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That Which Matters Most

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Ashley

Ashley was silent as Shepard walked with her on her omnitool through the mess. As soon as the commander was on the lift, however, Ashley started in on her.

"What the fuck is wrong with you, Miriam?! You let a non-com in there with that thing? Why is it even still on the ship? Why are you letting that AI of yours mess with it?"

"Ash, calm down-"

"I am not going to calm down, Miriam! That is my fiancée! How would you feel if I let that happen to Liara?!"

"Williams, stand down," Shepard finally cut in, her tone stern, a frown slicing into her features. "You are out of line."

"Bullshit, Shepard. I don't take orders from you right now," Ashley countered, her expression mirroring her friend's. "You're endangering your crew for no good reason. Do the ends justify the means for you, Miriam? You're just like-"

"I dare you to finish that, Williams." Shepard's voice was hard, deadly. Ashley had been about to say "Cerberus," and Shepard knew it. "Williams, that mech is staying on this ship. It has data we need in order to win this war. This war is bigger than you, than me, than Specialist Traynor, or Liara, and you know it."

Ashley snapped her mouth shut, only her deeply ingrained military training keeping her from retorting. Shepard was right. It pissed her off.

Shepard sighed, her expression softening. "Look, I… first, I had no idea you guys were involved. Second, I'm not the one who ordered her in there with the mech. I wasn't even on the ship – I was saving Garrus's ass from a turian outpost on one of their moons. She got banged around a little, but she's okay. Shit like that happens sometimes, even to non-combatants. She's serving on an active-duty warship, Ash." She shrugged, letting her thought go unfinished. Finishing it wasn't really necessary. Ashley knew what she meant.

Ashley sighed, rubbing her hand through her hair. It was filthy. She seriously needed a shower. "I know, Miriam, I just… I can't do anything from here! I call my girlfriend, our second time talking since I almost died, and I find her high on narcotics with her face all bruised? I mean, shit, Shepard. Part of the point of being a marine is so the people we love don't have to get hurt."

"And then we hurt them by getting hurt. We can't win, Ash."

Ashley deflated the rest of the way at that. "Fuck. I hate it when you're right."

Miriam smirked. "You must be used to disappointment then."

Ashley snorted a laugh. "Ha ha, very funny, Skipper." Sighing, Ashley looked around her room, her eyes falling on the book Miriam had left for her. "Hey, thanks for the poetry. You remembered Tennyson's my favorite."

Shepard shrugged. "You're my friend. I don't tend to forget shit like that, Ash."

"Well, thanks. I appreciate it. I'm going a little stir-crazy here," Ashley said, intentionally side-stepping the potential opening to a conversation about their friendship.

Shepard allowed it. "You're up and moving around, though. That's good."

"Yeah. I'm progressing," Ashley said. "They won't release me to active duty yet – the bones are too freshly-healed and they're worried about some tendon or ligament or some shit I don't really remember. But I'm gonna see if maybe I can be released to sleep in an Alliance barracks, open up my room for someone else. God, Miriam… this hospital is already so full."

Miriam shook her head. "I know, Ash. And it's only gonna get worse from here. Supply shortages, hospital politics, greater station politics… So, let's talk about something good, instead. How on earth do you know Specialist Traynor?"

"I… met her on assignment," Ashley offered. She didn't want to bring up Horizon. It was where their big fight was, and things were just starting to get back on track. Ashley wasn't yet willing to forgive, but she was willing to try to rebuild their friendship. No need to drag them through the muck right at the moment.

Shepard smirked. "I see that goofy grin on your face, Ash. There's more to it than that."

Ashley's grin deepened. "She, uh… well, it wasn't supposed to be serious. Just some fun, you know?"

Shepard grinned, a mirror of Ashley's. "I do. And then it turned serious, I'm guessing?"

Ashley blushed. "Yeah. Seriously, Skipper, I pulled a you and caught some motherfucking feelings." They both laughed. "Luckily for me, she felt the same."

"So when did you propose? I didn't notice a ring?"

"She's, uh, actually the one who proposed," Ashley said, lifting her hand and briefly flashing her ring. "Um… the night before the Reapers hit, actually…"

Shepard whistled low. "Fuck, Ash… that's some seriously bad luck."

Ashley shrugged. "Nothing to do about it now. I just… I worry about her. Just sitting around is already taking its toll on me. I can't do anything to keep her safe. I haven't heard from my mom or the girls. The sitting and not doing is driving me nuts. We're in a war! I'm a marine, dammit!"

Miriam shook her head. "I know, Ash. It's maddening. There's a reason I was in the gym so much after I turned myself in. I'd been moving, doing shit, since I found you on Eden Prime. Shit, since before that. Ever since they found me on Mindoir, really. Then suddenly I was sitting with my thumb up my ass, doing nothing. Nothing about the Reapers, nothing about the destroyed relay, nothing about protecting all the people who thought I was nuts or lying. Just sitting. I didn't even have the extranet to keep up on news or contact anyone outside the Alliance. Just pre-loaded datapads with books, and the gym, and debrief after interview after court proceedings. Fuckin' military lawyers, man. They only wanna cover the Alliance's ass. Throw the rest of us by the wayside. Thank God for Anderson and Hackett."

