Taking a trip to the Spectre office in order to purchase a new sniper rifle only to find she didn't have enough credits to afford the only model offered was a humbling experience.
"Couldn't you... ask Garrus if you might use his during missions?" Liara asked from beside her. "I've noticed he's been using his assault rifle more often due to James stealing most of his shots."
"I asked," Payton replied with a quiet chuckle, forced to erase the frown from her face. "He laughed at me."
The current state of her Mantis – likely white and black dust on Tuchanka soil – didn't exactly inspire confidence within the turian. If she wanted his gun, she'd have to pry his Incisor from his cold, dead talons.
"We should have enough saved soon." Liara's brows pinched upwards, and she managed a reassuring smile. "As long we have a chat with Lieutenant Cortez about letting James requisition so many spirits."
Payton sighed and turned away from the console. She felt odd without her rifle, even if she was only on the Citadel for a quick stop at the Spectre office and a meeting with the salarian councilor. She felt too light with nothing but an M-5 Phalanx at her side, suddenly regretting her decision to never become a Jack of All Trades in regards to the weapons she could use.
She could manage well enough with a pistol once she set about customizing the sidearm, equipping it with a high caliber barrel and a scope to make the weapon even more familiar.
But it was no sniper rifle. There was no exaggeration involved when she compared being without her rifle to having her hand chopped off at the wrist.
Both Payton and Liara were halfway out of the Spectre offices when both of them were hailed by Joker.
Lifting her hand close to her mouth, she spoke into her omni-tool, only narrowly avoiding asking him if he'd found a sale somewhere on the Citadel. "What is it, Joker?"
"I was just, ah, contacted. By Thane."
Payton's heart nearly fell to her toes. When she spoke, her voice rose sharper than before. "What is it?"
"Cerberus is attacking the Citadel."
She heard a gasp from Liara behind her, but it took her a long moment to process what Joker had said. They hadn't been on the Citadel for long, but neither of them had seen any Cerberus troopers since they arrived.
Finally, everything fell into place, and Payton huffed. The sound was loud and frustrated, and he half expected her to hang up on him. Instead, she replied with a biting, "You've gotto be kidding me."
"We should have expected a power play like this, Shepard," Liara interrupted, moving past her and turning around so they stood face to face. "It's likely no one was expecting you to be here so soon. We've only just left Tuchanka, after all."
"The salarian councilor seems to think Udina's being manipulated by Cerberus. Or working for them or... who knows what else." Swerving around Liara, Payton began the trek down the long hallway and into the Citadel embassies. "What's more likely is Udina found out I was meeting with Valern and made sure Cerberus was aware of the timing."
Descending the few stairs and waiting the moment it took for the door to slide open, Payton lifted her omni-tool again. "Joker, patch me through to Thane. Keep an open comm channel. Get Traynor to contact James."
Despite the tension and the worry clenching his stomach in a vice grip, James swore he could hear a familiar chuckle in his ear whenever another in a long list of curses slipped out of his mouth. The fact that she - Commander Shepard, the galaxy's number one ice marine - found his reaction to the situation at hand amusing actually helped. A little. Not that he'd tell her that much.
That said, there was Cerberus everywhere. He was able to pass most of them up with his strict instructions in mind. Meeting Shepard at the executor's office was priority one. Shooting Cerberus forces full of holes was secondary.
Not that he didn't take advantage of his superior position to do just that.
It didn't take long for him to lose all semblance of the element of surprise. Word spread through Cerberus channels that they were being attacked by a civilian as heavily muscled as he was heavily armed. He'd taken down ten troopers already without batting an eyelash, the number only outstretched by the threat Shepard and her asari companion posted towards the troops.
"Eleven," James muttered under his breath as he shoved another heat sink into the assault rifle he'd found near the body of a downed C-Sec officer. "What're you guys up to?"
"This isn't a competition."
Payton's voice was just thick enough to bring her face to mind, all hard lines and narrowed, piercing eyes. She has an impressive disappointed expression; no doubt she was making it then, hoping he would hear it in the tone of her voice and it would cause his attitude to wilt.
Nothing changed. If anything, James got even cockier. "Aww, you're jealous."
"Lieutenant," Payton snapped out. "This isn't a competition."
"You should see her, James." Liara's voice crackled in his left ear as he peeked over the half-collapsed desk he crouched behind. If she was finally on his side again, he was more than happy to listen to her spill a few details. "I've never seen someone backtalk and manage to get a smile out of her."
All it took was the quick drop of that comment to get him smiling, too. The side of his bottom lip tugged downwards, uneven with the rest of his grin. "Tell me about it, doc. I'm surprised she hasn't shot me out of the airlock yet."
