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...after all this time, it's still you.

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It still hurts.

As much as she wants to say it doesn’t, as much as she wants to be okay again, to feel okay…it still hurts.

Hope is starting to worry that maybe it always will.

She is especially worried that it will always hurt as the plane begins its shaky descent into Washington D.C.

Hope has never liked flying. There was a time when she found it embarrassing, her fear of airplanes—she flew all the time, she was a grown woman, she was Hope Solo for God’s sake, and Hope Solo wasn’t supposed to be scared of anything because Hope Solo was a savior, a legend, a rock. She could take a Benadryl, wash it down with some lukewarm water, and be out the entire flight, headphones in and nobody bothering her.

It’s different now. She’s different now. And she doesn’t want to admit it—to herself, to her therapist, to her team—but she's soft. She’ll be damned if she ever admits it, but she’s soft now. And she’s strangely okay with it. So she doesn’t take a Benadryl during the safety briefing or put in her headphones. She doesn’t hide her audible gasp when the plane makes a sudden jolt and her stomach feels like it was left at 37,000 feet. She doesn’t refrain from grasping the arm rests and holding on so tightly her knuckles are white. And she doesn’t pull away when the old woman in the seat next to her puts a soft hand on her arm.

“I never did like the landing either,” the woman says sympathetically, offering Hope a gentle smile. “This your first time flying?”

Hope thinks carefully about her response, because that’s what she does now. She thinks before she speaks—thinks before she does everything. And she has to remind herself—you are not old Hope anymore. You are not supposed to cold to the world anymore. So she smiles back at the woman and explains, “It’s actually probably my five hundred and first time. I’ve just never been good with the takeoff…or the landing…or the time in between takeoff and landing.”

The woman laughs…maybe a little too loud, Hope thinks.

It hurts.

She grits her teeth. "Be nice. You are not supposed to be cold to world anymore," she says in her mind.

“Oh sweetie, it only gets worse!” the woman says, a little too close to Hope’s face. Normally Hope would have said something back, something dry and sarcastic, along the lines of "thanks for the encouragement, but she instead just offers a pained smile and reminds herself that she is not old Hope anymore.

The aircraft touches down on the tarmac a few minutes after the expected arrival time. The landing is bumpy, almost scarily so, the man a row in front of Hope agrees, and they have to wait on the runway for an extra ten minutes for gate space.

Hope is relieved.

When they finally get to the gate, she is suddenly grateful for her “C” group boarding pass that seemed so degrading at first—she is an Olympic gold medalist, she has flown hundreds of times, she cannot fly unless she has a window seat—because it landed her a seat at the very back of the plane. She takes her sweet time letting everyone else off before her, telling herself it’s polite and noble and the right thing to do, and new Hope always tries to do the right thing. So she slowly slips her shoes back on, slowly zips To Kill a Mockingbird into her bag, slowly gets her duffle bag down from the overhead bin. She is the last one off the plane, and she makes sure to thank the flight crew thoroughly for getting her to her destination safely.

 

The airport is too bright.

That’s what Hope notes before anything else, before she notices the nauseating smell of a greasy pizza joint and Auntie Anne’s pretzels, before she notices that she’s going the wrong way toward the baggage carousel, before she notices the elderly woman from the plane hugging her family as they all talk too loud and cry.

It hurts.

The second she leaves the jetway and steps into the airport, she’s squinting. The sun is flooding in through the floor-to-ceiling windows and it’s too damn bright. Her eyes are watering and she is blinking hard to adjust, but it’s too bright. It’s too bright and her eyes hurt and her nose is running now and she's feeling overwhelmed. It’s too bright and the people are too loud and there are too many of them and she’s lost, damn it. She wants to go buy a ticket straight back to Seattle, she wants to go home and just let her team be disappointed and she wants to tell them she got the stomach bug and couldn’t come.

But new Hope keeps her promises, and she promised them—she promised Abby and Christie and Ashlyn and…and damn it, she promised Kelley too—that she would be there.

So new Hope takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, tries to ignore the smell of cinnamon sugar and pizza grease, and wills herself to not lose it in the middle of the airport. New Hope finds an airport map and takes the right turn for her baggage claim. New Hope does not take the easy way out and sprint to find the nearest airline ticket counter. And New Hope does not send a group text about her nonexistent stomach bug.

