Ashley woke up with a dry throat, a pounding headache, and absolutely no idea where the hell she was or how she had ended up there.
And that? That was unexpected. Oh, it wasn't the first time that she'd found herself in that particular situation, and she was well aware that it probably wouldn't be the last. Still, getting blackout drunk wasn't exactly something she tried to make a habit of doing, especially not the last few years. Not since the Reapers had been destroyed. It wasn't exactly appropriate for the second human Spectre to... to...
Her thoughts ground to a halt as she pushed herself up into a sitting position, darkness swirling around the edges of her vision. Her face itched a little, even as it felt like a bass drum was pounding inside her brain, and she tentatively reached up to touch her forehead.
Something flaked off under her fingertips that made her suspect she must have hit her head at some point, based on past experience. Not to mention it felt like there was a fairly massive bruise forming.
Oh. Oh. That... wasn't good.
Memories from the last few days swarmed through her already pounding head, reminding her just how completely fucked she was. She remembered waking up on the floor of a strange apartment with no idea how she'd gotten there, the acrid smell of smoke in the air as well as something more metallic. There had been a body on the floor near her, a turian who'd clearly been stabbed to death, with a deadly looking blade sticking out of his back.
Ashley had crawled over to the body to try and figure out what on Earth was going on, to find out who he was and why she was there. And, of course, that had been when the door had burst open and two heavily armed people had rushed in.
No, not just people. Two heavily armed Spectres. Who had seemed fairly convinced that she'd killed the man on the floor, whoever the hell he was, simply because he was a turian. It was bullshit for a lot of reasons, doubly so since she didn't even know who the dead man was in the first place. Because she still didn't know the answer to that, even after almost three days. There hadn't exactly been time for questions, not if she'd wanted to get out of that room alive.
There was a reason people always said never to get on a Spectre's bad side. Even if you were another Spectre, apparently.
"Shit," Ashley muttered under her breath, so softly it was barely more than a breath of air.
She was abruptly aware just how much pain she was in. Her ribs were aching, a sure sign that they were at least bruised and possibly cracked or broken. There was a throbbing pain in her left leg that didn't bode well for her moving quickly anytime soon, and the less said about her lower back just then the better.
Ashley glanced upward, grimacing at just how high up the rooftops above her seemed to be. Her memories were a bit hazy, a combination of what she suspected was blood loss mixed in with not enough sleep and a fair bit of incredulous panic about the entire situation, but Ashley was pretty sure she'd been trying to jump from one roof to another.
It looked like she hadn't made it.
Trying to hold back a groan of pain as she moved, Ashley pushed herself to her feet. The world swam dizzyingly around her for a moment, long enough that she was worried she might end up right back on her ass. After what felt like an eternity, though, her vision finally cleared enough that she could mostly see straight.
She had to keep moving. God only knew how long she'd been sprawled there on the ground unconscious. She couldn't risk staying in one place, and there was a good chance that she'd already been there too long. That was just asking for them to catch up with her.
Besides, she had to be close. She had to be. It couldn't be much farther.
Ashley refused to believe anything else.
Hell, she probably should have gone to Shepard.
God damn it, but it would have made sense to go to Shepard. But that thought hadn't even crossed Ashley's mind, not until it was much too late to turn back.
Ashley wasn't entirely sure why she hadn't thought of trying to get in touch with Shepard the moment this whole mess had started. Oh, she had her suspicions exactly why she hadn't, some more shameful than others. But she didn't know, not for certain.
It was just... no one knew exactly what Shepard had done up there on the Crucible, there at the end. The commander hadn't told anyone, as far as Ashley knew. Not that she could blame her. Shepard had saved the entire damn galaxy. If she wanted to keep a few secrets, she'd damn well earned it in Ashley's mind.
But Ashley wasn't stupid. She'd seen the look in Shepard's eyes every time someone mentioned the dwindling dextro food supplies for quarians and turians trapped in the Sol system. Every time yet another attempt to fix the mass relays failed. Every time someone mentioned the way most technology was still crippled even after a year. Every time she walked past one of the empty lots that had been turned into a makeshift graveyard for the inactive geth.
Every time she looked at Joker.
It would have been smart for Ashley to have gone to Shepard. But she hadn't. Maybe she hadn't wanted to put anything else on the commander's shoulders after everything the woman had already been through. Maybe there was still a part of her subconscious that would never quite trust Shepard like she had before the original Normandy had been destroyed. Maybe there'd been a part of her that was tired of being in Shepard's shadow, no matter how large and far-reaching of one it was.