Ashley felt a pang of guilt. "You mean you hadn't gotten a hold of Liara, either?" Here she'd been, falling in love, spending her time mooning over Sam to her mother, introducing the other woman to her family, and Shep had been right down the hall, unable to talk to anyone. Ashley could've called someone for her, at the very least. She'd had no idea Liara was on Mars. Fuck. All my friends were available, and all I've been able to think about was Sam…

Shepard sighed. "Ash, there's… a lot has happened. Me and Liara, we're… complicated."

Ashley frowned. "Do you love her?"

Shepard's look said everything. She looked at Ashley like the LC was crazy. "Of course I love her. You know that."

Ashley brushed off the look. "Then what's so fucking complicated? I saw you two on Mars."

Shepard sighed. Her surroundings pitched on Ashley's vid screen, and then she was lying on her bed. "I love someone else, too. Because apparently I can't ever have sex with anyone without catching the damn feels."

Ashley gaped. "Jesus Miriam! How the hell… when did you have time to get involved with someone else?"

Shepard got a shifty look. "She was on the ship with me…"

"I know that look, Miriam," Ashley said, eyes narrowed.

Miriam sighed. "She was my yeoman…" Ashley's jaw actually dropped. "I didn't plan it!" the commander said, defensive. "She came on to me! Besides, at that point, Liara and I were no-go. But we reconciled not long before the Collector base. She… she knew about Kelly, and we agreed we'd figure shit out once I got done with the Collectors. But then Kelly was abducted along with the entire non-com crew, and I saved her on the Collector base, and that has a funny way of making you realize how much you love someone. And then I didn't get any time to figure it out because I blew up a fucking relay and all the Cerberus personnel went on the run from the Illusive Man when I turned myself in to the Alliance. And I didn't hear from anyone while I was incarcerated. Now I know Liara's safe, but Kelly's in hiding and I don't know where she is, and I love them both, and goddamn I am just a fucking idiot."

Ashley blinked a few times before responding with a smirk. "Feel better getting that hot mess out in the open, Miriam?"

Shepard glared a moment before shaking her head, a small smile pulling at her lips. "Yes."

"So Liara knows about this other girl. Is she not open to sharing you? Are you with them both? How does that work?"

"I'll let you know when I figure it out," Shepard sighed. "We haven't talked about it, to tell you the truth."

Ashley just gave her a look.

Shepard's face flushed. "I know, I know. She's busy, I'm busy. We picked up Garrus. Palaven's a mess. Now Hackett wants me to check something out on Eden Prime, of all places."

"Weird." Ashley hadn't been there since she lost her entire unit. Those were not memories she enjoyed recalling. "Glad I'm not there for that one, to be perfectly honest, Skipper."

Shepard nodded. "Yeah, I don't blame you. Was one hell of a thing, finding you there." She got a strange look. "Is it weird I'm grateful, in a way?"

"What do you mean?" Ashley asked, brows furrowed.

Shepard shrugged, making eye contact. "Well, I have all those people to thank for you, Ash. I know things are… not perfect. But you're still one of the best friends I've ever had."

Ashley was stunned. They… they didn't talk like this. Ever. They drank, checked out women, and shot at things together. They competed on how fast they could field-strip a weapon, or from how far away they could hit something. They did not talk so candidly about their feelings. Not about each other, anyway. About other women? Sure. Ashley had helped Miriam sort through her feelings for Liara on the original Normandy. But this was… this was just weird.

Suddenly, Ash realized she'd left too much silence. "Their sacrifice gave me a lot of opportunity, it's true. Though I wish it hadn't happened like that," she said in a rush, trying to cover the awkwardness she'd created.

"Yeah," Shepard said with a nod. After a moment of silence, she sat up, sighing. "Listen, Ash. I gotta go. I haven't slept in more than a day, and we gotta go do this thing on Eden Prime in a few hours."

Ashley nodded. "Yeah okay. Just… Miriam. That girl. She means more than I can really put into words. She might be all the family I have left."

Shepard smiled softly. "I'll do what I can to keep her safe, Ash. Thanks for letting me know about her. Everyone's important, but I like to know when I've got something precious aboard."

"No problem Skipper. Later."

"Later."

The call ended, Shepard's face disappearing from the HI display in front of her. Sighing, Ash trudged over to her bed, grabbing the book of poetry. She hadn't been able to sleep – the whole reason she'd called Sam in the first place – but now she was exhausted. She'd been through a large range of emotions in the last twenty minutes. Settling in, she began on a poem at random – Marriage Morning – eventually falling asleep with the book open on her chest, the last stanzas playing through her mind.

Heart, are you great enough

For a love that never tires?

O heart, are you great enough for love?

I have heard of thorns and briers.

Over the thorns and briers,

Over the meadows and stiles,

Over the world to the end of it,

Flash of a million miles.