Ali wakes up first, which is not unusual. She stares down at her wife’s face in the light leaking in through the curtains. In slumber the blonde looks peaceful, almost childlike. But when she wakes, that innocence will be gone, erased by eyes that have seen too much and the crow’s feet that come with the stress of being responsible for the lives of others.
As Ali moves a lock of hair off Ashlyn’s neck, the blonde’s eyes start to flutter open. Ashlyn seems confused at first but then slowly smiles.
“Not a dream?”
“Not a dream,” Ali confirms.
They stare into each other’s eyes a moment. Then Ali lifts a spray bottle of breath freshener gives herself a squirt. Ashlyn giggles as she opens her own mouth and accepts her minty blast. Ali sets it aside and leans in for a deep kiss. When it ends she stays forehead to forehead with her wife.
“Good morning, my soldier.”
“Good morning, my right back.”
A moment later the beauty of the moment is broken when Ali’s alarm goes off. The women both sigh.
“I have to get ready for the GMA thing,” she says sadly.
Ashlyn smiles. “Yes, you do. Don’t be sad. One: the whole country wants to say goodbye to you and that is awesome. And two: I’ll be at the airport waiting for you as we head north together.”
“Mmmm, that sounds amazing. Dress blues?”
Ashlyn chuckles. “Thankfully no. Just regular old sweats and a polo. Normally I’d be in my ACU’s but I have a doctor’s note not to wear those scratchy things while traveling. Once up there, though, I’ve got a sleeve I’ll have to wear to protect the staples until they are removed.”
“Yeah. 7 days from now. Or is it 6. Damn, I can’t keep straight what day it is. The paperwork is in my backpack so you can look it all over and settle your little head,” she finishes before Ali can demand to see it.
Ali smiles. “You know I want to do it for my peace of mind not to check up on you, right?”
“I know.” Ashlyn thinks a second then sighs. “I hate to say this but...I need to get some of that salve on it. Soon.”
“Starting to ache?”
“Yeah. And itch. That stuff takes care of both.”
Ali leans down and kisses her again. “Then let’s get you treated. Shower first?”
Ashlyn’s eyes widen. “Oh how I wish. That’s in the packet. Still no shower. Just baths. I’ll sponge off after you leave or you’ll run late.”
“Nonsense.” Ali stands and extends her hand. “Let’s go, soldier. That’s an order.”
Ashlyn smiles and carefully stands. Ali gives her one crutch and acts as the other as they get Ashlyn into the bathroom for her sponge bath. By the end both women are silently cussing the GMA event that is keeping them from making love all morning long.
“Hey, hey, it’s the Krieger-Harris’!” Sydney announces as the two enter the conference room for breakfast.
They ladies blush as the team and staff break into a round of applause.
“Alright, alright, enough,” Ali says.
“What’s the clapping for anyway?” Ashlyn asks.
“We were all drawing straws to see who would be the unlucky one to have to go up and pry you two apart. We’re just glad that’s not necessary now,” Boxxy jokes.
Ali and Ash just ignore them but their grins show there is no hard feelings over the joke. As they get to the buffet line, Kelley joins them.
“Okay, Harris, what do you want?” the Georgian asks.
“Ali in nothing but a black bikini,” she whispers. She cracks up when Kelley goes bright red. “Still the innocent.”
“You know, I was coming to help, you jerk,” Kelley points out with a grin.
Ashlyn nods, smiling. “I know. But you just make it so easy, Squirrel.”
Kelley grins and grabs a plate and fills it with whatever Ashlyn wants. Ali smiles her thanks as she fills her own plate. Kelley takes both plates to the table and escorts Ash there as Ali detours to get coffee and orange juice for her and her wife. She has just finished mixing the coffee when another teammate appears.
“Unless you’ve grown two more hands you’ll need an assist.”
Ali smiles at HAO. “No extra hands. Thanks.”
The two women grab the drinks and make their way to Ashlyn. Ali rolls her eyes as she sees her wife is already holding court telling silly stories of life in Iraq to make her friends laugh. She sits down beside her and forgets for a moment the months of separation; forgets the fear of seeing Menninger walking across the pitch; forgets the horrible wound she has dressed twice for her wife. Instead she just listens and revels in hearing the voice and laugh she wants to hear every day for the rest of her life.
It is better than any music ever composed.
