War tends to put things into perspective
Author note: I wrote this and originally uploaded it to livejoural ME kmeme about a year ago. The formatting is weird for this website because it's basically broken into livejournal comment-sized chunks. Poetry is cited at the end of each section (and probably not formatted correctly; forgive me). This story is slightly AU: the catalyst is actually a weapon that destroys the Reapers.
Ashley missed the days in her life when the greatest worry she had was never breaking free of the black smear on her family name. She missed when prejudice against her grandfather's surrender was the greatest example of universal unfairness in her life. She missed trusting her commanding officer.
It had been simple; blame had always been in the other direction. Now Ashley's thoughts centered on her own faults, her own distrusts, of her fears that Shepard, their greatest hope, was the sum of the parts Cerberus put inside her. She hated that every time she said 'I don't trust you', Shepard's face would tighten in pain. She hated that the galaxy as they all knew it was forever changed.
She mainly attributed her dark mood to the fact she'd had no news from her family in nearly a standard week. The Reapers had introduced a new frightening aspect of warfare: silence. Finally she realized that she'd never considered war might mean the death of the family she had left. Ashley wasn't prepared for it.
"A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock…"
Ashley's voice trailed off as she lost herself to her thoughts.
She shook, broken from her trance. She was angry she had been caught so absorbed in her own dark thoughts, and it must have shown on her face. Traynor, who'd surprised her, shrank back uncertainly. "Forgive me, Lieutenant Commander. I just thought you'd like to know that I managed to splice together a communication from Amaterasu." Traynor didn't hold her in suspense. "Your family is safe."
"They are?" Her voice cracked, and she bit it back.
"According to the report, your family was instrumental in the evacuation of the citizens of the colony. From what I could gather from general news feeds, they've all just arrived at the Citadel." Traynor hesitated. "I'll be headed back—"
Without thought, Ashley reached out and grabbed Traynor's arm. Her fingers closed down like iron, and Traynor stopped dead. Ashley had never taken notice of the woman before, and she didn't know her from Pete now, but the deep-seeded rush of relief was too much to stand alone. She had to swallow a few times before she could say, "Thank you."
Traynor gave her a tight-lipped smile. "Of course."
She didn't get it. Ashley tightened her grip and held Traynor's eyes. "Thank you," she said more quietly.
Slowly, Traynor's body relaxed from its defensive stance. The woman looked back into Ashley's eyes and said, "I knew you were worried. I would have wanted to know about my parents." Her smile was strained—with the same worry that clouded the entire galactic population. "You're welcome."
Ashley released her. She realized how she had just man-handled the Comm Specialist and offered an awkward apology. "Call me Ash."
Traynor seemed to realize that Ashley didn't want to be alone. She stepped back within the vicinity of the spare weapons bench. "Then, Ash, please call me Sam." She glanced around. "I haven't had much reason to come down here. This is a nice little nook."
One of the first things Ashley had done upon coming back onboard the Normandy was to move a weapons bench into a sectioned the corner of the cargo bay, hidden behind several stacks of crates. She usually needed solitude as she worked: it was almost a meditation, and Vega was not the quiet, brooding companion that Wrex had been.
"I get a little tired of all the testosterone out in the open cargo bay," Ashley replied. She carefully dissembled Shepard's grime-encrusted N7 assault rifle and began the tedious process of cleaning it. Her own sniper rifle was cleaned and compressed on the edge of the table.
"Cortez can't be that bad," Traynor replied, leaning against the bench.
She raised her voice. "I was referring exclusively to Vega."
From across the hangar, Vega shouted, "I heard that!"
For the first time that day, Ashley smiled, mirroring Traynor's mischievous grin. They continued to talk about nothing. It was an odd exercise for Ashley, who'd never filled the air with empty words. She'd never realized how much it could mean. Maybe it was what friendship felt like, day in and day out. Ashley wasn't sure she'd ever had a friend; the soldiers she'd served alongside were comrades, and Shepard was just too damn much to fill that bracket.
After Traynor left, Ashley couldn't decide if she was happy or melancholy. She considered the clean and compressed N7 assault rifle and decided she was just mellow.
"And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust."
She placed the weapons in their designated lockers, ready for use the next time they landed on a hostile planet.
[-TS Elliot, The Waste Land]
It actually took Ashley a while to figure out that Traynor had a massive crush on Shepard. She'd never looked for that sort of thing, especially from women towards other women. Despite herself, the thought of it made her a little uncomfortable. A dark, vitriolic part of herself whispered the fear: 'she reminds you of yourself, back before Virmire; wanting to follow Shepard into the darkest void to save the galaxy, because Shepard can do anything'. Maybe that was why seeing Shepard alive again, knowing that she was working for Cerberus, an organization they'd both seen and denounced together, was such a personal betrayal.
What hurt the most was that Shepard no longer could do everything. Maybe Ashley couldn't find that faith because because Shepard no longer seemed to believe it herself.
She was surprised to see Shepard in the soldier-dubbed 'Star-Bar' (less popular than the 'Port-Bar' because of the lack of card table). She wondered if the commander was waiting for her at her usual haunt. Ashley poured herself a low-alc-drink and settled next to Shepard, mirroring her commander's gaze out the starboard window.
The faint red lines that cracked Shepard's skin were emphasized by the soft red sheen in Shepard's pupils. Ashley reflected that the eyes would be one of the first things to go in vacuum. Obviously Cerberus would have replaced them. And what else? was the other painful thought. Ashley knew from the quiet chat she'd had with Chakwas that Shepard's implants tended to flare up when she was under an undue about of stress. If the impending situation with the Quarians didn't qualify, Ashley didn't know what did.
"You feeling okay, Commander?"
"I don't feel like being a soldier right now, Ash."
It hurt to hear that strained, guarded tone in Shepard's voice. Ashley deserved it, but this woman once had an intimate conversation about the existence of God with her. Ashley missed those days desperately. She was shocked by the tightness of her voice. "Shepard. I'm sorry."
"I am too, Ash." Shepard rubbed her eyes and leaned back heavily on the couch. Her voice was weary with no blame. Ashley noticed her fingers traced over the hairpin cracks in her skin with precision.
"Do they hurt?"
Shepard jerked her hands away from her face. "No," she said sharply. The muscles in her jaw flickered. Shepard stared at her reflection in the window. "Not physically. Just another fucking reminder that Cerberus built me from scratch."
It was the first time that Shepard had admitted to Ashley she had the same fears that Ashley had voiced. And it hurt Ashley to think she'd been reinforcing those worries. "You're still you."
"How do you know?"
It scared Ashley that the question wasn't hypothetical. Shepard was looking into her eyes, her face drawn in barely contained desperation. Ashley shook her head. "The same way I know there's a God, Shepard. I have faith in Him, and I have faith in you. I'm sorry it swayed." Ashley hesitated, uncomfortable even acknowledging the intimate relationship between Shepard and Dr. T'soni. "Why don't you talk to Liara about it?"
