A/N: Hello again! It's been a while since I posted anything Mass Effect-related, but I figured now was as good a time as any, considering the approach of ME3. Also, my attention's been snagged pretty thoroughly by a new Shepard and James Vega. Which is what brought this on. I just wanted to apologize for any issues with the plot once the game is released. I've read some of the beta script, so I feel like I have enough of a handle on James' character to write him, but there's always a possibility that I may be off on my characterization since I haven't played the final product. So if that ends up being the case, I'm sorry, and I'll fix it once I start writing the main fic with these two post-release!
That said, this is going to be on the shorter side, a look at the "several" weeks Shepard spent in the brig on Earth during the investigation, which is all I really feel comfortable writing without the knowledge of what happens in-game! (I'm trying not to look at any major plot spoilers, but that's not working out well for me.) Also also, Vega definitely won't be the only character I'll write for. There will definitely be more Shepard/Garrus and Shepard/Thane in the near future. And Shepard/Kaidan!
So. Yeah. Sorry for this super long A/N. There was just a lot I had to say before getting into it!
Payton Shepard's memories of Vancouver were spotty at best, weathered by a problematic long-term memory and an inability to translate her own childish thoughts after so many years.
Everything was changed. Earth itself seemed larger, which was funny considering she was barely three feet tall the first time she saw the sphere of blue and green and gray from space. Even with almost three decades under her belt since, looking over the spaceport with eyes that had seen far grander venues than this, she felt the pull of Earth's familiar gravity with a rush of warmth right down to every finger and toe.
While it wasn't her home, the dirt packed beneath the cement and steel under her feet was a symbol of that very thing, and she held a certain respect for the living metaphor now that she was older. Even if said metaphor was a cliche even the Alliance barely used in recruitment vids anymore.
Joker flanked her left, and Tali trailed just behind both of them, her steps shorter and less measured due to her almost frantic curiosity. Her omni-tool was already alight and shining a clear, orange glow onto the ramp leading them away from the Normandy, making quick work of the shadows cast at their feet by a setting sun. But they weren't late arriving. They were early, a fact that no one would be pleased to hear.
If you were early, you still weren't on time, and punctuality was important to the Alliance. As was a pressed uniform in blue and gold and a regulation haircut, both of which Payton had in lock.
Landing on Earth looking disheveled wasn't an option, though Chakwas made a point that it would help if she ever wanted to travel incognito. After all, no one would expect the illustrious, straight-backed and solemn-faced Commander Shepard to be the woman in a rumpled dress slouched over some neon-colored asari liquor with her hair in her eyes.
While the idea was attractive, especially considering she never got that celebration she was promised after the last big mission, she knew it was impossible. An investigation by the Alliance's Defense Committee wasn't something she would shirk under any circumstances.
"Earth is amazing, Shepard," Tali chimed in, effectively drawing everyone's attention away from their walk down the windowed corridor towards the main building. "I can't explain it. It's got everything Ilium has, but there's something humble about the architecture. And there's still green. You don't see much vegetation outside of sparsely inhabited garden planets and my peoples' Liveships."
Payton cracked a grin. "I think the gardens are accents to our 'humble' architecture," she said as she waited for Tali to catch up with her. When they were in stride again, the glow of Tali's omni-tool blinked out. "There isn't much left here. They only started growing things once we were able to spread out. Overpopulation is still a problem - I wager it always is on home planets - but at least they have elbow room now."
This time it was Jeff who spoke up. "Not much if they're planting trees all over the place."
"I still think it's beautiful," Tali clarified, the distinct huff in her voice lighting up her mouthpiece. Turning her attention back towards Payton, the clear white lights beneath the mask squinted, almost as if her cheeks were pressing up into them from the width of her smile and Joker's slight was ignored. "Did you come here often? Was it always like this? It doesn't seem as crowded as I thought it would be."
"I didn't, though I wish I had." The three of them paused for a moment as the door they were pointed towards whisked open, letting them through. "Everything's... bigger now. More open. Elbow room, like I said."
There was one thing that hadn't changed, something she remembered even as a five year old tagging behind her mother's purposefully shortened steps. Everything about the system of hallways they stepped into could be described in a single word: clean.
The walls were slick silver to match the darker floors. The curved emblem of the Systems Alliance emblazoned on the walls in thick strips of navy above a circle just detailed enough to be recognized as Earth. All around them, men and women moved this way and that, but very few of them stopped. They walked with purpose. On the rare occasion someone looked to Tali, they were surprised to see a quarian standing in their way, but they moved on soon after. Nothing was said; no other looks were exchanged.
"I should have waited back on the Normandy," Tali murmured, only barely close enough for Payton to hear. "Or maybe outside. I only wanted to walk with -"
"No." Payton's interruption stopped them almost in the very center of the hallway, one that was luckily filled with very little through traffic. "You'll be fine. You're my crew, and the Normandy's on lockdown now anyway. You wanted to see the sights before going back to the Flotilla, so that's what you're getting."
Tali's head dipped before she nodded. "Thank you."