Ali leans into her wife as the bus pulls up at the docks. The team would be arriving via water taxi for their Good Morning America appearance. Ali wants to ask her wife to come with them but knows Ashlyn would have trouble maintaining her balance on the boat. And should the boat sink, the leg brace would kill her.
“Oh good grief,” Ali mutters, burying her face in her hands.
Ashlyn kisses her temple. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Just...coming up with crazy scenarios.” Ali lifts her head and gives Ash a quick kiss. “I think I’ve lost my mind.”
“Gotta have it to lose it,” Ashlyn teases with a wicked grin.
Ali giggles and slaps her gently on the arm. “Jerk.”
“Is it crazy I’m going to miss you when I’m going to see you in just a few hours?”
Ashlyn shakes her head. “No. I feel the same.” She caresses her wife’s cheek. “When I get back from Iraq for real, plan to spend a week nowhere but in my arms in our bed. We’ll have food delivered and flip a coin to determine who has to pay for it when it arrives.”
“And what about Dad?” Ali asks with a grin.
“He can stay with his wife at a hotel. I’ll make it worth his while.”
“You’ll pay for it?”
“Nope. Tell him if he stays he’ll have to listen to me scream his daughter’s name in praise and hear me begging her to do raunchy things to me,” she answers with a lecherous grin.
Ali bursts out laughing. “That just might work.”
As the door to the bus opens, Ali sighs. Everyone gets up and starts to double check that they look okay. Ashlyn studies her wife.
“You look perfect, my love.”
Ali smiles. “See you at the airport.”
“I’ll be there. Probably still at security while they check out all the metal in me,” Ashlyn jokes. Ali groans. “Too soon?”
“It will never be the right time for war wound jokes.”
Ash chuckles. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The two share a deep kiss. Ash stands up to allow Ali to get out of their seats. They share one more kiss then Ali follows the rest of the team off the bus. Ashlyn sits back down and waves out the window at her wife. Their eyes stay locked until the bus drives off the lot to deliver Ash, the trainers, the equipment manager, and all the luggage to the airport for the charter flight to Vancouver.
The gals are having a blast! In addition to the fans and meeting the hosts of GMA, they are excited to meet Ed Sheeran and all are making sure to get selfies with the pop star. When they are on stage for the presentation of jerseys to the hosts, the team mostly just stands in the back and helps rev up the audience by waving and pointing out signs they can see as Abby does most of the talking.
Just when they think they are done with the interview, Robin Roberts shocks them all, especially Ali.
“Now wait a second, one more thing before you go. Where’s Ali? Where’s Ali Krieger-Harris?” she asks looking around.
The usually shy Ali lifts her hand, blushing brightly. Her teammates push her forward letting the hostess know where to find the right back. Robin strolls over to her.
“Now, Ali, you got a heck of surprise at the game, didn’t you?”
Ali grins, her nose crinkling. “A HUGE surprise,” she confirms.
Robin nods. “Huge indeed.” She looks at a camera. “For those who missed the start of the game, Ali, and the whole team really, were surprised by the return of Ali’s wife Ashlyn Harris, who is serving in Iraq with the US Army Corps of Engineers. Can we see the clip?”
Ali turns to look at a monitor. She laughs and is ribbed good-naturedly by her teammates as the camera picks up the look on her face as she realizes her wife is escorting the colour guard out for the anthem. They also laugh at Carli’s face going from irritation to recognition. It shows the tears in Ali’s eyes and the tears in Ashlyn’s as they embrace after 6 months apart.
“Wow! What a moment! And you had no idea?”
“None at all,” Ali confirms. “Last time we spoke she had told me she’d be on desk duty and would be able to watch the whole World Cup. Then she was shocked by the special orders and really didn’t have time to warn me she was coming. She got here just a few hours before game time. Thank you, President Obama!” she adds with a wave to the camera.
“Now she was injured, right?”
“Yes. Her Humvee hit an IED,” Ali says, keeping to minimal facts as Ashlyn has asked of her. “Her leg got torn up but she will be fine in a few weeks.”
“Well, what a great place to rehabilitate: Canada while watching her wife and former teammates bring home THE WORLD CUP!”
The crowd goes wild at the pronouncement and Ali nods and claps along with the team. Abby steps forward and starts to lead the crowd in the “I Believe” chant. Ali gladly moves back into the crowd. Whitney locks arms with her.
“Dodged those questions, eh?”
