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They make it into the airlock--the automatic decon cycle clearing away the casino smells of rich people wasting money--before Shepard starts to laugh, helplessly. "What the hell was that?" she demands.

Ashley looks puzzled a moment, and then her expression clears. "Oh, you mean the drunk girl act? Well, you did tell me to cause a distraction."

Shepard nods, still laughing--"And did you! That poor man, he looked so terrified when you asked him to feel your muscle."

Ashley's laughing now too, tucking her hair back behind her ears. "I dunno, I think my masterpiece was the bit about is he breaking up with me-e-e-e-e?"

"Right! Right! I had no idea you were such an actress!"

Ashley shakes her head, still grinning. "Not acting so much as imitating from memory. I can't tell you how many times I was the one who wound up dragging squadmates back to the barracks after they'd had one too many. Or several too many."

"Well, that's good of you."

Ashley sighs, rolling her eyes ceilingwards. "Always have been the mother hen," she says, a little self-deprecatingly. "Having three younger sisters means I'm doomed."

"Well," Shepard says, "it gives you a hell of a party trick. I thought I was going to blow my own cover laughing when you announced that you'd eaten the turian steak. As if anyone could eat a turian steak by accident, they're bright blue."

"Oh, I know," Ashley says, her grin going wicked. "And the number of times I played nursemaid back in the day, I have material for hours and hours. I didn't even have a chance to break out some of my best ones." Her posture changes, suddenly, from the straight-backed professional to the barfly-on-the-prowl act she’d used in the casino, eyes heavy-lidded and smoky, and also, just possibly, about to fall over. "Has anybody ever, ever, ever, ever told you what pretty eyes you have?" she drawls. "Would you say they're blue or... green?"

....It's a joke, Shepard knows it is, there's no pretending it's anything but. But it hits her like a punch in the gut.

Nevertheless she keeps her expression from changing as she says, "Poor guy would've burst a blood vessel."

Ashley straightens up again, grinning. "Especially since I'm pretty sure his eyes were brown. I almost wish I'd had a chance to use that one, it'd be funny to watch him try to reply."

"You are an evil woman, Williams," Shepard says, and she's pretty sure she's kept the lump in her throat out of her voice, at least.

(Her own eyes are, in fact, green.)

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," Ashley says, saluting. The gesture shifts as she scrubs her hand back through her hair. "Ugh, I can't wait to take a good shower and get this stuff out of my hair. You'd think someone would have invented a hairspray that didn't suck by now."

Ashley's hair is very beautiful and always has been, and these days she wears it down a hell of a lot more than she did on the first Normandy, and the main savior of Shepard's composure on that front is that she deliberately avoids noticing it as much as possible. (Biotic attention-control exercises have a number of non-biotic applications, as it happens.)

She could invite Ash up to use the hot water shower in her quarters. It's a big improvement over the sonics on the crew deck, especially if you're trying to get gunk out of your hair--not that she uses much product herself. And it isn't even that big of a leap: she let Tali use her shower to wash the goo and bits off her suit after the last mission in which she exploded a husk at close quarters, and of course Traynor borrowed her shower the one time too.

No, she thinks, dragging her gaze away from the sight of Ashley rearranging her hair. Better not. She's crossed enough boundaries in her life.

Best to keep this one where it is.

Much as she might want otherwise.

She takes the shower herself, after bidding goodbye to Ashley on the crew deck.

Nothing has happened. Nothing has and nothing will.

(The memory of the first time she ever consciously thought of Ashley like that--and god, it feels so juvenile to think of it in that way--is still quite vivid. It was all the way back on the first Normandy, after Noveria, and she'd been in the bathroom--at the time, the only bathroom; this was long before Cerberus' upgrades and the ridiculously luxurious captain's cabin.

She'd been washing her hands when Ashley came in, said a respectful "Ma'am," positioned herself at the one angle in which you could see yourself in the terrible little mirrors, and then began taking down her hair with ruthless efficiency.

She'd known Ash had long hair, obviously, but it was easy to forget when she always wore it tied up and pinned back so tight, or tucked out of the way under her helmet. So there was something shocking about the way it came down, into a thick dark coil that twined over Ashley's shoulder, heavy and glossy and dark. Ashley lined up the pins carefully on the mirror's sill and then began working her fingers through the tight coil, loosening it up.

"I put it up wrong or something," Ashley said conversationally as she worked her hair free and shook it out. "One of the pins has been sticking me in the scalp all morning."

