Ashley dropped her assault rifle down on the mess hall table with more force than she had intended, her bad mood making her less careful than normal. Dubyansky and Grieco, who'd been standing nearby having a quiet conversation, took one look at her and both quickly made themselves scarce.
A week ago, she would have at least grinned at the sight of them scurrying away at the sight of her. As it was, she just scowled and sat down. She doubted that Shepard had told anyone about their conversation down in the cargo bay, but it had to be pretty damn obvious that something had happened considering the fact that she'd been grounded since they'd left Noveria.
The worst part was that it was her own fault, and Ashley knew it.
She threw herself into cleaning her weapon with more force than normal, trying to push that thought out of her mind. The more she tried, though, the less it helped. Shepard had made it clear from the beginning that she thought working with aliens was a good idea. Hell, the successes of their last few missions had made it clear that it wasn't a bad idea. Ashley had just wanted to voice her concerns about letting non-humans—no, not even non-humans, but non-Alliance period—have so much access to classified Alliance technology.
Instead, she was fairly certain that she'd managed to convince her commanding officer that she was a raging xenophobe. And the way things were going, she was never going to get the chance to prove that wasn't the case.
With a groan, Ashley gave up all pretense of cleaning her weapon and let her head drop into her hands. "I'm an idiot," she muttered under her breath.
"That makes two of us then," a familiar voice said, with more than a bit of self-deprecation.
Ashley jerked her head up, spinning in her seat.
The asari, T'Soni, was standing at the edge of the mess, an uncertain look on her face. Her eyes were shining in a way that could only come from trying to hold back tears. Life with three younger sisters had taught Ashley what that looked like at a very young age.
106-years-old or not, for the first time since they'd found her on Therum, Ashley could buy that T'Soni was just a kid. One who'd helped kill her own mother a week ago.
A pang of something that felt suspiciously like guilt made itself known. Ashley would be the first one to admit when she'd made a mistake, and the way she'd treated T'Soni the past few weeks had been less than noteworthy. And that wasn't something she could chalk up to a misunderstanding or bad wording on her part. She'd been wanting to try to apologize, but T'Soni had been doing a good job of keeping out of sight.
Of course, Ashley hadn't exactly gone out of her way to find her either.
Then she realized that her silence had gone on a moment too long. T'Soni had started to slink away, presumably to go hide in the small office she'd claimed in the back of the medical bay. From what she'd heard, the asari had been spending most of her time there when she wasn't on the ground team.
Ashley took a deep breath. "Dr. T'Soni?" she asked slowly. "Are you, uh, okay?"
At Ashley's question, T'Soni stilled and turned her attention back toward her.
"I'm fine, Chief Williams," she said, a hint of hesitation in her voice that Ashley suspected she wouldn't have noticed if she hadn't been listening for it.
Ashley raised an eyebrow. "Really?" she asked dryly.
T'Soni bit her lip and looked away. "Is it that obvious?" she asked shakily.
"I'm the oldest of four," Ashley said with a shrug. "Noticing when things are up kind of comes with the job."
At that, T'Soni managed to give her a weak smile. "I wouldn't know about that. I'm an only child."
Ashley reached out and pushed her gun to the side, gesturing for T'Soni to join her at the table. After a moment's hesitation, she did.
"I managed to thoroughly piss off the Commander," Ashley said bluntly, as soon as T'Soni had sat down. "What's your story?"
A startled look appeared on T'Soni's face. Then she… well, Ashley wasn't entirely certain, but it looked like she was blushing. She hadn't even known that asari could blush.
"I, uh, that is to say—" T'Soni bit her lip. "I misread some things that the Commander had said and done, and I ended up making a complete fool of myself."
There was no doubt about it now. That was a blush. But why on earth would—
Realization hit her, and it took everything Ashley had not to flinch. "Ah."
Ashley would have had to have been blind not to notice the awkward sexual tension that Shepard and the LT had been dancing around since Eden Prime. And there had been lots of rumors about the Commander and T'Soni ever since Sharjila, when T'Soni had carried an unconscious Shepard out of the Mako and had made it almost the entire way to the medical bay before Alenko had come running up to help.
