~ Finding The Heart ~
Disclaimer: the characters in this story are the intellectual property of Bioware, not mine.
WARNING: Rated for MA for future chapters. 16yrs+ readers only please. Foul language, adult concepts, violence. If you are a young adult reader, then I hope between the lines of this story, you'll find some useful insight and advice about how to handle it when you find your own heart some day. Relationships are hard work. Loving someone truly, for all that are and have the potential to be, is hard work.
Author note: This is a re-write of one of my fanfiction stories previously published on under the same title (the old one is still here, just re-named "Finding The Heart – Old version").
When Robin Sachs (voice of the character Zaeed Massani) died, I vowed that I would not only finish writing this story – Ah... yes... this may look and feel like a complete story, but actually, there's another two parts to it in my head! – But that I would also re-write it with improvements, thanks in part to people who have read and reviewed it for me.
As before, I've purposefully tried not to describe Shepard too much, after all, fans of Mass Effect will each have their own versions of Shepard, so I leave those parts up to your imagination. Unfortunately, the graces of the English language (unlike for example, Chinese) do not grant the capacity to write into my story ambiguity of gender. So... apologies to any fan wishing this story were Sheploo not Femshep. I had to pick one.
I dedicate this story to the people that brought us Mass Effect through Bioware; to the voice actors and face models and everyone else who contributed to making characters so believable as to inspire fans like me to write about them. Furthermore, in light of his death, robbing us of the chance to ever hear him bring characters like Zaeed to life ever again, I dedicate this story to Robin Sachs. Only those who knew Robin Sachs personally could ever say how much of his own character and feelings towards his own life's story he brought to Zaeed, but my gut tells me there may be some parallels.
To know what defining events and experiences made a person who they are, is to know how to unmake them. You may be able to remake them from there, directing their life along a different path than it would otherwise have taken.
Most people saw Zaeed as too ugly or old to romance – a badass but someone who could never be anything more than that. I saw a different man. I glimpsed inner tenderness (example: Pragia mission). I saw a very lonely old man, and I wanted to give Zaeed a happier ending than his retirement plans, to show that he could have a happy ending and get the galaxy's golden girl and earn her respect enough for her to love him and stay with him... For Robin.
Shepard drew a deep breath. This was not a conversation she'd rather be having with such a 'loose cannon' on her own, but... it had to be done.
Not alone – she reminded herself – EDI will be monitoring.
Still, the AI's attentive presence did not comfort her. It wasn't that she doubted her own abilities – there was nothing this man could do to her unless she slipped up and let him get too close. Even then, she had ways of getting out of tight spots. Even if their skills were fairly evenly matched, or even if he somehow pulled off something better, she was nevertheless confident that her Cerberus upgrades would give her the compensatory brute strength not only to avoid, but also to sustain injury.
There are advantages to being... inhuman. She reminded herself darkly, leaving a bitter taste in her mouth.
No... It wasn't fear of harm that had her hesitating here outside the Starboard Cargo Hold. It was just that she just didn't want to have to deal with that kind of encounter with someone on her own crew on her own ship. She knew he'd only embarrass himself, and likely further deteriorate... And she needed him, damn it. She needed him right in the head and part of the team.
I need him on top of this, functional, and able to put his skills to use on my command.
She sighed as she pressed the door panel to enter. Zaeed was leaning against the far worktop in his usual pose, except that normally he'd be cleaning something. He was as meticulous as Jacob was when it came to looking after weapons, the only difference being that Zaeed was a lot more attached to his – example: Jessie.
Keeping weapons as trophies, memories of times gone by, naming them with sentimental attachment...
Why? Because these are perhaps the only things in his life that have stayed with him? Stayed loyal?
Shepard pitied him that only an inanimate object wouldn't soon tire of his attitude and bad behaviour. She knew the rest of the crew had tired of both already. Hell she knew she had pretty much had her fill of him, too.
Truth be told, her nape had prickled during their very first meeting. If she hadn't been obliged by the Illusive Man to take him onboard for the mission, she'd never have let him set foot aboard the Normandy unless it was under detention. Today was just the sort of thing that she had, perhaps subconsciously, been waiting for.
As she walked towards him she was surprised to find Zaeed attending to none of his prized possessions. Instead, he was fingering a pistol and clip in his hands, with not a cleaning cloth in sight. That was enough to set her on edge if she hadn't been already. She took one step forwards and planted herself in front of him. There was a knife-edged half-breath of silence before he greeted her.