The bathroom was small and, in such close quarters, Shepard could smell her shampoo. There was nothing particularly sexy about it, it was something practical and clean-sharp, and yet, and yet. Ashley's hair, loose and soft around her shoulders, so shining-dark it was almost black and yet glinting in the harsh lights with highlights of deep red-brown, tempered the strong line of her jaw without eliminating that strength. It brought out the rich darkness of her eyes.

Shepard realized she was staring and hurriedly shut off the water and went to dry her hands.

Ashley was efficiently winding her hair back up again, bending at the waist to get it into place properly. Slightly muffled, she said, "Sometimes I think I should chop it all off short. It'd be a lot easier, and really nobody ever sees it down but me anyway."

"Oh no," Shepard said--a reaction that was no brain and all gut--"no, don't do that." And then, backpedaling like mad: "I mean, if you wear it long for yourself, that is, you should keep it. Everyone should have a few things that are just for them."

Ashley straightened up again, holding her hair in place with one hand as she picked up the pins with the other, one by one, and skewered them into the bun. "That's what I think, too, ma'am," she said, sounding gratified.

Shepard would spend the entire rest of the day trying not to think about Ashley's hair, the scent of it, the deep secret colors where it reflected the light, the way it transformed her face into something familiar, unfamiliar, beautiful.)

And now it's almost three years later and she's still trying not to think of it, pointing her face into the shower's spray as if the sharp needles of water could drum away these most inappropriate thoughts.

Nothing will come of it, nothing can come of it. Nothing will ever come of it. Because it would be wrong, a misuse of power, for anything to come of it--even if Ashley had ever shown any interest, which she hasn't. There are few faster ways to completely destroy a good working relationship with your subordinates than sleeping with them.

There's a thing, where people act like friendship is a poor cousin of romantic love, and Shepard is old enough to know that it isn't. Love may be like blood, but friendship is like bones. And Ashley's friendship isn't something she would risk. Some days it feels like these oldest friendships, Garrus, Tali, Wrex, Ashley, are the only things still holding her up, as though she'd collapse without them.

But God, it'd be easier if Ashley wasn't so beautiful.

" I really sound like that?" she asks.

"Ever since Eden Prime, yeah," Ashley says. The vault is almost lightless, but in the faint illumination from the electronics Shepard can see her smiling despite herself.

"Why didn't anyone tell me? I'm open to feedback here!"

"I'm more concerned about this impregnable vault we've been sealed inside forever," Garrus says, and she can hear the tight flanging of his voice.

After they get out (thank you, Glyph), Shepard drops behind as Ashley and Garrus saunter ahead. There's something heartbreakingly confident in their walk, like they can't imagine losing.

Shepard hopes to hell that she'll never be the reason that confidence is broken.

"Have some faith, Garrus," Ashley is saying.

"I do have faith."

"Uh-huh." She elbows him in the ribs. (Oh, how far she's come, the Ashley who didn't trust aliens of three years ago--and now, here, this Ashley who's needling him so casually, all laughter.) "You were freaking out back there."

"I was not," he says. Then: "Well, maybe a little. I feel like asphyxiation is an okay thing to freak out about, honestly."

"There's no crying in baseball," Ashley says loftily, "and no whining on the Normandy."

"Oh yeah? Who was it that I found not a week ago, limping around complaining that everyone had the lights on too bright?"

"That's different," Ashley says. "That was all thanks to Mister Vega and his lethal bottle." She glances back over her shoulder and grins at Shepard, soft lips and strong white teeth.

"Wellllllll," Garrus drawls, "I suppose most of us have had experiences of lethal bottles in our pasts."

"He was fine the next morning. God knows how. Body mass, I guess." Ashley brightens. "On the plus side, if we hadn't drunk it all, I bet those assholes taking over the ship would've stolen it. Or broken it, or something."

"Bright sides, Williams," Garrus says, laughing.

"Look at this!" Tali hollers from the engine room as they’re doing their last sweep of the ship, post-clone. "Look look look at this, who leaves this kind of mess in an engine room?"

"Um, Cat6 goons?" Vega yells back. (Having established that his weights are intact, he's in a good mood.)

"Animals," Tali says, vehemently.

"I'll help you clean it up," Garrus says, all magnanimousness, as Shepard ascends again from the engineering deck.

She finds Ashley in Port Observation, without even being aware that she was looking for her. Ashley is out of her armor, but her hair is still drawn back in the braid she wears to fit it under her combat helmet. She has her chin in one hand, staring moodily off into space, but before Shepard can even ask what's wrong, she raises her head and smiles. "Skipper," she says.