She'd known better than to believe most of them but, well, everyone knew that the wildest rumors onboard a ship always had some basis in truth. And a one-sided crush? That would explain a lot of things.
"Yes, 'ah'," T'Soni said tiredly. She reached up to rub her temples, a surprisingly human gesture that caught Ashley a little off-guard.
Lynn had always done the same thing when she was frustrated.
"Normally, I'd suggest alcohol," Ashley said suddenly, the words slipping out before she really had time to think about them. "That's out, of course, considering where we are. But I could probably manage to make some coffee or tea without setting anything on fire."
T'Soni's attention was focused on Ashley again, her brow furrowing a bit in confusion. "What?"
Ashley gave her what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "You look like you could use a bit of company, T'Soni. Coffee would give you an excuse not to disappear back into your hidey hole for a little while at least."
For a second, she thought that T'Soni was going to bolt. Then the other woman—actually, no, Ashley remembered reading somewhere that most asari didn't consider themselves women no matter how they looked to other races, so she probably shouldn't get in the practice of thinking of her that way—gave her a hesitant smile.
"I would like that, Chief Williams," T'Soni said quietly. "On one condition?"
Ashley raised an eyebrow.
It showed how much T'Soni had picked up on humans over the past few months that she actually nodded at that, rather than staring blankly. "Please, call me Liara."
Joker had called Admiral Hackett a lying bastard to his face before storming out, or—at least—storming out as much as one could on crutches. A small part of Ashley wished that she'd had the balls to do it herself.
It had seemed fitting that Captain Shepard had been the one to smooth things over with Hackett. Ashley hadn't spent much time with the woman, had only spoken to her for a few minutes, but she could definitely see that Shepard had inherited a lot from her mother.
"Are you honestly going to punish the man for speaking the truth, Admiral?"
Ashley knew, without a doubt, that she was going to remember the look on Hannah Shepard's face when she'd asked Hackett that question for the rest of her life. The Captain's face had been grey with grief, her eyes rimmed in red, but her voice had been strong. She'd spoken quietly, but the pointed look she'd made at the nearby reporters had made her threat clear.
Shepard had inherited a hell of a lot from her mother.
Captain Shepard had caught Ashley's gaze when the Chief slipped out a few minutes later. She had given her a nod, one that had spoken more than words ever could.
Ashley didn't even glance up as she downed another shot of… well, it was green and presumably levo-based. And tasted like burning. That was all she knew about it. "Liara," she said, grimacing as what felt like liquid fire made its way down her throat. Then she reached out and picked up the bottle sitting in front of her, pouring herself another drink. "I thought you were keeping an eye on Joker."
"Dr. Chakwas is with him," Liara said, sitting down across from her at the small table. "He decided to punch a wall after he left the service. It didn't end well."
Ashley frowned. "For the wall or for Joker?"
"What do you think?" Liara asked dryly. She raised an eyebrow as she picked up the empty glass sitting in the center of the table, next to the bottle of liquor, but she didn't ask why Ashley had a spare one. She just poured herself a drink and downed it.
Then she went into a coughing fit that would have been hilarious under different circumstances.
"What is this?" Liara asked, her eyes watering.
Ashley frowned, her thoughts still focused on what she'd seen a second earlier. "Why do you have eyebrows?"
There was a long pause.
"What?" Liara asked. She was raising her eyebrows again. "Ashley, how much have you had to drink?"
"A lot," Ashley said frowning. "Stop changing the subject. Why do you have eyebrows? Other asari don't have eyebrows. The waitress doesn't have eyebrows."
Liara put her empty glass down on the table and shot Ashley a worried look. "Ashley, the waitress is a turian."
Ashley gestured to her own eyebrows. "You're changing the subject."
"I don't have eyebrows," Liara said, shaking her head. "I merely have facial markings that happen to resemble human eyebrows."
