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For Love & Country

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September 2011

Ali Krieger stares at her girlfriend in shock. “Are...are you sure you want to do this?”

Ashlyn Harris nods. “Yeah. I mean, I’m behind Hope, Jill and Barnie on the depth chart. And, well, I can’t explain it but...but this is just something I’ve always wanted to do. I can’t wait much longer to do it.”

Ali bites her lip as she considers what Ashlyn has told her. “But...what about pro leagues?”

Ashlyn smiles. “I’ve done those. Hell, I just won the WPS championship in an epic shootout!” She pauses and takes her girlfriend’s hands. “Alex, baby, I can honestly say I have thought about this from all angles and this is really what I want to do. I need to do this.” She takes a deep breath. “I can...understand if you can’t wait for me. My life is going to be pretty crazy and you’re not going to want to spend your free time following me who knows where when- -”

Ali cuts her off with a passionate kiss. When it ends brown eyes burn into hazel.

“I am so proud of you for doing this, Ashlyn. And I’m not going to be anywhere but by your side when our schedules allow. Will it be hard? Sure. But all military families have it tough. Ours won’t be any different.”

Ashlyn slowly smiles. “Really?”

“Really.” She strokes a hand down the taller woman’s chest. “So, um, when do you report to boot camp?”

“I go to Officers Candidate School at Ft Benning in Georgia for 12 weeks and come out a Second Lieutenant. I’ll be in the Corps of Engineers in their civilian works programs. I’ll be helping build schools, homes, bridges and such in places that have been devastated by war or natural disasters.”

Ali swallows hard. “War? Like...maybe in...the Middle East?” she asks nervously, her mind on the recent anniversary of the attacks that had shocked the world.

Ashlyn nods. “Yeah. But in places that we’ve secured the town and they need help rebuilding. It’s these types of projects that show the locals we’re not an Army just stomping through and destroying shit. We’ll help them rebuild in ways may be even better than they had before.”

Ali can see the excitement in Ashlyn’s eyes. And she is not surprised. Ashlyn’s heart has always been one of the most beautiful parts of the woman and these sorts of projects sound right up her alley.

“And with my background in soccer, they said a lot of time the community building aspects of these projects include playing with the local kids. Soccer is huge around the world so they think I’d be a natural at helping build the continued relations we need to bring peace and comfort to an area sooner rather than later.”

Ali chuckles. “You just like the thought of getting to play around while others are working.”

Ashlyn rolls her eyes. “Well, duh! Why do you think I’m a keeper not a field player,” she teases.

Ali laughs and takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “When do you leave?”

“To get the right orders for what I want to do, I need to sign the papers and report in two weeks.”

Ali slowly nods. “Two weeks. Think you can handle being with me every available minute of the day until then?”

“I think that’s something I could definitely handle,” Ash answers as she gives her girlfriend a kiss.

It quickly deepens. Though she is being positive and supportive on the outside, inside Ali is terrified as she imagines what could happen to Ashlyn if she gets sent to the war zone. She deepens the kiss, her hands gripping the blonde’s tee shirt and ripping it up along with the sports bra below it. Ashlyn just moans as Ali’s mouth goes right to a pert nipple.

“Oh, Alex...”

Ali pushes the taller woman onto the couch and quickly pulls off the woman’s shorts and underwear. She climbs on top, her eyes boring into Ashlyn’s.

“I love you.”

Her hand thrusts into a center already wet in anticipation. Ash bucks up to meet the pistoning arm. Ali’s mouth alternates between breasts, moaning as Ash tangles her hands into dark locks. As the blonde nears her climax Ali looks up. Ash’s head is thrown back, her eyes closed as she rides out the pleasure.

“Look at me, Ashlyn.” Ash forces her head up. “Marry me, Ashlyn. Marry me.”

It sends Ashlyn over the edge and her pleasure is her answer.

“YES! YES! YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!”

Chapter Text

Dear Alex,

I think I owe Coach Dorrance an apology. Like a huge one. Big. We’d say he was a drill sergeant when he ran us too long. Turns out Coach was a pussy cat compared to a real drill sergeant. I’ve never had my legs feel as heavy after practice as they do after the drills we do here. And I get it. I mean, what we will be doing in the Army is a heck of a lot more intense than game days back in Chapel Hill but I thought I was in pretty good shape. Next time you see me I’ll have muscles where I’ve never had them before. I look forward to you examining me very, very carefully to find them all. ;o)

I saw where you all beat Norway in that friendly and that you got the whole match. I am so proud of you! You guys will be so ready for Qualifiers come February! Then you will be my little Olympian, not just my little warrior. Oh, and tell Hope she had a great game and I’m still her number 1 fan.

Well, sorry this is so short. Want to get it in an envelope and mailed out to you in the morning so it hopefully makes it to DC just as you do. I think we’ll have a chance to call this weekend so keep your cell phone close. I love you and miss you so much, baby. See you in a few weeks at graduation.

Love,
Ash


 

Dear Ash,

Eight weeks down, 4 to go. Not that I’m counting or anything. Oh, who am I kidding...I have a calendar I carry around just so I can mark off each day before we see each other again. It’s crazy, when soccer kept us apart it didn’t seem this hard. Now it seems so much worse because I can’t just pick up the phone and see how you are doing.

By the way, hope you like the enclosed team pic. Pinoe insisted you need it so you can remember you’ve got a whole squad of people cheering for you and supporting you. They really are so proud of you and they ask me every day if I’ve heard from you. I keep reminding them you can’t just call whenever you want. Dad did tell me I have a stack of letters waiting for me at home.

OH MY GOD! I can’t believe you! So, was in the middle of writing this when HAO knocked and hand delivered a letter that you sent here to the hotel. She just happened to be in the lobby and the desk clerk saw her and asked her to bring it up. I just saw the envelope and nearly cried. My hands are still shaking so I am sorry if my penmanship leaves a bit to be desired right now. You don’t know how badly I was aching to hear from you. I miss you so much. I’m glad you get a leave after you graduate. I plan to make up for lost time. A lot. Like, good thing you’ve got all those new muscles. ;-)

Well, I need to go to a team meeting. I had planned to write more later but after getting your letter I want to mail this right now. Hopefully it will get to you in a couple days even though it’s traveling overseas. By the way- -Mom says we can use her country club for the wedding. They have a great view of the sea and they offer a military discount. Let me know how that sounds. Ugh, Becky is knocking. I have to go.

I love you, Ashlyn. I can’t wait to see you, my little soldier.

Love,
Alex


 

Dear Alex,

First, I am OK. Believe me. But you will see in the pic I am sending I have a black eye. Needless to say I will not forget the way a certain hand-to-hand combat move works ever again.

So, I have hotel rooms booked for everyone. Hope Chris and Kyle don’t mind sharing. Is it crazy of me to say I am more proud of this graduation than I was of my UNC graduation? I have worked my mind and body in a way I never thought I could, Al. There were times I was ready to quit or thought my body would fail me but somehow I found something deeper inside of me to get me through. I didn’t know I had it in me. I’ve learned a lot about myself while I was here. I hope that it helps me be a better leader and a better wife.

Speaking of the wedding, Mom said things are good with the florist. They will be at the country club that morning and will have it decked out in the blooms you want. She is pretty excited I am wearing my dress uniform. I think she always pictured me getting married in board shorts and a tank top. Kinda wonder if you had worried about that, too. Lol

Hopefully you have gotten with Whit so she can coordinate her outfit with your bridesmaids. I told her I was cool if she wanted to wear a dress like they’re wearing or she could just coordinate the colours. Jess and Liz already told me to stop worrying about it that the three of them will figure something out but

I can’t believe you called me! Best damn surprise ever! I mean, I am sorry that your game is stormed out but fuck I loved hearing your voice. And now I feel like I wasted paper discussing wedding stuff since we talked about all that. I could have used the paper to write how much I love you and miss you. I mean, technically, yes we talked about that, too, but I know you like to pull my letters out and read them when you are feeling lonely. I do the same thing.

Well we have lights out soon so I’m going to sign off. I haven’t mentioned this in a few lines but, I love you, sweetheart. See you in 2 weeks. And make you my bride in 4. Damn I am so excited! Talk to you soon.

Love,
Ash


 

Dear Ash,

LAST LETTER I HAVE TO SEND TO OCS! I mean, sure I’ll still be sending plenty to you wherever you end up stationed but then you will be a little more free to talk and stuff because you’ll just be a regular old officer not just some potential officer. (Admit it...that made you smirk!)

Ugh! I am being so silly but I am just so excited. The wedding plans are coming together so incredibly well considering we’re doing it from afar and in 1 week I will get to hold you in my arms once more. Life is pretty damn good!

So, work-wise, I have officially been released from FFC Frankfurt to play in the Olympic Qualifiers. I am honestly considering leaving them completely. With the pro league in the US I know I can stay in Washington or possibly get picked up by another team. The shorter season would give me more time with you and it would keep me closer for NT camps and stuff. I have a lot of decisions to make. Actually, make that we have a lot of decisions to make. I want you to be part of the process as we move forward.

But enough of that. All I really want to think about is the next month. You graduate, we marry, we honeymoon. Pinoe still won’t tell me what the girls chipped in and got us. Do you know? If you know and don’t tell me I will spank you...and not in a fun way! ;-)

Well, I need to go. I am flying to Germany tomorrow for some team meetings and training ahead of a couple matches in January. Dad says if I decide to leave Frankfurt I can store stuff at his house until everything is hashed out with us and the WPS. I know you’ve warned me you’ll probably go overseas immediately but a girl can hope you stay in the US. How crazy would it be if you get sent to Germany just as I leave? It really would be our luck.

Well, I am going to sign off. I can’t wait to see you next weekend, baby. I am hoping this dash to Germany and back helps the time fly. I love you so much. See you soon, my soldier.

Love,
Alex

Chapter Text

December 2011

Ali is checking her phone as she hustles through the airport in Columbus, GA. She needs to get a cab to the hotel and confirm dinner plans with Ashlyn. If all flights stay on time, everyone else will be arriving in about 3 hours and Ali wants everything to be perfect. As she leaves the security checkpoint exit, she glances up to check the signs to baggage claim...

...and stumbles to a stop.

The single dimple smile that means the world to her is shining right at her. The blonde that is the answer to her childhood dreams is standing there. In her hands is a simple sign, “Princess”. Ali squeals in delight and races towards Ashlyn. Ashlyn drops the sign and catches her love as she leaps into her arms. After a few minutes, Ali eases back and Ash sets her down.

“What are you doing here? I thought you had class?”

“We earned the afternoon off. So, here I am ready to chauffeur you to the hotel.”

“Oh, I am so happy to see you,” Ali says, still hardly believing the change that she can see in just a few weeks. Not to mention feel. She squeezes Ashlyn’s bicep. “Damn, honey,” she whispers.

Ashlyn smiles proudly. “Yeah, I am even more cut than I knew I could be.” She stares into Ali’s eyes. “I love you so much.”

“I love you, too.”

The two share a deep kiss. As it ends, Ashlyn’s eyes are dark with lust. “Luggage. Let’s get your luggage and get to the hotel.”

“Yeah,” Ali mumbles.

Ash steps away and grabs Ali’s hand to drag her to the baggage area so they can get the heck out of the airport and make up for 12 weeks of missing each other.
 


 

After what felt like the longest 45 minutes of their lives, the two women are hustling into the hotel room. The door hasn’t even closed completely before Ali’s bags are dropped and Ashlyn has her pinned to the wall. Both women moan as their mouths come together in deep, hungry kisses. Ali grabs the hem of Ashlyn’s shirt.

“Off. Need to see you.”

“Me, too,” Ashlyn insists as she unbuttons Ali’s slacks.

They are a desperate tangle of limbs and clothes as they frantically undress each other. When they are both gloriously naked, they actually pause. Ashlyn gently runs her hands over Ali, reminding herself of all the dips and curves that make up her beautiful goddess.

Ali, on the other hand, has to stop herself from drooling as she takes in the new contours that define her wife. One hand trails up a thigh that had been strong before but is a rock now. Her other hand trails over the well-defined 6-pack of her wife’s stomach.

“Oh, fuck, Ash.”

Ashlyn grins. “Don’t get used to it. They warned us we’ll be in better shape the day we graduate than we ever will be again.”

Ali drops to her knees. She places open mouthed kisses on those strong muscles, loving the way they tremble and contract below her lips. Ashlyn strokes her hand over Ali’s head, her strong legs suddenly getting weak.

“Alex...please...”

Ali looks up and sees what Ashlyn needs. She grips the back of those rock hard thighs and angles Ashlyn forward. Ashlyn braces one hand against the wall as the other urges Ali’s head forward.

“ALEX! YES!” Ashlyn shouts as her fiancé’s talented tongue slips between her legs.

Ali hums happily as she tastes her love once more. Her tongue swirls around the throbbing pearl of Ashlyn’s desire before sliding farther back and dipping into the center of her lover’s heat. Ashlyn moans and spreads her legs even farther apart. Ali feels the tremors increasing in the thighs she grips. Her woman is so ready for her touch.

“Alex...please...take me all the way. Please...” Ashlyn begs.

Ali shivers at the desire in Ash’s voice. She slowly slides one hand around.

“Yeah. That...baby, please,” Ashlyn encourages.

Ali smiles...and thrusts 2 fingers deep into her girlfriend. The blonde rises to her tiptoes as she rocks with the thrust. Ali continues to thrust as her mouth sucks in the throbbing clit. A few flicks of her tongue combined with a swirl of her fingers against Ash’s g-spot drive the woman over the edge. Ash’s legs rock forward several times as she cums with a roar.

Ali gently guides her to the ground. Ashlyn is on her knees, panting. Her head is on Ali’s shoulder.

“Damn...baby...”

Ali smiles, rubbing her hands up and down her strong back. “You okay?”

“Depends. Are my legs still attached?”

“Yes,” Ali giggles.

“Then no because I can’t feel them.”

Ali chuckles and pulls her even closer. “Then I best get you into bed. And since you’re so helpless now, I guess I’ll just have to have my way with you over and over again until our families arrive.”

Ashlyn lifts her head, smirking. “Who said I was helpless?”

She pulls Ali over her shoulder and stands up suddenly. Ali squeals in delight as Ashlyn walks them over to the bed, yanks down the covers with one hand, and drops Ali onto the bed. She then crawls on top of Ali, straddling one leg. She grips the other leg and guides it up around her waist, opening Ali to her completely. Braced on her right hand, she uses her left to start to caress Ali’s perfect breasts.

“You’ve had your snack. Now I’ll get mine,” Ash husks out. “And I plan to eat you up from top to bottom.”

Ali can only moan as their lips crash together once more. Their hips rock in time with each other, their thighs rubbing clits that are highly sensitive. Their bodies feel like they are on fire as they grind into each other. Ash’s mouth travels to Ali’s ear. She sucks a pressure point just below the lobe and feels the familiar shudder that spot always induces. Ali moans out her name. Ashlyn kisses lower, finally sucking gently on the hollow between neck and shoulder. She does an extra hip check as Ali’s nails scrape down her back.

“Oh, fuck, Ashlyn,” Ali groans.

Ashlyn kisses lower. She wants to tease a little but no longer has the control to wait. Her mouth latches onto Ali’s breast, sucking as much of it in as she can as her tongue flicks the pebbly nipple. Ali’s back arches up as she screams at the sensations this adds to her already electrified body. After paying both breasts equal attention, Ashlyn can wait no longer. She slides down the bed and settles between Ali’s legs. The brunette lifts her head and meets eyes with a wolfish desire in them.

“Mine.”

“Yes. Yours. Take it! Please, Ash, take it!”

That is all she needs to hear. Her tongue dives deep into Ali’s heat and she feasts as if she’d starved for 12 weeks. And in some ways she had. When she feels Ali close, her mouth moves to the throbbing clit as she uses a hand to penetrate deep and hard. Her strong shoulders keep Ali’s thrusts to a minimum so there is little to disrupt her pace. Soon Ali is screaming through her own orgasm. As she finally collapses down on the bed, Ashlyn sits up. Her own hand dives into her center and with just a few practiced flicks she sends herself over again. She drops onto the bed, half on Ali, half off. Both women are panting.

After a few minutes, Ali shifts, forcing Ashlyn to her back so they can cuddle. The shorter woman brushes a lock of hair off of her blonde’s face. They stare at each other silently for a few moments.

“I love you. And I am so proud of you,” Ali finally whispers.

“I love you, too. And I hope I can always make you proud.”

Ali shifts so she is on top. Their hands trace paths over each other for a moment before Ali leans down to kiss Ash once more. Within moments they are making love again. This time slowly, sensually. The first round had been about separation and horniness. Now they are celebrating their love and reminding themselves of all they mean to each other as they start on the next phase of their life together.


 

The next day at 10:30 exactly, the graduating class of this OCS term files into the room hosting their ceremony. Ali can’t help but think Ashlyn is the most handsome one in the lot. But she may be a bit biased. Tears spring into her eyes when she sees her fiancé proudly, and with honor, take the oath to military service. She feels a hand take hers and glances at Tammye, who is also beaming with pride.

“She looks so happy,” Tammye whispers.

“Yes, she does,” Ali agrees.

As the ceremony moves to the special awards, Ali is surprised to see Ashlyn stepping into line beside the stage.

“The winner of the female Distinguished Physical Fitness Graduate with a score of 330 points, branch Corps of Engineers, Second Lieutenant Ashlyn Harris.”

Deb looks at Ali. “Did she tell you?”

“No! The stinker!” Ali answers as they clap for their soldier.

When the ceremony is finally winding down, the graduates, with their family members joining in, singing the anthem of the US Army, “The Army Goes Rolling Along.” This time Ali can’t fight the tears of pride. The song had always made her heart swell but now it means even more to her. Finally, after the distinguished guests file out, the drill sergeant steps up to the stage. She gives a salute to the class, signifying that they have now transitioned to full military officer. The audience claps and the ceremony ends as the newly minted officers file out.

The Krieger’s and Harris’ catch up to Ashlyn outside. Ali pulls Ash into a strong hug.

“I am so, so proud of you,” she croaks out through her tears.

Ash smiles and kisses her cheek. “I’d never have made it without your love and support.”

“Mind if we have a hug?” Tammye teases.

Ali steps to the side, wiping her tears as everyone gives Ash a hug. Then camera’s come out and the family poses for a number of photos with their soldier. Ali has Kyle take one with her phone and quickly posts it to Instagram. She captions it “My Officer!” Within moments it is being liked and shared by USWNT members who also respond with congratulations for Ashlyn. An arm drapes across Ali’s shoulder.

“So, ready to go, sweetheart, or you want to keep hanging here at the base?”

Ali turns and kisses Ashlyn’s cheek. “Let’s get to lunch. Then we need to go to the hotel, get you changed and start the drive to DC. We have a date in Baltimore this week.”

“Damn right,” Ashlyn agrees.

The plan was for the women to get legally married at the courthouse in Baltimore but the real celebration would be the one in Florida and that is the day they would consider their anniversary. Well, not that they wouldn’t enjoy celebrating both days. They would register for the license on Monday and then wait the required 48 hours before getting married. A couple of friends in the area would go as their witnesses, including Ali’s maid of honor Liz.

“So, will you wear your dress uniform for that, too?”

“Nah. I’m thinking board shorts and a tank top,” she teases.

“Oh, Ashlyn, really,” Tammye scolds.

Ashlyn laughs and looks at Ali. “Told she’d think that was my first choice.”

Ali rolls her eyes and the group heads out for a nice lunch. As it ends, Ashlyn looks at her gathered family.

“I just want to say it means so much to me that you all took the time to fly out here for my graduation. Your support over the years, both in soccer and now as I start to serve in the Army, means so much to me. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without each and every one of you.”

“We’re proud of you, Ash. Always have been,” Ken states as he pats her hand. “The Army is damn lucky to have you.”

“So, do you know where you’re going yet?” Chris asks.

Ashlyn takes a deep breath. “Uh, yeah, actually I do,” she says sadly. Ali’s heart drops and she has to remind herself to stay positive no matter what. “I was hoping to save this for later but...well...I’ll be stationed for now out of...Ft. Belvoir.”

“Oh, that’s not so bad. At least it’s not- -” Ali’s supportive statement trails off as Ashlyn’s words. “Wait...what did you say?”

Ken, Deb and Kyle are grinning ear to ear. The Harris’ seem confused. Ashlyn chuckles.

“Ft Belvoir. You know, right there in Northern Virginia.”

Ali’s eyes widen. “You JERK! You had me prepped for Alabama or even overseas!” she smacks Ashlyn’s arm.

Ashlyn laughs along with everyone else. “Sorry, honey, I couldn’t resist. We had both been so ready for bad news I was stunned when I saw my papers. I report to the base officially in 5 weeks. I just have to go by sometime this week to get my paperwork set-up and to file you officially as my spouse.”

“Hmph. Pull a mean prank like that and you may not need that filing,” Ali teases with a pout.

Kyle rolls his eyes. “Oh, yeah, like any of us actually believe you could follow through on that threat.”

Everyone, including Ali, laughs, knowing he is very, very right.


 

Ashlyn lies on her back, Ali curled up against her side, in the honeymoon suite of the Four Seasons at the Baltimore Inner Harbor. A two night stay had been a gift from their brothers. Ali isn’t sure if Ash is more excited about the suite or about the tickets to the National Aquarium that had been part of the package. They would be using those the next day.

The women had gotten married that morning and were now lying naked after spending the day celebrating their marriage. Ali is gently tracing the newly sculpted lines of her wife’s body. Her hand glides down Ash’s arm to her strong hand. Ali entwines their fingers, noting how different they are and yet they fit perfectly together. She sighs happily and kisses Ashlyn’s shoulder.

“I didn’t think it would feel different,” she says dreamily.

Ashlyn, her free hand lightly stroking up and down Ali’s back, cocks her head to see her wife’s face. “What wouldn’t?”

“Being married. Making love and being married.” Ali’s eyes move from their hands to the blonde’s face. “But it just feels...feels so much...better.”

Ashlyn smiles and hugs her close. “Yes, it does.”

“Can I ask two questions?” Ali asks.

“Of course. I won’t even count that one,” Ashlyn jokes.

Ali grins and rolls to sit up on her wife. Ash’s hands go to Ali’s hips.

“Are...are you really okay with me staying ‘Ali Krieger’ in soccer?”

The lieutenant smiles. “Of course. Baby, you’ll be Ali Krieger-Harris officially. Staying Krieger for soccer just makes sense because it’s like...like a brand name now.”

“Yeah, but Cap changed her name.”

“But Hamm didn’t,” Ashlyn counters. She takes her wife’s hands. “When Cap changed her name, soccer wasn’t as popular. She didn’t have all the social media out there to help boost her name. If she did she’d probably still be Pierce on the field, just like Mia is still Hamm. It would be Cap’s brand. Even though Cap is badass on the field taking Chris’ name showed she was ready for their path together.”

“Are you saying we don’t have a path together?”

Ashlyn chuckles. “We have a beautiful, long path together. But you’ll be the name people know. I’ll just be the soldier following your career from around the world.”

“Oh. But people will remember you, Ash,” Ali insists.

“I know some will. But I am going to be so proud and so happy being ‘Ali Krieger’s wife’ at games because I know when the cameras stop rolling, and the sharpie’s run dry, you’ll be back in my arms as Alex Krieger-Harris. Who you are to me has always been so much more special than the name on your back while on the field.” She taps Ali’s heart. “Who you are in here is what matters. Always.”

Ali smiles and leans over to kiss her wife. The answer had been perfect. She sits back up and fiddles with the dog tags she had insisted Ash keep on while they made love.

“So, my second question may be kind of silly. Please don’t laugh at me,” she requests nervously, biting her lip as she studies the face below her.

“I promise, baby.”

Ali looks at the tags. “Can you get me a set of your dog tags? I’d...I’d like to have them to wear when we’re apart. Like, if I’m at camp or something I can have them with me and just take them off for games and such. I like that they will hang just over my heart.”

Ash takes Ali’s hands and pulls her down into a kiss. “That’s not silly, baby. Not silly at all. I’ll get you a set. I promise.”

Ali smiles. “Thank you.”

They kiss again. And soon they are once again making love to celebrate the official joining of their lives as one.


 

On Friday afternoon, Ashlyn and Ali drive from Baltimore to Ft Belvoir so the second lieutenant can meet her commander-to-be and fill out any paperwork needed to officially list Ali as her spouse. For her part, Ali had to do her best to curb her hormones. Turns out Ash is as sexy in her ACU’s as she was graduation day in her Class A’s.

After getting waved onto base via the secure checkpoint, Ali reads the directions to lead Ash to the parking lot beside the building that houses the Corps of Engineers. The women walk into the office and Ali takes a seat as Ash walks up to the corporal at the reception desk.

“Corporal Peters? I’m Lieutenant Harris. I have an appointment with Colonel Menninger.”

“Yes, ma’am. Have a seat and I’ll let the colonel know you’re here.”

“Thank you.”

The women only have to wait 5 minutes before a striking man steps out into the waiting room. Well over 6’ tall he has maintained his physique and looks like he could give some young fellows a run for the money on the obstacle course. His dark hair is just graying at the temples and he gives off an air of power that instills confidence. He extends his hand as Ashlyn stands.

“Lt. Harris, pleasure to meet you.”

“You, too, sir. I’ve heard a lot of good things about you and look forward to serving with you.”

He nods. “Good to know. Can I assume this is your sister?”

Ali blushes as Ash just grins. “Uh, actually, sir, this is my wife, Ali Krieger-Harris. We got married Wednesday in Baltimore and have a full ceremony for our family and friends next week in Florida.”

Menninger has the grace to look ashamed as Ali stands. He extends his hand. “My apologies. Congratulations to you both on your marriage.”

“Thank you,” Ali replies with a smile.

“Well, I hope you don’t mind if I steal your wife for a few minutes, Mrs. Harris?”

Ali shakes her head. “Not at all.”

“Peters, make sure you get Mrs. Harris anything she needs.”

The corporal nods. “Yes, sir.”

Once the officers are gone, Ali sits back down. She smiles at the corporal. “Don’t worry: I won’t make you fetch me a steak dinner.”

The corporal chuckles. “Thanks, ma’am. Uh, is it okay if I say I know you? Your PK against Brazil was incredible.”

Ali blushes. “Thank you. It was one of the best moments of my career.”

“I believe it.”

Meanwhile in the office, Menninger gestures for Ash to sit as he settles behind his desk.

“Your file is quite impressive, Harris.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I know part of the reason you are here is to learn the ins and outs of the engineers. We pride ourselves on going into devastated areas, both here and abroad, and improving living conditions as quickly as possible. From temporary buildings in disaster areas to permanent structures where we are creating goodwill to, the most important in some areas, creating a sustainable clean water source. Additionally, if our troops need a bridge, we find a way to build it. We are one part goodwill ambassadors, one part advance war support. So I ask you: what is a world class goalkeeper doing in my corps of engineers?”

Ashlyn doesn’t even hesitate. “Everything you have said is the reason why I wanted my MOS to be here with the engineers. I want to make a difference in the world. If that means going to a place that has been destroyed by an earthquake and giving people a roof and water I want to be a part of that. If that means going to a warzone and making sure our tanks can get into enemy territory in an effort to bring about peace, I want to be there. Yes, sir, I am a world class goalkeeper. I have met so many people, visited so many countries, and it is now my time to give back. I want to continue to represent the United States but now as a soldier, not as a keeper. Here in the engineers I can make a difference unlike any I have ever made on the pitch.”

He studies her a moment, then grins. “Damn good answer, Harris.”

“Thank you, sir,” she replies proudly.

“I have a proposition for you. We’re putting together a new rapid response team, the fourth such team since I implemented the idea. This team would be alerted the moment we are needed in an emergency situation; think natural disaster or terrorist attack. It could be foreign it could be domestic but the goal is to have you in route within 4 hours. Gear, supplies, everything you need to get started. That may sound easy but I promise you it is not. Requisitions will have to be written, planes and trucks loaded and gone. Once there you will need to assess what additional equipment will be needed, if any, to finish our mission. Goalkeepers think on their feet, they assess the field in front of them, and make split second decisions. I want that kind of thinking on this team. Granted, it may take a time or two for you to really get in the swing of things but you’ll be working with officers and NCOs that have years of experience. Use them right and you’ll be running with the bulls in no time. What do you think?”

Ashlyn straightens up even more in her seat, proud that her new boss things so highly of her. “I’d be honoured to be part of that team, sir. Is there anything I can study over the next couple of weeks that will help me become a viable member of the team sooner?”

Menninger grins. Knowing a wedding and honeymoon were coming up he had wondered if his new officer would even offer to make time for work. It had been a test to see if he was right about her. He picks up a binder and hands it to her.

“No need to memorize it but there are names, numbers, sample forms and everything you will need to know about this unit. There’s also some blank pages so you can make notes in there as you go along. This will be your work bible until you know it all. And then you can add more pages when you realize it’s an ongoing learning process so you can’t know it all.”

Ashlyn takes it and smiles. “I understand what you mean, sir. I’ll go over it with a fine toothed comb and make notes where I have questions.”

“Very good.” He picks up another stack of papers. “I thought I’d save you a little time and pick these up for you. These are the forms to fill out to register your bride, get your base parking decals, and housing forms should you opt to live on base.”

“Thank you, sir. But we’ll be living off base a little closer to where Ali will be working.”

“I see. Have you settled on a place yet?”

“No, sir.”

“Then keep in mind, from the time you get the alert to the time you are on your way is 4 hours. Commute time will count.”

Ashlyn frowns. “I hadn’t considered that, sir. Thank you for pointing that out.”

“No problem.” He stands and she does the same. He walks her back out to the lobby and offers his hand. “Welcome again, Lieutenant. I look forward to working with you soon.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He offers his hand to Ali. “You’ve got a smart woman on your hands. She’ll make you proud.”

“She already does,” Ali says, smiling at her wife.

“It was good to meet you. I’ll see you in a few weeks, Harris.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

Ali can tell Ashlyn is trying to stay cool while inside she is busting with excitement. Once they are safely out of sight of the building, Ashlyn lets out a whoop and spins Ali around. She quickly tells the brunette about the elite team she will be joining. Ali pulls her into a hug.

“I am so proud of you, Ash! I mean, it kinda scares me where you could be going but at the same time it is incredible that he thinks so highly of you!” She runs her hands up and down strong arms. “I am just...damn, I keep saying this over and over but I mean it: I am so proud of you. You’re going to be an amazing officer.”

The two share a kiss and hug, then go on to finish filing all the paperwork so they can get home and get changed to meet up with some friends for dinner.

Chapter Text

Ashlyn slowly slides her saber into the sheath and lets out a breath. “Ready.”

“Damn, sis, you look...wow...”

“Bubba, you’re almost getting freaky with the gushing,” she teases.

“Sorry. I just...I mean, you looked so striking on your graduation day but now with the sword and stuff...well, I guess I just never pictured you cleaning up like this.” He gives her a smile. “I’m damn proud of you for serving and for marrying such a wonderful woman. You’re my hero, sis.”

Ashlyn pulls her brother into a hug. He had never been so honest with her before. “I love you, Chris.”

“I love you, too, Ash.”

“So you all set, GI Jane?” Whitney asks as she and Ashlyn’s childhood best friends Liz and Jess walk in the room.

The siblings pull apart. “I believe so,” Ashlyn replies. Her three friends stare at her, jaws agape. “What’s wrong? Do I have something in my teeth? Why’re you staring at me like that?”

“It’s just...you look so...damn, Ash,” Liz tries to explain.

Chris chuckles. “Yeah, that’s what I told her. She cleans up pretty good.”

“I’ll say,” Whitney agrees.

“Still half expected to see her in board shorts,” Jess says as the group chuckles.

They talk and tease for a few more minutes until the wedding coordinator pops her head into the room.

Ladies and gentleman, we’re ready for you to take your place at the altar. Ashlyn takes a deep breath.

“Well...this is it.” She swallows hard, her eyes suddenly terrified.

“What’s going on in there, Ash?” Whitney asks.

“What if she changes her mind?” she asks weakly.

Jess chuckles. “Not a chance, Ash. Not a damn chance. Let’s get this show on the road.”

The group heads outside to get into position. As they exit the building, Ash places her beret on. For her former teammates and for most of her family, this is their first chance to see her in her uniform. As she walks up the aisle, more than one person stops her to shake her hand and comment on how sharp she looks. When she gets to the front, her grandmother stands and pulls her into a tight hug.

“You look so handsome, little one. I am so, so proud of you. I love you so much.”

“I love you, too,” she eases back and stares into her grandmother’s wise eyes. “I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without you, Grandma.”

Ashlyn gives her a kiss on the cheek then helps her sit back down. She then takes her place with her maid of honor, Whitney, right beside her.

“Uh, Whit, I should have asked this sooner,” she mumbles as the music starts, “but you did remember the ring right?”

“Yep. Put it in the safe in my hotel room so I wouldn’t lose it. It’ll be safe until you need it.”

Ashlyn slowly turns and gives her an incredulous look. Whit breaks into a grin.

“Gotcha. It’s in Chris’ pocket since I thought it would be uncouth to hide it in my bra.”

Ashlyn rolls her eyes. “You suck.” She removes her white gloves and hands them to Chris. “Try not to drop these, bro,” she says with a wink as he slips them into one of his pockets.

The two turn their attention to the patio doors that are being opened to allow Ali’s escorts to begin their walk down the aisle.


 

Deb clenches her hands together as Kyle steps back from his sister. “Oh, Alex! You look so...oh, my sweet girl.”

Ali smiles as she studies herself in the mirror. “I’m a princess,” she whispers.

“Damn right, girl,” Kyle agrees. “Ashlyn’s sword won’t be the only hard weapon by her leg when she sees you.”

“KYLE!” his mother and sister scold as he just giggles.

Deb rolls her eyes. “Ignore him, honey. You look so beautiful.”

“Wow! Ali you are gorgeous!” Rylie Rampone gushes as she walks in with her mother.

“Looking great, Kriegs. Ash is going to be blown away,” Christie agrees.

Ali grins and squats down to be on level with Rylie. “You look beautiful, Rylie. You’ll be the prettiest flower girl ever.”

Rylie smiles proudly. “Thanks, Ali.” She holds up her basket. “I got my petals to drop for you to walk on.”

“Perfect! You are all set to go. I think the only thing left for me is my headpiece and we’ll be ready to get the show going.” The 6 year old nods in agreement.

Ali stands and turns back to her brother. “Got it?”

Kyle nods and lifts up the silver and crystal headpiece and carefully secures it to the locks he had styled. He nods when he is done.

“Perfect. A tiara for the princess. Ashlyn should be amused by that.”

“Definitely,” Ali grins.

Just then Ken Krieger walks in with the bridesmaids. “Well, ladies, it’s time.” He smiles and takes Ali’s hands. “You look amazing, sweetheart. Ashlyn is a very lucky woman.”

Christie looks at her daughter. “See you at the end of the ceremony.” She kisses her on the head. “Be good.”


 

Ashlyn is sure a flock of butterflies the size of pterodactyls have taken flight in her stomach. She forces herself to breathe as she watches Ali’s 3 bridesmaids and Kyle walk down the aisle. She (and everyone) chuckle as Rylie Rampone starts down the aisle, realizes all eyes are on her, and freezes. For the normally outgoing little girl, it is a surprising turn of stage fright. Ashlyn steps out into the aisle and squats down.

“Come on, Rylie,” she encourages. “Just like running to me on the field.”

Rylie slowly looks around then takes off for the keeper at a sprint. She throws herself into Ashlyn’s arms.

“I gotcha, Squirt. How about tossing a few of those petals for Ali?”

Rylie looks down at her basket and then just dumps all the petals right there at the aisle to the amusement of everyone. Ashlyn looks her in the eyes and nods.

“Perfect.” She gives her a kiss on the forehead. “How about go standing with Kyle now?”

Rylie nods and runs over to partially hide behind Kyle, who just pats her on the head with a smile. Ashlyn stands up and retakes her position, her eyes trained on the now closed doors. A moment later the familiar strains of “Here Comes the Bride” start and the doors are opened. As the blonde gets her first look at the brunette she can only shake her head.

“She is even more beautiful than I imagined,” she whispers. Her dimple is on full display as she smiles at her soon to be wife coming down the aisle.

For her part, Ali shivers when she sees her wife standing in her dress blues, sword at her side, looking more beautiful than ever. Everyone can see the women only have eyes for each other. For the brides, the entire ceremony seems to go by in a blur. And then the ultimate moment.

“I now pronounce you wife and wife,” the minister concludes. “You may kiss your bride.”

Ali and Ashlyn come together in a sweet, heartfelt kiss as everyone claps. As they had kissed, 6 officers from Ashlyn’s OCS class had assembled at the far end of the aisle. As the recessional begins, Ashlyn turns and gets her white gloves back from Chris and pulls them on. As the newlyweds start up the aisle, the officers at the back pull their swords to create the sabre arch. As they pass the second pair, the final pair drops their swords. Ashlyn smiles and kisses her bride once more. The swords are lifted and as they couple passes out, the officer on Ali’s side gives her a swat on the butt with the flat of his blade.

“Welcome to the Army, Mrs. Harris,” he calls out.

Ali laughs, glad Ashlyn had warned her of this tradition. “Proud to be here, Lieutenant Spears,” she replies.


 

After having a little time to themselves, the newlyweds are officially announced as they arrive at the reception.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Lieutenant and Mrs. Harris.”

Everyone claps and cheers as the couple enters the reception hall. From first dance to the toasts to the cutting of the cake with Ashlyn’s sabre, it is a wedding to remember. And the smiles never leave the faces of the brides and their guests.

As they prepare to leave, Ali stares into her wife’s eyes. “This has been the day I’ve always dreamed of, made even better by being here with someone better than I ever imagined.”

Ash gives her a tender kiss. “I never dreamed of anything like this. You, Princess, have given me more than I ever knew I deserved. Thank you for loving me, Alex.”

The two share a deeper kiss, only broken up when Pinoe walks in, a devilish grin on her face. “Well, ladies, your chariot awaits. We made sure it is ready for you.”

Ashlyn glares at her friend. “What did you do to my Jeep, Pinoe?”

Pinoe spins around and walks out, whistling innocently.

“I’m going to kill her,” Ashlyn mumbles.

Ali just chuckles. “Really? Did you expect anything less from them? I mean, come on.”

Ashlyn rolls her eyes and shakes her head. “I guess not. Ready to see what they’ve done?”

The two finally exit the building. Attendees throw birdseed to send the couple off. Ashlyn comes to a halt when she sees her Jeep. Balloons are tied to the roll bar, signs are draped around the sides giving not subtle suggestions for the honeymoon.

“Oh, my god,” Ali mumbles, “is that a dildo taped to the hood?”

“Yes...yes, it is,” Ashlyn mutters.

Tied to the bumper are cleats donated by all their teammates. The newlyweds exchange a look, then start to laugh. Nope, they expected nothing less. Ashlyn walks her bride over. Abby opens the passenger door and helps Ash get Ali up in the seat. Ashlyn jogs around to the driver’s side hops in. She stands up and addresses their friends and family.

“Thank you all for a day Alex and I will never forget. We love you all and are so happy you shared this day with us. Drive safely home. Time for me to go get to work trying to knock up my wife.”

Everyone laughs as Ali blushes and drags Ash down into her seat.

“Drive, woman, before you are divorced on your wedding day,” Ali threatens with a grin.

Ash gives her a peck on the cheek and then drives off to the hotel where they will begin the rest of their life together.

Chapter Text

January 2012

Ashlyn is drowning. No, not physically but mentally. She had always felt she was smart. Maybe not a genius but smart. But learning the ins and outs of the corps of engineers, the various lingo and acronyms of the military, and the paperwork that deals with all of those things has her floundering. It is nearly 2 in the morning and she is struggling to get a plan together for her colonel.

“Son of a bitch!” she grunts and crumbles up yet another piece of paper. She throws it across the room but it doesn’t make her feel any better. She buries her face in her hands. “Damn it, Ashlyn, if this was a real situation and not a drill hundreds of people would be dead because you can’t put a fucking plan together.”

She jumps as she feels two hands land on her shoulders. “Baby, it’s late.”

“I know it’s late!” she yells at her wife.

Ali retracts her hands quickly. Ashlyn closes her eyes and turns in her chair. She sees the hurt in Ali’s eyes and kicks herself. She takes Ali’s hands.

“I’m sorry. After two weeks shadowing the major and staff sergeant in my unit, the colonel assigned me a bit of homework. He gave me the specs for a 7.5 earthquake in Thailand and I have to put together a response unit plan, including the requisitions for personnel, supplies, equipment...everything, really. He also said truck-wise, I would only have 4 available that could make it to the remote regions that need us most so I have to figure out a staging area, what should go first, and even figure out the amount of gas we will need for the multiple trips the 4 trucks will need to take.” Tears start to form in her eyes. “I can’t do it, Alex. I’ve tried and I’ve tried but I can’t get it to work with the budget, time and other restraints he gave me as part of the drill. I just can’t fucking do it.”

Ali pulls her wife into her arms. “Baby, did you stop to think he purposely gave you an impossible task?” she asks gently.

Ash slowly looks up. “Why the fuck would he do that?”

“To see how hard you’d work on it and see how close you came to solving it? To see what you’ve learned and how far you’re willing to go to carry out his orders? Basically, to evaluate you.”

Ashlyn stares at her Ali as she thinks about the assignment in a new light. “Son of a bitch...he knew I couldn’t win.” She turns around and stares at the paperwork with a new glint in her eyes. “It’s like being the last place team up against the reigning champions. On paper you can’t win but you can do your damnedest to make your mark.”

Ali smiles. “Exactly.” She frowns as her wife grabs a fresh piece of paper and starts to write. “What are you doing?”

“It’s like you said: I can’t do it with his restrictions and shit. So, I need to figure out what I CAN do and do that!”

Ali sighs. “You’re not coming to bed, are you?”

“Not anytime soon, baby. I’m going to show the colonel that I don’t give up. I may not be able to save all 750 lives at risk but I can damn sure save most of them.”

Ali watches as the blonde starts making columns and divvying up the allowed supplies. As much as she would rather Ashlyn be getting a good night’s sleep, she can’t help but be proud of her dedication to duty. She kisses her on the head.

“I love you, sweetheart.”

“Love you, too, baby.”


 

Ashlyn stands at ease in front of the colonel’s desk as he looks over her plan to save lives in the remote village. He lifts an eyebrow at the unorthodox, but successful, plan. He looks up at her.

“Who said you were allowed to evacuate villagers?”

“No one, sir, it was a decision made when we ‘arrived’ at the village and saw the devastation. Since the trucks were already having to drive 4 hours back to where we mustered the supplies, it made sense to take the injured, young children, and pregnant women to a safer, more sanitary location. By radioing ahead we were able to coordinate with the International Red Cross, who is already on site, to set up triage tents for all the refugees. It also allows us to re-divide the supplies so only some have to be driven back to the village while the rest stay behind. On the second return trip, the trucks can take more refugees deemed high health risk if they remain. A third trip would allow the same evacuation opportunity. By then we will have coordinated with Navy ships with medical capabilities and they could airlift those most in need of aid. Meanwhile, we continue to do what we can do to complete search and rescue missions, set up water and food distribution points, and help the town start to rebuild.”

She stands silently, trying to get a read on the colonel. Was he mad she made changes to his scenario? Did he respect she thought outside the box and came up with a plausible solution? Or was he seeing some glaring error, some deadly mistake she had made that would render the entire plan a piece of shit? She feels sweat break out along her temple and forehead as he continues to scrutinize her plan. Finally he tosses it on the desk and looks up her.

“I knew you’d be a good addition to the quick response team. Damn good plan, Harris. There’s a few errors in your allotments but on the ground the rest of your team would have helped hammer those out.”

Ashlyn smiles proudly. “Thank you, sir.”

He reaches for a folder. “I need you to go to Alabama for 3 weeks. It just happens to coordinate with the dates you said your wife will be at the Olympic Qualifiers so you won’t be missing time at home with her. It’s a course that I think will help you with a few places you made errors in this plan.”

Ashlyn nods. “That would be great, sir.”

“Good. Get with Corporal Peters and have him arrange your travel and hotel. You’ll be going with Lt. Saunders, Corporal Andrews and PFC Vanfossen. If you do well in that course, you four will be ready to deploy next time a team is needed.”

Ashlyn nods. “I’ll be ready, sir. Promise.”

He chuckles. “Of that I have no doubt. Dismissed.”

Ashlyn nods and walks out of his office. She lets out a breath she feels she had been holding for an hour. After touching base with the colonel’s assistant she goes back to her own cubicle to see what other work awaits her that day.

Oh...and to text her wife that the epiphany she had inspired had been very helpful and the brunette was going to very intensely thanked that night!


 

The women lay naked in the bed they share in Ali’s childhood home. Ashlyn has just finished “thanking” her wife for the help with the scenario that garnered her praise and a chance for advanced training. After a few minutes she kisses Ali’s temple.

“So...when you get back from Qualifiers, will we be ready to look into our own place?”

“Why?”

Ashlyn’s eyes get wide. “Why? Are you serious?”

Ali turns and looks at her. “When I get back I’ll be heading to Germany to finish out my contract with Frankfurt only returning for camps and friendlies as we prep for the Olympics. Dad lives nice and close to Belvoir for you and- -”

“And maybe I want a place that is ours!” Ashlyn insists.

“But it makes no sense, Ash!” Ali argues. “Think of the money we save living here!”

“Who cares? Hell, I get a stipend for housing. We can get by with- -”

“But if I am in Germany and you are somewhere on duty what’s the point?”

Ash turns to stare into her wife’s eyes. “The point would be it’s OUR place, not your Dad’s place. I feel like a kid that knocked you up and was forced to marry you! It’s like I am too young to really be your wife! Is it crazy I want a place to start our lives together?”

Ali sits up on the edge of the bed. “Together? Really? How much ‘together’ will we be doing, Ash? Our fucking lives are taking different paths.”

Ashlyn’s heart cracks a little as she sits up. “Different paths?” she questions quietly.

Ali sighs and stares at the ceiling. “Not emotionally but physically, Ash,” she clarifies. “Can’t we just wait until I am done in Germany? Next year I can move permanently to the WPS and we can find the right home for us here in the Metro DC area.”

Ash thinks a second. “And if the rumours about the league are true? If it goes under? Then what?”

“I...I don’t know,” she says nervously.

Ashlyn watches her wife a moment then sits up and wraps her in a hug, her chin resting on her shoulder. “If it happens, you stay in Germany with your heated apartment floors for those ice blocks you call feet and I stay here with your Dad when I’m not deployed or using my leave to visit the sexiest right back in the world.”

Ali turns her head and studies the blonde’s face. “You’re sure?”

Ash smiles and kisses her shoulder. “I’m sure. I mean, do I want a place of our own? Yes. But you’re right that we out to at least get past the Olympics and the questions about the league before making a big move. But I do have one request?”

“What’s that?”

“When we are both here, we splurge on a hotel room for your dad. I hate having to smother you to keep him from hearing you screaming my name,” she teases.

Ali chuckles. “Oh, you think I am loud? Who is the one who practically inhales a pillow when I’m eating her out?”

Ash laughs and pulls her wife back into the bed. “What can I say, baby? I love when you feast on me.”

Ali straddles her wife. “Oh, you do, do you?”

“Hell yeah.”

“Then you’re damn lucky I enjoy it, too,” she says and starts to kiss her way down the long body below her.

Ash just moans and a few minutes later is once again using a pillow to keep from waking Ken Krieger as Ash screams her wife’s praises to the heavens.


 

“I can’t believe we leave the same day,” Ali says as she scrambles to finish packing for the camp prior to the Olympic Qualifiers.

Ashlyn chuckles. “I can’t believe you waited so long to pack.”

Ali rolls her eyes. “I tried to pack yesterday but SOMEONE had other ideas.”

Ash smirks. “Oh, like you were complaining. I seem to recall you were screaming your praise for my skills.”

Ali blushes as she can’t fight the smile on her face. “Well...true...still...”

Ashlyn just watches as the brunette packs quickly, efficiently and in an order engrained in her mind. She knows this skill has been honed over years of travelling for soccer and is a way to make sure nothing important is left behind. Finally Ali zips her last bag closed.

“Done!”

“Good! Should we go ahead and load the car tonight?”

Ali thinks a second then nods. “Yeah. Then...then we’ll have extra time in the morning,” she croaks.

Ash looks up and sees the tears welling in chocolate eyes. She walks over and pulls her into a hug. They just stand there a few moments, then share a kiss.

“This will probably be our easiest separation, Als. Let’s...just...I don’t know...”

Ali runs her hands up and down Ashlyn’s arms. “Yeah, I know what you mean. You’re not getting deployed just going to class. And I’m just going to Canada. No need for waterworks.”

The brave words are undermined by the tears finally breaking free and her voice choking off. Ashlyn just pulls her close again, her own tears starting to fall. For some reason, the band of gold on their fingers is making this separation worse than any other. After a few minutes Ali steps back.

“Okay, let’s...let’s load the car and come back to spend the rest of the night in bed. Sound like a plan?” she says bravely.

“Sounds perfect, baby,” Ashlyn agrees. She picks up her suitcase and steps to Ali’s pile. “I’ll get your make up bag,” she says as she picks up Ali’s largest suitcase, giggling.

Ali puts her hands on her hips and glares at her wife. “Oh you have jokes now?”

“Yep,” Ash says with a grin and leaves the room.

Ali just shakes her head, chuckling, as she gets the rest of her things and follows her wife out to the car.


 

Ashlyn is a week and a half into her schooling. It is kicking her butt but in a good way. She is proud to feel herself improve in the classroom and it is making her feel more confident about herself as a future leader of a squad going into an emergency response situation. She is excitedly telling Ali all about it in their nightly Skype session.

“...and the instructor said the plan my team came up with was the one with the highest probability of success!” she says, her eyes alight with joy.

“I am so proud of you, baby,” Ali says, her eyes also lit up. “You are only a couple months in and already becoming a heck of a soldier.”

“Thanks. I couldn’t have done it without you, Ali. I swear, every time I get frustrated with a scenario, I remember what you told me about it being purposely impossible. It helps me step back, clear my head, and look for new solutions. Truth is, and this is what we are learning here, we’re not going to save everyone. That’s what these trials are about. We’re learning about acceptable loss. It sucks but, well, it’s about serving the greater numbers.”

“Damn, baby, I...I hadn’t thought about it that way. I can’t believe you’ll have to make those decisions.”

“Well, not anytime soon. I mean, any idea I come up with has to be approved by my captain and the major.”

“But if they simply agree with your plan...” Ali trails off as it hits her just how many people will be relying on her wife for their lives. “My God, baby, I am so, so proud of you,” she says breathily.

Ashlyn blushes. “Thank you. So, enough about me, how are you and the girls looking?”

“Really good,” Ali says smiling. “We take on the Dominican Republic in 2 days and I think we will be making a real statement that we aren’t wallowing in the second place finish last summer in Germany. We’re all about the gold in London now.”

“Excellent! The team and I are going to a local bar to watch it. The manager said he’d set up one of his TVs just for us to watch the stream.”

“That’s awesome! I’ll make sure my make-up is perfect for you.”

Ashlyn snorts out a laugh. “You’ll make sure your make-up is perfect no matter what!”

“Well, it sounded nice,” Ali jokes.

“HEY! YOU TWO STILL HAVING ONLINE SEX?”

“PINOE!” Ali scolds as Ashlyn busts out laughing.

“Just finished, Pinoe,” Ash calls out.

A moment later the computer shifts as Pinoe has grabbed Ali’s laptop and turned it. The lieutenant smiles as she sees Pinoe, Hope, Abby, and Heather Mitts come into frame.

“Hey, guys!”

“Sir, YES, SIR!” Pinoe says with a salute.

Ashlyn rolls her eyes. “Jackass. How you all doing?”

“We’re good. Wishing you were here,” Hope says sincerely.

“Me, too, sometimes. But I am also really happy to be where I am,” Ashlyn tells them. “I know you probably don’t understand it but I know I was right to listen to this calling.”

“We understand, Ash. We’re happy for you,” Mittsy says.

“Proud of you, too,” Abby adds. “The Army is damn lucky to have you.”

She chats with the four a few more minutes then checks her watch. “Uh, it was great talking to you guys but any chance my wife can have me back now? I have a study session in 30 minutes.”

“No problem. We love you, Ash,” Pinoe says.

“Love you, guys, too.” Ashlyn smiles as her wife comes back onscreen. “Hey, you.”

“Hey. I was worried they’d say no when you asked.”

Ash grins. “Me, too. By the way they were dressed I am guessing team meal?”

Ali nods. “Yeah. Like your study session in 30 minutes.”

“Perfect. Get naked and I’ll get you off,” Ashlyn says, wiggling her eyebrows.

Ali’s face goes BRIGHT red as the four who hadn’t left the room bust out laughing. Ashlyn winks at her wife, knowing they had stuck around.

“You suck, soldier,” Ali scolds.

“Very well, I might add,” Ash agrees.

Ali blushes more and glares at the four who are in tears they are laughing so hard. “You four OUT!” She turns to the computer. “And you! You are in for a cold night on the couch next time we are home.”

Finally alone, the newlyweds quiet a bit, just staring at each other.

“I love you, Alex.”

“I love you, too, Ash. Be safe.”

“Always. Good luck with practice tomorrow. I’ll talk to you tomorrow night.”

“It’s a date, sweetheart. Love you,” she says again.

“Love you, too. Goodnight, baby.”

“Night.”

Ash closes her computer and sighs. It is times like now that she misses Ali the most. She could have been up there as a fan but duty had called. She stands and gathers her things to go meet with her 3 team members to work on their group assignment for the week.


 

The major teaching the course Ash and her team are taking stares at her as she finishes going over the comprehensive rescue plan for that week’s given scenario. As she had spoken he had made notes while following along on his copy of the plan. He reviews his notes a moment then steps to the front of the class.

“Who sees the glaring mistake in Lieutenant Harris’ plan?” he asks without preamble.’

Ashlyn blushes in embarrassment. Several hands go up and the major nods to one man.

“Captain Spicer, what did you see?”

“Sir, she only allowed for 4 vehicles when she could have taken 5,” the man says.

“Wrong. She correctly utilized the space for a fifth vehicle for extra rations knowing the storm could prevent air drops.” Spicer seems to sink in his seat. The major nods to someone else. “Captain Walsh, what was the mistake you noticed?”

Captain Walsh looks down. “Uh, sir, I though the truck was the problem, too, sir,” she admits.

The major glances around. The others that had raised their hands are now looking straight at their copies of Ashlyn’s plan. Obviously they had assumed the truck, too.

“Son of a bitch,” Ashlyn suddenly mumbles.

Major Randolph turns around. The stern African-American studies the green lieutenant a moment. “You have something to add, Lieutenant?”

Ashlyn sighs. “Yes, sir. I made a major miscalculation. We wouldn’t have enough gas to get back to the base at the end of the mission.”

Randolph nods. “Exactly.”

Pfc Vanfossen stands. “Sir, with all due respect to the lieutenant, it was my calculations that were off, not hers,” he admits.

Ashlyn shakes her head. “No, Private, it was my mistake. I was leader for this op and that means I am responsible for everyone working on it.”

Randolph nods. “She’s right. Admirable that you admit your error, Private, and I am sure in real life your c.o. would be ripping you a new one for this mistake, but in the field just like in this classroom the brass is looking at your leader to get things right. Shit rolls downhill, folks. Harris’ c.o. would get a lashing from his c.o. and you can bet she’d be getting an earful from her c.o. afterwards and yes, Vanfossen, eventually you would be getting your ass handed to you, too. But all that aside, it doesn’t change the fact that 25 U.S. Army personnel are now stranded 100 miles from their air base. You best hope the village oxen didn’t run off and there are enough carts to carry your asses back to the base.”

Ashlyn nods and sits down. Major Randolph looks at the next team. “Well, you all show me what you’ve got.”

By the end of the class, every team had done something wrong but none had been as bad as Ashlyn’s team. She is fuming inside. If only she had taken the time to check Vanfossen’s math. As everyone is packing up to go, Randolph addresses her.

“Harris, a word.”

“Yes, sir,” she replies and waits while the rest of the students file out.

Randolph gets up and walks over to her. “Your plan was sound. Had Vanfossen not made the math error there would have been very little to pick a part.” He holds up the plan in his hand. “I can see part of each of your team in this. Each of you had a part of the assignment and you did a good job pulling it together.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“That wasn’t a compliment,” he snaps back. “You’re not on a soccer field anymore, Harris. You can’t simply assume everyone is doing their part right. As a leader the buck, as the cliché goes, stops with you. Yes, you have a team working with you. But you better learn to second guess their every move, question their every calculation, and make damn sure your plans will save lives, not cost them.” He hands her his copy of the plan with his notes. “I want this back tomorrow morning and I want the probability for success to be 97%. Make it happen. Dismissed.”

Ashlyn takes the paper. “Yes, sir.”

She walks out and leans against the wall. Originally it was supposed to be an 85% success rate. She and her team had been happy to get it to 89%. How the hell was she going to get it to 97?

“Fuck me,” she mutters and goes to grab her gym bag. Time to clear her head with physical activity.


 

At 8 a.m. on the dot Ashlyn is handing her rewritten plan to the major. He studies her face and sees she probably stayed up all night working on the plan. He glances to the box with the percentage and sees she has calculated it to 94%.

“Why should I even read this if you didn’t reach 97%?”

“Sir, I stayed up all night. I did all the calculations 10 times over. I even changed some of the plans from the original plan but no matter what I did I could not get it above 94%,” she says, her voice laced with the shame of failure. “All I ask, sir, is you let me tell Colonel Menninger myself that I am not fit for his quick response team. He put a lot of faith in me and obviously it was misplaced. He should hear that from me, sir. I owe him that respect.”

Randolph studies the woman a moment. Never before had a soldier simply assumed they were out of the class. Most would be arguing with him and cursing him about the impossible percentage he was demanding.

“What makes you think you’re not worthy of his teams?”

“Sir, you demanded 97% and I could not give that to you. As you said yesterday, shit rolls downhill. If the brass finds out you wanted 97 and I gave you 94, you’d be taking shit because of me. If you are asking for 97% I have to assume you believe it is possible. I just can’t find a way to get there, sir, and because of that, 10 potential soldiers died. That is beyond acceptable loss for this mission.”

Randolph studies the woman carefully. This is not self-serving. This is not reverse psychology. This is a carefully thought out position. He can see the thought of the losses haunts her, much like he’d seen in her eyes the day before when she realized the math error. She knew in a real drill she had potentially killed her entire unit by leaving them with no way to get out of the field and back to base. He sits back in his chair.

“I’ve known your colonel a lot of years, Harris. He has a knack for finding the right soldiers for the right jobs. It’s damn annoying sometimes. I have no idea what he saw in you,” Ashlyn’s shoulders sink a bit, “but the fact is that damn old bird has done it again.”

Ashlyn frowns. “Sir? But...I...”

He hands her back the new plan. “You’ll never forget the hard lesson you learned yesterday. Truth is, if the brass saw that I wanted 97% on a mission like that they’d have my ass while they pinned a medal on your chest for hitting 94. You put in the work, Harris, and I believe you learned what you needed to with this particular drill. You passed.”

“Passed, sir?” she questions again.

He grins (the first time she’s seen that since the course started) and nods. “Yes, you passed, Lieutenant. Now, did you get a chance to do the reading for today’s lecture?”

“Yes, sir. I read it a couple days ago.”

“Good. Then get a cup of coffee. If you fall asleep while I talk you’ll be doing calisthenics for me for hours.”

Ashlyn manages a smile. “Yes, sir. And, sir, thank you for the hard lesson.”

He nods. “Just remember me the first time you get a commendation for getting something done no one thought could be done.”

Ashlyn chuckles. “I’ll remember, Major Randolph. Promise.”


 

That night Ashlyn and her team have some free time. They make their way to the local bar that had promised to stream the game for them.

“First round is on me, guys,” Ashlyn says as she orders a pitcher for them.

They sit and shoot the breeze about where they grew up and what brought them to the Army. This is the first night they’ve had a chance to just relax and get to know one another outside the classroom. As the game feed comes on, Vanfossen nearly chokes on his beer.

“Who the hell is that?”

Ashlyn looks up and smiles. “Alex Morgan. She’s a forward.”

“She single?” he asks, his eyes not leaving the screen.

Ashlyn laughs. “Sorry, Fossy, she and her boyfriend have been together a while and are tight.”

“Damn. Well, if she’s ever single and needs a shoulder,” he offers with a smile.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she says with a roll of her eyes, as the others chuckle.

“Wow! She’s a looker, too! I’d like to meet her for a night or two of fun!” Saunders blurts.

Ashlyn glares at him. “I know you outrank me, First Lieutenant, but I warn you now to wash your mind out with soap before you ever meet my wife in person.”

Saunders slowly looks over at the Second Lieutenant. “That’s your wife?”

“Yep,” Ashlyn replies.

He swallows and looks back at the screen. “Apologies for the statement. I had no idea,” he says shamefully.

“Forgiven. This time. And if by chance you meet any of my friends on that team, just know you better be thinking about a gentlemanly courtship not just a night or two of fun.”

“What if that’s what she wants?” Corporal Michael Andrews asks with a grin. The youngster from Iowa is often teased about his old-fashioned ways. Ashlyn knows he’s not the type to “use and lose” a woman.

“Then you better buckle up, Andrews, because she would blow your pure little mind,” Ashlyn states as everyone laughs. Andrews just nods in agreement.

As the game begins it soon becomes apparent that the US is the far better side.

“YES! Nice cross, HAO!” Ashlyn cheers as her old Tar Heel buddy crosses to a waiting Abby Wambach.

“Wow! 36 seconds,” Andrews notes. “Is that normal?”

“Nope. But we are a much better team than they are and have more development money. They are trying to grow the sport in their country with very little help from their federation.”

“That sucks,” Vanfossen protests.

“Yes, it does,” Ashlyn agrees.

The group has just ordered their second pitcher as the first half is winding down. With the US up 7-0 Ashlyn is already contemplating the congratulations call she will be making to her wife.

And then her world upends.

“ALEX!” she screams and leaps up, nearly knocking their high top table over.

Her friends get quiet as they watch Ali Krieger pounding the ground in obvious pain. Ashlyn runs her hands through her hair.

“Come on...replay it...replay it...come on...”

Finally the screen shows a replay from the camera behind the goal. Ashlyn grasps her head in frustration.

“NO! Oh, baby, no...no...”

“Uh, that looked bad,” Saunders says quietly.

“It is. Definite ACL,” Ashlyn states. “Oh, Alex...”

“She, um, well...shit...” Vanfossen says. After all, there is really nothing to say.

Ashlyn watches as Shannon Boxx stays with Ali until the trainers carry her off the field. Ash grabs her phone and sends out a text to every player on the team.

Please, please, let me know what’s going on. Please!

Now all she can do is wait...

Chapter Text

Earlier that week...

“I can’t believe the Qualifiers are on turf,” Heather Mitts complains.

“No kidding. They would never hold a major tournament like the World Cup on turf, why the hell would they hold Qualifiers on it?” Ali agrees.

“What are you worried about? You don’t have to throw your body onto cement to stop shots,” Hope points out.

“True. We just have to slide tackle on glass,” Lauren Cheney points out with a grin. “No big deal.”

“Well, we can all agree it sucks but let’s still go out there and play our best,” Abby tells them.

The group nods. They had gotten into Canada that morning after a brief camp in L.A. They are putting on their boots for their first on-field practice. As Ali finishes lacing up her cleats she stands and lifts the dog tags from around her neck. She gives them a kiss then carefully tucks them into the zippered pouch inside her kit bag. Abby grins.

“Have I told you lately how adorable that is?”

Ali blushes. “No. I didn’t really think anyone had noticed.”

“Are you kidding? We all noticed,” Mittsy says with a smile. “We all think it is sweet.”

“So wait...you all have discussed this? What else do you discuss about me and Ash?”

“Oh, who’s usually on top, who wears the harness, who gets spanked, just things like that,” Abby says with a grin.

Ali goes BRIGHT red. “Are you fucking serious?!” The group laughs and she realizes she’s been had. “You guys suck.”

“We discuss that, too,” Hope adds with a smile.

Ali rolls her eyes and walks off, mumbling about people keeping their noses out of her marriage. But her eyes are smiling, appreciating the fact that they care enough to tease her about her love for Ash. As she starts to stretch, Mittsy walks up and gives her a gentle hip check.

“To be honest, we are all so happy for the two of you. And I think it is so sweet you have her dog tags.”

“Thanks,” Ali answers with a smile. “They just help me feel close to her.”

“I get that completely.”


 

All she feels is pain. She has no idea where the ball ended up. She has no idea who hit her. All Ali Krieger knows is she has never felt pain this bad in her life. Not when she broke her leg. Not when she was having the mini-heart attacks that nearly killed her. Her body feels like it is on fire with her knee the burning ember that started the inferno.

“Easy, Ali, the trainers are coming,” Boxx tells her.

“FUCK! It fucking HURTS!” Ali screams as she beats her hand into the ground.

Boxx holds the defenders hand. She had seen the hit by the out of control player. It wasn’t dirty just reckless and now the best right back in the world was on the ground, her playing future in question. Boxx swallows that knowledge down.

“I know it hurts but you’ll be fine. Just stay positive, Al. You’ll be fine.”

Boxx stays as close as she can while the trainers evaluate Ali’s knee. She winces as she sees Ali fail a couple field tests. This is not good. Not good at all.

“You may be down a little while but you’ll be back, Ali. You’re a fighter, Kriegs, and you’ll be back in no time. You’ll see,” Boxx says encouragingly.

Ali sniffs and stares at her friend. “You suck at lying.”

“No lies told, Kriegs. You’ll be back and better than ever. You’ll see.”

Those are the last words Boxx can offer as Ali is carried off the field. The middie takes a deep breath and finds herself glaring at the player that took out her defender.


 

Hey, Ash. It’s not good. MRI tomorrow. Can’t really talk tonight. I love you.

Ali hits send on the text and tosses her phone down on the bed beside her. She grabs the Kleenex box and uses it to wipe her eyes. The tears had been her constant companion. Well, the tears and the pain. She looks at her leg, nearly twice the normal size between swelling, bandages and braces. Her phone buzzes and she grabs it.

Please don’t shut me out. I love you and I can help you.

Ali studies the words a moment. She sighs and types back.

Nothing but a miracle can help me right now. Good night.

She has just tossed her phone down when Mittsy comes into their room. “Hey, how you doing?”

“Crappy,” Ali says as she blows her nose.

“Did you talk to Ash?”

Ali considers the question a moment then nods. “Yeah. Nothing she can do for me.”

Mittsy sits on the edge of Ali’s bed. “Al, I’m sure she tried. She’s probably just frustrated she is so far away.”

“I guess.” Ali’s phone buzzes and Mittsy sees it’s Ashlyn. Ali grabs it and turns it over. “She won’t leave me alone.”

“She loves you, Kriegs. If she said the wrong thing just know it probably came from a good place. She wouldn’t try to hurt you on purpose.”

“I know. I just...I just need to be left alone with my thoughts right now,” Ali says, subtly hinting for Mittsy to leave her alone, too.

Mitts gets it. “Okay. If you need anything let me know. Even if you have to wake me up in the middle of the night, okay?”

Ali just nods. When Heather goes to the bathroom to get ready for bed, Ali lifts up her phone and reads the text from her wife.

You can ignore my calls, ignore my texts, avoid me at all costs but I still love you. I’ll give you tonight but tomorrow we talk. I love you, my warrior.

Ali’s eyes tear up again. This time it is due to the love she feels from her wife even as she pushes her away.

I love you, too, my soldier.

She plugs her phone in and tries to get comfortable. Mitts comes in and smiles at her.

“I mean it, Ali, if you need anything, wake me up.”

“I will. Promise.”

Mitts turns off the lights and soon her breathing evens out as she falls asleep. Despite her emotional upheaval and the pain pills, Ali stares at the ceiling long into the night.

Chapter Text

After getting the brush off from her wife, Ashlyn had paced around like a bull in a cage for a few minutes. She had then gone down to the hotel gym to work out, hoping it would settle her mind and help her get over her anger about her wife’s attitude. Yes, part of her got why Ali wanted to be left alone but a larger part of her is hurt that Ali won’t lean on her.

Ash does a 30 minute run on the treadmill, followed by weights, and was in the middle of doing her third set on a the dip stand when Major Randolph walks in. She drops to the ground in confusion as he holds some papers out to her.

“Uh, what’s this, sir?”

“It’s Saturday, Lieutenant.”

Ashlyn glances at her watch and sees it is, indeed after midnight and so technically Saturday. “Um, yes, sir.”

“You have off today and tomorrow. Additionally the top paper is your clearance for a 72 hour pass.”

“A what?”

“A pass. It means you have 3 days off. Add in the weekend that should give you enough time to fly to Vancouver, check on your wife, and get your ass back here in time to be in class Thursday.”

“I...I don’t understand, sir. The class ends this week.”

“For the others. You’ll stay the weekend with me and catch up on what you missed. Should still get you back to DC on Sunday so you can report to Belvoir on Monday morning.” He nods to the paperwork she now holds. “You’ll also find the information on your ticket. Huntsville to Denver to Vancouver. Sorry we couldn’t get you a direct flight.”

“Flight? Sir, I am so confused.”

“Your team came to me after you returned from the bar. They told me what happened to your wife. I called Colonel Menninger and he approved the 3 day pass for you. Your team then went to the others in your class and they raised the money for the plane ticket. You see, Lieutenant, the Army takes care of their own in many ways.”

Ashlyn’s eyes fill with tears. “I...I don’t know what to say, sir.”

“Say goodnight, Harris. You need to pack and get to the airport for a very early flight.”

Ashlyn manages to smile. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir, for everything.”

“I expect you to study some while you’re gone, Harris.”

“I will, sir. I promise.”

He nods. “Good. I hope your wife will be okay.”

“Thank you, Major Randolph.”

They walk out of the gym together. Ashlyn hurries up to her room and packs her backpack, not wanting to worry about checked bags. She puts in a pair of jeans, a few shirts, undies, socks, and bras. She then adds some workout clothes, knowing Ali will probably piss her off and a workout will be needed to blow off steam. She then bags up the two sets of ACUs she had worn that week and hangs them out with a dry cleaning request so they will be ready when she returns. She then tries to go to sleep. She has over 7 hours of flying to look forward to the next day.

“But I’ll be there to help Alex and show her we’re better together,” she says as she tries to will her now excited body to sleep.


 

Ali is sitting in the doctor’s office waiting on the MRI results. She had purposely “forgotten” her phone in her hotel room knowing Ash would be calling or texting her. As bad as it sounds even to Ali herself, she just doesn’t want to speak to her wife right then.

“So, can I get you anything?”

Ali looks over at the team trainer that is with her. “No, I’m good,” she says with a forced smile.

“Maybe it’s not as bad as it seems. Could be a sprain. Let’s stay positive, okay?”

Ali just nods. She is tired of people telling her to stay positive. She had felt the hit. She’d had sprains and hyperextensions before. This is different. This is the pain Ashlyn had once described to her. Ten minutes later the doctor walks in and sits down at his desk.

“I’m afraid it’s not good, Ms. Krieger. Your ACL and MCL are both torn.” Ali gasps. “Additionally, you’ve also damaged your meniscus. The good news is, you’re in very good shape. Once the swelling goes down some your surgeon should be able to repair everything and then it will simply be a matter of getting back to your playing level.”

“So...I could play again?”

“Yes, I’m sure of it.”

“How soon?”

“Well, your surgeon will be able to give you a better time frame once he has seen everything inside and made the repairs. My guess just based on pictures is maybe 8 months or so.”

“But...but that means...no Olympics...” she notes with devastation in her eyes.

“Don’t rule it out yet, Ms. Krieger,” the doctor cautions. “I have simply looked at pictures on a screen. Sometimes once the surgeon sees what’s going on first hand it’s not as bad as it seemed. Now, do you have a doctor you plan to use?”

The trainer sits forward. “We have one we work with in the DC area. He’s been contacted and will be watching for Ali’s MRI and x-rays. He can see her on Friday.”

“Good, good. I’ll make sure he is sent everything we have. What will you do until then?”

“I’ll stay here until Thursday so I can work with the trainers on getting the swelling down,” Ali tells him.

“Good. Well, if you need anything or have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call my office.” He stands, signaling the end of the conversation. “Good luck with everything, Ms. Krieger.”

“Thank you.”

She gets on her crutches and follows the trainer out the door. He glances at her as they walk down the hall.

“Uh, Ali, can I ask a question?” She just shrugs. “Why didn’t you tell him it’s actually Mrs. Harris?”

“Actually it’s Krieger-Harris. But it doesn’t matter. He’s just a temporary doctor and I didn’t feel the need to tell him. That’s my prerogative.”

“Of course it is. I was just curious. So you going to call Ash and let her- -”

“Can we not talk right now? Please?” she interrupts, her nerves on edge.

He nods. As they get in the van he glances at his watch. “Um, we missed the team lunch. Want to stop for something?”

“No. I’ll just order room service. I want to be alone a while.”

“Ah. Okay.” He can see she is slipping into depression. He sighs. “Ali, it’s easy to only see the bad right now. Lean on your friends and your wife. They can help.” He holds up her hand to stop her rant. “That’s all I will say. Promise.”

When they get to the hotel, he lets Ali off right at the front doors before going to join the team at their afternoon session. Ali is thankful to finally be alone. She carefully crutches into the hotel. That morning after the MRI she had gone by the team practice. Getting the hugs from her teammates had almost been harder than anything. The sorrow and pity in their eyes was as painful as her knee. She was happy she was going to have some time to reflect.

And then she sees her wife stand up from the lobby sofa.

They stare at each other a moment, then Ali bursts into tears. Ashlyn is there in a split second. She pulls her wife into a hug.

“I’m here, baby. I’m here. We’ll get through this, baby. We will,” Ashlyn whispers.

“I’m so scared, Ash.”

“I know, honey. I know. Hold on a second.” Ash runs over and grabs her backpack. She slides her textbook into it and slips it on her shoulders. She then hurries back to her wife. “Got your room key?”

“Yeah, right here,” Ali says.

“Good.”

Ashlyn lifts her wife up, careful to keep her injured leg stable. Ali starts to protest but the blonde ignores her and just carries her to the elevator. Once inside, Ash leans her wife near the control panel so Ali can punch in the floor. Ashlyn never sets her wife down until they are in the hotel room.

“Let me get a pillow for your leg,” Ash says as Ali gets settled on the bed.

Once the brunette is comfortable, she studies the woman standing near the dresser.

“How are you here?”

Ashlyn smiles and tells her about her classmates. Ali’s eyes tear up.

“That’s...that’s amazing.”

“Yeah.” Ash walks over and sits on the edge of the bed. “What did the doctor say?”

Ali grabs a Kleenex and gives her wife the rundown. She wipes her eyes as she can’t stop the tears that seem to flow whenever she thinks about her dwindling Olympic hopes. Ash rubs her thigh comfortingly.

“I say we just stick with the positives for now. I know it’s hard, but it’s all you can do.”

“I’m so scared, Ash.”

“I know. You’re tired, too. Why don’t you try to get some sleep?”

“You look pretty tired, too.”

Ashlyn smiles. “The woman that makes up 99.9% of my world got hurt last night. Kinda made it hard to sleep. And then I was traveling for over 7 hours.”

“You should take a nap. The gals will be excited to see you later.”

She lifts Ali’s hand and kisses it. “All I care about is seeing you, sweetheart. But I tell you what: I’ll nap if you nap.”

Ali smiles and scoots over farther in the bed so Ash can rest on the side of Ali’s good leg. “Deal.”

Ash smiles and unties her boots and kicks them off. She takes off her ACU jacket and lays it neatly on the dresser. Her pants follow a moment later. She then crawls into bed beside her wife. She slides an arm under Ali’s head and nuzzles her as close as she can.

“I love you, Alex. I will be beside you every step of the way as we work to keep your Olympic dream alive.”

Ali finally stops fighting the tears. She lets them flow, sobbing and clinging to her wife. Ash just holds her, stroking her hair comfortingly.

“That’s it, baby. Get it all out. No need to fight it, honey, just let your emotions go.”

She kisses her temple and holds her close even after Ali cries herself to sleep. Sure they will eventually need to talk about Ali’s initial dodging of Ash but for now the blonde is just happy her wife is getting some much needed rest.


 

Heather Mitts eases open the hotel room door as quietly as she can. She hears nothing and hopes it means Ali is asleep. She gets around the wall that closes off the bathroom and nearly squeals when she sees Ali is, in fact, sleeping. And she is sleeping very well cuddled in the arms of her wife. She turns around and hurries out into the hall to see everyone.

“She’s asleep! With Ashlyn!”

“Ashlyn? Is she AWOL or what?” Abby asks in concern.

Mitts’ face pales. Everyone can completely see Ashlyn going AWOL to make sure her wife is okay. Abby, Christie and Mitts all enter the room. Abby walks over and taps Ashlyn on the shoulder, careful not to jostle Ali. Ashlyn just moans.

“Ashlyn!” she whispers harshly. Still nothing. She looks over at the others. Christie just shrugs. Abby turns back and slaps Ashlyn’s arm. “ASHLYN!” she whispers a little louder.

This time Ashlyn jumps and rolls over, her eyes barely open. “What the fuck?”

“Dude, are you AWOL?” Abby demands to know.

Ashlyn starts to chuckle when she sees the concern in her friend’s eyes. “No. Now leave me alone.” She starts to roll back over but Abby pokes her. “What, dammit?”

“Are you sure?”

“Fuck, Abby, I am not AWOL but I am damn near exhausted, as is my wife. Give us a couple hours and we’ll explain everything, okay?”

“Okay. Uh, sorry. Unless you’re lying to me in which case I will kick your ass later,” Abby warns.

Ashlyn just grins. “Love you, too.”

Ashlyn rolls back towards her wife and settles back into her nap. Mitts, Christie and Abby stare at the two a moment then step back towards the door.

“Hopefully Ashlyn will get Ali to really talk about what’s going to happen the next few days and what it could mean for this summer,” Christie notes.

“Ali was shutting me out last night. I’m glad Ash is here. She’ll help Ali start to process everything,” Mitts tells them.

Cap and Abby leave and Mitts grabs a change of clothes so she can shower and relax a little before the team dinner.


 

Ali’s eyes slowly flutter open as she feels a lock of hair being moved off her face. She stares into eyes filled with love and smiles.

“You’re really here.”

“Of course I am, baby,” Ashlyn whispers and leans in to give her a kiss. “So, you ready to talk about your knee yet?”

“Not really.”

“Fair enough. What about dinner with the team? Mittsy let me know it’s in about 20 minutes and Pia said I am welcome to join. But if you’d rather order in that’s fine.”

Ali strokes a hand down Ashlyn’s cheek. “Let’s go down. Everyone will want to see you and maybe you’ll help deflect questions off of me.”

“Okay. And I’ll need to book a hotel room, too.”

“Right. I guess three is a crowd, right?” Ali grins.

“Right.”

Ashlyn slowly sits up and stretches. Ali takes a moment to admire her wife’s hard body. The soldier glances over and sees the light in the brown eyes. She grins.

“Like what you see, baby?”

“Nope.”

“No?” Ash frowns.

Ali grabs Ash’s hand and pulls her close. “I love what I see.”

The women smile and share a smoldering kiss. When it ends, Ash stands and starts to get back into her clothes. She pulls on her ACU jacket and sees her wife is still staring hungrily at her. She grins.

“At ease, Krieger.”

“I’ll have you know it’s Krieger-Harris, something I am damn proud of,” Ali corrects.

Ashlyn just grins as she pulls on her boots and ties them. She looks at her wife. “Do you need the bathroom, Mrs. Krieger-Harris?”

“Yep. Need to freshen up a bit.”

“As you wish.”

Ashlyn walks over and easily lifts her wife into her arms. Ali moans.

“Do you know how sexy it is when you do this?”

Ashlyn just winks. “Hell yeah.”

Ali laughs as her wife deposits her in the bathroom. Fifteen minutes later they are on their way out the door. Ali turns the handle and Ash hooks the door with her ankle to open it all the way. Kelley happens to be passing by and sees them.

“Whoa! Let me get the door!”

She holds the door open as Ash carries her wife into the hallway. Kelley grins.

“If I stub my toe will you carry me, too?” she teases.

Ash grins. “Sorry. Only the wife gets to ride me,” she wiggles her eyebrows to stress the double entendre. Ali just rolls her eyes as KO blushes and walks with them to the elevator.

“You look hot in uniform, Ash. Good thing you’re married.”

“Yep. There’s only one woman I care about thinking I’m sexy. Luckily it is the beautiful woman in my arms who agreed to wear my wedding band.”

“And dog tags. She wears your dog tags, too,” Kelley adds. “We think it’s cute as heck. Especially when she has to take them off and gives them a quick kiss before tucking them away.”

“KELLEY!” Ali scolds, blushing.

Ash smiles. “You do that? Really?”

“Yes,” Ali admits quietly.

Ash kisses her cheek. “Thanks, baby. That means a lot to me.”

Kelley gets the door to the conference room so Ash can walk in with no problems. As they enter, several players see them and they are greeted with a round of “Awwws.” Ali just blushes and tucks her head into Ash’s shoulder.

“Sit her here, Harris,” Abby calls, motioning to a chair that already has another chair ready for Ali’s leg.

“Yes, ma’am,” Ash says and walks over to gently place her wife down. She then looks up and sees the irritated look on Abby’s face. “Uh, what?”

“Ma’am? Seriously?” Abby asks as several people snicker.

“Oops. Sorry. Habit, Abs.”

“Right,” Abby replies with a smirk.

Ashlyn stands and follows the forward to the buffet line and quickly makes up a plate of Ali’s favorites. She then gets her a lemonade and returns to the table.

“Need anything else, sweetheart?”

“No, Ash, I’m good.”

Ashlyn nods and goes back to help herself to dinner. At the table, HAO leans towards Ali.

“Damn she looks good in that uniform, too! I mean, she looked good in her dress uni but wow! And carrying you like that? And not even out of breath? Damn, Al!”

Ali grins smugly. “You got that right.”

Ashlyn has just set her dinner down when someone pats her on the back. She turns and smiles at the NT coach.

“Hey, Coach. How’s it going?”

“Good to see you, Ash,” Pia says, pulling the former keeper into a hug. “You look good. We miss you here.”

“Thanks. Some days I really miss being here but I know I made the right choice.”

“I’m happy for you. And I’m glad you’re here. Your wife definitely needs you right now.”

Ashlyn looks down at her love. “I know. Thankfully I work with some good people that made this happen.” She looks back to Pia. “We’ll be working to get her back to you ASAP. Whatever it takes. She’ll be better than ever.”

Pia nods. “I believe it. How long are you here for?”

“I have to fly back Wednesday morning.”

“Well, you’re welcome at all meals. You’re one of us and always will be.”

“Thanks, Coach. I appreciate that.”

Pia pats her shoulder and walks away. Ash sits down and notices everyone grinning at her. “What?”

“You stood at attention. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you stand at attention for a coach,” Tobin notes.

Ashlyn blushes. “Habit,” she blames again.

“And an adorable one at that,” Ali gushes as she pinches Ash’s cheek.

Ash laughs and pulls away then settles in to eat and catch up with her friends on the team.


 

At dinner the couple had learned that Mittsy decided to room with a couple others to give the couple time to themselves. Pia approved the move, knowing her number 1 right back was not going to playing the rest of the tournament. In the morning, Ali goes to work a bit with the trainers, while Ashlyn has a workout in the hotel gym and then settles in for some studying. When she hears the key in the door, she leaps up from the desk and runs over just as Ali gets the door open.

“Baby, why didn’t you call me?” Ashlyn scolds.

“I just needed time to myself,” Ali says. She carefully sits down on the bed then chucks her crutches away. “Stupid, fucking pieces of tin,” she mumbles.

Ashlyn sighs and sits down on the other bed facing her wife. “I guess we need to discuss the next steps?”

“Surgery, rehab,” Ali states. “What the hell else is there to know?”

“Right. I guess it’s a good thing we’re still living with your dad, then. That way if I get called away he’ll be around to help you.”

“Maybe,” Ali whispers.

“Maybe? What do you mean maybe? You can’t possibly be considering our own place now, are you?” Ashlyn asks incredulously.

“You hungry? I’m hungry. But I don’t want to be around the team. Can we just order in?”

Ashlyn studies the brunette a moment. “Sure. But don’t think I’m forgetting what you said about your dad. We can talk more after lunch.”

“Okay. So, uh, what are you studying?”

The couple spends the rest of the morning together. Ashlyn tells Ali a little about her classes. They watch a movie. They order in lunch. Finally the blonde glances at the clock.

“Uh, shouldn’t you be getting ready to go back to the trainers for a while? I mean, the team will be leaving for the afternoon session soon.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Ashlyn takes her wife’s hands and turns to stare into her eyes. “Alex, you’ll come back from this. You are a warrior not just in name. You will come back better than ever. I know you will.”

“So, I am going to schedule the surgery for as soon as possible,” Ali states, ignoring her wife’s encouragement. “Then I’ll do some rehab in Northern Virginia.” She takes a deep breath. “Then we’ll see what happens.”

Ash takes a deep breath. “Alex, I think...as soon as the docs clear it...you should report back to Frankfurt.”

Ali looks up sharply. “What? Why?”

“You know as well as I do they’ll set you up with a 9-5 rehab program that will bring you back better and faster. I know it will suck being so far away but I think it will be best for your career.”

“So you’d want me to go away while still hurting? What kind of monster are you?”

“Sweetheart, I’m not a monster. I want what’s best for you. You know that.”

“Oh, and sending me off is best for me? Maybe it’s best for you? I’ve seen the way even straight women stare at you, especially in uniform. Maybe that’s why you want me so far away,” Ali accuses.

Ashlyn sits back like she’s been slapped. “Okay, I can either chalk that up to you being cruel because you’re in pain or you are a true asshole. Which is it, honey?” she laces the term of affection with sarcasm.

“I just don’t want us split up right now, Ash!” Ali hollers. “Can’t you understand that? I’m scared you’ll suddenly think I’m not good enough if I’m not on the National Team.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Alex: I love YOU, not your jersey. And you going away for a few months won’t change that! It will be like you are deployed instead of me. It’s something we need to get used to. Are you really so worried that our relationship is so fragile it can’t withstand a separation?” Ashlyn asks in frustration.

Ali doesn’t answer right away. Her eyes flicker with doubt. And those two things are all Ash needs to see. She drops Ali’s hands and stands.

“Holy shit...you really don’t trust us if we’re apart? Are you fucking kidding me? What is it, Alex? My old reputation? Or are you worried you’ll suddenly prefer dick to pussy again?” she asks harshly.

“ASHLYN! STOP! I’m not going to suddenly like guys again.”

“Oh, so it IS my old reputation. Good to fucking know.”

Ashlyn grabs her wallet and storms out of the room, ignoring Ali calling after her. She heads down to the hotel restaurant and drops into a seat at the bar.

“Jack and ginger, please. Make it a double,” she asks the bartender.

The bartender nods and soon serves up the drink to the angry-looking blonde. Ash stares into the amber liquid, wondering how many it will take to erase the conversation she had just had from her mind.


 

The team gets back to the hotel about 4. As they are walking through the lobby, Lori glances into the restaurant and stops.

“Uh oh...”

Abby follows her eyes and sees the still angry blonde at the bar. Abby sighs. “I got this.”

“You sure? If she’s drunk you may need help,” Lori cautions.

“I’m sure. If that changes, I’ll call you. See you at dinner.”

Lori nods and gets into the elevator with Mittsy, HAO and Lauren. She tells them where Abby is going and the other ladies sigh, knowing Ali’s depression probably led to the former keeper’s bad mood.

Abby walks in and drops onto the stool beside her friend. “Jack and ginger?” Ashlyn nods. “Ah, the happy couple. Good drink. How many have you had?”

“This is my first.”

“Ah, so you just got here?”

“Nope. Been here a couple hours. Just...too many people in my family go to liquor to solve problems. I’m trying to solve the problem before I drink.”

“I see. So what’s the problem? Maybe I can help?”

Ashlyn laughs humorlessly. “Got a way to erase my old college reputation? I mean, I swear, Abby, I have not even thought about sleeping with another woman since Alex and I started dating. So to find out she doesn’t trust us enough to spend months apart fucking hurts. Like, hurts like I can’t even explain! How the hell will she handle it if I get a yearlong deployment? If she doesn’t trust me we’re done before we’ve barely gotten started in this marriage.”

Abby pats her on the back. “From the beginning, Ash.”

Ashlyn twirls her glass as she tells Abby about the conversation she and Ali had regarding her next steps in getting back in the game. Abby just nods her head. She is impressed that Ashlyn was willing to suggest Frankfurt as the best avenue for Ali, even though it meant separation. And she was disappointed that Ali used ancient history as an excuse to not want rehab. Truth is: Ali is scared she won’t make it back so she is deflecting her feelings using other excuses.

“Ash, if she didn’t trust you, you’d have been broken up long ago.”

“Oh, really? Then why have I been sitting down here so long and she hasn’t even tried to call or text me?”

“Because she knows she is wrong. And she is still scared. She’s probably just hoping you’ll return when you’re not mad and she can apologize in person.” Abby’s phone starts to ring. She answers as Ashlyn mulls over what the forward has said. “Hey, Lor,” Abby answers. She listens a second. “Oh, fuck. Okay, we’ll be right up.”

Ashlyn’s head whips towards her friend. It had to be about Ali. Abby reaches over and grabs Ash’s phone off the bar and tries to get it come on. She sighs.

“Your battery is dead, Ash.”

Ashlyn frowns and takes the phone. She tries to get it to come on. “Well, fuck...”

“That was Lori. Ali is a wreck. She thinks you’ve left her. Like, left her, left her, not just stormed out of the room. That in itself should tell you she’s not emotionally stable right now, Ash. She doesn’t get hysterical just because you two have a disagreement.”

“Well, fuck...” Ashlyn mutters again. She knocks back the drink and stands.

“Got a solution?” Abby asks.

“Yeah. We need to talk. Like really talk and listen to each other. But first I need to remind her this band of gold I wear means I am dedicated wholly and completely to her. She needs to know that and never, ever doubt it. It fucking hurts that she does.”

“She doesn’t, Ash. I promise you she doesn’t.”

The two get up and head upstairs. They find a small group of people in the room with Ali. Abby nods to several, silently telling them to get out. Ash walks over to where HAO holds a sobbing Ali. She kneels down beside the bed.

“Alex...” she says softly.

Ali stares at her a moment, then leaps into her arms. Ashlyn just holds her close.

“I’msorry. I’msosorry,” Ali rambles hysterically.

“Shhh, baby. It’s okay. We’re okay, honey. I promise. We’re okay.”

Everyone exits the room, letting the couple work through their problems in peace. After a few minutes, Ali sits back.

“It’s not you, it’s me.”

Ashlyn gives her a sly grin. “Oh, that old cliché?”

Ali chuckles as she wipes her cheeks. “Yeah, that did sound cheesy, didn’t it?” She takes a deep breath. “I’m struggling emotionally, Ashlyn. Last time I had an injury this bad...I nearly died. And now I can’t help but worry about that and I can’t help but think you’re not going to want to deal with everything this injury could entail. And then you suggested Frankfurt and my first thought was it was a way for you to get rid of me. I know, I know,” she says stopping Ashlyn’s protest, “it wasn’t. Baby, I trust you with my heart and my life. That was all my own doubts just bubbling over and finding a way to blame you for the crappy way I was feeling. I am so, so sorry. You didn’t deserve that especially considering the sacrifices you are making to be here for me. I am so sorry I hurt you.”

Ashlyn leans forward and kisses Ali’s forehead. “I forgive you. And I’m sorry I forgot to charge my phone last night. We could have solved this long ago if I’d done something that simple.”

Ali smiles. “I should be used to that by now.”

Ash blushes. “Sadly, that’s true.” She takes a deep breath. “So, um, what about what I suggested?”

Ali bites her lip a moment. “I want to play again. I want to be better than I was before this injury. I want to make it impossible for Pia to keep me off the team.” She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “And I think that means Frankfurt.”

Ashlyn nods. “Me, too. But know that whatever you decide, I back you 100%. You make the call, Alex. Okay?”

“Okay.” She runs her hand down Ashlyn’s cheek. “I love you so much. Thank you for...for always having my back and being my number 1 supporter.”

“You never have to thank me for that. I love you, Alex. No one will ever mean to me what you do. And no woman will ever hold a candle to the beauty you have inside and out. You’re it for me, baby. Have been since our first date. Trust that.”

Ali leans in and gives her wife a tender kiss. “I do.”

After the emotional afternoon, the two women lay down to rest a little before dinner at 6 with the rest of the team.


 

Ashlyn finishes zipping up her backpack and turns to her wife. Ali sits on the bed, her knee on a pillow with a bag of ice. Tears run down her cheeks but not because of the injury. Ash walks over and sits down beside her, running a hand through her hair.

“No crying, baby. I’ll be back in DC Sunday night with you. And by then we’ll know the next step in your recovery.”

“Actually, I’m crying because I am just so thankful for you. I didn’t know how much I needed you here until I was in your arms. You made this seem...seem...God, not bearable because it isn’t but you helped me see there are more possibilities than the only one I saw: career ender.”

Ashlyn smiles. “No way this ends your career. You’re Ali Freakin’ Krieger-Harris. You scored the game winner against Brazil. You are the best damn right back in the world. And you are super sexy.”

“What does that last part have to do with my knee?” she asks with a giggle.

Ash shrugs. “Nothing. I just happen to like that part. A lot,” she adds, wiggling her eyebrows. Ali laughs and the blonde pulls her close. “I love you, Mrs. Krieger-Harris. Call me Friday as soon as you get an answer from the surgeon. If I’m in class, and let’s face it I probably will be, leave a message and I will call you as soon as I can, okay?”

“Okay.”

“And know if it wouldn’t get me slammed in the stockade I’d be there with you talking to the docs.”

“I know,” Ali says, stroking her cheek. “I love you so much, Ashlyn. Thank you for loving me, sweetheart.”

“Easiest job in the world,” Ashlyn says and pulls her wife close.

The women get lost in a kiss, trying to convey to each other that everything will be okay. They finally pull apart when there is a knock on the door. Ashlyn smooths down Ali’s hair.

“That’s my ride,” she says with a choked voice.

“Yeah. God, why are we being all sappy? We’ll be back together in a few days.”

“It’s okay, Alex. You’re just upset you won’t see my sexy body for a few days. I get it,” Ashlyn teases as Ali slaps her.

“You’re so bad.”