Joker broke off from the group with a sincere drawl of, "good luck," before heading into processing to clear up things with the Normandy, his own omni-tool lighting up around his wrist. She could hear him asking EDI about the situation as the doors whooshed closed behind him. He wasn't happy about them chaining his girl up, especially not knowing that they could get to the ship's AI with all of their stuffy rules against the programs. There wasn't a doubt that they would gut her as far as he was concerned, and that would be a death rivaling the incineration of the first Normandy. Sort of.
That left Tali and Shepard to face the walk alone; for a while, at least, before they were intercepted along yet another practically sterile hallway by a woman with a professional chop of brown hair and a tiny, quavering smile that spoke volumes about the frenzy caused by Payton's early arrival.
She introduced herself as Juliet Clarke. She was in charge of relations between the Alliance and alien dignitaries and had been put in charge of the former commander "for the time being."
"What do you mean by that?" Shepard asked the woman as she was conducted into a room marked 'detention center' in all capital letters. Juliet glanced over her shoulder, but before she could ask what she meant by the question, Payton continued. "For the time being."
"Ah! Yes." Juliet's fingers flew over the orange interface as she moved quickly around the room, making absolute sure that everything was not only in place but as clean as clean could get. "Admiral Anderson has found someone to watch over you. Nothing too intense, mind you. The Committee has a vested interest in keeping you here, safe and secure, for as long as you're needed."
Payton looked to Tali just as the young quarian turned towards her. A sudden spark of confusion fizzled between the two; the former due to her surprise, and the latter to her knowledge of Shepard being impossible to look after. "The admiral found me a... what? A guard?"
"Hmm... yes, I suppose you would call him that."
The expression on Payton's face changed suddenly, her eyes narrowing beneath the downward shift of her thick brows.
She'd traveled to Earth for an investigation. Everyone who knew even the slightest detail of her service history knew she wouldn't abandon ship, not on the Alliance and not now, a truth obvious even through the discrepancies littering the past year. Her loyalty was so obvious, it might have been scribbled onto her forehead. "Well, do you know anything about him? I don't want to be chained at the ankle to some man I don't know."
"If you give me half an hour, I'll tell you everything you need to know to trust my decision, Shepard. I like to believe chains won't be necessary."
All three of the women twisted towards the rich and familiar voice of Admiral David Anderson. He stood in the doorway, arms behind his back where one hand clasped the wrist of the other. It was Juliet who spoke first. "You have impeccable timing, admiral. Shepard only just arrived."
"I have no idea how he does it," Tali murmured from her place near the window. Her comment brought a small smile to Payton's lips. That was true enough. When Anderson wanted to be quiet, he could be a shade. That level of skill and the added distraction of what Payton would consider a complication was just enough for him to walk in undetected.
"Mrs. Clarke," Anderson nodded towards the representative. "I'd appreciate it if you gave me a moment with Shepard alone."
Juliet parted with a smile, and she swerved past Anderson with ease. The admiral looked to Tali next. "Oh. Right." The quarian looked back and forth between him and her captain, finally deciding on a quiet, "I'll... wait outside." She hurried past both of them and out of the exit, stopping outside of the room. Payton could have sworn she heard Tali greet someone, but Anderson moved towards her before she could listen any harder.
"You brought me a babysitter?"
Anderson arched a brow. "Well, hello to you, too, Shepard. You know, I remember when you were still courteous. Those were good days."
"I was also an ass-kissing serviceman." Payton pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. "Sorry. I just wasn't expecting to get here only to find out I'm going to be monitored. Really? Monitored? Who is it? Why is he necessary? It's not like I don't know how to sit in a room and behave. I did enough of that after -"
Lifting up both hands, Anderson silenced her with a half-hearted smile. "For appearance's sake only. I trust you, but the Committee isn't exactly buying what you're selling. Which I hope you'll understand."
Payton's sigh deflated her, wide shoulders sliding down beneath the weight that only seemed to increase by the second. "Of course I understand. What I've done doesn't look good on paper. I get that. I just wasn't expecting any of this." Turning around, she moved over to the bed and sat on the foot of it. The mattress was firm, even by Alliance standards. It would be a bitch to sleep on. "I was expecting to get here, get my slap on the wrist, and have them tell me to stick to the Terminus."
"They're not the Council, Payton. This is different. This is a lot bigger."
"Why? Because I didn't save their asses? Should I look into that?"
There was no acid in her tone. No bitter edge, no sarcasm. But there was exhaustion written everywhere - in the downward curve of her shoulders, in the pale purple bags beneath her eyes and the almost faded blue above. A pang of misgiving rang out between his ribs. He'd seen her like this before, but it was another time. And, he had assumed, another Shepard.
Anderson shifted on his feet, a noticeable movement towards the door, but he stayed. He stayed to offer some measure of support. God knows she needed it. "So I'm guessing you still don't know the meaning of the words political shitstorm?"
"No, sir." Payton breathed out a chuckle. "I tried to look them up once I got back on the Normandy, but I got distracted by all the pretty pictures."
