Ashlyn had approached the man at the gate, her face impassive. “You’re on U.S. soil, friend. How can we help you?”
The man gets a cheesy smile on his face. “Oh, friend? I’m your friend?” he taunts in a sing-song voice. Ashlyn doesn’t respond. “Well, friend,” he says sarcastically, “you can hand over the keys to your trucks and let us drive away with all those precious supplies you have. How about that, friend?”
“How about you get the hell off U.S. soil and I forget this whole conversation?” Ashlyn counters.
He steps into her face, his smile falling away. “How about you do what I said, bitch, before we just take it over your dead body.”
Ashlyn’s face remains impassive. “I will ask once more, sir, please remove yourself from U.S. soil or I will have you arrested.”
He sneers. “Your jails mean nothing to me.” He holds up his arm, showing a myriad of gang tattoos. “I’ve done my time in hell. You don’t want to mess with me and my family, woman. You’ll live long enough to regret it, that I promise you.”
“Last chance, sir,” Ashlyn repeats, her voice still void of emotion. “Step back onto Japanese soil or face arrest.”
She sees the change in his body as he decides to strike. He can’t lose face in front of his men, especially to this woman. He throws a punch that she blocks with her arm. She brings her leg up, hoping to snap his forearm but he twists free. He feints a punch and as she goes to block it he manages a punch to her cheek with his other hand, making her stumble back. He follows up with a kick to the stomach and Ashlyn doubles over.
And as she had been expecting, she sees the glint of steel as he pulls a knife. She shifts at the last moment, feeling the knife slash across her upper left arm. With her dodge spin, she kicks out a leg, taking out his knees and sending him to the ground. As they both scramble to their feet, she hears his men laughing.
“Last chance to leave, friend,” Ashlyn says, this time her voice hard.
He glances at his friends, watching them laugh, hearing their taunts about him being taken down by a woman. Ashlyn takes two steps back from her foe. He turns and waves his knife at her again. He doesn’t notice the location of her right hand. As he swings the knife in another strike, she pulls her sidearm and fires.
He howls in pain as his shoulder is decimated. He falls to the ground, rolling around in pain. Ashlyn looks up at the men outside the gates.
“You have 5 seconds to retrieve him or we take him to our stockade. Your call.”
Two men hurry in, glaring at Ashlyn as they drag their friend out. One man stops and looks at Ashlyn.
“You made a big mistake, woman.”
Ashlyn simply turns and looks at two privates. “Secure the gates.”
“Yes, ma’am!” the soldiers say simultaneously, beyond impressed by this loaned lieutenant. They may talk to Ramos about keeping her instead of returning her to Nettles’ team.
Ashlyn looks at Palmer. “Let’s go. We need back up ASAP. They’ll be back with reinforcements. We need help or we’re going to be in deep shit.”
The Marine nods and follows her inside.
From her vantage point, Ali had watched her wife get attacked, get cut, and then shoot a man. When she goes silent, Abby lowers her to the ground. Whitney grabs Ali’s face.
“Al, what happened? Is she okay?”
“She’s...cut...” Ali mumbles. “She, um, he fought her. She...he cut her and then...she shot him. Just...shot him,” she says, stunned by what she had witnessed.
It had seemed like a scene from a movie or TV show. That couldn’t be her wife out there, facing down a thug with a knife. That couldn’t be her wife taking a couple of hits and then a cut from that blade. That couldn’t be her wife shooting the man and then standing there impassively as her foe is carried away. This is a dream, right? An earthquake induced nightmare. Right. That’s what it has to be.
And then the door to the annex opens and Ali sees her wife, her left arm soaked in blood, entering with Sergeant Palmer and acting like this was just any other day at the office. But it’s not any other day.
This day Ali had seen firsthand what her wife can face when she is in the field. And the brunette is not sure what to think about it all.
Ashlyn walks over and grabs the radio, which rings right back to the base Admiral’s office.
“Ensign Keely, this is Lt. Harris. I need to speak to Admiral Voytek. Immediately.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the ensign replies, knowing if she is demanding the admiral it must be serious.
After a couple of minutes, there is a reply on the line. “Voytek.”
“Admiral Voytek, this is Lt. Harris at the Embassy Annex. We’ve had trouble and need back up, sir. ASAP.”
