Commander Shepard is so unimpressive at first sight that Zaeed nearly regrets the deal.
For two years the images of the self-righteous Alliance hero have been broadcast across the galaxy, been sent high and low, in efforts of trying to make people care about humans and politics and geth. It hadn't worked in the parts of the galaxy where Zaeed has spent the last two years – chasing down some dumb salarian swindler and a few red sand dealing batarians – but that doesn't say much. Nothing really gets through to those parts of the universe anyway.
In the rest of the vast pisshole that is their brave new world Commander Shepard of the Normandy had made an impression. A big goddamn hero going down with her ship, saving her entire crew. Daft paragon bullshit that's serving no one in the end. Stuff of fairy tales.
But this commander doesn't look much like the woman in the vids when she stands in front of him, glaring tiredly at the batarian on the ground. Zaeed is a bit disappointed. He had saved that little scene for her, wanting to make a trademark entrance she'd be forced to react to, setting the course of this mission and his participation in it, but she damn well gives him nothing in return.
Months ago, in a seedy bar on Terra Nova, Zaeed had learned about Commander Shepard's legendary suicide missions from some starry-eyed marine who'd probably give his right arm to run off and play hero to get the same kind of stories to his own name. The idiot had banged on about odds of survival and tactics and did Zaeed know she had saved the entire Council?
Zaeed hadn't known, and he hadn't particularly cared. Last time he checked, the Council was a bunch of self-important politicians who pretended they made the galaxy better while they were holed up on the Citadel, at a safe distance from actual people, turning papers and making life hell for anyone who wanted to step over a few goddamn lines. He'd have let them burn for the hell of it.
Then saint Shepard had died, like naïve kids do, and been resurrected by those with enough credits and balls to pull her back from the great void to fight their wars for them. Cerberus, of course. Who else? Twisted fuckers the lot them. Normally he would think twice about a mission orchestrated by them – the price is usually too high - but this time he had found himself signing that datapad against his better judgement. He has nothing to lose, after all.
And somewhere before he had signed the contract – before he got to the fine print and all those sweet numbers – Cerberus had assured him that Shepard was up to impossible tasks. We brought her back just the same. They had even made the fighting bit sound like a decent spot of entertainment, a worthy challenge before retirement – to beat a few hopeless odds, escape certain death, things that still can make a mission seem more worthwhile than retiring in a big fucking explosion near some batarian colony somewhere.
At the moment, though, this commander in front of him doesn't look like she'd be up to anything at all, least of all leading an expedition against an indestructible enemy, and Zaeed throws her a questioning glance. Whatever they did to her images in the vids, they made her look better than this. This woman is pale and hollowed-out and way too lanky to be imposing. Her bloody face isn't even healed yet, he notices, wondering how long it's been since they dragged her out of her grave. By the look of it, the answer might as well be yesterday.
"You know the deal?" she asks, turning up her head to give Zaeed the same kind of weary look as she had given the prisoner.
Do you, he thinks but he doesn't say it on the off chance that she's still the badass they say she is.
"Yeah. I hear we have a galaxy to save."
The stern expression on her face falters a little before she nods, composing herself again. "Report to the Normandy. I'll be there in a sec."
"I'm trying to remember how many Cerberus operatives I've killed," Massani drawls when she firsts visits him in his quarters of choice – down in the starboard cargo of all places, she should have figured he'd be an obstinate jerk about that, too – and he eyes her thoroughly, sizing her up.
"You don't say," Shepard returns, uninterested. She wonders if he somehow expects her to be impressed. Pushing back an irritated sigh, she walks up to the desk where the surveillance camera looks back at her, displaying an empty mess, an empty corridor, an all but empty cockpit. This version of Normandy has no crowds, that's for certain. She drags her fingers over the smooth, blank surfaces and averts her gaze, staring into space for a moment. It seems so strange to be starting over when she's still not snapped out of her past. She shakes her head, ridding herself of the thoughts.
Behind her Massani shifts position; there's a clattering, almost archaic sound of the old-fashioned details of his armour that clashes against his surroundings. Metal against metal.
"Yeah. I lost count around fifty." He makes a indistinct gesture before folding his arms across his broad chest again. He certainly puts on quite a show. Big, scary bounty hunter who probably has some intricate pattern of his conquests tattooed on his back but who would shit himself if someone put a gun to his head – yes, Shepard knows the type. "I guess your Illusive Man is big on forgiveness."