“I know.” She takes a deep breath. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

They share another hug and kiss. Then like ripping off a Band-Aid, Ashlyn stands, grabs her pack, double checks that her phone and wallet are in her pockets, then heads for the door. She pauses to wave. Ali smiles through her tears and waves back.

Ashlyn steps out into the hall to find most of the team standing there. She gives them a smile. “Take care of her for me.”

“You know we will,” Pinoe says. “You take care of yourself no matter where the Army takes you.”

“Always.”

She gives everyone a hug, thankful when she sees Mittsy and HAO head inside the room to be with Ali. She takes a deep breath.

“I love you, guys. Give ’em hell this tourney.”

“Next goal is for you,” Abby promises and pats Ash on the shoulder.

Ashlyn nods and quickly walks away before her friends can see her tears. When she gets down to the lobby she is surprised to find Pia waiting for her. The coach shakes her hand.

“We’ll take care of her until tomorrow. Then I am trusting you to do what’s best for her, not necessarily what’s best for me.”

Ashlyn smiles. “I understand. We came up with some plans last night that I think will get her back on the pitch soon. Maybe even in time for the Olympics. Don’t count her out too soon.”

Pia smiles. “Ali Krieger would be hard to count out no matter what the injury.” She offers her hand. “Good luck and stay safe.”

“I will, Coach. Thanks,” Ashlyn shakes her hand then goes out to catch her cab to the airport. In her heart she hopes Ali can defy all medical expectations and make it to the Olympics. In her opinion, her wife deserved her shot at Gold. Of course...some may say she’s a bit biased. She sits back in the seat and sighs. “You can do it, Alex. I know you can,” she whispers as the hotel drifts out of sight.

Chapter Text

August 2012

When Ashlyn’s work phone starts to ring at 9 p.m. she knows it won’t be good. She’d been deployed a few times stateside but so far her team had not gone over seas. She flicks the TV over to CNN as she answers. The breaking news scrolling across the bottom of the screen tells her she’ll finally be getting her international rotation.

“Harris,” she answers. She listens a moment. “Yes, sergeant. Will be there within the hour.”

She hangs up and starts to gather her chargers and bathroom items that always get packed last. Once she is sure she has everything she takes a deep breath. Half of her is scared; the same fear she has felt each deployment knowing lives will depend on the work her team does. Half of her is excited to finally be going overseas to a place that will surely need everything she has learned so far and where she will learn even more from those that have been in longer.

“Kinda fucking twisted you’re excited about this,” she mutters to herself as she watches the news report.

An earthquake registering 7.5 on the Richter scale had hit the Gulf of Thailand. The quake had caused a tsunami that had added to the devastation. Expected aftershocks will make it difficult for aid and rescue workers to do their jobs.

“Water & food distribution, medical triage, general shelters, transportation,” Ashlyn whispers to herself as she considers the many things her team will need to help get up and running as soon as possible.

She goes downstairs and sees Ken watching the evening news. He glances up at her. “Thailand?”

“Yes. Just got the call.”

“Good thing you hadn’t changed yet,” he says with a nervous smile.

“Right.” She takes a deep breath. “I’ll call Ali as I drive. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to call anyone so, uh, I just...”

He stands and walks over to her. “I know. Be safe, Ashlyn.” He pulls her into a hug. “I love you and am so proud of you.”

Ashlyn smiles. “Thanks, Ken. I love you, too. See you, um, well...eventually.”

He nods and lets her go. She is surprised to see tears in his eyes. Before they can fall, she turns and hurries out to her Jeep. As she drives, she slips her Bluetooth in her ear and, regretfully, hits her wife’s number, knowing she will be asleep.

“Ashlyn?” Ali answers nervously.

“Hey, baby, sorry to wake you.”

“What’s wrong?”

“There was a bad earthquake in Thailand. Lots of aftershocks expected and it created a tsunami, too. I’m on my way to Belvoir now. We’ll be mobilizing two teams to go and leaving Andrews in less than 4 hours.”

“Fuck,” Ali mumbles as she goes into her living room in Germany and turns on the news channel.

“Babe, I don’t know when I’ll be able to call or email. I swear, as soon as I can I will contact you even if it’s just a quick note to let you know how I’m doing,” Ashlyn promises.

“I know you will. Please be safe, sweetheart.”

“Always.” The two talk for a few more minutes then Ashlyn sighs. “Babe, I’m pulling up at the gate. I need to go.”

“Okay. I love you so much, Ash.”

“I love you, too. Talk to you as soon as I can.”

“Right. Bye, baby.”

“Bye, Alex.”

Ashlyn reluctantly disconnects as she pulls up to the gate and gets waved through once they see her access sticker. She grabs her backpack and the packed kit bag that she keeps in her jeep and reports inside.

“Hey, Pauly, what’s the word?” she asks.

Corporal Paula Johnson glances up from her clipboard. “Sanitation systems destroyed, water mains busted, fires, buildings crumbling and unsafe. The only good news is the tsunami wasn’t as bad as they expected and the water has already receded. Unfortunately it’s left behind dead sea life, drowned animals, and reports of people missing, possibly swept back out to sea.”

“Damn. Navy?”

“Already routing an LPD that way to deploy boats and helos. It’s the Nashville and she has 6 Sea Knights on her. Marines going ashore will help with immediate triage and prepare anyone that has to be sent out to the USNS Mercy hospital ship, which is also in route. USNS Tippecanoe will be close by for replenishment if needed for both ships.”

Ashlyn nods. “Perfect,” she accepts the clipboard and initials that she’s been briefed. She places her sack with the others to be loaded on a truck and reports to Colonel Menninger.

“Sir, I’ve gotten the brief from Johnson.”

“Very good. Since your commander, Major Nettles, has a broken leg and won’t be in the field, I’ve reassigned you to the other team. This is your first major disaster deployment and you’ll have a hell of a learning curve.”

Ashlyn nods, “Yes, sir.” She knows the missions she had been on in the States would only marginally have her prepared for the massive devastation she would see in Thailand.

Menninger gestures to the other men in the room. “You’ll be with Staff Sergeant Rodgers for most of your time on the ground. He’s been with the Corps of Engineers for 18 years and has pretty much had a hand in every kind of situation you can imagine. Major Ramos will be your c.o. He’s got 13 years in and also has seen it all. Listen to them and learn.”

“Yes, sir,” she responds.

Major Ramos lifts an eyebrow. “You don’t say much, Lieutenant.”

“Knowledge speaks, wisdom listens, Major Ramos,” she replies with a slight smile.

Ramos grins. “Good response.” He hands her a piece of paper. “This is the plan the sergeant has drawn up for first response requisitions. Any questions?”

Ashlyn looks it over. As her eyes scan down the requested equipment, she briefly scowls, looks up at the action plan, then swallows and continues to scan the page. She offers it back to Ramos.

“No, sir.”

“Really? What was with that scowl?”

Ashlyn blushes, not realizing she’d been caught. “Uh, well...nothing much, sir. I just...was going to speak to Sgt Rodgers when we are done in here.”

The sergeant stiffens, his face hardening. “Look, Lieutenant, I know you outrank me,” he says with irritation, “but that doesn’t mean you know it all. Bars don’t equal experience.”

“I know, Sergeant,” she starts but he interrupts.

“So if you’ve got a problem with my action plan spit it out so I can show you book learning doesn’t mean squat against real experience,” he finishes then adds as an afterthought, “Ma’am.”

Ashlyn glares at the man. She feels the eyes of the two senior officers on her, wondering how she will deal with the rudeness...not to mention insubordination. She straightens her back.

“Okay, Sergeant, I have one little issue with your form here.”

“Oh, do tell, Lieutenant,” he snarks.

“Your action plan calls for 12 trucks to transport supplies and body bags to all the various locations we’ll have aid stations set up, right, Sergeant?” He nods. “Then perhaps down in the requisitions boxes you should have typed 12...not 2.” She offers the form to him.

He snatches it and his face flushes in embarrassment. “Oh...”

“And, Sergeant, we’re a team, something I am very used to being on. I had planned to point this out to you privately when we left the colonel’s office, knowing it was just a typo. Two things you need to remember about me: 1) I don’t believe in humiliation to get a point across. In my experience it’s better to work with someone than call them out just to make them look like an asshole in front of others. And 2) I respect people that have experience regardless if they have bars, clusters, stars, or stripes on their uniform. I’d be an idiot not to be grateful to work with you and a bigger idiot to poison that work environment by being the type of asshole I hate. Now we can either start over with mutual respect or you can continue to resent me and deal with the fact that you have my respect. Your call, Sergeant.”

Menninger and Ramos both chuckle at the look on Rodgers’ face. The sergeant slowly shakes his head and looks at the other two officers.

“Don’t tell me OCS finally produced an officer whose head doesn’t grow in their ass,” he mutters. Ashlyn grins. Rodgers turns to her and offers his hand. “My apologies, Lieutenant. Colonel Menninger had nothing but praise for you. I should have listened to him. Let’s start over with that whole mutual respect thing. Just don’t piss me off,” he adds with a wink.

Ashlyn chuckles and shakes his hand. “I’ll do my best. But my wife often says I can do that without trying so no promises.”

The men laugh and continue to make plans and order up the things they need for this mission.


 

Ashlyn pulls her phone out as the cargo plane lifts off from Andrews. She quickly types out a text.

On our way to Thailand. I love you, baby.

Major Ramos watches her and pats her on the shoulder. “You okay?”

Ashlyn nods. “Yes, sir. Just letting my wife know we’re taking off. She already knows it could be a while before I can contact her again.”

“Good.” He pauses. “So your wife is Ali Krieger, right?”

“Yes, sir. You know her?”

“I have a 12 year old daughter who’s wild about soccer. After watching the Brazil game last summer she decided she wanted to be just like Ali Krieger and someday win a huge game.”

“I can believe that,” Ashlyn says proudly.

“How is she doing? With her knee?”

“Okay. She returned to Frankfurt about 3 weeks after surgery. They basically have her in a rehab program that goes all day long. It’s like a 9-5 job. It’s tough but she’s back to running. Unfortunately she was only at about 75% when Pia named the Olympic roster and the alternates.”

“Damn. That’s a shame.”

“Yeah. But she’ll be back. If all goes well she’ll keep getting better and be back on the national team by the end of the year. She’ll be in Canada for the World Cup in 2015 and then she’ll take on Rio in 2016 for that Olympic medal she deserves,” she states confidently.

“Good to know.” He waits a second as the plane levels out. “So do you miss it?”

“Sure. I always will. But I just felt like this is where I am meant to be,” she explains.

“I understand. I walked away from a chance at Major League Baseball. A bunch of my teammates thought I was nuts. I think even a few were angry. It’s hard to get them to understand why you walk away from it for this life.”

“I got lucky. My teammates have been nothing but supportive. I mean, at first a few questioned me to make sure I wasn’t walking away too soon but when I explained myself they got it. And Alex, uh, Ali, has always been in my corner.”

As if it was scripted, her phone buzzes. She picks it up and smiles.

Be safe, my soldier. I am so proud of you and love you so much.

Ramos chuckles at the smile on Ashlyn’s face. “Yep, you are definitely in love.”

“Hell, yeah,” she agrees.

He pats her on the shoulder and stands. “Well, get some sleep. Once we hit the ground sleep will be nearly non-existent the first 48-72 hours.”

“Yes, sir,” she says and gets up to find a place to stretch out. She finds a few seats free and stretches out across them, ignoring the uncomfortable pain of the edges of the seat. She is a little too wired to sleep immediately. She pops open her phone and starts to scroll through the pics. Eventually she calms herself enough to rest. She looks at the picture on her screen: a selfie of her and Ali right after the defender’s surgery. She smiles and gives it a kiss. “Love you, baby,” she whispers before pocketing her phone and closing her eyes. As it used to when she was on the national team, the sound of the plane’s engines lulls her into sleep.


 

“ONE MORE SET!”

“Ugggghhhh...you suck,” Ali mutters to her personal trainer.

The woman grins. “I thought you were Ali Warrior, not Ali Quitter,” the woman teases.

Ali just glares at the woman. She’d heard the taunt before when she tried to quit. Sadly, it still works and she starts her next set of leg lifts. When it ends her trainer tosses her a towel.

“There, see? Not so bad. You could almost be a German player,” she jokes.

Ali glares at her. “Right, Celia,” she mumbles.

Celia Stopplebein squats down beside her charge. “Ali, surely you can tell you’re getting stronger? You know I am only doing this to get you back on the pitch.”

“I know. I just...feel like I hit a wall or something. I haven’t been able to increase the weights for 2 weeks. I haven’t been able to run any longer. I just...am I really getting better, Cel?”

Celia nods. “You are. You’ve not hit a wall. There is a reason we are not increasing anything right now. You are at 90% right now. We want your body comfortable here. We don’t want to push too far, too fast and risk re-injury. When I, and the doctors, are sure your body will not regress, we will then increase things a little more and start the final climb to 100%.”

“How soon?”

Celia shrugs. “That is not for me to officially say but I would think maybe another 2 weeks. I want you to be bitching at me that there are not enough reps, not that there are too many,” she says with a smile.

Ali considers this a moment as she runs a finger over the scar in her knee. She finally looks up. “Really?”

“Really.”

Ali slowly nods then stands. “Okay then. What next, boss?”

Celia grins. “Boss? I like that. Come on. Water aerobics time.”

Ali nods and follows her to the locker room to get her suit on for her final activity of the day. As they pass by the front desk her eyes catch the news report. Her eyes widen and she runs over.

“Turn that up!” she commands in German.

The man behind the counter does so without question. Ali studies the screen as the German anchor talks about the continued efforts in Thailand to help those affected by the series of earthquakes that had been shaking the coast for the last week. Ali’s eyes strain, trying to see if any of the people in camouflage are her wife but, honestly, from a distance they all look alike in their gear and helmets.

It had been 5 days since Ashlyn’s last contact. Just a quick text that her plane had landed. Ali’s phone is never far from her just in case her wife finally gets a moment to contact her. Celia actually wears it on her hip during their workouts so Ali can respond or answer depending on the method Ashlyn uses to reach out. Ali wipes a hand down her face as the news report switches to another story. A hand falls on her shoulder.

“You heard the man, things are starting to stabilize,” Celia points out. “That probably means she will contact you soon.”

“Yeah. Of course.” Ali takes a deep breath. “I just miss her so much. I guess I didn’t realize how hard it would be to just...not know where she is or what she’s doing or how she’s doing.”

“I understand. When my husband was in the Army it would often be a month before I heard from him. I had tried to prepare myself for that but there just isn’t a way,” she says compassionately.

Ali nods in agreement. She then takes another deep breath and turns to her trainer. “Okay, enough wallowing. Time for the water.”

Celia smiles. She sees that Ali is now using her workout to get her mind off her wife. Celia had done that many times when her husband had been deployed. She pats the US defender on the shoulder.

“Right. Let’s go.”

Twenty minutes later Ali groans.

“ONE MORE SET!” Celia hollers, her words echoing through the swimming center.

“You suck,” Ali grumbles.

Celia chuckles. Yep, Ali was back to normal.


 

Ashlyn runs the back of her hand across her forehead. She flicks it, seeing the sweat darkened with dirt and grimaces. She had yet to shower since arriving in Thailand and was in serious need of something more than a sponge bath. Major Ramos pats her on the shoulder.

“You’ve been doing a damn good job, Lieutenant. How are you feeling about everything?”

Ashlyn considers her answer a moment. “Well, let’s just say I have a shitload of questions, sir, but they can wait until we’re back at Belvoir. Rodgers has been great about answering questions in the field and about making sure the locals know I’m the ranking officer even though he is older. And a man. That’s the part they seem to have the most trouble with.”

Ramos grins. “Yeah, you’ll find that in a lot of places. But something tells me a world class female athlete has dealt with that crap before.”

“Definitely,” she agrees with a grin. “It’s par for the course most of the time.”

Before their conversation can continue a private runs into the tent and gives the officers a quick salute before addressing Ramos.

“Sir, some of the local leaders are demanding they get more than the allotted rations of water. They won’t listen to Lieutenant Saunders. Say he’s not important enough.”

Ramos sighs and looks at Ashlyn. “So much for sending you out to deal with this.” She just grins. He grabs his helmet. “Lead on, Private.”

Ashlyn has just sat down for the first time in 8 hours when she hears raised voices outside the tent. “Son of a bitch,” she grumbles as she stands back up and marches out to see what is going on.

About 10 feet away she sees one of the locals that had been helping with distribution of supplies arguing with Sgt. Rodgers. She rolls her eyes and stomps towards them.

“What’s going on here, Sergeant?” she asks with an air of authority that gets both men to stop arguing.

The Thai national spins at her and starts to wag a finger in her face. “HE PROMISED ME MORE FOOD FOR MY FAMILY IF I HELPED! I HELPED AND NOW HE’S NOT GIVING ME THE FOOD!”

Ashlyn’s eyes narrow. “First of all, get your fucking finger out of my face,” she tells the man and smacks his hand down. “Secondly, Sergeant Rodgers is one of our most respected soldiers and a man of his word. Had he made you that promise, he’d have lived up to it. But you seem to forget I was there when you VOLUNTEERED to help with NO regard to any special favors.” She steps into his comfort zone. “So you can either calm your ass down and continue to help us, or we will gladly have a couple of MPs escort you back to your house.”

The man stares into Ashlyn’s eyes looking for any sign of hesitation. She just glares at him much the way she would stare down opposing players taking penalty kicks. The man finally drops his head and steps away from her. She curls her lip in a slight grin.

“As I thought. We appreciate the help you’ve given us and I hope we can continue to work together. If so, I am sure Sergeant Rodgers can tell you where you are needed,” she states, thereby turning control of the situation back over to the NCO.

Rodgers looks down at the clipboard in his hand, mostly to keep his adversary from seeing his proud grin. He clears his face and looks up. “Could use you in the hospital tomorrow.”

The man slowly nods. “I...will be there.”

“Good.” Rodgers reaches into his pocket and pulls out a Granola bar. “It ain’t much but it’s yours if you want it,” he offers.

The man takes it with a smile. “My son loves these. Thank you, Sgt. Rodgers.”

Ashlyn reaches into her pocket and pulls out the one she’d picked up that morning. “Here’s another. I know you have a daughter, too.”

He smiles thankfully. “Thank you, Lieutenant Harris. I will see you all tomorrow.”

The man hurries away, happy to have gotten a little something for his kids. Rodgers turns and stares at Ashlyn a second.

“Damn, Lieutenant, you’re bound and fucking determined to make me like you, aren’t you.”

Ashlyn just grins. “How could you not, Rodgers. I’m wonderful.” She pauses. “And humble, too.”

Rodgers grins. “You know, kid, I thought Menninger was nuts when he was singing your praises. Nice to know an old dog can be wrong once in a while. You’ve been impressing me ever since you caught my mistake and I forced you to call me out on it. If you’re not careful, you’ll ruin my immediate distrust of all green lieutenants coming out of OCS.”

Ashlyn laughs. “Gee, sorry about that, Sarge,” she pats him on the shoulder. “I’ll do my best to fuck up and make you hate me again.”

He laughs as she turns and goes back into the command tent to take a well-earned, and much needed, break.


 

Hey, beautiful. You’re probably asleep right now but I wanted you to know my team is pulling out tomorrow. Our first stop is a little place called Ramstein AFB. About 2 hours from Frankfurt by train. (I looked.) We’ll be there for 3 days. Any chance you can get away?

She has no sooner set her phone down than it buzzes back.

YES! YES! YES!

Ashlyn laughs. That was quick. I miss you so much. Guess you miss me, too. See you soon, baby. I love you.

I love you, too. God, I can’t wait to see you!

In Germany, Ali leaps up and hurries to her closet to find the perfect outfit to wear. She can’t believe she is finally going to see Ashlyn! It had only been a few months but it was way too long. She picks out a dress that will hug her curves and show off her legs, which are looking awesome thanks to her recovery routine. Suddenly her face falls.

“My rehab...fuck...no way Celia will approve of me being away from it for 3 days because the team won’t approve of that. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK!” She paces a few minutes then ignores the fact it is just after 4 a.m. and sends a text to Celia. “Her husband was in the army. She’ll understand...I hope,” Ali bites her lip and starts to pack her overnight bag.

She never does get back to sleep so she is awake to get a response from Celia just after 6. You will follow the regimen I give you down to the letter! Just because your wife is in town doesn’t mean she gets to undo all my hard work. I will clear it with the team. Expect the workout instructions at the end of your workout today.

Ali smiles, unable to stop the squeal that emits from her mouth. She gets ready to report to her rehab, knowing by that evening her wife would be touching down in Germany.


 

Ashlyn is nodding at something a corporal is telling her as they walk into the hotel just off base where the team from Thailand is staying for a couple days to recuperate. Friends had often said Ash and Ali had a freaky, magical connection. In this moment, Ashlyn knows it’s true. She comes to a halt then slowly turns and stares towards the hotel restaurant. A second later an excited brunette comes racing out.

“ASH!”

“ALEX!”

Ali leaps into her wife’s arms. Ashlyn buries her face in the long, dark tresses that carry her wife’s unique scent of something sweet and tropical. They hold each other a moment, just relishing being in each other’s arms. After a moment, Ali eases back and they share a deep, passionate kiss that conveys how much they have missed each other. A throat clearing behind them breaks them apart. Ashlyn quickly turns, having forgotten the corporal.

“Oh, uh, Corporal Andrews, we can continue to discuss the paperwork in the morning. LATE in the morning, if you catch my drift.”

He grins. “Of course, Lieutenant.” He looks to Ali. “I was with your wife the night you hurt your knee. Glad to see you’re back on your feet, ma’am.”

Ali smiles. “Thank you.”

Andrews looks back at Ash. “See you in the morning, ma’am. About 9?”

Ashlyn studies her wife’s face. “Make it 10.”

Andrews chuckles. “Yes, ma’am.”

Ashlyn turns her attention back to her wife. “I can’t believe you’re here,” she whispers.

Ali tilts her head adorably. “Shouldn’t I be saying that to you? I’m the one living in Germany right now.”

“I meant here in my arms. I have missed you so much.”

The two share another kiss, this one less desperate. When it ends Ali stares into her wife’s eyes. The normally sparkling hazel eyes seem darker, less full of life. She strokes her hand down the blonde’s sculpted cheekbones.

“Are you okay?”

Ashlyn leans forward, her forehead touching Ali’s. “I will be. This was...harder than I thought. But good, too. It’s...weird trying to put it into words. It was at times depressing and terrifying and other times heartwarming and exhilarating. I think I need a few days to really process everything.”

“Then let’s head up to your room. I want to help you forget all about it for as long as I can.”

Ashlyn nods. Ali starts to step away but Ashlyn holds her hands. She lets her eyes slowly track over her wife from head to toe and back up again. She unconsciously licks her lips.

“You are so beautiful.”

Ali steps back to her and gives her a kiss. “So are you.”

They collect Ali’s bags from the restaurant and make their way up to Ashlyn’s room. The soldier has off until the next morning...and she plans to utilize that time to reacquaint herself with her wife’s amazing body. As they get into the room, Ali pulls out her phone.

“I almost forgot: I’ve been told I have to do this.” She pulls Ashlyn close and snaps a selfie of them both smiling, their heads pressed together. She quickly types out a caption and shows it to her wife.

Ashlyn grins. “Perfect.”

Ali posts it to Instagram so their friends and family know that, My soldier is out of Thailand. Heading home to America in a few days but first a stop in Germany. Yay me!

Ashlyn places Ali’s bag on the dresser then turns as her wife drops her phone down beside it. The taller woman slowly drags her fingers down over the brunette’s arms. She smiles.

“You’re arms are cut, baby,” she praises.

Ali brings her hands up to her wife’s biceps. “I got to keep up with you.”

Ashlyn wraps her arms around Ali and pulls her close. She gives her a tentative kiss as she inhales deeply, her ol’ factory senses telling her she may be in Germany but she is home. She pecks Ali again as both women start to breathe heavily. She gives Ali another teasing kiss but the defender has had enough. She grabs Ashlyn by the bun and pulls her into a deep kiss. Their tongues battle for dominance. When they finally pull apart, they are both panting heavily.

“I love you so much,” Ash says.

“I love you, too.”

Ali’s hands go to Ash’s ACU jacket and slowly unbuttons it. She pushes it off her shoulder to the floor. Her hands run up the tee shirt that is revealed, feeling the strong ab muscles underneath it. She then pulls it out of her wife’s pants and lifts it up and off. She runs her hands back over the incredible 6-pack of her wife.

“Damn...”

Ashlyn can’t help but smile at the breathless praise. Ali hooks her fingers under the sports bra that covers nipples already standing at attention. As she lifts it up, her head drops so she can take one of those breasts in her mouth. Ashlyn hisses, her back arching towards her wife.

“Fuck, Ali.”

“Soon, Ashlyn. Soon,” Ali teases around the nipple in her teeth.

As she lavishes both breasts with attention she backs her wife towards the bed until it hits Ashlyn’s knees, forcing her to sit down. Ali kneels down in front of her wife, her mouth never leaving pert breasts as she unties and removes Ash’s boots. She kisses her way back up to Ashlyn’s mouth as her hands go to the waist band and quickly have the pants undone. Wordlessly she encourages her wife to stand and finishes stripping her completely. She stares at a huge bruise on her wife’s thigh, then looks up questioningly.

“Pissed off an ox by accident. Thankfully I saw the kick coming and this was just a glancing blow.”

“Glancing blow? It’s almost your whole thigh, Ash!”

“But if he had made good contact it would have broken my femur. So, it’s nothing. Just a lesson in how not to get an ox out of the road,” she explains with a grin.

Ali chuckles. “You’re a mess.”

“Always,” Ashlyn agrees.

Ali leans forward and places a gentle kiss on the huge bruise. Ashlyn inhales sharply. Ali looks up, knowing that the deep breath was not about the bruise but about where Ali’s mouth is. She holds her wife’s gaze as she leans forward again, this time placing a kiss in her wife’s golden triangle. One of Ashlyn’s hands goes to Ali’s head.

“Please,” she begs, her voice wavering.

Though Ali would normally like to tease she knows neither woman is ready for that tonight. She wraps her hands around the keeper’s hips and pulls her forward as her tongue snakes out and slides into already soaking folds.

“OH! YES!” Ashlyn yelps.

Ali groans. For too long she had gone without this sweet elixir of life. Her tongue thrusts in hard and deep. She twirls it around, loving the little moans that come from Ash’s mouth. She brings a hand around and, as she sucks a hard, throbbing clit into her mouth, she thrusts up hard and deep with two fingers.

“FUCK! ALEX!”

Ashlyn’s legs are shaking as her wife feasts. Almost too soon, her hips are thrusting of their own accord as she rocks through an orgasm. She falls backwards onto the bed, her whole body shivering with pleasure. Ali stands and stares down at her wife. She grabs the hem of her slip on dress and eases it up and off. Ashlyn’s clit starts to throb anew as her wife stands before her in a black, lacy bra, matching thong, and a garter belt holding up her thigh high stockings. This outfit was planned to make sure she appreciated all of her wife’s toned body.

It worked.

“My God, Alex, you are so fucking beautiful. I just...fuck...”

Ali crawls up onto the bed, straddling her wife. She thrusts her center down against the blonde. “So, you like what you see.”

“Love what I see,” Ashlyn pants, her hands going to Ali’s hips.

“I love what I see, too.” She spreads her legs more, letting her center land on Ashlyn. “Can you feel how wet you make me?”

Ashlyn moans and nods. “Yes. Fuck, Alex, oh yes.”

Ali reaches behind her back and undoes her bra, letting if fall off. Ashlyn’s hands immediately go to the freed breasts. Ali moans and thrusts against Ash again as the blonde starts to squeeze and caress the perfect breasts of her wife. After a few minutes feeling Ali getting wetter and thrusting harder, Ashlyn quickly flips them, settling between her wife’s legs. Her hazel eyes have gone dark, taking on a feral glint.

“Love you,” she growls before capturing her wife in a hard, deep kiss.

One of her hands kneads and pinches a breast as the other slides lower, yanking the thong enough to snap it. Ali just moans in appreciation as that hand then buries itself into silken folds wet with desire. Ashlyn uses her hips to help her thrust harder, deeper as her mouth kisses towards the heaving breast below her. Ali wraps her legs around Ash’s hips, moaning as they thrust harder and faster. Almost before either woman is ready Ali’s screaming Ashlyn’s name as she rocks through an orgasm. Before she can come down, Ash descends the strong body and her mouth latches onto the still pulsing clit.

“ASH!”

She is now thrusting three fingers deep into her wife as she sucks her hard and rhythmically until she once again screams through an orgasm.

Ashlyn rolls off her wife as both women lie there, spent. After a few minutes, Ashlyn rolls to her side, her hand tracing patterns on Ali’s stomach.

“I can’t get enough of you.”

Ali smiles. “Feeling is mutual.”

Ash smiles then leans in to kiss her wife again, this time slowly. When it ends she lifts a lock of dark hair off the other woman’s face.

“When do you have to go back to Frankfurt?”

Ali frowns. “Back? What do you mean?”

“For rehab.”

Ali chuckles. “I don’t. I got, as they say in the military, a 3 day pass. Celia gave me a list of things to do tomorrow and the next day to keep my progress in line.”

Ashlyn’s face brightens. “Really? Seriously?”

“Really and seriously,” her wife confirms.

Ash buries her face in Ali’s neck. “Oh, thank God. I think I love Celia and I’ve never even met her.”

Ali chuckles and pokes her. “Watch the loving, woman,” she warns in jest.

“A different kind of love, baby. I promise.”

The two stare at each other for several minutes, then Ali frowns.

“How the hell did you piss of an ox in the road?”

The two women burst out laughing. Ash kisses her wife on the nose.

“As easily as I can piss you off you have to ask?”

“Good point,” Ali concedes. “But I still want to hear the story.”

The two women get situated in the bed. Ash tells Ali about the ox. Gradually Ali draws out other things that happened in Thailand, gently coaching her wife until she has gotten out all the things that had been haunting her eyes. As they gradually come back to life, Ali smiles.

“There’s those gorgeous orbs I’ve been missing. Feel better?”

Ashlyn smiles. “Yeah, I do. Thank you for making me talk that out.”

“It’s part of the marriage contract: making your wife address that which she’d rather ignore. Not the easiest part of the contract but still there,” Ali explains with a shrug.

“Well then I will have to pass on to the marriage police that you are doing your job smashingly and should not have your contract revoked.”

Ali chuckles. “Good to hear.” She rolls over on top of her wife. “So, time for another romp before dinner?”

“Definitely, sweetheart, definitely.”

This time they make love slowly, sweetly, reaffirming their love. They have a glorious 3 days in Germany before Ashlyn heads back to Virginia and Ali heads back to her apartment in Frankfurt to continue her rehabilitation.

Chapter Text

Fall 2012

Dear Ash,

I just don’t know what to do. I mean, FFC Frankfurt has been so vital to my career for so long but now I just can’t stand the thought of finishing out my contract. I know I signed through 2013 but they aren’t even giving me a chance to take back my starting position. Sometimes I feel like the coaches are punishing me for getting better. Like, if they keep me down I won’t get to return to the National Team and face their German team. Maybe I am just paranoid. I do know that with Pia stepping down I have to do something to stay on the radar of whoever takes over. Rumor has it Tom Sermanni is leading the pack but no definite word yet.

Okay, enough of my bitching. Thank you for sending the pictures of you with the puppies. Leave it to you to report to the site of a devastating tornado and find the pet store full of puppies to rescue. I swear if I come home to find one in the house I will never forgive you. ;o)

The stories you told me of the families in that area are heartbreaking. I am so glad your c.o. let you take toys for the kids. It sounds like that went a long way towards helping those kids start to heal. I loved the pics of you playing keeper on your knees with 5 or 6 balls being aimed at you. The kids looked so happy! It made me so proud of you, baby.


 

Dear Alex,

First of all: I am okay. Second of all: it’s just a broken arm. Third of all: no, I am not able to send you a picture at the moment.

So, here’s the story. It’s kind of funny, actually, so read this with a smile, okay? Anyway, we were back in Thailand but farther inland. The earthquake was an 8.2 this time and the aftershocks were really bad. It’s like Mother Earth was really pissed off about something. So, I was playing soccer with some of the local kids. Most had nothing before and have even less now if that’s possible. Major Nettles asked me to get the game going to try to improve the morale of the kids and the adults. And it was working. Then came another aftershock. We were yelling and screaming for people to get away from the buildings because what was standing was so unstable. I was running backwards, urging to people to safety...and tripped over a rock. You know how they always tell you if you’re falling you shouldn’t throw your arm out to stop yourself? Yeah...I didn’t listen to that warning.

The good news is it was a clean break and we had what we needed to set it. Bad news is, soon after the quake a bad storm blew in and I can’t be taken out until it passes. So, I am stuck doing paperwork (and writing letters to you) until they can get me out to the Mercy and then probably to an airbase for a lift home.


 

Dear Ash,

Well, I have played my last game for FFC Frankfurt. And though I know it is the right thing for me it still has me a bit sad. I am the player I am because of all I learned over here so I will always be thankful for that but it really was the right time for me to move on.

That leads me to my next big bit of news: it may or may not be official by the time you read this so keep it close to your heart but I will be one of the National Team players allocated to an NWSL team!!! US Soccer still has me on their radar and respects me enough to pay for me to be on a team! I am so excited it’s hard for me to keep this a secret like they’ve asked. And though it’s not a true done deal, I will most likely be allocated to Washington because of my ties to the area. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about that house you’ve always wanted. Just an idea! :o)


 

Dear Alex,

I know I promised to be home for Thanksgiving but it doesn’t look like that is going to happen. Things are really bad here. I don’t have long to write as a helo is going out to a ship today and I want to get this letter out to you. Enclosed find a pic that I think you’ll like. This is a flower that only grows in this part of the world. The pic doesn’t do justice to its beauty. It made me think of you because no picture will ever show just how beautiful you are. I love you so much, baby, and I’m sorry I am letting you down at Thanksgiving. The only good news I have is Colonel Menninger approved my leave for the week of Christmas into New Years. 10 days, baby. We should be able to see my family and your Mom and stepdad if we go to Florida. Call Kyle and let him know. Shit, I got to send this.

I love you!
Ash


 

Dear Ash,

It’s been 4 days since I’ve heard from you. Thanksgiving is tomorrow and we are all hoping you will get a chance to call or email us or even Skype us. We miss you so much but we are so proud of you. It dawned on me recently that we’ve been married nearly a year and have seen each other less this year than any other. Sometimes that breaks my heart. Other times I am just so proud to know we are strong enough to survive these separations. I spoke to Pinoe the other day and she told me to tell you she is proud of us, too. I guess she really understands how long distance relationships can be a strain. When she said that, I realized I feel more in love with you now than ever before. Someday I’ll be retired and follow my officer around to her duty stations. That may be our true test. We might find out we can’t stand each other when we see each other all the time. ;o)

So, I talked to Kyle. He’s a go for Christmas. And he did warn that if you get sent off to the left of nowhere and miss any part of the holiday he will personally track you down and drag your ass back. Is it bad I kinda would like to see that? I think it would be pretty funny.

Oh, and just so you know it is now official but not yet announced that I will be red, white and blue year-round. I will be playing for the Washington Spirit in the NWSL. ALSO I have gotten the call up: I will be reporting to National Team camp in January!!!! It’s so they can evaluate me in person. And if the new coach is there (rumor is still Sermanni) it will be my chance to show him that I am back and ready to play!

Well, I need to put this in an envelope. Running to the store with your mom to get the things that were forgotten. I can mail this on my way and if you don’t make it home soon maybe you’ll at least get this. I think it’s great your Mom and grandparents came up here for Thanksgiving. I just wish you could be here, too. But we’re proud of you and love you so much. See you as soon as possible.

Love you most,
Alex

Chapter Text

Tammye and Ali are giggling as the Harris mother tells a story about Ashlyn as a toddler attempting to copy something her brother had done. Ali shakes her head.

“The sad thing is, that hasn’t changed!”

“Tell me about it!” Tammye agrees. “I swear if he had jumped off the London Bridge she’d have followed suit just to prove she was as tough as him.” She thinks a moment. “Of course, I guess that prepared her for what she’s doing now.”

Ali sighs and links her arm with Tammye’s. “True. I can’t believe some of the things she’s done. I just assumed she’d be constructing things or doing paperwork. But they’ve gotten caught up in riots for food and water, aftershocks, bad storms. And she’s out in it all.” She smiles proudly. “I once asked her if it was possible for her to stay somewhere safer and she said, without hesitation, she would not send her soldiers out into shit if she wasn’t willing to go out in it herself. She’s a hell of a leader.”

“That she is. Not sure where she got that.”

“That’s from her heart,” Ali answers immediately. “And her heart comes from you and her grandma.”

“You give me too much credit, Alex.”

“Nope. She told me that herself. She knows the...issues you had when she was really young weren’t your fault. But you overcame them and repaired your relationship. Not everyone does one of those things, let alone both.”

Tammye leans over and kisses Ali’s temple. “Thank you for saying that. I am so glad my daughter not only found you but was smart enough to keep you.”

“Thanks, Tammye.”

The two continue to shop, getting not only the few forgotten items but a few other things that catch their eyes as well. It was going to be a very good Thanksgiving at Ken Krieger’s house.


 

Ken, his girlfriend, her sons, Ali, and the Harris’ hold hands around the table. Ken nods to Ashlyn’s grandfather who says the blessing. As it ends, he takes his glass of cider and lifts it up.

“If I may, I’d like to make a toast to Ashlyn. I wish she could have been here but I know there’s other families that need her more right now. Let’s hope wherever she is, she is safe, dry and warm.”

“Here, here,” Ken agrees.

They are about 5 minutes into dinner when the doorbell rings. Ken shrugs and stands, laying his napkin beside his plate. Dinner continues with laughter and chatting.

“Room for one more?”

Ali leaps up as everyone immediately quiets. Later everyone would swear the brunette had simply leapt over the table and into the arms of her wife. Ashlyn looks tired, she has a bruised cheek, and she is still the most beautiful sight any of them have ever seen. Ali gives her a long kiss. When it ends she smiles.

“Where...how...why...?”

Ashlyn smiles. “We got word yesterday we could leave. I wasn’t sure how soon I could get here so I didn’t want you all worrying about me. Besides, I thought this would be a pretty nice surprise.”

Ali pulls her close again. “Best surprise ever.”

“So, you going to share or what, Alex?” Tammye asks.

Ali smiles and steps away. Ashlyn pulls her mother into a hug.

“Hi, Mom. Sorry I’m late.”

“I forgive you,” she says, then steps aside so Ash can hug her grandmother.

“Hmph. You know the rule, young lady, if you are late to dinner you do the cleanup,” her grandmother chides with a grin.

Ashlyn smiles. “Gladly, Grams. Gladly.”

While everyone had welcomed Ashlyn home, Ken had retrieved another plate and utensils. He sets the empty place beside Ali.

“So, Soldier, you hungry?” he asks.

Ashlyn smiles. “Starving. But mind if I change first? Been in this since yesterday.”

Ken grins. “Sure. We’ll save some for you.”

“Maybe,” one of the boys adds with a smile.

Ashlyn grins at him. “Watch it, kid.”

Ashlyn kisses her wife again and starts towards the stairs. She stops when she feels Ali following her. “Baby, go eat.”

“Nope. I need to see if that bruise is your only injury.”

“It is. Mostly. I promise,” the blonde says with a smile.

“Right. And how did you get it?”

Ashlyn’s eyes drop down. “Uh...tell you later. Not exactly...dinner material.”

Ali frowns, having expected a funny story like with other injuries. “Okay. Still want to check you over, my soldier. Let’s go.”

Ashlyn nods and the head upstairs. At the dining table, Tammye looks at the others.

“Okay, whoever gets the story of the bruise tells everyone else. I have a feeling my daughter is trying to protect us from what happened.”

“I’ll talk to her. She’ll tell me,” her grandfather says confidently.

The others nod, hoping he will be right.


 

Up in the bedroom, Ali sits on the bed as Ashlyn slowly undresses. Brown eyes narrow as she watches how her wife moves. This isn’t slow because she’s tired. This is slow because she is hurting. Ashlyn stares at herself in the mirror a moment, her eyes darting to her wife.

“The tee shirt, Ashlyn,” Ali says firmly.

Ashlyn leans on her dresser a minute. She takes a steadying breath and carefully lifts her shirt up to pull it off.

“HOLY SHIT!”

Ashlyn’s left side is covered in her tattoo. Her right side is covered in a massive bruise. Ali leaps up and hurries to her wife’s side, her hand gently tracing the darkening bruise. This is recent. She looks in the mirror, meeting her wife’s eyes in the glass.

“What the fuck happened?”

Ashlyn looks down, hating the fear she sees in Ali’s eyes. “There was a riot. Rumor got out that we were pulling out without leaving supplies behind. It wasn’t true. Only some of us were leaving and the food and water supplies were obviously staying.” Ashlyn squeezes her eyes shut. “They wouldn’t listen to us. We kept saying nothing was being taken away.” She shivers and Ali wraps her arms around her. “There was a little girl. Her...her mother dropped her. No one was helping her. Me and Andrews saw her. Fuck, Alex, they were trampling her and I swear I could actually hear her screams over all the other sounds. We ran for her. He kept pushing people away as I went to scoop her up.”

Her voice trails off. She hates scaring her wife. Ali kisses her shoulder.

“And then?” she prods.

Ashlyn feels tears slip out from her eyes, hating that Ali will see them and know this doesn’t end well.

“Ashlyn,” she prods again.

Ashlyn takes a deep breath. “As I bent over, someone kicked me in the ribs. I fell on the girl. I was concentrating on hovering over her and not crushing her. I was looking right into her eyes and she was terrified. Three, maybe 4 people started kicking and stomping me.”

Ali considers that a moment then quickly undoes Ashlyn’s pants and shoves them down. “Oh, Ashlyn...”

Her legs are a mass of bruises, too.

“I just had to take it because she was in danger. I couldn’t hurt her,” Ashlyn explains. “Andrews finally saw what was happening and knocked a couple guys away. Then more of our soldiers ran over and gave me a chance to lift the kid up and run for safety. Riot went on about an hour. Four people were killed but...but that little girl was okay. We even found her mom. And I was the only injury for the Army. Major Nettles read Andrews and me the riot act for disobeying orders and leaping into the fray. Then gave us both a commendation for saving the girl.” She forces a grin to her face. “Kinda fucked, huh?”

Ali turns her wife around and kisses her deeply. “I am so proud of you for saving that girl. You risked everything for her.” Her voice chokes off at the end.

Ashlyn pulls her close. “I’m sorry.”

Ali leans back. “Don’t you ever, EVER apologize for saving a child.”

“I meant...for scaring you.”

Ali smiles and runs her hand over Ashlyn’s head. “Baby, I have news for you: I know your job is dangerous and I will always be worried about you and when I see some news reports I will be scared for you. But above all, I will always, always love you.”

The two share a kiss and another firm hug. Well, as firm as Ash can handle. When it ends Ali smiles.

“Get a shower. I’ll make sure my potential step-brothers don’t eat everything.”

“My hero,” Ashlyn says with a smile.

Ali watches as her wife kicks out of her boots then goes into the bathroom. Once she is out of sight, Ali leans on the dresser, finally letting her mind run through the “what ifs” of the situation that had hurt her love.

“Son of a bitch,” she mumbles. She wipes her face, reapplies her make-up, then goes back down to dinner to try to pretend her wife is okay.


 

Ashlyn polishes off her fourth plate of food and finally sits back from the table. Ken grins at her.

“You sure you’re done? I think there’s some bones here you can gnaw if you’re still hungry,” he teases.

Ashlyn smiles and pats her stomach. “Nope, I’m good. I’ll save the bones for a midnight snack.”

Everyone chuckles as Ali rolls her eyes. Her grandfather sits forward.

“So, now that you’re done you can come clean. Your wife did her best to pretend you are okay but love is the great lie detector. So tell me, Smashlyn, what damage have you done to yourself,” he orders, using her childhood nickname.

Ashlyn glances at her wife. The shocked look on the chiseled face tells her Ali didn’t tell everyone about the riot. Ash looks around the table and sees everyone staring at her expectantly. She sighs.

“Uh, well...”

“If you lie I will turn you over my knee, Ashlyn,” her grandmother warns.

And Ashlyn knows she means it. “Well...the bruise happened over a bit of a misunderstanding.”

“A misunderstanding?” her grandfather pushes.

“She was caught in a riot and people hurt her because she was protecting a child,” Ali blurts out, hating to watch as her wife struggles to tell the story without scaring anyone. “She was trying to get the child to safety and the bastards knocked her down and kicked her and stomped her and she’s bruised like hell but she saved that little girl and that’s all we need to worry about.”

Ashlyn reaches over and takes her wife’s hand. She slowly looks around the table. “Um, so, yeah. What Alex said.”

“How badly are you bruised?” her mother asks.

“Um, pretty bad,” she admits quietly. “But it’s just bruises so it looks bad. And it happened yesterday,” she thinks a minute, “or maybe the day before. Time zones and travel have me a bit off. But the truth is I’m going to be fine. Things could have been worse.”

“And you saved a little girl?” her grandfather confirms.

“Yes, sir,” Ashlyn nods.

Her grandmother gets up and walks over to pull her into a hug. “My baby. So proud of you.”

Ashlyn blushes and returns the hug. “Thanks, Grandma.”

For the rest of the night, Ashlyn tells heartwarming stories of rebuilding and humanity that rarely make the news. She even shows pictures of her and another soldier handing out toys to excited children, some of whom had never even had toys. The light in her eyes tells them all that no matter the dangers or hardships she faces on these rescue and aid missions, she is truly doing what she is meant to do.


 

Ashlyn is carefully stretching to get rid of the kinks before going to bed. As she brings her arms down, strong arms wrap around her waist. She looks over her shoulder as Ali kisses it.

“I am so happy you’re home.”

“Me, too, baby,” Ashlyn says. “I was going to call you when we landed but wasn’t sure how long it would take to get here. Then I figured me just showing up would be more fun.”

“It was fun. It took me a second to register you were real and not a dream.”

Ashlyn turns and kisses her forehead. “You’re the only dream here.”

“Ooo, slick,” Ali says with a grin.

Ashlyn gives a cocky shrug. “Of course.”

Ali studies her wife’s face a moment. Then she brings her hands up and tangles them in blonde locks and pulls her into a kiss. Ashlyn pulls her close, their bodies flush together as they make-out for several minutes. Finally the blonde pulls away.

“Bed. Now. Need you.”

Ali just nods and slowly starts to remove her pajamas. Ashlyn quickly sheds her shorts and tee and crawls into bed. Ali walks over and pushes her back, straddling her carefully.

“Tell me if anything hurts.”

“I will.”

“Promise me.”

“I promise.”

Ali brings her hands to the breasts that are already standing erect for her. She rubs them, watching as Ash’s eyes close and her back arcs up; her breath catching then becoming shallow.

“Oh, Alex...”

Ali leans down, her hands sliding up to Ash’s shoulders. Her erect nipples brush her wife’s nipples and both ladies moan at the contact. Ashlyn opens her eyes as Ali places kisses up her neck, across her chin, on her cheeks, and finally on her lips. They lose themselves in the sensation of their bodies touching in so many places. Ali shifts as she starts to kiss her way to Ashlyn’s ear.

“Alex,” Ash grunts.

“Mmmm...”

“Alex...ribs...” she forces out.

Ali’s eyes fly open and she flips off. “Fuck! Oh, baby, are you okay?”

Ashlyn is fighting to control her breathing. After a minute she slowly nods. “Yeah. Sorry. Didn’t know how sore they’d be.”

Ali carefully runs a hand over her stomach. “Baby, are any broken?”

“No, just bruised. Not even cracked. Basically they were kicking my body armor into me.”

“Ah. Need some ice?”

Ashlyn wants to say no. She wants to make love to her wife; to be made love to by her wife. But the throbbing in her side tells her that’s not happening tonight. Though she knows it breaks her clits heart, she slowly nods.

“Yeah...I think I do. I’m sorry.”

Ali leans down and kisses her. “I told you before don’t you ever apologize for getting hurt like this again. You saved that little girl, Ash. That’s heroic, not something to apologize for.”

Ashlyn just nods as Ali quickly pulls on clothes and hurries out to get a bag of ice so that hopefully her wife will get a good night’s sleep. When she returns to the room she sees Ashlyn taking something.

“You didn’t mention you had medicine.”

Ashlyn nods. “Pain killer and blood thinner. Thinner was so clots didn’t develop on the plane.”

Ali shivers, remembering issues she had once had with blood clots. “You need to go to the doctor tomorrow, Ash. I won’t take no for an answer. We call Belvoir in the morning and you go see someone. Promise me.”

Ashlyn can see her wife is not going to let this go. “Okay. But I’m fine, baby. Really.”

“And when a doctor confirms that I’ll be happier.” She lets Ash lie down then cuddles into her side. She lets out a contented sigh. “If I can’t make love to you, at least I can cuddle with you. I’ve missed this.”

“Me, too,” Ashlyn admits. “But tomorrow night, well, the others in the house better have earplugs because I plan to have you screaming my praises.”

Ali chuckles and kisses her wife. “I can’t wait.”

The two kiss a little longer, then Ash’s pain pill starts to work. Her eyes start to droop. Ali watches, smiling, as her wife drifts off to sleep.

“Welcome home, baby,” she whispers then watches her sleep for a little while before following her into dreamland.

Chapter Text

Ashlyn sits on her surfboard just beyond the break. She lets the rising sun warm her face as her legs drift in the cold of the water. She closes her eyes, listening to the sounds of the waves building then breaking on shore. She hears seagulls, their mournful yet determined cries as they search for their breakfast in the shallows. She hears the murmur of two other surfers also enjoying this peaceful Christmas Eve morning. She opens her eyes and turns her board towards shore. She feels the swell of the oncoming set and starts to paddle. As a wave rises, she rises with it.

Here she is in control. Here she knows to expect the unexpected and how to fix it. Here she is free. Here she is at peace.

She bends her knees, trailing her fingers through the water as she shifts to stay in the peak of the wave. As it finally starts to give out near the shoreline, she steps off into the water, pulling the board to her as she walks onto the beach. She plants the board in the sand beside her and sits, staring back out at the expanse of the ocean. She closes her eyes, just becoming one with nature around her.

She hears the unmistakable sound of one of the other surfers exiting the water and walking her way. Water droplets are blown on her by the breeze as the surfer squeezes water out of her hair. She opens her eyes as someone sits down beside her.

“You okay?” Ali asks.

Ashlyn smiles and nods. “Yeah. Just...enjoying it all; taking it all in. I want to remember mornings like this next time I am sent somewhere hellacious.”

Ali nods. “Good idea.”

“You can stay out there if you want. I know you and Kyle don’t get to surf together often.”

“Nah. Probably shouldn’t risk tweaking my knee since I finally got the call to return to the team in January.”

“Good point.” Ashlyn looks over at her. “I am so proud of you. I was scared you’d let the doubt and the negatives win. But you kicked their asses and, in my opinion, you are even better now than you were before. You’re going to be pissing forwards off all over the world.”

Ali smiles and leans against her wife. “Thank you for saying that. I’d never have done it without your love and support.”

“Of course you would have. You’re Ali Freakin’ Krieger. Heroine of the Brazil game. Only player on the NT playing in Germany. Nothing would have stopped you, baby.”

Ali smiles and cuddles closer. Her wife’s belief in her never ceased to amaze her. “I love you.”

Ashlyn kisses her cheek. “I love you, too.”

They watch as Kyle rides a wave in and jogs out of the surf. He drops down beside them. “Wow! Not bad for the East Coast. I mean, those are no Cali waves but they’ll do.”

Ashlyn kicks sand at him. “You wish your waves were better than these, Qweenie.”

Ali laughs as the two people she loves above all others start to pick on each other about who has better waves to ride. They have the same argument any time they are near water and neither one ever wins. Eventually she just stands and, like always, forces an end to it.

“I’m heading back. Kyle, if you want your gift from Santa hush about the waves and let’s go. Ashlyn, if you want your gift from me, you’ll also shush.”

Ashlyn grunts and looks at Kyle. “She doesn’t play fair.”

“You just figuring that out?”

The two laugh and stand to follow Ali to their stuff and prepare to go to Ashlyn’s grandparent’s house to help with final preparations for the big celebration the next day.


 

Ashlyn is studying the directions for her new, compact digital camera. It is a gift from Deb and Kyle so she can upload photos more often to them since she is usually on a computer several times while deployed.

“This is so cool! And I can either hook it up with the cord or pop out the sim card. Thanks so much!”

“Well, if it helps us get updates from you more often it’s worth every penny,” Deb says.

“Yeah. And it is waterproof, the casing can get run over by a truck without cracking, and even you can take decent pictures with it,” Kyle adds.

“Yeah, I can...wait a second...what do you mean by ‘even you’?” Ashlyn glares at him.

Everyone laughs as Kyle just shrugs and gives her an innocent look. Ali chuckles, especially when Ashlyn grabs a pillow and wings it at him. She leans against her wife.

“Ignore him. Your pictures are fine. Not everyone’s head needs to be in the shot. Really.”

Ashlyn slowly turns to her wife. “Et tu, Ali?”

Ali just grins and gives her a kiss. Ashlyn grunts and grabs three boxes. “Mom, Grandma, Deb, these are for you. Picked them up in Thailand last time I was there. Probably paid more than I should but each one fed a family for a week.”

Ali snuggles closer, loving that Ash had shown her heart without meaning to. Ali kisses her cheek, proud her wife would overpay just to help people out. She had seen this same person complain about the prices at Walmart.

“Oh, Ashlyn! This is gorgeous!” Deb says as she holds up a colourful dress.

“It’s called a sinh and I thought it would be great as a beach or pool wrap,” Ashlyn says. “The formal ones are gorgeous. These were made by village women to sell to tourists at markets so they are a little more casual.”

“But the colours are amazing,” Tammye says.

“It’s almost too pretty to wear to the beach,” Grandma adds.

“Well, wear them wherever you’d like. I printed out directions on how to wear the 3 parts and they are in the box.”

Deb gets up and leans over to give Ash a kiss. “Thank you, sweetheart. I am sure the last thing on your mind when you’re working is shopping.”

“Are you kidding? The last thing on her mind when she’s NOT working is shopping,” Chris jokes as Ash just nods.

“Still, thank you for thinking about us,” Tammye says and also moves to give her daughter a kiss.

“Heck, all I do when I’m over there is think of you. All of you.” She turns to Ali. “Especially you.”

Ali leans her forehead against Ashlyn’s. “Well, I think I can speak for everyone when I say we tend to think of you when you’re gone, too.”

Ashlyn smiles and gives her a quick peck. “My goodness we’re boring people then.”

Everyone chuckles and continues to open their gifts. Ashlyn spends more time watching everyone, soaking in their laughter and smiles. It was memories like these that kept her going when things were tough at work.


 

The next morning Ali is sitting on the beach watching Ashlyn, Kyle and Chris hit the waves. If all goes well, her surprises for Ash will be arriving soon. She smooths more suntan lotion onto her arms and watches her wife just soaking up the fun and sun. When she and Ashlyn had been reunited at Thanksgiving she had noticed a lot of the light was gone from her wife’s eyes. In just a few days here in Florida she had seen it start to flicker and slowly build. Now the embers were nearly flames and Ali couldn’t be happier.

She glances at the watch hanging on her beach bag and sees her next Christmas gifts should be arriving any minute. She smiles, imagining what Ash’s face will look like when they arrive. She stands, planning to wave the blonde in after she catches her next wave.

And a Frisbee lands at her feet.

Ali stoops to pick it up as a handsome, dark haired guy jogs over. He gives her a megawatt smile.

“If I said that was an accident would you know it’s a lie?” he asks.

Ali chuckles and hands him back the toy. “Uh, now I would.”

“So now you know I’m honest. How about a date and you find out more about me?”

Ali rolls her eyes. “I’ll give you points for smoothness and originality but I am happily married. Sorry.”

He tilts his head, his eyes disbelieving. “Married? No way. What fool guy would leave you alone on the beach?”

For some reason, the look in his eyes gives Ali a creepy feeling. She starts to step around him but he steps in front of her. “Um, look, thank you for your interest but I’m not interested,” she explains. She goes to move around him again and he grabs her arm. “Hey! Let go!” she demands.

“Look, stop playing hard to get. No ring, no ring tan, no husband. Come on over to my blanket for a drink and maybe more.”

Ali curses removing her ring for soccer and then deciding to leave it home that morning. “My ring is at home, idiot, so I don’t lose it.” Ali tries to pull her arm away but the guy is strong. “Look, you Neanderthal, let me go before my WIFE kicks your ass.”

“Your wife? You’re too hot to be a lesbo. But if she’s hot, too, you can both join me,” he says with a lecherous wink.

Ali is about to kick him between the legs when a hand grasps his wrist and squeezes the nerves at the joint. His hand releases automatically and then his arm is bent back as a leg cuts his out from under him. As he lands on his back, Ashlyn does a spin to straddle him, his arm twisted at a painful angle.

“There are four ways I can move your arm,” she states, her eyes dark with fury. “Two will painfully dislocate it. One will snap both bones in your forearm. The last will allow you to get up, apologize to my wife, and then run away. So which way should I go?”

“The...last...way,” he grunts out.

Ashlyn releases his arm and steps so Ali is behind her. The guy scrambles up and glares at Ashlyn. She can see what he is thinking.

“Before you do something stupid, I will warn you I am a lieutenant in the US Army and I have taken down men twice your size for less. Considering you manhandled my wife, you’re damn lucky I’m letting you walk away. Now...apologize and. Walk. Away.” she orders.

The man swallows. He can see she is serious. He looks beyond her to Ali. “Sorry,” he mutters then turns and runs away.

Ashlyn spins around and carefully cups Ali’s cheek. “Are you okay?”

Ali doesn’t answer with words. She pulls Ashlyn into a hungry kiss. When it ends, her eyes are dark with lust. “That was so fucking sexy. I mean, I was about to crown his jewels with my foot but what you did was...wow...”

Ashlyn smiles. “I know you can take care of yourself and I know you were about to kick him. I just didn’t want you to risk hurting your knee.”

“My hero,” Ali says with a smile, then kisses her wife again.

It is interrupted by clapping. Ashlyn, thinking it’s the guy and his buddies, looks up with a scowl that quickly turns into a huge smile.

“HOLY SHIT!”

“Merry Christmas, baby,” Ali says as Ash runs past her to her final surprise.

Megan Rapinoe, Abby Wambach, Sarah Huffman, and Lori Lindsey stand about 10 feet away. Ashlyn leaps into their arms.

“What the hell?”

“Ali offered to fly us out to help celebrate New Year’s with you. Tobin and Whitney get in tomorrow,” Sarah explains.

Ashlyn spins and smiles at her wife. “You so totally rock!”

Ali grins. “I know.”

Lori punches Ash in the arm. “That move with the guy? Freakin’ awesome!”

“Yeah, we were coming down the steps to the beach and started to run to help Ali out but damn, girl, you handled it!” Abby says proudly.

Ashlyn blushes. “Well...yeah...he might have looked strong but he was a wuss. All looks and no real knowledge how to use the muscles he has.”

“Still, dude, that was insane!” Pinoe praises.

“Thanks.” Ashlyn shakes her head. “I can’t believe you all are here!” She gives them each another hug. “I’ve missed you guys!”

“We’ve missed you, too. But Ali keeps us up to date on you as best she can. Will be easier now that she’s left Frankfurt for good,” Sarah says.

“True,” Ashlyn says, her arm proudly around Ali’s shoulder. “The only real question I have is will you all be able to handle her whipping your butts in the new league?”

Lori starts to laugh. “Rumor is I’m on her team so I’m good.”

“Who says she’s gonna be kicking our ass?” Pinoe says.

“Well, maybe not Abby because of her size but you, Pin, well...my baby is CUT and you, eh, not so much,” Ashlyn says.

“Ooooo,” Abby and Lori chime as Ashlyn takes off at a run, Pinoe right behind her.

Sarah chuckles and looks at Ali. “Some things never change.”

“Nope. They are both still overgrown 4 year olds.”

“Four might be too generous,” Lori chuckles as Ashlyn picks the blonde middie up and dumps her in the path of an oncoming wave.


 

That night Ali just watches as Ashlyn holds court. Her friends want to hear all about her adventures, or more like her misadventures, while on duty. And the blonde is in her element as she regales them with every funny story she can remember. As the evening wears on, Ali gets up to get another bottle of wine from the kitchen of the bungalow she had rented for the group.

“Need a hand?” Abby asks as she comes up behind her.

“Nope. I got it.”

“Okay,” she grabs a handful of beers then leans against the island. “Um, she’s telling a lot of funny stories.”

“Yep. That’s Ashlyn the Storyteller at her best,” Ali says with a grin that doesn’t quite reach her eyes.

Abby studies the defender carefully. She sees the pride tempered a bit by concern. She takes a sip of beer.

“Do we need to get her to talk about the unfunny shit?”

Ali concentrates on removing the cork from the bottle opener. She takes a deep breath and turns to her friend.

“Yeah...I think you do.”

Abby takes another sip and nods. “Then we will.”

Ali smiles and wraps her free arm around Abby’s waist as they head back outside. “Thank you.”

Abby kisses the top of her head. “No thanks needed, Kriegs. We’re love her, too.”

Ali just nods and smiles. She tops off Sarah’s wine glass as Abby hands out the beer she had brought out. Abby then plops down beside her wife and pulls her close before addressing the soldier.

“So, Ash, we see reports and stuff on the news. How bad is it some of these places? Really?” she asks.

Ashlyn sits back in her seat and takes a sip of beer. She shrugs. “You don’t really want to know that shit.”

“Maybe not. But you look like you need to talk about it, buddy,” Lori says.

Ashlyn looks to each woman carefully. She doesn’t see pity and she’s glad because that would have pissed her off. She sees concern. She takes another sip of beer.

“So is this a fucking intervention or what?”

Sarah sits forward and takes her hand. “You know better than that, Ash. We can see you’re hurting inside. Damn it, it’s in the news all the time about PTSD and shit and- -”

“I haven’t been to war!” Ashlyn states defensively. “I’m not fucked in the head.” She stands. “Yes, I’ve seen shit that may haunt me forever. Fuck, I’ve also seen some of the most beautiful acts of humanity in the face of devastation. That’s what I try to remember. That and the funny shit. That’s what gets me through day to day. I don’t need to ‘talk it out’ about the negative shit. I’m fucking fine.”

“Then why are you mad as hell right now?” Pinoe asks simply. “You’re fucking shaking, Ash.”

Ashlyn slowly looks down at herself. Her knuckles are white where she grips her beer bottle. Her other first is clenched and she is, indeed, trembling with rage. She turns and walks out into the yard, taking deep breaths to try to calm the rage flowing through her. Is this PTSD? No, no she’s not been in battle so it can’t be. It’s just...they’re making her think of bad shit and it’s bringing her down. That’s all. She’s not...not fucked in the head. She’s fine. Really. She lets a breath out slowly.

“So if you’re fine why are you mad as hell and trying to tell yourself you’re fine, Ash?” she whispers into the sky.

She slowly turns back and looks at her friends and her wife. They stare at her with compassion and caring. Still no pity in sight. She manages a smile.

“Had even one of you had pity on your face I’d have chunked this beer bottle at the fence,” she admits.

“No reason to pity you, baby. We just want to make sure you’re dealing with what you’re seeing,” Ali says. “No, you’re not in Iraq or Afghanistan. But, honey, you’ve been caught up in riots, looting, attacks by people trying to steal your supplies for the black market; people who would kill you as soon as look at you.” She pauses. “You’ve seen death and destruction. It has to weigh on you, sweetheart. Your heart is so...so...”

“Pure. And good,” Pinoe supplies. “We just want to keep it that way.”

Ashlyn walks back over and sits down. “So...what do you want to know?”

For three more hours, beer and wine long forgotten, the group talks. They ask Ashlyn probing questions, making her tell them the things that have happened, the horrors she had seen that haunt her dreams. The hardest was talking about finding the body of a little girl and carrying her to the area where bodies were being processed...and running smack into the girl’s family. They had swarmed her, begging Ashlyn to save the little girl; to do something to bring her back to life. Ashlyn had never felt so helpless and so ineffectual in her life. It is their screams that she hears most often in her nightmares.

“Fuck, Ashlyn,” Lori says as she walks over and pulls Ash into a hug. “I swear if anyone ever tells me your job is easy because you’re not in the fucking war I’ll punch them in the mouth.”

Ashlyn grins. “Thanks, Lor.”

Sarah gets up next, wiping her eyes. “Anytime you need to talk, you have my number. All our numbers. Please don’t hide this shit in your head anymore, okay?”

Ashlyn smiles and gives her a hug. “Okay.” She then turns to her wife. “Thank you.”

Ali shrugs. “I figured if we all went after you you’d finally talk.” She stands and pulls her into a kiss. “I’ve hated seeing the shadows in your eyes. I just hoped we could knock some of them out.”

“You have. Promise. And something tells me Tobin and Whitney are coming to continue this intervention?”

“Yep. Tobin’s going to make sure you get all Zen and Whitney is going to smack you around for trying to hide your problems instead of working them out,” Abby explains.

Ashlyn laughs, a hearty, open laugh that Ali had not heard in far too long. “Sounds about right. I promise to take both of their lessons to heart.”

The group soon calls it a night. In the darkness of their bedroom, Ali runs her hand down Ashlyn’s chest. “So...are you really okay with what I did?”

Ashlyn pulls her close and kisses her forehead. “Yes. I was pissed at first but...but you were right. I needed that more than I knew. I feel...lighter. Thank you, Alex.”

“You’re welcome. I love you, Ash.”

“I love you, too.”

The two kiss for a little but Ashlyn’s emotional night had taken a lot out of her. Soon they just snuggle together and slip off to sleep.

It is the first time in months Ashlyn doesn’t hear the screams of the grieving.

Chapter Text

January 2013

Ali wipes her forehead with her arm and works to calm her breathing. Whitney stares at her. “How the hell are you not gasping for breath like the rest of us?”

Ali grins. “Germany,” she answers simply.

“Hmph. Maybe I should have gone to Germany instead of England,” she says as she groans when the coaches tell the players to get on the line once more. “Why the hell did I choose soccer instead of, say, golf?”

Ali grins as the defenders start their next set of line sprints. Tom Sermanni watches the team carefully. He studies the players he’s inherited, many with storied histories. And he studies the players he’s called in new, gauging how they might fit into his plans for the future of the USWNT. Overall he likes what he sees. Then something catches his eye, confusing him.

“KRIEGER! OVER HERE!” he calls out.

Ali immediately breaks from the sprints and keeps her pace all the way to the coach. She makes sure her feet hit evenly, no sign of a limp. She is not in pain so she knows her eyes and face don’t show weakness. And she is in DAMN good cardiovascular shape so she’s barely out of breath as she stops in front of him.

“Yes, Coach?”

“Why’re you wearing jewelry at practice? We don’t wear it in games.”

Ali glances down and sees her dog tags have come out from under her shirt. Her left hand clutches them protectively. “They’re my wife’s dog tags, Coach. I only wear them when we run. I take them off when we start scrimmaging and I don’t wear them in games. I don’t even wear my wedding or engagement band.”

“I see. And game days?”

“During warm ups and stretches I wear her tags and then take them off before we take the field,” she answers immediately.

He considers this a moment then nods. “Very well. Finish your sprints.”

Ali nods and takes off back to the lines. Even though everyone else has finished she completes the runs. She feels her coach’s eyes on her the whole time. Did he think she was weak or too sentimental for wearing the tags? Is he worried her mind would be on Ash not on the game if her wife is deployed? Is he going to ignore her healed knee, ignore her skills, and cut her based on a way she keeps her wife close to her heart?

These questions go over and over in her mind as she completes her sprints. When it ends she walks it off to the bench for water. Christie looks at her.

“You okay?”

“Sure. Why?”

“Because you ran that last set faster than I’ve ever seen you run, Kriegs. What did he say to you?”

Ali grabs a water bottle and takes a sip. Christie is their captain. Doesn’t this mean she will tell him if Ali says something negative?

“Ali, I’m asking as a friend, not as his snitch,” the center back says, as if reading her mind.

Ali sighs and nods. “He asked about my dog tags. I...I don’t think he likes what they represent.”

“What do you mean?”

Ali shrugs and tells her about the questions she’d been considering as she ran. Christie smiles and pats her on the shoulder.

“Ali, we all have ways of keeping our loves close when we do conditioning. Heck, some even wear things in games. Guys do it, too.”

“Yeah, but how many wear dog tags, Christie? Rings are one thing; it just means your husband or wife is in another city. My tags mean Ash can be...well...someplace bad. What if he thinks I can’t put that out of my head?”

“Then SHOW him you can put it out of your head. Get out there and play football the way you play football. You’re the best damn right back in the world. Your knee is fine and you look better than ever. We all believe in you. Believe in yourself, too, and he’ll see what we see,” Christie finishes.

Ali slowly smiles. “Now I know why you’re the captain. Thanks, Piercy.”

“Anytime, Kriegs.”

Ali takes another drink and walks over to her bag. She gently removes the dog tags from around her neck. She softly runs her fingers over the raised lettering and smiles. “Love you, baby,” she whispers, then gives them a kiss and tucks them away.

As she turns back to the field, she sees Sermanni studying her and wishes she knew him well enough to read the look on his face.


 

“Hi, baby.”

“Hey, Ash.”

“So, why am I Facetiming you on Tobin’s phone?”

Ali glances at the Tar Heel. “You want to answer or should I?”

Tobin chuckles and takes the phone and turns it to look at her college pal. “I was practicing a juggling trick and sorta knocked her phone out of her hand.”

“And that broke it?” Ashlyn asks in confusion. “Phones fall all the time.”

Tobin blushes. “She was kinda on the balcony at the time. A 10-story fall is a bit much for any phone.”

Ashlyn’s hearty laugh makes even Tobin chuckle. “Oh, Tobes, can I assume you and my lovely wife are making a trip to the AT&T store tomorrow?”

“Yep, we are,” Tobin says. “So if you need her, just text me or call me.”

“You got it, buddy.”

“So, I’m going to go hang with KO so y’all can talk. Take care, bud.”

“Always, Tobes. Love ya.”

“Love you, too. Stay safe.”

After Tobin leaves, Ali smiles at her wife. “So, want to do naughty things while on her phone?”

Ashlyn bursts out laughing again. “Um, probably not.” She turns her phone enough to show Ali’s dad sitting nearby, giving the phone a pointed look.

“Oh my God! Sorry, Dad,” she apologizes, blushing.

“Right. Was just waiting to say goodnight to my sweet, innocent little girl. Guess I missed her,” Ken teases.

“Uh, right. Um, night, Dad,” she mumbles.

“Good night, sweetie.”

After he leaves the room, Ash turns the phone back to herself. “Um, next time we live chat, check out my surroundings, would ya?” she jokes.

“After that, I’ll make you scan the area to prove you are alone,” Ali promises.

“Good plan,” she chuckles. “So, how’s the new coach?”

Ali frowns as she considers the answer. “Seems nice enough. Has some good ideas and seems to really be evaluating all of us carefully. But...well...” she tells Ash about the weird conversation about the dog tags. Ash frowns as she finishes. “So, I’m not sure what to think about that?”

“Alex, he can’t hold me against you. That’s not fair.”

“I know. But...if he does I’ll just have to suck it up. I’m not taking off your dog tags just to please him. No other coach has cared, why should he?” She pauses. “Right?”

Ashlyn bites her lip a second. “Look, Alex, you wearing them or not doesn’t change your love for me. Maybe until he finishes choosing his starters you just...take them off before practice starts?” she suggests.

“No! No, I won’t diminish our relationship by doing that.”

“It’s not. How could it? What we have is in our hearts, no matter what we wear. I’m not going to tell you to wear them or not wear them. All I am going to say is if you have to take them off earlier than normal I’m good with that. You deserve to be back on the team AND back in the starting 11. If taking them off gets you there, so be it.”

Ali smiles. “Thank you. I still don’t plan to but it makes me feel better to know if he makes me take them off you’ll know what’s going on.”

“Good. So, how’s the team looking?”

“Really good. In fact...Mittsy’s looking really good at right back.”

“Alex, you’ve always been a step better than her. Don’t feel guilty going after your spot just because she’s a friend.”

“I won’t. But it still kinda hurts. And, to be honest, I have to beat her out. It’s not just going to be handed to me so I’ll know I’ve earned if I get it.”

“Damn right, baby. I’m so happy for you.”

The two talk a little longer until Ali sees her wife yawn. “Damn, honey, it’s nearly 11. You’re still working 3 a.m. - 3 p.m. You need to get to bed.”

“I know. But I wanted to talk to you as long as I could. I miss you.”

Ali smiles, “I miss you, too. Now, get to sleep baby.”

“Ma’am, yes, ma’am,” Ashlyn says and salutes.

“Smart ass.”

“Always,” Ash tells her. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow evening.”

“Perfect. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

They stare into each other’s eyes a moment longer, then Ashlyn ends the chat. Ali drops the phone on the bed and brings her hand up to her dog tags. No way would she give them up without a fight. She stands and walks out onto the balcony, staring out at the L.A. skyline, listening to the sounds of traffic far below.

Would she give them up? What if she was given an ultimatum? Then what? She doesn’t wear her wedding band. Why are the tags so important? And then it hits her.

“Because you DON’T wear your wedding band. Duh, Alex, you keep her with you as long as you can. Ceding every bit of her to the game is what bugs you.” She turns and leans against the balcony railing. “You know she’s in your heart, not just in metal tags or a gold band. But you remove them all at your discretion, not the coach’s.”

Ali pushes off the balcony and strides across the hotel room, grabbing her key off the dresser as she goes. She takes the stairs down one flight and knocks on Sermanni’s door. He opens, a curious look on his face.

“Yes, Krieger?”

“You seem upset that I wear Ashlyn’s dog tags until we scrimmage or until we play. I won’t stop that. It’s not like they weigh me down and no one can get hurt by them. Is that going to be a problem?”

Sermanni seems confused. “Uh, no. I thought it was a sweet gesture, actually.”

Ali is shocked. “Oh. I just...you seemed...oh...”

Sermanni chuckles. “Krieger, I’ve seen things on paper about all of you players. Now I have to learn the personalities and the things that mean most to you. Those are the things that make up a team that clicks on all levels. I casually mentioned the tags to several players. They all loved them. That tells me they respect not only your relationship but they’ve seen you are 100% professional when on the field. Otherwise they probably would be hating those tags for taking your attention away from our goals.”

“Oh,” Ali says again. “So, it was something you could use to evaluate me with my teammates.”

“Yes. And I daresay I’ll be doing that with all players. I need to know minds and bodies, both. I’m sorry if it seemed like I was against your devotion to your wife.”

Ali swallows. “I see. I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. I just...I’m really, really sorry.”

He grins. “Forgiven. Besides, this tells me not only are you feisty but you stick to your guns and are willing to fight for what you believe is right. That’s good to know, too.”

“Thanks. So, um, I’ll let you get back to whatever you were doing. See you at breakfast.”

“Yep, Krieger, see you there.”

Ali heads back up to her room, trying to figure out if she should be embarrassed or grateful for the conversation she just had with the Scotsman.


 

“So, we know you’ve been in Germany forever, but do you have a Super Bowl pick?”

Ali grins and contemplates her answer...and gets a plate of whipped cream in her face. She screams as her teammates bust out laughing. She bends over, laughing yet hating herself that she fell for the set up. She stands and spins in time to see Carli get some revenge for her by creaming Mittsy. But Ali takes off for her anyway.

She loves this!

Her teammates laughing, some calling out cautions, and Mittsy laughing too much to get away. They wrap up in a hug and Ali wipes her face on Mittsy’s shoulder.

“Welcome back, Ali. I mean it,” Mittsy whispers.

Ali laughs and steps away, pointing out to the still rolling camera that it had taken the pranking defender 3 years to get one over on her. She then turns and they hug again. Ali wipes her face once more then pulls her friend close.

“Thank you, Mittsy.”

“Anytime, Kriegs. Don’t forget to have fun, right?”

Ali leans back, smiling. “Right.”

The two walk arm in arm back to their teammates who pat them all on the back. Mittsy glares at Carli.

“I won’t forget this, Lloyd.”

Ali chuckles. “Me, neither. I owe you a beer!”

Carli just nods at Ali and wiggles her eyebrows at Mittsy. “Remember the whipped cream in my shoe? Revenge, chicky, revenge.”

Mittsy nods and lifts her hands. “Okay, okay, we’re even.” She pauses then gives an evil grin. “Time to plan my next chance to get one up on you.”

The team laughs. Yep, pranks definitely helped break up the monotony of practice. Christie looks up as she sees the coaches walking back over to them.

“Heads up, guys,” she says.

The team turns and waits for the announcement. Sermanni studies the 29 women in front of him.

“Ladies, you have made my job very, very hard. I wish we could take all of you with us to the Algarve but alas we can only take 23. I will be posting the final roster tonight at 9. If any of you wish to discuss anything with me, my door will be open until 11. See you at dinner.”

With that he dismisses them for the day. The earlier laughter is replaced by silence as each woman reflects on her performances during the camp. Ali finds herself beside Whitney as they take off their boots and socks. Whitney nudges her.

“You’ve made it back, Al. I know it.”

“Maybe. We’ll see,” she says nervously. “But you, damn, Whit, you’ve been awesome. You’ve made it for sure.”

“I don’t know.” She glances around. “Ever notice how heavy we are in the backline?”

Ali nods. “Yeah. Trust me, I know.”

The two share a hopeful look. They’ve given it their all. Now...now their fate is in the hands of Tom Sermanni.


 

“Hey, B- -”

“I MADE THE CUT! I’M GOING TO THE ALGARVE CUP!”

Ash had held the phone away from her head when her wife started screaming. She also puts it on speaker phone. This allowed Ken to also hear the exclamation.

“YES! I knew you’d do it!” Ashlyn says confidently.

“That’s my girl!” Ken hollers proudly.

“I’d have never done it without both of you,” Ali states. “I hope you know every time I take the pitch, I take it because of what you all have done for me. I love you all so much.”

Ken pats Ash on the shoulder. “We love you, too, sweetheart. I knew you could do it. There’s not much you can’t do when you put your mind to it.”

“Thanks, Daddy.”

“On that note, time for this old man to get to bed. Night, sweetheart, and congrats again.” He kisses Ashlyn on top of the head. “Night, Lieutenant.”

Ashlyn grins. “Night, Old Man.” After he is gone, she takes the phone off speaker. “God, Ali, I am so over the moon for you! You are amazing.”

“Thanks, baby. And just so you know, Whitney made the cut, too.”

“Awesome! I’ll have to send her a text to- -Oh, fuck...”

“What’s wrong?” Ali asks, worried she knows what’s going on.

Ashlyn sighs, hating to leave this conversation when there is so much she wants to say to her wife. “Work phone. I gotta go.”

“I figured.”

“The whole fucking time you’re gone, nothing. Now that we have so much to talk about, I get a call. Not. Fucking. Fair,” Ashlyn grumbles.

“Baby, there will be more to talk about when the Algarve starts. We fly tomorrow to Jacksonville for the first of 2 friendlies against Scotland. As soon as I know my room assignment and stuff I’ll email you.”

“Thanks, baby. And as soon as I know...anything...I’ll let you know.”

“I know you will. Go, baby, be a hero to someone other than me.”

Ashlyn manages a smile. “I’ll try. But know you’re my hero, Alex. You fought through the devil’s triad of knee injuries and you are about to remind the world that you are the best damn right back anyone has ever seen. I love you so much.”

“I love you, too. Go on now. Get to Belvoir.”

Ashlyn sighs. “Okay. Enjoy your night, sweetheart. You’ve earned it.”

“Thanks. I think I’ll go to movie night in Becky’s room.”

“Perfect. Have a good time, baby. Love you.”

“Love you, too. Talk to you soon,” Ali says, hoping it’s true.

“Right. Bye, baby.”

Ali whispers “Bye” and quickly hangs up. She holds the phone to her heart. She then grabs the remote off the table between the beds and turns on the TV, quickly flipping to a news channel. It doesn’t take long for the news of a bad tsunami in Sumatra to interrupt the regular programming. Early reports are hundreds dead or missing, towns destroyed all along the coast of the Indonesian island. Ashlyn would be working for a while.

“Be safe, baby,” Ali whispers, her hands rubbing the dog tags that hang securely around her neck.


 

Ali had been excited to make the team going to the Algarve in March. When she finds out she is starting the friendly in Jacksonville she wants nothing more than to call her wife and share the amazing news. As she sits in the team conference room, alone, in the dark but for the news report on TV about the continuing efforts in Sumatra, she wipes at the tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Ah, there you are.”

Ali doesn’t even turn around, not surprised to hear two sets of footsteps coming her way. She hears chairs being dragged over and a body ends up on either side of her.

“I’m fine, guys,” she croaks out.

“Fine? I guess that’s why on the night you find out you’re back in the starting 11 you’re sitting in the dark crying while watching the news,” Pinoe says.

“Doesn’t everyone?” HAO jests, nudging Ali.

Ali can’t help but grin. “Guys, really. I just...miss her and want so much for her to know that I’m starting. I was ready to walk away from the game and she encouraged me to stick it out. And now...now she doesn’t even know we made it.”

“Did you email her?” Pinoe asks.

“Yeah. No response. If she’s one of those people,” she nods towards the soldiers on the TV screen, “she is probably working her ass off and has been since they landed. She’ll forgo sleep and even eating to make sure her squad gets their comforts. She’ll put out fires, both literal and proverbial, she’ll help with search and rescue, help with erecting buildings, help with doling out rations, and anything else that needs to be done without caring a bit about herself. Her men and the victims will be her priority until such time as the brass tells her to stand down. It could be days before I hear from her.”

“Damn...” HAO mutters. “That’s...wow...I guess I never really thought about what she does when she’s there.”

“She sees bad shit, too,” Pinoe adds, remembering the intervention after Christmas. She puts her arm around Ali’s shoulder. “But maybe she’ll be back and be able to get leave to go to Portugal with us?”

Ali smiles. “Maybe. Not holding my breath, but maybe. She would only do it if- -”

Her words break off as her phone alerts her to an email. She quickly opens the app and sees her wife’s email addy at the top of her list.

“Ash...” she says as she opens it.

Hey, Babe, we’ve been here a couple days. This is worse than anyplace I’ve seen so far. May be another week before I can get or send emails again. I just want you to know I’m okay and I am thinking of you. I love you, sweethe

The last word ends abruptly. Pinoe frowns.

“Does she have a character limit with her DoD addy?”

Ali shakes her head. “Nope. Probably means something was happening that forced her to send it too soon. It should have said ‘sweetheart.’”

“Oh.” Pinoe studies Ali’s face, hating the worry she sees by the glow of the phone screen. “Or that crazy blonde forgot how to spell and just gave up. I mean, she can be a bit flighty sometimes.”

Ali and HAO both turn and stare at the platinum blonde. After a few seconds, all three women start to giggle, then outright laugh. Ali pulls her friends into a hug.

“Thanks, guys.”

“Anytime, Als. Anytime,” Pinoe and HAO both promise.

Chapter Text

Dear Ashlyn,

I am SO freaking nervous!!! I am trying to look cool about things but I am pretty sure flocks of pterodactyls are flying in my stomach. Or is it a herd? Or maybe a murder...you know like crows. Oh, hell, whatever they are they are in flight and I feel like this is my first game EVER not just my first game back. Oh, how I wish you could just text me or call me with a word of love or advice.

Geez I’m an asshole. I’m worried about a damn game and you are in Sumatra saving lives and probably running yourself ragged. I’m sorry, honey, I’ll end the pity party now.

I love you so much. I have been watching the news coverage over there and I can see how much better things are getting. I hope that means you’ll be home soon. The gals all search out news stories online to see if they see your name or, even better, a picture. It was kind of funny. Last night there was a 20 minute debate between Buehler and Abby about this one pic. They started talking to everyone, seeing who sided with the “It’s Ashlyn” or “It’s not Ashlyn” camps. They had shown it to nearly everyone (but me) and finally get to Becky. She looked at it and started giggling and said she knew for sure it wasn’t you. When Abby, who was sure it was you, demanded how she knew, Becky just pointed out the name on the uniform wasn’t yours and the soldier had 3 stripes on HIS sleeve not a bar on his collar. Abby pouted for an hour!

I have to say, laughing and teasing Abby helped me forget about my worries about you for a few minutes. Sometimes I wonder if some of the crazy things the gals come up with are just their way of making sure I don’t stay too stuck in my own head.

Well, I need to email this one to you now. Time to get my things together to head to the field. Did I mention I AM STARTING!!!! I am so happy and, baby, I wouldn’t be here without your love and support. I so wish we could share this night together.

So, you stay safe and I can’t wait to talk to you. I’ll let you know how the game goes. I love you I love you I love you. Just can’t say that enough.

I miss you,
Alex


 

STARTING! GO, ALEX, GO! I knew you could do it, baby. I love you so much and can’t wait to see the highlights when I get home.

Wish this could be longer but just popped online to print off a form and saw this. I so needed to see something from you and this news is just the shot in the arm I need. Good luck tonight! I miss you, too.

Love,
Ash


 

Hi baby!

I played all 90 minutes! Had a few slip ups but for the most part it was awesome! And Tom told me tonight I’ll start in Nashville, too! I am so happy. You got me here, honey. Your love, your support, your ability to make me laugh when I was cussing at you and the Fates and the surgeons and the player that took me out.

I hope you get to see this email soon. Just in case, I’ve also written you a long letter by hand. I guess I’ll have to deliver it in person to you since you said you won’t be getting mail drops over there this time. The gals were bummed because they wanted to send a care package. Something tells me that could be a scary, scary box to open! :o)

Well, I’ll sign off now. I know you only get a minute or so to check email. Hope it’s long enough for you to know I miss you, I am thinking of you, and I can’t wait to see you. I love you so much!

Alex


 

Hey Alex,

By the time I read about the first game you were probably suiting up for the second game. I am so happy everything is going so great. Major Nettles has ordered me to stand down for 24 hours. He hadn’t realized I hadn’t had more than an hour or two break since we got here. He gave me a hell of a talking to about running myself into the ground. I seem to remember you saying the same thing. Have you two been chatting? ;o)

So I know you’ve been watching the news with the gals. I have to say, as tough as it’s been there has also been the most amazing outpouring of love and support from the people most affected by this disaster. A few of us were talking just the other night that we haven’t even had minor squabbles like we normally do. People who lived are just thankful for anything we can give them. People with nothing offer us gifts (that we refuse of course) just for giving them a gallon of water or something. It’s great.

Yesterday I took a bag of balls and teddy bears down to this place where a lot of the families were living. Everyone was laughing and having fun. It was so uplifting! And a couple of my guys and I ended up in an impromptu soccer game. There wasn’t space for a full goal so I couldn’t play keeper. I had to settle for just being a right back. ;o) But it was still so much fun. I think my guys needed that break as much as the people did.

Well, baby, my eyes are starting to cross. I guess I do need some sleep after all. Good luck in Nashville. You are an amazing, wonderful, incredible person, Alex, and a phenomenal athlete. You’ve earned everything you’ve gotten from your days as a Sparkler until now. I will send you another email as soon as I can. Right now I’m heading to my bunk to get some sleep.

I miss you, sweetheart. I love you so much,
Ash


 

Hey Ash,

Didn’t play the full 90 this time but still made it 70 or so. I am so pumped! Tom has nothing but praise for me and admitted he was worried about bringing me into camp after the serious surgery I had. He says as far as he’s concerned, I am the USWNT Right Back for the foreseeable future. It was so hard not to squeal like a little girl when he told me. Luckily Pinoe saw I needed to celebrate something and helped me sneak off to where I could cheer and holler without hurting the feelings of those that were cut or who I had replaced. She said you owe her a beer for that. :o)

I am flying home tomorrow for a couple weeks. I’ll be doing some press and appearances for The Spirit to help draw support for this inaugural season. Anything I can do to keep soccer alive in America I will do. The last thing we need is both of us bopping all over the world for work. In two weeks I head out to Portugal for the Algarve Cup. I was told to ask you if you could get leave for the tourney. Turns out the gals want to see you almost as much as I do. So, just know we’d love to have our favorite soldier in the stands if you can swing it.

Well, I need to go pack up my stuff. We also have one more team meeting to make sure everyone who’s going to the Algarve has all their ducks in a row. So I will sign off for now. Next time we chat I’ll be at home. I hope to see you there soon, baby. Be safe, my soldier.

I love you,
Alex

Chapter Text

About noon the next day, Ali is climbing out of cab in front of her father’s house. She had been hoping to see her wife’s Jeep in the driveway but obviously Ashlyn has been delayed at Belvoir. The defender had been so excited to get the text that the blonde was back in the States and would see her soon. Ali grabs her purse and backpack as the cabbie gets her suitcase and team bag out of the trunk. She gives him an extra tip when he carries them both to the front door without even having to be asked. As she starts to insert her key in the lock, she hears the distinctive sound of a Jeep horn. She spins around and her tired face breaks into a huge smile.

“ASHLYN!”

Ashlyn pulls into the driveway and hops out of her Jeep before the engine stops turning. Ali races at her and leaps into her wife’s arms. Ashlyn holds her close, burying her nose in Ali’s hair, just inhaling the scent that always means home, always means safety.

After a few minutes, Ali leans back and stares into tired eyes ringed by dark circles. “Oh, baby...”

Ashlyn smiles. “I’ll be okay. Just tired and in need of a real shower and then a nap. And maybe a good dinner, too.”

Ali gives her a tender kiss. “I can help you take care of all of those needs.”

“I knew you could.”

They kiss again, but this time it starts to turn hungry. Ashlyn pulls her wife tight to her chest. When the kiss ends, her eyes are dark with lust.

“Oh, and I am horny, too. Got something for that?”

Ali nuzzles the blonde’s neck then shifts her head and nips her earlobe. “I most definitely have something for that,” she whispers suggestively.

Ashlyn moans and starts to walk towards the house, still holding her wife in her arms.

“Ash...your bags.”

“Fuck ’em,” Ashlyn growls, her mind on her wife, not on her dirty laundry.

Ali just chuckles...then does make her wife set her down so they could drag Ali’s bags in off the porch. But once inside the door, they are abandoned as Ashlyn presses her wife up against the wall and gives her the deep, passionate kiss they had avoided in the front yard. Her strong hand slides up under her wife’s shirt, kneading a breast, whose nipple is already hard under the bra covering it. Ali’s hips thrust forward at that contact. Finally, Ashlyn ends the kiss but her eyes tell Ali she is not done with her wife. Oh, no...not done. In fact, just getting started.

“How about you shower with me?” Ashlyn asks.

Ali moans. “Yes, baby. Definitely yes.”

Ashlyn lifts Ali’s hips up again and strong legs once again circle her waist. They stare into each other’s eyes as Ash carries her wife upstairs, heading straight to their bathroom. Shower and sex...two needs at once. Perfection!

Their mouths barely part as the women quickly divest each other of clothes. Once naked, Ashlyn reaches blindly to turn on the shower. Ali pulls away, her eyes studying her wife’s body carefully. Ash runs her hands up and down the brunette’s sides, letting her examine the toned body for injuries.

“Nasty bruise,” Ali whispers, her fingers ghosting over a bruise just below her wife’s ribs.

“Idiot bruise. Ran into a board playing soccer with kids,” Ashlyn admits.

Ali chuckles and bends to place a kiss on the bruise. Ashlyn inhales sharply, feeling the kiss like an electrical current through her body. As steam starts to rise, Ali spins her wife around, assuring herself that is the only mark on the woman’s body. Ashlyn reaches a hand back as she steps into the water, pulling her wife in with her. She sighs happily when the hot water hits her. She moans in pleasure when her back is covered by her wife. Ali’s hands wrap around Ash’s waist. As the defender places open mouth kisses along strong shoulders, Ash twines their fingers together.

“I’ve missed you so much,” Ash whispers, her body warmed by water on the front and her wife in the back.

Ali says nothing, just continues to kiss along Ash’s shoulders while reaching for a bath poof and bathing gel. She starts to scrub her wife’s back and the blonde’s head drops forward, offering her neck to the same ministrations. Ali complies, bathing her from neck to ass. She then turns her around and starts to clean the front. Ashlyn just studies the beauty in front of her. Her heartbeat starts to quicken, her breath to come in eager gasps. Finally she grabs the poof and tosses it away. She lifts Ali up, pinning her against the wall.

“Was wondering how long that would take,” Ali smirks before their lips are melded together once more.

Ashlyn thrusts her hips against her wife’s warm, wet center. She groans, knowing that wetness is desire, not the shower. She nips and kisses her way down Ali’s jawline to where her neck meets her shoulder. She sucks hard on that hollow.

“OH! ASH!” Ali screams as her hips start to meet each thrust from Ashlyn. Harder. Faster. Finally she mutters an order. “In me. Now. Please!”

As Ali’s hands tighten around her wife’s neck, Ashlyn moves a hand between them and thrusts 2 fingers hard and deep.

“YES! FUCK ME, ASH!”

Ashlyn growls, her mind only on one thing: driving her wife to ecstasy. Her thumb taps a staccato rhythm on Ali’s pearl as she adds a third finger to her push. Her legs help her piston her arm faster. Ali is reduced to guttural noises, her head thrown back against the wall as her body is alive with pleasure. Ashlyn stares at her, waiting. Watching. Planning. And when she sees her wife ready to go over, she bites her earlobe, saying into her ear, “Come for me. NOW!”

And Ali does, screaming out her pleasure as she rides her wife. Her legs unwrap from Ashlyn’s waist but cannot hold her up. That’s fine. Ashlyn gently lowers her to the floor of the shower and spreads her legs.

“Oh, fuck yes,” Ali mumbles as she buries her face in golden curls.

Ashlyn grunts as she rocks her hips in time to the tongue thrusting as deep as it can go. Ali’s hands grip strong hips, trying to savor as much of her wife as possible.

“Just...a...little...more...” Ashlyn stammers.

Ali understands. She slides a hand around, replacing her tongue with 2 fingers as her mouth latches onto her wife’s throbbing clit.

“YES!” Ashlyn screams.

Ali works her hard, fast, and moans happily when she is rewarded when Ashlyn cums. She helps glide the taller woman to the ground. They kiss deeply. They moan. Their hands start to roam. Ali leans towards her wife and turns off the shower.

“Bed. Now,” she mumbles against her wife’s lips.

Ashlyn nods and the two exit the shower, drying off as quickly as possible before hurrying to the bed to continue their reunion.


 

Ashlyn wakes up first. She smiles at the cascade of brunette locks splayed across her chest. She lifts up her right hand, studying the left hand entwined with hers. She runs her thumb over the ring set she had dipped into her savings to pay for. Sure, Ali was the one that proposed but no way was Ashlyn going to let her princess go without an engagement ring.

