The night after the Norway game, the team is in their conference room enjoying a buffet dinner. Ali is joking with Becky and Kling about which defensive position is more important to the keeper. Hope and Alyssa are just grinning, not daring to say a word in anyone’s defense.
“I think I have the perfect proof that right back is most important,” Ali states.
Kling and Becky exchange a look, then roll their eyes as they look back at her. “A keeper married you,” they say simultaneously.
Ali grins proudly. “Damn right!”
As they move down the line, the TV turned to an American broadcast of CNN catches Ali’s ear.
“…the team from the Corps of Engineers was in the village to build three buildings,” the anchor intones.
Ali freezes and looks up at the screen. Her heart stops as she sees scenes of a huge firefight. Explosions. Tracer Rounds. Tanks. Machine gun fire.
“What town?” she mumbles as she steps closer to the screen, her face pale.
“Word is a villager, eager to see the end of ISIS in that area, risked their life to get word to the squad from the Engineers. This allowed infantry, tank and air support to be called in.”
“WHAT TOWN?” Ali screams at the TV, her plate falling from her hands as she steps closer to the screen. Whitney and HAO have moved in beside her, ready to grab her if she loses it on the set. Becky, meanwhile, is hurriedly Googling, trying to find more info on the battle they are seeing.
“The attack started just after dawn with reinforcements nearby. The Engineers and the MP Company assigned to the town were prepared and able to hold off the insurgents until the heavy artillery arrived. The final numbers are not yet confirmed but it is known at least 4 members of our Armed Forces were killed in the fight and 30-35 injured. By nightfall, the US Army and Iraqi police had regained control of the town with most insurgents killed and a few captured. Plans are for the Engineers to return in a few days once the Army Rangers finish clearing the hills of any remaining ISIS fighters.”
As the anchor moves on to another story, the room is completely silent. Becky slowly steps up to Ali. She places a hand on her shoulder. She had known where Ashlyn was going. Ali turns and sees the horrible truth in her fellow defender’s eyes.
“Oh my God…” Ali chokes out.
She steps away from everyone and pulls out her phone. Fliss hadn’t called. She had promised to call if anything happened to Ash. Ali clings to that thought as her shaking fingers hit her most frequently used speed dial. The three times it rings seem to take forever.
“Hey, baby. Did you all win?”
“OH THANK GOD!” Ali screams as she drops to her knees. “Are you okay?”
There is a long pause. “Fuck. How did you know?”
Ali ignores the question. “Are. You. Okay?”
Ashlyn runs a hand down her face. “Bruised from a partial rollover. Hurt because I lost 3 good members of my squad. Thankful as hell a woman hated ISIS enough to risk her life and the lives of her sons to warn us all hell was breaking loose at dawn.”
“Oh thank God.”
Her teammates see Ali relax and all breathe a sigh of relief.
“How the hell did you find out?” Ashlyn insists on knowing. “And did they mention names?”
“No names. That’s why I was so scared. It was on CNN,” Ali tells her.
“Son of a fucking bitch…it’s not supposed to go out until tomorrow to give us time to notify the families of the dead and injured and for the rest of us to call our loved ones to let them know we’re okay.” Ashlyn runs a hand over her face. “Fucking shit. I am so, so sorry you found out that way, baby. I’ll find out who spilled this shit and ream them, I don’t care what rank they are.”
Ali smiles. “Mind if I fly in to help?”
Ashlyn manages a smile. “I’m not sure Iraq could handle you, baby.” She sighs. “So, uh, how was your first game?”
Ali thinks a second then giggles. “Had you asked me 10 minutes ago I could have told you. Now…I have no clue.” Ashlyn laughs as Ali looks at her teammates. “Uh, gals, did we win last night?”
The team busts out laughing. “Yeah, we won. Carli had a brace and they got in a lucky shot,” Hope tells her.
“Oh. Right!” Ali relays the info to her wife.
“Awesome! And you?”
“Ninety strong,” she confirms.
“That’s my right back,” Ash says with pride.
