Though the inaugural NWSL season ended with the Spirit at the bottom of the table, Ali at least felt like the new coach had helped them turn the tide. The team played their best soccer and though only managing 2 wins the second half of the season, she went into the off season sure they’d be a team to beat the second season.
Ashlyn had agreed to see a shrink that specialized in PTSD. She could no longer use the excuse of not seeing combat to deny she was having some issues after killing 2 men to save her squad. As reluctant as she had been to go, she had to admit it had helped. A lot. She was sleeping better and the next time she had fired her gun, though she still hated taking a life, it didn’t nearly cripple her mentally.
Right now the happy couple is separated once more as Ali is at a month-long camp, which includes 2 friendlies with Mexico and 1 with Costa Rica, while Ashlyn is in India helping a remote region in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. Incredibly, though the small town had lost water and electricity, their cell towers had remained standing. This allowed the military personnel to make calls home each week through the use of generators. It was set up with a strict schedule that loved ones didn’t know and the calls were limited to 5 minutes each. The coaching staff had been great about keeping Ali’s phone on them and immediately calling her off of drills when the calls came in.
On this morning, the team is enjoying breakfast, each woman engrossed in her morning ritual. For some that meant chatting with friends, others watched the morning news, while others enjoyed quietly reading their books or magazines. Ali was enjoying her meal with Whitney and HAO when suddenly Becky’s voice rises above the murmur.
“HOLY SHIT! IT’S ASHLYN!”
The defender is converged upon by all the women. Ali drops into the chair beside her.
Becky holds up her Time magazine. “It’s a pic of the week. Look!”
She turns it so Ali can see. In the photo, Ashlyn is down on 1 knee, a child cradled in her hand as she holds a bottle of water to her lips. The child’s limbs hang loosely as if already drained of life. Ali’s eyes tear up at the site of her dirty wife staring intently at the small girl in her arms.
“What’s the caption?” Pinoe asks.
Becky looks to the bottom of the page and starts to read. “U.S. Army Corps of Engineers First Lieutenant Ashlyn Harris holds the body of 3 year old Sangita Bedi...”
Ashlyn’s squad had been in the town for two days. She lifts her helmet enough to wipe the ever constant stream of sweat off her forehead.
“Have I mentioned it’s hot as shit here, Andrews?”
Her newly promoted sergeant, who had been with her since she joined the Engineers, grins. “You may have mentioned it a time or two, L.T.” he replies with a grin.
“So, how is everything looking?”
“We’re still waiting for the arrival of the two trucks with more water. The bridge they were supposed to cross collapsed.”
Ashlyn rolls her eyes. “You mean the one we barely made it across 2 days ago?”
“One and the same. As we speak a team is already in place installing a bridge but we still won’t be getting restocked until tomorrow, maybe by noon if we’re lucky.”
“Fucking great,” Ashlyn mutters.
She studies all the people gathering to get their daily supply of rations. Her mind flicks back to the last time she’d had to ration precious water. Her stomach nearly dumps the contents of her breakfast as she decides what to do.
“Contact Nettles. Tell him we’re instituting rationing of water today. I’ll get with Patel and have him announce to those gathered we’re having to restrict rations to 2 gallons per household today. Pray they understand,” she adds.
“I will. I remember last time, too, L.T.”
She pats him on the shoulder. “I know you do, Andrews. Get on it.”
He nods and hurries off to contact their base of operations. Ashlyn tracks down the private that speaks fluent Hindu and explains what he needs to tell people.
“Stress to them that this is for one day only and that we will be restocked tomorrow either by truck or chopper,” she tells him. “No medical or food will be restricted, just water and just temporarily.”
He nods and gets up on the hood of a Humvee to address the crowd with a bullhorn. Ashlyn watches as people start to get restless. Faces get scared or angry, only a few are understanding.
“Fuck, he’s losing some of them,” she mumbles and steps up on the hood beside him. “Patel, say what you have to say to calm them down. Offer to have a meeting with town elders if needed.”
He nods and passes on her words. But the crowd still starts to get unruly. People push and shove trying to cut in line or maintain their positions. Ashlyn starts to shake her head.
“Fuck. We’re losing them. What the fuck more can we say?”
Patel shrugs. “Tell them we’re opening stores an hour early?” he suggests.
Ashlyn nods. “Yeah, do that. Let’s get them started through the lines and see if that calms them down.”
She leaps off the vehicle and races over to the men running the supply lines. “Boys, get things ready to go. We’re opening up the lines early to see if that appeases them. Maintain calm, guys. Got it?”
They nod and she goes to the men guarding the gate of the barrier. “On my go, open the gate. Keep the flow slow and orderly.”
“Gotcha, Lieutenant,” one private says.