"There's still time," Payton interrupted tersely. "You ought to check your ego before it gets you shot, Vega."
Without missing a beat, Liara murmured, "Or ejected from the airlock once we get back on the Normandy."
"Hey, I'm just fucking with you. You want radio silence?"
There was only a moment between his question and the commander's solid reply of, "No." The word lingered there in his ear, tugging his smile higher on his face. And it didn't budge when she quickly amended her statement with a, "That would be detrimental to the mission."
"Alright, Lola, I hear you." Pulling away from the desk, James hurried down the hallway, rifle hefted upwards, jerking every few seconds as his eyes darted around. He didn't expect an ambush; all of the Cerberus forces were condensed. They just weren't smart enough (or concerned enough with his presence) to flank him. "I'll be a good boy."
James chuckled when he heard her utter a dry, "Yeah, right."
"Should I leave you two alone, or...?"
Atta girl, James thought as he passed a hand over a panel leading into yet another uniform C-Sec hallway. They all looked the same. Luckily, he'd seen the inside of this place more than a few times. Everything was silver and blue, marked with English, asari, turian, and salarian letters on each directional sign. Even with the gunfire and the bodies and the nozzles spraying water on almost every inch of the place, he could remember how to get to the executor's office.
Payton took what sounded like a deep, cleansing breath. But before she could open her mouth wider to speak, he was already stepping in. "Hey, if Shepard wants me all to herself, that's her prerogative. No skin off my back."
Before Payton could reply, he heard a sudden barrage of fire over both the communications channel and ringing out around the corner. The sounds were identical, and that was enough for James to launch into action.
Hurrying up the set of stairs to his right, he took them two at a time until he stood on the scaffolding that banded around the room. Smoke billowed up from a centurion's grenade, but that was enough of an indication. Thumbing out the pin of a frag grenade he'd found in a crate along the way, he waited for all of a moment before launching it directly into the cloud.
Three seconds passed, and James stepped directly into the middle of the scaffolding, checking his rifle as the grenade exploded, a rain of armor and blood and bits with more substance crested at his side.
When the explosion settled, James leaned over the side and opened fire on the first Cerberus agent he set eyes on. Cornered between him and Shepard's pistol, the man was down and out of the fight before he could even raise his shotgun.
The compliment was near-shouted to overwhelm the clamor of rifles and shotguns and pistols, of pained screams and futile calls for backup. His reply of, "yeah, thanks," was almost lost in the sound, but it was loud enough.
Even on the coattails of her sniper rifle's demise, Payton was nothing short of impressive in the fight. Without the quick precision, she relied heavily on her tried and true omni-tool, launching explosive plasma rounds and applying a cryo field to her pistol. All it took was a few shots until the Cerberus troops froze where they stood.
Once they were frozen, James let loose a concussive shot in their direction. They shattered, leaving nothing but shards of white and gold armor and quickly thawing gore behind.
The three mopped up the remaining group of troops without much trouble.
Heavy use of cover was the only reason James made it to the executor's office. Luck had nothing to do with his not being riddled with holes. If he was lucky, he'd have been visiting the Citadel in full armor. Liara was nursing her left side, likely having been shot and patched up enough to continue. Payton's cheeks were blotchy, her pale skin burning bright pink from exertion, unused to filling such a different combat role.
But they were all eager to get to their destination. They were all eager to find the salarian councilor and stop Udina before there were any more casualties. This was already a massacre.
James descended the stairs to join them, twisting a barely there grin in Liara's direction before following in Payton's path she cut through the fallen Cerberus troopers. The asari replied in turn, though she looked a paler shade of blue than usual.
"The office is right up here," Payton said as she rushed up the few steps and onto the landing that stretched before an unlocked door. Cerberus had been so close to getting in. That thought alone was enough to sober James up, and he stepped past Payton as she lifted her pistol to tap his fist against the holographic panel.
They all held their breath as the door fell open, exhaling only when they realized there was no one in the office.
"I thought Bailey told you the councilor would be here," Payton said, eying James as she stepped into the lobby. "The executor isn't even here."
"Executor Chellick is a C-Sec officer first, from what I can remember," Liara reminded her as she secured the door behind them. It would be difficult to forget the undercover turian from years before, the one who worked with what he was given. Which included releasing an innocent woman only after Shepard had busted an underground weapons smuggling ring. "It's likely that he brought the councilor here to keep him safe and went elsewhere to delay Cerberus."
"The councilor isn't here, either," the commander murmured, lifting her Phalanx and shifting the pistol with her line of sight. The office's lobby was completely empty. Not just empty, but untouched. Nothing was askew save for a few datapads haphazardly thrust aside by a frantic secretary. Payton was so busy focusing on the lack of a councilor that she never saw the movement.
