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That Which Matters Most

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The halo was off. Ashley still wasn't allowed to walk much, but she could at least pull on a shirt and sweatpants, which was miles ahead of wearing that damn hospital gown. In lieu of walking around, the physical therapist was making her do some exercises and stretches which kept her neck limber while strengthening it. But it was on order for her to get up and walk up and down the hallway with a volunteer twice daily for the next few days. It wasn't much, but Ashley was surprised when it completely took it out of her the first time.

She had not expected to be so incapacitated in the rest of her body by a neck injury.

Ashley did her exercises religiously, doing everything the doctor would allow her to. Leg lifts, crunches, toe-raises, lunges – anything that didn't make her stretch or strain her neck or shoulders. She spent a lot of time doing these, building up a sweat when she could, even if it was light. She didn't want to lose her fitness, not with the Reaper invasion going on. They were in the middle of a war: she was not going to have to sit it out just because she sat on her duff in the hospital.

She still hadn't gotten a hold of her mom or sisters. She was trying very hard not to panic, because there was always the chance her mom had gotten onto a transport, that her sisters had gotten off the planet somehow, and they just couldn't cut through the crazy communications traffic to contact Ashley. There was also a good resistance going on Earth, moving from place to place and staying in small numbers, according to the ANN. Mom's smart. She'll have attached herself to something like that if she didn't make it off-planet. She's young, healthy. I bet she's putting her nursing expertise to work.

She hadn't heard from Sam again. It was… well, it wasn't surprising, but it was disappointing. There was no news of the Normandy. It was a stealth ship; no one was going to get news about the ship's whereabouts except the higher ups. So all Ashley had for now was the letter Sam had left for her, and it was quickly becoming too little.

She'd tried countless times to make a call. Somehow her omnitool had survived her encounter with the Cerberus mech, and so she had pictures and old recordings and conversations, and the specialist's contact information. But her calls would simply not go through. The only thing she'd managed to get through was the letter she'd written, and there was no way to tell if Sam had received it.

So she read, and exercised, and hoped and prayed. She wished she had her dad's rosary. That kind of meditative practice would be really nice right now, what with all this thinking and not moving she was doing.

Two days after the halo came off – four days since Mars – she snuck out of her room, unable to take the silence any longer. Ashley had long learned that if you looked like you knew what you were doing, you didn't draw a lot of questions. So, dressed in sweatpants and a ribbed undershirt, she walked confidently out into the hall. Dr. Michele wasn't in sight, nor were any of her regular nurses.

"Score," Ashley breathed to herself, turning around the corner, making for the lobby. She just wanted to get some fresh air, see some people who weren't her nurses, be in a room that had more noises than her machines. Her bare feet craved the cool feeling of the metallic flooring. As she walked, she reached her fingers out, feeling the texture of the wall, the windows. She could feel the slight buzz of the decontamination chamber as she walked through it, again confidently, as though this were exactly where she was supposed to be.

When the door opened onto the reception room, her heart did a little flip. It was full of people. As the eldest in a big family, Ashley had a difficult time dealing with long periods of solitude. It tended to bring down her mood. But this, this room full of people moving and talking and being, energized her, filled her with a sense of purpose. Moving slowly into the middle of the room, Ashley looked for a seat. The room seemed to be multi-purpose; there were all manner of people, with all manner of business, around the giant room. Patients were visiting with family or friends along one wall, while across the room there seemed to be cubicles set aside, people in the uniforms of counselors sitting with patients with at least a scrap of privacy. Ash suspected it wasn't normally like this, but the Citadel had limited space, and the hospital was utilizing every inch it could.

The middle of the room was dominated by a reception desk, but it was actually quite small, with just three people staffing it. The rest of the rather large space was full of couches and individual chairs, people of all species scattered about. It wasn't horribly crowded, but it did take Ashley a moment to find a seat – off in a corner, luckily by a window. Moving over there, she perched on the chair, seating herself between a male drell and the wall.

There had been a time when she would have been incredibly uncomfortable next to the drell. But both Kaidan and Miriam had helped rid her of her entirely irrational dislike of non-humans. Liara helped, too. Really, everyone on the SR-1 worked together in a way to disprove all of Ashley's assumptions regarding aliens. She was so comfortable now that she only remarked mentally that she was next to a drell because she'd never actually seen one of his species before in the flesh. She tried to remember what she knew – the drell lived with the Hanar? – but couldn't really drag up all the information she'd gotten from that one course she'd had to take as part of her Alliance training, right after basic. Shrugging inwardly, she looked out the window, intending to just spend some time with a different view.