“Run it down, Lieutenant.”
She tells him what happened and how it ended. She hears him curse under his breath.
“Get your arm seen to, Lieutenant. I’ll have 3 trucks of Marines there within 20 minutes.”
“Appreciate it, Admiral. Thank you.”
“Just keep all those civilians safe, Lieutenant.”
Ashlyn immediately thinks of her wife. “I will, Admiral. No matter what it takes.” She hangs up and looks at Palmer. “He’s sending a few of your brothers to help us out. Until then we leave two men in here and the rest of us need to be outside and be ready for anything.”
Ashlyn and Palmer both turn to see a wide-eyed Ali staring at the blonde. Ashlyn turns to Palmer.
“I’ll get my arm seen to and meet you out there. Tell them to do their best to hold their fire. Last thing we need is a fucking battle.”
Palmer nods. “Yes, ma’am. And may I say, good luck with the battle in here,” he adds quietly.
Ashlyn rolls her eyes as he goes outside to set up a perimeter with the limited men they have at the moment. Ashlyn walks up to her wife, her eyes angry.
“I have a fucking job to do, Alex. Don’t fucking start with me.”
“You’re fucking hurt, Ashlyn!” the fired-up woman points out.
“It’s a god-damned scratch! Go and sit down with the rest of the team. Keep your fucking head down and stay out of my way!”
Ashlyn pushes past her to one of the men who had been left in the building. He already has his medical pack open.
“Close it up, Doc,” she tells him.
Ali stands nearby, too stunned by the fury in her wife’s eyes and voice. Pinoe walks up and takes her hand.
“Ali...this is her job. It fucking sucks to see and it’s scary as fucking hell, but she knows what she’s doing.”
Ali pushes Pinoe away and stomps off past the team into the little hallway where she can be alone and clear her head. She leans against the wall, sobs shaking her body. She isn’t there long when arms pull her into a hug.
“She’ll be okay, Ali. She’ll be just fine. You’ll see,” HAO says calmly as she pats her friend on the back.
In the lobby, the medic cuts enough of Ashlyn’s ACU jacket to clean the knife wound. Ash looks at it and grimaces.
“The fucker decapitated my Athena!” she mutters.
The medic just chuckles as he grabs some steri-strips and closes the cut as best he can. He then layers on antibiotic cream, covers it with gauze pads, then wraps it with gauze and an Ace bandage.
“There. That should keep you for now.”
“Thanks, Doc,” Ashlyn says as she walks over to the door. She chances a glance towards her friends but isn’t surprised that Ali is not standing with them. With a sigh, she looks at the two soldiers.
“No one opens that door unless I or Palmer give the order, understood.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they both reply.
Ashlyn walks out the door, the sound of it shutting echoing the slamming door of her heart. She had to forget her wife for now if she wanted to make sure her wife is saved. She takes a deep breath, then goes to stand beside Palmer just inside the embassy annex gates. She glances at her watch. It’s been 10 minutes since the admiral promised back-up. She prays it gets there in time. She runs down what they can expect to happen, letting Palmer know she’s seen things like this before. He nods as she tells him how it will all be handled.
And his respect for her increases ten-fold.
Ten minutes later, Ash is brought out of her thoughts by one man.
“Sarge...to the right,” a Marine says softly.
Ashlyn and Palmer look up the road to see a group of young men walking up the street. They are dressed similar to the man who was shot and Ashlyn even recognizes a few from the earlier incident. Ashlyn looks at Palmer.
“Remember: no one fires unless I’m dead or I order it.”
Palmer reluctantly agrees. Ashlyn takes one step forward, establishing herself as the leader. The leader of the thugs stands outside the gate, glaring at the woman.
“My brother came to ask for a simple meal and you shot him!” he accuses.
“Your brother tried to steal my trucks and my supplies, he then came at me with a knife and slashed my arm. I gave him a non-lethal shot to the shoulder to render his knife arm useless.”
The man sneers. He places his hands on the outside of the gate and starts to pull himself up on it, using his feet to climb higher.
“Sir, I’ll warn you as I warned your brother, this is U.S. soil. If you set foot on the ground here I can and will have you arrested,” she tells him.
He drops down onto the ground about 5 feet in front of Ashlyn. He opens his arms wide. “Well, here I am. Arrest me.”