“Yeah.” Ali sighs. “I miss you so much.”
“I miss you, too. But, hey, 3 months down, 9 to go. It’s flying by, right?”
“The sun must have really gotten to you if you think time is flying,” Ali says dryly, making her wife chuckle.
“Okay, maybe that was a stretch.” There is a pause as Ashlyn talks to someone in the background on her end. She sighs. “I have to go, baby. The colonel just found out the news broke, including footage of the battle. Did…did you…see that?” Ali’s lack of answer is answer enough. “Shit. Sorry, honey. As soon as the artillery arrived we hightailed it. I swear.”
“I believe you. Drop me an email or something when you can. And our families, too.”
“I will, baby. I promise. I love you, Alex.”
“I love you, too. Talk to you soon, baby.”
“Count on it. Bye for now.”
Ali disconnects and is immediately pulled into a hug by Whitney. “She’s okay, Whit.”
“I know. Just figured you needed a hug as badly as I did.”
Ali grins and nods. “Always.”
That bit of heart-stopping drama over, the team gets back to dinner, everyone doing their best to forget the scenes of battle they had watched and trying to ignore that their friend had been in the midst of that hell while they were worried about a tournament.
In Iraq, Ashlyn steps into Colonel Evans’ office. She nods to Major Dalton and Captain Bowie. She sees a colonel she doesn’t recognize but she does recognize the patches on his ACU’s. Her stomach gets queasy. Having a Ranger colonel in this meeting means she is probably going to be pretty damn pissed by the end of it.
“Lieutenant Harris, this is Colonel Davis,” Colonel Evans states.
“Lieutenant Harris, I heard how you comported yourself in the field,” Davis starts. “Your willingness to listen to that woman and then to call for support immediately saved countless lives.”
“Thank you, sir,” she says, glancing at her captain. The tense stance of her officers tells her there is more to this than meets the eyes. “Um, can I assume the Rangers are going in to help keep the peace so we can continue the build, Colonel Davis?”
“They are clearing the mountains now. We owe you and your team quite a debt. We knew ISIS was up there but we didn’t know how many or where. We were- -”
“Wait a damn second,” she interrupts. “Intel we were given before we left said there was no rumor or sign of insurgents in the area.”
Colonel Evans clears his throat. “The intel you were given was the best we had, Lieutenant. It turns out the Rangers needed some bait.”
Ashlyn’s eyes narrow as she looks at her colonel. “Excuse me, sir?”
“Now, Evans, I wouldn’t say ‘bait’ per se,” Davis corrects.
“Then what, sir?” Ashlyn demands. “Sacrificial lambs? Cows for slaughter? What the hell would you call us? We had trucks loaded down with 3 prefab buildings and the materials needed to get them up and running. We had NO WAY of making a decent run to get out of danger!”
“I know. It was a calculated risk.”
“A calc- -…are you fucking KIDDING ME?” she shouts, stepping towards the man.
Dalton steps in front of her. “Easy, Lieutenant. He is a superior officer.”
“The fuck he is! He may be an officer but he’s not fucking superior to anyone!” she protests. “What if that woman hadn’t warned us? What then?” She looks back at Davis. “I lost 3 good men, Colonel! One of whom was scheduled to go home in a few weeks to celebrate his belated 20th birthday with his family. His face will haunt me forever but his blood is on YOUR hands!”
By now Davis is furious. Never had a lower ranking officer spoken to him in this manner. He bows up and steps towards her.
“And you’re an asshole!”
Her three officers have to hide grins.
“Easy, Harris,” Dalton cautions, but inside is happy to see an officer so angry about the senseless loss of life.
“Look, you Engineers just hang in the background and have no real clue about what happens in real battles! Three lives is nothing!” Davis insists.
And then he is holding his face, his nose broken by Ashlyn’s punch.
“Don’t you EVER call my men NOTHING!” she yells.
“Dalton, get her out of here!” Evans orders.
