Flesh and blood

Ashley Williams remembered very well that moment when she heard about Commander Shepard for the first time. She had then just enlisted in the Alliance and was in her early military training. The Alliance news network was reporting an attack on the colony of Elysium and in every corridor or break room, Ashley could not tear her gaze away from the screens where she watched images of destruction, cities in fire, monstrous aliens and charred bodies, and listened to survivors telling the most terrible stories. Then the images had switched to the resolute face of a young woman with short messy hair and striking hazel eyes. Shepard had apparently contained the attack nearly by herself until the closest Alliance ships came to the rescue and saved the colony. Shepard received the star of Terra for this and Ashley was in awe.

The feeling had not subsided years later when Shepard had came out of nowhere to save her from an army of Geth and later on, took her under her wing on the Normandy. At first surprised and even a little wary about how the Commander had willingly welcomed her, she had witnessed first hand why Shepard was the Alliance poster girl and one of its most famous and respected Officers. She had then embraced the mission and her role on the Normandy with more resolution and passion than ever before, resolute to prove herself to Shepard. Getting friends with her and earning her trust was the most gratifying thing she had ever accomplished. When she thought she would follow her to hell, it was not just words, Ashley meant it to the core. With Shepard, Ashley was not afraid of anything. She felt indestructible. Shepard was her hero.

So, when Virmire came, Ashley did not think twice before offering to go with the Salarians for what could really be a suicide mission. She felt a knot in her throat when she left with Captain Kirrahe but promised herself she would make her Commander proud.

Hours after leaving her team, she found herself pinned on the AA tower, surrounded by Geths and krogans. Two Salarians were bleeding to death at her feet. She felt blood flowing from a wound somewhere up her face. Her hands were burning at the heat of her assault rifle. She tried to think of any possible plan to meet the team where she was expected to. But she did not find any way out. Her end seemed unavoidable.

When Shepard’s voice suddenly came over the com to ask her to hurry to meet the team, all she could answer was that it was impossible. The first thing that came to her mind was to feel sad at the idea of disappointing Shepard when she heard the anguish in her voice.

But she had not time to dwell on the fact. Only seconds later, Shepard told her she was en route with Garrus and Tali to come and get her. Hope came rushing back and she fought with new found resolution.

All hell broke loose only moments after. Geth reinforcements approached Kaidan’s position while Shepard was still halfway between them.

“Go get Alenko” she yelled over the com between two rifle’s bursts, when she felt her Commander hesitate about what to do.

She meant it. It was the best thing to do for a lot of reasons. She wanted to die a hero for a lot of reasons. For Shepard. For her family.

Shepard’s answer was lost in the raging sound of firearms. Ashley shot a Geth trooper who had come too close to her liking and her shields went down in the explosion and her com burnt out. She knew then it was the end for her. She tentatively called out for Shepard but nothing answered but buzzling sounds. Her heart sank regretfully at the thought that she would not be able to say goodbye. She peeked over her cover and shot one more Geth, the last from this wave, but she already saw one more coming in the distance. She glanced at Kirrahe and two others Salarians to her left and nodded in encouragement. She, Ashley Williams, was going to die with a team of Salarians of all people. She felt an oddly sense of satisfaction at the thought. She waited for her shields to power up again and for her rifle heat to subside. Finally she went out of cover, gun blazing, Salarians on her heels. The Geth were already closer than she thought and her shields were down again before she knew. She shot the closest Geth trooper in its head, went for her shotgun with left hand to shoot another before he reached her. Before everything went black, she hoped her friends had made it.

When she awoke in the Normandy’s medbay, hours later, she felt a little disoriented before she recognized Shepard’s tired face overlooking her. The events of Virmire came rushing back to her and a smile crept over her lips.

“You did it…” she whispered weakly, her throat dry and croaky. “You did it…” A part of her could hardly believe it and her smile grew larger when she felt Shepard’s hand squeezing hers. It was probably the first time the Commander had such a familiar gesture for her.

“Hey Kaidan,” she said, and she turned her head to the other side of her bed, expecting to find Kaidan across Shepard, or maybe lying in the bed next to her.

But he wasn’t there and Ashley felt sick. She turned back to Shepard and looked at her more clearly. She had dark rings under her eyes, and Ashley wondered if she had cried. She could not imagine Shepard crying.

“He didn’t make it Ash,” Shepard softly told her and she felt her heart constrict. “We didn’t have time to come back for him too…”

Ashley couldn’t believe her ears. She remained still, watching Shepard intently, as if waiting for Shepard to tell her it was all a joke, that of course, she had come back for Kaidan and saved him too. She was Shepard after all, wasn’t she? She could do everything.

But Shepard just kept looking at her behind tired and terribly sad and worried eyes, and Ashley knew it was real, that Kaidan was dead.

Then, for the very first time since she knew her, Ashley saw something else than the Alliance poster girl, than the hero of Elysium, than the indestructible soldier, than the Commander. They looked at each other for a long time in silence, a long time during which Ashley wished she could say something but her throat was so tight that she could not make a sound. She eventually looked down and squeezed Shepard’s hand in return until the Commander freed herself.

“I should go to get ready for the debriefing,” she said.

“I’ll meet you up there in a few minutes,” Ashley heard herself answer.

Shepard nodded and Ashley watched her retreating form as she went away. When the door closed behind her, and the sound of her steps faded in the distance, Ashley fell back heavily onto her pillow. Her shoulders started to shake and she did not fight tears she did not remember holding back.