Ali stretches and slowly turns to look up at her wife. “Welcome home.”

“You, too,” Ashlyn replies. She pulls until Ali lays on top of her. “Congratulations, sweetheart. I knew you could do it.”

Ali gives her a kiss. “Not without your love and support. And not without you banishing me to Germany.”

Ashlyn chuckles. “Banishing? That’s kind of harsh.”

Ali leans down and kisses her. “You’re right. I’ve have never made it back without you kicking me out and making me go to Germany.”

Ashlyn laughs outright, a hearty sound that warms Ali’s heart. “Uh, how about we stick to banishing when we tell the story.”

Ali grins, her hands stroking up and down her wife’s chest. They stare into each other’s eyes. No words need be said. Even they had wondered if their relationship, one in which they were often worlds apart, would survive. So far it has thrived beyond their own expectations. Their love and trust for each other has never been questioned. Their ability to love each other even when upset their spouse isn’t close at hand has been tested but they have passed the tests.

Ali leans down and kisses her wife. This isn’t a kiss of desperation after being apart. This is a kiss that conveys her love, her admiration, her affection for the woman to whom she has pledged her life. Ashlyn answers in kind, her hands tracing patterns over Ali’s back. When the kiss ends, the women lock eyes once more.

“Make love to me, Ashlyn,” Ali whispers.

Ashlyn pulls her down again, they kiss more, their hands traveling familiar landscape as they reacquaint themselves with each other. Finally Ashlyn rolls, placing Ali below her. She gently nuzzles Ali’s neck.

“I love you so much,” she breathes.

“I love you, too,” Ali responds softly.

Ashlyn kisses her again, her tongue dancing slowly with her loves. She braces herself with her left hand and arm as her right slowly kneads the pert breast below her. Ali rocks with the rhythm of that hand. Ashlyn slips a leg between her wife’s thighs. She moans as she feels the wetness against her skin.

“So ready again,” she whispers.

“Yes, Ash. Yes. Always ready for you,” Ali agrees.

This time Ashlyn goes slow, her fingers stroke over soft folds, they tease over the swollen clit, they trace the circle of Ali’s entrance. Ali just pants, letting her body enjoy the caresses. Everyplace she feels her wife on her she feels a pulsing warmth that she has only ever experienced with the woman above her. As her hand plays with her wife, Ashlyn alternates open mouth kisses and long licks to her neck, her collar bones, her chest. She is dining on the one thing her body had never known it needed to survive until it was rationed to her.

“I need you so much. God, do you know how much I need you?” she pants.

“I need you, too, baby,” Ali answers.

Ashlyn prepares to slowly penetrate her wife. She lifts her head to stare into eyes dark brown with desire. As her hand works its way in, those eyes flutter. Ali’s lips tremble with pleasure. Ashlyn starts slow, measured thrusts in and out. Ali’s eyes roll back and close.

“Look at me. See how much I love you,” Ashlyn commands.

It takes all she has for Ali to open her eyes. When she does, she sees the depth of love in the sea green eyes above her. It brings tears to her eyes. They start to rock together, not fast, not rushing to the final end. They take their time. Ali slides a hand down her thigh, watching as Ash bites her lip when her own intimate center begins to get the same loving attention Ali’s is being given.

“Feels so good,” Ash moans.

Ali just smiles up at her wife. They work at the same pace, each woman driving the other, and being driven, towards the final simultaneous orgasm. As it washes over them, they come together in a kiss, their moans dancing together making it impossible to figure out where one woman’s pleasure begins and the other’s ends. As they fly over the edge together, Ashlyn rolls to collapse down beside her wife. They are both out of breath, their hearts beating fast. Ali rolls to snuggle against Ashlyn.

“That was...wow. I love you.”

Ashlyn grins. “Yeah, it was. I love you, too.”

They lie together their hands gliding over each other sweetly.

And then Ashlyn’s stomach rumbles.

Both women break out into giggles. Ali lifts her eyebrow up at the blonde.

“Umm...I have no idea when I ate last,” Ashlyn admits with a childish grin.

Ali rolls her eyes and pats the offending tummy. “Well then, stud of mine, let’s go get some food in you. I might need another workout later.”

Ashlyn grins and sits up. “Good plan! Tell me we have pizza. Please tell me we have pizza.”

Ali shrugs. “How would I know? I’ve been gone, too. Let’s just hope Dad has something in the fridge.”

Ashlyn nods. “Right.”

The two women pull on shorts and tees and make their way to the kitchen. As they approach they smell the unmistakable scent of pizza cooking. Ashlyn does a happy fist pump.

“YES!”

Ali just laughs at her as they walk into the kitchen. Ken looks up and smiles at them.

“Good evening, ladies. I was wondering if I’d see you tonight.”

Ali blushes. “Uh, we, um, were both tired and took a nap.”

Ken chuckles knowingly. “Nap. Right. So that’s what the kids are calling it nowadays.”

Ashlyn busts out laughing as Ali gets even redder. Ken just gives his daughter a wink. She spins towards the cabinets.

“Plates. We need plates.” She mumbles. “And I need to never look at my father again,” she adds under her breath, making Ashlyn laugh once more.

Chapter Text

March 2013

A day after Ali leaves for the Algarve Cup, Ashlyn goes overseas with Major Nettles and Colonel Menninger to help them follow up on some of the activities their teams had gotten running in Thailand. This was a trip where Menninger would be gathering facts and testimonials to prove the value of his teams to the Department of Defense and the members of Congress who sit on the United States Senate Armed Services Committee. With so much being spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there had been a lot of people asking why we bother with sending help to third world countries who don’t seem to appreciate it. And people also want to know why the millions spent on these teams isn’t being spent on people who need it right here in the U.S.A.

“I hate politics,” Menninger mumbles on day 4.

“Right there with you, sir,” Ashlyn agrees as she enters information on yet another purchase order in the stat sheet Menninger will need.

“Sir, I think I have something you need to see,” Nettles states as he walks into the small hut Menninger is using as his HQ.

“What’s that?”

“This, sir,” Nettles says and offers a tablet computer to him.

Menninger takes it and hits play. Ashlyn is typing until she hears her voice coming out of the tablet.

“No, sorry, kids, I have to go.”

“Nooooo!” multiple kids yell.

Ashlyn laughs. “Okay, okay, one more game.”

“Yaaaaaay!”

Ashlyn leaps up. “What the hell is that?” The men look at her in surprise at the uncharacteristic lack of rank decorum. “Um, sirs?”

Nettles chuckles. “It’s you and 3 of your men giving out toys and soccer balls. Then you playing with the kids. At the start of this film, these kids have dead eyes, they aren’t smiling, they are...are lethargic. What you and your boys did that day gave them a new lease on life.” He turns back to Menninger. “You show that to our doubters and they’ll have to shut their mouths. We build homes, we build businesses, and we restore lives, one child at a time.”

Ashlyn is blushing furiously. Menninger replays the whole video once more and then sits back in his seat. He slowly nods.

“Any asshole who questions us saving kids and making their lives better will look really bad in the press.”

“Damn right,” Nettles agrees.

Menninger thinks a moment then looks at Ashlyn. “What do you say, Lieutenant. Mind if I use this to get a point across?”

Ashlyn wants to say no; wants to keep her name out of political circles and just do her job. Then she realizes she may not have a job if the funding for these teams is cut. She slowly nods.

“Use it, sir. My desire for anonymity pales in comparison to the lives lost and spirits crushed if our teams are disbanded.” She slowly sits down. “Thank you for asking, Colonel.”

He gives her a nods. “You’ve always made me proud, Harris. Keep that up.”

Ashlyn chuckles. “Yes, sir.”

The team continues to gather information until March 7. That morning, Menninger packs up everything he has, ready to go pull it together in a PowerPoint presentation he can give to the Congressional money men. As Ashlyn closes her last evidence box, Menninger walks over and hands her a piece of paper.

“Good job, Harris. Not just this week but every day since the day you showed up at Belvoir.”

Ashlyn smiles. “Thank you, sir.” Her eyes glance down at the paper she is holding and her head snaps back up. “Sir? What’s this?”

“It’s called a pass, Lieutenant,” he answers with a grin.

She blushes and chuckles. “I, uh, got that part, sir. But why?”

“You’ve earned it, Harris. In other news, a cargo plane leaves in 20 minutes for Spain. From there you can get a jump to Portugal. That’s a four day pass that starts tomorrow. That will give you Tuesday through Friday off from work, plus the weekend.” He pauses and smiles. “Tell your wife hello for me.”

Ashlyn smiles. She nods. “I’ll tell her. Thank you so much, sir.”

“As I said, you’ve earned it. Now get your gear and get on the plane. They are expecting you but won’t wait.”

Ashlyn starts towards the door. “Got it. Thank you again, sir. And give ‘em hell in DC.”

He chuckles. “I will, Lieutenant. I will.”

As soon as she clears the door she breaks into a run, eager to get her bags and get on the plane to start her trip to her wife and friends.


 

The USWNT is gathering in the lobby of their hotel. They are getting ready to go out for their team dinner the night before their second match of the 2013 Algarve Cup. Ali’s eyes light up when she sees her phone ringing. “Hey, baby! How’s it going?”

“Going great. In fact, our fact gathering trip ended this morning.”

“That’s great!”

“Yeah. Even better is Colonel Menninger gave me a 4 day pass that starts tomorrow and arranged a couple of flights to get me to Portugal.”

“ARE YOU SERIOUS?!” Ali screams excitedly, drawing looks from her teammates. “When will you get here?”

The answer Ali gets is not from the phone. It is from right behind the team.

“About 5 minutes ago.”

Everyone spins around. Yael and Broon are nearly knocked to the floor as Ali pushes past them to leap into the arms of her wife. Ashlyn smiles at how happy her wife is, not to mention the other players. She has just put Ali back down and started to greet the team when the coaching staff arrives. Tom Sermanni steps through his players to the ACU-clad blonde.

“Something tells me you know this soldier, Krieger,” he says with a smile.

Ali’s beaming smile is on full display as she nods. “Yes, sir, I do. Tom Sermanni, this is Ashlyn Harris, my wife.”

“Ah, the woman behind the dog tags,” he says offering his hand for her to shake.

Ashlyn smiles, nodding. “Yes, sir. Good to finally meet you. Ali has said a lot of nice things about you.”

“Obviously not after I’ve had the team doing sprints,” he jokes. “I’ve heard a lot about you, too, Harris. Thank you for your service in some fairly ugly circumstances. And thank you for pushing this one,” he gestures to Ali, “to get better.”

“First was my honor, second was my pleasure, sir.” She turns to Ali. “Well, you all head on to dinner. I have a room here so give me a shout when- -”

“You’re welcome to join us, Harris,” Sermanni offers.

Ashlyn blushes. “Oh, no, sir. It’s team dinner and no one outside the team should be there.”

“My team, my rules. I insist, Harris. My way of thanking you for everything.”

Ashlyn looks at Ali, who nods. She then looks at the others to see if they care.

“Come on, Ash. We want coach to get to know you. It’ll be better to have you there as we tell embarrassing stories about you,” Pinoe insists with a grin.

“If you guys are sure,” Ash says, this time looking at Carli, who is very team-focused especially the night before the game.

Carli rolls her eyes. “It’s only my family I ban, Ash. Unless our parents have been lying to us I think it’s fine for you to go.”

Ashlyn chuckles and wraps her arm around Ali’s shoulders. “In that case I accept.” She looks at Sermanni. “Thanks, Coach.”

He nods and the group leaves the hotel to start the two block walk to the hotel. As they walk, Whitney walks over and wraps Ashlyn’s waist up from the side opposite Ali.

Ashlyn grins and pulls her wife and best friend close. “Two hot chicks in my arms. Life is GOOD!”

Everyone chuckles as Whit and Ali both slap her in the stomach.

“So besides still being a pig, how have you been?” Whitney asks her best friend.

“I’ve been good. This trip the only danger I was in was possibly a paper cut. The Armed Forces Committee is considering cutting our budget. That would essentially cause us to lose 2 of the rapid response teams. This was to gather everything we could to show why what we do is so vital and how it ends up saving time and money in the end by getting things running smoothly and adjusting needs faster than a slow roll-out.”

“Cool. I’ve been watching what your teams do,” Becky joins in. “It is amazing to me to see areas go from nothing left to livable conditions so quickly. I can’t imagine how that could happen if you all rolled in days later instead of hours later.”

“You’re right, it couldn’t. We go with rations, buildings, water, and basic medical equipment. We’re able to immediately call for increases to what is being brought and arrange for medical flights for the seriously wounded. By the time doctors and nurses show up, we have a facility built for them and the medics have triaged the worst of the patients. Some of the military doctors were able to give us documentation on the number of lives they would have lost if aid had been delayed even by just a day. Our argument is strong. We just have to hope the politicians listen.”

Becky nods. “And good luck with that one. Hopefully you have more than just stats to show them.”

“Yeah, you need something to hit them in the heart,” Whitney adds.

Ashlyn blushes, her mind on the video. “Uh, well, they have one thing that a local shot and gave to my major. Hopefully it will help them see the humanity not just the numbers.”

Ali grins, recognizing the look in her wife’s eyes. “It’s you. What are you doing in the video?”

Ashlyn sees several are waiting for an answer and she sighs. “Playing soccer with a bunch of kids.”

She tells them about walking into a little village where just about every building had been taken to the ground. Men, women and children walked around in a daze. They hadn’t had much and now it was all gone, taken by the tsunami that had run through the town like a soulless demon. After getting basic needs taken care of, Ashlyn had pulled out the sack of toys and balls. She and her men had started handing them out and sad, little faces had come alive.

“Some of those kids had never even had toys. One little guy was so cute with his teddy bear. He carried it on his hip like parents carry kids. He hugged, it talked to it, loved on it just like his parents had obviously loved him. Some of the older kids begged us, through our interpreter, to play with them. So a few of us set up some make shift goals and started a soccer match. I’m not even sure what the teams were because it was just about having fun. Parents, grandparents, all watched and were smiling. With a bag of toys and 10 minutes time, we had that whole village believing things could be okay.” She pauses. “So, Colonel Menninger is going to play it when he presents to the committee.”

Becky wipes a tear from her eye. “That’s amazing, Ash! Oh, I wish we could see that just to see those little faces.”

“Seriously, that is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard,” Abby says, patting Ash on the back.

Ashlyn smiles. “It’s always the best part of my trips. I’ve even thought about maybe contacting Nike or Adidas or Wilson to see if they’d donate shoes and balls and stuff. The more we can take the better things can be but my budget for that stuff is crazy low.”

Abby and Christie exchange a look.

“I’ll call Adidas,” Christie volunteers.

“I’ll call Nike,” Abby offers.

Ashlyn’s eyes widen. “Oh, wait...seriously, guys, I wasn’t asking you to do that!”

“I know. We offered, Ash,” Christie replies.

“If we all call, maybe they will act faster,” HAO points out.

“Then let’s just do it,” Sydney puns, making everyone chuckle.

Ashlyn slowly shakes her head. “You guys are amazing. Thank you.”

“Any time, Ash. Any time,” Abby says sincerely.

Ali smiles, tears in her eyes. Her love for this team had just grown exponentially. She squeezes her wife’s waist. Ashlyn tilts her head and kisses Ali’s temple. This surprise trip had just given her heart a bigger boost than she would have ever predicted.


 

Ashlyn gives Ali a kiss the morning of the China game. “Good luck, baby. I’ll be in the stands cheering the loudest.”

Ali grins. “Maybe today I’ll score a goal for you.”

Ashlyn laughs. “Maybe, my right back. Just make sure it’s in the other team’s goal.”

Ali pushes her playfully. “Jerk.”

They hug and kiss again.

“A whole freakin’ hotel at their disposal and they can’t get a room!” Pinoe hollers across the hotel lobby.

“Yeah! Getting all mackin’ and gross right there in public. Ewwww!” Sydney echoes.

Ashlyn pulls her blushing bride into a protective embrace. “Y’all are just jealous you don’t have anyone as gorgeous as this woman to kiss.”

“Ooooh, that is smooooth,” Whitney says. “No wonder she always had dates in college.”

Everyone laughs as Ashlyn steps back from her wife. “Can’t wait to see you play, baby.”

“I’ll see you after the game.”

They kiss once more then Ali joins her team in filing out to the bus. Ashlyn waves goodbye then goes inside to get a bite to eat before heading to the field to watch the US play China.


 

Ashlyn had not expected this trip to pop up. As such, she is in clothes borrowed from members of the team. She looks at herself in the mirror and nods.

“I look pretty good in Hope’s pants and Abby’s shirt,” she praises herself.

One thing is for sure, she truly did feel like she was still part of the USWNT family. She gathers all her things and slips into her sneakers, which she had luckily had in case she had a chance to work out. In 30 minutes, she is making her way to her seat in the stands as the US subs move to the bench while the starters wait to file out for the anthems. She shakes hands with a few of the officials sitting in the stands reserved for special guests then sits to await her wife’s entrance.

When the teams and refs take the pitch, Ashlyn is hollering and whistling along with the crowd. She smiles brightly as Ali glances her way, lifts her dog tags up, and gives them a kiss. Ashlyn gives her a thumbs up to show she had seen. When the US scores in the 14th minute, Ashlyn leaps to her feet.

“YES, SYD! WAY TO GO!”

But when she sees the play start to develop in the 32nd minute, Ashlyn’s heart really starts to pound. She watches the cross take flight, sees her wife do a little hop and connect with the ball.

“YES! ALEX! YES!” Ashlyn is screaming and jumping as her wife scores her first official international goal.

Ali grabs the crest on her jersey and signals #1 as her smile beams wider than ever. Yael gets to her first and envelops her in a hug, soon followed by the rest of her teammates. When she finally gets out of the mob, she looks up towards her wife and brings her hands up in the shape of a heart. Ashlyn smiles and returns the gesture, mouthing, “I love you” to the elated right back. A man in the stands claps Ashlyn on the back.

“That was a heck of a goal!”

Ashlyn smiles proudly. “Damn right it was, sir. She’s earned it.”

“Yes, she has. It’s great to see her back better than ever.”

“Always knew she would be,” Ashlyn says, her eyes on her wife as play resumes.

“Just wish we could have still seen you out there, too, Harris. You were great at the U-19 Cup and through all our development squads.”

Ashlyn frowns in confusion and slowly turns to face the man. Her eyes widen when she sees who she is talking with. “Mr. Gulati, I...didn’t realize it was you, sir. I didn’t see you there,” she says to the president of the USSF.

He smiles. “I slipped in just after the game started. I guess you’re just here for the end of the tournament?”

“Actually, I am on a pass that only lasts until Sunday. I’ll get to see the Sweden game before flying home.”

“That’s a shame. If the team keeps playing this well they should be a lock for the championship,” Gulati notes.

Ashlyn nods. “Definitely. But duty calls, unfortunately.”

“Yes, it does.” He pats her on the shoulder. “I’m sad you’re not in our pool anymore but I am proud to know you’re serving your country, and the world really, the way you are. I brag on that quite a bit.”

She smiles. “Thank you, sir. I miss the game but I know I’m where I am meant to be.”

He nods and she turns her attention back to the game. She erupts when Pinoe puts up goal 3 in the 46th and then gives Ash a salute. She is thrilled to see newcomer Press continue to show why she is the hot up and comer on the team. And then to prove that it is just a day that Ash can call her own, a fifth goal goes in in the 83rd, making her leap up and down again.

“WHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT! YEAH, BABY!”

Having her wife and best friend both garner goals as they ran up from the defense makes this the sweetest game Ashlyn has ever watched.

“I’m going to have to buy the colonel something damn nice before I leave to thank him,” she tells herself.

When the final whistle blows, Ashlyn races down to the barrier at the end of the stands. She doesn’t have to wait long for #11 to race over to greet her. Ash quickly scales the fence and drops down in time to grab up her wife in her arms.

“FUCKING INCREDIBLE, BABY!”

They share a passionate kiss. Ali leans back.

“I scored for you,” she says, her smile still ear to ear.

Ashlyn nods. “You sure did. Maybe your coach will give me a chance to thank you later by letting you score again.”

Ali’s eyes darken with lust. “Hopefully.”

The two kiss again, slowly forgetting they are not alone in the stadium. Their hands stay above clothes but they are definitely caressing each other.

And then multiple streams of water hit them.

“WHOA!” they both exclaim as they jump apart.

Ali’s teammates are laughing at them.

“Uh, Krieger, did you forget about a quick team meeting after the game? I know it’s a new thing. I mean, we’ve only been doing since 1985,” Christie jokes.

Ali blushes. “Um. Sorry.” She looks at Ash. “I gotta go.”

Ashlyn nods and kisses her nose. “I know. See you at the hotel, baby. I’m so happy for you.” She looks up and meets Whit’s eyes. “Happy for you, too.”

“So do I get a big kiss, too?” she taunts.

Ashlyn frowns. “Ew! That’d be like kissing my sister. Go away!”

The team laughs. After a quick kiss goodbye, Ali runs off to join her team as Ashlyn makes her way out of the stadium to catch a cab back to the hotel.


 

Ali’s naked body is snuggled up to her wife. Her leg is thrown over Ashlyn’s as the blonde lightly rubs up and down her wife’s back. Ali sighs.

“Mmmm. Best damn goal celebration ever.”

Her wife chuckles. “Oh? How many celebrations like this have you studied?”

Ali giggles and slaps toned abs. “Jerk.” She shifts so she is straddling her wife. She stares down into hazel eyes still full of desire. “I am so glad you are here.”

“I am, too. Any chance I get to watch and support you I will. I hope you know that.”

Ali smiles. “I do.” She studies her wife a moment. “Will you...or I...I mean...” she takes a deep breath. “Will I ever be able to visit you on one of your missions?”

Ashlyn frowns. “Alex, why the hell would you want to do that? It’s dangerous, unsanitary, and...and so many other reasons you shouldn’t want to go with me.”

“You see what I do. Heck, you’ve done what I do. I want to see and understand more about your job. Please? Maybe at least ask Colonel Menninger?”

Ashlyn stares at her a moment. “It really means that much to you?” Ali nods, biting her lip. Ashlyn shrugs. “Okay, I’ll ask. But you wouldn’t be allowed to go until things are stable. Most likely not until I would be prepping to return to Belvoir. And any security and safety precautions you are given you have to follow, even if it means you don’t hug me or acknowledge me as you wife.”

Ali frowns. “Why can’t I say you’re my wife?”

“Because people can’t see you as my weakness. I have to maintain a sense of order and decorum to keep the respect of some of the people we deal with on site. Some places it would be okay for you to be my wife. Other places...it would just be bad. You have to trust me on that.”

“In those...other places...is it bad if they think you are a lesbian?”

Ashlyn lets out a slow breath. “Honey, it could be fatal if they found out I am a lesbian. They would have no respect for me and that would translate to no respect for the men and women that follow my orders. It would create anarchy and a potentially explosive situation. Again, not everywhere, but in some places.”

“Holy fuck, Ashlyn...” Ali’s voice trails off as she imagines a violent homophobia she had never contemplated before. “Fuck...”

She leans down and kisses her wife deeply, trying to convey love, respect and fear all at once. Her hands start to roam the body below her once more. She kisses and bites her way down Ashlyn’s jaw, chest, stomach, and finally down to the apex between her legs. Ashlyn is panting, recognizing these actions as Ali grasping for control after learning about the uncontrollable. Ali looks up, her eyes black with lust and possession.

“Mine,” she whispers.

Ashlyn doesn’t even have time to respond as Ali’s mouth sucks the blonde’s clit into her mouth. Ashlyn hisses, her hips shooting up as Ali’s mouth makes love to her in the most intimate way. Just when Ashlyn is ready to explode, she feels nimble fingers enter her quickly and deeply.

“YES!” she shouts out.

Ali’s teeth, tongue and lips continue to work the pulsing clit she has captured. Her fingers penetrate deeply, twirling around, making sure to reach that spot deep inside that drives Ash insane. Long fingers entangle in Ali’s hair, making sure the brunette cannot stop her attack. Ashlyn’s long legs are as wide as she can get them, making sure Ali can reach whatever she wants.

But Ali needs more. Ashlyn nearly cries when Ali’s mouth briefly leave her center. But then she moans in anticipation as she sees her wife spinning around and dark, neatly trimmed curls lowering to her own eager mouth. Her hands grab Ali’s hips, positioning her perfectly. The women start to simultaneously pleasure each other and though they had started their climb at different times, they both arrive at the top of the mountain at the same time, screaming against each other’s centers as they cum as one.

Ali rolls off and the women lay in Ashlyn’s bed panting, holding hands between them. After a few minutes, Ashlyn sits up and pulls her wife up into a hug.

“Are you okay?” she asks, her hands rubbing Ali’s back.

“Yes. I just...I needed to...I had to...” Ali can’t put her emotions and actions into words.

Ashlyn leans back and meets her eyes. “I understand, baby. It’s okay. I’m sorry I scared you about...us and stuff.”

Ali strokes a hand down her wife’s cheek. “No apology needed. I’ve told you I want to know, honestly know, what your job entails. I still want to visit if it can be arranged.”

“You do? Really?”

Ali smiles. “Really.”

Ashlyn gives her a hard kiss. “You so totally rock, baby.”

Ali grins. “I know.”

Ashlyn laughs as Ali gets resituated in the bed so they can cuddle some more. In the morning they would be traveling to Lagos for the next round of the tourney. But for tonight...tonight it was just about the two of them and the love they share.

Chapter Text

June 27, 2013

“Lori, he is an utter and complete IDIOT!” Ali Krieger yells, throwing her shin guards across the locker room.

“But he’s our coach, Ali, and we need to show some support for him,” Lori Lindsey says calmly, while also being aware of anything else Ali might throw at her.

Ali spins towards her. “Why? You and I BOTH know he’s NOT progressing the team forward! No one has any respect for him because he has NO respect for us! It’s like this is just a line on his fucking resume as he awaits the call to a men’s team.”

Lori wants to deny that point but can’t. And she also won’t deny that the players are not responding to Washington Spirit coach Mike Jorden. “Look, it’s only been 6 weeks and- -”

“And we’re in last fucking place!” Ali interrupts. “You and I can’t coach and play for the full 90 minutes all damn season!” She leans against the wall and stares at her US teammate. “We need to push the front office to make a change. We are better than our record shows and I will NOT accept being bottom of the barrel every fucking year.”

Lori studies her friend. The amount of cussing in the last few minutes tells her how upset Ali is about everything. Normally it’s Ashlyn who tosses the f-bomb out every few words when angry, especially since she joined the Army. For Ali to now be tossing it out tells the team captain that things may be worse than she is ready to acknowledge.

“So...you want me to go over his head?”

“Do we have a choice? If we don’t get him out and someone who gives a damn in we’re in for a long, long season. I’m not saying a new coach will deliver us to the championship but he or she may at least make us feel like we are progressing forward, not sitting stagnant in the gutter.” She steps towards Lori. “And I’ll go with you if you want. I won’t make you go over his head alone.”

Lori runs a hand through her short, blonde hair. “Okay. I’ll call the Lynch’s tomorrow.”

Ali just nods and walks over to retrieve her shin guards. “Hey, Lor?”

“Yeah?”

“Glad I knew better than to wing these at you.”

Lori laughs. “Yeah, I’d have kicked your ass if you had. And then Ashlyn would have kicked mine. And then where would the team be?”

Ali laughs and goes to gather her things together. So far the NWSL is making her miss the uncertainty and frustrations of FFC Frankfurt in a way she hadn’t expected. Lori pats her on the shoulder, as if knowing where her mind is.

“You know, not every team we play on can be league championship contenders.”

“I know. But I want to at least feel like...like given a real chance we could be,” she explains.

Lori nods, understanding that feeling. As they walk out of the Sportsplex, Lori decides to change the subject.

“So, is Ash home yet?”

Ali nods. “Got to Belvoir yesterday evening and to the house after 2 this morning.”

“Cool! So you two want to go out after the game tomorrow?”

“Sure, I guess. I’ll have to see. She didn’t say much last night but I’ve got a feeling something happened over there,” Ali says with concern.

Her mind drifts back to the terse exchanges in text and in person she’d had with her wife the day before.


 

Ash:At Belvoir. May be a while before I get home. 6:29 p.m.

Ali: Yay! Can’t wait to see you, baby. I’ve missed you. 6:31 p.m.

Ash: Me, too. Talk to you later. 6:43 p.m.

Ali: Let me know if you want me to heat up dinner for you. I love you. 6:45 p.m.

Ali: Baby, any idea when you’ll get here? 10:47 p.m.

Ali: Okay, guess you’re busy. Going to bed. Will leave the light on. I love you. 11: 51 p.m.

When Ashlyn had finally come in, Ali had rolled over to see the red lights of her clock reading 2:26 a.m. She sighs. It doesn’t take this long for her wife to finish up at Belvoir and get home. She hears Ashlyn deposit her bags in the guest bedroom that Ken lets them use for storage. Ali sits up in bed as Ashlyn walks right past the bed to the attached bathroom.

“Ash?”

The blonde pauses but doesn’t turn around. “Sorry to wake you,” she says weakly.

Ali throws the covers back and stands. “Honey, what’s wrong?”

“I...can’t talk about it. I need...a shower. I’ll...be back to bed soon.”

“Okay.” Ali starts towards her wife to at least kiss her goodnight but Ashlyn closes the door.

Most women would be pissed about this. But Ali knows if her wife is being this closed off, this abrupt, something is wrong. This is not the Ashlyn she loves. She walks over to the door, not surprised to find it locked. She taps on it lightly.

“When you’re ready to talk, I’ll be there for you, baby. I love you.”

She goes back and climbs into their bed. Ashlyn is in the bathroom for 20 minutes. She pauses at the end of the bed, seeing her wife’s eyes are open.

“Hungry. Gonna grab a sandwich.”

“Okay.”

Ashlyn sleeps in the recliner that night, the uneaten sandwich on a plate resting on her chest. Ali sees this as she leaves for morning practice at the Plex. She grabs a blanket and places it over her wife, moving the sandwich to the side table.

“I love you,” she whispers as she kisses the soldier’s forehead.

Unknown to Ali, as soon as the door had closed behind her, Ashlyn had tossed off the blanket and gotten up. She dressed and left the house, still not ready to face or discuss everything that is haunting her normally carefree eyes.


 

“ALI!”

Ali jumps. She sees Lori staring at her with concern. “Um, what did you say?”

“I said check your text messages.”

Ali slips her phone out of her pocket and pulls up the text from the team owner to the players. It is a request for them all to meet at the conference room that afternoon. Ali slowly looks up.

“You think they plan to trade one of us or something?”

Lori smiles. “Look who DIDN’T get the text and who did,” she points out.

Ali looks it over. Jorden was not sent the text. Reserve team coach, Mark Parson’s, however, was. The brunette slowly looks up.

“Do you think...?”

Lori smiles. “Let’s hope so.”

The two split up, both curious what the afternoon conference could mean. But as soon as she is behind the wheel of her BMW, Ali’s mind turns from soccer to home, and what is going on with her wife.

“Son of a bitch,” Ali mutters when she sees Ashlyn’s Jeep is not at home. She pulls out her phone.

Where are you?

She waits for 5 minutes but it is obvious she will not be getting an answer. She puts the car in gear and points it towards the base. If for some reason Ashlyn is at Ft Belvoir Ali will demand to speak with her. Something had happened on this last deployment and the brunette was determined to find out what it was.


 

But Ashlyn is not at Belvoir. She has 3 days off and no idea what to do with them. Common sense would be to spend time with her wife. Unfortunately, common sense went out the window while she was overseas. Sure she had trained for everything. Yes, theoretically she had known it could happen. But knowing and experiencing some things are two different monsters.

For instance, all the book learning and training in the world will not prepare you to take another life.

She sits on the top of a playground set in a local park. Her feet swing back and forth. Tears roll silently down her cheeks. When the incident happened, she couldn’t process it; she wouldn’t. Her men looked to her for leadership and a crying woman does not inspire confidence. But now back in the States, without them looking on, she is able to replay the scene in her mind over and over, desperately trying to convince herself she had no other choice. But there is a little voice in her head that tells her she did have a choice and she made the wrong one. She slaps her forehead with both hands.

“WHAT THE FUCK?! Why can’t I just accept that I did the right thing? Shut the fuck up, you stupid fucking voice of doubt!” she yells into the silence.

Her mind rewinds the scene once more, playing it over and over for her with no change to the outcome.


 

Ashlyn looks at the clipboard a private had just handed her. “Are you fucking serious?”

“Yes, ma’am. It’s only got 18 boxes of water in there,” he confirms.

“What the fuck happened to the rest of it?” she demands to know.

He shrugs. “I cut the tie off it myself, ma’am. It should have left the States full but it looks like it was sealed with only 1/4 of the boxes it should have had.”

“Son of a bitch,” Ashlyn mutters and starts to pace.

She had a town with no potable water. Her squad had arrived that morning with a trailer of gallons of water. Well, now she knows it’s a quarter full of water. She looks at the number of people in the village against the total number of bottles. It’s not even close. She takes a deep breath.

“Okay, tell them to prepare to give the water away at 1 per family, not 1 per person,” she orders. “I’ll get on the phone with Nettles and get another trailer rolling this way tonight instead of tomorrow.”

“Yes, ma’am. But I should tell you, people are already gathering. And, honestly, there’s no way to tell who’s family to who,” the private points out.

“I know. Tell the interpreter to appeal to their sense of decency to make sure this goes as smoothly as possible. And we need to make sure we watch to see that families are given one gallon, not sending multiple family members to try to buck the rules. If the village leaders have any issues, I’ll be out there as soon as I talk to Nettles.”

The private nods and races out of the tent set up as their HQ. Ashlyn radios Nettles, imagining the explosion that will happen when he gets the word.

“Nettles,” he answers gruffly.

“Sir, I have an issue. I need another trailer of water rolling tonight,” she says immediately.

“Harris? Why?”

“The trailer we have only has about a 1/4 of the inventory it is supposed to.”

“SON OF A BITCH! Who the fuck inventoried it?”

“I’ll find out, sir, but what I am most worried about is a trailer was enough to give every person a gallon of water. Now I’m having to ration it to a gallon per family. They had already started to gather. We have a potential powder keg on our hands since they aren’t crazy about Americans here anyway,” she points out.

Nettles had already ordered a trailer to head towards his newly promoted First Lieutenant. He rubs a hand down his face.

“Do what you can to keep peace, Harris. But if you need to, leave the fucking supplies, get your men in trucks, and get the hell out of there. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And if you have to abandon everything, just make sure to grab the inventory list so I know who’s getting their asses busted back to buck private for this fuck up.”

“Yes, sir,” she states with anger at the unknown screw-up.

By the time Ashlyn leaves the tent, the inventory sheet carefully tucked under her shirt, the villagers are starting to get restless. She hurries over to the supply line and looks at the interpreter.

“What’s the word?”

“Ma’am, I can’t get them to understand that there is less water than we expected. From what I’m hearing, those men,” he gestures carefully towards 2 men, “are telling them we are withholding water because they have supported rebels in this area.”

“Fuck. That’ll turn them against us and even get them calling in the rebels to try to take us out.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he agrees.

“Okay. Keep trying to calm them down. Tell them another truck will be here in 5 hours. But be ready to run like the wind to the Jeeps if I give the call to bug out.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He climbs back up on a crate, yelling out to the increasingly agitated crowd. Ashlyn makes her way to each man in her squad, letting them know they are out the minute things start to go south. They all agree. One terrified looking private grips his gun tightly. She places a hand over his.

“Finger off the trigger, Randall. You’re too tense and last thing we need is a misfire setting them off,” she tells him.

He gulps and removes his finger from the trigger. “Sorry, Lieutenant Harris.”

She nods and moves to the next soldier. She breathes a sigh of relief that she gets to all of them before anything happens. She is making her way back to their interpreter when the first shot rings out. She sees her speaker fall and races towards him.

“LET’S GO!” she screams, telling her people to bug out.

More shots start to fly. She pulls her sidearm as she gets to her down man and sees the bloody wound in his arm. She grabs him by the collar and starts to drag him towards one of the Jeeps. The barrier that had been set up to separate the emergency supplies from the people crumbles as villagers storm the area. She gets to a Jeep and helps her man in. She feels hands grab her from behind and turns, clubbing a man upside the head with the butt of her gun.

She starts into the Jeep then sees another man down. She races towards him and thanks her lucky stars the driver had seen what was happening and drove right to them. She gets him up in the Jeep and basically jumps into his lap.

“DRIVE! NOW!”

She sees the other 4 vehicles are already well on their way out of the village. She thinks they are in the clear when two men step in front of the speeding Jeep, their guns raised. She doesn’t even hesitate. Her gun comes up and she squeezes off several shots, watching the men go down. It is like in a slo-mo replay that she actually sees the back of one man’s head explode.

But just like that the road ahead is clear. Shots follow them until they make a turn and are no longer in sight of the village. Once they are a safe distance away, she has the driver pull over so she can get the injured man below her into the backseat and take the front seat by herself. She grabs the radio.

“Jeeps, this is Harris. Rendezvous checkpoint Lima to assess injuries and treat anything we can.”

She gets a round of acknowledgments and sits back in her seat, praying everyone got away.

Several hours later they cross paths with the trailer bringing additional water and help get it turned around. Until they could guarantee no hostiles in the village no more aid would be sent. When they make it back to their base, Nettles meets them.

“Report, Harris.”

“Four casualties. No fatalities.” She pulls the crumpled, sweat stained inventory sheet from her shirt. “But if you find me Sergeant Fitzpatrick I need to kick his fucking worthless ass,” she growls.

Nettles grabs the form. “Stupid son of a bitch is too busy counting days until retirement to count water bottles. I’ll have his ass drummed out for this shit!”

He turns and reenters his tent to make a call back to Menninger. Ashlyn knows she has been dismissed and makes her way to the tent she had been using. She is glad to see the other 4 women she shares it with aren’t there. She knows she can’t cry, can’t lose her shit here, but she also knows she needs to scream and beat her pillow as she tries to get the images of those two men out of her head.

“I killed 2 people. I didn’t even flinch...just killed them,” she mutters. She kicks her bunk over on its side. “FUCK ME!”


 

Ali goes to the meeting that afternoon, her mind still on her wife but eager to find out if what she and Lori had guessed was correct.

It was. Effective June 30, Jorden is out and Mark Parsons is in. The June 28th game would be coached by the assistant. Lori and Ali exchange a smile. They both like Parsons and feel he respects the game and his players in a way Jorden never did. When the meeting ends, the two women approach each other.

“Do you know how glad I am I didn’t have to go over his head?” Lori asks.

“Yeah, I do. You’re a good person, Lori. It would have been hard for you to do that but it would have been the right thing.”

“I know. Still...I hate being forced to make those kind of decisions. I had his life in my hands,” she says with a shrug.

Ali smiles. “Yeah. But it was the right thing for you to do. I’d have been 100% behind you.”

“I know and that helps. Still just glad it didn’t come down to it.” They start out to their cars. “So how is Ash?”

“No fucking clue. She was gone when I got home. I went by the base to see if she was there but she wasn’t. Menninger seemed like he wanted to tell me something but then stopped.”

“Is she hurt maybe?”

Ali shrugs. “Maybe. She wouldn’t let me see her last night so she could be. I’ll be mad as hell if that’s what she’s hiding from me.”

“Well, try to go easy on her. Her job can be tough. She may just need time to decompress a bit. I’m sure she’ll be okay.”

“Maybe. Look, I need to go.”

“Okay. Call if you need me. Either of you.”

“I will, thanks,” Ali says with a hug and smile.

Ashlyn still isn’t home when Ali arrives.


 

Ali glances at the clock when she hears the Jeep pull into the driveway. 10:03 p.m. She is fuming! Ashlyn hadn’t answered calls or texts all day from anyone. Ali is pacing in their bedroom, waiting for the front door to open but it doesn’t. And still doesn’t. And still doesn’t. She looks at the clock again. 10:08 p.m.

“What the fuck, Ashlyn,” she mumbles as she stomps downstairs.

Ken looks at her in concern from beside the front window. “She’s just sitting there. I think she’s crying.”

Ali stops abruptly. “Crying?”

Suddenly anger turns to concern. She takes a deep breath to calm her anger then walks out to her wife. As she gets close, she sees her father is right. Without a word, she gets into the passenger side and places a hand on Ashlyn’s leg. The blonde flinches at the contact.

“Talk to me, Ashlyn,” Ali requests gently.

“You’ll hate me,” Ash whispers after a few minutes.

“Never, baby. Never,” Ali insists.

Ashlyn slowly turns and looks at her wife. Ali inhales sharply. Her wife’s normally sparkling eyes are dull. They are puffy, evidence of a long crying jag. Her skin is pale. Ali brings a hand up to sunken cheeks.

“What the fuck happened to you, baby?”

At the tender touch and words, Ashlyn loses any control she’d been regaining. Ali pulls her close, whispering words of comfort and support as she rubs her back. After a few minutes, Ashlyn pulls away. She wipes her face and stares out the front window.

“I...I killed 2 people, Ali. Just...shot them without even thinking...”

Ali gasps. Her mind goes the wrong way. “You mean...you murdered them? Without reason?”

“Yes. No. I mean... fuck...”

Ali pats her arm, wondering if her wife was about to spend the rest of her life in jail...or worse. “Ashlyn, talk to me, please,” she begs, tears starting down her cheeks.

Ashlyn takes a deep breath and tells her about what happened. Internally, Ali is relieved. Her wife saved lives, she didn’t murder anyone. When Ashlyn finishes the story, Ali pulls her close again.

“Baby, I can’t even imagine what you’ve been through. But listen to me, please: you did not murder anyone! You saved yourself and your men from two men who wanted to kill you all for something that was NOT your fault. You had to shoot them, honey, or you wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

Ashlyn is sobbing. She had heard the same thing from Nettles and from Menninger. She was just having a hard time believing anyone. Not even her wife. Ali finally makes her wife look into her eyes.

“Look at me, baby: I swore I’d never lie to you. I am not lying to you. Yes, it sucks because you are a good person and good people hate killing no matter what. But you did what you had to do to come home to me and to get your men home to their families. I mean, didn’t you tell me Sophia Lopez has a 2 year old son? She’s got to be happy to be home to him. And what about Ian Randall? His wife is pregnant, right? He’ll get to meet his child because of you. You served the greater good, baby. You took those lives so your men would live. It was a necessary evil but you saved your squad that day, Ashlyn. You did good, baby. So very, very good.”

And finally she starts to believe it.

“It just hurts so much. And I can’t stop seeing that guy’s head,” she whispers.

“Being haunted by it and being wrong for doing it do not go hand in hand. You did the right thing, baby. Yes, it hurts, but you keep thinking about the men and women in your squad and believe you did the right thing, okay?”

Ashlyn slowly nods. Ali pulls her close once more. They sit out there for 20 minutes, one woman doling out the love and support that the other one needs. Finally Ali reaches for the door.

“Let’s go in, baby. Let’s get you something to eat and then get to bed, okay?”

Ashlyn just nods, exhaustion and hunger combining to silence her. She simply turns herself over to her wife for the evening.

And Ali is happy to take care of her and, hopefully, bring the light back into the eyes she loves so much.

Chapter Text

Fall 2013

Though the inaugural NWSL season ended with the Spirit at the bottom of the table, Ali at least felt like the new coach had helped them turn the tide. The team played their best soccer and though only managing 2 wins the second half of the season, she went into the off season sure they’d be a team to beat the second season.

Ashlyn had agreed to see a shrink that specialized in PTSD. She could no longer use the excuse of not seeing combat to deny she was having some issues after killing 2 men to save her squad. As reluctant as she had been to go, she had to admit it had helped. A lot. She was sleeping better and the next time she had fired her gun, though she still hated taking a life, it didn’t nearly cripple her mentally.

Right now the happy couple is separated once more as Ali is at a month-long camp, which includes 2 friendlies with Mexico and 1 with Costa Rica, while Ashlyn is in India helping a remote region in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. Incredibly, though the small town had lost water and electricity, their cell towers had remained standing. This allowed the military personnel to make calls home each week through the use of generators. It was set up with a strict schedule that loved ones didn’t know and the calls were limited to 5 minutes each. The coaching staff had been great about keeping Ali’s phone on them and immediately calling her off of drills when the calls came in.

On this morning, the team is enjoying breakfast, each woman engrossed in her morning ritual. For some that meant chatting with friends, others watched the morning news, while others enjoyed quietly reading their books or magazines. Ali was enjoying her meal with Whitney and HAO when suddenly Becky’s voice rises above the murmur.

“HOLY SHIT! IT’S ASHLYN!”

The defender is converged upon by all the women. Ali drops into the chair beside her.

“Where?!”

Becky holds up her Time magazine. “It’s a pic of the week. Look!”

She turns it so Ali can see. In the photo, Ashlyn is down on 1 knee, a child cradled in her hand as she holds a bottle of water to her lips. The child’s limbs hang loosely as if already drained of life. Ali’s eyes tear up at the site of her dirty wife staring intently at the small girl in her arms.

“What’s the caption?” Pinoe asks.

Becky looks to the bottom of the page and starts to read. “U.S. Army Corps of Engineers First Lieutenant Ashlyn Harris holds the body of 3 year old Sangita Bedi...”


 

Ashlyn’s squad had been in the town for two days. She lifts her helmet enough to wipe the ever constant stream of sweat off her forehead.

“Have I mentioned it’s hot as shit here, Andrews?”

Her newly promoted sergeant, who had been with her since she joined the Engineers, grins. “You may have mentioned it a time or two, L.T.” he replies with a grin.

“So, how is everything looking?”

“We’re still waiting for the arrival of the two trucks with more water. The bridge they were supposed to cross collapsed.”

Ashlyn rolls her eyes. “You mean the one we barely made it across 2 days ago?”

“One and the same. As we speak a team is already in place installing a bridge but we still won’t be getting restocked until tomorrow, maybe by noon if we’re lucky.”

“Fucking great,” Ashlyn mutters.

She studies all the people gathering to get their daily supply of rations. Her mind flicks back to the last time she’d had to ration precious water. Her stomach nearly dumps the contents of her breakfast as she decides what to do.

“Contact Nettles. Tell him we’re instituting rationing of water today. I’ll get with Patel and have him announce to those gathered we’re having to restrict rations to 2 gallons per household today. Pray they understand,” she adds.

“I will. I remember last time, too, L.T.”

She pats him on the shoulder. “I know you do, Andrews. Get on it.”

He nods and hurries off to contact their base of operations. Ashlyn tracks down the private that speaks fluent Hindu and explains what he needs to tell people.

“Stress to them that this is for one day only and that we will be restocked tomorrow either by truck or chopper,” she tells him. “No medical or food will be restricted, just water and just temporarily.”

He nods and gets up on the hood of a Humvee to address the crowd with a bullhorn. Ashlyn watches as people start to get restless. Faces get scared or angry, only a few are understanding.

“Fuck, he’s losing some of them,” she mumbles and steps up on the hood beside him. “Patel, say what you have to say to calm them down. Offer to have a meeting with town elders if needed.”

He nods and passes on her words. But the crowd still starts to get unruly. People push and shove trying to cut in line or maintain their positions. Ashlyn starts to shake her head.

“Fuck. We’re losing them. What the fuck more can we say?”

Patel shrugs. “Tell them we’re opening stores an hour early?” he suggests.

Ashlyn nods. “Yeah, do that. Let’s get them started through the lines and see if that calms them down.”

She leaps off the vehicle and races over to the men running the supply lines. “Boys, get things ready to go. We’re opening up the lines early to see if that appeases them. Maintain calm, guys. Got it?”

They nod and she goes to the men guarding the gate of the barrier. “On my go, open the gate. Keep the flow slow and orderly.”

“Gotcha, Lieutenant,” one private says.

Ashlyn watches her men at the supply lines. The sergeant in charge there turns and meets her eyes, giving her a curt nod. She nods back.

“Okay, boys, let them through,” she says and stands there to make sure the first people few are proceeding courteously. She whispers a quick prayer. “Please, God, let the others see things are calm and okay. Please don’t let them riot.”

She starts to walk back along the fence line. Towards the back, people are still pushing and shoving. She looks up at Patel.

“Patel! Tell them the lines are open! Tell them everyone will be taken care of!”

He just nods and relays the message. Ashlyn turns back in time to see 2 men start to throw punches. “Son of a bitch!” she races forward along with another soldier that had seen the fight start. By the time they get there, 4 more men have joined the melee. “HEY! STOP!” she screams. Before she can reach over the fence and grab one of the men, a small child is thrust into her arms. “What the hell?”

A woman, tears streaming down her face, starts to yell at Ashlyn. At first glance, the little girl is dead. She is covered with dirt, concrete dust, mud and blood. Her limbs hang loosely. Ashlyn looks from the girl to the woman.

“I...I...”

“She wants you to save her!” a man says.

Ashlyn looks at the man. “What?”

“It’s her daughter. They thought she was dead but they found her in the rubble today. They think she is still alive and needs your help.”

Ashlyn swallows hard. Out of the corner of her eye she sees the fight has stopped as all those in line stop to see if the young life can be saved. Ashlyn drops down to one knee and places her fingers at the girls neck, hoping to find a pulse.

“Hey, little one,” she whispers. “Are you still with us?”

After a second she can feel it beating weakly. She rips the canteen off her belt and flips it open. She uses two fingers over the opening to control the flow of water and sprinkles some in the little girl’s mouth. She uses a finger to stroke the girl’s throat, knowing when you do that to dogs they will swallow. She can only pray that works for humans, too. After a few seconds she smiles when she sees the girl swallow and start to cough. She quickly sits her up.

“Easy, little one. Easy.”

The girl’s hands grab Ashlyn’s arms automatically. Her eyes are still mostly closed but her mouth is working, almost like she is trying to nurse. Ashlyn brings the canteen up again, letting the girl get a little more water. As the girl coughs after getting too much, Ashlyn looks at the man beside them.

“Medic. Now!”

“Already on the way, ma’am,” he replies.

She nods and looks back at the little girl. Chocolate brown eyes are now opening a little. Ashlyn gives her some more water and the girl slumps against her as she gratefully drinks the offered water.

“Lieutenant, what do we have?”

“She was found today under the rubble of her house. So we’re looking at 3 days without water or food and dealing with the elements,” she tells the medic as she lays the girl upon the ground. As he starts an IV, Ashlyn looks at her men. “Get her mother over here.”

The men nod and go to the fence to assist the mother over so she can be near her daughter. Ashlyn steps out of the way as the woman kneels down beside her girl. Ashlyn looks those beyond the barrier. They are all quiet, seemingly in prayer on behalf of the young girl. Petty fights over place in line have been forgotten. Ashlyn steps to the fence and looks at one man.

“You speak English?” The man nods. “Would you be willing to help the medic translate as needed?”

“I...I would but...my family needs rations,” he says shamefully.

Ashlyn places a hand on his shoulder. “Give me their address. I will take it there personally if you can help this woman help our medics save her little girl.”

The man nods. “Then I will help.”

Two of Ashlyn’s soldiers help him over the fence. As promised, 20 minutes later Ashlyn and another soldier deliver the man’s rations to his family, a neighbor explaining what had happened at the supply station. As the two soldiers walk back to their camp, the corporal pats his lieutenant on the back.

“Ma’am, if I may say, that was...was freakin’ amazing. Helping the little girl come back from death’s door, getting the man to help with translating, maintaining calm when we’ve got supply issues. I just...that was incredible, ma’am.”

Ashlyn smiles. “Thanks, Petrovsky. I’m just glad no riot broke out.”

As they get back to the supply station, Patel looks at Ashlyn. “I bet you want to know how your little patient is doing.”

Ashlyn nods. “Yeah, I do. How is she?”


 

“...and thanks to the quick thinking by Lt. Harris and the immediate medical care provided, little Sangita is expected to make a full recovery,” Becky finishes reading.

Whitney is massaging Ali’s shoulders as the team had listened to Becky explain the picture. “That was incredible,” Whit says.

“So...this happened 2 weeks ago, right? Did she tell you?” Abby asks Ali.

Ali smiles, eyes full of love. “Of course not. To her it was just another day at the office.”

Pinoe shakes her head. “Kriegs, she is something else. You should marry that girl.”

Everyone laughs as Ali rolls her eyes.

“Gee, why didn’t I think of that,” Ali replies dryly. She stands. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go buy every issue of Time magazine in a 4 block radius before practice this morning.”

“Hold up,” HAO says. “I want a copy so I’ll come with you.”

“Me, too,” Whitney chimes in.

Ali looks around and chuckles. “So copies for everyone?” Everyone nods, grinning. “Fine, but copies for our families are bought first, then the rest of you may get one. We’ll just see what you’ll be willing to do to secure a copy. I love the colour pink and I love diamonds. Putting those two things together will get you an autographed copy,” she jokes as the three players leave to the sound of their teammates laughing at them.


 

Ali grabs her phone when it starts to ring in the middle of the night. “Ashlyn?”

“Hey, baby,” the soldier says, her voice tired.

“How are things going?”

“Good. We pulled back to main base today. If all goes well, first team flies home tomorrow.”

“That’s great! I can’t wait to see you.”

Ashlyn smiles. “I can’t wait to sit in the recliner and watch your game on Sunday. Even if we get delayed tomorrow that should still be possible for me. Make sure Ken has the best snacks and beer ready for me.”

Ali grins. “Definitely.”

“Hey, Ashlyn,” Abby calls out through a yawn.

“Shit! Sorry, Abs,” Ali says as she gets up to take her phone into the bathroom. “I was so excited about speaking to you I forgot I had a roommate.”

Ashlyn laughs, and Ali is glad to hear it, “Nice, honey. Don’t make them hate me for calling you at odd hours.”

“Never. Especially after this week’s  Time  magazine,” she says coyly, as she sits on the edge of the tub.

Ashlyn frowns. “Time magazine? Did they do an article on you guys?”

“Nope. Turns out you made their pictures of the week section.”

Ashlyn blushes, sitting up straight, her heart starting to beat faster. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about a little girl you brought back from the brink of death. Did you know a reporter caught it on film?”

“Hell no! Are you freakin’ serious? Please tell me you’re joking!” Ash pleads desperately.

“Nope,” Ali replies, not noticing the pain in her wife’s voice. “Our family members all have copies, as does every member of the team. We are so proud of you for saving that- -”

“She died, Alex,” Ashlyn says softly.

“- -little girl and...uh, what?”

Ashlyn takes a deep breath, pinching the bridge of her nose. “She had internal bleeding that couldn’t be stopped in the field. By the time they got her to the nearest medical facility it was too late. She died, Alex, I didn’t save her.”

“Oh, God, Ashlyn...”

“Yeah. Planned on talking to my shrink a bit about that before telling you. The reporter said she lived?”

“Yeah.”

Ashlyn sighs. “She woke up a little right there in my arms but her eyes...they never quite...focused. I think even if she had lived she’d have been brain damaged. It had just been...too long. She didn’t really have a chance. Best we did was give her mother a little more time with her.”

Ali wipes away a tear. “Oh, baby, I am sure she is thankful for that time. It may not seem like enough to you but it gave her time to tell her how much she loves her. That’s huge, baby.”

Ashlyn pops her neck, rubbing it with her free hand. “Yeah, I keep telling myself the same thing. I’ll let you know when I believe it.”

The two talk a little longer then Ashlyn has to go to a meeting to turn over information to the team taking over for her squad. After they hang up, Ali sits on the side of the bathtub, crying as she tries to imagine the emotions that must have swept over her wife when she saved that girl only to lose her anyway. A few minutes later Abby opens the door, concern on her face.

“What’s up?”

“Um...nothing...I...I...”

Abby holds up her phone. “She texted me you might need a shoulder. Talk to me, Kriegs,” she says as she sits down beside her on the tub.

Ali takes a deep breath and through her tears she tells her about the girl from the picture. Abby just holds Ali close.

“I was joking about the picture and...and teasing her about not telling me. And all the time it was because...because...”

“Shhh, I know. And she gets it, Al. It’s not your fault that reporter didn’t check all the facts. They took the word of a medic instead of asking a doctor. It’s on them, not on you.” She stands, pulling Ali up with her. “Come on: get some sleep. Come morning you’ll see it’s not your fault.”

“Ashlyn must think I’m a superficial idiot for what I said.”

“If she thought that, she wouldn’t have texted me. She knows you hurt for saying something you couldn’t know would be painful to her. She loves you, Kriegs. She loves everything about you and I know Ash well enough to know the only thing she holds against you is the walk-in closet of make-up you have.”

Ali stops and glares at Abby. “I do NOT have a walk-in closet of make-up!”

Abby chuckles. “Knew I could get you to stop wallowing in guilt.”

Ali smiles and punches the forward lightly in the shoulder. “You suck. But thank you.”

“No problem, Kriegs. Now, get some sleep so we don’t look like zombies in the morning.”

Ali gives her a hug. “I love you, you know?”

“Love you, too, Kriegs.”

The two climb into their beds. Ali lifts the dog tags around her neck and gives them a kiss. “Love you, too, baby. Always,” she whispers as she closes her eyes and wills her body to go to sleep.

Chapter Text

Ali watches from the beach as her wife bobs in the ocean waves. She sits atop her favorite surfboard, face turned towards the rising sun. Ali hopes those rays and waves are cleansing her spirit and restoring her inner peace. She smiles when she sees Ashlyn point the board towards shore and start to paddle, easily rising to her feet as she rides a smooth wave towards shore, stepping off as it dies in the shallows. She then turns and paddles out again. On her fifth trip out, she turns and stares towards the shore. Ali smiles, recognizing the cue.

“Time to surf,” she says as she grabs her own board and paddles out to her wife. She finally ends up sitting side by side with the blonde. “Better?”

Ashlyn smiles and reaches over to take Ali’s hand. “Definitely. Thank you for giving me a few moments to just...just...”

“Find your center again?” Ali supplies.

Ashlyn considers that answer and nods. “Yeah. Exactly. I just needed this to remind me I am only one small piece in life’s puzzle. I can’t control everything but I can control my little place in the picture.”

Ali leans over and gives her a kiss. “Right. And in case you’re wondering, your piece is pretty damn important to my life’s puzzle. I’m glad you’re getting a couple weeks off to just relax and refresh.”

“Me, too,” Ashlyn smiles. “Especially since I get to celebrate the second best day ever.”

“Second best day ever?”

“Yep. Our wedding. Second best day ever,” she states positively.

“So what is the best day?” Ali asks with a grin, assuming Ashlyn will say the day the brunette was born.

Ashlyn lifts Ali’s hand and gives it a kiss. “A very important birthday.”

“Awww, Ashlyn...” Ali blushes.

“Yep. October 19, 1985.”

“WHAT?!”

“I mean, come on, look how dull this world would be without m- - WHOA!”

Ali surprises the blonde by leaping at her, sending them both off their boards into the water. When they surface they are both laughing. Ashlyn pulls the love of her life close. She gives her a kiss.

“I was kidding. The best day was the day you said yes to going out with me. I knew then I would do whatever I could do, change the bad things about me, to be worthy of your love. You made me a better person, Alex. Thank you.”

Ali pulls her close, choked up. “You made me better, too, Ash. You kept me from being so serious I missed the splendor of the little things in life. The good times have been so much better since you showed me how to enjoy life, not just live it.”

The two share another kiss, then reel in their boards. Ashlyn looks at her wife.

“This set’s yours, baby.”

Ali grins. “Perfect!”

She waits a second, then starts to paddle. Ashlyn watches with pride as the defender pops right up as if she had been surfing her whole life. It may have taken a while, but the woman is now as avid a surfer as her wife and nearly as good. Nearly.

When Ashlyn takes her wave, she shows off a bit, walking up and down the board while Ali laughs. Ashlyn grins, admiring that Krieger nose crinkle from afar. She’d do anything to keep that smile shining.


 

Around noon, the women pack up their things and make their way back to Ashlyn’s childhood home. Her grandmother smiles at the women as they enter the house.

“Good surf today, ladies?”

Ashlyn gives the woman a kiss on the cheek. “The best, Grandma. Need us to do anything?”

“Nope. Groceries are bought for now and Christmas. I believe you two need to get ready to leave.”

Ashlyn frowns in confusion. “Leave? Grandma, we don’t leave for Cancun until the 26th. It’s only the 22nd.”

Ali wraps her arms around her waist. “That’s our anniversary trip. But tonight is a present from me to you. I want to take you somewhere.”

“Oh? Uh, okay. What do I wear?”

“The outfit in my hanging bag,” she answers with a grin.

Ashlyn chuckles. “I didn’t know I had an outfit in there. You, Mrs. Krieger-Harris, are sneaky.”

“I know,” Ali says proudly. “Come on, let’s get you showered and looking pretty.”

Grandma laughs as Ashlyn rolls her eyes and follows her bride to their room. Ali grabs her hanging bag out of the closet and lays it on the bed. Ashlyn’s mouth goes dry when Ali removes a black, shimmering dress with slits in the sides, and hangs it on the door frame. The defender then pulls out Ashlyn’s dress uniform, including her highly polished shoes.

“You really are a sneak! But...where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” She glances at her watch. “We have just enough time for a nap if you want. You’ll probably need all your strength tonight.”

Ashlyn laughs and pulls her wife close. “A nap? I have a better idea,” she decides as she kisses her deeply as her hand undoes the bikini top Ali wears.

Ali moans. Naps are soooo overrated!


 

Ali hands her keys to the valet at the nicest hotel in Satellite Beach. Ashlyn offers her arm and Ali hooks it as they walk into the lobby where others dressed to the nines are gathered. When Ashlyn sees the sign announcing the gala, she stops in her tracks, her eyes getting wide.

“Are you...kidding me?”

“Nope,” Ali says proudly.

Ashlyn walks towards it as if in a trance. The sign reads, “First Annual Youth Sports Banquet to Benefit the Renovation of the Ashlyn Harris Soccer Fields.” Ashlyn slowly turns and looks at her wife in confusion.

“But...but...why? I mean, I never...I left the National Team and...and...”

“But you won 3 National Championships with UNC. You helped win the inaugural U-19 Women’s World Cup. And you won the WPS Championship in an amazing shootout. Baby, you then walked away from the soccer to serve your country. You are an inspiration to so many here. You’ve said it yourself: this is a town where it’s easy to get stuck. You’re proof kids can dream big and then make those dreams come true,” Ali explains.

Ashlyn is biting her lip, trying to keep her tears at bay. “This is...is...fuck, Alex...”

“You’ve made us proud, Ashlyn,” a deep voice says from behind them. Ashlyn turns and sees her high school principal. “I knew when you buckled down and did what you had to do to get into UNC you would make us proud. I had no idea just how proud.” He smiles and offers his hand. “Welcome home, Ashlyn. I can’t wait to see future players growing the game on the fields bearing your name.”

Ashlyn shakes his hand, still too choked up to speak. Ali gives her a quick squeeze around the waist.

“Thank you, sir,” Ali says on her behalf.

He steps away to give his alumna time to gather herself. Ashlyn finally looks at Ali.

“You knew about this?”

Ali nods. “Yes. Your grandmother called me when they contacted her.” She nods beyond Ashlyn’s shoulder. “Look, baby.”

Ashlyn turns to see her parents, grandparents and brother standing nearby. They are all smiling proudly. Ash chokes up again. Chris walks over and gives her a bear hug.

“I am so happy for you, sis. You’ve earned this.”

She then hugs her parents, making sure to tell them both how much she loves them. And then she goes to her grandparents, pulling them close.

“When times were tough, you never gave up on me. This is as much for you as for me,” she tells them.

Grandma kisses her cheek. “We always knew you’d become a great woman.”

“We’re so happy with the amazing lady, and officer, you’ve grown into,” her grandfather agrees.

Ashlyn hugs them again.

“Don’t use up all those hugs,” another voice chimes in.

Ashlyn looks up in surprise to see Deb and her husband standing with Ali. Ashlyn steps over to them.

“Never, Deb Deb,” she says. “Thank you for being here.”

“When Alex told us there was no way we’d miss it.”

Ashlyn slowly looks around, making eye contact with each member of her family. “You all mean so much to me. I could have never done the things I did then and what I’m doing now without the support and love I feel from each of you. My name may be on the sign, but each of you are the ones that made it possible.”

Ali smiles and steps up beside her, wrapping an arm around her middle. “That was beautiful, baby. Remember to say all that when you give your speech.”

Ashlyn’s face pales. “Speech? What speech? I don’t do speeches?”

“Oh, I think they want us to get seated now,” Ali says, leading the group towards the banquet hall.

“Alex...what speech. Alex?”

Ali just grins, knowing she has a few talking points written down to help her wife through the brief speech she is expected to give.

And despite the horror of the public speech, Ashlyn has a wonderful time with her loved ones and old friends as they raise money to improve the fields where she’d honed her soccer skills.


 

Ali giggles as Ashlyn slowly, carefully and stiffly sits down on the couch in their hotel suite. Ashlyn just glares at her.

“Shut it, Krieger,” she grumbles.

“Actually, it’s Krieger-Harris,” Ali points out with a smile.

Ashlyn just grunts. After spending Christmas with Ashlyn’s family as well as Deb and her husband, the women had flown the next day to Cancun for their anniversary. With the uncertainty of Ashlyn’s job and the many trips Ali has to take for soccer and soccer-related appearances, they had decided to make this week just for them.


This morning they had quickly donned their suits, lathered up with sunscreen and hit the beach. They had swum, played, and soaked in the ocean. As they exited after 2 hours, Ali had returned to their stuff to reapply sunscreen. Ashlyn, however, had seen 2 kids making a sandcastle and had hurried over to help them. Ali had watched in amusement as her wife had played and laughed like a kid.

By the time lunch time rolled around, Ashlyn’s skin was red. Bright red. Ali had shaken her head.

“Baby, you’ve got sunburn.”

“Nah, I’m fine!”

“Honey, you’re not. Here, let me put more lotion on you.”

Ashlyn had rolled her eyes as she sat down in front of her wife and allowed her to apply the lotion.


 

But it was much too late and now she is paying the price as dinnertime approaches.

“I’ve called down to the front desk. They are sending up some Solarcane for you,” Ali tells the miserable blonde.

“Thanks. Um, about dinner...”

“I’ve already cancelled our reservations and ordered room service so you can eat wearing nothing but Solarcane,” Ali tells her with a smile.

“You rock, baby,” Ashlyn says.

A few minutes later the medicine arrives. Ashlyn stands in the bathroom while Ali sprays down her back, arms and shoulders. Ashlyn sighs in relief.

“Damn, that feels so fucking good.”

Ali chuckles. “I bet it does.” There is another knock on the door. “Stay in here and I’ll get our dinner brought in.”

Ashlyn just nods as Ali closes the bathroom door and signs for their dinner. She had ordered lobster salad, steaks, baked potatoes, green beans, and, for dessert, crème brulee. Her mouth waters as she looks at the scrumptious meal.

“It’s safe to come out, baby.”

Ashlyn walks out of the bathroom and makes her way to the table in the room. She inhales deeply. “Smells great, baby.”

“Looks even better.” Ali pulls a bottle of champagne out of the ice bucket and pops it open. She pours two glasses and offers one to her wife before they sit down. “To us and a love strong enough to overcome any obstacle or hardship that may befall us.”

Ashlyn smiles and clinks their glasses together. “To us. I love you, Alex.”

“I love you, too.”

The two take a sip, kiss, then sit down to a wonderful dinner. When it ends, Ashlyn pats her full stomach.

“That was incredible, baby. Well chosen.”

Ali grins proudly. “I have my moments.”

Ashlyn nods. “Definitely.” She studies her wife a moment, then sighs. “I so want to make love to you right now...”

“...but your sunburn keeps you from moving very much. I get it.” She stands and extends her hand. “How about we lie in the cool sheets and watch a movie. We miss a lot of cuddle time with our schedules.”

“Damn right we do.”

Ashlyn accepts her hand and stands. Ali sprays her down once more, this time adding some zinc lotion to keep her wife’s skin from getting too dry and tight. In the bed Ashlyn changes up the way they usually lie, this time cuddling into her wife. Ali strokes her hand through long, blonde locks. They queue up a comedy they had both wanted to see and settle in for a couple hours of laughs.

They aren’t long into the movie when Ali loses interest in the storyline. It’s not that it’s a bad movie or she doesn’t like the actors. It’s because she is watching her wife laugh with unadulterated glee. She sees just the brief time they have been able to concentrate on family and love had recharged dull green eyes. Once again the sparkle that had been missing lately is there and her face actually appears younger (though sunburned). After a few minutes, Ashlyn looks up.

“How are you not laughing at this?”

Ali smiles, still stroking her wife’s hair. “Because I’m too busy loving you.”

Ashlyn shifts in the bed, the movie forgotten. She straddles her wife, pulling her into a passionate kiss. Her hands start to lift Ali’s shirt. The brunette pulls away.

“Ash...your burn...”

“Fuck it,” she mutters and proceeds to strip them both and make love to her wife for the next several hours.


 

The rest of their week in paradise goes much better, especially since Ashlyn pretty much insists on reapplying sunscreen every hour on the hour. On their last night, they once again decide to eat dinner in their room.

Naked.

Ashlyn had pulled on shorts and shirt long enough to let the room service waiter in then had once again stripped down. This evening, they had ordered an array of appetizers and other finger foods so they could sit together and feed each other. They are on a blanket on the floor in front of the couch. They tease, they play, they laugh, they kiss.

They are midway through dinner, when Ashlyn reaches under a couch cushion. “While I try my best to get the fire from that wing out of my mouth, I have a little something for you.”

Ali’s eyes brighten. “Baby! I thought we agreed no gifts!”

“We did. But see, I had already bought this so it was pre-agreement and therefore not binding by that accord,” Ashlyn says smugly.

Ali laughs. “Oh, so you got big words now, soldier?”

“Yep! It’s that ‘Word a Day’ toilet paper Chris gave me for Christmas.”

Ali continues to laugh and shake her head as she opens the gift. Her eyes widen when she sees the golden chain with a small diamond pendant hanging from it.

“Oh, Ashlyn...it’s gorgeous!” She spins around. “Put it on me?”

Ashlyn nods and does so. She smiles as she sees it settle between and just above Ali’s perfect breasts.

“It’s beautiful, Ashlyn,” Ali breathes, looking down at it.

“Not nearly as beautiful as the woman wearing it,” Ashlyn says softly, her eyes on her wife’s face.

Ali looks up. She sees the lust in the eyes of her love. She feels her nipples harden. Ashlyn smirks when she sees the same thing. Before Ali can comment, Ashlyn pulls her into a deep kiss, her tongue demanding entry. Ali moans, her hands moving to Ashlyn’s shoulders, pulling her closer. Ashlyn reaches down with one hand, grabbing a lush, chocolate covered strawberry. She runs the cool treat over Ali’s pert nipple, making the brunette moan. Ashlyn breaks the kiss as she offers the treat to Ali. As Ali bites into it, Ashlyn ducks her head down to lick the slight chocolate trail off Ali’s nipple.

“OH! Oh, Ash,” Ali says around a mouthful of sweet fruit.

Ashlyn brings her mouth up, sucking at her wife’s neck, feeling when she swallows. Ashlyn then kisses her, the taste of the dessert mixing in both of their mouths. Ali lays back, pulling Ashlyn on top of her. No words need to be exchanged, dinner is over. Dessert is in full swing. And both women will be feasting heartily. Hands glide over warm skin, each woman feeling an electric pulse wherever she is touched by the woman that owns her heart.

“I love you so much,” Ashlyn mumbles against Ali’s mouth.

Ali can’t even speak. She just moans her agreement. Ash grins and starts to kiss lower. Her mouth lavishes attention on both breasts that stand at attention. Her tongue travels the valley between them, circling the pert peaks that her teeth then nip. Ali’s hands are tangled in blonde hair as her back arches up in pleasure. After several minutes Ali’s nipples are red and slightly swollen. Ashlyn leaves them to kiss and nip her way down. Her tongue slowly traces around the defined abs and belly button of the defender. Ali is still undulating, her body reacting to the soldier, no longer obeying the pro athlete.

“Fuck, baby...so good,” she murmurs.

Ashlyn finally moves even lower, placing kisses and licks along Ali’s panty line. She can smell just how aroused her wife is and it’s making her wet as her own clit throbs. Ashlyn lifts her head and stares into eyes nearly black with desire. Ali looks confused...until Ashlyn starts to turn around.

“Oh, fuck, Ashlyn...yes!”

Ashlyn’s knees carefully land on either side of Ali’s head. Her arms wrap around strong hips as she lifts up her wife’s eager center. Ali’s hands grip her wife’s thighs and pull glistening curls towards her hungry mouth. As one, the women drag their tongues up wet slits, moaning at the taste. Ashlyn’s long tongue buries itself into a warm, throbbing core as Ali’s teases the pulsing pearl at the center of her wife. They had been together so long they knew everything that would drive each other crazy with want and desire. They temper their eagerness to give the other an orgasm, preferring to prolong the pleasure; preferring to give the other a memory to get them through the separations that mark their marriage.

Ashlyn’s hips start to rock as she feels Ali’s start to tremble. Though they try to hold back they finally drive each other over the edge, screaming into the heart of their bodies as they cum at the same time. Ashlyn collapses half on her wife, her body shivering with aftershocks of pleasure. Ali runs her hands up and down the toned leg that is splayed across her chest.

“Baby...” she starts but is too spent to finish.

Ashlyn just smiles. “Yeah...” she agrees with the unspoken emotions.

After a few minutes, they resituate themselves, Ali snuggling into Ash’s shoulders. “I wish we could stay here forever. No interruptions. No media. No crises.”

“Me, too. But I bet the next couple in this suite would be pissed if we stayed,” Ashlyn teases, earning a smack on her rock hard ass from Ali.

“You know what I mean, jerk.”

Ashlyn kisses her temple. “Yeah, I do. I can’t believe we leave tomorrow.”

Ali snuggles closer. “I love you so much. And I hate when we have to be apart and I know sometimes I get sad when we are separated but...but I hope you know I’m your biggest fan and supporter. You do amazing things with the Corps of Engineers. What you do is so important and I get so...so...braggy when I know you are somewhere helping families rebuild and find a little light in the darkness of whatever happened. When the girls ask where you are they even laugh because I can’t just say, ‘Thailand’. I have to say ‘Thailand’ and launch into a 40 minute spiel on all the amazing things you are doing over there. They think it’s cute mostly but I am sure I drive some of them crazy.”

Ashlyn smiles and kisses Ali’s cheek. “I understand. I tend to brag about my wife being the hottest, smartest, and overall best damn right back in the world. Most guys have learned not to ask soccer-related questions around me. But more than a few have become National Team fans because I show them clips of you being a badass. And the smart soldiers don’t talk about how hot you are until out of earshot.”

Ali chuckles. “And the not smart ones?”

“Find out I can assign major shit duties to people that disrespect me or my wife.”

“Oooo! The power!” Ali teases.

“Yep,” Ashlyn says proudly. She reaches over to their spread and picks up a chocolate covered cream puff. She takes a bite. “Mmm! Good.” She offers the rest to Ali.

“Whoa! That is good!”

They smile and turn their attention back to the food for a few minutes. When Ali bites another puff, some of the cream squirts out onto Ashlyn’s knee. The women both stare at it a moment. Ali then turns until she is kneeling between Ashlyn’s legs. She slowly leans down and licks it up, making sure to drag her tongue farther up Ashlyn’s thighs then necessary.

“Oh, Alex...”

Ali smiles wolfishly as she licks even farther up. Ashlyn spreads her legs and that is all the invitation Ali needs. Soon her face is buried between Ashlyn’s legs, driving her into yet another orgasm. Ashlyn throws her head back. She is perfectly fine if they make love until they have to check out in the morning.

And it seems Ali is on board with that plan, too. What a hell of an anniversary trip!

Chapter Text

January 2014

A couple of weeks after they return to Virginia, Ashlyn is sitting at her desk going over inventory forms to make sure there are plenty of on-hand supplies for any emergencies her team would have to respond to around the world. As a first lieutenant, she has even more responsibilities. She’s been in the field long enough to know mistakes at the office mean casualties on the ground.

“Andrews? Where the hell is the water inventory? I don’t want to get fucked again,” she calls to her sergeant.

Andrews checks the papers on his desk. He finally shakes his head, muttering a cuss under his breath. “Mahoney hasn’t gotten it to me yet.”

“I see. Didn’t I want it on my desk today?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“So shouldn’t she have gotten it to you yesterday,” Ashlyn presses in irritation.

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll find her and see what the hell is going on,” he says as he stands, knowing shit runs downhill. If his lieutenant is pissed, he is in the crapper. And that means Mahoney better be on life support or she’s in even deeper.

Ashlyn just grunts and goes back to her paperwork. She knows Andrews will deal with the private that is not meeting standards Harris has set for her squad. And that reflects badly on her. She will not have a black mark in her records because of one soldier who’s not working out. She is still fuming about the missing inventory when Corporal Peters pops his head into the room Ashlyn’s team uses.

“Uh, Lieutenant Harris? I think you need to see this, ma’am,” he says a little nervously.

Normally Ashlyn would ignore a corporal or order him to tell her what he needs. But since he’s Colonel Menninger’s admin, she decides it would be better to just follow him, especially knowing she needs to keep her head down until she has dealt with Mahoney. She stands and follows him outside. She sees four tractor trailers pulled up in front of their building, an amused Menninger and a laughing Nettles, Ashlyn’s immediate superior, standing there.

“Have something to tell us, Lieutenant?” Menninger asks.

Ashlyn shrugs. “I...I don’t know. What’s all this, sir?”

Menninger hands her the paperwork the first driver had supplied. She reads over the invoice and her eyes widen.

“SIR! I swear I didn’t order this!”

He laughs. “Read it to the bottom, Lieutenant.”

Ashlyn flips through the pages until she comes to the final charges: $0.00.

“But that makes no...oh, hell no...”

She flips back to the first page and sees the company that had sent the items. She smiles.

“Nike! Alex, Abby and the gals ROCK!”

She scans down the items they would find inside: sneakers, tee shirts, sweatshirts, shorts, sweatpants, socks, balls of all sorts along with pumps for each, and more teddy bears than she would have budgeted for for 6 months. Even a bunch of single-person water bottles. She looks up at her bosses.

“Sirs, Abby Wambach and several other Nike athletes, including my wife Alex, had said they would talk to their contacts to see about getting us a few donations. They said it so long ago I assumed nothing would come of it. And they didn’t warn me this would be coming. This is AMAZING!”

Menninger nods. “It sure is, Lieutenant. Get these items inventoried and divided up into cargo containers. Looks like you’ll be making more kids smile than ever and making our bean counters smile by saving budget money on all these giveaways.”

“Yes, sir, we will. Permission to send thank you notes to Nike and the athletes that arranged this for us?”

“Permission granted. Challenge coins for them, too, and I’ll sign the notes personally.”

“Thank you, sir.” Ashlyn looks back down at the paperwork. “In-freakin-credible.”

“To put it mildly, Lieutenant. To put it mildly,” he chuckles and heads back inside.

Major Nettles pats Ashlyn on the shoulder. “Well done, Harris. I’ll make sure a commendation makes it into your files for this.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He follows Menninger inside as Ashlyn starts to sign the paperwork for the donations and calls for Andrews to get their squad together to start inventorying and packing all these special prizes into containers so they can travel to places that will need them the most. As she sees all the boxes coming out, she shakes her head.

“You guys so totally rock,” she whispers, as she thinks about her friends, her family, on the National Team with her wife.


 

“Okay, Ash, we’re all here,” Ali says as her wife appears on the flat screen TV in the team conference room.

“Damn! She’s not naked. I thought this was a fun call,” Pinoe pretends to gripe.

“Watch it, woman,” Ali warns with a grin.

Ashlyn just chuckles and stares out at the women gathered. “Alex has no idea why I asked to speak to all of you.”

“Of course not. Ali called us together,” Alex Morgan pipes in with a smile.

Ashlyn rolls her eyes. “Okay, smarty pants, NEITHER Alex knows why I asked to speak with you all.” She holds up a stack of papers. “These papers represent seven truckloads of hope. You all know my team and other teams go to places devastated by natural disasters and war. The people we serve have lost everything. Most didn’t have much to begin with.” She takes a deep breath. “Two days ago 4 trucks pulled up unexpectedly from Nike.”

“Four?!” Abby blurts out in shock.

Ashlyn nods, her smile huge. “Four, my friend. You Nike athletes came through for us here at the Corps of Engineers. We have toys, balls, shoes, clothes, water bottles, anything you can imagine that people need to get restarted with life and the toys...damn, the toys will help kids have a chance to just smile and see things will be okay.”

“That’s freakin’ awesome!” Sydney shouts.

Ashlyn nods. “It sure is. And to make sure they weren’t outdone, yesterday 3 more trucks pulled up, thanks to you Adidas athletes. Again, clothes, toys, games, things people need and things that kids need just to feel safe. You all went above and beyond and I have no words to express the thanks we have for you. Colonel Menninger is personally sending each of you and your contacts at both companies personal notes of thanks as well as challenge coins from our Fast Response Teams. He’s also extended a standing invitation for you all to visit us and get a close up look at what we do next time you are in DC. And that is if you’re there with the team or just on your own. In all the years he’s been with the S&R division of the Engineers and now with these teams he’s never had someone step up so huge with donations.”

“I think I can say for all of us, it was our honour, Ash,” Christie says. “I don’t think any of us knew the Corps of Engineers did more than build bridges until you educated us. If clothes and shoes that were just going to be destroyed can instead be given to kids with nothing, so much the better. Adidas is happy with the tax write off so it’s win-win.”

“Yeah. Nike felt the same way,” Abby adds. “The clothes may be a year or two old but they will still work.”

Ashlyn nods. “Exactly. These people don’t care about fashion while we are there. I’ve seen people walking around with tarps on because floods took their clothes off. They just need something at that moment and I think they will appreciate Nike and Adidas for being there for them. I’ll make sure to send you all pics as we give things out so you can show the execs the smiles they are bringing to the faces of those we serve.”

“That’s awesome,” Pinoe states. “But I think we can all say we hope those boxes gather lots and lots of dust before they have to be used.”

Ashlyn smiles as everyone nods and voices agreement. “From your mouth to God’s ear, Pinoe. Well, I know you all are getting ready for lunch. Thanks for letting Alex contact me so I could thank you. You guys really are the best and I love you all so much.”

“We love you, too, Harris,” Hope says. “Let us know if we can ever do anything again.”

“I will. Good luck with practice today.” She looks at Ali. “Give ‘em hell, Krieger.”

Ali grins. “Always, Harris. I love you.”

“Love you, too, baby. Talk to you later.”

Ali nods and waves goodbye as she disconnects the session. She sighs and turns to everyone, amazement in her eyes.

“Seven trucks! Holy shit!”

HAO laughs. “Well said. I thought maybe a couple hundred shirts or something.”

“It’s a smart business solution, though,” Carli notes. “They don’t destroy things and lose money. Instead they get a tax write off and they get to put out a press release showing they support not only the military but the people the military serves.”

“Very true,” Becky agrees.

“I can’t wait to see pictures of Ash giving the toys away,” Kling notes. “I just want to see the kids all happy and stuff.”

Ali wraps an arm around Kling’s shoulder. “Well, I can wait. As Pinoe said, let’s hope it’s a long, long time before those donations are needed.”

Kling smiles and gives Ali a hug. “Right.”

The team splits up to get cleaned up and ready for lunch, all with a lighter feeling in their hearts that translates to a great afternoon practice. Charity has many rewards.


 

March 2014

Ali kicks a sneaker across her hotel room. She is as frustrated as anyone with the way the team is playing. No one is on the same page and they only have a few precious months before they have to qualify for the World Cup. Right now it’s not looking good. She glances towards the door as Abby comes in and throws her duffle bag with anger. The two veterans exchange a look.

“What the fuck do we do, Abs? We look like shit, we feel like shit, nothing is coming together,” Ali gripes as she drops down onto her bed.

Abby runs a hand through her hair and shrugs. “I’ll be fucking damned if I know.” She paces, unable to sit and stew like the defender. “We barely pulled out the tie against Japan, lost 1-0 to Pia and Sweden which isn’t surprising because she knows us so well, but we fucking just had our asses handed to us by Denmark. DENMARK!” she shouts in frustration.

The 5-3 loss was such a sore point for everyone because after being down 3-0 in the first half, they had stormed back to make it 4-3, with the second and third goals coming within 3 minutes of each other. They felt things were turning but then they again fell apart, solidifying the loss by allowing a goal in stoppage time. Abby stops pacing and lifts her eyes to meet Ali’s.

“What do we do?” Ali asks.

Abby runs a hand down her face. “We...we do what we need to do to ensure a win.”

“We complain to US Soccer, in other words.”

“Yeah.” Abby is about to expound when there is a knock on their door. She goes and checks who it is before opening the door. “Hey, what’s up?”

Christie and HAO walk in, their irritation obvious. The four women stare at each other before Christie finally lets out a breath.

“This is going to get uglier before it gets better,” she finally states.

“We don’t need another year with the stress we had with Ryan,” HAO adds.

There is silence as the four women contemplate what this means. Ali draws her legs up onto the bed.

“Do we know everyone feels the same?” she asks quietly.

“You were in the locker room, Kriegs,” HAO points out.

“We need more than grumblings right after a bad match,” Abby states logically. “Let’s just...get through the Algarve and then talk as a team.”

Christie grunts. “We’re playing for seventh damn place. We’ve never done this badly before.”

“I know, Piercy. I know,” Abby says. “But we still do have that game, plus training, and then a long flight back to the States. Let’s not rock the boat just yet. If the four of us fight to stay positive and just concentrate on winning the last game it will influence the others.”

HAO flops backwards on Ali’s bed. “Any idea how the hell we stay positive?”

Abby nods. “Yeah. We go out, we score goals, and we win the last damn game we can.”

Christie looks at Ali. “And we do our damnedest to keep the other team from even getting close to scoring. Let’s step up and act like we’re playing for first, not some consolation prize. Can we all do that?”

Ali slowly nods. “I’ll do it. I promise.”

HAO lifts up a hand. “I’m in. But after the Cup we have a serious talk among the players.”

“Agreed,” Abby says.

Before any more can be said, Ali’s phone starts to ring. She leaps towards her bag, nearly taking out Christie in her haste. The others chuckle as Ali swipes to answer.

“Hey, baby!”

“HI, ASHLYN!” the other 3 chant.

Ashlyn starts to laugh. “Sounds like a party.”

“A pity party,” Ali states.

“Ah. I kinda figured. Tell them I said hello.”

Ali looks at the others. “She says hi. Now I’m going into the bathroom for some privacy.”

“No need. We’ll head out,” HAO says standing, hooking her arm into Abby’s.

“We who? This is my room?” Abby points out with a grin.

“Hey, if you want to stay and listen to Ali get sympathy phone sex, go for it. I’m off to see my kids,” Christie says with a laugh.

“Oh, God...please tell me she didn’t say what I think she said,” Ashlyn begs her wife.

“Sorry, baby, you heard her,” Ali chuckles, blushing.

The others leave and Ali drops back down on her bed. She lets out a sad sigh.

“Can I guess the four of you weren’t just rehashing the game?” Ashlyn asks.

“Yeah. We were...well...”

“Discussing the future coaching situation, right?”

“Yeah. We’re just...we’re not meshing, Ash. It’s not like we’re just going to be given a World Cup berth. We have to earn it and he’s not getting us motivated and feeling like we can get there under him. He’s a nice guy and he’s got a great coaching history but he’s not...he’s not...”

“He’s not working for you all.”

“Yeah. I haven’t felt this...this crappy since things started to get bad in Frankfurt. We’re snapping at each other, we’re barely celebrating goals. We’re just...just...we’re sucking so bad,” she says, her voice choking off as the tears she had been fighting finally escape.

“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry. Please don’t cry. Baby, you guys will get past this. You’ll either figure out a way to work with Sermanni or, well, you’ll find a coach that can click with you guys. I know you will,” she says sympathetically.

“I know. I’m just scared it will happen too late. We’ve got 15 months until Canada, Ashlyn. What if we don’t even fucking qualify?”

“You WILL qualify, Alex. I know you all will. The US Women’s Team doesn’t know how to give up. When things are toughest is when we have always shined brightest. And I know that hasn’t changed. You’ll all find a way to qualify and then you’ll find a way to storm through the competition and bring the Cup of Life back to the good old US of A!”

Ali smiles biting her lip a second as she gathers her thoughts. “You, my soldier, are incredible. I needed that pep talk.”

“It’s not hard to give a pep talk if you believe every word of it,” Ashlyn points out. “I’m sorry things are tough right now but I have faith that one way or another things will get better.”

“Then as long as you keep believing in us I guess I can believe in us. I love you, Ashlyn.”

“I love you, too.”

The two talk for almost an hour. Ashlyn had turned the topic away from soccer to crazy things her squad had done during a team bonding day. Ali, much to her surprise, finds herself laughing. When she first returned to the hotel room she was sure she was in for a night feeling miserable. As Ashlyn finishes telling her about a tug of war game that ended with her being tricked by her men into falling on her ass, Ali has to wipe her eyes she’s laughing so hard.

“I mean, they all, both teams, just let the fucking rope GO! So I yank with all I’m worth when Nettles blows the whistle and go flopping back on my ass like a toddler learning to walk! I was ready to throttle them all!”

“Oh, my goodness. Do you know how much I would pay to see that? Was it videoed?”

“Thank goodness no!” Ashlyn says emphatically. Inside, she loves the change she can hear in Ali’s voice. Truth is, she’d recreate the incident in a heartbeat to keep her wife smiling. “The only thing that kept those oafs on my team from running until they puked was the fact that Andrews pointed out since I pulled the rope with me as I fell my team technically won the event.”

“Well, I’m proud of you for single-handedly winning the tug-of-war,” Ali says cheekily.

“Gee. Thanks...I think,” Ashlyn says, hearing the tone of her wife’s voice.

Ali giggles. “Sorry. Tried to sound supportive. But it really is a funny image to have in my head.”

Ashlyn grins. “Yeah, I see how it is. No respect.”

“Lots of respect, baby. I didn’t think I’d be laughing tonight. Hell, I didn’t think I’d be smiling tonight. Thank you for getting me out of my head for a little while.”

“My pleasure, baby.” Ashlyn checks her watch and sighs. “I hate to say this...”

“Lunch time over?”

“Yeah, about an hour ago. And I have a meeting in 30 minutes or I’d probably risk continuing to run over.”

“It’s okay. I feel a lot better now. Thank you, sweetheart.”

“Glad I could help. You all flying back tomorrow?”

“Yeah. We get a couple weeks off for club teams then regroup for 2 friendlies against China in April.”

“Excellent! I’ll have my little wifey around for a little while,” Ashlyn chuckles.

“Yeah, if you are even there,” Ali notes. “I really need to see you and I keep worrying between now and me getting home you’ll get called out somewhere.”

Ashlyn sighs. “I wish I could promise that wouldn’t happen but, well, we know better.”

“Yeah. Well, I better let you get ready for your meeting. Thanks for calling, baby. I love you so much.”

“I love you, too. See you tomorrow.”

“Hopefully. Bye, baby.”

“Bye, Alex.”

Ali hangs up and stares at the ceiling. Yes, things were still up in the air with the coaching situation but now that she had spoken to her wife she truly believes things will get better. Having someone who knows the team and knows the game is a blessing and Ali knows she couldn’t be luckier to have Ash on her side. She slips the dog tags out from under her shirt. She runs her thumb over the raised letters as she reads them. She smiles and gives them a kiss.

“You are my everything, baby. I love you so much.”

She tucks the tags away then goes in search of her teammates to see if anyone else needs a shoulder to lean on now that she’s got her head in a better place.


 

The team had flown back to the States via LaGuardia in NYC. From there, players had caught hops to their hometowns. As Ali walks through the terminal at National Airport, she sees a man in fatigues holding a sign that says “Krieger-Harris.” She smiles and walks up to him.

“Sergeant Andrews!”

He grins. “Hey, Ali. Ashlyn said to apologize for not being here as promised. Colonel Menninger called her into a conference call with the Pentagon. He didn’t want to but she was asked for.”

Ali frowns. “Asked for? Why? Is she okay?”

Andrews shrugs. “I have no idea. I don’t think the colonel knew either. He seemed angry and he only gets angry when he doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Ali nods. “I see. Well, let’s grab my bags and if you want I can just get a cab home.”

“And risk the lieutenant kicking my ass? I don’t think so,” he says with a grin.

Ali chuckles, knowing Ashlyn probably would kick her friend’s ass if he didn’t see her home. As they are gathering her bags, three little girls run over and ask for her autograph and a photo. Ali is tickled pink and happily fulfills their wish. This, of course, draws the attention of a few more people. Soon a crowd has gathered around her and she is worried she may never get away from the airport. But she is determined to give every person what they want, respectful of the duty she has to help keep the game growing. Despite the disappointing Algarve Cup finish, people still love her and love the team. And if all goes well, they will stay worthy of that love by turning things around before next summer.


 

Ali feels a hand stroking her cheek. She sighs happily. That hand then moves a lock of hair back behind her ear and then soft lips place a gentle kiss on a defined cheekbone. Her eyes slowly flutter open to find smiling green eyes looking down upon her.

“Welcome home, beautiful.”

Ali rolls to her back and takes her wife’s hand. “I am so happy to be here. I missed you so much.”

“I missed you, too.”

Ali sits up and Ashlyn pulls her into a strong hug, one hand rubbing up and down the defenders back. Ali sinks into the embrace, drawing strength from the woman who captured her heart so many years ago.

“I have loved you for so long,” she murmurs. “I think from the moment I saw you, though it took me forever to admit.”

Ashlyn smiles and hugs her a bit tighter. “I knew the moment I saw you that you were it for me. It was like Cupid shot me or something. I just knew. Even in the hard times, I knew you were the only one for me.”

Ali leans back and stares into her wife’s eyes. “Make love to me.”

“My pleasure.”

Ali’s hands go to Ashlyn’s Class B blouse as the blonde’s hands slide up under Ali’s tee. They kiss, their mouths and tongues reuniting in the dance that always leads to pleasure. When Ashlyn feels her wife’s hands on her stomach she moans in anticipation. She shrugs out of her blouse as Ali unclasps her bra, allowing Ash to slip that off, too. Ali’s hands immediately go to pert breasts as the blonde arches into her. Ali breaks off the kiss to take one of those pebbled peaks into her mouth.

“Oh, fuck, yes,” Ashlyn groans, standing so she can slip out of her pants but making sure not to pull her chest from her wife’s mouth.

Ali slides her free hand down and slips it between the tall woman’s legs, feeling how wet and ready her wife is. Ashlyn’s legs tremble as she yanks Ali up out of the bed.

“Naked. Now,” she grunts out and they quickly divest the brunette of her clothes.