The baggage claim is mostly deserted by the time Hope has found her way there. She’s taken her time; only three or four bags remain circling the carousel. Nearby, a few clusters of people wait for the airport shuttle with their suitcases an arm’s length away, ready to be whisked onto a crowded shuttle bus and taken to their destination. For a moment, Hope does not see her black U.S. Soccer suitcase and wants to take it as a sign—the airline lost her luggage, and she can’t stay on the other side of the country without her luggage, so she should just go back home—but it is the next bag to make a lap on the carousel.

Hope sighs. She’s officially run out of excuses.

Outside the airport, the first thing Hope notices is that it’s hot. Not just “hot” either: it’s sticky hot, almost sickeningly so. It’s hot and there’s no breeze and it’s humid and she feels sick. When she left Seattle it was pleasant, 70 degrees and slightly cool with the gentle breeze. She’d dressed in black skinny pants, a cream v-neck, a denim shirt over it for the plane ride (she always got cold on planes), and tan booties…and now she is painfully aware of the heat as she stands outside Ronald Reagan International Airport. It’s hot and she's hungry and…and God, is that a headache she feels coming on? The three-hour time difference between Seattle and D.C. is suddenly having an effect on Hope. She’s hungry and she’s hot and she’s tired and she just wants to—

“HOPE!!!!”

The sound of a familiar voice jolts Hope from her pity party, and she’s suddenly ashamed for feeling so sorry for herself. She looks up from the crack in the concrete she’s been studying for five minutes and forces herself to search for the voice’s owner. "You’re happy to be here. You are happy to see your team—your family—and you are not supposed to be cold to the world anymore," she says to herself. Old Hope would have pretended to not hear Ashlyn, who was still a few cars back. Old Hope probably would not have even been there, though, waiting outside an airport for her ride and only a fifteen minute drive away from the rest of her team.

Instead, new Hope immediately finds Ashlyn’s black Jeep and pulls out the handle on her suitcase. She does not think twice before she follows Ashlyn’s voice to the car. She puts on a smile and walks purposefully toward her number two goalkeeper—her friend, she reminds herself. Ashlyn is not just another goalkeeper, she’s her friend. She doesn’t run, she doesn’t jog, but she also doesn’t trudge along.

Ashlyn is already outside the Jeep, sunglasses pushed on top of her head and sleeves shoved up to her elbows. The top of the Jeep is gone (Ashlyn always was a sucker for this kind of sickeningly hot weather, Hope knows) and the doors are off too. (Hope is nervous about riding in a car…with no doors…with Ashlyn, who is a crazy driver anyway, but she pretends not to be.)

When Hope reaches her, she doesn’t even have time to talk before Ashlyn is crushing her in a warm hug. “Welcome to D.C., buddy.”

It hurts.

Hope tells herself it’s just the way it should be, that when you miss someone so much, it hurts a lot to see them again—it’s supposed to hurt, love. It’s supposed to hurt when you feel loved. But it doesn’t feel like it should. It doesn’t feel like saving a penalty kick or ice cream on a hot day or a swimming pool in August or fireflies after dusk or laughing with her team until her ribs hurt and her face ached. It feels like a million words that nobody will ever say. It feels like trying to save something that’s already gone. It feels like the empty burn of alcohol in her belly. It feels like trying too hard.

And then, before Hope can think too long, Ashlyn is tossing her bag into the back of the Jeep and smiling too big and clapping her on the back. She motions for Hope to get in the passenger seat (Hope assumes she would have opened the door for her, but there are no doors to speak of) and then jumps into the driver’s side.

With a grin, Ashlyn puts her shades back on and fastens her seatbelt. “Click it or ticket, Solo. Better buckle up if you’re in my car.”

Hope beats her to it. She’s in D.C. to celebrate a happy moment with her team, not lose her life before she even sees them.