Shepard raised her eyebrows. "I didn't think you approved of us."
"Hell, it makes me uncomfortable, Shepard. But she loves you, and you love her, and I think you should tell her. If I had a lover, I'd be upset if they didn't tell me why they were so upset so I could figure out a way to make them feel better." (Later, she hated herself for using 'them'. Why had she used 'them'?)
"What if this is all I can give her, Ash? What if this is all the time we have together?"
Ashley sighed softly and drained her drink. She recited:
"What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened…"
Shepard closed her eyes and sighed. "I have no idea who that one is."
"I'm disappointed, Shepard. You knew Ulysses."
"It was Ulysses." Perhaps for the first time since Shepard had died, she turned a soft, relaxed grin to Ashley. "Honestly, it was an incredibly lucky guess."
And Ashley burst into tears.
Later, she was embarrassed to think of how she'd clung to Shepard, sobbing into her shirt, asking for forgiveness and thanking God that she had a second chance. She loved Shepard, as a sister, a friend. Even if they'd never be casual to each other because that was just the way they were, they'd be close. The deep wound rent between them had been healed because they surrendered to each other the insecurities that weren't supposed to exist at all.
The feeling of it was soft and scary, like the barely closed tenderness of a new scar, and Ashley was afraid to speak of it at all to Traynor—Sam—as they chatted later that day.
"The Commander has been holed up in her cabin with Dr. T'soni," Sam said with a vague sigh. She tended to go a little starry-eyed when she spoke of Shepard.
"I think it's long-overdue."
Sam raised an eyebrow, and a wide grin spread across her face. She leaned over and elbowed Ashley lightly, upsetting her careful polishing. "My, my, I didn't know you had that kind of active imagination, Lieutenant Commander."
Ashley blushed, leaning over the weapons bench. "I didn't mean that, you perv. It was just… The commander and I had a talk about… About being truthful. That was all I meant."
Sam's smile faded to her usual honest expression. "And who are you going to be truthful to?"
She geared herself up for it and spoke the truth: "Myself. Saying, it's okay to be afraid. It's okay to stop worrying and to start trusting. Trust Shepard, trust my own judgment, trust that everything is going to work out and that God will protect us." Ashley abruptly hoped that Sam felt the same as she did: that there was something out there that shaped the galaxy, the universe into such a wonderful whole.
Sam's voice was quiet when she spoke. "I think a lot of us could take a leaf from your book, Ash. Faith is just so hard sometimes. Believing in a higher power is sometimes easier than believing we'll make it out of this alive."
"For you?" If she'd not been so surprised, Ashley would have taken a moment to edit her shocked tone, but Sam didn't seem to take offense. She only smiled and nodded. "Yes, for people like me too."
It made things a little better that someone as optimistic, loyal, and unswaying as Samantha Traynor was susceptible to doubt as well. "You always seem so sure."
Sam laughed. "Me? Sure?" She leaned forward on the table. "I've had Shepard tell me I'm a necessary asset to this mission, this vessel more times than I can count, and I still suffer from a bad case of inferiority complex."
"Sam, there's a difference between modesty and feeling inferior. Don't cross that line, okay?" Ashley knew that downward spiral.
"I try. It's a little scary with a crew full of people who are so damn motivated. I was the shy girl at the back of the class who knew all the answers but was too terrified to raise her hand and answer them. I loved my lab group, but I worked with them for years on Earth, and they were my buddies."
"Not as, um, proactive as the average Normandy crewmember?"
"We used to put on an inter-species-porno with popcorn and soda while we spliced together experimental tech we'd scavenged off of a friend-of-a-friend's husband's garbage ship. We alternated who wore sandals to work and tried to top each other's toe-nail polish color. Funny enough, the guys always won those contests. We told jokes in code."
Ashley laughed harder than she'd laughed in a long time. Sam broke down into giggles with her. "I'm sure we were so obnoxious to our CO, but there's the beauty in basically being a civilian engineer in the Alliance Navy: no one really cared one way or the other so long as we did our jobs."
"You're very good at your job, Sam."
The woman took a breath, lifted her shoulders, and smiled. "Do you know, I think I just might believe you."
"Sam, where are your lab friends?"
Maybe it was the wrong thing to ask. Sam only shook her head. It was the answer Ashley expected but not the one she was hoping for. Then Sam took a breath and lifted her head with a brave smile. "You know, though, I think that if anyone could prank call the Reapers to death, it would be my lab buddies. I imagine they're getting into a great lot of trouble annoying the crap those old machines."
Before Ashley could stop herself, she reached out and caught Sam's hand, squeezing her fingers firmly. Sam squeezed back, her eyes caught on their joined hands. She said, "I miss Earth. The weather, the blue sky."
"Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?"
"Ah," Sam breathed. "Robert Frost." She continued on where Ashley had stopped:
"Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet)—
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet."
Sam laughed gently after she spoke the last word. "I used to think it was 'wet', as in water, not 'whet' as in sharpen. It almost made more sense my way. What? Did I say it wrong?"
Ashley shook her head, stunned. "No. I just…" There was no way to describe why she felt it so profoundly that someone else on this ship understood poetry, could recite it from heart.
"I suppose I'm not your average poetry buff." Sam settled on a crate next to the weapon's bench. "Honestly, the only poet I know is Frost, and I only know a few of those because I took this horrible class in undergrad that required poetry recitation in front of at least eighty people. Frost was the only one I could make heads or tails off." She shuddered. "I'd rather try to take down a Marauder with my hands tied than go through that again."
It was still enough. It was more than enough. The epiphany that something like poetry would never fall to the wayside was powerful; even if it was remembered in bits and pieces by people like Samantha Traynor, it would carry on. Ashley gave voice to her thoughts, hiding her awe behind a grin. "You might just save the galaxy, Sam."
"You're off your rocker. Too many hits with a biotic field," Sam replied. She checked her watch and got to her feet. As she rounded the stack of crates that shielded Ashley from Vega's flirting, she wiggled her fingers and said, "I guess I should get back to saving the galaxy then."
[TS Elliot: Burnt Norton; Robert Frost: Fragmentary Blue]
Ashley had a private, prized collection of poetry books; they were the physical ink-and-paper kind, cherished lovingly and handed down for generations in her family. After the tragedy of the SSV Normandy, her mother had given them all to her. She'd never told anyone about them, other than the standard baggage check on her past assignments. She'd thought she'd lost them, back when she'd accidentally left them at the Citadel docking station before her deployment back to Earth.
When she'd woken up at the Citadel hospital, they'd been arranged neatly beside her bed as if they'd been waiting for her to reclaim them all along. She'd never asked how they'd returned to her. Ashley preferred to think of it as a simple miracle.
