He'd expected her to visit him, to get any lingering resentments regarding Vido out of his system, but the Illusive Man got to her first. They were going to Horizon, and Shepard picked both him and Garrus to accompany her. The reasoning was more obvious this time; she wanted survivors beside her. Zaeed glanced at the fresh scars on the turian's face and reflected that all three had all but come back from the dead once already.
And surviving Horizon felt like they'd done it again. Zaeed had never experienced anything like it. He'd heard of the Collectors, but faced with the reality of them – it was a nervy business, no mistake. Not that it slowed him down any. They still died when shot enough. The seeker swarms were maddening; oppressive enough without knowing what they were capable of should Mordin's shields fail.
Zaeed began to realise the scope of what he'd signed up for. And why she'd deemed it necessary to pull a gun on him. He wouldn't have wanted to fight this with anyone less than committed himself, he had to admit. Even that wouldn't have been enough. If EDI hadn't managed to get those guns working, Zaeed couldn't see how they'd have gotten out in one piece. He didn't dwell on what-ifs. The vast collector ship was leaving, and the skies above Horizon once again clear.
The colony was a ghost town. Any surviving colonists would be on the far side, and the faint hum of generators and the anti-Alliance tirade by the mechanic were all the broke the sudden silence as the guns ceased firing. Zaeed couldn't blame the poor old bastard really, but that didn't make him want to shut him up any less.
And then the Alliance soldier appeared. Both Shepard and Garrus reacted, and Zaeed guessed this was another of Shepard's original crew. Zaeed wasn't terribly impressed, although Shepard looked happy enough to see him. As long as they didn't install him in the cargo hold, they'd get on fine.
But there wasn't any joyful reunion and recruitment. They had a brief, cold argument about Cerberus, and Kaiden spared enough attention to give Garrus a serve and then he was walking away, Shepard merely watching him.
"I've had enough of this colony," Shepard said, radioing Joker for a pick up. On the trip back, she had her music up loud enough that Zaeed, sitting across from her, could hear the faint buzz of the beat in her ears. She wasn't tapping her fingers, either, instead gazing out the window, her expression grim.
Zaeed didn't know whether he felt vindicated by the existence of someone who didn't appear to think the galaxy revolved around Commander Shepard, or irritated with the man for being such a wet blanket about it. If Zaeed could see there was something seriously big happening here, surely Kaiden could as well.
He knew he was due for another visit, but didn't expect it to be so soon after arriving back on the Normandy. She must have given the Illusive Man an abridged version of events on Horizon.
And then gone straight to him.
She walked right in without so much as knocking, as per bloody usual. He was getting pretty good at recognising her footsteps approaching down the corridor. It was her ship, he supposed and she could go wherever she bloody well felt like, but he would have preferred a bit more privacy. Although she never disturbed him out of 'office hours' as it were.
"Vido," she stated, putting her back to the window and folding her arms.
"Sorted," he replied. "Don't get me wrong, I'll find that bastard, and it won't take me twenty years this time." He could feel the anger stirring just thinking about it, and he forced it down. "But your mission comes first, Shepard."
She could have looked a bit more goddamn grateful. She nodded slowly at him, as if his answer was merely a formality. Maybe it was.
"I'm sorry we didn't get him," she said. "He's got it coming."
"That he has," Zaeed replied. He wasn't going to let himself be drawn on the topic. No one, no one in the galaxy could understand what he'd been through, and he wasn't about to watch her try. "That Kaiden," he said, going on the offensive instead, "why didn't you put a gun to his head?"
"It wouldn't have worked." She raised a shoulder in a half-shrug and then smiled, "And then I'd have been obligated to shoot him."
"Huh." Zaeed was amused in spite of himself. "He seemed pretty far up your arse until you told him who signs your pay check."
"He's a good soldier." Iron had entered her voice, "And I don't blame him for feeling the way he does. Hell, if I'd have been in his shoes I'd have done the same thing. You weren't there, Zaeed, you haven't seen Cerebus research facilities first-hand. In operation."
Zaeed levered himself off the wall and stalked over to her, and she glanced up at him in surprise as he approached. "And you weren't there when Vido put a bullet through my head, so what the hell is the difference between me and him, Shepard?"
"He's doing what he believes is right, Zaeed, he is following his principles, while you wanted nothing more than revenge." She forestalled him before he could protest further. "You want to know what the difference there is?" She looked up at him with a crooked, unhappy smile, and Zaeed had the horrible feeling he'd lost this argument before it had even started. "I could talk you out of it. And I did. I could no more talk Kaiden out of being a decent person than I could talk a volus out of a good deal."