Shepard figures the Illusive Man is even bigger on finding expendable fighters for a hopeless cause, but she doesn't say that. Narrowing her eyes a bit as she's turning around, she watches him, the name on the dossier made flesh and blood. He's not exactly like she expected, yet she can't pinpoint what it is that differs. Waiting for her sleeping pills – orders from Doctor Chakwas - to have effect, she'd read through the records twice last night without finding any real answers to anything there either. He's an ex-Alliance soldier, not much of a leader but one hell of a shot, no family, no owned property, a long list of military operations of various kinds and sizes.
A typical merc, through and through; he's kept himself alive for an unusual length of time, though, she'll give him that. Most mercenaries never reach their fifties but he has, obviously. Ruthless and relentless was the description in the letter accompanying the files. It's too early to say what she can make of it, what he will agree to let her make of it, of him.
The only way to work with criminals, someone told her once, is to put them in your debt. She will have to remember that.
"You know the rules, Massani," she says, in a forced light-hearted tone. Even to herself her voice sounds lifeless. An echo of someone she used to be. "I give the orders, you follow them."
"This isn't the goddamn Alliance, Shepard." His face darkens slightly. "Call me Zaeed."
She considers his request very briefly and not genuinely.
"We head out to track down Doctor Mordin Solus first thing in the morning, Massani. Unless you prefer a pod, or this sad excuse for a bed, there's one for you in the crew quarters and if you have any questions Yeoman Chambers will take care of them."
They can barely walk three damn feet inside Afterlife without being bothered by someone who recognises his new commander, Zaeed realises quickly. How the hell she had time to save the galaxy, he'll never know. Seems like she's meddled in people's personal affairs as a fucked up pastime activity, running around poking her nose into everyone's business, making a equal number of enemies and friends. She'd make a worthless mercenary, that one. Doesn't know the first goddamn thing about leaving people alone or staying undetected.
"So what if I buy prostitutes in my spare time?" an ugly bastard yells out as Shepard moves too close to him. By the look of things he's bought no less than two of them - two dancers who are circling around his table trying not to look bored. Idiot. It has always struck Zaeed as really fucking strange why you'd flaunt your whores like that, as though having to pay for it is a goddamn trophy. "I'm a good boy now, leave me the fuck alone!"
"Shut it, Fist." Shepard grunts back.
Zaeed smirks. "Friend of yours?"
"I forgot to kill him once."
"Easy to remedy," Zaeed offers.
For a second Shepard looks at him, then her gaze travels to the other man as though she's actually considering it. If she hadn't been such a bleeding heart, he would have already snapped into position.
"Nah." She shrugs, pacing forward in the crowded bar. "He's not worth the ammo."
Shaking his head, Zaeed follows.
The bar is crowded. Omega is crowded. Even the gigantic ship is too crowded for everything they drag back to it after a day's work here. It tends to rub off on you like nothing else in the galaxy, the kind of shit they have in places like this. He's itching to get out of here, can almost see Vido slipping further away for each day they spend nursing sick bloody batarians and killing vorcha; the Illusive Man had been very convincing about allowing Zaeed to finish his other business, but Zaeed isn't holding his damn breath, that's for sure.
Shepard looks restless, as well, when they are forced to wait for the recruiting mercs to give them entrance.
"What are you doing?" she snaps at Lawson. They've snatched a table near the door where a few people have begun to line up for the mercs who are still nowhere to be seen. Arriving fashionably late for their own recruitment drive – that's what happens when you put retarded assholes in charge of things.
"Checking out the area, Commander," Lawson replies; her right hand hasn't left the holster since they entered this place. "Back in a minute."
Zaeed watches her walk away – well, he almost exclusively watches her arse, to be entirely honest. Genetic design, he concludes to himself. Has to be. Perfect doll, incredibly fucking gorgeous, too perfect to actually be attractive. Then again, Zaeed always did like them goddamn flawed.
When he returns his attention to the commander, she rolls her eyes, unimpressed.
"Oh, come on."
"Hey, if you looked like that I'd be staring at you, too," he says, holding up his hands.
"If you stared at me like that, Massani," Shepard says, coolly, "I'd shoot your wrinkly balls off."
He snorts but can't hide his own amusement. Hell, there's some fire in her after all – a sense of humour too, judging by the way the corners of her mouth curl upwards.
