A/N: I just wanted to say thank you to those who've read this story! This is the end, m'afraid. For now, at least. Once ME3 is released, I have a full-fledged project waiting in the wings. Parallels and Divergences' first chapter will be posted in March, after I've got a handle on the game and can get something done that sticks to actual canon. I've had a lot of fun writing this, and I hope you guys enjoy the final bite of this appetizer!
"I think the Committee's stalling," James told her almost two weeks before.
Standing in the antechamber attached to the reception hall for the fifth meeting, Payton mentally commended the lieutenant. She had been too quick to assume they were only doing their job, doing what they could for her benefit as well as the benefit of the Alliance. But after five long sessions answering questions that didn't even seem pertinent to her, she was certain James was right.
They wanted answers she couldn't give them, and they seemed content with drawing the investigation out until she could. Payton gave them the absolute truth without hesitation, rattling off numbers and dates and explanations as if she had them prepared before hand.
She had no reason to lie to the Committee. In some way, she felt that this gave her an advantage.
Hands laced in front of her, she stood very still, not a hair out of place or a wrinkle in her uniform, eyes lifting from the floor until her chin was tilted upwards. She wet her lips, and she waited for one of the Committee's many secretaries to open the door and tell her to enter.
Idly, she wondered which questions the Committee would ask her today.
They had dismissed a lasting affiliation with Cerberus in the second meeting. Payton's patriotism didn't extend into zealotry. Her motley crew of aliens and the fondness she had for them could attest to that much.
In the third meeting, they broached the topic of the two years she spent "under the radar." While they were eager to mark her as KIA in official records, the idea of her death and subsequent rebirth wasn't an easy concept to swallow. A fact she agreed with. No matter her good deeds, the concept of rebirth was one closely related to many of Earth's religions. And even with the advances in science with their species' assimilation into the galactic community, coming back from the dead was still regarded as impossible.
The fourth meeting had been only a few days prior, and it closed on a wholly bad note. A handful of aliens with little political sway on the Citadel got wind of the ticking time bomb that was relations between the humans and the batarians, and they were eager to fix things as best they could. That meant campaigning for the Alliance to hand over their hero, to put a solid close to a confrontation that would all but destroy the Terminus systems at an important time.
What began as batarians crying out for human blood became aliens crying out for the blood of a woman painted on the extranet as a terrorist. The groups were small, but vocal. They got the attention of a few aliens who considered themselves supporters of the oppressed and endangered. The wiping out of an entire batarian system seemed like a worthy cause.
The question the Committee posed was no longer, "What can we do to protect you?"
It was, "How long can we protect you? And is it worth it?"
The Committee never told her this directly. For every person on the extranet dragging Shepard's name through the gutter, there was someone willing to go to any lengths to pick that name up and wash it off. She had supporters in spades, in almost every corner of the galaxy and in the most unlikely places, and they were just as loud.
Every scathing video by an asari pundit was met by a response from a salarian whose life she saved. Every drawn-out post written from an anonymous source was countered by people who'd seen the good she was capable of doing.
James relayed the good to her sometimes, pointedly avoiding the bad despite knowing she could take whatever the extranet threw at her.
Only the night before, they'd watched a vid posted by a familiar turian. The runtime was long, leading Payton to tuck in close enough to watch it on James' omni-tool, but whatever discomfort she felt from being so close melted away over the hour she spent like that. Not because of James, but because of Sidonis.
He didn't ask questions when he heard her make a quiet, wet sound in her throat. Whatever he might have asked was answered by the story the turian relayed. His voice was hoarse and tired, and he sat hunched over his own console as he told the extranet his story. Details were missing in the most obvious of ways, but he was genuine. So genuine that even James felt a burning tightness in his chest when the vid was finished.
Mainstream news channels were mum on Shepard's story, an after effect of the Council's involvement, but everyone knew what happened. Payton found it odd that she'd actually died a hero three years before and no one knew truth from rumor. But the moment she screwed up, everyone was aware of her mistakes. Everyone cared.
