Authors Note: Hey guys, this is just a different take on the Virmire choice using my own personal mass effect headcanon. My first fic and the first thing i've actually written in a rather long while, so sorry if it sucks and go easy on me if you kind souls feel like reviewing! Contains spoilers for the first mass effect.
Commander Shephard loved nights aboard the Normandy, when sleep evaded her. She loved the gentle hum of the engine, the sight of stars streaking past overhead. She loved that there was always some member of the crew up, that there was always something to do, be it poker with Garrus, a walk around the cargo hold with Tali, a quick drink with Joker in the bridge.
That was most nights.
This night was different. There was no old Earth music playing, a usual nightly courtesy of Joker's, who had turned a deaf ear to the warning of where Wrex just might stick his gun if he was ever woken again. There was no clattering from Dr Chakwas and Liara, working late in the lab. There were none of the usual comm. calls from the crew, no offer of a late night meal or quick drink in the mess hall.
There was no Kaidan Alenko, waiting patiently by the Commander's locker.
The Commander ran a hand through her hair, trying to ignore the pounding in her head, the constant reminder that there was no Kaidan. The constant reminder that the mission on Virmire had backfired so terribly, not that the sickeningly congratulatory Council report had acknowledged this. Shephard could still hear the crackle of the radio, interspersed with shouts and gunshots.
'It's done Commander. Go get Williams and get the hell outta here.' 'Screw that! We can handle ourselves. Go back and get Alenko!
The dawning realisation that, this time, she couldn't save everybody. She'd teetered, hanging on the precipice of panic as more shouts filled her ears. She'd distantly heard Garrus mutter something about calling the Normandy. She'd been vaguely aware of Tali's arm placed gently on her shoulder, drawing her away from the edge and back into reality. Out of everyone, they were the only two who knew the full weight of this choice, the impossible nature of this decision.
The Commander knew that she was expected to save Kaidan.
She'd heard the whispers, even when the Normandy had first been under the command of Anderson. Kaidan was sweet, funny, charming. One night they'd caught a movie at the Citadel, another they'd just talked for hours. Shephard was almost surprised herself at her reaction when he smiled as she approached him, feeling warmth spread over her as she uttered a greeting. She'd grinned and rolled her eyes when she'd received an email from Joker one night that included a straight-from-the-extranet 'seal of approval' certificate with Kaidan's face superimposed on it, something the Commander found both amusing and slightly disturbing. The Commander, feeling her hardened exterior start to crack, privately admitted to herself that this was really going somewhere.
Then there was Eden Prime.
The sudden loss of Jenkins had hit hard, had shaken them both. Kaidan's pinched face told Shephard he was unused to losing people on the field. The Commander, white knuckles gripping her pistol, admitted to herself that she was too used to it. The two had fired off round after round at the recon drones wordlessly, as Nihlus fed back to them over the radio, Shephard's surroundings passing in a blur as they fought together through the trees. There'd been no time to rest, to draw breath, before gunfire had yet again shattered the silence. Shephard had drawn her pistol, ready to fight, only to be taken completely aback at the sight of the soldier from the transmission shown at the Eden Prime debriefing, clad in white and pink armor. Shephard, backed by Kaidan, had watched the marine take a shot, shield's barely holding, before springing into action. The Geth had gone down, introductions had been made.
'Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams of the 212. You the one in charge here, ma'am?'
The rest of their mission had flown by, shrouded in shock and confusion. Nihlus' death. Disarming the charges. The beacon. The vision. The last thing Shephard remembered was being carried gently onto the shuttle by Kaidan, Ashley trailing worriedly in their wake. Once Shephard woke, things had moved quickly. Docking at the Citadel. The visit with the Council. Gathering evidence against Saren. Recruiting Wrex, Tali and Garrus. Anderson being stripped of his position. Shephard being given sole command of the Normandy. Flying back off into the stars in search of Feros. The Commander had found herself with time on her hands, had taken the elevator to check in on the newest members of the Normandy crew. She'd started with Williams, knowing how it felt to lose friends on the battlefield. They'd spoken, pain evident in the marine's eyes as she recalled Eden Prime and her lost comrades, and what she saw as her failure to save them.