Ashlyn slowly looks down at the red light on her chest then looks back up. “What’s the matter? Your sniper not have the distance to kill me if I stand this far back?”
She and her adversary both hear a gun bolt rack. His eyes stray to the soldier who now has his eyes pinned on the gunman on the far roof.
“My guy can make the shot. Can yours?” Ashlyn asks.
The trespasser turns his eyes back to Ashlyn, visibly angry. He shouts something in Japanese. The target light on Ashlyn’s chest disappears, as does the man on the roof. Inside Ashlyn had been quaking in fear. Was she really going to be killed like this? In front of her wife and friends? But outside she had to maintain cool. She was the ranking officer and her actions had to stay calm and confident so her men stayed calm and assured. Her enemy turns back to her just as a welcome noise reaches her ears.
“We outnumber you. You could get a few of us but we’d still win,” he taunts her.
“You sure you outnumber us?” she questions.
He starts to speak but now he hears the trucks. He turns and looks up the street.
“That’s 3 troop trucks. My guess is 12 men in back, two in each cab. I believe that will give us a definitive numerical advantage,” she runs down for him. “Now, how about we make a deal?”
The man turns back to her. “Deal?”
“Yes. We’ll be leaving in about 2 hours or so. When we go, we can leave behind whatever food and water we don’t need. It’s yours to do with as you want.”
“And your trucks?” he presses with an oily smile.
“No dice. We’ll need those. You get the supplies and that’s it. Or you can start a fire-fight your people can’t win. Especially if you’re already dead.”
She lifts her gun and points it right at his chest. His eyes narrow.
“Gun is cocked, trigger slightly pulled,” she says calmly. “If your gunman on the corner shoots me, you’ll die at the same fucking time. Or you tell him and all your people to stand down and you get our leftovers. Your call.”
Just then the three trucks filled with Marine’s pull up. The newcomers quickly surround those who had come to storm the annex. Ashlyn’s adversary takes a deep breath then shouts something. From the corner of her eye, Ashlyn sees the second sniper lower his gun.
“You cheat me, I’ll hunt your ass down, bitch,” the gang leader warns.
“Remind me to be scared tomorrow,” she snarks.
He slowly grins, a bit of respect in his eyes. “You got guts, lady. I’ll give you that. I’ll still cut you if you cross us.”
“And I’ll shoot your ass if you try to cut me. Ask your brother.”
He stares at her a moment, then turns and walks up to the gate. He climbs over and says something to his followers, who walk down the street with him. Once they are a safe distance away, Ashlyn opens up the gate and greets the Marine captain.
“Thanks for the assist, Captain,” she says, offering him a salute.
He grins. “You seemed to have it well in hand, Lieutenant.”
“Not until you arrived,” she admits.
“Well, let’s get my trucks in here. Admiral ordered us to guard the perimeter to leave you and your team to deal with the civilians.”
“Sounds good,” Ashlyn agrees. She turns to Palmer. “Palmer, help the captain get settled then meet me inside. I should have a final ETA for the plane by the time you get in there.”
Palmer nods. “Yes, ma’am.”
After Ashlyn walks away, the captain looks at Palmer. “A female Army lieutenant. That could be scary.”
Palmer chuckles. “Yes, Captain, she is. Smart as hell, brave as fuck, and cool as ice. She’d have made a damn fine Marine,” he says, offering the highest praise he can.
The captain nods, recognizing the sincerity in the sergeant’s words and voice. “Good to know.”
Inside Ashlyn calls the base and gives them the full sit-rep. She then sits a moment, her eyes closed as she tries to gather her thoughts.
“I’m sorry,” she hears spoken softly.
The blonde turns and sees a shamefaced brunette standing a few feet away. She stands and faces her wife.
“Can we...talk a second?” Ali asks.
Ashlyn nods and follows her back to the private hallway. Once back there, Ali pulls Ashlyn into a hug.
“I’m so sorry I lost my shit. I have always hated to see you hurt and...and to see what happened...it sorta freaked me out. I could have seen more than you just getting hurt; you could have been...killed,” she chokes out.
