Tourism and Destinations (Neither Compare to Journeys or Friendships) - ToukoJalorda003 (2024)

In essence, it wasn’t that hard to dress up and make a phenomenal appearance for appearance’s sake.

Jake knew that. He always had.

He’d reveled in any occasion that he turned heads - and that was rather often, in his opinion.

Ever since he’d been a kid, his father had been the real family stickler for appearances. He couldn’t count the number of times that he’d been told what to do, how to act, what to wear - really, anything that affected his family’s image.

If he was going to be an embarrassment…well.

He wasn’t an embarrassment, if he had to put it that way.

Even as a teenager, he’d never forgotten what a nice outfit or a bit of swagger and charm could pull off if he needed it to, if that was what would keep everything in order.

So by the time he’d reached adulthood, the point was so ingrained within him that he hardly thought it mattered - most of the time - that he had a tendency to peaco*ck.

Who cared?

Most of his coworkers and fellow pilots thought he was a bit of an asshole, which wasn’t exactly untrue. A pompous prick? Sure, alright.

He’d never claimed to have had the healthiest of coping mechanisms when it came to escaping his father’s iron grasp on family image. What he did know, though, was that he was meticulous in his appearance.

Uniform perfectly pressed, no wrinkles to be had, hair smoothed back into a signature swoosh with minimal interference from anything and anyone -


So he could certainly understand why someone would want to look as polished as they felt, but even so.

He’d long since grown accustomed to using his trademarked Seresin charm to look as effortless as he wanted to - it was far easier than facing the truth, at any rate.

If he had to admit just how vulnerable he was whenever those appearances fell…well. Again.

He kept up appearances like it was his f*cking job.

It really wasn’t any wonder that he walked around with that aloof, assholish attitude, in his opinion. If that was the part of him that the others thought they saw, he wasn’t going to correct them.

(He was plenty rude, after all. They weren’t wrong.)

Besides, it kept them from asking questions.

That was perfect.

He’d rather they didn’t know about his father’s strict-as-f*ck manner of dealing with him and his cousins when they stepped just one inch out of line, made a negative impression on anyone - tarnished their family name.

He’d rather they never met his family at all, frankly, aside from his doll of a mother - God rest her soul - and since they couldn’t do that…

Aside from Javy, he wanted no one to know how much he’d cried when his father had inevitably stripped him of his name like he wasn’t born with it, like it wasn’t still printed on his chest every damn day.

It just wasn’t worth it.

…If they wanted to think all Seresin’s were posh, arrogant dicks, they certainly could. It was how he felt, anyways.

(They weren’t wrong. But he wasn’t a Seresin anymore - not really, not when it mattered. So his attitude was all his own.)

(He was breaking his father’s only rule at the same time that he upheld it, ruining their reputation by never even speaking with them. It worked for him, even if Javy insisted that he try something healthier, like some goddamn therapy.)


All that was to say, of course, was that he hadn’t exactly left a good impression on any of the pilots that he went to flight school with, exactly.

Javy was his only real friend from flight school, and that was only because they’d bunked together - there were only so many ways he could disguise his red face and bloodshot eyes after a family call as allergies, frankly.

And Javy wasn’t an idiot, nor was he heartless.

He appreciated Coyote all the more for his relentless efforts to stick by his side, even when he hadn’t made it particularly easy.

It meant all the more to him when they ended up going to Top Gun together, and he’d instantly ruined several things at once.

One of which, of course, was his budding friendship with Natasha Trace - Phoenix, of all callsigns, and he didn’t disagree - with a poorly timed comment about her flying with another recruit.

She didn’t take well to the insult, and took the insult to her friend even more poorly than the insult to her own pride.

Given how hard she’d worked to get where she was, it had almost been a surprise, but not really.

The angry, almost ruthless, cunning man that he’d insulted - the one that Phoenix had defended so fiercely - had snapped back with an insult of his own so harsh that he still couldn’t remember what had been said.

All he remembered from that interaction were two distinct things.

One of which was the man’s name - Bradley Bradshaw wasn’t the most creative of names, even if it did stick out in his mind as vividly as the stupid mustache on the guy’s face.

The other thing he remembered, just as clearly, was how furious Bradshaw seemed - at just about everything.

When Bradshaw was angry, he was so locked-on, so in tune to everything around him that he was a f*cking phenomenon in a plane.

He’d learned that first hand, after both of them had been pitted against each other in an exercise.

At the time, he’d wanted to be pissed off that Bradshaw had nearly beaten him.

He hadn’t been. He’d been ever-so-slightly impressed, if only begrudgingly. No one could take points from him so easily, not even Javy.

But as soon as they were on the ground, that all changed.

Bradshaw still looked like he hated him, of course - must’ve been the insult against Phoenix, or maybe just his arrogant attitude, or maybe a bit of both - and that didn’t seem like it would change.

The rage, though…the focus was gone.

As soon as Bradshaw had disengaged, it was like the killer instinct had f*cked off right along with him.

He didn’t understand.

How did this asshole - this f*cker that had nearly beaten him in a dogfight, of all things - go from being one of the better pilots he’d seen to this unmotivated, almost skittish pilot?

(It wasn’t until later, when he’d seen the pictures of Nick ‘Goose’ Bradshaw on the walls, that he’d understood.)

But it didn’t really matter why.

If Bradshaw didn’t get his sh*t together, he’d die up there. Everyone knew that much.

Any pilot worth their salt knew that if they stopped to f*cking think, if they didn’t trust what instincts they’d honed for themselves over the years, they’d be dead before they could ever even register that they’d been hit.

It wasn’t that hard to understand.

Honestly, though, it must have been a novel point for Bradshaw, if he couldn’t get his sh*t together.

…So he did something that he wasn’t proud of, in Top Gun and even afterwards.

Any time he saw Bradshaw, he riled the man up to the point of rage, made absolute certain that he was laser-focused before a hop.

Unfortunately, the target of said focus tended to always be on him - undoubtedly a result of the taunting, he knew - but he didn’t care.

What could he say?

Deep down, appearances aside, he was a selfish man.

He didn’t want to see one of his own pilots burn in.

He didn’t really want to envision the dedication, the skill, all go right down the drain. He didn’t want to picture the sweetness that Bradshaw showed to Phoenix and the others as something that would fade. He didn’t want to never see that f*cking handsome face again, mustache be damned.

…Because yeah, alright, he had eyes.

It was a shame that Bradshaw was more likely to bite his tongue off than return any move he made. He certainly would’ve tried his luck if the scenario were different.

Be that as it may, it wasn’t different.

But at least Bradshaw was alive, that way. It didn’t matter if Bradley wanted to kill him - they both had to stay alive for that to happen.

It was more than enough for him.

(Javy had been on the receiving end of one too many rants about that subject. One minute, he’d been frustratedly waxing poetic about the guy’s piloting skills, and the next he was detailing the way he wanted to bend Bradshaw in half over the nearest pool table - or be bent, he didn’t have a preference. Javy had listened anyways, much to his appreciation.)

(He was still apologetic.)

His only redeeming grace was that he’d stopped taunting when it had been serious.

Bradshaw had done everything right - he’d stopped doubting himself, stopped chasing ghosts and finally started just trusting himself - but he’d still ended up in an old F-14 at the end of their mission.

Mav - bless his heart, actually, and he meant that sincerely - was one hell of a f*cking legend, but even he couldn’t get the two of them out of that one.

So he hadn’t even considered the consequences when he’d asked permission to launch after them, and had been denied.

Had he gotten permission eventually?


It didn’t matter.

He’d thought that Bradshaw had been dead the first time he’d asked, and he’d been near hysterical, appearances thrown by the wayside.

It had been his worst fears brought to life, and he’d hated every second of it.

But then, maybe he’d learnt all the wrong things from his father, after all. Javy had been right.

The other pilots - even Phoenix, and wasn’t that something - seemed to appreciate his honesty and raw vulnerability more than any front that he’d ever put up to ruin his family’s reputation.

(Maybe the real way to ruin them was to just be himself. His father had always hated that, anyhow.)

Even Bradshaw had given him a handshake and had a civil conversation with him for once, after that.

It was more than enough for him.

Which left him more than a little surprised that the other Daggers had collectively decided that he wasn’t that bad.

Had that really been all that it took?


Well, he was sure the apology to Phoenix - and Bob, too, given how much he’d tormented them both - probably helped.

She still gave him hell as often as he did the same, but he figured that was par for the course.

He’d never had a sister, but he imagined that this was as close to the real thing as he would ever get.

That had been shocking enough.

He hadn’t been ready for the way Bradshaw seemed to even hesitantly tolerate him, almost extend a genuine offer of friendship.

He wouldn’t say that they were the greatest of friends, exactly.

Mostly, it was more as if they’d both collectively stopped going for the throat. It had been bad enough that he’d actually had to explain why he’d antagonized Bradshaw constantly, he hadn’t wanted to keep rehashing it.

Thankfully, Bradley had agreed - it was maybe the only thing that they had ever collectively decided, but he was thankful.

Bizarrely, Bradshaw had even seemed as if he understood, though he clearly hadn’t agreed with Jake’s methods.

That was alright. He could admit when he’d f*cked up.

Nowadays, their taunting was generally reserved to playful remarks, insults about pool - nothing as harsh and purposefully hurtful as the remarks about family. He still had a particularly sharp throb in his chest every now and then when he considered that one.

He knew it had been a low blow, on his part, to mention Rooster’s father.

He’d just needed something to make Bradshaw focus, and thought that the ends justified the means. Maybe they had, he wouldn’t know.

Now, though, he was still sorry for saying it.

Especially by insinuating that Rooster didn’t have any family - that was harsh, coming from someone who understood more than he wanted to let on.

Bradshaw was the bigger person, and they both knew it.

If someone had made a comment about his family, he wouldn’t have forgiven them in a thousand years, let alone trust them with his life.

And yet, here was Bradshaw, decidedly less angry - family issues being dealt with, and all - and most certainly more gentle.

With everyone, of course, but mostly with him.

They weren’t attacking each other anymore, and he’d stopped purposefully trying to make Bradshaw angry intentionally.

He knew the deterioration of their rivalry into something bitter had always been his fault, but knowing it and seeing it were two different things.

Now, unlike when they met, Bradshaw was more willing to humor his jokes, to laugh off a comment instead of trying to bash his head in.

It was a welcome change, but that didn’t mean anything.

After all, how much lower could he sink, implying that Mav had killed Goose?

Worse still, that Bradshaw’s father had been killed by the man that had taken him in, afterwards - that had been what he’d insinuated.

It didn’t matter how much he apologized, or how many times Bradley shrugged it off.

He felt vaguely sick every time he thought about it.

Regardless, it didn’t change the fact that he was pleasantly surprised at being wrong - that Mav was still part of Bradshaw’s life.

(Not just Mav - Admiral Kazansky himself, too, though ‘Ice’ was far more common in their circle - and wasn’t that just a laugh? He never imagined that he’d be calling the commander of the pacific fleet by his callsign’s nickname, either.)

Granted, Mav treated them all like family, in a way.

Most likely, it had something to do with how the guy had never married, had never had children of his own - adopted baby Bradshaw aside - and now considered them young enough to be his kids.

…Not that Mav was wrong, exactly.

He’d certainly been told that he acted like a child enough times, when he’d finally stopped acting like an asshole - or even when he did.

So was it a surprise that he got an invitation to Mav’s wedding?

Just a little.

But considering that the rest of their new squadron got invited too, he didn’t find it all that shocking.

(He still did, and he was lying to himself. Even if Mav was just being polite, that was worlds more accepting than his own family had been, and that should have been a sign more than anything.)

It didn’t stop him from staring at the printed invite as soon as he got to the Hard Deck, though, having yanked it from his uniform pocket. He’d stashed it there days ago, still reeling from the surprise that he’d been lying about feeling, and hadn’t bothered to remove it.

He’d called Mav to RSVP weeks ago, but it still didn’t feel real.

As it was, the conversation had mostly gone as he’d expected.

He’d said something like, ‘Hey old man, heard you’re getting hitched! Shame about that single lifestyle, huh?’

And Mav had laughed.

‘Nah, I think I’m long overdue for something like this. Ice and I have been hiding this for…oh God. Thirty years now?’

‘Jesus,’ he’d responded, only managing not to flinch in surprise by virtue of the invitation clutched in his hand. ‘No f*ckin’ wonder y’all ain’t subtle anymore. Ya deserve that much.’

A pause, and then, ‘I appreciate that.’

…So he’d confirmed that he’d be attending, and that had been that.

(He’d never told Mav that he, of all people, could understand hiding who he was - least of all his sexuality, but that part too. Of course Mav and Ice deserved this much. If they wanted a goddamn wedding after hiding their relationship from the brass for thirty years, they deserved the grandest f*cking wedding known to man.)

And now he was locked into visiting Hawaii in just two days, only months after having tenuously repaired his relationships with his other pilots. If there was a better time to do it, he didn’t think he’d ever seen one.

Granted, he’d never complain about a free trip - bless Admiral Kazansky for refusing to make their guests pay, even if twelve of said guests were surrogate children in the form of naval aviators and could have afforded it, probably - but even so. He couldn’t imagine going to a wedding while the others still hated him.

At least they were past it, now.

Not that it stopped him from staring at the picture on the front of the invite as he stood in Penny’s bar.

It wasn’t a particularly unusual picture, all things considered.

Just…it was clear why they had chosen that picture specifically as the front of a card to display their love.

Because it was incredibly obvious, from the way Mav’s eyes crinkled and his smile shone as mischievously as it always did, that he was in love with Admiral Kazansky. It was even more obvious that the feeling was reciprocated, from how Ice’s little smile looked equally fond and exasperated - but mostly fond, and incredibly soft.

He’d never had anything like that.

He wanted it - good Lord, did he want that, he didn’t think he’d ever longed for something as much as he wanted what Mav and Ice had - but he’d never been fortunate enough to experience it.

So was it wrong of him to wish, on nights that he found himself more lonely than normal, that he had someone by his side? Someone dependable, someone kind and trustworthy. Someone who would take his sass and attitude and snap it back, tit for tat?

Was that so wrong? He didn’t think so.

…Was it wrong that the person that fit those traits was usually Bradley Bradshaw?

That, of course, was a whole different question.

It wasn’t as if he thought that the others would mind if they knew - Payback and Fanboy were in a relationship, for God’s sake, and they were attending their instructor’s wedding with his husband. That wasn’t the problem.

The problem was the fact that, somewhere along the line, he’d become unfortunately infatuated with Bradley’s character right along with his unfairly good looks.

In and of itself, that wasn’t an issue.

He had no problems admitting that he found the dark brown eyes as attractive as the mustache he often said he despised. He didn’t mind being honest and saying that he adored Bradshaw’s kindness as well as his ruthless calculating mind - the one that forbade him from being a pushover.

…And dear God. Bradley’s abs and hips were going to kill him, if he had to spend one more minute in a room with Bradshaw’s shirt off. Unfortunately, that was often - he wanted nothing more than to take his tongue and drag it down until Rooster squirmed.

That didn’t matter. He didn’t care if they all knew that.

He only cared that Bradley knew it - or, rather, he didn’t want Rooster to know.

They were already trying to take baby steps in rebuilding a relationship that he’d already ruined once, and he’d been convinced that Bradshaw had hated him beyond repair.