"Well, that was a thing," Shepard says, settling down onto the couch across from her.

"And now we will never speak of this again," Ashley intones, and then they grin at each other.

"That was closer than I'd like to admit," Shepard says, settling down with her elbows on her knees, gazing out the wide window.

"Nah," Ashley says. When Shepard gives her an eyebrows-raised questioning look, she says, "I mean, yeah, we might've died. But there's no way your clone could've passed for you. It's not just missing knowledge, she just wasn't right. She didn't stand like you, she didn't walk like you, she looked like you but anyone paying attention would know that she wasn't you."

"You've been paying attention, huh?" Shepard says, before she can stop herself.

"Well, yeah," Ashley says, and then "--I mean, you're my CO, it's just smart, right?"

But Shepard doesn't think it's entirely wishful thinking that she sees a trace of color along Ashley's cheekbones. "Right," she says.

It's six hours to Earth and Shepard is making the rounds again, for what she can't help but worry is the last time. She finds Ash in her usual spot, writing a message on her omnitool, which she snaps shut. "Shepard."

"Ash," she says. There are a hundred things she'd like to say, if she was a little braver. If this was a vid, she'd tell Ashley exactly how she feels. But if this was a vid, there would be no chance that Ashley would say that she just wanted to be friends--or, worse, recoil. She knows that she wouldn't have an easy time with that, especially not now, and she knows that she very much can't afford the distraction right now. So all she says is, "You ready?"

"Ready," Ashley says. "You know, sometimes I feel like this was what I was made for. No politics, no bullshitting, no lies. Just someone who wants to destroy the things we love--and we're going to go stop them."

She looks very determined and even more beautiful. "Well, that's the plan."

"And there's no one I'd rather follow," Ashley says. "I know I said a few things on Horizon and on Mars, things that I regret now."

"It was reasonable, Ash. I was angry at the time, but you had every reason to doubt--"

"No, let me finish." Ashley's smile twists sideways. "I kept shutting you down because I was afraid... because I was afraid you could talk me into anything if I let you. Because I was afraid... that if I listened, I... anyway, it was stupid and it wasn't fair. I should've at least heard you out."

"It's okay. Really."

"So we're good," Ashley asks, "Skipper?"

The nickname sends a frission down Shepard's spine, and for a moment she thinks there's another question in Ashley's eyes, in the hesitant curve of her full lower lip.

But she's still a coward in some important ways. "We're good, Ash," she says.

Ashley relaxes back against the couch cushions. "Good," she says.

"Don't you fucking leave me behind, Skipper," Ashley says. She's limping, leaning against Garrus and bleeding from a shallow wound above her eyebrow. It ought to make her look gruesome. In actuality it makes her look like some kind of valkyrie, some goddess-warrior. She wrenches off her helmet, which is something Ashley never does in battle, and her hair is coming loose from the plait she wears it in to keep it flat and out of the way under armor, wispy bits and strands standing out like smoke or shadow. Her jaw is set and her eyes blaze and the blood stands out on her skin and she is the most impossibly beautiful thing Shepard has ever seen. Pallas Athena, if Athena was dark-eyed instead of grey-eyed. The Morrigan, raven-sharp and circling wide. Durga, sans tiger, and god knows Shepard could use some victory over evil right now, some magnificent invincibility.

"Ash," she says.

"Don't you--" Ash says, an echo of something she said so long ago and yet not so long ago. She's crying, tears tracking through the blood on her face. "Don't--"

"Ash," she says, "the crew needs you. All right? I'm trusting you with this."

She shakes her head, hard. "You sacrificed someone so that I could live once already," she says. "I won't, I won't--if it's you, I can't--"

And. It's almost as if they'd actually talked about this like fucking grownups, almost as if they've actually had the conversation that they should have had so long ago.

She doesn't even know if she's the one who moves, or Ashley is. It's just that suddenly they're kissing, hard and desperate, and Ashley tastes like the salt of sweat and the copper of blood and, god, there beneath it all she smells of that sweet sharpness of shampoo that Shepard knows from what feels like a lifetime before.

She realizes then that she has fisted her hand in Ashley's braid, like she doesn't ever want to let go, and maybe she doesn't. Won't. Can't.


For Ashley. For everyone.

"Ashley," she says. "Go. Take them away. For me."

Ashley is still crying, tears now outnumbering blood trails on her cheeks and beginning to war with the grime, but she nods now, and doesn't argue. My warrior goddess, Shepard thinks, my blood and my bones, forgive me.

