With every step she took towards the front of the shuttle bay, with every mile the Normandy's engines put between them and Vancouver, the realization that she wouldn't be returning to the planet for a long time solidified in her stomach.
Once the bay's doors shut and locked into place, Payton was blind. They all were. She, Kaidan, and James stood in relative silence, though the grating shook beneath their feet and the Reaper klaxon echoed in their ears, and none of them bothered to break the quiet with words. No one knew what to say. They communicated in awkward glances – worried glances – faces with furrowed brows and frowns enough for more than a group of three.
A tense few minutes passed, and their faith in Joker's piloting skills increased tenfold when they were certain the Normandy would not be shot down. Most of the Reapers were planetside. Only a few remained outside of the atmosphere, anticipating a ship that never came. Or, at least, a ship they never saw as it streaked past.
But finally – finally, after Payton's lungs began burning due to a held breath – Joker's voice was heard over the Normandy's intercom.
Both Payton and Kaidan exhaled at that, the latter's breath shaking as it left him. James, however, looked even more puzzled than he had before. He breathed easily, inhaling and exhaling time and again before uttering a quiet, "Shit."
Kaidan rubbed a hand over his own shoulder. The muscle there was tight beneath his palm, and no manner of massage could ease the ache. "Tell me about it," he murmured. Glancing in the direction of the ship's commander, his brows pinched upwards. "Where – where to next?"
Before the lieutenant could say Earth, Payton shook her head and gave her confession: "I don't know."
"What do you mean you don't know?"
James' immediate response made Shepard's head snap in his direction, and her stomach roiled in response. "Anderson said the Citadel, which makes the most sense," she said, her words seemingly slow and deliberate. This was the time to make kneejerk decisions, to act on instinct and to act quickly, but Payton only narrowed her eyes and lifted her hand to check the back of her head. "So we're going to the Citadel."
"We can't." James took a step forward, one that was matched by the major. Payton's eyes met his again, but only for a moment before their line of sight was broken by her turning away. Kaidan kept in stride, eagerly waiting for an order or information or something. It was James who stood at the back of the shuttle bay, shotgun in his arms and a shocked look on his face. He hadn't been brushed off that quickly since he was a private. Once the initial surprise was chased away, he chased after both of them. "We can't just leave them down there!"
"We don't have any choice," Payton muttered. Even as she spoke, she didn't stop walking. "We can do more if we go get -"
James huffed; the sound was so thoroughly disgusted both her speech and her lengthy strides came to a halt. "We're running the hell away! They need our help down there. We have to go back. Get Anderson. Kick those things off our planet!"
He stared at her back for a moment, at the rigid lines of her shoulders and the dark red bruise blooming at the top of her neck. There was something that needed to be said. He could feel a response coming, but the words never arrived. Instead, Payton continued her trek up to the front of the shuttle bay, leaving him in the dust a second time.
"Hey! Hey, listen to me. We've gotta -"
"The fuck do you mean no."
"Watch your mouth soldier," Payton snapped before whirling around. The action pulled bile up her throat, bile she was forced to swallow as she worked her jaw. Everything sounded muffled, as if she had a blanket wrapped around her from head to toe. Her body burned warm enough to subscribe to that theory. "You're speaking to a superior officer."
James' nostrils flared. "And we're standing here talking while people are down on Earth dying. What's a few words to that, huh?"
Anderson told her to get to the Citadel. He told her that they needed help from the Council, that everyone on Earth needed her if any number of them were going to survive. This was important. This was urgent. She refused to turn back now. James muttered an apology, but he never moved. Not an inch. He still stood there, looking angry and frustrated as ever, solidly built and only an inch shorter than her. If he tried, he could take her down. Kaidan would give him trouble, but even that wasn't a given.
She hated working with unknown quantities.
"You don't talk to me like that on my own ship."
"We have to -"
"We haveto get to the Citadel," she countered, her voice raising and her stomach churning simultaneously. "If you want to get back to Earth after that, be my guest. But I'm not going back there unless I have a whole fleet with me."
James stared at her. For the longest time, he could do nothing but stare. Even before the Reapers hit Earth, she had a way of stopping him cold in his tracks, but this was different. She wasn't the infallible Commander Shepard. She was running away. She was tucking her tail between her legs and getting out of the Sol system as quickly as she could. If he had any venom left in him to spare, the word coward might come to mind in a rush of frustration that he would regret later. As it was, he couldn't put his heart into anything other than getting back on ground and saving as many people as he could.
"You bet your ass I will." His voice was low, barely more than an angry mumble, but that was enough to satisfy her. She turned away with a deliberate nod and not a single word.
The look Kaidan gave him was no less than a glare, thick brows already knitted together. But the lines of worry in his forehead abated when he turned his attention towards Payton. The easy transition between his glare and the man's soft voice would have thrown James off if not for the obvious fact that the major's words weren't meant to soothe him. "We have to talk to the Council," he said, bridging the gap between him and the commander. "See what there is we can do. Maybe... maybe start damage control. God knows they probably haven't taken any measures to protect themselves from the Reaper threat."
Payton's fingers tapped on the console. Ring, middle, and index, over and over again. "They haven't," she told him. "The Committee didn't believe me when I told them their first, last, and only line of defense wouldn't stand up against one Reaper, much less an entire fleet of them. Why would the Council? Or anyone else, for that matter?"
"There are some people out there who believe you," Kaidan said as he stepped up at her side.
A quiet, contemplative sound rumbled in his throat. "Then you have to make them believe you, Shepard. That's how it's been since Eden Prime. You've just got to shout louder this time."