Ashley stubbornly shook her head. "But they—"
"My mother had similar markings," Liara said sharply, cutting Ashley off. "My reasons for getting them are personal."
Part of Ashley wanted to keep pushing. Another part of her realized that she probably wasn't in the best frame of mind to potentially piss off one of the few people left that she considered a friend.
"I need another drink," Ashley muttered, reaching for the liquor bottle.
Liara was faster. "One more," she said firmly. "For each of us. And no arguing!"
Ashley closed her mouth. She honestly hadn't known that Liara had that much of a backbone.
"What can I say? We all have our hidden depths," Liara said quietly.
Ashley frowned, confused. How had Liara known what she was thinking? She knew that asari did that melding thing, but she didn't think they could just pull thoughts out people's heads without even touching them.
Across from her, Liara looked like she was struggling not to laugh. "Oh, this is definitely your last drink," she said, shaking her head as she poured each of them a small portion.
Once she was done, Liara carefully put the lid back on the bottle of liquor and pulled it to her side of the table, out of Ashley's reach. Then she picked up both glasses, handing one of them to Ashley.
"To the Skipper," Ashley said quietly as she took the offered glass.
Liara nodded. "To Shepard."
"Who knows? Maybe she and Kaidan are finally getting their chance to make something of whatever it was going on between them, wherever they are now," Ashley said, her voice shaking a bit. She reached up to brush away a few tears that didn't seem to have gotten the memo that they weren't welcome. "I'd like to think so. They deserve it."
Liara was staring at her again. "Ashley—"
Ashley pointedly looked away as she downed her drink. The burning in her throat was almost a relief.
A few coughs made it clear that Liara had finished her drink as well.
"Come on," Liara said softly. Her hands were suddenly on Ashley's shoulders, helping pull her to her feet. "I have rooms near here. You can stay with me tonight."
The look on Liara's face when she looked away from the vidscreen, breaking their gaze, cleared up any doubts that Ashley had.
Ashley clenched her fists at her side. "You knew," she said coolly. It wasn't a question, and both of them knew it. "You knew."
Liara bit her lip, and for just a second Ashley was reminded of the young woman she had met on the Normandy two years earlier. Her voice was hesitant when she replied. "I knew that there was a possibility that Cerberus—"
"Don't," Ashley said harshly. "I'm really not in the mood for excuses right now."
Liara looked away again, but she wasn't quite fast enough that time. Ashley saw a hint of something in her eyes as she turned away, and she couldn't help but wonder if the hesitance was feigned. Put on a show, try to convince Ashley that she was the same naïve kid she'd been back in the day, even though both of them knew things had changed.
A small part of her was horrified that she was even considering that Liara of all people could be capable of that type of manipulation. The rest couldn't help but wonder if she was right.
Ashley sighed. "Is it really Shepard?"
There was a long pause. "Do you actually have to ask?" Liara asked quietly.
"That's what I was afraid you were going to say," Ashley said tiredly.
Liara shot her a decidedly suspicious look. "What did you do?" she asked. "What did you say?"
Ashley shrugged, trying not to flush as the words she'd flung at Shepard back on Horizon bounced around in her head. "You know me."
"Don't worry," Ashley said, cutting in. "It's not the first time I've stuck my foot in my mouth, remember? If it's really her, we'll work it out. We always do."
Liara opened her mouth, as if she was about to say something. Then her eyes flickered to her right, focusing on something that Ashley couldn't see on the vidscreen, and her face hardened. "I'm sorry, Ashley, but I have another call coming in that I have to take."
Ashley frowned. "Okay, I guess we can—"
"Another time," Liara said briskly.
The connection went dark.
Ashley stood there for a moment, staring at the blank screen in surprise. She'd been talking to Liara less and less over the past year or so. Her stealth missions made keeping in regular contact with anyone difficult. Still, she couldn't help but feel as if she'd just been talking to a stranger.
That thought hurt more than she had expected.