Zaeed stepped back, shifting his jaw as he tried to think of a comeback. "How did you know you could talk me out of it?" He returned to his spot against the wall, scowling.
"Instinct?" Shepard shrugged.
"Wishful thinking, more like."
She smiled faintly, "Maybe." She tilted her head, "You know, that mission on Zorya really took me back."
Zaeed gazed at her steadily, wary. He hadn't been in the mood to be teased for several years now, and he didn't rise to the bait. She waited a few moments for a response then continued.
"You're not the first crew member I've had to pull a gun on." She shook her head, a nostalgic smile on her face, "I still don't know how I managed to talk him down. You actually remind me of him, a bit."
Zaeed sighed, "All right, Shepard, I'll bite. Who?"
Her smile broadened into a grin that overwhelmed the stress lines and half-healed scars. Zaeed was slightly shocked to recognise the girl he'd seen on the news vids when she answered, "Mordin has some business on Tuchanka. Hopefully, I'll introduce you." She shifted her weight from the window to her feet and turned to leave. "I'll talk to you later," she said.
"Right, Shepard." He realised those were about the most words he'd head from her in their little chats. Up until now, she'd spent most of the time listening to his stories with little more than a 'hello' and a 'goodbye' to bracket them.
"Oh," she paused at the doorway, as if she'd just thought of something. "You should see Dr Chakwas about that," she flicked a finger next to her left cheek, indicating the purplish bruise that stretched across his one remaining cheekbone, a souvenir of their time on Zorya.
"'M fine," he said flatly, scowling at her. Cheeky bitch. He couldn't figure out where she was getting the idea that they were friends.
Tuchanka was a bit of an eye-opener, if he was being honest. Mordin's problem, whatever the hell that was, was obviously not the most important item on her agenda, because she took Garrus with them rather than the salarian. Zaeed couldn't see what the big deal was; Tuchanka was a still-smouldering ruin, full of hostile animals and krogan. Shepard seemed to think otherwise, however, gazing about like a colony rube on their first spaceflight.
She made a beeline for the clan leader, and to Zaeed's surprise, he made a beeline for her. He shoved his guards aside to give Shepard a handshake and a pat on the back that Zaeed was convinced would have been a hug if they hadn't been in public. So this was who she'd compared him to: Urdnot Wrex. Zaeed had heard of the mercenary in a professional sense, and the rumour, now proved true, was he'd dropped out of sight to return to his homeworld.
Zaeed wasn't sure if he was flattered or not.
"Wrex." The two aliens shook hands, friendly enough, Wrex approving of the turian's presence.
Shepard rubbed her hands together, "Send the shuttle back for Mordin. And Grunt; I think he should see this."
Garrus volunteered and Zaeed suddenly found himself at a loose end as Shepard caught up with her old comrade. There was nothing to do but watch varren fight, or watch Shepard listen, apparently fascinated, to the krogan's political plans. Zaeed attempted the former but found himself doing the latter. He'd never seen a krogan, let alone a clan leader, so friendly to an alien before. They'd taken themselves off to a corner; Wrex gesturing as he explained something, Shepard nodding agreeably and smiling, her glasses perched on top of her head.
Grunt and Mordin arrived soon after, and the former shared Zaeed's apathy with regard to Tuchanka, while the latter appeared to find everything interesting to some degree. Zaeed managed to make fifteen hundred credits with the varren when he heard Shepard laughing. She was nudging the krogan with her elbow while he shook his head and grumbled good-naturedly.
To Zaeed's relief that appeared to be the end of the conversation, and Shepard turned her attention to Mordin's problem. Zaeed could sense some tension between the two, and not the sort that ended in playing doctors and nurses. She wasn't at the point of putting a gun to the scientist's head but they did nothing but argue, seriously and, in his view, pointlessly, about the genophage. They finally took a truck out and he concentrated on shooting things; he couldn't care less about Mordin.
As he expected, she prevented Mordin from shooting his old student, but what he didn't expect was her change of heart about the research he'd been doing.
"It's tainted," she said, gazing up at the screen, lip curled in disgust. "Nothing good can come of this."
Mordin, obviously undecided himself, moved his fingers over the console, flicking through the data. "That would mean the deaths were wasted. They died for nothing."
Zaeed was surprised to see her hesitate. Reflected data slid down her glasses as she bowed her head for a few moments. Of all the things to be suddenly uncertain of, why this, he wondered. She'd blazed her way through the galaxy with iron-clad principles, without hesitation or room for argument.
