Beta: A huge thank you to thessilian for pinch beta-reading this for me it is greatly appreciated! Also a huge thank you to my amazing beta reader Cariel for taking time out of her holidays to beta read this for me on the fly. Thank you so much for wisdom and insight girl I don't know where I would be without you! *glomps*

Author's notes: This was written for zweihand as a small thank you for all her amazing generosity. You freaking rock girl! My apologies if I completely tanked my portrayal of your Shepard. I was going by the first set of notes you posted about him a while back and am hoping you'll still enjoy it in spite of your recent updates and added details on his person. He was such a cool character I couldn't resist. *blushes*

AJ Shepard knew the message should have been expected. Ash was always known for her act first, talk later mentality. Even so, it caught him off guard, leaving the quiet commander entirely speechless and overly aware of all those around him.

"If anyone needs me, I'll be in my quarters," he softly said to Kelly, who assured him that she would inform the others if need be.

The journey to his quarters felt far longer than he would have liked. The message what little he had read of it continued to replay in his mind. It encouraged a mixture of emotions: guarded hope and longing.

Did he still have a chance? Would she be willing to hear him out this time around? Or had his hopes in her been entirely misplaced?

AJ was not the man he used to be and he was certain Ashley was not the same woman he once knew. Time was said to heal all things; he could only hope this rule applied to their reunion as well.

He could not blame Ashley for her rage or her distrust in him. Truthfully, he would have been sceptical as well. He had not asked to be resurrected by Cerberus. Nor had he counted on finding himself being coerced into serving them. Even so, it was difficult not feel a little hurt by the accusations made.

Arriving to his quarters, the young commander peeled off his armour before wandering over to activate the audio player by his bed. The small framed picture of Ashley stared up at him, her smile forever captured on film. A heavy sigh escaped his lips as he absently fingered the outline of her jaw. A part of him was eager to read the message left by her; another part of him dreaded the endless possibilities it could contain.

You're a pessimist sometimes, Commander.

Lighten up! The universe isn't going to end; not on our watch anyway!

He still recalled her words, the way she could lighten the mood or cheer him up with a smile. It had been far too long and now so much remained uncertain.

Standing before his desk, the young commander watched as his computer activated and uploaded his programs. Time seemed to stand still as he waited with both dread and impatience. When his messages were finally brought up, Shepard exhaled. Only then did he realize he had been holding his breath the entire time.

Hesitating, he debated whether to hold off reading the rest of the message. He could do without more bad news. At the same time, he missed Ash's amusing notes, her poorly written poetry, and the tall tales she would often share.

It's now or never, Commander.

In the end, it was curiosity that gave him the courage to hit the enter key and have a seat. Drawing a deep breath, AJ forced his thoughts clear as he stared at the screen before him. His mind swirled with past memories and echoed with the endless possibilities of the future.

Ashley's message was simple, direct, and filled with unspoken emotions that reflected his own. There was so much she did not know, so much he was uncertain he could share with her anymore. Shepard imagined Ashley felt the same way about him.

One thing was certain: her feelings had not faded with time. That fact alone afforded him a rare glimmer of hope.

As he drew to the end of her brief message, his thoughts began to move forward. Though his heart ached, the young commander knew he could not ask her to join him. To do so would be insulting and rude. He was still bound to an organization he despised, a glorified puppet at best, an infamous slave at worst. He would be damned if he dragged Ashley into the fray for his own selfish needs. She deserved better than that and when he was finished with Cerberus, AJ swore to himself he would make it up to her. For now, he would continue to play their games and dance to their tune, but not for long.

As his dark eyes fell to the only photo he had left of the spitfire soldier, Shepard could not help but sadly smile. There was only one place that he longed to be and seated in his quarters, pining over a photo was not it.

Well, what are you waiting for? Time isn't on your side you know.

He could almost hear the sound of Ash's voice teasing him, followed by the echo of her throaty laugh. How he missed her! She was right, as always. Time was not on his side and if he did not respond now, AJ was uncertain when the opportunity might arise again.

With a new sense of determination, he collected his thoughts as his fingers began to tap at the buttons of his keyboard.

Thousands of light years away, a message was received. With trepidation and cautious hope, calloused fingers hovered over the enter key before curiosity gave them the strength to activate the message.

The message was simple, direct, and filled with unspoken emotions. Suddenly the universe was no longer quite so empty or so cold. Answers were given and new questions arose in their place.

One thing was certain: Shepard was the same as he ever was, not even Cerberus could rob him of that. He was biding his time, the way he always did, playing by the rules until he could find new ones that would enable him to finally be free. With a hint of a smile on her lips and a million words on her mind, the Alliance soldier began a message of her own.

It might not have been the new beginning they both desired, but it was far from the end. And for the first time since the Commander's death, Ashley felt hope.