Sam was the first person she ever loaned one of her books to, but she had no fear of Sam misplacing it. (And, after all, the Normandy was only so big.) She liked to hear what Sam had read and what she'd thought of it, but it never felt particularly right to sit down and grill Sam on poetry that she enjoyed on a more visceral level than Ashley's analyses tended to be.
So Ashley's assessments became more of a game, and that game became an increasingly important reminder to them both that there was more to their present than fear over the uncertain future. Approaching the eminent battle for Earth, Ashley found that she had to inject levity into their conversations more and more.
One evening she and Sam shared drinks and watched the darkness of space speed by from the starboard observation deck. In a contemplative mood, Sam asked Ashley, "Will you tell me about your family?"
"Three sisters, all younger, and my mother. Strongest bunch of women this side of the Milky Way. My father was a good man and he worked hard, but he never… I never thought of it as failure, growing up, but now I hate that I wonder how hard he actually tried to rise in the ranks."
"What do you mean?" Sam asked.
Ashley raised her eyebrows. "Armistice day? My grandfather was in charge of the Shanxi when he surrendered to the Turians during the First Contact War. Black smear on the family right then and there. After my father never made it anywhere in the ranks, I figured I would be in the same position. But then," she sighed. "Then I met Shepard."
"Then you met Shepard," Sam echoed. "Ash, surely you don't think you're where you are today because of Shepard? You're a Spectre, Lieutenant Commander in the Alliance Navy! That was because of your merit, not Shepard's influence."
It felt good to hear someone say it so firmly. "Thanks. I guess I never stopped doubting that."
"The problem with Shepard, as wonderful and charismatic as she is, is that she's a bit of a whirlwind. Her name alone invokes such a strong reaction."
"[Her] ineffable effable/ Effanineffable/ Deep and inscrutable singular Name."
Sam perked up. "Oh, I know that one! I read it just yesterday! That's Eliot, The Naming of Cats. I thought it was a brilliant little poem. A lot more fun than most of the others. And, honestly, how could you dislike a poem about cats?" She sighed. "I've always wanted the white picket fence, children, and a dog. But a cat or two would be nice as well."
Ashley wanted to ask who she saw in that house with her, but fear stopped her. That fear made her uncomfortable, and it twisted a pain deep behind her breastbone. She didn't want Sam to say 'Shepard', but she didn't know why. She said:
"We pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave us birth;
Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies
And the cool, green hills of Earth."
"Is that the whole thing?" Sam asked softly.
Ashley shook her head.
"Will you say it all?"
She did. They were silent for a long time after that, gazing out of the starboard observation window. Sam finally said, her voice tight and soft in fear, "We're going to Earth soon, aren't we?"
"Yes," Ashley replied. "We're as ready as we'll ever be."
"I hope so."
"I have a little bit more knowing you're on our side, Ash."
When Ashley looked at Sam, something shifted inside her. It was an odd little sensation, one that told her she was looking at a woman who would be in her life for a long time. It told her that if Sam died in the coming battle, she would not take it lightly. And that if Sam lived past the coming battle, Ashley's life would be all the more blessed. "Be careful, Sam."
Sam shivered, getting to her feet. She paced restlessly. "It's not me I'm worried about."
Without thought, Ashley reached out from her seat and took hold of Sam, drawing her between her legs. Ashley held Sam's gaze, made her stand still for a few moments, and firmly said, "I'll be with Shepard."
Sam sagged forward in her arms and heaved a wet sigh. They hugged loosely. "If that was meant to comfort me, it certainly didn't." Sam's voice was muffled against the soft cloth at Ashley's shoulder.
"Shepard knows what she's doing."
After a few moments, Sam relaxed into her arms and settled against her leg. Ashley loosely draped her arms around Sam's torso. They sat together in silence, breaths deep but slowly quickening. Ashley asked herself what she was doing, then she thought: 'You are in so much trouble.'
"Forgive the intrusion."
Ashley jumped when she heard EDI's disembodied voice, and Sam gave a little yelp of shock. They drew apart. Ashley got to her feet, hoping physical distance would clear her head. "Yeah, EDI?" Her voice had an embarrassing husk to it.
"Shepard has requested your presence on the 2nd deck, Lieutenant Commander."
"I'll be there in a second."
Feeling awkward and uncertain, Ashley cleared her throat. She stiffened as Sam stepped close to her and placed a hand on her forearm. "Go see what she wants," Sam said. "I'll be okay." Her grip tightened as Ashley began to leave. "Thank you."
Ash met her eyes. "You're welcome."
[TS Eliot: The Naming of a Cat; Robert A Heinlein The Green Hills of Earth]
It was chaos and bloodshed and enough close calls to end a thousand lives. But Ashley had made it to see the end of the war. She made it to hear Hackett's powerful announcement to the entire galactic fleet and all the ground forces on Earth: "We've won. The Reapers are dead. Shepard is alive!"
Her voice raised with all other races and species, organic and synthetic, into a shout of joy. It was a moment taken down in history in poems, songs, prose, and it would become the new anthem for the galactic community: The United Cry of Victory.
In that moment, in the middle of battle, Ashley had no new words, but she chose ones already written:
"O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The Ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting…"
She cut off her recitation there, praying it wouldn't be a premonition of the future. If Shepard had survived this war, she wouldn't die in the aftermath.
Ashley continued the push with her squad, and they eradicated the few remaining grouped coordinated husk forces. Seeing there was no more organized resistance, she split up her squad to serve as guards for the relief groups that were now digging through the rubble, trying to find survivors.
At least survivors had been found on the Citadel: C-Sec and a couple of asari matriarchs had managed to save more citizens than anyone thought possible from the refugee camps at the Citadel docks. Pockets of citizens were discovered alive and well all within the Citadel, and even the Councilors were found alive, protected by well-meaning citizen militia. Ashley just wished she knew if her family was among the living.
The scenery on Earth continued to be bleak with chaos, pain, and dead everywhere she looked, but at least there was hope. She tasted that hope, gazing down into her coffee cup in the haphazard mess-tent that had been set up in the streets of south London. Only two days out from victory, and it didn't feel like enough. It wasn't enough with her fears: no one could tell her if the Normandy's crew had escaped the space-battle unscathed.
She worked hard, kept sharp, and juggled her under-staffed guard crew so that each of them got at least the minimum amount of sleep necessary to function. It seemed she'd just fallen asleep one night when she woke up sharply.
It was an echoing cheer that had woken her. She staggered to her feet and pulled on dirty, ragged Alliance uniform pants over her shivvies. She hadn't laced her boots or thrown a jacket over her stained tank as she ducked out of the tent, fearing the worst and hoping the best.