Shaking her head, Ashley walked over to her desk and sat down. If she was going to apologize to Shepard, then nothing good would come from putting it off. All that would do is give things a chance to fester, and wounds were a lot harder to heal when that happened.
Shepard- I'm sorry for what I said back on Horizon.
Ashley had thought about how she was going to die a lot over the years. She wasn't a fool. Marines didn't always live long lives, especially ones who were on the front lines like her.
She could have died a dozen times over, yet she'd managed to survive when so many others hadn't. Her entire unit had died on Eden Prime. She'd never even met Corporal Jenkins, but she was well aware that his death at the hands of the geth was quite possibly the only reason Anderson had asked her to join his crew. Kaidan had died on Virmire so that she could live. So many good men and women had been lost when the original Normandy was destroyed. All those colonists on Horizon had been taken by the Collectors, yet she'd managed to be left behind. Earth was burning behind them, but here she was.
Ashley was a survivor. That much was certain. But sometimes? Sometimes she got tired of watching people that she cared about die because she couldn't do anything to help them.
So when the Cerberus synthetic shoved its way out of the blazing shuttle, its gaze focused on her and Liara, Ashley didn't hesitate.
"Stay here," she hissed, drawing her weapon.
There was something unreadable in Liara's eyes as Ashley pushed her away, an expression that she didn't recognize but that she filed away for later thought, spinning around and moving in front of her in a defensive manner. She started shooting, no hesitation.
And then, just like that, the synthetic was in front of her. A hand was on her face, lifting her up as if she weighed nothing.
Ashley thought she heard someone yelling her name. Maybe it was Shepard. Maybe it was Liara. Maybe it was both of them. She didn't know.
Eden Prime. Virmire. Ilos. Alchera. Horizon.
There was a blinding pain in the back of her head, and then the world went mercifully dark.
"Thank God," she whispered when they told her that everyone was fine.
It didn't occur to her until weeks later how suspicious it had been that they were able to provide her with information about her family. Information was spotty at best, even for those with access to official, military channels. What were the odds that news about her mother and sisters would just happen to get through? The Normandy was one thing, but four human women?
The thought played at the back of her mind, but she didn't really have the time to think about it. Her rehab at the hospital had been painful and time-consuming, and as soon as she was halfway healed Udina had convinced her to take up the mantle of Spectre.
And then there had been the coup, which was something she very much didn't want to think about in the least bit.
That didn't mean the question had gone away. It had just been pushed to the side, something to consider but not to obsess over. Ashley had learned a long time ago not to look a gift horse in the mouth, as the old saying had gone.
The questions came back when she found out that her family had made it to the Citadel, safe and sound. She did the math. The colony they had been on had been hit by the Reapers less than twelve hours after they'd left. It had been pure luck that they'd managed to find passage off-world, or so her mother had claimed when she'd finally managed to talk with her.
Once might have been pure luck. Twice? Not a chance in hell. There was something going on, and she was bound and determined to figure out what it was.
Except no matter how hard she went digging, she couldn't find anything.
It was almost a relief when EDI started coming to her to ask all sorts of questions about human behavior. Ashley was willing to bet quite a few credits that Shepard was behind it—maybe as a joke, maybe as a lesson, maybe as a way of getting EDI to leave her alone and bother Ashley instead—but she'd pointedly not complained.
Ashley answered the AI's questions when she could, pointed her towards other people when she needed to, and threatened Joker with bodily harm if she ever heard the words "pillows," "cushions," or "gel packs" in a way that related to him or EDI ever again. And then EDI said something that brought her entire world crashing down.
"I think Liara has become a more private person since becoming the Shadow Broker."
She was rather impressed that she'd managed to hide her complete and utter shock from the AI that could read her like a book, down to her heart rate. It had taken everything she had to keep herself from reacting until she had safely locked herself away in the observation deck and, temporarily and with only a minimum amount of threats toward Joker, turned off all surveillance.
It explained everything.
"Liara is the Shadow Broker," Ashley said, trying the words out. They sounded ridiculous in her ears, and her mind couldn't help but jump back to the sad, embarrassed young woman that Ashley had shared a pot of coffee with over three years earlier.
