It is the day of the opening ceremonies of the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Though the official opener is in another city, each host city is having a special reception for the officials representing their soccer federation on behalf of their country. For the US contingent, this means Sunil Gulati, Jill Ellis, and other members from the US Soccer Federation and special appointees by President Obama, including Ashlyn. She has just finished getting her bun situated to accommodate her beret. She takes a deep breath and stares at herself in the mirror.
“In your dress blues while your company is in desert fatigues. Doesn’t seem right,” she mumbles.
She carefully removes her beret to keep from causing any stray hairs. As she applies some light make-up she hears the door to her hotel room open.
“In the bathroom, Whit.”
Whitney steps in and grins. “Looking sexy.”
Ashlyn rolls her eyes. She is in her dress shirt and tie, her hair perfectly done. But from the waist down she’s in sweats and her brace.
“Are you here to help or hinder?” the lieutenant asks.
“To help. Ali had to stay behind for extra penalty kick practice.”
“Jill planning ahead already?”
“Doesn’t hurt considering 2011, right?”
Ashlyn grins. “True. So, ready to play in my pants,” she asks, wiggling her eyebrows.
“You pervert. Get on the bed so I can get you naked,” Whit orders with a laugh.
“Oh, Whitney...my dreams finally come true!” Ashlyn says, fluttering her eyelashes.
“Cool your jets or I get Hope and Carli to do this,” Whitney threatens.
Ashlyn laughs. “Damn, woman, you are no fun since you got a serious boyfriend.”
Whitney blushes and rolls her eyes as she grabs Ashlyn’s dress pants and socks. Just 15 minutes later, Ashlyn is standing beside the bed, staring into the mirror. Her eyes travel from head to toe. Whitney stands beside her, studying her best friends face in the mirror.
“What’s going on in your head, Ash?”
“I’m here. My unit...my friends are there. It’s not fair, Whit.”
“Ashlyn, if you were there you’d be at a desk, not out in the field with them. You know that, right?”
“Yeah. But...” she sighs. “I don’t know. I just...it hits me sometimes that this is some sort of special reward for living while Dalton died. It just doesn’t seem fair or right or anything.”
“Ashlyn, him dying will never seem fair. His life was stolen by bastards who wanted to kill all of you. Dying the way he did was due to an act of cowardice by terrorists and there is not a damn thing you should feel guilty about.” She pauses. “And from what I heard, your leadership saved a bunch of lives. You honored him by being the best officer you could be and saving the lives of his soldiers.”
Ashlyn thinks about that a moment then smiles. “How do you always know what to say to me?”
Whitney smiles and hugs her from behind. “It’s a best friend thing. Like magic.”
Ashlyn chuckles and clasps her hands over Whit’s. “I believe it. Love you.”
“Love you, too. Now let’s get you downstairs so you don’t miss the shuttle.”
In the lobby, Ashlyn shakes hands with Sunil and other representatives of US Soccer. Just as the group starts to board the shuttle to the event, the last team van pulls up. Ali hops out and runs over. Ashlyn smiles.
“About time, Krieger,” she teases.
“Watch it, Harris,” Ali teases back.
They kiss carefully, so Ali doesn’t get sweat all over Ashlyn’s uniform. As it ends Ali looks her wife over and sighs.
“There’s something about a woman in uniform. Damn, baby.”
Ashlyn blushes. “Thanks. I feel the same about you when you’re in yours.”
Ali giggles. “See you tonight when you get back?”
“Count on it, beautiful. I’ll let you know when I get back here so you can let me know where to find you.”
They kiss once more and Ashlyn hobbles up onto the bus. She waves at Ali as the shuttle pulls away. Tobin walks over and hands Ali her gear bag.
“You forgot something,” the middie teases.
Ali blushes. “I didn’t forget. I just knew one of you wonderful teammates would grab it for me so I could say goodbye to the sexiest officer the US Army ever produced.”
Tobin laughs as the duo walks into the hotel to shower and relax before dinner.
Ashlyn had not been sure what to expect at the dinner and reception. To her surprise, many of the officials from the other four countries are aware of who she is and how she had come to represent the US National Team. As she is talking to 2 officials from Nigeria, she hears a voice that makes her grin.
“ASHLYN HARRIS! You should have to run extra for scaring everyone!”
Ashlyn turns and grins at Pia Sundhage. The old US coach and current Sweden coach pulls the keeper into a hug. After a second, Pia leans back and looks her former player over.
