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.
“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.