Hell. Maybe she'd just been too damn confused and concussed and exhausted to think straight. That definitely wasn't out of the question.
There wasn't anything to do about it now. She just had to hope that the vague directions she remembered from a quiet conversation over six months earlier were accurate. And that she could make it that far without falling flat on her face, which seemed more and more unlikely just then.
Ashley took in a shaky breath. It was getting harder and harder to ignore her pounding head, and her injured leg was starting to throb. She'd seen a few signs of movement here and there, off in the shadows, but nobody had approached her. Not yet, at least. It was probably because she was rather prominently displaying an assault rifle at her side, but it still surprised her a little.
Most places on Earth weren't exactly safe nowadays, even with the Reapers gone.
The world went hazy for a moment or ten as Ashley focused on putting one foot in front of the other. The buildings around her were barely standing as she kept moving forward, all but destroyed during the war and not in a rich enough area for repairs to have started even after so much time.
She was distantly aware of the sky above her growing lighter, the sun rising in the distance even though she couldn't see it from her vantage point. She needed to hurry. It would be a lot harder to keep from being seen when it wasn't dark any longer.
Left, right. Left, right. Left, right. One foot in front of the other. She just had to keep moving. That was the only thing she could do.
She almost didn't notice when she'd reached the place she'd been heading towards.
The building in front of her didn't look to be in much better shape than the others at first glance, but a closer look made it clear that there was more to it than met the eye. Its walls, although charred and blackened on the outside, were surprisingly sturdy, and its doors were firmly closed. It didn't look occupied but, then again, that was the point. Why have a secret bunker if anyone who glanced at it could tell someone was there? It was purposefully nondescript.
Ashley just hoped she hadn't come all this way for nothing.
She knew she was being watched. She had to have been being watched, this close to the entrance. So she didn't even bother trying to be subtle as she stumbled over to the heavy doors that lead into what had once been a warehouse of some type and banged on them with her first.
The sound seemed to echo in the pre-dawn stillness around her.
For a long moment, nothing happened. She reached out and rested her hand against the wall, a wave of dizziness cresting over her. Then one of the doors creaked open, a familiar face peering out at her in clear confusion.
"Ashley?" Liara asked slowly, her gaze clearly moving over Ashley's body and cataloguing the myriad of visible injuries. "Goddess. What happened to you?"
And of course, that was when her body decided that it was done. Ashley had just a second to see Liara's face shift from somewhat confused to clearly concerned before her vision went dark.
The hand that had been running through her hair slowly stilled.
"Ashley, are you awake?" Liara's voice was quiet, something in her tone that Ashley couldn't quite place.
She forced her eyes open, blinking a few times as she waited for her vision to clear.
Liara's mouth twisted into a small smile. "Oh, good," she said, sounding relieved. "I was starting to get worried."
Ashley cleared her throat, abruptly aware of just how dry it was. "How long have I been out?"
"Almost a day," Liara said. She stretched a little, reaching for something out of Ashley's sight.
Before Ashley could work up the energy to try and follow the movement with her gaze, Liara had moved her hand back. She was holding a glass of water. "Can you try to sit up?" Liara asked, her brow furrowing a little. "I know how much you hate IVs, so I didn't want to set one up unless I had to. You must be thirsty."
It took more effort that it should have, but Ashley was able to push herself up into a semi-sitting position. Enough of one that she could take the glass from Liara and gladly drink the water, being careful not to gulp it down no matter how much she would have liked to do so.
"Only you would get framed for murder," Liara said, shaking her head. She sounded almost fond.
Liara chuckled a bit. "Don't worry," she said. "I'm taking care of it." She gave Ashley another one of those unreadable looks. "I assume that's why you came looking for the Shadow Broker in the first place?"
It took almost everything Ashley had not to let her surprise show on her face. That... actually hadn't crossed her mind until just that moment.
Oh, it definitely made sense. Who better to prove that she had been set up for murder than the Shadow Broker? But it hadn't been the Shadow Broker that she instinctively wanted to find. Or, at least, not in that sense. She'd reacted on pure instinct. It probably said more than she'd like it to say, that her first thought when in trouble was that she needed to find Liara.
"Yeah," Ashley said, giving her a weak grin. "I figured you'd be my best bet when it came to figuring out what the hell happened."
Liara smiled at her, and it almost took Ashley's breath away.
"Want to fill me in on what I've missed?" Ashley asked, trying to keep her voice casual. Judging by the quizzical way Liara tilted her head, she didn't think she'd quite succeeded. "Maybe tell me why on Earth someone tried to frame me for murder?"