Dalton drags Ashlyn out as Davis starts to scream about having her arrested. Evans leans on his desk, his eyes narrow. He was also upset about the Ranger dismissing the Corps of Engineers and the lives of the soldiers that proudly bear the castle.
“I WANT HER ARRESTED!” Davis insists.
“For what?” Evans asks.
“For what?! She fucking broke my nose!”
Evans gives a shrug. “Did she? I didn’t see that?” He looks at Captain Bowie. “Did you see that, Captain?”
“No, sir,” Bowie answers. “Besides, who would ever believe a little, female engineer could get a sucker punch in on a badass Ranger, right?”
Davis’ face turns a new shade of red. He wants nothing more than to see Ashlyn in the stockade for that punch but knows he’d be a laughing stock if he pressed charges. He glares at the ranking engineer.
“Keep her the hell away from me. And don’t you ever dare question my battle plans again,” he warns.
“You ever endanger my engineers again I’ll see your ass in Leavenworth…after I let Harris finish kicking it,” Evans vows.
Davis glares at the man a moment, then turns and storms out. Evans looks at Bowie and gives a sly grin.
“Maybe women in charge aren’t so bad after all,” he concedes.
Bowie chuckles then goes to see if he can find Ashlyn and Dalton to make sure the lieutenant is okay.
Evans had basically condemned Ashlyn’s punch to secrecy. Which means, of course, it only took 48 hours to turn into base legend. The statuesque, hot blonde punches the grizzled, brave Ranger. Yeah, it was the stuff of legend that everyone’s “friend of a friend” witnessed even though only 5 people were in the room when it happened, and none of those people were talking.
Ashlyn rolls her eyes as she drops down into her desk. Andrews grins at her.
“Why do I feel like you’re looking forward to the build so you can get away from your fame?” he teases.
“How the fuck did anyone find out? I know Davis sure as hell wasn’t saying anything. I didn’t sure as hell didn’t say anything!”
“I know. I can’t believe I had to hear about it from Newton,” Andrews bitches.
Ashlyn rolls her eyes. “We have to work with the Rangers, Andrews. It doesn’t help that I’ve made an enemy. It will make things worse if they think we’re bragging about it.”
“True.” He pauses. “So does this mean I shouldn’t have been helping to arrange a bout between you and Davis? Winner take all?”
Ashlyn glares at him as he laughs. “Get out or find out what it’s like to have k.p. duty for a camp this size, Corporal.”
“I’m a sergeant,” he points out.
Ashlyn lifts an eyebrow. “For now.”
Andrews laughs and walks off, knowing she is all bark and no bite. Well, unless you’re a Ranger colonel.
Two hours later Ashlyn gets the confirmation she’d been expecting. She stares at the orders on her computer screen then stands and walks over to her second.
“Andrews, spread the word: we head back day after tomorrow if there are no further incidents.”
Andrews sighs and nods. “Will do.” He thinks a second. “So...uh...shit.”
“Yeah.” She hands him another piece of paper. “Macklin didn’t make it. Got word an hour ago.”
“Son of a bitch,” he mutters.
“I want to do something to...to memorialize them. There’s this old builder’s thing where they leave something in the walls for those that come after them. Like a time capsule kind of thing. I want to leave something of Macklin and the other 3 in the walls of the school. They gave their lives so that kids in that town could have a chance at something better,” she tells Andrews.
Andrews slowly nods. “That would be cool. Maybe I can get a dog tag for each one and you could write something up about them? We can seal it in a can or something.”
Ashlyn smiles. “Perfect. I’m going for a workout before dinner. It will give me time to think of what to write.”
“Good. See you later, LT.”
Ashlyn nods and heads out to change and get a work out in. She wanted to be primed for anything as they head off for the build once more.
Ashlyn lies on the weight bench. She focuses on her breathing as she pushes the barbell up and controls its descent back to her chest. Up. Down. Up. Down. She lets the repetition and sweat leech the stress from her mind and body.