Ashlyn watches her men at the supply lines. The sergeant in charge there turns and meets her eyes, giving her a curt nod. She nods back.
“Okay, boys, let them through,” she says and stands there to make sure the first people few are proceeding courteously. She whispers a quick prayer. “Please, God, let the others see things are calm and okay. Please don’t let them riot.”
She starts to walk back along the fence line. Towards the back, people are still pushing and shoving. She looks up at Patel.
“Patel! Tell them the lines are open! Tell them everyone will be taken care of!”
He just nods and relays the message. Ashlyn turns back in time to see 2 men start to throw punches. “Son of a bitch!” she races forward along with another soldier that had seen the fight start. By the time they get there, 4 more men have joined the melee. “HEY! STOP!” she screams. Before she can reach over the fence and grab one of the men, a small child is thrust into her arms. “What the hell?”
A woman, tears streaming down her face, starts to yell at Ashlyn. At first glance, the little girl is dead. She is covered with dirt, concrete dust, mud and blood. Her limbs hang loosely. Ashlyn looks from the girl to the woman.
“She wants you to save her!” a man says.
Ashlyn looks at the man. “What?”
“It’s her daughter. They thought she was dead but they found her in the rubble today. They think she is still alive and needs your help.”
Ashlyn swallows hard. Out of the corner of her eye she sees the fight has stopped as all those in line stop to see if the young life can be saved. Ashlyn drops down to one knee and places her fingers at the girls neck, hoping to find a pulse.
“Hey, little one,” she whispers. “Are you still with us?”
After a second she can feel it beating weakly. She rips the canteen off her belt and flips it open. She uses two fingers over the opening to control the flow of water and sprinkles some in the little girl’s mouth. She uses a finger to stroke the girl’s throat, knowing when you do that to dogs they will swallow. She can only pray that works for humans, too. After a few seconds she smiles when she sees the girl swallow and start to cough. She quickly sits her up.
“Easy, little one. Easy.”
The girl’s hands grab Ashlyn’s arms automatically. Her eyes are still mostly closed but her mouth is working, almost like she is trying to nurse. Ashlyn brings the canteen up again, letting the girl get a little more water. As the girl coughs after getting too much, Ashlyn looks at the man beside them.
“Already on the way, ma’am,” he replies.
She nods and looks back at the little girl. Chocolate brown eyes are now opening a little. Ashlyn gives her some more water and the girl slumps against her as she gratefully drinks the offered water.
“Lieutenant, what do we have?”
“She was found today under the rubble of her house. So we’re looking at 3 days without water or food and dealing with the elements,” she tells the medic as she lays the girl upon the ground. As he starts an IV, Ashlyn looks at her men. “Get her mother over here.”
The men nod and go to the fence to assist the mother over so she can be near her daughter. Ashlyn steps out of the way as the woman kneels down beside her girl. Ashlyn looks those beyond the barrier. They are all quiet, seemingly in prayer on behalf of the young girl. Petty fights over place in line have been forgotten. Ashlyn steps to the fence and looks at one man.
“You speak English?” The man nods. “Would you be willing to help the medic translate as needed?”
“I...I would but...my family needs rations,” he says shamefully.
Ashlyn places a hand on his shoulder. “Give me their address. I will take it there personally if you can help this woman help our medics save her little girl.”
The man nods. “Then I will help.”
Two of Ashlyn’s soldiers help him over the fence. As promised, 20 minutes later Ashlyn and another soldier deliver the man’s rations to his family, a neighbor explaining what had happened at the supply station. As the two soldiers walk back to their camp, the corporal pats his lieutenant on the back.
“Ma’am, if I may say, that was...was freakin’ amazing. Helping the little girl come back from death’s door, getting the man to help with translating, maintaining calm when we’ve got supply issues. I just...that was incredible, ma’am.”
Ashlyn smiles. “Thanks, Petrovsky. I’m just glad no riot broke out.”
As they get back to the supply station, Patel looks at Ashlyn. “I bet you want to know how your little patient is doing.”
Ashlyn nods. “Yeah, I do. How is she?”
“...and thanks to the quick thinking by Lt. Harris and the immediate medical care provided, little Sangita is expected to make a full recovery,” Becky finishes reading.
Whitney is massaging Ali’s shoulders as the team had listened to Becky explain the picture. “That was incredible,” Whit says.
“So...this happened 2 weeks ago, right? Did she tell you?” Abby asks Ali.
Ali smiles, eyes full of love. “Of course not. To her it was just another day at the office.”
Pinoe shakes her head. “Kriegs, she is something else. You should marry that girl.”
Everyone laughs as Ali rolls her eyes.
“Gee, why didn’t I think of that,” Ali replies dryly. She stands. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go buy every issue of Time magazine in a 4 block radius before practice this morning.”