Payton's head dipped down, hands planted on the desk and her shoulders taut. Now that he was standing so much closer, he could see the pain in her face. Pain that wasn't entirely emotional, written so clearly he could see it in profile. "You okay?" he asked. She wasn't bleeding, which meant she hadn't taken a bullet during the firefight. He wasn't aware of what went on before they met up on the Normandy, but there was something wrong. "You're white as a sheet."
"I'm fine." Her eyes moved up towards the orange glow of the console's omni-board, though the screen was blank with intermittent sizzles of static. "I got knocked around a bit back on Earth. Grade I concussion at the most."
"You should sit down. We'll be out of this system soon enough."
Payton lifted a hand to stop him. "No. I'm fine. I just need a minute."
Kaidan knew better than to press her, so he didn't. All he offered her was a soft, "Just be careful, alright?" before he turned away. While she didn't acknowledge him, he knew she heard. He knew she would listen. There wasn't a single person in the galaxy who knew her own limits the way she did. There was a time to push and a time to hang back, to linger and collect yourself. This was one of those times.
At least, it was. For all of a moment, there was the promise of time to think. There was so much to consider – the losses, the subsequent attacks on Luna and other human colonies, on alien homeworlds around the galaxy, and even the Citadel itself. Sitting down was an option Payton didn't relish taking at a time like this, but she didn't believe there was another path to take. However, the illusion of choice was broken soon after when Joker's voice filled the shuttle bay.
"Commander, we're getting a signal from Admiral Hackett."
"Patch him through, Joker."
The three soldiers watched as Admiral Hackett gave them their mission. The mission kept them in the system, but at least there was direction. There was something to do to postpone the inevitable stonewalling she'd get from the Council and the guilt James would feel the second they hit the Charon Relay.
They would complete whatever assignment Hackett gave them. Not because they were obligated to do so, but because they all recognized how quickly the situation went from dire to hopeful, how the mention of the Prothean archives sent a thrill into Payton's stomach and even caused Kaidan's frown to ease momentarily. Humanity had been hit right between the eyes, but there was still possibility and chance and blind reaching to rely on. And if this flailing grasp would help them get a hold of something that might help, that would be enough for all of them.
When Hackett's connection went dead, Payton turned towards the two men at her back. Her posture was straight again, as if the admiral's words put the marine right back into her, and she saw two expectant face reflecting back at her. Kaidan spoke first.
"So... Mars, huh?"
"Never actually been to Mars," James said. He shifted on his feet, arms folding across his chest. "What do you think we're gonna find there?"
Sand. Sand and a dig site and an Alliance facility and the Prothean archives. What was buried in the information was unknown to her, but it would help. No matter what it was, there had to be something there that would give them an edge, a foothold onto how to defeat the Reapers. "Information," she said plainly. "Something worth digging for. If Liara's there, we know whatever it is, it's important."
Payton smiled, if only a little. "She's a friend. She'll... know what we're looking for." When she realized James was less than convinced, she continued. "Asari. Prothean expert. She was with me when we defeated Saren."
Tilting her chin up, Payton raised her voice into the open air of the shuttle bay. "Joker, plot a course for Mars. We've got work to do."
When the pilot replied, she could hear a chuckle of reproach in his voice, as if he couldn't believe she still thought he didn't have a handle on the situation at all times. "Already on it, commander. ETA... uh, well, we'll see. Not used to playing hide and seek with Reapers. That might change things up a bit."
"Just get us there," she called out to him. "I know you can."
"Hell yes, I can. Time to get the gang back together. Again." A sigh echoed over the communications system. "How many times are we gonna have to do this?"
Payton's brow wrinkled. "Hopefully this is the last time."
"Yeah, barring class reunions. I got it."
"Get your gear." Stepping away from the console, Shepard split through Kaidan and James, body twisting as she moved through them and towards the weapon's bench not far off. "We'll be there in an hour or two, but keep your heads on straight. There's too much riding on the removal of whatever knowledge Liara discovered to have this mission fail. We get there, get Liara, get out, and then make our way to the Relay. No exceptions."
James knew her comments were directed towards him. Even though he could tell Alenko's heart wasn't fully in the game, Shepard trusted him a great deal more. She worked with him before; she knew he wouldn't fail. There was nothing to keep her from believing otherwise about James. But instead of opening his mouth, he kept quiet for once, opting to clean his shotgun while Payton and Kaidan strapped themselves into their armor instead of hassling either of them.
Still, any attempts at diplomacy didn't stop him from looking over.
They didn't stop him from gritting his teeth as he put the pieces of his shotgun back together, quickly and efficiently with hands that knew the process by heart. Payton stood off from both of them as she pieced her armor back together, movements staggered by time, her hands fumbling slightly as the seals locked at her back.
She was distracted. Her head was in the shuttle bay, painful but present. It was her heart that was back on Earth, just like his. Just like everyone's.
The major wasn't paying attention. He was already strapped and buckled tight into his armor, his focus turned to his pistol without so much as a hitch. James worked his jaw as he inserted a heat sink into his shotgun, eyes narrowed at the floor a few feet off instead of Shepard. He hated feeling like this, like he'd walked into a conversation halfway through and then the words just stopped coming.
Not that it mattered.
Leaning his head against the crate at his back, James shut his eyes. The second they got to the Citadel, he'd be on the first ship with a captain ballsy enough to want to help. Odds didn't matter to him. He had to get back to Earth. He had to find some way to help, and he couldn't do that sitting in the shuttle bay while Payton propositioned the Council.
Anderson brought him on to look after Shepard while she was in lockdown.
She had her people now. That meant he could go back to his.