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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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)