley takes time out of school, his last semester of high school; he misses the SAT to go sit by her bedside night and day. 

In the meantime, Uncle Maverick and Uncle Iceman devote their time to moving his stuff out of Carole and Goose’s house, one backseat-full at a time of poseable plane figures, piano practice books, Transformers, pictures with friends, Tim O’Brien books Uncle Ice gave him and is sure he never read, CDs and CD players, JROTC medals, trophies from Little League baseball tournaments and soccer championships, postcards Uncle Ice and Uncle Mav had sent from all over the world, journals all half-written-in, boxes of old toys he couldn’t bear to get rid of, school notes, notes passed in school, pencils and watercolor paints, dollar-store novelty products, AP U.S. History study books, collectible trading cards, LEGO trucks and backhoes in various states of disrepair, magnets from the fridge and their corresponding report cards, letters from admirals Uncle Ice knows and from pilots Uncle Mav knows, striped shirts two sizes too small, baseball cleats with the mud still attached, a hockey jersey representing the Jets (a Canadian team Uncle Mav is sure Bradley’s never seen play), googly eyes, a chunk of the fallen Berlin Wall, remote-controlled spiders, baby pacifiers, photos of Goose, and on, and on, and on…

“I can’t do it anymore,” Mitchell says, halfway to tears in the foyer. “I just can’t.”

Kazansky makes a point of looking away as Mitchell wipes his eyes. He’s not sure how much more he can take, either. Fifteen years ago, he’d swallowed his pride and his fear and his guilt and knocked on Carole’s front door to apologize for killing her husband. Here he is again, collecting her son’s things to bring to him before she dies. 

It’s stage four, a metastasized growth at the base of her brain stem, a miracle it hasn’t killed her yet, and it was always too late to do something about it because no surgeon wants to touch it with a ten-foot pole, and it’s a death sentence, and they all know she has weeks—days—left.

They give up at Carole’s house and Mitchell heads back to the hospital for days on end to sign paperwork and figure out plans for the future, leaving Kazansky alone with Bradley, an arrangement that’s perfect for about nobody. It’s been clear to anyone with eyes for years that Maverick is Bradley’s favorite—he spends the most time with Maverick, anyway—and Kazansky’s not sure how to deal with Bradley’s moods, his outbursts, his sullenness. If he were cocky and destructive like a young Maverick, well, Kazansky has experience with that. But not with stony silence, not with depression. In the end, they spend most of their time sitting on the couch, not doing much of anything.

Bradley has another SAT in October and decides to give it a try, just to get out of the house, just to do something constructive. “I’ll be here,” Kazansky tells him.

“Yeah,” Bradley says flatly, then heads out the door with his pencils and calculator in tow.

And then Mitchell calls him, right in the middle of the afternoon.

“Has Bradley gone to his S.A.T.? —So you’re home? —Can you come by? Carole says she wants to talk to us together. —No, she didn’t say what. But—can you please come?”

He’s nervous. The last time he was in a civilian hospital was when his mom died. And he’s friends with Carole; he’s too close to death again. 

Just as every carrier bridge looks exactly the same, every hospital architect had the same vision in mind when putting together those long, lifeless hallways, those desaturated waiting rooms and metronomic machines. It makes Kazansky anxious; hospitals are where life begins and ends and yet there’s an absence of life everywhere he looks. He knows he’s getting older; it frightens him that this is his future. It frightens him that this is Carole’s present.

They’ve lain Carole up in palliative care, hooked her up to a saline drip and a few other nondescript bags of fluid. It’s a bare room with lots of sunlight and a bed that doesn’t move. She smiles at him when he drops the flowers he bought on the drive over into a glass of water at her bedside table.

“How you doing?” he says. In the chair next to him, Mitchell arranges his legs so the soles of their shoes touch a little.

“Better than yesterday, worse than tomorrow,” she says easily. Too easily. Her hair hasn’t been brushed or styled in weeks, and it lays flat over her head, dull and colorless. “I don’t think you can stay long. Doc said he wanted to come in to go over the scans in a little bit.”

“Okay,” Kazansky says, and he takes her hand. “That’s okay. You said—you said you wanted to talk?”

Now she closes her eyes, as if she’s in pain, but Kazansky thinks she’s just trying to remember what it was she wanted to discuss. He thinks they’ve drugged her pretty hard. “That’s right,” she says, her voice floaty and ethereal. “I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

“You wanted both of us here, correct?” says Mitchell, looking between them, at their joined hands.

“That’s right,” Carole repeats. “Tom.” She looks at him like she’s surprised he’s here, like she’s overwhelmed with joy. 

“Carole,” he says, nervous as hell.

“You and Pete have to be there for Bradley. Can you promise me that?”

“Of course. Of course. Have we already—”

“Paperwork’s already signed,” Mitchell says, looking down at the floor. “He’s only got a couple months left, anyway. But I’m his power of attorney if anything happens before that. I gotta go get it notarized, but I think I can stop by on the way home tomorrow.”

“Good,” Carole says. She’s still looking at Kazansky. Looking at him like he’s the face of God. “But I need you to promise to keep him safe, too.”

“I,” he says, afraid to enter into a contract he’s not sure he can keep, “I’ll do my best. Pete and I will do our best.”

She doesn’t answer, just keeps looking at him, just keeps hefting the responsibility of a lifetime on his shoulders. “I’m sorry to go,” she says finally.

“And I’m—” He cuts off. Looks down, looks away. This is bad. It’s really bad. And he can’t get himself to cry. This is one of those situations where crying is probably expected. And he really should; it’s not like he isn’t pre-emptively grieving. “I’m sorry you have to go, too.” But his eyes are dry.

Mitchell reaches forward and holds Carole’s hand, too, and it’s the three of them sitting there in silence holding hands until the doctor comes in.

“Sorry to interrupt. I’m going to have to speak to Mrs. Bradshaw, if you don’t mind.”

“That’s alright,” Carole says. “Pete has to stay here. He’s my power of attorney.”

“I’m right here,” Mitchell says, fumbling with his aviators so no one can see he’s about to lose it.

“I’ll try to come by next week,” Kazansky says, but he knows deep in his bones it won’t take that long. “I—Carole. Thank you.”

She’s still looking at him, pupils blown wide out to the rim. “Tom,” she says again, suddenly urgent, as if she forgot it before. “I know you don’t—I’m sorry. I don’t want—I don’t want Bradley in the Navy. I’m Nick’s mother, sometimes, in my head. I wish he hadn’t gone to Annapolis. I know you agree with me. I’m sorry. Thank you.”

The last thing he sees before a nurse closes the door is Carole’s sleepy face and Mitchell’s panic and the doctor leaning over his chart and pushing his loops up the bridge of his nose.

Someone leads him back to a waiting room where he sits with his head in his hands for half an hour until Mitchell emerges. “You waited,” Mitchell says, but his voice is flat.

“Of course I waited,” Kazansky says, looking up to see that Mitchell’s already heading down the hallway. He chases after him out into the sunshine. “Maverick!”

“No,” Mitchell says, already halfway down the parking lot to his bike. “Sorry. When we get home.” He’s got his aviators on, but Kazansky can see the puffiness around his eyes, and thinks it’s probably a good idea to let Mitchell go. He doesn’t want to see Mitchell cry anymore than Mitchell does. So he lets Mitchell take off on his bike and drives home alone.

Mitchell’s gone for an hour and a half, probably just roaming around the neighborhood, leaving Kazansky alone as the sun approaches the horizon. He’s not thinking about it. He’s not thinking about anything. He’s got a five-hundred-page book in his lap and he’s trying to distract himself, because he doesn’t know what else to do. His heart is pounding and he doesn’t know why; he’s got too much adrenaline and nowhere to put it. No outlet.

Then Mitchell comes home.

Kazansky puts a Post-it note to mark his page in The Caine Mutiny, standing to stretch. “Pete?” he says.

And when he makes eye contact with Mitchell, he knows nothing will ever be the same. Mitchell’s staring at Kazansky with his jaw locked-hard, those dark brows drawn low, his hands balled into fists.

Oh, Kazansky thinks. They’re about to have the dogfight of their lives. 

“Can it wait?” he says.

“This doesn’t have to turn into an argument,” Mitchell says. “It doesn’t. But I’m gonna tell you what exactly we’re not gonna do. We’re not pulling Bradshaw’s papers from the Academy.”

Kazansky unbuttons the top two buttons of his shirt and rolls up his sleeves. He’s wound so tight he could snap in a second, itching for a fight, or for a fuck, or for something like that, except he has no idea whose side he’s on and no idea what the hell they’re supposed to do. “When was that ever an option?”

Mitchell’s eyes flash with misplaced fury. “Carole wants us to pull his papers. Wants him out of the Academy. Her dying wish. She doesn’t want Bradshaw to end up like Goose.”

Kazansky stares him down for a second. So Carole had specific instructions. He’s trying to think of the words to say— “Oh, Jesus, Maverick,” he says, turning away. “Oh, Jesus. Not now.”

“The hell do you mean, not now? You got something you want to say?”

“No, but if you want a fight,” Kazansky says, and he knows he’s being cruel; Mitchell becomes Maverick when he’s stretched too thin like this, caught between what he thinks is right and what he must do. “Listen, if you’re angry, okay, let’s talk about it, or let’s fuck, but if you’re gonna stand here and shout at me for a position I’m not taking, you can go outside and yell at the wall, if you want.” Come on, he’s thinking, come on, give in eventually.

“Well, do you or don’t you think she’s right?” snaps Maverick, not rising to the bait. “You think we’re killing our kid, sending him off to flight school?”

“I don’t,” Kazansky says, keeping cool, already on his way across the room. He’s got a headache. He wants this stupid argument to stop, still unsure why Maverick is so angry with him, still unsure whose side he’s on, still confident Maverick is just as tightly-wound as he is, and maybe they might actually get somewhere if Maverick gets the stick out of his ass. In the Navy, Kazansky has a reputation for masterful manipulation. Mitchell was pretty far off with “Shit-Eating Iceman.” There’s a reason he’s been branded ice-cold, a reason Mitchell’s only ever borne witness to a few times, and not recently.

“Well, what do you think, then,” Maverick growls. “‘Cause, sometimes, it’s pretty damn hard to tell with you. I’m not pulling his papers. Do you agree with me or not?”

“I think,” Iceman says, now leaning over him, “we should talk about it later.” He pauses. “And that’s an order."

There’s a beat. They can each hear the other’s racing pulse. Then Maverick says, “What?”

“Come on, Mitchell,” Iceman breathes, and watches, a little removed from his own body, as Maverick swallows it hook, line, and sinker. “It’s been a month. You still want me or not?”

It has a fifty-fifty chance of working, maybe adjust the odds in favor of Iceman a tad since they’re both fired up and a little starved; flip a coin: tails, Maverick punches him, which might be just as cathartic; heads…

Maverick goes a little stupid. “What the fuck is wrong with you,” he says, and that’s how Iceman knows his king’s gambit worked. “You think right now is a good time? Is that what you think?” But then his eyes are closed and they’re both tearing at each other’s shirts, furious and howling mad with no idea why, a Hanna-Barbera cartoon whirlwind tripping and stumbling over the back of the couch and collapsing onto the cushions, and when Maverick kisses he bites, and when Iceman grips he bruises, and there’s no passion in it, just anger at the fucked-up situation they’ve landed in, and it’s not even technically sex, just pawing hands and unbuttoned jeans, but they’ve both had worse, and as bad as this is, it’s worlds better than being alone, and for a brief horrible second Iceman wonders if that’s been the basis of their relationship for the last decade, and then for a briefer more horrible second he asks himself why the fuck he ever joined the Navy in the first place, if it was to defend his country or to live up to his father’s memory or just to partake in the killing of people, to partake in death, to stand above a man only made evil by his demarcation on a map Iceman had no hand in drawing and to say I am victorious, and he thinks for a second that’s what he’s saying I am victorious I am victorious I am victorious as his vision goes all white and black and blurry like a fifties movie, Marlon Brando squirming and gasping under him, except he knows he’s just moaning Maverick’s name the way he always does.

“Okay,” he says, fighting for breath, standing and buttoning his jeans without bothering to clean up, gripping Mitchell’s sweaty hand, “Okay, let’s talk, huh?”

 

 

It goes like this, and stop Kazansky if you’ve heard this one before. 

It all revolves around Goose. Everything. The planets in the solar system probably revolve around Goose now, too, and the stars in the galaxy orbit a Goose-shaped black hole. Kazansky knows every time Mitchell watches Bradley come through the door, there’s a split second he sees the heavenly father instead of the prodigal son. They look so similar, a giant cosmic joke, that Goose wasn’t around to influence his son but his genes sure were, and Bradley’s got a truly huge hero complex where his dad’s concerned, so from the age of sixteen onwards he’d been cultivating a trimmed mustache just like his father, which only makes things worse. 

This means, of course, that both Mitchell and Kazansky are in generational debt to Bradley, who is Goose resurrected (except a lot less funny), and they’ve both been waiting to repay that debt their whole lives. 

When Bradley was twelve, old enough to understand that Uncle Ice and Uncle Mav were never going to bring home two cool aunts, Kazansky and Mitchell sat him down and explained what had happened to his father, what really happened. Excuses of “a training accident,” while true, weren’t going to cut it anymore. Well, they explained, Ice couldn’t get radar lock, he couldn’t take the shot, it was frankly pissing Maverick off, he nudged Ice out of the way and happened to fly into his jet wash, and then there was a flat spin out to sea, eject, eject, eject…

For years, Kazansky wondered who Bradley blamed more. Bored on carriers and at funerals and overseeing transfers, he’d stepped outside his body and rationalized it a little, wondering who was really at fault from Bradley’s perspective: Maverick had flown into the jet wash, sure, but it had been Ice’s jet wash, and Ice couldn’t angle to port that tiny bit more to take the shot…

But, as always, the fault line between his and Maverick’s professional and personal relationships makes things more difficult. Kazansky’s gone all the damn time, doing favors but more importantly doing his damn job, and it’s Maverick who’s really raising Bradley, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that neither Mitchell nor Bradley can do things halfway where the other is concerned. Mitchell treats Bradley like a second Goose, half fun-loving brother and half guilty-kicked-puppy, and Bradley… Bradley’s worse. He loves Mitchell to death and blames Mitchell the most. After all, Maverick had been in the cockpit.

No wonder they’re fighting about Carole’s last wish for her son.

“It’s not like I don’t understand where she’s coming from,” Mitchell says quietly, his cheeks still stained a bright red and lips still shining wet. He zips his jeans and tucks his T-shirt back in. “I do. That’s why it was so hard.”

“What did you tell her?” says Kazansky, catching his breath.

“Well,” Mitchell says, fighting to find the words. “Well, I told her—I told her I’d think about it. That I couldn’t do anything without you, because you’re the only one with the clearance to do something like that. She kept saying she knows you agree with her.”

“Did you think I’d already talked about it with her?”

“Maybe a little bit,” Mitchell accuses, puffing up like a pissed cat.

“Well, I haven’t,” Kazansky says coolly. So that’s why he’s so angry. “She doesn’t know what I think.”

“Neither do I, still.”

Kazansky looks out the window, out where the sun-beaten blue waves are splashing onto the sand. Why don’t they spend more time at the beach? he thinks stupidly, then looks down at his watch. They have maybe an hour before Bradley gets back from his SAT. And then, he thinks with a painful shot of panic up his spine, maybe only hours more before Carole dies and they have to actually do something.

“Bradley wants to go to the Naval Academy,” he says simply. “He’s got the grades for it, he’s got the drive, he’s been flying with us since he could walk. He’s got you and me backing him up.”

Mitchell sighs in relief. “Thank God.”

“But,” Kazansky says, suddenly realizing whose side he’s on, suddenly realizing the height of the cliff on which he finds himself teetering. “But.” And he can’t find the courage to say anything more.

“But what,” Mitchell says, eyes flashing, and the motherfucker goes unsaid.

“But it’s not our call to make. We’re not his blood.”

“Oh?” says Mitchell, as if this is news to him. “Aren’t we?”

“No, Pete. We’re not. And think about it this way—if you had control over the universe, if you could change the past, wouldn’t you have wanted to keep Goose safe?”

Mitchell’s mouth hangs open, and Kazansky realizes too late that it was probably a mistake to have gone for the jugular that soon.

“Don’t you look at me like that,” he snaps, all hollow inside. “Don’t you look at me like I’m wrong. It’s my fault, too, Mitchell. I have nightmares about it, too. What-the-fuck if… If I’d moved quicker, if I’d been able to take the shot, we wouldn’t be in this situation. And Goose would be here.”

“Goose isn’t here,” Mitchell reminds him savagely. “It’s us, now, you son of a bitch, we’re his fathers now, for better or worse. And Carole’s not thinking straight, they’ve got her drugged up to the moon and back—”

“Shut up about Carole.” Heartless bastard.

“She’s not thinking straight, and you want to know how I know that? Because the day after Goose’s funeral she told me Goose would’ve flown without me if I died in a training accident, that he would’ve hated it but he would’ve done it.”

“That’s,” says Kazansky, his wheels leaving the ground, “not what she told me.”

Mitchell’s suddenly devastated, suddenly shocked. They’ve drawn close again, but there’s no intimacy this time, just the chill of anger and decades-old guilt they’d never discussed. “You talked to her?”

“Yeah,” Kazansky says, and he has to swallow down the bile in his throat. “Maybe a few hours after you, I’m not sure. She gives me a hug and tells me she doesn’t blame me for what happened but she secretly wished Nick had never gone up in a plane in his life.”

“Well,” says Mitchell, dangerously close to shouting, “she wasn’t thinking straight, then, either!”

“That’s convenient,” Kazansky says, not sure how he’s keeping his voice so level except that he always does. “You really wanna know why she’s been avoiding us this year? You haven’t guessed? It’s not ‘cause we’re” —he still can’t say it; he gestures to the couch— "fucking, it’s because she doesn’t want her kid in the Navy. Can you blame her, Pete? Can you really blame her, after what happened to Goose?”

Mitchell just looks at him. “You really are one cold son of a bitch,” he says, and that hurts ten times more than all the casual ribbing Kazansky faces from the upper brass. “You’re gonna do it, aren’t you?”

They’re reaching the point of no return, Kazansky knows, so close to slipping off the edge that it scares him half to death. Don’t make me lose you over this, he’s thinking. “No,” he says. “He’s your kid, too, Pete. I’m not going to do anything without you saying so.”

Mitchell deflates, runs a sweaty hand through his hair. “Good,” he says. “Because I’m not having his papers pulled.”

Then he’s tearing open the door and Kazansky hears the kick-start of his bike and the roaring of the turbo, and then Mitchell leaves a stretch of rubber along the driveway.

Kazansky breathes. He thinks he might cry, and he probably should, except he’s genuinely forgotten how to, hasn’t cried in decades, has forgotten what it feels like. So instead of crying he makes for the linen closet and pulls out the second set of sheets, heads up to the empty unused third bedroom that’s for emergencies only, for whenever someone comes over and wants a tour, a decoy room to suggest Kazansky and Mitchell aren’t sharing, and starts making the bed, all hospital corners and sharp tucks. 

He knows when he’s been banished, when he’s been cast out of Eden. He knows. He’ll sleep here tonight.

Bradley comes home half an hour later, miserable and desiccated, and finds Kazansky sitting on the couch still reading the same page of The Caine Mutiny over and over again. 

“How’d it go?” Kazansky asks, forcing fake cheer.

Bradley shrugs, disinterested. “It went,” he says, and heads upstairs.

 

 

Carole dies on a Monday, and Mitchell arranges her funeral for that Saturday, down at the Lutheran Church on Mavis Avenue, the one with the pastor she liked to ogle on Sundays. Reverend Renaud, he’s called, and he’s all tears and tilted-head grief when Kazansky and Mitchell go to get the date set. Kazansky hasn’t set foot in a church since Sunday school, is a little worried he might burst into flames on the threshold, but he follows Mitchell’s hard jaw and red-rimmed eyes inside anyway. If Mitchell’s strong enough to do this, he has to be, too.

Renaud shows them where they’ll put the casket for viewing, walks them through what verses he’ll recite, what prayers he’ll lead them through, then asks them if they’ve chosen a spot for the burial—that, he says, will have to be arranged with the funeral home—then asks if there will be flowers, because he’s allergic, and then asks how they knew her. Kazansky and Mitchell stumble through a difficult explanation, something about friends and fathers and sons, barely coordinated because they’re still hardly looking at each other, even a week later.