 

The drive to Ashlyn’s townhouse in Capitol Hill is not long. Hope is grateful for that—not that she doesn’t enjoy talking with Ashlyn (or rather, listening to Ashlyn talk while she holds onto the frame of the door and does yoga breathing), but she fears for her life more than a few times as Ashlyn speeds up to almost 90 on the freeway to swing around someone she claims “isn’t going fast enough.” Another part of her wishes she’d flown into Dulles instead, so the drive would be longer. If she’d had longer to calculate how she would respond to seeing her, maybe it wouldn’t have hurt so much.

Most everyone is already there when Ashlyn and Hope arrive at the townhouse (which, Hope is quick to note, is painted pink and is surrounded by matching little condos that are blue, red, and yellow.) Hope doesn’t have to be inside to know this—the windows are open and cheery voices and laughter are flowing out like music to her ears. In the time she takes to pause, stare at the happy pink house, and think about what is waiting inside, Ashlyn has already unloaded her suitcase and is making her way to the front door.

“You coming, Solo?”

(Ashlyn has always called her Solo, not Hope. Hope will never admit it, but she finds it rather amusing.)

Of course, even if Hope hadn’t come to the door, the girls would have come to her. Before she can reach to front steps, she is being crowded with hugs and attacked with hey Hopes. She can’t even distinguish one embrace from another. There are two sets of arms tangled around her, then five, and maybe one let go. She can’t keep up and she’s already starting feel overwhelmed.

It hurts.

She gives them all a second to calm down.

(She gives herself a second to think, You are supposed to be here. They want you here. You are happy to be here.)

Standing before her are Tobin, Alex, Sydney, Pinoe, Abby, and Whitney. They are all flashing her 100-watt smiles, and their eyes are all bubbling with excitement. Hope prays that her grin matches theirs and won’t betray her.

“Tobin lost at chess,” Alex finally blurts.

“To ASHLYN’S GRANDMA!” Sydney all but yells.

Hope can tell how happy they all are to see her. She would be lying if she said she wasn’t happy to see them too. She wants to hear all about how Tobin was finally defeated in her own game, how Ashlyn’s grandma had managed to dethrone the Chess Queen. She wants to listen to Abby complain about how Chipotle is out of carnitas (again) and Pinoe whine about how “unfair” it is that Sydney always takes the good bed in hotels. But most of all, she wants someone to answer the question she hasn’t asked yet.

“Boxxy is in the kitchen icing cupcakes,” Whit explains as Hope follows them in. “And Christie, Cheney, A-Rod, HAO, and Becky are at Whole Foods.” She pauses and whirls around, putting one finger to her lips. “Shh…Carli’s napping on the couch.”

Not to Hope’s surprise, Carli is indeed sprawled on the couch, looking like she’s been there all day. She tosses a decorative pillow at her friend. “Hey, lazy. I’m here.”

There is a muffled groan into the leather of the sofa. “Shut up…”

But Carli still lifts her head from where it’s evidently been for hours and manages a crooked, half-asleep glare. (Hope thinks she looks like she’s having a stroke, but she would never say it to her face. She also makes a mental note of the small pool of drool near where Carli’s mouth had been hanging open. Blackmail for later.)

The giggles die off as Carli flops back onto the couch and promptly drifts off again, and the only sounds left are the hum of the mixer in the kitchen and the birds singing outside. Where an awkward silence would have filled the space, Pinoe is quick to start a conversation about absolutely nothing. (Hope notices even though she pretends not to. It’s oddly comforting that her friends don’t want the silence either.)

 

Still, Hope is glad the meaningless chatter can stop the second she notices Ali standing in the corner of the kitchen, barefoot and tan, licking the icing off a Pampered Chef spatula. Her back is to Hope, and for a moment Hope is overwhelmed. Ali is in the kitchen, doing dishes, barefoot, and the domesticity is almost too much. It’s too comfortable, it’s too real, it’s too close to what Hope almost had.

It hurts.

And then Ali turns around, spots Hope, and breaks into a giant smile. “Well look what the cat dragged in,” she comments drily, handing the dish towel to Boxxy.

Hope is relieved. “Hey Kriegs.” The familiarity of the hug masks what both know is beneath it—pain, sympathy, a silent apology—what neither of them want to feel. Ali’s always been good at that, empathizing. “I can’t believe it’s already been a year,” she whispers as she glances toward Boxxy and the nauseatingly pastel-colored cupcakes.