“Other than the brace, you look wonderful.” She taps a finger on the Purple Heart hanging below Ashlyn’s ribbon rack. “This is pretty but I think we’d have all been happier if you didn’t have it. Especially Ali.”
Ashlyn smiles. “I’d say that’s a given. I will do my best not to add an oak leaf cluster to this one.”
“Good plan.” Pia pats Ash on the shoulders. “What you are doing is amazing, Ashlyn. I always knew you were meant for great things.”
Ashlyn blushes. “Thanks, Coach. Your message to me meant a lot. I’m glad I get to thank you in person and not just over email.”
They share another hug before Pia is called to go speak to someone from FIFA. After a couple of hours, Ashlyn is sitting in a chair by the wall. The China-Canada game is playing on a large screen but Ashlyn isn’t really paying attention. Her upper body aches and all she really wants is to return to the hotel and rest in her room.
And if she is honest with herself, part of her is wondering what might have been had she stayed playing soccer. Would she be a back-up on the US Team for this tournament? Would she be the number 2 or 3? Or would she be the number 4, still watching the team from afar?
She looks longingly at the bar, wishing she wasn’t on meds and could have a beer or 2. “Leave it to me to be unable to partake of an open bar,” she mumbles.
She puts a smile on her face as Jill Ellis walks up to her. “You look worn out.”
“I am,” Ashlyn admits. “Hard to sleep in this contraption.”
“Not to mention the wear and tear on your upper body and left leg,” Jill points out.
Ashlyn grins. “That, too.”
“Why not call for the hotel shuttle? You’ve put in your appearance and you’ll do your duty for the rest of the tournament as called upon. Go back now and watch the rest of the game with the team. Most are in the big conference room we have been given for our stay in Winnipeg.”
Ashlyn considers protesting but it’s going to be a long tournament with other receptions and official functions to attend behind the scenes. She nods.
“Good idea. Guess that’s why you’re the coach.”
Jill chuckles. “Exactly.” She hands Ashlyn her crutches as the lieutenant stands. “See you later tonight or tomorrow.”
Ashlyn nods. “Definitely. Thanks, Coach.”
Ashlyn makes her way to the lobby of the restaurant where the reception is being held. She asks the host to call for the hotel shuttle and happily boards it when it arrives. On the drive back, she sends Ali a text letting her know she’s on the way.
“Yay! Come to the conference room when you get here. I have a surprise for you.” Ali texts back.
Ashlyn smiles, assuming it’s the arrival of Deb or Ken Krieger and their significant others. As she walks into the hotel lobby, it is other recent arrivals that greet her first.
Ashlyn smiles as Reece and Rylie Rampone race towards her.
“CAREFUL! Girls, Ashlyn is hurt so be gentle!” their mother warns.
Chris and Christie detour from the elevator they had been waiting for to follow their daughters to the soldier. Ashlyn gives hugs to both girls. She then notices Reece studying her carefully.
“You got hurt at work?” the little girl asks.
Ashlyn nods. “Yes, I did.”
Reece studies her some more and Ashlyn can only smile at how much the little one looks like Cap at that moment. “And were you wearing your helmet for safety?” the little girl asks.
Ashlyn nods again. “I was. In fact, I’d have been hurt even worse if I hadn’t been,” she replies.
“Oh. Okay,” Reece says, obviously glad to hear the helmet is as protective as she’s come to believe.
Chris offers his hand to Ash. “Good to see you back and okay mostly.”
“Good to be here,” Ashlyn says. “And I’ll be good as new in no time.”
“Great. Well, we’re going to go up and get settled and watch the rest of the game as a family,” he says smiling proudly at his wife and daughters.
“Sounds like the best plan. Have fun.” She looks at the girls. “And I’ll see you at all the games.”
“Cool!” Rylie says, holding her hand up for a fist bump, which Ashlyn happily gives her.
Once the Rampone’s are on an elevator, Ashlyn makes her way down to the conference room. She smiles as she walks in the door and she sees Ali talking to Deb. Her heart swells with love for her mother-in-law.
“Two beautiful ladies. What’s a soldier to do?” she asks with a grin.
Deb spins around and lets out an “Eee!” worthy of her daughter. Ashlyn is once again struck by what a beauty her wife will still be in 30 years. Deb pulls Ashlyn into a hug. They hold each other close, no words needed to convey their love. Finally Deb leans back and stares into Ashlyn’s eyes.
“Are you really okay? Really?”
“I will be 100% in no time, Deb-Deb. Promise,” Ashlyn replies.
“You better be or you’ll be grounded until you are 50!”