She saw the Normandy had landed on a runway of the old airport they'd set up camp in. The building had been destroyed, but it was a good place—with the other airports—to direct people to by word of mouth. There was plenty of room for the tents they'd set up for refugees, the sad few they'd found. And now the Normandy had made use of the runway in a way Ashley had hoped it would be used.
Almost everyone in the camp had gathered in a large group, watching the ship with hope and joy. Ashley knew who they hoped to see, and she wondered if Shepard was aboard. She wondered…
The docking bay door opened, and a few crew stepped out. No Shepard. But the crowd cheered anyway because a distinctive accented voice shouted, "We've brought supplies!"
Ashley felt nothing but joy. Sam was alive. It was a new beginning. She held a verse close inside herself and tasted the words, though she didn't say them:
"The days of absence and the bitter nights
Of separation, all are at an end!
Where is the influence of the star that blights
My hope? The omen answers: At an end!"
Her eyes filled, though her mouth felt almost strained with the brightness of her smile. Then she realized Sam had seen her and was pushing past the crowd, and…
Their hug was powerful, painful in its impact, and Ashley drew Sam flush against her, taking in her wonderful, whole, physical form. She was healthy, strong, and there, breathing in her arms, shaking and alive. She wanted to put into words the relief and joy she felt, but there was no way. She cried into Sam's shoulder and was happy.
Sam drew back, wiping her own face, sniffling and smiling. "I've tried to reach you, but no one could tell me where you were. Communication has been so muddled. But, Ash, they're doing a citizen check on the Citadel. Your mother and sisters are alive!"
Ashley pulled Sam back. "Thank you," she whispered against her shoulder. That moment crystallized in her mind forever: the metallic taste of Sam's uniform against her mouth, the aching pain in her side from a pulled muscle, the tightness in her throat, the cold mist that prickled her skin into goosebumps, how small Sam felt in her arms, her deep sigh.
Someone coughed distantly, and Ashley pulled away, wiping her eyes. "Lieutenant Commander Williams, ma'am," he said—a man whose name always escaped Ashley.
"There's a large organized group of reaps attacking the eastern border of the city. The group of there has requested you and your team provide assistance destroying them, ma'am."
"Have someone set up a Mako. Let my troops know. And tell the eastern division we'll be there in half an hour."
He saluted and turned to leave. She was surprised to feel someone tug at her hand and realized she and Sam had never dropped hands. Ashley couldn't find the adequate self-doubt to make much of a deal about it. She squeezed Sam's hand and said, "I'll talk to you later."
"Be careful," Sam said.
Ashley smiled and sketched a salute before she strode back to her tent to get ready. "Yes, ma'am."
[Walt Whitman, O Captain! My Captain!; Hafix, The Day of Hope]
Before the Normandy departed, Ashley boarded her and had a chat with Joker. As always, he seemed to be one of the most well-informed members of the crew. "Nah," he said in reply to her question about Shepard. "The commander got really banged up, so they're making her wait before they'll send her back out. We'll probably be dropping her ground-side in a few weeks. Then, knowing her, we'll be dropping in on Thessia or something to help them out."
"How bad was it?"
"She almost got incinerated by a Reaper beam on the way up. Huge step up from getting incinerated while playing a human-meteorite. Probably only bed-ridden for a week or two instead of two years this time around."
"What about everyone else from the crew?"
Joker lost his smile. "We don't really know. I would have figured you'd have more information than we do, since everybody was probably in London at the time."
Ashley shook her head. "I heard Liara got shipped overseas to Vancouver with a team of biotics to help relief efforts there. And Garrus and a team of turians went down to Beijing, where the reaper ground forces were heaviest. The rest could have been shipped out without any of us knowing it."
"I bet Shepard knows."
Joker and Ashley both paused to watch several technical experts from the London resistance stare at EDI's body as she walked by, their mouths open. Ashley said, "Maybe you should tell EDI to cool it with the hip-swaying, come-hither strutting."
"Come on, Ash. With hips like that, there's no way to walk without swinging them around."
"You're as much of a geek as they are," Ashley said.
"Oh, come on. You can do better than that. Jack told me to go fuck my own mother."
She knew when to surrender. Ashley flicked Joker's cap and wandered over to eavesdrop on the tech-talk. Their words didn't make much sense to Ashley, but she gathered they were discussing how, exactly, to spread the word that the reapers were dead. She'd learned since the final attack on Earth that the reapers had spread messages of false hope in the attempt to bring people out of hiding. It might be difficult to convince people of the truth now.
"Alright," Sam said, breaking up a heated argument. "Let's consider all options and take a break to cool off. Or keep on arguing while I take a break." She glanced over at Ashley and smiled, breaking from the group. They boarded the elevator, and Ashley let them into the only quiet place on the Normandy: Liara's room. The wall of monitors was silent, and the strange VI settled back into the corner when they dismissed him.
"My god, no wonder Dr. T'soni uses so much power. I'd always wondered what exactly she had rigged in here."
Ashley didn't want to begin to guess why, though she had a vague uncomfortable idea of what Liara did now that she wasn't going on anthropological digs in Prothean ruins. They settled onto the couches in the corner and regarded each other quietly.
"So you're staying in London?" Sam asked.
"At least until Shepard or the Alliance decides I'd be better used elsewhere. I guess some of those new guys are staying on the Normandy?"
Sam nodded. "This is the best place on Earth right now for figuring out the infrastructure problem. Sending out the message seems rather secondary to it, but I wasn't on Earth for months during a reaper invasion. I'm not so convinced that people will disbelieve the message that the reapers are dead, since all the reapers are…well, dead." She shook her head. "It's so monumental, and yet none of us had any idea reapers even existed three years ago."
"Tell me about it."
Sam's gaze sharpened. Ashley was struck by how beautiful she appeared then. She looked no different, but there was just something about her earnestness, the ease of her smile, the intellect behind her eyes. "You were there when Shepard touched the Prothean beacon, weren't you?"
Sam shook her head. "I can't imagine."
She stopped and took a second look at Ashley, who wasn't sure what she'd been going to say. Ashley had spoken with emotion, not thought. She hesitated. "I'm glad you're okay."
Sam's smile was soft. "Me too. I know people had to die one way or the other, but I hoped you didn't have to be one of them." She laughed tightly. "I suppose it's perfectly horrible to think that way."
"It's honest. I think that's the way every soldier feels before battle." Ashley checked her omnitool and realized her shift was coming up. She hadn't slept, though she'd needed it, but she felt better for having talked to her…friends (it was good to use that word) on the Normandy. Sam understood and said, "You be careful."
"I will, Sam. I'll see you soon."
"Wait, one last thing. Give me a verse."
Ashley smiled in the doorway.
"Neath the protection of my lady's hair
Grief nor disquiet come to me no more.