Fortunately, Ali always knows what to say—Hope knows she hates rambling too—and rolls her eyes dramatically as she takes the tray of cupcakes to the fridge. “Tell me about it. That’s how it goes, though. At least that’s what Pearcie and Boxxy and A-Rod keep telling me. One day you’re sleep deprived and clueless, the next you’re sleep deprived and clueless but your kid is one so you pretend not to be.”

“Where is the little one?” Hope has only been in the townhouse for all of seven minutes, but she knows that Ashlyn and Ali’s baby can’t be far. (He never is. Hope remembers the day that Ali and Ashlyn both swore up and down that they would NEVER be THOSE parents, but clearly they were both done for the second they met little Beckett Rhodes.)

Ali glances casually over her shoulder and motions toward the backyard. “He’s swinging out back with Kyle and some of the girls. You’ll be lucky if you can get him away. I think they’re having more fun than he is.”

Hope nods and hops to sit on the countertop. “He’s so incredibly lucky, Ali. I hope you know that. His moms are the best and he is so, so loved. Ashlyn too. I’m glad she has you.”

“I’m the lucky one,” Ali replies, taking another tray of vanilla cupcakes from Boxxy. “I wouldn’t have either of them if not for you guys.”

There is a lot of pain and a lot of truth in that statement, and Hope winces. She knows how close Ali came to losing Ashlyn simply because they were two of the most hard-headed women Hope has ever met. With a little pushing from the team (okay, so they had physically hauled Ali to Ashlyn’s room at camp a few years back and held the door shut so neither could escape until they had fixed their problems, but obviously the plan had worked so no harm, no foul) there had been a wedding right after the World Cup. They’d all been a little surprised when Ashlyn had been the one to get pregnant, claiming that she needed a break from soccer and that she would be in Hope’s shadow for the rest of time so why wait to start a family, but all was forgotten when Ashlyn was in a terrible car wreck a few weeks before Beckett was supposed to be born. Had Hope, Becky, and (Hope gulps) Kelley not been in the car with Ashlyn and kept her from bleeding to death, there would be no Beckett to speak of—nor would there be an Ashlyn, and, they all know, an Ali. There was no way Ali would have lived to see today if Ashlyn had died, though she has never said so.

 

Ali and Boxxy take the last two trays of cupcakes to the fridge, and Hope takes the moment to think carefully. She’s seen Ashlyn and Ali, Tobin, Alex, Whitney, Pinoe, Abby, Sydney, Carli, and Boxxy. Christie, Amy, Becky, Lauren, and Heather are at Whole Foods, presumably trying to stock up on enough food to feed a small army. That leaves Christen Press, Morgan Brian, Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, Rachel Van Hollebeke, Lori Chalupny, and Crystal Dunn. Hope does some quick math—she’s missing someone. Did she remember to count herself? Yes. So she was missing someone, and…and shit. Had Ali said whether or not she was coming? Yes, Ali had emphasized that THE WHOLE TEAM was going to be at Beckett’s first birthday party, so Hope HAD to come. She was missing someone.

Kelley.

And with a panic rising in her belly, Hope does some more quick thinking. Kling, Buehler, Press, Morgan, Julie, Lori, and Dunn are probably outside with Ali’s brother, fighting over who gets to push Beckett in his swing next. Everyone else is accounted for except...Kelley.

“She’s upstairs napping.”

It’s Ali’s voice that brings her back to reality. Hope tries not to gasp for air as she realizes she’s been holding her breath for a while now.

“Wh—wha—I…I don’t know what you mean,” Hope sputters, feeling her face flush scarlet.

“Yeah, you do. You’ve been looking around this place like there’s a bomb waiting to go off and you need to dismantle it before it erupts.” Ali and Boxxy reappear, and Hope is able to see clearly the flour and pastel frosting on the fronts of both of their shirts. She almost makes a sarcastic comment, but then reminds herself that new Hope is nice.

Boxxy stares at Hope for no less than twenty seconds, and Hope squirms beneath her gaze. It feels like fire burning into her. “The plane ride wore her out. You should just let her sleep,” she finally tells her, dusting her hands off on her shorts before leaving to join the others in playing a prank on Carli as she sleeps.