Four rather muscular men enter the work out room. They scan the whole place seeing Ashlyn and two male soldiers doing their workouts. The oldest of the four nods to the largest of the four. The large man smirks and walks over, purposely standing between the other two soldiers, who watch their dumbbell workouts in the mirror. Corporal Valentine makes a show of adding about double the weight the other men are using to the dumbbells he then picks it up...in one hand. He gives the men a knowing grin in the mirror.
Within minutes the men “finish” their workouts and exit the gym. Sergeants Kerrigan and Powers exchange a look. Kerrigan nods to Private Pierson, who moves to the door and makes sure no one is coming. He nods to his Ranger buddies.
Ashlyn senses the men moving towards her but thinks nothing of it until Kerrigan leans over her.
“Getting in a nice workout, Rocky?” he taunts her.
Ashlyn frowns at him. “Excuse me?”
Powers grabs her barbell and holds it in midair. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you it was dangerous to work out alone? Anything could happen.”
Ashlyn acts. She releases the barbell and starts to roll off the bench. Valentine stops her and rolls her back on as Powers and Kerrigan team up to press her down with the barbell that she’d be using. Ashlyn grunts at the pain in her chest.
“What...the...fuck...?” she grunts at them.
Kerrigan leans down into her face. “What’s the matter, Harris? Figure with four of us here you can’t lie about what happened?”
She tries to kick herself free but Valentine grabs her legs and pins them to the bench with his upper body. Ashlyn’s heart is pounding as her mind runs through all the things that could happen to her.
“We just wanted to have a little chat with you, Harris. Relax,” Powers says with false charm. “See, we want you to set the record straight. We’re not real happy with you spreading lies about out colonel.”
Ashlyn stares at him in confusion. “What...are you...talking ab...about?”
“Colonel Davis is our c.o. The man risks his life on the front lines and gets his nose broken in the field. Next thing we know, you’re bragging you did it. And our c.o. becomes a laughing stock,” Powers explains.
Ashlyn’s eyes narrow. “Wha’ tha fuck...are you fuckin’ serious? You’re risking your fuckin’ career over that ass?”
Wrong statement. The barbell is pressed down harder and she groans, her arms straining to try to press it upwards. She takes a couple of deep breaths.
“Your c.o. caused de...death of 4 of my...unit. Withheld...intel to draw...out ISIS fi...fighters,” she says.
“Bullshit!” Powers spits out, pushing down some more.
“Why...would...I lie? Got pissed...and punched him. He didn’t bre...break nose...in battle. He...fuckin’ lied.” Tears of pain and frustration leak down her cheeks.
“You saying he allowed you all to get ambushed?”
“Y...Yes. Needed...bait to...get them...out of hills.”
Kerrigan and Powers exchange a look. Davis had been so pissed when he heard the rumour about the female lieutenant punching him and breaking his nose. He had insisted to his men it was a lie made up out of revenge. But revenge for what?
Powers looks down at her again. “He said you made it up out of revenge.”
Ashlyn stares at the man, her vision tunneling due to the stress her body is under. “Revenge...for...wha’? Why...would I...lie?” she asks again.
Kerrigan and Powers exchange another look. Without saying a thing, they simultaneously lift the bar off Ashlyn’s chest and Valentine gets off her legs. Ashlyn starts to draw in deep breaths as she rolls to her side, arms crossed across her chest.
“We’ll ask around. We find out you lied to us, we’ll be back,” Kerrigan warns her.
“MP,” Pierson whispers from near the door.
Ashlyn slowly looks up at Kerrigan. “Five people were in the room. My captain, my major, my colonel and your colonel. I shouldn’t have hit him but I lost my shit when he stated he needed us attacked to draw the insurgents out. Everything you’ve been able to do outside that town the past couple of days was from plans drawn with the blood of my squad. He sacrificed American lives; lives you swore an oath to protect. Yeah, I punched your colonel and broke his nose. And I’d fucking do it again.”
Kerrigan stands up, respect mixed with mistrust in his eyes. “We’ll be in touch, Harris.”
“There a problem here, gentlemen?”