"Save the data," she said suddenly. "Maybe some good can come of all of this. Maybe you can help them." Mordin didn't reply, but he did as she suggested, downloading a copy of the research before wiping the systems clean.
That seemed to satisfy her, and the running argument came to an end, for now at least. Mordin was obviously far more concerned about his ex-student, and the salarian spent the ride back twitching slightly as he worked through things in his head. Shepard drove.
They weren't done with Tuchanka, although Mordin obviously was.
Grunt was going through some sort of vague krogan hormonal crisis, and Shepard left it up to the krogan to prescribe a cure. Zaeed was unsurprised to learn it involved shooting a lot of things. Shepard seemed to think it was a great idea. She had a faint smile on her face as they made their way to the keystone.
When waves of varren started attacking, Zaeed rolled his eyes. Was this meant to be difficult? This wouldn't even make a good story for later. But by the time the harvester flew in, dropping klixen, an adrenaline fuelled bloodlust had begun to settle upon them, and they shouted and scrambled and fought and the arena reeked of hot metal and scorched chitin.
Zaeed's enthusiasm was curbed when he saw the tell-tale signs of a thresher maw approaching. Survive this, on foot? His heart was pounding as he shoved a fresh heat sink into his rifle, looking at Shepard as the shaman's voice boomed around them, preaching survival.
"Survive?" Shepard snarled, not a trace of fear in her voice. "Like hell I'm settling for that!" Her sniper rifle folded itself up neatly against the magnetic strip on her back as she reached for the Collector weapon she'd appropriated on Horizon.
Grunt slammed his fist into his palm with a roar of approval. They were both goddamn mad, Zaeed thought. But when Shepard vaulted over a piece of rubble, he found himself following.
He ran interference for her. Her weapon was powerful enough to gouge huge rifts in the thresher maw's hide, and it writhed in pain before diving after her. She turned and ran, as the ground shook and the monster spat acid strong enough to melt through armour at her heels. Zaeed heard himself yell as he ran at the monster, firing his rifle all-but-uselessly at its massive head.
He felt briefly triumphant when he got the beast's attention before wondering what the ever-loving fuck he thought he was doing. It was his turn to run. He heard another pained roar and saw Grunt right up against the creature's side- did the krogan have a death-wish- blasting holes in its comparatively soft underbelly. Then the needling buzz of Shepard's laser cut through the chaos and the process was repeated.
It felt endless. The Collector beam had spent itself against the thresher maw's unforgiving hide and Shepard had returned to her rifle, dropping down on one knee and squeezing off a shot before darting for cover again. The ground was slick with blood and slime, and Zaeed thought he could smell it eating through his boots. Acrid air burned in his lungs, and he'd been hit enough times that thresher-spit was eating into his arms and back.
They were trapped in the arena, while the thresher maw was free to move where it willed, and gradually what cover there was began to get eaten away, or simply destroyed, either by the body of the thresher maw or their own weapons.
He was sure he was incapable of taking another painful, exhausted step when the creature thrashed briefly and sank back into the ground with a defeated, dying groan. It took him a few seconds to process what had happened, and he staggered, gazing about at the destruction.
Shepard coughed harshly, and she swayed slightly before finding her feet again. Her mouth twisted into the most satisfied, victorious smile he'd ever seen, and she cocked her hip and slung her rifle over her shoulder, regarding the hole which the thresher maw had died in. He had to smile; he supposed she'd earned that pose.
"I am krogan!" Grunt roared, and Zaeed found himself being bellowed at and pounded painfully on the back. From both sides, as Shepard joined in the celebrations, and then the three of them were burning off excess fear and adrenaline, shouting and thumping each other on the shoulders, exalting and disbelieving of what they'd achieved.
Uvnek's appearance was not unexpected, but it was a bit anticlimactic. Shepard had merely exchanged a glance with Grunt, leaving it up to him to reject the insulting offer, and the subsequent firefight was practically a formality, despite their injuries. They'd killed a thresher maw and, today at least, they were bullet-proof.
The truck on the way back reeked of acid, hot metal, burnt plastic, adrenaline and hormones. Zaeed wasn't sure Grunt was solely responsible for the latter. That had been a hell of a fight, and he was still coming down off it. He tried not to think about that cocked hip and extraordinary smile, and it was more difficult than it should have been.
He'd followed her right into a fight with a thresher maw, and he now knew he'd follow her wherever the Collectors led her. And after all of that, he considered she'd owe him a drink or two. Somewhere quiet. Forget the hazard pay.