Her faith in the Alliance was an immovable one, but her faith in the Committee was waning. She knew she would be more helpful in the air. There must have been measures she could take, a helping hand she could extend or information she could share that would help. She knew more about the coming invasion than anyone in the galaxy. Putting her thoughts in line wasn't the difficult part. The difficulty rested with making people listen.
But instead of standing at the helm of a fleet, instead of flying in between systems and making people aware of what was bound to happen, she was grounded. Her wings were clipped, and she was tied to Vancouver, to a Committee that didn't believe the threat was any more than that.
To them, the idea of the Reaper invasion as an immediate issue was difficult to wrap their heads around. Throughout human history, apocalypses were diverted time and time again. Every time someone on the corner shouted that the world would end, nothing would change. Panic would spike and books would be written and films would be made, but the world never truly ended. If anything, Earth would be destroyed by the human race itself, not by religious phenomena.
Shepard was Cassandra, shouting out prophecies no one else could see. Claiming she knew the truth about the fall of humanity, of every race in the known galaxy, only led to disbelief. It led to the Council humoring her. The Committee feared what she had to say, but the Reapers weren't an inevitability to them. They were an obstacle, something they could block out or overcome and move on with their lives.
Anderson trusted her. She had a feeling that James did, as well. She didn't know if they believed all she had to say or not, but she knew Anderson would follow her if she asked. The rapport they built up over the years aided that conclusion.
When the doors in front of her opened, Payton tilted her chin back down and blinked into the bright sunlight pouring through. It blotted out the glow of the artificial light bhehind her, swallowing the shadow she cast at her feet in a quick rush. Her fingers knotted tighter around each other before falling to her sides as she stepped into the room, nodding to the familiar secretary before looking towards the Committee.
The flat heels of her shoes made little noise, but it was enough to pull the attention of the men and women seated behind the two rows of desks on either side of the wall, watching her as she moved closer to the Committee.
While the reception room was silent, the air hummed with anticipation so thick she could almost feel it closing in around the soft blue fabric of her uniform. But she was used to this. The first meeting had been conducted alone, between her and the three members of the Committee. The second introduced twin lines of men and women seemingly focused on their work despite their ears being open to everything Shepard had to say.
"Shepard," the man on the far right began with a courteous nod.
Payton managed a small nod and an even smaller smile.
"We've recently heard troubling rumors from the Terminus Systems," the man next to him said, his tone clipped and his posture even more rigid than it usually was. "They originated on Omega. Evidently, there's been war. There has been little to no mention of the trouble in mainstream media due to its location and the strength of Aria T'Loak's pride."
The female Committee-member bristled. "This meeting is not, however, about any affiliation of yours with her or anyone on the station. It is the core of the confrontation that worries us." Lacing her fingers together, she shifted forward in her chair, peering down at Payton with what appeared to be a look of concern. "You told us that you destroyed the Collector station."
"I did," Payton told them carefully, her voice strong despite the waver of confusion that flickered through her person.
"It seems that you did not destroy everything," the man in the center said. His dry tone grated against her. If his barely concealed animosity hadn't been aimed towards her, she might have been quick to compare him to her mother. "Cerberus has Collector technology. Humans working for Aria T'Loak have told us this much, out of patriotism."
Payton shook her head, brow furrowing. "We had to leave. My crew was wounded, and the bomb was minutes from going off. Patching ourselves up, taking care of the dead, and getting out of there were the only important things at the time. I didn't have the luxury of waiting around to pick through the fallout."
"Is it possible that this may be the vanguard forces of the Reaper fleet?"
Whatever hushed whispering had arose since the meeting began hushed suddenly, so suddenly that it nearly left her breathless. "I don't know," Payton confessed. "I suppose it could be another wave, another... shot at taking a hit at our population. It makes sense, but Sovereign was the true vanguard. A scout, almost."
