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For Love & Country

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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.