"Shepard." – A cold, quieter-than-usual greeting which sounded less like a greeting and more like a stern 'Leave, if you know what's best for you'. At least the gun remained unmoved. She suspected (with small relief) that she was not his target.
Is it Vido again? I thought he'd put that aside... I don't have time for it if that's what this is all about.
His senses were sharp – more than she would have expected after eyeing the near-empty bottle of real whiskey and the (also empty) shot glass next to it. He'd answered her presence without hesitation, recognising that it was her despite having never lifted his head.
She let go (quietly) the half-breath that she'd been holding, only to take in with the next, the pungent stench of alcohol... Or rather that terribly smelly excrement formed from the metabolisation of alcohol by the human body. It was a horrible, acrid substance, that oozed through skin and permeated breath. It was pretty revolting smell when you yourself weren't drinking, and presently the entire cargo hold was saturated by it. She instinctively blinked but maintained her composure, trying not to notice it, only then remembering that actually, she'd had no intention of hiding her disapproval.
"Zaeed." She nodded, with a careful measure of respect, albeit with a tone in her voice that commanded attention. I'll not have drunken tantrums on my ship, thank you very much.
She adopted a cool stare. The thought of becoming so dependent upon a substance disgusted her. Sure, people had vices, but she didn't have to like that in anyone. A person with a vice could be manipulated, and she could simply no longer afford that vulnerability – certainly not in a member of her own crew. Not when the Reapers had an expansive intelligence network and the inclination to exploit such weaknesses. She'd seen them do that before... albeit through alien eyes, courtesy of the brain-scrambling Prothean beacons. In any case she couldn't doubt the likelihood of that scenario playing out in this cycle. It would be coming, even if it wasn't already happening.
Shepard, for her own part, did not have vices. She had made a principle of it, ever since she saw what that kind of weakness could do to a person. Shepard knew what it was like to be of lesser value to a person than their vice. I'm probably wasting my time here too, but I have to try - I'm running short on allies as of late.
Zaeed continued his ministrations. There was something about the way he caressed the gun that frankly disturbed her. Something was off, he was... He'd become... unhinged in some way. Cold settled in her stomach.
Whatever's been eating at him must've been coming to a head, right as I walked through the door. The supposition shocked her. Surely he wouldn't..?! Of all the people I've known he'd be the last I'd expect to...
"So... you've come to give me a good telling-off I take it," Zaeed calmly broke the silence, "...put me to rights about my little habit there." He motioned to the bottle with a tilt of his head and shift of an elbow, never taking his eyes off the weapon he toyed with in his hands. His jaw was tense. Shepard noted how he hadn't yet taken a breath. His anger was palpable – a seething hatred that mixed into the air and left it biting cold. Calm might be the tone, but nothing else about him was. If anything the quietness in his voice was a warning, one that prickled hair the same way the scent or sound of a predator might.
Shepard's body was in this moment so primed for danger that truth be told if this had been anyone other than crew, in any other place in any other situation, she might have dismissed reasoning with this man as being utterly pointless (and likely life-threatening) and instead just walked away. Trying to reason with a person in such a mental state was the sort of job that only rehab counsellors in military prisons have the time and patience to afford to do, and that was only because it was their life's profession, they could tag-team, they always had back-up. At least they were usually well paid for their trouble.
If it had been anyone else she didn't explicitly need, she might have left him to it.
You saw it everywhere on Omega – there comes a point where it pretty much takes a life (in time and effort) to mend a life, and a lifetime was a far more than she was willing to give this man. But she did need him, so she knew she had to try. It was that or turf him off the ship. The darker side of her added: in a body bag, if you want to make sure he can't be used to derail the mission later.
She dismissed that thought, not wanting to contemplate the precedent it would set or kind of person she'd be turning into by doing it. For now at least, she could avoid that decision: clearly he wanted to say more... Perhaps he was going to tell her a morbid story that could explain all of this – after all he always had a story... So she waited and simply stared at him expectedly.
"I take it that means yes." - Zaeed answered his own rhetorical question. "So. Who told?" He lifted his eyes but not his face to Shepard, glaring at her from under furrowed brows with a toothy, aggressive grin.
"Who do I have to thank for this little... visit?" He snarled softly, "Kelly with her 'I'm here to help you' counselling codswallop? Miranda miss-high-and-mighty disciplinarian?"
Then with a slight pause: "...Or did I just look at someone funny over breakfast?" He tilted his head with that last question, smirking sinisterly.
Sure. But of course... He was never going to make this easy, now was he? Why would I ever even think otherwise...