“Hold up,” HAO says. “I want a copy so I’ll come with you.”
“Me, too,” Whitney chimes in.
Ali looks around and chuckles. “So copies for everyone?” Everyone nods, grinning. “Fine, but copies for our families are bought first, then the rest of you may get one. We’ll just see what you’ll be willing to do to secure a copy. I love the colour pink and I love diamonds. Putting those two things together will get you an autographed copy,” she jokes as the three players leave to the sound of their teammates laughing at them.
Ali grabs her phone when it starts to ring in the middle of the night. “Ashlyn?”
“Hey, baby,” the soldier says, her voice tired.
“How are things going?”
“Good. We pulled back to main base today. If all goes well, first team flies home tomorrow.”
“That’s great! I can’t wait to see you.”
Ashlyn smiles. “I can’t wait to sit in the recliner and watch your game on Sunday. Even if we get delayed tomorrow that should still be possible for me. Make sure Ken has the best snacks and beer ready for me.”
Ali grins. “Definitely.”
“Hey, Ashlyn,” Abby calls out through a yawn.
“Shit! Sorry, Abs,” Ali says as she gets up to take her phone into the bathroom. “I was so excited about speaking to you I forgot I had a roommate.”
Ashlyn laughs, and Ali is glad to hear it, “Nice, honey. Don’t make them hate me for calling you at odd hours.”
“Never. Especially after this week’s Time magazine,” she says coyly, as she sits on the edge of the tub.
Ashlyn frowns. “Time magazine? Did they do an article on you guys?”
“Nope. Turns out you made their pictures of the week section.”
Ashlyn blushes, sitting up straight, her heart starting to beat faster. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about a little girl you brought back from the brink of death. Did you know a reporter caught it on film?”
“Hell no! Are you freakin’ serious? Please tell me you’re joking!” Ash pleads desperately.
“Nope,” Ali replies, not noticing the pain in her wife’s voice. “Our family members all have copies, as does every member of the team. We are so proud of you for saving that- -”
“She died, Alex,” Ashlyn says softly.
“- -little girl and...uh, what?”
Ashlyn takes a deep breath, pinching the bridge of her nose. “She had internal bleeding that couldn’t be stopped in the field. By the time they got her to the nearest medical facility it was too late. She died, Alex, I didn’t save her.”
“Oh, God, Ashlyn...”
“Yeah. Planned on talking to my shrink a bit about that before telling you. The reporter said she lived?”
Ashlyn sighs. “She woke up a little right there in my arms but her eyes...they never quite...focused. I think even if she had lived she’d have been brain damaged. It had just been...too long. She didn’t really have a chance. Best we did was give her mother a little more time with her.”
Ali wipes away a tear. “Oh, baby, I am sure she is thankful for that time. It may not seem like enough to you but it gave her time to tell her how much she loves her. That’s huge, baby.”
Ashlyn pops her neck, rubbing it with her free hand. “Yeah, I keep telling myself the same thing. I’ll let you know when I believe it.”
The two talk a little longer then Ashlyn has to go to a meeting to turn over information to the team taking over for her squad. After they hang up, Ali sits on the side of the bathtub, crying as she tries to imagine the emotions that must have swept over her wife when she saved that girl only to lose her anyway. A few minutes later Abby opens the door, concern on her face.
Abby holds up her phone. “She texted me you might need a shoulder. Talk to me, Kriegs,” she says as she sits down beside her on the tub.
Ali takes a deep breath and through her tears she tells her about the girl from the picture. Abby just holds Ali close.
“I was joking about the picture and...and teasing her about not telling me. And all the time it was because...because...”
“Shhh, I know. And she gets it, Al. It’s not your fault that reporter didn’t check all the facts. They took the word of a medic instead of asking a doctor. It’s on them, not on you.” She stands, pulling Ali up with her. “Come on: get some sleep. Come morning you’ll see it’s not your fault.”
“Ashlyn must think I’m a superficial idiot for what I said.”
“If she thought that, she wouldn’t have texted me. She knows you hurt for saying something you couldn’t know would be painful to her. She loves you, Kriegs. She loves everything about you and I know Ash well enough to know the only thing she holds against you is the walk-in closet of make-up you have.”
Ali stops and glares at Abby. “I do NOT have a walk-in closet of make-up!”
Abby chuckles. “Knew I could get you to stop wallowing in guilt.”
Ali smiles and punches the forward lightly in the shoulder. “You suck. But thank you.”
“No problem, Kriegs. Now, get some sleep so we don’t look like zombies in the morning.”
Ali gives her a hug. “I love you, you know?”
“Love you, too, Kriegs.”
The two climb into their beds. Ali lifts the dog tags around her neck and gives them a kiss. “Love you, too, baby. Always,” she whispers as she closes her eyes and wills her body to go to sleep.