"So what you're telling me is... the Normandy's AI shut itself down and... nearly caught itself on fire, all in hopes of taking control of... the body of the robot that tried to kill me?"
Payton's brow furrowed, but she nodded, her lips pursed. "That's the gist of it, really."
Across from her, Kaidan chuckled, though the sudden movement pulled a quiet, "ow," out of him. He looked bad, though Payton would never point that out to him. She'd never seen him so bruised and bandaged before, even when they shared an emergency taxi shuttle after nearly being crushed by Sovereign. Then again, she had the worst of it that time.
When he settled back down, head resting against his pillow, his eyes were still smiling. "I have to say, between being chased out of systems by Reapers and an AI running around on your ship... It makes me miss the old days."
"I never thought I'd say this, but they were simpler times."
"Yeah," Kaidan said quietly, "Yeah, they were. Though none of us thought so back then."
Payton rubbed her palms over her knees, sights shifting from Kaidan to the view from his suite. Huerta Memorial was in the perfect location for healing. The vista boasted a particularly beautiful stretch of the Presidium filled with bodies of still water and gardens and clean white metal. Everything about it seemed so calm. She could understand why James didn't want any of it the last time he was there.
Reaching up to rub the back of her neck, she shut her eyes. It was good to see Kaidan conscious, talking, moving around, if only a little. But everything just kept coming around and reminding her that she was wasting time. Their idle chatting could only distract her for so long. There was so much resting on her going out there and facilitating peace between so many different species. With so much to do, sitting there and shooting the breeze with Kaidan, no matter how glad she was to see he was okay, felt wrong.
His voice was still quiet, but it was enough to pull her back into the conversation. "Where are you?"
When Payton looked up at him, she did so just in time to see him smile. "You're not here, that's for damn sure. Not your head, at least. What's going on?"
"I have to be at a summit in a few days, once I get word that Wrex and the dalatrass have arrived at the location," she told him. There was no reason to keep quiet around Kaidan. Out of his armor, he wasn't Major Kaidan Alenko; he was Kaidan, and she counted him as one of her closest friends, even after the mess on Horizon ages ago. "The summit... We're trying to get salarian and turian troops for the fight, but the turian primarch isn't budging until he knows Palaven is being looked after."
"Which it would be if there were krogan soldiers on the ground," Kaidan finished. Of course he understood. After sitting in the figurative co-pilot seat during the race to defeat Saren, he knew how quickly things stacked up against her. He knew there would be complications, complications that would cripple most leaders. When she nodded, Kaidan grimaced. "Damn, Shepard. You've got your work cut out for you."
The smile that Payton let slip was a small one. "Yeah. Yeah, I do." No sooner had the smile shown up did it fade away, replaced by an even smaller frown and the creased expression of someone who didn't quite understand something. She wasn't even looking at him any more. She was looking past him, eyes unfocused, like she was searching. "And that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface."
Kaidan nodded to himself, wincing when the movement tugged at his injuries. He hated seeing her like that, so closed off and not willing to speak about anything but surface truths, but he didn't expect her to go into detail with him. Not about the things that mattered.
"I'm not going to tell you to relax," he said. "Because that'd just be me coming off as a condescending ass, and that's not what you need right now."
His brows knitted when Payton looked to him. The skin around her eyes was tight, lips pressed together as she listened. "You need people to get off of your case, but no one else is going to do it. And you deserve an apology. For how I acted on Mars. For Horizon, for me not getting my head out of my ass and joining up and helping you."
"I got it, Kaidan. You didn't want to work with Cerberus."
"Stop. Just stop, Shepard. Don't try to rationalize anything. Let me talk." When she didn't continue, he pulled himself a little higher on his hospital bed. "You're right. I didn't want to work with Cerberus, but... god, when I heard you were alive? I didn't believe it at first, but I knew I'd have given anything to be part of your crew again. Seeing you shook me up. Almost getting abducted by the Collectors shook me up. But I shouldn't have lashed out at you like that."
He remembered as clear as anything how angry he had been. There weren't words for how frustrated he was, how bitter and angry he remained after she left Horizon in the dust. And for months, that bitterness steeped inside of him. It grew and grew. Every time he heard about her relationship with Cerberus, it was like a knife in the gut, and it just seemed to prove that his anger was worth it.
