Two days before Dani’s Exam
“Well, what do you think? Is she ready?” Captain Williams asked the lanky dark haired man leaning against the gym wall.
“She’s emotional, headstrong, and doesn’t have nearly the training I’d like for her to have but she’s got heart. If she fails it won’t be because she didn’t try,” he said while wiping the sweat from his brow with a towel.
Blowing air out through her nose in a show of mild frustration and then pinching the bridge of her nose Captain Wiliams glared at the dark-haired man before trying again, “Yeah, yeah. You’ve got a soft spot for the girl but you didn’t answer my question. Is she ready? If she goes down in flames it’s going to look bad for all of us you know.”
“Listen Jas, if you want my gut feeling, then yes I think she’s ready even if she herself might not think so, but you and I have been at this long enough to know that nobody ever knows if they're ready for something like this until it’s time to do it. Were you ready for your special forces final test?”
“Ugh, point taken, but dammit Fox this might be the only way we can get assigned back into the field after Major Hanson FUBAR’d us in Syria. I really have nothing against the girl, and in fact, do admire her determination but babysitting a rookie civilian wasn’t what I signed up for,” she groused while while walking to the heavy bag hanging in the corner of the gym which was currently empty of anyone else.
Putting on a pair of training gloves Jas viciously jabbed at the bag with the smack ringing across the gym. Following that up with a jab hook combo the bag rocked as she took her frustrations out on the bag.
“You want me to hold that?”, Fox said walking over to the bag a tossing his towel to the side to get a good grip on the bag. “Also, how many also how many times do I have to tell you to call me Ken, Captain Williams?”
“Evidently not enough…Fox,” she punctuated ‘Fox’ with another punch to the bag which she rolled into a vicious knee-elbow combo. Working the bag for a few more minutes with various different combos Jas finally ran out of steam and started viciously ripping off the training gloves.
“Ugh, this isn’t working. I thought I could exercise my frustration out but I don’t feel any better,” grabbing her towel off the bench and wiping her face.
Stepping out from behind the heavy bag Fox raised an eyebrow and locked his ice blue eyes on Jas before remarking “Ok, but you are rarely this unsettled. Why don’t we stop punching around whatever is really eating at you? I know this isn’t the assignment you had hoped for but there is something more than the girl bothering you.”
Glaring back at Fox Jas finally threw her hands up exclaiming, “Fine, but not here. If I’m going to unburden myself to you then I need a coffee. You do remember I outrank you right?”
“Pffft details,” he said while picking up his towel and walking toward the gym exit. C’mon, let's grab a coffee at the stand on the second floor. It’s way better than that swill at the mess, and I’ll even pay. Got to keep them commanding officers properly bribed after all.”
“I think I liked you better when you barely talked,” she said before breaking into a laugh and jogging to catch up.
Walking out of the gym and down the hallway to the elevator in companionable silence they rode it up to floor two before stepping out onto the administration level for the base. The base itself looked more like a college building which was by design so it would blend into the area of Michigan City it was situated in. Officially it was supposed to be a research and administration base which is why floor two housed the admin team for the area. Floor three did house various research projects but all the real work of the base was in the subfloors that were unknown to the general public.
Exiting onto the second floor they walked down the long open air walkway past the offices, meeting rooms, and touchdown spaces doing their best impression of a corporate collaborative space toward the coffee shop which serviced the building. Cafe Diem like every modern coffee shop these days served overpriced drinks that you could customize in almost any way you’d like along with serving sandwiches and pastries. The coffee shop’s seating was a mixed use combination of tables, booths, and soft seating like chairs and love seats. It was a nice arrangement especially since the shop being at the end of the building meant there were plenty of windows to let in light and it had a nice view of the river that ran along the north side of the complex.
Stepping up to the counter after a short wait Fox nodded to the dark haired Barisita behind the counter and ordered a medium black coffee before nodding at Jas and saying, “And whatever my colleague would like.”
“I’d like a large double shot iced caramel macchiato,” she said stepping up to the counter and firing her drink off to the barista.
“Anything else?” the barista asked with the practice patience of someone who repeats the same phrase hundreds of times a day.
“No, I think…” Jas started before stopping and glancing up at the menu and changing her mind. “Actually I’d like a raspberry scone as well.”
“You did offer,” she said turning to Fox with an innocent smile.
“I didn’t offer pastries!” Fox protested in faux outrage. “You know how much I make Captain,” he finished with a chuckle.
“Incorrect my good Master Sergeant. And I quote ‘Whatever my colleague would like.’ is what you said”
“Well with that much caffeine, my revenge will be that you get a sour stomach with the jitters,” Fox deadpanned.
After getting the total and paying for their drinks and pastry they waited at the end of the counter while the barista worked on their drinks.
“So what’s eating you Jas?” Fox said as he nodded thank you to the barista as she delivered their drinks.