“Definitely,” Ali agrees with a smile.
A few hours later, Ali is carefully putting a blanket over her wife, who is sleeping peacefully as she stretches out across three seats. She sits down across the aisle, angled so she can watch the blonde.
Ali Krieger-Harris’ World Cup experience was going to be even better than she had dared to imagine. She pictures time strolling with Ashlyn through the cities. Morning coffee at little cafe’s. Nights making love before curfew, when Ali will have to return to her team-assigned hotel room. (But not the two nights before games. That’s bad luck.)
She pulls her dog tags out and starts to play with them. She studies the brace that keeps her wife from using her right leg while the muscle and flesh heals. In her mind she pictures something different. She pictures the leg gone from the knee down. She had seen the wound and knows her wife was extremely lucky that is not reality. What would that loss have done to her wife? Strengthened her? Destroyed her? What will any of this shit she is going through do to her Ashlyn?
She’d be lying if she said she hadn’t seen the darkness hiding behind those hazel eyes. She had seen the twitches as she sleeps and knows things she had seen in Iraq and even before haunt her when her subconscious takes the driver’s seat. She kisses the dog tags she still holds.
“Anything you need, baby. Anytime you need it,” she promises her wife.
The alarm on her phone starts to ring. She sighs. She hated the thought of waking her wife but knows she has to treat the leg wound again. She had also promised to show the head trainer, Tracy, the wound and what has to be done while it is healing. Ali gets up and pulls her bag down from the overhead compartment. She turns and looks forward to see Tracy looking back at her.
“It’s time,” Ali says.
Tracy puts down the book she’d been reading and goes into the overhead bin to get gloves and wipes out of her medical kit. The actions of both women draw the attention of some of the players, who quickly realize what’s going on. Whitney takes a deep breath and puts down her magazine.
“Where you going?” JJ asks her seatmate.
“If something happens and Ali can’t help Ash I want to be able to do it,” Whitney states.
JJ smiles. “Ah. Okay. Good luck.”
Whitney walks up and pats Ali on the shoulder. She doesn’t even have to explain what she’s doing; Ali just knows.
“No problem. Shall I wake her?”
Ali starts to explain the meds to Tracy as Whitney shakes her friend.
“Ash? Hey, Ash, we have to doctor your leg.”
Ash’s eyes pop open. “Uh, we who?”
“Ali is showing Tracy and I what to do. You know, in case you piss her off and she has to go for a walk to keep from throwing you off the balcony or something,” Whitney explains with a grin.
Ashlyn smiles. “Right. Good point.” She sits up and pulls her leg all the way up on the seats so her foot is no longer hanging in the aisle. “Well, first lesson, see those locking pins by my knee and ankle?”
“If you release those, you can open the brace like a book so we don’t have to take it all the way off.”
“Ah. Cool.” Whitney releases the pins and peels the top of the brace to the left. “There. Now the pants.”
“Whit,” Ash says softly. “It’s bad, Whit,” she warns.
Whitney looks up and meets her eyes. “You’re my sister, Ash. I’m going to take care of you. You’d do the same thing for me.”
Ashlyn just nods at the resolute look in her best friends’ eyes. Whitney steels herself and carefully rolls up the leg of the scrub pants. She winces when she sees the scope of the injury.
“Fuck, Ash. Oh, sweetie how could they do this to you?” she whispers.
Ashlyn just reaches and takes her hand, giving it a comforting squeeze. Whitney moves to stand in the empty row behind Ash as Ali and Tracy move into position with their gloves on.
“This is what we put on first,” Ali explains. “It’s to keep the muscle deadened so the internal stitches don’t rip. Basically her calf muscle was torn in multiple places and they had to piece it back together. Those stitches should dissolve in the next few days. It also keeps her from stretching the leg so the skin that is stapled together doesn’t pull apart. You can see some places they had to trim the shredded skin and it left just a little to bind together.”
Ashlyn listens to the clinical, detached way Ali explains everything. She can tell her wife has to pretend it’s not her spouse, not a big deal, to get through the whole thing. It breaks Ashlyn’s heart.
“After that, this goes on. It’s a topical antibiotic and pain reliever in one. It also keeps her from getting too dry and itching as it heals.”
Tracy nods. “Great. Let’s get to it.”
Ashlyn’s gaze moves from woman to woman, gauging their reaction to this wound. When the ointments are finally done, she sighs.