The next few days are a flurry of phone calls and last-minute invitations, and they manage—somehow, by some miracle, maybe stepping into that church worked wonders—they manage to get the majority of the nineteen-eighty-six TOPGUN cohort to agree to hop back to San Diego and attend. Cougar—who quit in eighty-six and is now apparently quite a successful lawyer—is managing a criminal suit against a senator in D.C. and can’t come. Tombstone says he can’t remember who Nick Bradshaw was and has no interest in Bradshaw’s wife. But everyone else swears they’ll be there, on pains of death—Kazansky’s sure that he’s about to get a dozen calls from brass all over the world wondering why the hell so many Navy officers all up and left.

Kazansky never sees Mitchell cry, never has, but knows he does, knows he locks himself in the bathroom past 0300 hours and weeps near-silently, when he thinks Kazansky’s asleep. It’s better for everyone that way, for Kazansky who can’t bear to see another man crying and for Mitchell who can’t bear to be seen crying.

They’re not really sure how Bradley’s doing. They’re not really sure which one of them Bradley blames this time.

At least the weather is nice on Saturday, blinding sun and brilliant blue October skies, “Just the way she would’ve wanted,” he tells Mitchell, hoping for a smile, getting a nod instead. They’re both wedging their way into their dress blues, and it’s been so long since he’s seen Mitchell in his blues that it takes Kazansky’s breath away even though now is probably not the time. Mitchell’s still devastating even a decade and a half later, even bowled low by grief, even running on the dregs of fury.

They’re not calling it a funeral, they’re calling it a “celebration of life.” The same thing in a few more words. And it goes about as well as most funerals do, which is to say nothing out of the ordinary. About eighty percent of the funeralgoers are military families, anyway, so no one’s crying much, not even Bradley, who makes a short and unmemorable speech. And it’s nice to see and catch up with everyone else—Wolfman and Merlin and Hollywood and all the rest. 

Slider pulls him aside right before they’re about to climb back into their cars and follow the hearse to the burial site—the promontory memorial cemetery where Goose is buried. 

“I’m not sure if I can even call you Ice anymore,” jokes Slider. “Or if I should only call you Rear Admiral Upper Half Kazansky. It’s a mouthful.”

“Ah,” Kazansky says. “You heard, did you?”

“Congratulations, man. We’re trying to keep it on the down-low, but we’re all so happy for you.” Making sure no one’s watching, Slider punches Kazansky on the arm, and both of them can’t help but laugh a little. “Of all the people, man. Of all the people the President could pick, of course the old bastard was gonna pick you.”

“I have your confidence, Kerner?” It’s always easy to slide back into jest when Slider’s around.

“Hell, yes, Ice, till the day I die. Listen, um, I have, just, I just wanted to ask you…” He was being facetious before, but now Slider really cranes his neck, makes sure no one’s listening. “You and Maverick.”

“Huh?”

They both look over towards the parking lot, where Mitchell is chastely hugging Bradley and talking in low tones.

“You share a car?” Slider asks subtly.

“When I’m in San Diego.” Ah, fuck. God damn it. Of all the times in the world to confront Kazansky about Mitchell, it had to be now, didn’t it.

“Okay,” says Slider. “And, uh. How long’ve you been sharing a house?”

Kazansky turns, stares the Commander down, feels every inch of Rear Admiral, cold and threatening in a heartbeat. “It has three bedrooms. And I’m never in San Diego.”

“Okay,” Slider repeats, unconvinced. 

“You accusing me of something, Kerner?”

“I don’t think I’m supposed to,” Slider says. “I thought we were friends, Ice.” He pauses, trying to lighten the mood. "Admiral Ice. But, okay, if you don’t want me to ask, I won’t ask.”

Iceman sighs, closes his eyes, leans back against the wall, loses his posture. Jesus fucking Christ, is he longing for a cigarette. “There’s a second half to that phrase, Slider, and I know you know it. You won’t ask and I won’t tell. That’s how it is. Sorry. Nothing more to it than that.”

“Understood,” Slider says, and when Kazansky opens his eyes he sees that Slider really does understand. After a second, Slider drapes an arm across Kazansky’s shoulders and pats him on the back. “And, entirely hypothetically; say if we were civilians under no threat of a court-martial and I were to ask, and your hypothetical answer were yes, I need you to know—”

“Shut it, Ron.”

“No,” says Slider, shaking him a little. “I need you to know it would be okay.” He hesitates again. “But Maverick, man? Of all the hypothetical people?”

And that gets Kazansky laughing and swearing worse than a sailor, and then they head back to the parking lot. 

He doesn’t ask Slider the two questions whose answers he desperately needs to know, which are: How the hell did you find out? And the worse, harder question: Who the hell else knows?

Contemplating and worrying, those are good old Iceman’s favorite moves, and it’s all he’s doing as he drives himself and Mitchell to the memorial cemetery on Oceanside Drive. He can’t even say the word out loud, can’t even think it, yet now it’s a label Slider and soon everyone else will want to affix to him. It leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. Maybe he is… the meaning of that word, maybe he is one of them. But he sure as hell doesn’t feel like it, and even if he did, he’s still an exemplary Naval officer with multiple confirmed air-to-air kills and an award record that would roll out the door, so why does it matter?

As he’s unbuckling his seatbelt, his huge clunky-ass cell phone rings in the backseat. “I gotta take this,” he tells Mitchell. “Tell them to start without me.”

“Admiral Kazansky,” says the voice on the other end. It’s the commander who pulled all those strings to get him back to San Diego. “How are you?”

“Alright, sir.”

“I’m calling with regards to the personal business you wanted leave for,” says the Commander. “To see whether it’s concluded or not.”

“Uh,” says Kazansky. “Well, I’m watching her get buried as we speak, sir.”

“Okay. So, if not concluded, then mostly concluded.”

For a second Kazansky wonders if he’s been so successful in the Navy because the United States tends to promote heartless motherfuckers without a soul. “I guess you could call it that. Sir.”

“Well,” burps the Commander, and why is it so easy to imagine this Commander leaning back in his cushy horse-leather chair in his air-conditioned D.C. office? “I have your first orders as an Upper Half sitting here on my desk.”

Oh, Jesus. Oh, God. “Am I getting deployed?”

“Deployed! Are you a private just out of boot camp, Ice? No, you’re serving. Out of Guam, as it happens. It’s nice there. You’ll like it.”

“Guam,” says Kazansky, and he crosses the street into the park so that if he feels the need to punch something it won’t ruin the burial service. “How long?”

“Until Admiral Petersen returns from sick leave,” says the Commander. “Might be months. Maybe more.” There’s carrots and then there’s sticks, and this is somehow both.

“I’m filling Admiral Petersen’s shoes?”

“Damn right. He nominated you personally. Pissed a bunch of people off over here, but the fact is George is grooming you to take his place, and you just might get it before I make you retire.”

Does he want four stars? Does he actually want them? “I’d be honored,” he says. “If you don’t mind me asking, where’s Rear Admiral Teagan? Or Rear Admiral Simpson? Shouldn’t they be leaping at an opportunity like this?”

The Commander says: “Don’t tell me you’re looking a gift horse in the mouth, Ice. George wants your ass in Guam and I promised him I’d send it over. Now, you’ve got three days to get there, and you’ve got your pick of transports, I made sure of that personally.”

“Three days, sir.” Oh, no. No, no, no. Not now.

“You’ve done it faster before,” says the Commander. “That's all I could squeeze out of George before he leaves for treatment. Sorry.” What he means is: if you keep asking questions, if you keep making demands, I’ll make this opportunity vanish in a heartbeat.

“I can do it, sir,” Kazansky says, gripping the phone with both hands. “Three days is plenty. And thank you.”

“That’s alright, Ice. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye, Mr. President, sir,” Kazansky says. He makes sure the phone is really hung up before he slides to a seat on a park bench, chewing his thumbnail. What the hell is he supposed to do? He has no idea. None whatsoever. 

Maybe go to Guam. That’s the most likely course of action. When in doubt, follow orders. He’s not an NCO. He doesn’t have to think for himself if he doesn’t want to. 

The burial is over by the time he makes it back, his head swollen and pounding, and most of everyone has dispersed, gone to a bar or to a club in Carole’s memory, or is shaking Mitchell’s hand and patting Bradley on the back, or paying respects at Goose’s grave.

That’s where he finds Mitchell alone after he’s finished shaking hands and saluting and catching up: Goose’s grave under that weeping Pacific pine, standing in a very un-regulations way, his hands thrust into his pockets, looking down at the sea.

“Maverick,” he says softly, so as not to startle him. “I gotta talk to you.”

“Yeah,” Mitchell says. He takes off his officer’s cap. “You sure do, don’t you.” He sighs, defeated, and nods over his shoulder to the car. “Let’s go home, then.”

 

 

It’s only for a few months. A few months, and then he might be home for a while. It’s overseeing paperwork and making ten phone calls an hour and that’s pretty much it, just for a few months, Pete, don’t you understand that? He’s barely been a Rear Admiral Upper Half for three seconds and already the Commander of the Pacific Fleet wants to test his mettle—hell, Pete, the President wants to test his mettle, wants to see if he’s just a shit-eater or if he can actually hold his own, make his own decisions for once. Yes, he has to leave in three days, Pete, but that’s part of it, it’s a test, all a test, just like the whole military’s always just a test. That’s all they’re ever doing, playing war games and running drills and measuring cocks, and it’s very important work and someone’s gotta do it, and sometimes that means leaving in three days to spend a few months in Guam. If that makes him the better cock-measurer than everyone else, he’d better do it. Bradley will be fine, Pete. You’ll take good care of him, Pete. And Pete, the President’s gonna have his ass on the table if he doesn’t go. Pete, the President might be cruel and shortsighted but that doesn’t mean he’s not the President. Pete, this has nothing to do with Afghanistan. Pete, this has nothing to do with Iraq. Pete, this has nothing to do with al-Qaeda. Pete, this is about Guam, about going to Guam and running a clean ship and signing papers and fighting his way to four stars. He does want those four stars. Wants them bad. It’ll mean he’s at the top, Pete. It’ll mean a good man’s made it to the top, finally. That’s what it means: a good man will have made it to the top.

Pete covers his eyes with one of his hands. Pete says, “Does it?”

Pete says, “Don’t look at me.”

Pete says, “Focus on the road.”

Pete’s crying, Pete’s got tears running down his face, and Iceman’s white-knuckling the steering wheel at ten and two because he’s so afraid Pete’s gonna ask him to pull over and get out and walk home. 

Pete says, “You’re gonna leave me now,” a hand muffling his words, crying like a baby, crying like a girl, and he knows it. 

Pete says, “Don’t look at me, Tom. I’m losing you all. I’m falling apart.”

 

 

He’s wrong. It isn’t all paperwork and phone calls. 

He’s on a stealth cutter near Manila arguing with a Commander about the best way to angle a flyover to drop special-ops guys in Tehran, and this guy’s never even stepped foot inside a cargo jet and what the hell does he know, and all Kazansky wants to do is slug down a beer and watch the Padres game with Mitchell sprawled out next to him on the couch but he can’t stop thinking about the photo of Maverick and Goose he’d left on the kitchen counter before he left, because, hell, if his relationship with Mitchell is fucked anyway he might as well try to carry out Carole’s last wish on his way out the door, and finally he snaps, “Commander Joseph, we do this on the forty-four-to-forty-eight-minute diagonal or we don’t do this at all,” and the conversation’s over.

He checks his e-mail between meetings—there’s an okay satellite connection out here—and sees it.

You win, Ice. Pull the plug. Maverick.

Kazansky’s still clumsy with a keyboard, never really got the hang of it, and he fumbles a couple times before he shoots off a reply.

I’m sorry Pete. I think it’s for the best. I want to keep him safe. Are we OK? Ice.

He doesn’t get an answer back.

 

 

It’s maybe ten in the morning, they’re fuck-smack in the middle of a monsoon, and Iceman’s been on plenty of boats in plenty of rough seas, but usually the boats aren’t this small and usually he’s not nauseous and heartsore to begin with. The dark blue light coming in through the porthole is bucking and swaying with the rolling waves like he’s woken up inside a funhouse. Even the phone is jumping and bouncing.

There’s a concept he learned during his master’s in International Affairs—path dependence. The fate of countries and their policymakers and their citizens has been decided already, decided eons ago by decisions made without all the necessary information, by irrational actors dealt shitty hands. Nothing we can do about it now. It's a fait accompli. There are no other possible versions of this story. This decision was made a long time ago. Iceman’s just walking the path. Gotta pick one foot up and put it in front of the other and hope you're doing the right thing.

He picks up the receiver. Listens to the dial. “Admiral Kazansky.” Pause. “Looking for Vice Admiral Williams. Superintendent.” Pause.  

Sundown: “No way this guy’s calling me.”

Iceman: “Hey, sugar. Miss me?”

Sundown: “I just saw you, Ice. Hey, how’s Maverick?”

Iceman: “Shitty, probably. Not really keeping up with him. How’s your new job?”

Sundown: “Cushy. Nice. They’ve got me set up with a corner office overlooking the Chesapeake. For a guy who grew up in Metairie, Louisiana, I mean, Jesus, it’s a dream come true. The kids, though: did we get dumber or are they a lot smarter?”

Iceman: “You know, both are probably true. You ever miss flying, though?”

Sundown: “Hell, yes. All the time. But Virginia and me’s got ourselves a little Cessna in the garage. Called her Ginny. Virginia likes that. She’s in good shape. Nothing like flying a jet, man, but hey, least it’s something. At least you’re off the ground, you know?” Pause. “Where you calling from?”

Iceman: “That’s classified. I only fly passenger now. It’s the worst. Maverick invested in some piece of shit P-51 that last flew over Omaha Beach. I keep telling him it’ll take him a decade to fix up, but you know Maverick. Stubborn son of a bitch.”

Sundown: “And don’t I know it. You know I thought about calling him up and inviting him out to teach a few semesters at the Academy? But he’s practically married to TOPGUN. Won’t leave her for a soul, even though—well, you and I both know, and he doesn’t, that TOPGUN’s moving out to Nevada soon. Armpit of America. Wonder if he’ll stay then.”

Iceman: “He probably will. You’re right.” Pause. “Listen, Sundown, I’d love to catch up more, but I have to be honest, it’s not why I’m calling.”

Sundown: “I figured. Your reputation precedes you.”

Iceman: “Yeah. Calling in a favor. If you like, you can think of it as returning one, because I did get Senator Barlowe to sign onto the budget bill.”

Sundown: “Alright, Ice. Name your price.”

Iceman: “I need you to pull a student’s application.”

Sundown: “Man, even I look bad when I do that. Alright, what’s the kid’s name? Who pissed you off?”

Iceman: “Kid’s name is Bradley Bradshaw.”

Sundown: “I’m looking at the files right now. B., B.R., Brad., Bradshaw—” Pause. “Ice.”

Iceman: “Just do it, Sundown. For me.”

Sundown: “What’d he do, stay out too late past curfew? Ice, what the hell?” Pause. “Isn’t this your kid, man?”

Iceman: Pause. “Sure is.”

Sundown: “Does Mitchell know?”

Iceman: “Sure does.”

Sundown: “It’s a good application. One of the best. A standout kid. Summa cum laude. And, what, you want me to just make it look like an accident?”

Iceman: “Sure do.”

Sundown: Pause. “Listen, Ice, I’m sure you’ve got your reasons, but this is, if you’ll pardon my French, all kinds of FUBAR.”

Iceman: “You got the papers there in your lap. Pull ‘em.”

 

 

Kazansky’s shoving nickels into a pay phone in Guam because he knows this way the Navy can’t trace the call to him. It’s a long-distance call, and he only has so many nickels. It’s dumping rain, the sky’s been a dull, bruised blue for the last month and a half, and his fatigues are soaked to the skin. When he lays them over the radiator they’re gonna stink like shit. 

“Pete?” he hollers into the receiver, jamming a finger in his ear to block out the road noise. “That you?”

“It’s me,” says Mitchell, sounding very far away.

“How are you? Is everything okay?”

“I’m gonna need a dictionary,” says Mitchell. “Not sure what the definition of that is.”

Why the fuck can’t I just talk to you? Kazansky wonders, wiping the rainwater out of his eyes. Why can’t we ever get this right?  

“I,” he says, momentarily at a loss for words. “Listen, I just wanted to know—”

“He’s gone.” Over the phone, Mitchell’s voice is tinny and congested.

“What? Gone where?” 

“Boot camp.”

“Boot camp?!”

“He—” says Mitchell, and his voice cuts out for a second. 

“What, Mav, I can’t hear you?”

“—gonna be in the Navy whether I wanted him to or not, gonna fly planes whether I wanted him to or not.”

“Did you tell him why?” A truck drives by and nearly douses him and the phone box with rainwater.

“Yes, I told him why,” Mitchell explodes. “Yes, I told him we have nightmares about him flying and nightmares about him ending up six feet under like his dad. His real dad. He knows you made all those stories up out of thin air, you know. I told him we’re so fucking guilty about Goose that maybe he should just think about being an engineer, or, hell, why don’t you try out fucking nursing school, I’m sure that’ll work out a lot better for you.”

“You didn’t tell him about Carole, then.”

“No, I didn’t tell him about Carole,” Mitchell shouts.

“Okay. Good.”

“It’s not good, you son of a bitch. We’ve lost him, now. Lost him forever, and he thinks it’s all my fucking fault. I know I’m lower on the totem pole than you are, Ice, and you’ve made that clear, Mister Two-Stars-Pretending-To-Be-Four, but I hope you don’t get in the habit of making me take the shit for your mistakes, ‘cause that’s two-for-two, now, and I’m getting real sick and goddamn tired—”

The nickels drop into the phone box; the call hangs up. “Oh, Jesus Christ,” says Kazansky, clawing around in his pockets for change, scrounging for shrapnel in his wallet, and coming up empty. 

It’s the last nail in the coffin. And he knows it.

He leans against the phone box and closes his eyes. Thumps it with his fist, just to feel that spike of pain, and hears the coins clatter against each other inside. Thunder rolls above him; the sky flashes brilliant white, and somewhere far away he can hear the honks and tire screeches of a traffic jam. 

The rain comes down and down upon him. Maybe he stands there for forty days and forty nights. His teeth chatter and he’s shaking and shuddering like a jet engine about to fall apart. 

Well, their luck had to run out eventually.



Chapter Text

He doesn’t hear from Mitchell anymore. Not an e-mail, nor a phone call, nor a fucking messenger pigeon, for months on end. Mitchell’s pissed-off, Kazansky reasons, and then accepts defeatedly that he has a right to be.

He also accepts defeatedly that their relationship—both personal and professional—might have ended. It might be over, this experiment they’ve been conducting for the last decade. Well, it was nice, a good experience, good to know that he couldn’t make it work after all. He can learn from it.  Maybe there’s a reason guys should keep it a secret when they get together like this. He doesn’t have to worry about getting caught anymore, now it’s all over. All of it, a waste of time, a waste of energy, a waste of worrying.

(It doesn’t feel like a waste at night when he can’t sleep, in the morning when he’s holding a safety razor to his cheek, in the evening when he locks the door to his stateroom and stands there alone in the silent emptiness. It feels like he’s been run over by a truck and spit out of a gutter pipe.)

He hears through the grapevine, of course, that Bradley’s excelling in boot camp, that he’s got a Naval career stretching out in front of him, that if anyone on Earth could make it to aviator from square one at the age of eighteen it’s Seaman Bradshaw. 

Sure. Okay. So it was all for nothing, then. All of it. He’s ruined all of their lives and it’s a zero sum game.

He tries not to think about it. (He’s good at not thinking about things, when it comes down to it. Always has been. He’s good at excising the parts of him that put him at a disadvantage. The one thing he never quite managed to cut out was Pete Mitchell. But now Maverick’s gone and done that for him. Maybe it’ll all work out in the end. He’ll go get his shit from the house and he’ll stop contributing to the mortgage and utilities and he’ll move to the base on Honolulu and that’ll be it for them.)

(Oh, God.)

But he can’t think about it.

He’s gotta do his job.

The rains in Guam stop before Christmas, the operation in Iran goes fine (it wouldn’t have without Kazansky’s fine-tuning), and Admiral Petersen’s gearing up to take over again at the end of January. 

“I’ve heard,” Petersen says smugly over the phone, “that you’ve done quite well as temporary commander of the Pacific Fleet.”

“I tend to think so, sir.”