Her thoughts turned to her family pretty quickly, however. Her father had been the rock in her life until he died when she was seventeen. When they'd been informed of his death in the line of duty, her world had crumbled from beneath her feet. She'd spent most of her life helping to raise her sisters because of his frequent deployments, but having him dead was very different from having him just not home. She couldn't talk to him anymore, couldn't listen to his deep voice tell her that her heartbreak would pass, and he couldn't tell her anymore that he'd help her pack her damn bags himself when she threatened to be done with all of them. He got her, knew how to deflate her when she was feeling uppity, knew how to encourage her when she was feeling down, knew when she really did need comforting, and yet never coddled her.

And then the Alliance soldier appeared on their doorstep, informed them his ship had been destroyed, and the world stopped. He was just gone, and he was never coming back. There'd been no warning that their last conversation would indeed be their last conversation. Last hug, last pat on the head, last kiss on the cheek, last girly horde swarming him to the ground when he came home on leave. He was steadfast and strong, caring and warm, and he was gone and she didn't know what to do.

So she'd acted out, by sleeping around, partying, getting drunk. It hadn't helped, but it had gotten her mother pissed. Her mother was waiting for her one night – really, it was early morning – and had actually slapped her when she smelled the alcohol on a young Ashley's breath. Several months of curfew, therapy, and crying sessions with her sisters had straightened her out, though. She was lucky. Some parents didn't care enough to do that, or were so lost in their own grief that they couldn't muster the parental energy to handle their children. But not Ashley's mom. Ashley's mom was on top of her shit, and her kids' shit.

One of the things Ashley had clung to as she got back on the right path was religion. In a world of aliens and interstellar travel, of the military in space, of colonizing planets, Ashley Williams was a devout Catholic. As a kid she hadn't cared, but as Ashley came to terms with her father's death, she had started researching the faith he had held so dear. But he had also held it close, not forcing it on his uninterested wife and children.

She had found a world of therapeutic traditions and comforting spirituality. She'd started attending mass, eventually joined by every single member of her family. When she'd left for basic training, her mother had gifted her with her father's rosary, which she said he had been fond of using to meditate. Those beads were still on the Normandy now, in her equipment locker. I should tell Sam so it doesn't get lost, she thought to herself suddenly. It was important. She didn't want to lose it because someone else took her locker and dumped her stuff somewhere.

Toying with the ring that was now back on her finger, Ashley said a silent prayer of thanks that she had kept it on her person. She'd never admit it out loud, but she liked to think that it had kept her safe, kept her from dying.

God, her thoughts were everywhere.

Taking a deep breath, Ashley decided to meditate. She may not have the rosary on which to count, but it wasn't like she needed it, not really. Taking another deep breath, she closed her eyes, beginning to recite the Apostle's Creed under her breath.

"I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth..."

Ashley opened her eyes some time later. She had been steadily working her way through the rosary, counting her Hail Marys on her fingers and keeping track of how many decades she'd gone through. Now, though, she was through, and she felt… empty. But not depressingly so. She just felt content, the light shining through the window wonderful to behold, her thoughts no longer going in every direction.

"Excuse me." A gravelly voice sounded next to her. Turning, she saw that the drell man still sat beside her, his inky black eyes turned her way. Well, as far as she could tell, anyway. She couldn't see pupils or irises for her to get some clue of specifically what he was focusing on.

"Yes?" she answered. She knew he was addressing her, as there was no one else – she was sitting next to him and the wall.

"I couldn't help but notice you meditating, and it… I apologize, I know this is a strange question. I simply rarely meet others who are religious and was intrigued. Your meditation seemed religious. I couldn't understand your words, but the repetitive nature was familiar."

Ashley furrowed her brows. This was… odd. "It was religious. I was saying the rosary."

He blinked, a strange combination of multiple eyelids that Ashley had to control her reaction toward. It was… unsettling. "Forgive me, I am unfamiliar with human religious traditions. What is the rosary?"

Ashley wasn't sure she wanted to discuss Catholicism with an alien, but the question itself was innocent enough. "It's… they're prayer beads. You count on the beads of a rosary and say specific prayers, moving from one side of the beads around to the other side. It's… meditative." She didn't really feel like going into the history and cultural traditions of the veneration of the Virgin Mary at this point. Too much back information needed.

"Ah, I see. You are lacking your beads?"

Ashley blushed. "Yeah. They're… It's difficult to get a hold of a set of them, and I don't have mine here. So I was counting on my fingers."

He nodded, looking away, presumably out the window. "Prayer can be healing. The meditation clears the mind, allows us to relax our bodies. It sets our spirits at ease."

Ashley blinked. "Are… are you religious, too?"

The man nodded, turning his head in her direction once more. "I worship the old gods of my people. Not many do anymore."

Ashley nodded. "Yeah, not many of us believe anymore. But I just… I don't know how you could look out on the stars, at the infinite space and possibility, and not believe in something."

The drell blinked. "I had not even thought of it that way. Most look out and wonder how a deity has any place among the stars."