But then the Reapers attacked Earth, and he'd seen Vancouver burning. He had memories there, some of which he saw turned to ash, and once he was given the time to mull over his own thoughts, he realized something. He had memories with Shepard, too. Good ones, of sitting up and talking with Ashley and Garrus, of the massages she'd give his shoulders when he was hit with a migraine, of the times when things looked so bleak they had to laugh to keep from going insane. Those memories were still there, buried, untouched by whatever bile he'd accumulated over the months after seeing her on Horizon. He knew he didn't have the time or will enough to ignore that and stay angry with her.
Kaidan gave a sigh, fingers smoothing over the sheet gathered around his stomach. "I just want you to know that this... whatever it was between us, it's over. I don't have the strength to stay upset with you over something that doesn't even matter anymore. You've got too much on your plate, and... well, seeing your life flash before your eyes and having the story change like it did for me isn't how I want to go out."
"I understand," Payton murmured, her own hands twisting around themselves with nothing else to grab onto.
She looked to him, her brows pinched upwards. "What do you mean?"
"Do you get it? What I'm saying." Kaidan sighed again, this time heavier than the last. He could feel a blooming pain up his spine from his implant. "Don't worry about me, Payton. Strike me off that mental list that keeps you in check. I'm okay. Just... take that and relax."
She did understand. From the beginning of the conversation, she'd understood what he sought to achieve by talking to her about this. He wanted to relieve her of some of the weight on her shoulders. He wanted to take care of her as best he could from that hospital bed, and all he could manage was to show her he'd forgiven her.
"Of course I understand," she said. "And I appreciate it. I do. There's just... so much happening."
"And it's not nearly enough to make anything easier. I know."
He stared at her for a long moment before he turned his face to look out of the window, exhaling slowly in an attempt to ease the sudden tightness in his chest. "Well, it was worth trying, right?"
When she heard him chuckle, even she could tell there was no humor in the sound. "It's not your fault, Kaidan." Standing up from the chair beside his bed, Payton moved over to the window, but she didn't turn around to look at him. She didn't intentionally stand in his line of sight. She simply stared out of the glass, hands clasped in front of her. "My head's everywhere. I'm being pulled in a dozen different directions at once. Nothing's going to change that."
"Yeah, I know how that –" Kaidan stopped short and sunk back against the pillow, shutting his eyes. A wrinkle formed in his forehead, and he pulled the sheet up higher around himself. "That makes sense. It's a hell of an important fight."
Payton's eyes narrowed slightly as she stared down at the Presidium. "You're right. It is. I guess a few sleepless nights are par for the course when the entire galaxy is in danger."
Taking a deep breath, she turned around and looked at him. She was still wringing out her hands, and if his eyes were open, he'd see she wore a concerned expression to match. She wasn't the most empathetic person in the world, but there was no questioning the woman's ability to tap into a moment. "I'll go, then. You should probably rest."
One of Kaidan's eyes opened, and the corner of his mouth rose and fell. No one could have seen it and be able to tell if it was genuine or a tiny smile meant to pacify. "It was good seeing you, Shepard."
She was at the foot of his bed when she stopped, hand lingering over the metal and index tapping at it as she chewed over her own goodbye. "Thank you," she said. "For saying what you did. For trying to help. It's - it's a lot more than most people have done for me so far. So... right. Thank you. I'll visit again soon."
While Kaidan didn't reply, he gave her a nod, and that was enough for her. She left the room as quickly as possible, shoulders twisting to avoid colliding with a passing nurse.
He told her to strike him off of her list, but he was still in the hospital. He was doing well, but he was still recuperating. And that made not worrying about him difficult. Anyone who wasn't at arm's reach added another name to that list. Kaidan, Anderson, Miranda, her mother - they were all there, and that was only a fraction of the names.
She was halfway to the elevator when the door slid open. Liara stepped out of it, already glancing around, and her mouth fell open when she saw Payton heading towards her.
"I wasn't expecting to see you here, Liara," Payton greeted her, eyes falling to the books in the asari's hands. "Are you here to see Kaidan?"
"Is this a bad time?"
Glancing over her shoulder in the direction she'd come, Payton nodded. "He was close to asleep when I left."
"I was just coming to – close to asleep? So he wasn't yet?"
"Not yet, no. If you hurry, you might be able to catch him." She turned back towards Liara, motioning towards what she was still holding onto. "Brought him something?"
Liara's eyes fell to the gifts, smiling a little to herself. "Asari murder mysteries," she explained. "They're not very well-written, really, but no one wants to read award-winning literature when they're stuck in the hospital, do they?"