She sits cross-legged on the couch, her armour is out of place here among the dancers and the rugged old leather seats, but nobody care, of course. It's Omega. You could wear a corpse as a goddamn coat here without anyone raising an eyebrow.
Zaeed notices the N7 plate, has forgotten that piece of intel on her if he ever had it, but it's not like he's surprised. Of course the special hero had belonged to the special forces. The N7 recruits were joyless bastards the lot of them, as far as he recalls. Suits her, Zaeed thinks, remembering the pompous speech she'd given over the intercom the other night – something about sacrifice and honour and duty ripped straight out of some old tome in the Alliance's archives. The glory of dying like a dog for one's country. It seemed that daft concept never got old. The Commander expects no less dedication from you than she does from anyone else, Lawson had informed him during the debriefing.
"So why did a goddamn little saint like you help someone like Helena Blake to kill her way to the top?" he asks a moment later when they still haven't got off their arses to actually do something useful and still are waiting for Lawson to return. Zaeed's picked up his lighter from his pocket, flicking the gas flame back and forth.
Shepard's quiet for a bit, her clamped jaws working like a machinery.
"It wasn't like that," she says eventually. "And I'm not a saint, Massani."
"Oh yeah?" He raises an eyebrow, staring unabashedly at her, trying to read her expression. Running into Blake had been unexpected to say the least and Zaeed prefers to keep tabs on who's who and who does what and where money is. Occupational habit. "That's not what I've heard."
"I don't really care what you've heard."
"So what about Blake?" He asks again, sharpening his voice slightly. Shepard's so damn illusive, dodging his questions – any question she doesn't want to answer. Why would she need to answer questions when she's got the whole crew thinking of her as the second coming, bending over for her every suggestion without even realising it. Clever bitch. Reminds him of an Alliance lieutenant he knew once, a long time ago, just before he started hunting down bounties to make a living. Bright girl. Tough. Never backed down. They had taken on a whole damn Turian scout team alone, just the two of them; Zaeed had managed to kill one of them with a grenade, snitching a sniper rifle from the alien and then it had been one hell of a fight, two marines blasting straight through the enemy ranks from opposite directions. A fucking magnificent battle. Two against thirty-five. He had almost been tempted to stay then, for a day or so, before the Alliance pissed him off again.
That lieutenant - Aida, Alida, Aino, he can't remember and it does matter (Ava, he knows in a part of his mind that refuses his own efforts to destroy it, her name was Ava, her parents came from Iran and she pronounced his name in a way that could spin his goddamn mind around). That lieutenant, the very same, had tracked Vido and him some years later when they were finishing a mission for a crime lord on the Citadel, pulled a gun on Zaeed and told him she'd turn him in. Vido, always a paranoid asshole, had shot her before Zaeed had even thought of another way out. Bloody waste.
Shepard sighs loudly, pulling him out of the past. "You always this annoying?"
"Let me guess," Zaeed leans back in his seat, deliberately ignoring her rhetorical question. "She talked you into helping her out with some big fucking trouble and you swallowed the bait, thinking you could make her see the error of her ways?"
"Hah." His suggestion is met with a cold sneer, but it is probably closer to the truth than she wants to admit. Zaeed knows her type, he knows it well and he's about to mention it when a shadow crosses the commander's face and something seems to snap in the air around them.
And then, swiftly, before he has even considered the possibility of it, Shepard stands in an abrupt movement, kicking the table towards him so he's wedged in between the seat and the tabletop. She presses it against him even harder and he can nearly feel his kidneys protesting. When she leans over it, searching for his gaze, her smirk is a dark shade of triumph.
"Don't patronise me, Massani." She speaks softly, her voice low and close; he can feel her breath against his skin. "Do you hear me?"
For a second, Zaeed's mind buzzes with irritation.
He doesn't need this shit. He doesn't need to be forced into a goddamn team of stupid bastards with a collective death wish; he doesn't need a commander telling him what to do. It doesn't work like that. He doesn't work like that – he accepts the mission, he completes the mission and then he gets paid for the mission, no questions asked. Simplest equation in the galaxy.
Shepard remains frozen, waiting, towering over him with that smug smirk glued to her face. Her Illusive Man had given Zaeed upfront payment that could make his mouth water, not nearly half of the promised sum but enough of a teaser to make it seem worth the gamble, even if the odds are against them, even if this saintly woman is going to raise the stakes further day – to be a pain, if nothing else.
"Do you hear me?" she repeats in the same tone.
