|Parallels and Divergences
Author: Hermia S PM
Shepard and James Vega are soldiers. They're survivors, having lived to see the other side of the worst a tour of duty could offer them. When neither is willing to take a chance, one of them is forced to be the catalyst of change or the opportunity will slip past them both.Rated: Fiction M - English - Romance - Shepard (F) & James V. - Chapters: 18 - Words: 61,980 - Reviews: 83 - Favs: 78 - Follows: 108 - Updated: 04-30-12 - Published: 03-13-12 - id: 7921376
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Sleep came and went for most of the Normandy's crew. At times, those on the graveyard shift had company from half of those off the clock. They gathered in the Mess, pouring cups of coffee and occasionally swapping stories.
Most of them were too tired to be cheerful, having not gotten a full night's rest since they left Earth. These stories were often about what they lost. The grief was still fresh; the bitter reality of what was gone tagging along after every word. Some lost families. Others lost friends, pets, entire hometowns. Every once in a while, someone got news that their wife made it off of the planet or their brother was on the Citadel, waiting to see him the next time they docked. They shared parts of themselves that the Reapers broke off, parts that were either dead or transient. But they rarely slept. They gathered and consoled and drank to keep themselves awake, but they rarely slept.
Others, like Payton and James and Liara, hadn't slept in weeks. That deep, dreamless sleep that left you feeling rested eluded them more than anyone else. James was all but the mascot of those meetings late into the night cycle. Every once in a while, Liara left her room to take a mug for herself, listening to the stories but never sharing her own. She hadn't lost anything on Earth. Her worries began on Mars.
But Payton never went down to the Mess.
Splashing the water gathered in her hands over her face, she shut her eyes tight. The water was cool as it trickled down her throat only to be stopped when she grabbed for a towel to keep it from dampening the collar of her casuals. She wiped the skin dry.
Everything was so fresh. Vancouver was scorched onto the backs of her eyelids. The Reapers, the boy, the downed shuttle – everything was there, keeping her awake and hyper-aware. Then there was the chase once she was able to drift off into a light sleep. The burnt trees and the ash and Samson. She woke up when he caught fire, though the smell of burning flesh lingered in her nostrils long after.
Payton's brows furrowed as she looked towards her reflection.
She couldn't go down to the Mess because she couldn't let anyone see her like this. There was more than just exhaustion staring back at her.
When Anderson used to check up on her years ago, every once in a while he'd greet her with, "You look like shit, Shepard." It was a reminder. It told her she never saw all that was there. When she stood in front of the mirror to brush and fix her hair, she never caught anything. She never saw how tired she was, the purplish hue beneath her eyes or the strands of hair that didn't quite make it into the braid. He could see all of that where she couldn't. It forced her to take another look.
Payton was looking now with a critical eye, and she knew she couldn't face the entire crew like this. She needed to sleep or maybe she needed a stim, but she needed something. There was no denying that.
"Shepard, Liara is on her way up to your cabin. Should I allow entrance?"
"Yes, EDI. Thank you."
Instead of casting the damp towel away in a heap, Payton folded it carefully, each corner touching, and placed it on the corner of the sink. She left the bathroom without bothering to take another look at herself. Liara would have something to tell her, and maybe that would be enough to lift her spirits. Any news on the situation on Palaven would be good news at this point, save its total annihilation.
Pulling out the chair at her desk, she sat down just as the door to her cabin slid open. Liara strode in without a word and only came to a stop when she saw the commander in her chair, shoulders curved inward and her elbows pressed against the desk.
"Is... everything alright?" When Payton turned to look up at her, the asari's brows rose. "You look –"
Before Liara could finish, Payton chuckled. "That bad, hm?"
"Not bad," Liara insisted, taking a few steps forward to bridge the gap between them. She stopped at Payton's side, her hip pressing against the edge of the desk. "Tired. Like you've got the weight of the galaxy pinned on your eyelids instead of your shoulders."
"That's," she paused, "apt, actually."
Liara chose not to push the subject. "I keep getting conflicted reports from Menae. Communications with Palaven are distorted at best, but from what we've heard from Menae is mostly negative, I'm afraid. Word is that Primarch Fedorian is stubborn, even for a turian, and refuses to stay in one place when there's fighting on so much of the moon."
"What about Councilor Sparatus? Have you heard from him? Is he getting the news?"
"The councilor has a direct line to the primarch," Liara continued. "Thankfully. It'll be much easier to locate the primarch with his help."