The last thing he wanted to do was damage it again by admitting to wanting to f*ck Rooster until neither of them could walk - or vice versa, whatever Bradshaw wanted.

Worse, he wanted to keep the man beside him in the same way that Mav and Ice did for each other, to keep Bradley safe.

He wanted birthdays and holidays, deployments and off-time. He wanted every single f*cking thing he could get from Bradshaw - if Bradley would allow it - and he wanted Rooster to want him, too.


It wasn’t going to happen, hence why he didn’t want to bring it up.

As it was, he was content enough to keep their budding camaraderie the way it was - so he stood in the back corner of the Hard Deck, near the dartboard.

It brought him a sliver of comfort.

The familiarity of the game - even if he wasn’t actually playing - was something of a crutch that he didn’t need. It had been awhile since he’d actively needed anything to keep him sane when in other people’s company, regardless of how they felt about him.

Keeping up appearances was an incredibly rigorous way to learn to be extroverted, if such a thing was something he had control over, after all.

But it was just days before they had to leave for Hawaii, and Javy had gotten called away.

He’d learned about it earlier, when he’d been packing a bag and waiting to go to the Hard Deck - Javy would likely drive, as he always offered - when his phone had rang.

‘Y’all late or somethin’? Ya don’t gotta call for that, I ain’t got anywhere to be.’

‘Nah,’ Javy’s little sigh had told him more than enough.

‘…Where’re they sendin’ ya?’

He knew well enough that the resignation in Javy’s voice generally meant one of two things - he was sick, or he was getting deployed.

And Javy didn’t sound sick.

‘That’s classified,’ Javy taunted, probably just to be a dick, and Jake had snorted. ‘But I just found out an hour ago.’

‘Don’t let me keep ya, then. Go pack. Love ya, Javes.’

‘Yeah, love you too, man. Have fun at the wedding while I’m gone, alright? Tell Mav I said congrats.’

So now Javy was flying off to God knew where, on deployment instead of with him, on his way to Hawaii for the wedding.

Selfishly, he hoped that Javy had a boring few weeks.

Boring was better than dead.

Even so, it didn’t change the fact that Javy wasn’t with him, and the part of him that wanted to play darts ached like a missing limb.

None of the other members of their squadron were ever particularly jazzed to play darts with him - or pool, if he was being honest - and it should have been an ego boost. He knew damn well that he was incredible. He didn’t need to be reminded.

But he couldn’t exactly play by himself, either, so here he was, flipping a dart between his fingertips instead.

“Hey, Bagman.”


Speak of the f*cking devil.

He would’ve flinched at the quiet approach, but there were only two people in the whole f*cking squadron that called him that - well, three now, if he counted Bob - and one of which was Phoenix.

It wasn’t a female voice, nor was it the soft, almost shy voice that Bob gave off.

Of course not.

He beamed, instinctual, in Bradley’s direction, more than a little surprised to find the guy holding two drinks in his hands.

“Hey, Roo. Fancy a game?”

He held up the dart in invitation, tucking the wedding card back into his uniform pocket. Bradley’s little snort was almost endearing, if not for the weird way he tracked the way the invite disappeared again.

“You’re telling me,” Rooster started, extending a hand with a beer in his direction, “that you haven’t suckered anyone else into playing yet tonight?”

He accepted the beer, grin spreading on his face from ear to ear at the near-exasperation on Bradshaw’s face. He wasn’t actually annoyed - Jake would know, Bradley would certainly tell him - but it made something like a thrill shoot through his stomach anyway.

“Nah,” he tossed the dart, uncaring of where it landed, knowing it would hit where he wanted it to regardless. “Ain’t nobody dumb enough to wander over here and lose. They all seem’ta think it’s a crime to get their ass kicked.”

He was kidding.

Of course he was - he actually liked his other pilot coworkers nowadays. But that didn’t mean he was going to stop teasing.

Especially not Bradshaw.

Because Rooster’s eyes lit with something like a challenge, even if he knew better. It had been what he’d been after for the whole night, even if he had been laying low on the jokes.

“Sure, Bagman. Just move over.”

He acquiesced, and found himself playing darts with a man that was surprisingly unwilling to lose, frankly.

But then, maybe it wasn’t that surprising.

Rooster wasn’t the type to let himself be pushed around - and God, he loved that - so it didn’t matter if he lost. He would still accept Jake’s little competition, anyhow.

His stomach burned molten at the focus in Bradley’s eyes as he threw darts, barely even glancing over. Ordinarily, he might have been miffed at the idea of not having Bradshaw’s eyes on him, but he found it hard to care.

“So long as ya don’t mind me bein’ the best, that is.”

Bradley’s little eye roll would have signified annoyance - once. From the way Rooster just fiddled with the dart in his hand, though, it seemed to be more of a stall tactic.

Bradshaw was full of those, or, at least, he used to be. Not so much anymore.

So what the hell was wrong?

…And maybe it was because he was distracted, but Bradley’s sudden focus was gone as soon as it had appeared - it made him an unfortunately easy target.

Bradshaw lost almost as fast as he had expected.

(Almost. He wouldn’t admit that Bradley was better than he’d remembered, from before their relationship had gone to sh*t. They weren’t exactly the best of friends now, but this tentative friendship on its own was still the closest thing he had to a genuine connection with Bradshaw.)

When the fidgeting didn’t stop even after the game was over, he simply leaned against the wall again, conveniently blocking the dartboard from anyone else that might have tried to approach.

“A’right, Roo. Spill.”

Bradley startled so badly - so viscerally, dark eyes finally meeting his own - that he flinched, beer sloshing over the top of the bottle in his hand and over his knuckles.

He did not want to lick Bradshaw’s whole hand.



“C’mon, I ain’t stupid,” he grinned, pleased when all Bradley did was raise an eyebrow. “You’d rather spend your time with Phoenix, wouldn’t ya?”

“I didn’t say - ”

“Ya don’t need to.”

Bradley blinked, before rolling his eyes again, face averted ever so slightly as he took a swig of beer.

If he didn’t know any better, he might have said that Bradley’s face looked a little pink.

But he did know better, and he was fooling himself.

“I don’t hate you, Seresin. Not anymore. You know that.”

“Do I, Roo?”

“You should,” Bradshaw’s pointed look implied that Jake really was an idiot if he believed that, even if he insisted otherwise.

But really, he knew the truth.

He knew what Bradley’s anger felt like - he knew what the sharp, hot rage felt like as it cracked into his chest, as the insults and physicality washed over him like a second skin.

This wasn’t that. It never would be.

So -

“Yeah, ‘course I do. Don’t get your panties in a twist, Roo, I’m just kiddin’. You haven’t hated me for weeks now, have ya?”

That was the truth.

He wouldn’t lie and say otherwise - particularly not when Rooster just studied him for a moment, and then nodded.

“Good. Glad we could clear that up,” Bradshaw slumped against the wall next to him, seemingly having been drained of what little energy he had left, not even responding to the could-have-been taunt.


“I meant it, though,” he continued. “Ya look…”

“What, like sh*t? Thought you’d have a more creative insult for me, Bagman.”

“Well, sure, but now ain’t the time, wouldn’t ya say? We’d be here for hours.”

He winked, and felt something akin to relief and pride mix in his chest at the way Bradley only huffed, a semi-amused sound that punched straight to his heart.

“Nah, just meant that you seem tired,” he offered instead.

Bradshaw really did look exhausted, the longer he stared. The man’s eyes were dark, with hardly any light, and there were lines beneath that portrayed just how tired he really must have felt. The energy that Bradshaw usually had was dimmed beyond comparison, and he hated it.

He didn’t want to see Bradley like that.

Rooster just hummed, a noncommittal noise, and took another swallow of beer.

He took a cue, for once, and did the same.

If Bradley didn’t want to talk, he didn’t have to, but still.

He couldn’t help the fact that he was worried.

“I need a favor, and you’re the only one I can ask for it.”

“Oh?” He grinned, trying his best to pull even an ounce of a goddamn smile from Bradley. “If ya wanted me to suck your dick, ya just had to ask.”

The redness that flushed Rooster’s whole face at the comment was more than worth the sharp stab in his chest at the reminder that he would never be doing such a thing.

“Asshole,” Bradley mumbled, dragging a hand over his eyes and down his face. “Not that kind of favor.”


He got flipped off for that one, but couldn’t really bring himself to care.

“Just…Ice and Mav are expecting me to bring a date, alright? They were both so upset when they learned that I’d been by myself for so long, and Ice has felt guilty ever since his cancer was removed, and…well. I panicked, ok?”

“So…what, you need me to find ya a girl? It ain’t that hard, Roo, just point that pretty voice in someone’s direction an’ they’ll fall all over themselves for a trip to Hawaii with ya.”

Bradley shook his head, still looking vaguely ill despite the hand covering his whole face.

“No, that’s - I mean - I told them…”


Bradley was back to mumbling, but he couldn’t hear a goddamn thing with the way Bradshaw’s hand covered his mouth.

“Still can’t hear ya, Roo - ”

“I told them it was a guy!”


He wasn’t exactly surprised, not really - he’d heard Phoenix point out men to Bradshaw before - but he’d never had it confirmed.

(Even one more thing to hate - Bradshaw could’ve been willing to give him a chance, maybe, if he hadn’t f*cked up so badly.)

Even so.

“An’ I’m the only one ya mentioned this to…why?”

They had plenty of friends who would probably go on a date with Bradley if asked, just like he’d mentioned with the women. He hardly saw the problem.

“I don’t want to deal with catering to someone I have to impress the whole time,” Bradley sighed, finally taking the hand down from his face. “You know me, and you give me sh*t for it, but it’s preferable to pretending. I don’t want to pretend to be someone I’m not for a date that’s only happening in the first place because I lied to my uncle.”

That was fair, he supposed.


“I fail to see how I make a better partner than someone else ya already know,” he raised an eyebrow in return, and watched Bradley sigh.

“That,” Rooster nodded in his direction, and he just smiled curiously. “Right there.”

“I know I got a beautiful face, Roo, but I thought I was worth more than that.”

“No, dipsh*t,” Bradley bumped him with a shoulder, settling closer beside him. “You call me out on sh*t I don’t usually want to hear. I hate it, but I might need that.”

“Admitting that you need me after all? I’m flattered, Roo, I really am.”

“You’re the least objectionable option, if it’s you or some stranger.”

Alright, he’d been kidding, but Jesus.

“An’ if I don’t want to?”

He’d been planning, before things went to sh*t, to go with Javy as friends, given that they were often attached at the hip anyways.

But that had been before Javy had gotten called away, and now he was back to going on his own. He didn’t mind, not really, but he hadn’t planned on bringing a date, either. He was there for Mav, and it didn’t matter if he brought someone - f*ck it.

He didn’t exactly think the commander of the pacific fleet was going to bar him entry if he didn’t show up with a date.

Though clearly, that wasn't Bradshaw’s position.

“Look, it’s not like I could’ve asked Payback or Fanboy. The others already have dates, and Bob’s out anyways.”

“How’d ya know I wasn’t plannin’ on goin’ with Javy?”

Rooster raised an eyebrow at him, skeptical as f*ck.

“He’s being pulled back onto a deployment early, isn’t he?”

How’d - no.

Of course Bradley knew. Admiral Kazansky had probably mentioned it to him in the first place.

“And I get that it’s a lot to ask,” Bradshaw shrugged, pushing off the wall with one arm almost effortlessly. “If you’re saying no, you can just tell me now. I know it’s a sh*tty favor.”

But was it?

Was it really?

Sure, it wasn’t ideal, and it certainly wasn’t the way he would’ve preferred to go on a date with Bradshaw.

But if his only way of going on that date involved pretending - just for Bradley’s sake, no matter how much he might have enjoyed it, because there was no way that he’d be able to pull it off convincingly, he was certain - then…


He must have hesitated for too long, because Rooster just shrugged.

“You can pretend like this didn’t happen, I’m not in the mood for - ”

“I’ll do it.”

Bradley just blinked, and ran a hand through the dark curls that threatened to fall into his eyes.

“You don’t have to placate me, Bagman - ”

“Since when do I placate?” He meant it. He knew that Bradley understood. He didn’t offer to ever do anything that he didn’t want to, least of all to someone that was going to be his new wingman when their squadron was finally reassigned. “I ain’t lyin’, I’ll do it. I can handle a bit of touchin’, ‘less ya think I’m made of glass.”

He winked, more than a little pleased at the way Bradshaw just huffed and turned away - but not before a small smile appeared on his face.

“Stop that,” Rooster quipped, and he laughed.

“What, Roo? Ya don’t want your date to - ”

“I said,” Bradshaw’s little smile was still in place, and he rolled his eyes this time. He didn’t finish his sentence. “Thanks, Jake. I owe you one.”


He was ‘Jake’ out loud now, was he?

…He could work with that.

“Sure, Bradley,” he grinned, and felt the smile come off as a bit softer than it might have normally. “It ain’t gonna be hard. Ya don’t owe me sh*t.”

Of course not.

Pretending to be Bradshaw’s date? How hard could it possibly be, really?

…Apparently hard enough, though, given that he’d forgotten why he’d given up in the first place.

He’d only tried once - in passing, mind - but he’d given it his best shot when he’d flirted so vehemently that he’d had Javy and the others convinced he’d hit his head and gotten a concussion.

Rooster had mostly just ignored him, laughed it off as if he was joking.

He had been, somewhat.

But not really - and it stung. All it did now was serve as confirmation that even if he had been Bradley’s type, and he wasn’t certain that he was, he’d more than ruined any chance he had.

He’d be fine, though.

He could handle a week of pretending to be interested in Rooster - or not pretending, which was honestly worse.


Thankfully, he’d already dealt with most of the packing by the time the night had been over.

After that f*cking bombshell, he really couldn’t imagine having the energy and focus to deal with packing - even if he was in a better mood.

Though he hadn’t expected the texts from Bradley to start popping up on his phone immediately the next morning.

He knew it had been a last minute ask, so the sudden message didn’t exactly surprise him - regardless.


‘Do you want me to pick you up to go to the airport when we leave? Might be easier for you’

And frankly, Bradshaw wasn’t exactly wrong.

His gut reaction was a stomach-clenching squeeze, traitorous heart beating double-time as something in his chest warmed.

But he clamped down on that part, trying desperately to reason with himself.

It wouldn’t make sense for him to ride in a car - far more enclosed space than necessary - with Bradley, just inches away from each other, when he wanted nothing more than to crawl into the other pilot’s lap.

…It wouldn’t end well, was all he was saying.

So he should have said no.

He was going to.

…But his brain clearly had other thoughts, from the way he’d found himself typing out a hasty, ‘sure, what time’ and hitting send before he could stop himself.

His future self was not going to thank him for that, he knew.

Not that it really mattered, from the way his stomach fell out from under him at the reply.

‘0700? Might want breakfast on the way’



All that was to say, of course, that he found himself getting breakfast with Bradley in the middle of the airport, just after the sun had risen.

Not that he was complaining, mind - the security was easily the most frustrating part, if only because he knew damn well what he was and wasn’t allowed to keep in his luggage, thank you.

But the sunrise over the commercial airliners made the morning worth it, in his opinion.