Picking up her drink and gesturing to a high-top table with stools looking out over the river Jas sat down and just held her drink for a minute while Fox waited to see what she would say. Taking a long sip through her straw and then exhaling.
“If I’m being honest it all goes back to that last mission with HOUND Unit. The way it all fell apart. Hanson splitting us up and going off to try and take that building without proper intel. He could be impulsive but he was never stupid, “ she sighed staring out the window.
“I was his XO it was my job to make sure that everything was accounted for. He’d always listened to me before but why on that day wouldn’t he listen? I just don’t get it. All we had were rumors that the Senator’s son was being held in that warehouse and if he'd just given us more time instead of rushing we could have properly scouted the building. I understand holding Brunner back cause he’s a bull in a china shop but you’re a Calvary Scout with stealth abilities and probably the best we have. Why hold you back?”
“I wish I knew Jas, I really do. All I know is something spooked Hanson. Remember he was acting squirrely after that private communication he got right before we deployed. I asked him what it was but he deflected and said it was nothing, just some clarification on orders that we didn’t need to worry about,” Fox said picking at the lid on his cup.
“Everything about that day was strange and off Fox. Hanson’s call right before the mission, that communication we intercepted pointing to the warehouse, his tactical decision to have us hold the LZ and not fully scout the warehouse. The fact the Senator's son turned up dead in a ditch in some backwater a hundred miles from our location. Why lure us there? I can’t make it add up. I know we have plenty of enemies that would be more than happy to eliminate a special forces team but this felt targeted, you know?” she said while holding the tip of the straw to her mouth but not drinking and staring out at the river.
Fox leaned back in his chair and looked to the ceiling thinking about his answer before responding, “I’ve thought about it a lot too. There’s definitely something going on that we aren’t privy to. I don’t know about you but it was almost as if Hanson held us back. Like he knew something bad was going to go down but why keep us back and not Connely, Tucker, or Riley? Riley was our field medic and would have made the most sense but he took them and not us. I can’t help but feel like your instinct that this was targeted is on point. That was a message to someone, but who?”
Closing her eyes for a moment, Jas scrunched up her face like she fighting with herself about what she wanted to say next before taking a breath and saying, “Fox, did you see the woman with white hair on that mission?”
Fox who had been gazing out the window watching the birds as they flew against the overcast sky suddenly snapped his head toward Jas with an intensity that caused the Captain to involuntarily flinch.
“What did you just say?” Fox said with a dangerous edge to his voice.
Jas’s eyes widened in shock. Fox for all his ferociousness in battle was a very chill person when not on the battlefield. Occasionally stern and definitely reserved with those he didn’t consider friends but rarely was he triggered like he seemed to currently be.
“I…I saw a woman with white hair and a long coat right before the warehouse exploded. She was on the rooftop adjacent to our target. It was one of the ones I wanted I scout. I didn’t mention it because it didn’t seem important at the time and I wasn’t sure what I saw. When we were debriefed and looked at the drone and bodycam footage she doesn’t appear so I thought maybe my mind was playing tricks on me, but I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that I didn’t make her up and that I really did see her,” Jas said with some uncertainty.
All humor had faded from Fox and he stared directly into Jas’s eyes unnerving the younger woman. “You really believe you saw this woman?” he asked.
“Yes I do,” she replied becoming more than a little concerned.
“That makes this so much worse,” he said while crushing a napkin in his hand absentmindedly. “Listen, what I’m going to tell you is classified. Out of respect for you as a person and for what we’ve gone through I’m going to share some information with you. Promise me you will keep it a secret?” he said.
“Fox, I’m a professional. You know I can keep a secret,” Jas replied with a bit of heat. Some of her fire returning at the idea of her not being trustworthy.
“I know, but I needed to hear you say it,” he said looking into her eyes again and holding her gaze for a few seconds before looking down at the table. You know that I get sent on solo missions and I know you’re smart enough to know that often they are infiltration and elimination missions. Heavily classified need to know only stuff. Part of why I was assigned to HOUND was that it gave me cover and flexibility to detach and go on these missions.
About six months before HOUND was wiped out I was sent on a solo mission to Afghanistan. You and the rest of the unit were not aware of it because it was during a scheduled leave but Major Hanson was aware. He was the one that passed on the orders to deploy. The mission was simple, a regional governor had run afoul of his own party and was looking to cut a deal for extraction. He would provide us with his party's goals and plans in the region and whatever troop information he had and we would get him out. I was to go in solo and use my abilities to get him out to a waiting evac team on the edge of friendly territory.”
“Let me guess, something went sideways? This feels like one of those stories,” Jas deadpanned before taking a bite of her scone.