What though her curls wrought all my misery,
My lady's gracious face can comfort me,
And at the end give what I sorrow for."
Sam's face took on a peculiar expression, but Ashley stepped away before her question could be voiced.
[Hafiz, The Day of Hope]
It was nearly a month before the crew of the Normandy and their commander were back on board. They were destined for Thessia to help the almost-decimated asari military clean up the remaining husk forces, establish refugee camps, and start rebuilding the infrastructure. The journey was the first breath of relief any of them had had in weeks, and their reunion made for a rowdy party in the Star and Port-Bars.
Ashley was too damn tired to drink much, but she enjoyed seeing the exultant happiness of her crewmates and her friends. They danced, joked, and laughed together in a party that soon encompassed the majority of the 3rd deck.
The party didn't wind down, not even after Shepard—still shaky and weak from her injuries—and Liara retired to the captain's cabin. Sam had appeared briefly then promptly disappeared, and Ashley wanted to see her more than to stay in that happy group.
She eventually found Sam sitting on the table in the conference room on Deck 2, gazing out the window. Her eyes were wet.
She glanced over her shoulder and shook her head. "Nothing. I'm just so happy."
Ashley's gut twisted in guilt; she hadn't even considered asking about Sam's family. She slid next to Sam, noting the coolness of the conference table against her thighs. "Have you heard from your parents?"
Sam nodded, biting her lip through her smile. "They asked me if I would get Commander Shepard's autograph. Can you imagine? Even across the galaxy, my parents manage to embarrass me."
Ashley hesitated. She was relieved by Sam's answer and deeply uncomfortable about the question she was about to ask. "Did it bother you? Seeing Shepard with Liara?"
Sam slowly cocked her head. "Why would that bother me?"
"I know how you feel about Shepard, Sam."
Sam sat up, a look of good-natured disbelief on her face. "I may harbor a healthy little crush on Shepard, but I don't want to marry her. I'm happy she's got someone she loves." She hesitated but didn't continue.
It was weird, Ashley's relief. It sparked fear within her, but since the end of the reaper war her self-doubts had niggled a little less than usual. The future held endless possibilities. There was no reason to worry, not now, not looking into Sam's face set alight by soft purples and blues of their interstellar wake. "I guess I should take my foot out of my mouth, huh?"
Sam cocked her head, her smile smug. She bumped shoulders with Ashley, their fingertips brushing. It was an intimate gesture that Ash appreciated and wished for, for all she'd never had a true friend before. "I don't know. I think it was kind of sweet how you planned to let me down easy about Shepard."
Sam was so beautiful, so soft, and so small, especially when she settled her head in the crook of Ashley's shoulder and sighed against her. Ashley put her arm around Sam's shoulders, and together they watched the brightness of the stars in silence.
The next day, Ashley began cleaning up the mess left behind from the party in the Star-Bar. She wanted her old haunt back the way it was before: clean and comfortable. Just when she'd made a small dent in the trash, half-filled bottles, and glasses littering the furniture and floor, Shepard walked into the room.
There were still very faint hair-line cracks in her skin, but they were nearly healed, and her pupils were all natural darkness. Most strikingly, Shepard looked relaxed and happy. Her right arm was no longer in a sling, though she held it gingerly. "I thought I might find you here. How're you doing, Ash?"
"I'm damn good, ma'am."
Shepard began stacking up cups. Her smirk was great to see, even as she said, "No hangover?"
"I didn't drink this time around." Ashley raised an eyebrow. "I saw you stepped out early yourself. Training exercises with Dr. T'soni?"
Instead of a characteristic smug smirk, Shepard's face fell into a contemplative smile. "I never expected to find someone I wanted to be with. I was all about my career." She stacked the dishes on the bus-tray Ashley had by the door. "How about you, Ash? Anyone in your life?"
"Not like that. But, other that our squad, Sam is a good friend." Ashley opened up a second garbage bag and began dumping trash in it.
"I didn't realize you two were so close. Has she asked to play chess?"
"Um, no." It was stupid to feel such a stab of jealousy at that she hadn't been asked to play a board game. Ashley didn't even know how to play chess. Yet it was there. She knew Sam cared about her, but Sam was just so…so trusting and open. She wondered sometimes if Sam cared about Ashley as much as Ashley needed her to. It had never been easy for her to open up to someone else; she couldn't be casual, not the way Sam could be. Ashley wasn't sure she could recover if Sam considered her casual.
It wasn't about the chess. It was about Shepard being privy to something in regards to Sam that has hadn't been. Ashley smarted at her own pettiness.
Shepard shrugged. "You're lucky. She's brutal."
After a few minutes of silence as they shifted through the mess, Ashley finally asked, "What's next?"
"What do you mean?"
She swallowed past the lump of fear in her throat. "After the reconstruction, refugee help, the Citadel restoration."
Shepard's smile was soft. "It's scary, isn't it? We've been going by the skin of our teeth, one day at a time—or only until the thought of 'after'. And now we're there." She shook her head. "I don't know. I want to settle down." She blushed. "Have children."
"I bet they're going to ask you to be humanity's councilor."
Shepard heaved a sigh. "I'm afraid of that. I'm not cut out for it. I think I'll ask Anderson to step up to the plate again."
Ashley laughed, understanding a brush-off when she heard one. Shepard was putting some thought into that councilor position. "Okay. I guess I have to figure out where I'm going to be."
"Any romantic poetry for me?"
"The smooth moves not romantic enough?"
Shepard cocked her head. Her smile took on a gentle edge. "I'm not even going to pretend I could recite it or manage to keep a straight face if I did. I guess I'd like something that fits my mood. Do you mind?"
Ashley didn't mind at all.
"She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which heavens to gaudy day denies."
Shepard shook her head. "You constantly surprise me, Ash." On her way out, she caught Ashley's arm in a gentle hold. "Don't worry about what comes next. Think about it, but it'll work out one way or the other. Whatever it is you want, I've got your back."
"Thank you, Commander."
It was not a light consideration. She knew the first thing she'd be doing was taking a long shore leave to be with her family. But after that… She was an officer in the Alliance, a Spectre for the council. Could she just retire from both positions, especially after being appointed as a Spectre so recently? Ashley wasn't sure she wanted to continue on, yet she couldn't imagine not being a part of at least the Alliance military.
And the Normandy… Her friends, all the people she cared about were on board the Normandy. If Shepard left, they all would. They'd done it after Shepard died, and again after the Normandy had been grounded on Earth. Where would they all end up after their team was no longer needed?
Where would Sam be? More importantly, would Ashley be nearby?
[Lord Byron, She walks in beauty]
She and every other member of the Normandy became engrossed in their tasks on Thessia. They split up on the planet, and their communications were rare. The only time Ashley spoke with Sam seemed to be about official matters. Like on Earth, she worked with local military to set up strikes to destroy any remaining organized husk forces, and then she organized smaller armed guards to protect relief effort workers from any stragglers that remained.