"Actually none and all of the above." She said nonchalantly, "With regards to breakfast, I hardly consider lifting Jackson's tray into his face then planting Gardner's head into Jacob's chicken salad 'looking at someone funny' Zaeed-" [Zaeed starts chuckling] "-so why don't we cut the crap, and pretend that this is a conversation where you tell me exactly what is getting under your skin and why, then we deal with it, move on, so we can get back to real business again."
She maintained a relaxed expression with that. Humour was a tactic Anderson had used on her in her fiery youth... "Never forget that Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War' applies to more than just fighting, he had told her, you must live by it. You must decide when, where and how your enemy will face you - but that works as well in conversations as it does on the battlefield. I can't win an argument with you when you're completely set on being angry, so I come at you sideways and give you reason to think about what is bothering you, in a different frame of mind."
She had to admit: it usually worked. Of course, Shepard figured that Zaeed would be twice as hard to handle as she had ever been – even when she was a short-fused recruit. For starters Zaeed was older, which meant he probably had a stick up his ass about taking seriously anything personal that someone younger than himself might have to say - about him, or about anything else for that matter.
"Hmph. 'I'm sorry'." – with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
There was an awkward pause were Shepard realised just how hard he was probably going to make this before he added:
"That what I'm supposed to say?" He didn't even scoff. "...But you know the way you describe what happens makes it sound so funny, I almost feel like going back up there and doing it all over again." - he laughed. It wasn't a nice laugh. It was the kind of laugh that might come from a sadistic bastard right before he cut off your finger...
I'll give you points for trying, she thought to herself, but wasn't about to get intimidated by him.
"Cut the crap Zaeed." – She serinterated in the politest tone she could manage, low toned and quiet, but with a snap in the consonants knowing full well the button she was pressing in doing so.
Pushing this man - this obviously mentally unstable and yet rather veteran man - was probably not a sensible thing to do. Yet it was the only way to get to the bottom of this. Yell at him and you'd just end up with a fight and very little information out of him if any at all. Being polite and level-headed on the other hand, would get under his skin and make him bite. If she approached him with calm reason, he would come back at her with a verbal knife, the shape of which would tell her something.
It worked. Zaeed pushed off the wall and closed the gap between them, eyes so fierce he could have been back at that refinery on Zorya the day she forced him to let Vido go. His finger (clip clenched in the fist that accompanied it) jabbed the air close to her nose whilst the arm holding the gun, waved around the other side of her head as he sharply snarled back:
"Why don't YOU cut the crap, Shepard?! Enough with this 'I care-share'... bloody rubbish! I expect it from Chambers, not from you!"
"Zaeed." Shepard levelled her eyes with the mercenary, which meant looking up just a little when as today: she wasn't in armour, but he was. "Either you're going to tell me what is going on so we can fix this, or we're going to have a problem." - Quietly.
"Don't play this like you want to bury your nose in my business because all you're going to do is get burned." He growled. "If you think I'm trouble you should throw me off this ship at next port - I'll take my money and leave. If you figure you need me, then you put up with me and stop wasting my time coming down here, giving me grief about things that're none of your goddamn business!"
Shepard was breaking her own rules. His face was within five inches of hers – way too close for safety. She could smell the overbearing stench of alcohol on his breath. But she did have the door at her back. Frankly though, seeing this side of him just made her even less tolerant, and a whole lot more angry. She wasn't about to head for that door any time soon.
I'll put you out and drag you to the infirmary for detox if I have to... Time for the gloves to come off.
"Oh I'll go one better than that." She shook her head and smiled pleasantly as she kept the low tone and volume of her voice. "You start talking or I space you." ...And I'm only half-bluffing.
"You wouldn't dare." He squinted his eyes at her, but she could tell he wasn't a hundred percent certain.
"I've killed people for less." She shrugged. That was a blatant lie because she always had a reason. Still... other people didn't always see it that way, or realise how much she did think of reasons, every damned time. Such was the grand public interpretation of her actions and the reputation she had built, and she knew Zaeed knew her first and foremost by reputation, so she now used that to her advantage.
"So what? What the Hell difference does it make if I have a little drink now n' then?"
Obviously he'd had a little more to drink than he could normally handle and still stay focused in an argument, else he wouldn't say something so blatantly flawed. He was looking for a fight but he was being far too straight forward about it. His speech was also getting more slurred as it became more impassioned.
"I'll explain that again in more detail, shall I?" Shepard raised her brows patronisingly, "With the knowledge you have, I can't take the risk that you'll spill it out to the highest bidder when you leave." She dropped her eyebrows for a sterner look. "You're on this ship at my discretion, and you're not leaving it until your contract is fulfilled – and I say when that is – or... You leave when I put you in a coffin. Now if you would rather I put you in a coffin sooner, you just keep on going Zaeed because you're walking a very fine line."