And then there's the beacon, and then, nothing.

To her credit, Ashley gives her some recovery time to pull the pieces together. Which is good, because Shepard spends two weeks either slipping in and out of consciousness, or so agonized she can't chain two thoughts together, or stuffed to the gills with pain-meds post-surgery, or otherwise not in her right mind. She's pretty sure that various members of her crew come to visit her during that time, but at least some of those visits must be hallucinations, because at least once her visitor was Mordin.

Once the worst of it is over, though, Ashley is one of the first to visit her.

"I take it you got them out?" Shepard asks. Her mouth feels cottony. Side-effect of the many medications she's on, apparently. "I'm fairly sure I didn't hallucinate all my crew visits."

"Yeah, we made it out. It was some hard going, but we pulled through. Joker didn't want to leave you, so we cut it far too close, but we made it. Also discovered a really pretty garden world, incidentally."

"Of course you did," Shepard says. "Overachievers."

"They're talking about calling the planet ‘Normandy,’" Ashley says. "Or maybe ‘Shepard.’" She’s so straight-faced that Shepard can’t tell if her leg is being pulled.

"Oh god, no, Jacob and Brynn's kid is bad enough. Maybe Anderson? Although Normandy isn't bad." She swallows again, and asks what may be the most important question of her life: "EDI? Is EDI okay?"

Ashley's eyes flicker with surprise. "How did you know something happened to EDI?"

"Long story. Answer the question."

"EDI's fine. She went into standby mode with no warning and stayed that way for six hours after we landed on the planet. Joker was beside himself.”

“I can only imagine.”

“But then she came back online all of a sudden. Said she'd suffered some corruption in the pieces of Reaper code that Cerberus spliced into her programming, but her self-learning algorithms went into repair mode, isolated the damage and routed around it. She said a lot more than that, but I’m not sure anyone understood it besides Tali."

"Thank god." Shepard's head thumps back against the pillow. "I thought that thing was lying to me, but I couldn't be sure." At Ashley's questioning look, she says, "Like I said, long story, and I'm honestly not even sure how much of it was real. I'll fill you in once I've had some time to get my head around it."

They're both quiet a moment, and then Ashley comes closer, settling her hip against the side of the bed. "So," she says. "We going to talk about what happened right before you shoved me in that shuttle?"

Ashley always was braver than Shepard in some ways. Shepard smiles. "We probably should."

"We could pretend it didn't happen. Pressures of war. But...." Ashley's fingertips trace patterns on the side of the bed. "To be honest, I'd rather not. That was a hell of a kiss, Skipper."

She’s always been inordinately fond of that nickname, since the very first time Ashley used it, and it makes her smile again, now. She can feel the expression tugging at a bruise on the side of her mouth. "It was, wasn't it?" All right. Time, finally, for the truth. If she can survive the end of the world, surely she can survive Ashley's reaction. "I've had a--a--damn it, adults ought to have a better word for it than 'crush.' I've had a crush on you since all the way back on the first Normandy. But I wasn't going to say anything. I was planning to never say anything. Fraternization is against regs for a reason."

"You are aware that pretty much the whole ship was fraternizing up a storm at the end there?"

"Yeah. But it's different if it's the commander. There's no chain of command issues if Garrus and Tali get together, or Joker and EDI, or any of that. But having the CO get involved with crew kicks morale right in the teeth, you know that. And you add into that the issues of implied coercion, and.... So no matter how much I wanted to, and God, Ash, I wanted to, I couldn't say anything to you. And then after I started working with Cerberus....” She trails off. She can see Ashley’s fingertips tapping nervously on the edge of the bed. “And even apart from all of that, I didn't know if you'd even be interested."

Ashley laughed, an oddly strained sound. "Shepard, the whole goddamn ship was in love with you."

"That's not true."

"No, it is. I was, for sure, even though I didn't want to admit it to myself--who needs a hopeless crush on their commanding officer?” Shepard’s expression must’ve changed, because Ashley says, “Was, am, probably always will be. You glow, do you know that? Everyone wants to be near you because of it, it's like you look at people and you believe in them and it makes them believe in themselves. I was so... irrationally jealous of Garrus and Tali for having spent so much more time with you over the past couple of years." Her fingertip keeps making absent patterns on the bed's railing. "I wouldn't have been half so mad at you when I found out you were with Cerberus if I hadn't been in love with you. Half of it was that you didn't... you didn't seem like you'd even bothered to look for me. It made me wonder if maybe you cared less than it seemed."