When they said nothing, Payton took a step forward. "I'm not sure what you're expecting me to say. I don't know much about the Reapers." She paused, swallowing hard before she could continue. Even in her reports, she'd never gone on in length about the Reapers. Everything was clipped, a few words here and there, a simple explanation of a complex thing. "I don't know how their fleet works, their tactics. All I know is that there's a lot of them. I'm sorry; I wish I could tell you more."
But the Reapers aren't only after humans, she tried to tell them. Only recently had the Collectors even started targeting their species. They had been going after aliens for centuries, maybe even more. What was important was safe-guarding what they could, defending what they couldn't, and fighting for everything else.
Every meeting with the Committee left Payton feeling more and more tired. She was barely sleeping as it is, preferring fatigue to the hallow mechanical echo and blinding red of her dreams. They were getting longer now; the clanging and crying and scraping had become familiar, but the nightmares were no less jarring. It was the sense of unease that followed them that kept her awake through most nights, surviving on one or two cumulative hours. Only after workouts with James, once the adrenaline died down and her body slowed, did exhaustion force her into REM sleep.
Or the days she met with the Committee.
Once the doors closed behind her, Payton set off in a beeline for the detention center. Everything seemed so pointless. The questions they asked had nothing to do with the Reapers. They were about present threats, dangers they knew she'd seen during her months working for Cerberus. They asked her about the Illusive Man, about the state of the Terminus Systems, about the Collectors. While the Reaper attack was a constant background theme, that was the most attention the danger received.
She wasn't on her way to the detention center to rest. Sleep could (and would) wait. The meeting ran longer than expected, and she was late. Hurriedly changing into her casuals, Payton let her hair down, shook it out with her fingers, and grabbed for the model on her beside table.
Even though she wouldn't forget the promise she'd made for anything, she left the model there as a reminder. One that said, "You have somewhere important to be."
The trek to Juliet's office was a short one. Even though the hallways were crowded, she slipped through the oncoming and going traffic as if she was a woman half her size. Ms. Clarke shared an office with two others only a few hallways away from the detention center, and once Payton rounded the corner, she saw two legs poking out of the doorway.
Samson sat on the ground, only looking up from his homework when a shadow grew over him and ruined the lighting.
When he saw the shadow was Shepard's fault and not some random stranger, the boy's features lit up. He shut his book with a snap and hurried to his feet. "Mom!" he shouted back into the room. "She's here!" At Juliet's called response of, "have fun!" Sam's smile faltered and his cheeks went pink, a notable improvement after the scarlet color Payton remembered from their first meeting.
With the Committee riding her as they were, she found a certain solace in her quick friendship with the boy. While it had been awkward at first, mostly on his part but also on her own, things shaped up over a span of only a few conversations.
They walked together until they left the building, making their way out into a neatly tended atrium between the tall buildings. Sam still held the book in his arms as he pointedly ignored the way she concealed the model behind her back. She had promised she would bring him something, but never specified what. He didn't want to ruin the surprise.
"So," she began, a tiny smile curling at the corner of her mouth as he sat down on one of the benches. She stood in front of him, fingers toying with the ship in her hands. "I got clearance from the Admiral to sneak onto the Normandy. I promised I'd bring you something, something no one else you know has, so here it is."
Pulling the model from behind her back, she showed her choice to him, and a warmth flooded through her at the look of utter, unadulterated delight took him.
When he grabbed for the model of the Normandy, he did so with a gentle reverence, like the thing would break apart in his hands if he handled it too harshly. "Wow," he breathed, twisting the replica in his hands and inspecting every inch with a furrowed brow. "Thanks!"
"You're welcome," Payton said with a quiet laugh. She folded her arms and actually felt herself relax for the first time in forever. "This little model has been all sorts of places. It's been past the Omega 4 Relay. I bet none of your friends have something that's been there."