Payton scrubbed her hands over her features and let out a quiet sigh. "So the primarch is traveling around Menae. While the Reapers are attacking it. He's the single most important man there, and he's risking his life for the sake of morale?"
"He's turian," Liara said, simply, as if that answered any of her questions.
"He's putting himself in direct danger for the sake of scouring the battlefield," she returned. There was a solidity to her voice that replaced the tired edge. "There's nothing there for him to know. He's a politician. This front is lost, and he's..." Giving a huff of a breath, Payton let her hands drop to the desk. "He should be bunkered somewhere until his extraction."
Liara pressed her lips together. She knew there was more Payton wanted to say, more questions that needed answers. And there were. "This is going to keep happening, isn't it? Every time we take steps towards helping the cause, something's going to throw us off. Make things harder."
When her friend nodded, Payton pushed her chair away from the desk. "We'll be at Menae soon." She rose to her feet and stood close, her chin tilted down and her eyes focused onto Liara's. "Be ready, Liara. I'm taking you and Vega down with me, and I want you to be prepared."
"I appreciate the warning, but this isn't the first time I've ever seen a Reaper, Shepard."
"I know. You saw some on Mars. And you saw Sovereign on the Citadel. But this is different. I just want you in the right headspace to go up against something like this."
Liara smiled a tired smile, and Payton gave her a pat on her shoulder. They both knew the other was strong enough, but no matter how sure they were, it was nice to be reminded that someone cared enough to check. "I'm going to try to find Vega, tell him to prepare."
Without missing a beat, EDI's voice filled the room. "Lieutenant Vega is currently in the shuttle bay, Shepard."
"Thank you, EDI."
"I'll let you do that, then," Liara said, stepping back to let Payton lead the way to the elevator.
The tired smile on Liara's face changed to a genuine one when she saw the commander pass her hand over the panel to feed her fish. They both lingered near the aquarium, watching as the food filtered down and the fish began swimming towards the flakes. "Hm... Thessian sunfish," she murmured, sounding impressed. "I've always thought they were some of the prettiest. Do they have names?"
Payton's cheeks pressed up into her eyes in a smile. "I love my fish, but... well, there's a lot of them, and I'm not a creative person."
"I don't know. I've seen some of the places and positions you get into in order to take a shot. I'd say you were one of the most creative people I know." Liara chuckled. "Deadly, but creative."
"Efficient," Payton insisted.
"Creative." Leaning in, Liara rested her chin on Payton's shoulder, her hand curled around her upper arm. "And to answer your question, this will keep happening, but you have more people on your side than working against you. That number will only end up tripling by the time the Crucible is finished."
Watching the fish dart this way or that, Payton's tiny grin dimmed, but she didn't move away. She understood what Primarch Fedorian was trying to accomplish by traveling the way he was. She understood why getting to the men and telling them what was happening was important. But she hated watching people put themselves in danger. She hated that feeling she got in her gut when something happened and she couldn't prevent it. She longed for some measure of control over the situation. She wanted to help because she wanted to keep them safe from the Reapers, and if they continued working against her, she couldn't do that.
As if she could tell the commander had fallen into the place where her head took over, Liara gave her arm a soft, if firm, tug. "Come on, you have to find the lieutenant. I'll be in the shuttle bay soon."
"Good point," Payton murmured before turning towards the door. "We should be there in a few hours, if Joker can wring the location of the primarch out of the councilor. Hopefully it won't take much persuasion. I don't think Jeff is up for dealing with any politicians at this point. Or... well, ever."
"He has a way with people." That was a lie if Liara had ever told one. "Maybe he'll frustrate the councilor into giving him a straight answer."
Payton chuckled, shaking her head and pressing the panel to close the elevator's door. Her fingers laced together as she stood in the very middle, looking towards Liara with a quirk of her lips. "The last thing we need right now is Jeff antagonizing the person whose help we need. Or anyone, for that matter."
The elevator slowed to a stop on the crew deck, and Liara parted with a smile and a quiet, "I'll make sure he doesn't start any wars before we get to Menae."
Nodding, Payton gave her a wave before the elevator door shut again.
Even after their conversation at Huerta, she was unsure about bringing James on this mission. Trust wasn't difficult to come by from the commander, but it was easy to lose. And risking your life to go through with something that may not even work put a bad taste in her mouth. The fact that he'd pulled such a stunt the first time they'd ever seen action together didn't impress her, either.
Still, there was no one on the Normandy who could fight like he could, and she knew they would run into trouble on Menae. So she pushed back her reservations and stepped out of the elevator.