“So, uh, any questions Trace or Whit?” the blonde asks nervously.
Whitney strokes a hand down her friend’s head. “What am I going to do with you?”
Ashlyn gives her a grin. “You’ve been asking that since I picked you up at the airport your freshman year. I doubt you’ll ever get a good answer.”
Whit smiles and kisses the top of her head. Ashlyn looks at Tracy. The trainer shakes her head.
“I’ve had to treat you for a knife wound and now this. You’re not even on the damn team anymore. Stop wearing me out, woman,” she says with a wink.
Ashlyn chuckles. “Sorry. I guess I owe you a beer.”
“Or four,” Tracy says. She pats Ash on the good leg. “Seriously, though, there is a place by your ankle that looks kinda bad. Keep an eye on it in case of infection. I take it you’re on antibiotics other than the cream?” Ashlyn nods and Ali pulls out the bottle to show Tracy. The trainer studies the bottle then hands it back. “Good. Lots of water and PowerAde. And no sex.”
“HEY! Why am I getting punished?” Ali asks in mock annoyance.
Tracy laughs. “That was an order to you from Jill. Just passing the word on.”
“Then HEY! Why am I getting punished?” Ashlyn asks as they all laugh.
Tracy takes the gloves Ali had used and her own and wraps them up to dispose of later. She moves back to her seat as Whitney helps Ashlyn get her leg locked down again. The Cali girl exchanges a look with Ali. Ali nods and leans over to give her wife a kiss.
“I think I better go ref ‘Heads Up’ before Amy throws Tobin out the emergency exit.”
Ashlyn smiles. “Good idea.”
As soon as the brunette walks away, Whitney sits down in the seats across from Ash. The two best friends stare at each other.
“You’re mad at me,” Ash finally states.
“No. Just...at the situation.” Whit takes a deep breath. “My heart fucking stopped when I saw those men walking towards us. I...I can’t even imagine what Ali felt.” Both women glance at the laughing brunette then back to each other. “Ash...when your tour is over...will you go back? Will you have to or...or want to?”
Ashlyn shakes her head. “No one wants to go back to a war zone, Whit. Not even the ones that say they do. They’re just trying to find that little bit of their...their soul, I guess, that gets stolen over there.” Ashlyn’s eyes get a far off look in her eyes. “It starts the second you walk off the plane. You feel the heat, feel bits of sand stirred up by the wind hit your face, smell the jet fuel mixed with...with something that is foreign to you. You hear the sounds of mechanics and pilots looking over planes and helicopters. You see Jeeps, trucks, Hummers, plane parts, cargo boxes. It could be any other airport, really. But then you see the guns mounted on all the vehicles. You see the warnings on the boxes about explosives inside. As you walk a little farther from the plane you see the lines of anti-aircraft guns set up. And you see men and women armed and in body armour. All of them have the same looks in their eyes. Whether they are laughing or yelling or just standing there. It’s the same look. The one that you swear you will never get.”
“What’s the look?” Whit asks as Ashlyn’s voice trails off.
Ashlyn looks down at her hands. “The look that says they have accepted they are just waiting to die. If you make it out alive it’s like you’ve won the fucking lottery. You think they’ve given up and swear it will never be you. But after the first time you get the shit scared out of you come to understand that...that you have to accept that death is inevitable or you will lose your mind from the constant fear. You just believe you will die thousands of miles from all that you hold dear.” A tear drips down onto her hand. “And in the back of your mind you wonder how...or if, you will ever get rid of that fatalistic view of life. Some guys go back to Iraq thinking that they can get the devil out of their head by...by...fuck, I don’t even know what. But they figure if they lost it in that Hell Hole they can find it again. But it’s not a ring lost in the sandbox; it’s not your keys that you misplaced. It’s something that you have to excise from your body and discard so it doesn’t weigh you down.”
“So then back to my original question: will you go back by request, Ashlyn?”
Ashlyn spins the wedding band around and around on her ring finger. She slowly lifts her eyes and looks her best friend in the eyes.
“I don’t know,” she admits weakly.
She looks so young and innocent in that moment; so lost and unsure. Whitney squeezes in between the seats and pulls Ashlyn into a firm hug. They women cry on each other’s shoulders.
“I will do everything in my power to help you. And what I can’t do myself I will find someone who can. A shrink. Another vet. Anyone that can help you, Ashlyn. I swear I will be by your side to help you heal so you never feel the need to go back there again.”