Now as ready as her wife, Ali lays back on the bed and drags Ashlyn down on top of her. Their mouths lock again as their bodies catch fire from rubbing together. Strong, nimble fingers slide through ebony curls soaked with desire. A hard clit greets those digits, who stop their descent to pay it some attention.

“Oh, yes! Oh, Ash!”

Ashlyn traps the clit between 2 fingers. She slides them back and forth, the friction making Ali writhe and make cute little sounds that make Ashlyn smile.

“Please...more, please,” Ali pleads.

Ashlyn has no plans to make her wife suffer. They both need this release. She releases the clit and slips her fingers deep into her wife.

“YES!”

“Oh, baby...so hot...” Ashlyn mutters against Ali’s neck.

Ali lets her wife thrust in and out several times before needing more. She needs to give as well as receive. She slides a hand into golden curls. Ashlyn mumbles something along the lines of “oh fuck yes” as she is soon filled with the fingers of her wife. The women thrust against each other. Ali’s head is thrown back as Ashlyn’s mouth devours her neck. Yes, there would be a mark. No, Ali really doesn’t care at the moment.

Sooner than either woman wants, their bodies start to rock faster, their hips push together harder, fingers reach deeper, and they are driven over into an intense orgasm together.

“ALEX! YES! YES, BABY!” Ashlyn screams against her wife’s neck.

“ASHLYN! LOVE YOU!” Ali screams as her legs wrap around strong hips and they ride each other over the edge.

Ashlyn collapses down onto her wife. They lie there, both panting, both still buried in each other. Ashlyn finally lifts her head and stares into eyes dark mocha with pleasure.

“I love you, Alex.”

“I love you, too.”

The two women kiss, then their hands start to move again. This time they go slowly. Ashlyn rolls off and the women lay facing each other as they slowly reignite the fire only temporarily doused by their first, hungry round of sex. Ashlyn brings her mouth down to her wife’s chest, sucking one breast, teasing it into a point using her tongue and teeth. Ali uses a hand to return the favor. When they are both rising to the summit once more, Ashlyn briefly pulls away...and turns so her mouth is by her wife’s center of pleasure.

“Oh, Ashlyn...”

Ashlyn rolls to her back, pulling Ali on top of her. Ali shifts until they are both perfectly place to give each other the ultimate pleasure. Ashlyn pulls her wife’s center to her mouth, her tongue sliding up through the wetness. She smiles.

“SO good!”

Ali smiles and brings her mouth down to the golden triangle below her. “My turn,” she whispers and dips her tongue into her wife. “So good,” she agrees, the vibrations making Ashlyn quiver.

Soon both women are feasting, the tongues and teeth working to give pleasure. Their desire and hunger for each other being slowly sated by their eager ministrations. Ali feels her second orgasm coming on. She wraps her arms around the strong thighs below her and lifts, giving herself even more access to her wife’s core; hoping this angle will help them go over together once more.

Ashlyn whimpers, knowing she won’t last much longer. With the angle she has, she takes her thumb and shoves it into her wife as her mouth latches onto the pulsing clit.

“OH!” Ali screams.

That scream into Ashlyn’s core sends her over the edge and into a spasmodic orgasm. Those spasms and the work of her mouth and tongue send Ali over the edge, too. After several aftershocks, Ali throws herself off her wife, needing to catch her breath and calm her body. Both women lay gasping for breath, their bodies occasionally trembling in the aftermath. Ali’s hand pats around on the bed until she finds Ashlyn’s. She entwines their fingers.

“I love you,” she says, giving her wife’s hand a squeeze.

Ashlyn smiles and squeezes back. “Welcome home, my champion.”

Ali groans. “We didn’t win.”

Ashlyn shifts around so she can stare down into chocolate eyes, now sated after their love session. “I’m not talking about the team. I’m talking about you. You’ll always be a champion to me for what you’ve overcome and what you’ve helped me overcome. I don’t care that you didn’t win the Algarve Cup. I don’t care that it was the worst showing ever for the U.S. You, Alexandra Blaire Krieger-Harris, will always be a champion to me. And I will always love you.”

There are tears in Ali’s eyes as she stares up into honest, loving green orbs. She brings a hand to Ashlyn’s cheek. “What did I ever do to deserve you?”

Ashlyn smiles. “You loved me back,” she explains simply.

Ali smiles and pulls her down into another kiss. Before it can lead to more, Ali’s alarm clock goes off. Both women look over to it, Ashlyn in confusion, Ali in disappointment.

“Talked to Dad earlier. He said he’d be home by 7.”

Ashlyn reads the clock face. It’s 6:45. She sighs and looks back to her wife. “Remind me again why we live here instead of our own place?”

Ali grins, seeing the amusement in her wife’s eyes. “Your job, my job,” she reminds her.

“Ugh. Right. Somehow it’s a bigger deal when we’re naked than when we’re working.”

Ali laughs and pulls her wife close. “True, baby. Oh, so very true.”

Reluctantly the women get up and hop into the shower for a quick rinse before getting dressed and going down to figure out what they can make for dinner.

Which turns out to be delivered pizza.

Chapter Text

April 2014

“Sacked? Are you serious? You guys won!”

“I know! But the dissention was growing and was impossible to hide. I can’t prove it but I think Abby and maybe Cap spoke with US Soccer. They knew if they didn’t fix things soon it would be too late to prep for Canada.”

Ashlyn sits back in her office chair. She had watched the game and was happy to see things had looked better on the field. This news comes out of left field for her. “Wow. I mean, I see what they mean but still...” She pauses a second. “I mean you guys won!”

“Yeah but I think they saw we had basically started to rely on ourselves, not the coach. It’s been bad at camp, like I told you. I guess word finally made it back to Sunil.”

“Yeah. So, what’s next?”

“Jill is back as our interim coach. We’re pushing for it to stay permanent. She knows us, we know her, and we like her.”

“That would be...oh, fuck...” Ashlyn trails off as her work cell starts to ring. She pinches the bridge of her nose. She knows her wife needs to talk and say the things she can’t say to the team. “I’m sorry, baby.”

Ali sighs, recognizing the tone coming from Ashlyn’s work phone. “You’re moving out?”

Ashlyn sighs. “Yeah.” She opens the text. “Earthquake in Cambodia. Communications pretty much wiped out. Some remote towns flattened. It’s going to be an ugly one.”

Ali bites her lip. She says a silent prayer. “Well, you better get your people moving, Lieutenant. Please stay safe.”

“You know I’ll try. I love you, Alex. I’ll let you know when we take off and I will contact you as soon as I can. Sounds like it could be a while.” She pauses. “Baby, I know you needed to talk this out and vent a little. I’m sorry I can’t be there for you.”

“Yeah, I know. I love you, Ashlyn.”

“Talk to you soon, sweetheart. I love you.”

“Yeah. Bye,” Ali says sadly as she disconnects.

She drops her phone on the table beside her as she stares out at the ships in San Diego Bay from a sitting area behind the hotel. They had won their game 2 days ago in Colorado, now they have lost their coach since arriving in San Diego, and now her wife is off to a horrible scene of devastation. There were so many things she had wanted to say to Ashlyn just to get it out of her system and now those things had to be bottled. Plus she now had to tamp down the worries that always arose when her wife went to a scene of catastrophe. She feels a migraine coming on as she fights with her emotions.

“Nothing like a calm week in your life, Alex,” she mumbles to herself.

She is still sitting there 2 hours later when Pinoe and Whitney stumble across her.

“KREIGY!” Pinoe yells and grabs her in a hug from behind.

“Hey,” she says softly.

Pinoe and Whit frown, stepping around to look at her face. They see the tracks of tears. Whitney pulls up a chair as Pinoe sits on the table.

“Where?” Pinoe asks simply.

“Cambodia. Earthquake. Major devastation, especially outlying towns. Communication in disarray,” Ali reports to them.

The other two women, bless their hearts, say nothing. They just take Ali’s hands and sit with her, offering comfort just by being there not by giving her false hope or empty platitudes.


 

Ashlyn sighs as she bounces around in the passenger seat of an army cargo transport truck. She stares out at trees so close to the road she can hear them hitting the roof of the cargo hold and even the outside of her door. Her mind is on a thousand things and she knows she needs to dial it down to the task at hand or risk mistakes. And mistakes can cost lives. She rubs her face and reaches for a thermos of coffee. She glances at the driver.

“Coffee, Private Mahoney?”

“No thank you, ma’am,” the woman answers quickly.

Ashlyn nods and pours a half cup for herself. She wants more but the rutted road dictates a low fill or she’d end up wearing the drink. As she sips she studies the woman driving out of the corner of her eye. Mahoney had been given a hell of a dressing down by Andrews for not completing a water inventory a few months back. Since then, her work had been sporadic. Sometimes she was dead on perfect while other times she her efforts were so poor Ashlyn questioned how she made it through boot camp. She had decided to make the woman her admin this trip so she could work with her and either make her an asset to the Corps of Engineers or get her ass transferred to another division in the Army.

“So, you’re originally from Texas?” Ashlyn says out of the blue.

“Uh, yes, ma’am. Small town called Big Sandy in East Texas.”

“Play any sports?”

“Yes, ma’am. Volleyball. And I was into FFA.”

“FFA?” Ashlyn questions.

“Future Farmers of America. I’d show chickens and rabbits. Won my division a few times and other times usually was at least top 5,” Mahoney volunteers.

Ashlyn nods, surprised by how much the woman revealed without prodding. “Excellent. So why’d you choose the Army instead of farming?”

Mahoney grins. “Honestly? A means to an end, ma’am. I wasn’t good enough at volleyball for a scholarship and my family has been farming for years. I need the GI Bill to get a chance at college.”

“Good planning. Will you eventually go back to the family farm?”

“I hope so. Just depends on it lasting for me to go back to it.”

“Interesting.” She pauses a moment. “So why the Engineers?”

“In talking to the recruiter he told me about these teams. He kinda made it sound like I’d be helping people get their farms put back together. I know how to do those things.”

“I see.” Ashlyn falls silent as she thinks about what she has observed. Mahoney was a hell of a worker. Onsite she was always helping haul boxes, set things up, anything physical that needed to be done she didn’t shy away from. Not surprising for a woman who loves the hard work of a farm. But ask her to do the paperwork and she struggles. Charts, write-ups, inventories. Suddenly Ashlyn rolls her eyes. “Mahoney, before you got to the Army, had you ever done inventories and write-ups? Used the charts we use to divvy up supplies and duties?”

The woman blushes but does not answer. Ashlyn looks at her and sees her biting the inside of her cheek, her eyes filled with fear. Ashlyn pinches the bridge of her nose.

“Son of a bitch,” she mumbles.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Mahoney whispers.

“No, Mahoney, I’m sorry. You’ve been with us far too long for me to not have figured this out sooner. Your work ethic on scene and your eagerness to help out with the physical aspects of the job are top notch. I should have seen it was the paperwork side you were having issues with, including how to do a proper inventory.” She places a hand on the tense woman’s shoulder. “At ease, Private, I’m not drumming you out or something.” Mahoney relaxes. “You’ll stay my admin on this mission. Pay attention to what we use the charts for, pay attention to how I note the daily inventory changes. All the paperwork shit you don’t understand you make a note of. If we have time, you ask then. If not, at the end of each day you and I meet to get your questions answered. When we return to Belvoir I’ll set you up with Corporal Patel and have him teach you all you need to know about the paperwork side of this job. I’m giving you three months to improve. Think that’s enough time for you, farm girl?”

Mahoney smiles, happy the woman she admires is willing to work with her not just get rid of her. “I’ll make it enough, ma’am. I promise.”

Ashlyn nods. “Good. I think you’ll find the skills you learn will actually help you when you get back to the farm. I can bet your father does more of those kind of tedious charts and inventories than you realize.”

Mahoney chuckles. “I guess so. I never really thought about it. I just always loved being out in the fields and working with the livestock. Guess there’s more to it than that though, right?”

“Right. We’ll make a soldier out of you and you’ll use that to become a better farmer than you imagined. Clean slate starting today, Mahoney. Deal?”

“Deal, ma’am. Thank you so much.”

Ashlyn nods and returns to staring out her window. That’s one thing off her mind. Now, if only she could figure out a way to make things better where it comes to her wife. She feels like she is failing as a spouse and knows she needs to improve things there or risk losing the best thing that’s ever happened to her.

But those thoughts will have to wait. They are coming up to the bridge that will take them into the village they have been assigned. She sees the lead car come to a stop and frowns. She hops out when Mahoney stops.

“Andrews? What the hell? I want to be set up by nightfall.”

“Come check this bridge out, LT.”

Ashlyn sighs in frustration and walks up to the bridge. Her eyes widen when she sees it. Large chunks are missing, most likely shaken off in the earthquake.

“SON OF A BITCH! Who the hell scouted this place? We need to airlift in supplies! We’ve wasted five hours driving to a place we can’t get to!”

Andrews is looking at his paperwork. He frowns. “Uh, I don’t recognize this name. A Captain Hoyer scouted it and said it was accessible by this road.”

“Son of a shit...get me a radio!” she orders, fuming.

Andrews looks at a private standing nearby and nods. The guy hurries back to the lead car and grabs the radio. By the time he returns he is handing the headset to Ashlyn.

“This is Lieutenant Harris with Charlie Team. Get me Nettles,” she orders.

Within 2 minutes, her C.O. is on the line. “What’s wrong, Harris?”

“Wrong? Oh, nothing, sir, if there’s a way to make our vehicles fly. Who the hell is Hoyer and how the hell did he evaluate this route?”

“Fly? Hoyer?” Nettles can hear the fury in his normally easy-going lieutenant’s voice. “What’s this about, Lieutenant?”

Ashlyn takes a deep breath and explains the waste of time the drive had been. Nettles grinds his teeth. This is a ridiculous and potentially deadly delay. Those people need help and help is stranded across a river with no way to reach them. He takes a deep breath.

“Hold for further orders, Harris.”

“Yes, sir.”

Ashlyn hands the radio back and starts to pace. Andrews knows better than to say anything to her. She is not happy and he is just glad he is not the cause for her wrath. After a few minutes, she looks at her sergeant.

“Tell everyone to get out and stretch. If they need to pee they can find a bush, but not wander too far off the road.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replies and goes off to deliver the message personally. Mostly because he wanted to feel like he was doing something other than waiting for word from HQ.

Twenty minutes later, Ashlyn is back on the phone with Nettles. Turns out Hoyer relied on locals to tell him the way to the village but never actually checked out the road or the bridge. Menninger is already taking care of him. Ashlyn’s caravan is to turn back and additional supplies would be sent out via helicopter. Ashlyn was told to handpick a team of 10 to wait at the bridge for a helicopter lift to the village to commence the humanitarian relief efforts. She hangs up and looks at her sergeant.

“Andrews, you’re to lead the trucks back to HQ. From what I remember, they’ll have to reverse carefully up the road about 1/2 a mile to that clearing where they can turn around.”

“And why aren’t you leading us, ma’am?”

“Ten of us are waiting here for a helicopter ride to the village. We’ll be there to start the relief efforts. The rest of you will be flown in tomorrow.”

Andrews frowns. “With all due respect, ma’am, I don’t think you- -”

“Andrews, you know I’m not going to order men and women to do shit I wouldn’t do. Pickford will be with me as my right hand until you arrive. He’s been in the Engineers since we were in diapers. He’ll know how to make do with few people and probably limited supplies. I’ll also take Mahoney, Patel, Suarez, King, Jefferson, El Khatib, Jeong, and Smith.”

Andrews considers the team she has chosen and asks one question. “Are you sure about Mahoney?”

“Yes. She and I talked. You and I will talk later. We kinda screwed up with her and starting today she gets a clean sheet from us as long as she works to get better. I want her to know I have faith in her so she comes with me.”

Andrews nods, trusting her. “As you wish. Be safe, LT.”

Ashlyn gives him a grin. “Always.”

He laughs and rolls his eyes. “Right.”

He goes off to give her orders and get her small team assembled. Ashlyn gets back on the radio with Nettles to let him know who is staying. Nettles rolls his eyes. He should have known his headstrong lieutenant would stay.

“Be careful, Harris.”

“Always, Major. I’ll let you know when we get there.”

“Good luck.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Ashlyn hangs up and finds a rock to sit on. Time to do nothing but wait.


 

Two Weeks later

Ali is packing up her bag on the side of the field. She is happy that the Spirit seems to be clicking this year. They had lost their first game to the Flash 3-1 but then rebounded the next game to beat FCKC, also by 3-1. She can’t help but think their 50-50 record was better than any record they’d had the year before. Her only wish is that her wife had been there to see the win. Heck, she’d have been happy if Ash had even seen the loss. She is pulled out of her thoughts by a surprising voice.

“Nice game, Krieger.”

Ali looks up in shock. “Jill! What are you doing here?”

Jill Ellis chuckles. “Scouting my players.”

Ali lifts an eyebrow. “Your players? They’ve offered you the full time job?”

“Not yet but I feel it is imminent. And even if it isn’t I need to know who to call up for the May game against Canada. I hope you know you’ll be getting that call,” she adds with a smile.

Ali smile brightly. “Thank you, Coach.”

“I like the way you captain your team. I think it’s safe to say you know the Spirit wasn’t very strong last year.”

“To put it mildly,” Ali says with a blush.

“But from everything I’ve heard, you kept the team positive and discouraged letting the players blame the coach for your downfalls.”

“I did my best,” Ali agrees, wondering where this is going.

Jill can see the suspicion in her right back’s eyes. She starts to chuckle. “Relax, Krieger, I’m not asking you to go on a campaign on my behalf. All I’m asking of you, and of all the veterans, is to stay positive. Regardless of who helms the team, we have just over a year until the World Cup. The younger players who have never been on that stage before need to believe that whoever US Soccer hires will have the ability to meld them into a team that can bring home the Cup. You were a leader for the Spirit when they needed you. Be a leader for the national team when we need you, too.”

Ali smiles and nods. “I can do that. I think those of us that were there in 2011 remember the bitter pill shaped like a silver medal. I’ll do whatever I can, on the pitch and off, to try to upgrade to gold status.”

“Good to hear.” Jill offers her hand. “Great game tonight. I look forward to seeing you in a couple of weeks.”

Ali shakes her hand. “I’ll be there.”

As Jill starts to walk away, she sees Ali reach into her bag and pull out a set of dog tags. The right back gives them a kiss and slips them over her head. Jill smiles.

“By the way, I meant to tell you after the China game, I like your tribute to Ashlyn. She was a hell of a keeper and I was sad to see her hang up her boots. But I guess she’s got a different pair of boots on now and I’ve heard she’s a hell of an officer.”

Ali smiles as she tucks the tags under her jersey. “She’s the best. But I may be a bit biased,” she jokes with a wink. “As crazy as her job is, she’s great at it and even though it scares me sometimes, I am so proud of her I could burst.”

“Good to hear. Tell her I said hello and I’ll keep her in my prayers.”

“Thanks, Jill. I’ll tell her.”

As Jill Ellis walks off, Ali lets her mind play with the thought of Ellis as their fulltime coach. She slowly nods. “Yeah...yeah, I think she could do it,” she murmurs.

She finishes gathering her things and hurries to the locker room to get changed before going out to a late dinner with ARod, Cheney, Amy LePeilbet and Nicole Barnhart. She is eager to see if Jill had spoken to them and to feel them out about their potential new head coach. Just as she gets to the locker room hallway her phone rings. She glances at the screen and sees it is unavailable.

“Hello?”

“Hey, baby.”

“ASHLYN! Oh, fuck, baby, are you okay? It’s been 2 weeks!” Ali says, slumping down against the wall.

“I’m mostly okay. Things were a little fucked when we first got here but I’m fine now.”

Ali frowns. “What do you mean ‘fine now’, Ashlyn? Are you hurt?” There is a long pause and Ali thinks she may have lost the connection. “Ashlyn? Are you there?”

“You’re talking to Ash?” ARod says excitedly as she and Lauren walk up.

Ali shrugs. “Ashlyn?”

“I guess no one called you. I mean, why would they? We were fine. It was more scary than anything else. I mean, we were all a little banged up but- -”

“ASHLYN! You’re babbling!” Ali interrupts, her voice laced with anger. “What. Happened?”

Ashlyn leans her head back against the wall of the hut she has called home the last two weeks. “We had to come in by helicopter and have supplies airdropped to us before they could rebuild the bridge to this village. Things...didn’t go quite the way they were supposed to. But I’m fine. We’re all okay now.”

“Ashlyn, honey, I don’t know if you’re tired, hurt, or just trying to protect me but you are NOT doing my heart any good by dodging the question. What happened to you? Are you or were you hurt?”

Ashlyn squeezes her eyes shut. This is not how she pictured this conversation going. She sighs. “I was hurt. Still a bit bruised.” She takes a deep breath. “The helicopter crashed.”

“OH MY GOD!” Ali screams. Lauren and ARod immediately are by her side as she slides down the wall to the ground.

“I’M FINE! Baby, we’re talking so you know I’m okay. I am exhausted but fine. Please don’t be scared, Alex. Please?” Ashlyn begs.

Ali takes a couple of deep breaths. “How...how did your helicopter crash?”

ARod and Lauren exchange a look of concern.

“The pilot got too close to some trees. Their roots had been weakened by the quake and the rotors made them fall. Two trees hit the blades and teetered the chopper. Those trees and a couple more that fell basically slammed the helicopter into the ground. The blades...fuck, the blades became shrapnel and killed 3 people on the ground. The twelve of us inside all made it out before it blew up but got thrown by the blast. Some broken bones and bruises are all we ended up with.”

“Broken bones?”

“Nothing broken on me. Private Mahoney broke my fall,” she jokes, trying to lighten Ali’s mood.

Ali wipes a hand down her face. “Are you sure? I mean, you’re not lying to me?”

“No, sweetheart, I’m not lying to you. It was scary as fuck and I’m damn glad we’ve built a new bridge so I don’t have to fly out of here, but I’m okay. I promise you, Alex.”

Ali takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “I love you so much. But your job scares the shit out of me sometimes.”

Ashlyn chuckles. “Me, too. Was a good thing I had a change of undies handy.”

Ali blurts out a laugh. “You are sick, woman. That’s not what I meant.”

Ashlyn grins, glad to hear her wife’s voice returning to normal. “Baby, I hate to say this, but we only have 5 minutes to make calls. We’re on generator here. So in my last minute I want to say I love you so much. If all goes well I’m out of here next week. And tell any players you see I have some great pics for Nike and Adidas.”

Ali smiles. “I’ll tell them. I’m with a few of them now. We beat FCKC, by the way. Lost to the Flash last week, though.”

Ashlyn runs a hand over her head. “Shit. I was thinking your season started tomorrow. I’m a little lost on days of the week I guess. So, uh, congrats on the win. Bummer about the loss, though.”

“Thanks. Look, I know you have to go. Please be safe, Ashlyn. I don’t care when you get home as long as you get home in one piece, okay?”

“You got it, Princess. Good luck at your next game. Tell the gals hi. I love you.”

“I love you, too. Talk to you soon, I hope.” She pauses. “Ash?” She pauses. “Ashlyn?” She finally pulls the phone from her ear and sees it has disconnected. She sighs and holds the phone to her heart. “She says hi, gals,” she chokes out.

ARod and Lauren pull her into a hug.

“She’s okay?” Lauren finally asks.

Ali nods. “Yeah. Bruised but okay. They only had 5 minutes to make a call and it disconnected when it reached that limit.”

“You’d think an officer in charge would get more time,” ARod states.

Ali smiles and nods. “Some demand it. Ashlyn won’t.” Ali sighs proudly. “She is determined to make sure she doesn’t abuse her rank. If it’s not fair for her squad, it’s not fair for her.”

“Screw that! Rank should have privileges!” Lauren exclaims. “She should be swinging in a hammock while they bring her lemonade and cookies!”

Ali and ARod burst out laughing. For a moment, Ali had thought Laruen was serious but then realized the defender was kidding.

“Yeah, right, Cheney.” She stands. “I need to shower. I’ll do my best to get into a better mindset before dinner.”

“You still want to go?” ARod asks sympathetically.

“Definitely. May even take a cab. Something tells me I’ll need a drink or 4 tonight.”

Her NT teammates chuckle as Ali finally heads into the locker room to get ready for a night out with her friends. Part of her feels bad that she can go out and have fun while her wife can’t. But another part knows she needs this night to help her get past the fear and the “what ifs” that plague her mind after hearing about her wife’s close call.


 

Ali and Diana Matheson are walking out of the locker room discussing what they need to do differently this time against the Reign. On April 23 they had been beaten 3-1. Most embarrassing was the fact they were scored on in the third minute.

“We just need to keep Fishlock off the ball and keep her and Winters from connecting on passes,” DMath states.

Ali chuckles. “Oh, if that’s all. How about you score in the second minute and make life easier for us in the back?”

DMath laughs. “Gee, you defenders expect us forwards to do everything, don’t you? Why don’t you score a goal or something, Kriegs?”

“Maybe I will,” Ali taunts back.

The two get out to the field and start to jog to the bench to get their muscles loosening up. Ali sets her bag down and steps out onto the pitch to start stretching. As she bends over at the waist she hears a wolf whistle. She rolls her eyes, amazed by the immaturity of someone in the stands. DMath just chuckles and starts to stretch her arms. Ali does a lunge to the right to do a lateral stretch. The wolf whistle happens again.

“Oh for fucks sake,” Ali grunts. “I hate people that can’t see us as athletes.”

“Me, too,” DMath agrees.

When Ali lunges back the other way, she is once again whistled at. She jumps up and turns around.

“WE’RE ATHLETES! SHOW SOME RESPECT!” she yells.

Ashlyn grins. “I respect it a hell of a lot. You’re just hot as shit and I gotta respect that, too.”

Ali’s eyes widen, her frown becoming a huge smile. She races at the fence. Ashlyn looks at the security guard beside her. “Believe me now?”

He laughs and nods. “I believe you.”

Ashlyn nods, braces her hands on the top of the fence, bends her knees and leaps the barrier in time to catch her wife in her arms. The two hold each other, Ali’s tears dampening the shoulder of Ashlyn’s ACU’s. After a few minutes, Ali leans back and pulls her wife into a deep, passionate kiss. Ashlyn’s hands rub up and down a strong back.

“GET A ROOM!”

Ashlyn and Ali break apart and turn to see Hope and Pinoe laughing at them. Ashlyn decides to answer Pinoe’s command.

“No time. Been gone. We’re just gonna borrow your locker room real quick.”

“Oh HELL no!” Hope states definitively.

Ali turns back to her wife, lowering her feet back down to the ground. “When did you get back?”

“We landed at Andrews a few hours ago. By the time I was free to leave I knew you’d be here already getting your mind ready for the game. So, I asked a Captain if he knew anyone who could give me a lift out here and, luckily, he had an airman in deep shit that needed to earn some good will. So, here I am, ready to see you and the Spirit beat the snot out of the Reign.”

Ali smiles and kisses her wife again as Hope and Pinoe start to jaw a bit about the Reign winning the game. When the kiss ends, Ali studies her wife’s face.

“You’ll tell me everything tonight, right?”

Ashlyn nods. “Yeah, baby. And I see the doc tomorrow morning,” she adds, meaning the psychologist she sees when things get rough.

“Good. I need to go warm up. Welcome home, baby. I love you.”

“I love you, too. Score one for me.”

“I think I will,” Ali agrees with a smile.

The two share another kiss before Ali runs back over to finish her stretching. Ashlyn then gets hugs from Pinoe and Hope before they join their team for warm up. Ashlyn hops back over the fence and goes to find something to eat and see where her new buddy the security guard will let her sit to watch warmups until Ken gets there with her family pass ticket.


 

Ashlyn has been loving the game. At halftime she eats a fourth hotdog as she and Ken discuss changes they’d like to see in the second half that could help Washington break the 0-0 tie.

“I hope Lori gets to play. She’s a beast in the middle and I think she could make a big difference against that Reign midfield,” Ashlyn notes.

Ken nods. “I think we’ll see her.” He nudges her proudly. “My daughter has a spark in her I haven’t seen in quite a while. Wonder what caused that?”

Ashlyn pretends to think a moment. “Clean socks?”

The two laugh as Ken shakes his head. “I was thinking you getting home.”

Ashlyn’s grin falters. “Yeah.”

He studies her a moment. “What’s going on in that head of yours, Ashlyn?”

Ashlyn stares at the hotdog wrapper in her hands as if it will give her the answers she needs. “Am I...a good wife? I mean, am I the right wife for Alex? I’m always gone, can rarely talk to her while I am gone, and...and I feel like when she needs me I’m not there for her; that I fail her.”

Ken reaches over and stills her fidgeting hands. “Ashlyn, I would have never given you my blessing if I felt you weren’t the right one for my daughter. Yes, your job takes you away. It’s the way of the military. She knew that when she married you. Is it hard for you both? Heck, yes. But she is so proud of what you do and so thrilled when you tell her about the great things you’ve done in just a few days or weeks. She brags on you to everyone she can. And if you have any doubt about her love for you, all you need to do is watch her with those dog tags of yours.”

“Really?”

“Yes. She wears them through warmups, then kisses them before securing them in a special pouch in her bag. And the first thing she does at the end of the game is put them back on. Sure, things can be tough for you both as a couple. But the love is there and as long as you don’t forget that you’ll be just fine.”

Ashlyn thinks about that a moment, then slowly turns and looks at him. “And...if something happens to me somewhere?”

“Are you really wondering if she’ll be mad if you die?” Ashlyn nods. “Hell, yes, she’ll be mad. But not at you. She’ll curse God and the Fates and whoever had a hand in your demise. She may seem to be mad at you at times but she won’t really be mad at you. She’ll just feel cheated out spending her golden years with you and all the things you won’t have together. With love comes the threat of loss. That’s just a fact of life. But that threat is no reason to do something silly like offer to divorce my daughter to spare her pain.”

Ashlyn blushes, embarrassed Ken has seen into her mind. “Uh, yeah...now that you say it like that it seems like a dumb idea.”

“Not just dumb. It’s deadly. She’d kill you.”

The two start to chuckle as Ashlyn nods in agreement. After a few minutes she turns to her father-in-law. “Thanks...Dad.”

He pulls her into a hug and kisses her temple. “Anytime...daughter.”

The two turn their attention back to the field as the players get set to start the second half. In the 52nd minute the two nearly leap out of the stands when Ali rips a shot off the frame.

“OH MY GOD! She said she would score for me and she nearly did!” Ashlyn says happily.

“GOOD SHOT, KRIEGER!” Ken yells, amazed at how close his right back had come to scoring the go ahead goal.

And then just after the 53rd minute begins. “THERE’S THE GOAL FOR ALI KRIEGER!” the announcer screams.

A ball bouncing around the box breaks out to the waiting right back who bangs home the shot with her left foot.

“YES! YEAH, ALEX! WAY TO GO, BABY!” Ashlyn screams as the crowd goes nuts.

The elated player celebrates on the field then runs to the sidelines to have a quick celebration with the bench. She then stops and looks towards the stands. She brings her left hand up to the valley between her breasts. Most would assume she is just gesturing to her heart but Ashlyn knows she is symbolically patting where two dog tags normally rest. Ali then brings her hand to her mouth and kisses her taped-over wedding ring. Ashlyn smiles and kisses her wedding band, tapping it to her own dog tags in response. Ali’s nose crinkling smile is at full wattage as she turns and jogs back into position to await the kickoff.

“Did I mention my girl loves you with everything in her?” Ken jokes.

Ashlyn smiles and nods, her eyes still on her wife. “Yes, she does. Thanks for stopping me from suggesting something that would have made her kill me.”

He chuckles and they turn back to watch the game, which unfortunately is a 2-1 loss to the visiting Reign.

Chapter Text

Ashlyn traces her fingers over the Liebe tattoo on her wife’s arm. By the light of the moon coming in their window she studies the gorgeous brunette who holds her heart. The sculpted cheek bones. The amazing muscle structure. The luscious lips, still slightly swollen from the blonde’s hungry kisses. She brings the finger that had been tracing Ali’s arm to the distinctive script on the woman’s ribs. She sees a tremor in the skin and realizes the beauty is no longer asleep. She looks up from her tracing to see cinnamon eyes smiling at her.

“You’re so beautiful,” Ashlyn says reverently.

Ali brings her hand up and strokes Ashlyn’s cheek. “So are you.”

Ashlyn rolls so that she lays on her wife, her hips nestled in between strong thighs. “I know you had a game and are probably exhausted but...but I just can’t get enough of you tonight. I need you so badly, Alex,” the blonde pleads.

Ali brings her hands up, cupping the perfect breasts that press against her. “I need you, too, Ashlyn. Always.”

Ashlyn leans down and lets her lips glide over the ones she had been studying. She brings her tongue out and carefully slides the tip along the softness. Her eyes flutter shut as Ali’s tongue slips out to greet hers, a gentle caressing of each muscle. Ashlyn presses her head down, increasing the pressure between their lips but allowing their tongues to still do the slow dance of reclamation. She braces her hands on either side of Ali’s shoulders and starts to rock her hips down into the dark curls that hide a pulsing jewel.

“Oh, Ashlyn,” Ali whispers against her wife’s lips.

“Alex...I love you so much.”

“Love...too...oh...” Ali moans as her center starts to push up to meet each thrust from the blonde.

Earlier they had fast and furious sex. Ali’s fear of nearly losing her wife overwhelming her and she made love in hopes of leaving marks on her soul that would never be erased. She needed to imprint her wife on her in a way that would always be with her should the worst happen. It is desperate. It is frantic. It is animalistic.

Now...now that the carnal fear had been sated, they were making love. Ali rolls so that the women are on their sides. She bends her leg at the knee as Ashlyn’s hands slides between them.

“Look me in the eye, Ashlyn,” Ali whispers. “I want to see you as we make love.”

Ashlyn’s eyes open. They are dark with desire. She bends her leg when she feels Ali’s hand begging entrance to her warm, wet center. The women moan as they time their strokes to match pace with each other. Their mouths dance once more as their hands orchestrate their love. Ashlyn’s body is on fire. Her heart is bursting with love for the woman in her arms. The woman that loves her despite her childhood. The woman that loves her despite the insecurities that sometimes still bubble up. The woman that loves her no matter how scary her job may be since she left the safety of the soccer pitch.

Ali reads all those emotions in the eyes of her beloved. And why shouldn’t she love her? She, who waited patiently for Ali to come to terms with and accept her attraction to women. She, who has never wavered in her belief that Ali will be a World Champion someday. She, who has nursed her back to health from injuries. She, who taught her what love really, truly means. She, who can be worlds away and still be so close in her heart.

Together they climb the mountain of lust higher, higher. As they reach the summit, their mouths separate and they pull each other closer. And at the moment they both hurtle over the edge, their mouths whisper their pleasure in the ears of the other.

“Oh, Ash!”

“Alex...my Alex,” Ashlyn breathes as her legs quiver with aftershocks.

Ali’s legs had stiffened, her hips thrusting with the spasms of climax. “My...Ashlyn...” she breathes out as her body finally stills.

Ashlyn slides her free arm under Ali’s shoulder and pulls her as close as their still buried hands will allow. No words need be said. No more caresses need exchanging. They lie as close as possible as their bodies tingle. After a few minutes, Ashlyn nuzzles Ali’s ear.

“Always, Alex. Always.”

Ali smiles, moaning her agreement. No matter what life may throw at them, they would be there for each other, to love each other, to support each other...Always.

And so they fall asleep, still joined at the hips and at the heart.


 

And so the NWSL season had gone on. Ashlyn making it to games when she could; Ali doing her best to captain her team to a run for the Shield.

But in mid-July, Ali gets called up to the National Team for a 2 week tournament in Japan. It is the country’s first big women’s sporting event since the devastating tsunami several years back. Ashlyn sits on the bed as Ali packs her bag.

“It’s cool that Japan invited the team and even better that US Soccer agreed, you know, considering Germany and all,” Ashlyn notes.

Ali nods. “Yeah. Still a bitter pill,” she notes with a grin. “But we all have so much respect for the players and the way they play it was a no brainer to accept the invite. This will give us a little international-style competition before Qualifiers in the fall.”

Ashlyn nods, feeling that twinge in her stomach that crops up when her mind thinks about what might have been if she’d stayed in the game. Would she be packing to go with Ali? Or would she still be sitting in the States desperate for a chance to prove she deserved to make the team? She lays back across the bed, her fingers locked behind her head.

“So, uh, what keepers are going?”

“Well, there’s this chick named Hope. She’s so-so,” Ali jokes.

“Smart ass. I mean other than the Great Solo,” Ashlyn teases back.

“Alyssa Naeher, you know the Penn State keeper?” Ashlyn nods with a grin. How could she not know the other Nittany Lion in camps? “And there’s a new girl named Gail Quillen. She was offered a full ride to UNC but turned it down to go to Tennessee. I think she was hoping to do for them what Abby did for Florida.”

Ashlyn nods. “I can see that. Especially for a keeper. I mean, only one position on the field and you want a chance to play.”

Ali studies her wife a moment. “Then why did you go to UNC?”

“Because I knew I could get time to play and...and I knew if I played for Anson I’d get to stay in the National Team pools. And if I did that...well...I wouldn’t end up back in Satellite Beach just...existing, you know?”

Ali nods. “I get that. And I’m so thankful you had that vision.” She leans over, giving Ashlyn an upside down kiss. “If you hadn’t, we’d have never met. And I just can’t picture my life without you.”

Ashlyn smiles and runs her hands up and down Ali’s thighs. “Right back atcha, Mrs. Krieger-Harris.”

Ali smiles and turns to start to pack again. But Ash has other ideas. She quickly yanks down Ali’s shorts and underwear, simultaneously sliding closer to the edge of the bed so her head hangs slightly off. She then grabs Ali’s thighs and pulls her right where she wants her.

“ASH! What are you- -Oh! Oh, fuck...”

Ashlyn smiles against her wife’s center, which is quickly getting wet and not just from Ash’s tongue. Ali spreads her legs, her packing forgotten, and she leans over, bracing her hands on Ashlyn’s thighs. Ashlyn moans, her tongue powering up into her wife; her chin hitting Ali’s clit with each powerful stroke.

“Fuck...Ash....oh, baby...so...so good...so...OH! Oh, I’m so close already, baby!” Just the erotic positioning of this experience has Ali immediately hard and wet. She knows it won’t take long but will enjoy every moment of it.

Ashlyn brings a hand around, she alternates thrusting in her tongue with thrusting in a finger. Ali’s legs nearly give out at the sensation. She starts to rock against her wife’s face, fucking it as best she can. Her head is thrown back as she grunts and gyrates. Ashlyn is nearly mad with wanting to make her wife scream. She withdraws her finger and slowly starts to slide it backwards. They had discussed this. They had considered this. Now...Ash was doing it.

Ali’s head nearly explodes when she feels a finger slowly circling the one place she had never been penetrated.

“Ash...yes, Ash...yes,” she shouts.

Ashlyn smiles against her wife’s center as she carefully pushes her finger in the back. Ali moans, her hips automatically pushing back against the invasion. Ashlyn takes that as a good sign and pushes in farther.

“FUCK! FUCK, ASH! FUCK!”

Ashlyn starts to thrust her tongue in and out again as her finger now mirrors the action in another orifice. Within seconds, Ali is exploding.

“YES! YES! YES!”

She falls forward, half on Ash, half on the bed as she is rocked with the most amazing orgasm she has ever had. She may have even passed out for a second because when she becomes aware of where she is, Ashlyn has turned around and holds the brunette in her strong arms. Ashlyn smiles at her wife.

“Good thing your Dad wasn’t home.”

Ali just smiles and pulls Ashlyn in for another kiss. When it ends, her eyes are serious. “You were the first and will be the last to do that, baby. You made it...you made it so good and so easy. Thank you.”

Ashlyn gives her a kiss, grinning when Ali moans at the taste on the blonde’s lips. “Thank you for trusting me to do that. I never want to hurt you.”

“You didn’t. It was perfect, baby.”

The two kiss for a little longer, then get up to get a shower together (with just a weeeee bit of hanky-panky) before Ali goes back to getting her things packed for Japan.


 

“BADGER!” ARod shouts, immediately flipping her head down to bring up the next answer.

“NO!” her teammates yell, busting out into laughter.

ARod frowns. “Then what was it?”

“A beaver, you nut case!” Ali laughs. “How many badgers do you know with flat tails?”

ARod blushes. “CRAP! I meant beaver!”

The group laughs, all having fallen into the trap of their mouths moving faster than their minds. ARod passes off the game to Tobin.

“Okay, Chuckles, let’s see how you do,” she challenges the middie who can’t even speak she is laughing so hard.

Tobin takes it and starts another round of the crazy game. They had been lucky that a supporter of the USWNT had paid for a charter from LA to Japan for the tournament. Ali begs out of this round of the game and goes back to two seats she had claimed as her own. As she sits down and curls up into a blanket she remembers trips cuddled up against Ashlyn as the team had travelled to games. She sighs as she stares out at the clouds. It’s times like these she wishes her wife hadn’t traded in cleats for combat boots. Well, one of the times. She knows she’ll also miss her in the hotel bed. Sure, they didn’t always room together when Ash still played but they could often carve out a couple hours a day to cuddle. It was always a peaceful moment in the craziness of camp and tourneys.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

Ali looks up at the smiling face of Lauren. She scoots her feet over so her friend can sit down. She shrugs. “Just missing Ashlyn,” she admits with a wistful smile.

Lauren grins and nods. “Me, too.”

“You’re missing my wife?” Ali teases with a giggle.

Lauren laughs and shoves her playfully. “No! Missing my husband, you brat.”

“I couldn’t resist.”

“Next time…resist,” Lauren teases, drawing a huge smile from the defender. “What?”

“I often have to tell Ash the same thing.”

Lauren chuckles. “Why am I not surprised?” Ali shrugs as she giggles. “So how is she doing? She home right now?”

“Yep. Got back 4 days ago so we had a little time to reconnect before I flew out to LA yesterday.”

“Wonderful! So, think she’ll make a career out of the military?”

Ali smiles, pride in her eyes. “You know, I really do. She loves what she’s doing and she’s really good at it from what I can tell. I think as long as she feels like she’s making a difference she’ll aim to keep advancing her career.”

“That’s so great. I’m glad she found her calling. I’m…I’m starting to try to figure out my life right now. It’s good to hear there can be life after cleats and grass stains.”

Ali nods. “I know. Of course, I’m not quite ready to just be an officer’s wife. I have some unfinished business at two major tourneys,” she says, thinking of the World Cup and the Olympics.

Lauren smiles. “Yeah, I think we all have our eyes on redemption in Canada.”

Ali nods. “Yep. Will Jrue be able to make it to the games?”

Lauren shrugs. “Depends on the play offs. If his team is doing well it will be tough.” She thinks a second. “Is it bad I want him there which means his team has to do badly?”

Ali giggles. “No, not bad. Just natural to want your spouse there. I’m sure there are times you wish you could be there for him. I know he’d want to be with you in Canada if he can be. We’ll just have to see what happens.”

“What about Ash? Will she be able to go at all?”

Ali shrugs. “Once we qualify she’ll talk to her colonel about getting time off. She’s too superstitious to ask sooner.”

Lauren giggles. “Geez. Keepers and their superstitions.”

“No kidding!”

The two talk for a few minutes more before Lauren gets called over by Morgan Brian to take a look at something. Ali goes back to looking out the window. Her hand slips into her collar and she pulls out the dog tags she wears. Like she often does, she runs her fingers over the raised lettering.

“I love you, Ashlyn.”

She gives them a kiss then closes her eyes to take a nap, the tags still held securely in her hand.


 

Ashlyn is finishing up her third requisition form of the afternoon when her phone sends her an alert. She smiles, wondering if her wife is sending her an email. By now she is midway through her trans-Pacific flight. She unlocks her phone and sees she has been tagged on Instagram. She opens the app and starts to smile.

A picture posted by Pinoe shows Ali curled up across 2 seats, wrapped in a blanket with her head on a pillow against the plane wall. And in her hands she clutches her wife’s dog tags. Pinoe’s tag to the pic makes Ashlyn chuckle.

Ain’t she cute? The princess is napping and dreaming of her knight in shining armor. #missinghersoldier #sleepingbeautyaintgotnothingonher

Ashlyn chuckles and responds.

Damn right she’s prettier than Sleeping Beauty. My princess is by far the fairest of them all. #missingmyrightback #mylifeisbetterthanafairytale

Ashlyn hits reply and stares at the photo a second longer. “You really are the most beautiful woman I know, baby,” she whispers.

She then locks her phone and gets back to work. Yes, paperwork sucks but that brief respite will give her the strength to get through the rest of the day.


 

“UP! UP! UP!”

Ali grabs Kling who quickly leaps onto the taller defenders back. The two laugh along with everyone else as Morgan Brian had attempted to get Abby Wambach to jump on her back.

“Seriously, kid? I’d crush you,” Abby teases the embarrassed UVA student.

“Sorry,” she mumbles, wishing she could just disappear.

Abby sees how upset the youngster is and puts an arm around her shoulder. “Come on. Let’s be a distraction and try to knock a few more out of the game.”

Morgan just nods her head, unable to speak to the superstar. Abby knows she’ll need to have a good talk with this kid, and possibly Lauren, to help Morgan recognize she’s there because she deserves to be just like all the other players. It’s a pretty common problem with the newest members of the team: hero worship. Abby will need to get with Pinoe, too. A few pranks will help Morgan start to fit in. She can be an accomplice and the butt of a few jokes for these 2 weeks and that should make her a little more at ease with everyone as time goes on. From what Abby has seen, this kid has a good chance of making the World Cup roster and could, in fact, maybe be an impactful player off the bench on the world stage.

When practice ends, Ali walks over and gives Pinoe a bit of a hip check. “Saw the pic, you freak. How often do you watch people sleep and take pics of them?” she teases.

The blonde starts to laugh. “Oh, Ali...if only you knew,” she says with an exaggerated eye-brow wiggle. Ali bursts out laughing. “But seriously, Kriegs, you looked so damn cute. I knew Ash, and your legions of fans, would love that shot. It was so cute.”

“Right. Sure you weren’t getting revenge for that goal I scored?”

“Of course not.” She pauses. “Hope said she’d take care of you for that one.”

Ali’s eyes widen and she flicks her eyes over towards the keeper. “If you’re serious make sure my body gets back to my wife,” she stage whispers.

“I will. Promise,” Pinoe whispers back.

After getting to her bag, Ali immediately reaches into the pouch inside for the dog tags. Her breath hitches: they aren’t there.

“No, no, no, no,” she starts to mumble as she digs through the bag.

“You okay?” Pinoe asks.

Ali turns and grabs her arm. “Swear to me you didn’t take my dog tags. Swear it, Megan!” she shouts, drawing looks from several people.

Pinoe shakes her head. “Al, I wouldn’t do that. It’d be like...like taking your wedding ring. I swear.”

Ali sees the honesty in her eyes and drops down to start looking around the ground. A few others start to help, even checking their own bags to make sure the defender didn’t put them in the wrong bag by accident. Once she is sure the tags aren’t on the ground, Ali rips into her bag again. She empties it completely, shaking anything that could possibly conceal the precious items. By now the whole team is looking for the tags.

“FUCK! Swear to me none of you are playing some crap-assed joke on me!” Ali demands.

“Kriegs, we wouldn’t pull that kind of shit on you,” Abby tells her.

“Yeah, are you sure you wore them to the field?” Becky asks.

“YES!” Ali shouts.

“I saw her take them off and put them in her bag,” Morgan volunteers, her eyes wide with nerves. “She definitely had them on until then.”

Ali nods her thanks to the youngster and starts to pace. She then notices a man hurrying away from the team. She frowns.

“Who the hell is that?!”

The team turns to look. The man glances over his shoulder, his eyes widening when he sees them all watching him. He starts to run towards the gates of the practice facility. Ali takes off after him. She is soon outpaced by Sydney, Press and Morgan, who cut off his exit, forcing him into a stumbling stop. He looks around, trying to find another way out...

...and is tackled to the ground by Tobin Heath, who looks angrier than anyone has ever seen the laid back middie.

“If you’ve got her dog tags, you better give them back before I stomp your face,” she says, the Jersey girl in her coming out.

The man swallows in fear. A shaking hand reaches into his pocket and pulls out the dog tags. Ali grabs them out of his hand.

“WHY? Why did you take these?” Ali demands to know as two of the coaches grab the man and drag him to his feet.

He looks down. “I just...wanted something of yours,” he says.

Ali steps up to his face. “Bullshit! Check his pockets!”

Tony shoves his hand in and his eyes get wide. He pulls out 4 watches, 6 rings and 1 money clip.

“YOU FUCK!” Carli screams and grabs her ring.

“That’s mine!” Abby states, grabbing her watch.

Jill walks up at that moment with 2 police officers. “Ladies, these two gentlemen will be pleased to take your theft reports and take this jerk to jail.”

As people start to identify for the police what was stolen from their bags, Ali steps away. She slips the dog tags over her head and gives them a kiss. She sighs in relief. Yes, goalkeepers have their superstitions but she is finding out she has one, too. If the tags are safe, Ashlyn is safe. Maybe it’s not always true but it makes her feel like she has some semblance of control of her wife’s life. She feels a hand fall on her shoulder.

“You okay?” Whitney asks.

Ali manages a smile. “I am now. He get anything of yours?”

“Nope. Looks like it was just those of you with bags on the bench. He hid behind it and grabbed what he could and just shoved things in his pockets. He thought we’d be practicing longer or he’d have been gone sooner,” Whit explains.

Ali sighs in relief. “Thank God we ended when we did. The other stuff he took...he’d have been able to sell that stuff and it might have been found.” Her hand goes back to her tags. “These he’d...he’d have just thrown them away.”

“True,” Whit agrees. “And then Ashlyn would have flown out here, kicked his ass, and caused a major international incident. She’s such a damn hothead,” she says with fake disgust.

Ali starts to laugh. “Yeah, she’d have done all that. Of course I wasn’t much better just now.”

“Ali, we get what those tags mean to you. Why do you think we all ran after that guy? Some of us are just freakishly faster than others,” she notes.

Ali smiles and wraps her arm around Whit’s waist as they go back to get Ali’s things packed back up so they can leave the field for the hotel to get ready for team dinner.

And so Ali can call her wife just to tell her how much she loves her.


 

Ashlyn reaches blindly for her phone when it rings just after 2 a.m. It isn’t until it is up to her ear and still ringing that she realizes it’s her personal phone, not her work phone that is disturbing her sleep. And it is Ali’s ringtone. She grabs that phone and answers at the last possible second.

“Alex?” she croaks out.

“Hey, baby. Where you sleeping?”

“Well, since it’s 2:08 a.m., hell yes I was sleeping. But it’s okay. I like talking to you.”

“Shit! Fuck, baby, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called. I didn’t even think of the time change.”

“Alex, it’s okay. Promise. I’ve been missing you.”

“I’ve missed you, too. I...I...something...happened today,” Ali starts then chokes up.

Ashlyn sits up in bed, instantly wide away. “Alex, baby, talk to me. What happened? Are you hurt? Is Whitney hurt? What’s going on?”

“No, honey, no one was hurt. Not physically, at least.” She takes a deep breath and tells her about the man that tried to rob the team. “So...no one got hurt but he...baby, he’d have thrown your tags away.” She sobs at the end.

“Oh, baby. Alex, honey, listen to me, okay? Listen to me: nothing, and I mean nothing, can change my love for you. Had he taken those tags I’d have sent you new ones. Please don’t chase someone like that down ever again. You, any of you, could have been hurt. Nothing is worth your life or worth injury, honey. I promise you.”

“But...the tags...they...they keep you safe.”

“They what?”

Ali runs a hand over her face. She takes a deep breath and tells Ashlyn the meaning that had somehow attached itself to the tags.

“And I know it’s probably crazy but...but I’d go to the ends of the earth and back to keep you safe,” she finally finishes.

Ashlyn stares up at the ceiling for a moment, then starts to chuckle. “So does this mean I can tell your dad that right back’s get superstitious, too?”

Ali giggles. “No, you ass. You can just tell him that I love you so much and I will do whatever I have to do to preserve the symbols of that love.”

“Oooo, good answer,” Ashlyn agrees. “So, uh, I have an obstacle course scheduled for half my squad tomorrow, including me. I hate to do this but I need sleep, baby.”

“That’s fine, baby. I just...had to talk about what happened and make sure I didn’t make you mad.”

“Never, sweetheart. It’s all on the guy that stole things from you guys. I love you, baby, and what you were willing to do to get my dog tags back.”

Ali smiles. “Thank you for saying that. I love you so much. I’ll talk to you later this week, preferably at a better time for you.”

Ashlyn grins. “Count on it, princess. Win tomorrow.”

“We’ll do our best. Bye, baby.”

“Goodbye, sweetheart.”


 

Ashlyn is covered head to toe in mud and muck. She stands near the end of an Army Humvee and starts to strip off her outer layers.

“Looking green out there, LT?” Andrews walks up and teases her.

“Actually, they were looking really good. Only had to reprimand them a couple of times. And DAMN Briscoe is a fucking BEAST!” she hoots, talking about her squad, especially a new edition named Greg Briscoe. The young man is 6’5” and built like a brick house. “We could hide the entire damn squad behind him! I can’t wait to see how he handles his first tour away.”

“I get that,” Andrews agrees.

She pulls an Army sweatshirt, the sleeves cut off, on over her sweat-soaked tee shirt and grins. “And Mahoney is still putting some guys to shame with her athleticism,” she says proudly.

Andrews chuckles. “Spoken like a true female athlete.”

“Damn right. So, what’s on my agenda for the afternoon?” she asks her right hand.

“Meeting with Nettles at 2:30 regarding your future.”

Ashlyn grimaces. “Ugh. Wish I could just say I’m happy where I am and leave it at that.”

“No chance. You’re on the way to Captain, LT. And I’m damn proud of you for that.”

Ashlyn grins. “I thought you NCO’s hated us brass desk jockeys.”

Andrews laughs out loud. “LT, of all the officers I know, you are the last one I would ever call a desk jockey.” He gestures to the rain-soaked obstacle course she had run with her squad. “How many do you know that run through that crap with their soldiers? Especially after an unexpected summer storm that muddies the ground and turns the air into a steam bath?”

“I think I am the only one nuts enough to do that,” she states with a grin.

“Damn right! Makes me brag to the other sergeants that my lieutenant is the most kick-ass LT out there.”

“Well, thanks for the vote of confidence. Now, drive my ass to the gym so I can get a shower, Sergeant.”

He snaps into a salute at the order but the smirk on his face shows it’s more for show than for respect. “Ma’am, yes, ma’am!”

Ashlyn laughs and shoves him towards the driver’s door. “Smartass.”

Forty-five minutes later she is nearly ready for her meeting with Major Nettles when the man hurries up to her desk.

“Harris, you’re being temporarily transferred to Major Ramos’ team,” he says handing her a piece of paper.

“Uh, okay, sir. May I ask why?”

“Read it, Lieutenant.”

Ashlyn frowns in confusion then looks at the paper in her hand. Her face pales and she feels like she may throw up. She looks up at her c.o.

“Sir...is...are they...”

“Word is they are being moved to the ambassadorial annex to await evacuation. There’s...there’s no definitive word on injuries or...anything. We just know part of their hotel collapsed and some players were hurt.”

Ashlyn stands, her knees shaking. “When do I leave?”

“His team has already been mustering for 3 hours. His car is outside waiting for you for the trip to Andrews AFB.”

Ashlyn hurries to the closet that holds her deployment gear. She grabs her bag and gun belt. She then goes to her desk and packs up what she needs there. Nettles pats her on the shoulder as she zips her backpack.

“If I hear anything, I’ll call you.”

Ashlyn nods. “Thank you, sir.”

She hurries out of the building and climbs into the waiting Humvee. Andrews sees Nettles staring out after her and walks over.

“Sir? Was that Lieutenant Harris leaving?”

“Yeah. She’ll be on Ramos’ team for a few days.”

“May I ask why, sir?”

Nettles sighs and turns to the man he knows is more friend than subordinate to his lieutenant. “An 8.2 earthquake hit Japan at about 10 a.m. our time. Ramos’ team is charged with getting supplies to the ambassadorial staff and families then getting them evacuated.”

“Japan? Isn’t Ali...?”

“Yes. The US Women’s National Team is also being moved to the ambassador’s annex for evacuation. The hotel they were in...part of it collapsed. We know some of the players were injured but don’t know the extent of their injuries or...or if...we just don’t know anything more than they are to be evacuated to Hawaii with the non-essential staff and all families of staff. NAF Atsugi took major damage but should be okay to receive Ramos’ team when they arrive. They are trying to get it up and running well enough to allow for a C-130 to land for the evac.”

“Damn...” Andrews mutters pulling out his phone. He shoots off a text to Ash.

Keeping Ali and the team in my prayers. If you need to vent, I’m here for you, LT.

On the way to Andrews AFB, Ashlyn reads the text but her hands are shaking too much to respond at the moment. Her calls to her wife had gone unanswered; all but one of her texts had popped back as undeliverable. Every time she has gone on these missions she had been wrapped up in nerves as she ran down various scenarios for failure in her head. Never before had the consequences of failure seemed so dire.

Never before had she been too scared to do her job, worried about what she might find out when she arrives on scene.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

The flight to Japan normally takes 14 hours. With special clearance, the plane out of Andrews AFB was able to make it in just over 12. Ramos looks at Ashlyn.

“Fill a truck with food and clothes, a truck with water, and get a flatbed for the dual port-a-potties.”

Ashlyn frowns. “The cans weren’t already delivered?”

“Nope. Using ones on this plane as the ones on base were needed there.”

Ashlyn rolls her eyes. “Gross if the reports of the annex bathroom are true.”

“No doubt.”

“Sir, can I also get a crate of toys? There are bound to be kids there.”

Ramos nods. “Of course. Let Horton know to put one on. Hell, your wife’s team is mostly responsible for those. Seems right they get them.”

Ashlyn grins. “True. But only one kid is with them. I figure the embassy families will have kids though and they may not have been able to grab toys and stuff.”

Ramos nods. “True.”

As soon as the plane comes to a stop, Ashlyn has men loading up the waiting trucks. Since they couldn’t bring a C-130, they are limited in what they have but if all goes well, they will just be at the annex a few hours until they can evacuate to Hawaii. As she pulls herself up into the passenger’s side of the truck she can’t help but whisper, “On my way, baby. On my way.”

Inside her stomach is filled with butterflies. Is her wife one of the injured? And if so...how badly?


 

One hour and 45 minutes after she landed in Japan, Ashlyn is jogging up the stairs of the Embassy annex. As she nears the top, a Marine private salutes her.

“Good to see you, Lieutenant. I know Sarge will be really happy to see you,” the young man says.

Ashlyn listens as a man shouts inside the building.

“I DEMAND to speak with the Admiral! Don’t you know who I am?”

“Sir, I told you more information is on its way. Please have a seat and- -”

“I AM THE AMBASSADOR’S TOP AIDE! I demand to use your radio to speak to the admiral so we can be evacuated IMMEDIATELY!”

Ashlyn rolls her eyes and looks at the Marine. “I thought this was non-essential staff? Sounds like he is important.”

“Permission to speak freely, ma’am?” Ashlyn nods. “This guy thinks he’s important but he’s not. He’s pissed the Ambassador ordered him to be evacuated so he’s taking it out on my sergeant.”

“I see. Well, let’s get the heat off your sergeant. Step through the door and call your team to attention and announce officer on site. He’ll turn his crap on me and give your sergeant a break.”

The private smiles. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”

Ashlyn nods and glances at the members of her team who have stepped up with her. They grin, eager to see what this borrowed lieutenant does to shut this blowhard up.

“ATTENTION! OFFICER ON SITE!” the Marine yells loudly.

Ashlyn waits a second, then steps through the door. Offering Sergeant Palmer a salute. The man looks beyond relieved.

“Sergeant, all secure here?” she asks.

Before he can answer, a short man with a pinched face and bad comb over steps in front of her.

“I am Jackson Prothro the third,” he states pompously.

“Lieutenant Ashlyn Harris. I’ll speak with you soon. Right now I need a sit-rep from the sergeant.”

The man grabs Ashlyn’s arm as she starts to step past him. “You will speak with ME, solider! Don’t you know who I am?”

Ashlyn rips her arm out of his hand and gets in his face. “I don’t give a damn who you are! You will sit down, shut up, and be dealt with soon. The lives of the people in this building are in my hands and I will not have a pompous blowhard doing anything to jeopardize them. So either go have a seat and wait for my address to everyone or you can be cuffed and escorted to the stockade. Your. Call.”

The two are locked in a battle of wills. Ashlyn’s eyes are hard and unrelenting. The man’s eye starts to twitch.


 

As soon as Ashlyn had walked in the doors, her friends and wife had stood, so happy to see her there to save them. As she has her confrontation with Prothro, Lauren chuckles and takes Ali’s hand.

“You know, I’m totally straight, completely in love with my husband, and yet your wife has me so turned on right now.”

“I second that,” HAO says.

Ali grins and squeezes Lauren’s hand. “She is pretty damn hot right now, isn’t she.”

“Oh, definitely. And the uniform helps,” Lauren agrees with a chuckle.


 

Ashlyn glares at the man, never breaking eye contact. He finally swallows visibly and turns away. “I’ll just...be over here,” he mumbles as he walks over to the rest of the embassy contingent.

Ashlyn nods and turns to the sergeant. He grins.

“Thank you, Lieutenant.”

“My pleasure. So give me a rundown, Sergeant.”

He nods towards the embassy contingent. “Total of 43 men, women and children. Expecting another 20 soon and that should be all. All have been calm and easy to deal with except for Mr. Personality.” Ashlyn grins at the description. He then gestures to the other side of the room. “U.S. Women’s National Team has been a dream to deal with. Total of 34 adults and 1 child. Two were injured but their trainers took care of the injuries.”

As soon as she had turned to look, Ashlyn’s eyes had met scared, brown eyes that also managed to look relieved. She gives her wife a comforting wink, wishing she could just go over and pull her into her arms. But there will be time for that soon. She turns back to the sergeant.

“Very good. Outside we have food, water, sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer, as well as a flatbed with a dual port-a-potty set-up.”

“Oh, thank God,” he mutters.

“My men will get a sanitation station set up as well as a station to hand out the MRE’s and water.” She looks at her watch, noting the countdown she had started before leaving Atsugi. “The best guess is the runway will be ready for the C-130 in 5 hours and 14 minutes. The plane is already in the air from Pearl Harbor, HI and aiming to land in 6 hours. I’ll address everyone here as a whole then take questions from each group separately. After that I’ll need 5 minutes personal time.”

The sergeant frowns. “Personal time?”

Ashlyn nods. “My wife is on the soccer team.”

The Marine’s eyes get wide. “Seriously?”

Ashlyn chuckles. “Seriously. I used to be on the team, too, so I have friends on that side of the building. I just want a couple minutes to prove to myself my wife and friends are okay. Especially my wife.”

“You’ll have it then,” Palmer says. “So, uh...which player?”

Ashlyn grins. “Ali Krieger.”

Palmer chuckles. “Damn. Well, don’t tell Snowski. I think he was planning to propose later today.”

“Love at first sight?” Ashlyn asks.

“Definitely.”

Ashlyn laughs quietly. “Yeah, can’t say I blame him but she’s definitely taken.”

“I’ll let him down easily.”

Ashlyn nods and wipes the smile from her face. “Well, let’s get this done.”

Ashlyn looks around and sees three of her squad are approaching. She lifts an eyebrow and they nod. They are ready. She turns and walks over to a desk that had been part of the security booth when the annex was open. She hops up on top of it.

“CAN I HAVE EVERYONE’S ATTENTION PLEASE!” she calls out in an authoritative voice. Once everyone is quiet and looking her way, she begins. “I am Lieutenant Ashlyn Harris with the US Army Corps of Engineers. My men and I are a Rapid Response Team attached to the Civilian Works division. We have reported to many events such as these around the world and are here to assure you that everything will be okay.

“As you can see, my squad is bringing in numerous crates.” She waves her hand. “To my left will be a sanitation station consisting of handi-wipes, bottles of hand sanitizer, and a bathroom kit with toothbrush, toothpaste and mouthwash.” She gestures the other way. “To my right will be a station with MRE’s and water bottles. Once we are ready to go, parents with children will be served first, then women, then men. There is plenty for everyone so no need to be concerned with going last. Outside, we are setting up a 2-door port-a-potty to alleviate the issues concerning the plumbing in this building. For now we won’t restrict who can use them but we do ask you to be calm and orderly when going out to them.”

She then points to two soldiers standing beside the desk. “These two men will be coming around to speak to everyone regarding medications and any other needs you may have. For parents this could mean diapers, formula, bottles, etc. If you are on any medication that you were not able to bring with you, they will need to know dosage, times per day you take it, and of course the name of the medicine. We will be able to get you a 2 day supply from the base pharmacy of most medicines and the pharmacist will attempt to find a suitable substitute for anything he does not have in stock. I will now visit with the embassy contingent and then the USWNT contingent to address any immediate concerns of both parties. Thank you.”

She hops off the desk and nods to the two soldiers to start gathering the information she needs when she calls back to the base. She walks over to the embassy families.

“Ladies and gentlemen, are there any questions?”

“What about our pets?” one woman asks.

Inside, Ashlyn clenches but her face betrays nothing. “Unfortunately we cannot evacuate pets at this time. The best bet would be to try to get word to anyone who is staying behind to see if they can help you with caring for your animals until you return.”

The woman seems devastated and Ashlyn quickly turns away. Not to her surprise, the pompous idiot has his hand up.

“I don’t like MRE’s. What else can you get us?”

“Nothing.”

“But they taste terrible!” he whines.

“Sir, every soldier and Marine in this building eats those on a regular basis and they’ve yet to kill one of us. You can handle it for a day or you can starve yourself. Everyone gets MRE’s or nothing,” she states firmly.

She answers a few more questions and dodges the questions about time until they leave, promising to update them the next time the base lets her know how things are going regarding getting the runway open. She then finally gets to go address her friends. As she walks, her eyes are on Ali’s...which is why she is nearly taken to the ground by Reece Rampone.

“ASHLYN! I’m scared!” the girl yells, crying.

Ashlyn carefully eases Reece back and kneels down. She forces the little girl to look up. “Hey, Reece, it’s going to be okay. My job is to help people when things like this happen and that’s just what I’m going to do for you and the team, okay? I’ve done this a whole lot and I know everything will be just fine.”

“But sometimes the building shakes and stuff falls on my head and it’s scary!” the little girl insists.

Ashlyn stares into terrified eyes begging for reassurance. She smiles and lifts the helmet off her head. She places it on Reece and even secures the chin strap.

“Here you go. You wear this and you’ll be just fine. It’s really hard,” she explains, rapping on it with her knuckles to prove it. “In fact, it is even harder than Abby’s head. And we all know how hard her head is,” she jokes, making Reece smile and the players, including Abby, grin. “Now, think you can do me a favor?” Reece nods. “I need you to help your Mama keep everyone calm until we get out of here. Can you do that for me?”

Reece smiles proudly. “I can do that, Ashlyn! Promise!”

Ashlyn smiles. “I knew I could count on you.” Reece gives her a hug then runs back to “help” her Mama. Christie gives her former keeper a grateful smile. Ashlyn smiles and stands. “Hey, guys.”

Jill steps forward and gives her a hug. “Damn good to see you, Ash. What’s the word?”

“Word is we’re going to get you out of here in a few hours. I’ll know more in a little while but right now we’re going to do what we can to keep you fed and as comfortable as possible.” She walks over to Hope and Syd, seeing that they appear to be the only 2 seriously injured. She squats down to assess them. “You two the only ones with injuries?”

“Yeah. Part of our hotel room collapsed,” Hope explains.

“Shit,” Ashlyn mumbles, thinking how much worse things could have been. “Do you need any medical assistance?”

“No. Thankfully Tracy and Josh grabbed their training bags,” Sydney says. “They took care of everything.”

“Good.” Ashlyn stands and looks at the trainers. “If you need more supplies, let me know. We have a medic with us that may have what you need.”

“Thanks,” Tracy says in appreciation.

Ashlyn looks at everyone. “Any other questions?”

“Uh, what about our families?” Morgan Brian asks nervously. “I mean, like, can we contact them?”

Ashlyn thinks a second. “Right now most communications towers are out of order. Those still working are restricted to official channels only. But if you all can make a list for me with just one contact email address per player or coach I can see about getting an email out to them when we get to Atsugi. Make sure this contact will spread the word to your family and friends. I won’t have much time so I can only send it for one person each,” she reiterates.

The team nods and Tony immediately gets a piece of paper to start the list going around. Once Ashlyn is sure no one else has any questions, she turns to Ali.

“Mrs. Krieger-Harris, can I have a word please?” she asks, and gestures to a hallway just beyond the team.

Ali wordless nods and starts down the hall. As soon as they are out of sight of everyone, Ali leaps into Ashlyn’s arms. The two women need no words as they just hold each other. Ashlyn feels her wife’s tears hitting her shoulder and wishes she could release her emotions so freely, too. But as the officer in charge, she has to maintain her cool. After a moment, Ali leans back and the women share a deep, relieved kiss. When it ends, Ashlyn brushes a lock of hair off her wife’s cheek.

“I was so scared,” she admits. “We didn’t know who was hurt or how badly.”

“I prayed you would be the one to come,” Ali replies. “I was so scared and I feel so safe now that you are here. I love you so much, Ashlyn.”

“I love you, too, Alex. I am so glad you are okay; that all of you are okay.”

The two kiss again then just hold each other a few more minutes. Though she would rather hold the brunette forever, Ashlyn finally has to pull away.

“I need to get back to work, Alex.” She stares into dark eyes. “I’m getting you home, baby. I swear to you I’m getting you home.”

Ali cups her wife’s cheek, staring into hazel eyes. “I know, sweetheart. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

The two share another gentle kiss, then return to the main room. As they get there, Whitney steps up and pulls Ashlyn into a hug.

“So glad you’re here, Ash.”

“Me, too, Whit. Glad you’re okay. Now it’s up to me to get you home safely.”

“And you will, bestie. You will.”

Ashlyn grins. “Damn right I will.”

Ashlyn greets each member of the team then goes to check in with the base and let them know any immediate needs that have to be addressed. As she walks away, Christie steps up beside Ali.

“You know how her confrontation turned Heather and Lauren on?”

“Yeah.”

Christie grins. “Her comforting Reece got me, too. You’re a lucky woman, Kriegs.”

Ali laughs and gives the captain a hug. “She does have her moments, doesn’t she.”

“Yes, she does. I’ll never forget what she did for Reece. I owe her one.”

“She’ll say you don’t,” Ali points out.

“All the more reason to make sure to thank her properly,” Christie says before going back to her daughter’s side.


 

For two hours things go smoothly. The refugees eat, drink and potty and seem to be much calmer now that their immediate needs have been met and evacuation seems to be in sight. Ashlyn has just gotten off the phone after another situation report and sighs.

“Things still on track?” Palmer asks.

“They think so.”

“Think?” he questions.

“They are having to re-lay part of the runway. They have to hope they can get it set and that it has enough time to harden enough to keep from collapsing under the weight of the C-130.”

“Damn. Can they do it?”

Ashlyn gives him a grin. “We’re the Corps of Engineers. We can do anything.”

He chuckles. “Right. And that’s why you’re concerned,” he teases.

She shrugs. “I’m just worried it won’t be very pretty since it’s a rush job.”

The two share a laugh. The Marine has to admit, this soldier seems to know what she’s doing. And she takes the heat anytime “Mr. Personality” gets going so that’s a plus, too. Ashlyn is about to ask for a break to go check on her wife when a man on her squad steps into the building.

“Hey, Lieutenant? We’ve got trouble.”

Ashlyn and Palmer stand and move to the door. They glance towards the gates of the annex property and see about 15 young men standing there, one actually on embassy property. Ashlyn knows right away these are local gang bangers looking to steal supplies to make a buck or two. She whispers her belief to Palmer then lays down how things will go.

“He’ll want to confront me because I am in charge and, in all honesty, because I am a woman. They get nothing now but I’m fine with leaving extras behind. No one fires their gun but me unless his whole gang rushes the building. Understood?”

“Yeah. But I don’t like it, ma’am.”

“Me neither. But we won’t start a huge international incident half on US soil, half on Japanese. If they rush this place, get everyone in and protect the building. Let them have the shit out here.” She pulls her beret out of her pocket and carefully places it on her head.

“Yes, ma’am,” he agrees as she starts down the steps and walks up to the men at the gate.

She looks over her shoulder at the men by the doors. “You two stay inside and lock that damn door.”

The men nod and Ashlyn turns back towards the gates, her attention now on the man she must confront.


 

Inside, Ali and a few others had hurried over to see what was happening but the men guarding the door will not let them look out. Ali stomps her foot in frustration and looks around. Her eyes widen. She grabs Abby.

“Get over here!”

She drags Abby over to a window about 2 feet above Ali’s head. Abby looks at it, then at Ali.

“Oh give me a break!”

“Come on, Abby. Get down!”

Abby rolls her eyes and squats down. She stands up with the help of Whitney and Pinoe. By stretching her neck, Ali is able to see her wife talking to a young thug.

“Give us a play by play,” Pinoe insists.

“She’s talking to some guy at the gates. He’s got others with him. Looks like gang members,” Ali reports.

“Oh, fuck,” Whitney mumbles.

Ali continues to give them a run down on what’s going on. Then suddenly she tenses up and she screams.

“ASHLYN! NO!”

And a gunshot rings out.

Chapter Text

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.”

“NO!”

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.”

“What’s not?”

“Nothing.”

“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.”

“No problem.”

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.”

“Yes, sir.”

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.

Chapter Text

The phone beside Ashlyn’s head buzzes. She lifts it up. “Yes, Captain?” She grins. “Sounds good, sir. Thank you.” She hangs up and picks up the headset. “Ladies and gentleman we have now reached our cruising altitude. There are two restrooms to my right should you need them. MRE’s and water crates are to the rear should you get hungry or thirsty. Feel free to get up and move around if you have to stretch but we do recommend you keep your seatbelt on when in your seat in case of unexpected turbulence. I will let you know when we are approaching Hawaii. For now just relax and enjoy the flight. Oh, and Tobin, no soccer tennis or I make you sit on the wing.”

Everyone laughs as Tobin makes a point of pouting at the loss of her fun. Ashlyn hangs the headset back up and stands, stretching her back. Tracy stands, too.

“Okay, Harris, let’s get that bandage changed.”

“That’s fine. Let me get a change of clothes so I can change into clean ACU’s and get out of these messy ones,” she says, moving back toward her kit bag that had been delivered to the plane for her.

As Ashlyn starts to dig into it for clean clothes she feels a hand run over her shoulder. She smiles as she glances up.

“Why don’t you rest, baby?” she suggests to her wife.

Ali squats down. “I will in a bit.”

Ashlyn notices the goosebumps all over the defender. “Are you cold?”

“Freezing, actually.”

“Damn.” Ashlyn digs into her bag and pulls out a sweatshirt and sweatpants. “Here, baby.”

Ali smiles and quickly pulls on the warm, slightly oversize clothes. “Perfect.”

Ashlyn grins, loving it when her wife wears her clothes. She leans over and kisses Ali’s hand. “I love you.”

Ali smiles. “I love you, too.”

Ashlyn finishes pulling out fresh ACU’s and stands. Ali places her hand in her wife’s back as she follows her up towards the front of the plane. The taller woman appreciates the touch as neither woman wants to be too far from the other for the moment. Ashlyn looks at Tracy as she strips off her soiled ACU jacket.

“Can you cut the sleeve of my tee? It will make it easier to get off over the bandage.”

Tracy nods and pulls out her shears. Before she can cut, Ashlyn groans as she sees her pinch-faced nemesis approaching.

“LIEUTENANT HARRIS, I AM OUTRAGED!” he bellows.

Ashlyn takes a steadying breath. “What’s the problem, Mr. Prothro?”

He gestures towards Ali. “Why was this...this nobody given clean clothes and not those of us who are important?”

Ashlyn’s anger flares. She had been sick of this man before. Now...now he has insulted Ali. Not. Good. Ashlyn steps into his space, her nose almost hitting his pointy proboscis as he stares up at her in shock.

“Stand down, Mr. Prothro. Alexandra Krieger-HARRIS, is NOT a nobody. She is my wife and my world all in one. She borrowed clothes from my kit bag much like she does at our home. So go sit your ass down, stop bitching about everything, and remain silent the remainder of this trip or I’ll shove you out the back end of this plane with nothing but a parachute and inflatable raft. Do you understand, sir?”

The man’s face had paled and his eyes widened in fear the more Ashlyn spoke. He can see her threats are not empty. He quickly spins around and hurries back to his seat. Ashlyn takes a deep breath and turns to Tracy.

“Now...where were we?”

“Ashlyn...that could be bad, right?” Ali asks nervously.

Ashlyn shrugs. “May have just torpedoed my career to be honest. But the fucker insulted you. No one insults you, Alex. Ever.”

Ali is partly scared about her wife’s job being in jeopardy. But she is also turned on as hell. She grabs Ashlyn’s head and gives her a deep, passionate kiss. When it ends, Ashlyn grins.

“Yeah...totally worth losing my career for you, baby.”

Ali just grins and takes Ashlyn’s clean clothes to hold while Tracy cuts the old bandage off. Ashlyn winces as it starts to peel away then sticks.

“Damn it. It’s infected, Ash. Have you had your tetanus shot?” Tracy asks.

Ashlyn smiles. “Tracy, I am up on so many vaccinations your head would spin, some you may not have heard of. Yes, tetanus is one of them.”

“Good to know. This is going to hurt.”

And she isn’t lying. Ashlyn has to bite her lip as the bandage is peeled away. Ali looks at the angry cut once then has to turn away. Tracy works to expel the infection and then flushes the wound with peroxide. After applying new steri-strips she liberally applies Neosporin then wraps it up once more. After the last strip of medical tape is applied to hold the bandage in place she sighs.

“We check it again in 2 hours. We need to make sure the infection isn’t getting worse. No arguing,” she states as Ashlyn goes to object. “You’re getting us home. I’m getting you healing. Fair trade.”

Ashlyn smiles. “I guess I can’t argue that.”

She takes her clothes from Ali and goes to change. By the time she gets out, she sees a group from the National Team had gotten with people from the embassy for a rousing game of Heads Up. Ali, however, sits in the seat beside Ashlyn’s. The blonde walks over.

“Not playing?”

“Nope. I’m sitting with my wife. Got a problem with that, soldier?”

Ashlyn leans over and gives her a kiss. “Not at all, baby. Not at all.”

Ashlyn goes and stows her dirtied clothes then returns to her wife’s side. She puts her right arm around Ali and pulls her close.

“So...we can’t make out and can’t make love. Guess we should talk, eh?” Ash suggests.

Ali snuggles closer. “How about we talk about our future? You know, kids, retirement dreams, stuff like that.”

“And puppies? Three or four puppies, right?”

Ali giggles. “We can negotiate.”

The women smile and start to paint a picture of their future. Some aspects are true dreams. Others are fanciful realities. But both love that they are making plans to grow old together some day.


 

Throughout the flight, friends visit with Ash and Ali, who remain in the seats up front, not wanting to be far from each other. Ali even dozes for a time on Ashlyn’s leg. But the blonde refuses to sleep. Until they reach Hawaii she is in charge and she will stay awake, stay vigilant, until her charges are safely back on the ground. She is staring at the ceiling, thinking about a new colour scheme for the living room in Ken’s house when the phone by her head buzzes. She grabs it.

“What’s the word, Captain?”

“Approach in 10, on the ground in 23.”

“You rock, sir!”

“Damn right I do. Get them settled and let me know when all are set.”

“Yes, sir,” Ashlyn says and swaps the phone for the headset. She keys the mic. “Ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention please?” People quiet down and Ali lifts her head from Ashlyn’s lap, her eyes droopy from sleep. “We will be cleared for approach into Pearl Harbor in 10 minutes and the aim is to have this bird in the nest in approximately 23 minutes. At this time we ask you to discontinue use of electronic devices, take your seat and buckle up. It has been a pleasure serving you today. We know you have limited choices when looking for an airline to evacuate you after a natural disaster but we’d like to think you’d have chosen us anyway. So on behalf of Corps of Engineers Airlines we’d like to thank you for flying with us and we hope to hell we never have to travel with you again,” she finishes with a grin.

There is a rousing cheer, as everyone hopes they never have to be evacuated like this again. Ashlyn hangs up the headset and turns to her wife.

“You better get back to your seat, baby.”

Ali reaches and pulls the harness out for the jump seat, quickly buckling herself in. “I’m fine right here.”

Ashlyn smiles as she pulls her own harness on. “These seats suck compared to the others.”

“But you’re here and that makes them the best seats on the plane.”

Ashlyn leans over and gives her a quick peck. To most, that would have sounded like a cheesy pick-up line. But Ash knows Ali is sincere. They hold hands until Ashlyn has to let the captain know everyone is ready.

Once the plane is on the ground, Ashlyn remains at the front of the plane as the passengers, tired, hungry and thankful to be done traveling, grab their things and exit the back of the plane. Ali stands beside her wife the whole time. As those two finally exit the plane, Ashlyn immediately snaps to attention bringing her hand up to salute her boss.

“Sir, what brings you to Hawaii?” she asks Colonel Menninger.

The colonel nods a hello to Ali before turning back to Ashlyn. “Word has it some big wig from the embassy was on the plane and had some issues with you, Lieutenant.”

Ashlyn groans. Ali stiffens, ready to go all “Mama Bear” on the man if he tries to blame the blonde for Prothro’s issues. Before either woman can say anything, the colonel continues.

“Between you, me and the fence post, no one believes the crap he spews and nothing will end up in your permanent record. I just need to know one thing, Lieutenant.”

“What’s that, sir?”

“Did you really threaten to toss him out of the plane into the ocean?”

Ashlyn’s cheeks flare. “Um, yes, sir. But with a parachute and inflatable raft for safety,” she adds with a slight grin.

Menninger surprises Ali by bursting into laughter. “Our Ambassador to Japan sent me his congratulations on a job well done and has offered a commendation simply for putting up with that blowhard Prothro.”

Ashlyn sighs in relief. “Thank you, sir. He insulted my wife and I saw red.”

“If he insulted your wife he’s damn lucky to be alive.” He hands her an envelope. “This is where the US Women’s Team is staying for two nights. I took the liberty of booking you a room there, too.”

“So...I don’t have to return immediately to DC, sir?”

“Nope. You were on a mission and nothing about it was easy. You get your 3 days off, though the third will be for travel in this case. In the meantime, enjoy the islands.”

Ashlyn smiles and squeezes Ali’s hand. “We will, sir. Thank you again.” She turns to her wife as the colonel gets in a Jeep and is driven away. “So, off to get some sleep?”

“Are you nuts? We’re on base with credit cards. Time to go to the PX and get me some clothes!” Ali insists.

Ashlyn laughs and nods. “You got it, Princess. Let’s go see what the others are planning and then stop at the PX before going to the hotel.” She leans in close. “Though you won’t need anything tonight. I promise you that.”

Ali flushes and shivers at the hungry look in Ashlyn’s eyes. Yes...it will be a very good night indeed.

A few minutes later, Ashlyn is getting clothes sizes and cash from soccer players who want fresh clothes. Looks like the PX is about to have a rush on clothes as no one has the energy to go shopping. Well...no one but Ali. As the brunette is waiting for her wife, her phone suddenly rings with a text alert from Ash. Ali is confused until she hits the open button.

Baby, not sure you will get this due to communication issues but I am on my way. Don’t worry, Alex, I will bring you home safely. Be strong until I get there. I love you so much.

Ali’s eyes tear up as she reads a text sent as Ashlyn was leaving for Japan. Had she gotten it on time it would have alleviated her fears. The calm, sure words would have been comforting almost as much as seeing Ashlyn live and in person take over the rescue of the Embassy Annex. Ali pockets her phone and plays with the single red rose Ash had given her.

“I’ll pay you back, Ash, for everything. I swear,” she whispers as she waits for her wife to finish with their friends.


 

At dinner that night, Ashlyn, who still hasn’t slept, is doing everything she can to keep her face from falling into her lasagna. Becky finally looks over at Ali, who is chatting with Lauren.

“Uh, Kriegs, your wife is going to burn her face if you don’t get her to bed,” she jokes.

Ali turns around and looks at her wife, grinning as her head bobs up and down. She smiles. “She’s so cute.”

“Yeah. And a damn hero 10x over in our eyes,” Abby says. “Need help getting her up to your room?”

“Uh, maybe. Let’s see how mobile she is.” She stands and shakes her wife’s shoulder. “Ash, sweetheart, let’s get you up to bed. You need to sleep.”

Ashlyn shakes her head. “Can’tsleep’tilgetyouseguyssafe,” she slurs.

“Yep, she’s got me turned on again,” Lauren jokes, amazed that the exhausted woman is still worried about the team.

Ali rolls her eyes. “Baby, we’re safe. We’re in Hawaii. And if you get a good night’s sleep you can probably surf tomorrow.”

Ashlyn’s eyes open partway. “Surf?”

“Yes, baby, surf.”

“Um’kay,” she mumbles as her eyes droop once more.

Before Ali can say anything, Hope and Abby are beside her. “We got her. Just get the door unlocked,” Hope says as the two players get their old friend up between them.

Ali grabs her things, shaking her head in amusement. She leads the trio up to the 7th floor where Abby and Hope gently deposit Ash on the bed after Ali pulls the covers down. Abby looks at Ali.

“You got it from here?”

“Yep. Won’t be the first time I undressed her when she is passed out. Thanks, guys, for getting her up here.”

“No problem,” Hope says, staring at Ashlyn. “You know, I thought she was nuts to walk away from the game just as she was starting to peak. But I swear, Kriegs, when she walked through that door in Japan I was so damn glad to see her. It was like...like I knew we’d be okay since she was there.”

Ali smiles and squeezes Hope’s uninjured arm. “Thanks for saying that.”

“I meant every word. She’s incredible, Ali.”

“I’d agree but I doubt you’d be shocked by that.”

Hope grins. “True. Tell her I owe her a beer.”

“Hell, I think we’ll all be buying her rounds tomorrow,” Abby states. “See you guys in the morning.”

“Night guys,” Ali says as she walks them out.

She goes to her wife and carefully undresses her. Unlike Ali, Ashlyn hadn’t even napped on the plane and she had been so tense during the stay in the Annex, the brunette knows that’s adding to the blonde’s exhaustion. Once Ash is just in her boxers, Ali also gets ready for bed. Once she climbs in she pulls her wife close and kisses her temple.

“I love you so much, Ashlyn Michelle Harris. You’ll always be my hero, my soldier. Always.”


 

The call of her bladder wakes Ashlyn around 3 a.m. She looks around the room in confusion.

I was at dinner. When the hell did I get up here?” she wonders. She looks at the clock and is even more confused. “Is that 2:58 a.m. or p.m.?” She runs a hand over her face. “Damn I feel like sludge.”

“It’s the middle of the night, baby,” Ali mumbles, as if Ashlyn had asked the questions out loud. “You fell asleep at dinner so Hope and Abby helped me get you up here.”

“Oh. Gotta pee,” Ashlyn says and regretfully extracts herself from the arms of love.

When she gets back to the bed she pulls her wife close. After a few minutes, it is obvious neither woman wants to go back to sleep. Ali shifts until she is straddling her wife. By the light filtering in through the curtains, Ali stares down at the blonde. She caresses her cheek, her fingers tracing the pronounced cheek bones.

“Hope said she knew we’d be okay when you walked in that door over there. I felt the same. I prayed you would come and you did. And...and things you did may have scared me but I don’t think anyone else would have gotten us out of there without trouble. You were so...smart and calm. Everyone was saying how great you were and how much they admired you. It made me so happy to hear.”

Ashlyn smiles and shrugs. “I was just doing my job, baby.”

“I know. But I think they, and even I, finally got an idea about what you really do and what you face sometimes.” Her hand gently runs over the bandage on Ash’s left arm. “It was terrifying. But you were so...so driven and calm. Were you really that calm inside?”

Ashlyn takes her wife’s hands. “Hell no. Inside I was terrified. If I fucked up something could happen to you and the team and those families and my men. But if I had showed that fear to those thugs they’d have pounced on that weakness. I had to ignore my emotions. I’ve done it before but...” she takes a deep breath, “...but it’s never been so hard before. Everything I did I kept thinking about the fact that you were in that building; that you could see me get hurt or worse; or that I would fail and God knows what would happen to you. I’ve never been so scared in my life, Alex. I couldn’t have lived if my actions had gotten you hurt.”

Ali stares into sincere, teary hazel eyes. She then leans down and captures her wife in the type of passionate kiss they had been wanting to share but hadn’t had time to yet. As they moan, Ashlyn grabs the ends of the tee Ali wears and lifts it up, breaking the kiss long enough to remove the cloth. Her hands immediately go to perfect breasts as their mouths clash once more. Ash is rubbing, squeezing, pinching nipples as Ali starts to rock her hips down into her wife.

Ali needs more. She enjoys what her wife is doing but she needs to take charge. She slides down, her mouth engulfing a stiff peak. Ashlyn moans and arches up into the contact. Ali lavishes both breasts with attention as her hips thrust down against Ashlyn’s warm center.

“Baby...more...please...”Ashlyn grunt out.

Ali kisses her way lower, pushing down Ash’s boxers as she goes. She twirls her tongue around a bellybutton nestled in amazingly toned abs. Her right breast pushes against her wife’s throbbing core, making Ash see stars.

“Fuck...Alex...”

Ali smiles and finishes her travels south. She stares into a honey coloured triangle wet with desire. “Mine, soldier. All mine.”

“Yes, baby, yes! All yours, my love,” Ashlyn agrees.

Ali leans in, breathing in the scent of her wife’s desire. “So good, Ashlyn.”

Ashlyn just whimpers as Ali drags her tongue up through soaked folds. Her tongue stretches in as far as it can go, penetrating her wife over and over, feeling muscular walls clamping down on her probing tongue. When she feels Ashlyn getting close, she pulls back.

“No...baby, please...”Ashlyn begs.

But Ali lets her tongue swirl gently around the pulsing clit. She uses an arm to still the twitching hips of her wife, making sure everything stays right where she wants them. She plunges her tongue inside once more, again masterfully driving her wife to the brink of ecstasy before drawing back to pay attention to the clit again.

Ashlyn’s head whips back and forth on the pillow. Her wife was slowly killing her but DAMN it felt so fucking good! This continues longer than Ash would have expected. Her body is literally trembling with need and Ali knows it’s time to deliver her over the edge.

“I love you,” she whispers against her wife’s center.

She then plunges two fingers into her wife.

“ALEX!” Ashlyn screams at the apex of her pleasure.

Ali thrusts hard and deep as she sucks her wife’s clit, also flicking it with her tongue. Soon Ashlyn is coming undone, spilling her love all over her wife and the bed. Ali slowly climbs up her wife’s body, placing gentle open-mouthed kisses all along the way. When they are face to face, Ali leans her forehead against Ash’s.

“I love you so much. Thank you for coming for us.”

Ashlyn runs her hands up and down Ali’s back. “No need to thank me. I’d have begged, borrowed and stolen to be the one with the chance to bring you home. You’re my world, Alexandra Blaire Krieger-Harris. I’d give my all to protect you.”

Ali nods. “I know. And that’s why I make sure to thank you every chance I get.”

The two kiss some more. Ashlyn attempts to return her wife’s affections but Ali refuses. She can see her wife is still tired.

“There will be time for more later, baby.” Ali says, shifting to snuggle into her wife’s side. “Sleep now, baby. Sleep.”

Ashlyn smiles and pulls her wife close. Soon she is once again in dreamland, Ali’s hand tracing patterns on her stomach. Ali stares at her sleeping beauty. How the hell had she gotten so lucky?

“I love you,” she whispers once more before kissing Ash’s chin and settling in to sleep the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

After they return to DC, Ali is immediately back in the swing of life with the Spirit. Ashlyn still makes as many home games as she can, as well as a match at Sky Blue, where Chris Rampone treats her to dinner to thank her for all she had done for Reece while they were in Japan. The girls were even more excited to see Ashlyn since she, as promised, brought them official US Army helmets to wear whenever they needed a little extra safety.

On this Saturday night, Ashlyn has just walked into the living room to meet up with Ken to drive to the game when her work phone goes off. She groans. Ken just lifts his eyebrows. She pulls up the text and sighs.

“Heading to Mexico.”

“That hurricane that hit?”

“Yeah. There’s a town in the mountains the locals can’t reach. We’ll be jumping in. I knew I’d come to regret going to jump school,” she jokes.

Ken smiles. “This will be your first jump into a situation like this, right?”

“Yep. Have descended a ladder from a helicopter but never anything like this.” She swallows hard. “It’s okay to be scared, right?” she asks nervously.

He places his hand on her shoulder. “I’d think it’d be crazy if you weren’t. Good luck, Ashlyn.”

“Thanks, Ken. Tell Alex good luck for me and I’ll let you all know when we land and what the communications options will be.”

He nods as she turns and heads back upstairs to get changed. With a sad heart, he leaves to get to the Spirit’s game on time. Twenty minutes later Ashlyn leaves, her car pointing up Route 1 to Belvoir to get her squad ready to leave.


 

Ali’s game day playlist pulses through her earbuds as she changes from her warm ups into her uniform. As she tightens her cleats and stands her mind is running down what she needs to do to keep balls out of the goal. She runs down what she knows about ARod and Lauren and what needs to be done to keep them from even getting a shot off. She feels hands squeezing her shoulders.

“Ready to kick some ass?” Lori asks.

Ali smiles as she pulls her earbuds out and tosses her iPod into her locker. “Definitely.”

The team gathers together for a quick huddle. Mark Parsons steps up to them.

“Okay, ladies, we know their two most dangerous weapons. We know their keeper is world class as are two of their defenders. But they are in our house, facing our world class players, and they are NOT taking 3 points away from us! RIGHT?”

“RIGHT!” the team cheers.

“This is OUR NIGHT! RIGHT?”

“RIGHT!”

“And this game is OURS! RIGHT?”

“RIGHT!”

“SPIRIT ON THREE! ONE! TWO! THREE!”

“SPIRIT!”

The team breaks and those on the bench the first half make their way out to the field as the starters, led by Captain Ali Krieger-Harris, make their way to the line-up area to meet their young escorts. From that area, Ali can see the seats her father and Ashlyn always occupy. She frowns when she sees Ken but no Ash.

“Fuck,” she mumbles. Normally she checks her phone just before the team huddle but hadn’t this time.

“Good luck, Kriegs,” ARod says.

Ali turns and sees ARod and Nicole Barnhart standing nearby. She smiles and nods. “You, too. But not too much.”

