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Jake’s sunglasses slide down his nose, as his arms get thrown up and out at the sight of the group walking towards him. He’s already down a shirt, and if any of them were the betting kind, probably a drink or two in, too. 

“Welcome to my humble abode!” he calls out. “Grab a beer, grab a chair!” 

“When has anything about him ever been humble?” Rooster murmurs to Phoenix. She snorts and slides her own sunglasses on. 

“C’mon, y’all, we all know he loves the attention,” Bob sighs, glancing between the both of them before pulling back to walk in line with Fanboy. 

“And the company, even if he denies it,” Coyote says, glancing over the group. His voice gets low. Conspiratorial. “He’s been talking about this for months.” 

Everyone had been subject to the texts and the chatter. The repeat invitations after the final Mission debriefs went through. A celebration, Jake had insisted, loudy, until every single pilot said yes. 

Payback tosses his backpack into a chair, claiming another one to slump into. “We are in the middle of fucking nowhere, huh?”

“I think that’s just Texas,” Halo shoots back, glancing around. “Your parents own this place?” she asks Hangman. 

“Family home,” Jake confirms, gesturing to the massive house. “Feel free to change now, if you haven’t. The boat’s down at the dock —“

“You have your own boat?” Fritz says, mouth open a little as he pushes through the glass doors. The place opens up, a blast of perfect air conditioning hitting them all in the face. 

“You have your own dock?” Harvard laughs, peeking inside the grill before turning to the rest of them. “I spy a rich boy.” 

“Says the Ivy,” Fanboy retorts, reaching into Payback’s backpack to rummage around for his trunks. “I need a bathroom, Hangman!” 

“Seresin’s been holding out,” Yale murmurs to Omaha, who glances around the place with a matching smirk. “Bet the snacks are nice, too.” 

Jake lets out a sharp whistle, drawing eyes back toward him. He pushes his sunglasses up and out of his eyes, before giving a bright grin. “Ladies, gentlemen, everything will get settled. For now, grab a beer, grab a snack, and get comfy. Pick out a lifejacket while you’re on it. The S.S. Seresin launches in half an hour!”

“I’m king of the world!” Fanboy yells. Again. 

Payback laughs. Again. 

“Please don’t encourage him,” Coyote sighs. “He’s gonna fall off the damn boat.” 

“And he won’t even be the first,” Phoenix agrees, glancing back towards Yale, who has a towel draped limply over his shoulders, Harvard covering his face to hide his laughter. “We’re in the Navy , guys.” 

“Hangman made the boat rock on purpose,” Omaha says pointedly. “After Yale ate one of the Oreos.” 

“Everyone wants double-stuffed,” Bob says, flipping his clip-on shades down. Payback gives him a thumbs-up, and Bob grins before reclining a bit. “I understand the reasoning.” 

Jake smirks back at the two of them. “And I plead the fifth.” 

“We haven’t even left the dock,” Rooster points out, looking around at the group. “At this rate, someone’s blacking out.” 

Payback glances back toward the house. “With Fritz making the drinks later? Absolutely.” 

Halo looks to Harvard with a pout. “No one heard my that's-what-he-said joke.” He gives her a sympathetic fist bump. 

There’s a begrudging acceptance among the squad that Jake knows how to work a boat. Barely any rough patches, and no one else can match his maneuvers. But there’s another reason they hit the tides early — by the time they make it to where they’re planning on camping out, the place is just starting to get busy. They have it almost all to themselves. 

“How we doin’, kids?” Jake calls out from the captain’s chair, and there’s a chorus of “good” and “great” and only one “slow the fuck down, Jake” from Javy with a glare that makes him put his foot on the gas in answer.

But they all survive. They make it. Cheap beers get popped open, the sun gets real high. Sunscreen gets shared and passed around. Smiles and cheers and stories passed around. It’s a while before someone braves the lake water, but then soon they’re all lounging around on floating tubes and life-jackets.

“It’s not the ocean –” Rooster starts, peeking over his sunglasses. 

“Of course it’s not the ocean,” Fritz says, raising a brow. “There was barely a beach .” 

“Right,” Rooster agrees, sipping on his beer. “It’s not the ocean –” 

“It’s not Fightertown, either,” Omaha hums, sunglasses perched on his nose. “Middle of nowhere.”

Rooster nods, smirking as he glances toward Jake. Maybe he can see the way steam is slowly starting to leak out of his ears. “Like I was saying, it’s not the ocean, or Fightertown, or even California, the greatest place on Earth –”

“Is there a but somewhere?” Jake asks, glaring at the three of them. 