"I did care, but I couldn't figure out how to recruit you without blowing your whole career to hell right when you’d just started to really make progress," Shepard says. "And... I don't... glow," she adds, rather stupidly. "Do I?"

"You do glow. Ask anybody. 'The star to every wandering bark,'" she says, in her quoting voice. At Shepard's puzzled look, she adds, "Shakespeare. That one's not even obscure."

"You will find," Shepard says solemnly, "that I am an illiterate Philistine."

"Yes, but you're my illiterate Philistine," Ashley says.

"If you're going to make fun of me, you could at least kiss me again," Shepard says, daring.

And Ashley smiles, so happily it takes her breath away. "Lemme see if I can do this without squashing you," she says, leaning over the bed. Her hair falls loose against the side of Shepard's face, heavy and silky.

"I'm already kind of pre-squashed," Shepard says, shifting to sit up and ignoring her protesting ribs.

"That's what I'm worried about," Ashley says dryly, and then kisses her.

It's different, very different, than that first kiss on the dust-choked battlefield of London. It's not hard, it's not desperate, it's hesitant and almost questioning. Ashley's lips are softer than anyone's Shepard has ever kissed, but as the kiss continues and Shepard's fingers crawl around the back of Ashley's neck, Ashley gasps a little and then presses forward, less hesitant. Sure, now, sure and strong, and Shepard's heart thunders: finally, finally.

Ashley pulls back, finally, regretfully, and Shepard has to draw a deep shuddering breath to steady herself--which makes her ribs protest. She winces and puts a hand on her side. "We should probably continue this when I'm in somewhat more of one piece."

Ashley's eyes are dilated, Shepard is delighted to see. She wets her lips with the tip of her tongue. "Yeah. Let's."

There is a lot of work to be done, and Ashley is busy much of the time. It's taking a while to get all the krogans off-planet, with everyone's fleets having sustained serious damage, and to Shepard's amusement, in the meantime Ashley is the Alliance officer in charge of managing interactions between Alliance troops and krogan troops.

("How'd that happen?" Shepard asked when she found out. "Not that you won't do a good job, but--"

"Diplomatic relations were never quite my forte?" Ashley grinned. "Maybe they think you rubbed off on me. Uh, no innuendo intended."


"From what I hear, Wrex was giving everyone grief until I showed up. Then he said, 'Ah, here's a human I can work with,' which I guess impressed the brass?"

"That would."

"And then one of the generals under him started bitching and whining about he wasn't going to listen to some jumped-up human female, so I grabbed him by the front of his armor and banged him in the face, right at the edge of the head plate like you showed me. Everyone shut up after that. Well, except Wrex, but he just laughed a lot."

"You're going to do a great job," Shepard said, very seriously.)

Once they finally let Shepard out of the hospital, she moves in to Ashey's shoebox-sized apartment on base. Technically that's entirely against regs, but nobody questioned it, although Shepard is ready to play the 'two Spectres can do twice of whatever they want' card.

"Not moving too fast, are we?" Shepard asks.

"Shepard, I spent about three despairing weeks being sure that our relationship was going to consist of one, singular, un-discussed kiss, and then if I was very lucky there might even be a body for me to cry over later. I am not as worried about 'too fast' as I am about 'not fast enough.'"

They eat takeout from a place that Ashley found, a vat meat curry stand that's surprisingly good--bonus, no washing up--and then Ashley takes her wrist, gently, and gives her a look, and Shepard nods.

Her pulse flutters in her throat. She and Ashley have kissed quite a bit, but not more than that, because even the kissing elicited stern looks from the hospital staff. Really, probably, it's too early for her to be having sex, but the hospital kept her for monitoring for longer than was really needed for recuperation (they were trying to figure out if the Crucible had put any bugs in her brain, and she can't blame them for that), so it's not as foolish as it would otherwise be. And she's just goddamn tired of waiting.

So there's a dichotomy between the way Ashley kisses her--hard, deep, toe-curlingly direct in the way that she always imagined Ashley would--and the way Ashley touches her, undressing her still-achy body with gentle hands. She wants to tell Ash that she can be rougher if she wants, but that would be a spectacularly poor idea right now--nobody wants their first time together interrupted by a trip to the emergency room--so she just thinks Later, and smiles into the kiss at the thought that there will be, can be, a later.

Ashley is as lovely as she could have imagined: her belly flat, the curve of her hip at once sensual and elegant, her thighs corded with muscle. Her breasts, freed from the heavy-duty sports bra she wore under her uniform, are soft and firm to Shepard's touch, and when Shepard ducks her head to take a hard nipple into her mouth, Ashley's gasp is loud in the still air.