Ashley shrugged. "I guess I don't."

He hummed.

After a pause, Ashley swallowed down her suddenly thundering heart and held out her hand. "I'm Ashley Williams."

He blinked, looking down at her hand for a moment. Slowly, carefully, he placed his hand in hers, palm to palm. His fingers were odd, the two middle ones seeming fused. His skin was surprisingly smooth and cool, yet she could feel warmth emanating from the flesh below. She was not expecting any of those things from someone so clearly reptilian.

"I am Thane Krios."

Ashley smiled, looking fully into his face for a moment. She could see now that his eyes were dark, but still possessed the iris and pupil. His face was both familiar and alien, and Ashley truly could have stared all day, but pulled her eyes away after only a few seconds so as not to be rude.

A silence settled as she released his hand. She didn't know how to keep the conversation going, but was saved from having to figure it out when a hand tapped her shoulder. Startled, she turned, only to don a sheepish expression.

"Uh, hi, Dr. Michele," she said, pushing her hair behind her ear.

The doctor merely pursed her lips. "I see you are already tired of your room, Commander. Come, you have a call."

Ashley perked up at that. Getting to her feet, trying to ignore how sore her neck was from the prolonged sitting in one position, she looked down at Thane.

"It was nice to meet you, Thane. Maybe I'll see you around."

"Indeed. It was nice to meet you as well, Ashley," he said, his inky eyes already no longer off-putting. "I shall make sure to greet you if I see you again."

"So, who's this call from?" Ashley asked Dr. Michele, hoping that it was finally her fiancée.

The doctor didn't answer, merely glancing over her shoulder, her eyes hiding a smile that made Ashley's heart flutter. Dr. Michele knew about Sam – everyone did. Now that she wasn't in a military facility, Ashley couldn't seem to shut the fuck up about her. She supposed there were worse ways to act about being engaged. Nearly skipping at mention of her fiancée was not a terrible way to act.

Ashley nearly flew back into her hospital room, seeing Sam's face on the terminal over in the corner. Rushing over with a giant grin on her face, she very nearly grabbed the holographic display into a hug.


Sam grinned. "Ashley!"

"Goddamn, you're beautiful," she said, her grin nearly splitting her face. Sam was… it was unclear where on the ship she was. Her hair was down, hanging in such a way as to suggest Sam was lying on her stomach. Her dark skin was lit by the light from her omnitool, making her look almost like she was going to be telling a ghost story. Her face was more than welcome, smiling in that special way Ashley only ever saw when they were alone, her form moving a little in a way that proved that she was indeed there, and not an old picture Ashley was staring at.

"Such a flatterer, Ashley," Sam said, her smile turning coy. "Keep it up, and you'll need to ensure you can have a few minutes alone."

Ashley smirked. "Been long enough that I think a few minutes would be all I'd need," she joked. It was true though. When it had been a little while, it suddenly took her almost no time to get off.

"It's been four days, Ashley. Hardly a lifetime. And anyway I unfortunately don't actually have enough privacy to do that." Sam paused, her expression softening. "God, Ashley, it is so good to see you awake and alert. I can't even describe how warm my heart is right now."

Ashley's heart dropped a little. "I'm sorry, baby. I can't begin to imagine…"

Sam sniffed, wiping her eye. "Let's… let's talk about what's been going on, shall we? I don't want to spend any more time crying over this. Not while we're apart."

Ashley smiled warmly. "Okay, baby, what do you want to talk about?"

"I could tell you about what we're up to on the ship?"

Ashley shook her head. "Better not. I can guarantee you this channel through the Citadel is not secure. Tell me about how you finally got through."

Sam nodded, smiling. "It was simple, really. I made a call to the hospital through Alliance channels, and they transferred it to your room. I've been trying your omnitool all this time. The hospital is much more prominent and anchored in the network than one single omnitool."

Ash blinked. "That was it? So if I call you from this terminal I'll be okay?"

Sam nodded. "As far as I can tell."

"Well shit…"

Sam giggled. "Let's see, what else… James and Joker are treating me well. I'm settling in. We played cards last night."

Ashley snorted. "Did you beat the pants off both of them? They're both terrible."

"No. You know I'm better at strategy games. They beat the pants off me. And from James's flirting, I'm sure he would've loved it if they did actually come off."

"He touches you, I'll skin him alive," Ashley growled, watching Sam's eyes darken a little with desire. "You're mine, sweetcheeks. No one gets to steal you away while we're apart."

Sam just smirked. "I don't see a ring on this finger, Ash."

"Soon as I'm out of here, I'll take care of it. You guys coming back anytime soon?"

Sam shook her head. "I honestly don't know. But you will be the first place I go."

Ashley smiled. "I know. I love you. Tell me about what you do on your off time."

Sam pursed her lips in thought. "Well…"