Chapter 1: News

"Bad news, General?"

General Hawk raised his eyes from the letter he held to see Warrant Officer Dashiell Faireborn, codenamed Flint, and Staff Sergeant Alison Hart-Burnett, codenamed Lady Jaye, standing in the doorway to his office. His door was open, and here at Joe base it was generally understood that if General Hawk's office door was open it meant you could walk in and talk to him. If it was closed you didn't disturb unless you had to, and of course, if you heard shouting you didn't disturb under pain of instant death. Or mess hall cleanup duty.

However, Flint and Lady Jaye were not only his soldiers, but they were personal friends too, and they had stopped at his door when they saw the look on his face, one that they recognized from long association that heralded bad news. They were out of uniform, so they were officially off-duty and could approach him as a friend. And what were friends for if not to sympathize with bad news?

He sighed as he put the letter down and beckoned them in. "Come on in, you two," he said, and they came in. It amused him the way they walked in step with each other, shoulder-to-shoulder; despite all the rules about fraternization between officers (especially officers with disparity in rank; Flint was a Warrant Officer and Lady Jaye was a Staff Sergeant) Hawk had long since acknowledged that there was nothing he could do about it; if he reassigned either one he would lose both, and they were two of the 'irreplaceable' officers he had on base. He'd privately concluded some time ago that as long as what they had together didn't affect their performance, he could safely ignore the rule. On paper, that is. And the close bond they shared could be a good thing sometimes, team-wise.

And anyway, this had nothing to do with them, except peripherally. He waited until they'd made themselves comfortable on the chairs in front of his desk before he handed Flint the letter. "Read this."

Lady Jaye read quicker than Flint did, so she was the first one to exclaim, "They're sending you to Fort Bragg for a SERE refresher course?"

Hawk nodded, seeing the distaste on his face mirrored on hers. "I'm to report there at the end of next week for the full 21 day course. And this is for the Level C training, which means the Resistance portion of the course is going to be…much more difficult."

Flint snorted. "'Difficult' is an understatement. Nothing about SERE is easy, but the resistance part…" he trailed off, shaking his head.

'SERE' was a military acronym for 'Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape'. The term referred to a 21 day course usually taken during or just after basic training. The courses were geared to helping the soldier learn skills that would help them survive if they ever found themselves in a situation behind enemy lines with no help immediately reachable.

There were three portions of the course. The first week there, the students would receive classroom instruction in survival, evasion, resistance and escape techniques.

The second week was devoted to practical application of what they'd been taught the first week in the classroom. Called Survival & Evasion, it was geared toward teaching the soldier how to survive if caught behind enemy lines; how to find or construct adequate shelter, how to find food and potable water in a wilderness situation, how to build a fire and provide for basic necessities when you had an absolute minimum of tools handy (the course ran on the supposition that if you were behind enemy lines you'd only have 'basic issue' with you—the regulation items every soldier carried with them.) 'Evasion' taught the soldiers how to navigate in dense terrain, how to orient oneself with north and south, east and west; how to cover your trail so anyone looking for you would be (hopefully) unable to find you. For some soldiers, this was easy; for others, particularly those who'd lived their entire lives in the city and had only ever seen trees on a street corner, this could be one of the harder parts of the course.

The last week would be spent in the Resistance Training Lab; a mock prisoner of war camp in which soldiers would be treated to a taste of what a real POW camp would be like. Forced physical training, sleep deprivation, withholding of food and water for extended periods…Hawk remembered all too well what the course was like even though it had been a decade or more since he'd gone through it. And that was the Level A training! This time he was scheduled for a Level C course—the upper level, more intensive course designed for those soldiers who, because of their MOS—military operating specialty—assignment, or, as in Clayton's case, rank and seniority, would make them more valuable exploitation targets for an enemy.

"I take it this is a reaction to your being kidnapped by Velez with Olivia—and your subsequent trip to Colombia," Lady Jaye took a guess.

"That would be the assumption, yes," Hawk said. "Even though, were they to ask my opinion about this, I wasn't the target, and Velez never once asked me for any classified information except the codes to communicate his demand for Alex with you. So I'm going to pack light and plan to leave next Wednesday. Knowing that we can't leave from here, the instructions are to have someone drive me to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, where there are a couple of other SERE students waiting, and we're all going to Fort Bragg in North Carolina on the same flight."