He sat in front of their gate, only slightly surprised when there was a bagel suddenly shoved into his face.

He blinked, and reached for it - accidentally brushed his whole hand over Bradley’s own, and he swore it was genuinely a mistake this time - finally looking away from the window.


“Don’t worry about it,” Bradley shrugged as he sat, taking a bite of what appeared to be some sort of breakfast sandwich.

Technically, he’d been left in charge of the bags while Rooster had volunteered himself to grab food, not that he’d been doing a particularly good job.

Thankfully it wasn’t a task that required his brain, because his mind had gone offline as soon as he’d stepped foot into the car earlier.

“Are you alright?”

He hummed, noncommittal, and glanced back down at his bagel.

It was still warm, with more melted butter than he’d ever seen.

(He would’ve asked how Bradley knew he ate his bagels, but didn’t think he wanted to know the answer. It wasn’t like how he’d been watching Bradley’s every move for years - that wasn’t the same thing at all, and he’d just be disappointing himself with the reply he got.)


He blinked, and looked back up - and nearly had a heart attack at the challenging, almost concerned set to Rooster’s eyes.


“You haven’t said two words to me since you got in my car. What’s wrong?”

He grinned, purely a reflex, hoping to hell that he could cover what Bradley had clearly already seen - that he was more unsure of himself than he’d ever been, and he didn’t know how to act for once.

“Aww, Roo, you do care! If there was somethin’ wrong, ya don’t think I’d say?”

“Not really,” Bradshaw shrugged, taking a small nibble out of the bagel sandwich in his hand as he presumably processed his words. “You aren’t exactly the type to admit when you feel f*cked, unless my name’s Javy. And it’s not, so you wouldn’t tell me sh*t.”

Alright, yeah, so Bradshaw always had known him better than he’d thought.

It was the same for him - he’d always been able to pinpoint Bradley’s actions like he was the yin to his own yang. Even if he never knew exactly what Rooster was thinking, it didn’t matter.

They were always more attuned to each other than they’d ever liked to admit.

Maybe that was different now, since Bradshaw was changing their unspoken agreement to never bring that up - since they were something like friends, after he’d risked his life to bring Bradley’s home.

So he owed the man just a bit of honesty, even if he didn’t want to completely spill everything.

“Frankly, I ain’t got a single clue how ya think you’re foolin’ the old man into thinkin’ we came to the wedding together.”

That was true.

How the hell Mav was ever going to buy that they had chosen to attend together - as each other’s date, of all things - when neither of them had been able to be in the same room as each other just weeks ago…

He wasn’t lying about that.

Not that Bradley seemed concerned, from the way he just raised an eyebrow.

“We are going together. We’re on the same plane.”

“Ya don’t say,” he mumbled, flipping Bradley off as he took a bite of the still-warm bagel in his hand. He sighed, tasting the butter, and ignored the way Rooster seemed amused. “I meant as a date. How the hell do ya think he ain’t gonna notice?”

‘Notice we aren’t together,’ he didn’t finish.

That time, thankfully, Bradley just shrugged again.

“Figured it won’t be that hard. As long as you’re alright with me being in your personal space, I think we’ll be fine.”

And, well -

“Please,” he snorted, “Ya don’t think I got a problem with that, do ya?”

On instinct, he leaned sideways, pressing into Bradley’s space against his better judgment - whatever rational thought he usually had, it always left his mind where Bradshaw was concerned.

Did he expect to have his whole side pressed into Rooster’s own, warm and close - far more intimate than he was accustomed to, likely because he was bringing attention to it?

…Sort of. He’d anticipated it, after all.

But he’d also expected Bradshaw to pull away, given how often they orbited around each other but never, ever stayed within a common radius.

That didn’t happen, aside from Rooster giving a small huff that jostled his side, along with a sharp elbow that didn’t actually hurt as much as it was likely meant to.

“Alright, asshole. You were the one asking, weren’t you?”

He chuckled, ignoring the way Bradley wasn’t moving - trying his hardest not to think about it despite the warmth that spread into his bones from the contact - and tossed a toothpick into his mouth.

It made him look like a prick, probably.

He didn’t care.

If it was the toothpick or his tongue - because Lord knew he certainly didn’t bite that as often as he should - then it was better that he chose the toothpick.

Any less chance of opening his mouth and inserting his foot was probably for the best, even if he certainly wasn’t going to follow that advice anyway.

Would he try? Sure.

But he made no promises.

“Bagman! Fancy seeing you here!”

He turned at the voice, grinning so widely his cheeks hurt.

Honestly, Phoenix’s little smile was more genuine than one he’d seen aimed in his direction in years. Her eyes had something akin to a challenge staring him down, most certainly expecting him to bite back.

And, well - he did say he made no promises.

“If it ain’t Phoenix! Ya didn’t wanna use your own wings to get there?”

Bob smiled at them, having joined Phoenix’s side, apparently unperturbed by his ribbing.


“I’d rather not,” she inclined her head. “Little chance of the plane going up in flames that way, and far be it from me to let you whine about me catching your hair on fire.”

“Ya think I whine?”

“You’re saying you don’t?” That was from Bob, who only raised an eyebrow of his own, still smiling.

He didn’t answer, aside from a smirk that felt like it took up his whole face.

He’d never hated their company, and now he was glad to have it.

Bradley, on the other hand, had no such reservations about greeting them - not like he had done, by instantly challenging them. But that was his dynamic, not Bradshaw’s, and he hadn’t expected anything different.

“Hey, Tash,” Rooster’s voice was soft, almost like a coo.

Their hug was gentle, far moreso than anything he would’ve received - not that he expected it. Frankly, he was shocked that Bradshaw even hugged Trace as lightly as he did. That woman was no pushover, and she clearly had never been one.

A bit of a hug wasn’t an issue.

She clearly answered, from the playful-looking slap to Bradshaw’s side when he murmured something back that she hadn’t liked.

He gave them sh*t, but he always had adored their friendship dynamic. It wasn’t quite the same as his and Javy’s, but it worked.

His and Bradley’s own friendship was equally as different - if they were even friends, and he liked to believe that they were - though it didn’t concern him any.

(And he wanted to be mad that the warmth on one of his arms had gotten up and walked off, but he couldn’t be.)

More than anything, he just wanted Rooster to be happy. If that took the form of Bradley’s best friend wrapping her arms around him in a gesture that he might have claimed was protective…well.

“Good to see you,” Bob threw in his direction, decidedly a type of peace offering that he would’ve been rude to ignore.

“Well, ya know how Rooster is,” he grinned, wide and smug - shark-like, maybe, if he knew what his face looked like in that moment - relieved when the expression made something familiar glimmer in the others’ eyes. “If he ain’t early to bein’ early, it’s a damn crime.”

“Says the one sitting here with him, also early,” Phoenix quipped, tilting her head in a manner he might have called oddly bird-like.

He snorted, about to come back with a retort of him own - because there really was nothing better than teasing them, even if they all were on more familiar terms nowadays - when Bradshaw’s weight slumped back into the seat beside him, an arm smacking him in the back almost harsher than necessary.

There were polite ways to put an arm around someone, and this decidedly wasn’t it.

It screamed of a gesture that was meant to be familiar, and if this was anyone else, it might have been.

But this was Bradley, and he and Bradley didn’t act like that together. They never had, and they certainly didn’t have the level of intimacy that Rooster seemed to be insinuating they had.

And it was definitely noticeable, from the way Phoenix just raised an eyebrow and dropped into a seat across from them, with Bob doing the same.

Bob seemed more interested in curiously glancing between them like it would answer all his questions, but hell.

He didn’t know why Bradshaw had chosen to put up an act now, of all times, and he wasn’t going to pretend like he understood.

All he knew was that the warmth from Rooster’s arm was back, and he leaned into it instinctively.

(It really wasn’t hard to pretend like he meant something. Not when Bradley was the one who meant so much to him - not when it was second nature to seek out Bradshaw every second of the goddamn day.)

But Jesus.

He hoped to hell that his new wingman had some kind of plan, because they hadn’t exactly had the time to talk about it - and it wasn’t as if he could ask, not with Bradshaw’s closest friend staring them down like she was baffled.

He understood why she would be confused.

He was f*cking lost and he was the one who’d agreed to this insane-ass loony scheme.

Even so.

He didn’t flinch as Phoenix quirked an eyebrow at him, like he was the one to blame for making Bradshaw act this way.

In her defense, he could understand why she’d come to that conclusion, even if it was wrong this time.

‘This time’ being the key phrase.

He only shrugged, jostling the arm around his shoulders only slightly, and leaned further onto the armrest of his chair that he shared with the side Bradley was sitting on - didn’t move as the arm on his back slid closer to his hip as a result.

It truly didn’t bother him, earlier doubts aside.

He didn’t know why they were bothering to play with Phoenix and Bob like this - he’d bet money that the spitfire of a woman already suspected something was up without any input from them - but clearly they were trying to.


He could go all in, if that was what he needed to do.

Could he pretend like he enjoyed Bradshaw’s company for a week?

…It was exactly as he’d said - it wasn’t really pretending.

His grin widened, hand resting on the corner of his mouth as he leaned onto the arm resting on the armrest - further into Bradley’s own body, from the warmth skating down his side.

Phoenix didn’t comment, just smiled at him in that way she often did, the one that challenged him right back by insinuating that she knew something that he didn’t.

He’d never pretended to understand how her mind worked, only that she was brilliant when she put her mind to it - and contrary to how often he mocked, she was never not giving everything her all.

So he chose not to move.

Phoenix and Bob could keep making polite - or not so polite - conversation, whatever they wanted.

And thankfully, Phoenix and Bob were nowhere near them on the plane. He didn’t question why that was, nor did he care.

Anything that kept them away from him for five whole seconds so that he could nail down his act with Bradshaw before he f*cked it up would be appreciated.

…Of course, he hadn’t anticipated being the one squished into a seat right next to Bradley on the plane, either.

He should have.

The flight wasn’t as long as it could’ve been, but any flight that lasted longer than four hours was simply too much time spent trying to put on a show.

He was damn good at that - but even he had his limits.

They were still in the public eye, even if Phoenix and Bob weren’t around to watch them every single second of the plane ride.

Which was a f*cking good thing, too.

He didn’t dislike planes.

He adored them.

They lost something, though, when the plane in question was a commercial airline more akin to a tank than a bird that could cut through wind.

It made him miss his jet, really.

There was nothing quite like the sensation of going ten G’s, feeling like his ass was on fire, if he stopped there was a good chance his bad luck would catch up with him -

…But really, he just felt more like Mav with every thought he had that involved speed.

And he didn’t mind it - Mav was more of a legend than they would ever be, and he was self-aware enough to admit that, even if he didn’t like it - but he knew what that meant to Bradshaw.

Mav’s flying had gotten them all out of a bind, and he had been the one most torn up by Goose’s death, from what he’d heard.

But if the next person to die was Bradshaw - well.

He’d lose his mind, too.

It really wasn’t any wonder why he’d acted the way he had, even if he had swallowed his pride enough to admit that it wasn’t right.

Even so, he blinked, and grinned when he saw Rooster watching him.

“What’s a matter, Roo, don’t like airplanes? Afraid of heights?”

A tiny, choked-off little snort, and then -


Bradley’s bag had been thrown at his feet, tucked under the seat in front of him, and all it served to do was make him look taller - taller and more vulnerable, from the bizarre way he was hunched into something resembling a curled fetal position.

But that must have been his eyes playing tricks on him, because there was simply no way a grown man like Rooster could cocoon himself into a shape that small.

The grin fell off his face almost immediately.

“Ya know I was jokin’, yeah?”

Because he was. He really was.

Despite how much he teased - or because of it, maybe - he never meant to actually hurt Bradley, or make light of his feelings. At one point, sure. It would’ve been the boiling point needed to make Rooster angry enough to fight with him - but not now.

Never now.

He was never more relieved to see Bradley roll his eyes in his life - aside from the carrier, but that was a given, he thought.

“Yeah,” Bradley’s returning shrug looked tense, more than it had been even before actually getting on the goddamn plane. “You’re always taking the piss at me, why would this be any different?”

But it didn’t have the same returning bite that it normally did.

Maybe they really were friends, after all, if Rooster wasn’t immediately going on the offensive like he might have, once.

He didn’t know how to feel about it.

It was the best gift he’d ever gotten - confirmation that Bradley didn’t hate him - and the worst feeling that this might be as good as it ever got.

“Ya look like ya wanna keel over, Roo.”

“Well, forgive me for wanting my body completely intact.”

“In what, the plane?”

He got flipped off for that one, and felt a chuckle rip from his chest despite his best efforts.

But at least it made the set to Rooster’s shoulders ease slightly, just a bit less tense - a little less like a horse about to bolt.

He’d been kidding about Bradshaw being afraid of the plane, because that couldn’t have been any further than the truth, and they both knew it.


So…Bradley really didn’t like the plane, then. That much was obvious.

And maybe, in hindsight, it should have been obvious sooner. Bradshaw wasn’t exactly the type to relinquish control - of anything, most certainly, but definitely not over flying his jet - and the whole ordeal of allowing someone else in charge of the plane was likely akin to living a nightmare.

Particularly when the guy’s own father had been placed into a similar position - Mav’s incredible skills aside - and gotten killed for it.


Maybe he still did have a tendency to be an insufferable dickwad.

If there was any tact that he might have had, he’d just thrown it right out the metaphorical window, hadn’t he?


He settled for grinning back, aware that Bradshaw was still watching him despite his inept comments.

“Well, it ain’t like ya got control over everything, right, Roo? Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”


“Ya wouldn’t just drag me into your business for nothin’, and we both know that.”

Not that he minded doing it in the slightest - he thought that he’d established that. But he did have what he considered to be reasonable doubts, for f*ck’s sake.

Such as -

“Like I said,” he brought the subject back to the earlier conversation, before Phoenix had verbally assaulted him for her own amusem*nt. “Mav ain’t ignorant. He has his moments, but he’s not dumb. Admiral Kazansky’s even less so.”

“Please, for the love of God,” Bradley pinched at the bridge of his nose, thankfully looking marginally distracted - which had been the goal from the start, so he considered that a win. “Do not refer to my uncle as ‘Admiral.’”

“Why not?” The grin he gave was even more genuine, if that was possible - it certainly felt like it, from how wide he was smiling. His cheeks hurt. “He’s the admiral to me, ain’t he?”

“I f*cking hate you.”

“Sure, Roo,” he snickered, and watched a tiny smile quirk at the cornered of Bradley’s lips. “Kinda hard to date me if ya dislike me that bad. Unless our sex is good.”

“Jesus, I walked into that one, didn’t I?”

“Unless it’s - ”

The little groan he got in return sounded suspiciously amused, like Bradshaw just didn’t want to admit it.

The returning smile that sat fully-fledged on Bradley’s lips echoed that sentiment more than any words could have.

“Seriously. Do you ever shut the hell up?”

“If ya wanted somebody capable of mindin’ his tongue, ya wouldn’t have asked me.” But fine, Bradley wanted a little mercy? He’d try his best.

He shut up.

(For five whole minutes, but he thought that it was the thought that counted, most of all. Rooster didn’t seem to actually care, anyways.)

At least, he was completely capable of chattering on until there was a weight that slumped onto his shoulder.