Barnie chuckles. “And I offer the same to you.”

They exchange hugs then get in line. As Lauren, Becky, and Amy LePeilbet walk up. Ali only has time to nod to them before the players are called to enter the field. Once they are in line for intros, she looks toward her father again. He notices the look and slowly shakes his head. Ali sighs. Her wife was at work. She stretches her neck then puts that thought out of her head to concentrate on the game.

In no time the players are on the field. FCKC won the toss and is kicking off. Ali has her eyes trained on ARod. The last few games she had kicked the ball back to Lauren then busted up the field to await a rocket strike from the middie. It had been successful one time and the other two times had led to early corners.

“Not on my watch,” Ali mumbles.

She had mustered the back line a little deeper than normal. Instead of chasing down the ball, they would be running up to it and had a plan of their own to counter. She grins as things play out just as she had hoped. Niki Cross sees the ball coming her way and races forward. Tori Huster drops back to a support position just in case but the height of the defender helps her easily beat the streaking ARod to the ball. A directional header to Crystal Dunn and the middie starts up the field. As she feels the Blues players closing in, surprised that their tactic has failed, she sends the ball deep.

“YES!” Ali cheers as Lisa De Vanna gathers the ball at the top of the box and lasers a shot at the goal before Becky or Amy can recover.

“GOAL!”

The crowd goes nuts and Lisa leaps into Yael’s arms as they celebrate the goal that came less than a minute into the match.

“Son of a bitch,” Lauren mutters as she jogs back to the circle to prepare for the second kick off of the game.

Ali can’t help but smile. The play she had drawn up for Mark had worked like a charm. As she runs up and hugs Lisa, the Aussie claps her face.

“Bloody brilliant!”

“Damn right!” Ali agrees.

As they race back into position for the ensuing kick, Ali glances at Mark and he gives her a big thumbs up. Ali can feel the crowd’s excitement. It is the earliest goal in Spirit history and people are pumped to see the team build on that for a win.

The next 25 minutes the game is hard fought. FCKC is desperate to get an equalizer while the Spirit are fighting to get an insurance goal. Ali had just played a give-and-go with Crystal and is now looking to send the ball in deep. She sees Lisa and Yael both pressing into the box. She lets the ball fly.

And is taken to the ground from behind.

Ken had leapt up in his seat when he sees his daughter flipped up in the air by a careless tackle from a young defender.

“THAT’S A RED, REF!” he screams, his opinion echoed by almost everyone in the stands.

The ref lets the advantage play for a moment until Becky corrals the ball. He then blows his whistle and jogs towards Ali, who is still on the ground. Lauren is the first to reach Ali.

“KREIGS!”

“I’m...gonna kill...that idiot...if you’ll point out...who it was...” she grunts, still trying to catch her breath.

Lauren smiles and takes Ali’s hand. “Just breathe, Kriegs. Deep breath in. You can do it,” she encourages.

Just as the trainers arrive, Ali is finally able to sit up.

“What hurts, Kriegs?” Pierre asks.

“Just got the breath knocked out of me. I’m fine. Really.”

She sees a hand extended to her and takes it, allowing Yael to pull her up. Pierre walks Ali to the sideline as the ref extends a yellow card in the air for the girl that took the right back out. As play restarts, Pierre runs Ali through a few checks to make sure she is okay. He finally clears her to return to the game and she signals the ref she is ready to return. She is waved onto the field just in time to receive a pass from Crystal.

Deja vu,” she thinks to herself as she again send the ball towards the goal. She quickly glances over her shoulder to confirm she is not about to get tackled again, then moves into a support position at the top of the box as Yael pops a pass over to Christine Nairn. Nairn winds up and lets a shot fly. It deflects off of Lauren, right to Ali.

“Oh, fuck,” Lauren mutters.

Ali one touches it...and sends it just over the cross bar. The crowd roars in amazement at the almost perfect shot. Ali jogs back into position, grinning as she thinks about how close she had come.

The games goes to half 1-0 to the Spirit. As the players jog off, Ali cuts so she can go close to the stands. Ken sees her and stands.

“MEXICO!” he yells out.

She nods and gives him a thumbs up. She and Ash had both seen the reports on the hurricane that had struck the central portion of Mexico. Neither had thought the blonde would be going. Ali can’t help but wonder what necessitated Ashlyn going. She only half listens to Mark’s half-time talk, her mind more on why her wife was on her way to help a country that usually doesn’t ask for their help.

As the team starts back to the pitch, Niki grabs Ali’s arm.

“Hey...she wouldn’t want you thinking about her instead of the game,” she reminds her fellow defender.

Ali takes a deep breath and nods. “Yeah, you’re right. Forgot that for a second. Just...didn’t expect her to be going where she’s going.”

“I’m sure it’s not the first time. Look, Ali, we need your head in the game. If you can’t be there 100% ask Mark for a sub. We’d all understand,” she says compassionately.

Ali rolls her neck. “No...no I don’t need that. Hell, she won’t even be there before the game ends. She’d be mad as hell if she found out I bailed on a game for no reason.”

Niki smiles. “That’s the Warrior Princess we all know and love.”

Ali chuckles and the two continue back to the field for the second half. Much like the first half, the second is a tough mid-field battle with a few quick transition chances for both teams. In a challenge near the baseline, Ali cusses as ARod bounces the ball off the defenders leg for a corner. As the Spirit gets set, Ali is directing people who to watch.

“CRYSTAL! Watch Amy!”

The middie nods and goes to cover the defender who had been slowly making her way towards the box, hoping no one would notice. Lauren sends the ball deep into the box. It is headed back towards Lauren by Erika Tymrak. Ali races towards it, planning to head it out of the box and upfield.

She is then looking up at a concerned Niki, who seems to be shimmering in and out of focus.

“What...”

“Stay still, Kriegs. Just don’t move,” the defender says, her voice laced with concern.

Ali’s head feels weird. She lifts up a hand and touches her hair. She brings her hand in front of her face. Or is that two hands? Or three? What the fuck?

“Blood?” she mumbles.

“You and ARod smashed heads,” Niki explains.

Ali tries to turn to look for her friend but gets nauseated. Niki places a hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t move! Just stay still, Kriegs.”

“Amy?”

Niki glances over at the FCKC forward, then back to Ali. “She’s moving her legs. That’s all I can see.”

Ali suddenly feels pressure on her head and notices Pierre and his assistant for the first time.

“Was...I knocked out?”

“Not totally. But you were pretty looped,” Pierre answers. “Game is done for you and Amy. We’ve got stretchers coming out for both of you.”

“I don’t need...ughhhh...” Ali had started to shake her head and figured out quite quickly that wasn’t a good idea. “So, uh, tell them I need to go to Bethesda. My i.d. card is in my locker. I’ll need that.”

Niki smiles. “I’ll let them know, Ali.”

Niki gets up and jogs to the stands and waves a security guard over. She sees Ken already making his way down to them. “Take that man there,” she points at Ken, “to the team locker room. He’ll need to get Ali’s military i.d. and stuff.” The security guard nods as Ken steps to them. Niki looks at him. “She needs to go to Bethesda. Cut in her hairline and definitely a concussion. She is insisting on Bethesda.”

Ken nods. “They are on military insurance. That makes sense. But is she okay for a 30 minute drive?” Then he hears the ambulance. “Oh.”

“They’ll get her there quicker. Go now so you can meet her there. And, Ken, she’s awake and mostly okay. More worried about Amy than herself,” Niki reassures him.

Ken nods and the guard leads him away so he can get his daughter’s things and make the 30 minute drive to the military medical center at Bethesda.


 

Ali’s eyes are scrunched closed even in the dimmed light of the treatment room. “So she is gone already?”

“May still be at the base or on her way to Andrews. She got the message as we were about to walk out of the house. She went ahead and got changed at home before heading to Belvoir.”

Ali sighs and pinches the bridge of her nose. “Oh. Should I call her?”

“Would you want her to call if the situation was reversed?”

“No. Yes. Maybe. Fuck. Yes, I would,” she finally accepts.

Ken chuckles and pulls out his phone, hitting the speed dial for his daughter-in-law. It rings twice before it is answered. He hears Ashlyn giving an order to someone before she comes on the line.

“And, Mahoney, make sure the bumpers are securely fashioned. We can’t afford to lose anything because the boxes bust on impact.” She brings the phone to her head. “Ken, what’s up?” she asks hurriedly.

“Ash, you have to know I wouldn’t call without good reason,” he starts.

Ashlyn’s heart skips a beat. “What happened to Alex?”

“She’s okay. Mostly. A few stitches and a concussion from colliding head-to-head with Amy Rodriquez.”

“Fuck! Where is she?”

“She’s right here. We’re at Bethesda. They want to observe her for a few hours before releasing her. She just wanted to call and let you know what happened and assure you she is okay in case you saw anything online.”

Ashlyn takes a deep breath. She closes her eyes to still the rush of blood to her head; to quiet the voice that scolds her for working instead of being beside her wife.

“Ashlyn, you’re doing your sworn duty. Stop kicking yourself,” Ken says knowingly. “She’s okay. You of all people should know how hard my daughter’s head is.”

Ashlyn chuckles when she hears Ali protest that statement. “Yeah. So, uh, can she talk?”

“Of course. Here she is,” he says and hands the phone to Ali.

“Hey, baby. Heard you’re taking a Mexican vacation without me,” Ali teases.

Ashlyn smiles. That statement tells her Ali will be okay. But she still hates how weak the brunette sounds. “Well, I just thought I’d check out this remote village to see if you would like it.”

“Right.” Ali takes a deep breath. “I’m okay, Ashlyn. I swear. I’ve had worse concussions and figure I’ll be okay in a couple weeks.”

“You’re sure? Really?”

“Yes. The docs are just keeping me here out of an abundance of precaution. I’ll even remember the hard head comment Dad made so I can get my revenge later.”

Ashlyn chuckles. “I can bet you will.” She looks up as Andrews approaches her. “Fuck, Alex, you know I want nothing more than to keep talking to you...”

“But you have to go. I understand.”

“Yeah. We have to make sure everything is prepped for the drop. It’s going to be an interesting entry into this village and I don’t want anything screwed up because of me.”

“Okay. Be safe, sweetheart.”

“Always. Get well soon, baby. I love you so much.”

“I love you, too. See you soon, Ash.”

“Count on it, Alex. Bye, baby.”

“Bye.”

Ali clicks off and hands the phone back to her father. She lays there a moment, then frowns.

“Drop? Holy fuck...is she...is...fuck...I don’t think I want to know,” she finally mumbles.

Ken just smiles, amazed at his daughter’s ability to live with the dangers of her wife’s job. He pats her on the leg.

“She’ll be fine, Alex. Just concentrate on that fact and on getting well.”

Ali just nods, knowing she’ll be combing through online news reports as soon as it won’t send spikes of pain into her head to do so.


 

Three days later Ali hits replay on the video. She is not sure whether to be impressed, terrified, or furious at her wife for not only sending it, but for also starring in it.

“Okay, here goes fucking nothing,” Ashlyn mutters loud enough for her GoPro to pick up.

She steps to the edge of the bay door on the plane. She leans out a bit, giving a view of other parachutes already dropping towards the ground. Some are people, some are large crates with 3 parachutes attached. Suddenly the toes of Ashlyn’s boots are over the threshold.

“GO, LIEUTENANT! GO!” someone yells.

“FUCK!” Ashlyn yells as she steps into space. “I LOVE YOU, ALEX!” she screams.

She free falls a moment, the GoPro filming the sky. Suddenly she is jerked up as her parachute deploys.

“WOOO HOOO! THIS IS FUCKING AWESOME!” she screams.

To Ali it seems to take forever for Ashlyn to land on the ground. She turns off the video at that point and shakes her head.

“I love you, you insane twit,” she murmurs, trying to remind herself that Ashlyn is obviously okay or she couldn’t have sent the video.


 

Two days later Ali gets home from practice, where all she can do is ride the stationary bike and help Mark coach for at least another two weeks. As grumpy as she is about that, she can’t help but feel her mood lift when she sees Ashlyn’s Jeep in the driveway. She hurries into the house, eager to check on her wife and make sure she came home without any injuries.

“Ash?” she calls out but gets no answer.

She makes her way upstairs. She opens the door to their room and can’t help but smile. Ashlyn, her hair still wet from the shower, is asleep on the bed. And she is gloriously naked. Ali quickly strips down and takes a shower, too. When she gets out, Ashlyn hasn’t moved. After braiding her hair so it doesn’t tangle as they nap, Ali crawls into bed and cuddles up to her warm wife. She kisses Ashlyn’s temple.

“I love you,” she whispers.

Her hands ghost over Ashlyn’s body as her eyes study what she can see for any bruises or cuts. Satisfied she sees no injuries, Ali lays her head on Ashlyn’s arm and closes her eyes to enjoy a nice nap.

The next time Ali opens her eyes, she is staring into beautiful hazel orbs.

“Hi. How’s your head?” Ashlyn whispers.

“Better than yours,” Ali says with a smirk.

“What?” Ashlyn asks in confusion.

“Despite the hard knock I took, I know better than to jump out of a perfectly good airplane.”

Ashlyn lets out a hearty laugh that is music to Ali’s ears. Ashlyn rolls onto her back and pulls Ali in close.

“Good point, baby. But you’ll be happy to know, we were able to get medical supplies as well as food and water to a remote village while another group of engineers rebuilt the road that was destroyed. Communications should be fixed by now but those of us who did the jump got to come home early.”

Ali snuggles closer. “Mmm, I’m glad. I missed you.”

“I missed you, too. Are you really okay? Your head and the cut and stuff?”

“I’m good. No more headaches or pain but no strenuous activity for another week and a half. So I’ve been riding the stationary bike and helping Mark coach.”

“Good. And Niki and Lori have been making sure you follow doctor’s orders?” Ashlyn asks.

Ali chuckles. “Yes, they have. Not to mention, Dad. Those three mother hens are worse than you.”

“Oh, I doubt that,” Ashlyn laughs.

Ali thinks on that a second. “Damn it...you’re not going to make love to me, are you?”

“Baby, that would most definitely be considered strenuous activity. I won’t risk your health for my libido, so no I’m not going to make love to you. Or let you make love to me.”

“That sucks,” Ali mumbles and rolls away. “So then why lay here all naked and hot?”

Ashlyn grins. “Well, to be honest, I don’t even remember getting out of the shower. I was a little tired.”

Ali laughs and snuggles in. “Ah. Well, I forgive you then.” She thinks a moment. “There was a time I never thought this would be enough for me. You know, just holding you and snuggling with you. But it is now. I mean, I’d like to make love to you but I guess we’ve had enough scary shit happen that I can be okay with us just holding each other. I just treasure every minute with you no matter what we are doing.”

Ashlyn gives her wife a kiss. “I know what you mean. I love you, Alex.”

“I love you, too, Ash.”

The two continue to hold each other and catch each other up on what they had done over the past few days. It is a nice, peaceful afternoon for the both of them.


 

“But I’m FINE!” Ali yells into her phone. “I should be cleared to play next week! That is plenty of time before the October camp and Qualifiers!” she insists.

“How can you be sure, Kriegs?” Jill asks. “That hit was hard and word is you were out on the field.”

“No! I never lost consciousness! Neither did Amy,” Ali adds, wondering if the forward was under the same scrutiny. “It was ugly because we both ended up with split heads but I just had a minor concussion. The doctors only kept me a few hours out of precaution and they are definitely going to clear me to play next week.”

Jill Ellis sighs into the phone. “Would you be willing to have another evaluation outside the military? By a US Soccer approved specialist?”

“Uh, I guess. I’ll have to check with TriCare to see if- -”

“This would be on us, Kriegs.”

“Then set it up and I’ll be there. I’ll be fine, Jill. You’ll see.”

“Okay. We’ll arrange it to be after your appointment at DeWitt. It will be a second opinion and we’ll want both filed.”

“Done,” Ali agrees.

As soon as they hang up, Ali starts to pace. There has to be something she can do to prove to Jill that not only is she okay, but that she is committed to staying okay. She finally remembers the headgear a National Team member has been wearing after her own concussion. She quickly pulls up her contacts and hit send. She is about to resign herself to leaving a message when the call is answered.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Carli. It’s Kriegs. I need some info from you.”

Carli smiles. “Let me guess: You’re interested in a concussion guard.”

“Damn right,” Ali confirms.

“Had a feeling you’d be calling. I can text you my contact at Unequal Tech. Their headbands are comfortable and give you peace of mind,” Carli tells her.

“I am more worried about Jill’s peace of mind. I need to show her I am willing to do anything to make the World Cup roster.”

“Good point. I’ll send your info over to them and have them contact you. Get well soon, Kriegs.”

“Thanks, Carli. See you in New York in a couple of weeks.”

They hang up. About 5 minutes later Ali is on the phone with the company, agreeing to promote their company if it works for her. She is sure Jill will appreciate that she took the initiative to order the headgear to reduce the chance of another concussion happening. As she hangs up, she sighs.

“And it would also help if I just avoid cracking my head against anyone else’s,” Ali tells herself. “But really, it’s not like those collisions happen all the time. And it was only so bad this time because Amy got my temple. I mean, any other place wouldn’t have hurt so much, right? Right,” she answers herself. “I mean, what are the odds- -”

“Oh crap...she’s talking to herself. Maybe the knock on the head has her seeing people who aren’t there!”

Ali turns around and sees her wife standing there in shorts and a tank top, an exaggerated look of fear on her face. The blonde then throws her hand up to her forehead, like a southern belle in an old movie.

“Oh, the horror! My wife has been knocked crazy. Whatever will the neighbors say when they find out she’s mad as a hatter?”

Ali rolls her eyes and grins. “Smartass.”

Ashlyn grins. “Oh, come on. That was funny and you know it...nutcase.”

Ali laughs and walks over to her, wrapping her arms around her waist. “Eh. Mildly amusing, maybe.”

“Freakin’ hilarious, more like!” Ashlyn insists. Ali rolls her eyes again. “Your lack of comical sophistication slays me, woman.”

Ali chuckles. “You’re insane.”

“Then we’ll be insane together. Now, want to tell me about that conversation you were just having with yourself?”

Ali sighs. “Jill is making me get a second opinion about being cleared to play. I feel like...like she’s trying to find a way to cut me from the team.”

“Alex, look at me,” Ashlyn says, lifting Ali’s chin up to look into worried brown eyes. “Jill knows it is win or it is failure next summer. You know that, too. She has to make 100% sure she takes the healthiest, strongest team with her to Canada. She is probably scrutinizing every injury very carefully, not just yours. I am sure if you talk to Amy you’ll find she’s being hounded, too. I’m sure she’s been getting weekly updates, if not more often, from Syd about her ankle. Can you blame her?”

“No, I guess not,” Ali concedes.

“And look me in the eye and tell me there is another right back as good as you in the pool? I mean, others have their strengths but you, Alex, are the best in the world at seeing the field, doing give and goes, and affecting offense as well as defense. And I’m saying that as a keeper who would want you anchoring her back line, not as a wife that loves you more than words can say. You’ll get cleared to play and you will help us qualify for the Cup and then you will help us WIN the Cup,” Ashlyn says with utmost confidence.

Ali studies her wife’s face carefully before pulling her into a hug. “Thank you. You always know what to say to me.”

“Part of the incredibly wonderful package, my dear,” Ashlyn says, loving when she feels her wife giggle against her chest. Finally Ash leans back. “We need a day for ourselves. You don’t have practice, I don’t have work: let’s go to the zoo or something. Just a day out with no worries about either of our jobs. What do you say?”

Ali smiles, her nose crinkling happily. “And take a picnic lunch, too?”

Ashlyn gives her a kiss. “Sounds perfect. Let’s do it!”

The two go into the kitchen and quickly put together a lunch of pb&j sandwiches, baggies of vegetables, a little container of ranch dressing for the veggies, and some bottles of water. They get it packed away in a backpack cooler with some plates and napkins.

“Anything else?” Ashlyn asks.

“Uh, let me add a couple cheese sticks. Those are good, too.”

“Perfect,” Ashlyn agrees.

The two women go upstairs and quickly get ready to go. In no time, they are on their way to the Metro for a ride on the Red Line to the zoo.


 

“Look! He’s totally playing pat-a-cake with me!” Ashlyn says excitedly as she stands at the viewing window of the otter enclosure.

Ali laughs as the otter on the other side of the glass does, in fact, seem to be responding to the playful blonde. She picks up her phone and snaps a quick picture. Ashlyn moves her hand all over the glass and the otter follows her movements, placing his paw on the other side of the glass. They do this for about 5 minutes, the blonde giggling the entire time. Ali stands back, watching as Ashlyn entertains not only the otter, but a group of school kids who laugh at the interaction, too.

“Um, excuse me?” a nervous voice says.

Ali tears her eyes away from her wife to look down at a girl, maybe 12 years old, in a Washington Spirit jersey. Ali smiles at her.

“Hi! You having fun today?”

“Yeah. Um, you’re Ali Krieger, right?”

“I am,” Ali answers with a smile.

The girl’s nervous face broadens into a hug smile. “COOL! Can you sign my jersey?”

“Sure,” Ali agrees. She digs in her purse for a sharpie. “So what’s your name?”

“I’m Melanie. I’m gonna be on the Spirit and the US team someday, too. My coach says I’m a natural!”

“That’s great! I was about your age when I decided I wanted to play on the National team. So if you set your goals and work hard, it could happen for you, too.”

The little girl turns around, showing her shirt is actually a Krieger jersey. Ali smiles and signs along the number 11.

Nice to meet you, Melanie. Work hard and someday I’ll be wearing your jersey. Ali Krieger 11

“There. All done,” Ali says.

“COOL! What’s it say?” Ali tells her and the girls eyes get wide. “Wow! That would be so awesome! Thanks, Ali!”

“No problem. See you at the next Spirit game.”

The little girl nods excitedly and runs to show off her signed jersey to her parents, who stand nearby smiling. Ali gives them a wave.

“Thank you!” the mother calls.

“My pleasure,” Ali assures her.

As the family walks away, Ashlyn wraps her arms around her wife’s shoulders. “That was awesome, baby. You made that little girl so happy.”

“She made me happy, too.” She turns and looks into Ashlyn’s eyes. “I’m making the roster. Nothing is going to stop me.”

Ashlyn smiles and gives her a peck. “Damn right, baby.”

“I knew this day would be a perfect mental break for me. I didn’t expect it to be a boost to my ego and to my drive to win. Thank you for suggesting this.”

“My pleasure.”

“So, is your little friend bored with you?” Ali asks, gesturing to the tank.

“Yeah. The keepers came to feed him and I guess dead fish are more exciting than me.”

Ali laughs. “Well, if it makes you feel better, I much prefer you to dead fish.”

Ashlyn gives a hearty laugh and turns to start walking them up the path towards another exhibit. “Well, that’s good to know. I think.”

Ali smiles and takes Ashlyn’s hand. They had both needed this day out, both for their lives as a couple and for their individual peace of mind. It is a perfect day.


 

That night the women are sitting at a table in a nice Georgetown restaurant. After their day out they had gone home, cleaned up, and decided to treat themselves to a nice dinner to cap the day. In deference to Ali’s concussion, they are drinking sparkling water instead of wine. Ashlyn still holds up her glass.

“To the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known. Both inside and out, you are gorgeous,” she says.

Ali blushes and lifts her glass. “To the woman who doesn’t realize she is as beautiful as she is.”

“Oh, so you’re not going to toast me?” Ashlyn teases.

“Jerk,” Ali says as they clink their glasses together, chuckling.

After they give their orders to the waiter, Ashlyn studies her wife a moment. “So...”

Ali lifts an eyebrow. “What?”

“So...we okay? I mean, I know today was great but...I guess...are we okay?” she asks again, unable to put her thoughts into words.

Ali frowns in confusion. “Uh, I think so. Do you think we aren’t?”

“No! I mean, I guess what I’m trying to ask is...I mean...crap...never mind?” she says hopefully.

Ali reaches across the table and takes her wife’s hand. “Talk to me, Ash. What’s going on in your head?”

Ashlyn sighs, her finger stroking over the wedding set Ali wears on her ring finger. She puts her thoughts into words.

“I wasn’t there when you got hurt. My job scares the hell out of you sometimes. And I sometimes cancel things we’d planned because I get called out. Are you...are we...shit...”

Ali squeezes her hand. “Stop, Ash. I knew what your job could mean when we got married. Does it sometimes upset me that you miss things? Yes. But I’m mad at the situation, not at you. And do I wish you could be by my side every time I get a bump or bruise? Of course. Just like I wish I could be there for you when you get hurt. I love you and that is the one constant in my life. In my eyes, we’re just fine. What about your eyes?”

Ashlyn slowly breathes a sigh of relief. “I’m so glad to hear you say that. I’ve been wondering for a while if...if you...regretted marrying me.”

“What the heck ever gave you that idea?” Ali asks incredulously.

Ashlyn shrugs. “I’ve always felt you deserved more than me. With me being gone all the time and it scaring you where I am, I just...wondered...”

“If we weren’t in a nice restaurant I would pop you upside the head to knock some sense into you,” Ali says with a grin. “You are so much more than you believe, Ashlyn. You are more than enough for me and I am thankful every day that you are not only in my life but that you agreed to be my wife when I asked. And someday, when I’m an old, retired footballer, I’ll be the happiest military officer’s wife the world has ever seen.”

Ashlyn’s heart soars at her wife’s words. Ali sees the relief in the green eyes. Ashlyn lifts their joined hands and gives Ali a kiss on the knuckles.

“I love you, Alex.”

“I love you, too, Ashlyn.”

They sit there and stare at each other, lost in their eyes and their own thoughts of their future. They finally break the look when their meals arrive. They have just dug into their steaks, when a man appears beside their table.

“Lieutenant Harris, right?”

Ashlyn is shocked she’s been recognized but quickly stands. “Uh, yes, sir.”

The man extends his hand. “I’m Phillip Baker, U.S. Ambassador to Japan.”

Ashlyn’s eyes widen. She knew the name, not the man. She shakes his hand. “Oh, uh, nice to meet you, sir. I hope everyone is okay and settled again after the earthquake.”

“They are, thank you. I just wanted to apologize to you for the actions of my former staff member. Sounds like Prothro gave you a hard time but you handled yourself very professionally. My wife was among those you helped evacuate and gave me a full report.”

Ashlyn blushes, never having considered the man’s wife was among the civilians. “Oh. I had no idea she was there, sir.”

“It’s okay. She told me maybe my staff needs more women and fewer blowhards like Prothro.” He grins. “I took her advice and replaced him with a woman. So far things are much better.”

Ashlyn chuckles. “I’m glad to hear that, sir.”

“Well, I will let you get back to dinner.” He nods to Ali. “Good luck with your season, Mrs. Krieger-Harris.”

Ali smiles and nods. “Thank you, sir.”

He turns back to Ashlyn. “If you ever find yourself back in Japan, either for work or vacation, let me know. I’d love to have you for dinner at the Embassy.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll remember that.”

They shake hands again and the ambassador returns to his party. Ashlyn sits down and gives her wife a wide-eyed look.

“Whoa,” the blonde breathes.

“That’s was awesome, baby! I know it will help to have a friend in high places as your career advances. Sounds like you have a fan.”

“I guess I do.” Ashlyn thinks a minute then chuckles. “Looks like we were both reminded we have fan clubs today.”

Ali thinks about the girl at the zoo. “I guess so. Just so you know...I’m your biggest fan.”

“And I’m yours.”

The two smile and go back to their meal. Afterwards they go for a walk along the waterfront, just enjoying their time together. It is a perfect end to a perfect day.

Chapter Text

“PLAY OFFS, BABY!” Ali screams as she leaps into Ashlyn’s arms.

Ashlyn smiles, holding her happy wife and spinning her around. They share a big kiss. “I knew you guys could do it!”

“I’m just so glad you didn’t get that time off for no reason,” Ali says with a smile.

“I wouldn’t have asked for it if I didn’t think you’d make it. Just wish I could have gotten the Championship weekend, too. Will suck to have to watch you on TV and not in person.”

“If we make it to the championship. Freakin’ Seattle has had our number every game this season.”

“So what? It’s the playoffs! Everything changes. You know that!” Ashlyn encourages.

“True. And I think we are peaking now so it’s perfect timing. We’ve got this! I don’t care if they do have the Shield!”

“Damn right, baby!” Ashlyn agrees.


 

“HARRIS!”

Ashlyn braces herself just before a Flying Pinoe lands on her back. She laughs. “Good to see you, too, Pin.”

“Holy fuck, you are like ALL muscle!” Pinoe says as she hops off and starts to poke and prod her friend.

“Of course I am. Think I could be a 90 pound weakling like you and do my job?” she jokes.

“Hey! I will have you know I am 91 pounds, thank you very much!” Pinoe says with fake pride.

The two women laugh and Ashlyn pulls her into a hug. “My bad. It really is good to see you.”

“It’s good to see you, too,” Pinoe says sincerely. “I miss hanging with you.”

“I miss it, too. I miss all you guys and playing but I know I made the right choice to join the Army,” she says, answering the question in Pinoe’s eyes.

Pinoe smiles. “Then I am happy for you. I never got a chance to see you before you all left Hawaii.” She pulls her into another hug. “Thanks for...for everything over there.”

“Thank you for calling out that dumbass Prothro about the first class seats,” Ashlyn says, making both women chuckle.

“Yeah, no thanks needed. He was an idiot.” They start to walk towards Pinoe’s car. “So, you want to stay with us or at the hotel where the Spirit is staying?”

“I think I’ll take you up on your offer of hospitality, if you’re sure it’s okay,” Ashlyn replies. “Alex needs to stay focused on the game and she needs to keep the team focused, too.”

“Cool.”

“Yeah. Of course, after you all lose I’ll understand if you kick me out, unable to bear having me around as a reminder of your harsh defeat.”

Pinoe laughs. “Uh, right. Not too worried about that,” she admits.

Ashlyn grins. “Keep that smug confidence. It’ll make it easy for the Spirit to run right past you.”

“Whatever,” she says, giving Ashlyn a shove.

As Pinoe drives them to her apartment, they chat about the city and cool things to do in the area. When they get to Pinoe’s place, the middie grabs Ashlyn’s bag.

“Hey, I can get that,” Ashlyn says.

“Nope. You’re my guest so I serve you completely, including being your bellboy.”

Ashlyn laughs and follows her into the building. Pinoe opens the door of her apartment and allows Ashlyn to enter first.

“She’s here!” Alex Morgan hollers.

Ashlyn stops in confusion. Then Syd, Tobin and Hope pop into sight. The former keeper smiles.

“Hey, guys!”

A group hug soon follows. Alex gives her a big kiss on the cheek. “I’ve missed you!”

“I’ve missed you, too, Baby Horse,” Ashlyn says. She looks at Tobin and Hope. “You guys, too.”

“Same, dude,” Tobin agrees.

“You look great, Ash,” Hope says as the group moves into the living room to sit down.

“Thanks. Have a lot of time to work out when we’re on a mission. Plus, you know, moving crates and stuff helps, too,” Ashlyn says with a grin.

“I bet. You could sell your own work-out DVD if it makes you that cut,” the keeper jokes.

“That’s my retirement plan,” Ashlyn states with a laugh.

The group sits around talking for a few hours until there is a knock on the door. Pinoe hurries to answer it and the party really gets going. Ali, Niki, Crystal, and Yael show up. Over the next few minutes, players from Seattle join the get together. Soon pizza and Chinese is ordered and the two soon to be combatants are enjoying a relaxing, laugh-filled night together. Ashlyn eventually finds herself beside Niki.

“How’s it going, bestie?” Ashlyn asks her.

“It’s going good. I think we needed this night to relax before the big game.”

Ashlyn leans her head on Niki’s shoulder. “And how is your better half?”

Niki grins. “Molly is great. She said we need to double date with you and Ali again soon. We had fun that day we went to the Inner Harbor.”

“We did, too. Maybe between the championship and Qualifiers we can do something.”

“Sounds good. As long as you don’t end up in Timbuktu.”

Ashlyn laughs. “Good point. We’ll do our best to plan it, how’s that?”

Niki grins and nods. “Sounds acceptable.”

People are laughing and having a good time when there is suddenly the sound of Ashlyn’s work phone going off in Pinoe’s spare room. Those who recognize the tone, quiet down. Ashlyn slowly stands, getting a glare from Ali. The blonde shrugs.

“I have it. Didn’t expect to hear it,” she explains as she goes into the room to get it.

Ali follows her, anger in her eyes that the phone is even on this mini-vacation. Ashlyn checks it and lets out a sigh.

“Where are you going?” Ali asks, her voice calm but angry.

“I’m not,” Ashlyn responds. There is no response but Ash feels the irritated scrutiny. She turns and looks at her. “I swear, baby, I’m not taking off.”

“Then why are they contacting you?”

“It was sent out to everyone.” She drops down on the bed, her eyes going back to the screen of the phone.

Ali is about to demand an explanation when she sees a teardrop magnify the words. Suddenly her anger is replaced by concern. She kneels down beside her wife.

“Ashlyn...talk to me,” she says quietly.

“Two of the guys that helped evacuate you guys...you know, from Ramos’ team?” Ali nods. “They were killed today.”

“Oh my God!” Ali gasps, a hand flying up to her mouth.

“Yeah. Rae, the medic, and Potter, one of the drivers. They were in Cambodia and they pulled off the road to check the maps. They hit one of the damn landmines that are all over that fucking place.”

Ali pulls her wife close. “I’m so sorry, Ash. Sorry they died and sorry I got mad.”

Ashlyn leans into her. “It’s okay. I got why you were mad. I was kinda mad, too, thinking they forgot I was scheduled to be off.” She pauses a second. “I don’t...really want to go back out there,” Ash whispers.

Ali kisses her cheek. “I’ll take care of things.”

“Potter just turned 20 last week. Twenty fucking years old,” Ashlyn mumbles.

“No matter the age, it sucks and doesn’t make sense,” Ali tells her. She holds her a few more minutes, then goes out to tell everyone what the alert was.

“Fuck,” Hope says. “Rae helped Tracy with my arm. He was a good guy.”

“This is so insane. How senseless,” Alex adds.

Tobin nods. “Totally screwed up.”

“She okay?” Niki asks, nodding towards the bedroom.

Ali shrugs. “She’s in shock. She knew them so it hurts but I think...I think part of her is guilty that she’s glad it wasn’t someone on her squad.”

“That’s not surprising,” Hope says. “Tell her it’s not a bad thing to have relief that it wasn’t her men. It’s just...being human.”

Ali nods. “I’ll tell her and make sure she believes it.”

“Anything we can do for her?” Crystal asks.

Ali shakes her head. “When she gets like this she just has to work through it. She’ll probably journal some and get her mind wrapped around it a bit better.”

“And I won’t be jumping out a window any time soon. Promise,” Ash says from behind her.

“I thought you weren’t coming out?” Ali says.

“I wasn’t. But I also didn’t want all the women in this room thinking about me and not a game in a couple days. You know, the one where the Spirit is going to wipe the field with the Reign?” Ash says with a wink to Pinoe.

The other blonde gets what Ash wants and rolls with it. “Oh, so the Army grunt thinks she knows football? Get real!”

And soon good-natured jibes start and laughter abounds as crazy bets start being made among friends. Ashlyn smiles as she listens. She pulls Ali into a hug.

“I’m okay. Thank you for being here for me.”

Ali gives her a kiss. “Always, baby. Always.”

The two share a kiss, interrupted by their friend’s favorite request of them

“GET A ROOM!” Pinoe yells, as everyone laughs.

About an hour later, the party is breaking up. Ashlyn stands on the sidewalk with Ali as the rest of the team gets in the hotel shuttle.

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow, baby.”

“We have practice at 9 so maybe we can meet for lunch?” Ali suggests.

“It’s a date, princess.”

“And if you need me tonight, call me. Promise.”

Ashlyn nods. “I promise. But I’m okay, baby. Really.”

The two share another kiss and hug then Ali gets in the van to go back to the hotel. Ashlyn waits until it is out of sight before going back up to Pinoe’s apartment. She walks in and helps her friend clean up. Pinoe gives her a look.

“You need anything, you know where I am.”

Ashlyn smiles. “I know. Thanks, bud.”

Pinoe just nods and they keep cleaning up in companionable silence.


 

Ashlyn says nothing, just opens her arms to let her wife walk into them. Ali allows herself to be pulled into the strong arms as her tears darken Ashlyn’s red Spirit jersey.

“How the fuck have they been able to do that to us all fucking year?” Ali gripes.

“I don’t know, baby. You played a great game. It’s just...how football is sometimes. And it sucks. I really thought the game was yours.”

“Me, too,” Ali says sadly.

She sighs, just letting Ashlyn hold her. And Ashlyn is happy to do whatever she can to make her wife feel better. They had both been so sure the Spirit would win this game and complete the worst to first turn around by winning the championship. After a few minutes, Ali looks up and gives her wife a kiss.

“Thank you for not saying dumb things about ‘maybe next year’ and other shit people say.”

Ashlyn smiles. “I’ve been in your cleats, baby. I know those words just piss players off.”

“Damn right,” Ali agrees with a grin. “So, uh, any chance you can put cayenne pepper in Pinoe’s undies drawer before you leave?”

Ashlyn busts out a loud laugh that thrills Ali. She pulls her wife close once more. “Anything for you, baby. Anything for you.”

Much to Pinoe’s relief, Ashlyn doesn’t follow through on that promise.

Chapter Text

October 2014

“Colonel Menninger, do you have a minute?” Ashlyn asks.

“Of course. Come in and sit down,” he says, gesturing to the seat across from him. “In fact, I was going to send for you in a little while.”

Ashlyn sits down. “You were?”

“Yes. But what did you need?”

“Well, normally I wouldn’t ask so far out, especially since it’s not a done deal yet and I’m kind of superstitious about these kind of things but Ali really wanted me to ask so I thought I should do it so she doesn’t have to worry about it.”

Menninger grins. “Um, okay. Worry about what?”

Ashlyn takes a deep breath. “She really wants me to ask for a month’s leave to attend the World Cup next summer. I figure the whole month is a no-go but can I at least have 2 weeks that would end after the Championship? I am damn sure they will make it to the tourney and win it so I’d like to be there when they do, sir,” Ashlyn finishes, studying the man’s face. She notices the grin fall as he glances down at his desk. “Or, um, maybe just a week off?” Ashlyn asks nervously.

Menninger reaches over to his files and slides out a folder. He stares at it a moment before laying it in front of himself.

“Lieutenant Harris, you have been impressing people from the day you entered boot camp. You’ve gotten letters of commendation and medals for your actions in the field, not to mention the commendation for the donations we received from Nike and Adidas. It’s no secret you are on the fast track to captain next summer.”

“Thank you for saying that, sir,” Ashlyn says, her hopes of attending the World Cup dwindling since it coincides with her promotion schedule.

“That said, one thing missing from your files is a deployment,” Menninger says. Ashlyn’s blood turns to ice. “I’ve tried to point out the many times you’ve responded with the Fast Response Team as being worse than a deployment because so much is unknown when you report and things can be just as dicey with the locals. You deserve to make captain, Harris. And I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t do everything possible to make sure that happens. That said, the word I got yesterday still pains me. I was hoping to talk to you after you got back from Qualifiers.”

Ashlyn swallows hard as he studies the folder silently. “Sir...where am I going and when?” she asks softly.

He sighs and hands her the folder. “Iraq. December 1. It’s a 1 year tour.”

Ashlyn shivers. One whole year away. She’d miss the World Cup. She’d miss so much. So fucking much. But what makes her better than any other soldier in the Army? Why should her personal life and her wife’s potential accomplishments mean more than anyone else’s? She opens the folder and studies the official notice. She slowly looks up and forces a smile to her face.

“Guess this means Canada is out, right sir?”

“I’m afraid so, Lieutenant.”

Ashlyn sighs. “Damn. I’m glad Ali’s already left with the team. Will give me a couple days to figure out how to conceal my emotions.” She looks up at her colonel. “Thank you for telling me, sir. And I appreciate you trying to keep me from going. But I’m no better than anyone else and I need to take my tour like others have and will. I’m honoured to be an officer in the US Army and willing to do my duty no matter where it takes me.”

Menninger smiles and stands. Ashlyn stands, too. He offers her his hand. “Well said, Lieutenant. And I daresay by the time you get back to me, you’ll be a captain. Keep making me look good out there, Harris.”

Ashlyn smiles at the man she has the utmost respect for. “I will, sir. Count on it.”

Ashlyn slowly walks back to her desk to read the full details of her deployment. She sees she will actually get to handpick the squad leaders she takes with her. They will be tasked with the rebuilding of several towns, making them nicer than when the war started. It was part of the “feel good” policies the administration was pushing to show that the U.S. is more than just a war machine storming through the Middle East and actually an asset to helping the countries grow and prosper. It actually sounds like a lot of fun and very fulfilling.

“Well, except that local insurgents will be trying to kill us. Other than that, no big deal,” she mutters as she sets the folder aside to concentrate on the work she has to get done that day.


 

That night Ashlyn stares at her suitcase as she packs to spend the next few days in Philly for the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers. Her Ali Krieger jersey is on top of the pile and it brings a tear to her eyes. She turns around and sits down on the bed. Her mind runs through the litany of things she will miss while gone.

Next Thanksgiving

Their Anniversary

Christmas this year

Start of 2015 NWSL season

The World Cup

Ali’s Birthday

The Celebrations for winning the World Cup (for there is no other outcome in her mind).

Birthdays of other friends and relatives.

Valentine’s Day

“ASHLYN!”

Ashlyn jumps as she notices Ken standing at the door to her and Ali’s room. He looks at her with concern. He walks over and stands in front of her.

“I called you 4 times. What’s going on in your head, Ash? You’ve been a little out of it the last couple of days. And now I find you in here, half-packed, crying and staring into space. I’m worried about you,” he says.

Ashlyn sighs and looks down at her feet. “I’ve been...dealing with some work stuff. That’s all. Sorry. I, uh, am almost done packing.” She stands to grab a few more things.

Ken gently takes her arm. “You can’t lie to me any better than you can lie to your wife. Talk to me, Ashlyn.”

She stares at the wall, her lip quivering as she fights her emotions. She finally looks at her father-in-law.

“You have to swear you won’t tell her until after the tournament.” He nods, seeing how important this is to her. Ash takes a deep breath. “On December 1 I leave for a year in Iraq.”

Ken’s mouth drops open. This was the last thing he expected. I mean, sure, deployment was always a possibility but it seemed so slight considering Ashlyn’s job in the Army. He leans against the dresser.

“Damn, honey. I can see why you didn’t tell Alex. Did you tell anyone else?” Ashlyn shakes her head. “Ashlyn, you don’t need to fight these fears alone. I dare say you’d be crazy not to be scared about being over there but- -”

“It’s not just that, Ken. If something happens to me...will she...I know her well enough to know she won’t play the World Cup. She won’t. And she deserves to do it. I can’t get that out of my head,” Ashlyn admits.

Ken slowly nods. “I understand that. But I also think you’re masking your own fears of mortality by thinking about Alex.”

Ashlyn thinks about that a moment. “Maybe a little. But I don’t want her to know until after Qualifiers.” She manages a small smile. “I’m still trying to figure out a way to hide it until after the World Cup.”

Ken grins and squeezes her arm. “Not sure you could pull that one off. Alex is a pretty sharp cookie.”

Ashlyn nods. “Don’t I know it.” She takes a deep breath. “I’ll tell her after the tournament. I promise.”

Ken nods, “I know you will. Until then it’s our secret.”

“Thanks, Dad,” she says appreciatively.

“Now hurry up and finish packing. I want to be on the road in 20 minutes.”

Ashlyn nods and finishes getting her clothes together. She runs down everything she’s packed in her mind, hoping she hasn’t forgotten anything since she was so distracted.


 

The first game of the 2014 CONCACAF Women’s World Cup Qualifying tournament is a surprisingly hard-fought win over a feisty Trinidad & Tobago team. Ali had played the full 90 and showed the coaches she was back up to form after the concussion incident. Her presence in the backline was felt just about every time their opponents made a play towards goal.

The second game was a 5-0 blowout, making it a much better game for those in the stands. Ali gets the start but is subbed out in the second half to give her time to rest; and give Jill Ellis a chance to evaluate other line-ups. Ashlyn is thrilled that Whitney not only starts, but actually scores one of the goals.

“YES, WHITNEY!” she screams for her best friend, giving the Engen’s a hug as they celebrate their daughter’s goal. “She’s amazing!” Ash gushes.

“Yes, she is,” Mrs. Engen agrees, so very proud of her daughter.

The group stage concludes with a 6-0 rout of Haiti. Ali sat the whole game to rest her up for the expected showdown against Mexico in the Semifinals. It was the game that had been predicted as the championship game until Costa Rica upset the Mexican team and won their group.

“This game is going to be a nail-biter,” Ashlyn predicts.

“I agree,” Ken says.

They are currently watching the team warm up. Ashlyn, as she often does, studies the warm-ups of the opposing keeper. She frowns a bit.

“Hmm, maybe not. I mean, she’s okay but I think our forwards can take her,” she notes.

“What makes you say that?” Deb, who had flown in for the elimination rounds, asks.

Ashlyn shrugs. “Just...instinct. She’s not as sure when she leaves her line and she’s hesitant in the air. If they’ve studied game tapes and seen the same thing Syd, Carli and Press will make confetti out of the net.”

“Good to know,” Deb says.

When the game begins it doesn’t take long for the US to strike...almost.

“Damn that crossbar!” Ashlyn notes as a shot rattles off of it.

But it only takes 6 minutes for Carli Lloyd to strike the eventual game winner. Add in a PK at the 30 mark and things are looking good for the US.

There is one moment when Ashlyn nearly launches herself onto the field. A bad tackle from behind and Ali goes down hard, laying on the ground for a second. The soldier is out of her seat and down the stairs to the railing before anyone can grab her. She stares at her wife, whispering words of prayer.

“Come on, baby, get up. Please get up. Please...please, God, don’t take the World Cup from her. Please.”

She loosens her white-knuckle grip on the railing when Ali finally does get to her feet and take a couple of steps before jogging back into position.

“Oh, thank God,” Ashlyn murmurs.

“So now that she’s up, can you return to your seat, ma’am?”

Ashlyn looks at the security guard. “Oh. Uh, sorry.”

“No problem. Just glad you didn’t jump that rail and make me tackle you,” he says with a wink.

Ashlyn manages a smile. “Right. Sorry again.”

Ashlyn climbs the steps and slips back into her seat. She looks at Ken and Deb who are staring at her in amusement. Ashlyn shrugs, blushing.

“Well...I had to make sure...”

Deb frames her face with her hands and gives her a kiss on the cheek. “You are so cute.”

Ashlyn blushes more, as other parents chuckle at the interaction. She turns back to the game, hoping action on the field will take attention from her.

The U.S. easily advances to the final against Costa Rica. That game is another walloping as the US wins 6-0 thanks to goals from 3 players, paced by an insane 4 GOALS from Abby. Beyond that amazing showing, all in the stands are excited to see Syd finally find the back of the net after so many near misses during the rest of the tournament. Though the game is well in hand by the time she scores, they know it does a lot for her confidence to get that goal.

As the fans are filing out, Ashlyn finds herself walking with Deb. Her mother-in-law hooks her arm through Ashlyn’s and gives her a bit of a bump.

“When are you going to tell her?”

Ashlyn freezes and turns to look at her. “Tell who what?”

“Tell Alex you’re going to Iraq,” she explains.

Ashlyn turns to glare at Ken. He shrugs. “I needed to talk to someone who’d understand my fear. We both love you, Ash, and we’re both scared about this but are behind you 100%.”

Ashlyn sighs and turns back to Deb. “I figure no sooner than tomorrow. She deserves to party and have fun and celebrate tonight. I can ruin the rest of 2014 for her after all that.”

Deb pulls Ashlyn along, getting her walking again. “When will you have your address so I can get a care package ready for you? I want to make sure you have it in time for Christmas.”

Ashlyn shakes her head. “Deb, you don’t have to- -”

“Don’t even finish that sentence, Ashlyn. It’s not about ‘have to’ it’s about ‘want to’. I want to make sure my girl has something nice at Christmas.”

Ashlyn’s eyes tear up, as they do anytime she is reminded about just how much she means to Ali’s parents. She takes a couple seconds to answer.

“I’ll have it in November. That’s when the official orders will come down.”

“Official? Does that mean it could change?” Deb asks hopefully.

“No, it’s just a military thing. It’s happening. In fact, my promotion to captain is tied into it so there’s no pulling out no matter what.”

“Rats. Well, a mother can hope, I guess,” she replies. “All I ask is that you do me one favor.”

“Okay.”

“Tell her before November 30.”

Ashlyn grins. “I plan to. My plan is to take her to a nice dinner when we get back to DC and tell her when we get home. The dinner will be to celebrate this win. Then I can bust her bubble with my news. Am I a jerk or what?”

“You’re not a jerk. There’s really no easy way to do this. She’ll be hurt and scared no matter what. But she’ll be mad the longer you wait,” Ken cautions.

“I know. I swear, I just want her to enjoy this victory a few more days.”


 

Later that night, Ashlyn stares down at the beauty in her arms. She traces her hands over strong, sweaty skin glowing in the aftermath of making love. She massages a strong thigh, as always amazed by the princess beauty hiding a warrior of steel. A hand reaches up and caresses Ash’s cheek.

“Talk to me, baby,” Ali says softly.

Ashlyn looks up from her wandering and makes eye contact with concerned eyes. “What?”

“Something has been bothering you since you got to Philly. I’m not going to accept the ‘just work stuff’ excuse any longer. I could tell you needed me to buy that so I did. Now I’m not. Tell me what’s going on, Ashlyn.”

Ashlyn sighs and brings her forehead down to her wife’s. “I don’t know why I ever think I can hide things from you.”

“Me neither. So...when do you leave and for how long?”

“You...you know it’s a deployment? Like a real one?”

Ali nods. “It’s the only thing I can imagine that would make you this upset; this...scared.”

Ashlyn rolls off her wife and stares at the ceiling, trying to will the tears forming in her eyes to go away. “I was going to tell you when we got back to DC. I swear I was.”

Ali rolls, cuddling into her wife’s side as she studies the strong features of the blonde. “Tell me now.”

Ashlyn stares at the ceiling. For a minute, Ali thinks she will not be getting an answer. Then Ashlyn takes a deep breath.

“I leave on December 1st for a yearlong tour in Iraq helping with the rebuilding projects around the country,” she says, her voice choked with emotion.

Ali fights back her own tears. “Oh. Fuck. That’s...really soon for really long.” Ashlyn just nods. Ali combs her mind to find something positive to say. “So, uh, I guess you’ll be watching the World Cup on Armed Forces Network.”

Ashlyn slowly turns and looks at her. “You’re...not mad? At me?”

Ali tilts her head to the side. “Baby, how can I be mad at you?” She moves so she straddles her wife, looking down at her. “I’ve told you before: I know what I signed up for when I married an Army officer. I didn’t just marry you because you look so fucking hot in uniform, which you really do,” she adds and Ash gives a small smile. “I married you because I love you. And I love your heart. And I love that you will be over there making life better for people. Will I be scared? Hell yeah. But that doesn’t mean I stop loving you. It means I love you more.”

Ashlyn stares into honest eyes a second then pulls her down into a deep kiss. When it ends, Ashlyn runs her hands up and down her wife’s sides. “I love you. I swear I will do everything I can to stay safe and get home to you in one piece next fall.”

Ali smiles. “I’m holding you to that, my soldier.”

The two start to make love again, both putting all their thoughts and emotions into it. When Ali finally screams out her wife’s name, she collapses down onto the taller woman. It is seconds later that Ashlyn feels the tears on her shoulder. She wraps Ali in her arms.

“Please, Alex, don’t cry. Please don’t cry, Princess,” she begs.

“I can’t help it. My heart is going away for a year.”

Ashlyn just pulls her in closer. What the heck could she say to that?


 

Ashlyn stares at their closest friends, who all look a bit stricken. She pulls off her snapback and runs a hand through her hair.

“Guys...talk to me here. I’m not dead. I’m just...doing my job.”

“In Iraq. You’ll be doing your job in Iraq. For a year,” Whitney stresses.

Ashlyn reaches for her hand. “I’ll be in safe zones. It’s going to be so cool. I’ll be building schools and meeting halls and- -”

Whitney pulls her hand away and stands. “IN IRAQ! You’re not going to be in fucking Kansas doing that shit! You’re not going to be in Carolina! You’ll be in FUCKING IRAQ!”

Tobin stands and tries to calm Ashlyn’s best friend. Whitney just steps away and goes to stare out the window. Ashlyn sighs and looks at the others in the room. Sarah Huffman, who had come to cheer on Abby, leans into her tall wife, her face worried. Abby’s face looks more angry than sad. Tobin’s face is impassive. HAO has a single tear running down her cheek. And Pinoe looks like she is desperately trying to figure out something amusing to say to ease the tension.

But nothing about this conversation is helping her find an amusing anecdote.

Ashlyn stands up and walks over to Whitney. She wraps her arms around her best friend from behind, resting her chin on her shoulder. They just stand there a few minutes, until Whit finally turns around and buries her face in Ashlyn’s neck.

“I’ll kick your ass if you get hurt over there. And I’ll never speak to you again if you get killed,” Whitney mumbles.

Ashlyn smiles. “I love you, too, Whit.”

After a few minutes, Whit pulls away, wiping her face. Ashlyn turns back to the others. “So, anyone else need to have a breakdown?”

Abby shrugs. “Not a breakdown. But...just...we meet military personnel all the time. Hell, we know some of the shit you’ve gotten into. But this is just...just...”

“More permanent,” HAO supplies. “You’ll just be there. For a year.”

Ashlyn looks like she doesn’t know how to respond. Ali sits forward in her chair. “Guys, I’m not saying it’s not scary. We all know things are unstable over there. But Ashlyn needs us to ignore the fucking fear and just support her. I know this is hitting us closer to home than normal but we need your support right now. I’ll be a basket case. I can admit that. But there will be times I need to lean on you and times you’ll need to lean on me. And Ash is going to need us sending her crazy letters, cards, emails, anything to help her stay positive over there and get back to us next December. Can we count on you to be our support structure during this year?”

Pinoe stands and moves to Ali’s side. She pulls her in close. “Of course you can, Kriegs.” She kisses Ali’s temple. “I think we are just all in a bit of shock. We’re probably not handling this as well as we could be.”

“To say the least,” Ashlyn says with a smile. “Look guys, think of it this way: with all that sand it will be like I’m on a yearlong surfing vacation. Minus the ocean. And the surfboards. And the hot chicks in bikinis.”

Everyone gives a chuckle.

“Oh, right. Almost the same damn thing now that you put it that way,” Sarah jokes. She stands and gives Ashlyn a hug. “I’ve got your back, Ash. And anytime Ali needs anything I’m just a phone call away,” she says, turning to smile at Ali.

“That’s right. We’re all here for both of you,” Abby confirms.

Ashlyn finally turns to the last person in the room. The one who had sat a little away from the others as if knowing she was not going to like what was being said. Her blue eyes are wide, her mouth drawn into a tight line. Ashlyn releases Whitney and walks over to kneel in front of the young forward.

“Baby Horse? You with us?”

Alex slowly looks up. Her blue eyes are magnified by a well of tears. She throws her arms around Ashlyn’s shoulders.

“I’m scared.”

“Me, too,” Ashlyn admits. “But I’ve had training, I’ve had experience, I’m ready for this. I promise you I will be careful and come back to you as safely as I can.”

Alex finally leans back and kisses her cheek. “I’ll miss you at my wedding.”

Ashlyn smiles. “I hate missing it but I expect a lot of pictures. And maybe even a slice of wedding cake mailed to me.”

Alex chuckles and wipes her eyes. “I’ll try to save a slice just for you.”

They hug once more then Ashlyn stands and looks at her wife. “There, that wasn’t so bad, right?”

Ali rolls her eyes. “Right.”

“Now we just have to tell Niki, Lori, Kyle and my family. Not hard at all, right?”

“Keep telling yourself that, kid,” Abby jokes.

Soon everyone has left, leaving Ali and Ashlyn alone. Ashlyn sighs.

“Whit about broke me,” she admits.

“Me, too,” Ali replies. “But I’ll keep an eye on her as she’ll keep an eye on me. You just worry about you. Those of us back here will just worry about ourselves, okay?”

Ashlyn gives her a kiss. “Okay.”

The two gather up Ashlyn’s bags and then go get Ali’s. Ali will ride back to Virginia with her wife and father. She just needed to be close to Ashlyn right now and Jill, who had been told of the deployment, completely understands.


 

Ashlyn stares at the TV screen. They had hooked up the laptop and camera to it so she could pace if needed while talking to her family. She sees faces ranging from stunned to scared to disbelief. She takes a deep breath.

“Come on, guys, talk to me. Let me know you heard what I said,” she begs.

“We heard. Just fucking hate it, Ash,” Chris says, his voice angry.

Ashlyn stands and lifts her hands pleadingly. “Look, you all knew this was probably going to happen with me in the Army. Don’t be mad at me. Please.”

“Mad? Fuck, Ash, I’m furious! I don’t want my sister in a fucking WAR ZONE!” Chris yells then walks out of the room.

“Bubba! CHRIS! CHRISTOPHER!” Ashlyn yells but he doesn’t return. “Son of a...”

Ali steps out of the room to call Chris. As close as she is to Kyle she can imagine how Chris is doing since he is just as close with Ash. Ashlyn looks to her mother then her grandmother.

“Mom? Grandma? Please...talk to me,” she pleads.

Her grandmother stiffens her back. “I’m so proud of you, Ashlyn Michelle. This is perhaps the scariest news I’ve ever gotten but I will love and support you no matter what.”

“Thank you,” Ashlyn says with relief.

Tammye squeezes her hands together. “I guess...I need to get one of those Blue Star pennants to hang in my window. I want the world to know my daughter is bravely fighting for our freedoms.”

Ashlyn smiles. “I’ll get you one, Mom. Promise.”

“I’ll need one for my house, too,” her father chimes in.

“You got it, Pop. And one for you, too, Grandma.”

“Get one for Chris,” Ali says as she walks back into the room.

Ashlyn had looked over her shoulder to her wife. When she turns back, her brother is on the screen, his eyes red from crying.

“You’ve always been my hero and best friend, Ash. Sorry I let fear become anger. I’m here for you and Ali no matter what,” he says.

Ashlyn’s eyes tear up. “Thanks, Bubba.”

The Skype lasts about another 20 minutes, interspersed with questions about Iraq to teasing Ashlyn about things she did as a kid that could reflect on her job performance. By the time it ends, Ashlyn’s grandma states that Thanksgiving will be in Satty Beach so Ashlyn can surf as much as she can before leaving and that all Kriegers are required to attend.

“I’ll make sure to send out the notices, Grandma,” Ali promises.

“You girls take care. Ashlyn, if you need anything let us know,” Tammye says.

“I will, Mom. Thanks. I love you guys.”

“Love you, too, Sis.”

“Love you, little one,” her grandfather says.

When the call is disconnected, Ashlyn drops down onto the couch. “So that’s everyone except Kyle.”

“Yeah. I still can’t reach him.”

Ashlyn thinks a second. “Molly about broke me with those silent tears.”

Ali smiles and cuddles up to her wife. “Me, too.”

Earlier that day they’d had Niki and Molly over for brunch. Molly had just silently cried, unable to speak. Niki and Ashlyn had gone out back to talk. Ali had not asked about what but she had a feeling it had to do with Niki watching over Ali should the worst happen. The two women had hugged so hard and so long at the end of their talk she hopes it also means Ashlyn was honest about the fears she had been hiding. Ali strokes her fingers through her wife’s blonde locks.

“I’ll be okay, you know. I mean...it will suck on so many levels but I will be okay. I have an amazing support system around me to help me when I’m down. I’ll be okay, Ashlyn.”

Ash turns and studies her wife. “I know you will be. You’re Ali Frickin’ Krieger. You always come out on top.”

Ali leans forward, cupping Ash’s chin. “Get it right, woman. I am Ali Frickin’ Krieger-HARRIS.”

Ashlyn smiles as Ali seals that statement with a kiss.

“How did I ever forget?” Ashlyn asks as the kiss ends.

Ali moves to sit on her wife’s lap and the two start to make out, knowing they have a couple hours before Ken gets home from his date. Just when it seems it may go farther someone is pounding on the front door. The women stand. Ashlyn automatically puts Ali behind her as she approaches the door warily. The pounding starts again and Ali gets her phone ready to call 9-1-1. Ashlyn eases to the door and looks out the spy lens.

“Oh for fuck’s sake!”

She opens the door and Kyle Krieger blows in like the Wicked Witch of the West.

“I cannot BELIEVE you did not tell me you were going to Iraq! I mean, what’s a guy to do when his favorite sister-in-law withholds VITAL information!” He then turns on Ali. “And what about you, missy? Couldn’t pick up a phone? Couldn’t be bothered to drop a text? What’s up with this?!”

He ends with his hands on his hips, one hip cocked out to the side. He is the poster boy for the stereotypical pissed gay man. Ashlyn and Ali exchange a look...then burst out laughing. He lifts a hand and snaps at them.

“Oh, no you are NOT laughing at me!”

Ashlyn walks over and pulls the stiff man into a hug. “You were our next call, Kyle. Promise.”

“Oh, so I’m supposed to be happy that I’m last? That the whoooooole family found out first?”

“And the team,” Ali adds, with a grin.

“Oh, I KNOOOOOOOOOW they found out first! Alex visited to get her hair cut and asked how I was feeling about things! ALEX MORGAN had to tell me my little sister was going to war!” he screeches.

Ashlyn leans back and stares into his eyes. “You were the hardest one to tell,” she says honestly. “I’ll need you so much while I’m gone to take care of Ali and...and I just...I didn’t want to...”

He suddenly relaxes as he sees the truth in her eyes. “You’re scared if...the worst happens I’ll fall off the wagon.”

“Yeah,” she croaks out.

Ali straightens up. Ashlyn had never told her about this fear. And yet, she should have seen it all along.

“I don’t want to be the reason you lose your sobriety and all you hold dear,” Ashlyn explains.

He pulls her close. “Oh, sweet Ashlyn, I won’t. If...something happens to you, I’d be tempted, that’s no lie. But I have the right people around me that won’t let it happen, starting with that gorgeous princess you’re married to. I promise: I’ll be here for her totally sober and totally strong to help her through anything,” he vows.

“Thank you,” Ashlyn croaks out. “And you’ll also make sure my hair looks awesome for my funeral?”

He manages a laugh. “You’re fucking sick but yes, I will.”

As the hug ends, Ashlyn runs her hands up and down his arms. “I can’t believe you flew all the way out here because you’re pissed at me.”

“Well, that and I have a hairstylist’s conference in D.C. This weekend. Surprise! I’m here to crash at Hotel Daddy for a couple of days.”

Ashlyn laughs and hugs him again. “Well, then welcome and enjoy your stay. Don’t expect turn down service and a mint on your pillow.”

He pretends to pout. “Well, fine. Cheap ass hotel if you ask me,” he gripes as he pushes past her to Ali. “Soooo, I guess I forgive you, too.”

“You better. Or you’ll get ‘spider in the bed’ service,” she threatens.

He gives a full body shiver at the thought and pulls his sister into a hug. The three make their way to the living room to talk about anything other than the quickly approaching deployment of Ashlyn.

Chapter Text

Ashlyn is sitting at her desk on Monday morning going over some inventory numbers when a shadow falls across her work. She looks up to see the miffed countenance of her sergeant, and friend, Michael Andrews.

“Have I done something to piss you off, Lieutenant?”

Ashlyn is confused. “Uh, no, Sergeant,” wondering at his use of her full rank and not just the initials L.T. that he normally uses when it’s just them.

“Oh, really. Then what am I? Chopped liver? Not good enough for you anymore now that the brass has their eyes on you?”

Ashlyn is amazed at how angry the normally easy-going man is at the moment. She stands and gestures to an empty file room. “How about we take this in there and you can tell me what your problem is, Andrews.”

He precedes her into the room, which also shocks Ashlyn. His gentlemanly ways are usually impeccable. She swallows and follows him in there and shuts the door. She leans against one of the tall file cabinets.

“So when did I piss in your Wheaties, Andrews?”

He steps towards her. “Is it true or not that you can handpick your team for Iraq?”

Ashlyn slowly nods. “It’s true.”

“And is it true or not you’ve already picked most of your team and are now interviewing sergeants to be your right hand over there?” he continues.

Ashlyn straightens her back. “Yeah, I am.”

“So what the hell is it about me that makes you want to take some jackass you don’t know or barely know? I’ve been with you since we got here and I thought we worked damn good together! We’ve been through a lot of shit, Harris, and I thought you knew I’d have your back. Now I find you don’t trust me at all! What the hell did I do to deserve to be shit on this way?”

Ashlyn closes her eyes a moment. She hadn’t expected this anger; this hurt. She opens her eyes and meets his. “It wasn’t you, it was me. I didn’t keep the line as separate as we’re supposed to. You’re not my subordinate, Andrews, you’re my friend. And...and I couldn’t...I just...”

Andrews’ shoulders sag as he gets what she’s not saying. “You don’t want me by your side in case shit hits the fan.”

“Yes,” she says softly.

He starts to pace. “Son of a bitch, LT.” He turns to her. “And how the fuck do you think I’d feel if something happens to you while I’m over here in safety? I want to go have your back, Ashlyn. I’ll have yours and you’ll have mine just like always.”

Ashlyn stares at him a second. “Michael, you better keep your ass down over there.”

He gives her a grin. “If shit gets hairy I’ll just throw you in front of me,” he promises.

Ashlyn chuckles. “Way to have my back, asshole.”

The two go back out to Ashlyn’s desk. She pulls up the page where she’s filling out her squad. She takes a deep breath and types in “Sergeant Michael Andrews”. She hits enter and the field populates on the master list. She looks up at him.

“Happy now, whiner?”

He smiles. “Very, Lieutenant. Best damn decision you’ve made all day.”

Ashlyn rolls her eyes. “Still think the turkey club I had at lunch was the best decision but to each their own.”

He chuckles and goes back to finish what he had been working on when he ran into a sergeant who had asked about what it was like to work with Ashlyn. Ashlyn looks over the complete list of those she is taking to be her build team leaders. They would be the ones in charge of the workers who would do the majority of the build and then stick around to put finishing touches on the building. She has a master electrician, a plumber, painters, construction workers and now, to help her keep everyone in line, the sergeant to lead the team. She hits submit, sending the list to Menninger for approval. She glances at her watch and sees it is nearly 4 p.m. She sends a quick email out to the sergeants that had been interested in the position to let them know it has been filled.

She then grabs her gym bag to go get a workout in. She needed to sweat out the stress of having just signed a friend up for a year in Iraq. It was hard with the others but it is worse with Andrews. She knows she needs to get her head on right before getting home to keep her wife from realizing just how much stress the impending departure is weighing on the blonde.


 

Ali is running on the treadmill. In her mind she is crossing things off a list and adding other things on; all things that have to be done before Ashlyn leaves for Iraq. There are so many things in their lives that have to be dealt with. Making sure she has all the passwords for the bills companies; making sure she knows who to contact in an emergency; making sure she has Ashlyn’s address handy in her tablet, phone and computer should she need it somewhere.

“ALI!”

Ali jumps to a stop as someone rips out her earbuds and screams at her. Her feet are braced on either side of the treadmill, which is still moving. She looks at her trainer, Chris, in confusion.

“What?” she barks.

“Ali, you’ve got that thing set on manual so you control the speed. Look at your max rate,” he says.

She looks down and sees that she was running a good 10 kph faster than normal and had kept that pace up for about 10 minutes. She grabs her towel and wipes her face as she turns off the machine.

“Sorry,” she mumbles.

“Nothing to apologize for. What’s going on in your head? You’ve been distracted all week,” he points out.

Ali steps off the apparatus, feeling the shakiness in her legs from the pounding run. She starts to stretch.

“Ali, I can’t help you if you’re not open with me. What’s making you so distracted you’re going to end up hurting yourself?” he presses.

Ali turns to the wall to help stretch her calves. She takes a deep breath. “I found out the night we won the CONCACAF tournament that Ashlyn leaves December 1st for Iraq. She’ll be gone a year,” she says quietly, hating the words every time she hears them or speaks them.

Chris now understands why she is so distracted. He puts his hand on her shoulder. “Ali, I’m sorry. If there’s anything I can do while she’s gone let me know. But as your friend and trainer I have to say you need to be careful letting your emotions affect your work out. She will not be happy if you hurt yourself because you’re distracted. You know that in your heart.”

Ali turns from her stretches and leans back against the wall. She nods. “You’re right. I just...feel like there is so much to do and we’re running out of time to get it all done. I have a list where I keep crossing things off and yet I add 2 more items for every 1 that comes off. We leave next week for Thanksgiving in Florida and I just...I’m running out of time,” she says, her voice choking off as stress tears start down her cheeks.

Chris puts his arm around her shoulder and leads her to a private room, knowing she wouldn’t want the public to see her break down. He holds Ali as she cries, releasing some of the tension that had been building up. She can’t have this release at home. She has to be strong for Ashlyn and her father. But here she can let loose a little, either sweating it out or crying in the shower. She’s been doing that for a couple weeks now. She hadn’t expected to lose it during a workout.

“Thanks, Chris. I’ve been trying to...to stay so strong at home. I guess today it boiled over.”

“Understandable. Being a military wife sucks sometimes. But you’re one of the strongest women I know. You’ll figure out how to balance it all, Al. I know you will.”

“You almost make me believe that.”

“You need to. And if you start to doubt, come see me.”

“I will. Thank you,” she says gratefully.

“Now, I think your body is maxed out today considering our agility workout, your power run, and your emotional release. Go grab a shower and take the rest of the hour to do something nice for yourself. Go get a latte or something. Don’t spend so much time worrying about Ashlyn and your dad that you forget to take time for yourself,” he reminds her.

Ali thinks about that a moment, then nods. “Yeah, I think I know what you mean. Thanks again, Chris. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I’ll be here,” he promises with a grin.

A few minutes later Ali steps into the shower. As the warm water cascades over her body she doesn’t feel the need to cry for the first time in a few days.

“Probably because you cried without the water hiding you for a change, Krieger-Harris,” she mumbles to herself.

As she lathers up, she thinks about what Chris had told her to do. Though she had just agreed to end the conversation, she decides she really is going to take some time for herself. She’ll start with a latte, then maybe a manicure, and then maybe a little shopping. She grins as she thinks about finding the perfect outfit to wear the night before Ashlyn has to get on the plane at Andrews. An outfit that will surely give Ashlyn wonderful memories while she is in Iraq.


 

Ashlyn is studying plans of the various prefab buildings that will be available to her. Each village will have a certain amount of space so there are several sizes to choose from. In some places there will be a place for a school and a central meeting place in addition to a government center. In some there will be a school that will double as a meeting place. Two architects will visit each town and find out the needs of the town and bring that back to Ashlyn with the space available to the team of builders. Ashlyn will have to order the right buildings, arrange for their transport to the town, and then get the builders and tradesmen there on the day to start construction. It usually takes 2 weeks to fulfill the material order, a day to deliver, 5 days to build, and 2 days to do the final inside work to get a building up and running.

“Incredible!” she whispers to herself.

She’s got notes from previous team leaders letting her know about shortcuts that can help speed things up and pitfalls to avoid to keep things on time. One big call out is that if locals want to help, don’t let them. If they are anti-American they will sabotage the build. If they are sincere, they will slow things down as they are taught what to do. Instead, she should encourage them to make curtains, artwork, anything to decorate the sparse buildings. Taking toys and games can help with that, too, as she can tell parents to relax and spend time with their kids instead of worrying about work that the U.S. Army is happy to do.

“In other words: keep them the hell out of Dodge,” she summarizes.

“Best way to describe it,” Nettles chuckles as he walks up and pats her on the shoulder. “How goes the studying?”

Ashlyn sighs and sits back in her chair. She shrugs. “It’s...a lot. It’s kind of overwhelming right now to be honest. But I’ll be fine by the time I go. I promise, sir.”

Nettles sits on the edge of her desk. “Of that I have no doubt.” He pauses. “If all goes well, you get your promotion to captain while you’re over there. By the time you return to the States there will be several options open to you.”

Ashlyn nods. “Yes, sir,” she replies, unsure where this is going.

“Lieutenant, you’re a hell of a leader and a quick learner. Your team members all hold you in high esteem and you have proven yourself able to make quick decisions to calm dangerous situations or to get your people out of trouble as safely as possible.” He takes a deep breath. “You could go to any Corps of Engineers post in the world and there are several majors and even colonels with their eyes on you. That said, I hope you’ll consider staying here under my command. I know a certain green-to-gold captain who has plans to retire next summer. If I knew your plans were to return here I’d be able to argue to keep his post open until you step into it.”

Ashlyn let’s out a breath. “Wow. Uh, thank you, sir. I guess...as we sit here right now I say I’d want nothing more than to stay here. My wife’s family is here, her career is here, it’s the right place for us. But what might a year bring? I just don’t know. How soon would I have to let you know?”

“Not until May. June at the latest,” he tells her. “Captain Morris plans to leave for the civilian world at the end of August when his educational commitment is met. I am sure I can keep his position open until December if I tell Menninger you’re taking it. He’s a big fan of yours.”

Ashlyn chuckles. “Yes, sir, I know. Well, if all goes well, yes, sir, I would love to return to Belvoir if it fits with the plans for my wife and me.”

Nettles stands. “Excellent! I’m happy to hear that, Harris. I’ll let you get back to studying. If you need any help, let me know.”

“Thank you, sir,” Ashlyn says as he walks away.

She turns back to stare at her notes again. Her stomach had been in knots as she wondered if she was the right person for this job. Is she the right one to lead these men and women in Iraq? Does she know enough to get the job done on time and get them out of the area safely? What happens if she makes the wrong decision and they anger the locals? What happens if insurgents attack?

She suddenly stiffens. “What the fuck  do  I do if insurgents attack?”

She starts to comb through the notes, looking for instances where builds were disrupted by Taliban loyalists. She finds it and starts to read, losing herself in the way others had handled it, the casualties involved in each incident, and their notes on what was right and wrong in the handling of such. She is so caught up in the notes, she is startled when her desk phone rings. She grabs it as she rubs her eyes.

“Harris.”

“Are you coming home tonight?”

Ashlyn is surprised to hear a slightly miffed Ali on the line. “Alex?”

“Yes. Are you coming home or what?”

Ashlyn looks at the clock and sees it is almost 7:30. “Oh, fuck! Sorry, baby, I was studying and lost track of time,” she explains as she stands and starts to gather her things. “I will be out of here in 5 minutes. I promise.”

“Okay. We were getting worried you’d had an accident or something.”

Ashlyn groans. “Fuck. I am so, so sorry. You and Ken don’t need added stress right now. I’m on my way out the door. Love you!”

“Love you, too,” Ali says with a smile.

Ashlyn jogs to her Jeep and gets in. “Get your head together, Harris. You only have a couple more weeks with your family before you leave for a year. Don’t give up a minute more than required for work,” she coaches herself as she puts the vehicle in gear and drives out of the lot.


 

It is November 20. In two days they leave for Thanksgiving in Florida. Thanksgiving is November 27. They leave Florida the 28th. Ashlyn leaves the country on December 1.

In the room they use for storage, the blonde stares down at the kit bag in front of her, that timeline plays over and over in her mind. She is finished at Belvoir for now. The next time she returns to that base her tour in Iraq will be over. She turns and drops down onto the bed, her head down between her knees as she tries to control her breathing. She feels a gentle hand on her neck.

“Easy, baby. Easy,” Ali says calmly.

Ashlyn finally gets her breathing under control and looks up. Her eyes are finally honest, showing Ali what she had long suspected. “I am so fucking scared, Alex,” the soldier admits.

“Me, too,” the footballer states. “How could we not be?” She kneels down in front of Ashlyn. “But what gets me through the scariest moments is knowing how smart you are, how good at your job you are, how well trained you are, and how much your hand-picked team admires you. They’ll protect you as you protect them. And this time next year you’ll be making your way home to me. There is no other option that I will accept.”

Ashlyn takes her hands and kisses both of them. “Thank you. I couldn’t do this, couldn’t face this, without your love for me and your confidence in me.”

Ali smiles. “Those two things you’ve always had and always will.” She looks at the bag. “So...are you all packed?”

Ashlyn nods. “Yeah. Just need to close it and, well, it just seems so...so...final if I do.”

Ali nods and bites her lip a second. She stands and takes the top-load bag in her hands. She folds over the top and uses the snap hook to secure it. Ashlyn watches as Ali then picks it up and walks it over near the dresser in the room. The brunette then walks back and takes her wife’s hands again.

“There. All done.”

Ashlyn looks from the bag to her wife. “So...you trying to get rid of me then?” she teases, her eyes still showing fear.

Ali shakes her head, her face serious. “Never, baby. Never.”

She pulls Ashlyn up and down to their room. Once inside, Ali kicks the door closed and pulls her wife into a deep kiss. When it ends, her hands are stroking under Ash’s tank top.

“Fuck me, Ashlyn. Fuck me so hard I can feel it for the next year,” Ali begs.

Ashlyn growls as she recognizes what Ali is asking for. Making love will come later, closer to the day they say goodbye for a year. Tonight...tonight they would release the animalistic side of their love. They would mark each other with mouths, with nails, with bruising thrusts. Tonight they would fuck until they are too tired to feel the fear that courses just below their skin.

Without saying a word, Ashlyn rips open the button up Ali wears. The brunette moans as her breasts are freed a moment later, not even caring that her bra strap was ripped by the hungry blonde. She shoves her own sweat pants down as Ashlyn starts to kiss and nip along Ali’s collar bone, her hands kneading the perfect breasts she had freed so recently.

“Oh, Ash,” Ali moans.

Ashlyn lifts her wife up and walks her towards the bed as Ali kicks off her sweats and underwear. Ashlyn carefully lays her down and stands staring down at the toned, gorgeous body waiting for her. Breasts are fully standing at attention, their hard peaks just begging to be sucked, tweaked, and rubbed. Ali is already breathing hard and reaches out to her wife.

“Ash. Hurry. Please...”

Ashlyn quickly strips down. Before she climbs into the bed she reaches into the drawer of her nightstand. Ali drops a hand to her own center, feeling how wet it already is but giving it a few strokes anyway.

“Oh, already so wet for you,” she pants.

Ashlyn quickly dons the harness and kneels down on the bed. She drags a finger up Ali’s wet slit, wanting to feel for herself how ready her wife is. She brings the hand to her mouth and slowly sucks it, savoring the taste of Ali on her tongue. Ali moans as she watches how pleased her wife is by that taste. Ashlyn moves so she is between her wife’s legs. She slowly lowers herself, guiding her appendage up and down her wife’s wanton center.

“Lube me up, baby,” Ashlyn whispers.

Ali rocks against her wife, making sure to coat her juices on the dildo. Ashlyn leans down farther and takes a firm nipple in her mouth.

“OH!”

As Ali arches up at the contact, Ashlyn drives herself inside.

“ASH! OH, ASH!”

Ashlyn bites the nipple in her mouth just enough to make Ali arch up. She then places hard, open mouthed kisses up her wife’s chest to her throat. She sucks at her pulse point, not caring about leaving a mark this time. This time she wanted the world to know that Ali Krieger-Harris is hers and only hers. Her hips keep up a rapid pace, met by Ali’s. Her mouth nips at that spot just behind Ali’s ear; the place that drives her crazy.

“YES!” the brunette moans.

After torturing that spot a few minutes, Ashlyn sits up enough to stare into eyes nearly black with unadulterated lust. She keeps up her forceful thrusts deep into her wife as she speaks.

“Do you love me, Alex?” she demands.

“Yes, oh, yes, Ashlyn,” Ali pants.

“Are you mine to fuck anyway I want?”

“Yes, baby. All yours. Anything you want,” Ali agrees.

“Good.” Ashlyn scoots up, lifting Ali’s legs to her shoulders. The brunette lets out an inhuman cry of pleasure as this new position allows Ashlyn to plunge deeper and deeper into Ali. Ashlyn grabs a breast with one hand, teasing the perfect nipple and watching as this added sensation makes Ali respond even more physically as her voice is reduced to just sounds. “So fucking beautiful,” Ashlyn grunts out.

Just when Ali thinks she is about to dive over into the strongest orgasm of her life, Ashlyn pulls out. “No! God, no! Please, baby!”

Ashlyn doesn’t speak. She simply flips her wife over and pulls her up onto all fours. Ali squeals as this position opens her up even more and Ashlyn wastes no time before thrusting back in. Strong hands grip Ali’s hips, pulling her back to meet each thrust.

“Oh. So. Deep,” she moans her body on fire with sensation.

Ash reaches around and starts to rub Ali’s clit, sending her into tremors of pleasure. And just when Ali thinks her mind is as blown as it can be, she feels where the other hand is.

“Oh, fuck, Ashlyn...”

Ash just grins as she wets her finger with Ali’s juices, then penetrates that rarely used orifice in back. That extra penetration is the final piece to the puzzle. Ali’s eyes see stars as she screams out her pleasure and her body is rocked with a forceful orgasm.

So forceful, in fact, it presses the dildo back against Ashlyn in such a way and in such a rapid fire beat, that it also sends the blonde over.

“ALEX!” Ashlyn screams as she thrusts through her orgasm, sending Ali over the edge once more.

Ashlyn barely has time to pull out before both women collapse down on the bed. They are a panting, sweaty mess. Ali slowly turns her head to look at her wife.

“Wow.”

“Yeah.”

After a few minutes, Ali reaches towards her nightstand and pulls out her own harness. She grins wolfishly.

“My turn.”

Ashlyn just smirks and slips her own harness off and rolls to her back. “As you wish.”

Ali slowly shakes her head. “Not like that.” She sits on the bed, back against the headboard. “Mount up, cowgirl.”

Ashlyn moans and throws her legs over her wife. With Ali’s help she lowers herself onto the toy. Her eyes roll back in her head at the sensation.

“Oh, Alex...”

Ashlyn grabs the headboard and starts to work herself up and down on the shaft. Ali watches her a moment, then leans forward and takes a breast in her mouth. She sucks the hard peak, making Ashlyn moan, before trapping it between her teeth and flicking it with her tongue, making Ashlyn lose her rhythm.

“Oh, fuck, Alex...”

Ali’s hands trace over muscular thighs and abs. She then grabs both breasts with her hands as she looks up at her wife.

“Kiss me, Ashlyn.”

Ashlyn lowers her mouth and lets Ali control the depth and power of the kiss, just moaning at how good her body feels. The kiss ends when Ali gives one breast a carefully planned pinch. As Ashlyn rocks back from that sensation, she feels where Ali’s other hand has gone. No one, not even Ali, had taken her in that way before. She brings her head down to look into chocolate orbs.

“Alex...”

“You’re mine, Ashlyn. All mine.”

“Yes.”

“And I am going to take you in every way.”

“Yes, Alex. Every way.”

They kiss again as Ali’s index finger penetrates Ashlyn from behind. And that is what puts Ashlyn over the edge. The amazing feeling of Ali filling her every hole sends her into an orgasm like she has never experienced before. Her body rocks hard on her wife, who is thrown over by Ash’s actions.

“ALEX!”

“ASH!”

The two ride out the aftershocks before Ashlyn dismounts. They lie staring at the ceiling as they both catch their breaths. After a second, Ali rolls over.

“I forgot something,” she whispers.

Ashlyn frowns. “What the fuck could you have forgotten?”

“This,” she says and sucks her wife’s collar bone until a hickey appears. Ashlyn just moans through the process. Ali smiles when she sits up and admires her handiwork. “There. Won’t be visible when you’re in uniform but will definitely tell anyone in a community shower that you are taken.”

Ashlyn smiles. “Want to carve an ‘A’ on my chest, like Zorro?”

“Nah. They would just think you did that yourself,” she jokes.

Ashlyn laughs. “You’re probably right.” She rolls over and lightly caresses her wife’s toned stomach. “Alex, when I get back if it looks like we are staying in this area for you and for me, I want to get our own house. I want...want to start setting down roots with you. And, honestly, it will be nice not to have to plan loud sex around your dad’s dating life.”

Ali smiles and strokes Ashlyn’s cheeks. “Okay.”

Ashlyn’s eyes grow wide. “Really? Are you serious?”

Ali nods. “I’m serious. I figure by then it may also be time to think about little Nittany Lions in our life.”

“Oh, hell no. You mean little Tar Heels.”

“Nope, I definitely mean Nittany Lions. Lions are so much cuter.”

Ashlyn laughs, realizing she’s been backed into a corner. If she says they aren’t cuter, she’s insulting her wife. If she admits they are cuter than Tar Heels, she’s insulting herself. She shakes her head.

“You are just about evil, Mrs. Krieger-Harris.”

Ali grins slyly. “I know.”

They stare at each other a few minutes, just enjoying being together. Then Ashlyn reaches over and undoes her wife’s pink harness. She tosses it off the bed and straddles her wife.

“Maybe, just maybe, lions are cuter. But...you have to admit...keepers have better fingers than defenders.”

Before Ali can give a retort, two long, nimble fingers are thrust deep into her center. She groans and arches up. Ashlyn just smiles smugly as she starts to work her wife over again.

It will be a long night of memory (and hickey) making for the women as they make the most of the time they have left before Ashlyn’s departure.

Chapter Text

Ashlyn smiles as she sits down to dinner. “Grandma, if you keep feeding me mac & cheese I won’t fit into my uniform.”

“Does that mean you’d get to stay home?” Chris asks hopefully.

“Noooo, Bubba, it means I will be running wind sprints in the desert until I puke,” she answers.

“Damn. Thought we’d found a loophole,” Grandma jokes as she kisses the top of Ashlyn’s head.

Ali walks in and sits down at the table. “Kyle’s plane should finally be arriving in two and a half hours according to the flight tracker. We should have just enough time to eat, have a walk on the beach, and then meet him outside the baggage claim.”

“We better take him a big bowl of Grandma’s mac & cheese. Maybe if he’s stuffing his face he won’t be whining about his insanely long journey across the country,” Ashlyn suggests.

Ali chuckles. “Good idea.”

The group starts to eat, the only sound Ashlyn’s happy moans as she eats her second helping of her grandmother’s famous dish. Ali shakes her head and looks at Mrs. Harris.

“How is it I make mac & cheese just like you showed me and I don’t get the same response.”

“It’s missing a special ingredient, Alex,” Ashlyn answers between mouthfuls.

“What?”

“Florida sunshine,” Ash, her grandmother, and Chris answer.

As those three burst into laughter, Ali looks at Grandpa Harris. “How do you put up with them?”

“Earplugs,” he jokes, making Ali giggle.

After dinner, Ali and Ashlyn take their nightly walk down along the water. At one point they stop, staring out at the undulating reflection of the moon. Ashlyn stands behind Ali, wrapping her in a hug, and resting her chin on her shoulder.

“Did you know that no matter where we are in the world, we only see the one side of the moon?” Ashlyn says.

“What?”

“When you look up in the sky, no matter where in the world you are, you only see that side right there,” she explains pointing. “The far side of the moon always faces away and we’ve only ever seen about 18% of it from our vantage point here on earth. Only astronauts have ever seen it all as they orbited the moon and none ever walked on that side.”

Ali snuggles back against her. “I forget sometimes this is the space coast and you must have studied space a lot in school.”

“Yeah. It was neat.”

“But what is all this about? Why the astronomy lesson?”

“Actually, it’s a lunar lesson, not astronomy,” Ashlyn points out with a grin. Ali rolls her eyes. Ashlyn stares up at the moon. “It’s about the fact that no matter where I am or where you are, if I look up at the moon, I’ll know it’s the same thing you’ve been able to see. The stars and constellations may be different, but the moon is ours to share. So, when I’m missing you the most, I’ll look up and think of it as a moment in time spent with you.”

Ali spins and buries her face into Ashlyn’s shoulder, her tears falling unchecked. Ashlyn holds her close, fighting her own tears. After a few minutes, Ali eases back and gently kisses her wife.

“That was beautiful, honey. I keep thinking that nights will be the hardest, they always are. Now...now I have something to help me chase the fear and loneliness away.”

The two share a tender kiss and another hug. They then make their way back to the house so they can drive to the airport and pick up Kyle.


 

Kyle picks up his sister and spins her around. “ALIBEAN!”

She giggles and hugs him back. When he puts her down he pulls Ashlyn into a hug, lifting her up off the ground and shaking her. She laughs.

“Put me down, you big lug!”

He sets her on the ground and gives her a big kiss on the cheek. “Can I just tell you I thought I wasn’t going to get here before you got back from the sandbox across the sea?”

Ashlyn grins. “Well, we’re glad you made it. And Grandma sent a big bowl of her mac and cheese to help you relax and forget the bad weather and reroutes you’ve had to deal with.”

“Mmmm, mmmm, good!” He moans, rubbing his tummy. “I’m feeling better already.”

They get his luggage in the car and make their way back to the Harris house. It is the night before Thanksgiving.

The night before Ashlyn starts her goodbyes for a year.

She shivers in her seat, her stomach doing the summersault it often does when she feels the clock in her mind ticking the minutes away. She puts that out of her mind and concentrates on the siblings catching up and making plans for the beach the next morning.


 

Ashlyn concentrates on the feeling of her feet hitting the sand. She had jogged three miles down the beach and was now on her way back. She focuses on her breathing. She measures her pace. She ignores the few people staring at her, wondering why she is making this run in ACU’s and boots.

As she gets back to where she had left Ali, she is surprised to see her surfboard stuck in the sand. She looks out at the water and sees Ali just beyond the break, her face turned towards the shining sun. Ashlyn quickly strips off her uniform and pulls her wetsuit on over her boy shorts and sports bra. She admires her wife for a few seconds before running out into the waves and paddling out to join her.

“Hi.”

“Hey.”

“Where’d our boards come from?”

Ali smiles, her face still facing the sun. “I called Chris and asked him to bring them by for us. I wanted one more surf with my wife before she leaves; another memory to hold on to while you’re gone.”

Ashlyn smiles. “I like that.”

Ali finally turns to face the blonde, lying down on the board, her arms crossed under her head. “I keep hoping I’ll wake up and this is a dream. Do you think all military spouses go through that?”

Ashlyn paddles closer so she can stroke Ali’s hair. “Yes. We all know deployment is inevitable. Doesn’t mean we like it; doesn’t mean it doesn’t scare us. It’s just...the job.”

“I keep thinking about all the places you’ve been and all the people you’ve helped. You went into all those places not really knowing what could happen to you or what the people might do to you. It got scary for you a couple times. Now...now at least you know to expect the scary shit and you’ll know to stay alert at all times. You’ll know most people love you while a scary fraction hates you; like, deadly hates you. It won’t be so easy for you to be surprised and hurt. And knowing all that, I’m trying to figure out if any of it should comfort me.”

Ashlyn smiles. “All of it should. I was always aware shit could hit the fan. Now I know shit will hit it at some point. Maybe more than once. I swear to you, Alex, I will not be complacent or drop my guard. I’m coming home to you, baby, in one year. No. Other. Option.”

Ali slides off her board into the water. She pulls herself up on the edge of Ashlyn’s board and gives her a kiss. It was supposed to be a quick peck, put Ashlyn grabs the back of her wife’s head and deepens the kiss. Ali throws an arm over Ashlyn’s board to give her balance as she responds to her wife’s questing tongue. When the kiss finally ends, both women have eyes darkened by desire.

Ashlyn takes a quick glance towards the shore then slides down into the water. She turns them so her back is to the surfboard and Ali’s arms are across it, Ashlyn trapped between them. Ashlyn starts to kiss her wife harder, her hands traveling to the zipper on the brunette’s wetsuit. Ali moans as she realizes what is about to happen.

“Oh, Ash...”

“Don’t let go of the board,” Ashlyn says as she ducks out from her wife’s arms and slides around behind her. “Hold tight, baby.”

Her mouth latches onto Ali’s neck as her right hand slides around toned abs and down into neatly trimmed curls. Ali’s breath hitches as her hips twitch. Ashlyn smiles at the response. She moves her mouth to Ali’s ear and sucks in the lobe as her hand moves into warm wetness. She feels the throbbing clit against her hand as she starts to thrust in and out with 2 fingers. It is not an ideal angle. And it is not easy to fight against the tightness of the wetsuit.

But it works.

Ali’s knuckles are white as she grips the board and rocks with her wife’s movements. Her head lolls back onto Ashlyn’s shoulder.

“Oh, fuck, baby. Oh, that feels so...so...oh, so good,” she pants.

Ashlyn can feel her wife nearing explosion. She sucks her neck a second, then kisses back up to her ear. “Cum for me, baby. Cum all over my hand.”

“Oh. Oh. OH! ASH! OH!”

Ali’s hips go into convulsions as she does indeed cum all over her wife’s hand. Her arms go weak and she’d have slid off the board if Ashlyn hadn’t had her with one hand. Ashlyn slides her hand out and uses both of her arms to support her wife against the board until the brunette’s breathing steadies.

“I love you, Alex,” she whispers into her wife’s ear as she carefully re-zips the wetsuit.

Ali turns her head to accept a kiss. “I love you, too.”

After a few minutes, Ali pulls her board back by the leash and climbs up on it. She giggles as she straddles it. “That feels different.”

Ashlyn just smirks. “Good different?”

“Oh, hell yeah!” Ali laughs. She glances towards the beach and her smile turns to shock. “Mom!”

Ashlyn’s head whips around. Yep, Deb is sitting on the beach with Kyle, watching them. From the look on their faces they had been there long enough to guess what the women were doing out in the water.

“Wow...I think I might actually die of embarrassment. It really can happen,” Ali mumbles, her forehead bouncing on her board.

“Who’d’ve thought I’d actually be happy about leaving the country,” Ashlyn commiserates.

The two women exchange a look and start to giggle. With nothing to do but face the music, they turn towards the shore. Ali lets Ash take the first wave in, admiring the form and body of the blonde. As she steps off into the shallows, Ashlyn turns to watch her wife take her wave in. She smiles proudly as she sees how good the footballer has gotten on the waves. As Ali exits the water, Ashlyn grins.

“We might make a surfer girl out of you yet, Right Back.”

“Who you kidding? I’m the bomb!” Ali brags.

The two laugh and go to greet Ali’s mother, who has come up to join in the Thanksgiving dinner. Which is also doubling as the family send-off for their soldier.


 

Ashlyn takes a deep breath, inhaling the aromas of all the delicious foods on the table. And, yes, Grandma made another batch of mac & cheese. Ashlyn smiles at Kyle.

“Think there’s a way to bottle that smell? Maybe make it a liquid so I could flavor my MRE’s with it?”

Kyle slings an arm around her shoulder. “Afraid not, sis. Sorry.”