Ashlyn looks at the door and sees Fliss standing there with another MP. Kerrigan gives her a grin that might make some women swoon.
“No, ma’am. The lieutenant just lost control of her weights. Powers and I had to pull it off her,” he says.
Fliss looks at Ash. “You okay, Lieutenant?”
Ashlyn slowly sits up, still holding her chest. She nods. “Yes, Captain. I got lucky.”
Fliss lifts an eyebrow. She doesn’t believe any of them. “Good. Now, don’t you Rangers have your own workout building?”
Powers smiles. “Just needed a change of scenery.”
“Well, change it back,” Fliss orders.
The men make their way out of the building. She nods to her lieutenant to follow and make sure the Rangers leave. She then walks over and sits down beside Ashlyn.
“What the hell happened, Harris?”
Ash turns to look at her. “You asking as an MP or as a friend?”
Fliss considers a moment. “Friend...for now.”
“If I think you’re in danger, I’ll turn into an MP. What the hell was going on?”
Ashlyn rubs her chest...then tells Fliss what happened. “But lay off them. They’ll find out the truth and I’ll be fine.”
“How will they find out?”
Ashlyn shrugs. “They just will. It may sound nuts but I trust them to do the right thing.”
“You best hope you’re right. I won’t report this incident. But if they fuck with you again I will. Understood?”
“Understood. Thanks, Fliss.”
Fliss nods and helps Ashlyn stand up. The two walk out together before Ashlyn breaks away to head back to their hut.
Ali is sitting in front of her locker. She stares down at her sweat and grass-stained socks. Her shoes and shin guards are in a pile just in front of them. Her ankles are crossed as she lets her feet breathe after a long tournament.
A figure squats down in front of her. “Earth to Kriegs. You know we won, right?” Sydney says with a smile.
Ali smiles at her and nods. “I know. I’m just...exhausted. And...maybe wishing Ashlyn could be here. Or at least could have watched it.” She shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m just...weirdly emotional today.”
Sydney grins. “Gee, someone on this team that’s weird. What a shocker,” she jokes.
Ali chuckles. “True.” She takes a deep breath. “We’re going to keep getting better and we’re going to win the World Cup, Syd. I just...I’m still playing because she wouldn’t let me give up on myself. I just thought if we were at this point as a team, she’d be here with me to see it all to fruition. It just hit me all at once. I’m here, a few months out from the biggest prize in football, because of the one person I won’t be able to share it with. Just kind of hurts,” she says with tears in her eyes.
Syd pulls her into a hug. “She’s with you in spirit and you can bet she’s ordering her squad to watch the games and cheer us on. She’s your number one fan and she is so with you in your heart and in ours, too.”
Ali smiles. “Damn right she is. Thanks for reminding me.”
Syd stands up and pulls Ali to her feet. “Now, get over here in some of these celebration pics so we can send some to your wife.”
Ali laughs and follows her friend over to the rest of the gals as they celebrate winning the Algarve Cup despite what the nay-sayers had said about the team as the tournament began. As they laugh, dance and sing, Ali is really hit with just how lucky she is to have the life, the love, and the career she had always dreamed of. She grabs the dog tags that are already back around her neck.
“This win was for you, baby,” she whispers.
“Don’t whisper that!” Pinoe says, startling her. “SHOUT IT INTO THE CAMERA!”
Pinoe and HAO grab Ali by the arms and spin her so the three face one of the cameras.
“THIS WIN IS FOR YOU, ASH!” HAO shouts.
“YEAH! ASHY-ASH! THIS IS ALL YOURS, BABY!” Pinoe screams.
Ali smiles, her nose crinkling up. “I LOVE YOU, BABY! WE DID IT FOR YOU, MY SOLDIER!”
Soon others are crowding around them, shouting out to their friend. Heif and Jill stand nearby, grinning. Jill looks at the media man.
“Make sure to cut a special clip for Ashlyn.”
“Gladly,” Heif says with a smile as the team continues to celebrate.