Flint broke in. "I don't understand why they're sending you to Fort Bragg. We have survival experts here, and I'm sure what Velez put you and Olivia through was nothing like what you'll experience there."

Hawk raised an eyebrow as he considered that, comparing what he'd experienced at Velez's hands with what he remembered of his long-ago SERE course. "You're right about that," he conceded finally, "But orders are orders. Maybe I can recommend some changes to the SERE program to make it a little more…realistic."

"Absolutely not," Flint shook his head. "If new recruits right out of Academy had to go through what I went through with Alex, they'd quit right there and go get a job somewhere else." His dark brown eyes were haunted, and Hawk was forcibly reminded that his Warrant Officer now had scars on his body that hadn't been there before this latest mission to the DRC, courtesy of a militia warlord…and what he'd experienced was much worse than what Hawk had gone through.

"I'm surprised they aren't sending you through the refresher course with me," Hawk said lightly, and Flint ducked his head.

"Don't mention it. Don't breathe it. Don't even think it." Flint warned. "I hope to put that off as long as possible. I know eventually they're going to remember and send me through the damned course, but at least for now they've forgotten me and I'd like to keep it that way!"

Lady Jaye smiled at her lover, then looked back at Hawk. "So you're leaving next Wednesday? At least that gives you enough time to say goodbye to Olivia. How is she doing, by the way? I think you went with Ettienne to see her last week, when he went to see Alex?"

Clayton smiled fondly, dropping the stiff 'commanding officer' mode in favor of just being Clayton Abernathy. "She's doing great. It's only been a month and a half, and she's not showing much, but at least her nausea's under control and she's got her appetite back. Alex is keeping a careful eye on her, and when I saw her last Monday she was about to give in to the inevitable and tell her commanding officer that she's expecting."

Allie shook her head. "She should have told him already."

"I rather get the feeling she's slightly worried about what he'll say and what he'll think. Being told she's pregnant so soon after her unexpected trip to Columbia, he's bound to expect the worst. Would you tell me right away if you were expecting?"

Allie froze, thinking about that. Clayton and Dash stared at her expectantly, waiting for her reply. She finally cleared her throat and said "No comment."

Dash's smile grew truly insufferable; Clayton had to rub his chin to hide the grin that threatened to erupt. "Okay. Get along, both of you. I was planning on going with Ettienne this evening to see Alex and Liv, and I want to pick her up some of those chocolates she likes from that little shop in the Village on our way there. Now that the nausea's gone she can finally enjoy them."

"I told you it would be different as she got further along," Allie teased Clayton, but Clayton shook his head adamantly.

"My viewpoint on kids and whether I'm going to physically be there hasn't changed. I'm just supporting her."

"Riiight," Allie drawled as she stood up. "You just keep telling yourself that, maybe one of these days you might even actually believe it. Come on, Dash."

"It hasn't changed," Clayton insisted, but he found himself talking to empty air; Allie and Dash were already gone. He'd given the Joes liberal leave that night; he was willing to bet that Courtney Krieger and Wayne Sneedon, aka Cover Girl and Beach Head, were already on their way out to their favorite Canal Street dive—and that meant that around two in the morning the base communications center would field a call from the owner of that dive, Clayton's personal friend and retired Army buddy, to come and get his wayward children. Despite the fact that Beach Head was technically in charge after Hawk, Flint and Duke, his relationship with Corporal Courtney Krieger tended to have a reverse effect on his maturity and that could sometimes get him in trouble. What mitigated it—albeit only slightly—was that without him Courtney would probably get in more trouble than she could handle and while she could bring Wayne's maturity level down, he also brought hers up. Slightly. And when they got into trouble both of them would confess right away and accept whatever discipline Hawk decided to dish out without complaint.

And speaking of complaining…

He met Ettienne in the garage making sure the lights on the Hummer they used for city transport was working and it was completely fueled up. "You and Alex got plans tonight?" he asked the Marine.

"Mmm. It depends on what she's up to but I'm kind of leaning towards taking her out for dinner and a movie. She's been really stressed the last week."

