Ashley woke up to the phantom scent of blood and burning flesh. She gasped as she sat straight up in bed, and it took every bit of willpower that she'd developed over the years to keep from gagging. Instead, she focused on breathing through her mouth, trying to give her brain time to kick in and realize that it had just been a nightmare.
There was movement beside her, and she instinctively jerked away.
A soft light suddenly turned on off to her right, revealing a somewhat wide-eyed Kaidan staring at her. He was sitting up as well, the sheets pooling in his lap. "Hey," he said carefully, almost gently, once he saw her looking his way. "Are you okay?"
Ashley nodded slowly, still breathing through her mouth. She didn't quite trust herself to answer, not just then.
"Are you sure?" Kaidan asked, shooting her a knowing look.
She just nodded again. It wasn't the first time that she'd woken him up in the middle of the night, and it probably wouldn't be the last. God, she hoped it wouldn't be the last. Considering where she was heading in just two days, though, who knew?
Kaidan reached out as if he was going to touch her. He seemed to think better of it at the last second, his hand freezing in place about two inches from her bare skin. He didn't pull it back, but he didn't move it forward any more either. He just left it there for a second, hovering just out of reach. Clearly waiting for her to make the next move.
After a second or two's hesitation, Ashley leaned in to his touch.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked quietly, gently rubbing her arm.
That coaxed a snort out of her. "Not particularly," Ashley said, her voice a little shaky even to her own ears. Then, before she could chicken out, she quickly added: "Virmire. It was about Virmire."
Kaidan flinched. "Ah."
"Yeah," Ashley said, forcing her mouth to twist into what she hoped came across as a wry grin. "Shepard didn't split the teams. She had to make a choice, me or you, and she—"
"That's not how it happened," Kaidan said firmly, cutting her off. "It was just a nightmare, Ash. All of us made it out of that mission."
Ashley took a shaky breath. "I know," she agreed. "I know. But it felt real." She shrugged. "You know how it is."
Kaidan flinched, and Ashley immediately felt a pang of guilt. Of course he knew how it was. She wasn't entirely sure just how serious it had been between him and Shepard, during that last month or two before the Normandy had been destroyed, but she knew it had been more than just sex. For him, at least, it had been more. She'd lost a friend and a commander. He'd lost so much more than that.
She wasn't the only one who woke up yelling in the middle of the night. And some of their nightmares had a lot more truth to them than the one that had woken her up that night. Jump Zero. Eden Prime. Alchera.
"We should try to get back to sleep," Ashley said tiredly, reaching up to brush her hair out of her face. She grimaced at the clearly sweat-soaked feel to it.
Kaidan's expression was inscrutable as he studied her face. Then, without warning, he leaned in and pressed a kiss to her forehead.
Despite the location, it was anything but chaste. It was there and gone before Ashley even had a chance to react, though.
She blinked at him. "What was that for?"
"Be careful," Kaidan said. His non-answer was blatantly obviously. "I know you can't tell me what you're doing or where you're going, but be careful."
Ashley opened her mouth. Then she closed it with a sigh. "I can't make any promises," she said. "You know I can't, Alenko."
Kaidan shook his head. "I'm not asking for any promises," he said. "I'm just telling you to be careful. Wherever you're heading, I know that you're dreading it. Just—" He took a deep breath. "Try to stay safe."
She trusted Dr. Chakwas's opinion. Really, she did. But bringing someone back from the dead was pushing her trust to its limits.
"Cerberus?" Shepard spat at Ashley as soon as the door to her private quarters closed behind them. They both knew that it was bugged, that the Cerberus AI that was installed could hear every word they said, but there wasn't anything either of them could do about it. "What the hell, Williams?"
Ashley forced herself to stay as expressionless as possible. "I was considered a loose cannon after Alchera, ma'am," she said. "They had other people whose faces looked better on the holos."
Shepard just stared at her, her expression unreadable.