“That’s why I nominated you, when I heard about Operation Headstrong. Teagan, you know, Teagan’s a seaman, just like me and most of the rest of the Navy brass. But for Headstrong—well, we needed an airman. Someone with his head in the clouds instead of the waves, if you understand my meaning. And it sounds like it paid off.”

“Has your health improved, sir?” 

“Yep,” Petersen says. “They caught it in the nick of time. I’ve been blasted with more radiation than the men on the moon, I’ll tell you that. Listen, Ice, my old friend, yes, I’m calling to congratulate you and submit notice that I’m relieving you, but I’ve also gotta warn you.”

“Warn me, sir?”

“You’re good friends with Pete Mitchell, aren’t you?”

“Oh, yeah,” Kazansky says. “Real good friends.”

“He’s in boiling water with certain brass who aren’t me.”

“Oh,” Kazansky says, his heart falling. “Again?”

“Yep. He quit TOPGUN, and he left—”

“He what?”

“Quit. Walked out a couple days ago. Left everyone else shit outta luck, ‘cause they were right in the middle of a session.”

“Jesus Christ,” says Kazansky, pinching the bridge of his nose, trying to stave off a headache and a tsunami of grief. Walked out of TOPGUN! The last program that would keep him!

“Yeah, well, Spielmann out at North Island wants his ass gone. Demoted, retired, what have you. Says Mitchell’s been Commander for too long, isn’t showing enough initiative to get promoted and never has.”

“Okay,” Kazansky says, because now he has a name, and he can work with that.

“What do you mean, okay?”

“I’ll deal with it. Thanks for letting me know, Admiral Petersen. I look forward to having you back on base.”

Petersen’s quiet, and Kazansky’s ready to hang up, when the old man says, “You know, everyone keeps telling me you’ll succeed because you’re coldhearted enough to sacrifice anything for the job, but I’m getting the sense that isn’t true. You’ll succeed because you care, Ice, and that’s a hell of a lot more than most of the guys up here can say. I’m gunning for you.” 

Then the old man is gone.

Does he care? Does he? He’s not sure. He’s a coldhearted son of a bitch. Ruthless, brutal, when it comes down to it. Maybe he shouldn’t care. Maybe he should just let it go. Move on.

He does care. That’s always been the problem.

Kazansky has Captain Spielmann’s number on speed dial—he and Mitchell are each other’s emergency contacts, after all—and the phone’s dialing in his hand before he knows it. “Spielmann,” he says, makes his voice go all cold.

“Admiral Kazansky,” Spielmann says. “To what do I owe the pleasure, sir?” Then he pauses. “With all due respect, sir, if this is about Maverick, I frankly don’t want to hear it.”

“I don’t give a shit,” Iceman says. “How far along are you in the proceedings?”

“Pretty far. Sorry, sir,” says Spielmann, obviously chafing under the fact that he’s only two ranks below Iceman, and only by a matter of months. “Maverick’s gone by the end of the week.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?”

“We’re all sick of his unprofessional behavior, which, if you don’t know, has tripled in the last three months. Unauthorized flybys practically every other day—”

“Well, then, you should be prepared for them by now.”

“—chewing out other instructors for a difference of tactical opinion, tossing textbooks in the trash, flaunting the hard deck (which, if I might remind you, simulates the ground), resorting to maneuvers both reckless and dangerous as hell—”

“Am I missing something, or isn’t this what he’s been doing for the last ten years?”

“I don’t think you understand me, sir. We’ve had it.”

"I don’t think you understand me. You can take Mitchell out of TOPGUN, but if you take Mitchell out of the Navy, I will personally march to Washington and lobby against the funding bill that will move TOPGUN to Nevada, and you’ll have to share the Miramar air base with the Marine Corps, when they’re not eating crayons and actually want to fly. Is that what you want, Captain?”

“Jesus, Kazansky,” Spielmann tells Iceman weakly. “You’re not four stars yet.”

“No, but I’ve got the President’s personal number on speed dial. We call every now and then to discuss Sunday Night Football. So I’ll ask you again: is discharging Mitchell something you really wanna do?”

There’s silence on the other end. Then Spielmann says, “No, sir.” And he hangs up.

Iceman breathes, slams the receiver down onto its housing, and rubs his temples. So this is how it’s gonna go, huh?

He turns on his computer and opens his e-mail server to shoot off a warning.

I’m coming home. Ice.

 

 

He comes home. He changes into jeans and a T-shirt in the airport bathroom, and usually San Diego is pretty temperate in early February, but they’re in the middle of a cold spell, apparently, and he’s shivering in the back of the taxicab that’s bringing him back to Fightertown. Maybe it’s because he’s cold. But he’s also more afraid than he’s ever been in his life.

Then he’s on the front porch stairs, and he should probably knock instead of barging in all unannounced. That would probably be for the best. The key to the front door has been rotting in his pocket for the last three months, but it’ll have to wait a little longer for use again.

Mitchell opens the door, and he’s—he’s wrecked, he’s lost fifteen pounds, his eyes are bloodshot and his skin is wan, he’s furious, he’s grieving, he’s confused, he’s lonely. Kazansky wants nothing more than to throw himself at him, hold him, feed him a full meal for what must be the first time in months—but then Mitchell steps away from the door and sullenly sinks back onto the couch. He’s watching the Super Bowl (shit, is it this weekend?) on mute. The Steelers are up 14 to 3, but then, as they’re watching, the Seahawks score a touchdown and make it 14 to 9. The camera zooms up and out and it’s snowing in Detroit because of course it is.

Kazansky doesn’t know what to do. No one ever wrote a rulebook for a situation like this. He’s not sure if he should head upstairs to pack his shit, if he should go back to his shack near the Highway 52 overpass, if he should call it quits and move on. He’s not sure if he should stay, if he can stay. He’s not sure if he should apologize, if he even knows how to apologize for something like this, if he knows words strong enough. He’s good at getting things done, not talking about them. He’s never been good at that. He’s not sure why Mitchell let him in, in the first place; he’s not sure why Mitchell’s watching the Super Bowl on mute and staying silent and static on the sofa.

“Shit weather for a Super Bowl,” Kazansky notes.

Mitchell grunts. “They’re playing inside. It’s balmy.”

“Okay,” Kazansky sighs. He certainly wasn’t expecting a welcome-home wagon, but this is pretty awful. 

There’s a half-empty bottle of Absolut in the fridge that wasn’t there when he left, and Kazansky pulls two clean glasses out of the sink and eyeballs it. Absolut’s disgusting, tastes like turpentine and probably is chemically close, but if it’ll facilitate a truce between him and Mitchell he’ll take it.

“What’s this?” says Mitchell, taking his glass. 

“Liquid courage, isn’t it?”

“What the hell do we need that for?” He’s glowering and glaring, but he reluctantly clinks Kazansky’s glass and tosses his head back. Kazansky does the same and coughs, which is pretty embarrassing, but he’s become more of a beer guy over the years anyway, so Mitchell shouldn’t be surprised.

They sit together three feet apart on the couch, waiting for the three shots they slugged down to take effect. The Seahawks don’t make it back, and the Steelers win 21 to 10. It’s two teams neither of them give a shit about, though Kazansky childishly likes the Hawks more because their mascot can fly and he’s got plenty of good friends stationed in Seattle, and he’s more pissed than he ought to be that they lost. He’s still seeing red when the game slides into hockey highlights from the last week. The Jersey Devils are up. Who cares? Who in the United States still watches hockey? Who gives a shit?

Mitchell says finally, “I heard you saved my ass.”

Kazansky’s quiet. He’s thinking he should have a few more shots of the Absolut.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Mitchell continues. “I would’ve made a pretty good server at Applebee’s.”

Neither of them are smiling, but Kazansky closes his eyes in relief. His shoulders sag. Thank God, he thinks. Thank God. We can fight our way back from this. You and me, we can fight our way back to each other.

They’re quiet for a few minutes longer, still watching the highlights from the Canes-Blues game on Thursday. Then Mitchell says, “You have no idea how lonely it gets when none of you are here.”

 

 

Kazansky brings his suitcase back to the spare bedroom and finds the bed pristinely made up for him. He heads into the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash his face, and in the yellow light stretching out into the hallway, he notices that Mitchell’s doorway is dark and open.

He’s being invited inside.

He spits and rinses, washes the lenses of his glasses because they’re all smudged from his fingertips, combs his hair with his fingers a little. He’s in a T-shirt and a pair of Hanes, which isn’t great, but there’s no time to change. The bathroom light flicks off and he’s standing in the hallway darkness alone, a little drunker than he had anticipated since he’d swallowed straight from the handle before coming upstairs.

He pushes open the bedroom door. The whites of Mitchell’s eyes shine in the moonlight. Mitchell says, “Admiral, the sweat of how many Guam-Naval-Base women are you about to bring into my bed?”

“Uh,” says Kazansky. “Just the sweat of my right hand, I guess.”

Mitchell’s a little more satisfied than he ought to be at that answer. He stares him down for a moment, then flips the comforter and sheets back and makes a spot for Kazansky to curl up in.

There’s no sex—they’re a little old now for spontaneous sex whenever. But it’s better than sex, almost, being able to sigh into the hair at the nape of Mitchell’s neck, drape an arm over his waist, puzzle their legs together.

“I’m sorry, Pete,” he says before he can stop himself, and he reaches up to run his fingers through Mitchell’s hair, then down to Mitchell’s lips. “I’m so sorry.”

Mitchell sighs against him, his breath warm and heavy against Kazansky’s hand. Forgiveness in an exhale, or something approaching forgiveness. Not by choice but necessity. “Yeah, old-timer,” he says against Kazansky’s fingertips, and isn’t that rich. “Yeah, I know.” He pauses. “I daresay the invincible Iceman has made an error.”

They’re toeing the line of what they can and can’t joke about. “Maybe the second one in my life,” he says.

“Second? What was the first?” says Mitchell, then Kazansky feels his mouth spread into a grim line. “Oh. That wasn’t your mistake, Tom.”

But it was, Kazansky thinks bitterly, and he can’t get this image out of his head, the image of the two silver stars on his epaulettes. He’s a two-star admiral, one star for Bradley and one for Goose, one for each mistake he’s made, and how many more people is he going to have to lose before he makes it to four?

 

 

But then they don’t talk about it.

And it’s something of a relief. 

There’s the fear that if they talk about it, they’ll have to talk about everything else. 

Let’s move on. Please.

So they move on. What else can they do?

 

 

Kazansky might be averse to mistakes, but Mitchell proves he isn’t, over and over again during the next few years. He signs up as a test pilot and gets approved in a heartbeat and even promoted to Captain because, who are we kidding, Mitchell’s the best pilot the Navy’s ever goddamn seen and if he’s not in a plane he might tear the Navy to pieces by himself, or at the very least get Kazansky to do it for him. 

But then he steals an F-35, then he fucks up the landing gear, then surely he’s standing in some stateroom on some carrier in the Mediterranean getting his ass handed to him by a Commander who’s relishing the opportunity to tear Maverick Mitchell a new one, then he’s getting told he’s out of the program for good.

Kazansky makes a phone call: “No the fuck he is not.” And he’s not.

Kazansky’s been eating shit for a decade and a half at this point, partly because he wants to be the youngest four-star admiral a President has ever nominated, but mostly because he’s been sure someone’s gonna find out that he and Mitchell are—he still can’t say it; they’re fucking, Kazansky thinks, and that’s still all it is—and he’s gonna have to call in the most biblical of favors to keep it quiet. But it’s been paying off recently. It’s been working out in ways he hadn’t even considered. Flag officers keep owing him back.

Mitchell learns how to pilot dummy drones with what looks like an Atari controller, without getting certified. “Keep him in the program. It’s payback for the time I attended the Inauguration in your place. And he’s pretty good, isn’t he?” Mitchell rides his motorbike a hundred miles an hour down the taxiway in Nevada as a jet’s heading in. “Hey, he’s just having a little fun. Listen, Commander, I’ll make it up to you. How’d you like to be a Captain?” Mitchell flirts with yet another Admiral’s daughter (“And it really was just flirting, Ice, you know I’ll catch on fire if I jump into bed with anyone who isn’t you”). “Hi, Admiral Reynolds. Sorry about all the shit with Mitchell and Beth. Remember the time I dealt with Operation Smokescreen so you could attend your son’s bar mitzvah?”

And it’s fine, it really is. It really is. They glare at each other for about five minutes every time they see each other—in hotels in Tacoma, in Antietam, in Reno—but then Kazansky shows him it’s alright, comes close and kisses him and then kneels and forgives him with his mouth, this is what I’ve been working so hard for anyway, and they’re fine. And every time he has to leave again he points a stern finger and says, Behave. But then grins and kisses him on his way out the door because he knows even God can’t get Maverick to do that.

“C’mon, Kazansky,” an Air Force Major General’s berating him over the phone, and Kazansky wants to scoff because an Air Force guy’s lecturing him about bad behavior? “You’re gonna keep risking your career for this effing clown? Why tie your life to this guy, anyway?”

“That’s right,” Kazansky says coolly. “And I don’t think I’m risking my career, since people keep standing in line to help him keep his paycheck. And that’s what you’re gonna do, isn’t it, General Adams?” He had to promise a half-dozen new jets and an extra half percent of the discretionary military budget to the Air Force, but it’s worth it. He’ll get it done.

“I’ll never understand you, Iceman,” the General says fondly. “I remember you as one hell of a good pilot. Now you’re just one hell of an idiot.”

And maybe he is, Kazansky thinks with a smile, maybe he really is.

But the truth of it is, he feels like he owes Mitchell, after Bradley.

 

 

There’s a new President in 2009, inaugurated right before Kazansky turns fifty; a younger guy, kinda classy, though that’s a low bar these days, who speaks with pauses between his words like he’s trying to get them right even though he’s clearly had them memorized. It’s charming.

He’s shaking the President’s hand with a smile in the Oval Office, swearing allegiance to the Constitution for the thirtieth time, when the President stops and considers him. “You’re the one who did Operation Headstrong, Admiral Kazansky.”

“Yes, sir. That’s correct.” Kazansky’s shocked the President has even been briefed about Headstrong already, because it was pretty Top Secret.

The President’s sizing him up. “Very well done,” he decides after a second. “It was cool.” 

No, it wasn’t, Kazansky wants to say. Covert operations aren’t “cool.” Someone always dies, and sometimes not the person you’re aiming for. But the President’s laughing, so Kazansky chuckles a little, and the President shakes his hand again.

“I expect good things from you. You’re pretty young for an Admiral of your caliber.” (And that’s a little insulting coming from a president three years younger than him.) “Still got the lion’s share of a career in front of you,” the President says with a wink, which is nice because Kazansky’s nearing his mandatory retirement date and at least the President’s giving him a little hope.

 

 

Except then a year passes and nothing happens. He doesn’t get promoted. He’s halfway desperate enough to call Admiral Petersen and demand him to retire, c’mon, give the little guy a chance, George, but that’s kind of fucked-up if he thinks about it for longer than a second. 

Time starts weighing on him a little, and he thinks maybe he’s going through another mid-life crisis. He’s had to wear reading glasses for the last seven years, a consequence of spending years staring into the sun magnified through the canopy of a fighter jet; his hair’s gone dark gray and approaches white in the sun; he’s rounder around the middle than he’d ever imagined himself being, though he does his best to stay in shape. Even Mitchell’s getting older, his smile lines more pronounced, a lifetime of laughter showing at the corners of his eyes. But Kazansky secretly thinks it’s not a fair comparison. Mitchell’s still unbelievably handsome, his hair still dark, his eyes still clear. He’s managed to pass into middle-age by shifting his identifying adjective from “sexy” to “stately.”

They’re watching (in quotation marks) NBC when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell gets repealed. Mitchell climbs off Kazansky, wipes his mouth, leans forward on the couch, eyes wide. He thumbs to the screen where the BREAKING NEWS crawler slides across the bottom. “Did you hear about this?”

Kazansky sighs, a little disappointed, and buttons his jeans. He’d heard about it, all right, and had heard maybe more than his fair share of opinions about it, all across the board. “Only in passing,” he says.

“Aw, Christ,” Mitchell says. “They’re gonna make us talk about it now. Group therapy. No more the days of not asking and not telling. Now everyone’s asking all the time.”

“That’s not what it means, Pete,” Tom says patiently, though he knows Pete knows that and is just a little frightened. He watches the gears turn in Pete’s head for a moment longer than he needs to, just because he likes it, and says, “We don’t have to do anything. Don’t have to say anything. There’s still the issue of our ranks.”

“Jesus,” Pete says, “are we gonna start getting calls? I know some people know,” he adds. “A few of the TOPGUN students used to make comments, and I think—I think Hollywood knows, and Merlin.”

“Slider and Sundown, definitely,” Tom comments, and Pete turns to him, shocked, because this is the most they’ve ever talked about (or even acknowledged) their relationship since Tom came to him and stuttered his way through “I’ve never, I’ve never done anything like this, I…” “It’s okay, Pete. It is. Anyone who calls to ask is our friend.”

Maybe he shouldn’t have said that, because the President calls him out of the blue the next day and asks him to catch the next flight to D.C. It’s a conversation he wants to have in person, the President says, because he’s a charitable guy like that.

Maybe, Kazansky thinks, he wants Kazansky to retire and this problem can solve itself. He can leave the Navy with a two-star pension and his dignity.

The President pours Kazansky half a tumbler of brandy after telling him to ease, and pulls up a chair in front of the desk. “Admiral Kazansky,” he says kindly. “I’m sure you can guess why I’ve asked you here.”

No, he really can’t. To fire him, to promote him, to drill him about how long he’s been…? “No, sir.”

“I have two things I want to discuss,” the President says, circumnavigating the Oval Office and smoothly sliding into his chair. “First, though: how are you?”

“Well, sir.”

“That’s good,” the President says, a little bemused. Then he shuffles some torn-out pages of a yellow legal pad and looks down at them, though Kazansky knows he’s had the words committed to memory. It’s not so charming now. “I want to talk about Captain Mitchell.”

Kazansky does nothing, though he’s sure he’s breathing hard. 

“What’s your opinion of him?”

“It’s high, sir.”

“As a pilot, or as a person?”

“Both, sir.” 

“I see.” The President circles something on his papers as if he’s multitasking. Though he’s panicking, Kazansky remembers an anecdote about President Lyndon B. Johnson, that as LBJ was planning a CIA coup somewhere in Latin America he was doodling ugly gnomish self-portraits, making it look like he was paying attention and taking notes. Maybe this President just likes drawing circles. “Captain Mitchell’s a pretty divisive figure, I hear,” he continues. “I’ve heard everyone likes him at a party, but it’s half-and-half on the runway. Call sign’s Maverick and he got it for a reason. Is that correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You think he has a place in the Naval Air Force in the future? And I want a professional opinion, Admiral, not a personal one. Set that aside for a moment.”

Kazansky stares the President down. He knows what this is about. “I do, sir,” he says. “It’s why I’ve made so much of my life a living hell trying to keep him. I’ve never met another pilot capable of wielding both skill and dumb luck to such great effect, and that’s not just my opinion, either. You can ask Major General Adams, you can ask Admiral Benjamin, Vice Admiral Williams, General Tobiasson, Admiral Reynolds—all these good men who’ve rightly been angered at Mitchell’s conduct but will openly admit he’s the best pilot they’ve ever met. I’ve covered for him in the past, sir, but half the reason he’s still employed by the taxpayers is his own skill. He hasn’t seen real action in years, and that’s partly because of the brass who’s afraid to let him see it, but I wager he’s the most valuable pilot you’ve got in the fleet. One of these days you’re going to need him.” 

“I wager,” the President says, standing to look out the window. “I wager you’re right.” He pauses. “He saved your life, didn’t he? In eighty-six?”

“Yes, sir,” Kazansky says, feeling his face flush. “Three times over.”

“Did you know, Admiral,” the President says, “that yesterday, Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell was repealed in the Senate Armed Services Committee?”

“Sir,” says Kazansky, “that’s—”

“Private, I know.” The President turns back suddenly with a smile. “It’s not my right, even as Supreme Commander, to pry. I just wanted to know if you knew.”

“Yes, sir, I knew,” Kazansky says through his teeth. “But it is private, sir, and it’s illegal anyway.” He gestures to his two stars. The President just smiles at him with a closed mouth, and Kazansky’s getting real tired of the sympathetic Democrat act. “Is it that obvious?”

“Heck, no,” says the President flippantly. “No, Admiral, you’ve done what I like to call, uh, a stellar job of keeping it under wraps. It’s only obvious to those of us who are paying real close attention and have superlative security clearance.” That kind smile. “And I’ve been paying real close attention to you, Admiral Kazansky.”