Ashlyn chuckles and hugs her close again. Suddenly strong arms wrap around Ashlyn from behind. She looks over her shoulder and grins.
“Ken! I thought you weren’t getting here until Sunday!”
He smiles. “I wanted to spend more time with my daughters. Sue me,” he jokes. He steps around her to give her a proper hug. “Welcome back, Ash.”
“Thanks, Pops,” she replies with a smile.
Just then an ear-piercing shriek echoes through the room. Kyle runs up and screeches to a halt in front of Ashlyn, his eyes dancing with delight. “So, two blonde bimbos from Florida walk into a bar.”
Ashlyn rolls her eyes.
“The first one says,” he takes on a snooty, Kardashian voice, “ ‘Bartender, I’ll have a Coke and rum.’” His voice goes back to normal. “And so the second one gives her a look of horror and says,” he puts on a high-pitched Valley-girl accent, “ ‘OH. MY. GOD! Do you know how fattening that is, Ashlyn?’” His voice goes back to normal. “And the first one looks worried. She nods her head.” He puts back on the first accent. “You are so right, Ali! Bartender, make that a Coke and DIET Rum!’” He bursts out laughing.
“You are so not funny,” Ashlyn tells him.
“But you love me anyway!”
Ashlyn pretends to think on it. “Ehhh, tolerate...maybe.”
He pretends to pout, then they both laugh and wrap each other up in a big hug.
“I missed you, Ash. Glad you’re home even if only for a little while.”
“Missed you, too, Ky.”
“Are you two done with your strange friendship rituals or what?” Ali asks in amusement.
Ashlyn leans on her crutches as Ali wraps an arm around her waist. “I think so.” She grins as Ken’s fiancé and Deb’s husband walk up. “I am so happy to see all of you. I hadn’t expected to see you all for a couple more days. I’m glad we’ll get to spend more time together.” She looks at her wife. “Thank you for the wonderful surprise.”
Ali gets a sly look on her face. “Oh, that’s not your surprise. The surprise comes later.”
Ashlyn blushes BRIGHT red. “Alex!” she hisses. “Don’t imply sex stuff in front of your parents and brother,” she whispers.
Those around her start to laugh. Ali rolls her eyes, also blushing. “I wasn’t talking sex, honey.”
“Oh,” Ashlyn says, even more embarrassed now. “Sorry.”
Ali glances at her watch. “Nope, your surprise should happen in about 30 minutes. I thought you’d be at the reception longer.”
“I would have been but Jill saw I was getting uncomfortable. Arms are killing me and my foot is swelling a little.”
“Then how about we all grab a seat and watch the second half of the tourney opener,” Ken suggests.
The group moves towards the TV. Kyle and his stepdad quickly pull some chairs together, including one for Ashlyn to rest her leg on.
“Ali! Catch,” Alex says, tossing her a pillow she had been using. “For Ash’s leg.”
Ali smiles. “Thanks, Lex.” She carefully puts it under Ashlyn’s leg. “Good, baby?”
“Perfect. Thank you, baby. And thank you, too, Baby Horse.”
Alex gives her a wink. The room quiets as the game comes back on. Canada is expected to go far and it’s not far-fetched to believe the US could face their northern rivals in the elimination rounds. Time to scout potential competition. Ali and Ashlyn holds hands. Ali pays attention to the game while Ash has a whispered conversation with Deb.
With about 10 minutes left in the game, Ali gets a text message. She stands and moves away from her wife to respond to it, even turning her back. Ashlyn lifts an eyebrow.
“What’s with her?”
Deb shrugs. “Who knows?” she says in a high-pitched voice that tells Ashlyn she knows exactly what is going on.
Ashlyn studies her mother-in-law. “Deb? What’s up?”
Deb just grins and stands, walking over to her daughter. Ash looks over at the others who are paying rapt attention to the game, even though only Ken had been as interested as his daughter prior to this moment.
“Can someone please tell me what’s going on?” Ashlyn insists.
“Nope,” Kyle says, grinning wildly.
Ashlyn rolls her eyes. “You all suck sometimes.”
She goes back to watching the game, fighting to ignore her wife even though her curiosity is burning her. A few minutes later she sees Lauren glance towards the back of the room and smile. Ashlyn figures it must be the arrival of the middie’s family. Hands cover her eyes.
Ashlyn nearly falls out of her chair at the sound of that voice. Ken and Kyle catch her and steady her as she stands. Her eyes fill with tears. Ashlyn can’t even speak. She pulls her grandmother into a hug with one arm, her other arm opening to her grandfather, mother, father and brother.