He hadn’t realized that Bradley had fallen asleep.

He wasn’t sure if he should be offended, given that he’d been halfway through a marvelously detailed story about how he broke his arm as a kid - but figured it didn’t matter.

If Rooster really wanted to hear a story, he’d tell the guy as soon as he woke up.

As it was, he was far more interested in the curls that got crushed against his shoulder, the way Bradley’s eyelashes fluttered in such a manner that they drew attention to themselves -



What could he say?

He wasn’t ignorant, either, at least of the way Bradley Bradshaw was completely and totally his type - and incredibly gorgeous even if he wasn’t.

But…if it gave Rooster a sense of security, or at least company, to fall asleep with him right there…

He’d ignore his rabbiting heart.

He’d ignore the way his face felt like it was aflame, the way his whole body melted into liquid at the warmth and solidness that Bradley exuded.

He’d do it.

So he turned towards the window and watched the clouds in lieu of waking his supposed wedding date, and only felt a tiny bit of something like disappointment swirl in his gut when Bradley did move away on his own when the plane landed.

Was it the most torturous several hours of his life?


But he was fine - they just had to pull off being comfortable in each other’s company at the wedding, and that would have to be enough.

It wasn’t as if they’d ever specified exactly if they would look like they were dating for real, though he assumed the answer was yes given Bradshaw’s guilt and panic at his uncle’s implication of being alone.

Which meant he’d have to follow Rooster’s lead on this one, didn’t it?

(It wasn’t as scary of a thought as it once was. That, in and of itself, told him more than enough about how they’d both changed, even if he hadn’t noticed.)

But that was fine.

They exited the plane like they always did - Bradley far less tense than he had been at the start, perhaps from the nap, and him as loud and obnoxious as he always felt - with no one any the wiser.

Except for Phoenix and Bob, but he didn’t exactly think they counted. Not with the knowing glances Phoenix kept giving him when she thought Bradshaw wasn’t looking.

So, sure, they ended up in a rental car together, with leis around their necks that felt as heavy as the lie they were going to portray.

Not that it mattered to him - he’d had the forethought to cancel his own rental car when Bradshaw had insisted on them going to the venue together, and he didn’t particularly care.

Would he have gone all in like this for anyone else?

Javy, maybe, but even that was different.

The answer was technically yes, but also no.

The long and short of it was that he’d never met anyone quite like Bradley Bradshaw, and had the feeling that he never would again. If that meant he had to cancel a f*cking rental car and adjust to Rooster’s every whim, then so be it.

(Javy might have given him sh*t, if it weren’t well known just how ass over tincups he became whenever he was interested in someone.)

(The problem was that he had a feeling Phoenix could see it too, which was going to immediately blow their cover if she didn’t sit down and shut up - he knew it was hypocritical of him to even ask such a thing, but he figured that he could do it just this once.)

And he’d prepared himself for the opulence of what a Hawaiian resort might entail, but Jesus.

“sh*t, this is the equivalent of a goddamn ranch,” he muttered, eyes scanning the beautiful, sprawling beaches and lagoons attached to the place.

And maybe he’d been just a bit too nonchalant earlier.

Two pools, a lagoon, a beach, a minimum of ten f*cking restaurants, including one that was, in technicality, a grocery store…

Yeah. Well.


He’d underestimated the pure size of the resort that was attached to their hotel - let alone that the f*cking skyscraper of a hotel had twenty seven floors to start with, Jesus.

But the chuckle he got in response from Bradley’s side of the car made his surprise more than worth it, in his opinion, even if he was still baffled by the time they’d parked.

“Well, Mav asked for a destination wedding, and I’d say this is fanfare enough.”

“f*ck,” he grinned, aware that Rooster had raised an eyebrow - seemed amused at his surprise. “Ain’t they been all over? Even I’ve seen Hawaii once, an’ it wasn’t quite this…”


“Aww, Roo, ya know me so well.”

“Bastard, you just don’t like people in your space, even if you keep getting in mine.”

A chuckle pulled from his chest, only slightly surprised to see that Bradley’s ease hadn’t abandoned him.

Rooster really wasn’t uncomfortable with him anymore, at least not like he had been, and wasn’t that just a f*cking miracle?

“Still ain’t used to the goddamn humidity, though,” he groused, crossing his arms to stop himself from doing something ridiculous like touching at the way Bradley’s curls had started to frizz in the damp air.

Thankfully, Bradley’s own snort was accompanied by a hand through his hair, trying to tame the curls, which should have rid him of the urge to touch.

‘Should have,’ anyway, but all Rooster had done was make it worse, and -

All he knew was that he’d crossed the distance of the car in the time it took him to blink, a hand carding through the curls in an effort to make them more presentable - even if he didn’t have the right to do that.

He’d hardly even realized that he’d done it until Bradley was blinking at him almost curiously, eyebrow twitching in a way that seemed to imply that Rooster had no idea what the hell he’d been thinking.

He hadn’t been.

Wasn’t that what he kept yelling at Bradley to do, anyway?

“Ya made it worse,” he clarified, shrugging in complete nonchalance, like it meant nothing that he had to remove his hand from the softest curls he’d ever felt - the very man that he wanted to grab and never let go of even if his life depended on it.

“Thanks, Bagman,” Rooster smiled, only a hint of challenge seeming to radiate in his eyes. “Glad to see you sticking your hands into business that isn’t yours.”

Quite literally.

“What can I say?” His smile felt like it widened, with the way his cheeks stretched. “If ya gotta walk in there lookin’ like my date, I ain’t takin’ ya ‘less ya actually seem presentable.”

Bradley rolled his eyes, but didn’t remark other than to jab a rather-gentle elbow in his ribs.

It was enough for him.

And he meant it, even if he was joking.

He was a stickler for appearance, and he had a feeling their entire new squadron was well accustomed with that, if only because he had a tendency to become a bit of a prissy bitch - Phoenix’s words, not his.

But Bradley was always presentable to him - more than presentable, always so much more - so it didn’t exactly matter if Rooster’s hair was frizzy or remotely out of place.

It just didn’t matter to him.

(If it were anyone else, it would have. But it was Bradley, and it didn’t.)

Though he counted his blessings - he was the only one who had seen Bradley’s fluffy hair so far, which meant they hadn’t had to keep impressing anyone. Phoenix and Bob had, evidently, taken a different route to the resort than they had, given that they hadn’t run into each other.

He wasn’t complaining, exactly.

Aside from the fact that they did run into the subjects for whom they gave the star performance of the hour at the check-in desk.


But Mav looked so goddamn happy that, for just a moment, he forgot that he was meant to be Bradley’s date.

So maybe - just maybe - he whistled at the Captain that had trained them, just as the man leaned in to kiss the commander of the pacific fleet.


Bradley’s face tinted pink, and he nearly felt bad about it.


It was hard to care when he was suddenly being slapped on the side by Mav himself, brandished to the Admiral like he was a friend as much as a subordinate.

Did he puff up with something like pride?

Did his face feel warm as those calculating, ice-cold eyes softened - ever so marginally, just slightly, just like Bradley said they did - as Mav described the way he followed them out to take out the Su-57?


“You did great, kid,” Mav grinned, and slapped him on the back a little harder as Ice just stared.

And God.

He knew better, he shouldn’t say it, don’t say -

“I know.”


He was one second away from leaping off a balcony - not that it would’ve helped, since they were still on the first floor, but he was determined to try anyway - when the Admiral snorted, and some of his cool decorum vanished.

“I’d quite forgotten how much you remind me of Mav, Lieutenant. You certainly have his confidence, at least.”

“Thank you, Admiral.”

That, if not the former remark, had him beaming.

His skill wasn’t a secret, and frankly, everyone within a five foot radius of him was more than aware of his pride from the second he so much as breathed in their direction.

It wasn’t that people weren’t aware of his talent - he knew he had it, but having his skill be compared to someone like Maverick, someone that was an ace, someone as much of a legend as they’d ever be - well.

He thought his pride was warranted.

Mav’s hand still felt warm on his back, and it was a type of familiarity that he was unaccustomed to, from people who weren’t Javy.

Or Bradshaw, apparently, but he could see where Rooster had gotten such a thing.

“Good to see you, anyways. Sorry we had to pull Coyote away, I know you’re close with him.”

Oh. Right.

“Orders are orders,” he shrugged. “Ain’t nothin’ he could do.”

“It’s a shame, though,” Ice continued, jumping onto where his fiancé had left off. “I’m partially responsible, as I felt that he was suited for the job. Had I known that you’d be alone, I might have reconsidered.”

“Nah,” he insisted, smile still wide at the curious, almost assessing gaze from the Admiral’s eyes. “It ain’t worth that. If he’s the best ya got for the orders ya gave, then that’s that. Just so long as he comes back safe, that’s what matters.”

He backed up, just a step, and glanced at Bradshaw, who was still politely hovering a foot away.

And he had to appreciate the way they seemed to be in sync lately - he hadn’t even needed to say anything for Bradley to wrap and arm around his waist, hand curling around his hip in a manner that felt too much like it was branding his skin.

He wouldn’t have minded if it had.

“Besides,” he kept going, now that he had their attention - pleased at the surprise etched into Mav’s face as well as the Admiral’s own. “I ain’t here by myself. Ain't that right, Roo?”

“If you keep calling me that, you might be.”

An empty bluff, founded on nothing but blowing smoke - they both knew it.

Rooster needed him, and he’d been giving the guy that nickname for no less than several days, by this point. If it was truly an issue, he would’ve been told off for it already.

He might not have listened, but it certainly would’ve come up in conversation.

It hadn’t.

But at least the look on Mav’s face dropped into something resembling his normal grin almost as soon as it had started.

“Kid,” oh, and that time Mav’s almost gleeful look seemed like it was directed at Bradley. “When I said you could bring a date, this isn’t exactly what I expected.”



He leaned further into the arm supporting his weight, vindicated when it almost made Rooster stumble - stepped a little closer as a result.

(It didn’t suppress his pleased huff, though, and he felt like the others could tell.)

He wasn’t giving up the ghost for this - not just yet, because they’d just started, and he wasn’t a f*cking quitter - especially not when this was the whole reason he had agreed.

He’d always been phenomenal at keeping up appearances.

This would be no different.

“Ya think we did?”

Only a partial lie - Rooster had been the one mulling it over, if the initial request had been any indication, but he certainly hadn’t had any f*cking idea that he’d end up in Hawaii as Bradshaw’s wedding date.

“He means,” Bradley corrected, a finger on his hip digging in pointedly, just a little bit of a correction - not that he cared. It didn’t hurt, and even if it did, he was amenable to certain things, so long as he got to dish it back out too. “That I’ve been wanting to ask him out for a while, anyways. The mission was…something of the last straw.”

“The perch comment was a joke, Roo.”

A taunt, more like, but hey - all the same to him.

“Doesn’t mean you were wrong.”

Somebody better write that goddamn reply in stone somewhere, or Rooster was going to deny it as soon as they were out of earshot of Mav again.

“Well, regardless,” Admiral Kazansky’s little smile was starkly striking compared to his indifferent mannerisms, and he could suddenly see why Mav had picked this man, above all others, as a partner. “We’re just glad you’re here. Both of you.”

The intentional eye contact aimed his way was so startling that he nearly fell over himself. He was grateful to be included, in a way, but Jesus.

It just felt so…kind.

(That wasn’t something that he had, normally. Especially not from a man that was old enough to be his father. Especially not with a man that was surprisingly friendly, and one that was technically his superior.)

So he’d politely excused himself from their conversation - much moreso than he could have, in his opinion, and only because Bradley deserved a little alone time with his own f*cking family without interference - and tried to check in.

‘Tried’ being the key, of course.

He hadn’t canceled his reservation, but the poor woman at the desk still looked frantic.

“I’m so sorry! I - I know your room’s here somewhere! We didn’t overbook, I promise!”

Well he hadn’t been concerned about that, but Jesus, maybe he should’ve been.

“It’s fine,” he grinned. “Take your time, yeah?”

Not that the reassurances seemed to keep her from causing a goddamn scene, apparently, with the way her apologies had morphed into squeals.

“What’s wrong?”


Just Bradley, with a warm hand touching his back briefly before dropping to the side. And of course it did - Mav and the Admiral were still nearby, if he glanced over his shoulder.

“Nothin’ important. Apparently my room’s been hard to find, that’s all. Ain’t a concern, really.”

“Sir,” the woman squeaked, looking nearly frantic - terrified out of her f*cking mind. “I’m so sorry, I can’t find it anywhere in our reservations! I don’t know what happened! I can get you a refund, of course, and I - ”

“It ain’t there? At all?”

Now that was going to be more of a concern. How the hell was he meant to get to a wedding if he had to traipse back and forth from another hotel that was likely miles away - assuming he could find one at all?

The poor woman just nodded, shoulders hunched like he was going to scream.

“Bradley,” Mav called, approaching with something akin to worry on his face. “What’s going on? We heard a commotion.”

“Jake’s room isn’t available, or something,” Bradley started, teeth biting into his lip.

He was certain that Mav had asked him a question after that, but he hadn’t heard - he was far too distracted by the wet sheen to Bradley’s lip as he stopped biting.

It was just…breathtaking.

He wanted to be the one to make Rooster look like that. He wanted to be the person that Bradley turned to in a situation like this - was that really so wrong?

“Why don’t you just share?”


“Well - ”

“I got, uh, some pretty bad night terrors, ya know? It ain’t right to subject Roo to that, make him lose his well-needed beauty sleep, ain’t that right?”

A fairly solid excuse, even if it was too close to the truth to make him feel at all relieved that he’d come up with a cheap-ass reasoning in the first place.

It wasn’t like he didn’t still see vivid images of Bradley’s plane getting blown to bits, even if it was just a very vibrant hallucination.

Bradley’s plane had exploded once during the mission, and he hadn’t been there to see it. His brain believed that he had, though.

So no - he’d rather not subject either of them to any constant reminders that he often woke up afraid, screaming or begging or panting so harshly that he couldn’t hear sh*t over the thundering in his ears.

But Mav and Admiral Kazansky were looking at him just a bit suspiciously, so maybe he’d overstepped.

He certainly didn’t think so - even for a first date, wasn’t that just a bit too…intimate?

Then again, they didn’t know that this was their first date - they likely assumed it was a secret.

And besides, this wasn’t a date at all, so even this didn’t count.


Bradley’s knowing glance seemed to imply that he’d caught on, too.

“That’s not a problem,” Rooster’s little shrug was accompanied by a look so genuinely soft that he nearly melted into a puddle right then and there, with the tender expression in Bradley’s dark eyes. “You know I don’t care.”

“Still. Ya didn’t ask for me to - ”

“And even if I did, it’s not your fault. I get them, and so does Mav. We all do, it’s not like it matters.”

“Ain’t exactly the best for a date, though,” he countered, feeling weak - losing his will and argument by the second.

Why did he care, anyways?

It was Bradley that needed to show up with a date, not him. He didn’t have to keep agreeing, to continue trying to keep a secret. He could just suck it up and deal with sharing, if it meant that he could stay in the resort with everyone else.

But Bradley needed to look good - or at least as someone with a date, at any rate - and that was his specialty. He wouldn’t leave Bradshaw on his own, even if he bitched about it.

So, well…

“A’right. But don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”

“I’m the one that snores, anyway.”