Oh shit, Kazansky thinks, and takes a sip of his brandy.

“The second thing I want to talk to you about, Tom—can I call you Tom?—is the matter of George Petersen’s imminent retirement.” The President lets that sink in. “You and I, and maybe Lucy Petersen, are the only people on Earth who know he’s getting ready. And George is getting up there. He’s almost sixty-six, he’s been having health problems, and the Secretary of Defense was reluctant to extend his commission even two years ago. Bob Gates and I don’t see eye to eye on some things, but I respect his opinion and I’ve recommended to George that he step down as Commander of the Pacific Fleet.”

“Sir, if you want my recommendation, there’s Teagan,” Kazansky says, not allowing himself to hope. “There’s Teagan, and Simpson, and Williams was interested in it, we go back years, he could be called up from the Academy. I’m not a Vice Admiral, sir.”

The President sits back down, interlocks his fingers. “Would you believe me if I told you they didn’t want it? And, anyway,” the President says, “George asked for you.” He pauses. “I’m asking for you.”

 

 

Kazansky calls Mitchell from the airstrip outside Annapolis. “Pete,” he says weakly.

“Tomcat. How’d it go?”

“I’ve got good news and bad news.”

“Let’s do bad news first. Then we can cleanse the palate.”

“Well, the President knows we’re—knows about us.”

"Shit. He threaten to do anything?”

“Kind of. That’s the good news. I’m coming home with two extra stars.”

Mitchell’s silent for a second. “Shit,” he says again. “Am I gonna have to call you Commander of the Pacific Fleet in bed? That’s kinda long.” Then he’s laughing, and they’re both laughing, and Kazansky wants to cry but doesn’t know how anymore. The wind from the jets is whipping his hair. He thrusts his cap back onto his head. “God damn it,” Mitchell says, and Kazansky can hear that it’s through tears. “Even after you confirmed about us? These liberal Democrats are alright, I guess. You gonna buy us a house in Honolulu? God fucking damn it. God damn it, Tom. Commander of the Pacific—I’m—God damn it.”

“I know,” Kazansky says. “I know.”

“You made it to the top.”

“I did.” 

Neither of them ask the question they’re both thinking, which is: Is Kazansky still a good man? Was he ever?

“What do you say,” Mitchell suggests, “you hop on the next flight to N.A.S. North Island and I take you on a little date to the Hard Deck and you and I get plastered?”

“Sounds like a plan, Captain,” Kazansky says, because it does.

So he hops on the next flight to Miramar and it’s maybe 1930 hours when he lands and Maverick picks him up at the airstrip and they don’t pass go, don’t collect $200, just drop off Iceman’s overnight bag at home and peel out of the driveway in the Impala and head down to the Hard Deck, where Penny Benjamin has been working for the last two years; there’s a new TOPGUN cohort shitting their pants when they see a two-star admiral strutting in with Maverick Mitchell on his arm, and in the spirit of celebration Admiral Iceman (Commander of the Pacific Fleet!) buys everyone a round on him (though no one knows what exactly they’re celebrating because it’s classified), and Maverick’s flirting with Penny Benjamin and Iceman’s watching with a grin as Maverick eats it with her over and over again, and then Maverick’s drunk as a skunk because Penny keeps slipping him screwdrivers every time he fails to get her number, but Iceman’s BAC is still legal, so he drives them back home, but before they get there Maverick tells him to pull over and then they’re making out on a deserted stretch of back-alley-ass highway like a couple of teenagers, and then they make it home and drink straight from the handle and celebrate in a number of other ways, positions, et cetera, and then they’re waking up in the morning tangled in sticky sheets with fuzzy teeth and pounding headaches and dropping alka-seltzer tablets into each other’s coffee. “This tastes like shit.”

 

 

Bradley’s call sign is Rooster, because of course it is, and he’s ridiculously talented and embroiled in some love affair with another pilot like everyone else who’s ever joined the Naval Air Force, apparently, and Mitchell and Kazansky think he’s good enough to make it into TOPGUN—scratch that, definitely good enough to make it into TOPGUN. He’s better than half the mouth-breathers who ever won TOPGUN, and that’s saying something, because Kazansky’s one of those mouth-breathers.

“I’ll give you the TOPGUN plaque someday,” Kazansky tells Mitchell, staring down at Rooster’s file. They’re writing invitations to the promotion ceremony. “As a token of my affection, sure, but also because we both know it’s really yours anyway.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Kazansky,” Mitchell says. “You won that piece of shit fair and square.”

Dear Bradley, Kazansky’s writing on his finest monogrammed stationery. Using a fountain pen, no less. His handwriting’s always been better than his typing, anyway. I’m glad to see you’re having so much success with your Naval career. I’m writing because I wanted to invite you to my promotion ceremony, which is on January 11th of next year in Annapolis. 01-11-11, that’s good luck. I think it’s going to be a big deal Kid. Maybe a little parade and maybe some fireworks. Definitely some guns going off. Lots of fun. And anyway I miss you. Hope we can catch up soon. I want to hear about flight school. Maverick and I have stories you wouldn’t believe from flight school. I hope it’s a little less sexist than it was back then. It probably is, you kids are going to save the world. Below is my personal phone number, if you ever want to call, but also if you ever get in trouble. According to Maverick my phone number is good if you ever need to get out of a tough spot. Love Uncle Iceman. 

It’s not like he really expects anything, but Rooster doesn’t reply to the invitation and doesn’t show up in Annapolis.

 

 

“You didn’t tell me you’d be home! —Christ, what time is it—it’s three, Pete, what—”

“Rode all the way home. Lightning’s got a bent turbine, I nearly exploded on the tarmac, so they gave me two days to twiddle my thumbs and sit on my ass, I guess. And I heard my favorite fleet commander was in town, so…”

“Your favorite, huh? …You wanna come over here and prove it? Look, I got room for two, you can even twiddle your thumbs, if you want—”

“Ohhh. Okay. You’re in that kind of a mood. Even though I’m tired, Ice? Even though my ass is dragging ‘cause I had to ride through San Bernardino at oh-two-hundred? Caught behind a Winnebago the whole ride down, baby, I’m tired as hell—”

“I don’t care. You woke me up, you live with the consequences. Come here, Captain. And take off that G.-one, you look like you just fell out of a Warhawk over Normandy—”

“Is that an order, sir? Mister Admiral, someday you should learn to separate business from pleasure—”

“Yeah, but not today."

(Twenty years later, Mitchell still fucks like he’s flying, still kisses like he’s starving, still laughs like every joke is the funniest he’s ever heard. Twenty years later and Kazansky still smiles in the morning when he wakes with an arm around Mitchell’s waist and his nose in Mitchell’s hair.)

(One of these days they’ll talk about it. But they don’t need to, not really. Maverick logic sometimes has a long shelf life.)

 

 

Kazansky turns on the TV, keeps it muted. He’s curious.

“Well, that’s interesting,” Mitchell’s saying. He’s on the phone with the Secretary of Defense, and for once their conversation isn’t strained. “I guess that puts us at a disadvantage, then. Just because of the thrust-vectoring. —No, I think we could still go head-to-head and win. It’s the pilot, not the plane, sir. —Yes, I know that dogfighting dogma has a limit, but against a Russian in a Sukhoi? Even if it’s fifth-gen, the limit for an F-35 pilot might be infinity. Shit, a Gripen pilot could out-fly a Russian in a Sukhoi. I saw that Bourdain special, I know what they’re feeding ‘em in Sweden, and it’s a hell of a lot better than the median meal in a Murmansk mess hall. —Well, you called for my opinion, didn’t you, sir?”

He’s pacing back and forth in the living room in bare feet and Go Navy pajama pants, walking by the TV ten times without reading the headline at the bottom of the screen.

“I mean, I guess the B.V.R. missiles might be a problem,” Mitchell continues. “If they can just avoid ‘em, even sight-systems-only. But I see that issue and raise you this, and the taxpayers will like it, too: it would be way cheaper to redesign our long-range missiles than to redesign the F-35.” Now he sees it, stops dead in his tracks. “Uh, could you hold for just—one second—” 

He lowers the phone and reads the crawler on the bottom of the screen over and over again, like he can’t believe it: SUPREME COURT RULING MAKES SAME-SEX MARRIAGE LEGAL NATIONWIDE.

From the back of the living room, feet up on the couch with Run Silent, Run Deep splayed open on his lap, Kazansky watches him closely.

“As I was saying—sorry, uh…” 

Mitchell reads it again, turns, grabs the remote, and shuts the TV off with a grimace. 

“I’m not Raytheon R. and D. I don’t have any suggestions for air-to-air missile designs. What I do know is, if the intel you’re sharing is correct, the F-35 and Sukhoi-57 are still pretty evenly matched.”

Well, Kazansky thinks, that’s that experiment concluded.

 

 

“I’ve got something that’ll give you a hard-on,” he says, trying to juggle the phone and his cap and his umbrella all at once. He steps under an awning and makes sure there’s no one around, and then, in a breathy voice meant to tease, says, “It’s dangerous. You like stuff like that.”

“Give me a hard-on?” says Mitchell, clearly trying to keep his voice down in a crowded cafeteria or something like that. “What, you mean, better than usual when I hear your voice?”

“Nice one, charmer, but I’m being serious. Can I guess you aren’t high enough security clearance to know about the Darkstar?”

“You don’t have to rub it in, champ.”

“Hypersonic scramjet, Top-top-top Secret. Skunk Works. An SR-72 except they stuck a cockpit on. Sleek and stealthy and sexier’n hell.”

“How fast?” Mitchell’s got a hard-on now.

“Well, that’s what I told Cain and the Sec-Def you’re capable of finding out.” He pauses. “But probably Mach Eight.”

“Oh, Ice,” Mitchell says, and Kazansky can imagine him squishing the phone against his cheek. “I’m the luckiest guy on Earth. You always get me the nicest stuff.”

“Standby,” Kazansky says, trying not to smile so obviously. “I’ll get the program director on the line.”

 

 

And it’s true it’s partially his fault; he’s the one who nominated Mitchell, who has amassed something of a reputation over the last three decades, and maybe it was a mistake in hindsight. He’s just relieved as hell that Mitchell isn’t dead, because it could have ended up ten times worse. Jesus. A million times worse. He’s actually shocked Mitchell hasn’t been aerosolized into a thin red mist above the Rocky Mountains, which would… Kazansky can’t even think about how he would react to something like that. Can’t, won’t. Won’t even let himself imagine it. And there’s nothing he can do, even as Commander of the Pacific Fleet, when he receives notice from the President that Mitchell has to be taken out of the test pilot program because he blew up a multi-billion dollar aircraft trying to prove it could go over Mach 10. Cock-measuring.

“He succeeded, didn’t he?” Kazansky challenges; “You’ve got your Mach Ten aircraft, sir.” But even he knows when it’s time to give up and do a little damage control. 

“Tom,” says the President.

“Yes, I know, sir,” says Kazansky. 

“He’s gotta get grounded.”

“Grounded! He’ll kill someone.”

“That may be true, but in terms of budgetary arithmetic, the United States has a vested interest in seeing to it that Captain Mitchell kills someone instead of burning a few billion dollars and a decade of R. and D. on impact each time.”

“I understand that, sir.”

“Grounded. I’m sorry, Tom.”

Kazansky paces around his desk, halfway to agony. God damn it, Pete. But then his eye catches on a folder that’s just been dropped into his inbox, the one he’d been flipping through before Cain called to tell him Maverick was (“unfortunately for him”) still alive, and then multiple senators called to check on their investment, and then the President called.

Talk about Top-top-top Secret. This is enriched-Uranium and high-treason and suicide-mission and NATO-article-violation Top Secret.

And then there's the list of suggested pilots.

Who's going to get Rooster home?

“Can I suggest something else instead, sir?” he says mildly.



 

Chapter Text

Air Type Commander Beau “Cyclone” Simpson is something of a weird cat. He’s one of those guys who might be a hoot to get a drink with but is undeniably a bitch to work with. At Kazansky’s promotion ceremony in 2011, though Cyclone had two stars already, he pulled Kazansky aside and confessed how much he looked up to him; undoubtedly in the years between 2011 and 2016, Cyclone found out that Kazansky and Mitchell had been fucking for a quarter of a century and his admiration soured a little. Cyclone’s distaste for Mitchell is as much an open secret among the upper Navy brass as Mitchell’s relationship with Kazansky is. (Cyclone’s also pissed because he wasn’t even considered for either Operation Headstrong or the COMPACFLT position, even though he was a two-star admiral at the time. Kazansky tries not to take it personally.)

This is why Kazansky’s not one lick surprised when Cyclone calls him thirty minutes after Mitchell’s supposed to have arrived at North Island. It’s been less than eight hours since Mitchell’s fallen from the sky. They still haven’t spoken to each other.

“Ice,” Cyclone says, “this isn’t gonna work.”

“It’s gotta, Beau. That’s all I’ll say.”

“Well, it isn’t. Sorry. I’m looking at replacements right now. Maverick’s no good, and I mean that professionally. He hasn’t been a teacher since the early aughts, he hasn’t flown an F-18 since twenty-twelve, and there’s—”

“There’s what, Beau?” (Iceman’s discovered that Cyclone hates being addressed by his first name. It’s a useful trick.)

Cyclone’s quiet for a second. “There’s Bradshaw.”

“Bradshaw won TOPGUN twenty-twelve. His flight school scores and his record place him in the top ten active-duty pilots. If he weren’t considered for this mission, someone worse would have been.”

“Listen,” Cyclone says, and he sighs defeatedly. “I don’t want—I don’t want to put you in an awkward situation.”

“You already are,” says Iceman.

“But you didn’t see the look on Maverick’s face when he discovered Rooster’d been called back to TOPGUN. I guess I thought you’d tell him.”

Iceman looks out the stateroom porthole, already having prepared his next move. These chess-games-by-phone are routine to him by now; he wins every match. His move: he waits a second for that statement to sink in, then he goes for the kill. “You think I share classified information about operational activities with a member of the Armed Forces four ranks my junior? Go ahead and report it.”

“Of course not,” snaps Cyclone. “I’m not accusing you of anything. But when that information concerns the man Mitchell thinks of as his surrogate son—”

“A man who’s just as qualified as Mitchell is to be sent back to TOPGUN. I sent Maverick back to North Island from China Lake not to keep him in the Navy—not as a personal favor—but because he’s the only pilot this side of the sun capable of pulling off the maneuvers you need every time. If anyone is capable of training a strike team for a mission this specialized, it’s Maverick.” Iceman pauses. He’s bored, a cat playing with a mouse before he swallows it whole. “The President agrees with me. Call him up, if you want.”

“That’s fine,” Cyclone says stiffly. “I trust the President. I trust you. It’s Maverick and Rooster I don’t trust. If it comes down to their personal relationship—that’s too tenuous a thread to hang the mission from.”

Now Iceman sighs, rubs the bridge of his nose. “I don’t disagree with you.”

“Then I hope you’ll allow me the jurisdiction I am due.”

Iceman considers this and watches the starlight play over the waves outside the glass. “Let’s see how this pans out first.”

Then Cyclone is gone.

Kazansky puts the phone down on the desk and puts his head in his hands. He’ll be in Hell for the next few weeks, he knows. This is the kind of thing that has literal Earth-rending consequences. He knew— even back in 1996 when he and Mitchell leapt off the mountaintop and bought a house together—that both his personal and professional relationships with Maverick would eventually meet, but not like this. Never like this. This is the cost of keeping secrets.

Wearily, warily, he reaches into his jacket and pulls out his personal cell. 

That didn’t go well.

Mitchell answers in a second, like he was waiting for Kazansky to text this whole time.

The kid’s not ready for this mission.

No one is. / That’s why you’re here.

You could have warned me.

And, yeah, Kazansky really could have. Contrary to what he told Cyclone, he’s shared a lot of classified information with Mitchell over the years, an offense that, in all honesty, could have given the Navy more reason to wash him out than even the fact that he and Mitchell are…

He stares down at the little keyboard. It’s harder to type on these phones than on a computer. He has to fight with the screen to make sure his words are accurate.

Would you have come?

Ten minutes pass and Mitchell doesn’t answer, and then fifteen. He’s pissed, maybe. Or sad, maybe. (Is he full of regret, the way Kazansky is? Maybe.)

Kazansky’s still looking over the file, still trying to suss out how this mission is going to go. And then there’s the international relations clusterfuck this is going to initiate that he’s gonna have to deal with when it’s over. The United States, finally bombing its mortal enemy, finally agreeing with NATO that a line’s been crossed… BRICS is gonna be up in arms, CSTO is gonna be up in arms… the United Nations Security Council might shit itself or implode or start a fistfight over its circular table. There might be an actual war (and, as Commander of the Pacific Fleet, that’s what Kazansky’s afraid of). But there’s a reason the Iran Deal was signed. Can’t just blatantly break the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and expect to get away with it in the twenty-first century. 

He knows the reasons already, but he just wants Mitchell to answer, so he opens his phone again and types—

I still don’t understand why we can’t use the F-35C.

Maybe Mitchell’s riding home, maybe Mitchell’s fallen asleep. He nearly died today, after all. Another ten minutes go by. Then Kazansky finally gets an answer.

Mountains jam the F35 GPS / F35 isn’t rated for an approach that steep / F35 internal bombs don’t have the strength to penetrate inner shaft of refinery, can’t carry heavier ordnance or bunker busters / F35 EOTS targeting pod would ruin its stealth profile / Too far away to launch growlers for air defense support & deny SAM coverage 

No full stops. He’s upset, or something like that.

And if one got shot down, Kazansky types, because he’s never been the type to leave a list unfinished, RU would get to see the F-35’s pretty innards. / The SecDef doesn’t want that.

You think one will get shot down?

I said “if”. / Mitchell, do you want to call? We can talk about this.

It’s fine. It must be late for you there / Why didn’t you tell me?

See question above.

Mitchell doesn’t answer for another half hour. Kazansky’s already in bed by then, already knows he won’t sleep.

When are you coming home?

Kazansky squints at the bright screen, then tilts it down flat against his chest and closes his eyes. He tries to visualize his calendar, but he can’t push away the fear, the overwhelming sadness. The stateroom bed feels unbearably empty next to him.

I think I can snag a few days in a couple weeks. / I’ll try my best. / I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I should have. / I didn’t want some other idiot trying to teach Rooster how to come home. / Thought you wouldn’t come if you knew. 

Mitchell doesn’t respond. Kazansky doesn’t sleep.

 

 

He’s been home for an hour and a half, and the sun is setting, and he hasn’t bothered to change out of his dress blues because there’s a chance he might have to pull rank, and Mitchell’s still not here.

I’m home. / I need to see you.

Not a good time.

(Is it ever a good time? Kazansky wonders.)

I’m not asking.

Kazansky quit smoking in 2008, when his black-tar cough woke them both up in the middle of the night and Mitchell squeezed him tight around the chest and whispered Quit, you idiot, I can’t lose you, I can’t lose you; but he’s never hungered for a cigarette more in his life than right now. He’s tempted. The corner store on Mission and Montecito sells them by the bucketful. He could drive down there right now, with eight stars still glittering on his epaulettes. All he wants is the weight of his head off his shoulders.

Just as he’s patting down his pockets to find his car keys again, Mitchell unlocks the front door and walks in. He looks exhausted, like he’s been run over by an eighteen-wheeler. Flattened.

“Admiral.”

Kazansky raises his chin, forces his shoulders back. Mitchell’s freshly-showered, wearing just a T-shirt and jeans; the admiralty uniform stunt might actually work.

“How’s my wingman?” Mitchell says, dropping his keys on the kitchen counter. The little metal Tomcat on his keychain clinks against the granite. (And Mitchell must really be tired, because he doesn’t even have it in him to pretend to be angry.)

Kazansky watches him putter around the kitchen with an ache in his chest. “I want to talk about work.”

“Oh,” says Mitchell. “Don’t worry about me.”

“That wasn’t a question, Mitchell. I want to talk about work.”

Mitchell fishes a beer out of the fridge, then looks Kazansky and his uniform over, then pulls out another one, clearly determining that Kazansky needs to chill out. “Alright,” he says. “Okay.”

He slides the open bottle across the counter, but Kazansky doesn’t touch it. He keeps his shoulders straight and meets Mitchell’s eyes. For once, let’s talk without having to drink first.

“Well,” Mitchell says, and then, like it’s easy, he says, “Rooster’s still angry with me about what we did.”

“We.”

