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For Love & Country

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The morning before it hits...

The team had awakened with everyone feeling good about the tourney so far. Two games down, two wins. Today was a recovery day and Ali was enjoying sleeping in until 9 a.m. after having played a tough, full 90 minutes against Germany. She stretches and sends a text to her wife, jokingly telling her good morning even though Japan is 14 hours ahead. She is not surprised when her phone rings a second later.

“Oh you have jokes now, do you?” Ash greets her.

Ali giggles. “Well, it’s morning for me. Not my fault it’s the end of yesterday for you.”

Ashlyn chuckles. “True. I was just getting ready to watch the game highlights. I saw you beat your old buddies. Good job, baby.”

Ali smiles, hugging a pillow to her chest. “Thanks. The team is looking really good. I think the backline that played last night could be the best I’ve ever been on. And I’m not just saying that because Becky is in the room with me.”

Ashlyn hears the other defender laugh in the background. “Well, I can’t wait to see the clips then. Did you get the whole game?”

“Yeah. Jill let the whole backline stay in. Me and Kling on the wings; Cap and Becky in the middle.”

“Right side, strong side?” Ashlyn asks.

“Yep,” Ali grins. “HAO at mid right in front of me.”

“Excellent. Hope she made you look good.”

“She did. The whole team looked really good. I think it’s the best we’ve looked and felt in a while.”

“So Ellis is working out?”

“Definitely. Ash...I think we can do it. I think we’re going to keep getting better and march through Canada until we leave with the Cup,” Ali whispers excitedly.

“That’s great, baby! I’m glad the tension is gone and nothing but game nerves remain. I know the team thrives on a good dose of nerves.”

“We sure do. So, what’s up at Belvoir?”

“Nothing much. It’s been strangely quiet this week. All teams are in for the first time in I don’t know how long. In fact, I’ve scheduled a morning on the obstacle course for my squad tomorrow. I have a few new team members and want to see how everyone works together when things get rough. We’re having storms all through the night so it should be pretty nasty on the ground. Then when the sun comes up it will get steamy and ugly. I’ll really be able to see what we’re made of.”

“We? You mean the boss lady is running it, too?” Ali jokes.

“Yep,” Ashlyn says smugly. “Need to show my guys I am just as tough as they are.”

“They should know that, baby.”

Ash laughs. “Yeah, they do. Truthfully, I can better evaluate them on the field, hearing what they say and watching what they do, better than I can do it by watching from afar. And I want them to see it’s not just lip service when I say I will be with them through the good and the bad.” She listens a moment but her wife doesn’t respond. “Alex? Are you there?”

“I am,” she says emotionally.

“Baby, are you okay?” Ashlyn asks in concern.

“Yeah. Just...when you say things like that, it just makes me...God, you’re a hell of a leader, Ash. It just...makes me love you so much more.”

Ashlyn smiles, feeling a blush on her cheeks. “Thank you for saying that. I just want to be a good officer. In fact...I have to meet with Nettles after the obstacle course to discuss my future. I need to make sure I’m doing all I need to do to make captain next year.”

“You’ll do it, Ash. You’ll make captain and command even more men and women, turning them into a well-oiled machine,” she says confidently.

Ashlyn smiles. “You make me believe I can do anything, baby.”

“You can, Ashlyn. You can.”

Ashlyn shakes her head. “I don’t know what I did to deserve you but I am so thankful you are in my life and beyond grateful that you’re my wife. I love you, Alex.”

“I love you, too.”

The two talk a little longer until Ali has to get up and get ready for brunch and the recovery session. As Ali hangs up her phone, Becky glances over and chuckles.

“Do you know how much you smile when you talk to her? I mean really?” she teases.

Ali nods. “I do know. I can’t help it. She makes me feel...feel like a teenager experiencing her first crush every time we talk. Maybe because we spend so much time apart or something. I don’t know. I just know she warms me from the inside out with just her words.”

Becky sighs. “I hope I find that someday.”

“You will. I’m sure of it. You’re too good a person not to,” Ali says positively.

Becky smiles. “Thanks. I’m heading down to the brunch. See you in a bit.”

Ali nods and gets up to shower and get started on her day. In the shower, she lets herself think about her wife and soon...soon she is glad Becky had already left the room as Ali takes the time to use her hand and her imagination to celebrate her love for Ashlyn. It was a perfect way to start the day.

And perhaps helped to inspire her dreams that night.


 

Ali is stretched out on a blanket, an array of foods spread out before her. Across from her, Ashlyn sits cross-legged as she pours out 2 glasses of wine. Ali reaches over and picks up a grape from one of the plates, popping it in her mouth.