Liara pointed in the direction of the connecting office. Even through the thick glass, she could see the disjointed shimmer of a cloaked figure on the far side of the room. Her voice lowered to a quiet hiss of a whisper, "Over there."
The moment James turned his eyes away from Payton to look towards the suddenly uncloaked salarian councilor was the moment everything rushed in yet another direction.
A man dropped down from the ceiling, his lean form tucking in on itself until he was steady on his feet. Dressed completely in black, it was only fitting that the agent moved like a shadow, sliding around behind the councilor as he turned towards Shepard to call out for help. The salarian was silenced with an arm barred low across his throat, tugging him just tight enough to keep him immobile. The other hand lingered near his head, a bright ball of biotic energy flickering blue and black and gold against the curve of his gloved palm.
Payton's pistol went off twice, and the second blow shattered the sheet of glass directly in front of them. Vaulting over the low wall, she landed with a chorus of cracks, broken glass splintering even more beneath her boots.
"Let go of the councilor."
Stepping over the window ledge with his assault rifle already aimed towards the Cerberus agent, James watched as the assassin only pulled the salarian closer. He said nothing. The blinking white lights on his visor only served to highlight the hard set of his mouth.
Payton moved forward, each step measured and still crunching. "Let. Go. Of the councilor."
"Put – put your gun down! Are you insane? He's going to kill me!"
There was a flash of green and grey in the corner of James' eye, but he refused to take his eyes off of the agent. He was ready for anything – for Payton to give the order to shoot him with the councilor in the way or for the order to stand down. He was ready.
What he wasn't ready for was the sight of Thane stepping up soundlessly behind the assassin, his pistol raised right against the back of his neck.
The quick movement cut the air around the weapon, rustling the agent's hair just enough to alert the man to his presence. Just as soon as he shoved the salarian councilor to the ground in front of him, his elbow was already digging sharply into Thane's solar plexus.
Thane gasped, the blow knocking him a step backwards, taken by surprise just long enough for the assassin to disarm him with a painful shot to his wrist. Catching the pistol, he unleashed an entire clip in Payton's direction before he tumbled away from the fire of her own pistol and James' assault rifle.
Liara grabbed for the salarian councilor, hurriedly pulling him out of the way before he could get caught in the crossfire. Again.
But once he had time enough to recover, breath already coming in ragged pants after the blow to his chest, Thane was more of a contender than the assassin expected. He was fast on his feet and a powerful biotic, which the Cerberus agent discovered when Thane let loose a pulse that shoved him backwards and off of his feet.
In his prime, they might have been evenly matched, but James could tell that this would end poorly for them. Thane's breathing was labored and his movements weren't precise and there was a look of worry on Payton's face that spoke volumes about what they were being forced to watch.
The two men were moving too quickly to get a good shot on the assassin. The risk of shooting Thane was too high, leaving them helpless to stop the brawl that unfolded in front of them.
Without his pistol, Thane was at the disadvantage, a disadvantage that grew even more obvious when the agent drew a long, slender blade from his hip.
Payton lurched forward in an instant, but she stopped short when it dawned on her that there was nothing she could do. No matter how fast she was, how practiced her aim, she couldn't stop what happened.
Thane grunted as the blade pressed between his ribs, tearing through tough leather and out the back of his jacket. That was all it took. He stopped fighting after one last grab at the assassin's face. When the Cerberus agent drew the blade from his gut, he sliced the air at his side. A line of blood as bright and red as an open wound cut across the tile.
And then he was gone.
Thane hit the ground face-first, body curled inwards as his hands sought to press against the open wound, and the assassin disappeared.
James' eyes were locked onto Payton as she pursued him out onto the balcony, desperately firing her pistol every spare moment until the car he'd hopped onto was nowhere to be found. When she slowed, she turned around, and he could see her harrowed expression even at a distance.
Her pistol was on the ground and her hands were on Thane's shoulders before anyone could so much as help him sit up.
"Thane." The flush was gone from her cheeks, face blanched of all color save for the blue of her frightened eyes. Her voice was already shaking as James began to help her situate him. Blood pooled beneath him, and his hand slipped in the smear of red. But Payton was there to hold him up. "Li-Liara!"
At the sound of her name, Liara left the councilor's side to move to Payton's. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Can you get someone here? Call – call Huerta. Or Bailey. Call Bailey. Get – get someone out here to bring him to the hospital."
"They'll –" Pain interrupted Thane as he attempted to speak. He held tighter onto his stomach as he allowed his body to rest against the marine at his back. Steeling himself, he continued, looking at Payton with wet, half-lidded eyes. "They'll be busy."
Payton sucked her bottom lip into her mouth, a line etching deep between her brows. "This won't just be a check-up, Thane. They'll get to you."