“Surprise!” Ali says with a grin.
Deb wraps an arm around her daughter’s shoulder as the Harris family enjoys a tear-filled reunion. Finally Grandma leans back and takes Ashlyn’s face in her hands.
“You make us so proud but you need to stop scaring us or I will spank you.”
Ashlyn grins. “So you’ll spank me and Deb will ground me. Anyone else have a punishment in mind?” Every other member of the family raises a hand. Ashlyn laughs. “Then I’ll remember not to get hurt. I hope.” She turns to Ali. “Thank you isn’t enough.”
Ali gives her a kiss. “I’d say ‘thank you’ is perfect.”
Ashlyn turns back to her family. “I can’t believe you all are here! And I can’t believe none of you slipped up and mentioned you were coming! I am so, so happy to see you!”
She hugs her family once more. She had hoped to meet up with them briefly in DC after the World Cup and before she left to go back to Iraq. She holds them close.
“I love you guys so much,” she whispers, wishing she’d never have to let them go again.
At the end of the night, Ashlyn finds out that the surprise guests mean surprise roommates due to how booked the hotels are for the tournament. Her father, grandfather, and brother are staying with Kyle. Her mother and grandmother are staying with Ash. And the soldier couldn’t be happier.
Until it is time to doctor her leg. She looks at the women standing around her. Ali was there to doctor it and the other ladies were there to get a look at the wound. Ashlyn looks at her wife, worry in her eyes.
“Um, maybe it should just be you here, Alex,” she suggests.
“Oh, no you don’t, young lady!” her grandmother states. “No hiding this from us.”
“But, Grandma, it’s really bad and...and...I don’t want you to...to see and know and...” she looks pleadingly at Ali.
Ali sighs. She sees both sides of the argument. “Honey, sometimes not knowing makes it even harder. Imagination can make things worse.” She looks to the others. “That said, Ash can’t protect us from the news and stuff from over there but she can protect us from this. It makes her feel better to think she’s helping us.”
Tammye sits down on the bed beside her daughter. “When you were a little girl and you had an injury there were many times I wasn’t there to help you make it better. I couldn’t kiss it and make the pain go away. I couldn’t put a Band-Aid on it. Nothing. Please, Ashlyn, let me be here now to hold your hand and...and be the mother I should have been back then.”
Ashlyn’s eyes tear up at the heartfelt plea. She nods. “Okay, Mom.” She looks at Deb and Grandma. “It’s...not pretty. But if you want to stay I get it. I promise.”
Deb nods. Grandma takes Deb’s hand as Tammye stays beside her daughter. Ali waits until Ashlyn meets her eyes and nods before unlocking the brace and removing it carefully. The couple then carefully slide off Ashlyn’s dress uniform pants. All that is left now is the soft sleeve that covers it when she is in uniform. Ashlyn takes a deep breath.
“So, uh, last chance to leave,” she offers.
Grandma responds by picking up one of the ointment tubes. “I believe you said this one was first, right Alex?”
Ali smiles. “Yes, Grandma.”
“Well, let’s get to it.”
Ali looks to Ashlyn and sees her wife’s head leaning on her mother’s shoulder. She smiles and starts to ease the sleeve up and down, careful not to drag it over the staples. Tammye inhales sharply.
“It’s getting better, Mom. Promise.”
Ali finishes getting the sleeve off, pulling off Ashlyn’s sock with it. She glances at Grandma, whose eyes are locked on the horrible wound.
“Grandma?” Ali asks.
The older woman doesn’t speak, just offers the tube. Ali takes it and begins the process of treating the wound, explaining it to them as she had to Whitney and Tracy. When she is done, she looks up.
“So, uh, that’s it. Then let it dry a bit before putting on sleep pants and the brace.”
“And...how long?” Grandma asks.
“I go to a local doctor on Tuesday to get the staples removed. They’ll do a scan to see the status of the internal sutures and to see if the muscle looks like it is healing correctly.”
“And if it’s not?” Deb asks.
Ashlyn and Ali exchange a look. Only these two knew the answer to this question that no one else had thought to ask.
“Uh, well, if the muscle isn’t knitting correctly, they’ll fly me to Walter Reed MMC in Bethesda for surgery to see if there is more they can do to knit the muscle back together.”
“And if they can’t?” Tammye asks.
Ashlyn shrugs. “Don’t know.”
“I am sure you know the options,” Grandma presses.
Ashlyn sighs. “They will...excise any part of the muscle that won’t heal. They can they try to pull together more of the parts that are strong enough to heal and we’ll be in a waiting game again.”