Abby and Pinoe see the interaction and exchange a look. They are thankful to see Ashlyn willing to show vulnerability but figure it may require a “Buds Night Out” to keep the healing moving forward. They grin, completely happy to help a friend out and have some fun while they do it.
By the time Ashlyn gets to her hotel room she just wants to drop onto her bed and relax. Her left leg is throbbing from doing all the work. Her arms and hands ache from the crutches. She can tell her right foot is swollen, most likely from the air pressure.
And she broke a nail.
Okay, the last was just an annoyance but she’s a little touchy at the moment. Ali and the team are going to do a quick work out to get rid of the travel kinks and the blonde is happy to have a moment alone to rest up. Ali has her spare room key so Ash can take a nap before dinner and know she won’t miss anything. Just as her eyes start to slip closed her phone alerts her to an email. She reaches over for it, assuming it’s another “Glad to see you out of Iraq” message from friends. But her mouth breaks into a wide grin when she sees it is from Tiffany and Malak.
Malak coloured these pictures and insisted I send them to you. The originals will be waiting for you here in Baghdad but hopefully these copies will make you smile.
Also, it looks like we’re a go with a host family. They live right near Johns Hopkins and the surgeons there have volunteered to treat Malak for her burns and to do anything to her arm that will help facilitate a prosthesis. Cross your fingers that as your wife raises the World Cup, we’ll be settling in at a house in Maryland.
Well, I will let you get back to your friends and family. Take care and we’ll talk to you when you get back.
Ashlyn quickly fires back a thanks for the pictures and the updates. She sets a picture of a big red heart surrounded by cupids as her phone background and closes her eyes. She had so much to be thankful for and she couldn’t wait to show Ali the pictures and tell her more about the little girl that had saved her soul.
Ashlyn awakens to someone stroking a hand through her hair. She smiles and starts to roll into the touch but her right leg gets caught in the blankets and she groans as her movement is arrested.
“Noooo,” she pouts.
Ali smiles down at her wife. She is so adorable when she is whiny. “Ash, honey, are you going to want to go down to dinner?” she asks quietly.
“What’re we having,” she mumbles, her eyes still closed.
Ali shrugs. “No idea. Something healthy and power-building I am sure.”
Ashlyn finally opens her eyes. She stares up at the beautiful face of the brunette and can’t help but smile. “Hi, Princess.”
“Hi,” Ali replies with a giggle. “You awake enough to comprehend what’s happening?”
“You wanna go to dinner?” she mumbles.
“Yep. Hopefully with you but I’ll understand if you’d rather rest. I have a feeling it’s been a while since you’ve had a good sleep.”
Ashlyn nods. “Too fucking long. But I don’t want to miss a moment with you. You and Malak are keeping me going.”
Ali frowns in confusion. “Malak?”
“The little girl I told you about,” Ashlyn explains, reaching for her phone. “She had Tiffany send me an email. She coloured pictures and said they were for me so Tiff sent them.”
Ali scrolls through the pictures. “So cute! She’s 3?”
“So is she talking again?”
“No,” Ash answers sadly. “But she kinda has her own sign language. When she does this,” she brings her fingers to her head and mimics drawing them through her locks, “she is asking for me.”
“Because of your long hair,” Ali realizes. “And she came up with that on her own?” Ashlyn nods. “Amazing. She is a smart cookie.”
“Yeah, she is.” Ashlyn takes the phone back. “They found a host family for her. They’ll be heading to Maryland soon for her surgeries.”
“That’s great,” Ali says excitedly. “I’m glad she is finally getting a chance to heal. Especially since she’s helping you heal. I owe her a trip to the zoo or something.”
Ashlyn smiles. “She’d love that!”
Ali leans over and gives her wife a kiss. “Me, too.” She stands and goes to get the medicines for the blonde’s leg. “So, how about I treat that leg and we go down to dinner?”
Ashlyn smiles. “Sounds perfect.”
Despite the horror that the leg represents, they have come to enjoy this bonding time while the footballer takes care of her soldier. When the leg is medicated, Ashlyn reaches her hand out to the brunette.
“Thank you, sweetheart.”
“No thanks needed. Just taking care of you like I promised I would.”
The two share a kiss before Ali helps Ashlyn get her leg locked back in the immobilizer and together they head down to dinner with the team.