“Damn. It was a thought,” she grins.

“Yeah,” Kyle whispers.

Ashlyn looks at him, surprised by his voice. She sees the tears in his eyes and starts to shake her head, now fighting her own.

“No, Kyle, please don’t cry,” she begs. “I’m a sympathetic crier and I just...I can’t...I need...please don’t cry.”

He gives her a sad grin. “Sorry,” he chokes as a tear finally escapes.

She pulls him into a tight hug. Both are now crying freely. Ashlyn feels his hands gripping her shirt and squeezes him harder. Deb had been about to bring rolls into the dining room but sees them. She quietly backs out to give them their moment, her own tears now threatening. After a few minutes, Kyle leans back. Ashlyn reaches up and delicately wipes his eyes.

“I’m going to be okay, Kyle,” she says softly. “I mean, I know bad shit happens over there but I’ve had the training, I have people around me I trust, and I have the love of everyone back here to be an added shield for me. I need you to believe I’m going to be fine. Not just for me, but for Alex. Trust me to get home to her next year. We both need that from you.”

He pulls her forward and kisses her cheek. “I’ll believe. I may cry myself silly sometimes missing you and worrying about you, but I’ll believe you’ll be home next year with a bangin’ tan.”

Ashlyn laughs and nods her head. “Count on it.”

“So is this a private moment or can any fool jump in?”

Ashlyn’s head whips around, her smile beaming. “WHIT!”

Whitney smiles as Ashlyn lifts her up in a big hug. “Did you really think you were getting out of the country with just a Skype goodbye from me? I mean, really, Ash.”

Ashlyn smiles and kisses her cheek. “Glad you made it, Whit. I love you.”

“Love you, too,” Whit says, her voice catching.

Ashlyn chuckles and shakes her head. “No, no, no. Don’t you go starting after I just got Kyle stopped.”

Whitney laughs through her tears and wipes her face. “Sorry, bestie, you’re just going to have to deal with a bunch of tears. If you leave this room you’ll see why Kleenex stock has jumped 10 points.”

Ashlyn laughs and nods. “Yeah. I kinda figured things would start to get harder.”

“Damn right.”

The two lock arms and go out to see what else they can do to help get Thanksgiving dinner on the table.


 

As everyone stands around the tables, set like a buffet, Ashlyn’s grandfather clears his throat. “Before we start, I’d just like to thank everyone for being here today.” He looks around at his family, including Ashlyn’s cousins who had come for the meal/send-off party. “Every year I am so thankful to have such wonderful, loving people to call my family. This year...this year today takes on a bit of a somber undertone as we know it’s also when we say goodbye to Ashlyn for a year.” He pauses a moment, to control his emotions as he looks at his granddaughter. “Ashlyn, you’ve always made me and your grandmother so proud. You’ve a heart of gold and an indomitable spirit. You have forged an amazing path in your life and this next one, though it terrifies us all, is no surprise to me. You go not to fight, but to help. Your heart has always been about caring for others more than for yourself. When you told me about the Corps of Engineers and what you would be doing, I knew you’d found your niche.” He lifts a glass. “So I’d like to propose a toast,” everyone raises their glass. “May you go forth with love, safety, and kindness and return to us next December a better woman than you leave us.”

“Hear hear!” Deb chimes in through her tears as everyone clinks glasses.

Ashlyn clears her throat and walks over to give her grandfather a big hug. They hold each other a moment, then she turns to everyone.

“It means so much to me that you all are here, not just for the meal which will be AWESOME,” she notes with a grin and people chuckle. “But also that you’re here to see me off. Yes, it’s pretty damn scary if I think about it too much but I promise you I will do my best to stay safe and get back to you before you know I’m gone. I love all of you so much and I will carry that love with me wherever the Army may take me.”

Everyone raises their glasses again. Grandma then clears her throat.

“Everyone take hands. Let us pray.”

She says a prayer of thanks and hope, then smiles and looks up. “Now, dig in!”

Everyone fills a plate then moves around the house to find a place to eat. Ashlyn makes a point of visiting with everyone that had come for the day, sharing laughter and memories with them.

For her part, Ali had watched from afar. Her mind is memorizing the hearty, beautiful laugh that Ashlyn can bellow. She imprints the hair flicks and hand gestures that come when she is amused and excited. She just takes in absolutely everything she can; every mental picture that will help her get through the coming year. She jumps, startled, when an arm wraps around her shoulder.

“She’s always been a born entertainer,” Tammye says.

“I believe that,” Ali says, returning her mother-in-law’s hug.

“So how are you holding up?”

“Depends on the minute. Sometimes I’m fine. Other times I...I don’t...I don’t know how to breathe without crying,” she answers honestly. “This is going to be the longest damn year of my life.”

“Good thing you have World Cup prep to keep you busy.”

“True. I’d go mad without training and stuff to keep my mind blank for a couple hours a day. I hope the more practice the team needs the faster the Cup comes. We may not be ready but at least it puts us halfway to Ash’s return,” she jokes.

Tammye smiles. “I think I’ll hope for the same thing. No offense to the team.”

Ali grins. “No offense taken.”


 

Later that evening, Ashlyn stands staring out at the waterway that runs behind the house. In her hand she holds a bottle of SmartWater as she thinks about the childhood that led her to this point in her life. Ups and downs. Confusion. Pain. Soccer. Absent parents. Loving grandparents. A devoted brother she adored. Parents coming back into her life. UNC friends teaching her about life. Ali.

“Better watch for gators. I hear they like Army brats.”

Ashlyn smiles as Chris steps up beside her. “Army brats are kids of personnel. Remind me not to bring my kids down here.”

Chris laughs and wraps his arm around her shoulder. They stand there in silence for a few minutes.

“I’d have never made it out of here without you, Chris,” she finally says.

“You would have. You’re stronger than you realize, Ash. You’d have made it and done exactly what you’re doing now. You didn’t need me.”

Ashlyn turns and stares into his eyes. “I needed you every day. I still do. My heart would shatter if something ever happened to you.”

He gives her a melancholy smile. “Now you know how I feel as you head off to a war zone. Building shit or whatever you’re doing, it’s going to be a dangerous year. We both know that. You’ll see and do shit that will haunt you.” He places his hands on her shoulders. “So when you get home and you need to scream or punch things to get the fuck over it all, call me. I’ll be there for you. Lean on me, Ash. Promise me.”

Ashlyn brings her hands up to his. “I promise, Bubba.”

He pulls her into a hug. In a tumultuous childhood, they had been each other’s constant; the one person they could count on when their parents were absent for various reasons. And now in their adulthood, they can still be the one person they break down to without fear of rejection. Their heart will ache while they are apart. When the hug ends, they turn and walk back to the house together so Ashlyn can continue to say farewell to her family.


 

Friday morning a crowd is standing on the front lawn to say their goodbye to Ashlyn and Ali as they prepare to leave. Ashlyn had insisted on a cab, not wanting to cause a scene at the airport. She hugs each person, saying a few words to them an accepting their words of encouragement and acceptance. When she gets to Whit, the defender holds out a thumb drive shaped like a soccer ball.

“What’s this?”

“Did you really think you were getting out of the country without a proper goodbye from the gals on the team?” she says with tears in her eyes. “It was Pinoe’s idea and everything was sent to me so I could give it to you. A little light watching for the plane on Monday.”

Ashlyn closes her fist over the drive. It means a lot to her. “Right. Thank you,” she croaks. The two share a strong embrace. “You were my friend from minute 1, Whitney. You’ve been my sister since minute 2.”

Whitney chokes back tears. “Back atcha, Ash. I love you. Please come home safe.”

“I love you, too.”

Ashlyn then steps to her grandmother who wordlessly pulls her into a hug, sobbing into her tall granddaughter’s shoulder.

“Oh, Grandma, please don’t cry. Please? I’ll be home in no time. You’ll see.”

“My little troublemaker. I love you so much. Be safe. Or else.”

Ashlyn smiles and kisses her cheek. “I will be, Grandma. Promise. I love you.”

She then moves to Kyle, who pulls her close. Ashlyn takes a deep breath and whispers something in his ear. He sobs but nods his head. She kisses his cheek and steps next to Deb. Deb frames her face with her hands.

“Be safe, my girl. I love you.”

“I love you, too, Deb. Thank you for...for always accepting me and loving me.”

“It was always easy. You loved my girl more than anyone before. I knew I wanted you in Ali’s life the first time I met you.”

The two hug again then Ashlyn says a very emotional goodbye to her brother and parents. As the hug with her mother ends, Tammye kisses her daughter’s cheek hard.

“I’m counting the days, baby girl.”

“Me, too, Mama. Me, too.”

Ashlyn takes one more look at the gathered group then turns and hurries to the car. Ali waves at their family.

“I’ll call when we get to DC. Love you all.”

Deb, Tammye and Grandma give her a kiss, reminding her they are there whenever she needs them. As the cab pulls away, Deb walks over and pulls Kyle into a hug.

“What did she say to you, Ky?”

Kyle’s tears start anew. “Ash...she made me...promise to...to be there for Alex...if...if she dies. She said Alex would need me to get through it.”

He sobs again and Deb pulls him close. She cries, too, imagining her daughter being inconsolable at the loss. Deb kisses Kyle’s cheek, wordlessly vowing to be there for him as he helps hold his sister up should the unthinkable happen.

Chapter Text

Ashlyn slowly drives her hips against her wife. Ali arches into every thrust, helping to drive Ash’s fingers as deep as possible. Ali wants to feel the sensation from her wanton core all the way to her aching heart. Ashlyn studies the brunette’s face, memorizing everything she can see: scars, wrinkles, the way the muscles react to the pleasure, seeing the sadness behind the lust in cocoa eyes.

“I love you so much,” Ashlyn whispers, bringing her mouth down to gently capture the lush lips in the middle of the face she loves.

When the kiss ends, Ali tangles her hands into blonde locks, forcing the women to remain eye-to-eye as their bodies automatically start to move faster. She is doing exactly what her wife had done: memorizing everything about the woman she loves more than life herself.

Testament to their desire not to miss a damn thing, as they both reach orgasm, their eyes remain open, staring at each other, not daring to miss a millisecond of the time they have left together before a year-long separation. After they both cum, Ashlyn rolls off but pulls her wife close into her arms.

“Alex, I...I’m sorry,” she whispers.

Ali frowns, wiping her tears before they reach her wife’s shoulder. “For what, baby?” she chokes out.

“I should have thought more about what this would mean for us. I should have...have thought about leaving you before- -”

“Stop, Ashlyn. You considered it. I considered it. We discussed it several times before you signed the papers. I know...I know the night you told me we just...reacted. We made love, I proposed. But then we talked and I even talked to your recruiter. You’ve done nothing to be sorry for, baby.” She sits up so she can stare into watery green eyes. “The things you have done, and the things you  will  do, make me so proud to be your wife. Am I scared? Hell, yes. But the pride overwhelms that fear. You are going out to make the world a better place. I will miss you so much but don’t you ever, ever dare to think you’ve done anything to hurt me. I love you so much, Ashlyn Michelle Harris, and I will always love you.”

The two kiss and start to make love again. They have to be at Ft Belvoir in 2 hours. Ashlyn figures she can sleep on the plane to Iraq.

Ali figures she can sleep when her wife gets home.


 

Ali and Ashlyn sit in the back of Ken’s SUV as he drives them to the muster point at Ft. Belvoir. There, Ashlyn’s team and some MPs that are being sent over in relief of other Military Police will ride a bus to Andrews AFB. From there, they will hop to Dover AFB to pick up some other troops making their way to the Middle East. And from Dover, a brief stop in Germany and then on to Iraq for a year in the desert.

Ali is snuggled as close as she can get to Ashlyn, who is fighting a losing battle with her emotions. The footballer isn’t even trying to hide her tears. Ken is winning the battle but that is only because he is driving. As they pull into the parking lot filled with other families, Ali feels a little sick to her stomach and wishes she had forgone a cup of coffee that morning.

“Baby...I need to check in,” Ashlyn whispers, worried her voice will break if she speaks louder.

Ali just nods and eases away. Ashlyn kisses her on the forehead and gets out, not surprised that her wife remains in the car. Ken had already pulled out Ashlyn’s bags and has them sitting at the end of the vehicle. She nods her thanks as she slips her backpack on, picks up her briefcase, and then slings her kit bag up onto her shoulder. She glances into the car, then to Ken. He gives her a smile.

“I’ve got her,” he assures his daughter-in-law.

Ashlyn nods her thanks then goes to turn over her kit bag for loading and let Major Nettles know she is there. She asks a private who is helping with loading to go get her trunk. She steps onto the bus to put her two bags inside then gets out and tracks down her C.O.

“Sir, I’m here,” she says as she walks up to him, giving him a crisp salute.

“Good to see you, Lieutenant. Still hate I’m losing you for a year but at least I know Major Dalton is a good man and he’ll do his best to get you back to me.”

Ashlyn smiles. “Good to know.”

Nettles offers her a clipboard. “Sergeant Andrews and Corporal Ramirez have already checked in and are taking time with their families.”

“Thank you, sir. Everyone else should be here in the next 20 minutes or so,” she explains. “I’d planned to be here sooner but there was an accident.”

“Happens, Lieutenant. No harm, no foul.” He pauses. “If you need anything while you’re over there, you let me know.”

“Extra case of sunscreen, sir?” she jokes.

He chuckles. “Done,” he promises. “Seriously, your wife and family have my information, right?”

“Yes, sir. I’ve told them to contact you in emergencies only.”

“Okay. And...should they need...I mean, if contact has to be made on your behalf, if I’m in the country, I’ll make it. Otherwise, Colonel Menninger will make it. We’ve got their backs, too, Harris.”

Ashlyn smiles and nods. “I know, sir. Thank you.”

Seeing more of her team arrive, Nettles takes the clipboard back so Ashlyn can speak to the families of each of her men and women, reassuring them she will be doing everything to get them back home safely.

From a distance, Ali and Ken watch as their soldier does her duty; as she pushes aside her own desire to spend time with her loved ones to speak to the families of her team. Ali leans her head on her father’s shoulder.

“She’s so good, Daddy,” she whispers emotionally.

“Yes, she is.”

Thirty minutes later, Ashlyn walks up to Andrews. “Sergeant, call them into formation.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replies. He kisses his fiancé once more then steps away. “SPIRIT COMPANY! FALL IN!”

Ali and Ken grin. Ashlyn had not told them she had named her unit “Spirit” but they can tell by the look in her eyes it was most definitely a nod to her wife’s professional club team. They watch as Ashlyn’s team moves into formation, as does the MP team that had also been called to attention. Ashlyn walks over and faces her team, looking at each person individually as they stand at ease. She gives them a nod, then does an about face.

“SPIRIT COMPANY, ATTENTION!” Andrews calls out, before doing an about face to stand beside his lieutenant.

Ali and Ken watch as Nettles and then the C.O. for the MPs each give rousing speeches to their units. The base chaplain then steps up and leads them in a prayer. Nettles then steps forward once more.

“Ten minutes to departure,” he calls out. “Make the most of it, soldiers.”

Andrews dismisses the formation and Ashlyn makes a beeline to Ali and Ken. She pulls them both into a strong hug.

“Sorry I couldn’t spend more time with you this morning,” she apologizes.

“Stop it, Ashlyn. Your men and women needed you.” Ken replies. He then gives her a kiss on the cheek. “Be safe. Write often. We love you.”

“I love you, too, Dad,” she chokes out.

They share another hug, then Ken steps away to give his daughters a moment. Ali flings her arms around Ashlyn’s neck, not even trying to hide her tears. They say nothing. Truthfully there is nothing left to say. When they hear the notice of 2 minutes to depart, which is the call to get on the bus, Ashlyn leans back.

“I will let you know each step of the journey, okay?”

Ali nods. “Okay. God, Ash, I miss you already. Please promise me you’ll be okay. I don’t care if it’s a lie, promise me!” she begs.

Ashlyn gives her a deep, passionate kiss, their tears mingling. When it ends she stares into Ali’s eyes. “I promise.”

They hug and kiss once more, murmuring I love you, against each other’s lips. Ashlyn then turns quickly and moves to the bus, dropping into her seat behind the driver. Her mind flashes back to times with the National Team, where she would sit with Ali on a similar bus, taking the aisle seat so her love could have the window. Instead, she sits by the window, her backpack and briefcase taking the aisle seat. She looks out the window to see Ali clinging to Ken, tears rolling down her cheeks. Ashlyn places her palm on the window, maintaining eye contact until the bus gets beyond them in the lot.

Back where they stand, Ali sobs into her father’s shoulder. One day down, 364 to go.


 

“Hey, this is Ali, I’m really not up for chatting today so I’m screening calls. Hope you understand. Thanks.”

Kyle sighs, totally not surprised by the message on his sister’s cell phone. “When you need me, I’m here for you, Alibean. I love you.”

He hangs up and stares out into the predawn LA sky. On the east coast his sister-in-law is starting her journey to the other side of the world. And his sister is starting her journey into uncertainty and hope for a year. He ruffles the fur on Luna’s head.

“Auntie Ash is off to make us even more proud than we already are, Luna,” he tells his pup. “Let’s just hope Auntie Alex only needs a couple days to get back into the swing of life.”

He makes sure his ringer volume is on high and snuggles back down into his bed. If Ali calls, he will hear and, no matter what time it is, he will answer.


 

Ashlyn watches Dover AFB disappear below the clouds as her transport starts the journey to Germany, then to Iraq. She sighs and tries to figure out if she could sleep or not.

“Not,” she finally mutters to herself.

She grabs her briefcase, planning to check email and then start working on anything she can to make her job easier when she touches down. As she pulls her computer out, she sees the soccer ball-shaped thumb drive Whitney had given her. She takes a deep breath and slips it out of its pocket and grabs her headphones. She glances around to make sure no one is watching when she hits play. She wants to see this privately, in case her friends make her cry. And they probably will. She takes a deep breath and starts the playback.


 

“Is it on?” Pinoe asks as she sits on what looks to be her bed.

“Yes, baby, it’s on,” Sera answers Pinoe.

“Are you sure?” Pinoe presses.

“YES! It’s not the first time I’ve used the camera on a phone.”

“If you’re sure, okay, I just want it to be perfect since my message will be first. I don’t want you filming just my voice or doing an extreme close-up of my nose or something.”

There is a sigh behind the camera. “We’re rolling, Meg. Speak or find another camera operator.”

Pinoe nods. “Okay, okay. Just couldn’t tell.” She takes a deep breath. “Alright, so Whit can edit that part out. Now...here we go.” She pauses again and then starts to wave. “Hi, Ashy Ash! By now you are either on your way to the BE-A-UTIFUL resort country of Iraq or already there and enjoying a life of ease.” She winks. “I’m trying to make it sound good since it probably is hell. Any-hooo, Sera and I wanted to say Hi and Good luck and stay safe and all those other things people say. I also want to add try not to ogle all the babes in bikinis hanging out at the pool. You are there to work, young lady!” she warns, shaking a finger at the camera.

Sera spins the camera around so it faces her. “Ignore her. She’s nuts. Cute, but nuts.” She pans the camera back to Pinoe who is grinning.

“Fine. All kidding aside,” she pauses and takes a deep breath, her eyes getting serious. “Ash, I love you and I think it is so cool what you are doing. It’s scary as hell for us back here but know that we all have your back and will always have your back. We’ll also be there for Ali so don’t you worry about her. Just worry about keeping your head down, getting the job done and getting back to us safely next November. So...I guess that’s it. Expect a really cool care package after we meet up for camp in a couple weeks. We’ve got plans to make it a good one for you since you’ll miss Christmas and your anniversary and shit.”

“Meg! Don’t remind her of all that!” Sera scolds.

“Oh. Right. Well, Whit can edit that out, too. So, um, Ash, we love you and can’t wait to see you next fall. Keep your ass to the ground, Lieutenant.” She brings her hand up to her forehead. “Be safe. That’s an order.” She salutes and smiles. “Love you, Ash.”

The phone pans around to Sera. “And I know we haven’t officially met but I feel like I know you from hearing Meg talk about you. Be safe and I look forward to meeting you when you get home.”

Sera turns the camera back to Pinoe.

“LOVE YOU!” Pinoe says, waving and blowing the camera an exaggerated kiss.


 

“Love you, too,” Ashlyn whispers as she pauses the playback before the next one can come on. She takes a few deep breaths and a sip out of her bottle of water.

Now that her emotions are under control, she hits play again.


 

“HI ASHLYN!” the Rampone girls cheer happily, wearing their helmets.

They stand beside their parents, who are sitting on their couch. Christie grins.

“Hey, Ash, we just wanted to say how proud of you we are and how we’ll be counting the days until your return. We promise to be there for Ali when times get tough for her. We can’t wait to see you.”

“Good luck over there,” Chris adds.

“We love you,” Christie finishes.

“WE LOVE YOU!” Reece and Rylie cheer, waving and blowing kisses at the camera.


 

Ashlyn smiles as the picture fades to black. This time she doesn’t pause, just let’s it keep going. She watches great messages from players past and present like Mittsy, Press, ARod, Boxxy, Julie Foudy (which was a thrill!), and then comes one that really shocks her.


 

“Ashlyn, when I heard you were hanging up your boots I was shocked. When I heard why, I understood. Your heart has always been your biggest gift, beyond any gift on the soccer field. I know you will put the same heart and determination into your role with the Army as you did when you played soccer. Knowing you are helping people rebuild their lives is inspirational and I wish you nothing but the very best and hope you get home to your lovely wife soon. Take care, kiddo,” Pia Sundhage says, smiling for the camera.


 

“Wow,” Ashlyn mutters, not having expected a message from the former coach.

She pauses the feed a moment and glances out the window. Through the wispy clouds the Atlantic Ocean stretches out below them. Once she has her emotions reined in once more, she hits play again.


 

“Hey, Ash!”

“Hi, Ashlyn!”

Sarah Huffman and Abby Wambach sit on their sofa, their pups in their laps.

“Sarah, Texty, Kingston and I just wanted to say how proud we are to know you and how much we are looking forward to you getting back home to us,” Abby says.

“And if anytime you need to vent or talk or anything, we’ll be there for you. We’ll also be there for Ali. Promise,” Sarah adds.

“When you get home, be ready for a welcome home party like you can’t even begin to imagine. We’ll be partying in style for you, Ash.”

“Until then, stay safe and be brave and...and build good,” Sarah says with a grin. “We love you.”

“Yeah, love you, Ash. See you next year.”

Sarah makes Kingston “wave” before the camera fades out.


 

Ashlyn starts to laugh as Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux come on next. They are dressed like stereotypical teachers in very conservative blouses buttoned to the top and straight skirts to their knees. Their outfits also include reading glasses on chains, and a globe sits between them. Ash can only shake her head, wondering what this crazy message will be.


 

“Class! Class! Attention please, class!” Sydney starts, doing the light clapping teachers do to get students’ attention. “Very good. Today we are going to be discussing Shoe Racks. Shoe racks are- -”

“Uh, Ms. Peabody, Ms. Peabody, we are not discussing shoe racks,” Alex interrupts with a nasally voice.

Sydney looks at her like she’s nuts. “We’re not, Ms. Goodbody? Then why did I bring all my best shoes to school today?”

“I was wondering that myself. We’re discussing the iRaq. It’s a new app for the iPhone and it can be found on the internets,” Alex explains holding up her phone.

“Ohh! Well then- -”

“No! No! No!” KO interrupts, walking into frame, also in her “teacher’s best”. “We are discussing the country of IRAQ, hence the globe between the two of you.”

Sydney and Alex make a point to look at the globe, look at each other, then look to KO. “OOOOOOOHHH!” the women chime simultaneously.

KO nods. “Good. Now that we have that settled. Tell us about Iraq.”

Alex and Sydney exchange a look. They pull out their phones and act like they are Googling facts. Alex raises her finger first.

“Aha! It’s hot! Yes, yes, it says right here Iraq is hot.” She looks at the camera. “Obviously it’s a party-goers paradise with all the hot clubs and hot resorts and- -”

“NO!” KO interrupts again, running a hand down her face. “It’s HOT as in TEMPERATURE, not for parties. In fact, it is probably the worst party place in the world.”

“Oh,” Alex says dejectedly as she goes back to her phone.

“AHA!” Sydney exclaims then looks at the camera triumphantly. “They DO have shoes in Iraq so we can go back to my 100 slide PowerPoint presentation on Shoe Racks.”

“PERFECT!” Alex squeals in delight.

KO groans and turns to look into the camera. “Look on the bright side, Ash: they are on my team, not yours.”

The scene fades out, then fades back in to show the three sitting on the desk of wherever they shot this crazy bit.

“Hey, Ash!” Alex says, waving. “We figured most messages would be kind of sad so we wanted to make you laugh. Hope it worked.”

“But even though we are having fun, we want you to know we love you, we’re praying for you, and we can’t wait for you to get home,” KO adds, her face uncharacteristically serious.

“Yeah. And don’t you worry about Ali. We’ve all got her back and will be there whenever she needs us. So just worry about yourself,” Sydney finishes.

“Love you, Ash!” Alex says, her eyes starting to tear up.

“Yeah, bud, love you lots,” KO adds.

“Love you!” Sydney finishes as the camera fades out once more.


 

Ash is wiping her eyes, this time because she laughed so hard she cried. She sighs. “Thanks for the laugh, guys, it means so much.”

She is tempted to play that one again but instead makes note of the time stamp for it in case she needs a laugh after getting through the other messages.

Ashlyn watches four more messages, including one from the youngster Morgan Brian. She doesn’t know Moe very well but the UVA student makes it known she is in awe of what Ash does and will be praying for her, as will her church in Georgia, until the soldier returns.

Just as she is about to take a break, Ash is surprised to see Niki Cross’ face come up on the screen. The cursor hovers over the pause button but she doesn’t hit it just yet.


 

“So, several years ago this cocky, green goalkeeper came into my life and all I could think was ‘Who did I piss off to deserve this?’ And then I got to know this girl and realized just how much of that bravado was a front for a kid that was trying to understand family, friends, and life in general. Through teaching her to see the beauty in life and the glory in trusting others with her heart, I learned so much myself.

“When I found out this chick was hanging up her soccer boots for Army boots I thought she was selling herself short. She is an incredible keeper and could still be playing. Then over a couple of beers, she told me what she would be doing and I realized that not only had she finally learned the lessons about family, friends and life in general, but she was now living that knowledge. She was doing for others the way others had done for her over the years.”

Niki takes a deep breath, staring at her hands that are clenched together. After a moment, she looks back up at the camera.

“Your tattoo says ‘Knowledge speaks. Wisdom listens.’ Thanks for reminding me to listen when it’s something I don’t completely understand. Because now I do understand. This was a path marked out for you years ago. You’re off to make the world a better place not with soccer but with your heart. I am so proud of you, Ash. I’m sure everyone is saying that. But I’m also proud of what you are teaching us all with your service to the world. You’re our hero, Ash. And I’m so thankful you’re my friend. I love you. Come home safely.”


 

The camera fades out and this time Ashlyn does hit pause. She quickly wipes at the tears on her cheeks as she thinks about all she had learned from Niki about life. If it hadn’t been for Niki, Ash wouldn’t have been able to be the woman Ali came to love.

She sets her computer aside and makes her way to the lavatory. She does her business then stands staring at herself in the mirror. Does she even see that naive young girl Niki alluded to? She knows that insecure girl is still hidden in her somewhere but hopefully the woman her friends had been speaking about is the dominant personality that appears to her subordinates and her superiors.

“You were selfish and insecure, Ash. And look at you now! Look at the woman your friends have helped you become. Every accomplishment you have, every commendation you receive is testament to what they have helped you become. You’re damn lucky, Ash. Damn fucking lucky.”

She quickly washes her face then goes back to her seat to continue watching the tributes.


 

“You know, I always thought if you saved my ass it would be because I got hurt in a game and you had to finish it out for me,” Hope starts with a smile. “Then Japan happened. I was so happy to see you walk through that door. For all of us, just seeing you made us believe everything would be okay despite the fear, the aftershocks and, for me, the injury. Ashlyn Harris, you became not only my hero that day, but a woman who I hope to one day be like. You give your heart, your body, your soul for those you help with the Corps of Engineers. That is just...” she shakes her head, trying to find the word, “...incredible to me. And the craziest thing is, I know you just think you’re doing your job and it’s not a big deal. Let me tell you, Ash, it’s a big fucking deal.

“So, as you start your year in Iraq, know you will never be far from my thoughts and prayers. If you or Ali need anything, I am just a phone call away. Stay safe over there and we’ll see you soon. Love you, Ash.”


 

Ashlyn smiles. Keepers have always shared a special bond and despite articles pitting them against each other, she and Hope were all actually good friends.

As the next message starts, Ashlyn smiles as one of her favorite players comes on the screen.


 

“Hey, Girl! Just want you to know how much I love you and how much I admire everything about you. Well, except maybe your non-existent dancing skills,” Crystal teases. “But that’s okay. Your bride isn’t much of a dancer either. So while you are gone I think I’ll teach her a dance move or two.”

Crystal starts doing some of Ashlyn’s crazy moves. Whoever is filming is cracking up and starts chanting, “GO CRYSTAL! GO CRYSTAL! GET YER ASH ON! GET YER ASH ON!”

Crystal stops and stares at the camera. “So, if I can get Ali to dance as badly as you, maybe people will just think you guys are ahead of your time or something. Maybe.” She sits down on a stool and stares into the lens. “So, don’t you worry about your girl. Me and everyone on the National Team and on the Spirit will be there when she needs us. Stay safe, know we all love you, and we can’t wait to see you next year. You rock, Ash!”


 

Ashlyn is still giggling as the next message comes on. Alyssa and Barnie wish her well together, promising to dedicate their next clean sheets to her. Carli promises Ash a hat trick. The current coaching staff all send their well wishes and their plans to dedicate their World Cup run to their former keeper in honour of her service to the country. Lauren reads her a passage from the Bible, promising to keep Ash in her prayers and vowing to send her at least 1 funny meme a day to always give her something to smile about. Chups shares a pic taken their first call-up to senior camp together and a funny story that she thinks about anytime she is feeling down.

Ashlyn pauses the play once more. By her count, there are still 3 more players to go. Four if Ali did one, too, which she doubts. She stares out the window a second. HAO, Tobin, Whit. Friends since UNC who mean so much to her. More sisters than friends. Especially Whit, who had collected all these messages together.

Ashlyn finishes off her bottle of water and looks back at the computer screen. She clicks play.


 

HAO’s eyes are red from crying. “I made the mistake of writing out what I wanted to say. It made me cry when I re-read it to make sure it’s everything I wanted...needed to say.” She takes a deep breath. “I’ve never known someone as selfless as you, Ash. Ever since we met you’ve hidden your true heart behind bravado. I am one of the lucky ones who was able to see beyond that facade to the woman you really are; to the friend you really are.”

HAO takes a deep breath. “You are so brave, so loyal, and so loving. At times the scared, insecure kid comes out in you but I want you to know you are not that little girl anymore. You are a hero, Ash. You are someone we can all look at and hold up as proof that a hard childhood isn’t an automatic dead end. You worked your ass off to get to UNC, both academically and athletically. You’ve played pro soccer. You’ve played with the National Team. And now...now you play a whole new game. You play the game of life beyond anything I could have imagined for you.”

She pauses as the tears well in her eyes. “I love you, Ash. You are an amazing officer and the Army and the people of Iraq are so lucky to have you. Please, please stay safe and never forget how much you are loved and how proud we are of you. See you next year. Love you,” she chokes out once more, then waves at the camera operator, most likely her husband, to cut the feed.


 

“I love you, too, Heather. Thanks for always believing in me since day 1,” she whispers.

Ashlyn smiles as the camera fades in again, showing Tobin sitting beside a surfboard, her back to the ocean.


 

“Hey, bud. Thought I’d shoot somewhere you’ll be missing so you can watch this whenever you’re missing the call of the waves,” Tobin says with a grin. She sighs. “I honestly don’t know what to say that will be different than what anyone else says. You already know we’re proud as heck of you and we all love you so much it’s crazy.” She unfolds a piece of paper. “So, I kinda want to read you this. It’s called ‘A Soldier’s Prayer’. I hope it gives you comfort when you need it.” She takes a deep breath.

“Dear Lord, I’m just a soldier
A Protector of our land.
A servant called to battle
When our country takes a stand.
I pray for strength and courage
And a heart that will forgive.
For peace and understanding
In a world for all to live.
My family’s prayers are with me,
No matter where I roam.
Please listen when I’m lonely
And return me safely home.”

She folds the paper and crumples it in her hands. When she looks up, there are tears streaming down her cheeks.

“So, uh, if you check the disc pocket of your briefcase, you’ll find a laminated copy of that for you. And also a copy of Psalm 91. Both should, I hope, give you strength when it gets tough over there.” She pulls off her backwards snap back and runs a hand through her hair before putting it back. “So, um, please take care of yourself over there. If you or Ali need anything, I’ll be there for you guys. I love you, Ash. See you in a year.”

The scene fades out but the sounds of seagulls can still be heard. The picture comes into focus again, this time, showing Tobin riding a wave wearing an old Harris keeper’s jersey. She flashes the “Hang Ten” sign towards the camera just before two waves collide and send her crashing into the surf. She quickly pops up.

“LOVE YOU, ASHLYN!”


 

Ashlyn laughs at the final shot and pauses the playback. She then looks at her briefcase and flips open the disc pocket. Sure enough the two pieces are there as promised. She tucks the soldier’s prayer into her shirt pocket and then reads through Psalm 91. When she finishes, she adds that to her pocket.

“I’ll keep them both close to my heart, old friend,” she tells the computer screen.

She takes a deep breath and hits play once more.


 

Whitney sits back after setting her camera to record. She takes a deep breath and stares at her hands.

“So, do you remember how mad I got with you when you made me play in that damn intermural basketball league? I think I am ten times madder at you now. You see, back then you just embarrassed me; even called me a cheerleader when I nearly broke my thumb. But now...now you are zipping off to a pretty damn scary part of the world for a year. Do you know the grey hair you’ll give me? So much worse than the thumb thing,” she finishes with a wink to the camera and a chuckle.

“Seriously, though, Ash, you know you’re the sister I never had and...and you know me in a way no one else in the world does. As different as we are, and always have been, we’ve been friends because we found in each other that special something that was missing inside of us. You taught me to have fun and experience life. I taught you about family and responsibility. I hope you know that I am forever grateful for all you taught me and all the crazy, fun, exciting adventures we had together.”

She takes a deep breath. “Fuck. I sound like I’m eulogizing you. I’m not. I’m just...I’m doing my damn best to remember the good so I can forget where you are for the next year.” She pauses. “I have never been more proud of you as I am today. It didn’t surprise me at all to find out you were joining the Army to help people not to fight. I can see how happy the Corps of Engineers makes you and I saw firsthand just how damn good you are at your job.

“Ash, you will always be my sister, always be my friend, and always be my hero. I plan to write and email so much you get sick of me. Feel free to do the same. Hopefully all that communication will help the year go faster,” she chokes off at the end, her tears once more winning the battle. “Damn it, I wanted to keep it together.” She wipes her cheeks, then stares seemingly right into Ashlyn’s eyes. “I love you so much and I am so scared for you. Keep your head down and come home to us safely, Ash. I don’t know what I’d do without you in my life.” She inhales deeply. “If your family or Ali or her family need anything, I’ve got it taken care of. I swear to you, my friend.”

She bites her lip to control her emotions a bit better. “So, uh, bye for now. Love you, Ash.”

The screen fades to black.


 

Ashlyn wipes her tears, assuming the missives are done. “I love you, too, Whit. Thank you so much for this,” she whispers.

She is about to close the laptop and take a nap when the screen comes to life once more. She sees her wife in the outfit she was wearing for Thanksgiving dinner. Tears rain down Ali’s cheeks.

“Oh, baby...”


 

“Take your time, Al,” Whit says from behind the lens.

Ali nods. Her hands fiddle with the dog tags that are a lifeline for her. She stares down at them, her thumb running over the embossed information they contain. She brings her left hand to her mouth and kisses her ring set. She takes a couple of deep breaths but still can’t speak. She sobs once more, trying to wipe away the tears before they can leave tracks down her cheeks. She finally takes another deep breath and straightens her back. She looks right into the camera lens.

“I’m going to miss you so much.”

She kisses the dog tags and hurries off screen. What more could she say?


 

“I’m going to miss you, too,” Ash says as she flips the laptop closed and turns to stare out the window, thoughts of a nap washed away by her own tears.

Chapter Text

Ashlyn pauses at the end of the cargo ramp. The heat from the Iraqi sun is beating down and she wonders how long it will take to get used to. She feels someone step up beside her and looks over at her sergeant.

“Just another day at the office, right, LT?” Andrews says with a grin.

“Right,” she says, looking back out at the tarmac and all the activity going on, the burned out Humvees awaiting scrapping, the boxes of ammo being moved around. “Just like home...only different.”

The two chuckle then continue off the plane and walk over to a waiting Hummer. The private driving stops them before they get in

“Uh, ma’am, officers in back, please,” he says.

Ashlyn frowns. “Why?”

“Because IEDs usually take out the front of the vehicle.”

Ashlyn swallows hard. This kid, who looks much older than his 19 years, had told her that as if he was telling her the sky is always blue. It was just a hard truth to life in the war zone. She exchanges a glance with Andrews. As her second, he gets in the backseat, too, leaving a corporal to take the dreaded passenger seat.

“This is fucked,” Ashlyn mumbles.

“Yeah. And I have a feeling it only gets worse from here forward,” Andrews whispers back.

Ashlyn just nods and watches the activity outside the window as the private drives them to their new headquarters. They would be checking in and getting things ready to hit the ground running the next day. On the plane Ashlyn had gotten an email detailing a build their team would be doing in 2 days.

2. Fucking. Days.

There is no time to “get acclimated”. No time to “see how things are”. Nope, it is work right away.

But Ash and her team are used to it. They were all on Fast Response Teams and know how to get going quickly. And they all know the more they work, the faster time flies. She knows that she is not the only one mentally and physically crossing off calendar days until they return to their loved ones.

When they pull up in front of the building they will be using, Ashlyn hops out and grins at Andrews. “Time to rock and roll.”

He rolls his eyes. “Seriously? That’s the best cliché you could come up with? Geez, LT.”

Ashlyn chuckles and shrugs her shoulder. “I like the old standbys.”

The two grab their briefcases and backpacks out of the back. It is only then it hits Ash that she was told her kit bag and trunk were being taking to her hut...and she has no idea where that is. Hopefully someone inside will know or she’ll be spending the night right here at the office.

With a deep breath, Ashlyn steps into the building to begin her year in Iraq.


 

December 3, 2014

On December 2, the USWNT had reported to a hotel in Los Angeles for a 4 day camp before flying to Brazil for a camp and a tournament. Well, the whole team minus a certain right back.

As Ali walks into the hotel lobby on December 3, she is hoping she will be able to check in and get to her room unnoticed. She needed a few minutes to herself to really turn her mind from the fear she can’t get rid of to the game of football. But fate has other plans for her.

“KRIEGS!” Pinoe shouts.

Ali forces a smile to her face as the blonde middie races towards her, KO, HAO and Syd close behind. She drops her bags and accepts the hugs from each of them. Pinoe grabs her suitcase.

“You’re my roomie here in LA. I got this,” she says.

“No, Pin, really, I can get it.”

“I don’t mind,” she insists.

Ali looks at her four teammates and suddenly starts to chuckle. HAO lifts her eyebrow.

“Uh, you okay, Kriegs?”

“I am,” Ali chuckles. “It’s just...all four of you have your head tilted to the side and are looking at me like someone stole my puppy.”

The women glance at each other and see she is correct. KO grins.

“Uh, I guess we do,” Kelley notes with a grin. “We’re all just kind of worried about you.”

Ali reaches out and squeezes her shoulder. “Thanks, Kell. But I’m okay. Will I have bad moments? Sure. Got a year of those to look forward to. But right now I’m here for soccer and that’s all I need to worry about.”

“If you’re sure,” Syd says warily.

“I am. Promise.” She wraps an arm around Pinoe’s shoulder. “And with this one as my roommate, how can I not look forward to fun and football?”

“True. Not to mention I will tell everyone who will listen if you cry yourself to sleep,” Pinoe admits with a grin.

Ali laughs and nods. “Not surprised at all by that. So, let me grab my key, go drop my bags and meet you guys down here for lunch.”

The four nod and let Ali go check in and head up to her room alone. After she is in the elevator, HAO turns to Pinoe.

“Anytime of night, Meg...”

Pinoe nods seriously. “I know, Heather. I’ll call you or whoever she may need. I swear.”

HAO nods and the four head into the dining room they are using to let the others know Ali Krieger-Harris is in the building.


 

In her room, Ali quickly changes into workout clothes. She wants to get a little weight training in before field practice that afternoon. Once she is changed, she opens up her backpack to plug in her computer and slide out a leather, double-sided picture frame. On the left side is a shot of her and Ashlyn at the zoo, posing in front of the otters and laughing. Just before a passerby snapped the pic for them, Ashlyn had said something silly and they both laughed. It almost looks candid instead of posed. It is one of Ali’s favorite pics.

On the other side is Ashlyn’s most recent official Army photo. Ali carefully runs a finger over the various ribbons and medals that adorn her wife’s chest. She smiles and gives the glass over her wife’s face a quick kiss.

“Love you, sweetheart. Hope you’re safe.”

She puts the picture down on the bedside table. Satisfied her things are as arranged as she needs them for now, she pulls on her sneakers and heads down to the team lunch, wondering how many more friends will give her the “puppy head tilt” as she’s now calling it. She smiles, knowing it will probably be all of them.

“I love these gals,” she mumbles to herself as she takes the stairs back down to ground level.


 

“PICK IT UP! PICK IT UP! PICK IT UP!” Jill Ellis yells at her players.

In all honesty, she is very impressed by the players. They had all come into this camp in shape and ready to work. As she watches her defenders cross the end line, she grins. The one defender that had her most concerned was quickly proving that the coach need not worry. Ali Krieger was ready to roll.

“OKAY! FORWARDS UP!” Jill pauses. “GO!”

She watches as the forwards in the camp start a series of line touches. Her eyes momentarily stray back to the defenders and sees Ali is already ready for the next set while a few others are still working on controlling their breathing. Yep, the right back was showing she still plans to be the number 1 pick for the backline.

“FINISH HARD! LET’S GO!” She watches as the last of the forwards crosses the line. “OKAY! MIDDIE’S UP! GO!”

Dawn Scott walks over, grinning. Jill sees her and rolls her eyes. “Hate to say I told you so, Jill...”

“Whatever. I was right to have concerns.”

“Maybe. But I think she’s shown you that it doesn’t matter where Ashlyn is, Krieg’s mind is on the pitch. She has unfinished business at the World Cup, not to mention the Olympics.”

“True.” Jill looks back at the field. “FASTER LADIES! YOU’RE OUR WORKHORSES!” She grins as the middies all pick it up a bit. She glances at Dawn. “She’s the best damn right back in the world. That’s not in doubt. I just had to worry about her mindset with her wife in Iraq.”

Dawn nods. “I know. I’m sure Tony DiCicco was worried briefly about Mia Hamm, too, back in the day. But these ladies are professionals and all have dealt with some sort of hardship at times. Trust them to put it away.”

“I can’t even imagine the fear that will be in her heart the next year. But I am now confident it won’t be an issue. Let’s just pray nothing happens to make things...worse for Kriegs.”

Dawn nods as the two coaches walk towards the middle of the field. Jill stares at the players on the end line.

“EVERYONE UP!” The players all get up and ready to go. “Good job, ladies. Grab a drink and get ready for a scrimmage,” she says with a grin.

The players groan in relief, having been sure they were about to run again. They make their way to their water bottles. Ali detours to her bag and slips the dog tags from her neck. She gives them a kiss then secures them into the inside pocket. She turns and sees Tobin grinning at her.

“What?” Ali asks, unable to not grin back.

“That is just too damn adorable.”

Ali chuckles. “Thanks.”

“I missed you at lunch. Did she make it over there okay?”

Ali takes a drink as she nods. “Yep. She said it’s hot. Like, makes Florida look like Alaska hot.”

Tobin laughs. “Yeah, I’ve heard rumors. And can’t make it easier to be in uniform all the time.”

“Yeah. But that’s why in Florida she was jogging and working out in her ACU’s. I hope it helped her a little bit.”

Tobin nods. “I’m sure it did.” She takes another sip. “Did she, uh, watch the messages?”

Ali smiles. “She did. She loved them. In fact, at dinner tonight I have a message to play for everyone. I wanted to make sure everyone was there to see it.”

“Cool. Can’t wait.”

“Okay, Ladies,” Jill says, ending their conversation. “Hope, you’re in the near goal. Your backline will be Kriegs at right, Becky and Cap in the middle, and Whit on the left.”

As Jill continues to set the teams, the four defenders follow Hope down to the goal. The four quickly gather around and look at Christie.

“You all know what to do. Talk to each other, watch for the give-and-go opps, and keep Hope as bored as possible,” she says.

Hope grins. “Remember: Happiness is a bored keeper.”

“A lazy keeper,” Ali mumbles with a grin.

Hope gives her a good-natured push as the four quickly get into position. HAO runs past them and smiles at Ali.

“RIGHT SIDE!” HAO hollers.

“STRONG SIDE!” Ali calls back.

“WHATEVER!” Whitney yells with a grin.

Alex and Abby stand in the center circle ready to kick off. Ali sees immediately that Jill has put her probable starting forwards and 2 middies against the probable starting backline. Her heart swells a bit: coach sees Ali’s head is in the game. It would be a lie to say the defender hadn’t been worried about how the coach would see her. Ali knew she was all business and now Jill will see it, too. Ali’s face goes to steel as the whistle blows to start the scrimmage.


 

“Great practice, Kriegs!” Abby says, patting the brunette on the back.

Ali smiles. “Thanks. Sorry about the nutmeg,” she says with a wink.

Abby laughs. “The fuck you are.”

As Ali slips her dog tags over her head, she sees Jill walking towards her with Heif. Her stomach does a flip.

“Kriegs, got a second?”

“Sure, Coach.”

Ali grabs her towel and walks over to the coach and their media guru. So far she had been able to avoid doing the interview they were most likely about to ask her to do. She and Ashlyn had discussed this probability of this occurring and the blonde had said it was up to Ali whether or not to do it.

“Ali, we are hoping you’d like to do an interview about being a military wife,” Heif starts. “We have done lots of pieces showing the team with military personnel in other countries and even here in the US but we’ve never had someone on the team married to someone serving the country the way your wife is.”

“Mia Hamm’s first husband was a Marine Corps pilot,” Ali points out.

“True but that predates the Studio 90 and Behind the Crest spots.” He studies her face a second. “Ali, I can understand you’ll have to think about this and maybe even talk to Ashlyn about it. That’s fine. Just know it’s something we would love to do, okay?”

Ali nods and goes back to her bag. It’s not that she’s not proud as hell of her wife and not like she doesn’t know people would love to see a piece like this. But it’s the question of how much of her private life does Ali want out there? How many of her emotions does she want to allow the fans to see? She carefully packs her bag and follows the others to the vans for the ride back to the hotel.

She slides into a seat and Whitney sits down beside her. “Let me guess: Behind the Crest on you and Ash?”

Ali sighs. “Yeah. Ash had told me it’s up to me. I am just...I’m not...”

Whitney takes her hand. “Do whatever you’re comfortable with and whenever you’re comfortable with it. That’s what she would want. It’s not wrong to want to keep your private life private, you know?”

Ali smiles. “I know. Thanks, Whit.”

“No problem.” She pauses. “But if they ask me I am going to gush about her so much her head will swell even before she sees it.”

The two women burst out laughing, both knowing Ash would, indeed, have fun with their praise of her.


 

Ali is sitting in a chair waiting to board the plane to Brazil. She is busy typing out an email to her wife to let her know how things have gone so far at camp. To be honest, Ali is incredibly proud of herself. She has shown her coaches and her teammates that her mind is committed to the team and not simply wallowing in missing her wife. She is nearly done, when someone sits down beside her.

“Hey, Amy, what’s up?”

“You’re on my team.”

Ali grins. “Good. Glad to know you’re not moving to another country,” she teases.

ARod rolls her eyes. “Smart ass. I meant when we get on the plane, you’re on my team for Heads Up.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re good at it, of course! And I want to win. I am tired of losing to Tobin’s team.”

“What if I told you that Tobin had already recruited me?” Ali says with a wince.

“When?”

“At breakfast.”

ARod leaps up. “TOBIN! I’m gonna KILL you! I told you Ali was mine!”

Tobin bursts out laughing and takes off at a jog down the terminal to get away from the furious Latina. Ali just laughs knowing Tobin will be laughing too hard to get away. She goes back to her letter.

So, baby, funny thing just happened. Amy asked me to be on her team for Heads Up but Tobin had already asked me. Turns out, ARod had already claimed me but Tobin jumped her claim and asked me first. They are now running around the terminal making us all crack up. I think I’ll be kind and just offer to referee. Ooh! Amy caught Tobes. You may be one alum short next time all you Tar Heels get together. Lol

Kyle stopped by the hotel last night. He sends his love. He also said that he and his buddies got together to send you a care package. He promises it is “horribly clean and innocent” so you shouldn’t have any porn in it. He said they just all wanted to do something to show their support. He had a great time with the gals and I think he was nearly convinced to drop everything and go to Brazil with us. If he could have found a sitter for Luna and someone to take his hair appointments he’d be sitting with me right now.

Well, Jill just stood up and is starting to get her things together. Guess our plane is ready to board. I’ll send this off so you can read it when you get back to base. Hope your first build is going well. I love and miss you so much. Take care, baby.

Love always,
your Alex

Ali waits until her outbox empties before closing down her laptop. As she tucks it inside her briefcase, ARod walks up to her.

“I will give you $20 if you play on my team and help us beat that cheater Tobin.”

Ali bursts out laughing. She is about to offer to ref but instead turns to Tobin. “Offer is $20 to play for ARod. What’ve you got?”

She checks her pockets. “Uh, $1.97 and I crash at your house in January and act like a maid all month in return.”

Ali thinks a second then shakes her head. “Nope. Not needed.” She turns to Amy. “I’m all yours, Aim.”

ARod throws her arms in the air. “SCORE! You are so going down, Heath!”

The entire team is cracking up at the insanity. They know they will definitely be entertained on the flight. And the coaching staff is glad it’s a private charter so they don’t risk someone on the team getting arrested by an air marshal for rowdy behaviour!


 

Ashlyn walks into her hut after 5 days in the field. She drops her backpack and briefcase on her footlocker and flops face first onto her bunk.

“I can’t believe I am finding this piece of shit comfy,” she mumbles into her pillow.

She hears laughter and slowly lifts her head. She hadn’t even noticed the other woman in the tiny hut. Ashlyn sits up, blushing.

“Uh, hi. You must be Captain Cousins,” Ashlyn says as she stands and offers her hand.

“And you must be my new roomie, Lieutenant Harris,” she replies shaking her hand.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Excellent. Now, first things first: this is our house for however long we are here in Hell. No ranks allowed. I’m Fliss. Well, really Felicia, but Fliss since I was a kid and my brother couldn’t say my name.”

Ashlyn smiles. “Ashlyn. Or Ash. How much longer are you here?”

“I have 8 more months in this lovely resort. It’s my second tour. Hopefully my last tour, too.”

“Excellent. I’m just starting my first year here.”

“You’re Engineers, right?”

“Yes, ma’...uh, Fliss,” Ashlyn corrects with a grin. “Been on a Fast Response Team since I graduated OCS.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, anytime some sort of disaster happens, we have 4 hours to mobilize and get in the air,” Ashlyn says.

She goes on to explain more about what they do. She answers questions about where she has been and what she has seen. By the time she is done, she sees she has earned the captain’s respect.

“Got to say, Ashlyn, I was thinking you guys had it easy. Turns out you’ve seen crap like I can’t even imagine.”

“Yeah. But for all the bad there was a lot of good, too. Seeing kids and families start to have hope and start to smile again make all the bad worth it. I really like what I do.”

“That’s great. Being an MP we tend to think everyone else, other than Rangers, have it easy. At least we usually know what we’re in for,” Fliss notes.

Ashlyn nods. “I understand.” Ashlyn walks over and grabs her towel and some clean clothes. “Well, if you don’t mind, I need a shower and a nap.” She pulls out a pair of shorts and a US Soccer tee.

“No problem. Oh! Wait a second. You have a couple of packages here.” She walks over and unlocks her trunk. “I didn’t want something to happen to them.”

Ashlyn smiles. “Hey, thanks. I appreciate that.” She takes the boxes and smiles when she sees one from Pinoe, most likely the one from the gals. The other is from her grandma. She sighs. “Sure wish there was a way Grandma could have sent her mac & cheese.”

Fliss chuckles. “I feel the same way about my mother’s fried chicken.”

Ashlyn chuckles and decides to save the packages until she gets back so she can enjoy them until she falls asleep. Thirty minutes later, she is sitting on her bunk cutting open the one from the gals.

“AWESOME!” she exclaims.

She pulls out Skittles, microwave mac & cheese, playing cards, a travel checkers game, several magazines, a couple of crossword books, and tees from each players pro team.

“Very cool!” She reads the accompanying letter that promises 1 package a month until she gets home. “You guys rock,” she says to the letter, knowing she’ll put off her nap to write them all a thank you.

She then grabs the next box. She cuts it open and chuckles as the first things she sees are Skittles and microwave mac & cheese. “Geez, I am that easy to buy for?” She also finds shampoo, deodorant, soap, and several packs of hair rubber bands. The note from her grandma reiterates how much she is loved and missed. Ashlyn lifts the paper up and gives it a sniff, smiling with tears in her eyes when she smells Grandma’s perfume. “I love you, Grandma,” she whispers emotionally.

She tucks her food and tees away and crawls into her bunk to get some sleep, setting her alarm to wake her up in time for dinner.


 

Ali sits on her bed, frowning.

“You okay?” Morgan Brian asks as she unpacks her clothes.

“Yeah. Just...haven’t heard from Ash in a few days. I guess I thought I’d hear from her more while she’s over there.”

“That sucks,” the college senior says.

Ali grins. “To say the least. But, I know she said she had a build. I guess I just thought she’d go out, build, and come home each night. Or maybe that is just wishful thinking.”

“Maybe,” Morgan says. She pauses a second. “Uh, I know, like, I don’t know you as well as the others know you. And I only just met Ash that one time in passing but, well, if you need anything, let me know. I mean, if I can’t help you with it, I can fetch someone who can, you know?”

Ali smiles at the young woman. “Thank you so much, Morgan. I really appreciate the offer. And trust me: I’ll take you up on it at some point I’m sure.”

Morgan smiles. “Cool. Well, I’ve got studying to do.”

“Okay. I think I’m going to go for a walk, maybe get a coffee. Want anything?”

“Uh, a latte would be great. Let me get some money for you,” she says, starting to stand.

Ali waves her off. “It’s on me. A thank you in advance for any calls I get in the middle of the night.”

Morgan grins. “Okay. Thanks, Ali.”

Ali nods and pulls on her sweatshirt. She checks to make sure her make-up is on point and goes out in search of caffeine yumminess for her and her roommate for this trip.


 

Ashlyn groans when her alarm clock goes off. She’d have sworn she just laid down. She smacks it off and sits up, stretching.

“Have a good nap?”

Ashlyn glances over at the desk in the hut. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“You’re lucky. Took me forever to learn how to sleep during the day.”

Ashlyn chuckles. “It was a skill learned long ago. Needed to nap sometimes to be up for games. And, well, for the after parties,” she adds with a wink.

Fliss chuckles and starts to go back to the report she’s working on when she sees the shirt Ashlyn wears. She frowns.

“US Women’s soccer team? You’re a fan?”

Ashlyn blushes. “You could say that. I was part of the team pool for several years. Even helped us win the inaugural U-19 Cup.”

Fliss’ eyes widen. “Wow!”

“Yep. And even better: I met my wife thanks to US Soccer.” She opens her drawer and pulls out a photo frame identical to the one Ali carries. “She’s a right back.”

Fliss takes the frame and her eyes widen. “Holy shit!”

Ashlyn grins. “Yeah, she’s a beauty isn’t she.”

“Yeah...she, uh, is. Um...wow...”

Ashlyn studies the woman a moment. “You okay?”

Fliss hands the frame back, her cheeks flush. “Uh, sure.” She gulps. “I, uh, kinda know your wife.”

Ashlyn stiffens. “Kinda? What’s that mean?”

“We, um, sorta...went out a few times...in Germany,” Fliss says, refusing to look up at Ashlyn.

“Say WHAT?!”

Fliss stands. “We never slept together!” She says quickly. “We literally just went out. Dinner, coffee, etc.”

Ashlyn drops down on her bed. She can imagine when these dates occurred. Ali had never said a word to her about them.

Fliss starts to pace. “Shit. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut.” She takes a deep breath. “I’m sure she wasn’t with you at the time. She didn’t seem like the cheating kind to me. She was...she said she was questioning her life at the time. She wanted to keep things innocent and, more importantly to me at the time, quiet. We talked a long, long time. She asked me why I’d risk my career for a woman. It seemed important to her.”

“It was,” Ashlyn says quietly. She sighs. “What did you tell her?”

Fliss shrugs. “I told her when I met the woman that meant more than the job, I’d do my damnedest to hang on to her and start touching up my resume.”

Tears well in Ashlyn’s eyes. She takes a deep breath and slowly looks up at the worried captain. “I owe you more than I can ever repay you for, Fliss.”

Fliss’ eyes widen. “She was asking...about you?”

“Yeah. We’d broken up because she was scared what it would do to her career if people found out. Then one night, out of the blue, she called me. She told me she finally realized that her career would mean nothing if she had to deny her heart and our love. She begged me for a second chance.” Ashlyn chuckles wryly. “Little did she know the begging wasn’t necessary. I’ve loved her practically from the day I met her and would have waited forever for her.”

Fliss smiles. “I’m glad things worked out for you. She was a really sweet girl.”

“She was. She’s an even better woman. She’s been so supportive of me doing this, even defending me when people said I was crazy for retiring so young; especially after having just won a championship. Alex got that this was a calling; something I had to do. As much as it scared her, she has been behind me 100%.”

“That’s great! I hope someday I find the woman that can be that kind of supporter for me.”

Ashlyn looks up at the striking woman. Her auburn hair falls in natural waves and her green eyes sparkle with life. Ashlyn nods. “You will, Fliss. I’m sure of it.”

Fliss rolls her eyes. “From your mouth to God’s ears.”

Ashlyn chuckles and starts to get dressed to go to the dining hall. Fliss turns back to her report, her mind on a few short weeks in Germany, when she was a freshly turned out Lieutenant, when she thought she had met the woman she would spend the rest of her life with. She sighs. And instead she is now bunking with that same woman’s wife for several months in Iraq. The Fates sure enjoyed kicking people’s teeth in every now and then.


 

Even with her phone turned nearly all the way down, Ali hears the alert that she has an email. For some reason, she just knows it is Ashlyn.

She ignores her phone and grabs her laptop as she sneaks into the bathroom to keep from waking Morgan. Within minutes she is logged on. Tears spring to her eyes as she sees her wife’s email address and sees the attachment notice. She quickly opens it and starts the attachments downloading as she reads the message.

Hey Baby,

I miss you so much. Just need to get that out of the way first. Maybe then I can concentrate on writing and not just on missing you.

So, I’ve finished my first build here in Iraq. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting but it was really cool. Exhausting, but cool. I almost feel bad saying it was exhausting because as the lieutenant on the team, I really couldn’t do much. I was more like the foreman at a construction site, making sure the men and women did what they should do while dealing with outside distractions. I will admit to being kind of overwhelmed at first but the Captain I am assigned to is pretty cool and he was a big help and even came with us on that trip. Most of the actual builders have been doing this for a while and only my team leaders were new. But I am so damn proud of them all. They did great and I made sure that all my reports reflected that. One of the attached pics is me and Andrews in front of the newly built school house/council house in a little town south of here.

So, I kind of have a surprise for you and that is picture 2. Turns out I finally was able to thank the woman that helped you come to grips with your feelings for me. I think you’ll recognize my roommate for the next few months.

Ali’s eyes widen. She clicks on the box that had popped up when the pictures successfully downloaded. She opens the second picture and inhales sharply.

“Fliss...”

In the photo, Ashlyn and Fliss stand outside their shared, 2-person hut, smiling at the camera. They hold their helmets under their arms and their guns are at their sides. Ali swallows hard and goes back to the letter.

Needless to say, there were a few uncomfortable minutes while Fliss told me how she knew you. I think she expected me to punch her, not thank her. Alex, baby, I am so glad I got to thank her for helping you work through your feelings. I owe her so much because I owe her my life with you. I told her when she heads back to the States to contact you for tickets to a Spirit or NT game. I think she would enjoy catching up with you, especially since I made it known that as far as I’m concerned you hung the moon.

Speaking of the moon, pic 3 was taken while we were tenting it out at that village. I looked up and it was so huge I just had to snap a pic. Remember what I said about us always seeing the same side of the moon? I can only hope you’ve been looking up because I have been trying to use my eyes to write your name on the surface. It could happen. Or maybe I need to stop watching X-Men movies and wishing I had Cyclops’ laser eyes. :o)

By the way, let the gals know I got the first care package from them. I also got one from Grandma. Both were filled with Skittles and Mac&Cheese microwave bowls. Am I really that easy to please? Lol. I loved the other things the gals sent, too. I’ll wear a different team shirt for all my workouts and do my best to talk up the league while I am over here. For some reason I haven’t gotten Kyle’s gift yet. Are you SURE it wasn’t something that would get stopped for content? Hmmmm... Lol

Well, baby, I know I haven’t had a chance to write before now but I am so damn tired after camping out for 5 days. I should be here on base the next 2 weeks while we prep for the next build. After that, I’ll be on the road more regularly. These two weeks are for me and my team to learn all we did wrong and fix things. We only get one learning trip and now we’re expected to fly solo for the most part. Fast learning turn around but everything seems to be at a faster pace here. Everyone is moving quickly I guess because when we aren’t working we are missing our loved ones and time seems to drag.

I miss you so much. I know I said it already but I am saying it again. You are my world, Alex, and I cannot wait to see you again. Good luck in Brazil at the tournament. I’ll watch the highlights when I can. I know you’ll be the kickass right back you always are. I’ll drop you a line as soon as I can. I love you, Alex. So much it hurts sometimes. Take care, baby. Talk to you soon.

Love always,
Ash

Ali wipes the tears from her eyes and saves the email. She then goes and looks at the rest of the pictures, giggling when she sees her wife hamming it up for the camera while pretending a tank is about to run over her. Her heart skips a beat when she sees her wife offering a teddy bear to a little boy who had obviously been crying. She sees her staring at plans spread out on the hood of a Hummer, a soldier manning a .50 cal mounted to the top of it. And the final picture makes her laugh out loud. Ashlyn sits cross-legged on the ground, 4 puppies crawling all over her as she laughs. Ali shakes her head.

“Leave it to you to find the puppies,” she whispers.

She saves the pictures in a file just as there is a knock on the bathroom door.

“Ali?”

“It’s open,” she answers.

Morgan opens the door. “Uh, you okay?”

Ali smiles. “Yeah. Finally got an email from Ash and didn’t want to wake you.”

“Ah. Cool. So, um, you don’t need...uh, the bathroom?” she asks uncomfortably.

Ali laughs and stands up. “Nope, it’s all yours. Sorry about that.”

“It’s okay. I’m really glad you heard from Ashlyn. I guess she’s okay?”

“She’s great. And even sent some pics I’ll show everyone tomorrow.”

“Cool. Well, night.”

“Night, Morgan. Sorry again about hogging the bathroom.”

Morgan smiles. “No problem.”

Ali goes out and plugs her computer back in. She crawls into bed and unlike the last few nights, falls right to sleep, her heart and mind both settled now that she has finally heard from her wife.

Chapter Text

January 2015

Ali stares at the blonde across from her. She tries to find the words to express her shock and sadness but can’t. She twirls her coffee mug on her father’s kitchen table, trying to come up with something, anything, to say.

“Geez, Ali, it’s not like I said I was retiring, moving away, and you’ll never see me again,” Lori Lindsey says with a crooked grin.

Ali shakes her head. “Yeah. Right. I mean, I know. I just...wow. You’re so good. Why?”

Lori shrugs. “It’s time. For me at least. I can’t compete with the youngsters at National Team camps. And I’m tired of getting my ass handed to me by even more youngsters in NWSL matches. Besides, I really think I want to get going on this new venture. It’s just the right time for me.”

Ali sighs and leans on the table. “All my blonde’s keep leaving me,” she whines with a grin.

Lori laughs. “Nah. You still have Abby and a few others.”

Ali smiles. “Yeah, but they aren’t you, Lor. You’ve always been here for me and Ash.”

“Still will be. That will never change, Als. Besides between preseason, those European friendlies, the Algarve, the NWSL and that little thing called the World Cup, you’ll be too busy to notice I’m gone,” Lori states with certainty.

“Never, Lori. You’re hard not to miss,” Ali says sincerely, taking one of her friend’s hands and giving it a squeeze.

“Thanks,” she says with a smile. “So, uh, any chance you can tell your wife for me?”

“Oh, hell no. You promised to take care of me on the field. You’ll need to be the one to tell her you’re now leaving my ass hanging out in the wind.”

Lori laughs. “Gee, thanks. Just what I want after me: a pissed blonde with legal permission to have and fire a machine gun.”

Ali gives her a wink. Lori takes a sip of coffee and grabs a croissant.

“So, how are you really doing after the Brazil shit?”

Ali groans. “We are all so...so pissed about those fucking games. They didn’t beat us; we beat ourselves. We had been so good in practice then just fucking crumbled in the games. I have no idea why! It’s damn frustrating.”

“Is it a coaching problem?”

“Honestly, no. And even if it was, we’re less than 6 months out from Canada. No way we could change now if it was. You know how it is: once we’re on the field it’s on us. We’re not kids still learning. We’re all professionals. Well, except Morgan Brian but she’s so damn good she could be. Whatever it was that caused that breakdown, we all need to look into ourselves and fix it. If not...it’ll be another 4 year wait for a chance at the Cup.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, you all look good. I believe that you will figure it out and bring the Cup home this year. 2015 is our year. I just know it,” Lori says confidently.

Ali smiles. “Thanks for saying that, Lori.” She checks her watch. “Hey! It’s about time for Ashlyn to FaceTime me for the week. She sent me an email last night. Want to say hi?”

Lori shakes her head. “Nah, just tell her hi for me. You two need to enjoy your time. I know it’s precious.”

“It’s okay. You can say hi and leave before the virtual sex starts,” Ali jokes.

At that Lori blushes and leaps up. “On THAT note! Thanks for the coffee, old friend. I’m out of here!”

Ali stands and gives Lori a hug. Yes, she was sincere when she offered the blonde the chance to stay. But, yes, she was even happier that Lori decided to go...no matter what mental image made her do so. Ali puts the coffee mugs in the sink and hurries upstairs to her bedroom. She closes the door and snuggles down into the bed, hugging Ashlyn’s favorite UNC sweatshirt to her as she waits for the call.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits.

After an hour, Ali has to accept that for some reason, her wife would not be making their virtual date. She reaches for the remote control and turns on the TV. She flips through all the news channels, which she has memorized, searching for some answer, some possible reason, that her wife missed this appointment. For better or worse, she finds nothing on the happenings in Iraq.

She turns off the TV and lies down in bed, pulling the covers around her, still hugging the hoodie. She stares at all the pictures she has on her nightstand and sighs.

“I miss you, Ash. I hope you are okay, baby. I love you.”

And though the little voice in the back of her head says she should get up and go for a workout she decides that today she just needs time for herself. She closes her eyes for a nap, deciding it can’t be too terribly bad to wallow in missing her wife for the day. A tear squeezes out of her eye and rolls down her cheek.

Yeah...today it would be fine to just give in to the ache of missing her soldier.


 

February 2015

Ashlyn walks into her hut and throws her helmet across the small space, listening to it slam against the far wall then hit the ground and roll a bit before settling under her bunk. She throws her small pack next, wishing it would make as satisfying a noise as the helmet. She does control herself enough that she doesn’t toss her rifle or sidearm. She sets those on the desk and drops onto her bunk, staring at the ceiling.

“You’re a stupid fucking idiot, Harris,” she scolds herself.

Her mind drifts back to earlier that day, trying to figure out what she should have done differently.

Ashlyn smiles as she hands the keys to the newly built schoolhouse over to the village leader. Her team had worked harder and faster this time and had actually finished a day early.

“Here you go, sir. May your students enjoy peace and learning within these walls.”

He smiles and nods his head as her words are translated. He turns to some of the people gathered around and lifts up the keys in triumph. Ashlyn’s smile broadens as people and children all cheer the new building.

“INCOMING!”

Her smile is wiped from her face by that one word. People scatter as an RPG fired from a nearby roof strikes the ground just outside the building, sending rocks, sand and building scrap flying.

“COVER! COVER! COVER!” she screams as she drags the village leader away from the school and into the protective shelter offered by a Hummer.

She eases up and sees the two men on the far roof. She points.

“TWO ON THE ROOF! MACKLIN, GET ON THE GUN!”

Corporal Harold Macklin scrambles up into the gun turret of another Hummer and turns the mounted .50 cal onto towards his targets. Just as one man finishes loading the RPG, Macklin fires, killing the shooter. The launcher flips up but in death he had squeezed the trigger.

“Son of a bitch,” Ashlyn mutters as the rocket goes straight up and then down exploding on the front of the building. This kills the second part of the sniping team but also starts to crumble the facade of the 4 story structure. She can only pray no one on the ground is killed or hurt.

“LIEUTENANT!”

Ashlyn turns to see Macklin pointing up another street. As she looks to see the men with rifles racing towards them, the firefight begins. In seconds she sees she and her men are badly outnumbered.

“RETREAT! RETREAT! GET IN THE CARS AND GO!” she orders.

Men and women are laying down covering fire as they scramble to get into their 5 armored vehicles. Ashlyn watches, making sure her people are getting to safety. She realizes she is firing her rifle and had no idea when she had started. She doesn’t dwell on that as she sees more insurgents coming from another direction.

“SOUTH! SOUTH! SOUTH!” she screams, waving the direction she wants her team to go.

“LT! GET YOUR ASS IN HERE!” Andrews screams as the other four vehicles take off out of town.

Ashlyn empties her clip at the insurgents before leaping into the vehicle as the driver floors it to get away. She winces as she hears bullets pinging off the armor of the vehicle. She looks at Andrews.

“Casualties?”

“None that I saw,” he answers.

“Fuck. Good. But fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck,” Ashlyn mutters, not really sure what else to say.

“Ma’am, I’ve called in the situation. HQ is sending in infantry and cavalry to assist the town in quashing this insurgent uprising,” Private Marjorie Skilks tells her.

Ashlyn nods. “Good work, Private.”

A little over two hours later Ashlyn is standing in front of a colonel. The man is furious...but not for the reason Ashlyn had expected.

“YOU LEFT SUPPLIES BEHIND?!”

“Sir, we had just started to clean up and we had handed over the keys to the school when all hell broke loose. I ordered my finishing squad into the Hummers as we were badly outnumbered.”

He slams his hand down on the desk. “BUT YOU FUCKING LEFT NAILS AND SHIT BEHIND, LIEUTENANT!”

Ashlyn swallows hard. “Yes, sir,” she acknowledges.

He leans on his desk, his dark eyes boring into her. “And do you not remember being told that no matter WHAT nails, screws, nuts, and bolts are to NEVER be left behind? That shit gets used in bombs as shrapnel! Do you want to be the fucking reason people die or are maimed, Lieutenant?”

Ashlyn’s stomach trips at that thought. “No, sir,” she croaks out.

“Then why the HELL didn’t you secure those in the vehicles right away, Harris? They should have been packed up as soon as you fucking finished the build!” he screams at her.

For the next 30 minutes, Ashlyn gets a reaming like she’s never gotten before. Her captain and major stand nearby, not offering words of support or comfort. Truth is, she did fuck up not securing the hardware that insurgents pack into bombs for maximum damage. But she had saved her entire team. Not a single injury. Shouldn’t that count for something?

“Get out of here, Lieutenant. And spend the next few hours praying our troops get there in time to secure the potential weapons you weren’t smart enough to secure. DISMISSED!”

Ashlyn salutes, does a crisp about face, and marches out of the room. She hears the colonel start to lay into her two superiors about the “problem” with women in positions of power in the Army.

 

Back in her hut, Ashlyn refuses to cry. It’s not easy, but she holds back the tears. Saving her team had meant nothing to the man and she didn’t even get support from her c.o. And with this fuck up, she can kiss her captain’s bars goodbye.

“Son of a fucking bitch,” she mutters.

She gets up and changes clothes, deciding a punishing work out might help her get past her anger at the whole fucking situation. As she changes she strokes a finger down the picture of her wife that hangs in her closet.

“All this separation and shit I put you through and it’s all for nothing. I’m so sorry, Alex. So fucking sorry.”

She takes a deep breath and closes the closet door. She leans her head against it a moment, then turns and leaves her hut, hoping to get into a better frame of mind...or at least work out hard enough and long enough to help her pass out when she gets back to her hut.


 

Ali sits down beside Alyssa Naeher as the keeper pulls on the #18 jersey. “You’re going to be awesome out there, Lys,” she says to the nervous keeper.

Alyssa swallows hard. “Thanks.” She pauses a second. “You know...if she hadn’t traded in her boots, this would be Ash’s jersey and start.”

Ali shrugs. “Maybe, maybe not. Doesn’t matter. All that matters is it’s you in goal and we know you’ll be great!”

Alyssa smiles. “Thanks, Kriegs. I needed to hear that,” she says softly.

Ali nods and pats her on the shoulder as she goes to finish getting ready for their friendly against France. The team had been rocked when Hope Solo was suddenly suspended from the team. And, yes, it had occurred to Ali that her wife would have been a contender to be the number 2 on this team if she hadn’t joined the Army. But any number of things could have happened to prevent that from happening. Ali sighs and slips the dog tags over her head. She rubs her thumb over the lettering.

“I love you, Ash,” she whispers before kissing them and placing them in her locker.

“Heard from her yet?” Pinoe asks softly.

“Not this week. They had a build so...you know...it could be...” Ali takes a deep breath and turns to her friend. “We have a game, Meg. Let’s get to it.”

Pinoe just nods as Ali pushes past her and goes to check her mascara once more in the mirrors. The middie starts to walk away but Ali’s phone starts to ring. She grins as she recognizes the “Jaws” theme song.

“ALI!” she yells as she grabs the phone and answers. “Your babe is checking her make-up, Ash. She’s- -WHOA!”

Ali rips the phone out of Pinoe’s hands. “ASHLYN!”

The team smiles and does their best to move away from the right back to give her as much privacy as possible.

“Hey, Baby. I love you.”

Ali drops down onto the bench in front of her locker. “I love you, too. I’ve been so worried about you.”

“I’m okay, honey. And I’m sorry I didn’t call you sooner. Things got a bit haywire here and this is the first chance I’ve had.”

“It’s okay. I understand. I just...God, so much has happened and I just...I just missed you.”

Ashlyn smiles. “I miss you, too. I’ve been catching up with stuff online. Tell Alyssa good luck for me.”

“I will.”

“And I know you probably have to go. I just wanted to speak to you and let you know I am okay so you can concentrate on the game and not on me. Go out and show those Frenchies who the best right back in the world is.”

Ali grins. “I will. Will you be watching online?”

“For as long as I can, baby. I’m kind of exhausted. If I miss anything I will try to catch the highlights or maybe someone will post the whole thing. Either way, I will call you tomorrow to tell you how sexy you looked.”

Ali smiles. “Sounds perfect. Stay safe, baby. I love you so much.”

“I love you, too, beautiful. Talk to you soon.”

“Right. Bye, baby.”

“Bye.”

Ali sighs as the call disconnects. She stares at her wife’s picture on the lock screen until the camera goes dark. She stands and places the phone in her locker, still lost in her own world. Then she turns and sees 22 sets of eyes on her. She blushes.

“Uh, she’s fine,” she tells them. “Just been...busy. Uh, why are you guys staring at me?”

Tobin walks up and pinches Ali’s cheeks. “You are just so cute when you’re all lovey-dovey!”

The team laughs as Ali bursts out in laughter and starts to chase Tobin around the locker room. Christie and Abby exchange a look and nod. Yep, their right back had her head back in the game after a couple days of minor distraction when Ashlyn hadn’t called.

“Alright, ladies, save it for the field. Let’s bring it in,” Abby calls out.

Ali wraps an arm around Tobin’s waist and they join their team for a pep talk and cheer before heading out of the locker room to get ready to take the field.


 

“Yeah, it was a good game. Glad you all won,” Ashlyn says with a voice devoid of emotion as she talks to her wife after the England match.

“Gee, thanks. Glad you’re so pumped for us,” Ali snarks back.

For some reason, the last two times they had talked, Ashlyn had seemed to have her mind anywhere but on their conversation. Even her emails had been dull and lifeless. No little quirky comments, no emojis. Basically they were diary entries giving Ali a play-by-play of boring life in Iraq. And the brunette knew that there was more happening there than was making it into the emails. She sighs heavily when Ashlyn doesn’t reply.

“Why won’t you talk to me, Ash? What’s happened to us?” Ali asks, her voice laced with worry.

“I...I’m talking,” Ash protests.

“You’re saying words but you’re not ‘talking’ and you know it,” Ali corrects. “Something happened before the France game. Why won’t you tell me what it was? Obviously you’re okay so it’s not that you’re hurt. So what was it?”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Ash states, rolling onto her side to stare at the wall of her hut.

“Oh fuck that, Ashlyn! I understand you are hurting. And I’m trying to figure out if you’re protecting yourself or me with what is bothering you. If it’s me, get over it. I can handle it. What I can’t handle is you blocking me out!” she insists with anger.

There is a long pause. So long, in fact, that Ali checks her screen to make sure the call hadn’t disconnected. She finally shakes her head in disgust.

“Fine. I thought we were in this life together. Guess not.”

“Damn it, Alex, don’t play that fucking card. Did it ever occur to you that I’m trying to forget something and don’t want to discuss it with you? It just dredges up the memories of my biggest fuck up to date!” Ashlyn says angrily, fighting to keep her tears at bay. “I. Fucked. Up. There, is that enough for you? Or do I have to tell you this fuck up could cost lives? Is that what you need to know? Is it? Well, now you do. Hope it makes you feel better because all it makes ME feel is like a God damn murderer. I just want to fucking die. I could eat my fucking gun for dinner!”

Before Ali can even respond, Ashlyn hangs up. Ali stares at her phone in horror a moment before quickly redialing. She is immediately sent to voicemail.

“Fuck, Ashlyn, I am so sorry. Please call me back. I want to help even if that means talking about something else. Please call me. Please, baby,” she begs as a tear escapes her eye.

She hangs up and stares at her phone for 5 minutes but it doesn’t ring. She leaps up and races out of her hotel room and up the stairs to the next floor. She bangs on a door until it flies open.

“What the fuck, Krieger?” Abby says with a scowl.

Ali pushes past her. “WHIT? Whit, I need help!”

She comes to a halt and looks around the room in a near panic. Abby grabs her by the arms.

“Hey, calm down. She’s over in Kelley’s watching a movie. What’s going- -HEY!”

Ali jerks away from Abby and runs down the hall to the room Kelley and Christen are sharing. She starts to pound on that door. It flies open and a shocked Kelley stares at her.

“What the hell?”

Ali ignores her and the other 8 players in the room and runs right to Whitney. She grabs the other defender’s phone and shoves it in her hand.

“Call Ashlyn. Please, please call her. I fucked up and she’s upset and she thinks she fucked up and won’t talk and I made it worse and now she won’t answer and she is depressed and said she wants to die ...and...and...” Ali’s knees start to give out.

Christie Rampone grabs Ali from behind as the right back starts to hyperventilate. “Easy, Kriegs. Come on now: deep breaths, okay? Deep breaths. Easy now.”

Whitney sees how distraught Ali is and moves into the bathroom for some privacy before hitting her best friend’s phone number.

“Come on...come on...come on...” she mumbles, praying Ash will answer.

“Hi,” Ashlyn says dully.

“Oh, thank God. Honey, Ali is a mess. What’s wrong with you that’s got her so scared?”

“Are you fucking calling to make her feel better?” Ash asks venomously.

“No. I’m calling because if she’s that scared I’m fucking terrified. I just want to make sure you’re okay.”

“I’m fine.”

“And I’m planning to give up soccer for professional surfing,” Whitney says.

Ashlyn sighs. “Not the best career choice for you,” she finally says.

“No. But I’ll always have a great tan,” Whit notes.

Ashlyn actually grins. “Yeah instead of the soccer tan.”

“Exactly. So there would be benefits to going that route. Maybe I’ll look into it,” Whitney says, as if actually considering it.

Ashlyn chuckles...then starts to cry. “I fucked up, Whit. I fucked up bad.”

“What happened, honey? You can tell me and I will not judge you. You know that.”

Ashlyn bites her lip a moment, then tells her about abandoning the build site and leaving behind materials that can be used in bombs. By the time the infantry had arrived to help defend the town, the site had been gutted. Tools and hardware all gone.

“Whit, they use the nails and shit as shrapnel in bombs. Hundreds could be hurt or killed because I didn’t secure that shit before we left. The colonel ripped me a new asshole over it. My major and captain both lit into me. And I can see it in the eyes of the soldiers in my unit: they’ve lost respect for me. I could cause death of soldiers and civilians because I ordered the retreat without giving a damn about securing the building materials. They think...they think I fucking panicked. They think...I’m a coward,” she finishes, her voice hitching.

“Oh, Ashlyn...honey, you are not a coward. Your first thought was to save your people. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think...I think you feel bad about this and you’re reading into people’s faces what you want to see, not what they really think,” Whitney says.

Ashlyn barely hears her. “I can kiss my captain’s bars and my career goodbye. And I have to do the rest of my tour branded a coward and an idiot,” she sobs.

“Honey, you need to listen to me: I doubt you are the first person to make that mistake. You’ve gotten your reprimand. Have you talked to your captain since then?”

“No.”

“Have you talked to your team? Especially Andrews?”

“No.”

“You need to talk to them, Ash. Especially the ones with experience over there. I can’t imagine they are blaming you for saving their lives even if it meant losing that other stuff. Tell me this: were you the first one hightailing it out of there?”

“No. I was last in a Hummer because I had to make sure all my soldiers were taken care of,” Ashlyn says, not recognizing the significance of that statement.

“Then how the hell can you think yourself a coward?” Whitney asks pointedly.

Ashlyn frowns, trying to find an argument for that statement and can’t. “I guess...I don’t know...maybe I can’t.”

“Damn right you can’t. Ashlyn Michelle Harris: you have never been and will never be a coward. I’ll kick anyone’s ass that says differently, including yours,” Whitney states.

Ashlyn slowly smiles, the fog of guilt starting to lift for the first time in nearly 2 weeks. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” Whit assures her.

Ashlyn wipes the tears on her cheeks. “I...I fucked up with Alex, Whit.”

“I know. She’s in the other room.” She pauses. “Ash, you made it sound like you were going to commit suicide. She panicked.”

“Fuck. I don’t even remember what I said. I just know I was angry and I lashed out at her. She deserves so much better than me,” she laments.

“Don’t even go down that road with your apology. We’ll both kick your ass. I’m going to get Ali now, okay?”

“Yeah, okay. And Whit? Thank you. I love you.”

“Love you too, hardhead.”

Ashlyn smiles as she hears a door open. Everyone in the hotel room looks at Whitney expectantly. She holds her phone out towards Ali.

“It’s for you, Kriegs.”

Ali races over and grabs the phone. “Ashlyn?”

“I’m an asshole. I love you and you are the best thing in my life. But I’m an asshole. I don’t really remember everything I said but I am so sorry I scared you, Alex. Bad shit went down and I’ve been stewing on it and I guess I just finally exploded and I am so, so sorry that it was you that had to deal with that. Please tell me I haven’t finally fucked up so bad you’re going to leave me?” she finishes fearfully.

“Never, baby,” Ali responds. “But you have to talk to me. What the fuck happened?”

Ashlyn takes a deep breath. “Got a few minutes?”

“I’ve got forever for you, Ash. Forever.”

Ali goes into the bathroom and shuts the door as Ashlyn starts to tell her what sent her to such a dark place. In the main room, everyone looks at Whitney. She sighs and relates what went down, knowing Ash and Ali both will need the support of their friends to get over this little bump in the road. When she finishes, Kelley just shakes her head.

“Poor Ash. It’s gotta suck so bad to have no one close to vent to.”

“Yeah,” Christen agrees. “And poor Ali to be so far away and feel so helpless.”

The group all looks around. Pinoe finally smiles.

“Okay, here’s what we do: another care package for Ash. Let’s get her shit that helps us all deal with stress: colouring books, toys, shit like that.” Everyone nods. “And let’s do one for Kriegs. Stress balls, make-up, maybe one of those ref dolls you can rip the arms off and stuff; just ways to help her vent when she needs it and we’re not around.”

The team quickly agrees and starts coming up with more items for both packages. The plan is to try to have Ali’s ready before they leave England the next day and to work on Ashlyn’s for a few days and send it all to Pinoe for her to send out at one time. They all quiet and look up as Ali walks out of the bathroom. She hands Whit her phone back and looks at the others sheepishly.

“I am so, so sorry I interrupted your movie night.”

“Don’t even go there,” JJ says. “We’re here for you, Kriegs.”

Ali wipes her cheeks. “I know you all are. And I honestly don’t know what I’d do without you guys.”

“Not even worth contemplating,” Boxxy tells her. “Even when we get back and split up across the country, we’re all just a call away when you need us.”

“Damn right,” Kelley agrees.

“Now, get over here and watch the rest of this movie with us. It’s cute and pointless and doesn’t take much thought,” Whitney says, opening her arms to her friend.

Everyone nods and Ali just sighs and goes to cuddle up between Whit and Pinoe as Kelley turns the sound back up on the movie. Ali can’t stop the tears but this time they are of love and thankfulness for the women in this room.


 

Ashlyn pulls on her ACU’s and heads out of her hut. She had done her best to avoid her people for the last 2 weeks and after the talk with Whit (and scaring the shit out of Ali) she realizes for her own peace of mind she needs to reach out to those around her. She finds Andrews at the outdoor work out area. She waits until he finishes his reps with the barbells before gesturing him to come over.

“Hey, LT, how’ve you been?” he asks with a smile.

She stares at him a second. “Not pissed I’ve been avoiding you?”

“Maybe. Was giving you the benefit of the doubt.”

She grins. “Shouldn’t have. I was avoiding you.”

“You bitch,” he teases.

She chuckles. Her smile falls away. “So, uh, I got my ass handed to me for leaving the tools and shit behind. Especially stuff easily used in bombs.”

Andrews sits down on a nearby bench. “Fuck. I had no idea, Harris. They never asked me about what happened.”

Ashlyn shrugs. “How many times did they say tell us not to leave it behind and why?”

“Still. We were under heavy fire and about to be overrun by 3 to 1. You got all our asses out of there. Doesn’t that count for anything?”

“Apparently not,” she answers.

The two sit there in silence for a few minutes before Andrews suddenly stands. “I’ll go talk to them,” he offers.

She shakes her head. “Nah, I don’t need that.” She thinks a second. “The colonel kept on about...about people dying and shit because of me. Is...do you think...is...”

“Oh, fuck that, LT,” he interrupts. “People die all the fucking time over here. The asshole insurgents didn’t need help from you to make a deadlier bomb. If people die it’s because insurgents wanted to make a fucking statement, not because you saved your fucking squad!”

“So...you don’t think I’m a coward for ordering the retreat before securing the hardware?”

He looks at her like she’s insane. “FUCK NO! My life means a fuck lot more to me than tools and shit. Not to mention, there’s a chance the insurgents won’t get a chance to use that shit. You saved lives, LT. That’s a fact. Everything else is a ‘potential threat’ and there is no damn way you can beat yourself up over something that may not ever happen.”

Ashlyn lets out a breath of relief and turns to her friend. “Thank you for saying that. And, more importantly, thank you for believing that. I have to admit...I’ve been...doubting myself since that dressing down.”

Andrews rolls his eyes. “Well of course you were, LT. How many other times has it happened?”

“Uh, well, uh, that time we saved that girl in the riot.”

“Exactly. It’s about time you proved you’re human,” he says with a grin.

She chuckles. “Uh, I guess I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

“Menninger and Nettles were your fucking fan club. The shit we did for them wasn’t as fucked as this shit over here,” he points out. “Over here they aren’t just thinking about setting up supplies and getting out of here. They are thinking about way more shit than we do on the Fast Response Teams. Bigger picture means bigger chance for an ass chewing. Welcome to the world of shit rolling downhill.”

Ashlyn laughs, actually feeling the cloud of doubt in her heart starting to lift. “Hopefully I’m just passing through.”

“Maybe. Doubt it, but maybe,” he says with a grin.

The two sit in companionable silence for a few minutes while Ashlyn considers what he’s said. She finally stands and pats him on the shoulder.

“Thanks for the talk, Andrews. You’re a damn good man...no matter what others may say.”

He laughs. “I’ll remember that, LT.”

“Enjoy the day, Sergeant,” she says as she heads off to find another member of her team, one that had done a tour in Iraq already.


 

Dear Alex,

I can never say sorry enough for the shit that happened on the phone. You didn’t deserve my anger and you didn’t deserve the fear that I was going to, you know, kill myself or something. I promise you, sweetheart, my head is in a much better place now.

After I talked to you and Whit, I tracked down Andrews. He made sure to let me know he has respect for me as an officer and a leader. He thinks I did the right thing even though technically it was wrong. I saved lives in real time without stopping to think about things that may or may not happen. He thinks I did the right thing.

I then tracked down Staff Sergeant Newton. He told me I made the right decision for the situation and even said had any of the brass been there, they’d have done the same damn thing I did. He said their chewing me out was a way of covering their own asses but that they’d have also ripped me a new one if I had delayed the retreat to get the supplies and lost lives because of it. I guess it was pretty much a no win situation for me and all I can do as I move forward is act in what I believe to be the best interest of my squad and the civilians we are serving at that time.

And I can also remember not to take out shit on you. I can never apologize enough for what I did.

Also...I kinda lied to you. I was so upset about things I hadn’t watched the streams or highlights of the France and England matches. I now have watched them and, baby, you are freaking amazing! The team is looking good and Alyssa was great! No one could have stopped those French goals. They were just world class strikes. I hope to hell I can stream some Spirit games before you head to Canada. The MWR officer has told me they will be showing all the World Cup games in the canteen so cross your fingers I am not on builds when you all win the Cup and bring it back to the USA. Because, baby, I know you guys are going to do it. The drought ends this year!

Well, I need to send this because I have a meeting about the next 3 builds that are planned. There is one right here in Baghdad so cross your fingers I get that one. Then I can be in my nice, comfy cot each night instead of a sleeping bag. Ugh.

Have a good day, baby. I love you so much and I promise I am done being an asshole. Well...I am working on that one. :o) I will talk to you soon as I can. I miss you so much. I love you. I love you. I love you.

Love, hugs and kisses,
Ashlyn


 

Ali smiles as she finishes reading the email. “I love you, too,” she whispers.

She looks down in the seat beside her and sees the hastily but lovingly put together care package her teammates had given her. Pinoe had told her they were working on another one for Ash but Ali decides to keep that to herself.

She turns back to the computer and hits “Reply” on the email from her wife. She would tell her all about the package from the team and also fill the email with lots of funny stories about the team. It would be happy, hopeful, and light.

And, of course, full of love.

Chapter Text

February 2015

Ashlyn walks into her office and suppresses a groan. She had managed to avoid Captain Bowie since he had chewed her out over the left tools incident. Thankfully she had either been in planning meetings or he had been out at sites the last 2 and a half weeks. She sits down at her desk, hoping to keep a low profile.

No such luck.

“HARRIS! I need to see you!” he calls from his office.

Ashlyn groans internally as she stands. “Yes, sir. Coming.”

She grabs a notebook and pen and makes her way into his office. He gestures for her to close the door and take a seat.

“Where do we stand on the Jurf Al Sahkar build?” he asks without preamble.

“We should have all the materials here tomorrow. Once we’ve confirmed with Apache Company that the town is still secure we’ll get everything moving that way,” she reports.

“Good. When you get back you need to arrange time for you to shadow me a bit more and learn what you’ll be doing once you are promoted to captain. If all goes well, you get your promotion in June and take my desk in July in time to start training the officer that will replace you come December.”

When Ashlyn doesn’t respond he looks up and sees the stunned look on her face. He lifts an eyebrow.

“Don’t tell me you forgot you’d be taking my desk in a couple months, Lieutenant,” he says.

“No, sir. I mean, I didn’t forget, sir. I just thought...after the incident with the tools that I basically kissed my bars goodbye.”

Bowie gets a small grin on his face. “Harris, if we passed over for promotion every officer that fucked up one time we’d have no generals.” He pauses a moment. “You saved your finishing team, Harris, and that counts for a hell of a lot. You assessed the situation and got your asses out of there before being overrun by insurgents. These ISIS fucks are scary as hell. Was it bad you forgot the nails and shit? Hell, yes. But despite the colonel, the major, and me reaming your ass about it, you made the best choice possible at the time.”

Ashlyn frowns, anger bubbling up in her. “Then why the fuck did you all act like I had made a huge mistake and...and was...was a coward, sir?” she asks, fighting to remember to maintain military decorum.

He leans forward on his desk. “If I ever made you feel like a coward, I apologize. And if the major or the colonel made you feel that way, they will hear from me. You had two choices that day: delay the escape to get the tools loaded or just get the hell out. Only you know in your heart if you made the right decision. As to the colonel...between you and me he’s not a real big fan of women in the military, especially women in leadership positions. He’s back in the States in a few months so just try to avoid him until he’s gone. The next guy coming in...is a woman,” he says with a grin.

Ashlyn manages to smile. She thinks for a few seconds. “Sir, for the record, had we delayed we’d have been overrun. I know that. As it was, my vehicle took quite a few hits and an RPG barely missed us. I’d like to think the next time this happens, I’d do the same damn thing. But after the dressing down I got, I just don’t know.”

Bowie sits back in his chair and thinks a second. “Lieutenant Harris, you did everything right. I am confident that next time this happens, and sadly we know it will, that you will forget me. Forget the colonel. And forget Major Dalton. Your adrenaline will take over, your mind will be solely on getting your people out of there alive. You will make the decision to abandon materials to save lives or to rescue both lives and materials. I can’t sit here in this office, nor can anyone else, and truly second guess decisions made in the field, under fire.”