He chuckled, like this was a little in-joke - like this wasn’t the first time he learned that Bradley tended to snore in his sleep.

“An’ ya think I don’t, darlin’?”

Bradley’s whole face flushed as red as the plumerias outside, and he was fascinated.

“Please. You don’t snore.”

And Rooster was correct - he didn’t. But Bradley didn’t know that.

Thankfully, though, the matter was easily resolved from there.

Good thing, too, from the way Admiral Kazansky and Mav had hovered near them to ensure that the issue was fixed. He didn’t know what he would have done if he had been forced to pay for a room that he couldn’t even use, or something extreme.

Not that it mattered.

What he did care about, on entering the room and tossing his bag elsewhere, was that there was a singular, queen-sized bed in the center of the room.

He had numerous questions, starting with why the hell they couldn’t afford a king bed at the luxury resort that clearly brought in tourists, but hell.

How the f*ck was he meant to sleep right next to Bradshaw like that?

How? And pretend that it didn’t matter? Of course it did - Bradley was always important.

Jesus Christ, he was so f*cked.

Especially since Bradley had only rolled his eyes - just a smidge of redness on his face, too - and told him to get in bed.

“It’s just a bed, Bagman. Unless you’d rather sleep on the floor, in which case - be my guest.”

The bravado held a lot less weight when it had been Bradley - for appearances’ sake or not - that had insisted on sharing the room.

…But fine.

He didn’t exactly want to kink his back from curling up on the floor, anyways.

So he chose to be a dick, and starfished himself over the majority of the covers, flopping backwards with enough force to jostle the whole bed - fluffy pillows flattened by the weight of his head.

Did something warm spark like fire in his chest at the way Bradley only stared, something unfamiliar in his eyes - something that passed as quickly as it appeared, a look that he still couldn’t quite figure out?



And he might have - just maybe, though he was hardly admitting to anything concrete - laid as still as stone that night, curled as far onto his side as he could manage.

The heat from Bradshaw’s body - curled onto his own side, as far away as he could get, most likely - scorched at his back. If Bradley could leave a permanent mark from the searing warmth, he wouldn’t even care.

Of course, touring the resort before the rehearsal dinner was far less stressful, fake wedding date though he was.

They spent most of their time alone.

That, more than anything, shocked him.

Javy aside - as he’d been spamming the guy with texts all morning - the silence from the other squadron members was almost asinine. They butted their f*cking heads into other people’s business nearly as much as he always had.

Phoenix and Bob, whom he’d expected to be so far up his and Bradley’s asses that he could speak in their voices, were supposedly off at the beach.

(He had a gut feeling that Phoenix had just wanted to challenge Bob to a round of football on their own terms - away from the wedding, before all the fun amped up - and he frankly couldn’t even blame them for it. As it was, he technically had Bradshaw all to himself, but it just…that was different.)

As it was, the most entertaining thing had to be the way Bradley played up their closeness when Mav or Ice happened to pass them.

Granted, he knew that he’d agreed to pretend to be a date - not that it was that damn difficult, at least pretending to be Bradshaw’s partner - but f*ck.

It was, admittedly, more difficult than he’d anticipated, to allow Bradshaw’s hands on his arms, his chest, his hips…as if that was simply the way they acted.

Once, before the mission, it might have been. It most likely would have been a physical reaction - one where he punched the sh*t out of Bradshaw after being smacked himself - but all the same. Now, though, it wasn’t like that.

Sure, they were friendly.

But he wasn’t Phoenix. He wasn’t Bradley’s right hand man. That just wasn’t who they were to each other, even if they knew each other better than anyone else, even if they were set to be wingmen.

It didn’t matter.

For as understanding as they were of each other’s habits and personalities, it didn’t change the fact that they hadn’t always been the closest.

So no, the newfound closeness wasn’t exactly natural for him, even if he had attested that he’d be fine with it.

And he was fine with it, really. He’d meant it.

Bradley could pin him to the bed and f*cking pound him, and he would’ve probably combusted on the spot.

But this wasn’t that, and it never would be.

He didn’t think it was completely unusual, then, for him to be just a little on edge before the rehearsal dinner.

He hadn’t exactly chosen to be part of the wedding party, but damn.

Bradley was already part of Mav’s party, and he’d been placed there, too. It just wasn’t making his job any easier, that was all.

…Not that he was denying that he’d been excited for dinner in the first place.

They’d gotten back to the room from touring the resort, and he’d about had a heart attack at the way Bradley looked in the dark suit, glittering with blue undertones that shone so brightly against the guy’s skin.

Well, a heart attack or a coronary, honestly. Whatever accounted for the palpitations that seemed to rock his whole chest - he was certainly ill, at any rate.


And maybe Bradshaw was ill, too, from the way his face looked as flushed as if he’d gotten heat stroke from the sun.

Maybe they’d both mysteriously come down with an illness, and he’d be put out of his apparent misery, for biting off more than he could conceivably chew.

But no, that was selfish of him - he’d promised he wouldn’t act like that anymore.

Bradley needed him to f*cking buck up and deal with his own problems, if only to get them through the event without Bradshaw’s adopted parents thinking anything was wrong.

Nothing had tipped Mav off so far, and he assumed that Ice clearly thought the same.

It was fine.

They just had to get through the night, and then sit through the wedding. Completely smooth sailing after that, he hoped.

(He didn’t often hope for much, but he prayed to a God that he didn’t usually believe in that it might be true this time. Having Bradley safe had been his first priority, but now that he had that, his mind wouldn’t shut up.)

(He needed it to be quiet. He didn’t want to think about how - for all intents and purposes - this was everything he’d ever wanted, but for all the wrong reasons, and it wasn’t even real to start with.)

(It stung.)

Regardless, the ache in his chest - the one that insisted that Bradshaw was his, only his, the part of him that wanted to lay claim over Rooster like they were genuinely together - only intensified when he whistled.

He never could stop himself from teasing.

It was a downfall of his own making, truly.

But the noise had Bradley’s face turning so bright crimson that a swell of something like pride shot through him before he could stop it.

“Hell of a suit,” he praised, the blush on Bradshaw’s face making him far more honest than he might have been, even if Bradley still flipped him off like he was lying. “Ain’t like ya to go all out.”

“It’s for Mav,” Rooster’s little shrug tried to play it off, but he knew better. “He would’ve done the same, if it was me getting married. And I owe him this much.”

He hummed, acknowledging the point more than anything, and ignored the way his wingman was still glancing in his direction.

“Well,” he grinned. “Least ya match. Can’t have ya lookin’ half-assed, ‘specially not today or tomorrow. The best man has to look decent.”

“Thanks. So glad I make the cut at ‘decent,’” Bradley tugged on a sleeve cuff as his eyes rolled. It pulled a chuckle from his chest, much of its own accord. “And I thought you were the best, remember?”

Oh, f*ck.

If he didn’t have heat rushing through his body, he certainly would have then, with the way Bradley’s eyes stared into his own through the dark lashes.

He really was having a heart attack.

“Only in the plane,” he snarked, grin widening so much that he feared his face might be like that forever - not that he would have cared all that much, actually. “But ya made Mav’s wedding party, after all. Ya got the title, this time. I’ll let it slide.”

“Very diplomatic of you.”

“I know.”

And then Bradley just stared, an intensity there that he felt was charged with something - if he were anyone else, if Rooster were anyone else, he might have said it was tension.

Clearly it was, he wasn’t an idiot.

But here, at this moment, all he could classify it as would have been romantic - at least on his end, and sexual at the very least, if not romantic.

He wasn’t speaking for Bradshaw, though, so he couldn’t assume that much.


He ignored the glances, though he had a feeling he knew why he was being watched - tension or not, gold really was his color.

Mav had promised them that any color was fine, and there was no restriction on dress for the rehearsal or the wedding. Sue him - if he had to be here, which he did, then he was looking f*cking nice.

That wasn’t a crime.

Bradley was still boggling at him, though, so he turned back to the mirror.

More likely, the collar wasn’t tucked right.

…Regardless of the reason, he did eventually fix the problem enough for both of them to head off to the resort’s restaurant, bumping elbows just a bit too frequently for his nerves’ liking.

The hand that settled on his hip after they sat down nearly made him jump.

Bradley just raised an eyebrow at him, though, so he leaned further against Rooster’s side just a bit harder than necessary.

He heard the small huff as he smacked into Bradshaw, but didn’t comment. The hand around his back tightened, fingers digging into his hip.

Frankly, he didn’t think touching was necessary in this particular circ*mstance.

Mav and Ice were at the table, yes, but Phoenix and Bob were too - they weren’t glued together. If they were, he certainly couldn’t tell.

And maybe Mav hadn’t noticed, and that was the whole reason that Bradley left his hand where it was, but he wouldn’t know.

All he knew was that Phoenix kept giving him curious glances from the side of the table, tilting her head almost inquisitively.

And what the hell was he meant to say to that?

All he did was smile, a sh*t-eating thing that he was certain didn’t endear himself to her.

Or maybe she was just accustomed to his bullsh*t, from the way she only shook her head, a disbelieving look etched onto her face as she reached for Bob’s own hand.

What could he even admit, at this point?

He’d agreed to this whole thing for Bradley’s sake, which was exceedingly obvious and stupid from his perspective, in hindsight.

Would he do it again, for Bradshaw?



But hell.

The soft looks, the gentle doting, the caring way Bradley always supported him, even if he heckled his wingman beyond all comprehension -


It wasn’t easy, that was all. He could handle it.

“Lost in thought, Bagman?”

He blinked, and refocused on Bradshaw’s raised eyebrow, the one that screamed concern. Whether it was fabricated for their onlookers, he couldn’t say. He hoped it wasn’t, but he knew better.

(And maybe he did hope it was fake. He would rather not be pitied for a prison of his own making, quite frankly.)

“Somethin’ like that,” he smiled, aware that it was likely more tender than what he normally gave off. He didn’t care, not while Mav and Ice were looking. He wasn’t going to raise any suspicions from Bradley this way - the others could eat sh*t, they didn’t really know what was going on, did they? “Ain’t that hard.”

“Didn’t know you used your brain.”

“Didn’t know ya turned yours off,” he retorted, snorting when Bradley just shrugged.

“I am capable, thank you.”

“Coulda fooled me.”

Wetness bloomed on his shirt all of a sudden, and the coolness stuck to his skin.


A glance down told him more than enough - there was a maroon stain on his shirt, spreading outwards through the white undershirt and golden jacket, a wine glass tilted sideways in Bradley’s hand.

“Jesus, Jake. Sorry, here - ”

And then he was warm again - so f*cking warm - when Bradshaw’s hand held a napkin to the stain in an attempt to keep it from getting any worse, aborted wine glass tossed aside.

He couldn’t help it.

A laugh tore from his stomach - so deep and visceral that he’d hardly even realized that he’d done it until he noticed Bradley and the others staring.

Not that he cared.

Frankly, he wasn’t sure which he found more entertaining: the idea that Bradley had accidentally spilled wine on his bright jacket, or the timing of the matter that insisted that Rooster had thrown the glass purely out of instinct.

He would’ve been concerned about the jacket, but it wasn’t particularly important.

Regardless of whether it stained - and he knew that it would - he’d brought several others as backups, mostly for that reason.

Be that as it was, it wasn’t as if he’d brought any with him to dinner.

Guess he was walking around with wine on his stomach for a while, then. Good thing he wasn’t self-conscious.

“If ya wanted to get me naked, darlin’,” and oh, whoops, yeah - there went the pet name. Too late. “All ya had to do was ask.”

A flush of color bloomed on Bradley’s face, and if he’d been a different man, he might have said that his teasing had meant something. It certainly wasn’t as if he was opposed, of course.

But he knew Bradshaw hadn’t exactly looked at him that way - at least never to his knowledge, not the way he’d wanted - so the point was moot.

Not that any of it mattered, from the way Rooster just pressed the cloth a little firmer into his shirt, like he actually gave a rat’s ass about the suit when Bradshaw’s hand was right there.

(He did. It was a fantastic f*cking color, but Bradshaw had always mattered more.)

“Later, Bagman,” came the low response, the accompanied smile - lips twitching at one corner - and both had his stomach twisting into something molten. He didn’t want to give much thought to it, frankly. He was already f*cked, what could he say? “Didn’t know you were an exhibitionist.”

“Ok, no thank you,” Phoenix’s voice startled him away from the dark, blown-black pupils staring back at him from Rooster’s gaze.

From the tiny way the fingers against his shirt twitched, he had a feeling that he wasn’t the only one startled - it was a modicum of comfort, to know that he hadn’t been so singularly focused that he’d embarrassed himself.

At least Bradley could be embarrassed with him, if that were the case, and that was more than enough for him.

“I’d rather not hear about his bedroom habits while I eat, if it’s all the same,” she continued, smug smile belying the teasing. It cut him a challenge all the same, but it rankled far less than it had years ago. “Unless you wanna hear about mine.”

“Thought Bob was too good for such blasphemy,” he returned. “He don’t deserve that.”

“Thank - ”

“Not like Rooster does, anyway,” he finished, grinning back like the f*cking cat that got the canary.

“Nevermind,” Bob shook his head, clearly choosing to revoke his appreciation - not that he blamed the guy.

(But the little smile on Bob’s face gave him away, anyway. It was a nice change, honestly.)

“f*ck you,” Bradley’s grumbling didn’t sound nearly as annoyed as it could have, and he just shrugged.

“Ain’t that what you’re tryin’ to do?”

“Alright,” Mav’s sudden snickering seemed to remind Bradley that they weren’t alone - at least not only with friends - from the way he jerked his hand away and crossed his arms.

He missed the warmth, if he was frank. The wine on his skin was far too cold, regardless of how humid the sh*tty weather was.

“No sex anywhere in public.”

“But sir,” he smirked, taking more joy than he should have out of the conspiratorial grin on Mav’s face - the horrified, scandalized expression adorning Bradley.

In fairness, he could’ve had mercy. He could have very well chosen to leave well enough alone, to not suggest he and Bradshaw go f*ck where their superiors - and Rooster’s own goddamn uncles - could see or hear them.

But he didn’t, and here they were.

(If Rooster had expected anything different, then Bradshaw really didn’t know him at all.)

(Not that Bradley looked surprised, just…unfortunately appalled. Good enough, he supposed. At least it wasn’t shock.)

“Just go change, Lieutenant,” Admiral Kazansky’s voice chimed in for the first time, a glint of something that seemed to be amusem*nt in his eyes. “Unless you plan on walking around shirtless, that is. I hardly think that stain will come out on its own.”

And, right, well -

“Sir, I actually didn’t - ”

But then it was Bradley who was standing, suddenly, as if he’d been told to change, like it was him with a blossoming stain on his shirt.

“Well, you heard him,” Bradley shrugged, inclining his head to the side. “Let’s go, if you’re going to change.”

“Aww, gonna strip me yourself, Roo?”

“For the love of God,” Rooster rolled his eyes, and there was no audible retort from Phoenix that time. Shame. “You’re embarrassing us.”

“Y’all should know I ain’t typically embarrassed, Roo, ya think this bothers me?”

It was rhetorical - Bradshaw knew that, too. If Bradley had actually given a sh*t, he would’ve been the first in line to elbow him until he shut up.