“Everyone thinks it’s my fault,” Hope thinks aloud quietly as she watches Boxxy take a spot on the floor beside Alex. She doesn’t even realize she spoke until Ali hops onto the counter beside her.

“You could tell them the truth.”

The words are a reminder that only two people know the truth—well, three, because Hope knows that Ali tells Ashlyn everything, just like Ashlyn tells Ali everything.

It hurts.

“I couldn’t do that, not to her.” Hope is solemn as she looks at Ali. They both know that she is right, because she can’t do that to her—because Kelley is funny and sweet and bubbly and caring and loving and friendly and happy, because Kelley is innocent and young and naive, because Kelley is Kelley. “It’s easier to be the bad guy. Not that they would believe me, anyway.”

Ali sighs. “But you could. I believed you. Ashlyn knows and she believes you.” She pauses and her jaw suddenly tightens. “I don’t know why you refuse to accept the fact that you deserve a happy ending, Hope. And don’t feed me that ‘in my family we don’t do happy endings’ crap. Because you are not your past and you are not that person anymore. You are a good person and you deserve love and you deserve happiness, and one of these days you’re going to wake up and be so miserable and alone that you will realize just how little you’ve actually lived.”

Hope winces. Ali always says things like they are.

It hurts.

Ali sees that. “Sorry,” she mumbles quietly. “I just…you just feel like maybe you deserved what happened to you, and it’s not true. Nobody ever deserves a hurt like that.”

“And Ashlyn deserved you yelling at her that you weren’t in love with her anymore? She deserved to be hurt like that, to the point where she felt like she shouldn’t be alive anymore?” Hope responds bitterly.

Instantly, Ali’s head drops and her breath hitches. Her fists are clenched at her sides.

It hurts.

“I’m sorry,” Hope whispers, regretting her words deeply. She feels sick at her stomach, because new Hope is not bitter and does not bring up things from the past. New Hope does not talk harshly to friends, especially friends like Ali. “That was a long time ago, and you were hurting too. None of that matters anymore. You know that.” But the way Ali is trying to hide the tears falling down her cheeks tells Hope that it does still matter, at least to her.

“Hope, I…”

“No, you were a different person then. You were scared,” Hope backtracks.

“I wish those years had never happened. I wish I hadn’t been so scared to just love who I love. I wish I had been able to show Ashlyn that I wasn’t ashamed of her. I wish I could take back every word I said. You can say it doesn’t matter anymore, and maybe it doesn’t matter to Ashlyn now but it still matters to me because I don’t ever, ever, ever want to hurt her again, and I don’t want anyone else to be hurt like that. Especially you.”

The truth hurts. It all hurts.

Hope lets herself feel everything for a minute. Her heart is racing and the tears are in her eyes, and she lets them spill over because she’s soft now. She’s a little bit broken and a little less sharp around the edges, so she cries. She cries because she hurts, and she’s afraid she will always hurt, and she cries because Ali is right. She wouldn’t wish this hurt on her worst enemy.

 

It’s a little while later, and the mood is happier again. The others got back from the grocery store, a few more had left to go explore D.C. at night, and yet another four had gone to their hotel for the night. Kyle, Ali’s brother, had made some type of fabulous chicken and pasta for supper, and HAO had insisted on buying some wine ice cream for dessert that would go perfectly with the bottle of merlot that Abby had brought from home. It’s still warm outside (Ali calls it “warm,” but Hope still considers it hot) and the French doors to the patio are open wide to let in a very slight breeze. Hope had expected more angst, more testy glances, more whispering, but it had all been surprisingly nice and familiar.

Ali, Ashlyn, Hope, Carli, Sydney, Kling, Whitney, Becky, Christie, Abby, Boxxy, Morgan, and Cheney are left, spread around the living room as the sun drops lower and lower on the horizon. Beckett is already bathed and ready for bed, snuggled against Abby’s chest as his brown eyes become heavy. Carli has already pointed out several times that he’s probably exhausted from being passed around and kissed all day, but they all know that they wouldn’t have it any other way. In a strange sense, it feels like Beckett is kind of the team’s baby, even more so than Rylie and Reece Rampone, who have been around since before some of the players. Maybe it’s the fact that they had all been rooting for Ali and Ashlyn from the beginning, maybe it’s the fact that he wouldn't be here if not for the team and the fact that a few of them had kept him alive.