“Mmm, nice and sweet,” she comments.

“Just like you,” Ashlyn replies, handing her a glass of wine.

“Charmer,” Ali jokes.

“Always.” She offers up her glass. “To us: may our lives forever move forward together.”

Ali smiles and clinks her glass against Ashlyn’s. As she goes to drink, the brunette’s hand starts to shake, spilling wine all over. She looks up in confusion, seeing Ashlyn drinking with no problem.

“What the hell?” Ali asks.

She tries to drink again but still the glass shakes. She sees the food vibrating on the plates, but still Ashlyn sits unperturbed.

“What the fuck is going on?” Ali demands.

“Earthquake,” Ashlyn replies simply.

“Earthquake?”

“Yes. Wake up, baby. It’s an earthquake,” Ashlyn says as if it’s common sense.


 

Ali’s eyes fly open. She realizes her dream wife is correct: there’s an earthquake. She leaps up.

“BECKY!”

She grabs her teammate who is also starting to be jostled awake. Ali drags her to the bathroom door frame as the building starts to rock more and more. The women cling to each other in fear as they ride out the seemingly endless quake. It starts to slow down, then suddenly ramps up again. Ali squeals as the bathroom mirror shatters. After a few minutes, it starts to slow again.

“Think it’s finally ending?” Becky asks with a quavering voice.

“I...I think so,” Ali ventures.

Just then there is another rumble, but they feel this one in their feet. It is followed by screams of fear and pain. The women stare into each other’s eyes.

“Was...what just...did...” Ali starts but can’t finish.

“I...I think part of the hotel just collapsed,” Becky whispers.

Both women are terrified what it means for their safety and the safety of their teammates. Once the shaking finally stops for several minutes, they race back into their main room, using light filtering in from the street to quickly dress. They both slip their phones in their pockets and pack their backpacks with a change of clothes. They know they will have to leave most of their belongings behind at least for now while the hotel is evacuated. Using the light from Ali’s phone, they enter the hallway.

“Ali!”

They turn and see a few other teammates starting to gather. Abby immediately takes charge.

“Okay, everyone needs to do like Becky and Ali. Pack your smallest bag with your essentials and let’s get the hell out of here.” She pauses. “We have to exit to my left. If we go right we’d have to turn and go down the other hallway to an exit. That side of the hotel...it’s crumbled.” The women gasp. “No one on this floor was affected. I don’t know...I don’t know if anyone was in those rooms on the floor below us,” she admits quietly. She takes a deep breath. “Go. Pack. Now.”

The 10 players without packs go and get something thrown together. Becky looks at Ali.

“How did you know to pack up like this?”

“Went through a quake in Cali when I was visiting Kyle. He told me he keeps a bag packed just in case he has to leave quickly. He told me what he put in it.”

“Remind me to give Kyle a big kiss next time I see him,” Becky says with a smile.

Ali just grins and nods. She is staring at her phone screen. Yes, her flashlight is working just fine. But she has no bars; no signal at all. She looks at Becky.

“Do you have a signal?”

Becky pulls out her phone and checks. “No. Most likely communications are down.”

Ali just nods. She pockets her phone as the others start to gather. Once everyone is accounted for, they make their way down the stairs and out into the street. They all sigh in relief when they see their teammates. Pinoe has a cut on her eyebrow and Whitney looks visibly shaken. Christie clutches her daughter to her, looking like she may never let go of the crying child. Sydney is leaning heavily on Tobin, her foot up in the air. One of the trainers is tearing up a towel to wrap up a cut that runs from Hope’s elbow to her palm. Abby steps up to Jill.

“Everyone out?”

Jill nods. “Yeah. Syd and Hope’s room was part of the collapse. We got fucking lucky.”

“Yeah. Did you all grab clothes or anything?”

“No. We just got the hell out.”

Abby nods. “Okay. Now what?”

“I have no fucking idea,” the coach admits. “No one’s cell is working. The police have told us to stay together and someone would be by soon to let us know what to do.”

Abby nods then goes over to Tobin and Sydney. “Hey, you going to be okay?”

Sydney shrugs, too scared to try to speak. Abby just pulls her into a hug. Ali looks around, wanting something, ANYTHING, to do. She sees how scared Reece Rampone is and goes to Cap’s side to see if she can help calm the little girl.

Jill Ellis looks around at her shell-shocked team. “Well,” she thinks to herself, “if they get through this they’ll know they can get through anything together.”

She sees Lauren starting a prayer circle and goes to join in. The team will need all the prayers they can get to weather whatever the next day or two will throw at them.