And if he’d really cared, personally, he wouldn’t have said anything in the first place. But he didn’t.

He’d never been ashamed of being ass-over-tincups in love with Bradley, particularly not when Bradley’s own uncles were getting married. No easier way for him to ignore any sexuality crisis than visiting the wedding for two prominent male figures of the Navy.

(But he’d never questioned himself like that, anyway. Not really. Not when he’d known for years.)

So when Bradley just huffed - still not as annoyed and sharp as it could have been, if Rooster was genuinely upset with him - he followed the man out of the restaurant, into one of the nearby bathrooms.

And maybe he was still envisioning that dark look in Bradshaw’s eyes, but he didn’t think he was wrong to simply grin and hop onto the sink like he planned on letting Bradley between his knees.

He would have - he absolutely would have.

But no, this wasn’t the time to get distracted, even if he was still joking.

“Ya plan on havin’ that little romp here, then, since ya dragged me into the bathroom? God, Roo, don’t I at least deserve a modicum of privacy?”

“From the man threatening to have sex in front of my family?” Bradley’s raised eyebrow - skeptical though it was - might have been more entertaining to look at, if it wasn’t that his eyes were suddenly drawn to the fingers undoing buttons on Rooster’s jacket.



That was the only thing that came to mind, looking at the way Bradshaw’s shoulders moved as he shrugged out of his suit jacket, pulled at the buttons of his undershirt, the deftness to his fingers and the bronze skin that shone in the glare - terrible bathroom lighting or not.


He was living in hell. He must have been, to see Bradley start to untuck his shirt and pull the shirt off as both - no, three, it looked like - shirts ended up on his arms, instead.

And where had the third shirt come from?

Because -

“Roo, if ya wanted to be the one that got naked,” he countered, trying vividly not to stare at the abs that rippled when Bradley turned to the side. “Ya coulda just said. I ain’t got a preference.”

“Seriously, shut the f*ck up, Bagman. Hell. You want this, or not?”

And then Rooster was brandishing the third shirt, the one that had been so tucked beneath the undershirt and jacket that he’d failed to even realize that it was there.

…The one that was a brilliant, vibrant blue - pastel shades of cerulean and cobalt that nearly distracted him from the palm trees encircling the entirety of the shirt.


Of f*cking course Bradley had managed to sneak a Hawaiian shirt into the high-end restaurant, one where he hadn’t been wearing his normal attire.

He held it up, envisioning the color against Bradley’s skin - because he’d been unable to see it clearly before Rooster had shucked it off, a shame - and snorted.

Amusem*nt lanced through him.

“An’ how the hell’d ya manage this one?”

“Mav didn’t say I couldn’t,” Bradley shrugged. “He said to wear a suit. He didn’t tell me not to wear anything underneath it.”

“Alright, ya slippery asshole.”

“Back on the sex jokes, are we?”

“Why, Roo,” he grinned, pleased as f*ck to note the returning smile etched into Bradley’s face. It meant more than he could ever say. “What a horrible thing to think about me. Don’t I have manners?”

“Hell if I’ve seen them. Do you?”

“Of course!”

He pulled the stained jacket off of his shoulders, aware that Bradley was still watching him. The undershirt was definitely ruined, Admiral Kazansky had been right, and like hell was he going to bother attempting to bleach it at this point.

He threw it in the garbage, mirth coursing through his veins at the spluttering from behind him.

“Hold this, will ya, darlin?”

Hardly even bothering to look, he tossed the jacket over his shoulder as he hopped down to face the mirror, and heard the disgruntled squawk when it smacked Rooster in the face.

His face was going to hurt if he kept smiling like he was.

He couldn’t be bothered to care.

“Shame ‘bout the jacket, hopefully that’ll come out. Had a preference for the gold, ya know?”

He pulled the patterned shirt over his shoulders, shrugging to settle it into place, fixing the collar with as much attention as he’d devoted to the undershirt. Even if he was wearing the ridiculous shirts that Bradley loved so much, he wasn’t going to look out of place - or, at least, as little as humanly possible.

“Yeah,” came the response, just a little delayed, and there was a harshness to the tone - if Bradshaw lost his voice now, they really were going to be the brunt of the sex jokes, Christ. “It’s a nice color - ”

Satisfied, he whirled back around as he buttoned the fabric, joke on his lips about the terrible taste that Rooster had in the god-awful shirts, or at least about the patterns -

And paused at the way Bradley was still staring.

Arguably, it was hard to tell where.

Eyes skimmed over his chest, his stomach, roved over his arms - returned to his face as he stopped buttoning and crossed his arms.

“Ya gotta have more original plots to get me into your clothes, Roo. The wine trick’s only gonna be an accident once, an’ then they’ll start gettin’ suspicious.”

He’d expected a stinging remark - he didn’t get one.

“f*ck off,” was all he got instead, choked and weak, redness coloring Bradley’s cheeks so badly that he swore the guy was having an aneurysm - or a stroke, and he wasn’t sure which was worse at this point.

“So ya don’t want me to get off, instead?”

A crinkled whine died in Bradshaw’s throat, and the hand around his jacket twitched.

Oh, Jesus.

For a moment - just a brief one, a tiny little hint of something - he swore that he’d gotten part of what he’d wanted.

He’d tried to get Bradley to look his way.

…He’d thought that it had worked, too, until Rooster just rolled his eyes again and turned away.

“I’d rather you get your ass back in the restaurant so it didn’t seem like we f*cked in here,” Rooster shook his head. “At least no more than it already does.”




(He should’ve known better. This was a ruse, whether they were friends now or not. It didn’t change anything that Bradley leaned against him constantly when they were in the company of others, and nor should it - he knew what he’d been getting himself into. It was stupid of him to think otherwise.)

“Lead the way, then,” he grinned, showing more teeth than strictly necessary, mostly to hide the way it felt like his heart was wilting.

So he dealt with it the same way he’d been handling it - carefully, and with far too many broken shards of his heart to ever pick up without bleeding.

It was fine.

He went on a walk later that night, and tried desperately to forget the way the others had given him mixed reactions on seeing him in Bradley’s shirt.

Phoenix had laughed, a genuine, pleased thing that he had returned with a smirk just this side of teasing. Bob, too, had smiled, seemingly sincere.

He wished that it were true, but they had it all wrong.

Worse still was the relieved, fond expression in Mav’s eyes, like he’d been concerned for Bradley. Whatever the reason, at least it was gone.

Admiral Kazansky, though…


He’d never seen the guy beam at anyone aside from Mav, let alone him, but he got the smile anyways.

He didn’t understand it, exactly, but figured that it hadn’t mattered.

Bradley’s face still hadn’t recovered from either the heat or his upper strip tease, and he had a feeling that it was the former. Regardless, he’d taken immense pleasure in the way Rooster’s uncles had heckled him about it.

It didn’t really matter what they’d done, so long as Mav and Admiral Kazansky seemed to believe it.

His heart, though…well. His heart wanted to believe it, too, though he knew that was a bad idea.

So he’d slipped out from his side of the bed, and went for a walk on the beach.

At least he wasn’t getting lost. It was hard to do that when the resort was attached to their section of the shoreline, but he’d never look a gift horse in the mouth when it came to familiarity.

As it was, the moonlight shone on the beach, and a sigh ripped from his chest before he could stop it.

It had only been days, and yet it felt like years - how the f*ck was he meant to stay with Bradley at a wedding and pretend like everything was fine, like they were there together?

That was the whole point of their little agreement, he knew, but he didn’t know how he was meant to handle it.

Hell, what if he was actually supposed to dance with Bradshaw?

Clearly he was, at least once if they wanted to avoid suspicion, given that it would look far more awkward if they didn’t.


How was he meant to handle the same level of touching, the same degree of gentle emotion etched into Bradley’s eyes - all of it, combined with the physical closeness and implied intimacy at watching them dance?


He really didn’t think he was capable.

He didn’t want to back out, of course, because he was trying so f*cking hard to always keep his word after the mission, but dammit.

“Hey, Bagman, I wondered where you’d wandered off to,” Bradshaw’s voice sliced through his thoughts as he turned, feet digging into the still-cooling sand.

He’d tried so desperately to make a quick and quiet escape that he hadn’t even bothered to throw shoes on his feet at all.


That was really the state his mind was in, wasn’t it?


“Hey, Roo.”

Slightly more surprising was the way Bradley only chose to stand beside him, no other comments to be had, besides - “Done making jokes now?”

“Somethin’ like that. Ask me again in fifteen minutes, might change my mind.”

The soft, amused huff he got in return - along with the bump to his shoulder - made his knees feel like they could buckle out from under him.


Rooster didn’t ask him anything else for a while after that, far too focused on the ocean - not that he blamed the man for it, given how clear the water was even at night.

He wasn’t accustomed to that degree of water, at least not in Texas, but the fact remained that it was still exceptionally beautiful.

And California certainly had more than enough beach and oceanfront property to make up for his landlocked home state.

The silence was comfortable, though.

He didn’t mind it.

“Ya sure this is gonna work?”

Bradley hummed, the sound a little inquisitive, and then there were eyes boring into the side of his head.

He didn’t turn to look.

(He couldn’t. Wouldn’t dare, at this point.)

“Don’t gimme that sh*t, ya know what I mean.”

“Why wouldn’t it?”

And then there was a warm arm pressed against his own, fingers and knuckles brushing as they skidded over each other.

His heart stopped.

Maybe he froze, or the way he’d stopped breathing had become noticeable - either way, Bradley’s hand was pulled back a smidge before he could even protest.

The impulsive part of his brain screamed at him to reach for the wandering fingers, regardless of whether it was a joke or not.

(He didn’t.)

“Ya think they didn’t notice our little stint at dinner tonight? The Admiral ain’t stupid, Roo, an’ neither is Mav, even if he acts like it.”

“He’s a little dumb,” was Bradshaw’s only comment.

If he loved the guy a little less, he might have been tempted to roll his eyes.

As it was, all he could do was finally stare at Bradley’s face, who still seemed startlingly sincere as he shrugged.

“But actually, I think it was fine. You were…good. At acting, I mean.”



He wasn’t about to tell Rooster it was because he hadn’t been acting, and that was the whole point, wasn’t it?

He was meant to be acting along, pretending like he and Bradshaw were a thing, at least for tomorrow.

This wasn’t about him.

It was about Bradley.

He’d done a myriad of stupid, selfish sh*t over the years, and now he hoped beyond all hope that he could undo even a sliver of the hurt that he had caused in his wake.

He didn’t know if he was succeeding, exactly, but he was damn sure going to try.

“Ya think I ain’t bad at pullin’ off some interest, darlin’?”

Joking, of course, as he always did.

The alternative was too painful to even consider, honestly.

But Bradley just snorted, and glanced out at the ocean. The dark eyes had been so soulful that he felt empty when they weren’t locked onto him.

(That was a damn serious problem, and he knew it. But it wasn’t as if he could change it now.)

“You’re not half bad, no.”

“Thought ya said I was good, Roo.”

“You are good, Bagman.” Jesus Christ, he was going to die of the melting, affectionate feeling that suddenly felt like it had his heart in a vice grip. “Never seen someone act like they wanted to jump my bones as much as you did. Let alone that it was you.”


…But no, he supposed he didn’t exactly have the right to be offended by that, now did he?

He hadn’t exactly been the type to make his interest known, even from the start.

The concept of him wanting to f*ck Bradley into the mattress so hard that he couldn’t walk - or vice versa - would’ve been a foreign one to Rooster, even if it was second nature to him by that point.

And that was exactly the issue.

It was such a spectacular performance particulalry because he wanted to jump Bradley, not in spite of it.

But whatever.

It didn’t really matter, did it?

He shrugged, and grinned, a familiar megawatt-feeling spreading through him at the ease on Rooster’s face.

“Ain’t had someone interested, before?”

“f*ck you.”

“Nah, ya said ya didn’t want to, remember?”

If he got toppled sideways into the sand for that remark, he didn’t comment.

He tossed a handful of damp sand right back, tugging Bradley down with him, and listened to the startled squawk as Rooster fell nearly on top of him.

He didn’t care, not in the slightest.

…Not with the way Bradley was suddenly smiling back, looking as enthusiastic as a little kid, trying to knock him over further as he tried to bury sand into Rooster’s curls.

Neither of them succeeded, but it was the thought that counted, in his opinion.

“Anyway,” Bradley started, wiping sand off his face with a hand, spreading more granules onto his cheeks - cursed as he did so. “Thanks. I really do appreciate it, you know. I don’t say it often, but I do owe you one.”

“Don’t worry ‘bout it,” he shrugged, and felt Bradley’s shoulder jostle against his own as he moved. “Ain’t nothin’ to stress over.”

It wasn’t.

Was it incredibly hard for him to process the entire weekend, to stay so close and yet so very, torturously far away?


But he was doing it for Bradley - and for Mav, to a lesser extent, though he didn’t want to admit that, either - so it was fine.

He didn’t think Rooster had to stress about it at all.

But Bradley still looked anxious as sh*t, from the way he was tapping his fingers on his thigh in a vaguely rhythmic pattern, refusing to really look him in the eyes again.

f*cking weird, was what it was.

“I, uh - ” Oh, Bradley was still talking? Ok, then. He could handle that much, even if he didn’t want to hear a word about repayment of any kind for something that was partially self-serving, anyways. “I do have something for you.”

“No thanks.”

“What - ”

“I said ya don’t owe me anythin’, I meant it.”

But the little spluttering told him that maybe he was wrong.

“I’m not trying to repay you. I mean, not really. Just - ” The sigh carried out to the ocean, and he glanced over to see Bradley holding something out in his hand. “Here. For you.”

He blinked, curiosity driving him to place his palm under the closed fist, and accepted the gift - not that he’d been prepared for the beautiful, beaded bracelet that sat in his fingers.

Not just any beaded bracelet, either.

When they had gone shopping, purely out of coincidence, for a way to pass the time, they’d stopped in a jewelry store with the excuse of looking for a birthday gift for Phoenix.

Granted, that had been Bradley’s reasoning.

He, personally, had only cared about the bracelets and necklaces made with far too much genuine care - handcrafted and painted, apparently - to ever belong in such a commercialized place.

Bradley had taken a peek around, but he’d been singularly more invested in the wooden bracelets to even give much of a sh*t about traditional jewelry.

Honestly, though, he hadn’t even noticed that Bradley had been paying attention when he’d been distracted.

…He’d been so distracted, evidently, that he’d failed to notice even Bradshaw.

Jesus, that was a sign, wasn’t it?


Either way, there was no denying that it was definitely one of the bracelets from earlier, the bright viridian shade of green shining almost eerily in the moonlight - not that it made any difference to him.

Right in the center was a tiny bead shaped like a turtle.

He didn’t know why it had caught his eye, besides the obvious care in its craftsmanship. He didn’t even particularly have a preference about turtles, normally.

But Rooster had noticed him staring, evidently.

“When - ”

“I bought Tasha that necklace, remember?”

Yeah, Rooster had done that, hadn’t he? It was the birthday gift that Bradley had been searching for, apparently.

“Told the salesman that I wanted the one you were looking at, and that I’d meet you outside. Just…as a thank you, I guess. You didn’t have to agree to this, and I don’t actually mind spending time with you.”