And just like that, the cool facade’s broken, and Kazansky realizes that their ranks, the stars on his uniform, don’t matter one bit. “We,” Mitchell confirms, any trace of a smile on his face gone in an instant. He’s more serious than Kazansky’s ever seen him. Grave, severe. Not angry, but determined. “I told you to do it, Ice.”

“But I did it. Not you.” Fourteen years later and now Mitchell wants to talk about it. Now. Kazansky’s tongue feels fat and immobile in his mouth.

“Yeah, okay,” Mitchell says. “Sure. Let’s fight about it. You think that’s all we ever fight about? Who gets the blame for the mistakes we’ve both made? Except instead of blaming each other, we’re both just dying to fall on our own swords? It’ll kill us one day, Ice.”

“Then stop falling. I was the one who called Sundown.”

“Yeah, and maybe it’s Carole’s fault because she told us to do it, and maybe it’s Sundown’s fault because he’s the one with his hands all over the applications, and maybe it’s my fault because you told me you wouldn’t do anything without my permission, and I gave it willingly.”

That’s certainly one way of looking at it. Mitchell is dying to fall on his own sword. Maybe he’s been stabbing himself this whole time. “Maybe it is all of our fault. Maybe. But that doesn’t matter anymore, Pete. You’ve got a mission in less than a week, I’m—the Navy’s counting on you to get it together, and Cyclone keeps telling me about the stunts you’re pulling—”

“Oh, Cyclone’s tattle-telling, is he? Is that why you’re so damn mad? ‘Cause I broke the hard deck and played a game of football on the beach? Jesus. You’re the one who sent me to TOPGUN, Ice. Of all the people on Earth, you should know how I teach by now.”

“I do, that’s why—” He breaks off. He’s not mad, when it comes down to brass tacks. He’s not mad at all. He’s scared half to death. “That’s why I sent you.”

Mitchell’s quiet. For once in their lives, they’re looking straight at each other, sizing each other up honestly. 

There’s no pretending now. 

“Maybe,” Mitchell says, slow and dangerous, “it’s your fault. It was your jet wash.”

Kazansky’s floored. Feels like he’s been curb-stomped. This is something they don’t talk about. As a rule. 

What?

Mitchell tilts his head, looks off into space. “Maybe it’s my fault. I flew into your jet wash.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” And now he is mad, now he’s incandescent, he’s never been closer to punching Mitchell in his life; they’ve been fucking for over twenty years and he’s never hated anyone more—

But Mitchell levels him with a look so powerful Kazansky can’t move a muscle. “Seresin brought it up today. Remember him?”

In the back of his head, Kazansky remembers opening Seresin’s personnel file when Slider’d called him up from the flight school in Texas and said there was something between them, Ice, and I know like hell am I making it up— But he doesn’t care. Doesn’t care one whit. You piece of shit, Mitchell, you goddamn—

“There’s a picture of you in the foyer of the school,” Mitchell says, a little lift at the corner of his lips. They both know he’s on thin ice, and it’s infuriating. Kazansky’s furious. “Handsome son of a bitch. And there’s a picture of our class there, too. I guess Hangman figured it out. Put two and two together. Figured out why Rooster flies so slow.”

“So you’re thinking about it, too, huh? Got Goose’s death on the brain?”

“I’m always thinking about it.” Mitchell’s hard gaze, unrelenting. “Always.”

Kazansky watches him. The anger bleeds from him like water dripping from a sponge. He says, “You gonna get Rooster home, Maverick?”

Mitchell says, “I’m not sending him. He’s not ready.”

“Then teach him. That’s why I sent you.”

Mitchell shakes his head. He’s not angry, loud, vicious the way he was the last time they fought about Rooster. He’s defeated. “He doesn’t want what I have to give.”

Kazansky waves him off. Sacrifices another pawn. The game’s still on, the pieces still moving. He’s trying to think of a response. What Mitchell has to give is the determination to make it home—

“Ice,” Mitchell says. Begging. “Please don’t ask me to send someone else to die.”

(And maybe Mitchell has grown up, maybe Mitchell has finally matured, maybe Mitchell has finally learned how to land a punch. The death knell. The killing blow. A bishop with the queen a diagonal away.)

“Don’t ask me,” Mitchell continues, “please, don’t ask me to send him. Send me instead.”

Kazansky grimaces. Thinks about it. Looks down at the four stripes on his sleeve. Comes back up to Mitchell. Hears himself say, though he has no right to, “It’s time to let go, Pete.”

Mitchell starts crying.

(Checkmate.)

Kazansky’s never seen him cry, not really, looked away the last time to spare them both, but knows he does, knows Mitchell locks himself away late at night and cries near-silently, when he thinks Kazansky’s asleep. But he’s not locked away now. 

His face crumples, tangerine orange in the light of the setting sun, and he looks down, too tired to be ashamed, and somehow manages to keep his breathing even. Training from flight school coming in handy.

He says, “I don’t know how.”

And Kazansky can win rounds of chess-by-phone, he can win arguments and settle disputes, he can rise through the ranks by clawing down every other crab up the side of the bucket, but he’s not winning this one. 

Maverick is his biggest weakness. Always has been. 

Kazansky hesitates for a second, comes over, pulls him close, holds him. He’s not sure where they went wrong. It’s been a lifetime of mistakes, one after another; a lifetime of conversations never had and things never acknowledged; a lifetime of looking away. 

He’s not looking away this time.

Mitchell sighs into him and wipes his eyes and pulls himself together and says, “Everyone keeps wanting me to be a teacher. Teach him this and teach him that. I’m not a teacher, Ice. I’m a fighter pilot. A Naval aviator. It’s not what I am, it’s who I am. How do I teach him that?” He pauses, but he’s not looking for an answer. “Even if I could teach it, it’s not what Rooster wants. It’s not what the Navy wants. That’s why they’ve been trying to can me for the last three decades. The only reason I’m here is you."

He’s got an arm under Kazansky’s shoulder, gripping the right epaulette like it’s the only thing keeping him from falling off a steep cliff. 

“If I send him on this mission,” he breathes, his nose wet against Kazansky’s ear, “he might never come home. And if I don’t send him, he’ll never forgive me. Either way, I could lose him forever.”

Kazansky closes his eyes, lets the relief of holding Mitchell soak in the way it always does. Now you know, he thinks; now you know what it’s been like for the last fourteen years. “It’s the same decision, isn’t it,” he says quietly. “It’s the same mistake we’re about to make. We can’t keep him safe. Either we lose him, or we… we pull his papers, and he never forgives us.”

“The same mistake,” says Mitchell. “Fuck.” He’s quiet for a long moment, still gripping Kazansky’s shoulder, still pressed against him. “Maybe it is time to let him go.”

“No, Captain Mitchell,” Kazansky says. “That’s not why I called you back to TOPGUN. Let go of the past, sure. But don’t let go of Rooster. I called you back to TOPGUN to bring him home. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think you could. I—” He has the distinct feeling he’s about to say something he shouldn’t; about to go too far; he chokes the words down, replaces them. “I trust you, Pete. Now you’ve gotta trust our kid."

Mitchell gives a shaky sigh. They separate, but only a little bit, just enough to look at each other. Mitchell’s eyes are red and watery, and the palm cradling Kazansky’s jaw is cold and clammy. “He’s slow. He—he’s accurate, the only one who can hit the target, but he flies like you. All grandma.”

Kazansky tactically chooses to ignore that one with a smile. Now they’re talking about work. “Are any of them making it in time?”

“No. I’m sorry. They’re the best pilots TOPGUN’s ever seen, but I haven’t done my job well enough. No. Hangman could, but he leaves everyone else in the dust. I’m through with hotshots who leave their wingman. Know what I mean?” He pushes Kazansky’s hair back from his forehead, rubs a thumb over his cheekbone. “Not that I’m supposed to know about him and Rooster, of course,” he adds conspiratorially.

Kazansky considers this, thinks it through. Measures and countermeasures. Problems and solutions. He looks at Mitchell. “Mav, you think you can do it in two-thirty?”

“Me?” says Mitchell. “Yeah.”

Kazansky metaphorically turns his wrist over to the soft underside, tilts his head back and offers his jugular. “Do it, then. Show them it can be done. Show Rooster it can be done. You and I both know it can, and I’d bet this time the taxpayers would be alright with a few extra drills.”

Mitchell calculates the risks, analyzes the costs and benefits. “Cyclone will have my head.”

“Don’t care. Fuck him. I’ll deal with it.”

Mitchell hesitates, then leans up and kisses him, long and slow. His cheeks are still wet; he tastes like salt. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, old-timer,” he says. And it’s like he’s opened a wound and cauterized it all at once.

 

 

But not like that. God. Jesus Christ, not like that.

There’s a moment at the start of every pilot’s aviation career that sticks in their head for the rest of their life. It comes after the classes, after the weeks sitting at a desk wishing they were anywhere else, after memorizing the pre-flight checklist and every line of their plane’s NATOPS manual, after the long days in the sky with an instructor who would also rather be anywhere else, after learning the rules and regulations, after swearing to follow them.

There’s a moment when you’re by yourself in the cockpit for the first time and ATC clears you to taxi and takeoff. There’s a stick under your hand, but it’s foreign to you now. You worry you might forget what all the dials say. You worry you might calculate wrong, might fuck up your vectors, might forget a radio signal. But everyone’s waiting for you on the tarmac, watching to see if you fail, watching to see if you succeed. 

You push the stick forward. Then pull it back hard. 

The ground falls away backward, the sky swallows you whole, and it hits you like a club to the skull—there is nothing beneath you but the pedals. This bird you’re riding is not alive. No brain. No biological drive to survive. If you fail, you will fall, and the decision is yours and not anyone else’s, and it is a decision. Every second, it’s another decision, whether to push an aileron or to lower an elevator or to sweep your wings or to gun one throttle versus the other, and if you do it wrong, if you choose to do it wrong, the bird will fall out from under you, and you will have no wings to fly home.

No wings. Kazansky has no wings. The sky falls away as the ground rushes up to meet him. Not like that, he’s thinking; that’s not what I meant. Because he’s just found out—no, he hasn’t just found out; Maverick’s standing right here in the kitchen telling him—he’s standing here in his dress whites saying he pulled it off in two minutes and fourteen seconds and a little bit, and he’s been made team leader, and he’s being sent to Siberia to destroy a uranium enrichment facility under flight conditions no living pilot has ever seen or survived before. And he’s bringing their son with him.

That’s not what I meant. That’s not what I wanted to happen.

Mistake after mistake after mistake. 

Maverick stares him down from across the kitchen, defiant and triumphant, daring him to say something. There’s nothing Kazansky can do. In the back of his mind, while gearing up to send Mitchell back to TOPGUN after the Mach 10 incident, he knew—as an insect caught in a web knows in its blood that things are coming to an end—that Maverick would fly this mission on pains of death. That Maverick is the only pilot capable of pulling this off and bringing the team home. What can he do? What can he do? 

This time it really is his fault, there’s no debating that. And now he’s making the decision for Maverick instead of for Bradley. Whether to let him go and lose him, or pull his papers and lose him anyway. What can he do?

Kazansky takes out his work phone. 

Maverick’s eyes widen. “Don’t, Ice,” he warns. 

Kazansky’s too far gone to even hazard a guess what Maverick doesn’t want him to do. What? Don’t ask the President to ground Maverick forever? Don’t strip his wings, don’t make Hangman mission leader, don’t have Rooster transferred to the Marine Corps? Don’t scrub the mission? Don’t slap Maverick with a dishonorable discharge and send him alone into retirement?

He holds Maverick’s gaze. Shakes his head. You motherfucker. How could you do this to me? And he’s already dialling the phone.

“Don’t, Ice,” Mitchell says again, his voice sliding into desperation, but Kazansky turns away and holds up a hand and presses the phone to his ear.

“Rear Admiral Teagan. It’s Kazansky. I have a favor to ask of you. —I need to be on the Teddy Roosevelt starting tomorrow morning. And I need someone to relieve me at Pearl Harbor for the foreseeable future. —I was supposed to be on the USS Cheyenne. But if you call Reade, he’ll set you up with a transport from Tacoma. —I’ll talk to him. —Yes, tomorrow morning. Don’t tell me you’re looking a gift horse in the mouth, Joe. You’ve done it faster before. The fact is, I think you could take my place someday, and we gotta see how that goes. You just might get four stars before the President makes you retire. —That’s alright, Joe. Goodbye.”

He hangs up, closes his eyes. He can’t look at Mitchell, can’t even think about it. He presses the phone into the kitchen counter and presses into his eye with his thumb, just trying to let out some of the pounding pressure in his sinuses.

Mitchell waits a shockingly long time to say anything. Then: “You’re gonna be mad at me for the rest of your life, aren’t you?”

Kazansky thinks he might cry. And he probably should, but he doesn’t. “If you die? Yeah. I’ll hate you until the day I follow you into Hell.”

“Hate’s a strong word.”

“It sure is.” Kazansky still can’t look at him. There’s nothing he can do. The fact is, Kazansky told the President that Maverick was the most valuable pilot in the fleet, that they should save Maverick for a day when they need him, and they need him now, they do, they need him like water, like air; they need him to hit his target and come home and please come home, please bring Bradley home, please come home to me—

He’s pulling open the back door, turning on the deck lights so he can see where the stairs are, standing out in the whipping wind, watching the waves crash against the shore.

Mitchell follows him. They stand next to each other, the Captain in his dress whites and the Admiral in his dress blues, and watch the ocean move. The tides come in and the tides go out. The earth keeps spinning. The horizon has disappeared into the black water by now. The darkness swallows everything. They’re in the belly of the whale.

“I’m sorry,” Mitchell says finally, and Kazansky almost punches him. But doesn’t. Keeps as cool as ice. “I gotta go. I gotta bring him home."

He’s not cool and calm and collected. He’s falling apart. 

He reaches over and tugs Mitchell to him. They crash together like the saltwater and the sand.

 

 

He paces. Turns, walks back to the other side of the Roosevelt stateroom. His heart flutters; adrenaline stabs him down the spine. Okay. He’s gotta do it. For the sake of the mission, for the sake of the world. Quit putting it off. Quit pussying out. Make things right. Turn the tables, while he still has a chance.

He opens his phone, finds the number he’s not supposed to know.

Bradley. It was me who pulled your papers. Mitchell wanted nothing to do with it. It wasn’t his fault. Let’s talk. COMPACFLT.

He keeps his phone open on his desk until the battery runs out. No reply.

 

 

He can trace his Naval career back to an instant, back all the way to a memory. He’s lucky for that: some guys go into it because they have no other choice, because they can’t do anything else. Kazansky, on the other hand, is one of the few men in the country who can point to a single moment that inspired them to take to the waves, or to the sky, as it were.

His father had a friend aboard the USS Midway, a friend who still remembered Kazansky—then called Tommy by almost everyone who knew him—and his mother as good friends. The Midway docked in San Diego on his birthday, proof God was real, and his father’s friend showed him aboard and led him around each deck: past the little jail where sailors who’d broken the rules were kept, past the dentist’s office that sometimes doubled as a surgery theatre, through the mess halls, into the kitchens, the white-and-red anchor compartment where you could see down into the ocean through the bridle, the engine room that stank of oil and diesel. And then—just when Kazansky was positive he wanted to captain a ship like this someday—his father’s friend led him into the hangar, where all the planes were kept.

Twenty years ago, his father’s friend said, this boat was the biggest ship in the world—too big, even, to fit through the Panama Canal. And this is why: planes need somewhere to sleep at night.

His father’s friend had the clearance necessary to take Kazansky up a level on the plane elevator, bringing him to the flight deck, where the wind whipped their hair and they could see all the way across San Diego and its in-progress construction. 

“Well, boy,” said a gruff voice; Kazansky’s father’s friend snapped to attention. “Think you want to be a sailor?”

He didn’t know it, but Kazansky was staring up at a two-star Admiral. “A pilot, sir,” he said, old enough to know when someone was dressed in all blue like that, you called him sir. 

“A pilot!” said the Admiral, and patted him on the head.

Nearly twenty years later, taking off from the deck of the Midway with Slider as his RIO and Hollywood on his wingtip and Maverick as his spare, Kazansky could recognize it as one of the moments it was clear all his hard work had paid off.

Opening the USS Midway museum in San Diego in 2004: that was another moment.

“Captain Mitchell,” he acknowledges.

And now, shaking Captain Pete Mitchell’s hand on the flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt in front of an audience: here’s another.

“It’s an honor, sir,” Mitchell tells Kazansky, his eyes firm and honest, grip unwavering, back straighter than God’s, and his salute is returned in a heartbeat. 

“Honor’s all mine, Captain,” Kazansky says stiffly, always unaccustomed to treating Mitchell as an inferior. He flexes his fingertips, memorizes the way Mitchell’s hand felt in his own, and continues down the line: Hangman, Phoenix (a dead ringer for her mother Juno), Bob, and—

Rooster doesn’t look him in the eye. They haven’t seen each other in years, and Rooster won’t look at him. How the hell are they gonna deal with this? Not here, on the flight deck. Later. There’s still time.

He won’t sleep tonight, he thinks, turning on a polished heel and heading inside, away from the sea spray and the evening wind. 

There’s a possibility he’ll never sleep again. 

He knows that much: after Goose’s death, the fragility of it all has settled into his DNA. Every time Maverick or Rooster heads up in a plane—hell, every time he himself takes a chopper to the next carrier over—there’s always the possibility they never make it back to solid ground. Always, always, always. It’s an occupational hazard, one he’s had to accept for too many friends over the years, and the rub of it is, he’s always forced to make the hard decisions for everybody else. He and Mitchell never really argue about it, but they both know if it came down to saving Maverick or saving the world, Kazansky would pick the world every time. That’s why he has four stars. 

(He’s sure, if it were Kazansky on the chopping block, Mitchell would pick the world, too—but the difference between them is Mitchell’s moment of hesitation.)

Kazansky’s stateroom on the Roosevelt is huge and lonely, cavernous, reminds him of a bunker with its pale orange light. He’s been in a lot of lonely staterooms over the years, but this one takes the cake. Without him realizing it, it’s already long past midnight. 

You awake?

Did you actually think I’d be able to sleep?

Can you get away? I’m on C deck.

Give me 15 still in briefing

OK. Get off your phone.

He strips down to his T-shirt, suddenly sure he’s spiking a fever. It’s not like he’s never been nervous before a mission he was only overseeing, but this is different. A world of different. He can’t stop thinking about the walls of the canyon, about the SAMs, about the hellish time limit. He can’t stop thinking about a locker room thirty years ago: “Below the hard deck does not count.” Back then, it’d been ten thousand feet. Tomorrow morning, it’s a hundred.

Someone knocks for a shave and a haircut outside. “It’s unlocked,” Kazansky calls, and Mitchell comes in, looking wiped, and locks the door behind him. They’re together in a heartbeat, a hard impact and tight arms, both sweaty and exhausted, breathing hard.

“I chose Rooster,” says Mitchell.

“Yeah. Knew you would.” (Because he did. There’s nothing he can do.)

“Hangman spare, and Payback, Fanboy, Phoenix, and Bob; Foxtrot Team.” 

“It’s a good group.”

“You bet your ass it is,” Mitchell says, hard and biting, letting go and staring Kazansky down like he’s mad at him, but they both know he’s got too much adrenaline and nowhere to put it. “You bet your fucking ass it is. We’ll get it done. In-and-out.”

“I believe it,” Kazansky says, fine with firing him up if it means jacking up his confidence. “Low and dirty, baby. Kill’s all yours.”

“That’s right,” says Mitchell, tearing his eyes away to look out the window. “Hell of a stateroom they’ve set you up in.”

“Always is.” He sits on the bed, gnawing the inside of his cheek. He knows their heartrates are both somewhere in the clouds, knows they’re both fucked six ways to Sunday. I’m going to lose you, he thinks, so suddenly it nearly takes him out, and just like Goose and Bradley, it’s gonna be my fault. He watches Mitchell pace, committing every angle to memory, making a hundred thousand hard decisions in his head, coming to a million hard conclusions. He dares to ask: “Can you stay?”

“I won’t be able to sleep. I’ll toss and turn, keep you up all night,” warns Mitchell.

“So will I,” says Kazansky simply. “And it’ll be worse without you here.”

“Someone’s gonna notice in the morning. They already saw me come up to you.”

"Fuck them,” Kazansky says.

Mitchell blinks at him, and Kazansky’s not sure why he’s so shocked. If it were a choice between Mitchell and the world, well, that’s one thing, but between Mitchell and the Navy— tonight, that’s a no-brainer. It’s Mitchell every time.