'The Geth are perfect ambushers, they don't move, they don't make noise, they don't even breathe.' 'Ma'am, they have flashlight heads. I'll make sure it doesn't happen again.'
The Gunnery Chief had been true to her word, helping the Commander and Kaidan save each and every Colonist life on Feros. The three arrived back on the Normandy to cheers, survival becoming euphoria as they celebrated the completion of their first mission. The Normandy returned to the Citadel in a blaze of glory, Shephard turning a blind eye to the crew members subtly leaving the ship (Garrus and Wrex both carrying what appeared to be a crate of alcohol) as she prepared to dock, knowing she had business to attend to. She had passed an armory, stopping in to buy upgrades for the crew. She'd smiled to herself as she ensured pink and white armor was on her list. She'd taken the rapid transit to Flux, knowing that's where the crew would be.
She'd been right.
Garrus was engaged in a bar fight, calling out a friendly 'Evening, Shephard!' in his distinctive voice between banging the heads of two humans together. Tali was slumped at the bar, muttering something about an 'emergency induction port' whilst the bartender watched her with a strange look on his face. Kaidan was with Wrex at the gambling machines, smiling invitingly at the Commander. She'd returned it, but made a beeline for Ashley, who stood watching from the sidelines. She'd planned to break through the barrier that was clearly evident when she spoke to the marine. Had held the armor out wordlessly, unsure of why she was uncertain of what to say. Ashley had accepted it with a bemused expression that had slowly softened out into gratitude, deep brown eyes sparkling. 'y'know, it's not every Commander who'd take their crews style preferences into account when hittin' the market' she'd laughed, eyeing the pink with disdain 'You don't really strike me as the pink and fluffy type if you don't mind me saying, Chief' Shephard had answered, settling down to listen properly 'you'd be right there, Commander. It's my youngest sister, Sarah. Made me promise to wear it' Here, she had adopted a high pitched voice ''wear it so people will actually able to tell you apart from the guys, Sis. Hate to tell you this, but sometimes you come across as kinda butch in that armor. Never know who you're gonna pull in between kickin' ass!'' Ashley had laughed again at her sister's words, shaking her head fondly. Shephard inquired further, her own orphaned state since making her keen to hear more about what sounded like a happy, lively family. The night passed with the two in deep conversation, broken up occasionally as they watched a drunken Tali clearing a path on the dance floor to dance enthusiastically, ignoring Garrus and Wrex' blatant laughter. They'd discussed everything from Shephard's London childhood to their time spent at boot camp. Shephard had barely noticed Kaidan's eyes seeking out her own all night.
'I cannot rest from travel; I will drink Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those that loved me, and alone'
From there, both everything and nothing had changed. The mission went on. They found Liara T'soni, thankfully unharmed, on a remote planet.. Regular reports were still filed to the awaiting Council. Shephard still spoke to the crew when time allowed for it, swapping good-natured barbs with Garrus, engaging in deep talks about what it meant to have a home with Tali as they observed the might of the Normandy's core. The crew still hung up on Joker when his incessant comm. questioning became unbearable. One night, Ashley solidified her status as a 'official' crew member when, after being asked by Joker to 'come up here and clean my rifle', she'd hung up on him amidst good natured catcalls.
Shepherd and Ashley had shared a connection that night in Flux, the result of which being that now they were now never far apart from each other. They ate together in the mess hall, something initiated by Ashley ('Damn it; Skipper what do you run on, bravado? Tali probably gets more nutrition than you do just through that 'emergency induction port' of hers') and the two had become so familiar with each other in battle that they made a near-invincible team. Shepherd was taken aback when Ashley flushed deeply after revealing her love of poetry, in particular that of Tennyson, and her belief in God. Wrex had blinked in utter disbelief when the Commander had uttered a poetic line to him without realizing. Shephard was surprised by the closeness between herself and the Gunnery Chief. It was something she had only felt with very few members of the crew, and had not felt previous to having boarded the Normandy. When they dined together, Shephard felt herself laughing and laughing, the strain of the mission falling away as the marine shot her a wolfish grin, shoulders also shaking with amusement. During her daily evening chat with the Chief, the Commander had approached only to hear the slightly garbled sound of a comm. message coming from the screen in front of Ashley 'So, Ash. Been seeing news footage of that Commander you work for. Gotta say, she's pretty hot, sis!' Ashley, clumsily trying to mute the comm. had responded with an uncharacteristic 'Shut up, you…doofus!' as the grinning Commander quickly made herself scarce.