When he heard the elevator open, Cortez looked up from his work on the shuttle. And when he recognized Shepard, his eyebrows shot up on his forehead. "Commander!" The surprise in his voice got the attention of two privates standing off to the side, and Payton glanced around the shuttle bay, suddenly very conscious of herself. Setting down the blow torch, Steve went over to her as quickly as he could manage. "I'm Steve Cortez, your new shuttle pilot."
"Nice to meet you, Steve." Payton smiled at his energy and held out a hand. He took it immediately; his handshake was firm. "I take it you're repairing the Kodiak after Vega's... mishap on Mars."
Steve sighed, heavily and pointedly in the direction of the lieutenant, who was doing pull ups by what she assumed he'd chosen as his station. "I almost had a heart attack when he pulled her back in. No one treats her like that and gets away with it. Mr. Vega's on a strict no-flying-the-shuttle punishment from here on out, Shepard. Don't worry about it."
"I don't wanna fly that dinky shuttle anymore anyway, Esteban! You're lucky I didn't bring it back in pieces!"
That got a laugh out of the pilot. "You're lucky you didn't bring it back in pieces!"
Vega dropped down from the bar he'd been holding onto and dusted off his hands, giving a large enough shrug that they could see it clear across the shuttle bay. Payton smiled to herself before nodding towards Steve. "We need her in the air in a few hours, Cortez. Do you think you can manage?"
"Can I manage?" Steve seemed almost offended by her apparent lack of faith. "She was in flying shape when you brought her back. She'll be better than ready when we get to Menae."
"Good. I'm glad you're here, then," she told him. "Once we get off of Menae, we should talk."
Steve arched a brow. "Talk, commander?"
"I like to get to know my crew."
"In that case, I'll be here. Likely repairing the ship, but I'd be more than happy to answer any questions you might have."
Payton turned away at that, heading in the direction of James' station instead, giving the privates a nod as she passed. James still had his back towards her as she approached. The width of his shoulders blocked out her view of the table he stood in front of, though from the sounds, she could tell he was putting a weapon back together.
Stepping beneath the bar, she turned to face him, though he didn't do the same, her eyes falling to the table to watch him work. He was meticulous, thorough, and surprisingly organized, fitting the blade onto his shotgun without so much as a moment's hesitation before checking the position of the heat sink. "There something I can help you with? I figured I was gonna be groundside with you and Liara for this mission."
"You will be," Payton replied. "I came down to tell you we'll be heading out in a few hours."
"Good." Pulling his shotgun upwards, he checked the weight of it in his arms, the barrel of the gun balanced in his palm for all of a moment before he was satisfied. "Hopefully this time you won't send me back halfway through."
Payton's chin jutted out as she pressed her molars together, eyes narrowed at the remaining bits and pieces on the table. "Everyone I kept active on that mission was imperative. Liara knew the facility better than anyone else there."
"And the major?"
James didn't look up at her.
"Don't start with me, lieutenant. Both you and Major Alenko were vital to that mission. You were our means of extraction, and I have history with Major Alenko. I know how his combat skills. We work well together in the field."
"I'm not trying to start shit, Lola," he said, finally setting the gun down and looking at her. "It was just an observation. You'll never know how I work out there if you don't give me a chance."
Payton folded her arms under her chest. "I'm giving you a chance on Menae. I don't have the luxury of picking and choosing who comes with me this time."
Every time they spoke, things devolved into a staring match. Having his hazel eyes focused on her so intensely made her uncomfortable, but Payton refused to look away, refused to flinch. He was sizing her up. She was returning the favor. Her head tilted slowly to the side before she continued. "If you come out of this without causing irreparable damage to yourself or the primarch, I'll take that into consideration."
"You do that, then," James told her, finally looking away and back towards his work. "But if you're looking for some boy scout marine, you're barking up the wrong tree."
A moment passed and then two before Payton uttered a solid, "Noted," and turned away from him.
She wasn't looking for a boy scout. She was looking for a soldier, for someone with their head on straight, or at the very least, someone who could twist their head on right when it counted. She didn't know if James was that marine. She didn't know if expecting that out of him at a juncture like this was even fair.
But unreasonable expectations were pressing in on the Normandy's crew at every turn.
And a war like this was never fair.
A/N: I just want to thank those who've reviewed, favorited, and put alerts on this fic again! Even if I haven't been able to reply directly to a lot of them yet, I wanted you to know that I truly appreciate the time you're taking to read this story!