Abscently rubbing at his chin he replied, “You’d be right. I was able to get in with relatively little trouble but there were signs that something was off. Patrols suddenly started breaking patterns. Meetings getting moved to new locations and times. Intel that was rock solid just hours before was now inaccurate. I’ve been doing this long enough to know our target had been made somehow.
I was supposed to make contact and then give the package two days to button up anything they needed to be done for it to look like a day off while we exfilled. My gut was screaming at me that something was off so I made contact and planned to exfil immediately that night. Upon collecting the package I was immediately met with resistance that shouldn’t have had any idea I was even there but yet here I was having a running fight all the way to our ride on the outskirts of the town. The only reason we made it that far was because I surprised my opponent by moving up the timeline. They hadn’t managed to get all their troops in place so I was able to make a go for it. The other thing that was interesting was that the resistance wasn’t by homegrown Afghani fighters but by another force entirely.
We barely reached the truck to begin our evacuation when the package took a fatal shot to their right eye. I caught the muzzle flash and tracked the sniper to be about 300 meters out on the roof of a gas station. I pursued and engaged with the operative,” he paused for effect, “A woman with white hair. I fought her briefly and we were evenly matched but she had the benefit of reinforcements so I disengaged when I could hear sirens and stole a vehicle to get back to friendly territory. I left Afghanistan with the mission a failure.”
“You fought her!” Jas exclaimed before realizing she needed to keep her voice down. “I did see someone, thank God, but why didn’t she show on any of the surveillance equipment?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, “But she didn’t show up on any of our surveillance equipment during that mission either. I reported it during the debrief and I was told to drop it and that malfunctions happen. That my mission was over and to remember that the mission was classified and to stop asking questions. I was assigned leave and told to depart and report back to HOUND with the rest of the unit at the end of the leave period. Right after that we essentially deployed to recover the Senator’s son, and no I don’t believe this is a coincidence.”
Rubbing her temple with her left hand Jas couldn’t believe what she’d just heard. “What is going on Fox? How are we connected to this?”
Shaking his head Fox said, “I don’t know, but my gut tells me Major Hansen knew something. I just don’t know if he was the target or if maybe I was, but it seems pretty clear that the Senator’s Son was just a lure to get us there. I think we need to tread carefully. Right now I’m choosing to believe that Major Hanson was looking out for us but I’m not so naive as to think I couldn’t have it all backward and he just ended up getting caught in whatever was going on.”
“Shit is that why we’ve been sidelined with this nonsense? We should be out there trying to find this woman and figure out what happened to Hansen,” Jas respond getting louder as her frustration seeped through.
“Jas I love seeing your fire but stop for a minute. We’ve been held out of the loop, and I know you’ve been chafing to get back out there but HOUND put a black mark on our record, deserved or not. No other unit was going to pick us up and we weren’t going to get a chance to reform HOUND. This posting was someone looking out for us. Your promotion to Captain and us being assigned this post together…someone pulled strings to make that happen.
Sighing Jas looked up to the ceiling before responding, “Rationally I can see your point but everything in me wants to go get the bad guys, not, whatever this is.”
“Listen, I think the past two years have been beneficial. It put space between us and whatever we got tied up in and personally I was tired of the missions and constant churn of deployment. I’ve enjoyed my time here. I’ve always enjoyed training and I’ve gotten to do that with a student who is eager to learn and my friend by my side. I’m not often selfish but in this case, I have no regrets.” he said finishing his coffee.
“Jeez no guilt there Master Sergeant Takahashi,” she said trying and failing to hide a smile, “and you’re right. I may not like being stuck here but it’s far from the worst posting. “And for what it’s worth I think I really did like you better when you didn’t speak,” Jas said while jabbing her finger at him and winking.
“Pfft you just don’t like that I’m right. It’s an affliction that infects even the best officers,” he said with a grin, “Besides without me you’d be stuck with Brunner.”
“Touche,” she said with a wince as Fox got up from his stool.
“Well, I gotta get going. I have a session with Dani in an hour and need to get set up,” he said while grabbing his cup and walking toward the recycling bin before he stopped and looked back at Jas.
“You going to pass her?” he asked while trying to gauge the younger woman's expression.
Quirking an eyebrow Jas paused a beat before her reply, “I guess I owe you my honest opinion aside from my usual objections. You are right that she’s worked hard, and there is no way we’ll ever really know she’s ready without putting her into the field. It’s still in her hands to not stuff up her exam but if she can prove she’s listened to us and is competent I’ll pass her.”
“Thank you, Captain Williams sir,” he said throwing up a sort of wave salute combo which elicited a chuckle from Jas before walking off to drop his cup in the recycling bin. As he walked back toward the elevator Jas couldn’t hear him say under his breath “Good because my gut tells me this is all connected.”
Jas watched him go for a minute before turning to look out over the river through the windows. Just then a stairway to heaven broke free from the clouds to illuminate a patch of water before muttering to herself, “I hope that’s a good sign.”