“But I wasn’t, Alex. I was just doing my job. I could see what he was going to do and needed him to do all he did so I could do what I did. I had to have a reason to force the admiral to send help.” She strokes a hand down Ali’s cheek. “I had to risk a small injury to guarantee your safety and the safety of our friends. I’m sorry you saw it and sorry my arm looks like this and keeps reminding you. But I’m not sorry I did what I did.”
Ali nods. “I know, baby. I know. I love you.”
Ashlyn pulls her close. “I love you, too. Always.”
The two allow themselves a few minutes to just hold each other. Then Ashlyn leans back as the alarm on her watch rings.
“I need to call the base. They’ll have the new ETA of the plane.”
Ali slowly nods. They share a gentle kiss and another hug. They then walk back to their friends hand in hand.
A couple hours later Ashlyn steps up onto the desk she had used as a stage earlier. Conversations immediately die out as everyone looks her way.
“Thank you all for your patience and cooperation during our stay here at the Annex. I have received word that our plane will be landing in approximately 25 minutes. It will then need to be turned around and refueled. Right now we are going to get on the trucks that are outside and make our way to the runway at NAF Atsugi. Once there, you will go through customs processing and get your passports stamped. Once everyone is stamped and the plane ready, we will board and take off for Hawaii. When we arrive at Pearl Harbor, a representative for the Secretary of State will meet with those of you attached to the embassy and a member of US Soccer will be there for the team. They will help you make plans to either travel home or make hotel reservations should you be remaining in the islands. Are there any questions?”
To absolutely no one’s surprise, “Mr. Personality” raises his hand. Ashlyn fights the urge to roll her eyes.
“Yes, Mr. Prothro?”
“How do we determine who gets first class seats?”
Ashlyn hears the Marines and soldiers all laugh. She bites back her own laughter, remaining as professional as she can.
“Sir, I’m not sure you understand the nature of the plane we are taking. It’s a troop transport, sir. All seats are created equal,” she replies.
Prothro frowns, his pinched face taken on the look of a rat eating spoiled cheese. “But...what does that mean?”
“It means no first class seats, you idiot,” Pinoe shouts.
“God bless you, Megan Rapinoe,” Ashlyn thinks to herself as she stifles a laugh. Prothro just glares at the midfielder so Ashlyn continues. “So, if there are no other questions, gather your things together. Parents with children load in first starting in about 5 minutes.”
Ashlyn hops off the desk and walks over to Christie. “Cap, you and Reece can board up with the embassy families if you’d like.”
Christie smiles and pats Reece on the shoulders. “I think we’ll stick with the team if that’s okay.”
Ashlyn nods. “That’s fine.” She drops to her knee in front of Reece and pats her on the helmet she still wears. “This helmet still working for you?” she asks, smiling.
Reece grins and nods. “It’s made me real safe, Ashlyn. Can I keep it?”
Ashlyn chuckles. “Well, you can wear it until we get to Hawaii. After that I’ll need it back. But I can see about getting one of your own when I get back to my base, okay?”
“Cool! And one for Rylie, too?”
Ashlyn pats her on the arm. “One for Rylie, too,” she promises.
Reece gives her a big hug. Ashlyn glances up and Christie mouths a thank you to her former teammate. Ashlyn gives her a nod and a wink.
Nearby, Ali sighs. “I can’t wait to have babies with her.”
HAO and Syd slowly turn and look at her a second before bursting into laughter. Ali turns bright red.
“Oh, shit...did I say that out loud?”
Her friends laugh and nod as Ali clears her throat and mumbles something about making sure her backpack is ready to go as she walks away.
As Ashlyn starts back towards the doors, Tracy stops her.
“Ash, how about letting me change that bandage?”
Ash glances at her arm and sees the bandage had bled through and is also looking pretty grimy. She sighs.
“Uh, I can’t now. When we get to Atsugi I can probably get it changed there.”
“Okay. But if not, I’ll be changing it on the plane. Count on that.”
Ashlyn smiles and nods. “You know you’re not my athletic trainer any more, right?” she teases.
“Woman, once my charge, always my charge. Best you learn that and never forget it.”
Ash chuckles and offers a salute. “Ma’am, yes, ma’am.”
The trucks are nearly full when Ashlyn steps up beside her wife. “You know it’ll be pretty tight back there. I might need to offer someone the chance to ride up front on my lap.”
“Oh really?” Ali replies with a grin.