Ashley hadn't meant for that last bit to come out quite as bitter as it did. She looked away from Liara, letting her gaze drift over the room she was in instead.
It was clearly Liara's personal quarters, filled with a mishmash of items she'd had with her on the Normandy. The small device that had once powered her info drone was resting on a table nearby, a variety of tools surrounding it that made it pretty clear that she was still trying to fix it. Drones had been one of a million different kinds of tech that had stopped working the same time that the Reapers did... and one of the ones that weren't fixable yet.
"It wasn't anything personal against you, as far as I can tell," Liara said gently. "The news about the dextro food supplies running low has everyone on edge, and separatists were trying to force conflict."
Ashley raised her eyebrows as she glanced back at Liara. "By framing me?" she asked. "What did they think that would get them?"
Liara shrugged. "Chaos," she replied. "The turian who was killed was a former Spectre who'd been openly trying to keep peace. If he was killed not just by a human, but a human Spectre..."
"Why do these things never happen to Shepard?" Ashley asked tiredly, leaning back so that she wasn't siting up any longer.
"I think you're forgetting about the incident with the clone," Liara said lightly.
Liara reached out to brush her hand over Ashley's forehead, moving some loose hairs out of the way. "You should get some more rest," she said. "I'll go check my network and make certain the right people were notified of this mess."
She leaned forward, and for just a moment Ashley thought she was going to press a kiss against her forehead. Or her cheek. Or her lips. Then she smiled and turned away.
Ashley didn't know if she was disappointed or relieved.
Liara didn't even look at her as she stopped in front of a console and typed something in. "They're still trying to catch two more of the people involved," she repeated for the third time in the past hour. "My sources say it shouldn't be more than another day or two. Until then, it's not safe."
"I'm a grownass woman, T'Soni," Ashley pointed out. "I don't need a baby-sitter."
"A torn ligament in your leg, two cracked ribs, a six inch bruise on your back, and a concussion say otherwise," Liara said matter-of-factly. Her gaze was still focused on a screen in front of her, the information scrolling across it not even a fraction of what she'd had back during the war.
Ashley opened her mouth. Then she closed it. There really wasn't much she could say when it came to that argument after all. And judging by the tiny smirk that Liara was blatantly not even trying to hide, she was well aware of it too.
"I hate you," Ashley muttered under her breath, no real heat to the words. Both of them knew damn well that it wasn't true.
If anything, Liara's smirk grew even less subtle. "No you don't."
There wasn't a lot Ashley could say in reply to that either.
Rolling her eyes, Ashley hobbled over to stand beside Liara. She leaned against her a bit, pointedly hiding her smile when she felt Liara stiffen a bit at the contact. "What are you looking at, anyway?"
"Nothing you need to worry about," Liara said, quickly typing something on the console. The screen in front of them changed, the information on it switching to something clearly military-related.
Ashley snorted. Sometimes it was easy to forget the naïve kid that she'd met on Therum all those years ago, when Liara was hiding behind the mask of the Shadow Broker. Other times, it was hard to forget it. "Do I need to remind you that I'm a grownass woman again?"
"Believe me, I'd have to be blind not to have noticed your ass," Liara shot back. Then she froze, an expression that Ashley couldn't quite translate flickering across her face, as if she hadn't actually meant to say that.
Which made sense, because Ashley definitely hadn't expected her to say that. She felt her eyebrows starting to rise. "What exactly do you mean by that?" she asked, trying to keep her tone as level as possible.
"Nothing at all," Liara said, her tongue almost stumbling over the words. Her cheeks were flushed a darker blue than normal, and she looked like she wanted nothing more than to sink into the floor. "I haven't been staring... well, I have, but no more than usual. I mean, that is... Goddess, can we pretend this conversation never happened?"
The years faded away for a moment, and it was almost like they were back on the first Normandy. Ashley almost expected to glance over and see Garrus tinkering with something in the background, or Wrex purposefully looming menacingly, or Tali gesturing wildly as she told a story that no one else understood, or Kaidan leaning back against a wall with the corner of his mouth turned up in a half-smile. The calm and collected Shadow Broker disappeared, replaced with a young archeologist who spent more of her time apologizing for misspeaking than she did actually talking.
And then reality snapped back to the present.
"Oh, I think I'd like to remember this conversation," Ashley said slowly. Carefully. Trying to work up the nerve. "Believe me when I say that I'm very interested in what you think about my ass."
Liara jerked her head in Ashley's direction, her embarrassed look quickly being replaced by one of surprised mixed with confusion.
Ashley reached down and took Liara's hand in her own, squeezing it gently. After a moment's hesitation, Liara squeezed back.