Zaeed inclines his head, not breaking their eye-contact. He wasn't born yesterday; he can play a goddamn game if she wants to. "Loud and clear."
"Good." Shepard nods curtly before she walks away.
She's having a good day, all things considered.
As good as days get on Omega, anyway, and definitely a vast improvement over the shattering frustration that has coloured the last two cycles. Today she feels alive. They've killed a lot of mercs to get to Archangel and her face is hot and flushed, her hands warm with pent-up movements and her chest pounds, a familiar, strengthening rhythm.
And it's Garrus. Garrus, and she can't stop smiling.
"Good work, everybody," she calls out as they clear the upper floor once more; they're regrouping, minding minor injuries and stuffing their guns with fresh thermal clips. The turian looks over the mess of the room and directly at her, smiling, too. Behind him, Miranda is alerting EDI.
Shepard holds up the Firestorm, turning it around to get a quick scan of the damage. Defunct. Definitely defunct. It's a shame, really. She had just started to like the new upgrades to it.
"Incoming!" Massani roars suddenly, in the middle of that deceptively calm moment that always follow a tough battle of this kind. The critical moment, Shepard thinks, seething, where you'll either snap back into fighting or end up in pieces.
Of course it's a damn gunship. They're trapped on stinking, pest-ridden Omega and she feels like she's waded through a whole ecosystem of filthy diseases already, her shotgun is torn to pieces by a krogan and now there's a gunship hoovering right above their heads.
Before she knows it, quicker than she can grab her pistol and get there, Garrus is thrown off his feet, shot and knocked out and Miranda has to run for cover as the massive beams from the ship hits her shields. Everything takes an abrupt turn at that. Their advantage that had seemed fairly decent, more than enough to take them out of here unharmed at any rate, is shrinking with every wasted second. Fuck. Shepard spits a long thread of curses and exchanges a hasty glance with Massani thinking now is the time to prove yourself, merc.
A fraction of a second later he's running towards the gunship, firing his gun and Shepard has time to scuttle across the room, grabbing a grenade from one of the corpses and she throws it right before Massani ducks - she throws it and misses the intended spot but it's still enough to weaken the kinetic barrier.
There's a sudden gap in the tight string of events as the fight sort of stills; Shepard doesn't allow herself a second thought before she runs back out, right in front of the gunship, ignoring the sharp cry from Miranda and then Massani, louder and hoarser:
"Get the hell out of there!"
Not looking back, Shepard kneels down, directly underneath the massive belly of the ship and then Massani is by her side, for god knows what reasons, emptying his shotgun into a tear in the armour, a tiny weakness that she hadn't even spotted but is immensely grateful to see. Shepard takes a moment to focus, a moment of directing her energy in the very same direction before she lets a full-on biotic pull out of her body, through her flesh and bones and her outstretched hand. The ship quakes, first a little and then, as she presses on with a volley of shots and then another one, it rocks back and forth, losing its defences one by one.
Finally, in an ear-splitting thunder, the gunship explodes.
It explodes and Shepard is thrown back, her right side injured and sore and her head a mess but for a few seconds everything is fine again, a good fit for her good day. Everything tastes of the adrenaline rush and a small rivulet of blood leaking from her lower lip and she's just blown up a gunship with a pistol so right now, right here, all the terrible things from the cycles since her resurrection are filtered through this.
And she remembers, in a harsh, short breath, why she fights.
"He won't make it." Massani stands over Garrus's sprawled body on the floor, arms crossed.
"He will," Shepard replies, matter-of-factly, because she remembers, too, who she is and how they do these things under her command. "Zaeed-" He looks at her, a strangely unreadable expression forming on his face. "Help me carry him."
"Damn it, Shepard," Miranda says later in the shuttle. "That was impressive. We took down all the mercs."
"We did, yes."
They'll re-spawn like insects, of course, but there's no need to mention that right now. With Garrus reasonably stable given the circumstances and the sky darkening around them and the prospect of getting the hell away from this planet within reach, there's no need.
No need at all. Shepard stretches out, resting the back of her head against the seat and looking straight ahead. Beside her, Zaeed is uncommunicative and composed, but when she glances sideways, she imagines there is something there between them – a sliver of respect, of... something else perhaps – and he seems to notice it too because he folds his arms and lets his gaze wander back to where she can't catch it.
Shepard smiles thinly to herself.
A/N: I know Bioware claims Zaeed is 40. I've chosen to overlook this fact.