“Yep. Figure my choices are down to you or Prothro.” She pretends to be stumped. “I just don’t know what to do.”
Ali giggles and pulls her close to whisper in her ear. “Think of it this way, baby, when we get to Hawaii, who would you rather see naked? Because if you choose him, he’ll be your only option.”
Ashlyn grins, her ears red. “Thanks for the help with the decision.”
She takes Ali’s hand and escorts her to the cab of the second truck in the line. She helps her up into the seat and glances at the driver.
“Oh, and if things don’t work out for us, Al? Private Snowski there is ready to take the plunge with you.”
Ali grins and turns to the young Marine, who looks like he is ready to pass out. He can’t even look at Ali. Ali turns to her wife.
“You’re mean.” She turns back to the private. “Ignore her, Private. She sometimes let’s power go to her head.”
She pats the man on the leg, chuckling to herself when he moans at the contact. Ashlyn goes back to continue to oversee the loading of the trucks. Once everyone is inside, she goes back to her truck and climbs in. Her wife and Snowski are laughing and chatting like old friends. Ashlyn’s heart skips a beat: she loves how her wife can set people at ease and make them feel like a million bucks. Ashlyn pulls herself up into the seat and pulls Ali close. She grabs the radio mic.
“This is Harris. Let’s move out.”
And so the trucks start the slow roll out of the Embassy Annex grounds. Ashlyn glances back once, seeing the extra water and MRE’s stacked neatly outside the gates. As she turns to look forward again she sees the gang leader staring at her from the sidewalk. She simply nods at him, and he returns the gesture. Ashlyn lets out a relieved breath. She hadn’t been completely sure the man would honor their deal. Ali lays her head on Ashlyn’s shoulder.
“I’m so proud of you, Ash,” she whispers. “You are an amazing leader.”
Ashlyn kisses her temple. “Thank you. I’m just glad we’re a step closer to getting you home safely. When we get to base I’ll have to report to Ramos and the admiral. I’ll send the email to the family members at that time. I should be done before take-off but- -”
“Wait a second! ‘Should be’? Are you saying we could leave without you?”
“Maybe. I don’t really know. My only job was to get the people out of the Annex. It will just depend on if anyone’s been hurt and I need to step in to help somewhere else. Or if...well, that’s not important.”
“Ashlyn...” Ali’s voice brooks no argument.
Ashlyn sighs. “They may...need to question me regarding that shot. I injured a national of one of our allies. It was totally justified and anything they do will prove that but it still may delay my leaving.”
“Can I stay, too?”
“No. No civilians will be allowed to remain on base when it’s in this condition.”
“Well...that sucks,” Ali states, pouting.
Ashlyn smiles and leans her head against the brunette’s. “Yes, it does.”
Ali sighs and starts to study her wife’s face. She brings a finger up and lightly traces over the bruise on her cheek. She then runs a finger along one of the bags under Ash’s eyes. Ali sighs.
“When did you last sleep?”
“I dozed on the flight over.”
“Doubtful. You’d have been too worried about me and the gals.”
Ashlyn sighs. “I slept the night before the earthquake. And I’ll sleep again when you are safe. Don’t push me on this, Alex. Please.”
Ali lifts her chin and gives her a quick peck on the lips. “I won’t. But you can’t make me not worry about you.”
Ashlyn smiles. “Fine. Worry about me. See if I care if you get those little worry lines all over your face. That’s your call, babe.”
Ali laughs and rolls her eyes. “Jerk.”
When they arrive at the base, the trucks pause to let Ashlyn and Sergeant Palmer out so they can report to the admiral’s office. Ashlyn gives her wife a kiss.
“I’ll do my damnedest to be on that plane. I swear.”
“I know. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
For two hours Ashlyn verbally gives her report to Voytek, Ramos and a J.A.G. officer. They ask her tough questions, even try to pester her into admitting she acted out of fear or frustration. But her story is unwavering. Finally the admiral lifts his hand to stop the Navy lawyer.
“I think that’s enough. She’s standing by her story and there is nothing to make me think the lieutenant is anything other than honest. Lieutenant Harris, you did a commendable job in a horrible situation. Unless Major Ramos needs you, I would say you’re free to hop that plane back to the States.”
“Thank you, sir.” She turns to Ramos. “Sir, is there anything else I can do?”