There is only laughter and lazy conversation, bare feet and tan legs slung over one another, and a happy buzz brought about by wine. Some are strewn across the sofa and chaise lounge, some are draped over each other on the floor. The way they are talking is like they haven’t seen each other in years—they are drinking each other up, making up for lost time, desperately trying to fit everything into one breath in case they don’t get to say it. It’s beautiful, Hope thinks, the way they genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

It’s Hope’s second glass of wine, and she’s laughing with her head in Carli’s lap, staring up at the ceiling. It feels like it should. It feels happy and warm and wonderful. It does not feel like grasping at thin air and memories and begging them to remember how things used to be. It does not feel like trying to save something that is already gone. It feels right. Her belly is full with good food & wine and her heart is filled with good company. For a little while—a few hours at least—Hope has forgotten that it still hurts. In fact, she’s feeling rather delicious thanks to the wine (delicious enough to forget that Kelley still has not resurfaced from the nap she’d been taking since Hope had arrived.)

She’s on her third glass of wine and second scoop of wine ice cream when Kelley comes in.

Sydney is telling another story about Dom and Boss (the only things she talks about these days) and animatedly throwing her hands around for emphasis, and Ashlyn is tossing out a slightly slurred response about how the wine had better not spill on her new wood floor, and Cheney is the first to notice that Kelley has sleepily trotted into the living room. No amount of alcohol can change her eyesight—she nudges Morgan hard in the ribs.

“Kelley’s awake,” she mutters to the youngest of their group, jerking her head toward the landing of the stairway.

Morgan indiscreetly turns to stare at Kelley. “Well shit. What should we do about that?” she asks in nothing short of a stage whisper.

Her voice is a little too loud, her words a little too slurred, her eyes a little too wide. Every eye in the room turns to where Morgan has directed her gaze.

Ashlyn is the only one who does not smile at Kelley. (Well, except for Hope.)

Instead, Hope is staring, her jaw slack and her eyes round. It’s been a while since she last saw her ex-girlfriend (her teammate, Hope has to remind herself, Kelley is on the team.) Suddenly Hope feels way too sober. She feels seven years old, she feels naked, she feels vulnerable, she feels like she’s the only person in the room. Her throat is dry and she can’t swallow, can’t move. She feels anchored to the floor, trapped, like she’s paralyzed. It’s like all the air has been sucked from the room, and she has that same panicked feeling she always gets when the plane drops too suddenly or too harshly.

Because it’s been six months and Kelley still looks fine. Because it’s been six months and there’s a diamond on Kelley’s left ring finger. Because it’s been six months and Kelley can still make Hope feel like she’s worthless. Because it’s been six months and Hope still can remember all the little things Kelley does that annoy her (she eats Kraft mac and cheese, she doesn’t wear sunscreen, she takes all the covers, she’s always on her phone while Hope talks, she pets every dog she sees, she always has energy, she doesn’t eat the crust on her sandwiches, she only likes Shiner beer, she burps like a man and laughs about it, she plays piano at three in the morning when she can’t sleep.) Because it’s been six months and Hope still feels anger burning in her gut like she just took a shot of tequila. Because it’s been six months and Kelley can’t even try to hide it anymore. Because it’s been six months and it still hurts. Because it’s been six months and—

Kelley comes further into the living room and rubs the sleep from her eyes. Her hair is in her typical sloppy bun, curls flying in every direction after a very long nap. Her shorts are a little too short; the tops of her legs are stark white in contrast to her tanned quads and calves. The old Stanford hoodie she wears with everything has fallen down on one shoulder and is stretched across her torso.

Hope blinks hard. It’s been six months and she still doesn’t want to believe it. It’s been six months and Kelley still has the braided friendship bracelet Hope gave her tied around her ankle. (Hope has hers tucked into the pocket of her favorite jeans.) It’s been six months and Kelley is definitely, most certainly, without a doubt, pregnant with a baby that she definitely, most certainly, without a doubt did not make with Hope.

She swallows the lump in her throat before it betrays her.

It’s been six months and it still hurts.