“And if they can’t pull together more muscles?” Tammye asks.
Ashlyn swallows hard. “If it...looks like the muscle isn’t viable...it will be removed and...and I will probably lose my leg from the knee down,” she finally admits quietly.
Tammye lets out a moan and pulls her daughter closer. Grandma just clenches her hand together. Deb looks at her daughter and sees tears streaming silently from deep brown eyes.
Ali nods. “I knew,” she croaks. “But her leg is looking really good! There is no excess swelling. And lately as the meds start to wear off she’s getting pins and needles in her calf which the doctors think is a sign the muscle is trying to do its job. Signs are really, really good right now!”
Grandma takes a deep breath. “Then that is what we’ll concentrate on.”
“I second that,” Deb agrees heartily.
Ashlyn slowly looks at her mother. “Mom?”
Tammye kisses her daughter’s temple. “I agree, too. But no matter what happens, you will still be my hero.”
Ashlyn smiles. “Thanks, Mom. I love you.” She looks at the other 3 ladies. “I love all of you so much.”
“We love you, too, Little One,” Grandma says.
“Definitely,” Deb chimes in.
Ali gets up and grabs the pajama pants Ash has been wearing. The other ladies chuckle when they see the sharks all over them.
“Some things never change,” Grandma says as she rolls her eyes.
Ali gets her wife dressed and back in the brace. She then helps her get out of her dress shirt and into a tee shirt...with a big great white shark breaching the waves on it. The group looks at Ash in her shark pajamas.
“Well, at least they almost sort of match,” Deb notes as they all laugh.
Ali glances at her watch. “Well, I need to get down to my room for curfew.” Tammye stands so Ali can sit down beside her wife. “Sleep well, baby. I’ll see you at breakfast.”
Ashlyn smiles. “I’ll be there.”
The two share a hug and kiss. Deb says her goodnights, too, giving Ash an extra-long hug. Soon it is just the Harris women in the room. Ashlyn looks at them and grins.
“Okay...ask all the questions you’ve been dying to ask.”
Tammye and Grandma exchange a look. They then spend the next hour asking their soldier all the things they want to know about the injury and her time in Iraq in general. Ash answers as honestly as she can, forcing herself not to cage her answers because they would see right through her in a heartbeat. By the end, the three women are on the bed with Ashlyn being hugged from either side.
“You really do make us proud, Ashlyn. But you also scare the shit out of us,” Tammye states.
Ashlyn grin. “So...not much changed from when I was a kid?”
The women chuckle. Grandma shakes her head.
“Sadly, no I guess not.”
Ashlyn gives her a kiss on the cheek. “Sorry, Grandma.”
The women decide to get ready for bed and turn in. Jet lag is catching up to the surprise visitors. When Ashlyn leaves the bathroom she sees her mother hanging up the dress uniform jacket that had been laid upon the dresser. Tammye runs her finger over the Purple Heart. Ashlyn swallows and crutches over to the dresser.
“You can, uh, put that in here,” she offers up the box it goes in. “That way, you know, you won’t see it.”
Tammye turns and smiles at her girl. “Why wouldn’t I want to see it? You earned this medal doing amazing work. It reminds me that I have a remarkable daughter.”
Ashlyn smiles. “I’m only remarkable because of you and Grandma.” She looks at the family matriarch. “I mean it when I say I wouldn’t be the officer and person I am today without you both.”
Tammye puts the jacket into the closet. She walks over and kisses her daughter’s cheek. “You give us too much credit. You were the one who decided your path many, many years ago. We’re all just glad you followed your heart and that your heart was a much better guide than your father or I was way back when. Everything you are is a testament to your goodness, Ashlyn. Never underestimate yourself.”
Ashlyn smiles. “Thank you for saying that, Mom. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
The two share a hug and kiss. Tammye then hurries into the bathroom to finish getting ready and hide the tears in her eyes. Ashlyn gives her grandma a hug then takes all her medications. By the time her mother returns to the bedroom, Ashlyn is nearly asleep. Tammye climbs into bed with her daughter.
“Sleep, sweet girl. Let the night heal your wounds,” she whispers.
Ashlyn smiles and her eyes close completely. Tammye glances over at Grandma.
“I can hardly believe she’s here and we’re here with her.”
Grandma smiles. “I know what you mean. I plan to make the most of these next few days to help give her as many good memories to take back with her as I can.”
Tammye nods. “Me, too.”
The two women stare at Ashlyn and discuss her a little longer before giving in to sleep themselves.