“Oh, so Hangman’s an ass man,” Phoenix says with a smirk on the other side of the group, glancing toward him. “Who would’ve thought?” 

“Anyone who knows him. He’s not exactly subtle, ” Coyote chuckles. He gets a high-five from Payback for the joke. Jake flips them off. 

But ,” Rooster continues, finally, with another wink up at the captain, “this is pretty fun.” 

“Cheers to that,” Fanboy calls out. 

“Cheers to us,” Omaha calls out. “To Dagger!” 

The drinks lift. “To Dagger!” 

It’s their rallying cry.

“I’m gonna have water in my ear for weeks,” Halo bemoans, tossing her head back one more time. “How was that only fifteen seconds?” 

“Time is different out there on the skis,” Fritz murmurs, eyes wide. “Very different.” 

Halo frowns, then reaches out, waves her hand in front of his face. “Concussion protocol?” she asks the group. 

“He’s fine,” Jake insists. “The impact’ll wear off. Who’s next?” 

Rooster looks determined. Pulls on his lifejacket. “If I die, Maverick gets the Bronco,” he grimly tells the team. He gives a sharp salute. Deep breath in. “It’s been an honor serving with you.” 

Phoenix’s leg goes out and kicks, and then Rooster’s yelling and in the water with a sputter. 

“Don’t think, just do!” Fanboy yells to him. 

Rooster scowls, curls flat on his head. “I think I’m gonna kick your ass, Fanboy.” 

"Why me?" 

"Because he's scared of me," Phoenix says with a smirk, lifting her drink. "Have a good ride!" 

The sun starts to sink in the sky, no longer lingering at the highest point. Jake’s shoulders are a bright shade of pink. But he grins at the group around him, sprawled on seats and on the floor of the boat, lazing back and taking in the sun. 

“Mickey’s gonna burn,” Jake hears Bob says to Payback. He glances over, watching as he starts nudging the other man with his foot. Payback smirks at the snoozing Fanboy, before nodding to the deck.

“I’ve got aloe in my pack.”

“I left mine on shore — can I share with y’all?” 

“Don’t even need to ask.” 

Rooster and Phoenix lift from their seats, move toward the captain’s chair before sitting down beside Jake. He smiles at the sight of them behind his shades, then starts the process of taking them back in. 

“You still good with grilling?” he asks Rooster, looking back toward the bow. Halo and Yale sit huddled over his phone, while Omaha and Coyote duel Harvard and Fritz in rock, paper, scissors over the last can of beer. 

“Sure,” Rooster says, taking a long swig from his can. “As long as I can pick the movie.” 

“We’ll throw some options into a hat,” Jake says, “but I promised Phoenix she’d get final say before the fireworks start.” 

“You think there’ll be fireworks?” she asks him, brow raised. Her leg crosses over Bradley’s to catch the ray of sunshine beating down on them. “Isn’t there a rule against them?”

“Someone always shoots off fireworks,” he tells them. “It’s summer in Texas. Someone smuggled them in.” 

There’s a beat. Jake smirks as he starts up the engine.

“Did you smuggle them in?” Phoenix suddenly says. 

“Is it smuggling when they’re already here?” 

There’s a roar of flame, and Jake winces at the sight of it flaring up through the gaps of the grill. Rooster’s eyes are bright, from more than the drink in his hand. 

“Please, please , be careful,” Jake sighs, before speaking through gritted teeth. “That grill is worth more than your rent.” 

“What’s that?” Rooster says. Another poke, and some more fire flares up. 

Jake grimaces. Takes a step back before shaking his head. “All we need are the burgers to be cooked . So if your eyebrows burn, that’s on you .” 

There’s no verbal response, but Rooster winks. What is with him and winking today? Jake scowls before turning away, glancing around the deck as the others mill around. 

Phoenix and Halo murmur to each other, mixed drinks dangling precariously from their fingers. Phoenix glances over to Jake, gives him a smirk before murmuring something to Halo. 

“Ladies,” he calls out, wanting to put a stop to any gossip that he doesn’t get to partake in. “Having a good time?” 

“You’re a good host, Hangman,” Halo tells, lifting her drink. “Thank your mom for us.” 

“But don’t let it go to your head,” Phoenix tacks on, pushing her sunglasses up into her hair before tapping her glass. “And tell Fritz to keep ‘em coming!” 