They lay down, side-by-side to keep the weight off Shepard's still-healing body. She finds Ashley's scars, some that she recognizes--the rachni fight on Noveria, the Citadel battle--and some that she doesn’t. She presses her mouth to a particularly nasty scar on the inside of Ashley's arm.

Ashley gives a breathless laugh. "I don't want to disillusion you," she whispers, "but that one's from when I was fifteen and burned myself on the stove, trying to make dinner for my sisters. I am a very bad cook."

"Watching three younger sisters is a far more terrible battle than most of the ones I've faced," Shepard says solemnly, and then interrupts Ashley's giggles with a kiss.

She kisses Ashley everywhere she can reach: her eyelids, her mouth, the side of her long throat, her muscular shoulder--the soft undercurve of her breast, the flat jumping muscles of her stomach, the sharp edge of her hipbone. The tops of her thighs. Ashley's breath shudders and catches and she spreads her legs, and Shepard's breath catches, too, at the gesture.

She presses her lips to Ashley's mons, breathes in her scent and hears Ashley's muffled curse. Her tongue presses up between Ashley's folds, finding her way by touch and texture, silky and sweet and musky, and by the sounds Ashley makes. It has been a long time since she last had sex, but she's always loved this act particularly, the intimacy, the intensity of it. And all the more so when it’s Ashley's fingers twining through her hair, Ashley's moans and whispered encouragements. Ashley, her warrior queen, squirming under her.

She teases until the tension in Ashley's thighs tells her to stop teasing, and then she presses her tongue just where she knew Ashley wants it--presses and swirls and caresses as Ashley swears and then loses the ability even to swear, her voice rising on a moan like a song. With her free hand Shepard slides fingers between her own legs, too turned on to resist, as she rides out Ashley's orgasm.

Ashley's hands clutch at her shoulders, pulling her urgently up, and she only has a moment to wonder whether Ashley will mind the wetness on her face before they’re kissing again, hard and wet and almost as desperate as on that London shuttle--but desperate for another reason, a better reason. Ashley's clever fingers slide down her belly, tug her hand out of the way and replace it with her own. She kisses like she’s trying to devour Shepard, and her fingers press in and up to hit just the right spot.

It doesn't take long, Ashley rubbing against exactly the right spot as she kisses Shepard and whispers the most beautiful filthy endearments--god bless poets, Shepard thinks dazedly as she reaches and reaches and finally finds her peak, choking a moan against Ashley's mouth.

Her arms wrap almost of their own accord around Ashley's back, holding her tight. "God," she says.

"I know." Ashley’s laugh sounds a little hysterical. "Wow."

"We should've done this years ago," Shepard says, kissing her, kissing her.

But when she comes up for air, Ashley says, "It wouldn't have been the same." And she’s right, Shepard knows she’s right. It couldn't have been like this if they were commander and subordinate. It couldn't have been like this until Ashley was able to find her feet, and her voice, and her confidence. And until she, Shepard, had lost her fear of being rejected.

"Yeah," she says, kissing Ashley's eyelids, cheekbone, lips. "You're right."

"Although," Ashley says, slipping her fingertips up along Shepard's ribs, "I'm looking forward to what we can do when you're all in one piece again."

They settle in to sleep, then. Ashley untangles herself from their sprawling limbs long enough to brush her hair and braid it, and Shepard pushes herself up on one elbow to watch, rapt. Then Ashley insists that she should put on at least a t-shirt to sleep in, because she’s supposed to avoid chills. And then, least romantic of all, Shepard's nighttime mixture of pills to help all of her various bruised and battered bodily systems get back into proper shape.

But then they settle back in together, winding around each other. In the darkness, fingers twining with Ashley's, she says, "You know, I think I fell in love with you on Eden Prime. Or started to, anyway. When we found you so outnumbered and still fighting, fighting like a demon even when you had no chance. And then after the fight was over and you put your visor up to salute, and you had the most beautiful eyes. Have the most beautiful eyes."

Ashley kisses her shoulder. "I feel guilty, sometimes. So many good things came into my life because of Eden Prime. But my whole squad died there. They're still buried there, and here I am."

"I know," Shepard says. "I have my own Eden Primes. But all we can do... all we can do is honor their memories, and live the best lives we can."

"Yeah," Ashley says, her voice a sigh across the back of Shepard's neck, her fingers tightening around Shepard's. And Shepard exhales too, lets that lull her quietly into sleep.