"None of my friends have been off Earth," he told her, though he didn't look up from the Normandy. "All of our parents are Alliance. Most of them haven't left, either."
Payton pulled her bottom lip into her mouth and looked around, eyes squinting at the sun. She had a difficult time putting herself in the mindset of someone who had never left Earth. Most of what she actually remembered was the Citadel. Space stations, ships, the rare human colony - these were home for most of her life. All of it, if anyone asked her. She couldn't imagine a life stuck on the ground, no matter how much instability she suffered throughout her formative years and beyond.
Pulling her eyes away from the sky, she turned her chin back down to look at Samson, her tiny smile turning into a grin. "You've seen recruitment vids, haven't you? I imagine they've got tons lying around here."
"I have, yeah! Mom keeps a bunch of them in her office. I think she wants me to join up. I might. It depends."
"Well," Payton interrupted him, twisting to look out into the yard. "Maybe you should put the Normandy through the motions. I'm sure you've memorized some flight jargon by now, haven't you?"
Samson nearly jumped to his feet, darting out onto the yard and nearly running into Anderson in the process. The Admiral swerved out of the way, reflexes as deft as ever, and chuckled. "Whoa." He patted the boy on his shoulder. "If you're trying to be a pilot, you ought to look out for asteroids."
"Or enemy forces!" Samson cheered, cheeks puffing out as the Normandy dove and shot what sounded like half its munitions right into Anderson's stomach.
Anderson laughed at that, shooting a pained look at Payton before replying with a strained, "Or those," as he clutched at his side.
Content with his victory, Samson took off in the other direction, leaving the Admiral to sit down next to Payton on the bench. "You had the guts to tell Joker about his replacement, I hope."
"I think Sam's got a few years, so I'll break the news to Jeff slowly."
Anderson looked over at her, focusing on her profile as she watched the boy run around the yard. "I never knew you liked kids," he said, voice pitched low enough to make sure Samson didn't hear their discussion. "In fact, I remember you saying you don't want them."
"I don't," she shrugged. "It's not about that. I just want to give him something I had when I was growing up. Maybe if he has the Normandy, he'll enlist. See the stars like I did."
"He might not get the opportunity."
Payton's brows knitted over her nose. "Did you come here to make an already bad day worse?" Breathing out a sigh, she shook her head. "I suppose some of this is about me. Maybe if I know one kid has a future, a solid future, things can't go bad. Something has to be here so he can be a commander some day. Maybe even an Admiral."
"So he's gonna replace me, too?" His attention shifted from her face to Samson again. The boy wasn't running anymore. He was standing with the hand holding the Normandy up into the air, one eye squinted so it looked like the ship was flying. "I wasn't... I didn't mean to rain on your parade, Payton. You getting all sentimental over a kid took me by surprise."
"I just miss the old days. That's all."
Anderson huffed, but a laugh could be heard through the noise of offense. "You're too damn young to want to go back to the 'old days.' Anyway, the 'old days' involves Saren and geth and Akuze, and you don't want any of that back in your life."
He was right, of course. There was nothing she wouldn't give to be back on Anderson's Normandy, before Eden Prime and long after the mess on Akuze. Before Saren, before the Reapers, before everything had an expiration date.
"I miss the days when I was just fighting for myself," she clarified, and Anderson heard a dry break on the final word.
Anderson didn't say anything. He knew there was nothing he could say. Diplomacy wasn't one of his strong points, and his grasp of tact was even weaker. All he thought to do was raise a hand and settle it between her shoulder blades, giving her back a comforting mixture of a rub and a pat.
Before long, Samson ran over to thank her for the model again. He gave her a hug this time, arms slung around her shoulders, and ran off to meet his mother. James showed up a few minutes later to see if she was going to the mess.
Her smile was tired when she nodded, and her fingers curled too tightly around Anderson's forearm when she told him she'd see him later.
That was the last time she spoke to him before the day the Reapers arrived.