Jake bows, deep and dramatic, making the girls chuckle again, before he smirks and moves on. 

Coyote, Harvard, and Yale rope him into a game of darts, because they like losing, he supposes. He throws his darts, they throw pieces of fruit at him when he hits the mark every time, and by the end of a round Coyote is waving him away and telling him to go show off for someone else, before turning back to Harvard and Yale and showing off for them himself. 

Jake smirks and rolls his eyes before moving to the bar. 

Coyote hits a bullseye. 

Fritz and Fanboy move in tandem around the makeshift bar as Jake moves up to them. Omaha, Payback, and Bob watch them work, and the television above their heads airs something with a gratuitous shirtless beach volleyball scene. He doesn’t ask where the little umbrellas come from, or what the movie is, instead taking a sip of a drink that looks already made. 

“Wait, Hangman -” Payback tries, but it’s too late. Already down the hatch. 

“Holy shit,” he gasps out. Chokes a little on the hit of alcohol. Well. More like the gut punch. “Is there any mixer in that?” 

“Not yet,” Fanboy says with a smirk. “Fritz puts it in. But I don’t really think it needs it.” 

“It needs it,” the three men on the stools say at the same time. 

Fritz frowns. “You said my drinks were good!” 

“Yours are fine,” Omaha said, nodding toward the backseater. “Fanboy’s taste like gasoline.” 

“But good gasoline,” Fanboy retorts, lifting his own drink with a grin. “That high ethanol shit.” 

“You’re gonna go blind,” Payback tells him, bringing his hand down so that Fritz can pour some orange juice in his concoction. “Then who’s gonna watch my six?” 

“You’ve got two other WSOs,” Fanboy says, laughing before nodding to Omaha and Bob. “Right here, at your leisure. Let me get trashed.” 

“You can get trashed and still not burn off all your taste buds,” Bob tells him, and nods to Fritz again. 

“Let us treat you right,” Fritz teases. Taking Fanboy’s drink and adding a splash of grenadine, something else that looks like orange juice. Where the fuck did they get grenadine? “Let us help you treat yourself right.” 

“You’re all too kind,” Fanboy says, and wipes away a fake tear. “Taking care of me.” 

Jake leans down to murmur in Payback’s ear. “Make sure he doesn’t black out too early.”

Payback slaps him on the back. “We’ve got him. Relax. Grab a drink. Sit down.” 

“Yeah, your pacing is making me tense,” Omaha tells him, sliding a beer over. “We’re not on the water. We’re grownups. Take off the host hat for a bit. Relax.”

Jake concedes that point. Everyone has eyes on them. Everyone has a buddy. They’re all adults and can manage a few hours of drinking without him keeping watch. And if not, well. His mama made sure the place had nice bathrooms. 

“I’m gonna make sure Rooster isn’t burning anything to the ground,” he says, taking the beer. 

“Phoenix’ll help you out, I’m sure,” Bob says mildly, smirking. 

“What?” Jake asks, brow raised. 

“What?” Bob replies. Still smirking. 

Everyone has full bellies, eventually. Once Rooster stops fucking around and gets some burgers on the grill, everyone is satisfied. Dessert consists of a new drink menu concocted by the self-proclaimed bartenders, and tiny Blue Bell ice creams that everyone takes at least three of. 

Everyone is tipsy. Everyone is smiling. Everyone is… here.

Mission accomplished. 

“I’ll trade you a chocolate for one of your vanilla,” Harvard says to Yale, who raises a brow. 

“I fought hard for this vanilla. Halo almost didn’t let me have it.” 

“Just one,” Harvard pleads. “I’ll do the dishes this whole week, for it.” 

“… okay. Deal.” 

At the bar, Omaha drools a little as his head falls forward, a short nap to regain any energy the sun sucked away. Fritz takes a moment to lazily dab at his mouth, which startles the WSO awake. 

He blinks at Fritz. “Wha’sat?” 

Fritz snorts. “You drool when you sleep. Just helping you out.” 

Omaha blinks. “I’m cute when I sleep?” 

“Never mind, you're delirious. Go back to snoozing.” 

By this point the sun is almost completely set, but the lights on the deck give them plenty of shine. Jake still has his sunglasses on, perched on his nose as he claims one of the deck chairs and takes another swig of a beer that might be someone else’s. 

Suddenly Phoenix seems to materialize beside him. She pokes him on the shoulder. “Hey. That yours?” 