WE WON THE ALGARVE CUP! Okay, so maybe it’s like the 10th time or something but we are all so excited. (And by now you’ve seen that online but I still had to crow it.) We played some quality teams and we all feel so good about everything. The only bummer is Whit and Cap both strained muscles. Hopefully they will be fine by the time we leave for Canada.
I got the latest batch of pictures you sent. Considering all that’s happened the past couple of weeks I can’t believe you even had a moment to think of me. I can’t even begin to tell you how happy I was to see that not everything is really bad over there. Unfortunately the only stuff they put on the news is the bad stuff and there is now a ban on news channels in the common rooms. Becky promises to stay up on things and let me know if there is anything I should know. Otherwise I should just live with the ignorance is bliss motto as my lifeline. I may have to rope Lori or Dad into taking over Becky’s role for me when I get back to DC.
Speaking of DC and the Spirit, I’m not sure if she emailed you or not, but Nikki got traded to Houston. I hate that! I think she considered hanging up her boots but then she spoke with Waldrum and decided to hang on until at least after the World Cup. With her mom sick I just hate the thought of her being halfway across the country. I told her if she needs anything, or her mom or Molly do, to let me know. I will be there for them as they have been there for me. I promise, baby, to take care of them the way you would if you were here.
So there is some pretty FANTASTIC news on the home front. Dad’s getting married! Can you believe it? I’m going to get 2 more brothers. Good thing I have you or I’d be in a serious testosterone zone during family get-togethers. The wedding will be on the beach sometime in the fall. I’ve promised Dad not to get any permanent turf-burn scars so my legs won’t look atrocious in his wedding pictures. :o)
Oh, Lori wanted me to tell you thank you for the cool retirement card. She might have taken a WEE bit of offense at the old lady on it but I convinced her it was the only one available in the limited PX over there. But to warn you, I still think she plans to kick your butt for that one. I really miss playing with her but she is so happy with this new weightlifting venture I am happy for her. I told her she may be able to convince you to get involved when you are back here in the States.
I just realized I have gotten this far and not told you how much I love and miss you. Ashlyn, I love you more than life itself and I miss you so much I ache inside. I feel so hollow sometimes. I catch myself seeing or reading something funny and automatically calling out to you to share it. I think if I had called Abby or Syd by your name again they might have started answering to it. Or maybe they would have just tuned me out completely. Lol.
We leave Portugal for home tomorrow. I am writing this letter as I sit on the balcony of the hotel room. Last week my roommate was Abby, this week it’s Syd. I guess you figured that by the last paragraph. I told her I needed a little alone time to write this. I came out here because the moon is full and beautiful tonight. I’m looking hard but can’t see your laser writing on it yet so keep trying. ;o) But I have to admit, it gives me comfort to look up at it and know you look up at it, too. I wasn’t sure it would when you first told me about it but it really does help, baby. Thank you so much for this unexpected, comforting gift. I am blowing a kiss at the moon so maybe it will bounce off and reach back to you next time you give it a look. :-x
Well, I need to get this in an envelope so I can mail it in the morning before we go to the airport. I am enclosing a few pics of the gals and I that I had printed at a shop down the street. We all miss you but I think I can safely say I miss you the most. I hope the build you go on next is uneventful. Stay safe, baby. I love you so, so much. I am still marking off the days on a calendar I am carrying. Still way too many days unmarked for my liking but time is marching on. I hope the World Cup will make time fly even faster.
I love you, Ashlyn. And I am so proud of what you are doing and so happy to be your wife. I will let you know when I get back to the States and hopefully we can set up a couple of Skype dates or something. Crossing my fingers we can make that work. I love you. (I know: I’m repeating. Can’t help it.) Talk to you soon, baby.
Two weeks later, Ashlyn smiles as she finishes reading letter and shuffles through the pics from Portugal once more. She carefully places them on her nightstand, a picture of Ali on a cliff overlooking the sea on top.
“I love you, too, baby.”
She settles back on her bed, reading the letter once more.