“Then why the fuck did you?” Ashlyn demands to know. Then remembers her rank. “Um, sir,” she adds.

“Because we all have to answer to the Pentagon, Harris. And when you sit at this desk in a few months you’ll forget for a moment how fucking different it is here versus the field. And the higher your rank, the shorter your memory. We were wrong to dress you down for that, Lieutenant.” He pauses. “Just remember that when this desk is yours and a lieutenant pulls this same shit on you.”

Ashlyn considers that a moment then slowly nods her head. “I’ll remember, sir.”

He grins. “I’m sure you will. Dismissed.”

Ashlyn gets up and goes back to her desk to finish the prep for the build that starts the next day. And to contemplate whether or not she will forget what it felt like to be ripped a new one when she had done the right thing. She slowly shakes her head.

“No. No I won’t forget,” she vows to herself. “Lives matter more than tools and shit. I will never, ever forget that.”

She takes a deep breath and opens up her email to see the status of the materials she will need for rebuilding two schools and a community center. It would be a long build and one she would be proud of when it is complete.


 

March 2015

Ali kisses her dog tags and slides them into her bag as the team prepares for a light practice the day before their first Algarve Cup Game. Whitney gives her a nudge.

“Heard from our soldier lately?”

Ali grins, her eyes lighting up. “Last night I got an email from her. With pics. I’ll show you at lunch,” she promises.

“So she’s doing better?”

“Yeah, a lot better.”

“Good.” Whitney shakes her head. “I can’t believe her captain acted like it was no big deal that they tore her up about that other incident. It’s just...frustrating.”

“No kidding. From what she said, the colonel is a real male chauvinist pig. His attitude coloured the response of the major and the captain. When her captain stepped back and read all the reports, he realized she made the right choice to save her team versus the shit they left behind.”

“Damn right she did,” Whitney states. “So, she going to be able to watch any of the games?”

Ali sighs. “Probably not. She leaves on a build today. Or, rather, she left on it today. Sounds like she’ll be there about 2 weeks since they are putting up 3 buildings.”

“Cool.” Whitney finishes tightening her laces and stands. “So, any chance she’ll be smuggling a puppy or 20 home?”

Ali laughs as they walk out on the field to begin ball drills. “Not if she wants to get lucky when she gets home.”

The two laugh and get ready to play some keep away...groaning when they realize Tobin is in their group.

“Who’d we piss off to get stuck with the Nutmeg Queen? This is going to suck,” Ali asks as they get ready to go, getting a wink from Tobin as the whistle blows to start the drill.


 

Ashlyn lies down on her sleeping bag. “This is going to suck,” Ashlyn mutters. She shifts a bit before finally sitting up, lifting up her bag and trying to sweep the mini-boulders that are under it away. She settles back down and sighs. “Better. Sort of. Fuck.”

She reaches into her shirt and pulls out the letters that she had placed there for safe keeping on the 6 hour trip out to the new build site. She flips through them, smiling. Kyle. Ali. Alex. Whit. Sarah. Deb. Tammye. Chris. Grandma. She can’t resist: she lifts her grandmother’s to her nose, getting a faint whiff of the perfume the woman wears. Every letter and gift she had received had included that ol’ factory reminder of home.

“Hey, Lieutenant Harris? I hate to disturb you but someone is here to see you,” the private charged with guarding her tent tells her.

Ashlyn sighs and tucks the letters away once more, keeping them close to her heart. She crawls out of her tent and sees a woman she had seen earlier near the build site. She offers her a smile.

“Hi. Can I help you?”

The woman steps closer and nods. “You...in charge?”

Ashlyn nods, carefully studying the woman. She flicks a glance at the private, who nods at the unasked question: the woman had been searched.

“I am. I’m Lieutenant Harris,” she tells the lady.

The woman’s face suddenly breaks into a wide grin. She offers Ashlyn a folded up cloth. “I make for you. You make nice school for my sons. You take.”

Ashlyn slowly shakes her head. “No. Really, I can’t. We’re not allowed. But it is beautiful and I wish I could. Thank you so much.”

The woman shakes her head, still pushing the cloth towards Ashlyn. “Take! Please, take! For my sons!” the woman insists.

Ashlyn shakes her head again. “I really can’t. It’s against our rules. Maybe you can give it to a teacher or something.”

“PLEASE!” the woman begs.

And this time Ashlyn sees the fear in the eyes despite the smile. She hesitantly takes the cloth. The woman smiles and hurries back to her escort who will take her back to the edge of the tent village. Ashlyn looks up at the private as she carefully unfolds the garment. A piece of paper flutters to the ground. She bends down and starts to read it, her eyes widening.

“Son of a bitch!” She looks at her guard. “Wake Skilks and get her on the horn. We’ll need support out here tomorrow.”

“Where are you going?” he asks as she runs off.

“To wake Andrews. Fucking insurgents are planning to attack as we get started working.”

“Shit!”

The private takes off for the radio operator’s tent. Ashlyn gets to Andrews tent and slaps the side of it.

“ANDREWS! Get out here! Shit storm is coming!”

He crawls out, still pulling on his gear. “What’s up?”

She hands him the note. “Let everyone know. I’m heading to Skilks.”

Ashlyn gets to the private just as she makes contact with the night crew back in Bagdad. Skilks hands the radio receiver to Ashlyn.

“Major Dalton, ma’am,” Skilks reports.

“Sir, we’ve just gotten word from a local that ISIS plans to attack as soon as we start to work in the morning,” she says immediately.

“Son of a bitch. I thought they swept the area yesterday?”

“That’s what we were told. By now Andrews has sent a messenger off to Delta Company, who are helping the police here in town. But from what she told us, all of us won’t be enough.”

Dalton can hear the fear and adrenaline coursing through his officer’s voice. He clenches his fist, furious that whoever did the security sweep screwed up.

“Are you sure we can trust this intel?”

“Can we afford not to, sir?”

“Shit. No, we can’t. What are the odds of getting trucks started back tonight?”

“Clear night is in our favor. Of course, it’s in their favour, too. And they may attack before back up can arrive if they think we are escaping,” she points out.

“Fucked if you do, fucked if you don’t,” he mutters.

“Pretty much, sir,” she agrees.

He thinks a moment. “For now, stay put but be ready to get those trucks rolling at a moment’s notice. Get with Delta Company’s c.o. He’ll be in charge of setting up the counter attack but, Harris, if you think he’s endangering your people you do what you think is right.”

Harris nods, even though he can’t see it. “Yes, sir. My leaders are here. I’ll get with them and give you a sit-rep in an hour.”

“Sounds good. Will give me time to get with the Infantry and arrange ground and air support.”

“Yes, sir.” Ashlyn hands the receiver back to Skilks. “Let me know if he calls back. Otherwise expect me back here in an hour.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she says.

Ashlyn turns to Andrews. “Report, Sergeant.”

“Ma’am, have a messenger team on the way to the police station to get with Delta Company. Right now everyone is packing up gear and getting ready for anything. I’ve ordered double-ups on the outer patrols.”

“Excellent. Sergeant Newton?”

The 18-year NCO nods. “Have people putting supplies back in the trucks. My guess is we’re not leaving out tonight?”

“Correct. Could make them act before we get support back here,” she confirms.

He nods, happy with the decision. “Good. We’ll have everything ready to move when the boys with the big toys get here, ma’am.”

Ashlyn can’t resist. “Some girls come with those big toys, too, old man,” she says with a wink.

He grins and the others chuckle, glad for the brief bit of levity. She looks at her build team leaders.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve had our asses surprised. This time...this time we’re standing here prepping on the eve of battle. That’s not what we came to this town for but it’s the hand that’s been dealt to us. Dalton is already mobilizing support so hopefully our participation will be brief or non-existent. Regardless, we will be ready. Make sure everyone has their ammo ready and their tool belts off. We all go home, soldiers. We all go home.”

Her team nods and goes to get with their individual squads to make sure everyone is ready for the impending battle. Andrews steps up to Ashlyn and grins.

“I thought this was supposed to be a vacation tour, LT.”

Ashlyn grunts. “Just another day in the sandbox, Sgt. Feel free to kick back and build a sandcastle while the rest of us save your ass.” He chuckles and remains by her side as status reports start to roll in. “This is going to be a stressful fucking day. I’m nervous as shit,” she mutters. Andrews just nods.


 

“I can’t believe how stressed I am. I’m nervous as shit,” Ali mumbles as she pulls on her socks.

Lauren looks at her and grins. “What’s to be nervous about? We’ve got our keeper back. We’ve got a good coach. And we’re looking good at practice as we prep for Canada.”

“And Whit is hurt. And Cap is hurt. But other than that, the defense is just fine,” Ali answers with a shrug.

“Nothing we can do but control what we can control,” Lauren says. “And from what I’ve seen you can control the right side just fine.”

Ali chuckles. “Nicely played, Mrs. Holiday. Nicely played.”

Lauren giggles. “So, still nervous?”

“A little. But it will also dissipate in the heat of battle,” Ali says with assurance.

“Exactly! Let’s go, Princess Warrior!”

The two high 5 then get up to go start their warm-ups. As they are doing touches, Ali happens to catch a look on Julie Johnson’s face. The youngster has been tapped to take the place of her idol in this game and Ali can see the fear in the girl’s face. She remembers her first cap and feeling the same way. She makes her way to JJ’s side.

“You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t earned the right to be here,” she whispers.

JJ gulps. “Right. Okay. Sure. I think I’m gonna be sick.”

Ali chuckles and pulls her off to the side. “I get it. I swear I do. Every player out there has had to take the place of a hero. Abby and Mia. Carli and Foudy. Alex and, well, someday Abby,” she jokes, getting a giggle from JJ. “The thing is, don’t go out there and play like Cap. Go out there and play like JJ. Look to Chups, Becky and Me if you need help but I doubt you’ll need it. It’s just another game, JJ. Go out there and play like you know you can. And, more importantly, like we all know you can.”

JJ thinks about that a second, then nods. “I will. Thanks, Kriegs. I really needed to hear that.”

“No problem. I know today is the start of a very impressive career.”

JJ nods again. “Damn right. Let’s do this!”

The two share a fist bump then get back into drills. Jill gives Ali a wave and the right back jogs over to her.

“All good, Kriegs?” she asks, nodding towards Julie.

“Just a few butterflies. She’ll be fine once things get going,” she assures the coach.

“Good. You’re a hell of a leader, Kriegs,” she praises.

“Thanks. So are you, Coach.”

Jill smiles as Ali jogs back into the drills. It was going to be a hell of a year.


 

Ashlyn watches as Andrews seems to be giving a pep talk to one of the recent arrivals. The kid looks about 12 to Ashlyn. She shakes her head, wondering when she started feeling old at 29. Andrews pats the boy on the shoulder and walks over.

“All good, Andrews?” she asks, nodding towards the private.

“Just a few butterflies. He’ll be fine once things get going,” he assures his lieutenant.

“Good. You’re a hell of a leader, Andrews,” she praises.

“Thanks. So are you, LT.”

Ashlyn just grunts as they turn towards the rising sun, looking for signs of the approaching enemy. It was going to be a hell of a day.

“Ma’am, Delta Company on the line,” Skilks says from behind the safety of a sandbagged foxhole. Though the private hated the extra precaution, Ashlyn insisted knowing losing the radio means losing lives.

Ashlyn walks over and takes the receiver. “Harris.”

“We’ve got movement about 20 kilometers from your build site.”

Ashlyn turns that direction and slowly shakes her head. “Still not seeing anything. Where’s back up?”

“About 20 minutes out. Will you guys be ready to roll?”

“Yes, sir. Drivers are already in the vehicles and we’ll be in them and tearing back down the road to Bagdad as soon as the order is given. Until then, we’re here with small arms support.”

“Very good. Hang in there, Lieutenant, and we’ll get your asses out of here in one piece.”

“Yes, sir,” Ashlyn agrees. She hands the phone back to Skilks. She grabs the binoculars from Andrews and scans the horizon. “He said we...fuck...there they are.”

“What are you seeing?”

“They are in tan to match the ground. Keeping low. Fucking butt load of ‘em,” she answers. “Back up is about 20 minutes out. Be ready to get people the hell out of here when they arrive.”

“And am I going to have to drag your ass into a truck this time?”

Ashlyn turns to Andrews. “I’m not leaving until I know we’re all out of here,” she tells him.

“Then know I’ll be plastered to your ass until the last second,” he tells her and offers her his hand.

She clasps it and nods. “Let’s do this,” she says. “In it to win it, right?”

He grins. “Damn right.”


 

Lori Chalupny clasps hands with Heather O’Reilly. “IN IT TO WIN IT!” they chant and break up so Lori can take the field at left back.

HAO grins as she watches her friend run out there, her mind on the third member of their trio who had done it during call-ups to the U-19 team. “Miss you, Ash,” she whispers as she makes her way back to the bench.

The first half of the game the US can feel they are fighting to get their legs back under them. Time is a bit off in the back. Passes are not as crisp as they could be. Shots are not as well struck.

And then Norway scores on a goal that should never have even been a shot. Ali feels curses under her breath, trying to figure out how they had let that ball even get on frame, let alone in the back of the net. The defense quickly groups together.

“That one is on me. I should have punched it harder. You guys are doing great,” Hope tells her backline. “Just keep playing your game and I’ll tighten it up on the line.”

Ali sees the pride in the other defender’s eyes. Hope had changed a lot since she came back, including focusing on good rather than bad. This is the kind of pep talk they need after a goal, not dwelling on the negatives. As they break to get ready for the kick-off, Ali grins at the keeper.

“Well said, Keep.”

Hope shrugs. “I promised you guys I’d changed. I see things differently now both on and off the field.”

Ali nods. “Good. I’m happy for you, Hope. And damn ecstatic for us!”

Hope chuckles as Ali jogs into position. Hope marshal’s her line.

“Okay, ladies, tighten up the flanks. They want to play it wide, use the sideline to double team them. No more goals!”

Her line nods as the ref blows her whistle. Ali pushes forward, fighting to get into a position to help the offense as best she can. By the time the whistle blows to end the half she is tired but despite the 1-0 deficit, she is proud of her backline teammates. She catches up with JJ.

“You’re doing amazing out there!”

“Yeah? Really?” she asks nervously.

“Yes, JJ, you are. You’re holding your line. You’re stopping their advances. You are doing great. Sure, there are couple things to work on but that’s the same for all of us when a new line-up starts working together. You keep fighting and we’re going to be just fine,” Ali assures her.

“Thanks, Kriegs.”

Ali nods and turns her attention to Becky who has a few questions for the right back.


 

Ashlyn grabs Corporal Macklin by the collar and drags him from the gun mount of the Hummer. His eyes are wide and he gasps for breath. She stares him in the eyes.

“YOU KEEP FIGHTING! WE’RE GOING TO BE JUST FINE, YOU HEAR ME?” she screams at him to be heard over the sounds of the battle now waging on the edge of town.

She releases him as the medic drops down beside him and starts to work on the neck wound that looks damn scary even though it obviously missed the carotid artery. Before anyone can stop her, Ashlyn scrambles up into the turret to train the .50 cal back towards the advancing ISIS fighters. The first time she fires it she is nearly knocked from her perch. It had been a while since she fired that forceful of a weapon. She straightens up, braces herself better, and again starts to fire at the enemy.

“LIEUTENANT! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!” Andrews screams at her.

“HOLDING THE LINE, ANDREWS! WHERE THE HELL IS THE CAVALRY?”

“WAIT FOR IT!” he says.

As she is about to ask what the hell he is talking about, the sound of an M1A1 tank firing shuts her mouth. She watches in the distance as the shell explodes, sending ISIS fighters flying.

“FUCK YEAH!” she screams.

Within minutes she is getting word that the infantry and cavalry support is now moving into position and the Engineers should now retreat to give them room. Ashlyn leaps down from the gun she had been manning and grabs a nearby corporal.

“You know how to work the .50?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then get up there and do it!” she orders.

He scrambles up into the turret take over the gun. Ashlyn looks at Andrews.

“Wounded?”

“So far 20 minors, 2 majors, all already loaded up and ready to go.”

“Let’s do it!”

They split up, each one racing down opposite ends of the line, ordering the rest of their teams to the vehicles to make their escape. The trucks pull out first, carrying equipment and wounded. Hummers go next with the last one being the one Ashlyn and Andrews jump in. As it starts to pull away, a rocket lands right in front of the left tire, blowing a hole in the ground that the heavily armored vehicle rolls right into, tipping over.

“FUCK!” Ashlyn screams as she braces herself against the ceiling and door.

The Hummer ends up half on the driver’s side, half on the roof. The four soldiers inside scramble out and race towards what is now the last Hummer in their caravan. They hear guns. They hear explosions. They choke on smoke as they gasp for breath, their eyes trained on their last hope of escape for the moment. Luckily the gunner had seen them and called for the driver to stop. The four squeeze into the already full vehicle and it takes off after the others.

“Ma’am, should I have them stop so we can redistribute?” the driver asks.

“Fuck no. Not yet at least. Let’s get to checkpoint Nova. If the battle has been left behind, then we can stop. Until then, let’s just pretend we’re sneaking into a drive in,” she tells them.

Her soldiers all chuckle, glad to see she is confident enough to joke around. It makes them feel everything is going to be okay. Ashlyn stares into the eyes of her friend and sergeant, Andrews. They are laid out across the laps of the three men squeezed into the back seat. Ashlyn manages to smile.

“So, Michael, you going to tell your fiancé about our little snuggle session?”

He grins. “You gonna tell your wife?”

Ashlyn chuckles. “Nah. I’d hate to see her kick your ass.”

He laughs. “Me, too, LT. Me, too.”

About 20 minutes later the driver tells Ashlyn they are approaching checkpoint Nova. Since she can no longer hear the battle, she orders him to send word to stop the caravan. She and the men that had been squeezed into the Hummer, redistribute into the trucks. Ashlyn finds herself sitting and staring at 2 wounded men...and a body covered by a tarp. She swallows hard as the trucks start to roll again. She looks up at Sergeant Newton.

“Who?” she asks, nodding towards the tarp.

“Private Westley.”

“Fuck.”

Ashlyn stares at the body of the 20-year old who would have finished up his first tour in Iraq in three weeks. Now, instead of running through an airport into the waiting arms of his family, he would arrive in Dover and be removed by the back of a cargo plane by a military honour guard while his family watched, devastated at the loss of their oldest son. She leans her head back against the wall of the truck.

“What a fucking day...” she mumbles. “I’m fucking exhausted.”

Newton just nods his head, knowing it is a physical and mental exhaustion that no one but other military personnel would ever understand.


 

“What a fucking game. I’m exhausted!” Ali says as she pulls off her jersey.

“You played a hell of a game, Kriegs,” Hope says as she passes by.

“Thanks. I had planned to write a letter to Ashlyn tonight to tell her about everything but I just don’t think I’ll be awake for long once we reach the hotel.”

Hope chuckles. “I know what you mean.” She pauses a second. “Thanks for what you said on the field. It meant a lot to me.”

Ali nods. “I meant every word. Glad to have you back, Hope.”

Hope nods and move on to shower and change.

Ali is right, she is too tired to write to Ashlyn when she gets back to the hotel that night. She sighs as she kisses her dog tags before lying down.

“I love you, baby. Hope your build is going well,” she whispers into the darkness.

In no time at all she is fast asleep.


 

Eight hours after the fire-fight began, Ashlyn is finally walking into her hut. She is dirty. She is sweaty. She is smelly. And she is exhausted. She lifts up a picture of her and Ali. She gives it a kiss and sighs as she drops down onto her bunk.

She stares at the ceiling for hours.

Chapter Text

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.”

“Bye, Ash.”

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.

“You’re insubordinate!”

“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.”

“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.


 

Dear Ashlyn,

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.

Love always,
your Alex


 

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.

Chapter Text

April 18, 2015

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the home opener for your WASHINGTON SPIRIT!” the announcer states, getting the crowd cheering and clapping as the Spirit and the FCKC starters walk onto the field. Once the players and their escorts are in place on either side of the midstripe, the announcer continues. “Now, please direct your attention to the Jumbo Tron on the scoreboard for a special message for our players.”

The Spirit players all look a bit confused. Even Ali frowns, wondering why as captain she was not informed of something other than the usual pre-game hoopla. No players like to have their pregame shaken up without warning. She glares at Parsons who just shrugs, also out of the know. Then a voice causes Ali to turn to the screen, her jaw on the ground.

“Hey, Washington Spirit, this is the Spirit Company with the Corps of Engineers coming to you from Baghdad, Iraq,” Ashlyn states.

Ali’s eyes fill with tears as she sees her wife and the entire squad she leads on the screen. Ashlyn wears her desert ACU’s but they are accessorized by her Spirit scarf. The company dog sits beside her wearing a Spirit jersey. Ali’s hand goes to her mouth to muffle her sob.

“We want to wish you all good luck in your home opener and for your whole season. We’re looking forward to watching your games online and hope to be cheering you on to the championship in September. You take care of business there and we’ll take care of it here. And to you, number 11, I love you.”

Ali blushes through her tears. “I love you, too,” she mumbles to the pre-recorded message.

Sgt Andrews stiffens. “COMPANY! ATTENTION!”

The entire group comes to attention and salutes the players. They then start to cheer as the camera fades out, Ashlyn’s smile wide as she stares seemingly right at her wife until the screen goes dark.

The crowd goes wild! The Spirit players are clapping. Tori and Crystal are hugging Ali, who is trying to compose herself. She is almost there when she is wrapped up by Lauren, Becky, ARod and HAO.

“That was freakin’ awesome, Kriegs!” HAO says.

“Totally cool!” ARod agrees.

“You might want to think about dating her,” Lauren teases.

Ali laughs and nods. “It’s crossed my mind.”

Her NT teammates chuckle as they go back to their team for the National anthem and the eventual start of the game.


 

Ali smiles as the camera comes on.

“I’m standing beside Ali Krieger, captain of the Washington Spirit and member of the US Women’s National Team,” the local sports reporter begins. “You all played a great game tonight and came up with a decisive win. Think that opening message helped?” he asks with grin.

Ali laughs, her nose crinkling and her eyes bright with happiness. “Well, it sure as heck didn’t hurt.” They both chuckle. “But seriously, we were ready for the defending champions and really stuck to our game plan. Christine and Crystal were great up top and did everything right to help us put points on the board.”

They talk a little more about the game and the upcoming World Cup. Finally, as he goes to end the interview, Ali interrupts.

“Uh, if I can, I just have one more thing to say not soccer related.”

He nods. “Be my guest.”

“We want a send a huge thank you to Spirit Company for the good luck message at the beginning. Our whole season is dedicated to you all. Please stay safe and come home soon, especially you, Lieutenant Harris. And to everyone watching, remember to thank and pray for our military service members who work 24/7 around the world to protect our freedom and way of life. Thanks, guys!” she finishes, waving to the camera.

The reporter smiles and turns to the camera, letting Ali break away to go sign autographs and take pictures. As she does, many express hopes that Ashlyn gets home soon and stays safe. Ali is so happy for the appreciation being shown for her wife and other service personnel.

And more than one child asks about the dog tags once more in their place above the defender’s heart.


 

“That was SERIOUSLY the coolest thing ever! And I can’t believe Ash pulled it off!” HAO adds.

“Well, I did some research when I realized Mark was just as stumped by the message. Turns out Ash and my father were the ones that contacted the home office and arranged the surprise,” Ali explains.

“That is so awesome,” Lauren says.

Ali nods in agreement. She is out for a late dinner with those three and Crystal. As the defender turned forward sits down. HAO pats her on the shoulder.

“I can’t believe you’re not going to Canada with us, Crys.”

Crystal shrugs. “Hey, they team is heavy up front and in the back. Won’t lie and say it doesn’t hurt but I believe Jill when she says I was number 24 and the hardest cut she had to make.”

“So what are you going to do?” ARod asks.

“Well, she said I will be an alternate so I plan to trip you as you leave tonight,” she says with a wink, making the others laugh. “No, seriously, I know I have what it takes to make the team. I plan to work my ass off this season and show her that next time there is an opening, I better be in the top 23.”

Lauren pats her on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit. Uh, no pun intended.”

The group laughs as their appetizers arrive. Crystal grabs a tater skin and layers it up with whipped cream and extra bacon. The others look at her enviously as they avoid the extras. Crystal chuckles.

“Oh, and I plan to eat everything Dawn says you all shouldn’t eat in front of every damn one of you guys,” she teases as she takes a big bite.

The others laugh. They have a good time as talk turns from soccer to families, antics of little Ryan, and anything else that helps them forget about work for a little while.


 

Ali walks into her house just before midnight. She is not surprised to see her father has just gotten home after a date with his fiancé. Ali walks over and pulls him into a big hug.

“Thank you so, so much, Daddy, for helping Ash with that message. It meant...oh, it meant so much to me,” she says, unable to stop the tears she had fought back earlier.

He hugs her tightly. “I was happy to do it. When she emailed me I couldn’t wait to help her get it set up.”

“So, wait, how long has this been planned?” she asks leaning back to look into his eyes.

He grins smugly. “Since you were in Portugal.”

Ali rolls her eyes. “You both suck SO much!”

Ken chuckles and kisses her cheek. “Love you, sweetheart.”

Ali grins and gives him another hug. “Oh, fine. I guess I love you, too.”

Ali heads up to her room and turns on her computer. She pulls open her email and types up a quick email to her wife.


 

Dear Ashlyn,

In case you didn’t get to see it, we won our home opener! The whole team played great and really stepped up their game. I won’t swear to it, but I think they were inspired by a special message played right before the Star Spangled Banner. I think you know what I mean. ;o)

Honestly, that was the sweetest, most amazing thing I have ever seen. Thank you isn’t enough. I am exhausted or I would type more. I will get you a proper email in the morning.

I love you so much. Thank you again, sweetheart. Talk to you soon.

Love always,
Alex


 

April 27, 2015

Ali finishes packing her suitcase and sighs. She sits down on her bed and slowly looks around her room. Last night the Spirit had beaten Sky Blue 3-1 in New Jersey. This afternoon she’d be taking a flight to California for the final month long camp in the run up to the World Cup. She’d have a brief return to DC for the Lauren Holiday inspired “She Believes” campaign appearance but other than that she wouldn’t be in the room she had shared with her wife until sometime in early July. Hopefully she’d be returning a World Cup champion.

She smiles as she lifts the picture frame that sits on her nightstand. She strokes a finger down Ashlyn’s cheek. In this photo Ashlyn’s head is thrown back, caught mid-laugh at the antics of Kyle on the beach in the blonde’s hometown. Her two favorite people having fun in one picture. The pure joy it catches is the reason it is her favorite of the duo.

She sets it down and picks up another photo. In this one, Ashlyn sits on a bench at the Maryland SoccerPlex, her long legs stretched out in front of her, crossed at the ankles, as Ali sits beside her in her Spirit kit. The two are staring at each other, smiling at something one of them said. It was a moment of candid love that one of the Spirit photographers caught for them.

She sets that one down and picks up one more. This one is posed. Ashlyn looks dashing in her uniform and Ali is lovely in her wedding gown. They stand hand in hand, Ali’s back to Ashlyn’s front, in front of their wedding cake, ready to cut it with Ash’s ceremonial sabre. Their smiles are happy, filled with love and wonder at the amazing life spreading out in front of them. Ali sighs.

“We look so damn young,” she murmurs.

Back then her dream had been to win gold in the 2012 Olympics and then win the 2015 World Cup. After that perhaps take a year off to have their first child. Then the 2012 Games had been stolen from her by a reckless tackle. Ashlyn had simply shrugged and said then Ali would have to win gold in 2016 and THEN start their family.

“You’ve always been my biggest supporter, Ashlyn. I love you,” she whispers to the picture.

She gives it a kiss then sets it back down and sighs.

“All done?” her father asks from the doorway.

Ali blushes, not having realized he was standing there. She nods. “I think so. I just...I always pictured her there cheering me on. A deployment never entered my fantasies.”

Ken smiles. “I don’t think it entered hers, either.” He walks over and sits down beside her. “You know she’d be there if she could be. She didn’t do this to hurt you.”

Ali smiles. “I know. I’m not mad. Just sad.”

“Good.” He kisses her temple. “I am so proud of you sweetheart. I’ll be screaming at the TV through all three friendlies.”

Ali chuckles. “I know you will. I’ll see you in about a month for my She Believes event.”

“And then we’ll see each other again in Canada as my baby girl shows the world who the best right back in history is as she wins the Cup.”

Ali smiles. “Damn right,” she agrees.

The two share a warm hug, then gather up Ali’s bags so they can make the drive to the airport to start the two months of soccer insanity.


 

“UP! UP! UP!” Hope yells, watching as her backline moves up almost as one solid, brick wall.

This is their last practice before the first of 3 send-off games that will see the team through to Canada. From where she watches in the back, Hope couldn’t be happier with the four women who had become her starting back line: Krieger, Sauerbrunn, Klingenberg and, in a surprise to all, Johnson. The youngster had stepped up like a seasoned pro when her childhood hero, Christie Rampone, had come up with an injury.

“WATCH THE LEFT FLANK!” Hope directs.

Though before the words are out of her mouth, Kling is there to cut off the pass to Sydney and Becky has filled in the gap so ARod can’t make a run on goal.

Yep, it was going to be a damn good couple of months, the keeper tells herself.

Ten minutes later, the team is trading cleats for sneakers or slides as they chatter in excitement. The next day is their first send-off game and everyone is feeling good. The coaches had already instituted a media lockdown to control what the players saw. Their impressions of themselves should be made on the pitch, not in the news. Everyone in USA warm-ups know what is at stake: The Cup or failure. A second place finish again would not cut it. It was time to bring the Cup home after a 16 year vacation.

“You looked great out there, Kriegs,” Hope says to the right back.

Ali smiles. “We all did. We’re going to do this, Hope. And we’re not going to need penalty kicks to do it this time,” she states firmly.

“Damn right!” Hope agrees.

The two continue to chat as they gather up their gear. Jill claps her hands to get everyone’s attention.

“Okay, ladies, get home, do your recovery and anything else you need to do. Dinner is promptly at 5:30, no excuses...Sydney,” she adds and everyone laughs.

“I swear! No nap today! Promise!” she says, having never lived down missetting her alarm clock and nearly missing a team meeting one time.

As the teams board the vans for the hotel, Ali smiles, thinking she’ll have just enough time to shower and make herself look pretty before a planned Skype with her wife.


 

“Hey, Kriegs, have a good chat with Ash?” Abby asks as Ali waits for the elevator.

Ali just turns her head. Her sad eyes say it all. Abby winces.

“Oh. She had to cancel?”

“Yeah. She sent an email. She’s having to go on a build with another team. Their lieutenant had a prefab wall fall on his head.”

“Ouch!”

“To say the least. So, she will be gone a couple days and will have to let me know when she’ll be available again,” Ali says.

Abby wraps an arm around her shoulder as they step onto the elevator car. “Sorry, Kriegs. Should have known it was bad news when you were waiting for the elevator alone.”

Ali manages a grin. “Yeah. Just don’t have the...the umph to walk the stairs. I feel a bit defeated. I’m hoping a nice, calm dinner with the team will make me feel better.”

Abby lifts an eyebrow. “Calm dinner? With this team? Have you met half of them?” she teases, making the defender chuckle.

In the dining room, the two split up to join others for dinner. Ali is doing her best to get in a better mood but it’s just not happening. Well, at least not until Jill calls for their “special guest” to enter the room.

Ali is the first to squeal, her hands covering her face as her mother walks in and yells, “Surprise!” followed by the moms of all the other players. Ali gets up and pulls her mother into a hug.

“Mom! Oh, Mom, you don’t know how much I needed to see you today!” Ali says, crying into her mother’s shoulder.

Deb kisses her daughter’s cheek. “Well, here I am, Alex.”

Ali just nods, too overcome to say much more. Her bad afternoon luckily gave way to a wonderful evening spent with her mom and the moms of her closest friends.


 

They beat Ireland 3-0.

They beat Mexico 5-1.

All the media agrees that the frontline had looked shaky but the backline had been superb. Questions about whether or not Krieger could concentrate on the game with her wife overseas had been answered with a resounding YES!

On May 18 the team gathers for a last practice before breaking for a few days for their She Believes initiative events. They are pulling on their cleats and talking about the last things they will be doing in their hometowns before heading off to the last send-off game and then, ultimately to Canada.

“I may take a day to go to the zoo,” Ali says thoughtfully.

“The zoo? We’re not wild enough animals for you?” Becky jokes.

Ali grins. “Well, almost. But really Ashlyn loves the zoo and we’d have been by now this year if she was here. I’m going to...to just feel close to her.”

“Oh, fuck, Kriegs is gonna steal an otter,” Pinoe says, shaking as if scared. “Will she be allowed to play the Cup while out on bail?” she asks Carli, grasping her as if in desperation.

Carli laughs. “How the hell would I know?”

“Ali,” Kelley says, with an unusually serious lilt to her voice.

Ali rolls her eyes. “Kell, I’m not going to steal an animal,” she says with a laugh.

“Ali,” the defender says again, her voice stiff.

Ali looks at her in confusion. Kelley is not looking at Ali. She is looking beyond the defender, towards the gate leading into the practice stadium. Ali frowns.

“What’s wrong with you? You look like- -” her voice trails off as she turns and sees what Kelley is looking at. “Oh my God,” she chokes out.

By now everyone is looking. Ali’s hands go to her heart, clasping the dog tags that had not been removed yet. Her legs feel like lead as she starts to walk towards the two men in uniform that are walking her way. Their faces are serious but as she gets closer she can see the compassion in their eyes. She recognizes one man and her heart leaps into her throat.

“Colonel Menninger...” she croaks.

Chapter Text

The Colonel takes her hand. “Hello, Ali. She’s okay. Hurt, but okay.”

“Oh, thank God,” Ali says, her legs giving out.

Menninger helps guide her to the ground. He gives her a moment until she controls her breathing and looks up.

“What...what happened?”


 

Ashlyn watches as her electrician hits the light switch and the room lights up. She claps him on the back.

“Well done, Brooks.”

“Thanks, ma’am,” he says happily as he turns them off gain. “Don’t want to run up their electric bill,” he says with a wink.

Ashlyn chuckles and goes to check on the last crew still working. Before she can check on the two plumbers, Andrews walks up to her.

“Bad news, LT. You’re just not good enough for the village elder.”

Ashlyn rolls her eyes at his grin. “Gender or rank?”

“Both,” he tells her with a smile.

“Oh, good grief. The Cap coming out?”

“Nope. He is with another team with the same problem. Dalton’s catching a chopper and should be here in about an hour.”

Ashlyn nods. “Perfect. I think we’ll be done by then if the plumbers don’t have any problems.”

“Alright. Newton nearly has all the tools put up. We should be able to pull out right after the handshake and handover.”

“Good job, Sarge. Tell the guards to listen for the helicopter. We haven’t had any issues with insurgents but a bird in the sky is a tempting target,” she tells him as she goes back to confirm the plumbers are on schedule.

Andrews nods and goes out to pass on the warning.

An hour and a half later, Ashlyn is climbing in behind the driver of a Hummer. She grins at the major. “Well done...Admiral,” she jokes.

Dalton chuckles and rolls his eyes. “General I could understand. Colonel even. But where the heck did that guy come up with Admiral?”

The two privates in front also laugh at the mistaken rank the elder had given their major. Ashlyn holds her gun loosely as the vehicles all start to roll out for the 2 hour drive back to Bagdad. They are about halfway home when their worst nightmare happens.

It takes Ashlyn a second to realize the smoke in the vehicle is coming from their front end; that the ringing in her ears is from an explosion. And that there is blood spattered on her and across the back of the front seats.

The caravans drive carefully. They make sure to follow the tracks of the car in front of them diligently. But an inch or two in any direction is all it takes to set off an IED. And that is what has happened to Ashlyn’s Hummer.

She looks to her right and sees Dalton’s face is a mask of pain. She grabs his arm and throws her door open, planning to drag him out behind her. He screams in pain and doesn’t move. Ashlyn looks back and sees his leg is impaled by a large chunk of metal that had once been the armored floor of the Hummer.

“FUCK!” she screams.

She turns to call for help and reflexively lifts her gun to fire at the insurgents racing out of the hills towards her squad. She dives behind her smoking car, using the back to give her as much cover as possible as she fires at the men. A body lands beside her.

“Newton, Dalton’s hurt bad,” she tells the man beside her.

“I know. Jenkins and Hood are trying to get him out but that whole side is fucked.”

Ashlyn glances at the man. “Simmons?”

Newton just shakes his head, letting her know the private in the passenger seat didn’t make it. Ashlyn cusses as she reloads and starts to fire again.

“Skilks?”

“Already on the line and in a ditch. Three have her covered.”

“Good.” She hears the sound of a rocket firing and cusses when she sees one of the trucks blow up. “Son of a BITCH! We’re sitting fucking ducks here!” Newton agrees. Ashlyn looks around. “Get people away from Truck 2. Everything in it is flammable. If the insurgents take it, lob a grenade at it and fuck ‘em all!”

Newton nods and goes off to give those orders. Ashlyn makes her way up and down their shaky line, offering support and giving orders. But soon it is obvious the insurgents are just biding their time until the American’s ammo runs out. Ashlyn finds herself behind a truck with Newton once more. Before he can advise her that a retreat might be in order, fire rains down from the sky...strafing the hills occupied by the insurgents. Ashlyn rolls over and looks back.

“YES! RULE BRITANNIA!” she shouts as a trio of British Lynx, who had been on routine patrol, start to give the Americans a distinct advantage. She grabs Newton. “Get everyone into whatever is still running. Let’s hightail it while we have air support. Rescue any gear and equipment we can. Blow anything up we can’t get out of here. Let’s not leave these bastards a damn thing they can use.”

Newton nods and hurries to follow the orders. With the insurgents now trying to run or fire pointlessly up at the choppers. Ashly stands...and falls right back to the ground.

“What the fuck?” she mutters as she looks down at her right leg, which had given out.

Her ACU’s are shredded and painted red with her blood. She swallows hard. In her heart, she knows it should hurt but she feels nothing. Her hand shakes as she carefully reaches for the tears to look inside. She sighs in relief. There is a gash from just below the back of her knee down through the first 2 inches of her boot. Obviously the floor had gotten her, too. But it doesn’t look like she will lose the leg.

“LT!” Andrews says, dropping down beside her, looking in horror at her leg.

“I’m good. Just a flesh wound,” she assures him. “We need to get Dalton out. He’s hurt pretty badly and needs a medic.”

Andrews shakes his head. “He...didn’t make it. Looks like the metal got his femoral artery. He and Simmons are the only losses so far. They’re in a truck already. Let’s get you in one.” He looks up. “RAMIREZ! L.T. NEEDS HELP!”

The corporal races over. Together he and Andrews get Ashlyn up and drag her over to one of the trucks that is now ready to roll to safety. Ashlyn grunts as she is dragged up into the vehicle by two soldiers in back.

“Okay...now it hurts,” she grumbles as her leg begins to throb.

She feels the truck begin to move as the team races back towards their base, their British air support providing a welcome escort in case others go after the caravan. She hears a couple of explosions as one damaged truck was destroyed by grenades to make it useless to their enemy. As the medic works on binding Ashlyn’s wound, she looks at Andrews.

“How many injured?”

“Four that I know of, including you.”

“Serious?”

“Yours looks the worst,” he tells her.

“Good. Skilks?”

“In the next truck. Told her to have medical on standby.”

“Good job, Sergeant. I’m going to pass out now,” she says as her vision starts to tunnel.

Andrews can’t help but grin at the announcement. “Go ahead, L.T. We got it from here,” he assures her.

Ashlyn’s eyes close and her head lolls to the side. Andrews looks up at the medic and lifts an eyebrow.

“Blood loss and stress,” he explains the unconsciousness. “If we keep this leg up and bound she probably won’t lose it. Gonna be a few weeks before she’s walking without aid, though.”

“She can lead from a desk and I’d still follow her,” Andrews says. “Did you see her out there? Barking orders, firing at those bastards, trying to get things organized.”

The medic nods, smiling. “She’s fucking proof women are capable military leaders.”

“Fuckin’ A,” Andrews agrees as his head drops back against a crate behind him as the caravan rolls on.


 

The next time that Ashlyn wakes up she can hear the steady beep of machinery. She knows from prior surgeries it is a heart and blood pressure monitor. At first she thinks she is still in college and wondering what this knee surgery will mean for her career at UNC. Then her eyes focus a little more and she sees a man step into view wearing fatigues. She closes her eyes and sighs.

“Oh. Right. Iraq,” she mumbles as it all comes back to her.

Andrews smiles and pats her on the shoulder. “Yeah it’s still Iraq, L.T.”

Ashlyn takes a couple of deep breaths then opens her eyes, fear in them but her voice is steady. “Michael...why can’t I feel my leg?” she asks quietly.

He squeezes her arm. This is friend to friend, not officer to NCO. “It’s there, Ash. I swear.” She lets out the breath she’s been holding. “Metal ripped up your right leg, tore part of your calf muscle. They’ve got your leg pretty much deadened to keep you from moving it.”

“Oh,” she says in relief. “How long am I laid up?”

“They figure 6-8 weeks.” He smiles. “You’ll get to watch the whole World Cup at the Officers’ Club,” he informs her with a smile.

She grins. “Gee. Alex will be so happy to hear that.” Her smile dims. “Has...she been told?”

Andrews nods. “Bowie called Menninger. Turns out he’s in LA for some conference and he was going to go see her in person to let her know. Captain Cousins is bringing your cell phone so you can call her as soon as the docs say it’s okay.”

“Good.” She takes a deep breath. “Still only Dalton and Simmons?”

Andrews nods. “Yeah. Only Ramirez is still here. He took a bullet to the arm as he got into a Hummer when we were leaving. Everyone else treated and released. He’ll probably go back to the barracks tomorrow.”

Ashlyn nods. “I am sure there are other questions I should be asking as your c.o. but my head is getting really fuzzy.”

Andrews smiles. “Autodose of morphine.”

“Ah. That explains it,” as her eyes droop closed.

Andrews smiles and pats her shoulder. “Damn glad you’re okay, Ash,” he whispers. “And damn honoured to serve beside you,” he adds.


 

Back in LA Menninger goes to speak, then looks beyond Ali. “Uh...are they...”

Ali turns and sees her whole team standing there. Her eyes lock with Whitney’s. Ali stands and offers her hand back to Whit, who steps forward and takes it. They squeeze their hands together and turn to the colonel.

“They can hear it, sir,” Ali says.

Menninger nods and relays what had happened to the caravan on the way back to base. When he finishes, he smiles. “From all accounts, Harris stayed a leader through it all, never even realizing she’d been injured until they were ready to get back in the vehicles and get back on the road. You should be very proud of her.”

Ali nods, smiling through her tears. “Always am. Is she...will this...”

He sighs, knowing what she’s about to ask. “Unfortunately, she’ll remain in Iraq. She can do the rehab she’ll need to do there and with the passing of Major Dalton, she’ll probably slip into Captain Bowie’s role as he takes Dalton’s until the major can be replaced.”

Ali nods. “I...I see.”

“Can we call her?” Whitney asks.

“She’s still in the hospital and they have her pretty doped up. She’ll stay that way the next couple of days so she doesn’t move her leg very much,” he replies. “Her phone is being taken to her and she will be allowed to call at the doctors’ discretion.”

“And read text messages,” Whitney adds with a smile, already hearing clicking behind her as the team starts to send get well wishes to their friend.

Ali glances over her shoulder and chuckles. “Well, she’ll have plenty of reading material.” She turns back to Menninger. “Thank you so much for bringing me this information yourself, sir. It means a lot to me.”

He shakes his head. “No thanks needed. Me being here for this conference was a coincidence so there was no way I was going to let anyone else bring you this news. I promised your wife I would keep you as informed as possible.”

Ali shakes his hand. “I appreciate it, Colonel Menninger.”

The man nods. He looks to the others. “Sorry to disrupt your practice, Coach Ellis. Good luck in Canada, ladies. You’ve got a lot of fans in the Corps of Engineers.”

“Well you all have a lot of fans on this team, sir,” Abby tells him truthfully as her teammates echo the sentiment.

The colonel and his companion nod then take their leave. Whitney pulls Ali into a firm hug. Ali is determined to not cry again.

And then the rest of the team joins in the hug and Ali’s tears rain down again.

“I love you, guys,” she chokes out.

“Love you, too, Kriegs,” Tobin replies emotionally.

It is then it hits Ali just how much her wife means to the 22 women holding her. Whether they knew her from college or pros or just because she is Ali’s wife, they are all just as invested in what happens to Ash. She clears her throat.

“I don’t think I say this enough. You guys mean so much to me and Ash. Thank you for caring about her the way you do. It is so, so appreciated.”

Christie pats her on the shoulder. “She’s a part of the family, Kriegs. We can’t wait to see her home safe.”

Ali nods as the hug finally breaks up. She looks at Jill. “Uh, sorry for the distraction, Coach.”

Jill smiles. “I think it is safe to say this was not your fault and completely unavoidable. How about we play some of those heightened emotions out?”

“Sounds damn good,” Ali agrees.

Dawn walks Ali to her bag. “I’ll hold onto your phone in case she calls.”

“Thanks, Dawn. You rock!”

“I know,” the strength and fitness coach says with a smile.

Ali laughs, feeling strangely light despite her worry about her wife. It has to be the positive vibes from her teammates because she knows she won’t be completely okay until she hears the beautiful voice of her soldier.


 

Ali drops her plate of food when her phone starts to ring. Her eyes brighten as she answers. “ASHLYN!”

“Hey, baby.”

Abby looks down at her legs, which are splattered with mash potatoes as Ali walks away in excitement. “The only reason I won’t throttle her is it’s Ashlyn calling.”

Kling starts to laugh and offers a napkin to Abby. “Here you go. Unless you think you can get carbs by osmosis.”

Abby just glares at her as she starts to wipe down her legs. Across the way, a group has gathered around Ali.

“Are you okay? Really?”

“Mostly. Gonna be laid up a bit and then stuck in paperwork hell but other than that I’m okay,” she assures her wife.

“I know you hate it, but will you understand if I am doing a happy dance that you’ll be a desk jockey for a little while? Your worst possible injury will be a papercut,” Ali says with a smile.

Ashlyn can’t help but grin. “You don’t like it when I am home and have paper cuts. Hampers our sex life,” she points out.

Ali blushes deep red. “Uh, did I mention you’re on speaker and the whole team is right here?”

Ashlyn laughs as she hears the laughter through the phone. “Gee...thanks for the warning, baby.”

Whitney wraps an arm around Ali’s shoulder. “Despite having images of your sex life in my head, I am damn happy to hear your voice, Ash. I love you.”

“Love you, too, Whit. Love all of you guys.”

“Get well soon, Ash,” Abby calls out.

“We’ll be keeping you in our prayers,” Lauren adds.

“Thanks guys.”

Ali turns the phone off speaker and steps out into the hallway for some privacy. “Okay, honey, it’s just me now. Well, me and whoever decides to walk down the hall. Are you okay? Really?”

Ashlyn takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “That’s a...a loaded question. Two men in my vehicle died, Alex. And...and Major Dalton died in the seat I normally ride in. I just...don’t know how to process all of it yet. Maybe it’s the meds but my mind just can’t...can’t deal with it.”

“It’s just happened, Ashlyn. Give your body time to heal some and then your mind will heal, too. And I am so, so sorry they died but I am so happy you are alive. God, Ash, I don’t know what I’d do without you,” she chokes off.

“Shh, baby. I’m going to be okay. Just going to need a heck of a leg tattoo to cover this scar.”

Ali chuckles through her tears. “I’ll treat you to it. It will be my welcome home gift to you.”

“Deal, baby. Shit...”

“What’s wrong?” Ali asks worriedly.

“The automatic doser just went off. Morphine. Lower dose than before but it will still knock me out soon,” Ashlyn explains.

“Oh. I fly home tomorrow for my ‘She Believes’ event in Prince William County. Call me or text me. If I am flying I will call you when I land, okay?”

“Um’kay,” Ashlyn says, her voice already heavy.

“I love you, Ashlyn. So, so much.”

“Lub ‘ou, oo,” she mumbles.

Ali smiles. “Ashlyn? Honey, hang up.”

“Uh, Mrs. Harris?” a strange voice says.

“Yes?” Ali says in confusion.

“I’m Lieutenant Grady. I’m one of the nurses caring for your wife. I hate to say this but she’s out again.”

Ali smiles. “That’s okay. She needs rest to heal. Thank you for taking care of her.”

“No problem. She should be awake in a few hours if you’d like to call her back.”

“Thanks. I’ll send her a text that she can call me whenever she wants.”

“That might be the best plan. Take care, Mrs. Harris.”

“You, too, Lieutenant.”

Ali ends the call and sits for a second just staring at her phone. A different seat...a different seat in a Humvee and there would have been no call from Ashlyn. She lets out a sob and buries her face in her hands as her mind is swept by the thoughts of what might have been.

After a few minutes her tears subside. She takes a deep breath and wipes off her cheeks with the sleeves of her US Army hoodie. She gets up and straightens her back then walks back into the dining room. She ignores everyone and goes to the buffet to fill her plate once more. When she turns she sees all eyes on her. She gives them a Krieger smile.

“She’s okay, I’m okay. Promise, guys.”

Everyone goes back to the meals as she takes a seat beside HAO. Her right side partner leans over.

“It’d be more believable that you’re okay if you hadn’t cried your mascara off,” she whispers with a grin.

Ali can’t help but smile. “I’ll remember to touch up next time.”

The two chuckle and continue their dinner, both relieved to know that Ashlyn is really going to be fine.


 

When Ash awakens the next afternoon she sees two care packages waiting for her. The one on top is from The Gals. The other from her Grandma. Though obviously sent well before her injury, she can’t help but marvel at the timing.

She pulls down the one from her friends and opens it up. The note on top says, “For when you’re stressed or bored. And maybe hungry, too. Stay safe!” She grins as she pulls out colouring books, a 100 count set of coloured pencils with sharpener (since the last batch of crayons melted says the post-it on them), Skittles, Mac & Cheese, stress balls, travel Connect Four, and, wrapped up very carefully, brand-new Nike USWNT #11 home and away jerseys with the official WWC patches on them. She runs her finger over the name on the back, tears filling her eyes: Krieger-Harris. A post-it in Ali’s handwriting says simply, “Surprise!” with a little smiley face.

“I love you, baby,” Ashlyn whispers.

She kisses the jersey in her hand and grabs a bag of Skittles. She sets that box aside and digs into the next one. She laughs as she sees the same food inside.

“I really am too predictable,” she mumbles knowing the same pasta and candy had been in every package she had received.

She also finds some pictures from an Easter Sunday get together, a long letter that she reads through twice, and some magazines and crossword books. She sighs and set the box aside as she starts to flip through the pictures once more.

“Good morning, Lieutenant. I see you got your mail.”

Ashlyn looks up at the doctor and nods. “Yes, sir.”

He lifts his eyebrow as he sees the half-eaten bag of Skittles. Ashlyn follows his line of sight and blushes.

“Oops. Wasn’t thinking. Sorry, Doc.”

He chuckles. “Forgiven. This time. So, how are you feeling?”

“Groggy. When does the morphine stop? I hate it.”

“Last dose is the next one. We need to wean you off it or you’ll have complications.”

“Okay.”

“Any pain?”

“Are you joking? I wouldn’t even know it’s there if I couldn’t see it.”

“Good, good. Another day keeping it completely numb then the stitches should hold well enough for you to get up and start moving around,” he tells her.

“Cool. When can I get back to work?” she asks.

“Let’s just take it a day at a time, Lieutenant. Your desk will be waiting for you when you get out of here. I promise.”

Ashlyn sighs. “We’re down a man, sir. And my captain is supposed to be going home soon.”

“I understand. But I will not release you, not even to desk duty, until I am sure there are no issues with that leg.”

Ashlyn wants to argue but knows what he hasn’t said is those “issues” could cause her to lose it. She just nods and lets him finish his exam. Once he leaves she just sits, staring at the ceiling. In her mind she tries to think what she could have done to save Dalton and Simmons. Did she give the right orders or could she have prevented the additional injuries with different commands? She can feel depression setting in. Some might call it survivor’s guilt. She keeps finding more she did wrong than things she did right.

Ashlyn is not sure how long she has stewed when she feels a gentle touch on her leg. She looks down and her eyebrows shoot up in surprise.

“Hi.” The little girl wrapped in bandages just stares wide-eyed at Ashlyn. “Um, are you supposed to be here?” No answer. “Do you speak English?” No answer. “Guess that’s a no.”

Ashlyn looks to the door to see if anyone is out there looking for the girl. Suddenly the girl is crawling onto the chair Andrews had placed by the bed and then onto the bed with Ash. The blonde is shocked.

“Um...I, uh...what’s...uh...”

The little girl just ignores Ashlyn and reaches for the colouring pencils that are on Ashlyn’s bedside tray. Ashlyn grins.

“Uh, you want to colour?”

The little girl traces her fingers over the clear box, marveling at the many vibrant colours. Ashlyn uses the remote to sit herself up a bit more, grabs the table and slides it over to them. The little girl snuggles down beside Ashlyn and then gives her a shy smile. Despite the bandages on her head, neck and arm...or, rather, what’s left of her left arm, the girl is adorable. Ashlyn smiles back and pulls out one of the colouring books.

“How about this one? Lots and lots of animals to colour.” She lets it drop open. There is a dog on one page and a cat on the other. “Why don’t you colour the cat and I’ll colour the dog, okay?”

The little girl looks from the page to Ashlyn in confusion. Ashlyn smiles and takes the pencils and pulls out a red one. She starts to colour in the dog’s collar. She then offers the pencils to the little girl, whose eyes light up. She chooses an orange pencil and starts to colour in the cat. Ashlyn smiles and finishes the collar. She decides to have some fun and reaches for a purple pencil. As she starts to colour the ear, the little girl grabs her hand. Ashlyn looks at her.

“What’s wrong?”

The little girl just shakes her head.

“Uh, what?”

The little girl takes the purple pencil, puts it back, and hands Ashlyn a brown one instead. Ashlyn grins.

“You mean I can’t have a purple doggie?” The little girl just taps the picture and then the pencil. Ashlyn chuckles. “Okay. A brown puppy it is.”

She starts to colour the dog. The little girl nods and smiles then goes back to her orange tabby.


 

About 2 hours later, a frantic search finally ends. It turns out little Malak was not supposed to be up and around. A bomb had hit her house, killing her parents and siblings. The little girl, who had been in the front yard, had been severely injured, with burns on her legs, stomach and neck, not to mention the loss of her left arm just above the wrist. The neighbors had confirmed her name and age, 3, but did not know what other family she had. The severity of her injuries made the Iraqi hospital sign her over to an American aid organization, care of the US Army for now, so she can eventually get the treatment she needs. At this point, she has been in the base hospital for 2 weeks as the legalities surrounding the orphan are worked out.

Since arriving, the girl had been non-verbal, even though her neighbors said she could talk before the incident. A psychologist said it was probably trauma that took her voice and it should come back with time. A volunteer nurse with the organization visits her daily to speak to her in her native tongue but still the girl does not talk. She barely even acknowledges the existence of the nurses and doctors treating her. She has retreated into her mind.

And then that afternoon she had simply been gone. Nurses and orderlies had searched the burn ward, the outside, even had MPs searching the base to see where she could be. It isn’t until a nurse comes in to check on Ashlyn that the little girl is found. The nurse’s eyes widen.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” she whispers. She steps back into the hall and motions to her supervisor. “You can call off the search for Malak. She’s in here.”

“She’s WHAT?” she blurts.

“SHHH!” the nurse cautions. “Take a look.”

The head nurse walks over and what she sees warms her heart. Malak is asleep, cuddled into Ashlyn’s side. The lieutenant has her arm around the little girl, gently holding her but keeping her safe. The nurse shakes her head.

“Something tells me this is the best sleep either of them have had in days,” she whispers.

The head nurse nods. “Definitely. If Harris’ machines say things are okay, don’t wake her. Let them both sleep. I’ll cancel the search for Malak.”

The nurse nods and goes in to check Ashlyn’s vitals. The head nurse stares at the sleeping duo a moment more then smiles. It isn’t often you find reason to smile over here but this small sign of the little girl reaching out is surely a good one today.

Over the next two days, when they weren’t in treatment, Malak could be found with Ashlyn. The translator often joined them to help Ashlyn explain things to the little girl but it is clear Malak only cares what Ashlyn has to say. The bond is good for both of them.

As Ashlyn watches the little girl nap, she looks at the aid worker. “So, Tiff, why is she still here and not in the U.S. or Britain or somewhere for treatment.”

Tiffany sighs. “Normally it is a quick process to get them out of here in the care of a parent or guardian. Unfortunately, all of Malak’s known family was killed in the bombing. We are having to wait until all resources have been searched to confirm no one is alive to give their permission for the treatment.”

“Oh.” Ashlyn thinks a second. “What happens if you don’t find anyone?”

“Then we can officially take temporary custody of her. We’ll find one of our families in the States that can sponsor her and me while she gets treatment.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means she and I would live with them while she is treated. Then when the treatments are done I’d bring her back here.”

Ashlyn frowns. “To an orphanage?”

“Sadly, yes,” Tiffany confirms.

Ashlyn trails her fingers through Malak’s hair. “What then?”

“She’ll live there until she’s 17 or until she’s adopted.”

“Oh.”

Tiffany studies the soldier a minute. “To be honest, her future doesn’t look good.” Ashlyn looks up in concern. “Missing an arm makes her ‘damaged’ and not many here would consider adopting her. When she ages out, that same missing limb could make her unemployable. My hope is her host family will fall in love with her and adopt her.”

“Does that happen a lot?”

“Most times, actually. That’s why it’s so important to get her verbal and reaching out to people again.” Tiffany pats Ashlyn’s good leg. “You’re giving her a shot at a real life, Ashlyn. Be proud of that.”

Ashlyn smiles and looks back down at the little girl. “I am.”


 

The next morning Ashlyn wakes up sees she is not alone. She manages to smile.

“I’d get up and salute but my leg is kinda doped up, sir,” she croaks.

Colonel Evans grins. “Forgiven this time, Lieutenant.”

She nods. There is an uneasy silence between them. He has not been subtle about hating women in combat zones. He finally clears his throat.

“I’ve read reports from everyone. You kept your head and gave the right orders in a dire situation, Lieutenant. I’m submitting you for a couple of battlefield citations.”

“Thank you, sir, but that’s not necessary,” she insists.

“The fact that you don’t think they are proves they are,” he replies. He holds up a black box. “This was already approved and I am honored to present it to you.” He opens the box that contains her Purple Heart. “You were severely injured and showed incredible bravery and leadership in spite of that fact.”

He hands her the box and she stares at the medal. She swallows hard as her mind slips into a what-if regarding seating in the Hummer. She finally closes the box and nods.

“Thank you, sir.” They shake hands. “I just wish Major Dalton could have been getting one, too.”

“As do I. He was a good man and a good officer.” He pauses. “You are a good officer, too, Harris. I...apologize for my attitude towards you.”

“Forgiven, sir,” Ashlyn states.

He nods. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out an envelope. “You’re going to be laid up for a few weeks while you recover, Lieutenant. However, once the doctors release you tomorrow, you’ll be doing your recovery somewhere else.”

“Landstuhl?” she asks, doubting she’d get sent home.

He sighs and hands her the envelope. “Not exactly.”

He hands it to her and her eyes get wide. She looks at him in surprise. “Are you serious, sir?”

“Yes. Good luck, Lieutenant.”

He pats her on the good leg and leaves the room as she reads the orders. Un-frickin’-believable.

Chapter Text

Ali listens to the music in her earbuds as she ties her cleats. Her body is shaking with anticipation. This is it: the last send-off game before the team heads to Canada. They were ready. They were primed. They had a solid starting line-up and a bench that could easily be starters. They were ready for whatever comes at them. She feels someone pat her shoulder.

“Ready?”

“Damn right,” she says to Carli.

She watches as Carli, Abby, and Christie go around and check on each player. Ali sits up and straightens the tops of her socks. She pulls on her warm up jacket and zips it up. She feels the dog tags she will wear through the national anthem rubbing against her heart. She pulls them out and gives them a kiss.

“Glad you get to watch the game, baby,” she whispers. “Everything I do is for you. Unless I get an own goal,” she jokes with a grin.

“I heard that,” Hope says with a smile.

Ali chuckles. “Oops. Didn’t see you there. I promise: no own goals.” She pauses. “Probably.”

Hope laughs and pulls her into a hug. “You’ll make her proud, Al. I know you will.”

“Thanks, Hope,” Ali replies, choked up by the show of affection from the keeper.

“ALRIGHT! LET’S DO THIS!” Abby yells.

The team lines up. Just like previous games in this series, the entire team will walk out together and be announced to an excited nation. They can feel the vibration in the stands as time ticks down to kick-off. When they get to the tunnel, they exchange brief sportsman-like good lucks with the team from South Korea. Ali takes the hand of the little girl that will be her escort.

“Hi! I’m Ali.”

The girl nods and giggles. “I know. I’m Sabrina but I wear number 11 because I want to be just like you.”

Ali bends and gives the girl a hug. “Then you know what to do, right?”

The girl nods and they say together, “Look good. Feel good. Play good.”

Lauren and Carli laugh as Ali hugs the girl again and then stands as they get the signal to begin the walk to the field. The roar that hits them is the biggest one so far. Ali shivers with excitement. She had worked her entire life for this sport and has never, ever envisioned support like they are getting now. It is thrilling and scary all in one. She smiles brightly as, for the first time, she is announced as Ali Krieger-Harris. She is glad she and US Soccer planned the surprise right and that Ashlyn had received the new jerseys before the game.

The team lines up and gives a wave as they are announced to the excited fans. Ali’s eyes scan the signs in the stands. She even sees Fatheads of herself which she feels is weird and a bit creepy but she will gladly sign those at the end of the game. As one, the team turns to their left as the announcer continues.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, please rise and remove your hats for the playing of the National Anthem of the Republic of South Korea.” When that is done, the announcer comes on again. “And now, please remain standing as the colours of the United States of America are presented by members the Harrison, New Jersey ROTC program. Escorting the honor guard today is- -”

Ali doesn’t hear the rest. As the honour guard and their special escort had cleared the crowd along the edge of the field she had broken from the team line at a sprint.

“WHOA! KRIEGS! WHAT ARE YOU--OH!” Carli exclaims.

“- - a special guest, Army First Lieutenant Ashlyn Harris. Harris is a former member of the US Women’s Team and is currently serving in Iraq as a member of the Corps of Engineers. Recently injured in the line of duty, Harris has been temporarily appointed to the President’s Contingent by the Commander-in-Chief himself and will accompany the US Team to Canada for the duration of the World Cup on President Obama’s behalf.”

But Ali has heard none of that. She barely controls herself to keep from leaping into her wife’s arms. Ashlyn is smiling brightly, her dimple visible from across the stadium as she embraces her wife. Ashlyn’s right leg is in an immobilizer from the hip down and she walks with the aid of aluminum forearm crutches. Her dress uniform holds a few more decorations than last time Ali saw it, including the recent Purple Heart. When she is finally able to speak, Ali leans back.

“I can’t believe you’re here! How are you here?”

“The President appointed me to be part of his special contingent to the Cup. I’m going to Canada with you, baby!”

Ali pulls her close again and then the duo is swamped by the rest of the team. The stadium is vibrating even more now as they see the reason for the break in pre-game protocol. Even the Korean team is smiling and clapping.

“Ladies, I think we need to get back to the game,” Jill interrupts.

“You have SO much to tell me later,” Ali tells her wife.

“I will, beautiful. Now go win this game.”

Ali gives her a deep kiss. “You bet I will!”

The team all pats Ashlyn on the back and returns to their line for the anthem. Ali, however, remains beside her wife who marches as best she can up to the honor guard.

“COLOR GUARD! PRESENT COLOURS!” Ashlyn orders.

The American flag is held steady as the accompanying flags are lowered slightly. The booth sees the flags and knows that is the sign to begin the anthem. Ashlyn stands at attention, her wife beside her. When it ends, Ashlyn salutes as the stands erupt once more.

“COLOR GUARD! RETREAT!” Ashlyn orders.

As the ROTC members march off, Ashlyn turns to her wife. “Good luck, baby.”

“I love you so much, Ash.”

“I love you, too.”

The two share a quick kiss and Ashlyn retreats as Ali runs to join her team. If they had been pumped before, they were even more ready to rock now!


 

It is easy to tell the US Team had been pumped to see the return of their friend. They play a bit scattered the first few minutes until they get calmed down and focus on the game. In minute 15, they get a corner kick and that really helps settle them. As Lauren sends it, Abby flicks it on with her head and Carli puts it in the back of the net with a header of her own.

The crowd goes wild! Carli races towards the sideline and points up into the stands. When she pats her chest, the way Ali does, Ashlyn knows she is being told that goal is for her. She smiles and cheers as loud as she can. She had only just made it to her seat among the families of the team when the goal went in.

“Good timing, Ashlyn!” Judy Wambach states. She pulls Ashlyn into a hug. “So good to see you, Ash. So glad you are mostly okay.”

“Thanks, Mom Wambach,” she says to the woman that had accepted the young keeper into the house many times during her time with the Flash.

Pete Wambach pats her on the shoulder. “So did I hear right? You’re going to Canada with us?”

Ashlyn smiles. “Yes, sir. It was a special assignment President Obama ordered. I figure he did it because it’s good P.R. for him but whatever the reason, I’m so happy to be going. Especially when my squad said they wanted me to do it. I felt bad leaving them after all that happened.”

“Well, they know you and respect you, Ashlyn. And they are probably happy you get to rehabilitate here rather than there,” Judy states.

“True.”

“How will you do your rehab?” Pete asks.

Ashlyn chuckles. “My docs have already spoken to US Soccer trainers. They’ll help me with everything and keep the Army updated on my progress.”

The two shake their heads. “So how long have you known about this?” Pete asks.

“Uh, I think 2 days? Maybe 3. To be honest, I just got to New Jersey this morning and with all the traveling and time changes I have no idea what day it is.”

The two laugh. “It’s May 30, Ashlyn.” Judy tells her.

“Ah. Then I’ve known 2 days,” she says with a grin.

They turn their attention back to the game. A few minutes later, Ashlyn is tapped on the shoulder by Heif. She smiles and gives him a hug.

“Hey, Heif!”

“Welcome home, Ashlyn. So happy to see you.”

“Happy to be seen,” she notes.

“ESPN has asked if you’d be up for an interview at half time. What do you say?”

Ashlyn frowns a bit. “Uh, okay. But, uh, ask them not to ask me what happened. It’s still being investigated.”

“Then what should they say?”

“They can mention the injury in general terms and ask how recovery is going. But I can’t tell them how it happened.”

Heif nods and smiles. “Done. We’ll have someone come get you about the 40 minute mark.”

Ashlyn nods. “Perfect.”

Truthfully, Ashlyn would rather not do the interview at all. But she knows if she doesn’t, then it will be Ali facing the questions and she won’t do that to her wife. She turns her attention back to the game just in time to see her wife strip a Korean forward so deftly the player keeps running a few steps before she sees she doesn’t have the ball.

“YEAH! GO KREIGER!” Ashlyn cheers.

Judy nudges her. “You mean Krieger-Harris,” she points out with a smile.

Ashlyn grins, her eyes shining happily. “Yeah, I do.”


 

Julie Foudy sees Ashlyn crutch into the booth and hurries to her side. She pulls her into a firm hug.

“Welcome back to the States, Ash.”

“Thanks, Jules,” she replies. As they lean back, Ashlyn stares into her eyes. “The good luck message you sent...that was awesome. It means a lot to me that you took the time to do it.”

Julie smiles. “Well, like we always say: once in the asylum, always in the asylum. You can’t escape no matter how hard you try.”

Ashlyn chuckles. “Right.”

“So, I understand no mention how it happened just how it’s going getting better?”

Ashlyn nods. “Yes. Thanks.”

“No problem.”

A few minutes later, Julie gets the cue. “Yes, we have with us a true American hero and a former member of the US Women’s National Team. Ashlyn Harris helped lead us to the inaugural U-19 Cup and helped lead UNC to 3 National Championships. She also led the Western New York Flash to the WPS Cup by stopping the final penalty kick in a shoot-out in the 2011 championship game. She then traded in her pitch boots for combat boots. Recently injured in Iraq, she has been put on a special Presidential team that will accompany the US Team to Canada.” She turns to Ashlyn. “Welcome home, Lieutenant.”

Ashlyn smiles. “Thanks, Julie. I’m so happy to be here and look forward to attending events in Canada on behalf of my commander-in-chief.”

“Now, you are in a heck of a contraption here. Is all going to be okay with your leg?”

“Yes, it will just take time and rehab. I’ll be doing that in Canada so that I can return to my unit in mid-July, hopefully after watching us hoist the trophy in Vancouver.”

“That’s great! So, I have to ask as we all knew the secret: when did YOU find out about your wife’s name change?”

Ashlyn laughs. “She kept that secret so well I’m impressed. I actually found out while I was in the hospital for this injury. I got a care package from the team and as I got down to the bottom of it there was a wrapped package. I could tell they were shirts and just assumed they were the official World Cup jerseys. It wasn’t until I opened them that I saw the name on the back was Krieger-Harris. I’ll admit it got me teary. She’s been officially Krieger-Harris since we married but we’d agreed she’d stay just Krieger for football. It took me a second to realize that the jerseys meant she made the name change for work and didn’t just have special jerseys made for me.”

“That’s great! What a cool surprise! And a cool get well present, too!”

“True!” Ashlyn says with a smile.

“Well, we’ll let you make your way back to your seat. Have fun in Canada and stay safe when you head back to Iraq.”

“Thanks, Julie.” Ashlyn looks at the camera. “SHOUT OUT TO SPIRIT COMPANY! Miss you guys!”

Julie smiles as the feed goes back to the studio. She hugs Ashlyn once more. “It is really, really good to see you.” She pulls her phone out her pocket and chuckles. “And Mia and Bri were watching and said to send you their love.”

“Awesome! Tell them thanks for me.”

Julie nods. She grips Ashlyn’s arm. “If you need anything, anytime, or Ali does, I’m a call away. I swear,” she says seriously. “I mean it when I say you’re family.”

Ashlyn smiles, tears in her eyes. They exchange a hug. “Thanks, Jules.”

“Stay safe, Ash.”

“Do my best. Promise.”

Julie nods as they break the hug. Ashlyn turns to follow Heif back to the family section. Julie turns to touch up her make-up and wipe away the tears that leak down her cheeks.


 

When the final whistle blows, the score reads 3-0, thanks to second half goals from Abby and Tobin. Both players had followed Carli’s lead and given the heart-tap salute to Ashlyn. As the team walks the stadium to thank their friends, Ali searches out the hazel eyes she has been missing. She finally locates Ashlyn, who brings her hand up to her chest to salute the right back.

“I love you,” Ali mouths, her nose crinkling smile more exuberant than it has been in a while.

“Love you, too,” Ashlyn mouths back.

Ashlyn feels a hand at her elbow and turns to see Dawn Scott at her side. They exchange a tight hug.

“So glad to see you, Ash.”

“You, too, Dawn. I hear I’m your charge the next few weeks.”

Dawn smiles at her. “Damn right. Me and the trainers will send you back better than you were before.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Ashlyn says with a smile.

“I came up to ask if you wanted to get a van back to the hotel with the families or ride the team bus. We can make sure you have room for your leg.”

Ashlyn’s eyes light up. “The team bus would be great! I’ve kinda missed my wife. Will be nice to hold her.”

Dawn grins. “Had a feeling you’d say that. Come on.”

Dawn exchanges a few pleasantries with the families in attendance as Ashlyn makes her way up the steps. When she gets to the walkway, she finds two women in ACU’s waiting for her. They snap to attention. She straightens up and returns their salute.

“Welcome back to the States, Lieutenant,” the corporal says.

“Thanks, Corporal. Glad you all came out to the game.”

“We wouldn’t miss it. We’re big fans of the team,” the private says.

“Me, too,” Ashlyn says with a wink.

The women chuckle.

“Well, we won’t keep you, Lieutenant. We just wanted to say hello and offer our hopes you have a quick and easy recovery.”

“Thank you. I appreciate the support. Good luck, ladies.”

They salute once more and Ashlyn falls in behind Dawn who clears the way to a secure elevator to take Ashlyn down to the locker room levels. As they ride, Dawn looks at her.

“Does that ever get old? Having people salute you?”

Ashlyn giggles. “Not really. Though sometimes you can see they are saluting the rank, not you. Then it’s usually a little sweeter, actually. Or maybe I am just mean and like watching people do things they hate.”

“Like a fitness coach,” Dawn jokes.

“Exactly!” Ash agrees as they both laugh.

As they enter the locker room, Kling sees them. “OFFICER ON DECK!” she calls out.

Everyone laughs as Ash shakes her head. “I’m not in the Navy, weirdo,” she teases.

Further teasing ends when Ash finds herself wrapped up in arms she had missed for far, far too long. The two women hold each other, each caught up in their own emotions. After a few minutes, Ashlyn leans back.

“You were awesome, baby.”

“I was doing it for you. Even before I knew you were here, I had dedicated this game to you.”

The two share a kiss to the “Awwwws” of their teammates. When it ends, Ashlyn stares into Ali’s eyes.

“Baby?”

“Yes, Ash.”

“You stink and are sweaty.”

Ali laughs and pulls away. “You jerk.”

Ashlyn just grins. “I didn’t say it was all bad. I mean it was close to all bad but it was still you so that helped balance out the yucky.”

“Are you saying I need a shower?”

“Definitely,” Ash confirms. “I’ll be here when you get out.”

“God, I can’t even believe you are here.”

“I can hardly believe it either. But I’m here, baby. And I’ll be beside you in Canada just like we always dreamed.”

Ali smiles and pulls her into a kiss again. Finally the right back pulls away. “See you in a few.”

“Yes, you will.”

As Ali walks away, Ash smiles at the next person walking up. She opens her arms and Whitney falls into them. The two best friends don’t even need words. After a few minutes, Whitney leans back.

“You owe me a beer.”

Ashlyn smiles. “Not until you all win the Cup. Then I’ll buy you a case.”

Whitney smiles. “Holding you to that, Ash.”

They hug again then Whit goes to finish changing. Ashlyn makes her way over to a bench away from the lockers in use. She carefully lowers herself down, her immobilized leg stretched out in front of her. She leans her head back against the wall and closes her eyes. Though her body rests, her mind is still on high alert. She hears the gals chatting and laughing. She hears sounds from the showers. She can even hear the capping and uncapping of deodorant. Her entire body is still wired to take in everything about her surroundings. That could make living in a hotel interesting to say the least.

Ashlyn slowly opens her eyes as she senses someone approaching. She smiles as Abby sits down beside her.

“Something tells me shit that you’ve seen, especially this injury, will haunt you,” she says quietly. “Just like after that first deployment, if you need to vent or anything, I’m here for you. We all are.”

Ashlyn looks down at her leg. “You all have a tournament to win,” she states.

“You know the World Cup is my dream; has been my dream for years. It’s the one thing in my career I’m missing that I can still attain.” She waits until Ashlyn looks up. “I’d give it up rather than lose a friend to PTSD or shit like that.”

Ashlyn smiles and lets Abby pull her into a hug. “You’ve always been a hell of a friend, Abs. Thank you.”

“Any time, Ash. And I fucking mean it.”

Ashlyn just nods, not trusting herself to speak at that moment.


 

After dinner with the team and their supporters, Ali and Ash make their way to the defender’s room. Ali grins as she holds her wife in the elevator.

“I guess I know now it was a set up.”

“What was?” Ashlyn asks, her eyes heavy with exhaustion.

“I was wondering how I was the lucky gal out who didn’t have a roomie for this stage of the trip. Now I know.”

Ashlyn grins. “Yeah, I guess they did plan it pretty good for us.”

When they get to the room, they find Ashlyn’s bags had already been delivered. As well as a bottle of sparkling cider, chocolate covered strawberries, and a single red rose. Ali looks at her wife.

“Did you do this?” she asks excitedly.

Ashlyn shakes her head and lifts up a note beside the ice bucket. “Nope, it’s from the gals. Guess they want to make sure I remember to treat you right.”

Ali wraps her arms around the taller woman’s waist. “That’s something I know you’ll never forget.”

Ashlyn gives her wife the kiss she has wanted to since she first laid eyes on her on the pitch before the game. They both get lost in the sensations coursing through their bodies. They are the only thing in the world as their hands run over each other and their tongues duel for dominance after having been apart for so long. They might have never come up for air but Ashlyn’s crutches fall clattering to the ground. Ali leans back, fear in her eyes.

“Oh, shit! Your leg!”

Ashlyn smiles and shakes her head. “It’s okay, baby. I promise. I can’t go tap dancing yet and don’t want to walk far without my crutches but I am fine right now. I’m in your arms and I know there is nowhere safer for me or my injury.”

Ali leans her head against Ash’s shoulder. “Thank you for saying that. I guess we should get ready for bed.”

“Yeah. Uh...I don’t really want pajamas. I mean, I know we probably are both too tired to make love but...I just need to feel you, Alex. Please, lay with me skin to skin.”

Ali kisses her wife deeply once more then steps away. She pulls off her tee and bra at once then slides off her underwear and wind pants. Ashlyn licks her lips unconsciously as her clit springs to life. Ali toes off her socks and shoes, standing before her wife gloriously naked.

“My God...you’re more beautiful than I remembered,” Ashlyn breathes out.

Ali smiles. “With you gone I’ve had more time to work out.”

Ashlyn nods appreciatively. “It shows.”

She starts to undo her dress jacket but Ali hurries over. “Let me. Please, let me undress you.”

Ashlyn nods, dropping her hands to her wife’s waist. She moans as she touches the warm skin and starts to caress up and down Ali’s sides. Ali’s breathing hitches as a calloused thumb ghosts over one nipple. She looks up and locks eyes with dark green orbs. So much for being too tired to do much, both women think as they kiss again while Ali undoes Ashlyn’s blouse.

Once all the buttons are undone, Ali breaks the kiss long enough to step behind her wife and slip off blouse and blazer. She lays them carefully on the dresser, making sure not to mess with the ribbon rack and medals on the breast. She then slips the bra from her wife and stands to admire the abs of steel. She grins.

“Looks like you’ve been working out, too.”

Ashlyn just grins. Ali helps her wife to the bed and Ashlyn leans back. Ali can’t help but think back to when the roles were reversed and Ashlyn was the one slipping off a leg brace and pants from the brunette. She glances up at Ash and sees her wife is remembering the same thing. But when Ali’s hands go to Ashlyn’s pants, the blonde stops her.

“Wait...”

Ali looks up and sees the fear in her eyes. She entwines their fingers. “Ashlyn...I will have to see it sometime. And Dawn warned me that there is some stuff to do to it tonight.”

“I...I don’t want to scare you...or disgust you,” Ashlyn adds quietly.

“You won’t do either. You’re here. You’re alive and healing. Nothing will scare me. All I will do is hurt for you, baby, as you would hurt for me were the situation reversed.”

Ashlyn thinks a moment. She says nothing, just relaxes back against the pillows and releases Ali’s hand. Ali sees it is the okay to continue. She undoes the pants and carefully slides them down to Ash’s knees as the blonde shifts to assist. The defender bites her lip and then continues to slide them down, her breath hitching when she sees the bruising, the staples, the jagged red line that intersects the bruise. A tear escapes before she can stop it and she covers her mouth to stifle a sob.

“Alex?” Ashlyn asks.

Ali ignores her for the moment. She slips off Ashlyn’s dress shoes and slides off the dark socks, one folded down to avoid interfering with the start of the staples. She then finishes pulling off Ash’s pants and underwear.

“Alex?” Ashlyn asks again nervously.

“So...so big...” Ali forces out.

“Yeah,” Ash admits, her voice low.

Ali studies the wound, in her mind trying to imagine how it must have looked in the field; how it must have felt; how scared Ash had to have been that she’d lose the limb. She looks up and meets her wife’s eyes.

“Thank you.”

Ashlyn frowns in confusion. “For what?”

“For wanting to protect me from seeing this and...and thinking about how it was to get injured like this. But it changes nothing about my feelings for you. I love you so much, Ashlyn, and this makes me love you even more,” Ali assures her.

She then crawls up the bed and kisses her wife deeply. The women moan as their breasts brush against each other. Ashlyn reaches up and grabs both of Ali’s breasts. She squeezes them, rubs their nipples into hard points, and pinches those peaks. Ali moans as one hand holds her up and the other grabs the blonde’s breasts to give them the same attention. She then breaks out of the kiss and brings her tongue and lips to one needy point.

“OH! Oh, that feels so good!” Ash moans as Ali lavishes one breast then the other with intense affection.

One of Ash’s hands leaves a perfect breast to travel lower. She smiles in delight as she feels the neatly trimmed center of her wife. Ali spreads her legs as she moans against the breast in her mouth. Ashlyn slides her hand forward into warm wetness.

“Oh, fuck, Alex. So fucking wet,” she grunts.

“For you. Need you so bad,” Ali says spreading her legs and lifting her head to stare into Ashlyn’s eyes.

Ashlyn starts to work first one, then two fingers into plump folds. She pushes in deep, loving the way her wife starts to rock to increase the pleasure. Ali is moaning her name over and over. Then Ashlyn’s thumb finds the throbbing clit.

“OH! OH! ASH! YES!”

In record time, Ali is spilling her essence over her wife’s hand and grinding down to help drive herself up and over once more. Ashlyn smirks as Ali finally throws herself to the side.

“You’ve never been that quick a trigger before,” Ashlyn teases.

Ali smiles up at her wife. “Never been through this kind of separation before.” She rolls over and carefully puts her hand into blonde curls. “Let’s see how much we can do for you without you moving that leg.

Ashlyn’s eyes flutter at the sensation of her wife’s hand on her aching sex. “I swear I’ll keep it still. If I don’t my clit may explode...and not in a good way.”

Ali grins and starts to carefully work her already primed wife up and into a rather fast orgasm for the blonde. Ali chuckles.

“Guess we’re both pretty quick triggers tonight.”

“Seems like it,” Ashlyn agrees with a smile.

Ali cuddles up against her wife’s side, her hand caressing those abs she loves so much. The two just enjoy the contact after being gone so long. Suddenly Ali gets up and goes over to the table. Ashlyn is about to ask what she’s doing when the defender grabs the cider and pops the cork. She pours out two flutes and grabs those and the strawberries. She sits down beside her wife and offers her the drink.

“To being back together, chasing the dream,” she offers.

“To the best right back in the world, who IS the dream,” Ash counters.

Ali smiles as they clink glasses together and drink. They spend the next hour talking, sipping cider, and eating strawberries. They make love one more time before Ali insists on treating Ashlyn’s leg. Once the ointment is on and mostly dry, Ali helps get her wife into some loose scrub pants she’d been given to sleep in and into the uncomfortable brace for the night.

They also change beds to avoid wet sheets, which they giggle about.

As they settle in, cuddled up together for the first time since December, Ashlyn says one final silent prayer.

“Please don’t let the nightmares come tonight. Please just let us sleep peacefully together.”

Soon their breathing lulls both women to sleep. And thankfully for Ashlyn, it is a dreamless slumber.


 

A/N: Yes, I changed the outcome of that last send-off game. Creative License rocks! :o)

Chapter Text

Ali wakes up first, which is not unusual. She stares down at her wife’s face in the light leaking in through the curtains. In slumber the blonde looks peaceful, almost childlike. But when she wakes, that innocence will be gone, erased by eyes that have seen too much and the crow’s feet that come with the stress of being responsible for the lives of others.

As Ali moves a lock of hair off Ashlyn’s neck, the blonde’s eyes start to flutter open. Ashlyn seems confused at first but then slowly smiles.

“Not a dream?”

“Not a dream,” Ali confirms.

They stare into each other’s eyes a moment. Then Ali lifts a spray bottle of breath freshener gives herself a squirt. Ashlyn giggles as she opens her own mouth and accepts her minty blast. Ali sets it aside and leans in for a deep kiss. When it ends she stays forehead to forehead with her wife.

“Good morning, my soldier.”

“Good morning, my right back.”

A moment later the beauty of the moment is broken when Ali’s alarm goes off. The women both sigh.

“I have to get ready for the GMA thing,” she says sadly.

Ashlyn smiles. “Yes, you do. Don’t be sad. One: the whole country wants to say goodbye to you and that is awesome. And two: I’ll be at the airport waiting for you as we head north together.”

“Mmmm, that sounds amazing. Dress blues?”

Ashlyn chuckles. “Thankfully no. Just regular old sweats and a polo. Normally I’d be in my ACU’s but I have a doctor’s note not to wear those scratchy things while traveling. Once up there, though, I’ve got a sleeve I’ll have to wear to protect the staples until they are removed.”

“Removed?”

“Yeah. 7 days from now. Or is it 6. Damn, I can’t keep straight what day it is. The paperwork is in my backpack so you can look it all over and settle your little head,” she finishes before Ali can demand to see it.

Ali smiles. “You know I want to do it for my peace of mind not to check up on you, right?”

“I know.” Ashlyn thinks a second then sighs. “I hate to say this but...I need to get some of that salve on it. Soon.”

“Starting to ache?”

“Yeah. And itch. That stuff takes care of both.”

Ali leans down and kisses her again. “Then let’s get you treated. Shower first?”

Ashlyn’s eyes widen. “Oh how I wish. That’s in the packet. Still no shower. Just baths. I’ll sponge off after you leave or you’ll run late.”

“Nonsense.” Ali stands and extends her hand. “Let’s go, soldier. That’s an order.”

Ashlyn smiles and carefully stands. Ali gives her one crutch and acts as the other as they get Ashlyn into the bathroom for her sponge bath. By the end both women are silently cussing the GMA event that is keeping them from making love all morning long.


 

“Hey, hey, it’s the Krieger-Harris’!” Sydney announces as the two enter the conference room for breakfast.

They ladies blush as the team and staff break into a round of applause.

“Alright, alright, enough,” Ali says.

“What’s the clapping for anyway?” Ashlyn asks.

“We were all drawing straws to see who would be the unlucky one to have to go up and pry you two apart. We’re just glad that’s not necessary now,” Boxxy jokes.

Ali and Ash just ignore them but their grins show there is no hard feelings over the joke. As they get to the buffet line, Kelley joins them.

“Okay, Harris, what do you want?” the Georgian asks.

“Ali in nothing but a black bikini,” she whispers. She cracks up when Kelley goes bright red. “Still the innocent.”

“You know, I was coming to help, you jerk,” Kelley points out with a grin.

Ashlyn nods, smiling. “I know. But you just make it so easy, Squirrel.”

Kelley grins and grabs a plate and fills it with whatever Ashlyn wants. Ali smiles her thanks as she fills her own plate. Kelley takes both plates to the table and escorts Ash there as Ali detours to get coffee and orange juice for her and her wife. She has just finished mixing the coffee when another teammate appears.

“Unless you’ve grown two more hands you’ll need an assist.”

Ali smiles at HAO. “No extra hands. Thanks.”

The two women grab the drinks and make their way to Ashlyn. Ali rolls her eyes as she sees her wife is already holding court telling silly stories of life in Iraq to make her friends laugh. She sits down beside her and forgets for a moment the months of separation; forgets the fear of seeing Menninger walking across the pitch; forgets the horrible wound she has dressed twice for her wife. Instead she just listens and revels in hearing the voice and laugh she wants to hear every day for the rest of her life.

It is better than any music ever composed.


 

Ali leans into her wife as the bus pulls up at the docks. The team would be arriving via water taxi for their Good Morning America appearance. Ali wants to ask her wife to come with them but knows Ashlyn would have trouble maintaining her balance on the boat. And should the boat sink, the leg brace would kill her.

“Oh good grief,” Ali mutters, burying her face in her hands.

Ashlyn kisses her temple. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Just...coming up with crazy scenarios.” Ali lifts her head and gives Ash a quick kiss. “I think I’ve lost my mind.”

“Gotta have it to lose it,” Ashlyn teases with a wicked grin.

Ali giggles and slaps her gently on the arm. “Jerk.”

“I try.”

“Is it crazy I’m going to miss you when I’m going to see you in just a few hours?”

Ashlyn shakes her head. “No. I feel the same.” She caresses her wife’s cheek. “When I get back from Iraq for real, plan to spend a week nowhere but in my arms in our bed. We’ll have food delivered and flip a coin to determine who has to pay for it when it arrives.”

“And what about Dad?” Ali asks with a grin.

“He can stay with his wife at a hotel. I’ll make it worth his while.”

“You’ll pay for it?”

“Nope. Tell him if he stays he’ll have to listen to me scream his daughter’s name in praise and hear me begging her to do raunchy things to me,” she answers with a lecherous grin.

Ali bursts out laughing. “That just might work.”

As the door to the bus opens, Ali sighs. Everyone gets up and starts to double check that they look okay. Ashlyn studies her wife.

“You look perfect, my love.”

Ali smiles. “See you at the airport.”

“I’ll be there. Probably still at security while they check out all the metal in me,” Ashlyn jokes. Ali groans. “Too soon?”

“It will never be the right time for war wound jokes.”

Ash chuckles. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

The two share a deep kiss. Ash stands up to allow Ali to get out of their seats. They share one more kiss then Ali follows the rest of the team off the bus. Ashlyn sits back down and waves out the window at her wife. Their eyes stay locked until the bus drives off the lot to deliver Ash, the trainers, the equipment manager, and all the luggage to the airport for the charter flight to Vancouver.


 

The gals are having a blast! In addition to the fans and meeting the hosts of GMA, they are excited to meet Ed Sheeran and all are making sure to get selfies with the pop star. When they are on stage for the presentation of jerseys to the hosts, the team mostly just stands in the back and helps rev up the audience by waving and pointing out signs they can see as Abby does most of the talking.

Just when they think they are done with the interview, Robin Roberts shocks them all, especially Ali.

“Now wait a second, one more thing before you go. Where’s Ali? Where’s Ali Krieger-Harris?” she asks looking around.

The usually shy Ali lifts her hand, blushing brightly. Her teammates push her forward letting the hostess know where to find the right back. Robin strolls over to her.

“Now, Ali, you got a heck of surprise at the game, didn’t you?”

Ali grins, her nose crinkling. “A HUGE surprise,” she confirms.

Robin nods. “Huge indeed.” She looks at a camera. “For those who missed the start of the game, Ali, and the whole team really, were surprised by the return of Ali’s wife Ashlyn Harris, who is serving in Iraq with the US Army Corps of Engineers. Can we see the clip?”

Ali turns to look at a monitor. She laughs and is ribbed good-naturedly by her teammates as the camera picks up the look on her face as she realizes her wife is escorting the colour guard out for the anthem. They also laugh at Carli’s face going from irritation to recognition. It shows the tears in Ali’s eyes and the tears in Ashlyn’s as they embrace after 6 months apart.

“Wow! What a moment! And you had no idea?”

“None at all,” Ali confirms. “Last time we spoke she had told me she’d be on desk duty and would be able to watch the whole World Cup. Then she was shocked by the special orders and really didn’t have time to warn me she was coming. She got here just a few hours before game time. Thank you, President Obama!” she adds with a wave to the camera.

“Now she was injured, right?”

“Yes. Her Humvee hit an IED,” Ali says, keeping to minimal facts as Ashlyn has asked of her. “Her leg got torn up but she will be fine in a few weeks.”

“Well, what a great place to rehabilitate: Canada while watching her wife and former teammates bring home THE WORLD CUP!”

The crowd goes wild at the pronouncement and Ali nods and claps along with the team. Abby steps forward and starts to lead the crowd in the “I Believe” chant. Ali gladly moves back into the crowd. Whitney locks arms with her.

“Dodged those questions, eh?”

“Definitely,” Ali agrees with a smile.


 

A few hours later, Ali is carefully putting a blanket over her wife, who is sleeping peacefully as she stretches out across three seats. She sits down across the aisle, angled so she can watch the blonde.

Ali Krieger-Harris’ World Cup experience was going to be even better than she had dared to imagine. She pictures time strolling with Ashlyn through the cities. Morning coffee at little cafe’s. Nights making love before curfew, when Ali will have to return to her team-assigned hotel room. (But not the two nights before games. That’s bad luck.)

She pulls her dog tags out and starts to play with them. She studies the brace that keeps her wife from using her right leg while the muscle and flesh heals. In her mind she pictures something different. She pictures the leg gone from the knee down. She had seen the wound and knows her wife was extremely lucky that is not reality. What would that loss have done to her wife? Strengthened her? Destroyed her? What will any of this shit she is going through do to her Ashlyn?

She’d be lying if she said she hadn’t seen the darkness hiding behind those hazel eyes. She had seen the twitches as she sleeps and knows things she had seen in Iraq and even before haunt her when her subconscious takes the driver’s seat. She kisses the dog tags she still holds.

“Anything you need, baby. Anytime you need it,” she promises her wife.

The alarm on her phone starts to ring. She sighs. She hated the thought of waking her wife but knows she has to treat the leg wound again. She had also promised to show the head trainer, Tracy, the wound and what has to be done while it is healing. Ali gets up and pulls her bag down from the overhead compartment. She turns and looks forward to see Tracy looking back at her.

“It’s time,” Ali says.

Tracy puts down the book she’d been reading and goes into the overhead bin to get gloves and wipes out of her medical kit. The actions of both women draw the attention of some of the players, who quickly realize what’s going on. Whitney takes a deep breath and puts down her magazine.

“Where you going?” JJ asks her seatmate.

“If something happens and Ali can’t help Ash I want to be able to do it,” Whitney states.

JJ smiles. “Ah. Okay. Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

Whitney walks up and pats Ali on the shoulder. She doesn’t even have to explain what she’s doing; Ali just knows.

“Thanks, Whit.”

“No problem. Shall I wake her?”

“Yeah.”

Ali starts to explain the meds to Tracy as Whitney shakes her friend.

“Ash? Hey, Ash, we have to doctor your leg.”

Ash’s eyes pop open. “Uh, we who?”

“Ali is showing Tracy and I what to do. You know, in case you piss her off and she has to go for a walk to keep from throwing you off the balcony or something,” Whitney explains with a grin.

Ashlyn smiles. “Right. Good point.” She sits up and pulls her leg all the way up on the seats so her foot is no longer hanging in the aisle. “Well, first lesson, see those locking pins by my knee and ankle?”

“Yeah.”

“If you release those, you can open the brace like a book so we don’t have to take it all the way off.”

“Ah. Cool.” Whitney releases the pins and peels the top of the brace to the left. “There. Now the pants.”

“Whit,” Ash says softly. “It’s bad, Whit,” she warns.

Whitney looks up and meets her eyes. “You’re my sister, Ash. I’m going to take care of you. You’d do the same thing for me.”

