Donnel Udina was a largely disfavored man.
For someone in such a fantastic position of power, Payton regarded her choice to make him a councilor as an all around bad decision. At the time, little else made sense. Anderson was not a politician. Over the years she'd known him, she also got to know his utter lack of tact. His rash streak was thick and was still painted in a bright red, no matter how his older age treated him.
Udina was a consummate politician, which only lent to her reasoning behind disliking him now. If Anderson was in his place, he'd know what to do. He would appeal to the council's nature through explanation, through details picked up in the soles of his Alliance-assigned boots. Councilor Sparatus had once been part of the turian military; Anderson's appeal would strike him even more dearly than idle chatter, she knew.
Perhaps if Councilors Valern and Tevos saw the desperation of the events, they might change their mind. They might send their armies, same as the turians. And if they had every fleet in the galaxy on their side, perhaps they would come out of this confrontation victorious.
Tapping her fingers against the desk, Payton's eyes fell to the floor at her feet. But if Anderson was here, he wouldn't be back on Earth. He'd be stuck on the Citadel with guilt and regret, and she didn't want that for him, either. He deserved better than that, but she was afraid of what might happen to him if he remained on Earth. There were too many possibilities. Every time she heard that there was a call from Hackett through the QEC, there'd be a fear, a fear that Hackett would look at her with a solemn expression and tell her Anderson was dead.
There were no pure positives in war. Everyone was on cracked and shaky ground. Still, she wished there was something she could do to help the man who helped her.
Payton looked up from her boots to see Udina walking towards her. There was nothing deceiving her about his appearance. His grays were gone from his hair, but sprinkled over his jaw, aging him despite his blatant attempts at the opposite. And he looked tired. The flecked skin around his eyes was as tight as the rest of him, arms stiff at his side and any bounce in his step utterly gone.
"Councilor," she greeted as she pushed herself away from his desk. "What is it you wanted to discuss?"
A thick brow arched on his forehead. "Isn't it obvious?"
Udina grunted and waved her off, passing up his desk and chair to stand near his office's tall window. "I've heard about Earth. I keep hearing about Earth. Rather, I keep hearing that we've lost it."
"Is there, with the rest of them, either dead or dying or running around like a chicken with his head chopped off. I need answers. Solid answers, a strategy, something."
Payton folded her arms beneath her chest, looking to Udina instead of past him. "I'm afraid I don't have those."
"Of course not."
"Look, Udina, we were all taken by surprise. No one expected—"
Udina glanced at her over his shoulder. "You did," he returned, though his voice lacked the heat necessary for his interruption to be considered a jab. "You knew the Reapers were coming, and you warned each and every one of us. However, there's little a politician can do with idle speculation."
"Then use what we have now." She pressed forward, but didn't move from her spot beside his desk. "This isn't speculation. This is an attack on Earth, on the homeworld of a council race."
"A very recently acquired spot, I'm afraid. We haven't had time to acquire strong alliances with anyone here. Not strong enough to inspire them to abandon their own homeworlds in order to help us. They're more interested in protecting what's theirs."
Finally, Payton stepped forward. "Then we make strong alliances. There has to be something we can do to get them on our side."
Shepard's suddenly impassioned tone gave Udina pause.
"As it happens, there is."
Their attention shifted in the direction of the voice - familiar with that turian gravel. Both of Payton's eyebrows arched at the realization that the voice belonged to Councilor Sparatus. He descended the few stairs quickly, coming to a stop closer to her than Udina. "What is it that you've been advising us on these past years? 'You should listen to Shepard. She knows better than any of us what she's talking about.'"
"Can we help you, councilor?" Payton managed a small smile that was more a gesture of good will than anything else. It was barely more genuine than a smirk.
"You can. I'm not so sure about 'we.'"
She could nearly hear Udina grind his teeth.
"I am not unwilling to give you the numbers you need," Sparatus began, speaking directly to Shepard without so much as another glance towards Udina. "But we are all worried about the state of our homeworlds. Palaven is in just as much danger as Thessia and Sur'kesh. Every inhabited planet is in danger from this threat. We must protect what is ours."
Payton nodded. "I understand, councilor, but humanity can't do this alone. We have to hit the Reapers while we still have the force to do it. If we wait too long, we'll be too spread out. We won't be able to coordinate an attack."
"This is what happened with the Protheans, correct?" Shepard nodded again, and Sparatus' mandibles flared. "They were even more advanced than we are now, and they fell. It seems unlikely that we could succeed where they failed so many thousands of years ago."