“Yeah, I can stay,” Mitchell says. “Easy.”

And, it turns out, it really is that easy. Maybe it always has been.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Dawn comes unwelcomed, the purple light of morning somehow squeezing through Kazansky’s drapes, falling on the two of them where they’re still laying side by side staring up at the ceiling. Kazansky’s got his hand in Mitchell’s hair and Mitchell’s got his arm across Kazansky’s chest. He can tell, from the color of the sky, that their alarm is about to go off. His heartrate hasn’t slowed since Tuesday, the last time he’s been able to sleep through the night. 

“Just tell me this,” he says, not bothering to quiet down; Mitchell’s awake as a lightning bug against him. “Just tell me you and Rooster will try to come home to me.”

“I’ll do you one better,” says Mitchell, and Kazansky can hear him putting on Maverick’s bravado as one might step into a pair of socks. “I’ll do you one better, Ice. I promise we’ll try to come home to you. And you know me. I don’t make promises I don’t intend to keep.”

He’s firmly inhabited Maverick now, his pulse slow and steady, collected and ready to do whatever it takes to get the job done. I wish I could do that, Kazansky thinks bitterly. We’re diametrically opposed, you and I. Always have been.

Maverick leans over, slowly slides a knee over Kazansky’s hip. “I will bring him back to you,” he breathes, fisting his hands in Kazansky’s T-shirt, ghosting the words over his lips. “I swear.”

Kazansky gathers him up in his arms, kissing him with an open mouth, just trying to keep himself sane before—

His alarm goes off, and they pull away from each other. His alarm ringtone is and always has been reveille; something about first call has been burned into their bones and it’s all business from here on out. Don’t let me end the day with Taps, he’s pleading; don’t make me tack your casket.

Maverick pulls on his slacks, slinging his coat over his shoulder, and slides on his boots with the socks still inside. “I’ll see you back on the flight deck, Admiral,” he says, all bravura and cheek, still just like the handsome cocksure kid Kazansky’d met in eighty-six, and there’s so much Kazansky wants to say, so many words he didn't even think he knew that many, but all he can do is stare. 

Maverick salutes jauntily, just two fingers, and then he’s gone, vanished out into the corridor as if he’d never come at all.

 

— 

 

“Bradshaw. You’re late.” 

It’s a relief to see him at all; Kazansky’s been camping outside the pilots’ quarters for the last five minutes, anxiously checking his watch, waiting for Rooster to show. And here he is, his face nervously flushed, his stupid mustache trimmed (just like Goose’s). 

“I know,” says Rooster, suddenly furious; he doesn’t bother with the formalities in public the way Mitchell does. “I do it to piss you octogenarians off. Listen, old man, can we do this some other time? I’m a little preoccupied.”

Kazansky feels his mouth spread into a thin line. This is agony. “I just wanted to wish you luck. And—”

“Save it,” Rooster says. He’s futzing with his helmet, making sure everything’s in order, though Kazansky’s sure, if he’s anything like any of his fathers, he’d spent an hour last night checking it over already. “You can tell me when I make it back to Earth.”

He tries to head past Kazansky out to the flight deck, but Kazansky steps in front of him to block his path. Suddenly afraid Rooster might shove him aside, he holds his hands up. They make searing eye contact. And then Kazansky holds a hand out to shake.

“We’ll talk later,” he says, but he’s really pleading for a truce.

“Funny, Maverick just gave me the same spiel.” Rooster’s voice isn’t as antagonistic anymore—just defeated. They size each other up for a moment, figuring out the terms of the truce, and finally Rooster grips his hand once and lets it go like he’s been burned. Then he turns to go.

“Bradley,” Kazansky calls after him, and Rooster stops, silhouetted in the early-morning blue. He can’t keep his voice from shaking. “I’m proud of you.”

Time stops for a second; Rooster looks down and back, and then he scoffs, heading out into the mist. 

But Kazansky’s sure he saw the ghost of a smile.

A door closes behind him, and he looks back to see Hangman emerging from Rooster’s cabin, looking confused and a little pink. 

“You’re late, too,” he tells him, and before the kid can salute or apologize or make up an excuse as to why he apparently spent the night in another pilot’s cabin, Kazansky places a hand on his shoulder and offers up a grin. “Go get ‘em.”

 

 

He oversees the final two briefings silently and at the far rear; he knows he’s the elephant in the room and doesn’t want to interfere with whatever the hell Cyclone thinks he’s doing with that tone of voice, like he’s resigned to their deaths already. 

Maverick calls Foxtrot: Payback and Fanboy, Phoenix and Bob. As his wingman, Rooster.

“It’s been an honor flying with you,” Maverick says, his unshaven jaw tight.

Then they’re out in the hangar, catapult officers and runway techs are shouting, Warlock and Cyclone are giving the final rundown, and then Hondo’s looking at Kazansky like he should say something.

“Last week,” Kazansky says, “Captain Mitchell told me you were the best pilots TOPGUN had ever seen. I can’t help but feel that’s true. And no one but the best could have been selected to fly this mission, a mission that requires the best, the finest touch, the firmest push, the fastest reflexes. You’re here for a reason. And all of us—and I mean all—are indebted to you now and will be for the rest of time. Good luck, aviators: hit ‘em hard, and then come home.”

And that was pretty good for an off-the-cuff speech, he’s thinking, and Hangman’s glancing at Rooster and clenching his jaw and Rooster’s nodding to himself and Maverick is staring at Kazansky, Get me off this fucking boat.

Okay. If you insist.

He takes a good long last look, meets Maverick’s eyes. See you when you come back to me. And if not, then on the sunny side of Heaven.

And then he turns, doffing his cap, and heads inside to the bridge.

He shakes hands with Warlock and Cyclone—Cyclone’s glaring him down, eyes accusatory, You’re only here because you’re fucking Maverick, and Iceman’s glaring right back, Yeah, exactly, that’s why I should be here.

“I won’t interfere on his behalf, Beau,” he tells Cyclone in an aside; out the window they’re watching the pilots gear up, the controlled chaos they both know so well, hoses and chutes and earphones and hand signals. “For once. I hope you can trust me with that.”

“It’s gonna be hard,” Cyclone says, not meeting his eyes. “Sir.”

“You have the authority here. It’s your mission.”

“It’s your fleet. He’s your Captain.” Of all the nouns, it could have been worse.

Iceman smiles, and coolly says, “That’s right. That’s why I ordered him out to you. He’s the best of the best, Vice Admiral, and if he’s not? Well, son, that’s on me, and I’ll take what I get and I won’t throw a fit. But when the chips are down, just know that I bet on Maverick every time.” He pauses. “And it’s worked out so far.”

“Because you’re fixing his hand,” Cyclone says. “You can’t do that out here.”

“No,” Iceman agrees. “But I also know from experience, out here, when he’s in the saddle, he doesn’t make mistakes.” And he knows Cyclone is thinking of the legendary story, that time Maverick shot down three enemy bogeys to save his wingman—the very wingman who’s lecturing him right now.

“Ice-cold, huh?” says Cyclone. 

“Only when I have to be,” Iceman says, and then he holds his hand out and they shake again.

Every bridge is exactly the goddamn same: freezing cold to protect the electronics, the highest-tech blue screens known to man, a dark room like they’re still in the olden days when they had to develop photographs. And in the middle there’s a platform where all the brass get to stand and make comments and commands, and it takes a second for Iceman to realize he’s the brass now, all of it; every boat on the Pacific and every body in this room answers to him and then above him the President and then above him God, and it’s nice to know he has a little bit of control here. 

He straightens the rack of ribbons on his breast and pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and when the Radar Officer says, “Standing by for launch decision,” he tells the room without a second of hesitation: “Send them.”

The ground beneath his feet rumbles; there’s a chunk when the first catapult fires; and Maverick has left the earth.

Dagger One, away, Rooster, away, Phoenix, away, Payback, away.

He steps outside of his body for a second. He has to. Has to imagine, like every other mission, these are nameless, faceless pilots and officers he met once and doesn’t know, young people trying to prove themselves who might not come back. For a second, it works. Then he remembers.

Comanche clears the Daggers, and Maverick calmly leads them to descend below radar. They’re lost on the radar screen; everyone turns to the E-2D Hawkeye picture.

They’re a minute out from land when Maverick says: “Here we go. Enemy territory up ahead. Contact sixty seconds. Comanche, Dagger One, picture.”

Comanche: “Comanche. Dish is clean, decision is yours.” / Maverick: “Copy. Dagger attack.”

Somewhere out in the Indian Ocean, the USS Leyte Gulf sends out a cloud of Tomahawk missiles aimed for Siberia.

R.O.: “Tomahawks airborne.” / Cyclone: “No turning back now.”

Hondo reaches up and claps Kazansky on the shoulder. The missiles pass overhead the Daggers, and it’s go time.

Maverick: “Daggers. Assume attack formation.” / The Daggers straighten out into a close-line astern formation. / Maverick: “Limit set. Proceeding to target. Two minutes and thirty seconds in three, two, one… Mark.” / The R.O. starts the clock. / Phoenix: “Two, mark.” / Rooster: “Three, mark.” / Payback: “Four, mark.”

They hit land, and the obstacle course begins. Iceman’s cold and calculating. He forces down the panic. His heartrate slows. He’s betting on Maverick. This is where he shines.

Maverick: “First SAM site, overhead.” / Phoenix: “Looks like we’re clear on radar, Mav.” / Maverick: “Let’s not take it for granted.” / Fanboy: “More SAM, three-o’clock high!” / Bob: “We’ve got two minutes to target!” / Rooster: “Copy.” / Payback: “We’re two seconds behind, Rooster, we gotta move.” / R.O.: “Thirty seconds till Tomahawk impact on the airstrip.” / Comanche: “Dagger, Comanche. We’re picking up two bandits. Single form. Two contacts.”

Cyclone turns to Iceman. “Where the hell’d they come from?” 

Iceman shakes his head, stunned stupid. “Long range patrol?”

Phoenix: “Comanche, what’s their heading?” / Comanche: “Bullseye. Zero-nine-zero-fifty. Tack southwest.” / Rooster: “They’re headed away from us. They don’t know we’re here.” / Maverick: “The second those Tomahawks hit the airfield, those bandits are gonna move to defend the target. We have to get there before they do. Increase speed.” / Phoenix: “We got you, Mav, don’t wait for me.” / R.O. “Sir. Daggers Two and Four are behind schedule.”

And this is the question, this has always been the question, ever since the folder fell into Iceman’s inbox the day Maverick fell out of the sky from the Darkstar. He bets on Maverick to make it back every time—but what about Rooster?

He thinks about what he told Maverick three days ago. He has to trust his kid.

V.C.O: “Tomahawk impact in three, two…” / They all watch on the satellite surveillance screen as the runways get cratered. The Russians have been grounded. / R.O.: “Impact. Enemy runway has been destroyed.” / Cyclone: “They know we’re coming now.” / Comanche: “Bandits are switching course to defend the target.” / Maverick: “Rooster, where are ya?” / Payback: “Come on, Rooster, bandits inbound, we gotta make up time now! Turn and burn!” 

Does Iceman trust his kid? Does he? Does he have a right to, after everything?

Maverick: “Oh…kay. Heads up, Phoenix.” / Bob: “Whoa!” / R.O.: “Sir. Bandits are two minutes from target. Daggers are one minute from target.” / Hondo: “Come on, Rooster. Move it or lose it.”

He does, Iceman thinks: he does trust his kid. He has to.

Fanboy: “Guys, we’re falling behind! We’ve really gotta move!” / Payback: “If we don’t increase our speed right now, those bandits are gonna be waiting for us when we reach the target!” / Rooster: “Talk to me, Dad.”

And then, on cue, Maverick says, “C’mon, kid, you can do it. Don’t think. Just do.”

Rooster re-engages, and Iceman breathes for the first time in a minute.

Maverick: “That’s it, kid, that’s it!” / Rooster: “Alright. Let’s go.” / Fanboy: “Augh, Rooster, take it easy!” / Rooster’s supersonic in a river-carved canyon. / Iceman: “Alright. Now hit your target and come home.” And he knows they can hear him.

Maverick: “Thirty seconds to target—Bob, check your laser.” / Bob: “Mav, ground check complete, laser code verified: one-six-eight-eight, laser’s a go!” / Rooster: “Watch your heads!” / Fanboy: “Holy shit!” / Rooster: “Payback, you with me?” / Payback: “Right behind you!” / Maverick: “Phoenix, standby for pop-up strike.” / Phoenix: “Dagger Three, in position.” / Maverick: “Popping in three, two, one.” 

They’ve reached the bottom of the canyon; on the E-2 screen, the jet icons corresponding to Maverick and Phoenix barely move forward; they’re almost vertical, scaling a mountain in a few seconds. Iceman can hear their groans as they try to keep blood in their heads; they’re pulling at least six, maybe seven Gs. Then they flip down into the valley. Iceman’s walked this sequence through with Maverick a hundred times: the mid-descent barrel roll, the inverted rollover, the pull-up, and then there’s still the targeting sequence, and then they still have to blow the damn thing up. 

Maverick: “Get me eyes on that target, Bob.” / Bob: “Targeting—standby, Mav—!” / Maverick: “Come on, Bob, come on…” / Bob: “Standby! I’ve got it! Capture!” / Maverick: “Target acquired. Bombs away.” And then he gasps, pulling back sharp again, vertical up out of the valley, already pulling seven Gs, already fading—

Bob: “We’ve got impact! Check—Direct hit! Direct hit!”

Next to Iceman, Hondo grimaces in joy, still not tearing his eyes away from the E-2 screen. Warlock says, “That’s miracle number one.”

Maverick sounds like he’s having the shit beat out of him. He gasps, “Dagger Two! Status!”

Rooster says, “Almost there, Mav, almost there!” and then he, too, is dropping into the valley, folding at the top and inverting a rollover, just coherent enough to nail the barrel roll and moan, “Fanboy, where’s my laser?!”

Fanboy: “Rooster, there’s something wrong with this laser! —Shit! Dead-eye, dead-eye, dead-eye!” / Rooster: “C’mon, guys, we’re running out of time!”

Iceman can feel the heat of Cyclone’s panicked stare against his cheek, but he won’t look away from the E-2 screen unless he drops dead right here. He can hear Maverick’s voice: Rooster’s the most accurate pilot we’ve got. He can hit the target.

And Iceman trusts him. He does, with his whole heart.

Fanboy: “Standby, Rooster, I’m trying, I’m trying!” / Payback: “C’mon, Fanboy, nearly there, nearly there! C’mon, Fanboy, we’re there!” / Rooster: “There’s no time. I’m dropping blind.” / Fanboy: “Rooster! I got this! I got this!” / Rooster: “There’s no time! Pull up! Bombs away, bombs away!” 

R.O.: “Bullseye, bullseye, bullseye!” 

Holy shit, Iceman thinks, and Hondo’s cheering with the lieutenants in the back of the room and clapping him on the shoulder, and his hands are dripping wet, Holy shit, they might actually pull this off. He says: “That’s miracle number two.”

Cyclone says, “Now they’re in coffin corner.”

There’s something like twenty sets of surface-to-air missiles lining the canyon, all programmed infinitely smarter than the human touch and infinitely crueler, and just now Maverick and Phoenix are reaching the mountain’s apex—on the altitude map, it’s a white dot—way above radar, way within range. This is where they move it or lose it. This is where things fall apart.

Maverick gasps, “We’re not—out of this—yet.” 

The SAMs start firing. There’s smoke in the air. Six of them, and then twelve, circling like supersonic sharks. 

Maverick: “Radar warning! Smoke in the air! Phoenix, break right!” / Phoenix: “Emergency jettison! Dagger Three, defending!” / Bob: “Here comes another one! There we go, defending!” / Maverick: “Rooster! Status!”

Rooster gasps and groans and summits the mountaintop, and then the second set of SAMs aims and fires, and that’s when Kazansky suddenly understands—can feel it in his bones—that this is over. It’s done. They trained for speed, not for missiles. None of them are prepared for this. The last of them he has is the white jet icons on an E-2 screen. He wonders if he shouldn’t close his eyes until they’re gone.

Rooster says, “Oh, my God.”

Rooster: “Smoke in the air! Smoke in the air!” / Fanboy: “Break right, Payback, break right!” / Payback: “Breaking right!” / Fanboy: “Oh, my God, here they come! SAM on your six, Rooster!” / Rooster: “Deploying countermeasures! —Negative contact!” / Maverick: “Dagger One, defending!” / Phoenix: “Talk to me, Bob!” / Bob: “Break right, Phoenix, break right! Mav, nine o’clock, nine o’clock!” / Maverick: “Rooster, two more on your six!” / Rooster: “Dagger Two, defending—!” / Fanboy: “Payback, SAM on your nose!” / Payback: “Dagger Four, defending!” / Maverick: “Rooster—” / Rooster: “Tally, tally—” / Phoenix: “Talk to me, Bob—” / Fanboy: “—on your six!" / Rooster: “Phoenix, break right—” / Phoenix: “—I see it, I see it—” / Rooster: “Dagger Two, defending—” / Fanboy: “—deploying countermeasures—” 

A sixth SAM system aims and fires.

Rooster: “Dagger Two, defending! —Shit, I’m out of flares!”

And, oh, no, oh, no. This is where it ends.

Maverick: “Rooster! Evade, evade!"

Rooster: “I can’t shake ‘em! They’re on me! They’re on me!”

Maverick’s icon and Rooster’s icon stack on top of each other for the briefest of seconds, just like that time you gave the bird to a Soviet MiG pilot, and then— 

And then Maverick disappears. 

There’s silence over the comms, on the bridge. Half a second. That’s all the reprieve Kazansky gets before it sinks in.

Rooster: “Mav, no!"

Cyclone’s staring at him, Warlock’s staring at him, they’re all staring at him, waiting to see what he’ll do, waiting to see—

Phoenix: “Dagger One is hit! I repeat, Dagger One is hit! Maverick is down!”

Rooster: “Dagger One, status. Status!—Anyone see him? Does anyone see him?!—Dagger One, come in! I didn’t see a parachute! We have to circle back!” 

Comanche: “Comanche. Bandits inbound. Single group, hot. Recommend Dagger flow south. One minute to intercept.”

Oh, Jesus. Oh, God. The nightmare. Every pilot’s worst fear. He’s lost his wingman.

Goose has been dead for thirty years when Iceman’s wingman gets shot down and goes slip-sliding into the snow.

Cyclone’s looking at him. They’re all looking at him. Cyclone says, “It’s your fleet, Admiral.”

Iceman always has to make the hard decisions. Iceman always has to give the orders. Iceman always has to eat shit, always has to do favors, always has to save the goddamn world, always has to let things go for the sake of the Navy. Iceman always has to minimize the damage. 

He’s in command. He swallows, straightens his shoulders. “Get them back to the carrier. Now.” He’s not losing Rooster, too.

The R.O. says, “All Daggers, flow to E.C.P. You have bandits headed for you.”

Rooster shouts, his voice strained through tears, “What about Maverick, Ice?”

What about him? What about Maverick? Maverick’s gone, burned up in atmo, nothing more than a memory. There’s nothing left of Maverick. Just Iceman, his heart pumping steady, doing his damn job, commanding a fleet, a fleet full of people he’s fucking responsible for, and you’re one of them, Rooster, and so was Maverick, I was responsible for you and now I lost you and it’s all my fault—

“There’s nothing you can do for Maverick,” Iceman says, startled by the force of his own voice, his own will. “Not in a goddamn F-18.”

It’s Hangman next: “Dagger Spare, requesting permission to launch and fly air cover.”

Iceman shakes his head at the R.O. Not losing Seresin, either. Rooster and Hangman need the chance Iceman and Maverick never got. “Negative, Spare,” says the R.O.

Warlock orders: “Launch search and rescue.”

“Negative,” Iceman says, and he wonders how this must look from the outside, because he’s combusting inside, ripped in two; he wishes he could jump into a Super Hornet and find Maverick himself, but he knows he’ll find nothing, just scattered debris and black char in the snow. It’s worse to try and to have failed than to not try at all. To admit defeat with dignity. “Not with bandits in the air.”

Next to him, Cyclone nods, just as utilitarian as he is. Hondo shouts, “But, sir, Maverick is still out there!”

“We’re not,” Iceman says, running on the vapors of adrenaline and impending grief, “losing anyone else today. Get them home now.” Then he speaks directly into the microphone: “Rooster. R.T.B. You’re not to engage. I repeat: Do not engage.”