It was hard, thankless work. The areas that needed relief effort looked even worse than Earth's cities, despite the swiftness of the reaper attack. There were fewer survivors here, at least in the cities razed. The rural areas reported a surprising survival rate, though many were struck with disease, malnutrition, and dehydration. Early relief efforts had staved off many deaths, but the infrastructure of the planet had to be reestablished for a standard living condition could be met.
Yet for every thankful citizen, every child they reunited with family, every sick they aided, it was worth it.
Then, eventually, their work came to an end on Thessia. The council recalled them back when the brightest minds in the galaxy finally figured out how to send the Citadel through the mass relay. Now their task was to implement that plan.
It was during these weeks of preparation that Ashley wished she were back on Thessia. The calls to enter the Citadel and mop of any remaining Cerberus or reapers forces were few and far between. When she did go, it was a relief to get her hands dirty.
Like her usual on restless days, Ashley sat on the weapons bench and scrolled through her emails. She read and reread the messages each of her sisters had sent her. News was sparse, sent in the rare times her sisters had been able to connect to the network. But they all seemed in good spirits, talking about the new home they had, the people they'd met from all over the galaxy, and how their mother had had a man over for dinner.
They were on Horizon now, which was ironically considered a sanctuary from the Reaper attack. The colony would probably stop taking refugees soon; it had been a popular spot during the war as well as after. She wished she'd been able to see them before they'd left Earth's system, but she was glad her family was safe on a human colony.
"News from home?"
Ashley glanced up, shocked to see Sam down in the cargo hold. The comm specialist was always wrapped up in logistical work with her tech friends and specialists the Council had sent over, going over and over models of how to reestablish the infrastructure in the major planets hit by reaper attacks. She looked as tired as Ashley had felt on planet. Ashley shifted over and patted the flat expanse of the weapons bench, and Sam hopped up on it, swinging her legs over the side.
"They're on Horizon now."
"Really? I was there, you know, when the Collectors attacked. It's where my parents have been living for years." She smirked over her shoulder at Ashley. "You had no idea I even existed."
She was stunned. "You were there?!"
"Oh, yes. I was just visiting, but you were very nice eye-candy during what I thought would be a boring, lazy visit. Then, poof, we get taken up by Collectors and the next thing I know, some stranger was pulling me out of a stasis pod. Bit of a nightmare, really. I always thought my parents were crazy for going back to Horizon, but now I see they made the right choice. I might go back myself, when all this is said and done."
"I was going to take some leave," Ashley said, shaky because the end didn't mean the end between them. She was almost afraid to suggest it. "We could go together."
Sam met her eyes; no smile broke her lips. She seemed to be judging Ashley, but Ashley didn't know why. She blushed and was embarrassed for it. Then Sam nodded slowly. "It would make the transit a little less boring. After being aboard the Normandy, I think I'm spoiled as far as entertainment."
"Why didn't you tell me before?"
"About your parents. That you like to play chess. I thought I knew you, but I don't know if I do. And now we don't even talk that often." Ashley was embarrassed and angry about the tears that rose to her eyes, but she was too desperate to stop. "I feel like I'm losing you."
Sam's voice was tight with tears. "Now you know how I feel every time you step out on a mission."
"I didn't tell you because I didn't want to scare you away. Or was I wrong thinking you'd love to waste a few hours moving pieces on a chessboard?"
Sam's derision of something she obviously enjoyed sparked Ashley's temper. "I could learn. I would want to. If it meant we could spend more time together. Every time I think about what it means for this war to really be over, I'm terrified that it'll mean losing you."
Sam's voiced uncharacteristic frustration with the hardness of her question, "What am I to you, Ash?"
Ashley's anger broke to a point, and she lashed back with a harsh accusation: "You see me as an extension of Shepard!"
Sam's mouth twisted. "If I thought that, I wouldn't be in love with you!"
Then they were kissing. It was hard and heavy, tongues and teeth and lips, and Ashley was lightheaded and on fire, flushed because it was Sam's body under her, Sam's voice gasping at her touch, Sam's hands tangled in her hair. She was wild with this want that had been brewing under the surface for weeks, months even, and she wanted to taste everywhere, touch everywhere, to know that she could please Sam for as long as Sam wanted.
She had Sam's uniform jacket half unbuttoned before she realized they were in the cargo bay with Vega and Cortez. While out of sight, it was too close. Then she remembered Sam's words and drew back, too frightened to smile. "You love me?"
"And here I thought I was being obvious." Sam folded her arms over her chest and hunched forward. She looked uncertain and very fragile with her lips swollen and her hair tangled.
"I think I'm in love with you," Ashley replied shakily. She slumped back against the cargo crates and stared at the floor, shaking her head. "I was too scared to even think it, but I knew I couldn't live without you. And it drove me nuts that you might rather be with Shepard."
Sam hopped back up on the weapons bench and swung her legs. She looked shy. "Would it shock you greatly if I said I've had a crush on you longer than I ever have on Shepard?"
It was a shock, a pleasant one. From Horizon then? "I wish I could remember you from Horizon, Sam."
"I rather like you thinking of me as a capable Comm Specialist, not a helpless damsel in distress." Sam cocked her head, her eyes soft with want. "Come here."
Ashley had never been in a situation like this before. She'd only ever had sex with a few casual civilian men—men who she knew she'd never see again. The kisses she'd shared with others had always happened because she thought they were expected; a means to an end. Now she finally felt that firecracker she'd read about, and that sensation brought kissing and touch to a new light: something to share, something to cherish. It frightened Ashley more than casual. She knew she could lose herself entirely in Sam. That fear didn't stop her from slipping back into Sam's arms.
This time was softer, gentler, and Ashley took the time to take into memory the taste and texture of Sam's mouth. Her hands slid around Sam's back and pulled her close, and Sam sighed. She tilted her head as Ashley bent to her neck, and their breathing was heavy even as they tried to be quiet.
"It's too quiet over there!" came Vega's sudden shout. "If you two're having hot lesbian sex, padre Vega can help!"
Sam pushed Ashley away. She rolled her eyes, lifted her voice, and said, "A certain aspect of your anatomy makes 'helping' impossible, Vega. Consider the word 'lesbian'."
Vega whistled and Cortez laughed, and despite herself, Ashley couldn't be too upset with the men. They were good guys, even if Vega was a tad blunt.
She was distracted when Sam gave her another kiss. Ashley was disappointed when Sam buttoned up her jacket and finger brushed her hair. "How do I look?"
"I like you made out with an alliance marine in the cargo bay." She shot a paranoid glance at the crates, in the direction of Vega who lurked across the cargo bay. "He was joking, right?"