He launched at her – another sign of his condition because he was trying to use the gun as a bludgeon instead of what it was designed for - she blocked the blow but it was too close not to knock her backwards. He grabbed at her, swung her around by her tunic (she allowed this, for now) and pinned her to the wall.
"Now you pay attention to me, lil' girl!"- punctuated by the thunk of Shepard's back hitting the wall panel.
He didn't notice the knife she pulled from beneath her tunic that now poised at a weak point in his side armour. She'd only use it if he forced her hand, but it was ready nonetheless. He clutched her tunic the harder and yelled into her face:
"I'm not taking orders from anyone about what I do with my own body! What I do with my own body in my own time is my own goddamn business!" His words were really slurring now, and his voice was less than stable. "An' you best stay out o' my way if you know what's good for you!"
Seeing such a proud man in this state was embarrassing. He reeked of alcohol. Still some part of her pitied him, remembering perhaps the somebody she had lost so long ago: the one friend she'd failed to help.
No. I didn't fail. It was his problem. He wouldn't deal with it. I couldn't do anything. I did my best but I couldn't do anything. Friendship can only go so far... But damn it I need this bastard. I'd have walked away by now if I didn't. Too many enemies and too few heroes... Hell maybe I wasn't kidding about spacing him but...
"Bear in mind I've got a knife ready to bleed you if you don't give an honest answer: why are you pushing people away? What is it you're trying so hard not to let me see?"
The mental trick she'd seen Anderson use so well seemed to work. His self preservation instincts prickled at the realisation of the knife, and the anger momentarily subsided – enough for emotional exhaustion to kick in at that momentary panic.
"I'm tired..." He began, then letting go of her, he stumbled backwards as if winded. "I'm tired of living Shepard. I've been around long enough to know that everything ends. Nothing stays with you 'til the end. Best you can do is make it an end that happens at a time and place of your choosing." His words were very slurred now.
Her memory flashed back to the diary entries pulled up from the Shadow Broker's archives on him, including his retirement plan.
Was that what he was doing with the pistol..?!
Shepard felt a little ill. Zaeed was never a man she would expect to ever take his own life – he was just too hell bent on surviving for that. Even just the thought of that diary entry gave her the chills the first time she read it. She couldn't help but wonder:
What did this to him..?
"So, what? You were just going to shoot yourself in the head, leave me a man down and a mess to clean up in the cargo bay?" She folded her arms, tucking the knife into a sleeve and out of sight as she did so. "- Thanks for that."
No sympathy. Hammer it home that everything isn't just about him, make him have to justify why it should be right now, make him have to explain himself.
"What's it mean to you anyhow? Huh? I'm just a gun for hire." He sounded pitiful, waving the gun in the air and shaking his head, "My best years are behind me. I..." He turned away and caught the desk where he then stopped and stared at his weapons. Either she scared some sobriety into him, or the alcohol was starting to wear off. "I..." He paused, remaining silent for a painfully long time. Perhaps he was still ingesting what had just transpired.
Finally he let go a long breath and added curtly at the end of it: "Thanks, Shepard." She could hear how that had choked him, which must mean he at least partly meant it.
"I think... I want to be left alone awhile."
He swallowed and cleared his throat. When he didn't hear her footsteps headed towards the door he added, hoarsely:
"I'll... take some time, think it over. You can leave now." His voice was calm enough, although beaten. He was dismissing her, but she was pretty sure she'd made her point. He slumped a little.
Shepard shelved her frustration temporarily and walked over to him, determined to offer some kind of reward for his backing down and saving her the trouble of knocking him out. Gingerly placing a hand on his shoulder:
"Hey," – she leaned around to see his face and smirked in her own darkly cheerful way: "Just because I'll space you if I can't have you without that bottle, doesn't mean I don't need you, and wouldn't rather have you on the team. Doesn't mean I don't appreciate that this is probably going to take some time, either."
Then sobering her expression: "But I do expect you to see Dr Chakwas at 09:00h tomorrow morning regardless how bad your head hurts, and she's going to help. In the mean time, if you need to talk - or want to talk - even if it's just to tell me another one of your epic stories, you know where to find me, alright?"
She ended the conversation with a gentle smile – something she knew Zaeed may never have seen before directed at himself, and hoped it had a positive impact. Zaeed nodded, but that was all. He let out this huge long sigh, and just nodded. Shepard decided then to leave, to afford the man a little dignity.