“Dagger Two, return to carrier,” instructs an R.O., then: “Acknowledge. Acknowledge!”

“Rooster,” cries Phoenix, “those bandits are closing! We can’t go back!”

But the Rooster icon doesn’t change course, and that’s how Kazansky knows he’s about to lose them both. 

“Rooster,” he says softly, reluctant to say it, for fear saying it out loud makes it true. “He’s gone. Maverick’s gone.”

Rooster’s flying over an alpine lake, Rooster’s flying over a mountain range, and then Rooster’s gasping and flipping around like he sees something, and he shoots down a chopper hovering near a wooded hill, and then he’s flying back over the canyon, and the SAMs fire, and then—

Rooster: “Maverick—” 

A crackle of static, a flat tone.

Rooster disappears, too.

“Dagger Two is hit.”

And Kazansky’s looking down at the four stripes on his sleeve, thinking of his four stars. By the time he had two, his mistakes had lost him Goose and Bradley; now he has four stars and he’s lost Bradley for the second time, and he’s lost Mitchell, too. One star for each time he's lost someone. One star for every mistake.

That’s his debt to Goose repaid. That’s his deal with the devil signed in blood.

And what was it all for? For this? He fought this hard, for this long, just to lose everything at the very end?



 

 

Chapter Text

He still can’t cry. He squints at himself in the bathroom mirror, pinches himself, punches the counter and makes his knuckles bust open red and raw, and still he can’t get himself to cry. You heartless motherfucker, he thinks, savage as a wild dog, and he punches the counter again. You piece of shit. Something’s broken inside you. 

He thinks maybe it hasn’t sunken in yet, that he’s still in shock, but it’s been ten minutes since Rooster disappeared and it does hurt. It hurts like hell, like someone’s ripping his lungs out and tearing them apart, walking all over his spleen, maybe. But the pain doesn’t reach his eyes, never has. He thinks back to Maverick’s rebuke, the first time they laid hands on each other: “It never reaches your eyes. I see why they call you cold as ice.” And then he’s thinking of Maverick and his head is pounding, and he doesn’t think he can go on, doesn’t think he can keep standing here with his head in his hands and his eyes so dry they’re as red and raw as his knuckles. Fuck. I lost you. I lost you and it’s all my fault, I’m a four-star admiral and that’s where I get them from, losing you both over and over and over and over again…

Someone knocks outside, and the door’s unlocked, and Cyclone comes in, carrying two bottles of water by the caps. Wordlessly, he offers one to Kazansky.

“Can’t. If I—I’ll vomit.”

“Okay,” Cyclone says, looking for all the world like he doesn’t give a shit about any of this. He pulls a few paper towels from the dispenser and pats the sweat from his own forehead. Cyclone’s lost his fair share of pilots on missions over the years. They both have.

Kazansky has to distract himself. “How is it in there?”

“Three and Four are on their way back,” Cyclone says. “Maybe five minutes out. I have to be back in there when they land.”

“Yeah. But, I mean—” He doesn’t even know what he’s asking. 

Cyclone sighs. “I’m sorry, Tom. I am. I really am. I didn’t like the guy, but only on a personal level. You were right, he was the best of the best. He did what it took. You said it yourself.”

It’s not any consolation. Not at all.

“You know,” Kazansky says. “It’s my fault.” All of it. Rooster and Maverick and Goose. All of it is his fault.

“Sometimes these things are,” Cyclone says. And then he pauses, leaning back against the counter, and starts dabbing away the blood on Kazansky’s knuckles with another paper towel. “You love him?” he asks, as if it’s that simple.

Kazansky shrugs, past caring about appearances. Past caring who knows, who suspects, who hears rumors. It’s all over now, and he never got to talk about it. He’s being honest: “I don’t know. It wasn’t like that. I…I’m not sure if I can live without him, but I don’t think that's the same thing.”

“It is the same thing,” Cyclone says simply. “That’s what it’s like, to love someone. You think you can’t go on without them, but then you do, and somehow that’s worse.” He hesitates again, wetting the paper towel. “My wife and I, we used to love to go skiing up in Vermont. That’s where I’m from. Two years ago, I took a week’s leave, we headed to Montpelier, and she—” He breaks off. “Well, you can read about it in the papers, I guess. Freak accident.”

“I’m—sorry, Beau.”

“Yeah, well, you don’t have to be, because now it’s happened to you, too,” Cyclone says, and for a moment Kazansky wonders if they’re the same person. “The days are alright, but I’m warning you, the nights are when it gets tough. Guys in positions like us, you know, we’ve sacrificed a lot of nights alone in empty beds to get these stars we’re wearing. But I’ll be honest, it’s a lot harder to be alone in an empty bed when it’s not a choice anymore.” He pauses. “Just a warning.”

Kazansky nods, grateful for the advice, delirious and swaying on his feet, already shit-scared of the rest of the day. “I can’t cry,” he confesses, since he’s an open book now. “I haven’t cried since I was a kid. I just lost Mitchell and Bradshaw, and I can’t goddamn cry. There’s something wrong with me.”

Cyclone just watches him. “I couldn’t, either,” he says, his voice carried by something like sympathy. “It’s okay. It comes back to you. Just like riding a bike. Just like flying a plane.”

The ship vibrates suddenly above them, not once, but twice. 

“That’s Foxtrot,” says Cyclone, a little hesitantly. “I gotta go, Tom. Listen, I’ll call you if anything happens. We’re all with you. I promise.” 

Then he’s gone.

Kazansky turns around, leaning against the counter, because otherwise he’ll fall over. He can feel himself crumpling inwards like a sheet of tin foil. He sees that he forgot to make his bed in the morning. Christ, Ice: one mission and you lose your basic training. It’s funny. He almost laughs. Except Mitchell was in this bed with him this morning—those folds in the sheets are Mitchell’s, that rumple in the comforter, that dent in the pillow. He can’t preserve this. In a day, he’ll be off this carrier, back at Pearl Harbor trying to stop a world war and overseeing Mitchell and Bradshaw’s burials-at-sea, and someone will have already stripped this bed bare, unaware of who slept here, unaware that it’s the last real thing Mitchell ever touched.

He’s coming undone at the seams. He’s losing it, imagining putting a bed in a museum, wondering if he should take out his phone and take a picture of it. Admiral’s lost it. Should be relieved from service. Take me out and put some other heartless bastard back in. That’s how easy it is in this institution: pull the plug and shove the next guy in and he’ll work twice as hard, he’ll make decisions with twice the calculated cruelty.

He’s not regretful that he sent Mitchell and Bradshaw on the mission. No, he’s not. They were going to go anyway even if he tried to stop them, and at least they went knowing he trusted them. The world’s been saved.

But he is regretful—full up to bursting, overflowing with regret—that he never said—that they never—

You made me a promise, he thinks, and when he looks down at his hands he sees they’re shaking, that he’s forced his fingernails so deep into his palm he’s cut red crescents along the calluses. You promised me you’d bring him home. You promised me you’d come home to me. You liar. It’s easy to be angry. He’s never been this angry in his life. You promised me you’d come home. And now you’re dead and you never knew that I—

He blinks. Has to sit down. Or else he’ll collapse. Has to catch another train of thought.

He thinks, slow as molasses, You told me you wouldn’t leave me. He’s remembering, half-deliriously, the last time they flew together, twenty-five years ago, staring at each other on the flight deck of the USS Chesapeake and promising each other they wouldn’t leave. You were my wingman.

It’s so strange, how fury turns to grief turns to fury, how present tense turns to past tense without looking back, how regret refuses to be voiced even at a time like this. How do you go on? This isn’t something he’s ever thought about. How do you go on, when you stake your whole life to someone else’s and they’re gone in less than a heartbeat and it’s your fault? How do you go on, when you’re at the top only because you’ve sacrificed the one thing that might have made it worth it to be at the bottom? How do you go on, when a few words might have made all the difference, when you’ve been such a coward for so long you don’t know how to be brave anymore? 

Maybe he should take Cyclone’s advice. Maybe the days will be alright, and the nights alone in an empty bed will be tough. Maybe he’ll dream about everything he could’ve done differently. Maybe he’ll dream about all the mistakes he didn’t have to make. Maybe he’ll dream about all the words he never got to say. Maybe he’ll dream of forgiveness. 

Maybe the sun will keep rising every morning. Maybe.

(How can it?)

His phone is vibrating in his pocket. Someone’s calling him. 

He doesn’t want to answer. But he’s on duty. The world is about to erupt into another world war, and it’s his fault. The fleet revolves around him the way the world revolves around Goose. 

And he is one heartless son of a bitch. Can’t even cry.

Duty before all.

It’s Cyclone. 

“Jesus Christ, I thought you’d never pick up. We got a signal from Rooster’s ESAT. You’d better get your ass back up to the bridge, because AWACS says Rooster’s supersonic in an F-14, he doesn’t even know how to fly one of those, and it’s your command, Admiral.”

Oh.

It takes a second to connect, the implications and the consequences and the hope, and when it does, it feels like he’s been electrocuted. No, no, no. 

How do you go on, when you’ve been given a second chance?

Pete Mitchell. 

You maverick motherfucker.

He’s stumbling, his vision goes shaky, he punches the counter for a third time. 

He can’t believe it. Refuses to let himself hope. But he’s wearing eight stars and the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he’s gotta do his job, so his order is: “Send Seresin. STAT.”

 

 

He’s back up to the bridge before Seresin’s jet even has a chance to take off. “Do you have contact with the Tomcat?” he demands, and everyone’s looking at him like he’s risen from the dead, and maybe he has. The floor tremors, and with a vhoom Hangman’s in the air.

“Not yet,” Warlock says, dripping sweat all over. “Working on it. It’s up to whoever’s in the RIO’s seat to fix the comms.”

“That’ll be Rooster, Mitchell’s the only one who knows how to fly a Tomcat,” Kazansky says, still in disbelief. “Where the hell did they get an F-14?”

“We think it was an Iranian spare from the airstrip. Tomahawks didn’t finish the job,” says Warlock, and thank God Kazansky’s subordinates didn’t do their jobs well enough when they looked over the missiles this morning. Jesus. The one time he’s fine with his inferiors fucking up. 

“Comanche,” says Comanche from the Hawkeye. “Two bandits approaching Tomcat, tack northeast. AWACS reports S.U.-fifty-sevens.” Fuck.

“I see ‘em,” says Cyclone. “Fifty-sevens. Felons in action. Christ.”

The two Su-57 Felons pull up alongside the new icon and hang out there for a moment. 

“What the hell are they doing?” says Warlock.

Kazansky thinks back to that first day at TOPGUN, a handsome, aggravating kid sitting low in his chair, all swagger and toothy grin, flirting with his goddamn instructor. “Communicating,” he says. He hopes to God Maverick’s not giving the Russians the bird.

Except he probably is, because the bandits assume attack envelope. 

“Oh, shit,” says Cyclone. He looks at Kazansky. “They’re gonna dogfight.”

Kazansky smiles, a little faintly. An Iranian F-14 against fifth-generation fighters! Time to place bets. He doesn’t know which horse he favors, but he does know which jockey. He says, “The chips are down, Cyclone.” Then he orders: “Bring Comanche down as low as possible. I need infrared eyes on those fighters.”

Maverick’s on his way home. That’s all there is to it. He’s alive, he’s in the air, he’s flying like hell, he’s got two bandits on his tail, except now there’s one bandit because he’s splashed the first one, there’s a white splotch on the infrared screen—

“Splash one!” yells the R.O.

The second bandit shoots a missile; the Tomcat pulls up and deploys flares, and the missile vanishes in a green puff on the E-2 screen, and Kazansky can’t think of anything worse than what Maverick’s doing right now but can’t think of anyone better to be doing it. 

Tomcat sends out a missile; Bandit evades. Tomcat dives low, dives back down over the Sea of Japan, dives into a river delta—another canyon. This time with no training, no drills, just Maverick and his reflexes. The best ones the Navy’s ever seen.

Tomcat soars up high, crashes back down, misses with a missile, and must switch back to guns, because ten seconds later the R.O. calls out, “Splash two!” and the room erupts and Bandit disappears from the E-2 screen.

Cyclone says over the cheering, “Maverick’s an Ace, now. You know that? Only active-duty Ace left on Earth.” 

“You surprised?” says Kazansky, and his heart is racing now, Mach 10.

Tomcat turns and heads back out to sea. Come back to me.

There’s a beep, and then he hears Rooster’s voice: “Mav! I got the radio on!” / “Outstanding,” Maverick says, and it’s them, it’s really them, Kazansky’s got his heart in his mouth and if he bites down now it’s all over—

“We can’t talk to them,” the radar tech shouts.

“Why the hell not?” yells Warlock.

“Something jammed with their comms, sir—it’s not a compatible frequency. It’s an Iranian F-14. We can hear them but they can’t hear us. Working on it.”

Hangman: “Dagger Spare. I’m a minute out from them. Confirmed on radar, I repeat, tracking Tomcat on radar.”

Comanche: “Comanche. Sir, there’s a third bandit on our dish. Tack northwest. On Tomcat’s nose.”

Oh, my God.

Maverick breathes, “Oh, my God.” They can all hear the buzzing of the radar lock alarm behind his voice.

Cyclone steps up next to Kazansky and puts a hand on his shoulder to ground him.

Rooster: “Where the hell is this guy?!” / Maverick: “He’s on our nose. —Dammit. We’re out of ammo.” / Hangman: “Spare, I’m forty-five seconds out, forty-four, forty-three.” / R.O. “That’s a missile!” / Maverick: “Smoke in the air! Rooster, flares!"

The missile disappears; Bandit flies right by Tomcat, so close they almost collide. No missiles and no ammo. No way to disengage. No, no, no, no, no.

Rooster: “That was close! —We’re out of flares, Mav!— Shit, he’s already on us! This is not good!” / Hangman: “Spare, I’m twenty-five seconds out!” / Rooster: “We took another hit!” / Maverick: “Oh, no, no, no, no, no!” / Rooster: “—We can’t take much more of this!”

And meanwhile Kazansky’s thinking, If this kills them—

Maverick: “We can’t outrun this guy. We gotta eject.”

And meanwhile Kazansky’s thinking, Maverick’s on a flat spin, headed out to sea. Eject, eject, eject. He’s in the water.

Rooster: “What?!” / Maverick: “We need altitude! Pull the ejection handles the second I tell you!” / Rooster: “Mav, wait!” / Maverick: “Rooster, there’s no other way.” / Hangman: “Spare, I’m nineteen seconds out, eighteen.”

Tomcat starts climbing. Over the ejection hard deck.

“Oh, mother of God,” says Cyclone. It goes silent on the bridge. This is out of anyone’s control.

And meanwhile Kazansky’s thinking, It’s my jet wash.

Maverick: “Eject! Eject! Eject! —Rooster, pull the handle, eject!” / Rooster: “It’s—not— working!” / Hangman: “Spare, I’m ten seconds out!” / Rooster: “Mav!” / Maverick: “Ah, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Goose.” / Radar tech: “We have radio contact, we have—”

Bandit shoots a missile. A red-hot needle of vengeance aimed right for the last bastion of Kazansky’s hope.

I’m sorry, Goose.

Bandit disappears. Missile disappears with it.

There’s a white-hot cloud on the infrared map: Bandit’s been shot down, Bandit’s been obliterated, Bandit’s been incinerated.

It’s still silent on the bridge. 

Oh, Jesus Christ, Kazansky’s fifty-seven and he’s gonna have a heart attack. Relief swallows him like he’s being waterboarded, like he’s been punched in the face. Black-eyed, drowning gratitude. “Hangman.”

He almost can’t believe it. And Rooster and Maverick are gasping; they can’t figure out what just happened.

Then Seresin’s shit-talking voice comes over the comms. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This is your savior speaking,” he’s saying. 

Comanche’s dish shows there’s no more bandits, that’s it, there’s a pleasant flight back to the carrier. The Russians gave up. Enough loss for one day. Kazansky knows the feeling. It’s over. It’s over. They’re alive.

“Prepare for landing,” Hangman finishes. 

Kazansky remembers how to breathe, wipes the sweat off his brow, covers his eyes with his hand. Maverick and his fucking Maverick dumb luck. 

“Hey, Hangman,” says Rooster, relief and something like fondness bleeding into his voice. “You look good.”

“I am good, Rooster,” Hangman says smugly, just as relieved, and they can all hear it. “I’m very good. See you back on deck.”

Cyclone stares at Kazansky, who only realizes just now that he’s shaking all over like a frightened rabbit. “I need a chair,” he says.

“Patel!” shouts Cyclone, and one of the R.O.s vacates her seat, explaining over the comms that the Admiral’s coming over, and—

He sits in front of the microphone, palm flat on the table to get it to stop shaking. He’s aware everyone’s staring at him, that he’s sweaty and paler than a ghost, but he doesn’t have it in him to be self-conscious. What can he say? What can he say here, in a crowded room of people who don’t know about their relationship, that he hasn’t already said?

He says, “Maverick, you bastard son of a bitch.” 

And he’s not one to put stock in overused metaphors, but Mitchell’s teary laugh is distilled sunshine, like injecting heroin straight into a vein.

“Hey, Tom,” Mitchell sighs, his voice echoing around the crowded room, and just that little bit would be enough to keep Kazansky alive forever. “I kinda deserve that, don’t I?”

“That, and a lot worse, my friend, but I don’t have the words. Trying to keep the airwaves clean.” And he can hardly remember how to speak.

“Hey, that’s fine,” Rooster says, all hopped up on epinephrine. “Just pretend I’m not here, Ice.”

“No, don’t worry about it,” says Maverick, and Kazansky can hear the last drops of panic bleed out of him when he clears his throat and sighs. “He can tell me off when we make it back to the flight deck. —Aw, jeez, I don’t know how I’m gonna make it up to you this time. Hey, I’m real close to finishing the Mustang, she just needs a new coat of paint, how’s about when I get back on solid ground I take you up in her? I might even let you steer.”

“The day you fly again, Mitchell,” Kazansky says, “is the day I die. Rooster, son, you’re facing multiple court martials and a dishonorable discharge for disobeying countless direct orders, and—Maverick, your wings are as good as gone.”

“Yeah, I know,” Pete laughs. “Yeah, I know, Tom, I love you, too. See you back on the flight deck.”

 

 

Fucking up the landing gear of multi-million-dollar aircraft seems to be a habit of Maverick’s, because Cyclone’s calling a foul deck, and nearly the entire crew of the Roosevelt comes from underground to assist in assembling the fouling net and rescuing the catapult. There’s fire officers, warrant officers, E-2 seamen, chief petty officers, lieutenants, pilots, catapult officers, WSOs, radar techs, all running around like headless chickens, making sure the net is up and strong enough, making sure the barricade goes up. 

The Tomcat appears as a gray dot in the afternoon sky, then a gray streak—Maverick’s doing a flyby. The cocky bastard. Piece of shit. Next to him on the bridge, Cyclone and Warlock both grimace as the boat shudders under their feet and the thunderclap of Maverick’s sonic boom breaks over their heads. One last time, for old times' sake, and Kazansky forces a grin to submit to a wry smile.

And then he skids across Runway One, caught in the net with no wheels to be seen, and the three highest members of the brass—Kazansky, Simpson, and Bates—all charge out onto the bridge deck. They can’t see him—he’s in a cloud of carbon dioxide from the fire extinguishers—but then they do: Maverick and Rooster drop out of their Tomcat onto the tarmac, suddenly surrounded by hundreds of shouting sailors and aviators, laughing and tossing their arms around them; Kazansky watches Phoenix bear-hug Rooster, and then Rooster and Hangman are shaking hands, and he’s watching Mitchell talk to Rooster and shake him a little by the shoulders and hug him so tight, and then Mitchell’s looking, looking, looking…

They make eye contact. Kazansky shakes his head and smiles. You motherfucker.

Mitchell looks at him seriously and salutes. Honor and glory. 

“I gotta get down there,” he says.

“You sure, Tom? You look like you’re about to fall over—”

“No, the President’s gonna call me in a second and I gotta—” And he’s walking to the stairs and making his way down and by the time he gets there Mitchell’s waiting for him, the evening sun turning his hair golden like a halo, and he’s shaking Mitchell’s hand and gripping his forearm with the other in the middle of a maelstrom.

“I made you a promise, didn’t I?” says Mitchell, and they hold each other at arms’ length, making sure they’re both real, letting the fear out.

“There was about fifteen minutes there where you broke that promise. You’re still dangerous, Maverick,” Kazansky shouts over the noise. 

Mitchell waves him off. “Oh, you know I always come back to you,” he says. “What the hell am I gonna do, leave my wingman?”