Ashlyn just nods at the resolute look in her best friends’ eyes. Whitney steels herself and carefully rolls up the leg of the scrub pants. She winces when she sees the scope of the injury.

“Fuck, Ash. Oh, sweetie how could they do this to you?” she whispers.

Ashlyn just reaches and takes her hand, giving it a comforting squeeze. Whitney moves to stand in the empty row behind Ash as Ali and Tracy move into position with their gloves on.

“This is what we put on first,” Ali explains. “It’s to keep the muscle deadened so the internal stitches don’t rip. Basically her calf muscle was torn in multiple places and they had to piece it back together. Those stitches should dissolve in the next few days. It also keeps her from stretching the leg so the skin that is stapled together doesn’t pull apart. You can see some places they had to trim the shredded skin and it left just a little to bind together.”

Ashlyn listens to the clinical, detached way Ali explains everything. She can tell her wife has to pretend it’s not her spouse, not a big deal, to get through the whole thing. It breaks Ashlyn’s heart.

“After that, this goes on. It’s a topical antibiotic and pain reliever in one. It also keeps her from getting too dry and itching as it heals.”

Tracy nods. “Great. Let’s get to it.”

Ashlyn’s gaze moves from woman to woman, gauging their reaction to this wound. When the ointments are finally done, she sighs.

“So, uh, any questions Trace or Whit?” the blonde asks nervously.

Whitney strokes a hand down her friend’s head. “What am I going to do with you?”

Ashlyn gives her a grin. “You’ve been asking that since I picked you up at the airport your freshman year. I doubt you’ll ever get a good answer.”

Whit smiles and kisses the top of her head. Ashlyn looks at Tracy. The trainer shakes her head.

“I’ve had to treat you for a knife wound and now this. You’re not even on the damn team anymore. Stop wearing me out, woman,” she says with a wink.

Ashlyn chuckles. “Sorry. I guess I owe you a beer.”

“Or four,” Tracy says. She pats Ash on the good leg. “Seriously, though, there is a place by your ankle that looks kinda bad. Keep an eye on it in case of infection. I take it you’re on antibiotics other than the cream?” Ashlyn nods and Ali pulls out the bottle to show Tracy. The trainer studies the bottle then hands it back. “Good. Lots of water and PowerAde. And no sex.”

“HEY! Why am I getting punished?” Ali asks in mock annoyance.

Tracy laughs. “That was an order to you from Jill. Just passing the word on.”

“Then HEY! Why am I getting punished?” Ashlyn asks as they all laugh.

Tracy takes the gloves Ali had used and her own and wraps them up to dispose of later. She moves back to her seat as Whitney helps Ashlyn get her leg locked down again. The Cali girl exchanges a look with Ali. Ali nods and leans over to give her wife a kiss.

“I think I better go ref ‘Heads Up’ before Amy throws Tobin out the emergency exit.”

Ashlyn smiles. “Good idea.”

As soon as the brunette walks away, Whitney sits down in the seats across from Ash. The two best friends stare at each other.

“You’re mad at me,” Ash finally states.

“No. Just...at the situation.” Whit takes a deep breath. “My heart fucking stopped when I saw those men walking towards us. I...I can’t even imagine what Ali felt.” Both women glance at the laughing brunette then back to each other. “Ash...when your tour is over...will you go back? Will you have to or...or want to?”

Ashlyn shakes her head. “No one wants to go back to a war zone, Whit. Not even the ones that say they do. They’re just trying to find that little bit of their...their soul, I guess, that gets stolen over there.” Ashlyn’s eyes get a far off look in her eyes. “It starts the second you walk off the plane. You feel the heat, feel bits of sand stirred up by the wind hit your face, smell the jet fuel mixed with...with something that is foreign to you. You hear the sounds of mechanics and pilots looking over planes and helicopters. You see Jeeps, trucks, Hummers, plane parts, cargo boxes. It could be any other airport, really. But then you see the guns mounted on all the vehicles. You see the warnings on the boxes about explosives inside. As you walk a little farther from the plane you see the lines of anti-aircraft guns set up. And you see men and women armed and in body armour. All of them have the same looks in their eyes. Whether they are laughing or yelling or just standing there. It’s the same look. The one that you swear you will never get.”

“What’s the look?” Whit asks as Ashlyn’s voice trails off.

Ashlyn looks down at her hands. “The look that says they have accepted they are just waiting to die. If you make it out alive it’s like you’ve won the fucking lottery. You think they’ve given up and swear it will never be you. But after the first time you get the shit scared out of you come to understand that...that you have to accept that death is inevitable or you will lose your mind from the constant fear. You just believe you will die thousands of miles from all that you hold dear.” A tear drips down onto her hand. “And in the back of your mind you wonder how...or if, you will ever get rid of that fatalistic view of life. Some guys go back to Iraq thinking that they can get the devil out of their head by...by...fuck, I don’t even know what. But they figure if they lost it in that Hell Hole they can find it again. But it’s not a ring lost in the sandbox; it’s not your keys that you misplaced. It’s something that you have to excise from your body and discard so it doesn’t weigh you down.”

“So then back to my original question: will you go back by request, Ashlyn?”

Ashlyn spins the wedding band around and around on her ring finger. She slowly lifts her eyes and looks her best friend in the eyes.

“I don’t know,” she admits weakly.

She looks so young and innocent in that moment; so lost and unsure. Whitney squeezes in between the seats and pulls Ashlyn into a firm hug. They women cry on each other’s shoulders.

“I will do everything in my power to help you. And what I can’t do myself I will find someone who can. A shrink. Another vet. Anyone that can help you, Ashlyn. I swear I will be by your side to help you heal so you never feel the need to go back there again.”

Abby and Pinoe see the interaction and exchange a look. They are thankful to see Ashlyn willing to show vulnerability but figure it may require a “Buds Night Out” to keep the healing moving forward. They grin, completely happy to help a friend out and have some fun while they do it.


 

By the time Ashlyn gets to her hotel room she just wants to drop onto her bed and relax. Her left leg is throbbing from doing all the work. Her arms and hands ache from the crutches. She can tell her right foot is swollen, most likely from the air pressure.

And she broke a nail.

Okay, the last was just an annoyance but she’s a little touchy at the moment. Ali and the team are going to do a quick work out to get rid of the travel kinks and the blonde is happy to have a moment alone to rest up. Ali has her spare room key so Ash can take a nap before dinner and know she won’t miss anything. Just as her eyes start to slip closed her phone alerts her to an email. She reaches over for it, assuming it’s another “Glad to see you out of Iraq” message from friends. But her mouth breaks into a wide grin when she sees it is from Tiffany and Malak.

Hey Ash,

Malak coloured these pictures and insisted I send them to you. The originals will be waiting for you here in Baghdad but hopefully these copies will make you smile.

Also, it looks like we’re a go with a host family. They live right near Johns Hopkins and the surgeons there have volunteered to treat Malak for her burns and to do anything to her arm that will help facilitate a prosthesis. Cross your fingers that as your wife raises the World Cup, we’ll be settling in at a house in Maryland.

Well, I will let you get back to your friends and family. Take care and we’ll talk to you when you get back.

Tiffany

Ashlyn quickly fires back a thanks for the pictures and the updates. She sets a picture of a big red heart surrounded by cupids as her phone background and closes her eyes. She had so much to be thankful for and she couldn’t wait to show Ali the pictures and tell her more about the little girl that had saved her soul.


 

Ashlyn awakens to someone stroking a hand through her hair. She smiles and starts to roll into the touch but her right leg gets caught in the blankets and she groans as her movement is arrested.

“Noooo,” she pouts.

Ali smiles down at her wife. She is so adorable when she is whiny. “Ash, honey, are you going to want to go down to dinner?” she asks quietly.

“What’re we having,” she mumbles, her eyes still closed.

Ali shrugs. “No idea. Something healthy and power-building I am sure.”

Ashlyn finally opens her eyes. She stares up at the beautiful face of the brunette and can’t help but smile. “Hi, Princess.”

“Hi,” Ali replies with a giggle. “You awake enough to comprehend what’s happening?”

“You wanna go to dinner?” she mumbles.

“Yep. Hopefully with you but I’ll understand if you’d rather rest. I have a feeling it’s been a while since you’ve had a good sleep.”

Ashlyn nods. “Too fucking long. But I don’t want to miss a moment with you. You and Malak are keeping me going.”

Ali frowns in confusion. “Malak?”

“The little girl I told you about,” Ashlyn explains, reaching for her phone. “She had Tiffany send me an email. She coloured pictures and said they were for me so Tiff sent them.”

Ali scrolls through the pictures. “So cute! She’s 3?”

“Yeah.”

“So is she talking again?”

“No,” Ash answers sadly. “But she kinda has her own sign language. When she does this,” she brings her fingers to her head and mimics drawing them through her locks, “she is asking for me.”

“Because of your long hair,” Ali realizes. “And she came up with that on her own?” Ashlyn nods. “Amazing. She is a smart cookie.”

“Yeah, she is.” Ashlyn takes the phone back. “They found a host family for her. They’ll be heading to Maryland soon for her surgeries.”

“That’s great,” Ali says excitedly. “I’m glad she is finally getting a chance to heal. Especially since she’s helping you heal. I owe her a trip to the zoo or something.”

Ashlyn smiles. “She’d love that!”

Ali leans over and gives her wife a kiss. “Me, too.” She stands and goes to get the medicines for the blonde’s leg. “So, how about I treat that leg and we go down to dinner?”

Ashlyn smiles. “Sounds perfect.”

Despite the horror that the leg represents, they have come to enjoy this bonding time while the footballer takes care of her soldier. When the leg is medicated, Ashlyn reaches her hand out to the brunette.

“Thank you, sweetheart.”

“No thanks needed. Just taking care of you like I promised I would.”

The two share a kiss before Ali helps Ashlyn get her leg locked back in the immobilizer and together they head down to dinner with the team.

Chapter Text

It is the day of the opening ceremonies of the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Though the official opener is in another city, each host city is having a special reception for the officials representing their soccer federation on behalf of their country. For the US contingent, this means Sunil Gulati, Jill Ellis, and other members from the US Soccer Federation and special appointees by President Obama, including Ashlyn. She has just finished getting her bun situated to accommodate her beret. She takes a deep breath and stares at herself in the mirror.

“In your dress blues while your company is in desert fatigues. Doesn’t seem right,” she mumbles.

She carefully removes her beret to keep from causing any stray hairs. As she applies some light make-up she hears the door to her hotel room open.

“Ashlyn?”

“In the bathroom, Whit.”

Whitney steps in and grins. “Looking sexy.”

Ashlyn rolls her eyes. She is in her dress shirt and tie, her hair perfectly done. But from the waist down she’s in sweats and her brace.

“Are you here to help or hinder?” the lieutenant asks.

“To help. Ali had to stay behind for extra penalty kick practice.”

“Jill planning ahead already?”

“Doesn’t hurt considering 2011, right?”

Ashlyn grins. “True. So, ready to play in my pants,” she asks, wiggling her eyebrows.

“You pervert. Get on the bed so I can get you naked,” Whit orders with a laugh.

“Oh, Whitney...my dreams finally come true!” Ashlyn says, fluttering her eyelashes.

“Cool your jets or I get Hope and Carli to do this,” Whitney threatens.

Ashlyn laughs. “Damn, woman, you are no fun since you got a serious boyfriend.”

Whitney blushes and rolls her eyes as she grabs Ashlyn’s dress pants and socks. Just 15 minutes later, Ashlyn is standing beside the bed, staring into the mirror. Her eyes travel from head to toe. Whitney stands beside her, studying her best friends face in the mirror.

“What’s going on in your head, Ash?”

“I’m here. My unit...my friends are there. It’s not fair, Whit.”

“Ashlyn, if you were there you’d be at a desk, not out in the field with them. You know that, right?”

“Yeah. But...” she sighs. “I don’t know. I just...it hits me sometimes that this is some sort of special reward for living while Dalton died. It just doesn’t seem fair or right or anything.”

“Ashlyn, him dying will never seem fair. His life was stolen by bastards who wanted to kill all of you. Dying the way he did was due to an act of cowardice by terrorists and there is not a damn thing you should feel guilty about.” She pauses. “And from what I heard, your leadership saved a bunch of lives. You honored him by being the best officer you could be and saving the lives of his soldiers.”

Ashlyn thinks about that a moment then smiles. “How do you always know what to say to me?”

Whitney smiles and hugs her from behind. “It’s a best friend thing. Like magic.”

Ashlyn chuckles and clasps her hands over Whit’s. “I believe it. Love you.”

“Love you, too. Now let’s get you downstairs so you don’t miss the shuttle.”


 

In the lobby, Ashlyn shakes hands with Sunil and other representatives of US Soccer. Just as the group starts to board the shuttle to the event, the last team van pulls up. Ali hops out and runs over. Ashlyn smiles.

“About time, Krieger,” she teases.

“Watch it, Harris,” Ali teases back.

They kiss carefully, so Ali doesn’t get sweat all over Ashlyn’s uniform. As it ends Ali looks her wife over and sighs.

“There’s something about a woman in uniform. Damn, baby.”

Ashlyn blushes. “Thanks. I feel the same about you when you’re in yours.”

Ali giggles. “See you tonight when you get back?”

“Count on it, beautiful. I’ll let you know when I get back here so you can let me know where to find you.”

“Deal.”

They kiss once more and Ashlyn hobbles up onto the bus. She waves at Ali as the shuttle pulls away. Tobin walks over and hands Ali her gear bag.

“You forgot something,” the middie teases.

Ali blushes. “I didn’t forget. I just knew one of you wonderful teammates would grab it for me so I could say goodbye to the sexiest officer the US Army ever produced.”

Tobin laughs as the duo walks into the hotel to shower and relax before dinner.


 

Ashlyn had not been sure what to expect at the dinner and reception. To her surprise, many of the officials from the other four countries are aware of who she is and how she had come to represent the US National Team. As she is talking to 2 officials from Nigeria, she hears a voice that makes her grin.

“ASHLYN HARRIS! You should have to run extra for scaring everyone!”

Ashlyn turns and grins at Pia Sundhage. The old US coach and current Sweden coach pulls the keeper into a hug. After a second, Pia leans back and looks her former player over.

“Other than the brace, you look wonderful.” She taps a finger on the Purple Heart hanging below Ashlyn’s ribbon rack. “This is pretty but I think we’d have all been happier if you didn’t have it. Especially Ali.”

Ashlyn smiles. “I’d say that’s a given. I will do my best not to add an oak leaf cluster to this one.”

“Good plan.” Pia pats Ash on the shoulders. “What you are doing is amazing, Ashlyn. I always knew you were meant for great things.”

Ashlyn blushes. “Thanks, Coach. Your message to me meant a lot. I’m glad I get to thank you in person and not just over email.”

“Me, too.”

They share another hug before Pia is called to go speak to someone from FIFA. After a couple of hours, Ashlyn is sitting in a chair by the wall. The China-Canada game is playing on a large screen but Ashlyn isn’t really paying attention. Her upper body aches and all she really wants is to return to the hotel and rest in her room.

And if she is honest with herself, part of her is wondering what might have been had she stayed playing soccer. Would she be a back-up on the US Team for this tournament? Would she be the number 2 or 3? Or would she be the number 4, still watching the team from afar?

She looks longingly at the bar, wishing she wasn’t on meds and could have a beer or 2. “Leave it to me to be unable to partake of an open bar,” she mumbles.

She puts a smile on her face as Jill Ellis walks up to her. “You look worn out.”

“I am,” Ashlyn admits. “Hard to sleep in this contraption.”

“Not to mention the wear and tear on your upper body and left leg,” Jill points out.

Ashlyn grins. “That, too.”

“Why not call for the hotel shuttle? You’ve put in your appearance and you’ll do your duty for the rest of the tournament as called upon. Go back now and watch the rest of the game with the team. Most are in the big conference room we have been given for our stay in Winnipeg.”

Ashlyn considers protesting but it’s going to be a long tournament with other receptions and official functions to attend behind the scenes. She nods.

“Good idea. Guess that’s why you’re the coach.”

Jill chuckles. “Exactly.” She hands Ashlyn her crutches as the lieutenant stands. “See you later tonight or tomorrow.”

Ashlyn nods. “Definitely. Thanks, Coach.”

Ashlyn makes her way to the lobby of the restaurant where the reception is being held. She asks the host to call for the hotel shuttle and happily boards it when it arrives. On the drive back, she sends Ali a text letting her know she’s on the way.

“Yay! Come to the conference room when you get here. I have a surprise for you.” Ali texts back.

Ashlyn smiles, assuming it’s the arrival of Deb or Ken Krieger and their significant others. As she walks into the hotel lobby, it is other recent arrivals that greet her first.

“ASHLYN!”

Ashlyn smiles as Reece and Rylie Rampone race towards her.

“CAREFUL! Girls, Ashlyn is hurt so be gentle!” their mother warns.

Chris and Christie detour from the elevator they had been waiting for to follow their daughters to the soldier. Ashlyn gives hugs to both girls. She then notices Reece studying her carefully.

“You got hurt at work?” the little girl asks.

Ashlyn nods. “Yes, I did.”

Reece studies her some more and Ashlyn can only smile at how much the little one looks like Cap at that moment. “And were you wearing your helmet for safety?” the little girl asks.

Ashlyn nods again. “I was. In fact, I’d have been hurt even worse if I hadn’t been,” she replies.

“Oh. Okay,” Reece says, obviously glad to hear the helmet is as protective as she’s come to believe.

Chris offers his hand to Ash. “Good to see you back and okay mostly.”

“Good to be here,” Ashlyn says. “And I’ll be good as new in no time.”

“Great. Well, we’re going to go up and get settled and watch the rest of the game as a family,” he says smiling proudly at his wife and daughters.

“Sounds like the best plan. Have fun.” She looks at the girls. “And I’ll see you at all the games.”

“Cool!” Rylie says, holding her hand up for a fist bump, which Ashlyn happily gives her.

Once the Rampone’s are on an elevator, Ashlyn makes her way down to the conference room. She smiles as she walks in the door and she sees Ali talking to Deb. Her heart swells with love for her mother-in-law.

“Two beautiful ladies. What’s a soldier to do?” she asks with a grin.

Deb spins around and lets out an “Eee!” worthy of her daughter. Ashlyn is once again struck by what a beauty her wife will still be in 30 years. Deb pulls Ashlyn into a hug. They hold each other close, no words needed to convey their love. Finally Deb leans back and stares into Ashlyn’s eyes.

“Are you really okay? Really?”

“I will be 100% in no time, Deb-Deb. Promise,” Ashlyn replies.

“You better be or you’ll be grounded until you are 50!”

Ashlyn chuckles and hugs her close again. Suddenly strong arms wrap around Ashlyn from behind. She looks over her shoulder and grins.

“Ken! I thought you weren’t getting here until Sunday!”

He smiles. “I wanted to spend more time with my daughters. Sue me,” he jokes. He steps around her to give her a proper hug. “Welcome back, Ash.”

“Thanks, Pops,” she replies with a smile.

Just then an ear-piercing shriek echoes through the room. Kyle runs up and screeches to a halt in front of Ashlyn, his eyes dancing with delight. “So, two blonde bimbos from Florida walk into a bar.”

Ashlyn rolls her eyes.

“The first one says,” he takes on a snooty, Kardashian voice, “ ‘Bartender, I’ll have a Coke and rum.’” His voice goes back to normal. “And so the second one gives her a look of horror and says,” he puts on a high-pitched Valley-girl accent, “ ‘OH. MY. GOD! Do you know how fattening that is, Ashlyn?’” His voice goes back to normal. “And the first one looks worried. She nods her head.” He puts back on the first accent. “You are so right, Ali! Bartender, make that a Coke and DIET Rum!’” He bursts out laughing.

“You are so not funny,” Ashlyn tells him.

“But you love me anyway!”

Ashlyn pretends to think on it. “Ehhh, tolerate...maybe.”

He pretends to pout, then they both laugh and wrap each other up in a big hug.

“I missed you, Ash. Glad you’re home even if only for a little while.”

“Missed you, too, Ky.”

“Are you two done with your strange friendship rituals or what?” Ali asks in amusement.

Ashlyn leans on her crutches as Ali wraps an arm around her waist. “I think so.” She grins as Ken’s fiancé and Deb’s husband walk up. “I am so happy to see all of you. I hadn’t expected to see you all for a couple more days. I’m glad we’ll get to spend more time together.” She looks at her wife. “Thank you for the wonderful surprise.”

Ali gets a sly look on her face. “Oh, that’s not your surprise. The surprise comes later.”

Ashlyn blushes BRIGHT red. “Alex!” she hisses. “Don’t imply sex stuff in front of your parents and brother,” she whispers.

Those around her start to laugh. Ali rolls her eyes, also blushing. “I wasn’t talking sex, honey.”

“Oh,” Ashlyn says, even more embarrassed now. “Sorry.”

Ali glances at her watch. “Nope, your surprise should happen in about 30 minutes. I thought you’d be at the reception longer.”

“I would have been but Jill saw I was getting uncomfortable. Arms are killing me and my foot is swelling a little.”

“Then how about we all grab a seat and watch the second half of the tourney opener,” Ken suggests.

The group moves towards the TV. Kyle and his stepdad quickly pull some chairs together, including one for Ashlyn to rest her leg on.

“Ali! Catch,” Alex says, tossing her a pillow she had been using. “For Ash’s leg.”

Ali smiles. “Thanks, Lex.” She carefully puts it under Ashlyn’s leg. “Good, baby?”

“Perfect. Thank you, baby. And thank you, too, Baby Horse.”

Alex gives her a wink. The room quiets as the game comes back on. Canada is expected to go far and it’s not far-fetched to believe the US could face their northern rivals in the elimination rounds. Time to scout potential competition. Ali and Ashlyn holds hands. Ali pays attention to the game while Ash has a whispered conversation with Deb.

With about 10 minutes left in the game, Ali gets a text message. She stands and moves away from her wife to respond to it, even turning her back. Ashlyn lifts an eyebrow.

“What’s with her?”

Deb shrugs. “Who knows?” she says in a high-pitched voice that tells Ashlyn she knows exactly what is going on.

Ashlyn studies her mother-in-law. “Deb? What’s up?”

Deb just grins and stands, walking over to her daughter. Ash looks over at the others who are paying rapt attention to the game, even though only Ken had been as interested as his daughter prior to this moment.

“Can someone please tell me what’s going on?” Ashlyn insists.

“Nope,” Kyle says, grinning wildly.

Ashlyn rolls her eyes. “You all suck sometimes.”

She goes back to watching the game, fighting to ignore her wife even though her curiosity is burning her. A few minutes later she sees Lauren glance towards the back of the room and smile. Ashlyn figures it must be the arrival of the middie’s family. Hands cover her eyes.

“Guess who?”

Ashlyn nearly falls out of her chair at the sound of that voice. Ken and Kyle catch her and steady her as she stands. Her eyes fill with tears. Ashlyn can’t even speak. She pulls her grandmother into a hug with one arm, her other arm opening to her grandfather, mother, father and brother.

“Surprise!” Ali says with a grin.

Deb wraps an arm around her daughter’s shoulder as the Harris family enjoys a tear-filled reunion. Finally Grandma leans back and takes Ashlyn’s face in her hands.

“You make us so proud but you need to stop scaring us or I will spank you.”

Ashlyn grins. “So you’ll spank me and Deb will ground me. Anyone else have a punishment in mind?” Every other member of the family raises a hand. Ashlyn laughs. “Then I’ll remember not to get hurt. I hope.” She turns to Ali. “Thank you isn’t enough.”

Ali gives her a kiss. “I’d say ‘thank you’ is perfect.”

Ashlyn turns back to her family. “I can’t believe you all are here! And I can’t believe none of you slipped up and mentioned you were coming! I am so, so happy to see you!”

She hugs her family once more. She had hoped to meet up with them briefly in DC after the World Cup and before she left to go back to Iraq. She holds them close.

“I love you guys so much,” she whispers, wishing she’d never have to let them go again.


 

At the end of the night, Ashlyn finds out that the surprise guests mean surprise roommates due to how booked the hotels are for the tournament. Her father, grandfather, and brother are staying with Kyle. Her mother and grandmother are staying with Ash. And the soldier couldn’t be happier.

Until it is time to doctor her leg. She looks at the women standing around her. Ali was there to doctor it and the other ladies were there to get a look at the wound. Ashlyn looks at her wife, worry in her eyes.

“Um, maybe it should just be you here, Alex,” she suggests.

“Oh, no you don’t, young lady!” her grandmother states. “No hiding this from us.”

“But, Grandma, it’s really bad and...and...I don’t want you to...to see and know and...” she looks pleadingly at Ali.

Ali sighs. She sees both sides of the argument. “Honey, sometimes not knowing makes it even harder. Imagination can make things worse.” She looks to the others. “That said, Ash can’t protect us from the news and stuff from over there but she can protect us from this. It makes her feel better to think she’s helping us.”

Tammye sits down on the bed beside her daughter. “When you were a little girl and you had an injury there were many times I wasn’t there to help you make it better. I couldn’t kiss it and make the pain go away. I couldn’t put a Band-Aid on it. Nothing. Please, Ashlyn, let me be here now to hold your hand and...and be the mother I should have been back then.”

Ashlyn’s eyes tear up at the heartfelt plea. She nods. “Okay, Mom.” She looks at Deb and Grandma. “It’s...not pretty. But if you want to stay I get it. I promise.”

Deb nods. Grandma takes Deb’s hand as Tammye stays beside her daughter. Ali waits until Ashlyn meets her eyes and nods before unlocking the brace and removing it carefully. The couple then carefully slide off Ashlyn’s dress uniform pants. All that is left now is the soft sleeve that covers it when she is in uniform. Ashlyn takes a deep breath.

“So, uh, last chance to leave,” she offers.

Grandma responds by picking up one of the ointment tubes. “I believe you said this one was first, right Alex?”

Ali smiles. “Yes, Grandma.”

“Well, let’s get to it.”

Ali looks to Ashlyn and sees her wife’s head leaning on her mother’s shoulder. She smiles and starts to ease the sleeve up and down, careful not to drag it over the staples. Tammye inhales sharply.

“Oh, baby...”

“It’s getting better, Mom. Promise.”

Ali finishes getting the sleeve off, pulling off Ashlyn’s sock with it. She glances at Grandma, whose eyes are locked on the horrible wound.

“Grandma?” Ali asks.

The older woman doesn’t speak, just offers the tube. Ali takes it and begins the process of treating the wound, explaining it to them as she had to Whitney and Tracy. When she is done, she looks up.

“So, uh, that’s it. Then let it dry a bit before putting on sleep pants and the brace.”

“And...how long?” Grandma asks.

“I go to a local doctor on Tuesday to get the staples removed. They’ll do a scan to see the status of the internal sutures and to see if the muscle looks like it is healing correctly.”

“And if it’s not?” Deb asks.

Ashlyn and Ali exchange a look. Only these two knew the answer to this question that no one else had thought to ask.

“Uh, well, if the muscle isn’t knitting correctly, they’ll fly me to Walter Reed MMC in Bethesda for surgery to see if there is more they can do to knit the muscle back together.”

“And if they can’t?” Tammye asks.

Ashlyn shrugs. “Don’t know.”

“I am sure you know the options,” Grandma presses.

Ashlyn sighs. “They will...excise any part of the muscle that won’t heal. They can they try to pull together more of the parts that are strong enough to heal and we’ll be in a waiting game again.”

“And if they can’t pull together more muscles?” Tammye asks.

Ashlyn swallows hard. “If it...looks like the muscle isn’t viable...it will be removed and...and I will probably lose my leg from the knee down,” she finally admits quietly.

Tammye lets out a moan and pulls her daughter closer. Grandma just clenches her hand together. Deb looks at her daughter and sees tears streaming silently from deep brown eyes.

“You knew?”

Ali nods. “I knew,” she croaks. “But her leg is looking really good! There is no excess swelling. And lately as the meds start to wear off she’s getting pins and needles in her calf which the doctors think is a sign the muscle is trying to do its job. Signs are really, really good right now!”

Grandma takes a deep breath. “Then that is what we’ll concentrate on.”

“I second that,” Deb agrees heartily.

Ashlyn slowly looks at her mother. “Mom?”

Tammye kisses her daughter’s temple. “I agree, too. But no matter what happens, you will still be my hero.”

Ashlyn smiles. “Thanks, Mom. I love you.” She looks at the other 3 ladies. “I love all of you so much.”

“We love you, too, Little One,” Grandma says.

“Definitely,” Deb chimes in.

Ali gets up and grabs the pajama pants Ash has been wearing. The other ladies chuckle when they see the sharks all over them.

“Some things never change,” Grandma says as she rolls her eyes.

Ali gets her wife dressed and back in the brace. She then helps her get out of her dress shirt and into a tee shirt...with a big great white shark breaching the waves on it. The group looks at Ash in her shark pajamas.

“Well, at least they almost sort of match,” Deb notes as they all laugh.

Ali glances at her watch. “Well, I need to get down to my room for curfew.” Tammye stands so Ali can sit down beside her wife. “Sleep well, baby. I’ll see you at breakfast.”

Ashlyn smiles. “I’ll be there.”

The two share a hug and kiss. Deb says her goodnights, too, giving Ash an extra-long hug. Soon it is just the Harris women in the room. Ashlyn looks at them and grins.

“Okay...ask all the questions you’ve been dying to ask.”

Tammye and Grandma exchange a look. They then spend the next hour asking their soldier all the things they want to know about the injury and her time in Iraq in general. Ash answers as honestly as she can, forcing herself not to cage her answers because they would see right through her in a heartbeat. By the end, the three women are on the bed with Ashlyn being hugged from either side.

“You really do make us proud, Ashlyn. But you also scare the shit out of us,” Tammye states.

Ashlyn grin. “So...not much changed from when I was a kid?”

The women chuckle. Grandma shakes her head.

“Sadly, no I guess not.”

Ashlyn gives her a kiss on the cheek. “Sorry, Grandma.”

The women decide to get ready for bed and turn in. Jet lag is catching up to the surprise visitors. When Ashlyn leaves the bathroom she sees her mother hanging up the dress uniform jacket that had been laid upon the dresser. Tammye runs her finger over the Purple Heart. Ashlyn swallows and crutches over to the dresser.

“You can, uh, put that in here,” she offers up the box it goes in. “That way, you know, you won’t see it.”

Tammye turns and smiles at her girl. “Why wouldn’t I want to see it? You earned this medal doing amazing work. It reminds me that I have a remarkable daughter.”

Ashlyn smiles. “I’m only remarkable because of you and Grandma.” She looks at the family matriarch. “I mean it when I say I wouldn’t be the officer and person I am today without you both.”

Tammye puts the jacket into the closet. She walks over and kisses her daughter’s cheek. “You give us too much credit. You were the one who decided your path many, many years ago. We’re all just glad you followed your heart and that your heart was a much better guide than your father or I was way back when. Everything you are is a testament to your goodness, Ashlyn. Never underestimate yourself.”

Ashlyn smiles. “Thank you for saying that, Mom. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

The two share a hug and kiss. Tammye then hurries into the bathroom to finish getting ready and hide the tears in her eyes. Ashlyn gives her grandma a hug then takes all her medications. By the time her mother returns to the bedroom, Ashlyn is nearly asleep. Tammye climbs into bed with her daughter.

“Sleep, sweet girl. Let the night heal your wounds,” she whispers.

Ashlyn smiles and her eyes close completely. Tammye glances over at Grandma.

“I can hardly believe she’s here and we’re here with her.”

Grandma smiles. “I know what you mean. I plan to make the most of these next few days to help give her as many good memories to take back with her as I can.”

Tammye nods. “Me, too.”

The two women stare at Ashlyn and discuss her a little longer before giving in to sleep themselves.

Chapter Text

GAME DAY! Ali awoke with a flock of butterflies in her stomach. All her life game days had meant nerves but not on the scale she has them today. Today the USWNT starts down the Road to Redemption. She sits up and stretches, glancing at the bed beside hers. Sydney sleeps splayed across the bed, her mouth slightly open. Ali chuckles.

“Just another morning,” she murmurs as she throws a pillow at her roommate. “SYD! ALARM WENT OFF!”

Sydney makes strange grumbling sounds and cuddles up to the pillow Ali had thrown. Ali reaches for another pillow then stops. There was a better way, she thinks evilly. She gets up and walks over to the bed.

THEN POUNCES!

Syd squeals as Ali begins to tickle her relentlessly. Finally the forward wiggles her way off the bed and onto the floor. Ali lays on the bed, her chin propped on her hand and looks down at her friend.

“Oh, good. You’re up,” the defender jokes.

“You suck,” Syd grumbles.

“Very well, according to Ashlyn,” Ali laughs.

“OH! OH, stop! Oh, my poor innocent ears!” Syd says dramatically.

Ali laughs as she stands. “Your ears are the only thing about you that are innocent,” she teases as she heads into the bathroom.

When she comes out, Sydney is actually up and checking over her game bag. Ali sighs and sits on the edge of the bed.

“Nervous?” Syd asks.

“Always,” Ali confirms.

“The backline is looking good. JJ has really stepped it up since Cap got hurt.” Sydney turns and looks at Ali. “You guys are going to be our stars. I just know it.”

Ali smiles. “I don’t care about being a star. I just care about winning. We let it go 4 years ago. I will NOT let it go this time.”

“Damn right!” Syd says, offering her a high-5 as she passes by to go to the bathroom.

Ali quickly puts on her make-up and pulls on comfy sweats for team breakfast. She grabs her phone and sees she has a text from her wife.

Mom and Grandma doctored my leg. Going out to breakfast with our families since Jill wants a team breakfast. Will see you when we get back. I love you, baby.”

Ali smiles and texts back her love. Yes, it took a chunk out of her savings to pay for Ash’s family to fly in but it was damn worth it. And if her agent can seal the deal on a photo shoot opportunity that would go far in putting that money back. Of course, she hasn’t mentioned the ESPN shoot to Ashlyn yet. That could be a deal killer right there if Ash doesn’t approve.

“Ah, well. Time will tell,” she mumbles as she leaves the room to head down to the team breakfast.


 

Ali is laughing at a story Pinoe is telling in a style only the crazy blonde can, when Jill steps up to the front of the room.

“Ladies! Can I have your attention please!” she calls out. She waits until conversations stop then smiles at the collected group. “Well, I don’t know if you remember or not but we have a game today.” The team chuckles. “This is the game we have been waiting 4 long years for. This is the game that starts us on the path back to the World Cup Championship game. Everything we do today lays the groundwork for the rest of the tournament. Each and every one of you are vital to our success and each of you are capable of being starters. When I call on you, I know you’ll be ready to go no matter what your role may be. Tonight we will take the pitch and show the world that the US Women’s National Team deserves the World Cup Trophy and that we will NOT STOP until we hoist it on July 5.”

The team cheers and Jill gives them a second.

“Okay, now enjoy your breakfast. At 11 we’re taking a trip to the stadium so you can walk the turf and get an idea what the conditions will be this evening. The other 3 teams will be there, too, so we won’t be doing any drills. It will strictly be a walk through and a chance to greet old friends who will be enemies for 90 minutes over the next 3 games. Let’s do this, ladies!”

The team claps and goes back to eating and chatting. Abby looks at Ali.

“Think Ash will go to the stadium with us?”

Ali looks surprised. “Uh, I don’t know. I mean, I figure no since it’s a team thing. Why?”

Abby and Pinoe exchange a look. “Just curious,” the senior forward states.

Ali’s eyes narrow. “What do you two have planned?”

“Why so suspicious? Geez,” Pinoe pouts.

“Because I can see the wheels turning in your heads. What’s going on?”

Abby sighs. “We just...want to really make sure she’s doing okay. You know, mentally and stuff. We promised you both we’d take care of her best we can and make sure she opens up about things she may not want you to know.”

Ali smiles, touched by their concern for her wife. “You guys are great. To be honest, I am sure she does need to talk. But she won’t today. She won’t take your attention from the game. Your better bet would be tomorrow after recovery and after she gets back from getting her staples out. Plus her family leaves tomorrow afternoon so I doubt she’d do anything with you all before then.”

Abby thinks a second then nods. “Good points. But we can still lay the groundwork today.”

“Right!” Pinoe agrees. “And then tomorrow we kidnap her and whisk her away to parts unknown to you for an evening of Buddy Bonding.”

Ali smiles and nods her head. “Perfect.”

As the team finishes breakfast, Alex walks up and hooks her arm into Ali’s. “So did I hear the ‘boys’ are bonding tomorrow?”

Ali starts to laugh. “Yes, you did.”

“Perfect. SHOPPING!”

Ali laughs and nods. “Best recovery plan EVER!”

Ali knows she can’t afford to buy much after the plane ticket splurge but she will definitely enjoy a day out with Alex, the Morgan’s, and her mother and soon to be step-mother. They will laugh more than buy anyway and it will be a great way to get her mind off soccer for a little while before they regroup to plan for Sweden.


 

At 11:20 Ashlyn is crutching along beside her wife and the US backline as they walk the field at Winnipeg Stadium. Hope is walking with Ash and shakes her head.

“My defenders are going to get torn to shreds on this shit,” she mutters.

“Not to mention you’re going to be diving on concrete,” Ashlyn points out. “Might want to add an extra shirt under your jersey for impact protection.”

Hope nods. “Won’t help much but I think I will.” She bends and picks up a handful of rubber beads. “Still can’t believe we are playing the World Freaking Cup on this shit.”

“No kidding,” Ashlyn agrees.

“HARRIS!”

Ashlyn stops and turns to see someone in a Matilda’s warm up racing towards her. She grins as Lisa DeVanna, Ali’s former Washington Spirit teammate, is running towards the group. The US defenders keep walking as the Aussie forward reaches Ash.

“Damn good to see you, mate!”

Lisa pulls Ashlyn into a hug.

“Glad to be seen. How are you doing?”

Lisa chuckles. “Me? I’m fine. Just playing soccer and stuff. You, though, damn! Off saving the world.”

Ashlyn blushes. “Not the world. Just one little patch of it,” she says with a wink.

“When I heard you were injured over there I was so worried. I sent Ali an email and was so happy she said you’d be fine. How long you gimped up?”

“Hopefully just a few more days. Get the staples out tomorrow and the muscle scanned and evaluated. If all is looking good I’ll be able to start rehabbing the leg by the end of the week.”

“Awesome! I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you!”

“Thanks.”

The two chat a bit more before Lisa has to return to her team. Ashlyn turns and catches up to her wife and the others. Before she gets far, a couple of players from Sweden and Nigeria catch up to her. Again, contacts through her wife and the NWSL. It touches Ashlyn that though they don’t know her as well as they know Ali, they all express their concerns and offer prayers. It is a reminder that though they are all looking to win on the field, off the field the greater family of women’s soccer players is about respect and compassion. It is a wonderful feeling.


 

Ali reties her cleats to make them as tight as possible. Warm ups were done. Now they are waiting for the call to the entry tunnel. She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. She then reaches under her jersey and pulls out the dog tags she still wears daily.

“Love you, baby,” she whispers, before pulling them off, kissing them, and placing them in her locker.

Sure, she had seen Ashlyn a couple hours before and kissed her in person. But maybe, just maybe, Ali’s pregame ritual had become superstition. But she would never admit that to her wife, she thinks with a grin.

She stands and jumps up a few times to make sure her gear all feels right and then looks around. She sees JJ fighting to not look nervous. Ali walks over to the youngster and squats down in front of her. They lock eyes.

“I am damn proud to be out there on that line with you. We got this, right?”

JJ slowly smiles. “We got this,” JJ agrees. She swallows hard. “When do the elephants stop running through my stomach?” she asks the veteran defender.

Ali grins. “Final whistle of the Championship Game,” she answers.

JJ chuckles and actually feels her nerves settle a bit. Ali pats her on the head and stands. Today...today they will beat Australia. There is no other option.


 

Five minutes into the game, Hope makes an incredible save. And that is what is needed to settle the US a little. Prior to that they had seemed a little tentative. But now they knew they had to kick into another gear and do their best to keep their keeper bored.

And then in the 12th minute, Pinoe creates magic! A simple send trying to find Abby instead deflects off a defender and the US is up 1-0!

Ashlyn is screaming along with thousands of others in the stadium. She wishes she could jump up and down but instead has to settle for a strong hug from Ken.

“They’re gonna do this!” she screams.

“Damn right they are!” he agrees.

But the US supporters are quieted a little in the 27th when Lisa DeVanna puts one in the back of the net. As much as Ashlyn hates to admit it, it was a great shot and great feed from Michelle Heyman to set it all up.

“Damn it,” she mutters as she watches the scoreboard flick to 1-1. “Come on, ladies. You can win this!” she whispers.

It takes until the 61st minute for the US to finally pull ahead once more. An amazing, sliding send by Sydney to Christen, who calmly slots the ball home gives the US the 2-1 advantage. It is the game winner but the US wants to hedge their bets so in the 78th, Pinoe records the brace!

“PINOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOE!” Ashlyn chants along with thousands of her closest friends.

In the 79th minute, Ashlyn is excited to see Alex Morgan checking in to a game for the first time since an injury.

“GO ALEX! YOU GOT THIS, BABY HORSE!” she screams.

And though she doesn’t score, she gets time on the field to show she is nearly back to form. When the final whistle blows, Ashlyn and Ken embrace once more.

“One down, 2 to go!” Ashlyn states.

“You know it!” Ken agrees.

The two remain in their seats as the US team does a victory lap, waving and thanking the spectators. When Ali catches her wife’s eyes, she grins, bringing her hand to her heart and kissing her ring finger. Ashlyn smiles and returns the gesture.

“I LOVE YOU, ALI KRIEGER! MARRY ME!” one fan yells.

Ashlyn laughs as Ali shrugs and calls back. “SORRY! I AM TAKEN!”

Ashlyn shakes her head. “Can’t say I blame the guy for trying,” she says to Ken, who nods in agreement.


 

When the team finally starts to file into the conference room, Ashlyn pulls herself to her feet. She brings her wife into a firm hug.

“You played so good, baby,” she praises. “A brick fucking wall.”

Ali smiles, sinking into the embrace. “We had a few miscues but all in all I agree.”

Ash leans back and kisses her gently. “Miscues happen. The important thing is you regrouped and held the line the rest of the game. You make me so, so proud.” She pulls her close again. “And to see ‘Krieger-Harris’ on the back of your jersey makes me feel...feel...like maybe I am a small part of all this.”

Ali smiles and hugs her tighter. “You are a huge part of this, Ash. From helping me not give up after the ACL injury to pushing me through the concussion to just...just supporting me every step of the way. I’m here thanks to you, Ashlyn. It’s only right my wife’s name is on the pitch with me.”

Ashlyn is overcome with emotion. She forgets they aren’t alone and draws Ali into passionate kiss. It doesn’t even break when the team starts to whistle and cat-call. It ends when they want it to end. Ashlyn stares into the eyes that reflect her hopes and dreams for the future.

“I love you so much, Alex. Never doubt that.”

“I don’t. Because I love you that much, too,” Ali says.

They start to kiss again. This time they do notice the interruption.

“EXCUSE US! PEOPLE TRYING TO EAT WITHOUT GAGGING!” Kyle hollers.

The women break apart, chuckling but not at all sorry. Ali gives her family members hugs and finally sits down beside her wife.

“Hungry, Princess?” Ashlyn asks.

“Starving but just want to sit and relax a second.”

“I’ll get you something, honey. Just relax,” Vicki says.

Ali smiles and nods her thanks to her father’s fiancé. She leans against Ashlyn and accepts a glass of water from her dad as they start to rehash the game and how well the table’s favorite defender played against a strong Australian front line.


 

“Uh, are you sure you three want to be in here?” Ashlyn asks, staring at her mother, mother-in-law and grandmother.

“Of course we are,” Grandma replies as they wait for the doctor who will be removing Ashlyn’s staples. Her brace has already been removed and she lies on an exam table in just a pair of shorts. “We promised Alex.”

Ashlyn grins. “Of course you did. But this is kinda gross so I get it if you change your mind.”

A few minutes later the doctor walks in and comes to an abrupt halt. “Wow. Full house,” she jokes.

“Sorry. My bodyguards refuse to leave me alone,” Ashlyn says with a grin.

“If these women are related to you, considering what I’ve seen in your records, Lieutenant, I’m not surprised they want to keep a close eye on you.”

Ashlyn smiles as the doctor starts to examine the wound. By the time she finishes her visual inspection, the nurse has arrived with the tray holding the implement needed to remove the staples. The doctor smiles.

“All looks good. No signs of infection. Skin is slightly pink which is good so this should be smooth sailing. You may feel a slight pressure but no pain. If something hurts, tell me so we can reevaluate for infection. Sound good?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ashlyn replies.

The doctor gets up to scrub and put on gloves while the nurse sets up the tray. Once she’s ready, the doctor opens the sterile packet holding the suture remover. Ashlyn grins.

“Kinda looks like a funky dog nail clipper.”

Deb rolls her eyes. “Only you, Ashlyn.”

The doctor smiles and quickly counts the number of sutures. She gives the count to the nurse and begins. Ashlyn’s grandmother strokes her hair, hoping to calm herself more than her granddaughter. Ashlyn just closes her eyes and concentrates on trying to feel if anything feels wrong. When the doctor finally removes the final suture, Ashlyn sighs in relief.

“Feels good?” the doctor asks.

“Thankfully yes, ma’am,” Ashlyn says.

“Good. I’ll get an orderly to come down and get you in a wheelchair. Next stop an MRI to check out that muscle. Any issues I should know about there?”

“No, ma’am. I seem to be getting the pins and needles the military docs said were a good thing. I’m praying that means all is good inside.”

The doctor pats Ashlyn on the thigh. “I’m sure it will mean just that. Let’s confirm that diagnosis.”

Ashlyn nods. She tries to hide it but the ladies in the room all see the fear in her eyes as she worries what it will mean if the MRI doesn’t confirm the diagnosis. She takes a deep breath as the doctor leaves.

“I’m scared,” she whispers.

The other three ladies simply step forward and do their best to comfort her. No false promises. No condescending statements. Just silent, strong support to remind her that no matter what happens, she will have them beside her.

Thirty minutes later Ashlyn is holding her breath as the MRI machine rumbles to life. She stares up at the ceiling but her mind is playing images of what her life could be if she loses her leg.

Working a desk job States Side her entire career.

Learning to walk and run again.

Chasing after a toddler on just one real leg.

Trying to learn to surf with a prosthetic.

Slow dancing with her wife, then watching Ali fast dance with friends because Ash doesn’t trust her fake leg.

She sighs and squeezes her eyes shut. “Stop it, Ashlyn. Just. Stop. It.” She scolds herself...but more and more images fly through her head and she feels depression trying to sneak in as she contemplates a future not even promised to her as yet.


 

The morning after the game those who had played in the game go to an athletic facility pool for some recovery. Ali eases into the pool and starts to carefully move her tired legs through the water. She strokes her fingertips over the surface as she lets her mind wander to where she really wants to be: at the hospital with Ashlyn.

As others join her in the water, she gives them a smile in greeting. Conversations go on around her but she slowly distances herself from her teammates, making her way to the opposite side of the pool. In her mind she sees a future as it could be if Ash loses her lower leg.

Watching Ash get frustrated at a desk job States Side her entire career.

Ash fighting to learning to walk and run again.

Ash chasing after a toddler on just one real leg.

Ash trying to learn to surf with a prosthetic.

Ash slow dancing with Ali, then refusing to fast dance because the soldier doesn’t trust her fake leg.

Ali hates all these negative thoughts but she just can’t shake them. She gets farther from her teammates so she doesn’t have to talk to anyone. She thought she had been sly, that it just looked like she was working her legs and not trying to hide away in her mind. Her back is to her teammates and she is so lost in her own thoughts she doesn’t notice they have gotten suspiciously quiet.

And then she is hit with wave upon wave of water splashing all over her.

“EEEEEEEE!” She squeals as she spins, trying to block the splashing of 13 women, who are laughing and giving it all they can. “STOP! YOU JERKS! STOP!”

“Okay, guys, let’s give her a chance,” Abby says. The splashing stops. “You going to keep hiding away from us and worrying about your wife or do we splash again, Kriegs?”

Ali can’t help but laugh. “Sorry, sorry! I promise to stop wallowing.” She wipes her face. “You know, I was trying to not get my hair wet.”

“I’d say you failed, Kriegs,” Carli jokes.

“No, I’d say I got ambushed. Couldn’t have just spoken to me first?”

“Where would the fun be in that?” Pinoe asks with a grin.

Ali rolls her eyes. “Where indeed?” She walks towards her teammates. “Though I may not agree with your tactics, thank you for getting me out of my head for a bit.”

“Any time, Al,” Lauren tells her sincerely.

“Well, if that’s all settled, can we get back to recovery?” Dawn asks from the side of the pool with a smile.

The team nods and gets back to the water work out that will help with their muscle recovery as they await what will likely be their toughest game of the first round: Sweden. Once Dawn is satisfied all are working, Ali makes her way to Abby.

“Thank you,” she whispers.

Abby smiles. “No thanks needed. We know where you want to be right now. Just keep thinking good thoughts, okay?”

Ali nods. “I’ll try. Promise.”


 

After the pool, the team had changed into shorts and tees for a brief, light workout with weights. Ali is the fourth player to walk into the weight room and almost doesn’t notice her wife sitting on a weight bench. When she finally notices the smiling blonde she comes to a halt. She looks down at Ash’s leg then back up again.

“Where’s your brace?”

Ashlyn shrugs. “Don’t have to wear it for rehab,” she says nonchalantly.

Ali’s eyes widen. “Rehab?”

“Yep. Start with 5 pounds on the leg lift. Will help my calf start to regain strength but won’t pull out the internal sutures that are still doing their job.”

Ali steps closer, her stomach tingling with excitement. “Doing...their job?”

“Do I have to spell it out for you?” Ashlyn teases. “I thought I was the blonde in the relationship.”

“You’re going to be okay?”

“And the lady catches up!” Ashlyn shouts.

Ali races forward and pulls her into a hug. “You’re going to be okay!”

“Yeah, baby, I am. Start rehabbing today. Still use the brace and a cane to walk but can unlock the hinge at the knee. Pretty much just need it for stability while my leg gets used to being mobile again.”

“But you’re going to be okay!”

Ashlyn laughs. “Yes, Alex, I am going to be okay. All of me will be around to annoy you the rest of our lives.”

Ali gives her a deep kiss. “Oh, thank God.”

They share a hug and the team joins in. Soon Ali is spotting her wife as Ashlyn starts down the painful path to getting her leg back up to where it used to be.


 

“Can we get an ice cream? I want to walk down the street eating an ice cream!” Ashlyn begs.

Pinoe looks at her in confusion. “Uh, why?”

“Because I couldn’t while I had crutches,” Ashlyn says as if it’s common sense.

Pinoe, Abby, Whit and Sarah Huffman bust out laughing. Whitney walks over to a street vendor and buys her best friend a drumstick.

“Here you go, 3 year old.”

“Hey! Be nice. I just said goodbye to my family at the airport and I’m just getting mobile again,” Ashlyn scolds.

“Doesn’t mean you’re not a 3 year old,” Whitney counters.

Ashlyn thinks a second then shrugs. “Huh. Maybe you’re right,” she agrees with a grin as she bites into her ice cream.

They walk along, stopping for the players to sign autographs when they get recognized but mostly just enjoying time together. At this moment, Sarah and Ashlyn are again waiting for the players to finish with a group of kids. Ashlyn looks at the shorter woman.

“This is an intervention, isn’t it?”

Sarah smiles. “Yeah, it is. We just want to do a mental check on you, Ash.”

Ashlyn nods. “I get that. I am...better than I was when I first got here but...but still working through a lot of guilt.”

“Survivor’s guilt?” Sarah guesses.

“Yeah,” Ashlyn answers quietly. “Dalton died because he took the seat I normally ride in. I didn’t say anything because he is...was my c.o. so if he wants that seat he gets that seat. The kid in the front seat died, too. I still...don’t know if they might have lived if we’d gotten them out sooner.” She blinks away her tears. “That haunts me, Sar.”

Sarah takes her arm. “Is there a way to find out?”

Ashlyn nods. “Eventually the official report will be published. It will include autopsy info. Until then I just...I just have to answer to Dalton in my dreams.”

“Oh, Ash. Nightmares?” she asks sympathetically.

“Fuck yeah. I’ve learned to control my body so I don’t scream and twitch but the images are there. No one knows but you that they haunt my dreams every night.”

“You need to talk to Ali about them.”

“Can’t. She has the tournament.”

Sarah stops walking and forces Ashlyn to face her. “And if the situation were reversed?”

“Well, I...I, uh...”

“Tell me this: if Ali were hiding shit like this from you, wouldn’t you know and worry more that she won’t confide in you?”

Ashlyn had been prepared for a different question. She had been ready to answer that, yes, Ali would understand hiding it until after the World Cup. She hadn’t expected to be called out on how well they know each other. Ashlyn leans against a wall.

“I’m an ass. She knows, doesn’t she?”

“Of course she does,” Sarah replies. “Why do you think she was so eager to send you out with us?”

Ashlyn sighs and smiles. “I just figured she was the best, most understanding woman in the world.”

“Well, she is. But she also knew you needed to tell us what you are scared to tell her. It would be more unusual if you weren’t having nightmares. Lying about it or hiding it won’t do anyone any good, least of all you. You need to get it all out of your head, Ashlyn, so when you go back you’re healed mentally and physically. You owe it not only to yourself and your family, but you also owe it to your squad.”

Ashlyn lifts off her snapback and runs a hand through her hair. She stares off into the distance as she puts her hat back on. “You’ve given me a lot to think about.”

“Good.” The two start walking again knowing the others will catch up.

“OOO! Let’s go in here!” Ashlyn says excitedly, hurrying into the shop.

Sarah laughs and follows her. “Souvenirs?”

“Yeah! I saw something I want to get Malak!”

Sarah is confused. “Who’s Malak?”

“She’s a little girl that saved my soul,” Ashlyn says as she grabs a stuffed owl, the mascot for the cup. “I saw a little girl with one and I just know Malak will love it. She doesn’t have any toys to call her own so this will be perfect, especially since she has her surgeries and stuff soon.”

Sarah chuckles at how excited Ash is. “So, what’s her whole story? What surgeries?”

Ashlyn tells her about the little girl. By the time she is done Sarah is shaking her head...and grabbing a couple of tee shirts.

“She’ll like these, too.” Ashlyn gives her a look of surprise. Sarah shrugs. “She helped save one of my best friends. Least I can do is get her a couple of shirts.”

Ashlyn smiles. “Thanks, Sarah.”

Once they have their presents for Malak, the two head back onto the street just as the other three arrive. Whitney sees the owl and chuckles.

“Malak?”

“Of course,” Ashlyn answers. “And Sarah got her a couple of shirts, too.”

“Perfect. Let’s keep walking,” Whitney says.

“Who’s Malak?” Pinoe and Abby ask.

Ashlyn just chuckles as Sarah takes both ladies by the arm and tells them the story of the little orphan girl. By the time they get back to the hotel, Malak has a few more toys, some colouring books and more clothes. Ashlyn shakes her head as she packs up the gift.

“You guys are too much. Thank you so much for this.”

“Something tells me if it hadn’t been for her, you’d be in worse shape mentally than you are,” Abby says. “I’d say this is the least we can do for her to thank her.”

Ashlyn smiles as she finishes sealing the box and addressing it to Fliss. Pinoe notices the name.

“Felicia Cousins? Wait...didn’t Ali...never mind...” she shuts up quickly, her cheeks red.

Ashlyn chuckles. “She did and this is her. Fliss and I are good friends and bunk mates.”

“Whoa. Almost incestuous,” Pinoe jokes.

The group laughs. The door to the room opens and Ali walks in.

“Hey, guys! What are you doing?”

“Nothing much. Just sending a care package to your ex-girlfriend for a little orphan girl that Ashlyn adores. Same old same old,” Pinoe jokes.

Ali laughs. “Oh, of course. So did you all have fun?”

Ashlyn pulls her into a hug. “We did. And they will give you a full report on my mental status later.” She stares into Ali’s eyes. “After I have a chance to tell you what I’ve been trying to hide from you. I’m sorry.”

Ali gives her a quick peck. “I think I know why you were hiding things. Just know it only makes me worry about you more.”

Ashlyn nods. “Yeah, I get that now. I’m sorry, baby.”

“Oh, geez, it’s about to get mushy in here,” Whitney says.

“Time to run away!” Pinoe says dramatically.

The others laugh. Everyone exchanges hugs then the visitors leave. Abby even takes the package to make sure it gets mailed out as soon as possible so it can reach Malak before the little girl leaves for the States. Once alone, Ashlyn pulls her wife close.

“Guess what?”

“What?”

Ashlyn gives her wife a deep kiss, her hands slipping up under Ali’s tee. “The doctors cleared me for sex.”

Ali’s eyes darken. “They did? Then why the hell did we spend the afternoon apart?” she asks, her hands going to Ashlyn’s pants.

“Because you knew I needed my friends to help fix my head. I love you, Alex.”

“I love you, too.”

They kiss as their hands continue to roam all over their bodies. Ali pauses when she gets to the brace.

“It’s okay, Alex. I just...can’t be on top,” Ashlyn explains.

Ali grins wolfishly. “That works.”

Ashlyn chuckles as she lies down and Ali quickly divests the taller woman of the brace, her pants and undies. Ali stares down at the sculpted beauty that is her wife.

“How the hell did I get so lucky?”

“I thought I was the lucky one,” Ashlyn says honestly. “Strip for me, baby,” she begs.

Ali smiles at the desire in her wife’s eyes. She lifts off her tee and bra in one go. Ashlyn breathes in sharply as Ali’s nipples harden at the first touch of cool air. Ali then slowly undoes her pants, watching the change in her wife’s breathing. She slides her pants down her legs, turning so Ashlyn can see the thong.

“Oh, fuck, baby. You know what it does to me when I see you in a thong?”

Ali grins over her shoulder. “I do. I read the doctor’s report and dressed appropriately.”

“Oh, fuck...”

“That’s the plan.”

Ali hooks her fingers in the side of the thong and makes a show of sliding it down her legs. She bends, her back still to her wife, showing off the wonder that awaits between her legs. Ashlyn groans.

“Oh, fuck you are so wet.”

Ali turns and carefully climbs on top of her wife. “Only for you.”

She leans down and kisses her wife. The women both moan as their breasts brush against each other. Ali spreads her legs, her moist center coming to rest on her wife’s golden triangle. Ali starts to tremble as strong hands run all over her body. Their kisses deepen. The women are parched for each other. Ali sinks down onto her wife, their bodies molded together. Ashlyn’s hands go to her wife’s strong ass and pull down as she grinds up.

Their kiss finally ends as they both need air. Ali sucks Ashlyn’s earlobe.

“God, I can’t get close enough to you,” the brunette pants.

Ashlyn just moans and thrusts up harder. They start to rock harder and faster against each other. Ali spreads her legs farther than she thought she could when she feels calloused fingers glide from her ass along her hip and then slide between them. She rises enough to give Ashlyn access to her throbbing clit.

“Oh, Ash, yes...fuck me, Ash. Fuck me,” she pleads.

Ashlyn rubs that jewel, making her wife squirm. Ali rocks faster, harder. Sooner than she wanted and yet not soon enough she throws her head back.

“YES! YES! YESSSSSSSSSSSSS!”

Ashlyn also comes as she drives her wife over the edge of passion. Ali stares into dark green eyes. She grins. It isn’t enough for either of them. She scoots down and takes Ashlyn’s breast in her mouth.

“Oh, Alex.”

Ali alternates teasing and sucking those perfect globes. Ashlyn is writhing in delight, her body ramping up once more.

“Alex...need...you...please...”

Ali grins and starts to kiss her way lower, feeling the muscles twitching in Ashlyn’s stomach. Finally Ali is settled between her wife’s legs. She inhales deeply, smiling in pleasure.

“Missed so much about you,” she murmurs. “This was right near the top of the list.”

Ashlyn grins, then throws her head back in pleasure as Ali’s tongue slides up her warm, wet slit. Ali takes her time, pleasuring every bit of her wife’s center. Finally she feels fingers tangle in her hair. She gets the message and latches onto the pulsing clit.

“YES! There! Please!”

Ali suckles hard, her teeth and tongue helping tease the bundle of nerves. As she feels her wife nearing nirvana she brings her hand up and plunges 2 fingers in deep.

“YES! YES! YESSSSSSSSSSSSS! OH, FUCK ME SO GOOD, ALEX!”

Ashlyn’s body convulses as she is ripped through with an orgasm. Ali slides off her wife and cuddles into her side. The women hold each other close as Ali caresses her wife’s stomach and arms until the blonde finally comes down from her high. Ashlyn rolls her head to the side.

“I love you.”

Ali smiles. “I love you, too.”

The share a few gentle kisses. Then a few deeper kisses. And then they are making love once more until Ali’s phone goes off warning them they have a half an hour until team dinner.

“I hate my phone,” the brunette mumbles, her face buried in Ashlyn’s neck.

“Me, too. But you can’t miss dinner, baby. You have a tournament to win.”

Ali smiles and looks at her wife. “I do, don’t I? And we’re going to do it. I really, truly believe we’re going to do it.”

“Damn right you are,” Ashlyn agrees.

The two get up and Ali carefully helps her wife to the bathroom so they can shower off. Ashlyn moans in pleasure.

“Oh, shower, I have missed you,” she says happily, glad to be able to get in there and not have to just have sponge baths to keep her wound from getting wet.

As soon as they are dressed, Ali smiles and kisses her wife again. “I love you so much. Thank you for being here and...and being mostly okay.”

“I love you, too. And I am glad I could make this journey with you but I am sorry it took this wound to do so.”

“Forgiven. This time,” Ali says with a grin.

The two make their way down to the dining room. As they walk in, everyone starts to clap and holler. Both women turn bright red.

“What’s all this about?” Ali asks.

“We stopped by to see if you two wanted to catch a movie. Turns out you were living a porno,” HAO jokes.

The couple blush even more as everyone laughs. Ashlyn shakes her head.

“I just remember why I don’t miss soccer camps,” she mumbles as she limps towards the buffet line.

Ali waits a moment, then looks at HAO. “Don’t be jealous,” she says with a wink then follows her wife.

Her teammates laugh and go back to their dinners. Yep, many things are not sacred when you spend this much time with people.

Chapter Text

“KLIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING!” thousands of people in the stands, in bars, and in front of TVs around the world scream when the shortest member of the USWNT makes the biggest save of the tournament thus far.

Ashlyn spins and high-fives Ken. “I LOVE THAT KID!”

Ken chuckles. “Me, too. What a play!”

“Every coach needs to show that to their defenders! THAT is how you help your keeper defend a free kick that close!” Ashlyn states.

Ken nods as others in the USA family section turn their attention back to the game against Sweden. They had known going in it would be tough. Pia knew the players well and her game plan reflected that.

Conversely, the Americans had known that and were doing their best to mix things up, switch up play, and frustrate the skilled Swedish front line.

And when the whistle blows after 90 minutes, both teams can walk proudly off the field with a 0-0 tie. The chance to win the group was still open to both teams but with 4 points to Sweden’s 2, the US was definitely in control. And with Australia getting 3 points vs Nigeria, it is conceivable Pia’s team will not even advance to the next round.

Ashlyn shakes her head as she walks back to the hotel with Ali’s parents. “I would have never picked Sweden to be on the verge of elimination.”

“Australia is looking good. My prediction is they beat Sweden and take second in the group,” Deb states.

Ken nods. “Good call. Sweden’s only hope is a win or draw or they go home. Group of Death indeed!”

Ashlyn nods, her mind on the amazing play of her wife. She smiles. “Alex was incredible tonight.”

“The whole back line was,” Ken points out. “But if I admit my bias I’d say my princess was the best back there.”

Ash grins. “I agree with your bias but she was still amazing. Her first touch is ALWAYS so perfect! It sets up her second touch and from there the field is her playground. She’s just...amazing.”

Deb and Ken exchange a grin. They had never doubted Ashlyn’s love for their daughter. Time, it seems, had not dimmed the blonde’s opinion that the sun rose and set with their little girl. Deb links arms with her daughter-in-law.

“You’re so cute,” she giggles, just like her daughter.

Ashlyn looks at her in confusion as Ken just chuckles.


 

When the team arrives at the hotel they are greeted with throngs of fans chanting for them. They can’t stop smiling. The game may have been a tie but they are being celebrated like winners. They are at the top of the Group of Death and many sports commentators (like Alexi Lalas--the anti-WNT jerk) had expected them to be eliminated or squeak their way into the elimination rounds.

As Ali makes her way into the large conference room with the families, she races into her wife’s arms. Ashlyn holds her close.

“You were fantastic tonight, Alex. So fucking good,” Ashlyn whispers.

“Thank you, baby. But it was a team effort.”

Ashlyn leans back and smiles. “Screw the line you all spew to the cameras. You were MVP in my book.”

Ali grins and gives her a peck. “Thank you. But Kling was the real hero.”

“Oh, definitely. But I’m not trying to get into her shorts,” Ashlyn points out with a smirk.

Ali slaps her on the shoulder and goes to greet her parents. Ashlyn walks over and pats Kling on the back.

“Hell of a save! Every kid in the world needs to watch that and learn why they are told NOT to leave that line.”

Kling grins, riding a high after the big save. “Thanks! I mean, it was a team effort and, actually, really lucky that it came right at my forehead but it was so cool and I was so glad to see it bounce back out of the box and- -”

“Whoa!” Ashlyn says, laughing. “Deep breath, Kling.”

Kling laughs. “Sorry. Just super pumped!”

“You deserve to be.”

Ashlyn pats her on the back and moves on as others come to congratulate the diminutive defender on potentially the save of the tournament. Ashlyn sits down beside her wife. Ali immediately turns so she can lean back against her. Ashlyn kisses her temple.

“Need a drink or anything, sweetheart?” Ashlyn asks.

“Dad’s getting me some pasta and a water.”

“Okay,” Ashlyn says as her hand starts to rub up and down Ali’s arm.

Ali lays her head on Ash’s shoulder. “Have I told you lately how glad I am to have you here?”

Ashlyn smiles. “I can stand to hear it again.”

Ali turns to kiss her chin. “I am so glad you’re here. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Ash kisses her temple again as Ali sits up to eat her just delivered meal. After a couple of bites, she looks around the table. She sighs and sets her fork down.

“And now we address the elephant in the room?” she asks.

“It’s just...you know...BC Place,” her mother says nervously.

“Where my Olympic dreams were stolen,” Ali finishes. “Trust me: I know. Dawn and Jill have both spoken to me about it. So has HAO and Hope and everyone else. I will tell you what I told them: this time, I will WALK off that field with my head held high a winner.”

Ashlyn smiles as Ken claps his daughter on the back. “That’s my girl!” he says proudly.

“Are you sure?” Deb asks. “I personally still hate that field.”

“Me, too,” Ali admits. “But I’m not going to bench myself or psych myself out. That field is not beating me again. Case closed.” She lifts her fork to eat some more, ending the conversation.

Ashlyn glances around. She stares down Deb, who looks like she wants to protest some more. Deb wisely closes her mouth even though as a mother, she just wants to protect her daughter. And as if they knew it was needed to ease the tension, Ali’s phone goes off. She pulls it out of her pocket and frowns at the number.

“I don’t know who this is,” she says.

Ashlyn glances over her shoulder. “Hey! That’s Tiffany’s number!”

Ali smiles. “Oh!” She quickly opens the text and grins. “LOOK! Malak coloured a picture for me! The message says: We watched you guys play. Great job. Malak made this for you.”

She opens the picture and smiles when she sees Dora the Explorer playing soccer. Her jersey even has a drawn in #11 on it. Ashlyn grins.

“I had no idea she’d watch the game and understand who you are. That is so cool.”

“Yeah, it is!” Ali smiles then her smile fades. “Uh, Ash, why does Tiffany have my number?”

Ashlyn blushes. “Um, in case she or Malak needed anything and couldn’t reach me,” she admits.

The table laughs as Ali shakes her head. “You are too cute. But no handing out my number again, young lady.”

Ashlyn nods. “Yes, ma’am.”

The group goes back to their meals. Ashlyn can’t help but kiss her wife’s cheek when she sees Ali set her background to the picture coloured by a little Iraqi orphan girl.


 

“AND WAMBACH’S GOAL IS ALL THEY NEED! USA CRUISES INTO THE ELIMINATION ROUNDS WITH A 1-0 WIN OVER NIGERIA!”

Ashlyn wishes her leg was strong enough for her to jump for joy. A 1-0 win means 7 points and the team has won the Group of Death!

On the field, the players are just as excited. They hug and celebrate. Then Abby gets them all together.

“We won the group and that’s fucking fantastic! But let’s not celebrate too much. We’ve got our eyes on something more than bragging rights. We’ve got our eyes on something 16 fucking years missing from our country. Four more games, ladies. Four fucking more games!”

“FOUR MORE!” the team chants.

They then separate to walk the stadium and thank their fans. HAO walks up and throws her arm around Ali’s shoulders.

“BC Place 0 - Ali Freakin’ Krieger 1!” she says.

Ali laughs. “And I plan to go 2-0 with a win in the final!”

They laugh and nod as they walk along, waving and thanking their fans. When they get to the family section, Ali blows a kiss to her soldier. Ashlyn pretends to catch it and places it on her heart. Ali giggles, her nose crinkling adorably.

“KREIGER!” Jill calls. “PRESS WANTS TO TALK TO YOU!”

Ali groans and looks at HAO. “So marriage or the memories of this place?” she asks, wondering why she was picked for this press conference.

HAO laughs. “Both!”

Ali nods, knowing her friend is probably right. She hurries to the locker room to get a shower and change into her warm-ups so she can do the press circus. She finds Abby and Pinoe already in there getting ready.

“I hate these things,” Ali grumbles.

“Me, too,” says Pinoe. “I’m far too shy and reserved for the press.”

Abby and Ali both freeze and slowly turn to look at her. Pinoe finally bursts out laughing.

“Oh, geez...not sure I how I kept a straight face for that one!” Pinoe says.

Ali rolls her eyes. “Well, I really am too shy for this stuff. I always sound awkward and uncomfortable.”

“Just imagine them all naked,” Pinoe suggests.

Ali lifts an eyebrow. “If they all looked like Kelley Smith no problem. But have you seen some of these guys?”

Abby laughs. “Good point. Just relax and know they are talking to you because they respect you as a player and a representative of the United States. You’ve earned the positive attention, Kriegs. Roll with it.”

Ali lets out a breath as she grabs her towel. “Right. Roll with it. Easy to say hard to do.”

Thirty minutes later the three players join their coach for the media throng. Ali sits at one end, hoping they will ignore her and concentrate on the greatness of Abby and the hilarity of Pinoe. And for the first 15 minutes, they do. Then a woman stands and looks right at Ali. The defender feels butterflies take flight.

“Ali, this is for you,” the woman says.

“Okay,” Ali replies with a smile.

“I’m with The Advocate and just want to say how great it is to have players like you, Abby, and Pinoe out and proud.” All three players smile. “I was wondering, though, is it hard to concentrate on soccer when your wife is in a war zone?”

Ali slowly nods. “I’ll admit there have been times when my mind was more on her than on the pitch but my teammates have been great about cheering me up and keeping me focused. And despite the horrible wound that brought her here I’m glad she is here sharing this experience with me. Her love and support through the years kept me going when it would have been easier to quit. She’s earned this journey.”

The woman smiles and sits down. Another man stands, he glares at Ali.

“This is also a question for MISS Krieger,” he says, emphasizing the “Miss” and ignoring the -Harris. Ali just nods. “Don’t you think it’s despicable that your so-called wife breaks a nail doing a man’s job and gets a government paid trip to this tournament? I mean, we have real soldiers dying over there and getting real injuries.” People, reporters and USWNT supporters alike start to yell at the man. He just speaks over them. “I MEAN, REALLY! HER ALLEDGED INJURY IS A JOKE! AND LET’S FACE IT: YOU’RE MIND ISN’T ON THE TEAM IT’S ON YOUR ILLICIT AND IMMORAL AFFAIR WITH ANOTHER WOMAN!”

Ali leaps up, her eyes boring into the man. “My wife nearly lost her leg and still has weeks of rehab left before she can go back into the field. And mark my words, she WILL go back into the field to continue to do her job with the Corps of Engineers. She will help rebuild Iraq and when that tour ends she will go to disaster scenes around the world to help locals rebuild while ignorant shitheads like you spout bullshit!”

Abby and Pinoe grab Ali and pull her from the mic, also preventing her from going over the table at the jerk. Jill points to the man as she looks at security. “Get him the hell out of here! He is no longer welcome at our press conferences. And I will make sure other federations are made aware of his ignorance.”

Pinoe and Abby get Ali back in her seat and calmed down. Then man is escorted out, now shouting about the degradation of society due to the homosexual agenda. After he is gone, Jill looks out at the gathered reporters.

“I would like to think all of you will ignore his insults and recognize that Lieutenant Ashlyn Harris has time and time again risked life and limb for our country. Her actions even helped us when the team was caught up in a bad earthquake in Japan last year. She nearly lost her leg to an IED and is still walking with a brace and cane while she recovers. She is a hero and should be honored as such. Additionally, the spouses of our brave military men and women have to go through their everyday routines with a burden on their heart that we can’t even begin to imagine. Ali Krieger-Harris shows up every day, be it practice or a game, and gives her 110% to this team. She has been nothing but professional as a player and supportive as a teammate and friend. No one will question her integrity in front of me. I will not stand for it or allow it to go unpunished.”

The reporters and players clap at the words and indignation of the coach. Jill walks over to Ali.

“You good, Kriegs?”

Ali smiles. “After that speech, Coach, I’d better be.”

Jill chuckles. “Meant every word.” She pats Ali on the shoulder and returns to her seat. “So, any other soccer-related questions?”

The quartet fields questions for another 20 minutes before the conference ends. As they are leaving, a reporter from ESPN the Magazine stops Ali.

“Ali, just want you to know we’re still in full support of you and your wife. Forget idiots like they one taken out of here. They are the minority in the world of sports journalism.”

Ali smiles and pats his hand. “Thank you for saying that. I really do appreciate everything you all have done for me and the team over the years.”

“No problem. I look forward to seeing you in our body issue in July.”

Ali’s smile broadens. “I can’t wait!”

In the van on the way back to the hotel, Abby looks at Ali. “So, Ashlyn was okay with you doing the Body Issue?”

Ali nods. “I think she was hesitant at first because so many guys she works with read ESPN but she figured with all that people find on the internet it was better for me to control what people will see rather than let photoshopped pics come out or something.”

“And if any of her men post your naked body on their bunk wall?” Pinoe asks with a grin.

“Oh, she’ll strip them naked and leave them in the desert. For sure,” Ali says, her face serious though her eyes sparkle in amusement.

The group laughs and all believe Ashlyn really would use such a punishment to defend her wife’s honour.


 

Ali had gotten permission to spend the night with her wife. (In fact, all players were given the option to spend the night with their partners and most took advantage of it.) She wakes before Ashlyn and just stares down at the beauty as she sleeps. She gently lifts a lock of hair off the woman’s cheek and eases it to the side. In sleep her face is unlined, unguarded. She is as innocent as a babe.

But she’s not innocent, is she? She has seen the best and worst humanity has to offer in countries torn apart by war or natural disasters. She has seen friends hurt or killed. She has ordered her people to fight and shot enemies herself. No, Ashlyn is not innocent. But she still has a kind heart and gentle soul.

Ali leans down and gives her a soft kiss on the cheek, whispering to her. “My soldier...I hope you know how much I love you. I hope I’ve properly conveyed that in my actions and my words. You are a true hero. I hear people calling me and the rest of the team heroes but it’s soldiers like you that are real heroes. You won’t get a trophy for your actions. Medals and awards are earned by your blood, not for kicking a soccer ball around. Thank you for all you do. And thank you for loving me the way that you do.”

Ali leans down and kisses her wife’s lips. As she lifts her head, she sees hazel eyes looking up at her. “Thank you for loving me, too,” Ashlyn whispers.

Ali blushes. “Did you...hear all that?”

Ashlyn smiles. “Yes. I was about to tell you to stop staring at me and go back to sleep.” She pulls her wife so that she is on top of her. “You and the team are heroes, too, Alex. You show little girls it’s okay to play sports and succeed and to follow their dreams. So many of you have fought back from potential career ending injuries you show them anything is possible. And Cap, hell, Cap shows girls and women both that you can be a kickass mom while still pursuing your athletic dreams. Don’t sell yourself short, Alex. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes and uniforms. And the trophy you will hoist at the end of this tournament is just as important as any medal pinned to my chest.”

Ali smiles and leans down to kiss her wife. Deeply. Both moan. Ali leans up. “You say such beautiful things to me. You always have. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

The two start to make love...but Ali’s phone goes off. The women moan again...but not for a good reason.

“I am really, really coming to hate your phone,” Ashlyn grumbles.

“Me, too. Think Dawn would accept making love to you all morning as proper post-game recovery?”

Ashlyn laughs. “Probably not. Good try, though.”

They share another kiss and Ali regretfully gets up. She looks at her wife. “Join me in the shower?”

“Hell no! I can sleep another hour,” Ashlyn jokes and rolls over, snuggling back under the covers.

Ali chuckles. “Jerk.”

She goes in and turns on the shower. Once it is heated up she climbs in.

And a few minutes later she smiles as she is joined by her wife. Turns out by mixing shower and sex they can both start off the morning right while making sure Ali makes it to the van on time.


 

Though the team had weathered a missed penalty kick by the world’s greatest goal scorer and yellow card accumulation by Pinoe and Lauren, they were past Columbia and working on the game against China. The entire midfield was being redone to accommodate 2 new players into the mix.

But the backline, the Department of Defense, the Brick Wall, was remaining unchanged.

The team is getting a water break during a walk through the day of the game when Jill decides to check her phone. She lets out a whoop of joy that draws everyone’s attention.

“They did it! We did it!”

“Dude...Coach’s lost it. We haven’t won the cup yet,” Pinoe notes dryly, causing several people to chuckle.

Jill sneers at her. “You owe me 10 laps for that remark.” She holds up her phone. “Ladies and gents,” she nods to the male coaches, “the US Supreme Court has decided Gay Marriage is now the LAW OF THE LAND!”

The players all cheer. Though most are straight, they are all fervent supporters of their lesbian and bisexual teammates. There are hugs and high fives all around as they celebrate.

“I’m so glad Ash and I don’t have to live in sin anymore!” Ali says.

“That’s right! You gals in Virginia were just asking for a turn in jail!” Alex jokes.

“Exactly. And can you picture Ash with a building full of women lusting after Ali?” Sydney laughs.

Ali grins and nods, knowing it could get ugly. “I’m just glad no more couples will have to go through the craziness Ash and I did. You know, getting married legally in Maryland because we couldn’t in Florida. It was tough to get everything done. I am so damn proud of our Supreme Court!”

“We need to do something special!” Pinoe says. “Well, those of us that can. In the game tomorrow some sort of goal celebration.”

“But not on the first goal,” Carli cautions. “That’s just asking for an equalizer.”

The others nod and decide that should a second goal be scored, the field players would run to the sidelines and all the players would raise their arms in a triangle, signifying support for the LGBT community and celebrating the ruling. Pinoe flops on the ground.

“I can’t BELIEVE I can’t play in this game and be the gay-goal scorer!”

Everyone cracks up, knowing Pinoe’s celebration probably would have been more than just a triangle. Jill nudges her with her foot.

“Just behave in the stands, Pinoe. Don’t want FIFA deciding you can’t play the rest of the tournament because you did something insane.”

“Don’t worry, Coach, I’ll keep her on a short leash,” Lauren promises.

The team laughs and gets up to go through a couple more plays to help Morgan Brian feel more confident about getting the start, and to let KO and ARod get some passes in with the others in the starting line-up.

On the sideline, Jill smiles. Yep, the depth of this team is phenomenal. They are not going to lose this game...or the Cup!


 

An early near miss by ARod energizes the US Team. They keep the pressure on, weathering near miss after near miss. A rousing (and curse-filled) pep talk by Abby just before the second half starts seems to galvanize the team even more.

A beautiful long ball in by JJ turns into a perfectly placed header by Carli Lloyd. The team races after their ecstatic captain who decides the corner flag deserves a karate kick. It must have been taunting her.

“CARLI!” Ali screams as she hugs #10.

The group laughs as the flag, caught in between them all, smacks everyone in the face.

A few minutes later KO shows the world the difference between the men’s game and the women’s game. She takes a head check to the face, bloodies her nose...and keeps on playing until the ref makes her step off for treatment. No diving. No rolling around as if needing life support. No whining. She showed the world that women play like badasses!

And then in the 73rd minute, it all plays out like a fairy tale. Tobin sends a ball in long, Brian collects it and sends it into the box, where a Chinese defender clears it out. Ali receives it, takes one touch to settle it and then she rips the ball towards the goal. It hits the far upper corner and ricochets into the back of the net. The. Team. Goes. Wild!

JJ gets to her first and leaps into her arms. “KRIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIEGS!”

The rest of the defenders pile on as the rest of the team joins in the scrum. Ali can barely believe it!

“LET’S DO IT!” she shouts.

The team races to the sideline and looks up into the stands. All 23 players, those on the sideline and the 2 in the stands, raise their hands in the LGBT awareness triangle. The crowd roar increases! As the team breaks up to go get ready for the kickoff, Ali pauses long enough to touch her chest and kiss her ring finger as she stares up towards where she knows her wife is watching.


 

Up in the stands, Ashlyn is wishing she could jump up and down. She and Deb embrace the minute the goal is signaled.

“THAT’S MY GIRL!” Deb yells.

“GO ALEX!” Ashlyn screams, ignoring the confused stares of nearby fans wondering why she is cheering for Alex Morgan.

“Can you believe that?” Ken asks incredulously. “I’ve worked with her on that shot for YEARS! Did you see that?”

Everyone in the stands is screaming for joy. And when the team runs to the sideline to do their tribute to the Supreme Court case, the crowd screams even louder. Ashlyn has tears in her eyes...that escape when she sees Ali’s special tribute to her wife.

“I LOVE YOU, ALEX!” Ashlyn screams, even though she knows her wife won’t hear her.

Deb gives her daughter-in-law a kiss on the cheek. Ashlyn smiles and hugs her close as the teams get ready to start play once more.


 

Ali races at her wife, just barely controlling the urge to leap into her arms. Ashlyn grabs her and pulls her close.

“I am so fucking proud of you, baby! That goal was...was fucking amazing!”

“I still can’t believe I did that! That was...was...I mean, wow!” Ali says, her nose crinkling smile shining at full wattage.

“It’s just more proof you are the best damn player in the world,” Ash states honestly. “You see the whole field, baby, and tonight you showed that. Great fucking strike!”

They share a kiss and Ashlyn pulls her close once more. Someone taps on the soldier’s shoulder.

“Any chance we can congratulate your wife?” Ken asks with a grin.

Ashlyn pretends to think about it. “Wellllll, since you created her, I guess so,” she concedes and steps away so Ken and Deb can hug their girl.

“You were just brilliant out there!” Deb gushes. “Like, even better than that goal kick against Brazil!”

Ali chuckles. “So should we do another Studio 90 so you can tell them you didn’t think I had it in me?” she teases.

“Nooooooo!” Deb says with a smile. “I think if they ask I will say I always knew you had a goal like that in you.”

Ali hugs her close. “Good call, Mom.”

Ken pulls his daughter into a hug next. “So proud of you, Princess! How many times did we go over that shot?”

Ali laughs. “Enough times I’d start to get pissed at you when you said, ‘One more time’,” she admits.

“And now you say?”

Ali rolls her eyes. “Thank you, Daddy,” she says with a grin.

Family members of other players come over to congratulate Ali on the amazing strike, some even calling it a goal of the tournament contender. She blushes and thanks everyone. Ashlyn stands a little away, watching with pride as her wife gets praise she often doesn’t get. Normally Ali is praised as a part of a whole: the backline. But now she is getting praise for her singular spectacular abilities. It was well overdue and very much deserved.

“If you smile any wider you’ll break your face,” Whitney teases her best friend.

“Can’t help it,” Ashlyn shrugs. “I’m so damn proud of her and just love that she’s done something to show she’s not just the best right back in the world but one of the best players period!”

Whitney grins. “Gee, Ash, I think you might be in love.”

Ashlyn chuckles and glances at Whit. “Damn. Thought I was hiding it better.”

The two laugh as Ali continues to bask in glory rarely bestowed upon a defender. And Ash can’t wait until they are alone so she can show her wife just how proud she is of her.


 

A/N: Okays, so Ali’s shot hit that corner and ricocheted out in real life. Don’t you love creative license? Lol. And word was the team had something planned for a second goal in that game to celebrate the SCOTUS decision. Not sure what it was but the triangle worked for me. :o)

Chapter Text

Ali is smiling as she holds Ashlyn’s hand. The couple is walking through downtown Montreal with Ali’s Mom, Dad, stepdad and step-mother-to-be. Ashlyn is telling a hilarious story where one of her soldiers accidentally agreed to marry a sheepherder’s daughter.

“So by the time the translator gets through the celebrating crowd, the corporal has flowers around his neck and is dancing with his potential mother-in-law. The translator asked what the hell was going on. And the corporal looks at him, all innocence and ignorance, and says, ‘I guess they are really happy about us rebuilding their town well.’ The translator rolled his eyes and says, ‘You, dumb insert bad word here, that’s an engagement dance. Who the hell are you marrying?’ And the guys face just falls.” Ashlyn pauses, remembering the look on the kids face. “I thought he was going to run the two hours back to basecamp!”

Deb laughs and pats Ashlyn on the arm. “Oh, that poor boy!”

“Poor boy, nothing. What about his ditched fiancé?” Ken’s girlfriend, Vicki, asks.

Ashlyn grins. “Well, since he had insulted her and her family by backing out of the wedding, he had to pay a dowry for her.”

“Oh, dear, that couldn’t have been cheap,” Ken notes as Vicki pokes him playfully.

Ashlyn chuckles. “Nope, it wasn’t. The father demanded the corporal’s head or my watch.” She pauses and winks. “I let Mathers sweat it for 2 hours before I gave up my Ironman Dive Watch.”

“Oooo! Not cheap!” Deb’s husband notes.

“Not at all,” Ashlyn agrees. “Had to do all the official paperwork to dock him $5 a paycheck until he pays me back. And he had to pull the worst duties the next 3 call-outs we had.”

Ken laughs and shakes his head. “I know you all tell these guys to watch what they say and do. Bet it’s a lesson he’ll never forget.”

“No kidding!” Ashlyn states. “Only reason he didn’t lose a stripe is I put him in charge of explaining rules to the newcomers and ordered him to use his story to illustrate why you never make contact with the locals without the translator there to help.”

“And she let me have five minutes with him via Skype since I bought her that watch,” Ali says with a sly grin. “I only needed 3 to have him in tears,” she finishes proudly as the others laugh.

“Well, Ash, your job certainly does have its fair share of ups and downs,” Deb notes.

“Definitely. In fact, did I mention the town where- -”

“HELP! HE STOLE MY PURSE! POLICE!”

The group turns their attention towards the screaming woman. Ashlyn sees a young man racing towards the group and immediately puts Ali back in a protected position. As the guy gets close, Ashlyn throws her cane like a spear right between his knees. She grins as it trips him up and sends him sprawling into the pavement. Two guys who had seen and heard what happened leap on his back and pin him to the ground. Two police officers race up and start to cuff the kid as Deb picks up the woman’s purse.

“Here you go,” she says as she hands it to the woman.

The woman pulls Deb into a hug. “Thank you so much!”

“Actually, it was Ashlyn that stopped him,” Deb points out.

Ashlyn blushes and nods her head towards the men in AOKC shirts who had pinned the guy. “It was a team effort. Just glad we stopped him before he got away with your purse.”

The police pull the guy to his feet. His head hangs low. Ashlyn carefully limps over to him and forces him to look up. He’s maybe 16 at best.

“You did something really stupid today. Trust me when I say when I was your age I had nothing and did stupid things, too. You can either use what happened today to turn your life around or you can continue to do stupid things. The world is a whole lot better when you choose the right path,” she tells him.

The boy just shrugs as the police drag him towards a patrol car that had just arrived. Ali walks up and wraps her arm around Ashlyn’s waist, her chin resting on her wife’s shoulder as they watch the boy get questioned.

“That was sweet of you to say to him, baby. Just another reason I love you.”

Ash smiles and leans her head against Ali’s. “Someone once told me something similar. If they hadn’t...” she turns and kisses Ali’s temple. “...I wouldn’t have you. Maybe someday he’ll tell a kid the same thing, remembering when a stranger gave him some good advice.”

Ali smiles. “I hope so, baby. I hope so.”

As the two turn back to the defender’s parents, they see Ken holding Ashlyn’s cane. The soldier winces.

“Well, damn...”

The metal can is bent in three places. Ali shakes her head.

“Can’t give you anything nice. First a watch, now a cane. You just can’t keep your things, woman!”

Ashlyn takes the cane, which her wife had, indeed, bought for her. The black one issued by the army was fine for when she was in uniform but Ali had seen one with a splashy array of colours and knew her wife would love it. Ashlyn shakes her head as she looks at it.

“Sorry, honey. I really, really liked it, too.” She glances down at her leg. “Uh, I guess I need to get a cab back to the hotel. No way I can make the walk back without my cane.” She looks at everyone. “You all go on and keep having fun.”

“That doesn’t seem right,” Vicki says. “We can go back with you and then start out again.”

Ashlyn smiles. “Nah, I’ll go and when I get my cane I’ll find out where you are and catch up to you.”

“Are you sure?” Deb asks.

“I’m sure,” Ashlyn insists. She nods towards Ali, who is signing the AOKC shirts and getting pics with the guys. “Besides, let her enjoy the day out. It’s helping to clear her head and it makes her happy to make fans happy. I like when people remind her how wonderful she is because she doesn’t believe it most times. That’s what matters most to me.”

Deb gives her a kiss on the cheek. “Okay, we’ll go. But join us as soon as you can.”

“I will. Promise.” Ashlyn waits until Ali finishes then tells her the plan. “So you go and enjoy your parental units while I fetch my other cane.”

Ali bites her lip. “Are you really sure?”

“I’m really sure,” Ashlyn insists. “Go. That’s an order, Private,” she jokes.

Ali lifts an eyebrow. “Call me ‘Private’ again and you don’t have to worry about catching up to us. I am at least a general in your life, woman,” she teases back.

Ashlyn laughs and pulls her into a hug. “I love you.”

“I love you, too. See you soon.”

Ashlyn nods and steps into the cab Ken has hailed for her. Ali watches it pull away then sighs.

“She has no idea how wonderful she is sometimes,” she notes.

Ken smiles. “She said the same thing about you.”

Ali laughs and rolls her eyes. “Why am I not surprised?”

The group laughs and moves on, looking in little shops and talking, just enjoying time together between games.


 

Ali is looking at some shirt and bowtie sets when her mother walks up and stares down at them. “I like that one,” she says, pointing to a hot pink button down with a dark green bowtie.

Ali nods. “I do, too. I mean, I know she doesn’t get a lot of time to dress up in anything other than her blues and...and she’s...going back to Iraq soon.” She drops the shirt down. She sighs sadly. “She’s going back soon,” she repeats with quiet emotion.

Deb wraps her arm around Ali and leads her to a dressing room so they have some privacy. “We all wondered when that would hit you.”

Ali leans into her mother’s hug, tears rolling down her cheeks. “She wasn’t sitting in her seat, Mom. Major Dalton took her seat. He died and she got injured. But for that strange turn of fate...God, Mom, I almost lost her!”

“I know, baby. But you didn’t. Keep that in mind. Yes, she’s hurt but she’s alive.”

“But what about next time? What if she’s not so lucky?”

Deb holds her daughter a moment. “Baby, I know what you want me to say but I won’t say it. All we can do is pray she stays safe. I can’t promise she won’t get hurt again...or...or worse. I wish I could but I can’t.”

“Lie to me?” Ali pleads.

Deb eases her back and stares into her eyes. “No. Because...because if something does happen, you’ll need to lean on me. And I won’t make you feel like you can’t trust me or that I lied to make it easy for me. I won’t disrespect you that way.”

Ali leans her head on her mother’s shoulder again. “Why do you have to be right all the time?”

Deb smiles. “It’s a ‘mother thing’. When you have kids you’ll understand there are times to lie and times to be brutally honest.”

“Ugh. Remind me to rethink kids.”

Deb laughs. “Right. Something tells me post Olympics next year I’ll be asking Grandma Harris to teach me to knit baby booties.”

Ali grins, blushing. “Yeah, well...hopefully.”

“So, you okay now?”

“Yeah. Let’s go buy Ashlyn a shirt and tie set,” Ali says.

“Perfect plan,” Deb says.

Ali checks the mirror and touches up her make-up. As they open the door of the dressing room, they find Ashlyn standing there. The blonde frowns, recognizing her wife has been crying.

“Your Dad said you two walked this way. What’s wrong?”

“Oh, um, I, uh...was trying on these clothes but they looked terrible,” Ali says, grabbing items left by the previous user of that room.

Ashlyn looks at the clothes, then to her wife, then the clothes again. “Uh...probably because they are the wrong size? And, well, are hideous?” she suggests.

Ali and Deb take a look at the clothes. Deb starts to giggle as Ali blushes. The gaudy style was definitely not what the defender normally wears. Not to mention they were at least 5 sizes larger than she normally wears. Ali looks to her wife.

“I...was...thinking of changing my look.”

“Don’t. Trust me,” Ashlyn states, her eyes filled with horror at the idea of her wife in those clothes.

The trio heads out and finds everyone else. Ali grabs the shirt set and smiles at her wife.

“For our next date night. You can wear your black slacks and a black blazer with them.”

Ashlyn smiles. “Perfect, honey. I love them.”

As the group walks on, Deb walks with her daughter as Ashlyn walks with Ken. After a few moments, she has to ask.

“So, am I right about post-Olympics?”

Ali laughs and rolls her eyes. “Mom! Geez, are you kidding me? Kinda thinking about the World Cup right now.”

“Right. Right. I know. Sorry,” Deb apologizes. She pauses a moment. “But if you weren’t thinking about the World Cup or the Olympics would you be- -”

“MOM!” Ali blurts, laughing.

Deb laughs and pulls her close. “Okay, Okay, I’ll stop. For now. But I’m not getting any younger and would love to start spoiling grandkids sooner rather than later.” She holds up her hands to stop Ali’s rant. “Just making it known I’m there for support when you two start the process.”

Ali shakes her head, grinning. “Good to know. I promise: when it does happen, whenever it happens, I will keep you in the loop, okay?”

“Okay. At least I have time to learn to knit.”

The two giggle and follow the others into a coffee shop.