Sam awarded her with another kiss and a smile. "I hate to say this, but since we're both bunking in the general barracks of the ship, and I think Shepard would mind if we used her cabin, we're probably not going to get a chance to…erm…"
"Sure you can't stay for a few more minutes?"
"With Vega in hearing-distance? I think not."
Ashley smiled. "Would it be really cheesy if I quoted a poem right now?"
"It had better not be T S Eliot!"
"And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!"
Sam pressed hands to her cheeks, and Ashley was shocked to hear her giggle. "Oh, my goodness. You hear of women and men serenading their lovers with poetry, but I never thought it would actually happen to me."
"Very cheesy, Ash. But my heart did 'aflutter, as supposedly pure as it is." She awarded Ashley with a soft kiss. "Thank you." Then she grinned. Just as she walked around the corner, she popped her head back and said, "Lord Byron, right?"
"You win again, Ms. Traynor."
[Lord Byron, She Walks in Beauty]
The words: "I've found a place" should never have been so exciting. Ashley counted down the hours, excited and nervous all in one, so jittery that even Vega got tired of her, calling her 'loca' and demanding she spar with him to settle down. At least she had forewarning to go about her…toilet and get ready. Not that she thought Sam would refuse to sleep with her if her legs were prickly, but this would be the first time they'd be together. She had enough issues with her self-esteem; hairy legs was not going to be one of them.
She was shocked to see Sam in the elevator on the way down, and they both hesitated. Then they laughed at each other after an awkward moment as they decided that they could, indeed, ride the elevator down together.
They keyed into the port observation deck, and Sam set the door on lock. Ashley had never been privy to Diana Aller's room, and she was a tad irritated at the largeness of her quarters. She was suddenly paranoid. "You don't think Allers set up a news feed or something?"
"Diana's not that kind of woman. Though the promises I had to make to get her bed for the night…"
"Are the sheets clean?"
"As clean as the ones we're going to put on her bed when we're done." Sam smirked as she bounced on the bed. She patted the spread next to her, and Ashley sat down a little more gently. It was unfairly soft. "That was one of the promises I made, coincidentally."
"And the others?"
Sam kissed Ashley, sending shivers down her body. "Well, let's just say Allers will be getting a few inside sources."
"You won't get in trouble for that, will you?"
Sam rubbed her cheek on Ashley's shoulder and batted her eyes at her. Despite it being a contrived expression, Ashley was struck a little dumb. "Worried about me, Ash? No, it won't be anything unethical or illegal."
"Alright. Because I'm not sure getting arrested is worth having sex."
"Bite your tongue, woman!"
They kissed again. Ashley glanced around the room. "I can't believe she gets this entire room; I'm one of Shepard's oldest crew members—"
"Ash. I have to report back at my post a 0500 tomorrow. We'll have to clean up by then anyway. That means we have roughly 7 hours to enjoy each other and sleep. You're wasting time." Sam abruptly pushed on Ashley's shoulder and climbed onto her. Her smile was victorious. "Let it be known that little 'ole civilian engineer Samantha Julia Traynor just knocked Spectre Ashley Williams down for the count! One, two, three…!"
Ashley burst into helpless laughter. She wondered why she'd thought sex with Sam would be so terrifying. Sam was quirky, cute Sam, no matter the situation. And whatever mistakes she might make now could definitely be rectified later. Ashley gave a neat jerk of her hips and reversed their positions. Sam swallowed, looking up at her with a hazy expression on her face. She said, "Though I definitely can't complain in this position."
Sam accepted Ashley's kiss, and that was all Ashley cared about for a long time. Her hands traced up Sam's sides, rubbed her stomach, pressed gently into the swell of Sam's hips. Then, finally, Sam dropped one hand from where it massaged Ashley's neck and directed Ashley to her breast. They both gasped, and Ashley gently squeezed, shivering at the soft cry that resulted.
"Does that feel good?"
Ashley unsnapped the strap across Sam's uniform and unzipped it, and they both struggled to get her out of the sleeves. She, like Ashley, wore a white tank beneath it. Ashley swallowed at the sight of the black lace bra she could see under the translucent cloth. "That's not Alliance standard."
"I don't know why I put it on." Sam shucked her tank and reached for her bra clasp, shaking it off her shoulders. "I don't plan on wearing it." She looked up at Ashley, who took a long look at Sam's breasts. "Breathe, darling."
Ashley pushed her back down on the bed and bent her head. She'd never thought about doing this to another woman, but she wanted desperately to take those nipples into her mouth. She gently teethed the curve of Sam's breast and kissed desperately, drunk to feel everything she could. Sam arched under her, cradled her head, and she gasped and cried out. One of her legs came up and rested between Ashley's legs, and Ashley rocked back on it. After a few moments of that, with Sam's breast in her mouth, she orgasmed.
That stunned Ashley so much she lifted her head.
Sam was wide-eyed. "Did you just…?"
Sam shook her head, brushing a strand of hair from Ashley's face. "I can't believe I made you feel that good."
Ashley lowered her head again, kissing down Sam's stomach, finding all the dips and hollows, gently teething the softness at the base of her belly. She reached the edge of Sam's uniform pants and fumbled with the snaps and zippers. Then it was off, shucked with Sam's underwear. Ashley wanted so badly…
She pulled Sam's legs over her shoulders and bent her head. There was nothing quite like it, the heat and wet and taste and softness. Ashley reveled in it, in Sam who shook and cried out and grabbed her hair tightly. She licked and sucked, moaning in her own pleasure as Sam began to babble quietly to her: soft words that sounded techy, interspersed with whispers of love and Ashley's name. Ashley blinked back tears and brought herself down again, focusing and finding a rhythm that had Sam cooing softly. They existed in that moment for a long time, shifting and moving together, breathing in the same soft rhythm. Finally, Sam shook against her and upset their quiet balance. She pushed Ashley's head away. "No more. Oh, I can't…"
Ashley complied, feeling drunk and lightheaded. She scrambled up the bed and kissed Sam deeply. Sam blinked up at her, dazed and satisfied. Her smile was soft, though her tone had a little whine. "But you've still got all your clothes on."
"Oh." Ashley wriggled out of them, then gathered Sam into her arms. It was a shock, holding her like this for the first time. She threaded her fingers through Sam's, marveling at the small hands, the delicate fingers, tipped with abused, chewed fingernails.
"No, no. I'm not going to go to sleep yet. Just, I need a moment." Sam sighed. "I was going to quote you poetry. You know who it will be, of course."
Ashley kissed her neck. "What have you got for me?"
"Something that took me three weeks to get down. He was so wordy." Sam cleared her throat and began:
"The female form approaching, I pensive, love-flesh tremulous aching,
The divine list for myself or you or for any one making,
The face, the limbs, the index from head to foot, and what it arouses,
The mystic deliria, the madness amorous, the utter abandonment,
She stopped. "I wasn't supposed to say 'parenthesis', was I?"