How do you go on, when you’ve been given a second chance?

Kazansky can’t help it. They’re in public, they’re in a sea of people, it’s not right, it’s not regulation, but he’s only human, and he throws his arms around Mitchell’s neck, knocks the wind out of his lungs.

“Fuck,” Mitchell groans. “I think that ten-G ascent sprained a rib or two.” But he reaches for Kazansky, too, just for a second. 

They’re not public people, especially about each other, never have been and never will be, but Kazansky’s so relieved Mitchell’s standing here bitching about his rib or whatever that he holds him tighter, and it’s bringing tears to his eyes, he’s not making that up. 

Grief he can weather; grief he knows how to withstand, and pain, and adrenaline, and anger, and guilt. But relief— he’s never known a feeling like this in his entire life, never known relief and gratitude this overwhelming, so powerful it nearly brings him to his knees, and he’s looking at Bradley and Mitchell and crying so hard he can’t breathe for a second and trying to hide his face in his hands and only barely managing to pull himself together after a moment, and his phone is ringing off the hook in his pocket. Duty before all.

“That’s the President,” he says, wiping his eyes, embarrassed to pieces but too tired to care too much. “Or the Sec-Def. One of them.”

“Huh?” says Mitchell, now draping an arm across Rooster’s shoulders.

“Yeah, we might have started World War Three.” 

“We!” says Rooster. “It was all Maverick. And are you surprised?”

“You two,” Kazansky says, wiping away the last of his tears and shaking his head. “Both of you. Your asses in the hospital bay, now. Especially you, Maverick. Rooster, I’ll talk to you later. I promise.” He’s getting called away by Cyclone, who’s doing the professional equivalent of tugging on his sleeve, and by the President, who won’t stop fucking calling, and by the Sec-Def and the threat of nuclear holocaust.

“Where the hell is he going?!” Mitchell demands to know from Warlock. “He needs to eat, get some sleep, look at him, he—”

“It’s alright, Pete,” Kazansky says, already heading off. “You did the hard part. Now it’s my turn. Sometimes, you know, saving the world involves saving you first.”

“Bullshit,” says Mitchell, already shaking as the adrenaline crash hits him. No time. Running out of time to say it.

So Kazansky says: “I need to go stop a war. Your ass, sick bay, now. Get those ribs checked out. I love you. And for Christ’s sake, Mitchell, take a shower. That’s an order.” He picks up the phone as Cyclone leads him back to the war room. “Mr. President, sir, I apologize, I was preoccupied. Okay. Yep, I’m available. If you don’t mind me asking, sir: how bad is it?”

 

 

It’s pretty damn bad. The Russians make public that they’re raising their nuclear armament level; the ICBMs are functional and standing-by; ground forces are ready to enter the Ukraine (more than they already did two years ago), ready to enter Finland, of all fucking places; North Korea and China are taking a stance; the United States is telling NATO to back off but also making clear that they’re in the right; the Saudis jack up the price of a barrel of oil to a-hundred-and-fifty-two-fucking-dollars, and the economy takes a nose-dive last seen in 1929. “These economic downturns are always temporary,” the Treasury Secretary is informing the war room; the entire cabinet is calling in. “It’s my opinion that everything will level out in a week or so.”

“I sure hope so,” says Secretary van der Poel, “because I just lost a third of my savings in the stock market.”

“There might not be a stock market tomorrow to worry about,” says Commander of the Atlantic Fleet Johansson.

“Alright, Jim,” Kazansky snaps, “that’s enough fear-mongering for today. What can we do about it?”

Kazansky’s awake for another thirty-six hours, making frantic phone calls and directing the Pacific fleet to move into a defensive stance, and for not a minute of those thirty-six hours does he get to see Mitchell. Maybe he should sort out his priorities, but he’s also too tired to care.

“I mean, it’s just shocking,” he’s telling the President, sleep-deprived beyond belief, to the point of migraines and nausea. SDBAR. “Just shocking. I mean, you remember when he took over in two-thousand, don’t you? Everyone thought, this is it, they’re our friends now. What the hell happened?”

“Yeah, well,” says the President, sounding just as tired. “Tom, you speak Russian, don’t you?”

“I do, sir.”

“I’m gonna send you a phone number. Russian head of the Ministry of Defense. I think maybe he’ll listen to you.”

He looks down at his cell phone, waiting for the secure message, and sees a headline notification that China has declared its nukes to be fully functional, as well. They’re running out of time, he thinks, a little hysterical, which is why he doesn’t even think about what he wants to say before he dials the long number the President sends him.

“Petroshenko,” comes the voice on the other end of the phone, “kto eta?”

“Mr. Petroshenko,” Kazansky says, sliding into Russian like a second skin. “I don’t think we’ve met, but I have met your friend Andrei Turgenev, ambassador to the United States. He’s a nice fellow. My name is Tom Kazansky. Have you heard of me?”

Petroshenko pauses for a long minute, then laughs, low and kind of evil. “Kazansky,” he says. “The Iceman. You are the reason we are all in this mess.” His English is pretty good, but Kazansky decides to keep it in Russian to be respectful.

“That’s right, I am,” Kazansky says. “I take responsibility for it.”

“How did you come by this number?” says Petroshenko. 

“That’s classified,” says Iceman. Eta sekretna.

“Well, I have to say, I commend you,” says Petroshenko. “It was a good mission. Very well executed. Your pilots are, how do you say, top-notch.”

“That’s correct.”

“You killed a hundred servicemen, destroyed the capacity to enrich enough uranium to power a dozen nuclear power plants, and ruined no less than fifteen next-generation fighter jets.”

Iceman says, “But you and I both know you weren’t planning on using that uranium for power plants. It would be commendable if you were, but an under-the-table deal with Iran to jumpstart their nuclear program certainly isn’t building renewable energy sources.”

Petroshenko says, “Actually, Kazansky—do you have a patronymic?”

“My father was Thomas, so you can call me Tom Tomovich.” 

Petroshenko clearly isn’t sure if that’s a joke; he probably knows about a hundred Ivan Ivanoviches, so he pauses for a second and says, “Actually, Tom Tomovich, I don’t think you have any idea what we were planning to do with it. In fact, the reason we kept it a secret is because we knew the United States of America would do what the United States of America always does: overreact; take it upon yourself to save the world; to be, as you might put it, judge, jury, and executioner.”

“You’re right, sometimes we do,” Iceman acknowledges, but he’s got so much secondhand embarrassment he can’t stand it anymore. He’s mortified for the guy. “You know we caught the shitbag who sold you the schematics, right? He’s rotting in prison now.”

“Gitmo?” says Petroshenko after a second, rightly curious.

“Sure. Probably. In any case, please don’t pretend I’m stupid. Let’s respect one another, shall we? It’s disappointing, because when I was a kid I was looking forward to an era of good relations with Russia—my homeland, you know.” (And he’s bluffing; he can’t remember if his family is from Slovakia or Poland.) “But you broke the rules. You understand that, don’t you? You broke the rules, and there are consequences; you’ve faced them now, and you don’t have to make it worse.”

“I must confess, Tom Tomovich, I’m looking at our intelligence file on you right now,” Petroshenko says. “It says here you break the rules all the time. It says here you like to make excuses, ask for favors, keep certain secrets from your commanding officers. Oh. Some rather embarrassing secrets. A pilot! That’s interesting. What Tomcat wants Tomcat gets. An ice-cold killer, all the way down, thirty years back. I hope you don’t mind me saying, I’m not going to take my ethical advice from you.”

“I never said I was a good man,” Iceman says, refusing to be distracted. “Never. But I am a good Admiral. And as an Admiral, all I do all day is sit around making the hard decisions no one else wants to make. I don’t want you to think that authorizing this mission was an easy decision, because it wasn’t. It was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever faced in my life. But choosing not to go to war with Russia now that it’s over—well, Mr. Petroshenko, let’s just say I hope that’s as easy a decision for you as it is for me.”

Petroshenko is silent on the other end. Then, curtly, in Russian, he says, “Thank you, Tom Tomovich.” And then there’s the dial tone.

“Well?” says Cyclone after a moment. “You get through to him?”

“I don’t know,” Iceman says. “I really don’t know.” He stares at Cyclone stupidly. “Do you think you could relieve me for maybe an hour or two?”

Cyclone nods. He’s already had a four-hour break, and Iceman’s bitterly jealous that Cyclone is sporting three stars instead of four. “Go for it.”

 

 

He brushes his teeth for the first time in a day, takes a shower for the first time in three, and only when he comes out does he notice that Mitchell’s asleep in his bed though it’s not even 2100 hours. 

Mitchell stirs when Kazansky slides in next to him. “There he is,” he says sleepily.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” Kazansky murmurs into his hair. Mitchell smells like soap and shaving cream. He kisses the back of Mitchell’s neck once, and then twice, just because he can. “You’re supposed to be at Pearl Harbor, getting your wings stripped and your ass handed to you.”

“That already happened. That was yesterday. Then no one was looking, so I got back on board.”

“Maverick, you piece of shit,” Kazansky sighs. 

“I heard they’re gonna promote me to Admiral, though, one final fuck-you. Ground me forever before kicking me out.”

“That’s what I was gonna propose. Glad we see eye-to-eye. You had to retire anyway. Maybe the Blue Angels will take you as their commanding officer.” He’s too tired to be congratulatory. “Pete, my alarm’s gonna wake you up in an hour or so.”

“That’s okay. I’m not the one with the world on my shoulders.”

“You were today,” says Kazansky. “Or yesterday. Or whenever the mission was.” One last kick of adrenaline pounds through him, the last gasp of a dying ember, and he squeezes Mitchell tight, ignoring his hiss of pain. “I thought I lost you both. You have no fucking idea how bad you scared me.”

“I do, actually. I was pretty scared myself.” Pete hesitates. “Tom. Did you mean what you said? On the flight deck?”

He’s so tired. “Oh, God. Are we gonna have to talk about it? Quick, someone re-institute D.A.D.T.”

But Pete’s not laughing.

He’s so tired. Too tired to talk about it now, but too tired to keep up the charade. Too tired to keep playing pretend. Too tired not to take advantage of the second chance he’s been given. “Yeah,” Tom relents. “I did. Don’t expect me to say it again anytime soon. It’s like pulling teeth.”

“It sure is,” Pete says. “Nothing like the movies.” He pauses. “I love you, too. How’re the Russians?”

And Tom’s explaining that mostly they’re real fucking embarrassed, caught with their hand in the cookie jar, and that once they realize it’s okay to be embarrassed and kumbaya and we all want to work together and be friends, everything will be fine, and then he’s passed out cold.

 

 

Everything actually does end up being fine, which is pretty damn typical.



 

 

Chapter Text

Upon retrospect, it seemed nearly impossible that she had gone several decades without stumbling into Secretary Kazansky, especially before he’d been promoted to O-10. Not that Charlie had any desire to meet him again, if she had to be honest; she remembered him as aggressively cocksure, aggravating and abrasive, and yet all the while coldly calculating, eyeing his opponents as though they were pieces of meat to be speared and roasted. Maverick might have grown up eons earlier if it hadn’t been for the Iceman, she thought wryly, looking down at the sheet of paper she’d been handed by a secretary.

  Sec. Kazansky requests info re: Operation Beanstalk. 1100 hrs in Peterbilt 4059.

If she were really honest, she was shocked the Iceman had made it that far up the chain of command; when she remembered her days at TOPGUN she remembered thinking he and Maverick were far too similar for their own good. Neither one would ever want to leave their planes for a life of paperwork and frustration on the ground, she had thought, and was proven right with Maverick, now “retired” as a one-star Admiral (a courtesy promotion) with the Congressional Medal of Honor (for Siberia) and a Congressional gold medal (for becoming an Ace) and an entire family of maneuvers named after him (Maverick maneuver: any ascent or evasive action that exerts a force exceeding seven-point-five Gs). And yet Admiral Tom Kazansky, Secretary of the Navy for over a year now, still plodded along. A land-lubber after all that.

 His office in the Pentagon was small, she knew from experience, compared to the base out in California and the Pacific Fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor, and when she rapped on the door she was surprised to find the Admiral packing things away into boxes: plaques and papers and framed photographs.

 So the rumors were true. The legendary Iceman—one of the greatest Naval officers the country had ever seen—was retiring.

“Secretary Kazansky,” she said, pleasantly enough. “Charlotte Blackwood. I’ve come to brief you on Operation Beanstalk—I’ve myself just come from the base in Warsaw.”

 The Iceman grunted, his back turned to her still. He had good days and bad days, she’d heard, ever since the nine-hour emergency surgery he’d undergone to excise a few metastasized tumors in his throat last year. He hadn’t been able to speak for the better part of six months, and the rumor was that it had coincided perfectly with all this bullshit in Europe, and he had decided—after pointing every American boat and plane on the Pacific towards Vladivostok—it was time to throw in the towel. But today was one of the good days, Charlie was sure, hearing the healthy weight of the words in his throat:

“How’s Warsaw?”

 “Cold,” she said. “Panicked. Preparing for invasion.”

“I’m sure.” When he turned around, she saw that his collar had been buttoned all the way up, nearly touching his chin. She made a point not to look. “So, Operation Beanstalk,” he said.

“My professional opinion, sir, is that the Ukrainian pilots are perfectly capable of learning to fly A-10s and NATO-standard jets. We singled out a team of pilots able and willing to learn—several of them have already been shot out of the sky in their ancient MiGs. Nearly all of them speak and read English, and the California National Guard spokesman assured me that, at this point in time, there’s no soldier in the world more eager to learn than a Ukrainian pilot.” She paused, watching him nod. “That brings me to logistics.”

“I know all about that,” said the Iceman, his voice hard and rough, giving no indication that he recognized her from the days of his youth. There was a gravitas about him he’d never held before, a seriousness, a severity. “We’ve decided to—very discreetly—bring them back to the U.S.—to Nevada, as it so happens, to train them ship-shape. In fact, that’s why I recommended Admiral Mitchell to lead the operation. What I want to know is why Air Force jets—”

“Oh,” she said, smiling a little in frustration, “oh, it was you who dragged Maverick out of retirement.” Of course.

The Iceman did not smile, but Charlie was sure she was supposed to take what he said next as a joke: “He dragged me, kicking and screaming.” He turned back to his boxes and started packing stuff away again. “I’ve found, especially as I’ve gotten older and certain bullet points of my personal life have come to light, I have to make a point of separating my professional opinion and personal opinion where Admiral Mitchell is concerned. So, here I am, Ms. Blackwood, making a point of it: my professional opinion is there’s no one better than Mitchell to lead Operation Beanstalk. He has more teaching hours than the next available three combined.”

“He should be retired,” Charlie said, just now realizing that the Iceman was wearing a wedding ring, opposite his graduation ring from Annapolis. When the hell had the Admiral gotten married? “His posting is breaking about a dozen rules. It shouldn’t have been authorized.”

Finally the Iceman smiled, looking back over his shoulder, his glasses at the tip of his nose. “There’s my personal opinion,” he said. “But you try dissuading Maverick from doing what he thinks is right.”

Charlie narrowed her eyes and said with a smile, “I dissuaded him from quitting TOPGUN in eighty-six.”

He really was ice-cold, she understood, the only indication of his realization a slight shift forward, turning back to her and looking her in the eye. “I apologize, I didn’t recognize you,” he said. “Call sign: Charlie. Of course. I should have realized.”

“It’s been a while. And I guess I should take it as a compliment to my teaching skills—my student, Secretary of the Navy.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, tipping his head respectfully. “Turns out, doing things by the books gets results sometimes. My longest-standing argument with Admiral Mitchell.” 

“I’ve heard you’ve done some things off the books, where he’s concerned,” she said. Then, a little confused by the look of uncomfortable resignation on his face, she clarified: “Some guys in D.C. call you his guardian angel. Covered his ass more than a few times, I’ve heard, against orders.”

The Iceman looked down at the plaque in his hand, seeming to come to some conclusion. “I guess,” he said slowly, “Pete kinda wears a man down. After a while you start wanting to do things his way.”

He gestured to his desk, and she crossed over, thinking she was just meant to drop off her manila envelope and hit the hallway running, but she stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the line of photographs lining the edge, facing away from the door.

Photos of Pete Mitchell, almost all of them, some of them with the Iceman, some without. Some with a kid that must’ve been Goose’s—everyone in the Navy knew Maverick had practically raised Rooster and had eventually trained him in TOPGUN four-odd years behind schedule. Everyone in the Navy—hell, all five branches—had heard the story of Rooster and Maverick’s escape from Siberia in 2016 against all odds. Almost World-War-III. Only now did Charlie stop to wonder how the Iceman had weathered through all that, because if these framed photos were anything to go off, the Iceman and Maverick had raised Rooster together. 

Ah, shit. Of all the people who could tame Maverick.

There was a picture of them shaking hands on an aircraft carrier—she’d seen that one before. A picture of them laughing with a young Rooster in an apple orchard, a bucketful of apples at their feet. A more recent picture of the Iceman and an older woman that must have been his sister, both smiling a little reservedly. A picture of the Iceman and Maverick grinning at each other in the cockpit of a restored WWII-era fighter, wearing Red-Baron-esque caps and goggles and scarves. The Iceman and Maverick with a grown-up Rooster and another pilot Charlie thought she recognized, all wearing tuxedos with tails. Maverick on the verge of laughter, sticking his tongue out towards the Congressional Medal of Honor in his hand as if about to lick it. Maverick and the Iceman smiling in their aviators with that plane behind them, holding a plaque (FIRST PLACE / BEST P-51 / EAA OSHKOSH 2019). A young Maverick giving a half-serious thumbs-up in the cockpit of an F-5. Maverick and the Iceman, all soft smiles and well-tailored suits and someone looking very official standing between them—

She smiled, alighting on the frame in the middle, utilitarian, outwardly unsentimental. Maverick—young and handsome and defiant, shining in his dress whites and officer’s cap, stared back at her. This must have been a picture from just before TOPGUN started. 

 Charlie pointed. “That’s a picture from when I knew him.”

“Oh,” said the Admiral, tugging on his collar a little immaturely, following her finger. He smiled shyly. “I like that one because I didn’t know him then.”

Charlie looked at him, really studied him. “I guess I never did understand Maverick, did I?”

“No,” the Iceman said thoughtfully. “But then again, there are some days I still don’t.”

“It’s funny,” Charlie said, looking over all the photos of Rooster—whom she’d met, and on occasion had watched fly, and whom she now understood was the perfect combination of his fathers: calculated enough to keep his head on and keep his team safe, daredevil enough to pull any insane maneuver off. “I really did love him.”

“That’s not that funny.”

“Karmically funny,” she said. “But he always did need a wingman to keep his nose pointed forward.”

She held out her hand to him, and, startled into accepting, the Iceman shook it.

“Secretary Kazansky, would you be alright if I offered an opinion that veers dangerously between personal and professional?”

“Affirmative,” he said.

“Rooster’s stationed in the South China Sea, isn’t he?” At the Admiral’s surprised nod, she continued: “Call him out of there. Send him to Nevada with Maverick. And there you go. You’ve got your dream team.” She grinned: “Someone’s gotta keep Maverick in line.”

The Admiral smiled again, and she could already envision Maverick and Rooster raising hell, a whole squadron of Ukrainian fighter pilots learning how to raise hell with them. 

“I’ll take it under advisement,” he said, then looked down at the buzzing cell phone on his desk. “I have to take this.” All business again. 

Charlie dropped her manila folder in the Iceman’s inbox. “Everything you need to know about the Air Force jets is in here,” she said quickly, and started making her way out.

The last thing she saw before she eased the door closed was the Admiral’s pleased little smile as he tucked the phone between his shoulder and his cheek, fingers working to open the file. “Maverick?” he said, and Charlie’d never heard his voice that warm, that quiet. “Is that you? What the hell phone are you calling from?” He left the file forgotten on his desk and headed over to the window, and that was the last of him she saw. “Pete, listen to this: you’ll never guess who I just had to kick outta my office to take your call, and you’ll never guess the idea she had…”

Charlie kept her hand on the doorknob for a moment, then laughed a little to herself, and kept a smile up all the way back to the airport.







“So we’ll argue and we’ll compromise

and realize that nothing’s ever changed. 

For all our mutual experience, 

our separate conclusions are the same. 

 

Now we are forced to recognize our inhumanity; 

our reason co-exists with our insanity. 

And though we choose between reality and madness… 

It’s either sadness or euphoria.”

 

“Summer, Highland Falls.” Billy Joel, 1976.