The two shared a smile, their eye contact only broken when Anderson glanced towards the door. "I want you to meet your babysitter," he said, the amused light still in his eyes though his voice dropped to a more serious tone. He watched as she stood suddenly, long-fingered hands smoothing over her blues as she straightened her back. Everything for the sake of appearance. He wasn't sure whether he should be sad or proud of her. Deciding that it would be best not to choose, he called out a crisp, "Lieutnant!" instead.
The lieutenant in question stopped cut his stilted conversation with the quarian short the moment he heard Anderson's shout, striding through the door without so much as a nod. He was only an inch or two taller than Payton, but both she and Anderson felt practically dwarfed by him when his width was taken into account. Tattooed with a strip of longer hair curving over his skull through a buzz cut, he wasn't what she had expected.
She'd expected someone like Alenko and gotten... well, she didn't know what she'd gotten, as everyone was a largely unknown quantity until they opened their mouth.
When he did just that, Payton found herself grasping for what few straws she had left at hand. Again, her expectations fell short, and it was his voice that forced her to take into account everything else as he stood in front of her. She wasn't used to having her meaningless little judgments thrown aside so quickly. She was usually good at that sort of thing.
In her mind, the voice that would come out of him would only serve to highlight the wide set of his jaw and the dark, braided tattoo that clung to his neck and bicep. But when he spoke, all sincere and polite, she found herself discarding the assumptions herself.
"James Vega," he said, hands held at his side and his eyes locked onto hers. Eye contact was important when speaking to the higher ups. Everyone knew that. And even though Shepard wasn't technically any higher up than he was now, he felt going to those lengths were necessary. "It's good to finally meet you."
"Where are you from, soldier?"
It wasn't rare for Payton to assume that certain people were well-acquainted with her. The idea of her, at least. In this case, she wasn't wrong. Not even a little.
"Earth," he replied, simply and without the ma'am most would consider customary.
Payton nodded, her eyes flicking up above his to the bandage taped securely to his brow. There was no blotted blood beneath it, so the wound must have been healed, covered to make sure everything closed well enough. "Did you two encounter trouble on your way here?"
"It was my trouble," James said without missing a beat, though Anderson's open mouth made it look more like an interruption than an answer. "Nothing important. It'll heal."
"So... was it a long ride?"
Anderson looked to James before answering her question, a silent ploy to get shut him up for the time being. The lieutenant gave a short nod, and that was enough. "He was on Omega. I was there and back in a day at the most, but we weren't expecting you until tomorrow. So you can imagine my surprise when I got word you were on your way."
"I don't care for waiting around, even though it looks like that's what I'll be doing here."
"Not all of the time, Shepard," Anderson said, as if she needed to be reminded. "I expect the committee will want to question you eventually, once they've finished pouring over the information they have. Again."
Payton's only reply was a quiet mm of agreement, folding her arms under her chest.
"We'll talk again soon," he continued. "There's a lot we have to prepare for when it comes to this investigation, though I'm sure you're well aware of that. But first, you should settle in. I'll find somewhere for Tali to bunk -"
"She can stay here with me." Wetting her bottom lip, Payton shook her head at the suggestion. She remembered the welcome Tali got in the hallways, the way it made her uncomfortable to be in a place with only humans that operated outside of the Citadel Council's control. "There's no way I'm letting someone whisk her away when she's my responsibility. Young adult or not, she's part of my crew. I can handle setting her up here."
Anderson nodded at that. He knew better than to argue with Shepard about any member of her squad. She was already fierce, but she bordered upon ferocious when she thought anyone she considered her charge was in danger or even moderately uncomfortable. "Very well. Lieutenant, you'll be in the attached room. Just that way and to your right. Your things should be there already."
Looking to Payton, the corners of Anderson's eyes crinkled in a smile. "It's good to see you on solid ground again, Shepard. Let's hope it stays that way for a while."
"Don't count on it," she chuckled, rubbing the back of her wrist over her forehead.
Both of them seemed to have forgotten James was standing there for the time being, but that didn't stop him from watching Shepard carefully. He had to clear his head, even despite its pounding. Personal bias couldn't get in the way of what he was dragged there to do. Even if the assignment wasn't one he would have chosen himself, it was still an assignment.
It was Payton's turn to smile, a dimple carving high into her cheek. "I'll likely be here for a few days before someone, somewhere needs me."
"Be that as it may, you're needed here now." Anderson took in a long breath through his nose and released it with a sigh. "Get some rest, Shepard. Tomorrow's going to be a long day."
When Anderson was gone and Tali stepped back into the room, the door to the brig was shut and locked with a swipe of James' omni-tool. No one had to tell any of the three it was time to settle down, to take a page out of the sun's book and sink down beneath something cool and dark to sleep until it's needed again. A promise of sleep tugged them through the motions - cleaning up, brushing their teeth, and dragging them back in the direction of their beds.
The day ended with Tali on one side of the bed and Payton on the other, both carefully positioned but surprisingly not awkward. On the other side, in the attached bedroom, James Vega rested on his back, staring up at the ceiling.
He and Shepard fell asleep wondering what this arrangement meant for the both of them.