Everything he said made perfect sense. For the longest time, she didn't understand how they could face such an unstoppable force when the Protheans attempted to do the same only to die out completely. Humanity learned so much from the Prothean databanks on Mars. They contained knowledge far beyond the reach of human minds. If they couldn't conquer travel between solar systems on their own, how could they do this?
By taking what they learned from the Protheans and adding whatever they can to it.
"They hit the Protheans before the Crucible was finished. If we can complete it, we might stand a chance. The Reapers aren't invincible; we know that for a fact. They've driven so many races to extinction, but they don't have the same element of surprise they used to. We have bits and pieces of knowledge on our side. Something like muscle memory."
She could tell Sparatus was thinking. His hands rested on his hips, shoulders squared and his mandibles working as if he was consuming the information. "You'll have the turian fleet," he said after a while, clear in his resolve. "But this requires Primarch Fedorian's approval."
Udina's mutter of, "Of course it does," pulled a huff of displeasure from the turian councilor.
"In order to receive turian forces, Fedorian has to be at the summit. Our system is already under attack, and he needs extraction from his location on Menae, one of Palaven's moons. I'll be the first to admit his timing could not have been worse, but there's only so much I have power over in this situation."
"I understand," Payton told him. "I'll head to Menae as soon as I can. Thank you for coming to us. I would have been flying blind if not for this."
Sparatus stood up straighter. Every inch of him reflected that same turian pride she'd seen damned time and time again from birth. "We're all flying blind, Shepard. It's only right that we at least attempt to assist each other through with what we have."
"I'll remember to thank Primarch Fedorian when I see him, in that case."
"You do that," Sparatus replied, though his voice lacked the ease it held just before. "He's just as likely to ignore you as he is to help you, but we need him at the summit. Or there will be no summit."
Goodbyes were shared, and the door closed behind the turian councilor just as Udina sunk into the chair behind his desk. "The first hoop to jump through," he murmured to himself, though he pitched his voice loud enough for Payton to hear him. "Of many, I'm sure. All dangerous, all merely delaying the inevitable."
"You can't blame them," she said, moving over to stand in front of him. No sooner had her hands rested on the surface did her fingers begin tapping quietly, one after the other. "Throwing numbers at the Reapers won't kill them. We need to be organized. That's the only way we can win this."
"Do you honestly believe that, Shepard? Sovereign damn near wiped out an entire fleet, and he was just one Reaper."
Payton's brow furrowed. "We were unprepared. The losses could have been avoided if the Council had trusted me from the beginning."
"Does that sound like trust to you?"
Glancing in the direction of the door, Payton's breath shook in a sigh. "It sounds like... an opportunity to gain trust. They believe me. The Reapers are already spreading. They're here. They need us just as much as we need them."
"He's using you to extract a glorified politician. He wants you to head into a system swarmed with Reapers to save his people while ours are dying by the millions on Earth." Udina steepled his fingers, pressing them against his frown. "I'm not telling you to ignore the councilor's request. I'm telling you that your actions may not end in you receiving the benefits you expected."
"I'm expecting to save the life of Palaven's primarch and get him to the war summit." Payton's words were clipped, spoken through a jaw that twitched once the words ran dry. "Nothing else."
Udina looked up at her, his brows peaked and his fingers tapping against his lips. "Then maybe you should adjust your priorities. Earth needs a fleet, not a politician. If your attempts at gaining one over the other are fruitless, where do we go from there?"
She stared at him, lips parted as if she anticipated an answer, but none came.
"Is there anything else I can help you with, councilor?"
Despite everything said between them, Udina had the gall to look surprised by her change in disposition. Payton was nearly impossible to anger; the moment frustration mounted, she grabbed for any reason to get out of that situation, and that was what this meeting had been reduced to. Still, he expected her to linger. He expected her to fight.
"Go to Menae and find Fedorian," he drawled in return, eyes falling back to his console. "Perhaps Sparatus will be easier to manipulate if he knows the primarch is safe."
"This isn't – fine."
Refusing to stand there and argue, Payton took that moment to leave, striding out of the room without so much as a formal goodbye. There was already too much weighing on getting Fedorian off of Menae. Lingering in Udina's office, bickering over circumstance, would only serve to detract from time she could give to the mission.
There was still business to be done on the Citadel. She knew she had to visit Kaidan. Her new armor was lacking in upgrades, and her recently acquired sniper rifle's scope was barely up to snuff. Even the ship lacked the commodities she was used to having around. And she needed to purchase a VI to feed her fish when she was out on long missions.