'When I need to think with my head I go to Kaidan, and when I need to think with my heart I come to you'
She'd been brushing him off recently, they both knew it. The warm rapport that had been present for months before had all but vanished. The Commander, if asked, would have been unable to give a coherent answer as to why. It had started that night in Flux. If Shephard was honest, the slow detachment between herself and Kaidan had been enforced by the look in Ashley's eyes one night when she approached Shephard, hot chocolate in hand ('suck on that, Wrex! I've found his secret stash!') And her eyes drifted down to Kaidan's hand on the Commander's arm. Ashley had hurriedly averted them, muttering something incoherent and backing away, artificial smile in place. The Commander had shrugged Kaidan off abruptly. Things between the two had continued in this vein until, unable to allow the painful pining in his handsome face to continue, she'd stated with an out of character iciness to her voice 'this was just a battlefield thing, Kaidan.' He'd stepped back then, as if he was trying to shield himself from her words, an action that had hurt Shephard. His earnest face fell, but did not sour. 'No problem…Commander.' He had glanced at Ashley, hovering outside the lab with her eyes trained on the Commander. His face was filled with an odd sort of understanding.
The mission went on.
Garrus, Ashley and Shephard had arrived back on the Normandy, white faced and trembling with anger. Garrus had retreated in silence to his station at the Mako, mouth set in a grim line as he aimed a punch at a nearby wall. Husks tended to have that effect on people. Ashley had moved rigidly over to her own work station, attempting to boot her system up whilst the Commander watched her. The tech was apparently not working quickly enough as Ashley smacked her fist on it one, twice, three times before turning away in distress, head bent. The Commander had walked over without thinking, feeling an ache at the closed off expression in Ashley's usually open face, the shake of her hands as they dug deep into the metal edge of her desk. The Commander prided herself on having a way with words but this time they had failed her. Instead, she tugged Ashley into an embrace, feeling the woman grip her back instantly, mumbling 'God those poor people. Those poor, poor people.' into the Commander's shoulder. The Commander breathed in, Ashley's distinctive smell filling her brain, unwilling to release her until she was ready. Shephard had been vaguely aware of Garrus chatting with his head close to Tali as they stared over at the embracing pair, but disregarded it. Everything, from the sight of the husks to the spatter of heavy gunfire, felt a world away from where Shephard stood, arms wrapped comfortingly around the marine.
At times they had fought.
They'd returned from Noveria, waiting for Liara to trail back to the lab before starting to argue about the fate of the rachni ('why the hell did you save it?! You saw what the damned thing did to Liara's Mom!' 'oh, so genocide was the answer? Great thinking, Gunnery Chief! Right up there with Wrex and his grand idea of throwing our only pilot out the damned airlock!') which ended with the two storming away in different directions. It had been on the tip of Shephard's tongue to reprimand Ashley, to remind her of the hierarchy aboard the Normandy. She was meant to be in charge here. The Commander brooded darkly, and had been surprised to see Tali approach her with a request to stop off at the Citadel at the soonest moment. Fighting off the remains of her annoyance with Ashley, Shephard had obliged with some confusion, which only grew when Tali dragged her off to a dark corner of the market, picked up a package and placed it firmly in Shephard's hands. In her frustrated state, Shephard had become dimly aware that it was a real, hard copy of a book, a rarity on the Citadel. She'd finally focused enough to decipher that the book's cover was emblazoned with the title 'The complete works of Tennyson'. The Commander had breathed in sharply and glanced up, but Tali was already in the distance, making her way back to the Normandy. Shephard had made the purchase instantly, and practically ran after Tali's retreating form. When the pair boarded, Shephard had been shocked to see Ashley waiting, looking nervous, and also holding a package firmly in her hands. Tali had only paused to grab a hovering Garrus, whispering something to him before pulling him away and leaving Shephard and Williams alone. The two stared at each other, and Shephard felt her insides turn over slowly as Ashley, expression apologetic, placed her hand on the Commander's forearm and thrust the parcel she was holding into the Commander's arms, giving Shephard a chance to practically throw the wrapped book into the marine's hand. Holding Ashley's piercing gaze, the Commander had carefully pulled back the wrapping paper from the parcel to reveal its contents. A rare model ship.