She was halfway through an explanation of why she'd chosen to bring him books rather than send him digital versions of the writing on his omni-tool when Payton interrupted her. "He'll like them," she said with a quiet laugh, and she reached up to give Liara's shoulder a pat. "Go on. But don't take too long. We're heading out again soon."
They parted just after, and Payton took the elevator to the hangar, head oddly clear after seeing Liara. Seeing her friend in such good spirits helped enough to keep her from fidgeting on the way down. It was good to be reminded that she and Kaidan were still there. She still had friends despite the miserable state of the galaxy.
She kept to herself as she made her way back to the ship until she heard a familiar voice over the buzz of constant conversation at the docks.
Steve was standing off in the corner, looking confused and mildly uncomfortable, trying to explain himself to the woman standing in front of him. She was nearly a foot shorter with curves that would intimidate anyone, no matter their preferences, and a hand on her hip.
"You're part of the Normandy's crew, aren't you?" the woman asked, shifting on her heels and tilting her head to the side. "I was hoping I could speak to Commander Shepard."
"Then you should speak to her."
Steve's eyes darted up towards Payton's voice, and the look that crossed his face was nothing less than pure relief. "Commander," he sighed, stepping around the woman to stand closer to her. "I came down to look for a few things, and Samantha asked if I could give you a message. It's important."
"Of course," Payton told him, but she looked to the woman before telling him to explain. "Is there something you need me for?"
"Diana Allers," she introduced, extending a hand that Payton took immediately. The handshake was a brief one, and her grip left something to be desired. "You may have heard of me. I'm a reporter for a news show called Battlespace. My producers want me in the thick of this war; they gave me permission to board any Alliance vessel I could find."
Payton nodded slowly. "So you want on the Normandy."
"Correct. You're going to be at the helm of this fight, and I want to be there, too. If you'll let me." When Payton didn't immediately respond with her permission, Diana gave her a smile she hoped would be assuring. Her teeth were the shiny white of anyone involved in her line of work, but there was something genuine and excited about her grin. "The galaxy deserves to know what's going on with their big hero."
The smile didn't have the infectious effect she intended, but Payton didn't bristle at the idea, which was a step in the right direction. "I don't take this situation lightly," she said, looking down towards the reporter. "If I so much as get wind that you're not taking care to show the gravity of this war, you're off my ship."
Diana shook her head at that. "Oh, no, you won't get any of that from me, commander. I've seen how you handled that sensationalist from Westerlund News. You were terrifying – and brutally honest. No way am I getting on your bad side. Frankly, after your speech in the wards a few months ago, I'm surprised she hasn't retired."
"You have my permission," Payton said, effectively side-stepping any talk of the other reporter. "And an hour at the most to get yourself and your things on the Normandy."
"Exactly how much am I allowed to take?"
"However much is necessary, as long as you keep your supplies in the quarters you're given and none of it gets in the way."
Straightening her posture even more, Diana gave Payton a salute with her index and middle finger, her smile returning in full force. "Thank you, commander. The galaxy appreciates it."
The reporter was gone in a flash, no doubt to hurriedly pack her things and get to the Normandy as quick as she could. When she was gone, Payton turned her attention to Steve, who was still standing at her side. "Traynor. You said you had a message from Specialist Traynor."
"Right! Ah, we need to leave sooner than an hour, I'm afraid."
A brow arched on Payton's forehead. "Explain."
"We received an alert from Grissom Academy, but when we pinged them for details, a turian military vessel sent us a signal. Evidently it was meant to seem like a rescue mission." At the suspicious look Shepard gave him, Steve nodded. "It's not. EDI pointed out that there are similarities between that signal and one you ran into during your fight against the Collectors."
When the truth dawned on her, Payton took an involuntary step back. "It's Cerberus." Her brow furrowed, mouth moving for a moment before she found the words. "What do they want with - oh God."
"I've seen what Cerberus does to biotics. We have to go. Now."
Steve gave her a quick nod. "I'll contact Liara and tell her to get to the Normandy asap."
Payton felt like she was always running towards trouble. Running right at it without a thought edgewise, not caring what immovable object she might ram herself into. But she didn't have any other choice, and she never had. There was something happening at Grissom Academy; she didn't have the luxury of having a Plan B. No Plan B, and no exit strategy.
Her conversation with Kaidan was still fresh in her mind. She could still see Liara's smile and the dizzy look of enthusiasm on Diana's face. Some of them were close friends; others were near-strangers. That didn't change a thing, in the end.
The only reason anyone pushed back when something threatened to tip them over was the people who were willing to push with you.