Once she was in the elevator, her index hovered over the list of choices. Her fingertip hovered over Huerta Memorial, and she made her decision without another thought.
There was a chance Kaidan would still be in surgery. There was also a chance that bad news might be waiting on the other side of the elevator doors.
When she arrived, however, it was James Vega – not bad news – she ran into on the other side.
He was standing near the floor-to-ceiling window, staring out at the stretch of Presidium they were privy to at this angle. With his hands in his pockets and his shoulders curved inward, everything about him seemed wildly uncomfortable. There was no one seated near him. No nurses, no doctors, and no patients - just James and the strained attempt at normalcy in his stance.
Payton eyed him as she walked towards the desk, breaking the line of sight to give her attention to the nurse behind the desk. The asari smiled; Payton replied in turn. "I was hoping I could visit Kaidan Alenko?" she asked, her voice splintering around the edges once the inquiry drew to a close.
"Of course, Commander Shepard."
At her name, she glanced towards James again, but this time he was turned around. His hands were still in his pockets, but he seemed less tense. When he nodded towards her, the pieces fell into place.
"Hm, yes, Major Alenko is resting now." At the sudden look of concern on Payton's face, the asari continued with a quick, "He's stable. Better than stable, actually; the doctors expect a full recovery, though I'm sure you'll want to hear it from them. If you'll give me a few minutes, I'll contact the nurse so she can finish her tests and clear out, for privacy's sake."
"Thank you." Payton nodded towards her and turned away from the desk. She caught James just as he was turning to face the window again, and she chose not to take a seat, crossing the waiting room to stand next to him instead. When she was at his side, she peered out of the glass, same as him. "How long have you been here?"
There was no ceremony or cordiality in her voice, and the sound made James chuckle good-naturedly. "About half an hour. Got tired waiting around the embassies, so I came here. I got the major a get well soon present."
Payton pursed her lips. "Right."
It was a simple question, a simple question that she could have responded to with a simple, "No." But there was nothing simple about this situation, and simple when an explanation should be there chafed at her more than anything. "I don't typically drink with my subordinates."
"Can't say I'm surprised," James said, though Payton wasn't sure if the statement was just that or a quiet jab at how she presented herself.
"Do you have much experience getting wasted with your COs?"
James gave a huff of a laugh. "Not wasted, no. All good things come in moderation." She arched her brow, clearly not buying it, and he palmed at the back of his neck. "Yeah, okay, that was bullshit."
A long moment of silence stretched between them, but there was nothing awkward in the quiet, nothing tense about the fact that she said nothing and he didn't bother to explain himself. They stood there, backs to the rest of the room, watching as taxis flew this way and that and admiring the clean brilliance of the Presidium.
After a while, Payton clarified her standpoint with an, "I don't mind having it on my ship." Looking over at him, she caught his eyes and didn't bother looking away. "I just don't do it myself. It's a personal choice, not a professional one."
"That's damn good to hear, Lola."
"I do nicknames. It's a thing." James slipped his hands out of his pockets and took a step away from her. "Maybe I'll drop some details when we get back to the ship. Maybe." He cast a distasteful look at the view from the window. "I'm getting tired of this everything's-okay-don't-mind-the-Reapers denial shit anyway."
Payton smoothed her hands together, gaze still focused on the ground of the Presidium, on the gardens and blindingly white walkways and the trickling water fountains scattered from one side to the other. Without looking away, she turned her chin, just enough to make it obvious she was speaking to him. "So you're not going back to Earth?"
"Screw that. I told you I was staying. You need me."
When she didn't reply, he amended his statement with a grudging, "Right. We need each other."
He was gone seconds after she told him she'd be back on the Normandy within the hour. Not long after that, the asari nurse stepped up behind her and told her that Kaidan was resting, likely unconscious from the sedatives, but he was ready for visitors if she wanted to see him.
We need each other.
James' voice echoed around Payton's ears when she stepped into the recovery room. She needed everyone for this. Everyone she'd ever been close to, everyone who'd ever stepped up for her or gave her an out. She needed numbers and connections on her side. She needed friends at her side to keep her moving, to keep her on her toes and to tell her to put her head on straight if she tripped. She knew Kaidan would be that person.
"So get better, major," she found herself saying. She knew Kaidan couldn't hear her, but the words came out regardless. "I need you out there, alright? We all do."