They'd held hands, sitting in the semi-darkness as they approached Virmire. Ashley's hand was like silk in it's softness, and gratifyingly strong.
The mission was harder than any of the other's, the stakes felt higher. The disagreement with Wrex left Shepherd nearly weak with relief, sensing there would have been terrible consequences if it had taken the wrong turn. Shephard's uneasiness had only grown at the sight of her entire crew, openly vulnerable to attack as they stood upon Virmire's sandy beaches. The island looked all the world like an idyllic holiday resort, the blue skies and lush plantation making it deceivingly beautiful. Kirrahe's request for Kaidan or Ashley came as a shock, and Shephard had been uncharacteristically rude in her reluctance to give either away to a strange squad. When Ashley offered herself to lead the salarians, the pointed look in her eye told Shephard not to argue.
Shephard watched her retreating back with a rapidly growing feeling of dread.
The fight to the bomb site had been treacherous, Kirrahe and Ashley's radio chatter a constant reminder of what was at risk. Tali, Garrus and Shephard had made sure to destroy any visible geth units that might hinder the Ashley-led salarians. The encounter with Sovereign was like nothing Shephard had ever seen. She placed that far back in her brain, willing herself to just get the squad off the island first, and deal with that issue later. When Kaidan arrived to man the bomb, Shephard had felt a rush of fondness for him and his ability to keep positive even in a place such as this, and the two had shared a smile.
'We need reinforcements!'
Leaving Kaidan to watch the bomb, Shephard had set off at a sprint, shoving down the fear in her throat that stung like poison. Save her was all she heard with each step, each bullet fired. They were getting close. They were almost there.
It had all gone wrong. All come down to that damn choice.
When she began to realize the truth of the situation, the Commander began to pace, eyes screwed up from the sunlight and the conflict. Garrus and Tali were quiet, the looks on their faces making it clear they understood the gravity of the situation, the raw pain stirring in the Commander's chest. Words and images echoed inside Shephard's brain
He's gifted. A biotic. Impeccable track record. Did you hear what her Grandfather did? I've heard she has some trouble following orders.
This train of thought was derailed, without warning, by a barrage of images so strong they left the Commander gasping for air. Ashley on that night in Flux, silky hair loose from its usual military bun. Ashley asleep in the mess hall, a copy of Tennyson propped up in front of her. Ashley radioing around to check that Liara was being comforted after their encounter with Benezia. Ashley affectionately ribbing Joker in the bridge, knocking his cap off. Ashley visiting an injured Shephard in the med bay, bringing flowers despite the fact it was only a light surface wound. Ashley quietly reassuring Tali that one day they'd find her a home. Ashley impressively fixing the Mako in record time, spanner in hand whilst Garrus and Wrex watched in awe. The feel of Ashley's hand in the Commander's.
Shephard's voice was hoarse when she gave the order.
'Williams, radio Joker ad tell him to meet us at the bomb site'
The words hurt to even say.
'Yes Commander, I…'
'It's the right choice and you know it, Ash'
'I'm sorry Kaidan, I had to make a choice'
'Don't worry Commander, I don't regret a thing'
The rush to the AA tower was a blur. Being choked by Saren. Holding a bloodied Ashley and being afraid to let go. Somehow being back on the Normandy. Knowing the terrible, terrible loss of Kaidan as the planet erupted into flames. The silent crew meeting afterwards. Nobody had spoken, afraid to look at the empty chair that screamed for their attention. Each member was silent, lost in their own thoughts. Tali was comforted by Wrex, Garrus by Liara. Doctor Chawkwas had risen, openly distraught, and exited the room. Ashley, who had stayed silent since the rescue, had been the first to speak. 'I can't, I can't believe Kaidan didn't make it. How could we just leave him down there?!' She'd choked out, eyes accusing 'He gave his life to save the rest of us' The Commander answered, very aware of the crew's eyes on her. They'd been stopping by all day, saying how sorry they were to lose Kaidan. To say they know he meant a lot to the Commander. Shephard knew people believed her and Kaidan had been in a relationship of sorts. Their apologies stung. They were undeserved. Ashley wasn't finished 'It should have been me, Commander, you know that' her eyes focused onto the Commander's. They seemed to be trying to see through her, to understand the reason behind her choice. For a moment, the ringing of the bomb blast sounded again in Shephard's ears. 'It wasn't your call Williams, I had to choose. I chose you'.' There was a slight murmur amongst the crew. 'I'm sorry Commander, you saved my life and I'm grateful for that, but it should have been me. Alenko was a superior officer. I would have gladly stayed behind.' The Commander shook her head at that, knowing the truth. It should have been me. Nobody should have been left behind but me. 'Ash, how far are you gonna drive yourself? Are you trying to be a martyr to redeem your Grandfather's honor? 'That's not fair!' Ashley's head had snapped up, hurt breaking out across her face. 'What they did to him was wrong, but I don't want to lose a good soldier over it.' The Commander gazed desperately at Ashley, needing to draw the conversation to a close. The sickening mental image of Kaidan lying next to the bomb flashed momentarily in her mind. The fire behind Ashley's eyes seemed to dim 'Aye-aye Commander'. She'd slumped back in her chair, eyes vacant.