When he realizes she’s pointing at the beer, he offers it over without hesitation. She quickly takes a drink, then two before perching on the arm of the chair, her legs warm against his. Hands the beer back. 

“You havin’ fun?” he asks, giving a grin. The drink makes his words a little slurred, which just means any G he planned on adding to the end of a word is long gone. 

“I can admit when I’m having a good time,” she concedes. He blinks up at her, smiling as she hands him his beer back, almost empty. “Even when it’s your fault.” 

“Especially when,” Jake retorts. He gets flipped off for his efforts. 

Suddenly Rooster is there, too. On his other side, close enough he can feel heat radiating from his body. “That’s my beer,” he says plainly, and Jake chuckles as he feels Phoenix’s glare. 

“You said it was —“

“I said no such thing,” he laughs, and then holds the beer out to Rooster. “Here, take it. I’ve gotta set up the light show.” He starts to stand, but then Phoenix has a hand on his arm. 

The beer is removed from his fingers. “Hangman,” Phoenix says, “while I do love a good show, no way we’re letting you around explosives right now.” 

“I’m fine,” Jake tells them. “It’s part of the day.” 

“The day’s been great,” she retorts. “Trust, people had a good time.” 

“Forget the fireworks,” Rooster agrees, nodding around to everyone scattered outside. “Let’s get everyone changed, get settled. It’s winding down, we could do a movie or something inside.” Definitely close enough to nudge Jake with his hip, he does so, gesturing toward the door. “C’mon.” 

“But, I said I would,” he tells them, glancing back and forth between them. “Go inside if you want, but there’s so much night left.” 

He starts to walk across the deck, bare feet slapping on the wood. 

“Jake,” Phoenix shouts, and it makes his neck tingle. He looks up, sees her nod inside. “You did good. We had fun. We’re having fun. Relax. Let’s all… relax.” 

He sees everyone, then. Omaha and Fritz chuckling at the bar, tasting a drink back and forth as Fritz adds more insane mixers to it; Payback, Bob, and Fanboy talking around the fire pit, Fanboy’s arms gesturing wildly as the others smile at him; Harvard and Yale splitting their ice creams, half and half and half and half and half; Javy and Halo taking turns throwing darts at a picture of Cyclone. 

Rooster and Phoenix, eyes on him, both smiling, both certain.

Everyone is having fun. 

“Okay,” he finally says. Hands up in surrender. “Movie night, then. I can dig it. What movie?” 

“Cabin in the Woods,” Phoenix says immediately. Rooster recoils. 

“You’re insane.” 

“Just a suggestion.” 

“It’s not even October!” 

“We’ll figure somethin’ out,'' Jake interrupts, lifting his hands. “Let’s corral everyone, get ‘em in.” 

The next morning, as the sun just barely peeks over the horizon, Jake wakes up with a headache, some dry mouth, and a fuzzy recollection. 

He doesn’t remember much of the tail end. Remembers agreeing on a movie, remembers popcorn and candy and throwing things at the screen. Remembers laughter and warmth, and then sleep. Hard, hard sleep. 

He blinks. Glances around. No one ended up making it to a bed, he realizes, as he takes account of all around him. Payback, Bob, and Fanboy snooze on a few blankets on the floor, cushioned by couch pillows. Javy snores on the loveseat with Harvard and Yale, legs tangled with theirs and his head so far back it looks painful. Halo, Fritz, and Omaha all curl around and on the recliner, secured in place with sheets and well-placed pillows. 

And he, somehow, snagged the couch, with Rooster and Phoenix beside him. Rooster’s long frame takes up a good chunk of one side, but his arm stays curled around Phoenix on his left , and Jake realizes that their thighs and tangled legs are serving as his pillow and mattress, hand lightly gripping Phoenix’s calf as his legs take the rest of the cushions. 

Her hand is still in Jake’s hair. Rooster’s fingers are on his side. 

He looks to the kitchen. Blinks as he remembers his plan. Full breakfast, cooked to perfection, to impress and awe and service the Dagger squadron. To prove something to them, he supposes. To apologize, to show him what he can do. 

And then Rooster’s hand squeezes his side as he tries to move. Phoenix whispers something in her sleep. 

Everyone else seems comfortable, seems cozy. God forbid Jake disturbs that in a world where good sleep and good friends are hard to come by. 

“Relax,” they had said. “You did good.” 

He thinks he believes it. 

He thinks he can sleep a few hours more. 

Then breakfast.