He shakes his head. “No, Lieutenant. You were just here to get those people out of the embassy. You did that and more. I’ll let Nettles know you’re released back to his team.”
Ashlyn nods. “Thank you, sir.” She turns back to the admiral. “Sir, is there somewhere I can go to send a brief email? I told my friends I’d get word to someone they trust that they will be okay.”
Voytek nods. “Ask my admin for her computer. She can order up a car to take you to the plane while you send that email.”
Ashlyn smiles. “Thank you, sir.”
She offers a salute to both men then hurries out of the office. The admin gets her set up and Ashlyn pulls out the now very crumpled paper with the contact addy’s for family members of the USWNT. She thinks a second and then writes a quick email.
USWNT players, coaches and staff are okay. Minor cut on Hope’s arm. Syd sprained her ankle. Minor bruise and small cut on Pinoe’s brow. Everyone else tired, scared but okay. We are about to board a plane to Hawaii. Flight will be about 6 hours so expect contact in maybe 7 hours or so. Please share this with family and friends of your player. --Lt. Ashlyn M. Harris, US Army Corps of Engineers
Ashlyn reads it over once and hits send. She waits to see if any emails bounce back with a wrong address. As she does she sees the large vase of red roses on the desk. She smiles and stands to give them a sniff.
“Nice,” she says.
“My girlfriend has good taste,” the ensign says with a smile.
Ashlyn chuckles. “Yes, she does. Makes me wish the PX was open so I could buy a bouquet for my wife. Guess I’ll just have to do that in Hawaii.”
Ashlyn refreshes her email again, now sure all emails went through. She logs out of her email and nods to the ensign.
“Thanks for the help.”
“No problem. A Jeep is outside waiting for you. Oh, and here,” she pulls one of the roses out of the vase. “For Ali. The best right back in the world deserves a rose.”
Ashlyn smiles and accepts the gift. “That she does. So you’re a soccer fan?”
“Yep. Played at the Academy, even. I had tickets to their next match. I feel so cheated.”
Ashlyn laughs. “I can understand. Well, if you’re ever in DC look me up and I’ll see what I can do to get you to a game.”
The woman nods. “Definitely. Thanks, Lieutenant.”
Ashlyn hurries out the door and hops into the Jeep. “To de plane, boss. De plane.”
Ashlyn giggles at her own joke. Damn, she is tired. The man just rolls his eyes, unamused, and drives her to the tarmac. Ashlyn returns the salutes of the men standing at the loading ramp and enters the plane. She secures her backpack with the other luggage, glad to see her kit bag there, and starts towards the front to let the pilots know they are all on board. She pauses briefly to hand the rose to Ali.
“Love you, baby,” she whispers and winks.
Ali blushes and accepts the flower to the “Awwwws” of her nearby teammates. Ashlyn hears the ramp in the back rising as she settles into a jump seat facing back towards the other passengers. She lifts up a phone beside her head.
“Captain? All aboard and ready for a little Hawaiian getaway.”
“Roger that, Lieutenant. Buckle up and we’ll be taking off soon.”
Ashlyn hangs that phone up and lifts up a headset and slips it on, keying the mic. “Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for flying Corps of Engineers airlines. I’ll be your flight attendant today and, no, I won’t be bringing around snacks or drinks when we reach cruising altitude.” Her friends laugh as Ashlyn cheeses it up over the speakers. “We’ll be getting underway momentarily. At this time, please discontinue use of all electronic devices and return your seats and tray tables to the upright and locked position.”
Everyone is chuckling now. There are no tray tables and the chairs are locked in place.
“Once we reach cruising altitude there will be no movie but we can perhaps start a competitive game of charades. So for now, sit back, relax, and let the pilots fly this modern metal miracle across the Pacific to surfer’s paradise. Thank you again for choosing Corps of Engineers Airlines, serving the world any time evacuations are needed.”
She takes off the headset to claps and cat calls from her friends. She buckles up her seat harness and finds herself staring at the team trainer, Tracy. The woman lifts a brow.
“You didn’t get your bandage changed. You’re mine now, Harris.”
Ashlyn grins. “I know, I know. I promise not to cry...as long as I get a lollipop for being a big girl.”
The two women chuckle and sigh in relief as the plane starts down the runway. Time to get out of Japan and back to the safety of home.