Ashley laughed. "Keep going, you idiot."
"(Hark close and still what I now whisper to you,
I love you, O you entirely possess me,
O that you and I escape from the rest and go utterly off, free and lawless,
Two hawks in the air, two fishes swimming in the sea not more lawless than we;)…"
Sam hrmped. "Come to think of it, are fish and hawks really lawless?"
Ash sighed. So much for a romantic recitation.
"What? I'd pick a Varren." Sam's tone softened then. "I do rather like this next part:
"The furious storm through me careering, I passionately trembling.
The oath of inseparableness of two together, of the woman that loves me and whom I love more than my life, that oath swearing…"
Sam sighed, relaxing into Ashley's hold. "I like that bit about love in the middle too…" She was silent for a few moments. "What a perverted old man."
Ashley burst into helpless laughter. "That was a…really touching recitation. I wish I had been in that poetry class you took."
"Do you think love-flesh can apply to a woman as well? I can definitely say that mine tremulously aches, though obviously he's referring to his boner. Ugh. Men. How inelegant."
Ashley couldn't stop her laughter if she'd wanted to. She gathered Sam into her arms and embraced her, pressing a kiss just under her ear. "That was all really romantic and sexy until you started talking about perverted old men and their boners. And Varren. And punctuation."
Sam turned her nose up, and she adopted a lordly, prim tone. "Well then, I suppose I'll have to get you back in the mood."
Ashley was determined not to run away from her. She lay back and let Sam study her, first with her eyes, then with her touch. Sam's fingers brushed the border of her muscles, found Ashley's often-regretted Alliance navy tattoo, and healed old scars. "You are so beautiful," she said gently. "And here…" Sam slipped her fingers between Ashley's legs, and Ashley sighed, opening herself for exploration. She trusted Sam, and she would give up everything to make her happy.
"Oh, darling," Sam whispered into her ear. "Does that feel good?"
Her fingers slipped into Ashley, evoking a moan; Ashley pushed back. "Yes…" she hissed. Sam's clever fingers played her gently, finding sensitive places Ashley would never have guessed existed. She took no time at all to come, and once again she whispered an apology. Sam just smiled and kept on.
She knew she would never stop wanting to be with this woman, but there was a limit to Sam's energy. Sam, unlike Ashley, had been working around the clock for weeks. Protesting the entire time, Sam eventually settled in Ashley's arms and heaved a sigh. "I gave you a verse tonight," she murmured into Ashley's neck. "You give me one."
"Yeah? I guess that counted as a verse."
"I memorized it, didn't I?"
"And each may other help, and service do,
Drawing Love's bands more tight,
Service he ne'er shall rue
Which one and one make two,
And two are one…"
"Is there more?"
"I like the last two verses, but it would be comparing you to a tree if I used them so I didn't think it would be very romantic."
"I talked about old man boners. Et cetera. Trees are positively romantic in comparison." Sam's voice was soft with sleep. "Say them."
"Two sturdy oaks I mean, which side by side,
Withstand the winter's storm,
And spite of wind and tide,
Grow up the meadow's pride,
For both are strong
"Above they barely touch, but undermined
Down to their deepest source,
Admiring you shall find
Their roots are intertwined
Sam sighed, but Ashley wasn't sure if she'd stayed awake to hear the rest. She relaxed, closed her eyes, and slept.
In the morning, after she awakened alone in bed, she saw a note on the pillow next to her. It said, 'That was Thoreau, right? That means you get to make the bed. I love you.'
She laughed and pocketed the paper. It would not be going into the Normandy's compost.
[Walt Whitman, From Pent-up Aching Rivers; Thoreau, Friendship]
"Should I be this nervous?"
Sam bumped shoulders with Ashley, her smile steady. "You already met my parents. I don't see what you have to be nervous about now."
"You don't know my sisters," Ashley mumbled. Sam threaded their fingers together, and they shared a smile. If they weren't on a public train, Ashley would have kissed her. She imagined what her sisters would have to say to Sam and tightened her fingers. "You have to promise me you won't leave me because of my crazy family."
"I won't leave you because of your crazy family," Sam recited back. She tucked her hair behind one ear. "Darling, you need to calm down. They can't be that bad. You're relatively normal."
Sam squeezed her hand. "How bad could it be?"
After they stepped out of the train station, Ashley's fears melted away at the sheer joy of seeing her family again. Her sisters and her mother collapsed on her in a massive collaborative hug. She held each back and looked her fill. They all looked older; even Sarah looked like a woman now. Then her mother seized her in a harsh hug, and they cried onto each other's shoulders.
Then her mother withdrew to wipe her eyes and send a watery, curious look to Sam. She held out her hand. "You must be Samantha. I'm so glad to meet you."
Sam smiled and took her hand. Then she squeaked as Ashley's mother drew her in for a tight hug. "I'm so glad she has you," she said.
"I'm glad to have her, honestly," Sam said.
Sarah shared a conspiratorial look with their other sisters. Ashley bit her lip, preparing herself for whatever was about to come out of her mouth. "So how long did it take you to realize you were totally gay, Ash?"
Ashley level a none-too-gentle punch into her sister's shoulder. Sarah didn't even have the decency to take the punishment. She did one of her fluid moves and dodged like Ashley was a clumsy cadet who'd never seen combat before.
"We should get going," their mother said dryly. "Before these two get into a fight, that is."
The week passed by uneventfully—or as uneventfully as possible with Ashley's relatives and crazy as they were. She was happy that they were so happy; her mother was finally putting her degree to good use, advising farming companies about where and when to set their crops. Her sisters were thriving. And they all loved Sam. The only pain she felt was for her father. She knew his grave was lost.
She sat cross legged in the grass, enjoying the breeze as it rustled the unbroken field of wheat that stretched across hill after hill towards the horizon. Her father would have liked this colony. A part of her—the part that was so rooted in the existence of God in the galaxy—knew that her father would always be with her.
Ashley glanced up at Sam and patted the grass next to her. Sam gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek. "Escaping the family?"
"No." Ashley sighed and glanced up at the soft white clouds. "Thinking about my dad."
Sam wrapped her arm into Ashley's. "Do you think he's here, right now?"
Ashley didn't answer, but she felt a smile pull at her mouth. She was grateful that Sam was here, and that Sam knew her father as Ashley knew him now: more than a grave.
"Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
"Darling, that's Ulysses." Sam squeezed her shoulders. "What do I win?"
"You've got me, don't you?"
"Was that a cheesy line or a proposal?" Sam's expression was sober, but she broke into a smile as Ashley's expression softened. It was clear Sam already knew the answer.