“Color me f*ckin’ surprised, Roo,” he grinned, smarmy. “Ya don’t hate me? I’m shocked, since we’re here as a date.”

“Shut the hell up,” was the response, followed by a tiny smile - if he could’ve seen Bradley better, he might have thought that Bradshaw’s face had a weird tint to it, but no. That must’ve been the burn from earlier. “Just take the bracelet. Or don’t, whatever.”

A chuckle pulled from his chest at the blunt, almost uncaring way Bradley talked - it was all a bluff, and they both knew it.

He curled his fingers around the bracelet anyway, pretended that he didn’t know that Bradley wouldn’t take the gift back from him.

“Thanks,” he offered, smile still in place.

The nearly shy shrug that he got in response made his heart burst.

“Yeah. No problem.”

And then Rooster was standing, brushing off his pants and trying to rid himself of sand - unfortunately, that meant that it all fell on him, the bastard - but he didn’t mind.

He moreso missed the warmth against him in the cooling sand, regardless of how humid it still was.

No one had warned him that it felt like breathing in a wet blanket, Christ.


He took Bradley’s proffered hand once the man stopped throwing sand all over the goddamn place, and got hauled to his feet.

Regardless of why Rooster had chosen to follow him - and he knew that Bradley had chosen to follow intentionally, because there was no other reason for both of them to end up on the beach at the same time - he found it…comforting.

The bed, for the first time since he had started to share it, became more than tolerable, less than uncomfortable.

He must have slept.

All he remembered was showering and falling into bed, and then his alarm went off - or, well, that was certainly how it felt.

What he didn’t remember was the warm arm spread across his body, a hand splayed across the bare skin of his abdomen.

Dear Lord, he was going to keel over dead from a heart attack, wasn’t he? There was no other explanation for why his body felt so warm, his body jittery and heart pounding like no tomorrow.

(Certainly not because Bradley’s hand was near the waistband of his pants. Most certainly not.)

He chose to ignore the way Bradley ripped himself away when he realized where he was and how they had been sleeping.

Even the apology he got just felt like twisting the knife into his already bleeding, festering wound.

But it was fine.

Totally fine.

The day of the wedding wouldn’t be awkward, they would sell their little performance, and everything would work out.

He f*cking hoped, anyway.

…So he didn’t think anyone blamed him for pulling the little beaded bracelet onto his arm afterwards, dressed to the nines in a suit like the day prior.

The bracelet wasn’t exactly formal material, but Mav could kiss his ass for all he cared - Admiral Kazansky, of course, would probably be a different story.

Still, though.

It was a little piece of Rooster, buried under his sleeve as an implicit reminder of why he was choosing to voluntarily put himself through modified hell instead of simply backing out of their agreement.

He’d already known that he’d never be able to let Bradley down again - at least not knowingly - but this just took the cake.

And speaking of f*cking cake, Mav had asked Bradley to pick up the cake from the nearby bakery just outside the resort.

So Rooster set off, and he’d chosen to stay and finish getting ready for the wedding. In hindsight, he knew himself well enough to know that he probably shouldn’t have left himself alone with his affectionate grief.

But what was done was done, and there was no use dwelling on it.

He wound up at the beach terribly early, aware that the only people there in the morning would be those setting up chairs - aside from Mav and Ice themselves, of course.

Not that Mav or Admiral Kazansky seemed to care much that he was wandering in the ceremony space in the early morning, propriety be damned.

“Hey, Jake. Good to see you here already, kid.”

He didn’t think he’d ever fully acclimate to Mav calling him ‘kid’ like he meant something, like he wasn’t just one of the twelve pilots that the Navy had chosen to pull from their squadrons and send on a death mission.

Like he was actually important to Mav - and the Admiral, too, if his tiny nod and adorning smile were any indication.

He’d never had that.

Nevertheless, he grinned at them when he saw them.

After all, the pure white uniforms gleamed against the sand, and he didn’t think he’d ever seen anything prettier in his life - aside from Bradshaw, and God, wasn’t that a mental image. Bradley, in his dress whites, standing in the sands of an island like this one…


Well, he wasn’t going to torture himself until he needed to, at any rate.

Besides, he thought it was actually…sweet.

Bradley had been the one to give his godfather a suspicious look when they’d revealed that they were getting married in their uniforms, though everyone else - dress whites or not - was meant to be in general formal wear. They’d claimed sentimentality, given DADT and its repeal date, and Bradshaw had gone quiet.

None of them would ever understand exactly what Mav and the Admiral had gone through, and frankly, he didn’t want to ever know.

But they’d lived through it, somehow, and it was a testament to their relationship that they’d weathered it all, regardless. They were free to do as they pleased, in his opinion.

“Hey, pops,” he grinned, pleased when Mav just reached to wrap him into a hug. “Already lookin’ good out here.”

“Why are you here? We thought you’d be with Bradley.”

Ah. Right.

“Thought ya might need help,” he offered instead, and laughed when they both gave him approximations of the same stern expression. It lost something when Mav’s was far less strict - or, at least, far less likely to be taken seriously - but to each their own.

Either way, he’d been told to politely sit down and not touch a damn thing.

He wasn’t even offended.

Instead, he sat out of the way until Bradshaw and the others returned.

…He hadn’t planned on the wedding being so small, but here they were.

A destination wedding for a couple that deserved nothing less than the best - of course the wedding was bound to be fairly small. Knowing how many friends they had, it still came as a surprise.

Seeing them tear up at the ceremony, though? Watching them clutch hands and cry as they spun lyrical tales of their lover over the years, including those a little less sappy and heartsick?


He wasn’t the only one crying for them, that was all.

And if he were a different man - one still under his father’s influence - he might have considered it an embarrassment to cry for two of his best mentors as they married.

He didn’t give any less of a sh*t, now.

He could make a scene all he wanted, Mav and Ice didn’t give a damn - neither did Bradley, from the way he spotted the guy trying to discreetly wipe a tear from his eye as he stood near the couple.

And honestly, it was nice.

…Equally as nice as the warmth from Bradley’s hand as it settled on his back as they walked back to the resort’s main restaurant for the reception.

“Didn’t think I’d ever see you cry, Bagman.”

“Better get used to it, then,” he snorted, amusem*nt coursing through him at the way the hand on his back tightened like Rooster wanted to slap him just for making jokes. “I ain’t only one to cry at puppies and weddings, ya know.”

“What else do you cry at?”

He grinned in lieu of answering, and the hand on his back settled around him and landed on his hip.

It felt wholly unnecessary, but he didn’t care much, and there were eyes on them, anyway.

Let Bradley hold him, he didn’t give a sh*t.

(In fact, he would rather they stayed just like they were, preferably for a long time. It wasn’t practical, or logical, but he wished that they could.)

Had he been prepared for Bradley to be practically glued to his side the entire night, after that?

Well, kinda.

Only because they’d agreed to be seen together as a date, of course, but even this was just…extreme.

Bradshaw handing him drinks? Fussing over him constantly? Shielding them from the brunt of the others’ attention - keeping it just them?

The last bit was the one that got to him the most.

It didn’t bother him much if Rooster wanted to keep him secluded - it wasn’t as if he was introverted to the point that he couldn’t make any other acquaintances, of course - but the idea that Bradley wanted him alone just felt…different.

They’d never been the type to get each other alone, even in their little scheme.

In fact, it was rather the opposite.

Their little lie relied on being front and center in other people’s eyes, to put on a show to make Mav and the Admiral believe that Bradley wasn’t as lonely as he’d claimed.

(Rooster wasn’t, if he had his way, but the point still stood.)

So he didn’t quite understand why Bradshaw was bothering to keep them isolated unless Bradley wanted them to be, in the first place.

And that, of all things, was the most baffling.

There was no point to their time alone, at least from a strategic standpoint.

Unless Bradley genuinely wanted to spend time with him - and that had to be the reason.

…He felt like he was losing his mind.

Rooster’s company made up for it, though.

(And if he squinted just hard enough, tilted his head just right, he could almost convince himself that maybe it meant something. Maybe it wasn’t just an elaborate ruse to Bradley. Maybe he was worth more than that.)

(He found the thought much harder to cast away than what he was accustomed to, at first.)

And then Bradshaw had asked him to dance, of all f*cking things.

But he’d known that they’d probably have to dance at least once, so, well -

“Sure, Roo,” he’d beamed, incessant warmth blooming in his chest at the hopeful, nearly-vulnerable look in Bradley’s eyes. Maybe he wasn’t wrong, then. “I’ll bite. Let’s see if ya hesitate too long on the ground, too.”

“I can dance, Bagman, I’m not completely inept.”

He hummed, a disbelieving noise made to cover up the way his heart had started to pound.

“If you say so. Guess you’ll have to prove it.”

“I guess so.”

And he was pleasantly surprised - though it wasn’t nearly that much of a shock - to see Bradley dancing a waltz, a swing, a f*cking tango.

Even more entertaining was the way he got pulled through them, too.

(For Bradley, he didn’t mind following - in any aspect. A dance, a dogfight, in their lives…none of it mattered to him, as long as he could stay by Bradshaw’s side for the rest of his immeasurably short time.)

Laughter burst from his chest in a more visceral, joyous manner than he’d anticipated, and his hands landed on Bradley’s shoulders as he was pulled back into a stand from a low dip.

The hand wrapped around his back didn’t move, and Bradley’s face seemed almost tender.


Maybe he really wasn’t reading this wrong.

Maybe it had started exactly as Bradshaw had intended - wedding date and family included - but now it was something else. Maybe now he wasn’t alone in thinking this could be something else.

Maybe he wasn’t the only one whose face felt so flushed that he could combust into flames if Bradley kept watching him with those dark, soft eyes.

He wanted, in that moment, more than anything else, to lean in and kiss the guy.

(The urge was harder to banish than he thought it would be.)

“Still think I’m inept?”

Damn him, that stupid, skeptical eyebrow was going to be the death of him.


“I think I missed it,” he shrugged, and felt Bradley’s other hand tuck into his back. He leaned slightly backwards, canting into the warm palms. “Maybe ya need to show me again.”

Bradley’s smile was bracketed by that ridiculous mustache, and suddenly there were curls - heavy forehead and all - dropping onto his shoulder.

“When I get my breath back, I’ll think about it.”

He snickered, and folded his hands around the back of Bradley’s neck, giving in to the slightest temptation and allowing himself that much.

“Ya can’t handle dancin’ any longer, darlin’?”

Something like a shiver wracked Bradley’s shoulders, and the ear pressed near his own felt warm.

“I’m not twenty anymore,” was the muffled response, and he felt lips mumbling into his suit. It lit something in his belly on fire, and he couldn’t stamp that one out even if he’d tried.

“Ah, so ya really wouldn’t have the stamina for that exhibitionism, huh?” The smile etched onto his face was permanent, now, he had a feeling. His cheeks stung from grinning so damn hard. “Shame.”

“Asshole,” was the response, along with a small poke in his ribs that had him laughing.

He thought he could feel those lips crinkle into something like a smile as they touched the fabric of the shirt.


“Like ya didn’t know that,” he pinched at Bradshaw’s neck, allowed the tips of his fingers to brush into the curls at the nape of his wingman’s neck.

He thought he felt the guy shiver, if only barely.

Most likely, Rooster was catching his breath - most certainly.

But it didn’t stop his heart from clenching like it had been caught in a vice, bleeding and oozing sentimentality all over the f*cking floor.

And standing there, having Bradley lean into him as much as he did the same, curling around the other’s body warmth like it was the only heat he’d ever get…

It was as close to what he wanted as he’d ever had.

For the briefest of moments, he wondered if Bradley felt the same.

…Not that it mattered, from the way Rooster was suddenly wiggling out of his hold, away from his wandering fingers.

He knew when to take a hint, at least.

He dropped his arms, folding them over his chest as he grinned.

If it could hide even an ounce of the hurt that was suddenly slicing through him at the closed, aloof expression on Bradshaw’s face, it would be worth it.

He knew better.

He did.

But dammit, none of that made his heart stop aching, like the weekend was a taste of something that he wanted more than life itself - like he might have been able to have it.

And yet he was still being stared at with a distant, almost indifferent gaze all of a sudden, as if he wasn’t even there.

What the actual hell?

He was doing exactly what Bradley had wanted him to do, so what was the problem?

Why was Bradley glancing right through him, like Rooster’s mind was a million f*cking miles from them?


He didn’t get it.

He’d done nothing but follow directions - at Bradley’s own request, in spite of his own feelings, which he likely should have mentioned but hadn’t felt the need - and for what? Rooster certainly didn’t look thankful anymore.

“See? Not twenty anymore, but I’m no invalid.”

“Right,” he scoffed back, suddenly more than aware of the vitriol that had entered his voice without his permission.

He bit back the urge to say something akin to ‘at least you’re not dead,’ but stopped himself.

His tongue was likely bleeding from how hard he’d chomped on it to refrain from making a comment, but even so.

The last thing he needed was to ruin their newly-repaired, barely tumultuous relationship by insinuating that Bradley would have died without his own interference. That wouldn’t get them anywhere, even if he was slightly pissed at the bizarre way Bradley was acting.

And maybe that was his fault, too.

He knew that Bradley had been bluffing this entire time, and it wasn’t exactly as if he’d forgotten.

But…if it was just a bluff, there was no reason to keep him comfortable on the plane. If it was just a bluff, there was no reason to buy him a bracelet - the one still attached to his arm like some kind of goddamn momento, branding his skin. There was no reason for it.

If it was all a bluff, there was little reason for Bradley to get so physically touchy with him, too, especially at night.

He understood why this - the dancing, the holding, everything in front of the others - was necessary, but the primate moments? The ones where it was just him and Bradley?

It didn’t make sense.

Rooster didn’t need to treat him like he was valued as much as he was, if that was the case. They’d never been close enough to be considered good friends, before the suicide mission, so this was all new.

It stung.

All of it, combined with the way Bradshaw was staring him down like he didn’t exist, didn’t mean a damn thing, like they weren’t even friendly with each other anymore -


Forgive him if he found it hard to pin the blame solely on himself for that.

Regardless, even with the physical and emotional distance that Bradley had just thrust between them like some sort of goddamn demented chasm, something in his tone must have given Bradshaw pause.

All Rooster did was blink, and refocus.

“You alright? You’re not hurt, are you?”


A loaded question if there ever was one, and Bradley likely had no idea.

“Why would I be?” He felt the grin stretch wider over his cheeks, morphing into a baring of teeth. He didn’t even care what Rooster saw, or how he chose to see it. “Ya ain’t God or nothin’, ain’t like ya to drag me over the coals. Too nice for that sh*t, huh?”

Bradley just blinked.

He, frankly, thought that he was justified.

Bradshaw didn’t get to simply pick and choose when he was convenient, nor did he get to assume that they were both fine with displays of affection like the one that he’d just participated in.

Even if it hadn’t been meant as a plot to hurt him - because he understood that not everything was about him, regardless of what he used to think - he still wished that he’d been given time to adjust.

Because the look in Bradshaw’s eyes seemed to imply…something.

He wasn’t sure what it was, but it didn’t particularly matter.

Not that it stopped Bradley from looking so damn nauseated.

He didn’t know what that was about, but he found that he didn’t want to give it much thought, either, even if that was wrong of him.

Bradshaw was the one who looked f*cking sick, that wasn’t his problem.