Ashley frowned, and the bitterness in her voice wasn't even remotely feigned when she added: "Ones with last names that aren't Williams."
There was another long pause. "So you joined Cerberus?" Shepard asked coldly.
Part of Ashley wanted to jump in with an explanation, anything to make Shepard stop looking at her with such a disappointed look on her face. She couldn't, though, not just then. Not until she knew for sure that it really was Shepard, not just some Cerberus scum wearing her face.
She'd seen a lot of shit over the last ten months, after all.
"The Alliance turned its back on me," Ashley said matter-of-factly. "Cerberus made me an offer that I couldn't refuse."
There was another long moment of silence, this one even longer than the first.
Then Shepard raised an eyebrow. "I think that's a bunch of bullshit, Ash."
Ashley stared back at her for a second, her face carefully expressionless. Then, so quickly it almost surprised her, a wave of utter relief rushed through her. Her mouth twisted into a grin almost on its own accord. "And if I'd had any doubts it was really you, Skipper, that convinced me."
The corners of Shepard's mouth turned upward into a smile. "It's good to see you, Chief," she said quietly. "You have no idea how happy I was to see you standing there when I followed Joker onto the ship."
"I have a pretty good idea, ma'am," Ashley said gently. "It's been a long two years."
Shepard flinched, just a little. She did a fairly good job at hiding it. Someone who didn't know her as well as Ashley did might have missed it. But there was no mistaking it.
Ashley very pointedly didn't say a word.
After a moment or two, Shepard seemed to get herself under control. "I'm assuming you've been passing information back to the Alliance?" Shepard asked curiously.
Ashley nodded. "Some," she agreed. "Not as much as I'd like, but they wanted me to be careful and not risk tipping Cerberus off." She paused for a moment, her grin growing even wider. "Now that you're really back, I suppose that means I can stop soft footing it."
Shepard's mouth twitched. "Especially since we just announced that you've been a double agent this entire time to the resident Cerberus AI."
Both of them paused for a moment to see if EDI was going to say anything. There wasn't any type of response, but that didn't mean every single word they were saying wasn't being recorded.
"Have you—" Shepard trailed off just as quickly as she'd started speaking, an almost lost look on her face.
Ashley raised an eyebrow. "Shepard?"
Shepard took a deep breath. "Not right now," she said, shaking her head as she stared down at the floor. "I need a little while to process things. But sometime soon, if you're up to it, I have some questions for you." She looked up, meeting Ashley's gaze almost reluctantly. "About...about everything that I've missed. How people are doing. That sort of thing."
Ashley nodded, outwardly keeping her expression calm. "Of course."
There wasn't any doubt in Ashley mind that "people" included Kaidan. And she hadn't realized until just then how awkward it was going to be to answer questions about him, all things considered.
Maybe it would be good if she didn't mention the part where they'd started sleeping together. For the time being, at least.
"Thanks, Ash," Shepard said, that weak half-smile still on her face. "I meant it. You have no idea how glad I am to have you here."
"Can you really blame him?" Shepard asked quietly.
"I'm with Williams on this one, Shepard," Garrus said. Ashley wasn't very good at reading turian subvocals, but he was practically radiating anger just then. "Alenko was being a jackass."
Shepard glanced at him with a frown. "He thought that I was dead," she pointed out. "And then we showed up, working for Cerberus of all people, and—"
"He knew that I was doing undercover work," Ashley muttered, cutting in. "He didn't know any details, but he fucking knew. I all but admitted it the night before I left. He had no right to—"
Ashley cut off abruptly, suddenly well aware that she might have just said more than she ought to have said.
Judging by the look Shepard was shooting her, she very much had.
"The night before?" Shepard asked, raising her eyebrows.
On the positive side, she seemed to have finally stopped focusing on what Alenko had said back on the colony. On the negative side, her attention was very much on Ashley instead just then.