"What's wrong?"

"Well…she's not really talking to me much about it and I will brace her on it at some point, but I kind of get the feeling that after globetrotting for the last three years with the ICC, she's finding it hard to settle in to normal run-of-the-mill prosecutorial work. She got a letter yesterday from Lieutenant General Johnson reiterating his willingness to recommend her for work with the JAG office, and while she hasn't said anything yet, I think she's considering it." Ettienne grinned. "You gotta admit when you've seen the world it's hard to go back to an old job. Particularly when it's as boring as her job."

"Is she calling it 'boring' or are you calling it 'boring'?" Clayton swung easily into the front passenger seat, grateful that he'd been able to get rid of the crutches he'd been hobbling around on for the last month. For an active military man, having to hobble around on crutches after breaking a leg was almost torture in and of itself. He was pushing himself a bit, trying to get back the muscle he'd lost when his leg was wrapped in a cast—all the more important right now because he was going to North Carolina at the end of the next week.

"Both of us, actually," Ettienne admitted as he got into the driver's side and started the Hummer. "I got downtown early two days ago and went to the courthouse to sit in on Alex's case. She got her conviction but I could see she was bored with the whole thing, and when we got back to the apartment she got dressed to go out, what she put on told me a lot about her state of mind."

"Hold on. You can tell what she's thinking by the way she dresses?" Clayton stared at Ettienne in disbelief. "When's the bachelor party?"

Ettiennne chuckled as they swung out of the motor pool into the inclined ramp that took them from the first level of HQ to the surface of Staten Island, then swung away from the Battery Weed lighthouse to take the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to Brooklyn, and then to Manhattan. "No time soon, so don't hold your breath. But really, if she's bored with her day and looking for a little excitement she puts on something slightly racy, something risqué. Two days ago it was a tube top under a see-through lace t-shirt. In red." He cleared his throat. "As a man I approved of that top. As her boyfriend taking her out to a club…I wanted to put my jacket on her shoulders and cover her up."

"Is she still self-conscious about her scars?"

"To some extent, yeah," Ettienne admitted. "But she's relaxed a bit and she'll wear very thin lacy tops over a cami or tank if she doesn't think we'll be going to a place where she's going to get stares. Particularly a dimly-lit bar or club." He switched topics. "You got plans for Liv tonight?"

Clayton shook his head. "Nah. I gave up after two or three of our dates over the last month got ruined by her job. The first time we were going to go catch a movie and she ended up pulling an all-nighter on a case. The second time she was just too damn tired to actually do anything and she was asleep almost as soon as we got in her car. She apologized, but I could see she really was tired and I just took her back in. The third time she just didn't feel like going out anywhere. I've learned not to make plans ahead of time; I'll just gauge her mood when I get there and we'll fly by the seat of our pants. She likes our booth at Knickerbockers, so if she's up to going anywhere that's usually where we end up."

Ettienne shook his head. "Jeez. At least Alex is easier."

"Alex has a job where she sits at a desk most of the day and paces around a courtroom for what's left of it. Liv's job is a lot harder and more physical and it's rougher on her, and I don't blame her for wanting to just kick back and relax." Clayton said defensively.

"Hey. Easy. I understand, I really do." Ettienne looked slightly sheepish. "It's just hard getting some time alone with Alex. We end up fooling around in the back seat most of the time because you and Liv got the apartment."

Clayton turned. Looked at the back seats in the Hummer. Looked at Ettienne. Looked at the back seats again. "Those back seats."

Ettienne grinned cheerfully. "Yep."

"Those specific back seats."

"Um-hmm." Unrepentant.

"Oh my God, I can't even imagine what Courtney would say if she knew what was happening in one of her 'babies'."

"I'll have you know that when the seats are folded down there's just enough space to have a little fun if you don't mind being close. And before you think about what Courtney would say, who do you think found out how much room is available in the back when the seats are folded down?"

"You mean…Courtney and Wayne…"

"I wouldn't have thought of it myself."

Clayton shook his head. "I think I'd rather not think about that. Really. I'm going to forget you told me that. Turn around and drive, Gunnery Sergeant."