…He wanted to go home.

The mood that he’d been sustaining the entire weekend had evaporated as soon as Bradley had glanced at him with that overly-distant expression. It didn’t matter what his mouth said now. Rooster’s eyes had said it all, and he didn’t particularly need to listen to anything else.

Thankfully, Bradshaw seemed to understand.

They thanked Mav, gave their congratulations to the Admiral and his new husband, and left.

“You’re staying the week with us, right?”

…But not before dealing with whatever this bullsh*t was.

He certainly hadn’t been told about this.

“You don’t have to,” Admiral Kazansky added, likely pinching his husband in the side, based on the way Mav suddenly squirmed away. “But we’d be happy to have you around a while longer, given that Bradley’s family, of course.”



And that had been the entire f*cking reason for this in the first place.

That was the reason he’d agreed.

And damn, he didn’t want to hurt Bradley. He talked a big f*cking game, but he’d told himself to stop being a dick more than once when it came to Rooster. That wasn’t new, and he certainly didn’t have plans to take it back.

But sh*t.

How was he meant to keep going like this, when he could barely find it in him to grit his teeth and smile, smarmy assholery be damned.

He didn’t know.

He’d done his due diligence, and he wasn’t sure he could handle much else.

“That’s very kind of ya,” he offered, and allowed the hand that Bradley had pressed into his back - physical contact as they walked over - to touch his hip. “But I should decline. Don’t wanna impose, or nothin’.”

“Nonsense,” Mav insisted. “Hangman, if you were imposing, we would’ve told you.”

“Well, regardless,” he grinned, and refused to elaborate.

But Mav and Ice did, at the very least, seem amenable to his request, even if they found it bizarre. Thankfully, they didn’t say anything more.

He didn’t know what he would have said if they had.

(He’d ignored the knowing glances that Mav kept giving him, like he was finally going to take Bradley up on the previous night’s taunt about their sex life - or lack thereof.)

All he really wanted was to lick his wounds in peace. That was too much to ask, apparently.

Bradshaw, in particular, remained hovering just two f*cking inches away from him at all time, even on the walk back to their resort room.

(The hand dropped from his hip, and the loss shot through him like a bullet - all the more reason for him to get the hell out of dodge sooner rather than later, if he was able.)

He wished that it didn’t make him feel so goddamn ill, too.

But sh*t.

They hadn’t said a word to each other after they’d left the restaurant - left Mav and Ice - and that was bad enough.

By the time he’d decided that he’d had enough of Bradley’s meager attempts to start a conversation, he crawled into bed.

“Hangman, Jesus. Seriously. What the hell’s wrong?”

Ah, so Bradshaw still wasn’t over it, was he?


Neither was he.

“Roo, I ain’t Jesus. An’ you ain’t God, thought we made that clear earlier,” he grinned, aiming the smile over his shoulder at Rooster for the slightest of moments.

Not that Bradley seemed appeased in any sense of the word.

It was worse, in his opinion, that his anger had all but dissipated and gone up in smoke at the way Mav and the Admiral had insisted that Bradley was family. He hadn’t forgotten that he’d been doing Bradshaw a favor, but this just felt like the worst type of slap in the face. He knew he owed Bradley more than just a fake commitment, and he wished that he could give it.

But hell, he just…it had been long enough.

“We pulled it off,” he said aloud. “Ya ain’t gotta worry ‘bout your family bein’ on your back, an’ it was nice to see Mav anyway. Old man might settle down for once, ya know?”

Bradley ignored what might have been an obvious retort - something about how he, himself, was hardly one to settle down in any circ*mstance - and he felt the bed dip next to him.

“I appreciate it. I told you I did. You know I owe you.”

“Ya don’t - ”

“‘Owe you sh*t,’ I know. You keep saying that, Jake, but forgive me if I don’t think that’s fair.”

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

He still couldn’t dare to turn completely around, content to shuffle onto his back and stare at the ceiling instead. As it was, he didn’t think he could look Bradley in the eyes.

And Bradley was certainly staring, he could feel the gaze on him as clearly as if they had been watching each other like they always did.

There was a motion from Rooster’s side of the bed that seemed vaguely exasperated, and he fought the urge to smile despite himself. It was a testament to Bradshaw’s entire personality that he was able to make him laugh at a time like this.

“Why the f*ck would it be fair, Hangman? I dragged you here - ”

“I was already coming.”

“ - for what? All because I couldn’t admit to my own family that I haven’t been dating since we graduated Top Gun. Christ.”



Bradley blinked, and he finally glanced over to meet Rooster’s eyes fully. It didn’t help that Bradley’s face was screwed up in a type of anger that he was very familiar with - the kind that wrinkled the man’s mustache and crinkled the space between his eyebrows.

It was hard to focus on the anger that he’d clearly caused when the guy just looked so damn attractive.

“Bagman. We’ve had the entire weekend for you to ask this question, and you picked right now to ask it?”

Well -

“Why not? Never occurred to me before. Didn’t know ya weren’t datin’ anyone, thought ya told Phoenix to keep it quiet, is all.”

He didn’t think that was an unreasonable question.

He’d assumed - wrongly, clearly, but regardless - that Bradley had perhaps had a date or two here or there, maybe things simply didn’t work out long term.

He hadn’t given thought to the idea that Rooster wasn’t dating at all.

“How’d this even come up? We were talking about why you’re acting so goddamn tired all of a sudden.”

“Me?” That was rich, wasn’t it? He thought so. “Y’all made a face when we were dancin’, that ain’t my fault.”

“So now it’s my fault that I made a f*cking face? I told you, I’m not twenty anymore, I’m not as flexible as I used to be!”

He raised an eyebrow - purely to tease, purely out of habit - and got nothing but a dispassionate blink in response.

Got it. Not joking, then.

“No, Roo, the one where ya looked like you’d rather dance with a brick wall than with me. I know I’m a handful, but Jesus - ya can’t handle it, then why’d ya ask?”

There…were a little too many layers to unpack, with what he’d just asked Bradley, but with the way Bradshaw was suddenly turning as red as a f*cking tomato - right up to his ears - well.

That was new.

“That’s not - I mean - ” Bradley sighed, a ragged thing that seemed to heave air from his lungs, to cut strings from both shoulders as Rooster practically drooped.

And his anger went right out the window along with Bradshaw’s tension.

He was confused as all hell, but he’d promised to try to stop being cruel. He didn’t want them to fight.

Just -

“I did want to dance with you. I still do, that’s not - that wasn’t the issue.”

“What was the issue, then? Still don’t get it, an’ I ain’t psychic, unfortunately.”

Bradshaw’s face still didn’t look any better, and if he could’ve passed the marks off as a burn, he might have.

But no, he couldn’t lie to himself about this one.

Rooster’s face had never been this red the entire weekend, let alone just hours ago.

Bradshaw was flushed, and there was a reluctance to talk that permeated the hesitance in Rooster’s whole posture. It was so unlike the guy - at least as of recently - that it made him pause.

Because again, it wasn’t as if he wanted to hurt Bradshaw, and he didn’t want them to fight.

But it almost seemed like -

“If ya just wanted to spend time with me,” he joked, only half kidding, “ya coulda just asked.”

“I did.”


“The f*ck is that supposed to mean?”

Because yeah, no, he was still f*cking lost.

Not that Bradley looked as if he noticed, from the way he was staring intently at something. It took him a moment to realize that Rooster wasn’t just zoning out - it took him an additional moment to realize that Bradley was staring at the turtle bracelet that he’d left on his arm in his earlier huff.

He reached for it, twisting it almost lazily around his wrist, reveling in the way Rooster’s eyes tracked the movement.

“I asked you to pose as my wedding date.”



Oh. First name basis, then.

…Plus, Bradley was giving him that look again, the one that implied that he was an idiot.

He didn’t feel that was right - Bradshaw was just as much of a stupid asshat as he was, frankly.

“Do you really think I would’ve invited you here like this if I didn’t enjoy your company?”

No comment.

He did feel a laugh bubble from his chest, though, along with a smack on the arm from Rooster.

He couldn’t quite help it. He tried.

“No, asshole. I wouldn’t do that.”

“But if ya just needed a date - ”

“We’ve been over this. I didn’t want to pretend to be someone I wasn’t, and I didn’t feel like asking a total stranger to show up. Especially not for my godfather’s wedding, of all things.”

Alright, sure.

He shrugged.

Rooster looked like the man was two seconds away from taking his hands and wrapping them around his shoulders to shake him.

He didn’t care.

He wouldn’t hurt Bradley, but it certainly seemed as though Rooster wanted to smack him around for acting dumb.

If he knew why he was acting stupid, he’d gladly fix it. He wasn’t an idiot - usually, anyway.

Even so.

“But I do enjoy your company. We’re…friends, right?”

“Ya seem unsure,” he smiled, and felt this one melt onto his face into something genuine, something that felt like it echoed down to his bones.

Because he did consider Bradley his friend, if Bradshaw was willing to do the same.

Did he wish for so much more?

Of course.

But he loved their relationship anyway, even if he was reaching his emotional limit for the weekend.

“Dipsh*t, of course we’re friends,” Rooster rolled his eyes. It was so familiar that relief coursed through him faster than he even realized that he’d been concerned in the first place. “But I didn’t want to jeopardize that by asking you to come here.”

“Of course not,” he confirmed, unflinchingly honest for once. “Ya ain’t the worst person to spend a weekend with, Roo.”

“Wow, thanks, I feel so loved.”

“Ya should,” he chuckled. “I don’t jet across the country for anybody.”

“That’s why I owe you.”

“Christ, I woulda been here anyway. Ya don’t owe me sh*t, Roo. Ya know that.”

“But that’s not fair to you.”

No, what wasn’t fair was expecting him to keep putting on this front with the others when all he really wanted was to sink into a f*cking pit the longer he had to pretend like he had some type of claim over Bradshaw.

“Nah, ain’t your fault.”

“It is when I - ”

A pause, followed by the worst type of silence that he’d ever heard.

Bradley had clammed up again when he was semi-distracted, and refused to budge.



Bradley just hummed, inquisitive, and he rolled his eyes, bumped the man in the knees with his foot.

“It’s your fault for what, Roo? Ain’t like ya knew your family would ask ‘bout ya datin’.”

“No. I didn’t,” Bradshaw just shrugged, a hand tugging through his hair and pulling at his curls.

He wanted, more than life itself, to reach out and pry the hand from its death grip on Bradshaw’s hair. He didn’t, but he damn well wanted to.

“So I should’ve picked someone I wasn’t…interested in, and asked them to come help me. Shouldn’t have gotten you involved, it wasn’t your business.”


Bradley was admitting -

“Interested, huh?”

“Yes,” Bradley shrugged, and he gave off such a defeated air that it screamed pitiful, for once. “Something like that. I’d rather you didn’t give me sh*t right now, ok?”

“In me?”

“Jake. Seriously.”

“…In what way?”

“Bagman, please don’t - ”

“Please,” he insisted, and his tone must have alerted Bradshaw, because the protest in Rooster’s mouth died on the man’s tongue. “I gotta hear it, most of all from you.”

And then Bradley just shrugged again, as if he didn’t know what else to do.

“You know I followed you through Top Gun, with hesitation that you and Mav kept saying would kill me. You’re far less of a dick than you used to be, you don’t rankle me anymore. No more proving yourself or any other stupid sh*t. I wouldn’t do the things I did for you if you weren’t on my mind.”


He was referring to the turtle bracelet?

He must’ve been, from the way Bradley’s eyes had locked onto the beaded bracelet and refused to look away.

“But really, it’s just nice to spend time with you. I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable. I didn’t mean that.”

Oh, God.

He leaned forward, unperturbed, and landed a kiss at the corner of Bradley’s lips, right near the mustache that he lied about hating.

Rooster stiffened, and he froze.



“I, uh, ya said…”


One shell-shocked expression from Bradley and he was tripping all over his tongue, wasn’t he? That was probably a bad sign, all things considered.

“I thought - ”

And then there was a hand tugging at his shirt, yanking him closer, a bit sideways -

Lips were pressing at his own, and the brush of facial hair scratched at his nose as he moved slightly.

Dear God.

His eyes fell shut as something in his stomach burned molten, and his heart clamped like a vice at the hand that was trying to dig into one of his hips.


He was dying.

He must have been.

It was everything that he’d ever wanted and more - and he just…all he felt was satisfaction.

Even when the mouth brushing his own nosed towards his neck instead, sucking tiny kisses and marks there…

“Ya coulda just said somethin’ instead,” he offered, and dragged a hand through the curls at the male of Bradley’s neck.

Bradshaw’s tiny shiver made it worth it.

“You’re not just playing?”

“Does it feel like I’m playin’?”


He snorted, and scratched at Rooster’s scalp a little more purposefully.

(If he was rewarded with a harder bite to his neck, well, no one needed to know.)

“Didn’t think ya might feel the same,” he countered. “Not with how I made your life so sh*tty.”

“Yeah,” the muffled voice replied. “But you don’t do that now. That’s different.”

“If ya say so.”

“I do.”

Wasn’t much he could contest there, now could he?

“Still care about ya though. I was sh*t at showin’ ya, but I do.”

“I get that now,” Rooster’s lips felt like they formed a smile in his neck, before he was staring into the man’s eyes again as he pulled back. “But I didn’t, before the mission. Not that it matters now.”

“I’m still sorry.”

“I know. Me too, for what it’s worth.”

“Ain’t nothin’ for you to apologize for.”

A quiet, nearly disbelieving hum sounded from Bradshaw’s throat, and he shook his head.

“Look, there ain’t ever a good time to tell ya that I love you, but if I had to pick - ”

Lips were pressed to his own so quickly that he thought he’d develop f*cking whiplash, and Rooster pulled back, grinning wider than he’d ever seen.

“As if I don’t.”

“Do ya?”

“I bought you a bracelet, Bagman. Did you want a whole ass wedding cake, too?”

“Proposing, Roo? Already? I thought ya got raised better than that, my mama ain’t lettin’ me marry without going on a date.”

“Doesn’t this count as one?”

He pretended to give it thought, amused when Bradley just raised an eyebrow, smiling back.

“Nah. I was lured here under false pretenses. Maybe if I’m aware of the next one…”

“Oh, so you want another date? Is that what you’re asking?”

“Maybe I am,” his smile morphed into something else - something co*cksure that probably resembled a smirk - and whatever it was made Bradley’s smile widen.

“Fine. Next week, then.”

“Why wait? We got a perfectly good island right here.”

Bradshaw blinked.

“You want to stay?”

And, well -

“Sure, darlin’. I’ll stay, we can see your family.”

As long as Bradley was by his side, was with him to the end, felt the same way that he did, even…it wasn’t a question in the slightest.

They’d kept up a phenomenal appearance, but it would be delightful to remove the pretense, now that it was over.

They didn’t need it, anyway.

(And if Mav and Ice had - somehow - seemed to know about their little ploy from the start, had noticed their renewed enthusiasm when the following day rolled around…no one else seemed to care.)

All he cared about was keeping Bradley staring at him like he hung the goddamn moon.

It meant more than the world to him.

He wouldn’t change it for anything.

Tourism and Destinations (Neither Compare to Journeys or Friendships) - ToukoJalorda003 (2024)
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