Ashley grimaced. "It's, uh, maybe something we should talk about later?" she suggested, her eyes flickering toward Garrus, who was watching them both with a confused look on his face, and Jack, who was watching them both with a look on her face that meant she was probably five seconds away from saying something that might possibly make at least one person in the shuttle want to shoot her.
Shepard eyed her for a moment, as if she was trying to make up her mind about whether or not to press the issue. Then she nodded. "I guess you're right," she said, her gaze still focused on Ashley. "But don't think we won't be finishing this conversation."
Ashley shifted uncomfortably, but she didn't argue. What was there to say? She didn't particularly feel guilty about what had happened between her and Kaidan. They'd both been grieving, and it was easier to turns towards a friend for comfort than someone who wouldn't understand what they'd lost. Shepard had been dead, and they'd done what they could to pick up the pieces.
Still, she'd been under Shepard's command again for months. She should have said something before then, and she knew it.
Ashley still wasn't entirely certain when it had happened. Sometime after Horizon, that much was for certain. Maybe it was Kaidan's anger at them both that had pushed them together. She didn't know, not really. All she knew was that it had happened, so slowly and naturally that she hadn't even realized it was happening until it was too late to stop it.
"Are we really doing this?" The words slipped out before Ashley could stop them, sounding loud in the quiet stillness of Shepard's quarters.
Shepard rolled over, glancing at her. Her hair was coming loose from its usual braid, falling in waves around her face. "We've all known it was coming."
Ashley grimaced. "I know," she said, pressing herself up into a sitting position. "Don't get me wrong, Skipper, I know that we have to do this. It's just—"
She trailed off, not quite certain how to even put what she was feeling into words.
"Did you write any letters?" Shepard asked quietly.
Ashley nodded, a pang of guilt burning like a flame in her chest. "Yes," she said. "I've already uploaded them, to be sent out if we don't come back. Mom. My sisters. My handler in the Alliance." She hesitated a moment. "Kaidan."
Shepard went still. Then she laughed, leaning her head against Ashley's shoulder. "You too?"
For a long moment, Ashley didn't move. Then she let out a weak laugh of her own. "We're hopeless, huh?" she asked.
"Just a little," Shepard agreed. Then she let out a regretful-sounding sigh, reaching up to undo her braid. "We should start getting ready. We'll be at the relay soon."
Ashley hesitated for a moment before leaning in to press one last kiss against Shepard's lips, taking in the taste of her. "Do you think we'll make it back?" she asked seriously as she pulled away, looking Shepard right in the eyes.
They both knew what it was like to lose people. To be the last one standing. Ashley didn't think she could do it again, not this time.
The smile on Shepard's face didn't reach her eyes. "I know that we can," she said matter-of-factly, and Ashley wanted nothing more than to believe the lie.
"Yeah," she said, giving Shepard one more kiss before pulling away. "You're right. We can do this."
Ashley let her shirt drop to the floor as she stopped stripping long enough to watch for a moment, her eyes moving over Kaidan's bare chest and Shepard's long legs. The two of them fit together perfectly, their bodies molding together as they kissed.
Then they broke apart, Kaidan glancing over his shoulder to shoot her a smile that made her heart ache. He held out one of his hands towards her, gesturing for her to join them.
"Come on, Ash," Shepard said, her voice a little breathless. "You're taking too long."
Ashley stood there unmoving for another moment before going back to undressing. "What?" she asked, trying to keep her tone light. "A woman can't enjoy the show?"
It wasn't perfect. None of them thought that it was. They knew where the cracks were, the places where emotions and love couldn't make the memory of broken trust just disappear. It had been a long road, and all of them had done and said things that they would never be able to take back.
Still, they were alive. And the Reapers hadn't won, not yet. It wasn't going to last forever. Eventually something was going to give.
But until then, they would take what they could get. Stolen moments here and there, as they raced towards the end.
"Ready?" Kaidan asked as Ashley stepped towards the bed, slipping in beside the two of them as if she had always been there.
Ashley smiled at him before glancing over at Shepard, her hand sliding into hers. "Always."