The day's events ran mercilessly through Shephard's mind as she sat in the deserted mess hall. The night seemed endless. Endless and empty. The Commander found her eyes drawn to the spot where Kaidan could always be found. Steady, kind, reliable Kaidan. The door opened behind Shephard, and her eyes shot round to meet the eyes of Ashley Williams.
The red-rimmed eyes of Ashley Williams.
Shephard didn't get the chance to speak before Ashley was in front of her, speaking rapidly 'I've been thinking about this, Skipper. Thinking and thinking. I can't stop. I even tried contacting Joker at one point. I was going to speak to Tali. Or Garrus . Or the doctor' Her eyes fastened onto Shephard's face 'but then I knew I had to just ask you' there was a deep breath 'why me? You said you chose me and I'm asking why. Everyone knows that you and Kaidan were…whatever you were. And Kaidan was special, he was a biotic for God's sake. The nicest guy you'd ever meet. And me?' Ashley had looked away at this point, as Shephard's mouth opened and closed. This was the most Ashley had ever said without stopping. She'd once told Shephard that poetry helped her say the things she couldn't form into words herself. Ashley was not done. 'I'm nothing. Just a Gunnery Chief with a big mouth. I just don't understand.' The last part was said with a drawn-out sigh and she moved as if to walk away, taking Shephard's silence as an indication that she wouldn't receive an answer.
'You're not nothing'
The words fell effortlessly out of the Commander's mouth, a complete contrast to how the words said on Virmire felt, as her hand hovered for a moment before it closed shakily around Ashley's wrist. Ashley slowly turned round to stare at her, and the Commander swore she saw the marine's eyes redden slightly. Her hands shifted so they were holding Ashley's own warm ones, and she almost closed her eyes at the sensation. Warm and strong. Just how they felt before Virmire. After the event's of the day, the Commander had doubted whether anything would be the same. Whether the surprising bursts of happiness she felt on the Normandy, despite the seriousness of their mission, would remain. However this, the feel of Ashley's hand in hers, and the sight of her warm brown eyes, were the same as ever. Just as beautiful as ever. Ashley had fallen silent as she waited for the Commander to continue, her hand slightly grazing over Shephard's cheek, causing warmth to spread across Shephard's face and Ashley's cheeks to redden. The Commander went to speak, to say how much their evening's together, their time together on the Normandy had meant. To say how when Ashley read Tennyson to her, hand inches from the Commander's arm, Shephard felt happiness she hadn't known was possible. To remind Ashley of the night they'd been working together and Shephard had pulled Ashley to stop her from tripping, and their faces had been inches apart, Ashley's soft, sweet breath failing upon Shephard's cheek. To say how that, despite the fact that Shephard had faced incredible odds, had been pinned down by shocking amounts of enemy forces, was the most frightening (and most exhilarating) moment of her entire life. To say why, no matter what her head told her, she could never, ever leave Ashley behind; never lose the feeling of when their eyes met across the cargo bay, or on a remote planet in the middle of nowhere. There was so much to be said and done, but the Commander settled with 'When I think with my heart, I come to you.' before pulling Ashley in.
Finally, finally their lips met.
This night was different.