 

Tobin and Abby carefully hand Sydney up to HAO and Becky. They ease the forward towards the front of the troop transport truck, careful not to jog her swollen ankle too much. Once Abby and Tobin climb up in the truck, Jill Ellis takes another look around, confirming her staff and players are all off the streets. Out of the corner of her eye she sees a hand reach down to her. She turns and looks up at Ali.

“Your wife deals with shit like this for a living?”

Ali forces a smile to her face. “Yeah, Coach.”

Jill slowly shakes her head. “Takes a special kind, Kriegs.”

“Don’t I know it,” Ali replies proudly.

Jill takes the defender’s hand and climbs up into the truck. Soon the team is on their way to shelter after having spent 3 hours standing in the street waiting for help. As they bump and twist around road debris, Jill studies the women in the truck with her. They lean on each other, they comfort each other, they pray with each other. She slowly shakes her head, suppressing a chuckle. Ali glances at the woman beside her.

“Mind sharing the joke? I could use a laugh.”

Jill shrugs and grins. “I was telling Tony yesterday we needed to come up with a good bonding exercise while we’re here. Maybe a scavenger hunt or a crazy game of hide and seek. I sure as hell didn’t plan on something like this to bond us,” she grins, gesturing to the truck as a way of meaning the earthquake and the aftermath.

Ali grins and nods. “Yeah, not sure any coach would have pictured this.” She thinks a second. “A lot of us have been together a number of years. A bonding game with the newbies would be cool. And maybe help us forget all this shit and how scared we are.”

“So you’re saying we should do something when we get to shelter?”

Ali shrugs. “Maybe. Once we get settled in and have an idea what’s going on...yeah, it could help us forget the fear and concentrate on getting home together.”

Jill slowly nods. “I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks, Kriegs.”

Ali nods and slips back into silence. After a few minutes she pulls her phone out of her pocket and stares at the screen. Still no bars. Still no way to reach her wife and family. She slides it back into her pocket and sighs.

I need you, Ash,” she thinks to herself as the truck keeps jostling down the road.


 

As Jill leads the team into the US Embassy Annex, a handsome African-American Marine greets them.

“Welcome to U.S. soil,” he starts. “My name is Sergeant Palmer and I’ll be in charge here until an S&R team arrives. We have 2 packs of MRE’s per person and 3 bottles of water until the next load of supplies get here. The bathrooms in this building were damaged so use them at your own risk.”

“Are you serious?” Christen Press blurts out before thinking.

“Very much so, ma’am,” he replies. “Port-a-potties are on the way but no ETA as yet. We have a small supply of blankets so do what you can to get comfortable but do not leave this room without notifying anyone; not even to go to the bathroom. Aftershocks can still happen so keep alert, try to sleep in shifts. We’ll be having embassy family members and non-essential Embassy staff joining us on and off until we evacuate.”

“And when will that be?”

“No idea yet. NAF Atsugi was badly damaged. They are attempting to get it cleared enough to get a large plane on the ground but, again, no ETA. Any questions?”

“Do you know what S&R team is coming?” Ali asks.

“No, ma’am. We won’t know them until they get here. They tend to hang back in safety while the rest of us get things settled first,” he answers with barely concealed contempt.

Ali’s emotions flare into anger and she leaps towards the man. “BULLSHIT! They put their lives on the line every time they go into these types of situations! Most times with locals who aren’t too happy to see them! So watch your fucking mouth, asshole!”

“ALI!” Abby says as she and Julie pull Ali back. “Easy, Ali. Easy,” Abby says, trying to calm the brunette down.

Ali allows herself to be pushed back, recognizing her fear is making her slightly irrational. Ashlyn had told her a lot of soldiers felt the response teams were not as brave and didn’t face danger the way other squads did. But to hear this man say it while she is praying her wife is coming set her off. She takes a deep breath and finally turns away from the man. Abby and Julie both keep hands on her shoulders, but out of support, not out of worry she’d tear the man apart.

After Palmer answers a few more questions about medical aid and food, he goes to greet the next batch of refugees to the annex. Jill turns to her team.

“Well, ladies, let’s get the meager rations they have for us and settle in. Looks like we’ll be here a while.”

The team nods and gathers the supplies. They then stake out a corner of the annex and stretch out on the ground, using the few backpacks they have, as well as each other, for pillows. As Ali settles her head down on her pack, Whitney’s head on her thigh, she sighs. She starts to run her fingers through her fellow defender’s hair.

“Think Ash is coming?” Whitney whispers.

Ali smiles. “If it’s in her power, yes, she’ll come.”

“That makes me feel better,” Whitney says.

“Me, too, Whit. Me, too,” Ali agrees.