A lot had changed since then. For all of them.
Ashley closed her eyes, a million thoughts running through her mind. Not to mention a million memories.
Liara kneeling beside her the morning after Shepard's memorial service, murmuring reassuring words as Ashley retched and swore never to drink again. Those two long years between Alchera and Horizon, calls and messages from Liara always arriving just when they were needed, a moment of brightness when life was getting to be too much for her. The new rifle that arrived at her apartment less than two hours after she had been promoted to lieutenant commander, a note attached that merely said "Congratulations!"
The news about her family waiting for her when she woke up at Huerta. The fact that her family had made it to the Citadel when so many others hadn't.
Taking a deep breath, Ashley stood up and walked straight for the door. It opened for her, and she kept going at the same pace.
She thought she heard someone call her name—Vega, maybe?—and she waved in the direction the sound came from without glancing that way.
Knowing that Liara was the fucking Shadow Broker, Ashley couldn't help but be a bit surprised when the door to Liara's quarters opened for her without any problem.
Liara was sitting on her bed, a datapad in her lap. She looked up in surprise as Ashley walked into her quarters, the door closing behind her. "Ashley?"
Ashley took a deep breath.
"Is something the matter?" Liara asked worriedly, sitting her datapad down and standing up. "Has something happened with the Flotilla? Is the meeting not still on for tomorrow?"
"You're the Shadow Broker?"
It didn't come out the way Ashley had planned. She had meant to say it matter-of-factly, maybe even teasingly, like a shared joke. Instead it had come out like a question, surprised and confused and maybe a bit of hurt mixed in as well because it had been kept a secret from her.
Liara blinked a few times. "Yes?"
Ashley couldn't quite tell whether it was a statement or a question, but the slight inflection at the end made her lean toward the latter.
"You're the Shadow Broker," Ashley repeated, and this time she managed to make it come out as a statement rather than a question. "You. The Shadow Broker. And you didn't tell me."
That last bit came out sounding a bit more hurt than she had intended.
Liara had the good grace to look embarrassed. "I promise you, Ashley, it wasn't anything personal," she said. "There are a lot of people who don't know."
Ashley took a deep breath. Then she let it out. "People on the Normandy?" she asked skeptically.
"Yes," Liara said with a nod.
Ashley met her gaze straight on. "Name two."
"Samantha Traynor," Liara said immediately.
Ashley raised an eyebrow. "That's one," she said. "And Allers doesn't count, so don't even think about using her."
Liara opened her mouth. Then she closed it, more than a bit sheepishly.
Ashley closed her eyes for a second. "Were you the reason my family made it to the Citadel?" she asked quietly.
There was silence for a moment. Then, just as softly, Liara replied: "Yes."
Ashley opened her eyes. Liara had taken a few steps closer to her and was staring at her with that same unreadable expression that she'd noticed back on Mars. When she noticed Ashley's gaze, she turned away.
She hoped she hadn't misread things.
"Fair warning, but I'm about five seconds away from kissing you," Ashley said slowly. "Let me know if I'm about to make a complete fool of myself, will you?"
Liara jerked her head back towards Ashley, her eyes wide.
Ashley wasn't certain which of them made the first move. All she knew was that one minute they were both standing there, staring at each other, and the next thing she knew they were kissing.
It was some very impressive kissing.
It might have been seconds. It might have been hours. Ashley honestly wasn't certain how much time had passed when they reluctantly pulled apart. "Don't think we're not going to talk about you being the Shadow Broker," she said breathlessly.
"I wouldn't dream of it," Liara said, her voice sounding just as breathless. "But perhaps later?"
Ashley couldn't help but notice that they were leaning closer and closer to each other with every word. Liara's lips were teasingly close to hers. They needed to talk, that was for certain. There were things that needed to be said and stories that needed to be shared.
But for now? For just a few minutes? It wouldn't hurt to live in the moment.
"Later works for me."