Liara stepped away to get in touch with Bailey, her attention turned from Thane to the councilor. Payton didn't look away from Thane's face, her hands shaking with worry and adrenaline as they smoothed over his shoulders.
"You should go after him, siha."
James could see the conflict written over her features. She wanted to do as he said. She wanted to chase the assassin down. But she didn't want to leave him there.
"I know," Payton murmured, her eyes finally glassing over. "I'll – God, Thane, I'll see you. When this is over, I'll see you. Okay?"
Thane's head bobbed vaguely, a drowsy nod, and Payton drew herself even closer. Her hands still rested on his shoulders. James' hands were still planted on his back. And carefully, she leaned forward and pressed a clumsy little kiss on Thane's forehead.
"I'll wait for you," he murmured, though the last words were barely heard over the muffled sound of a whimper from the commander.
When she pulled back, James caught her eyes with his.
It'd been a long time since a look managed to nearly knock the wind out of his lungs.
Liara hurried over just after with news. Bailey would contact the hospital to get Thane into surgery, but he'd also unlocked a patrol car in order to chase down the assassin. "He's probably heading towards Shalmar Plaza," Liara told her as Payton pulled herself onto her feet. "That's where Udina is headed, as well. It's likely the rest of the council will be there."
"Stay here," Payton said. Her voice was even thicker than usual, and she blinked twice before looking towards her friend. Liara's face creased, brows pinched upwards in worry. "Stay with Thane until they get here. Then take Valern to the plaza. He'll want to be with the others."
James helped Liara move Thane until he was resting more comfortably, back against a desk. He caught a glimpse of him staring after Shepard, and James twisted to see what caught his attention.
Payton stood nearer to the balcony than before, her back turned to them, a hand pinching at the thick bridge of her nose.
The sound of Thane shifting and the moan of pain he gave after reaching for her discarded Phalanx tore James' eyes away from her. Without a word, he felt a hand around his wrist, turning it over and placing the pistol in his palm.
"Be sure she – ah – doesn't forget this again."
Watch over her was the true instruction. Everyone who knew Payton knew that she didn't need anyone to hold her hand. All she needed was someone there, a hand she could reach out and grab if she wanted.
James knew when he was being passed a torch.
Nodding, he swallowed at the lump in his throat and stood. He grabbed his rifle and hurried over to her side, handing her the pistol. "You might wanna hold onto that," he said, voice lacking any humor. Payton looked at him, confused for a moment, before taking it and thanking him. Quietly, not so much as mentioning his poorly timed joke.
They climbed inside the patrol car as quickly as they could, and they were in the air, flying towards the plaza, in a matter of minutes.
Payton's jaw clenched as her fingers gripped tightly around the wheel. "There's nothing to be sorry about," she replied, the bridge of her nose wrinkling as she struggled to focus on their flight path. She hated driving. Driving while her body hummed with adrenaline was even more difficult. "We did all we –"
The patrol car had barely escaped the shadow of bridge banding across the Presidium when the assassin's sleek black form dropped onto the hood of the car. She dipped the nose of the vehicle on instinct, but he barely budged.
Her second instinct was to shoot him, even if that meant letting go of the wheel. Somewhere in the background, she heard James curse as she released the steering wheel and drew her pistol.
The glass didn't shatter. It cracked in the shape of a starburst. The second did the same.
Payton didn't say a word as she opened her door. She didn't tell James to grab the wheel. She didn't explain what she was doing. The assassin stood and ran over the top of the car, twisting around just as Payton clawed her way mostly out of the door.
"Shit!" James grabbed for the wheel, hurriedly shifting into her seat to take control of the car. "What the hell are - Payton, get the fuck back in here!"
Instead of pulling her back in, knowing it might cause more damage than good, he grabbed the wheel in her stead.
He grabbed the wheel and curled an arm around her waist and hoped she wouldn't do anything even crazier than this. Pulling a stunt like he would wasn't like her. This was because of what happened. It was bottled up and bottled up until the assassin's sword pierced her armored exterior. He couldn't stop the explosion. He couldn't even slow it down, couldn't muffle it.
So he held on tight and wished she would nail the bastard in between his eyes.
A/N: Holy hell, that was an experience. Anyway, it's been a while since I've left a note at the end of a chapter, so I felt I should now! Thank you guys so, so much for the feedback. It means the world to me. And I'd really like to know what everyone else is thinking! Just leaving a note on what you're thinking about the fic so far would be grand. I'm really curious. Sitting over here in my box of tears (lately, at least; ME3 was depressing as hell, though, so what else was I expecting?) by my lonesome doesn't really promote much thought! But, yes, thank you to each and every one of you for reading!